"The School" – My Favorite Science Fiction Story
The story has to be taken in the context of the time frame my father was writing, which was December 1954; the other two being written in 1952 and 1953, respectively. All three stories appeared in the science fiction pulp magazine Amazing Stories.
This was a time when computers were still in their infancy, a time of transition from vacuum tubes to resistors, from punch cards and punch tape to magnetic tapes and magnetic drums, a time when the U.S. Air Force was still flying the B-29 Superfortress, one of the largest long-range bombers ever built. It was the B-29 Superfortress that dropped the atomic bombs on Japan.
The subtitle of the story begins with,
“Who can teach the best and most advanced experts?” The answer is easy…but a method of making it work? For how can a man teach himself?”
The story opens with military and civilian personnel gathered at an airfield to evaluate the performance of the military’s newest long-range prototype bomber simply named XB-91. It was built by the Firestone Aviation Company; Soren Gunderson is the chief engineer for the project; Eugene Montgomery is the Air Force Liaison Officer between the Air Force and Firestone Aviation, and Colonel Dodge is Montgomery’s superior in Washington.
The XB-91 is a monstrous plane; nothing like it has ever been built before. It weighs 230 tons, has sixteen engines (the B-29 Superfortress only had four propeller-driven engines), generates power the equivalent of thirty railroad locomotives, generates enough heat to warm a town of fifteen hundred, and has enough wire to supply the town’s power and telephone systems. It has an advanced missile defense system, meaning its onboard missiles can engage and destroy any inbound missile.
After the plane completes its trial runs and lands at the airfield, Gunderson and Montgomery engage in conversation about the plane’s amazing performance. Gunderson, the chief engineer who had total oversight responsibility for the production of the plane, declares it a total failure. Montgomery is stunned by Gunderson’s declaration and asks why.
Gunderson rattles off a litany of complaints he has concerning the plane, chief of which are that the manufacturing processes aren’t good enough to eliminate the duplication and reduplication of backup systems necessary to ensure that the malfunction of a ten-cent resistor doesn’t bring down a hundred-million-dollar aircraft. He rants about how data collection has taken the place of research and building a boatload of ingenious gadgets has taken the place of genuine invention.
He says that engineers look at data and gadgetry for inspiration for basic new ideas, but it’s not there, so they build another flying monster. As big and strong and powerful as this aircraft is, its vulnerability lies in its complexity.
Montgomery asks Gunderson why the plane wasn’t built smaller, to which Gunderson points to his head and says,
“We don’t know how to do it.”
“What you see standing on the tarmac is the best the engineering schools could produce, and if that’s the best we can do, declares Gunderson, I will never build another airplane.”
When the aircraft is finally accepted by the Air Force, Gunderson says he will resign from Firestone Aviation.