Today, we fall from the sky. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
This Saturday morning, the
first of February, 2003, finds me recording in the
newsroom of our radio station. The story of the
returning shuttle Columbia, disintegrating
over Texas, is just breaking. All around me,
reporters, in shock over the loss of people they've
known, struggle to clear their heads and shape the
And I hear a fifty-year-old echo of another such
incident. When the Boeing 707 jetliner went into
service in 1958, the British had long since gotten
the jump on us with the de Havilland
Comet. They'd put it into service six
But disaster struck a year later. A Comet leaving
Calcutta came apart in a thunderstorm. When
investigators could find no other cause, they
blamed the storm. Eight months later, a second
Comet blew up in a clear sky, 27,000 feet over the
island of Elba, off Italy's coast. It was hard to
recover much from the ocean, so it went
undiagnosed. Three months later, a third Comet
exploded over the Mediterranean, and the whole
fleet was grounded.
A more intense search finally yielded some
wreckage. Since the failure had occurred in the
cabin area, engineers did a huge fatigue test of an
actual airplane. They varied the cabin pressure
hydraulically while they flexed the wings. After
three thousand pulsations, a crack appeared near a
cabin window and quickly spread.
The Comet's designers had overlooked stress
concentrations at rivet holes near the windows. The
problem was fixed, and a new Comet went into
service only five months ahead of the Boeing 707.
The oddest thing about all this is that a former de
Havilland engineer wrote the best-selling book
No Highway in 1948 -- while the Comet was
in its final design stage. He was Nevil Shute, who
also wrote On the Beach and A Town
No Highway is about a new airplane called
the Reindeer, mysteriously crashed in
Canada. Our ears prick up -- Dasher, Prancer, and
so forth -- Comet was also one of the Reindeer. A
structural engineer, Theodore Honey, is sent to
investigate the crash. Honey has his own theory
that Reindeers should suffer a fatigue failure
after about 1400 hours in the air. No one takes him
Halfway across the Atlantic, Honey, who's pretty
oblivious to his surroundings, finds he's
in a Reindeer. A few questions reveal that
this particular plane has been in service just
about 1400 hours. Honey suddenly has to assume
responsibility for saving two hundred people who
feel no need of being saved. Read the book, or find
a video of the movie version, No Highway in the
Sky, to see what Honey did. (It stars Jimmy
Stewart and Marlene Dietrich.)
But how did Nevil Shute anticipate the Reindeer
disaster? Historian Henry Petroski's idea isn't
dramatic, but it's convincing. He thinks Shute
followed his solid engineering instincts, and they
led him where real life eventually took the Comet.
Now we have more grief and another mystery. Another
fatigue failure? We don't know. I can only hope we
find out quickly.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Shute, N., No Highway. New York: William
Petroski, H., To Engineer is Human: The Role of
Failure in Successful Design. New York: St.
Martin's Press, 1985, Chapter 14.
For more information about Nevil Shute, see
Episodes 110 and 1159, and the following website:
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 112.
Note Added, July 13, 2016. I'm grateful to engineering colleague N. Shamsundar for
for pointing out this fine recent video about the Comet failures.
The Crew of Columbia flight STS-107 (Courtesy of
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.