Why Write Hidden Failure?
My engineering career has been spent working for three very different large companies: The United States Air Force, Hamilton Standard (now called Hamilton Sunstrand), and Boeing. Drawing on my experience with both successes and failures of complex systems, I wrote Hidden Failure. So, it is fair to ask if any system I worked on ever killed anyone. I should leave that question unanswered so it would add intrigue to this post, but that would be overly dramatic. The answer is, no.
The fictional company in this story is not so lucky. So, why write the story? Sometimes the details are dangerous. Consider it a warning.
I knew I would always grieve for my now dead family, but I had thought that if I killed the murderer, the grief and rage would soften its grip on me. And in truth, when I finally killed the murderer, the rage did disappear, but the grief, much to my surprise, enlarged. It was as though the grief swallowed the rage, and they became one. You don’t just walk away from killing a human being and find freedom, regardless of how justified the act of taking another’s life without mercy may be.
I attended his funeral uninvited. And there stood Bradley Smithton’s family, his friends, his acquaintances — some in tears, some angry, some trying to hide their joy at his death — and me. I stood off near a line of parked cars, and watched, feeling nothing.
And then I saw a pair of eyes that watched the watcher — a pair I would see again — a woman’s.
The Long Fast Fall
The shaking began 9 miles above the earth at a speed of Mach 2.1. He backed off to 1.8 — and still it shook – even harder. Slowing to 1.6, he was sure that pieces were coming off the skin, at 1.3, off the structure. The noise of it added to his fear. The human missile/airplane hurtled through the sky. He nearly froze, stuck in a fear bigger than his mind could hold. He struggled with the controls. The controls stopped responding. The noise increased. And now the speed increased. The displays went blank. The nose went down. He tried everything to stop it. He saw the ground coming up at him. He knew it was a populated area. He held back on ejecting as long as he could, but when the time came to punch out, it didn’t work. It was no surprise. He knew he couldn’t eject at that speed. So, he watched in horror, fixated on the coming point of impact. He couldn’t even speak anymore. And what took mere seconds seemed like an hour to him.
The plane hit the terrain at a speed above the muzzle velocity of a handgun and below that of a rifle, mostly intact until impact, but in a mindless state. And the houses it destroyed were gone in an instant. So were the families – the husbands, the wives, the children. And it happened in the blackness of night.
It had been Bill’s third flight as a test pilot in the XF3. He had worked hard to get that position on the testing of an advanced fighter, one that compensated for it’s own loss of control surface capabilities, a plane with a mind of its own. And that night it lost its mind and took Bill’s with it, body and soul.
The preliminary verdict on the crash was that the pilot could not have done anything about it. It wasn’t the usual conclusion of “pilot error.” Enter, the unknown.
The two other experimental XF3’s were grounded. The maker of the control compensating system, Air Electron Inc., was called on the block, but Greg Kostle, the program’s Chief Engineer, was in no shape to explain anything. The pilot had been his son, William Kostle, an ex-Navy fighter pilot who was working as a civilian test pilot for NASA before he had landed nose down that night. And the grief had struck hard.
Days later, just when Air Electron desperately needed the person with the most history on the program, just when the lawyers of the families of those killed were jockeying for first place in the queue for lawsuits, just as these same families were lost in unimaginable pain, and just when Greg Kostle was still deep in his own personal grief, Greg Kostle disappeared.
And the very next day he appeared again, but now he was wet, and cold, and floating, and dead.
I read these two first chapters at a local library a few months back. I don’t think it was what they had in mind, but Hidden Failure was what I wanted to write about!