BOOKS & MOVIES



Hardcover
Published in 1995
by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Paperback
Published in 1996
by Ballantine Books
eBook
Published in 2001
by Random House





Note From Michael
As is often the case in my novels, Airframe began with a real incident, which was came to my attention in an unexpected way. A friend of mine who works in aerospace called up and said, "You'll never believe what just happened yesterday. Get a load of this." And he proceeded to tell me a chilling story of an international flight in which several passengers were killed in mid-air, because of what was later called "turbulence."
And then my friend told me what had really taken place on the flight.
I found his story hard to believe, and said so.
"Are you kidding?" he said. "This isn't unique at all. It's happened several times that I know about. Once on an Aeroflot flight that crashed in Siberia, killing everybody on board. And two other times, on flights inside Asia," he said, naming a particular foreign carrier with a poor reputation for safety. "And those are just the incidents I know about. I'm sure there have been others, too."
My friend had an obvious reason for sharing his story with me: he thought I should write about it. But his incident, if true, seemed to me to be too extreme to form the basis for a novel. And anyway, I felt sure that the story of this flight would soon be reported widely on the news.
"No, it won't," my friend said. "You'll never read about this."
"Are you sure?" I said.
"Trust me," my friend said. "The press won't do the story of this flight."
"How do you know?"
"Because," he said, "they never do. Listen, I've worked in this business twenty years, and I've never seen a crash investigation reported correctly. Because the real story is too complicated. The press can't be bothered. And television is worse than print. Television just goes with the visuals, and never tells you what actually happened."
"Come on," I said. "Of course the story gets reported. What about those famous crashes involving the DC-10? We got that story."
"There was nothing wrong with the DC-10," he said. "You mean Chicago? Sioux City? There was no problem with the plane."
"Are you serious?" I said.
"Yes. I'm serious. Did you ever read the NTSB dockets on the DC-10 crashes?"
I admitted I hadn't.
"Then you don't know the story," he told me.
He went on to explain that the National Transportation Safety Board conducted an exhaustive inquiry into every fatal aircraft accident. Their findings, accompanied by dozens of pages of photographs, interviews, and other supporting documentation, were then made public.
"They're fascinating reading," my friend said. "You ought to look at them sometime. Because I'm telling you, this is a world that nobody knows about."

---

This is a world that nobody knows about: there was a challenge to a novelist, if ever I'd heard one. It wasn't long before I realized that my friend was right. The NTSB dockets told astonishing stories—tense, complex, difficult, and very human. Any of them would make a compelling novel.
But at the same time, I saw the problems. Commercial aviation was dauntingly technical. The airplanes were assembled from four million parts, and every part had at least three names—an official name, an acronym, and a jargon name used by workers at the plant. The parts were grouped into dozens of complex systems, interacting in bewildering ways. To recount even the simplest story would require many pages of background information to prepare the reader for what was coming. And since you had to talk about the DFDR, the FDAU, and the FMC, it was difficult to keep it all straight. Just to listen as aerospace engineers told crash stories was an exhausting effort.
Nevertheless, I was hooked. I began to write a story that followed the investigative procedures of an airline manufacturer trying to understand an accident that had occurred. My intention was to tell the story of the investigation, and how that investigation became derailed when fear of sensationalistic press coverage took precedence over everything else. For it was clear that in the modern world, manufacturing companies in many fields have come to fear the media, which can do severe damage with careless, sensationalistic coverage of a product. In recent years, manufacturers have become aggressive in response to this threat, the most notable example being the action General Motors took against NBC, after the network ran faked footage of GM trucks catching fire.

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So Airframe is based on a true story—actually, several true stories. There are, of course, a number of famous episodes of deadly turbulence, as well as several instances in which pilots have allowed other people to fly the plane. I used the National Transport Safety Board reports on these real incidents as the basis of the story. (The NTSB reports are almost novels in themselves, with interviews, pictures, details, the whole works.)
After months of research, I got pretty casual about the whole thing. One day I was flying across country with my research spread out on my lap-NTSB photos of the interior of an aircraft that had been badly smashed-up from turbulence. People would walk by, see the pictures and say, "What are you doing?" Finally a flight attendant asked me to put the pictures away. I was disturbing the other passengers.
I don't know why. Because the real discovery I made in my research is that commercial air travel is incredibly safe. Each year, thousands more people die choking to death from food than die on airplanes. And nobody is afraid to sit down at the table to eat.

---

Since readers of Airframe have understood it as a harsh attack on the television media, perhaps I should say a word about my own feelings. The novel is certainly critical of broadcast journalism, in its most recent, tabloid incarnation. I believe that television "news" often does not serve viewers well—to put it mildly.
My own efforts while writing the novel have obliged me to have a certain sympathy for the need to simplify a story. But at the same time, it seems to me that television, out of its long-standing contempt for the intelligence of its audience, now routinely oversimplifies (and shortens) its reports to the point where the story—what actually happened, and why—simply isn't told. As a result, I think television is losing viewers not because the audience is impatient with complexity, but because it is dissatisfied with oversimplification.
In the period immediately following the publication of this novel, there was considerable publicity about rudder problems on the Boeing 737, yet that story was not reported in intelligible form on television. The 737 is the most popular aircraft in the history of commercial aviation; there are nearly three thousand of them in service around the world. Viewers step aboard 737s every day. No one can claim that the audience is uninterested in the 737 rudder issue. But even so, they weren't told the story.
That's not a failing of the audience, it's a failing of the editors and reporters who run the media. They may be highly paid, highly visible, highly educated, and good-looking. But the stories they turn out are superficial, lazy, moralistic, myth-promoting. Our technological society needs something better. But at the moment, that's all we have.




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