Captain Paul Harker of Atlanta Airways must be on his mettle, if not for twenty-four hours a day, at least for the six or so hours it takes to fly the aircraft for which he is ultimately responsible across the Atlantic. There are, after all, two hundred and seventy-one passengers on board, as well as the crew.
Harker, however, is not a machine but a human being and, like all human beings, is subject to the ups and downs of living. Age is creeping up; his wife Harriet is ill; he has become distanced from his son and bitterly estranged from his daughter. To complicate his life even further, a pretty, guileful young stewardess is all for boosting his fragile ego at the expense of his equilibrium.
When the aeroplane’s number four engine catches fire Harker and his crew, led by First Officer Adams, follow the usual emergency procedure. Or at any rate, they think they do. Why then does the fire blaze more fiercely than ever after the release of the extinguisher bottles? And when does Captain Harker refuse to be parted from the strange walking stick with the shepherd’s crook handle?
David Beaty’s novel is partly about flying and partly about love. He shows us that even in the era of super fast fail-safe technology, when we climb on board an aeroplane we place our lives in the hands of the Captain and his crew, all of whom are subject to just the same stresses as the rest of the world. The human factor is always there: the machine is still driven by the man.