The De Havilland Comet aircraft was introduced into commercial service on the 2 May 1952 when the first of the nine Mk 1 Comets operated by B.O.A.C. (what later became the long haul division of British Airways) flew from London to Johannesburg – the aircraft was G-ALYP or ‘Yoke Peter’. 

Of the nine BOAC Mk 1 Comets five crashed although not all with fatal consequences – the first, G-ALYZ only last 26 days in service when it came down, on take off, from Ciampino Airport, Rome on 26 October 1952. This was adjudged to be through a design fault in the aircraft. 

 

The De Havilland Comet aircraft was introduced into commercial service on the 2 May 1952 when the first of the nine Mk 1 Comets operated by B.O.A.C. (what later became the long haul division of British Airways) flew from London to Johannesburg – the aircraft was G-ALYP or ‘Yoke Peter’.

Of the nine BOAC Mk 1 Comets five crashed although not all with fatal consequences – the first, G-ALYZ only last 26 days in service when it came down, on take off, from Ciampino Airport, Rome on 26 October 1952. This was adjudged to be through a design fault in the aircraft. 

Yoke Peter Airliner

BOAC Comet ‘Yoke Peter’ 

Permission for use granted by Matthew R. N. Clarkson with much grateful thanks

  

On 10 January 1954 shortly after 9.30am BOAC Comet ‘Yoke Peter’ took off after a refuelling stop again from Ciampino Airport, Rome while en-route from Singapore to London. It reached 25,000 feet at about 09.51am when it disintegrated and fell into the Tyrrhenian Sea off the Island of Elba. Six crew and twenty nine passengers were killed. The remains of the aircraft fell into 150 metres of water. At the time it was unknown what the cause of the disaster was and so all Comets were grounded. 

Enquiries by the Air Accident Investigation Branch, BOAC and the Department of Civil Aviation could not, for certain identify the cause of the disaster and six days after the crash the Royal Navy were asked to try and recover as much of the aircraft as possible - this became Operation Elba Isle

By 23 January 1954 HMS Wrangler was on scene as Headquarters Ship and RFA Sea Salvor, the Mediterranean Fleet’s salvage vessel which had been en-route from Gibraltar to Malta; plus HMS Barhill, HMS Brigand and HMS Sursay, had joined forces at the scene. HMS Striker, HMS Wakeful and HMS Whirlwind arrived later. 

RFA Sea Salvor was commanded by Captain John Hayward RFA.

  

RFA Sea Salvor

RFA Sea Salvor 

Other salvage specialists came to the scene including Commander Charles Forsberg, Royal Navy, the Mediterranean Fleet’s Boom Defence and Salvage Officer, Captain Pollard from Risdon Beazley Ltd and a member of the Admiralty Research Laboratory with underwater television cameras. In addition members of the Italian Navy assisted,  

 

HMS WranglerHMS Barhill

HMS Wrangler                                                        HMS Barhill  

Initially, the quest yielded very little but disappointment. Once, what appeared to be part of the fuselage turned out to be a freighter which had been sunk in World War 1.  On another occasion a television camera produced an unsettling image of a woman’s face; it proved to be part of an ancient stone statue. However some parts of the Comet and various bodies were recovered and some of the parts of the aircraft were flown to London,   The local weather was, on occasions, very rough. 

By 5 March 1954 the Ministry of Aviation acting on advice from specialists accepted that about fifty modifications which had been made to the rest of the BOAC fleet should be sufficient to allow them to take to the air again. The Minister agreed and the BOAC services resumed on the 23 March 1954. 

HMS BrigandHMS Sursay

HMS Brigand                                                               HMS Sursay

 

HMS WakefulHMS Striker

HMS Wakeful                                                          HMS Striker

HMS Whirlwind

HMS Whirlwind

 

Sixteen days after the resumption of flights on 8 April 1954 Comet G-ALYY – ‘Yoke Yoke’ - a BOAC aircraft on loan to South African Airways left Ciampino Airport, Rome at 18.32 hours on a flight to Cairo. At 18.57 hours the aircraft was abeam of Naples and climbing to 35,000 feet. At 19.05 hours the Comet was in contact with Cairo reporting its expected time of arrival. No further contact was received from the aircraft. The next morning wreckage and bodies were found in the sea 70 miles south of Naples and 25 miles off the coast. The aircraft had crashed into water which was about 1,000 meters deep. Fourteen passengers and seven crew perished. HMS Eagle and HMS Daring were sent to look for wreckage – five bodies were recovered by HMS Eagle. Commander Forsberg, Royal Navy was notified. Very little of the wreckage was recovered due to it being at such a depth 

Over eleven weeks recovery of wreckage continued off Elba by the crew of the RFA Sea Salvor and the RN ships. By 9 April over 70% of ‘’Yoke Peter’ and over 90% of the engines had been recovered. RFA Sea Salvor and HMS Barhill sailed to Malta. The Italian Navy continued recovering very small pieces of wreckage until 8 October 1954.

 

yoke_peter0001

Part of the cabin and part of the tail of ‘Yoke Peter’ set up for examination in a hanger at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough.

 

The majority of the salvaged items were brought to the UK aboard RFA Fort Beauharnois from Malta.

RFA Fort Beauharnois

RFA Fort Beauharnois 

Four days after the crash of ‘Yoke Yoke’ the British Government withdrew the UK Certificate of Airworthiness from all Comet aeroplanes.

The fault which caused the crash of ‘Yoke Peter’ was found to be metal fatigue and that fractures started on the roof, a window then smashed into the back elevators, the back fuselage then tore away, the outer wing structure fell, then the outer wing tips and finally the cockpit broke away and fuel from the wings set the debris on fire. ‘Yoke Peter’ had only flown 3,682 hours before crashing and an airliner with less that 4,000 hours on the airframe is considered virtually brand-new and hardly a candidate for metal fatigue. 

The recovery of so much of ‘Yoke Peter’ was as a result of the team on the RFA Sea Salvor and the RN ships at the scene and then only after so much work over such a long period.

On 24 April 1954 the C in C Mediterranean – Lord Mountbatten of Burma issued a Special Order of the Day –

 

Special Order of The Day

  

The New Years Honours list of 1955 reflected the marvellous work under taken: -

 

Commander of the most excellent Order of the British Empire 

Risdon A Beazley – Chairman & Managing Director of Rison Beazley Ltd, Southampton 

Officer of the most excellent Order of the British Empire 

Captain John Rossiter Hayward, RFA – RFA Sea Salvor

Commander Charles Gerard Forsberg Royal Navy, Boom Defence and Salvage Officer, Mediterranean

British Empire Medal

Diver Charles Docherty RFA – RFA Sea Salvor

  

RFA Sea Salvor’s known crew members included

Captain John Hayward OBE RFA

Chief Officer A E B Park RFA

Diver Charles Docherty BEM RFA

Chief Engineer W Fenech RFA

2nd Engineer J P O’Dea RFA

Electrical Officer Carmelo Briffa RFA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2008 – 2017 Christopher J White

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