Airframe (novel)

Airframe is a novel by the American writer Michael Crichton, first published in 1996, in hardcover, by Knopf and then in 1997, as a paperback, 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 56 injured.

First edition cover
AuthorMichael Crichton
Cover artistChip Kidd
CountryUnited States
Science fiction
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover)
813/.54 21
LC ClassPS3553.R48 A77 1996
Preceded byThe Lost World 
Followed byTimeline 

Airframe remains one of Crichton's few novels not adapted to film. Crichton stated this was due to the great expense 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. Airframe is unlike many of Crichton's other works in that the story has almost no outright science fiction elements.

Plot summary

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 1/2 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 types and severity of injuries, but does inform them that crew members are hurt and "two passengers are dead."

The incident seems inexplicable. The N-22 is a plane with an excellent safety record, and the captain, John Zhen Chang, is highly skilled, 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 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 Norton family member 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.

When the company's Incident Review Team begins to investigate, they discover that the plane's Flight Data Recorder (FDR) had malfunctioned prior to the accident, and thus the data on any system errors or pilot control inputs is corrupted. Because Cockpit Voice Recorders (CVRs) are not allowed to store longer recordings due to Federal Aviation Administration restrictions,[1] the CVR data from the time of the accident has also been lost. Without FDR and CVR data, the team is forced to go over every part and circuit of the aircraft to look for what might have caused the accident. At first, all signs point to a malfunction of the plane's slats having caused them to deploy mid-flight. Though other N-22s had exhibited similar slats errors in the past, they were thought to have been caused by pilots inadvertently snagging the control lever. Norton assumed that the slats problem had been fixed by its subsequent Airworthiness Directives (ADs) locking the lever into place and covering it when not in use. The team is anxious to prove that this was not the cause of the accident, because a slats malfunction despite both ADs' being fully implemented points to an underlying error that could make the N-22 unsafe to fly. Their search eventually uncovers a counterfeit part likely installed by a careless maintenance worker, but this would not have been enough to cause the accident on its own.

Upon reviewing the plane's raw fault data printouts, Casey realizes that the plane was equipped with a Quick Access Recorder (QAR). A QAR provides even more detailed flight data than the FDR, but the team did not know the plane was equipped with one because QARs are optional.[2] Casey locates the QAR on board the N-22, and she is able to piece together the events that caused the accident from the data it recorded.

Contrary to public belief, the accident was caused not by a design flaw at Norton, but by an accident cascade stemming from poor maintenance practices at Transpacific Airlines and from pilot error. First, the counterfeit part caused a sensor in the plane's wing to malfunction, which produced an error message in the cockpit. This error message could be cleared by deploying and retracting the plane's slats. Although deploying the slats would change the shape of the wing, the N-22's autopilot was capable of making the necessary adjustments without incident. However, the pilot at the time of the accident manually overcorrected, overriding the autopilot and sending the plane into a series of oscillations that resulted in fatalities. Originally, this had been ruled out as a possible cause because the plane's captain, who was reportedly at the controls during the accident, was a highly capable pilot with ample experience flying the N-22. However, Casey noticed that Chang's son Thomas was listed as a member of the flight crew. Although Thomas was a pilot, he was not type certified to fly the N-22 and was thus unfamiliar with the particulars of its systems. A videotape taken by a passenger reveals that Chang had allowed Thomas to take the plane's controls at the time of the accident. A pilot more familiar with the aircraft would have known to allow the autopilot to correct for slats deployment, but Thomas's inexperience caused him to panic and assume manual control. Transpacific attempted to cover this up by changing his position on the crew list from first officer (a pilot with authorization to fly the plane) to flight engineer (a mechanic in charge of the aircraft systems). Chang – who had been knocked unconscious during the accident and later died in the hospital – was disguised as a first officer so that no one would realize he was outside the cockpit when the accident occurred.

Despite her initial excitement at exonerating Norton, Casey realizes that she cannot publicize this information. Publicly pinning the blame for the accident on a TransPacific employee would sour relations with the airline, ruining future sales just as surely as any N-22 safety issues would.

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 finalize an even larger deal with a South Korean airline. The deal, already prepared, would initially be worth several billion dollars, leading to huge profits for current stockholders, but would eventually destroy the company by moving production of the wing overseas, giving critical know-how away to competitors.

Casey manages to thwart the plan by revealing the truth to TV producer Jennifer Malone, who had promised to run a devastating report on the N-22's safety issues. Once Malone is shown the evidence, she cannot claim ignorance of the truth and air her report anyway without opening herself up to a defamation lawsuit. She is also unable to report the true story, since her boss doesn't think it's exciting enough to hold people's attention.

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 head the company's Media Relations Division. Richman is later arrested in Singapore for narcotics possession, while Marder leaves the company, supposedly on good terms.

Major characters

  • Casey Singleton The protagonist and a vice-president; Serves as a Quality Assurance representative on 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.

Minor characters

  • Doug Doherty An engineer that is the Structure and Mechanical expert on the IRT.
  • Nguyen Van Trung Avionics expert on the Incident Review Team, overseeing the operation of the autopilot.
  • Ken Burne Powerplant expert on the IRT.
  • Ron Smith Electrical 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 sometimes 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.

Major themes

Air safety procedures are a central theme in the novel. In illustrating the redundancies and safety measures necessary for every step of the airplane construction process as well as condemning the death of other publicly maligned aircraft such as the DC-10, Crichton challenges public perception of air safety, highlighting how the blame for accidents is often 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 TV journalism subplot was singled out for praise in some reviews; Entertainment Weekly lauded it as "brutal and fresh and very funny" satire.[3] The San Francisco Chronicle calls his portrayal of TV journalists believable, noting that Crichton "doesn't mind making enemies."[4]

Airframe also continues the theme of human failure in human-machine interaction that is present across Crichton's other works. 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 real events

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 takes great pains to be as accurate as possible in the novel's technical details.[5] When the characters discuss how unfavorable media coverage can be the undoing of a perfectly good aircraft, his account of the American Airlines Flight 191 crash and its causes are consistent with the known facts at the time the novel was written.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Crichton said that he drew upon the National Transportation Safety Board's aircraft accident report archives during his writing process, calling them "an unbelievable trove."[5] As a result, the N-22 accident described in the novel resembles two real-life cases:

  • 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.[6]
  • A pilot allowing his son to sit at the controls was also the cause of the 1994 Aeroflot Flight 593 crash.[7] As in the novel, the son inadvertently disabled their aircraft's autopilot, and the accident could have been averted by re-engaging it. However, while the son in Airframe is a pilot, the son in this case was only 16 years old. Also unlike the novel, the Aeroflot crew did not manage to recover from their overcorrection and crashed, killing all 75 passengers and crew.


Airframe received generally positive reviews. In her San Francisco Chronicle review, Patricia Holt called it "classic Crichton," adding that readers will be "surprised, satisfied and even a bit better informed at the end."[4] The New York Times' Christopher Lehmann-Haupt said of the novel, "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."[8] Tom De Haven of Entertainment Weekly praised Crichton's research, saying, "I bet Michael Crichton was a kid who did his homework every night — and not only did it, but triple-checked it, made sure there were no smudges on the paper, then presented it to the teacher between card-stock covers secured with shiny brass fasteners."[3] The Boston Globe's Nancy Harris commended Crichton on his ability to simplify the technical intricacies of aviation, calling Airframe a "very readable book."[9]

Reviews tempered their praise with criticism of Crichton's writing style. De Haven took issue with the novel's use of genre clichés and "the clunkiest of plot gimmicks."[3] Holt called it "formulaic but hard to put down" and described its characters as "cardboard."[4] Lehmann-Haupt went even further, saying, "When you finish the novel and ask yourself why you end up feeling both entertained and frustrated, you are forced to reflect that a writer clever enough to bring such material to life ought to have been able to tell his story without playing manipulative games with the reader."[8]

Though the central accident in Airframe primarily resembles China Eastern Airlines Flight 583 and Aeroflot Flight 593, Mark Lawson of The Guardian accused Crichton and his publishers of trying to capitalize on a different airplane disaster. Lawson notes that the novel was "loaded into airport bookstores shortly after the TWA 800 flight went down in the Atlantic," adding, "Crichton's profile as a writer depends on ... extreme topicality."[10]

See also


  1. "Federal Aviation Regulation Sec. 121.359 — Cockpit voice recorders". RisingUp Aviation. 31 December 1964. Retrieved 27 July 2017.
  2. "Safety Assurance System: Flight Operational Quality Assurance (FOQA)". Flight Standards Information Management System. Federal Aviation Administration. 22 November 2016. Retrieved 27 July 2017.
  3. De Haven, Tom (13 December 1996). "Airframe". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 27 July 2017.
  4. Holt, Patricia (5 December 1996). "BOOKS -- Crichton Takes to The Skies / 'Airframe' formulaic but hard to put down". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 27 July 2017.
  5. Wasserman, Steve (15 December 1996). "Between Flights With Michael Crichton". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 27 July 2017.
  6. "Accident Description". Aviation Safety Network. Flight Safety Foundation. 27 July 2017. Retrieved 27 July 2017.
  7. "Accident description". Aviation Safety Network. Flight Safety Foundation. 27 July 2017. Retrieved 27 July 2017.
  8. Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. "A thriller not to carry on your next plane trip". The New York Times, December 5, 1996.
  9. Harris, Nancy (14 April 2011). "Novel connects with headlines". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 27 July 2017.
  10. Lawson, Mark (3 December 1999). "We have been here before". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 July 2017.
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