Nevil Shute Norway, to give the author's full name, was a pioneer aircraft designer and formerly Chief Executive of the Airspeed Corporation. His knowledge and love of aircraft and aircraft design is reflected in this book.
The anti-hero of the story, Theodore Honey, is engaged in research on the fatigue of aluminium airframes. His current project, overseen by Dennis Scott, is to investigate possible failure in the high aspect ratio tailplane of a new airliner, the Rutland Reindeer. Honey, a widower, in addition to his work, 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 (study of pyramids from a super-natural perspective).
Honey has predicted, by a (fictional) 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. The metal at the root of the tailplane will fatigue and fail with a crystalline fracture. While for Honey this seems merely to be an esoteric and engaging problem in pure science, to Scott it is a concern of the first magnitude, as Reindeers are flying across the 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 physical evidence, the remains of the aircraft, must be examined. Some readers think 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 who were buried at the site, the following link gives more information on this crash http://www.heritage.nf.ca/society/stephenville/crash-hill.html
Honey is sent to Canada to examine the debris of the crash, travelling onboard a Reindeer aircraft on which he meets the two heroines of the novel, Corder and Teasdale. In flight, Honey realises that the flying hours of the craft are also close to his predicted failure time and he becomes increasingly anxious for the safety of the aircraft. He confides in Teasdale, whose work he admires, and goes on to give her some advice of the safest behaviour in case of a crash. Despite his alarm, he remains persuasive and sincere and impresses Corder and Teasdale and also the pilot, Samuelson, who knew the captain of the recently crashed Reindeer and rejects with scorn the conclusion reached by the official enquiry that the crash occurred as a result of pilot error.
During a stop-over at Gander International Airport, a desperate but determined Honey grounds the Reindeer by operating its undercarriage while it is standing on the runway.
Honey is recalled to Farnborough after his sabotage but is delayed as C.A.T.O. refuse to carry him. While he is away, trouble arises on a second front. For the duration of his trip, he has abandoned Elspeth with only the supervision of the unreliable cleaningwoman in their rather dingy and badly looked after home in Farnham, near his work. Shirley Scott finds Elspeth ill--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 his interest in prophecy. That notwithstanding, Elspeth's outlook is tempered with serious thought and childhood happiness in simple things.
Teasdale visits Scott 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 realizes 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 escapades 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 a plot to assassinate their 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 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, in due course, they find the tailplane there - and its front spar root shows 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 marry.
Assegai Mk.1 powered by a Boreus afterburning turbojet. Under investigation by Dr. Scott at the end of the novel, three of which have been lost through trans-sonic disintegration. Interestingly this parallels the late development of the Gloster Meteor, whose late marks had more thrust than the airframe was designed to accommodate, and also suffered from trans-sonic buffeting in powered dives, and two were also lost to tail separation. From the name of the Assegai, it can be assumed that the aircraft is of delta configuration, and it can be assumed that it is a re-labeling of Fairey FD-2 supersonic prototype powered by the Bristol Orpheus turbojet.