Glorious chapter of aviation history closes at Hatfield: British Aerospace said yesterday it was to close its plant in Hertfordshire, birthplace of legendary aircraft. Michael Harrison met a pilot who flew the first jet airliner

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HATFIELD'S chief test pilot for 33 years and the first man to fly a jet-engined airliner, yesterday described the closure of the plant as 'an absolute tragedy'.

John Cunningham, who arrived at Hatfield in 1935 as a technical school student and went on to become one of the world's most famous test pilots, said: 'I am left speechless at what the board of British Aerospace is thinking of. In the last few years the company seems to have been run by people without much interest in aeroplanes. They seem to be salesmen and financiers more interested in cars and property and ordnance.'

Mr Cunningham test flew virtually all the famous aircraft produced at Hatfield, including the Comet, the first jet-engined commercial aircraft, the Trident and the HS125 executive jet. He also flew the Mosquito, a wooden- built fighter-bomber, first as its test pilot and then as commander of an RAF Mosquito squadron during the Second World War.

Aircraft production at Hatfield dates back to July 1934 when Geoffrey de Havilland touched down to the west of the town and decided to relocate his company, De Havilland Aircraft, from its base at Edgware, north London.

Since then it has been the birthplace of 20 aircraft, beginning with the Hornet Moth. The war years saw the development at Hatfield of the Mosquito, then the fastest plane in the world. Nearly 8,000 were built to support the war effort.

With the end of the war and the development of Frank Whittle's jet engine, commercial air transport and Hatfield entered a new era and in 1952 the first Comet entered service between London and Johannesburg.

Although 112 were to be made in the next 10 years, the aircraft struck disaster in 1954 when two Comets crashed within three months of one another, killing all on board.

In 1959 De Havilland merged with the Hawker Siddeley Group and the family name which had adorned the site next to the A1 was painted over.

The Comet was succeeded by the Trident - a name chosen to reflect its three Rolls-Royce engines and triple safety systems. In all, Hatfield built 117.

Hawker Siddeley and Hatfield became part of British Aerospace in 1978 when the aircraft industry was nationalised.

Three years later it gave birth to the BAe146 'whispering' jet - the aircraft that was to become the financial millstone around Hatfield's neck. By that time John Cunningham had retired. 'I saw Hatfield through its best days which were from the mid-1940s to the mid-1970s but since then it has been in decline,' he said.

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