Apr 07, 2011 | 700 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
NO HIGHWAY is a 1948 novel by Nevil Shute. It later was made into the 1951 film, No Highway in the Sky. I was reminded of them by news that a Southwest Airlines 737 jet had a roof portion blown off and had to make an emergency landing in Arizona Friday.

By Monday, ivestigators suspected metal fatigue may have been the cause.

Nevil Shute Norway, to give the book author’s full name, was a pioneer aircraft designer whose knowledge and love of aircraft and their design was reflected in his novel.

The anti-hero of the story, Theodore Honey, was doing research on the fatigue of aluminium airframes. His project was to investigate possible failure in the high aspect ratio tailplane of a new airliner, the fictional Rutland Reindeer.

THOUGH IT HAS been many decades since I read the novel, it made such an impression that I have thought of metal fatigue every time I have flown on an airliner since then. (And with a daughter living in North Carolina, conventions to attend and a world to be seen, there have been many flights.)

In the novel, Honey predicted, by a theory supposedly related to quantum mechanics, that it is possible for an alloy structure to fail long before the design life customarily predicted by design standards. He used a spare tailplane from a Reindeer aircraft in a fatigue test.

Honey’s prediction became all the more alarming when it was linked with the crash in Quebec of a Reindeer carrying the Soviet ambassador, which had total flying hours close to Honey’s estimate.

THE CRASH report, the novel went on to say, was inconclusive, and Honey was sent to Canada to examine the debris at the site. He traveled onboard a Reindeer aircraft and discovered from the cockpit crew that the flying hours of this aircraft were twice those of any other Reindeer in service, and close to his predicted failure time.

He became increasingly anxious for its safety, and impressed the pilot, who knew the captain of the recently crashed Reindeer and had rejected with scorn the conclusion reached by the official inquiry that the crash occurred as a result of pilot error.

INVOLVED IN A heated discussion during a stop-over at Gander International Airport, Honey realized that he had failed to persuade anyone to declare the Reindeer unfit for service, and in desperation disabled it by raising its undercarriage while it was standing on the runway.

An investigation ensued, and it was discovered at the crash site that the parts of the aircraft adjacent to where the tailplane separated had been removed by the Soviet party who came to recover the body of their ambassador.

The Soviet authorities suspected that the crash was part of a plot to assassinate their ambassador and were wholly unhelpful when approached for information about the missing tailplane root.

In due course, the tail section was found, and its front spar root revealed a classic fatigue fracture. The find vindicated Honey’s theory and made him a minor hero in aviation circles.

ALWAYS EAGER to fly, I don’t normally think of things that can go wrong when one is airborne. But I do have to make an effort not to think about crash landings in the ocean whenever I am fortunate enough to fly overseas. A news story Monday reminded me of why such an effort is needed.

Remains were found nearly two miles deep in the Atlantic Ocean of an Air France Airbus jet that crashed nearly two years ago en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. The 228 people aboard the plane were killed when it fell from 34,000 feet in a thunderstorm.

A TEAM led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution of Massachusetts made the discovery, which first turned up a tail section and several bodies.

I couldn’t help remembering my first flight to Europe aboard an Air France jet plane, non-stop from Houston to Paris, where I joined a tour group Dr. Jere Jackson of Naacogdoches was escorting along with his wife, the former Sarah Ragland of Gilmer

(Air France has since done away with its flights to Houston.)

Th French flight attendants were the most businesslike and demanding of any I have ever encountered, insisting that everyone be buckled up and properly seated.

I doubt that the attendants working last weekend’s ill-fated flight had time to prepare for the crash; one news story said that oxygen masks had not evee deployed.
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