BOOK REVIEW. This new air crash novel by thriller writer James Thayer is loosely based on the TWA 800 disaster. It depicts the story of a complex air crash investigation as seen through the eyes of a former NTSB investigator whose wife was a victim of the crash. According to AVweb's Phil Kolczynski — an attorney who has been involved in many crash cases at the FAA, DOT, and in private practice — Thayer's latest page-turner is the best of its genre in recent memory, offering unparalleled technical accuracy, believable characters, a tight plot with plenty of action, and a surprise ending.
June 21, 1999
|About the Author ...
Phillip J. Kolczynski
manages his own law firm in Irvine, California. He has a national practice,
concentrating in aviation, product liability and business litigation in federal
and state courts. Phil teaches evidence, product liability and aviation law at
the Aviation Safety Program, School of Engineering, University Of Southern
California. He chaired the 1990 ABA National Institute on Aviation Litigation in
Washington, D.C., and has spoken nationally at numerous aviation litigation
Prior to moving to California in 1983, he was a trial attorney in the
Aviation Unit, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C., and the Litigation
Division, Office of the Chief Counsel, Federal Aviation Administration,
Washington, D.C. Phil graduated from Case Western Reserve School of Law,
Cleveland, Ohio, in December, 1976, and attended college at Marquette
University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1969 where he held a Navy ROTC Full
Scholarship. Before entering law school, he was a Marine Corps Captain and F-4
Phantom Pilot. He is a Commercial Pilot with instrument and multiengine
In the wake of the TWA 800 air crash
disaster, thriller writer James Thayer tantalizes us with a technophiles
"whodunit." The story opens with a "former" National Transportation
Safety Board (NTSB) investigator wandering through the wreckage of an airline crash site
in the Pacific Northwest. We see the carnage through the eyes of an accident
reconstruction expert. Bodies torn asunder give up clues how the breakup occurred.
Airframe debris tangled like spaghetti reveals possible causes of the crash.
A Novel by James Stewart Thayer
Hardcover 352 pages (June 1999)
Simon & Schuster
List price: $25.00
Former investigator Joe Durant quit the NTSB because of crash gore depression. His
former colleagues want him back because of his skill at determining "probable
causes." He must now solve one last case his wife was one of the victims in the
The kicker is that NTSB investigator Durant must act as liaison with the FBI, which
wants to control the investigation. Durant, a former Naval Flight Officer with an advanced
degree in aeronautical engineering, is paired up with Linda Dillon, a curvaceous FBI
agent, whose "cop" skills complement Durants techno-intellectual prowess.
Both are having marital difficulties and although they serve as buffers for rival federal
agencies, they soon develop mutual respect and perhaps more.
Best Accident Investigation Novel Yet?
Seattle lawyer James Stewart Thayers previous novels have been highly successful
because of his ability to write fact-packed suspenseful stories that capture the technical
lore of the heros trade.
Thayers "White Star," a masterful account of the trade craft and psyche
of a former military sniper, rivalled Stephen Hunters "Point of Impact"
and "Master Sniper" as one of the most factually satisfying "one shot, one
kill" adventures ever written. In "Terminal Event" Thayer has shown the
same mastery, with a forensic thriller delving into the investigative process that follows
an airline disaster.
"Terminal Event" is not the first airplane accident investigation novel.
"Airframe" by scientific thriller writer Michael Crichton of "ER"
fame, "Scatterpath" by Maralys Wills and "Human Error" by Tom Casey
are all good. Thayers book is better. The combination of believable characters,
unparalled accuracy, a tight plot, plenty of action and a surprise ending enables
"Terminal Event" to out climb "Airframe," the previous best seller in
Plot Parallels TWA 800
Inspector Durant quickly develops a theory to explain the cause of the crash: Cracks in
the insulation of wiring bundles leading to fuel measuring gauges in the fuel tanks could
cause a spark to ignite fuel vapor. The FBI has a different theory based on evidence
suggesting sabotage. A letter has been received that says "another plane will come
down in 10 days." The FBI treats it as a serious threat because the letter contains a
clue implying that only the sender knows the cause of the crash. The pressure is on for
the best and brightest in the FBI, but another development suggests terrorism.
CIA intelligence agents and operatives from other countries are brought in because it
is discovered that Saudi Arabian intelligence officers were travelling under concealed
identities on the flight. A Hezballah terrorist with a holy obsession to kill the Saudi
officers might have planted a bomb.
In TWA 800 we had a missile shoot-down theory publicized by a Frenchman named
"Pierre." In "Terminal Event" the missile theory comes from a scruffy
poacher, who convinces the countrys foremost lie detector specialist that he has
observed a missile strike the airplane.
The author preserves the French connection by making the airliner French-built instead
of a Boeing Seattle-made product. Thayer, a Seattle lawyer, portrays the monopolistic
Boeing as an altruistic company that offers its resources to the NTSB to aid with the
investigation into the crash of the French-made airliner.
The FBIs involvement in the investigation provides the most amusing characters
and action sequences. Somehow the FBI decides that the threatening letter must come from a
group of anti-government Idaho militia types. Because Durant serves as a liaison, he gets
to accompany wonder woman Dillon in the field investigating the "backwoods
boys." These guys are so "bad" that they stuff cue balls in the mouths of
"Hells Angels" and booby trap their own homes to protect against government
snooping. After an FBI undercover agent has his head blown off while trespassing in their
lair without a warrant, investigator Dillon resolves to bring them to justice. When they
are finally cornered and the FBI begins its standard negotiating process, she snatches the
bull horn from her boss and declares that the "backwoods boys" have five minutes
to come out with their hands up or else! The ensuing scene plays out the fantasy of every
cop in America.
While Inspector Dillon is busting the bad guys, NTSB investigator Durant is embarrassed
in front of all the government agencies. The president of the French manufacturing
company, a lawyer and a fuel expert prove that a spark from the wiring in the fuel tank
could NOT have caused the explosion.
The only way Inspector Durant can salvage his tarnished reputation is to find an
overlooked piece of evidence that sheds light on the true perpetrator of this disaster. A
dramatic but somewhat unpalatable conclusion caps off this tightly written forensic
thriller with the right measure of suspense, humor and technical wizardry.
A Fine Read
Anyone who is interested in aviation, forensic investigation or just a good action
mystery will enjoy this novel. The characters are believable, and the authors
descriptions of people and procedures reveal a keen insight into the aircraft accident
investigative process. We get to participate in cockpit voice recorder playback analysis.
We learn about microscopic analysis by a metallurgist to detect explosion-related evidence
of "cratering" found in metal components. Thayer also shows us how the NTSB uses
the latest computer-animated reconstructive techniques.
Because the author uses the TWA 800 disaster as background for his plot, much of his
story echoes contemporary news. Investigator Durants theory comes right out of the
May 1998 Federal Aviation Administration Order requiring the inspection of Boeing 737s for
the possibility of frayed fuel system wiring. In May 1999, the Federal Aviation
Administration imposed a similar requirement on the operators of more than 1,000 Boeing
727s. Boeing is currently being sued by plaintiffs from the TWA 800 disaster on a similar
As long as you are not a card-carrying member of the "Fear of Flying
Fraternity," I recommend that you pick up a copy of "Terminal Event" for
your next flight. You can enjoy the trip before your next "on- time arrival"
just dont tell the passenger next to you what its about.
The issues discussed in this article do not constitute legal advice. My
objective is to alert you to some common issues so that you can avoid or minimize legal
trouble. Anyone with an aviation law problem should be guided by the advice of his or her
lawyer, under applicable federal and state laws, after a full and confidential disclosure
of all relevant facts.