Sunday 25 December 2022

The Story Of The World’s First (Golden) Executive Jet

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
After we previously covered the world's ugliest 'Air Force One' on this website, it is about time to introduce the polar opposite of The Gambia's President Jammeh's horribly decorated Ilyushin Il-62. [1] As perhaps already apparent to the keen-eyed aviation enthusiast, the majestic De Havilland Comet 4C in question flew on behalf of the Saudi Royal Flight for use with King Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Lavishly decorated with a VIP cabin filled with gold and distinguished by a gold, green and white colour scheme, the aircraft was the world's first executive jet. Sadly, the beauty of the aircraft was not to last for long, with a fatal crash in the Alps in 1963 making its glamour short-lived.
In an age when propeller-driven aircraft still dominated the skies, even as the primary means of transport for heads of state, the gilded De Havilland Comet 4C (SA-R-7) was a true sight to behold wherever it touched down for landing. The acquisition of the aircraft by the Saudi Royal Flight was nonetheless a curious decision, as no aircraft of the same type were in use with Saudi Arabia up until that point. In fact, the national airline had only just received two brand-new Boeing 720Bs (a smaller derivative of the ubiquitous Boeing 707), becoming the fourth airline in the Middle East to fly passenger jet aircraft. The range of the Comet 4C and Boeing 720 was roughly the same: some 5.500 km.

Little is known about the interior of King Al Saud's Comet 4C, and sadly no photographs of the interior are noted to ever have been taken. What is known is that the aircraft was fitted with a richly decorated VIP cabin for King Al Saud's personal use in the front section of the plane. This was the quietest area of the aircraft, located well in front of the four Rolls-Royce Avon jet engines buried in the wing roots. The mid and rear portions of the pressurised cabin were for use with the King's entourage, and likely also housed the toilets, complete with gold fittings!

A colour profile of Saudi Arabia's Comet 4C. Note an early version of Saudi flag on the right, which unusually has two swords instead of one.

The British de Havilland Comet was the world's first commercial jet airliner at its debut in 1952. Disaster struck within a year of operational service however, as three Comets suffered catastrophic in-flight break-ups caused by structural failure resulting from metal fatigue and overstressing of the airframe. [2] The type was retired from service until a solution could be found. As a result, the Comet was extensively redesigned, providing valuable lessons in the construction of jet airlines at the cost of having lost the edge over other aircraft manufacturers, which quickly incorporated the lessons learned with the Comet in their own jet airliner designs (the Boeing 707 and DC-8).
The redesign process eventually culminated in the significantly improved Comet 4, which debuted in 1958 and would continue to see passenger service until 1981, and use as a research platform until 1997. The Comet 4 also formed the basis of the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft (MPA), which remained in service with the Royal Air Force until 2011, over 60 years after the Comet's first flight! The nose section and cockpit design of the Comet were used by the French Sud Aviation Caravelle jet airliner. Though never becoming the commercial success it arguably deserved to be, there is no arguing that the Comet had a profound influence on the development of jet airliners.

The sleek lines of the Comet can be properly appreciated on this French UAT Comet 1A. Note the square windows, which were later replaced by oval ones after the area around the windows was discovered to be responsible for significant stress on the airframe.

The Saudi Royal Flight would end up as the only operator to use the Comet (4C) in the role of VIP aircraft. Unfortunately, the aircraft proved just as unlucky as the early Comets, crashing just a year after its first flight. The Comet, on a flight from Geneva in Switzerland to Nice in France, struck the slope of Monte Matto in the Italian Alps at an altitude of 2700m, completely destroying the aircraft and killing the eighteen occupants onboard (including ten members of the House of Saud, but not the King who wasn't on board at the time). [4] Wreckage of the aircraft remains present at the peak to this day, serving as a permanent reminder of the tragedy that occurred here 60 years ago. [3]

Wreckage of the De Havilland Comet 4C (SA-R-7) in the Italian Alps.

The wreckage of King Al Saud's Comet 4C isn't the only remaining memory of the aircraft, as many of Saudi Arabia's modern governmental aircraft don a livery that traces its lineage back to the Comet 4C of the early 1960s. Saudi Arabia is known for the often striking liveries applied on its civilian and military aircraft. Arguably among the most beautiful (at least according to the opinion of these authors) is the livery used by Saudia (Saudi Arabian Airlines) during the 1980s and 1990s. Though since replaced by a mostly sand coloured livery, the old one lives on in a specially decorated Boeing 777-300ER.

A Saudi Government VIP Boeing BBJ 787-8 Dreamliner.

These days operating a large fleet of mostly Boeing and Airbus VIP jetliners, the story of Saudi Arabia's first executive VIP aircraft used on behalf of the Royal Family is easily forgotten. Even though the De Havilland Comet 4C crashed only a year after making its first flight, the striking livery (and undoubtedly the gold-plated interior) lives on in its replacement aircraft, sixty years after it last graced the skies.

[1]  Behold The World’s Ugliest Presidential Jet: The Gambia Air Force One
[2] Why You Wouldn't Want to Fly The First Jet Airliner: De Havilland Comet Story
[3] de Havilland DH-106 Comet 4C - SA-R-7
[4] Crash of a De Havilland DH.106 Comet 4C on Mt Matto: 18 killed