Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2759
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 TransPacific Airlines: a person, possibly one of the flight crew, who is unable to risk helping the Norton investigation openly, but obviously shares Casey's conviction that the truth must come out. Someone has sent her a picture of Flight 545's pilot John Chang, known to Norton Aircraft as a superb pilot, and his family, implying some connection with the accident that she cannot quite grasp at first. Casey goes to a specialist who enhances videos for close analysis and finally glimpses the truth, but a single tape made by an amateur photographer is not enough proof for the legal system.
As the novel nears its climax, a direct confrontation with the enemies of truth occurs within hours of each other. Casey faces unethical tactics by Marty Reardon, one of Newsline's "reporters," a man who is no more knowledgeable about the aerospace industry than Jennifer Malone but who has a couple of tricks that are quite effective on the unwary. Casey gets a little coaching and some reassurance from a expert in media before the interview, but she is unprepared for the "ace up the sleeve" that Marder and Richman have slipped into Reardon's file on Norton "accidently": an old internal report on the N-22's "flight instabilities" with Casey's name on it. If she were dealing with a real journalist instead of a human attack dog like Reardon she'd be able to explain why the report was not as damning as its tide suggested.
Indeed, this seems to have been Marder's intention, suggesting that he is an old hand at the game of setting up his lieutenants to take such falls, and he leaves nothing to chance. A fortunate break in the supply of camera film in the middle of the interview gives Casey, unlike Marder's other probable victims, the opportunity to confront Richman in private, confirm her suspicions about him and Marder, and have a few precious moments to think of a strategy that might yet save Norton Aircraft and her career. For, indeed, the same union that sent "enforcers" after Casey was right about one thing—someone in top management was planning a move that would, in effect, take their jobs away and give them to Asian workers. Marder seeks to quickly gain the presidency of the company at the expense of any future for Norton Aircraft and its many American employees by selling the Koreans the wing design, proprietary information that is crucial to the company's survival.
Casey realizes that the only way left open to save Norton's reputation is to use Newsline's "newsbreaking" orientation against itself. Newsline's producers cannot afford to be contradicted by the other network-news programs earlier in the evening. If Norton can prove its case no later than mid-morning of the next day, Saturday, the magazine will be forced to scuttle the plan to make its attack on the company its lead story that weekend. She schedules a flight test aboard the actual plane that carried Flight 545 for early Saturday morning, and in an unprecedented move, she invited Newsline to have its own cameras on the plane along with Norton's. However, as the plane is getting ready to take off over the Arizona desert, Jennifer suddenly decides that the arrangement is not "immediate" enough for her and demands to be on the plane during the test. This is hardly out of character for her, even though it is foolish: there is nothing to be gained by her action because Newsline's own camera will gather all the necessary footage the program will need. Besides, there is still some danger that the plane may have suffered undetected structural damage, since during the accident the airframe was put through stresses well beyond what an airliner in normal service has to withstand.
Because of the accelerated rate of this particular investigation, the standard structural ground tests which measure this damage before the plane is ever flown again have been dispensed with, understanding that this hidden damage just may cause it to come apart in midair. Nobody in the company is paid to take such risks with their lives, and even the test pilots who will be conducting the flight test know that they're taking on an abnormally dangerous task, even for an occupational group considered to be a bit crazy by the rest of the company's personnel. Casey, in a moment of silent rage, decides to give Jennifer exactly what she asks for, even volunteering to come along herself. Perhaps the strain of what she has undergone in just a few short days has gotten to Casey, or maybe she has decided that this is the one instance in her life that she is not going to be a "good girl," as Richman so rudely put it the day before during their confrontation. Jennifer Malone is about to have a rude introduction to Truth, and Casey wants to be there to enjoy her revenge.
As she did for Richman, Casey answers Jennifer's questions during the first part of the flight—she and Jennifer even go to the cockpit while the pilot, Teddy Rawlings, does part of the testing in Jennifer's presence. The eye-opening part of the test, however, only takes place when the two women have returned to the passenger cabin and are secure in heavy-duty harnesses just like the pilots are wearing, watching the cockpit on a monitor. Then Teddy tries to reproduce what happened to Flight 545 and is successful. Jennifer now has all the immediacy she could ask for, as she and Casey alternately experience hurtling down through space for what seems like forever, then double gforce (feeling twice their normal weight) as the plane reaches the bottom of its dive. As the plane goes into a steep climb they seem to be riding a rocket, a sensation that is followed by weightlessness as the cycle starts again. Jennifer knows genuine terror for the first time in her life, then nausea followed by helpless vomiting. After the second dive, far before the ordeal would have been over for the passengers of Flight 545 she is begging for mercy. Casey coolly reminds her that the complete simulation is not over, but decides it is time to make her point. She asks Teddy to let go of the controls in front of a wide-eyed Jennifer who now believes this hideous ordeal is about to end in death. Instead, they have smooth, level flight—just like that.
Once back safely on solid earth Jennifer makes one last effort to ignore the truth that has just been demonstrated to her; her arrogance tries to make a comeback, bolstered by her humiliation at having gotten herself in such a frightening and helpless position in front of the very people she has being bullying. She bellows at Casey, not unlike a brat having a tantrum, that the story is going on the air anyway, only to be stopped by a simple question: How did Jennifer get hold of the enhanced version of the tape that Newsline would be using for its segment? Answer: Norton gave it to her through one of their attorneys, so Jennifer can hardly claim now that the company tried to bury evidence. The young producer is so taken aback that she finally starts paying attention to the remaining evidence. Casey shows her two versions of the flight crew roster, a letter confirming the recent death of John Chang in an Orange County hospital, a translation of an audio recording made in the cockpit as the accident was happening, then the last moments on the video showing the person at the controls of Flight 545. Jennifer can see for herself that it is not Captain John Chang at all, but his son Tom, who is a pilot but not rated to fly the N-22. All the pilot would have had to do to end the incident on the fatal flight was to simply let go of the controls and allow the autopilot to take over, but Tom did not know that and his father was not in the cockpit where he belonged. John Chang was at the other end of the plane, getting himself coffee in the galley, when the accident happened and he was wedged headfirst into a break in the ceiling, sustaining massive injuries. "He let his kid fly the plane," concludes a stunned, disbelieving Jennifer.
The truth has saved Norton, and Casey's job; however it will not save Jennifer Malone's. Her boss wants no less than a story about the N-22 being a flying deathtrap, and the truth, that the incident was caused by the combination of a bad sensor and an unqualified Chinese pilot, is not "politically correct" enough for a man who survives on manipulating public opinion. In the epilogue it is noted that John Marder is given an insincere congratulatory sendoff on his way out of Norton Aircraft to work for the company's European competitors. Bob Richman ends up in a Singapore jail on drug charges, where he is about to discover that the "global economy" he so casually mentioned to Casey as a rationale for his betrayal of his family does not translate into a global standard for sentencing drug peddlers or their customers. Unlike the United States, Singapore executes such people. Considering the grief and dislocation of thousands of people employed by Norton, the stress of which might kill a few of the more vulnerable, Richman's fate does not seem at all unjust. It is worth noting that the revelation of truth does not guarantee the equal distribution of justice in this realist novel, or Marder's fate would be far more uncomfortable than a quiet boot out of the company into a similar job elsewhere.
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