"Passengers," it says right there on the note to reviewers, is a "gripping, provocative novel about the aviation industry and the next generation of revolutionary 'fly by wire' jumbo jets."
It comes close. The plot moves quickly if sometimes unbelievably, there are an incredible number of ingenious and gory murders surpassed in their violence only by overwritten tough-guy speeches, and there's a nice cast of clearly distinguishable white hats and black hats.
More to the point, the sometimes too-cozy relationship that exists as the United States government and commercial airplane manufacturers decide that an airplane is safe gets a good scrubbing from our heroes--an aspiring young pilot and a discredited hack aviation writer. What a team!
The exaggerations are only slight. There is a reasonably close precedent in aviation safety history for almost all of the corporate venality, political pressure and regulatory boondoggling that happen en route to the grounding of the Buttress 1710, the new-generation jumbo jet built at incredible expense and corporate risk on "fly by wire" principles.
"Fly by wire" is the nickname for a method of directing an aircraft's controls through electrical impulses (wires) instead of hydraulically assisted cables. Throw a switch here, move a rudder there. The whole thing is overseen by an on-board computer.
If for some reason the computer goes berserk, the pilot becomes nothing but a passenger. Although fly-by-wire technology is new, the fear of losing the ability to control an aircraft is one pilots talk about and is the reason federal regulations on how to build commercial jetliners require significant redundancy in control systems.
The fly-by-wire concept has yet to be widely employed in commercial jetliners, including the new Boeing 757 and 767. All but one nonessential control system on both the 757 and 767 employs the standard combination of cables and hydraulic assists that predate the jet age.
The military, however, is a different matter. The F16 fighter, manufactured by General Dynamics, is a fly-by-wire aircraft and there is no question that fly-by-wire technology increasingly will be employed in passenger aircraft of the future.
The Buttress 1710, we discover in a series of harrowing flights, has a potentially fatal flaw in the tail controls because of a combination of fly-by-wire principles and the use of composite fiber materials instead of metal (primarily aluminum) in airplane structures. The theory is that composites, when they catch on fire, shed fibers that are highly conductive electrically; if the fibers penetrated the computer, they could wreak havoc.
This problem, central to the plot, was thought to be significant a few years ago because everyone, including Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, is using more and more composites to hold down weight, the bottom line in aviation. What would happen if composite fibers from a burning aircraft penetrated not only the control computer, but also the neighborhood television set or power station?
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other government agencies ran extensive tests on just that question. "The net result," NASA's Roger Windblade said in an interview, "was that in terms of any practical impact, there was none."
Co-author Foxworth, we are told, is an airline pilot and it is clear that someone writing the book carries all the standard airline pilot prejudices against groups as varied as the National Transportation Safety Board (which investigates accidents and frequently blames pilots), the Federal Aviation Administration (which regulates airline safety, not always as vigorously as some would like) and the Air Line Pilots Association (the pilots' union, which sometimes takes a very long time to decide where it stands on a given safety issue).
On balance, this novel is a pleasant enough way to spend an evening, and the technical points are within the realm of the possible. Be warned, however, that novels doubtless will be coming on even newer technology: fly by light (optical fibers instead of wires) and fly by voice (you tell the airplane what to do, and it does it).