Raymond F. Jones
The instrument house at the edge of the runway was crowded with the high brass and top-drawer engineering staff of Firestone Aviation Corporation. They peered over one another’s shoulders and jockeyed politely for better views of the three-foot television screen at one end of the room. It showed the interior of the pilots’ compartment of the XB-91 now flying somewhere above them at an altitude of fifty thousand feet.
In the front row of observers Major Eugene Montgomery watched with a feeling of elation inside him. The Ninety-one seemed almost as much a personal triumph for him as it was for the engineers who built it. He had witnessed its building from scratch and some part of him was up there flying with it.
The Ninety-one was the first genuine battleship of the air. It was a city-smasher, capable of going to any spot on the globe and doing its work. Its armament assured a better than ninety per cent chance of destroying all opposition and returning safely.
The instrument panel occupied most of the picture. Now and then there was a glimpse of the side of test pilot Parker’s face. Out of sight, on the other side, was co-pilot Marble.
Parker’s voice came over the speaker. “Turning now to retrace course. Altitude fifty-two thousand, air speed eighteen seventy-five, temperature minus forty-eight point seven —” He spoke in a professional monotone that failed, however, to hide his enthusiasm for the ship, too.
A score of small sounds filled the room. The whir of cameras recording the picture and voice from the plane, the background whine of the ship’s jets, the click of telemetering relays. Abruptly, Montgomery turned to find his close friend and the man most responsible for the success of the Ninety-one. He spotted Soren Gunderson at the very back of the group.
The chief engineer of Firestone Aviation wasn’t even looking at the screen. He couldn’t, Montgomery saw as he came up. There were too many heads in front of him.
Gunderson sat on the edge of a desk drawing hard on a pipe cupped in his right hand.
“It looks like you’ve really got it made,” said Montgomery. “This is better than anything we dared hope for!” Gunderson nodded without expression. Parker’s voice came on again. “Entering course — autopilot on — throttles maximum —”
The faint beep of the electronic timer signaled the passage of the XB-91 through the first of the radar marker beams. Seconds later, another beep sounded the completion of the ten-mile run. The men in the room waited in silent attention as the timer operator checked his instruments — all except Soren Gunderson. He seemed scarcely interested in what was going on in the room as he sucked meditatively on the pipe.
“Twenty-three eighty-five point seven eight two,” the timer technician announced.
A restrained murmur arose from the executives, engineers, and Air Force men as they turned to each other with pleased smiles. Jacobs, President of Firestone, came back to Gunderson and shook his hand. “It’s a wonderful ship, Soren,” he said. “I’m sure that now we can forget about that other little matter —”
“On the contrary,” said Gunderson. “This is the time. Make my resignation effective as of the moment the Ninety-one is accepted.”
Jacobs’ face clouded. “I hope you don’t mean that. Come up to my office after lunch and we’ll see if we can’t thresh out something.”
“Sure,” said Gunderson. “I’ll come up.”
The group cleared rapidly from the room to watch the landing of the plane. Gunderson and Montgomery remained alone.
“What’s this talk about a resignation?” the major asked. “You’re leaving Firestone and going somewhere else?”
Gunderson stood up and nodded. “Yes, I’m going — somewhere else.”
“I can imagine you’ve had plenty of offers, but I would have thought Jacobs would top any of them to keep you on, especially after the success of the Ninety-one.”
Gunderson grunted and looked through the window to the runways. The plane was not yet in sight, but the group of engineers and brass were standing immobile, awaiting it. Gunderson smiled faintly. The plane makers didn’t often allow themselves to be awed by their own creations, but this was one time they could not help it.
The engineer turned back to Montgomery. “Two hundred and eighty-five tons, sixteen engines, three quarters of a mile per second — and it’ll do even better when they check it out at seventy thousand, where it belongs. The biggest and the fastest — all in one ship. The Air Age makes progress, Monty!”
Montgomery’s eyes narrowed at the bitter smile on Gunderson’s face. He was used to his friend’s sudden inversions, but this was more unexpected than usual. “What’s wrong, Soren?” he said. “Is there something about the Ninety-one you haven’t told us?”
Gunderson was a rather small man of forty-eight. His hair was beginning to gray on the sides. As he sat hunched on the stool now, drawing on his pipe, he looked almost wizened.
“There’s only one thing wrong with the Ninety-one,” he said at last. “It’s a failure.”
“Failure —!” Montgomery’s face went white as he thought of his own position among the Air Force experts preparing to accept the ship. “What are you talking about? It’s —”
Gunderson’s head nodded rhythmically. “The biggest, the fastest, the heaviest, the most monstrous — It’s the final spawning of a long line of monsters. And, unless we’ve lost our senses completely, it’ll be the monstrosity to end all monstrosities.”
Montgomery relaxed. With the tension of the work now safely past him, Gunderson was feeling free to ride one of his hobbies again. The major wasn’t sure just what this would turn out to be, but he prepared to listen sympathetically.
Gunderson saw the change in his face and understood what he was thinking. “You’re going to believe every word the picture magazines say about our beautiful Ninety-one, aren’t you?” he said.
A thin, high whine began to fill the air as the ship soared overhead, still high, maneuvering for an approach to the other end of the field.
“They’ll give it a two-page spread,” Gunderson went on. “The Ninety-one in the middle — around it little pictures showing it generates as much power as thirty railroad engines, enough heat to warm a town of fifteen hundred people, has enough wiring to take care of the town’s power and telephone system, more radio tubes than —”
“And the citizens will lean back and sigh: Progress!”
The whine grew to a thundering roar that drowned their voices. The mammoth landing gear smashed against the earth as Parker eased the bomber down. It rolled at a crazy speed, fighting the drag of wing flaps and brakes. Its thunder shook the walls of the instrument house and the hangars and the distant plant.
Then it was still. Parker was smiling broadly and shaking hands with himself behind the windshield. The red tractor began rolling out on the field.
There seemed to be pain on Gunderson’s face. “You ugly devil!” he murmured to the gleaming ship. He swung around to Montgomery. “Let’s get out of here!”
Major Montgomery was Liaison Officer between the Research and Development Command of the Air Force and the Firestone Aviation Corporation. He thought he had come to know Soren Gunderson as well as he knew the XB-91, but the chief engineer’s reaction to the successful test flights of the ship certainly made him feel more than a little uncomfortable.
They drove a half mile from the plant and settled behind a secluded table in George's Spaghetti House, where a good many past conferences between them had ironed out discrepancies between hard engineering fact and the specifications of the Air Force. Montgomery watched his friend out of the corner of his eye and decided to keep his mouth pretty much shut — except for such prodding as might be necessary to find out what was eating Gunderson.
George took their orders and went away. Montgomery laced his fingers back and forth and smiled. “Everyone knows that modern combat requirements have put the size and cost of aircraft almost completely out of hand,” he said carefully. “But it looks to me like pretty substantial progress that we have been able to meet those requirements at all. Even five years ago the Ninety-one wasn’t considered an actual possibility. Your new wing section is the only thing —”
“A monster with a gutful of electronic equipment,” said Gunderson, “duplicated and re-duplicated to make sure a ten-cent resistor doesn’t bring the downfall of a hundred million dollar airplane.”
He brought his gaze back to Montgomery’s face and smiled, “I’m sorry, Monty. I guess you’ve never heard me go on quite like that, have you? I usually do it alone — in the middle of the night.
“But you know I’m right. Every competent engineer in the aircraft industry knows it. Our manufacturing methods just aren’t good enough — and can’t be made good enough — to eliminate the duplication of components. Our design should be capable of creating a plane to perform the military function of the Ninety-one in a tenth its size and weight — and cost.
“What price tag will the production model have? We can guess at eighteen to twenty million. It’s economically disasterous to put that much into a single piece of equipment as vulnerable as a plane — even one with the dubious importance of being designed as carrier for the H and cobalt bombs. As a solution to an engineering problem, it’s a bust.”
“Why didn’t you build the Ninety-one a tenth its present size, then?” said Montgomery cautiously.
George appeared wi ...