CAUTION- SPOILER ALERT - wikipedia.com- The novel opens aboard Hong Kong based Transpacific Airlines flight 545, (a Norton Aircraft-manufactured N-22), inbound to Denver. An incident occurs about a half hour off the California coastline and the pilot requests an emergency landing at Los Angeles stating that the plane encountered "severe turbulence" in midflight. The pilot gives air traffic control conflicting information regarding the type and severity of injuries, but does inform them that crew members were hurt and "three passengers are dead".
The incident seems inexplicable. The N-22 is a plane with an excellent safety record, and the pilot is highly trained, ruling out the possibility of human error. Passengers and flight crew give concurring accounts of the circumstances of the disaster, and the most likely explanation turns out to be a technical problem that was fixed years ago.
The accident takes place at a bad time for Norton Aircraft. Norton is on the verge of concluding an eight-billion-dollar sale of N-22 aircraft to the Chinese government. Should the N-22's safety record be questioned, the Chinese government might cancel the sale. Norton, already hit hard by the economic recession, desperately needs the deal to go through so the company can survive. With only a week left until the deal is signed, Casey Singleton, a vice-president for Norton Aircraft in charge of the Quality Assurance Incident Review Team, must find out what happened on the plane while dealing with disgruntled union workers.
A videotape showing footage of the incident appears on CNN, where it is seen by the producer of Newsline, a television news magazine. Hoping for her own story, the producer attempts to discredit Casey and Norton Aircraft.
Eventually, after a test flight was done to prove Casey's theory, the cause of the disaster turns out to be a combination of faulty and counterfeit parts and human error. While in flight, the airplane's computer and safety systems worked perfectly, detected the fault, and attempted to automatically correct the plane to compensate. The pilot had let his son, also a pilot, take the controls. Just before the incident, while the father was out of the cockpit, an error was detected and the autopilot attempted to engage. The son, being less experienced and not certified for the N-22, panicked and tried repeatedly to fly against the autopilot, causing the catastrophic accident.
The airline attempts to cover up the story, but due to Casey's persistence the whole situation is brought to light. The sale to China goes through and the company remains in operation.