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Uh-oh : AIRFRAME, by Michael Crichton (Alfred A. Knopf: 352 pp., $26)

December 15, 1996|THOMAS PETZINGER JR. | Thomas Petzinger Jr. is the author of "Hard Landing: The Epic Contest for Power and Profits That Plunged the Airlines Into Chaos," due out in paperback from Times Books in January

As a teenager, I loaded luggage bins for United Airlines. One day I told our station manager I would be leaving for college to study journalism. His face turned ashen--not from my quitting but from my choice of majors. "I'd better not see you around here if we ever have an accident!" he growled.

In the 25 years since, the airline industry, which was plenty safe then, has only gotten safer. But you would hardly know it to judge from the news coverage. That exquisite tension--between one industry obsessed with safety and another obsessed with sensation--forms the foundation of Michael Crichton's latest novel, "Airframe."

This represents a stark departure from the dinosaur bones on which Crichton has built his recent bestsellers. Commercial flight is a tried-and-true subject for action-thriller novelists, particularly those, like Crichton, who construct their story lines on an edifice of technical detail. Through sheer numbers if nothing else (first printing: 1.5 million) this novel could help to demystify the imponderabilities of flight for a great many wary passengers. It will comfort no one, however, about the motives and methods of the media.

"Airframe" is set in the assembly hangars of Norton Aircraft (a mythical company that feels very much like Boeing). In the opening chapter, a wide-body jet is inexplicably porpoising at 37,000 feet, its passengers bouncing around the cabin walls like so many pinballs. The loss of control is momentary and all but four passengers survive, but the mystery surrounding the cause has cast doubts on a vital jet order from China. Against a backdrop of labor unrest and a battle for control of the boardroom, a quality-control technician conducts a whodunit for the cause of the flight incident. The future of Norton Aircraft and its employees hangs in the balance.

Pressure for an answer intensifies when a weekly television newsmagazine launches an investigation of its own. Our heroine desperately maneuvers not only to absolve the company of blame but to do so in a way that puts the lid on the TV people, who remain intent on airing an expose regardless of the company's findings. As someone who has spent more time writing news than handling luggage, I'm pained to admit just how close to the mark Crichton strikes in describing the internal workings of the media: how broadcasters allow the availability of visuals to dictate the news value of an event, for instance, or how some reporters value besting the competition over serving the subscriber.

Throughout the story Crichton does for airplanes what Clancy does for submarines: He tells you more than you ever thought you wanted to know about how the big beasts are assembled and operated. We see the hidden intricacies of the wing, the ambiguous interplay of pilot and autopilot, the infinitesimal tolerances by which a million parts are notched together. Crichton's literary hallmark is capturing the delicate interplay of the individual elements in a complex system, and among the artifacts of the Earth there is none more complex than a commercial jetliner.

Even more important, Crichton captures the unstinting personal commitment of the people who design and build these planes--their almost maniacal compulsion to get to the bottom of any accident, not only in hopes of absolving themselves but to find ways of making aviation even safer. A modern wide-body aircraft is a living information system, continually monitoring the minutiae of its performance. All this feedback, paradoxically, makes airplanes more reliable as they age, although in the end it is the professionalism of individual technicians that makes flying safer--much safer--than crossing the street.

To an unfortunate degree, this material is more comforting to the passenger than it is compelling to the reader. "Airframe," alas, suffers from a slow takeoff. Conveying technical information, whether the rudiments of flight or the rigors of structural resting, is not easily done through a plot line in which the main characters are already expert in these subjects. Crichton resorts to shopworn narrative tools to build the factual underpinnings of the story. Likewise, too many of his characters are cliches, from the horny test pilot to the thuggish union boss, the boozy broadcast executive to the slutty producer. His character names, moreover, are unforgivably obvious. (The heroine, Casey Singleton, is a single-minded single mother who single-handedly . . . you get the idea.) The sex scenes are so gratuitous I can understand their inclusion only as fixtures for the film version.

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