Monday, December 19, 2016

The Crash Detectives: Investigating the World's Most Mysterious Air Disasters

Crash Detectives looks at some of the "unsolved" mysteries of aviation. One of the key points theories of the author is that hypoxia (lack of oxygen) is the cause of many airline incidents. The decreased oxygen makes people "stupid" as they lose cognitive ability. However, the rapid depressurization that leads to lack of oxygen requires quick thinking to resolve. And to make it even more challenging, pilots often think they are performing well, even when performing poorly in low-oxygen conditions. Thus, getting that oxygen mask on quickly can be the key to survival.

Crash Detectives looks at many aviation disasters, including a mix of ones that have been definitively "solved" and those that are still "open". The author tends to favor explanations of equipment failure or human error over terrorist activity. (However, press coverage can lead us to believe in "missile strikes" or hijackings even when there was no conclusive evidence.) The disappearance of MH370 is seen as a hypoxia event. The inexperienced pilot may have been at the controls and hit the wrong switch, thus cutting off communications. Attempts were made to fly to known airports, but they did not succeed. (The experienced pilot may have not been able to make it back from a bathroom break in a fully functional condition.)

In most crashes, there are significant efforts to determine the objective truth. However, human factors also come into play. In Air New Zealand 901, there was outright lying and misleading in an attempt by the airline to save face. Initially, they tried to pin a crash into an antarctic mountain as pilot error. However, the cause was actually a programming error that led the plane on a wrong course. For the de Havilland Comet, a lack of understanding of the stresses of actual flight led the company to initially blame pilots for what turned out to be design problems.

The aviation industry displays a positive example of learning from past problems to limit the chance of repeating them. Planes have become smarter and smarter with built in abilities to respond to "resolve" common problems. However, the human element is still needed to help resolve the "non-standard" problems that do occur.

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