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I'm pretty sure this was an Analog story from the mid-to-late 1980s.

The protagonist is an engineer for an aircraft company, taking a long-distance flight.

The setting has long-distance air travel provided by large flying wings that perpetually circle the globe; shuttle aircraft (up to 737-sized) are based in cities, and fly up to meet the wing, exchange departing passengers for arriving passengers and return to their home city. (They also carry up fuel and supplies to keep the wing flying.) The flying wings are composed of 5 individual sections mated together. Once passengers are aboard, they can move around, shop, go to a theatre, etc.

When the engineer arrives, he takes advantage of working for the company to get a visit to the flight deck. There's not much happening, because he's in section 5, and section 3 (in the middle) is currently driving. I recall a character making a joke about having sections 1 and 2 detach and fly around to the other side so that 5 will be in middle and can take a turn driving.

A short time later, there's an accident. A plane missed its docking approach and slammed into the docking bay at an angle. The docking collar deployed incorrectly and damaged the plane. First there's a scramble to get the passengers off the plane, and the engineer is asked to see if he can find any debug information that would help figure out what went wrong.

Ultimately it is discovered that the hot-shot flyboy in the plane disabled his approach computer so he could fly manually, and messed up. No reason to ground the fleet, but they still need to get rid of the broken jet, which (this is Analog) they do successfully, and the pilot thinks happy thoughts about dinner with the engineer.

(The wing section's airspeed - with the broken plane hanging off it - is too high to land; since it's not intended to land regularly, it's not equipped with thrust-reversers. Instead what they have to do is slow down enough that when they unload the broken plane it will be going slow enough to land, but meanwhile the wing will be able to regain enough speed to touch-and-go.)

  • There's enough details here, like "wing section 5" that I was sure I could find it, but I don't have the google-fu. – DavidW Feb 11 at 4:14
  • Is the description at bullet point 3 in this (unanswered) question similar? scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/227265/… – DannyMcG Feb 11 at 8:15
  • @DannyMcG my question is about a futurology book, with the content being depicted as factual predictions rather than fictional stories - there were no stories in my book, so I think the similarities here are coincidental. – Moo Feb 11 at 9:03
  • @Moo Not entirely coincidental, since that question made me think of this, but it's definitely not the same work. – DavidW Feb 11 at 11:36
  • I have a very clear memory of this one. Everything but title and author. – Dosco Jones Feb 11 at 17:21
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From (fallible) memory and a little research, could this be Timothy Zahn's "Between a Rock and a High Place"? According to Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia the story includes a flying wing used as a port — 'such designs as the skyport (a giant flying wing), as depicted in Timothy Zahn's "Between a Rock and a High Place"'.

I vaguely remember the protagonist being female and a former romantic interest of the show-off (male) pilot. I also do not remember the other details presented. I do remember that the ending was positive (typical of Zahn, I think).

The novella was published in the July 1982 issue of Analog and in Time Bomb and Zahndry Others (1988).

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    Nice. A reviewer at Amazon notes some plot details that match: "In the near future the United States has developed a skyport, a giant plane that stays in the air all the time and circles around the country. Shuttles dock with the skyport, bringing passengers and keeping it fueled. The conflict in the story revolves around how the crew deals with an emergency when one of the shuttles crashes into the skyport." amazon.com/gp/customer-reviews/R15C2OE49CA29R – Kenny Feb 11 at 18:45
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    Oh well caught sir! I've found a copy of the story in Zahn's anthology Time Bomb and Zahndry Others and it matches perfectly. Even down to small details like joking about moving the sections around. – John Rennie Feb 11 at 19:37
  • That is indeed it; I just looked it up in Time Bomb... and that's definitely the story. (Granted I was off on a few numbers, including the year it was in Analog...) FWIW, the protagonist is engineer Peter Whitney, Captain Elizabeth (Betsy) Kyser is the pilot and the hot-shot shuttle pilot is Eric Rayburn, a former lover of hers. Odd now, seeing McDonnell Douglas depicted as a reputable aircraft company... – DavidW Feb 11 at 21:52

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