A fascinating exploration of how humans and machines fail - leading to air disasters from Amelia Earhart to MH370 - and how the lessons learned from these accidents have made flying safer. In The Crash Detectives, veteran aviation journalist and air safety investigator Christine Negroni takes us inside crash investigations from the early days of the jet age to the present, including the search for answers about what happened to the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. As Negroni dissects what happened and why, she explores their common themes and, most important, what has been learned from them to make planes safer. Indeed, as Negroni shows, virtually every aspect of modern pilot training, airline operation, and airplane design has been shaped by lessons learned from disaster. Along the way she also details some miraculous saves, when quick-thinking pilots averted catastrophe and kept hundreds of people alive. Tying in aviation science, performance psychology, and extensive interviews with pilots, engineers, human factors specialists, crash survivors, and others involved in accidents all over the world, The Crash Detectives is an alternately terrifying and inspiring book that might just cure your fear of flying and will definitely make you a more informed passenger.
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The primary purpose of this book appears to be a means for Negroni to espouse her theory about the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 with some added information about the causes of aircraft mishaps and the issues and process of aircraft mishap investigation. It is this later information which actually constitutes the better part of this book.
Negroni starts the discussion of MH370 by mentioning one of my favorite critical thinking axioms, Occam's Razor. She uses the popular definition, perhaps phrased somewhat differently, "All things being equal, the simplest answer is usually the right one." However, a more accurate description of Occam's statement would be, "The solution which requires the fewest assumptions is likely the most accurate." Subtly different but important as it is possible that simple solutions may, in some circumstances, require more assumptions. Negroni's theory is a good example of this, for while she takes to task other theories of why MH370 went missing for their complexity, she too also makes some rather big assumptions.
In later chapters Negroni discusses quite well, and rightly brings to light, how investigations can be tainted by personal agendas, be it political, economic or otherwise, and how investigators can succumb to the problem of "setting the narrative" of a mishap before assessing all the facts. This is actually one of the better parts of her narrative. Unfortunately, Negroni early in the book tries to "set the narrative" that hypoxia is "the" answer in her discussion of MH370. To be clear, one should not completely discounting Negroni's hypothesis - it is a plausible that a loss of cabin pressure occurred and the crew delayed in putting on their oxygen masks while initiating a return the airport before losing consciousness. However, Negroni makes some assumptions for which there is no evidence, e.g., the captain left the flight deck prior to the mishap. Where her theory truly falters is in Chapter 5 during the discussion of the oxygen equipment and the state of mind of the crew. Based on what is known from radar data, from the point at which the aircraft turned back towards Malaysia to the point where contact was lost over the Andaman Sean was one hour. At about the halfway point from turning back to loss of contact the aircraft made a turn to the north while just south of Penang. This would put the time of the turn at about 30 minutes after the presumed decompression as aircraft speed was not determined to change significantly. At this point Negroni assumes first officer Hamid was the only one flying the aircraft and further assumes that his oxygen regulator malfunctioned, giving him just enough oxygen to remain consciousness and initiate the turn north but not enough to have the cognitive awareness to descend the aircraft which he would have been trained to do in this situation. As a hypoxia researcher with over 25 years of military and civilian experience in flight physiology, safety, and human factors this made no sense to me. If, as Negroni assumes, the oxygen regulator aneroid on first officer Hamid’s mask was faulty and supplied less than 100% oxygen, any amount greater than 70% oxygen, even at 36,000 feet, is enough to maintain sufficient cognitive function long enough for him to have initiated a descent following the decompression. For Hamid to remain semi-conscious for the approximately 30 minutes it took when the aircraft’s flight path was changed the oxygen concentration breathed would need to be between about 50% and 70% as any amount less than 50% would have led to unconsciousness within a couple of minutes after the decompression. The kicker here is that even if, and it’s a big if, regulator output was within this narrow band the amount of oxygen received was likely still sufficient immediately after the decompression to maintain Hamid’s time of consciousness long enough for him to start a descent. Therefore, while Negroni’s scenario appears valid up to the point of the decompression, what she presumes happens next seems less credible. A more parsimonious hypoxia hypothesis that fits what we know about how hypoxia onset works would be that the crew of MH370 were able to initiate a return to Malaysia following the decompression but lost consciousness soon afterward due to a failed or faulty oxygen system (which does happen) or failure to recognize the seriousness of the threat and get on oxygen in time. Failure to disengage the aircraft autopilot, or inadvertent activation of the autopilot prior to losing consciousness, might explain the flight path seen. Interestingly, after some research, I found out the Australian Transportation Safety Board proposed the same hypothesis in 2014 (see ATSB Transport Safety Report “MH370 - Definition of Underwater Search Areas”). My apologies to the reader for such a lengthy technical explanation. The intent here was to highlight that Negroni’s scenario is nothing more than a “just so” story; a well-written and exciting narrative to be sure, but nonetheless a highly speculative one.
This is not to suggest by any means that this book is not worth the effort. For although Negroni’s explanation of the events on MH370 may be wag-worthy, the book does provide a good overview and reasonable discussion of the politics and psychology of those involved in aircraft mishap investigations – having been involved with a couple of investigations myself I found Negroni’s analysis refreshing and, in many moments, spot on. Later chapters discuss the business of flight safety, including a good discussion of crew/cockpit resource management (CRM). For those familiar with CRM it is a good review, for those new to aircraft mishap investigation a good introduction. Perhaps the most enjoyable portions of the book was towards the end where Negroni, having spent several chapters explaining the why and how of human factors failures shifts gear to provide a very good discussion and analysis of the individual and group characteristics that tend to lead to successful outcomes during in-flight emergencies. This part alone is the pearl in the oyster and worth the listen (or read).
I'm fascinated by air crashes and this book shares many of them. Rather than organizing it by crash it is organized by mechanism or something else. It jumps around a bit because of this. But very interesting.