Airliner crashes attract our attention. Not many people get out alive; each of us who flies could be next. How can these be prevented, so that any one of us, I myself, will not be next ? The interplay between scientific knowledge, operational needs, governmental and commercial organizations, all embodied in the knowledge, character, and emotions of the people involved, can make a great story. That is what Nevil Shute has written in No Highway, first published in 1948.
Failure, even disaster, is the inevitable price of engineering progress. Inevitably, advances in design progress to the unknown unknown, the conditions that not only we don't know, but we don't know that we don't know. Those responsible for the safe design of our buildings, bridges, nuclear plants, cars, trains, ships, and aircraft carry the awesome responsibility of determining the causes of disaster and what to do before death strikes again. With aircraft the responsibility is acute. Planes have to be built as light as is safe and incorporating all the latest technical advances, or they will not sell at all. Because the cost of designing to those criteria is so high, each design must be built in large numbers. Therefore, when some failure kills hundreds in a crash, all passengers in similar planes are known to be endangered. Do you ground all such planes until you discover and correct the cause ? Or do you let them fly, considering the risk to be minimal ? What happens then when another crashes ?
There is little slipshod engineering, committing already-known mistakes, in the modern airliner; that just doesn't get by the initial review and test. The problems are the unknown unknowns, the problems that haven't yet been recognized by science or engineering. The four-engined prop-jet Electras lost wings in flight, and nobody survived those crashes. The wings weren't at fault. The problem was in the engine mounts, that were not braced against a mode of gyroscopic vibration that had not been recognized before. Once the vibration started, it increased until it shook the wing off in a few seconds, before the crew could do anything to either halt it or send a message.
Likewise, in No Highway, one of the latest British type of trans-Atlantic airliner flies into a hill in Newfoundland. Pilot error, so they said, although that was not a very persuasive excuse. Or was it some failure in the machine that brought it down to the hill where no aircraft should be flying ? The scientist who has a peculiar new theory about the cause is a very peculiar individual indeed. A widower, emotionally dispirited, his wife killed by a V-2 rocket, living with his talented twelve-year-old daughter in domestic mess while they pursues his theories, branching out from his professional study of fatigue in metals into tracing the lost tribes of Israel, the message hidden in the design of the Egyptian pyramids, and investigations in psychic phenomena. And he is ugly to boot, a froglike face, but with a winning smile when someone's concern reaches him.
Nobody in authority wants to believe him, and the test to demonstrate his theory won't be complete for months. Should the director of his research back his theory against the rest of the air safety organization and the aircraft industry, and against the dangerous, fiery chief designer of the suspect aircraft ? And how about the Russians, who are saying that the aircraft was deliberately wrecked to kill their ambassador to the US ? Backing that theory means shutting down the British trans-Atlantic service for months. And what happens when this laboratory scientist wrecks another aircraft on the ground, in the belief that it would be unjustifiably dangerous for it to fly again ? And what is it about this ugly man with the courage of his convictions that brings the famous but aging American film actress and the personable airline stewardess, both of whom might have had their lives saved by his action, into looking after him and speaking on his behalf to those in charge of airline safety ? The interplay of human emotions with consequences of both the life or death of many people and the fulfillment of individuals makes this a story that is both heart-warming and important.