First edition cover
|Cover artist||Chip Kidd|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
|LC Class||PS3553.R48 A77 1996|
|Preceded by||The Lost World|
Airframe is a novel by American writer Michael Crichton, first published in hardcover in 1996 by Knopf and as a paperback in 1997 by Ballantine Books. The plot follows Casey Singleton, a quality assurance vice-president at the fictional aerospace manufacturer Norton Aircraft, as she investigates an in-flight accident aboard a Norton-manufactured airliner that leaves three passengers dead and fifty-six injured.
Airframe remains one of Crichton's few novels to be unadapted to film. Crichton stated this to be due to the great expenses needed to make such a film. Another consideration might be that the novel is so dense with technical references that it reads more like an accident investigation report than a suspense-filled page-turner for the general reader.
The novel opens aboard Hong Kong-based Transpacific Airlines Flight 545, a Norton Aircraft-manufactured N-22 wide-body aircraft, flying from Hong Kong to Denver. An incident occurs on board the plane about a half-hour west of the California coast and the pilot requests an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport, stating that the plane encountered "severe turbulence" in flight. The pilot gives air traffic control conflicting information regarding the type and severity of injuries, but does inform them that crew members were hurt and "three passengers are dead."
The incident seems inexplicable. The N-22 is a plane with an excellent safety record and the pilot is highly trained, making the possibility of human error unlikely. Passengers and flight crew give concurring accounts of the circumstances of the disaster, and the most likely explanation turns out to be a technical problem that was thought to have been fixed years before. As the vice-president of Quality Assurance at Norton Aircraft, it is Casey Singleton's job to try to protect the design's (and Norton's) reputation, especially since it jeopardizes a crucial aircraft purchase deal with China. However, not only does she have to deal with a ratings-hungry media intent on assigning blame for the incident, she must also deal with Bob Richman, an arrogant and suspicious junior executive assigned to assist her. All the while, she has to navigate the murky politics of the factory union and try and soothe the tempers of disgruntled Norton workers who fear the fallout from the incident will bankrupt the company and cost them their jobs.
As Casey investigates further, she discovers a deeper plan at work. Richman had secretly plotted with another Norton executive, John Marder, to oust CEO Harold Edgarton from his position and seize control of the company. They intended to wait for an incident that would put the N-22's reputation in question and torpedo the company's deal with China. Then, once in control of Norton, they would secretly negotiate with a South Korean airline for an even larger aircraft deal initially worth several billion dollars, but one that will eventually destroy the company by moving all production overseas. Casey manages to thwart the plan by finding and then publicly revealing the true cause of the incident. It was not caused by any technical fault in the plane, but was in fact human error: the plane's captain had allowed his son, also a pilot, but one not certified to fly the N-22, to take the controls in flight. At this point, a mechanical malfunction occurred, caused not by a design flaw at Norton but by poor maintenance practices at Transpacific Airlines. The son panicked and attempted to correct the problem, unaware that the plane already had a failsafe system for such an event. The conflicting control signals caused the plane to maneuver wildly, causing the fatalities. However, the airline covered up the incident by taking the body of the original pilot (who was one of the fatalities) and disguising him as one of the passengers. Seeing that the incident was caused by a combination of human error and poor maintenance, the media quickly loses interest in the N-22 scandal.
With the N-22's reputation cleared, the China deal goes off without a hitch and the company's future is secured. Afterwards, Edgarton promotes Casey to be the head of the company's Media Relations Division. Richman is fired and later arrested in Singapore for narcotics possession, while Marder leaves the company, supposedly on good terms.
- Casey Singleton – The protagonist and a vice-president; Serves as a Quality Assurance representative for the company's Incident Review Team (IRT).
- John Marder – Chief Operating Officer at the Norton Plant in Burbank, California; Also oversaw the production project for the N-22 widebody that was involved in the incident.
- Jennifer Malone – Producer for Newsline that investigates the incident in order to create a televised segment against the N-22.
- Doug Doherty – An engineer that is the Structure and Mechanical expert for the Incident Review Team.
- Nguyen Van Trung – Avionics expert on the Incident Review Team, overseeing the operation of the autopilot.
- Ken Burne – Powerplant expert on the Incident Review Team.
- Ron Smith – Electrics expert on the IRT.
- Mike Lee – Carrier Representative for TransPacific Airlines to Norton Aircraft.
- Barbara Ross – IRT Secretary
- Norma – Casey Singleton's secretary who has been with the company forever and knows all the history.
- Bob Richman – Casey Singleton's recently appointed assistant; a relative in the Norton family tree working his way through the corporate divisions.
- Harold Edgarton – President of Norton Aircraft.
- Ted Rawley - A test pilot for Norton Aircraft and Singleton's sometime boyfriend.
- Dick Shenk – Segment Organizer for the fictional TV program Newsline, based in New York City.
- Marty Reardon – "On-Talent" interviewer for Newsline
- Frederick Barker – A former FAA employee and severe critic of the N-22 aircraft.
Air safety procedures are a central theme in the novel. Crichton challenges public perception of air safety and how the blame for accidents sometimes gets directed at the wrong party.
Another central theme, which compounds the issue mentioned above, is investigative journalism, and the consequences when sensational media agencies distort the truth to produce a better-selling story.
The book also continues Crichton's overall theme of the failure of humans in human-machine interaction. Despite malfunctions due to improper maintenance the plane itself was functional. The incident was a result of human error by an insufficiently trained pilot.
References to reality
In Airframe, as in most of his novels, Crichton uses the false document literary device, presenting numerous technical documents to create a sense of authenticity. He also draws from real life incidents to flesh out the story. For instance the crash of American Airlines Flight 191 and its causes are accurately described (as per knowledge of the time) in the novel.
The main accident described in the novel resembles two real-life incidents:
- The violent oscillations, the issue with the flap/slat handle becoming dislodged, and the importance of pilot training in order to respond properly to the characteristics of a specific aircraft type are closely modeled on the 1993 accident aboard China Eastern Airlines Flight 583.
- On March 23, 1994 Aeroflot Flight 593, an Airbus A310-304, flying from Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport (SVO) to Hong Kong's former Hong Kong International Airport (Kai Tak Airport), crashed into a hillside in Siberia. All 75 passengers and crew were killed. The flight cockpit voice recorder revealed that the pilot's 16-year-old son had been at the controls at the time the plane suffered its drop. Although in the novel, one method to resolve the situation would have been to release the controls and allow the automated systems of the aircraft to handle it; in the real-life event, the son had disabled the autopilot without the crew realizing. The crash could have been avoided were the autopilot re-enabled.
Reviews for the novel were mostly positive.
The New York Times' Christopher Lehmann-Haupt said of Airframe, "By playing hide and seek with his plot, Mr. Crichton writes as if he were an engineer and his readers were all outsiders. Yet at the same time, he has taken on a complex subject in Airframe and made its subtleties dramatically vivid."
-  Aviation safety network accident description
- Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. "A thriller not to carry on your next plane trip". The New York Times, December 5, 1996.