My last post was about a shitty movie and in a few more before that, I wrote about the 737 MAX disaster.

That got me thinking about a very cheesy movie, that I happen to like called No Highway in the Sky.

Jimmy Stewart plays a nerdy and awkward engineer, what his British superiors call a “Boffin.”

What I love about this is that he’s a materials test engineer and failure analyst.

He is introduced in a lab where he is running a cyclic fatigue experiment.

The newest model aircraft for the company he works for is having crashes and he’s assigned to figure out why.  He suspects metal fatigue and is sent to one of the crash sites, just to discover that he’s on one of these airplanes approaching the flight hours at which he suspects failure will occur.

Of course, the executives don’t want to believe him that their new, state of the art, plane is unsafe.  He gets fires, just to be proven right in the end.

(Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, Boeing)

Some of the details are wrong.  Fatigue isn’t that predictable, S-N curves are scaled logarithmically so cycles to failure at a given load can vary by +/-  an order of magnitude.  Also, fatigue is not that sensitive to temperature.  There is thermal fatigue, which occurs due to cycles in thermal expansion.  The fatigue properties in metals change with microstructure, so they are different above and below the ductile/brittle transition temperature or above the austenite transition temperature.  But a difference of 40 degrees in aluminum isn’t going to change the fatigue life.

But I am willing to let that slide because this is the first and only movie I can think of where metal fatigue is the villain.

What’s more interesting is that this movie was released in 1951, and the de Havilland Comet was launched in 1952, and that is perhaps the most famous case of fatigue failure in commercial aircraft.

A de Havilland disaster movie – a la Sully (the 2016 film) – would be interesting.  There were a number of courts of inquiry that ultimately lead to fatigue being identified as the cause of hull losses.  Early crashes were blamed on pilot error which was actually a stall problem, which was turned into a different air disaster movie called Cone of Silence which was released in the US as Trouble in the Sky.

Despite the cheesiness and factual inaccuracies, I love this movie because a metallurgist is the hero.

It’s also what I used to do for a living, and would like to do again: failure analyst and materials test engineer.  This is related to an aviation job that I wouldn’t mind having called a damage tolerance engineer.

Materials test engineer: “What does it take to break it?  Let me find out by breaking it on purpose.”

Failure analyst: “Why did it break?”

Damage tolerance engineer: “How broken can it be before it totally comes apart and kills people?”

The general metallurgical principles are the same.  It’s something that I enjoy doing and happen to be really fucking good at.

The movie is available online, so if you are at all nerdy and technically inclined.

Also, if you know about a need for a failure analyst (full time or consultant) let me know in the comments, it would be appreciated.


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By J. Kb

26 thoughts on “A cheesy movie that I love because it hits near and dear to my heart”
  1. Well, there are boocoup aviation companies in the Dallas/Ft Worth area. Lotsa military bases. Also rocket makers in MacGregot, little town just west of Waco. There is a rocket test facility in Briggs, just 15 miles northeast of me. Firefly aerospace. They were in the paper for a bad test. Also lotsa military and aerospace in San Antonio and the Rocket base in Brownsville. Love too have you come to Texas. Oh and the Musk or Bezos space port out by Marfa. But that is the end of the world,, nothing within 200 miles but cactus. Good luck

  2. Oh and there is a trade show at South by Southwest in Austin, March 15-18. Huge “futurist” convention of all types of stuff. The firefly website has a place to book a meeting with them. Firefly is HQ’d out of Cedar Park which is outside Austin proper and without the traffic jams, etc.

  3. Is this anything like what you are looking for?
    McGregor, TX, United States
    SpaceX was founded under the belief that a future where humanity is out exploring the stars is fundamentally more exciting than one where we are not. Today SpaceX is actively developing the technologies to make this possible, with the ultimate goal of enabling human life on Mars.


    The Texas test site materials engineer will have a solid knowledge of materials and mechanical systems. The candidate will be in charge of all materials engineering activities at the McGregor test facility, including a materials laboratory that is nearly fully functioning.


    Run a characterization laboratory supporting SpaceX McGregor site needs including fluid compatibility testing, engine testing, and facility support
    Direct and review material evaluations using metallographic, thermal analytical, and spectroscopic techniques.
    Mentor and train a materials technician supporting materials laboratory functions.
    Track and communicate status of laboratory projects to design, production, and materials engineers.
    Maintain calibration of equipment and perform or coordinate repairs if necessary.
    Provide material selection support for any new testing or ground system at McGregor
    Provide materials engineering support to SpaceX Boca Chica
    Perform failure analysis in order to provide quick results in propulsion or ground system anomalies
    Run test equipment for material fluid compatibility and mechanical properties

    Bachelor’s degree in engineering
    2+ years of experience working in a hands on engineering environment, materials laboratory or similar function.

    Bachelor’s degree in materials engineering or mechanical engineering
    Master’s degree in either materials or mechanical engineering
    Experience managing technicians or workflow for a laboratory or similar function.
    Extraordinary self-starting ability with minimal supervision
    Experience performing SEM, EDS, and other electron spectroscopy methods to evaluate of aerospace materials
    Understanding of metallography, mechanical testing, heat treatment, machining, and sample processing
    Ability to train technicians on scientific equipment

    Be willing and able to work with chemicals in a laboratory setting

    To conform to U.S. Government space technology export regulations, applicant must be a U.S. citizen, lawful permanent resident of the U.S., protected individual as defined by 8 U.S.C. 1324b(a)(3), or eligible to obtain the required authorizations from the U.S. Department of State. Learn more about ITAR HERE.
    SpaceX is an Equal Opportunity Employer; employment with SpaceX is governed on the basis of merit, competence and qualifications and will not be influenced in any manner by race, color, religion, gender, national origin/ethnicity, veteran status, disability status, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, mental or physical disability or any other legally protected status.

    Applicants wishing to view a copy of SpaceX’s Affirmative Action Plan for veterans and individuals with disabilities, or applicants requiring reasonable accommodation to the application/interview process should notify the Human Resources Department at (310) 363-6000.

    Apply for this Job* Required
    First Name *

  4. Or is this better?

    Firefly Aerospace is a U.S. based advanced space technology developmental organization focusing on the leading edge of space systems progression. We are committed to providing economical and convenient access to space for small payloads through the design, manufacture, and operation of reliable launch vehicles. If you are great at what you do and would like to work with people who really want to make a difference, then Firefly is the place for you


    Analysis engineers use their world-class analytical skills and expert knowledge in a given area to verify designs and performance specifications. In this process, Analysis Engineers will ensure that Firefly vehicles meet customer requirements and conform to external safety standards. Analysis engineers are involved in the entire engineering process and therefore require excellent communication skills for collaborating with Design Engineers and Systems Engineers.


    Concentrations within the analysis team include:
    Loads and Dynamics
    Dynamic Environments
    Participate in the entire design cycle of rocket subsystems including conceptual design, layout, analysis, and test
    Perform analysis within their respective concentration including classical hand calculation when appropriate
    Maintain and report on activity schedule and technical status
    Document analysis for review by responsible engineers, customers, and launch authorities
    Work with responsible engineers and others to define problem geometry, initial parameters, and boundary conditions for analysis
    Advise responsible engineers on measurements and locations needed for test data to validate models
    Review analysis of peers
    Areas of focus include:

    Performs structural analysis by classical hand calculation and finite element analysis for composite and metallic materials
    Performs linear and non-linear structural analysis, eigenvalue buckling analysis, non-linear buckling analysis, and modal finite element analysis using ANSYS
    Validates finite element analysis with hand calculations and test data
    Works with responsible engineers to define required material properties and part modifications to meet structural requirements
    Writes strength and stability margins to required program safety factors
    Performs fluid and heat transfer analysis by classical hand calculation and numerical methods
    Performs fluid and conjugate heat transfer CFD using ANSYS CFX and Fluent
    Performs fluid network calculations using in-house and industry standard tools
    Utilizes standard industry tools for fluid properties and analysis, including CEA and REFPROP
    Validates CFD and fluid network calculations with hand calculations
    Works with responsible engineers to define required materials, geometry, and components to meet fluid and thermal requirements
    Provides environmental temperatures and pressures for structural analysts.
    Loads and Dynamics
    Create finite element models (FEM) of the launch vehicles and payloads
    Develop and apply the forcing functions for all flight events, including aerodynamic loads, TVC, gust, buffet, and stage separation.
    Perform dynamic analysis using FEMAP/Nastran (modal, frequency response, random, SRS, transient).
    Develop well documented scripts for postprocessing analysis results into loads and other output products using MATLAB (Python, IMAT).
    Provide guidance for experimental modal tests and flight instrumentation.
    Performing signal analysis of test data.
    Use flight and ground test data for FEM and forcing function updating and correlating.



    Master’s Degree in Aerospace Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Physics, or related field OR 2 years of relevant experience
    Proficient with analytical simulation software and hand calculations within concentration
    Familiarity with aerospace standard analysis methods
    Ability to effectively work in a multi-discipline team and provide technical guidance and insight

    Master’s Degree in Aerospace Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Physics, or related field
    5+ years of experience in a specific concentration of analysis
    Experience developing physical tests to validate analysis and test assumptions
    Experience with coding in Python/C++

  5. No Highway by Neville Shute (pen name of Nevile Shute Norway) is the source novel for the movie. Norway is a very interesting guy – one of the most successful novelists of the 50s and 60s (he also wrote On the Beach) and a successful and creative engineer. His autobiography Slide Rule is a great read and graphically presents the real-life incompetence of a government-run technology project in competition with a private sector team (the story of the R101 airship disaster). No Highway is eerily prescient of the deadly deHavilland Comet jet airliner fatigue failures of only a few years later.

    1. Don’t forget ” Trustee from the toolroom” .An introverted model engineer becomes a hero. Most of the films don’t do justice to the subtlety of his writing.

  6. If you recall where I work, you might try searching their jobs website; searches on “failure” and “metallurgy” turned up multiple listings.

    I believe you have some background in additive manufacturing? A major interest around here these days is the differences between an AM part and, say, a cast or forged part, in terms of materials strength and performance under various stress conditions.

    1. I don’t recall where you work. I’d appreciate an email to refresh my memory. And yes, I have a background in AM of aerospace parts. It’s been something I’ve been to push more and more.

  7. Oops. Of course you already mentioned the Comet, J. KB. Apologies, I got wrapped up.

    Another reason I like the movie is that it’s another chance to watch a Jimmy Stewart performance.

  8. This was an intriguing post, and I was pleased to learn you are a metallurgist with a niche for failure analysis. So do I! Mine product focus was (I too am ‘between jobs’) corrosion of aluminum heat exchangers-the condensers and radiators behind any vehicle grill, but also residential/commercial AC. I am an avid reader of yours and you are doing great work w this site, Miguel!

  9. Being a Mechanical Engineer/AWS SCWI, I enjoyed this post very much. I share your love of materials and the joining of materials. (Plus the whole weapons part of the blog) Good job Brother!

  10. I’m sure you have a reason for this or maybe it was a misprint, but I’m curious why you stated “a difference of 40 degrees in aluminum” can’t be right for aircraft use. They must see 120 degrees or more at times on the ground and maybe 30 below at high altitudes?

    1. In the movie, his fatigue predictions are off from one plane to the next because he was testing in a heated lab and the planes were flying at cold temperatures. He says that the change in cycles to failure was the result of a 40 degree difference between testing and service.

      In an aluminum frame aircraft, 40 degrees difference between altitude and room temperature would have no effect on fatigue life.

      Aluminum has an FCC crystal structure, which does not undergo ductle-brittle transition. BCC crystal metals do, like iron. That’s why 300 series stainless steels are used for cryogenic applications, they are FCC and are not brittle at low temp.

  11. “Aluminum has an FCC crystal structure, which does not undergo ductle-brittle transition. BCC crystal metals do, like iron. That’s why 300 series stainless steels are used for cryogenic applications, they are FCC and are not brittle at low temp.”

    Does steel have a BCC Crystal structure? Would that have bearing on the damage Titanic sustained from the ‘berg strike?

    1. Yes. To make matters worse, impurities like sulfur and phosphorus increase the ductile-brittle transition temperature. The low grade steel that the Titanic was made of was brittle in the waters of the North Atlantic and made damage mush worse when it hit the iceberg.

      The same problem reappeared during WWII when US made Liberty Ships broke in half and sunk. They were made in Louisiana, but turned brittle in the North Atlantic and sunk on their way to the UK.

  12. “Ilove this movie because a metallurgist is the hero”

    Have you read Atlas Shrugged? I wouldn’t say Reardan is THE hero but is certainly one of them.

    1. I have, and I do like Hank Reardan, but the tagline of the book is “Who is John Galt?” Yes, he’s an engineer too, but the hero isn’t the Metallurgist.

      1. Since we’re talking about movies here: if you haven’t seen the movie (trilogy) of Atlas Shrugged, I’d recommend it. It’s clearly a low budget production, among other things you can tell from the fact that a number of characters are played by different actors in the three parts. But the movie is faithful to the story and does quite a good job in spite of its limitations.

        1. I tried to watch it. I liked Part 1, especially because the actor that played Hank was the same one who played Lawkeeper Nolan in the Sci-Fi show Defiance, which I loved because it was created and produced by Rockne S. O’Bannon who also created Farscape, SeaQuest DSV, and Alien Nation (both the movie and the show). You can tell I’m a sci-fi junkie, can’t you?

          When they got to Part II and the actor who played Hank changed I was disappointed. Also it was clear they started to run out of money towards the end. What started out with good production turned into a bad Lifetime made for TV movie by close.

          I believe that Atlas Shrugged (like Starship Troopers) deserves to be turned into an HBO (or Amazon Prime or Netflix) miniseries (like Chernobyl or Band of Brothers) to really do it justice.

        2. Also, one of the reasons I love my wife is that she said if I ever came up with my own proprietary alloy, and made her a bracelet from it, she’d be proud to wear it.

          In grad school I did end up 3-D printing her a piece of jewelry from the equipment I used for my dissertation project.

      2. I believe I said as much in my comment…

        I have heard similar things about the movie a few times. I have yet to see it though.

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