ATV ChoiceAt the height of World War II, a secret committee of visionary British scientists set about designing a revolutionary new aircraft that would launch a new era in aviation. This is the story of the rise and fall of the De Havilland Comet – the world’s first passenger jet airliner.

Key first-hand accounts, expert interviews, reconstructions and never before seen archive tell the story of how British ingenuity created a plane that flew faster and higher than any of its rivals, giving post-war Britain a symbol of hope in a time of austerity, and how triumph ultimately turned into fatal disaster.

When it came into service in May 1952, the Comet was a huge and instant hit with passengers. The revolutionary jet, with its graceful, streamlined fuselage and four powerful jet engines, changed the way people travelled as new routes were introduced around the world. But then, a series of accidents began to plague the Comet, culminating in two seemingly inexplicable and tragic disasters. In the space of just four months in early 1954, two Comet aircraft blew up in mid-air, killing all the passengers and crew. The catastrophic loss of these aircraft was as sudden as it was mysterious. Nearly 100 people had died and the whole future of passenger jet aviation hung in the balance.

With public and political pressure to uncover the cause, and on the direct order of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a British team of leading aviation experts was assembled to discover what went wrong. In the midst of the wreckage a fledgling industry – air crash investigation – emerged. Led by aviation engineer, Arnold Hall, the team spent months conducting innovative, dangerous and painstaking experiments. As part of this unprecedented process of solving the mystery, they wrote the rule book of modern air crash investigation, with many of their pioneering techniques still being used today.

A Great British Air Disaster is a cautionary tale about the great rewards, and correspondingly high risks, of pioneering scientific endeavor. This pivotal moment in British manufacturing history offers a unique glimpse of an era when Britain ruled the skies.

A Great British Air Disaster tonight at 8pm on Channel 4

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