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Read in the ]80's, this felt like a '60–'70s-era sci-fi story.

The story is set on a high altitude plane or craft that has a malfunction, and the flight crew cannot get the craft to go back down. They make an announcement saying the company is testing the "highest flight ever" and go back to discussing the issue. Later they realize that a communication panel was left on, and an old man has been listening to their discussion and knows the actual problem, and he is able to get them the advice needed to recover. Later it is revealed that a flight attendant had caused the problem as a security or safety test to see how the crew would respond.

It was memorable, as it's the only instance I'd seen with the word "quisling" actually used.

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    Quisling was a WWII term for a traitor, derived from the name of the man who gave up Norway to the Nazis, Vidkun Quisling (then Prime Minister of Norway). Seeing it in the story is a likely clue to when it was written, most likely no later than 1960 (the term had fallen out of use by then). Also, I recall Heinlein using the term in a couple of his "future history" stories, he might be a possibility for the author.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Sep 22 at 12:02
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    @ZeissIkon Interesting. A quick look at Google NGram Viewer confirms that the usage of the word "quisling" peaked in 1944 and fell rapidly to a low value by 1956 ... but the word has remained in use at about this level ever since. Sep 22 at 13:48
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    @InvisibleTrihedron The current level of usage is probably accounted for by discussion of the actual man in a historical context.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Sep 22 at 14:10
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    IIRC, the old man observing the flight crew said "Me, no, I'm no quisling!" when they asked him if he caused the incident. Sep 22 at 14:38
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    @Zenzizenzizenzic BOOM! :-) Thanks that did the trick. I'll post an answer now. Sep 22 at 14:42

2 Answers 2

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Prometheus Rebound by Daniel F. Galouye. The story is from 1970 and I read it in the anthology The Year 2000, which according to ISFDB is the only place it's been published in English.

The ship is the Prometheus Unbound:

Like Triumphant Prometheus, unfettered at last from his storm-thrashed rock, the huge fluxliner heaved up through the final shrouds of resistive atmosphere, majestically treading the fabric of geomagnetic space.
Almost the width of a city block and massing some 350 tons, Transequatorial Fluxways’ flagship was a scintillating disk whose 2231-aluminum hull arrogantly flung back the rays of a midmorning sun. Her sheening surface was broken only by circumferential ports—scores of eyes staring out into the depth of space and back at the receding North American coast line.
Ahead—little more than an hour from New York via magnetic field navigation—lay Flight 201’s destination: Buenos Aires

As you say, the incident was created by one of the stewardesses, who is actually a "Civil Magnetonautics Bureau Inspector":

Elaine’s sobs drowned out his words and she exposed a tear-streaked face. “It’s not him,” she said remorsefully. “It’s me”.
“What’s you?” Martin asked, confounded.
Her seat dipped almost to the horizontal, rotated, then swung back toward vertical. “I’m the CBM inspector,” she sobbed. “I shorted out the erect Rutledge coil lead with a bobby pin—to see how you’d react.”

The old man is Ira Ambrose, who was a famous pilot in his day. The quisling reference that jogged my memory comes when one of the pilots accused Ira of being an undercover inspector:

“Are you or aren’t you a Magnetonautics Bureau inspector?”
“Eh?” Ira repeated. Then his puzzled frown was buried under an expression of senile amusement. “See what you’re getting at. You think—” He paused, croaking out a laugh. “No, I’m no quisling. Flew for the airlines after the war. And there was this goldbricking CAB inspector who came pussyfootin’ around and—”

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    Wow, that reads like something from the 30s. Sep 22 at 16:26
  • I'll have to read this just to find out how many people this thing seats...either it's got a really terrible ratio of useful/non-useful space, or seating is beyond spacious, or there's an awful lot of traffic from NY to Buenos Aires.... Sep 23 at 19:46
  • @user3067860: Or it’s somehow analogous to a Zeppelin, where a much larger structure is required besides the seating/cargo area.
    – PLL
    Sep 26 at 10:27
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Might this be Orbit by Thomas Block?

“Orbit” is the story of the Star Streak Hypersonic airliner, which is the successor to the supersonic Concorde. During a routine flight, an unexplainable engine malfunction hurls Consolidated Flight 14 far too high and into a low-earth orbit. With only limited oxygen onboard, Captain Donald Collins is about to try a desperate and unproven maneuver to save the ship and its 100 passengers. On the ground, one of the designers of the aircraft has discovered evidence that the airliner might have been sabotaged. It becomes a race against time and the inescapable laws of physics to save the airliner and those onboard who are still alive.

Not matching, checking out a copy via archive.org doesn't find any mention of the word "quisling".

Found with a search for science fiction plane can't descend, which brought up Starflight: The Plane That Couldn't Land, which has been speculated to be based on Orbit.

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  • Ah, Starflight, an early but very strong candidate for the title of dumbest movie ever featuring the shuttle. Sep 22 at 12:13
  • Looks similar, but I'm fairly sure it's a short story, not a novel. Sep 22 at 12:27
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    @OrganicMarble Indeed. At one point they have the Shuttle landing with some of the passengers, being turned around and relaunched in just two hours!
    – GordonD
    Sep 22 at 19:15
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    @GordonD that's one of the things we especially liked. A bunch of us young shuttle engineers used to love drinking beer and watching that. Sep 22 at 19:22

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