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An eccentric scientist has been claiming that certain parts of a plane will develop metal fatigue sooner than officially estimated, but nobody takes him seriously. While flying to the site of an air-crash that killed a Soviet ambassador, he discovers that his own plane has already flown twice its permitted number of hours and he uses his technical knowledge to sabotage it as soon as it lands, putting his credibility further in doubt. The plot weaves together many themes, such as Cold War diplomacy, single parenthood and clairvoyance, before the scientist’s theory is finally vindicated. The novel appears to presage some later real-life disasters.
Shute was a pioneer aircraft designer and Chief Executive of an aircraft construction company.
- Theodore Honey: A middle-aged widower and scientist at the Royal Aircraft Establishment Farnborough, Hampshire (RAE);
- Dr. Dennis Scott: Younger, dynamic aeronauticist and recently appointed head of the structural department at the RAE;
- Marjorie Corder: Airline stewardess, in her mid-20s and tiring of the "glamorous life" with the fictional C.A.T.O.;
- Monica Teasdale, an older, middle-echelon Hollywood actress, facing a lonely retirement;
- Captain Samuelson: veteran pilot of the Reindeer, highly respected;
- Elspeth: Honey's daughter;
- Shirley Scott: Dr. Scott's wife, a local school teacher.
The anti-hero of the story, Theodore Honey, is engaged in research on the fatigue of aluminium airframes. His current project, overseen by Dr. Dennis Scott, is to investigate possible failure in the high aspect ratio tailplane of a new airliner, the fictional "Rutland Reindeer". Honey, a widower, must bring up his young daughter, Elspeth. The events are narrated by Scott in the first person.
Honey is unimpressive in appearance and is so intensely focused on his work that his relations with the outside world – never that good to begin with – suffer badly. Throughout the story, people judge him by that appearance, or by his varied and unconventional outside interests, such as pyramidology, the study of possible esoteric interpretations of the Pyramids.
Honey has predicted, by a (fictional) theory supposedly related to quantum mechanics, that it is possible for an aluminium alloy structure to fail long before the design lifetime predicted by the usual design standards. He is using a spare tailplane from a Reindeer aircraft in a fatigue test. Honey's theory predicts that the metal at the root of the tailplane will suffer from metal fatigue and fail with a crystalline fracture.
For Mr. Honey, this seems merely to be an esoteric and engaging problem in pure science; for Scott it is a concern of the first magnitude, as Reindeer aircraft are crossing the North Atlantic daily, carrying hundreds of passengers. Honey's prediction becomes all the more alarming when Scott links it with the recent crash of a Reindeer carrying the Soviet ambassador, which had total flying hours close to Honey's estimate, and which crashed in northeastern Quebec. The crash report, including photographs, is inconclusive, and Scott feels that the remains of the aircraft must be physically examined.
Honey is sent to Canada to examine the debris of the crash, travelling on board a Reindeer aircraft on which he meets the two heroines of the novel, Corder and Teasdale. During the flight, Honey discovers from the cockpit crew that the flying hours of this aircraft are twice those of any other Reindeer in service, and are close to his predicted failure time. He becomes increasingly anxious for its safety. He confides in Teasdale, whose films he admires, and goes on to give her some advice on the safest place to go in the aircraft in the event of a crash. Despite his alarm, he remains persuasive and sincere, and impresses Corder and Teasdale. He also impresses the pilot, Samuelson, who knew the captain of the recently crashed Reindeer and had rejected with scorn the official inquiry's conclusion that the crash was the result of pilot error.
During a heated discussion during a stopover at Gander International Airport, Honey realises that he has failed to persuade anyone to declare the Reindeer unfit for service, and in desperation, he disables it by disengaging the safety interlocks and raising its undercarriage while it is standing on the runway, leaving the aircraft damaged and unable to move.
Honey is recalled to Farnborough after this sabotage, but he is delayed because C.A.T.O., the fictional operator of the damaged aircraft, refuses to carry him. While he is away, trouble arises on a second front. For the duration of his trip, he has left Elspeth in their shabby, neglected home in Farnham, with only the supervision of the unreliable cleaning woman.
Shirley Scott finds Elspeth unconscious, confirming her misgivings about the state of Honey's home life, and nurses her. Elspeth displays a touching mix of precocity and serious intelligence, but betrays Honey's hobbies of spiritualism and prophecy. That notwithstanding, Elspeth's outlook is tempered with serious thought and childhood happiness in simple things.
Teasdale visits Dr. Scott at Farnborough and relates her story of events to the Director of the RAE before offering Elspeth some feminine care and affection. Her affection for Honey is obvious, but she realises it is not to be – she cannot give him children or sustain him in his work. She is rapidly followed by Corder, who bears Honey's letter of resignation to Scott and her own account of the events in Gander.
By the time Honey returns, Scott has left for Canada to retrieve the tailplane roots. On reaching the crash site he discovers that the parts of the aircraft adjacent to where the tailplane separated have been removed by the Soviet party who came to recover the body of their Ambassador. The Soviet authorities suspect that the crash was part of a plot to assassinate the ambassador, and are wholly unhelpful when approached for information about the missing tailplane root.
The tailplane itself remains lost in the wilderness, but must be found if there is any hope of proving the existence of metal fatigue. Honey comes to the rescue, but in a highly unorthodox way. He puts his daughter into a light trance which, to Corder's shock, Elspeth has clearly experienced before.
Using a planchette and automatic writing, a message is written: UNDER THE FOOT OF THE BEAR. Sceptical of the message's value, the Director refuses to send it to Scott, and a heated exchange follows. The Director points out that "the bear" could just as plausibly refer merely to the Soviet Union and that the message tells them no more than they already know. With Corder's and Samuelson's help and their C.A.T.O. contacts, Honey manages to have the message passed to Scott in the Canadian woods. Scott and his party work out that "the bear" could refer to a lake, Dancing Bear Water, 30 or 40 miles back along the flight path of the lost aircraft, and there, in due course, they find the tailplane.
Its front spar root reveals a classic fatigue fracture. The find vindicates Honey's theory and makes him a minor hero in aviation circles – to which he is indifferent. His early warning even allows for a timely redesign by the manufacturers, ensuring no loss of service of the Reindeers over the Atlantic. Corder and Honey finally marry one another.
Rutland Reindeer: Built by the Rutland Aircraft Company, in service with C.A.T.O, then regularly plying the Atlantic. Powered by eight engines with four contra-rotating propellers (four nacelles carrying two engines each), the Reindeer can best be imagined to resemble the Bristol Brabazon, whose future development would also have included jet power; Shute notes this late in the novel. It is described as a low wing monoplane with a nosewheel type undercarriage and a single tail somewhat similar to that of the Consolidated Privateer.
Assegai Mk.1 powered by a Boreus afterburning turbojet. At the end of the novel this aircraft is under investigation by Dr. Scott because three of them have been lost through transonic disintegration. This parallels the late development of the Gloster Meteor, whose later versions featured stronger engines providing more thrust than the airframe was designed to accommodate. Also suffered from transonic buffeting in powered dives; two were lost to tail separation. The problem in the latter cases was that the aircraft had not been designed using the transonic area rule, its aerodynamics being unsuited to stable flight in the transonic envelope, causing problems such as structural flutter (felt by the pilot as buffeting) and control reversals – both of which would have been most likely to be present in a high-speed dive.
Allusions/references to actual history, geography and current science
Part of the novel is set in Canada (and in the Dominion of Newfoundland, which had not yet (in the year 1949) become a part of the Canada), which was very much "the Northern American land of dreams" for Shute -- following his visit there in the 1930s aboard the dirigible R100.
Shute's fictional account of a new airliner design being subject to mechanical failure due to metal fatigue after a certain number of flight cycles presaged the failures of the de Havilland Comet airliner just six years later. There are many parallels between the novel and the later real-life disasters.
One observer has suggested that Shute may have been influenced in his description of the crash site by the 1946 crash at Hare Mountain (later Crash Hill), Newfoundland, of a Douglas C-54E which killed 39 people.
The title is taken from the poem "The Wanderer" by John Masefield which Shute quotes at the start of the book:
- Therefore, go forth, companion: when you find
- No Highway more, no track, all being blind,
- The way to go shall glimmer in the mind.
The film adaptation of the novel was released in 1951, starring James Stewart as Honey, Jack Hawkins as Scott, and Marlene Dietrich as Teasdale. The film was released as No Highway in the Sky in the United States and elsewhere.
No Highway, a radio adaptation dramatised by Mike Walker with Paul Ritter as Honey, William Beck as Scott, and Fenella Woolgar as Teasdale was directed by Toby Swift for BBC Radio 4's Classic Serial in August 2010.
An earlier BBC Radio 4 Classic Serial, dramatised by Brian Gear in three episodes, and broadcast weekly from 11 May 1986, starred John Clegg as Theodore Honey, Norman Bowler as Scott, and Margaret Robertson as Monica Teasdale.
- Ryan, A. P. "Extract from the Dictionary of National Biography 1951–1960". Nevil Shute Foundation. Retrieved 23 April 2015.
- Michalak, Richard; Van Dulken, Steve. "October 2006 Newsletter". Nevil Shute Foundation. Retrieved 7 December 2015.
- "Stephenville, NF Airliner Crashes, Oct 1946." gendisasters.com. Retrieved: 23 April 2015.
- "Stephenville, Newfoundland, Canada." heritage.nf.ca. Retrieved: 23 April 2015.
- Pendo 1985, pp. 277–279.
- "Classic Serial: 'No Highway'." BBC. Retrieved: 16 August 2015.
- Deacon. Alison and Nigel. "Radio Plays 1945–1997: Serials." suttonelms.org.uk. Retrieved: 23 April 2015.