Between Planes

Airframe

by Michael Crichton
Knopf, 368 pp., $26.00

When Casey Singleton, QA (that’s Quality Assurance rep) on the IRT (that’s the Incident Review Team) at Norton Aircraft, gets a message on the beeper to meet in the War Room at 0700 hours BTOYA (that’s Be There Or It’s Your Ass), because TPA Flight 545 has reported passenger fatalities on a Norton N-22 thirty minutes out of LAX, she knows she’d better get there on the QT. The message is from the COO, John Marder, and he’s a guy who expects just one thing: results, ASAP. He’s used to getting them, too, because IRT is one dedicated group of professionals, from the QA right up to the MIS specialist. First reports on TPA 545 indicate a possible in-flight uncommanded slats deployment; but the FAA issued an AD on slats deployment on the N-22 four years ago, so until 545’s DFDR is downloaded, the FDAU printout is examined, and a RAMS team can get in there to have a look at the NVMs, what went wrong is anybody’s guess. IRT has got to turn this one around on a dime, though, because Norton has an $8 billion LOI from Beijing for fifty new N-22s with an option for thirty more, and bad publicity could kill the deal—and the company.

Let’s put it in plain English. Your basic commercial aircraft has one million parts, runs to around three quarters of a million pounds fully loaded, and is designed to provide forty years of trouble-free service. You can bet that the folks who engineer and build these machines know a thing or two more about them than the rest of us do. And there’s the problem. Because when something goes wrong, it takes just a few ambulance chasers, some self-appointed aviation “experts,” and a film-at-eleven TV news show with a ratings problem to convince millions of Americans that a perfectly safe aircraft is a deathtrap. The upshot: loss of airline ticket-buyers, loss of orders for new aircraft, and—bottom line—loss of thousands of good jobs at good wages. Michael Crichton’s Airframe is a novel, “based on real events,” about how an unscrupulous press threatens to destroy a great American industry.

That is not how the book is being promoted. It is being promoted (first printing: two million copies) as a book about the troubling issue of airline safety, with some solemn allusions to the crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island last summer. In this respect, Airframe is a lot like Crichton’s earlier book Disclosure, which was marketed as a serious look at the issue of sexual harassment. Disclosure had essentially nothing to say about sexual harassment, though, since the sexual incident in the story turned out not to be harassment at all, but a staged encounter designed to discredit the hero. Disclosure was basically a story about how an unscrupulous press (plus corporate greed and a tort-mad legal system, both of which figure in Airframe …

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