Dennis Scott is the newly appointed manager of the Structural Department at Britain’s Royal Aircraft Establishment, charged with sorting those doing practical research from those just hanging on until retirement. A researcher still measuring stress buildup on wing struts, for example, when no one builds planes having wing struts any more, needs reassignment.
Theodore Honey is more of a puzzle. For years he has been studying metal fatigue as a cause of airplane crashes. He readily explains to Dr. Scott how constant minor flexing motion builds up measurable energy in an airplane’s wings or tail, but a tiny portion of the energy is unaccounted for. Honey believes it is transmitted to the nucleus of the aluminum atoms, finally causing a change in structure to a weaker crystalline form which fractures.
“What’s the basis for this theory?” Scott asks. Honey shows him the whole tail section of a Rutland Reindeer, pride of Britain’s Transatlantic Service to New York and Ottawa. Honey has rigged a machine to reproduce the forces on the tail assembly in flight, and it is running noisily, eight hours a day. He has pages of math which he claims demonstrate that the tail assembly will fail after about 1440 hours of flight. The British Overseas Airways Corporation has been operating twelve of these new planes for several months, each totaling about 400 hours airtime so far, but another has crashed in Quebec wilderness with loss of life of all on board. Examiners of the wreckage concluded the cause was pilot error.
But Scott is not so sure. He confers with his boss, the Director of the RAE, who calls a meeting of all those concerned – BOAC, the British Ministry of Finance, the CEO of Rutland Aircraft, E. P. Prendergast, designer of the plane, and the heads of several government bureaus. Most of them have had experience with Mr. Honey over the years, and are not impressed by his work or his vague personality. But given photos from the crash site, which prove nothing, the group decides someone should go back to the site in Quebec, and bring back additional samples. Meanwhile, Reindeer planes should be limited to 720 flight hours – half the time to Mr. Honey’s predicted failure.
Scott has his department to run, and a scientific paper – his first – to read before a congress of aeronautical experts in London next week. Mr. Honey, despite his personality defects, is the expert on fatigue fractures, so Scott sends him to the scene of the wrecked aircraft in Canada. Honey is a widower, raising his twelve-year-old daughter Elspeth by himself. Scott’s wife, Shirley is a teacher at Elspeth’s school, and offers to keep track of the girl during her father’s absence.
Honey departs for Canada on the next night’s flight, a Reindeer. BOAC has instructed the crew to give Honey VIP treatment; the stewardess is especially attentive; the co-pilot comes back in a couple hours and invites him to visit the flight deck. In conversation with the flight engineer, Honey learns that routine maintenance nowadays includes installation of new engines after every 600 hours of flying time. “These are our third set now.”
Mr. Honey is aghast. “The Airline told us these planes have had only 400 hours so far!”
“That’s true – 400 with BOAC. But this plane had about 800 hours before that in South America.”
Honey tells the pilot, “You’ve got to turn back! This plane could crash at any moment!” After some argument, the crew moves him out of the flight deck back to his seat, and the angry co-pilot tells the stewardess to watch him closely, he’s a nut case.
Going about her duties later, the stewardess, Miss Corder, suddenly sees that Honey is in a different seat, next to a Hollywood movie star. She hurries to escort him back to his own seat, and apologizes to the movie star, Monica Teasdale.
“Let me get this straight,” says Miss Teasdale. “This airplane engineering expert tells me the plane is going to crash. The co-pilot says it isn’t, and you’re casting the deciding vote? I’d like to talk to him further. Bring my coffee down to his seat.” She goes down to Mr. Honey’s row, turns on the charm, and asks if she can visit with him.
The plane lands safely at Gander, Newfoundland, a scheduled refueling stop, at five a.m. Pilot Samuelson had known the pilot whose plane had crashed, and knew the verdict of “pilot error” was wrong. No experienced pilot would be foolish enough to fly through ground fog to “check his position” and hit a cliff.
Samuelson wants to be sure about his plane, and calls the local inspector out of bed. He calls Honey to explain his theory to the inspector. They go through the plane thoroughly, special attention to the tail assembly, and find nothing amiss except an incidental defect in the landing gear safety lock They confer on the flight deck, decide to proceed to Ottawa. Honey, seeing no other way to prevent disaster, pulls up on the landing gear lever, retracting the plane’s wheels, and lowering the 72-ton fuselage to the tarmac with a loud crunch.
This causes a number of differing reactions. British Overseas Air: “Mr. Honey will not be accepted as a passenger ever again.
Pilot Samuelson: relief that the decision to risk flying onward is out of his hands.
Stewardess Corder, who knew Betty and Jean, the two stewardesses who died: Mr. Honey may have just saved my life.
Miss Teasdale: This little man is like Eddie Stillson, the shy man I should have married in Indiana, but I chose Hollywood instead.
Theo Honey: I don’t belong out here. I need to get back to my own work, even if Dr. Scott fires me. (A military plane takes him back to Britain two days later.)
Dennis Scott: I shouldn’t have sent Honey, I’ll have to go to Quebec myself.
Shirley Scott, his wife, who has found Elspeth at Honey’s home alone, lying unconscious at the foot of the stairs, “Dennis, I need you at home right now!”
In the story’s later chapters, two beautiful women compete for Theo Honey’s attention, while he defends his beliefs against those of the Reindeer’s enraged designer and the airline which may be forced to interrupt its transatlantic service.
Author Nevil Shute, himself the owner of a British airway firm, has unusual talent for blending the technical with the human into entertaining fiction. The result is a logical but unexpected ending.