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Literature / Airframe

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Airframe was Michael Crichton's eleventh novel, in which he tackles common misconceptions about flying accidents while at the same time taking shots at an overly-sensational news media. Utilizing his usual technical details, it met with mostly positive responses, some people going so far as to say they actually felt better about flying after reading it.

On a routine flight across the Pacific, a Norton N-22 airliner encounters what the pilot describes as "severe turbulence," bad enough to kill three people and injure dozens more. As the plane lands, the Norton investigation team begins looking into the incident and trying to determine what happened. It falls to Casey Singleton to find out what happened, while preserving the name and reputation of the company as the news media begin to get wind of what happened and start nosing around.


Airframe contains examples of:

  • Ace Pilot: The Captain of the flight was one of the best in the world, and how this could have happened while he was flying is one of the central questions of the investigation. Turns out he wasn't flying it at all. Norton test pilot Ted Rawley also qualifies.
  • Asshole Victim: Bob Richman gets arrested and is implied to face the death penalty in Singapore.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Malone demands to be on the plane when Norton recreates the incident. She winds up regretting it.
  • Being Good Sucks: Casey is feeling this way toward the end of the book. She's been trying to do the right thing throughout and all she has to show for her efforts are a couple of videos showing the terrifying ride, she's being hounded by reporters who sense blood in the water, and it turns out she's been set up to take the fall if the plane is discredited.
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  • Big Bad Duumvirate: Marder and Richman
  • Coming in Hot: The pilot requests a total of forty ambulances to meet them on the ground.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Marder and Richman both qualify.
  • Dan Browned: Bizarrely mixed with a tremendous amount of Shown Their Work. Among Dan Browned elements, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, NTSB, not the manufacturer, is in charge of studying accidents and incidents (for obvious conflict of interest reasons), and Digital Flight Data Recorders (DFDRs, aka "black boxes") are far more reliable in real life than the novel implies. In addition, the story about the decline of the DC-10 used as a cautionary tale about media influence is both lacking in details (McDonnell Douglas was already in hot water due to a known DC-10 cargo door issue even before the 1979 Flight 191 crash) and exaggerates the fate of the DC-10, which went on to sell pretty well and restore its reputation in real life.
  • Death in the Clouds: Three, later four, to be precise.
  • Film at 11: Casey points this out as the main reason news networks will cover some plane accidents but leave others alone.
  • Guile Hero: Casey turns out to be one.
  • Improbable Piloting Skills: Everyone is amazed that the pilot is able to land the plane after what it went through. This turns out to be a key clue in what really happened: the pilot's son, himself a pilot, took over for his father when he went to take a coffee break, and proceeded to cause the disaster by over-correcting an altitude warning, thanks to his inexperience with the plane. Eventually the son passed out and the plane's autopilot finally took over, enabling the crew to land the plane safely.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Marty Reardon projects this image, but it's actually his producer, Jennifer Malone, who finds the stories and does the investigating.
  • Karma Houdini: Malone's boss ends the story with no setbacks aside from another baby panda story, even getting a humanitarian award.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Marder.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Richman and Marder.
  • Oceanic Airlines: Transpacific Airlines.
  • Prime Time News: Newsline is a fictional example.
  • The Reveal: The accident was actually caused by the Captain's son, who although a pilot, was not qualified for the N-22. When a simple problem occurred, he panicked and turned a simple situation into a disaster.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The cause of the accident is loosely based on a real life incident involving a Chinese airliner with some elements of an unfortunately fatal Russian crash. Tellingly, given that Crichton relied on McDonnell Douglas for his research, the slats problem and accidental slat lever movement involved with the fictional N-22 is identical to that suffered by the real-life MD-11.
  • Smug Snake: Bob Richman.
  • Take That!: One of the engineers is described as a temperamental, grumpy, elitist manchild... which, the narration notes, is true of many engineers.
  • Yet Another Baby Panda: Malone's boss is eager to get the Norton story so he doesn't get stuck with one of these.


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