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Between Flights With Michael Crichton

December 15, 1996|STEVE WASSERMAN | Steve Wasserman is editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review

Oscar Wilde once remarked that one should always judge by appearances. Michael Crichton couldn't disagree more. He knows that photographs and movies often lie and that in a turbocharged market, the race for status and profits and the leading edge often forces people to cut corners, even, at times, at the expense of truth.

We caught up with him in New York on the first day of a publicity blitz for his new novel, "Airframe" (Alfred A. Knopf) just now landing--all 1.5 million copies--in bookstores across America. Beneath his laconic and deliberate manner seethes an angry man. Crichton is upset by tabloid broadcast journalists who have gone for the cheap and vulgar at the expense of context and nuance. He cites the coverage of the crash of a ValuJet airplane in the Everglades in May as a good example. The pictures were frightening, but they mask a fundamental and neglected truth about the aviation industry: Its safety record is unrivaled.

"When I started working on the book," he said, "I had assumed, like most people, that when planes had accidents, it was the result of a problem with the plane. It was really interesting to discover that it was often not the case. In our cynical world, everyone assumes that everyone else is trying to screw you: Manufacturers of cars are trying to cover up the lemons, and everyone is being quick and being shoddy. I was surprised to discover an industry, rooted in an older tradition of quality, which is still phenomenally responsible.

"It's unbelievable, of course, that airplanes just don't fall out of the sky. But the fact is that if you just take care of them to a reasonable degree, they'll fly forever. They are stupefyingly safe. Of course, this year is a bad year for commercial aviation, but still, the number of deaths or injuries is, essentially, trivial. A million and a half passenger miles a day are logged by the airlines. Last year, 50 people died on domestic commercial jetliners. That's a tiny fraction of the number of people who annually choke to death on food, or drown."

At the heart of "Airframe" is the story of two contrasting industrial cultures: the aircraft manufacturers whose processes of construction and investigation are redolent of the painstaking logic of engineers and the new media of television with its multiple addictions to celebrity, sensationalism and the cheap shot.

Crichton is at pains to offer up characters who, taken together, amount to a paean to a vanishing way of life in Southern California. "Airframe" gives recognition to the ordinary men and women who worked in the aircraft manufacturing plants in Burbank, Long Beach and elsewhere, who were long the backbone of the region's economy. These were men and women, Crichton insists, whose pride and care in their work did not stop at the factory gate. He speaks admiringly of their unheralded contribution and suggests that they were citizens in good standing in an America that he believes is increasingly no longer there to recognize or support them.

"It was an unplanned discovery in the course of working on the book," he said, "that there was actually this contrast be tween the new media-driven kind of person and the older ethos of Casey Singleton [the novel's protagonist]. I don't think it's a secret where my sympathies lie."

Were there any other surprises as he wrote the book?

"There were several. One was the surprise about how conscientious the aircraft manufacturing industry was. The second, which I only hit upon very late in the process of research and writing, was when I came upon the actual fact of only 50 deaths. In terms of anyone's assessment of risk, it was insignificant. And the third was when I found the dramatically agreeable contrast between the attitudes of two industries, meaning this variety of broadcast journalism and this very complicated sector of manufacturing.

"There was another surprise. It was something I had certainly anticipated, but you don't know how bad it will be until you get there. And that was the phenomenal difficulty of dealing with the technical material. I didn't set out to write a textbook on how to fly a plane. But I was very interested in the quality of fabrication, what is the tone of life in the plant, how are the incident review teams assembled, how do they go about their business, who is in the room, what do they talk about.

"The two basic sources were engineers and the National Transportation Safety Board dockets of accidents. It's an unbelievable trove. When I started looking at these things, I thought, 'Why has no one done this before?' They were filled with good stories."

So what was the problem?

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