Thin Air

by Jessica Collins

My fear of flying, and a review of Christine Negroni’s, The Crash Detectives: Investigating the World’s Most Mysterious Air Disasters, Penguin Books 2016.

CrashDetectives“Outside those aluminum walls the air is too thin to sustain coherent thought for more than a few seconds. Life itself is extinguished in minutes.”

Few air travelers consider this fact, comments Christine Negroni. Call me an exception. During the artificially long night of a trans-Pacific flight, alone in a cramped cabin of sleeping bodies thirty-nine thousand feet above the dismal ocean, insofar as coherent thought is a possibility even within the thin walls of an aluminum tube hurtling through the lower stratosphere, such facts are the only ones I can consider.

I am terrified of flying. I am also well aware of the irrationality of that fear. Yet my firm belief in the safety of air travel does nothing to allay it.

As a young child in Sydney in the 1960s, my parents would often take me and my sisters to the Skyline Drive-In Cinema in Frenchs Forest. We had a Holden EH station wagon, the back seat folded forward to accommodate makeshift beds for us kids to fall asleep in. I never slept a wink. I would quietly peer over the back of the front seat and through the windscreen of the car angled up at the huge screen: a further window into the mysterious world of adulthood. I was five and six years old. We had no television. Yet at the Drive-In I met James Bond. I saw Slim Pickens straddle an A-bomb and ride it to doom. And most memorably, one evening in 1964, I watched the movie which would plant the seed of my future fear.

“Fate is the Hunter” was directed by Ralph Nelson and starred Rod Taylor, Glenn Ford, and Nancy Kwan. The critics were not impressed. The New York Times said: “[It] is a film you may be sure will never be shown as an in-flight diversion in commercial planes. And it might be better for airline travelers if they never see it anyplace. For not only is it about the crash of a commercial plane, in which 53 are killed, but it also makes airplane travel look more chancy than taking a rocket into space.”

Few films have had the effect on me that this one did. I will never forget the fear that seized me watching the scene of the crash. That atmosphere, the darkness, the rain and the wreckage, the flashing lights of emergency vehicles, that stays with me. Of course I may be misremembering all this. I have never sought to watch this film again. Some things are better left in childhood.

I traveled happily around the world by plane with my family in 1965 and 1966. I look back on those times now as a kind of Golden Age of air travel. It was chic! It was glamorous! It was fun!

51tWIUtAjULBut the film had planted a seed which germinated only years later. In December 1973, a Singapore Airlines flight from Sydney to London was delayed for twenty fours in Bahrain. A recurrence of the engine problem grounded us for eight hours more in the transit lounge at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. We departed Rome on December 17 only hours before that airport terminal was attacked by gunmen, a Pan Am Boeing 707 was firebombed, and a Lufthansa Boeing 737 was hijacked. Thirty-four people died. That was the day before my fifteenth birthday. I felt that this had been a narrow escape.

On our return trip to Sydney in January 1974, several minutes after take-off a calm, controlled voice over the intercom announced that due to a sudden loss of hydraulic fluid, we would be returning to Heathrow to make an emergency landing . At first we circled over the North Sea, I think to dump jet fuel. I can remember how hard all of the flight attendants were smiling, and the tense silence that had settled over the cabin. With each of us braced for impact, we came into land without incident. As the plane slowed on the runway, I looked up to see fire engines racing alongside us.

But that was it. I had become afraid of flying.

My fear doesn’t prevent me from flying. I have lived in New York City for twenty-five years now. I still have family in Sydney. I have made that trip many times. I abjure Valium. Are you kidding? I want to be totally alert, if, and when, something happens! I have found two things to be of therapeutic value: (1) by playing various computer flight simulators, I have experienced how natural it for aircraft to stay aloft, and how predictably responsive they are to the controls; and (2) I have become a quite obsessive student of aviation disasters and their investigation.

But I am a rank amateur in this latter pursuit; Christine Negroni is a professional. As a journalist she has written on aviation issues since 1996 when she covered the crash of TWA Flight 800 for CNN. She has served on an FAA Committee and worked for an aviation law firm, during which time she qualified for membership in the International Society of Air Safety Investigators. She comes across in The Crash Detectives as well-informed and level-headed. In a field that attracts sensationalists and conspiracy theorists, Negroni’s stated guiding principle is Occam’s razor: the simplest explanation is most likely to be true. The result is a very fine volume which should be of interest not only to those who share my somewhat morbid obsession, but to anyone who flies.

The book is organized into five parts entitled Mystery, Conspiracy, Fallibility, Humanity, and Resiliency. The first two parts deal specifically with the subject matter of the title: air crash investigation. The third part centers on design flaw in aircraft manufacture. The fourth and fifth parts deal with the human factor, the fourth on pilot error, while the fifth serves as a happy ending of sorts in the form of several tales of impressive feats of flying that averted disaster.

By my rough count there are fifty-five to sixty separate fatal crashes or other serious aviation incidents discussed in this book. Yet Negroni’s focus is not on these incidents per se, but on the issues involved in their investigation. So this is a book first and foremost about the epistemology of the plane crash. (As a professional epistemologist myself I couldn’t be happier!) Negroni is interested, for example, in the ways in which political interests can influence the course of, or curtail, an investigation and in the ways, for example, that the spreading of conspiracy theories might serve to deflect attention from embarrassing truths.

That the material of the book is structured thematically allows Negroni to develop two very interesting parallels, each of which spans several decades.

The first of these extended parallels is between the disappearance, in March 2014, of Malaysia Flight MH370 and the equally mysterious total disappearance in July 1938 of a Pan Am Martin 130 flying boat named the Hawaii Clipper which, on a five-day voyage from San Francisco to the far east, disappeared in heavy weather as it approached the Philippine island of Panay. That an aircraft could disappear without trace in 1938 (“No piece of the plane, no human remains, no luggage or cargo, and no airplane fluid or fuel would show up”) seems less surprising to us than the fact that essentially the same thing could still happen seventy-six years later! A wing flap washed up on the island of Réunion nearly eighteen months after MH370 disappeared, but way too late to provide any clue to the plane’s final location,. The crash site might be anywhere within an area of up to six hundred thousand square miles.

Negroni has a theory as to what happened to MH370 and she develops it quite convincingly. It seems most likely to her that the plane suffered a violent decompression event, but was otherwise undamaged, that the pilots succumbed to hypoxia, altitude sickness brought on by lack of oxygen, and then, unable to think clearly, executed several bizarre maneuvers before passing out completely, whereupon the Boeing 777 continued to fly south for many hours before running out of fuel. This seems very plausible to me, and accords well with I remember thinking as I read posts to PPRunNe (the Professional Pilots Rumor Network) in the days following the crash.

But there are aspects of this event that I was ignorant of before reading Negroni’s book, the most puzzling of which is this. The aircraft’s transponder and ACARS reporting system had both failed. We only know that the flight continued for seven and a half hours because the plane had been pinging a satellite owned by the company Inmarsat every thirty minutes. Yet mysteriously these signals ceased mid-flight after the 1:07 a.m. ping, only to resume, just as mysteriously, at 2:25 a.m. as though the system had been reset or rebooted. As Negroni comments: “Even those paying attention to the Flight 370 story have heard little about this peculiar lapse.” I certainly hadn’t previously heard of it.

The second of the book’s fascinating extended parallels compares the development in the 1950s of the ill-fated de Havilland Comet, with the troubled production history of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner from 2007 until the present day.

Wilbur Wright is quoted as saying, in 1901: “If you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds.; but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.” This quotation captures an essential tension that exists in the development of commercial aircraft design: on the one hand safety is of paramount importance, one the other, progress can only be made by continually pushing the envelope.

In the case of the de Havilland Comet, it seems clear that the plane’s design embraced new technology that was not fully understood. The aircraft’s futuristic design incorporated a very thin, light aluminum fuselage, with some sections glued together, rather than riveted. But the science of metal fatigue was not well understood at the time. In May 1953 and again in January 1954, the passenger cabins of BOAC Comet aircraft burst apart in mid-flight. It seems incredible that following this second incident these aircraft were still permitted to fly, yet that was what happened. Negroni quotes the aviation historian Graham Simons on the matter: “[Allowing the plane to continue to fly] was all that could be done, for no one had any idea what had gone wrong.”

It was only after a third such fatal crash in April 1954, in which a Comet fuselage blew apart with tremendous force after takeoff from Rome, that the British government grounded the Comet 1 for good.

ScreenHunter_2263 Oct. 03 11.34Though her argument is cautiously worded and to my mind almost understated, it is clear that Negroni sees worrying parallels between that historical example and the case of the Boeing Dreamliner. The 787 is revolutionary in design because of its reliance on electricity. Electromechanical controls replace the heavier mechanical controls standard in conventional aircraft. The power for these come from lithium ion batteries. And this is the point at which the technological envelope is being pushed in this case. Again, the relevant science, in this case the electochemistry of these lithium ion batteries, is not well understood. And these batteries have a tendency to catch fire.

Two such incidents occurred within a week of one another in January 2013. A battery fire started in a Japan Airlines 787 parked at Boston’s Logan Airport and then several days later ANA Flight NH692 en route to Tokyo was diverted to make an emergency landing at Takamatsu following a battery fire that started in flight.

Boeing’s response has been simply to work on improving the insulation and housing of battery cells. As Negroni puts it “They didn’t change the battery’s volatile nature … Boeing opted to cage the beast.”

In November 2014 a Qatar Airways 787 made an emergency landing after one cell of the plane’s battery vented fluid into the battery housing. Fortunately this fluid did not spread to other cells. “Not only is the FAA not investigating when cells vent, but it is not even keeping count of how often it happens,” Negroni remarks. A Dalhousie University physicist Jeff Dahn is quoted as saying that these battery cells are venting at “astronomically high rates” maybe one in every few hundred, as compared to the one in more than twenty million for battery cells used in laptops and phones.

Yet a member of the Japanese safety board told Negroni: “We can control heating, even if venting occurs. We can consider it a minor problem. Boeing has made all the conceivable improvements for the 787s to ensure the resumption of normal flight.”

Is the plane being allowed to fly simply because no one has any idea what is going wrong?

Negroni notes that Boeing rejected repeated requests to talk to her while she was researching the book.

Color me nervous, but after reading The Crash Detectives I will not be boarding a Boeing 787 in the near future.

* * *

To return to MH370. Christine Negroni also has a more tentative theory as to what may have led to the initial electrical malfunction on the Malaysian airlines 777. The aircraft has an avionics bay located below the first-class galley and there have been observed incidents of water leaking down from galley into the equipment room. “I started to think,” she says “that maybe some water-induced intermittent electrical problem could have produced the various failures on Malaysia 370, including the puzzling power down and subsequent restoration of communication at 2:25 a.m. that no one has yet been able to explain.”

And there’s another parallel that didn’t escape me: In that 1964 movie “Fate is the Hunter” an airline executive played by Glenn Ford is determined to clear the name of his buddy the pilot (Rod Taylor) who has been accused of flying while drunk. In a test flight reenacting the events of the fatal flight, it is discovered that the original accident must have been caused by a cup of coffee spilled over an instrument box by the flight attendant (Suzanne Pleshette) who was the sole survivor of the crash.

To quote the New York Times reviewer again: “Man that’s coffee! But it’s a stupid annoying film.”

Christine Negroni, by contrast, has written a highly intelligent and engaging book. On a first reading I plowed right though it—all 260 pages—in a single sitting without stopping. I thoroughly recommend it.

* * *

Jessica Collins is Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department of Columbia University.