Study Guide

Airframe

by Michael Crichton

Airframe Themes

Themes

The truth is a delicate matter, easily pushed aside in a rush to judgment. Essential to civilization, it is nonetheless not highly regarded by everyone, especially those who find it inconvenient to their ambitions. One who would search it out in a hostile climate had better be nimble of mind and sturdy of soul. Casey Singleton puts these attributes to work to live up to the responsibilities of a corporate officer when survival of that corporation and the professional lives of the people in it are threatened by the intrigue surrounding an investigation. Her reward, if she is successful, will not be an open acknowledgment, of heroism; it may be nothing more than a moderate raise and the quiet appreciation of those co-workers whose future she has saved.

Truth-seeking in a corporate venue— especially in such unstable times with mergers and downsizing being the business fads of the nineties—may seem like a contradiction in terms. In these days of "spin doctors," "golden parachutes," and vast differences in pay scales between CEOs and everyone else in America's companies, little emphasis seems to be placed on something so redolent of morality as "truth." It almost sounds quaint, but it is not as outmoded as Casey, who got her bachelor's degree in journalism, believes. The truth may yet save Norton Aircraft, if it can be revealed quickly enough. With expertise in engineering, aided by black boxes and skilled re-construction techniques, the answer to the problem of Flight 545 must be found, one would think.

But a large modern aircraft is a highly complex object, composed of several subsystems, each of which is designed by different engineering teams. In addition, it is also a vehicle that must be operated by human beings—highly skilled people— who are in themselves complex creatures governed by psychology, a discipline almost antithetical to engineering. Its passengers are by and large people who are expert in neither of these fields, completely dependent on the skill and wisdom of professionals, whom they may never see, to get them safely to their destination. The answer to the tragedy aboard Flight 545 resides somewhere within these three communities: the people who designed and built the plane, the people who operated it, and the people the plane was meant to serve. Any inquiry that hopes to be successful must involve all three.

Getting to the airplane is the easiest part, since it is fortunately intact. The Incident Review team is able to examine the plane in detail, go over recordings of readouts for all the different subsystems— avionic, electrical, hydraulic, and so on—for that particular flight, and see for themselves if any parts or built-in safeguards against pilot error failed. Getting the testimony of the operators of the craft directly turns out to be impossible in the case of Flight 545, however. With the exception of a dead co-pilot and two injured stewardesses, only one of whom speaks English, the entire flight crew has returned to Hong Kong, apparently on orders from TransPacific, the airline for which the plane was flown, to deal with legal problems at the flight's point of origin—or so they say. With most of the crew unavailable, the Norton team's remaining source of witnesses are passengers, not all of whom are willing to talk to Casey. None of these has the technical expertise to describe what happened in more than the most general terms: a "rumbling" or vibration just before the plane pitched into a series of steep dives and climbs that threw unsecured passengers, crew, and objects violently around the cabin like peas rattling in a can.

Photographs or video recordings taken by the passengers around the time of the accident, particularly if they include shots of the cockpit, would be extremely helpful if the team could find any. Such a video record does come to light—in the worst way, in terms of an orderly investigation. It is shown on a national cable network, supplied by and commented on by an ambulance-chasing lawyer who specializes in lawsuits aimed at the air industry, backed by a former FAA employee "expert" who is considered a fraud by those in the practice of aerospace engineering. Truth is once again in danger, this time from a group whose aim is supposed to be the revelation and dissemination of truth in the form of broadcast news. Not everyone who calls himself a journalist is worthy of the title. If a pretty face, youthful energy, and relentless arrogance were all that being a journalist required, Jack Rogers would be out and Jennifer Malone would be in. These two characters represent the profession, and the contrast between them is marked.

Jack is a reporter for the local newspaper, a veteran who has earned the respect of the aerospace industry while maintaining his independence. A product of the East Coast, Jennifer Malone knows nothing about the industry but regards it with the same cynicism she has for any established group, and she is ruled by what kind of story her boss wants to air rather than a desire to know what actually happened. As a producer for a nationally televised show, even one not highly respected among television news magazines, she is in a position to do a great deal of damage to Norton's reputation by showing a riveting video before Norton can prove that the plane design and manufacture did not cause the horrifying events seen on that tape. While an interview with Jack Rogers is no walk in the park, his line of questioning is fair, unlike the reportage of Newsline's professional hatchet men. Rogers has no hidden agenda, unlike Newsline's executive producer, Dick Schenk, who has garnered a great deal of undeserved celebrity by trashing the innocent along with the guilty on his program.

Casey has to coax truth into the light while fending off Jennifer Malone with one hand and Bob Richman with the other. Some of what Richman claims is his work history does not seem to square with his ignorance of what happens on the shop floor of a manufacturing plant and how engineers behave. He seems to have almost an adversarial attitude towards Casey, although that could just be the result of legal training. Norma, Casey's savvy secretary, has kept a keen and discreet eye on the young man's activities in the office when Casey is elsewhere at the plant. For a junior member of the Norton clan he is certainly spending too much time in Marder's office and far too much time near the copy machine with sensitive documents. Norma advises her boss that a set-up may well be in progress with Casey as the likely victim. Casey respects Norma's decades of experience with the company and heeds her words, unlike many executives who regard a secretary merely as a walking extension of the office machines. Casey also has an unknown ally at...

(The entire section is 2759 words.)