Developed and manufactured by de Havilland at its Hatfield Aerodrome in Hertfordshire, United Kingdom, the Comet was the world's first commercial jet airliner. The first prototype first flew in 1949. For the era, it offered a relatively quiet, comfortable passenger cabin and was commercially promising at its debut in 1952.
The earliest production aircraft flew on 9 January 1951 and was subsequently lent to BOAC for development flying by its Comet Unit. On 2 May 1952, as part of BOAC's route-proving trials, G-ALYP took off on the world's first jetliner flight with fare-paying passengers and inaugurated scheduled service from London to Johannesburg.
Within a year of entering airline service, problems started to emerge, three Comets being lost within twelve months in highly publicised accidents, after suffering catastrophic in-flight break-ups. Two of these were found to be caused by structural failure resulting from metal fatigue in the airframe, a phenomenon not fully understood at the time; the other was due to overstressing of the airframe during flight through severe weather. The Comet was withdrawn from service and extensively tested. Design and construction flaws, including improper riveting and dangerous concentrations of stress around square cut-outs for the ADF (automatic direction finder) antennas were ultimately identified. As a result, the Comet was extensively redesigned, with structural reinforcements and other changes. Rival manufacturers heeded the lessons learned from the Comet when developing their own aircraft.
Although sales never fully recovered, the improved Comet 2 and the prototype Comet 3 culminated in the redesigned Comet 4 series which debuted in 1958 and remained in commercial service until 1981. The Comet was also adapted for a variety of military roles such as VIP, medical and passenger transport, as well as surveillance; the last Comet 4, used as a research platform, made its final flight in 1997. The most extensive modification resulted in a specialised maritime patrol derivative, the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod, which remained in service with the Royal Air Force until 2011, over 60 years after the Comet's first flight.