“Airframe” by Michael Crichton
“So now day-to-day life is false, and the media image is true. Sometimes I look around my living room and the most real thing in the room is the television. It’s bright and vivid, and the rest of my life looks drab. So I turn the damn thing off”.
Make no mistake, “Airframe” deals with airplanes, but it also is a commentary (however prophetic since this was published in 1996) about how superficial the media (and I’m including everything here from TV to iPhone to Blackberry to YouTube….whatever) has become and how our lives have followed.
It is all about how it “looks” and skimming the surface, not about reality and depth.
“Airframe” starts aboard TransPacific (TPA) Flight 59 from Hong Kong to Denver. Nearing the end of the uneventful flight suddenly the plane goes nose up, the STALL warnings go off in the cockpit (this is pre-911 so the cockpit doors were open), then the plane noses down into a steep dive, then back up again, then down. The plane is “porpoising”. While all this is happening to the plane, the passengers who are not seat-belted are thrown all over the cabin, the luggage racks open adding to the fury, and people are vomiting and screaming for their lives. After about 2 minutes of massive oscillations, the plane levels out. But now there are three dead passengers and over 50 injured. Flight TPA 59 makes an emergency landing in LA where all the passengers are off-loaded and cared for.
This event triggers the Incident Review Team (IRT) of (the fictitious) Norton Aircraft Company in Burbank, CA into action. The responsibility of this “swat” team of engineers is to ID the cause of any incident that happens involving a Norton built aircraft. TPA 59 happens to be the latest Norton widebody, the N-22. As the team convenes, their leader and Chief Operating Officer (COO), John Marder, gives them only 1 week to find out what happened because there is an impending sale of N-22’s to China and that sale could be jeopardized by this event. One week is a woefully short amount of time, but, grudgingly, the team accepts the challenge and diligently sets off to find the cause.
The pilot of TPA 59 gave two reasons for the oscillations: turbulence and unexpected “slats” deployment (slats extend from the wing to give it more life on takeoff and landing). The fact that he gave these conflicting reports (and that Norton IRT cannot find the pilot to interview him, or the rest of the crew for that matter) heightens the mystery.
Katherine “Casey” Singleton, our heroine, is a Norton Vice President (VP), head of the Quality Assurance (QA) department, and is the main investigator on the IRT team (and also the media spokesperson for this incident should one be needed). It is her responsibility to find the cause and to coordinate the rest of the team’s efforts. If she fails, Marder let it be known it will cost her her job. Lots of pressure.
As the book unfolds, Casey and team slowly uncover the facts behind the oscillation event on TPA 59. Unfortunately for Casey, and unknown to her, there are people who are working behind the scenes to disrupt her and change the direction of Norton Aircraft. In other words backstabbing co-workers and management….
And, once the incident becomes public knowledge, a new wrinkle emerges as the TV show “Newsline” (think ”60 Minutes” or “Nightline”) becomes interested and plans a story to prove that the N-22 is unsafe and is a deathtrap. As this plot line unfolds, Crichton gives us an insider’s glimpse at the superficial world of TV journalism, where the “look” is everything and the “facts” do not matter. A world where the in-front camera reporter does little of the work and the behind the scenes producer does most of it. The producer in this case is a very naive, Jennifer Malone. Jennifer grabs the idea that the N-22 is a deathtrap and runs with that, the hell with the facts that keep coming up trying to ruin her story.
She eventually gets the facts forced on her by Casey….very satisfying.
The ending is very interesting and the reason for the incident is shocking. I enjoyed this book even though it is not the best Michael Crichton I have read (read “Prey”). “Airframe” was definitely entertaining and it brought back old memories.
Speaking of memories, my first job as an engineer, so many moons ago, was at Grumman Aerospace. I must say that the depiction of how the engineers at Norton approached their job, and the pride they had in the N-22, was very realistic. When I was with Grumman, there was true devotion to safety and a palpable pride in the company and their products (F-14 and E-2C (this was my plane when I was in the Navy) Navy planes, and the Lunar Module (LM) that was used in the moon landings and saved the crew of Apollo 13). In fact, I worked in the very same hanger where the LM was made…very exciting. I am still proud of Grumman, which incidentally is now Northrup-Grumman based in LA…hmmmm, interesting how close “Norton” Aircraft is to “Northrup”.