A Comet 1, at the RAF museum Cosford, Wikipedia Commons


When Ed Hillary and Tenzing Norgay stood on the summit of 29,028 feet high Mt Everest on this day 60 years ago they were at an altitude not even Boeing Stratocruisers or Lockheed Constellations or Douglas DC-6s could cruise.

Only the original Comet jet airliner could cruise higher, at 40,000 feet, but not for long given its short endurance, nor long historically, with the Comet 1 version being grounded forever after two more fatal crashes in 1954.

The long range piston engined airliners often cruised at 18,000 feet, which is about the altitude of the base camp on the Nepal side of Everest, or around 22,000 feet, which would barely get you above the infamous Khumbu Icefall that forced expeditions seeking the higher slopes of the mountain to find constantly changing routes through a chaos of shifting ice towers.

These altitude limitations caused significant navigational deviations for scheduled airline routes that crossed what is today Indonesia, or the Andes, the European Alps and even higher parts of the American Rockies, because safe operations meant planning for the seriously reduced altitude capability of aircraft that experienced an engine shut down or cabin pressurisation failure.

And both engines and pressurisation systems were by today’s standards, incredibly unreliable.

It is also a day to note that like Neil Armstrong making the first giant step for mankind onto the lunar surface in 1969, Hillary never paused to have his own photo taken at the moment he made history.

It is Tenzing Norgay who forever looks into the eyes of the future from the tip of Everest, just as it is Buzz Aldrin, the second man to stand on the moon, whose space suit visor reflects the unsharp image of Armstrong who took the photos, as well as the first steps, in that silent, dazzling place under the blackest of skies.

Tenzing Norgay, Chomolunga, 29 May 1953: Photo Ed Hillary

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