Jimmy Breck-McKye

Developing opinions

Review: The Crash Detectives - Christine Negroni

On a routine night-flight over the Pacific Ocean, one of the world’s most high-tech passenger aircraft broadcast one unremarkable radio message before simply vanishing from the face of the earth. No landing was recorded and no wreckage has ever been found. Ships have scoured the seas and every possible component of the plane has been scrutinised for fresh leads. No-one has any. Was the flight just an unlucky victim of mechanical failure, poor weather and pilot error? Or was something more sinister at work?

You might be forgiven for thinking of the Malaysian Airlines’ MH370, which disappeared in 2014 under these exact circumstances. But this was the Hawaii Clipper - some eighty years earlier. It turns out these kinds of aviation mysteries aren’t nearly as rare as you’d think. Christine Negroni’s The Crash Detectives is a lively and readable account of “the world’s most mysterious air disasters”.

Aerophobes fear not: this book is no almanac of fire and destruction. It is really about the extraordinary systems, technology and people who not only keep us safe in the air but continuously improve airline safety on the ground, meticulously poring over the wreckage of each accident to ensure it can never happen again. You will finish this book more confident about flying than ever before.

But Negroni is no gearhead and her book is less about the tech than the human factor: how pilots react to stressful situations and pull together as a team. Sometimes they triumph, and these make the book’s most uplifting moments. But sometimes they fail - like one crew so distracted by a broken dashboard light they failed to notice their plane tank into the Florida Everglades. Rather than laugh, though, Negroni would rather ask why: what is it that makes intelligent humans do such silly-seeming things, and how can we design systems to stop it?

She also takes a look at some genuine conspiracies in aviation history, like the mysterious death of a UN Secretary-General and some strange cases during the Iran-Contra affair. It’s genuinely interesting to see what cover-ups actually look like: not hundreds of willing participants and ‘crisis actors’ hired by murky government agencies in a perfectly orchestrated whitewash, but something much more mundane: hasty conclusions, awkwardly revised pathology reports, reams of legal threats and politically sympathetic incompetents installed as investigators.

The Crash Detectives is not just a book for aviation nerds, like me. It should interest anybody who is curious about psychology, human factors, heroism or just inquisitive about the magnificent flying machines we take for granted every day.