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

Q&A; with Michael Crichton
In the 6th chapter of "Airframe" Casey Singleton says that "No other manufactured product in the world has the complexity of a commercial aircraft. Nothing even comes close." Is a commercial airplane (e.g. Boeing 747) really more "complex" than a military aircraft? Is a commercial airplane also more complex than a nuclear submarine?

By "manufactured product" I am thinking of a commercial object that is manufactured in large numbers on an assembly line, and then sold to buyers. Obviously one can think of many other kinds of objects-a nuclear aircraft carrier, the city of New York, the space shuttle-which could be viewed as more complicated than a commercial jet airplane. But these are essentially one-off, build-to-order creations, and not for sale. Numbers tell the story. Last time I looked, there were something like five nuclear carriers, four space shuttles, and one city of New York. There are thousands of commercial aircraft in the skies. Thus, of "manufactured objects," commercial aircraft are the winner.

But in terms of other manufactured objects, here's why a commercial widebody is said to be the most complex manufactured product in the world:

1. It has a million parts vs five thousand for a car, or about 50 thousand for a military jet. (I don't know the exact number for a military jet but it is nothing like a commercial aircaft. Even military cargo jets are simpler than commercial jets.)

2. The assembly line requires 75 days to complete. This compared to one day for a car, or several days for a military jet. A jumbo jet assembly line employs thousands of workers, an auto line a couple of hundred. A commercial jet requires something like half a million man-hours to build. A car requires 16 man hours. (You get the half million number by the following quickie assumptions. Two shifts of 8 hours each, first shift 5000 workers, second shift 3000 workers. Divide by 10 stations that are labor intensive. Multiply by 75 days, gives you 480,000 man-hours.) 3. The quality demanded at every stage-from the outside suppliers of individual parts, through the assembly methods on the line, through the testing at various points of assembly, and testing of the final aircraft-is vastly greater than anything done for the military, or for any other consumer product. (I mention this because the quality of a given part is a function of the complexity of the manufacturing and testing process that leads to it. Better parts are more difficult to make, requiring more steps and more testing.) 4. The performance specs for a commercial jet far exceed any other manufactured product. Jets are designed to operate for 20 years and they are built to last twice as long. In terms of hours, they are built to go 100,000 hours. You can't operate any other mechanical device in the world-from a stapler to hard drive to a car-for 100,000 hours, even if you service it diligently. The materials in a car or a stapler simply won't stand up to that degree of use.

We don't stop to think how little we use most devices. For example, if your car lasts 200,000 miles, you'd probably think it was pretty rugged. But at an average speed of 30 mph, that's only 6,600 hours of use. To get 100,000 hours, you would have to drive the car 3 million miles. You tell me if you're sure your car-or any car-would make it. But we are sure an aircraft will go that many hours. We rely on it as a matter of course, every time we board a plane.

In summary, if you're aware of any mechanical device that requires more than half a million man hours to build, that is assembled from more than a million parts, and that operates with absolute reliably for more than 100,000 hours, please let me know.

If you have additional questions on this subject, as a journalist you might want to call Boeing.

Was it difficult to research the facts for the story or are you just an aviation expert?

No, the research was extremely difficult. But for an unusual reason, I was talking to engineers at the plant and nobody usually talked to them, so...they REALLY wanted to talk! And it was hard to keep them focused on the subject I was trying to do. Very interesting work, for me. But it took a long time.

Will there be a movie made of Airframe?

No. When we got to the point of budgeting the script, we realized that it was just too expensive to be a practical proposition. The studio would never make its money back. Disney was willing to go ahead, but I was not. So I killed the project and re-acquired the rights. For the moment, it is a dead project.

In Airframe I noticed that you portrayed the Newsline crew as a kind of cruel and lying group. Do you believe the media needs to lay off sensational subjects and move to news that is more informative?


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