Mishap At 37,000 Feet


By Michael Crichton

Knopf 352pp $26

Is he clairvoyant or just lucky? As you may have heard by now, Michael Crichton has centered his latest novel, Airframe, on a fatal mishap on a passenger airplane cruising at 37,000 feet. Arriving as it does less than five months after the crash of Trans World Airlines Inc.'s flight 800--and with that unsolved mystery yet stoking fears about airline safety--the book is almost certain to be another Crichton blockbuster. As usual with his books, this one draws much of its material from real life, though the world it ultimately describes is something less than realistic.

The incident on Airframe's fictional TransPacific Airlines flight 545 is just the starting point of a 352-page mystery that goes behind the scenes of the U.S. aerospace industry, the media, organized labor, and the life of a divorced working mother. Along the way, we encounter a ruthless chief operating officer of an aircraft-manufacturing company, a group of union thugs, and shallow reporters looking for scoops, as well as the good guys: the intensely proud, virtuous engineers and others who make airplanes.

The story is pretty simple. It follows Casey Singleton, a 36-year-old vice-president for quality assurance at Norton Aircraft, as she tries to unravel the mysterious cause of the fierce in-flight incident. The tragedy, which the crew at first ascribes to turbulence, kills four people and injures 56 aboard the TransPacific flight, a Norton N-22 passenger plane on the way from Hong Kong to Denver.

The accident could not come at a worse time for Norton Aircraft. In a mere five days, the company is scheduled to close an $8 billion deal with Beijing: the sale of 50 N-22s and an option for 30 more. The contract would guarantee four years of full production for the company and would cover the costs of developing new models. Indeed, the future of the struggling aircraft maker hinges on whether it can manage to exonerate itself. Meanwhile, union members at the plant are seething over evidence that Norton is planning to export their highest-paying jobs overseas.

Airframe moves along at a rapid clip. And the opening passage about the calamity--in which the plane noses up and down violently, tossing passengers around "like dice in a cup"--is gripping. Crichton also offers some lighter moments, as when Singleton labors to translate corporatese to her young daughter. "Casey looked over and saw that her daughter had picked up her new laminated plant ID badge, which had Casey's picture, and beneath that, C. SINGLETON, and then in large blue letters, QA/IRT.

"`What's Qua-urt?'

`It's my new job at the plant. I'm the Quality Assurance rep on the Incident Review Team."'

Crichton provides a great send-up of techno-nerds, too, in the character of Jay Ziegler, a paranoid ex-CIA man who specializes in interpreting cockpit voice-recorder tapes, dons dark sunglasses indoors, and requires passwords from those wishing to enter his "sector."

But the book falls short in many ways. Those impatient with technical jargon may find it slow going as Crichton leisurely describes an aircraft's inner workings: "The upper surface of the compartment was taken up by the underside of the APU, the turbine generator that served as the auxiliary power unit: a maze of semicircular pipes and white couplings wrapped around the main unit. Below was a cramped series of readout meters, rack slots, and black FCS boxes, each with the milled vanes for heat transfer."

At times, Airframe reads like an apology for aircraft makers. The reality is that manufacturers, facing global competition to bring cutting-edge products to market first, have been known to resist the time-consuming efforts by federal authorities to impose additional safety checks. A case in point: During certification of its new 777 aircraft, Boeing Co. offered significant, well-documented resistance to the Federal Aviation Administration's concerns over potentially life-threatening engine imbalance. But in Crichton's world, the FAA hardly makes an appearance. Even to readers with no more than a passing understanding of the airline industry, Airframe will sometimes ring false.

That's not to say that Crichton does not draw liberally from real life. In Airframe, the fictional Norton Aircraft's earliest N-22s have a cockpit design flaw. A handle on the pilot's control panel is positioned so that it is easily bumped, deploying the slats located on the wing's leading edge and sending the plane pitching up and down. The very same problem plagued the earliest models of McDonnell Douglas' MD-11 aircraft. In McDonnell's case, the FAA issued directives that led to the installment of a protective device over the slat handle. Even so, the MD-11, production of which is being curtailed, has had other glitches involving stability. In Crichton's world, sticky complications do not intervene: Norton's device magically transforms the N-22 once and for all into the technological marvel it was designed to be.

Overall, Airframe is about as nuanced as the instructions you get from a flight attendant prior to takeoff. But at a time when investigators edge closer to attributing the explosion of TWA Flight 800 to a mechanical glitch, airline travelers may be grateful for the reassurance, however unrealistic.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.