Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Airframe (Michael Crichton)

Rating: 4
Year: 1996
Genre: Techno-thriller
Read again? Yes

Everything's quiet aboard TransPacific flight 545 out of Hong Kong. Most of the passengers are asleep.

The plane starts to pitch violently, diving several thousand feet, then climbing sharply, then diving and climbing again.

By the time 545 makes its emergency landing at Los Angeles International, it's carrying 56 injured and 3 dead.

The captain claimed "severe turbulence" but radar shows clear weather for thousands of miles around the plane.

The flight crew leaves the country before they can be questioned. Everything seems to point to a failure in the aircraft itself.

The plane, a Norton N-22 Widebody--is shuttled to the factory for a complete inspection, but there's a catch: the team has one week. The boss wants immediate answers because Beijing is considering an $8 billion dollar purchase of 50 N-22's with an option for 30 more.

If the fault lies with the aircraft, Beijing will buy from Airbus instead.

Casey Singleton, Quality Assurance Liason and Press Spokesperson for Norton, is put in charge of the Incident Response Team. She'll be working with engineers and mechanics to either prove the N-22's soundness or condemn the company to a massive loss of business.

She's been saddled with Bob Richman, an assistant, some nephew of the Norton family who's being shuffled around the company to see where he'll fit in.

The boss is John Marder, the Chief Operating Officer, who was the program manager on the N-22.

Casey's team are a bunch of 2-dimensional off-the-shelf characters from Central Casting:
Marder is the Dark, Intense Company Man.
Doherty is the Mopy, Overweight Guy with a bad complexion.
Trung is the Industrious, Hard-Working Asian Genius.
Burne is the Angry, Truculent Red-Haired engine expert.
Smith is the Jittery, Fidgety Electrical Genius.
Wallerstein is the Efficient German Flight Simulation Operator.
Rawley is the Dashing Cowboy Test Pilot.

As soon as the investigation starts, everything hits the fan: one flight recorder is scrambled and will take some time to sort out. The strongly-unionized mechanics are angry because of a rumor that part of the big China sale includes moving wing fabrication to China, which would effectively kill U.S. production of the N-22 and thousands of jobs at the U.S. factory. Marder denies the rumors.

Bob Richman seems squirrelly. Casey starts giving him busy work and does some behind-the-scenes investigating into him. She finds that he did a lot of off-the-table flying when he was in Marketing. What's his deal?

The media gets involved: a tabloid TV show producer who fancies herself a Hard-Hitting Investigative Journalist. Shortly after the N-22 story breaks, an unrelated incident with a different airline makes her think she smells blood. She packs her hatchet and heads out to LA to get "the real story" about the N-22 DEATHTRAP!! She's already framed out the entire story, not caring about the facts, just the sensationalism and ratings, ratings, RATINGS!

Crichton frequently adds paragraphs or pages worth of technical or industrial information to explain things his principal characters should already know, such as the problem of counterfeit aircraft parts or how the government and industry actually interact versus how we would prefer it to be. Bob Richman is our surrogate. A lawyer, not an engineer or industry insider, he's someone for Casey to explain the technical stuff to.

Thick but not too hefty, and a page-turner. Crichton stays out of his own way, feeding you technical stuff as needed without straying from the trail. There's a lot going on--corporate intrigue, media hype, Casey's ex-husband who is convinced she's just breaking his balls, juggling all the engineers and mechanics without pissing them all off, trying to quell rumors about the wing sale to China. There's a Crowning Moment of Awesome when Casey puts the stupid, arrogant media woman solidly in her place during the Big Test Flight at the book's end.

The only real disappointment is the low-budget supporting cast, but that's only a momentary distraction near the beginning of things.

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