The scene is a cadet training college for would-be civil aviation pilots, among them the average Benson and the brilliant Miller. It is Benson who tells the story from the moment when, coming in to land with Miller as co-pilot, he hits a tree, to the final scene when Miller is awarded the passing-out Sword of Honour.
It is the trainer aircraft known to the cadets as ‘The Bastard, and feared by all but Miller, in which Benson has the accident. They are convinced that this reconditioned old machine is not airworthy, and soon there is further proof. Another cadet radios that the aircraft is out of control; ‘The Bastard’ crash-lands, the cadet is nearly killed.
With great skill David Beaty builds up the resulting tension between the authorities – the Commandant and the Chief Flying Officer – and the cadets, to the point where the latter go on strike, refusing either to fly or attend lectures. Only Miller stands aside, and Miller is beaten up.
The authorities maintain that the accidents in which ‘The Bastard’ has been concerned were due not to the aircraft but to carelessness on the part of the cadets. Through something he has observed Benson is forced to agree with them. And Miller? On his last flight before the passing-out ceremony he is saved from death only by Benson’s courage in emergency. Miller, the brilliant pupil, wins the Sword of Honour. But there is something else he doesn’t win – and Benson does.
With his unrivalled knowledge of the techniques of flying and of the attitudes of those who fly, David Beaty has built a novel with a brilliantly paradoxical climax that keeps the reader turning the pages in excited anticipation.