“Why are we spending hundreds of millions of dollars to find a plane when everyone’s already dead?”
That was the question on aviation journalist Christine Negroni’s mind following the media hoopla around Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, MH 370 for short, which disappeared over the South China Sea in 2014 with 239 people onboard and still hasn’t been found to this day.
Negroni’s quest to find answers, and to place MH 370 in the historical context of plane crashes and disappearances, was the inspiration for her forthcoming book The Crash Detectives: Investigating the World’s Most Mysterious Air Disasters.
While Negroni started out as a general news reporter for broadcast outlets like CBS and CNN, she was thrust into the world of aviation when she covered the explosion of TWA Flight 800, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean on July 17, 1996 and killed all 230 people on board (including 16 high school students from Pennsylvania).
As Negroni detailed in her 2000 book Deadly Departure, a government investigation found that fumes exploded in the plane’s fuel tank and the tank’s wiring apparently ignited already hot vapors. Poor design choices were to blame for this: the tank was in the center of the plane and not protected from explosion, which proved disastrous for everyone onboard—federal law now mandates safeguards for fuel tanks.
“It was a bigger story than your average crash,” Negroni told the Observer. “There was quite a lot of attention paid to it for quite a long time.”
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Negroni turned her attention to aviation law—she worked as a chief investigator at New York firm Kreindler & Kreindler until 2008, litigating victims’ compensation claims. She was also an aviation consultant for several media outlets.
“Aviation is tremendously safe. These incidents are not a growing problem, they’re just being brought to light more quickly now.”
Then on March 8, 2014, Negroni, like the rest of the world, was riveted by the disappearance of MH 370. Unlike most people, however, she had the wherewithal to investigate the incident, interviewing pilots and aviation analysts to get to the bottom of the Malaysian mystery.
Negroni actually found her answer by examining an earlier crash with similar characteristics: Helios Airways Flight 522, which crashed into the side of a mountain in Greece on August 14, 2005, killing all 121 people onboard. Investigators found that the plane’s crew was incapacitated due to lack of oxygen, and so the aircraft flew on autopilot with no one in command until it ran out of fuel.
The theory which forms the crux of Negroni’s book is that the Malaysian pilots were similarly suffering from hypoxia, altitude sickness which deprives the body of adequate oxygen and thus impairs judgment. MH 370’s rapid loss of cabin pressure debilitated the crew, leading the pilots to make rash decisions—for example, the first officer meant to transmit a distress signal but instead turned off the transponder and severed radar contact with the ground.
There are subtle differences between the two incidents: for example, while the Helios pilots had impaired cognitive function due to a failure to pressurize the plane before takeoff, one of the MH 370 pilots (First Officer Fariq Abdul Hamid) remembered to put his oxygen mask on and turn the plane back towards Malaysia. After about 30 minutes, however, he too lost consciousness and the plane descended into the Indian Ocean.
“He was conscious enough to fly the airplane but not sensible enough to do the right thing,” Negroni said. “He made illogical decisions until he stopped manipulating the aircraft.”
To get an idea of what the pilots went through, Negroni went to a pilot training center in Arizona to experience hypoxia for herself—she admitted that her only exposure to the condition prior to this was watching videos of people looking “stupid drunk and giggly” on YouTube:
The reality, however, was far more severe.
“I went unconscious,” Negroni said. “I don’t remember much of it, but it just felt very uncomfortable. It wasn’t as much fun as I thought it would be.”
Another frustrating aspect of the MH 370 story is that Malaysian authorities didn’t know that something was wrong for hours after the initial incident, because their flight tracking system indicated that the plane was continuing on its planned trajectory. What they didn’t realize was that this tool, called Flight Explorer, relied on predicted routes instead of actual data. By the time Malaysia Airlines began searching for the plane, five hours had passed and MH 370 was long gone.
But that wasn’t the end of the bureaucratic nightmare: The Malaysian defense and transport ministries wanted to protect themselves from liability, so they immediately blamed Vietnam’s civil aviation authority for not tracking the plane while it was in Vietnamese airspace. Not surprisingly, Vietnamese officials denied any wrongdoing.
“It was an orchestra of confusion,” Negroni said. “It’s a bit mystifying why they weren’t more alarmed.”
The world as a whole became alarmed when CNN began its wall to wall coverage of MH 370, and according to Negroni the panicked responses from “aviation geeks” online also stoked hysteria.
“The whole group of wingnuts communicates with each other,” she said. “They coalesce with social media.”
Ironically, in spite of events like the disappearance of MH 370, the crash of TWA 800 and the 9/11 attacks, flying is still the safest way to travel thanks to new technology and improved aircraft design. But Negroni said that travelers develop a false sense of danger because of the widespread panic that spreads on social media after a high profile disaster.
“Aviation is tremendously safe,” she said. “These incidents are not a growing problem, they’re just being brought to light more quickly now.”
Because of this, will anything really change if officials find MH 370? Yes, according to Negroni.
“Everybody truly wants to know what the problem is so they can fix it,” she said. “That’s the way things get safer—you learn from your mistakes.”
Negroni said this reasoning could be applied to everyday situations as well.
“The most significant thing that comes from aviation investigations which is beneficial to life in general, is that we learn how humans can perform better in spite of their fallible nature,” she said. “It’s always running down to some human making a mistake. It’s in our nature to make mistakes, and we’re very good at it.”