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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 as well) threatened to destroy a good man. These are not, in short, books about their nominal dust-jacket issues. They are books about the way sensational issues like airline safety and sexual harassment are exploited to make a buck. If a bell went off in Crichton’s head as he was coming up with this formula, he ignored it brilliantly.

Airframe is a techno-thriller. This is a genre with three requirements: an alarmist topical peg (nuclear meltdown, mystery virus, military threat), lots of shoptalk about some medical or mechanical matter mysterious to the layman, and a simple way of telling the good guys from the bad guys. The bad guys are businessmen, lawyers, politicians, and journalists. The good guys are the experts. The shoptalk—the scientific jargon, the continual barrage of initials and acronyms, the cryptic summaries of complicated technical procedures—is the writer’s tribute to the professionalism of his heroes. These heroes speak a kind of techno-patois—and why shouldn’t they? They’re busy people, and when there’s a problem, they don’t want to have a nice, informative conversation about it. They want answers. “We build the hell out of these planes,” explains Casey, the hero of Airframe. “People here are proud of what they do. And they don’t like it when something goes wrong.”

The trick in this kind of writing isn’t reproducing the lingo. The trick is doing the gloss. In the typical episode, there is a passage where experts exchange snappy incomprehensible observations, which is then followed by a passage where the author spells it out for readers who never got beyond high school shop. “I was talking to Don Peterson over at the FAA,” says Jack to Casey.

He told me that incident at SFO was a sixth-stage compressor disk that blew. The disk had brittle nitrogen pockets.”

Alpha inclusions?” she said.

That’s right,” Jack said. “And there was also dwell-time fatigue.”

Casey nodded.

Alpha inclusions and dwell-time fatigue. Sounds pretty serious. But what exactly are they talking about? Crichton explains:

Engine parts operated at a temperature of 2500 degrees Fahrenheit, well above the melt temperature of most alloys, which turned to soup at 2200 degrees. So they were manufactured of titanium alloys, using the most advanced procedures. Fabricating some of the parts was an art—the fan blades were essentially “grown” as a single crystal of metal, making them phenomenally strong. But even in skilled hands, the manufacturing process was inherently delicate. Dwell-time fatigue was a condition in which the titanium used to make rotor disks clumped into microstructure colonies, rendering them vulnerable to fatigue cracks.

The beauty of it is that the translation, despite the Goresque tone of patient instructiveness, is essentially as opaque as the original. “Clumped into microstructure colonies”? The sense that we are being initiated into the arcana of advanced aircraft design is balanced perfectly by the sense that advanced aircraft design is a business best left to the experts. There is just enough light thrown on the lab talk to give the illusion that we’ve learned something, but not enough to deprive it of its mystique. And we never do find out what alpha inclusions are.

The leading good guy in Airframe is Casey (the QA on the IRT), a single mom with an MBA from Wayne State who gets along great with the guys at work and who plays first base on the plant softball team. The leading bad guy is Jennifer, a twenty-nine-year-old graduate of Brown who’s clawing her way to the top as a producer at a Sixty Minutes-type TV show called Newsline. You know she’s depraved when you learn that she hates it when men insist on spending the night after sex. You know that her boss, a jaded media honcho named Dick Shenk (he’s a Yale grad), is depraved when you learn that “his tastes ran to Swiss watches, French wines, English shoes.” Swiss watches. There’s decadence.

Jennifer hears that there may be a design problem with one of Norton’s aircraft after a Norton-built plane (Transpacific Flight 545) suddenly executes a series of steep dives in the middle of a routine flight, killing three passengers and injuring fifty-six more. Jennifer is desperate for a hot story (Al Pacino has just cancelled on her), so she cobbles together a few pieces of misinformation from the usual “experts” and heads for Norton Aircraft with a camera crew and her celebrity on-air reporter, a Sam Donaldson-alike called Marty Reardon. These people don’t know the first thing about airplanes, naturally, or care. They just want ratings, and they don’t mind whose reputation they have to drag through the mud to get them. Casey is assigned to stop them.

She does—and solves the mystery of what happened to TPA Flight 545, and keeps Norton jobs here in the US where they belong (no thanks, by the way, to the plant’s labor union and its goons, who do everything they can to disrupt the investigation, including chasing her around the factory with a large wrench). At the end, she gets a nice promotion for it: Head of Media Relations. Well, somebody’s got to do it.

Crichton’s prose cannot be awarded—nor, for that matter, does it appear to seek—praise for its literary qualities. This is a writer who, searching for a word to describe the odor of vomit, comes up with “nauseating.” But Crichton is a much more efficient storyteller than Tom Clancy, another techno-thriller million-seller, whose books are practically Dickensian by comparison. It takes Clancy hundreds of pages of manly gush to work up to a situation where some suspense is possible. Crichton wants to make your pulse race from almost the first page—or, more to the point, the first frame. And he is extremely good at it. His books are essentially screenplays with a few editorials tucked in.

The editorials are the interesting part. Clancy editorializes, too, of course: the politics of his stories, which celebrate can-do military types and warn against the corrupting influence of journalists, bureaucrats, and ambitious women, is clearly a major element in his appeal. There’s nothing subtle about it, either. Having a copy of one of his books in the house is a little like owning a Pat Buchanan bumper sticker. The politics of a Crichton novel (apart from the militarism) are not terribly different: he’s against self-righteous reporters, internationalist businessmen, and ambitious women too. But the ambience is almost completely different. Crichton’s books are somehow much more personally detached. They’re far cooler and more accomplished productions.

The relative crudity of the politics and the relative slickness of the style reproduce the dissociation apparent in the premise of a novel like Airframe—the dissociation between the moral of the book, which condemns the exploitation of emotional issues like airline safety by the media, and the fact of the book itself, which is a popular entertainment designed to appeal to people’s anxieties about airline safety. There’s nothing remotely scandalous about this contradiction, of course. It’s a time-honored commercial formula—like the violent movie that preaches against violence, or the television news program that examines the problem of too much sex on television by running multiple clips of sex on television. But it does throw a strange light back on the author himself.

If Tom Clancy, for example, were to deprecate one his characters by telling us that he wore a Swiss watch, we would feel fairly certain that this meant that Clancy himself would not be caught dead wearing a Swiss watch. With Crichton, it is almost the opposite. An entertainer this smart, smooth, and successful does not, we feel, wear a Timex. There is a kind of cultural discrepancy, in other words, between the message and the bottle. It’s the discrepancy on display in a lot of high-end television drama—stories about big-city detectives or emergency room medics rushing around cursing (within FCC guidelines) like truckers while they tackle one life-and-death situation after another, and all looking like they just walked out of an Armani showroom. The stories are all about grit; the production values are all about glamour. If the whole thing weren’t so contrived, one might say that the element of narcissism in these shows was exactly matched by an element of self-loathing.

This may be why Crichton’s hatred of Jennifer in Airframe is so much more intense than his rather abstract admiration for Casey. Crichton doesn’t know the first thing about Casey, who is a character drawn strictly according to formula. But it is hard not to imagine, from the enthusiasm of his descriptions, that he has known any number of Jennifers, and has obsessed about them. Jennifer is a formula too, obviously; but Crichton has clearly taken pleasure in marching her through his plot. In the end, she is made to vomit repeatedly and hysterically, to submit to an obscene tirade from the louche Shenk, and to slink off to a job at Hard Copy, a place, presumably, where even the pretense of respectability has been abandoned. It’s commercial culture’s revenge on itself.

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