Airframe and The Fictional World of Archives

Original Novel Title: Airframe

Author: Michael Crichton

Publisher: New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996 (hardcover); New York, NY: Ballantine Books, November 1997 (paperback).

The tragic deaths of three people and numerous injuries on a trans-Pacific jet flight from Hong Kong to Los Angeles set in motion an internal investigation. Norton Aircraft, builders of the plane, conduct their own investigation to determine cause. Much of the novel centers on records-keeping practices required by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and electronic data recovery processes.

Quotations are from the hardcover edition:

During the initial inspection of the aircraft, a counterfeit part is the prime suspect for the pilot losing control. In order to foil counterfeiting (in this case after the fact) and to guarantee accountability

The FAA required commercial carriers to keep extraordinarily detailed maintenance records. Every time a part was changed out, it was noted in a maintenance log. In addition, the manufacturers, though not required to, maintained an exhaustive ship's record of every part originally on the plane, and who had manufactured it. All this paperwork meant that every one of the aircraft's one million parts could be traced back to its origin. If a part was swapped out and repaired, that was known. Each part on a plane had a history of its own. Given enough time, they [the investigators] could find out where this part had come from, who had installed it, and when. (p. 100)

Norton Aircraft maintained operational records for each "ship":

The ship's record consisted of a mass of documentation--a million pieces of paper, one for every part on the aircraft--used to assemble the aircraft. This paper, and the even more extensive documentation required for FAA type certification, contained Norton proprietary information. So the FAA didn't store these records, because if they did, competitors could obtain it under the Freedom of Information Act. So Norton warehoused five thousand pounds of paper, running eighty feet of shelf space for each aircraft, in a vast building in Compton. All this was copied onto microfiche, for access at these readers on the floor. But finding the paper for a single part was time-consuming, she [Casey Singleton, Quality Assurance/Incident Review Team, Norton Aircraft] thought, and--- (p. 118)

Having determined that a failed part was a counterfeit, when she viewed electronic repair records

Paper for the part appeared to be proper; a photocopy came up on Casey's screen. The part had come from Hoffman Metal Works in Montclair, California--Norton's original supplier. But Casey knew the paper was fake, because the part itself was fake. She would run it down later, and find out where the part had actually come from. (p. 123)

A counterpoint plot in this very suspenseful novel has Jennifer Malone, a TV investigative journalist, also tracing the historical record of the same problem with the Norton Aircraft model whose current accident Casey Singleton is probing. A videotape taken by one of the passengers becomes a crucial piece of evidence for both women. The company probe eventually becomes a race against time and a test of the evidentiary multimedia record to discredit the reporter whose story could prevent certification and production of a new Norton airframe.

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CONTENTS: The Fictional World of Archives

Submitted by David Mattison, 1999.09.18. Updated 1999.09.18.