DH-88 Comet

Background

The Comet is a classic of the Golden Age of long distance air racing in the 1930's. The aircraft is well detailed elsewhere, but briefly the creation of the Comet was a response by de Havilland to the prospect of a non-British aircraft winning the 1934 England-Australia air race. The race was to celebrate the centenary of the state of Victoria. It was announced in March 1933, and the prize was put up by Australian confectionary magnate Sir MacPherson Robertson. De Havilland proposed to built the racer for 5000 pounds and three were ordered off the drawing board in February 1934. The aircraft introduced new technology to de Havilland aircraft including retractable undercarriage, split flaps, and varable pitch propellers. It is credited as providing vital experience to later war work. The first Comet was flown on September 8, and all three started the race at Mildenhall on October 20. The rest as they say is history. G-ACSS "Grosvenor House" went on to win, taking its place in the history of the classic age of racing aviation. G-ACSR came 4th, but went on to set an England Australia return record. G-ACSP was forced out of the race at Allahabad.

So what does this have to do with New Zealand. The connection is found in the later history of race winner G-ACSS. The aircraft (c/n 1996) was originally ordered by A.O. Edwards, managing director of the "Grosvenor House" hotel after which the aircraft was named. The scarlet and white (possibly silver) aircraft was first flown on October 9, 1934, and its CoA issued three days later. As noted above, the aircraft flown by Charles Scott and Tom Campell Black crossed the Melbourne finish line first in an elapsed time of seventy hours and fifty-four minutes. After the race the Air Ministry acquired the aircraft for research purposes and shipped it back to England. There it joined the RAF in June 1935 painted white and serialled K5084. Flying for the R.A.E. from Martlesham and Farnborough, the aircraft was damaged in two accidents. The first was on August 30, 1935 when the undercarriage failed to lock down. The second was on September 2nd 1936 during full load tests at Martlesham. Badly damaged, the aircraft was sold to a scap merchant. One of the test pilots, Arthur Clouston (a New Zealander) convinced architect and member of the London Aeroplane Club F.E. Tasker to put up the money to buy and repair the aircraft. The aircraft was repaired by Jack Cross (Essex Aero Ltd) at Gravesend, and re-registered G-ACSS in June 1937. The aircraft was repainted in light blue and renamed "The Orphan". Several pilots including Clouston, and Ken Waller flew the aircraft competitively. In November 1937 Clouston, accompanied by Mrs Betty Kirby-Green flew the aircraft (now named "The Burberry") to set a new out and back record to the Cape.

Now comes the New Zealand connection. At the instigation of Victor Ricketts, air correspondent for the Daily Express, Clouston was encouraged to attempt the England-Australia record. The aircraft was renamed "Australian Anniversary" for the Australian sesquicentenial and the first attempt started on February 6, 1938. Trouble with Turkish authorities and then undercarriage problems in Cyprus ended the attempt. A succesful attempt began on March 15, arriving in Sydney three days and nine hours later. The next day Clouston and Ricketts continued on in the aircraft to New Zealand making the Tasman crossing in a record seven hours 27 minutes, arriving at Blenheim (where Clouston had learnt to fly) on March 20. The following day the return flight took eight hours 31 minutes. The England- New Zealand leg had taken 4 days 8 hours 37 minutes. The return trip to England on March 26 had taken 10 days 21 hours and 22 minutes. The Tasman record stood until 1945 when it was taken by a B-25 Mitchell. The England-New Zealand record stood until August 25, 1946 when an Empire Air Navigation School Avro Lancastrian I (PD328) made the journey in 59 hours 50 minutes.

After returning to England G-ACSS was stored at Essex Aero Ltd (although one engine went into another racing aircraft). The aircraft was externally restored as "Grosvenor House" in 1951 by de Havilland Technical School students for display at the Festival of Britain. Later the aircraft was put on display in the de Havilland Engine Co. Ltd showrooms at Leavesdon. On October 30 1965 the aircraft was handed over to the Shuttleworth Collection. In the early 70's a decision was taken to restore the aircraft to the air. Work began in 1976 and the aircraft was found to be in a sorry state internally. Considerable work was required and assistance was received through the R.A.E. and BAe. Externally the only change is the replacement of the tailskid with a wheel. First post-restoration flight was on Sunday May 17 1987. The aircraft was based at Hatfield as Shuttleworth's own airfield at Old Warden was too small. In 1993 when Hatfield closed the aircraft was returned to Old Warden where it is still taxied. (Illustrated below).

What of the other aircraft?

Several replicas have been produced for film productions. A flying replica was built in 1991-92 by Bill Turner of Repeat Aircraft in Riverside, California. The new aircraft has incorporated some safety changes, plus hydraulic undercarriage retraction, improved brakes, and modern instrumentation. The aircraft is based at the "Wings of History" Museum in California.

Last Update:- 28 December, 2001



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Aviation Homepage © 2001 Phillip Treweek, all rights reserved

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