"The Crash Detectives" Are Travel's Unsung Heroes

By Liza Weisstuch
September 26, 2016
Liza Weisstuch
In "The Crash Detectives," journalist Christine Negroni examines some of history's landmark airline disasters and what we can learn from them

Who doesn’t love a good mystery? Speculation on crop circles, what went on in Roswell that night in 1964, and where Jimmy Hoffa and Amelia Earhart vanished to still occupy the collective mind all these decades later. Arguably one of the greatest mysteries of our present moment is what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the airliner that fell disappeared on March 8, 2014 and is believed to be in the Indian Ocean. Terrorism? Technical malfunction?

Those questions dogged Christine Negroni, a longtime aviation reporter for media outlets ranging from ABC News and The New York Times to Air & Space magazine. She covered the disappearance of MH 370 for ABC News. She weaves the findings of her intense inquiry and study together in the “The Crash Detectives: Investigating the World’s Most Mysterious Air Disasters,” which was released by Penguin in September.

Part of what makes the book such a thrilling read is that it broaches technical engineering factors, but not too technically; she takes you into the quick-thinking minds of pilots and investigators, but not in a cheap-thrills way; she details high-profile disasters, but not in a sensational way; she takes a probing look at conspiracy theories and gives them rational consideration without, for lack of a better term, coming across as paranoid.

We caught up with Negroni to talk about air travel, investigative reporting, government agencies, conspiracy theories, and what it’s like to experience oxygen deprivation.

BUDGET TRAVEL: One of the things that makes this such a gripping read is that in addition to giving us the nitty gritty details of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 incident, you essentially chronicle a whole evolution of aviation engineering and progress. Was that your intention?

CHRISTINE NEGRONI: I thought the book would be focused on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, but as I wrote it, various avenues would lead to other things. MH370 inspired larger questions, it raised all these conspiracy theories but in some cases, there are legitimate alternative theories. That was eye-opening for me. And I’ve been an aviation safety writer for 20 years.

BT: Can you tell me an example of something that was particularly eye-opening that you learned?

CN: I think it was about the National Transportation Safety Board, for one. They’re the geeks who show up and solve the mystery when US airlines or aircraft are involved in a disaster. The more I looked at other crashes, the more I realized the NTSB investigators were subject to the same political and economic pressure as other bureaucrats and investigators in other countries. They’re not always the heroes They might misconstrue the facts. That’s surprising and disappointing. It felt like, “Christine, smell the coffee! Why should the NTSB be different from any other agency?”

BT: In this day and age, emotions can run pretty high when it comes to air travel. People who’ve never feared flying might be worried about getting on a plane given all the threats. And the stress around all the rigamarole of checking in and going though security doesn’t help. When people hear about a book on airline crashes, it might unnerve them, but “The Crash Detectives” has plenty of positive takeaway. Can you explain the beneficial takeaway of the book?

CN: The point is you can learn from each accident and if you don’t learn, why do it? A disaster is really a lesson, we can learn from, that’s why investigate in the first place. What near-accidents show us, like with Sully Sullenberger and the "Miracle on the Hudson flight," is that people can save the day, they can do what machines cannot do. They can do something novel and be innovative. Sully is just one of many who’ve done this sometimes in dramatic ways, and sometimes in subtle ways that even they may not even know. The end of the book is sort of a testament to how, by learning from mistakes, we can excel and not just in aviation, but in the way we perform in all sorts of ways.

BT: You say that MH370 and the Miracle on the Hudson flight are yin and yang. What do you mean by that?

CN: In MH370 and the “Miracle on Hudson,” the accidents are the opposite, In MH370—if my scenario is correct, and the crew did in fact suffer hypoxia, they were unable to make intelligent decisions--there was no human controlling the plane that could fly. On the other hand, Sully had a plane that couldn't fly, so this was a case of humans stepping in and using their intellect to save the day.

BT: One of the interesting things to me about covering aviation versus another hard news realm, like technology or politics or the economy, is that it’s a huge industry, but each and every individual flight can physically affect each person differently, and in some cases that’s what accounts for an accident. You’ve made an effort to do really immersive research. Can you talk about some of your experiences?

CN: I went to flight school with Lufthansa pilot cadets. I did flight training at a private air school in New Zealand and I went through flight attendant training with Emirates in Dubai. I did hypoxia training with the pilot cadets from EVA, the airline of Taiwan. We did altitude training at 25,000 feet to familiarize ourselves with the symptoms of hypoxia, oxygen starvation. Hypoxia is sometimes called the "happy death" Because it makes you feel drunk and very happy, silly, stupid, a feeling of well-being.

BT: When I board a plane, it feels like I’m putting all my trust in the hands of the captain. A lot of people board an airplane and feel really helpless

CN: Every time there's an accident there's so much misinformation on television. It’s a joke, if it were not a disaster, it would be laughable. Pilots and lawyers do a lot of this. Pilots may know how to fly a plane, but they don’t know safety necessarily. It is also important that passengers recognize their own role in safety. There are very common sense things travelers can do. The most super-powered executive will get on a plane and surrenders. Maybe the airlines encourage it will all the rules, but it’s like for most passengers, their free will has been beaten out of them. If something unexpected happens, the dynamic is that everyone gets passive, they’re not sure what to do or how to act. But you’ve got to own your own safety, you’ve got to be able to respond if something happens. Passengers should start by listening to what the flight attendants tell you to do. Count the number of seats there are to the closest exit, and don’t leave things on the floor so that the person next to you will trip if they have to get out in an emergency.

BT: Despite all the horrific details of the headline-making disasters, it’s still pretty incredible to think about the many thousands of flights that take off and land around the planet every day. It never ceases to amaze me that we can travel halfway around planet Earth in 14 or 16 hours.

CN: The fact is that there's more risk riding a bicycle in New York City than flying to New Zealand. There are 100,000 flights a day worldwide. Flying is amazing. I wish people would look out the window and see how gorgeous it is out there. They can see shooting stars sometimes and the moon. The other day I took picture of a sunset from a plane, it was so beautiful, I almost cried. People climb mountains to see that kind of sunset. But we get on a plane and look at our devices or movies or whatever. I wish everyone would enjoy that special gift that is flying.

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Locals Know Best: Providence

When Curt Columbus moved to Providence from Chicago to become artistic director at the renowned Trinity Repertory Company, he wasn’t sure what to expect, coming from one of the cultural capitals of the country and all. What he found, however, was a place that's "rich with cool, funky, fun hangout places,” he says. With an abundance of creative and exciting cultural, historical, and dining options, some neighborhoods have enough to do to fill an entire afternoon without having to get in a car. And some of these places are spots locals tend to keep to themselves. Despite its small size, it’s a huge destination. “Part of what’s so great about it is that you can easily get to the woods for hiking, or to the beach and Newport and all that other stuff. People can come and spend a week because there’s a huge range of things to see,” he says. “And Providence great just a great wander city. People like to stroll and stop in places, have a drink in one place, eat in another, and have dessert in another.” We asked him for some of his top recommendations for anyone looking to explore the city beyond the standard guidebook highlights. He had a lot to suggest.  WALK: Spend an afternoon strolling Providence’s scenic East Side. The main thoroughfare, Blackstone Boulevard, is three miles end to end and back.  First fortify yourself at Three Sisters, an ice cream paradise with daily specials. that in the past have included extravagances like maple brownie peanut butter. By the time you’ve walked that off, you’ll be ready for dinner. In keeping with Curt’s suggestion of breaking up a meal at different venues, hit Garden Grill, which specializes in vegan and vegetarian fare for light and delicious apps. Two doors down is Rasoi, an Indian restaurant where the food is “just off the charts,” he says. Finally, just paces away is Wildflour, which also offers vegan treats that Curt recommends even if you’re a full-on carnivore.  In the Downtown area, Westminster Street is an historic strip that seems designed for wandering. Along the shop-lined corridor are must-sees like Symposium Books, which features records amid the bookshelves. Next door is Small Point Café, a spot where locals gather over espresso, soups, and sandwiches. Follow along to Arcade Providence. The oldest indoor shopping mall in the US, a national historic landmark, features only-in-Providence shops like the HP Lovecraft store, devoted to all things of the cultish cosmic fiction writer who called Providence home. Refuel—or relax-at New Harvest Coffee, a coffee roaster and whiskey bar. If you stay through the evening, you’ll want to have dinner at Sura, a Japanese/Korean restaurants that’s popular among discerning yet budget-minded students. Finish up with a nightcap at The Eddy, a cocktail bar with a selection of classic and creative modern cocktails. DINING: Chez Pascal: Though it’s a high-end restaurant, they have an option that won’t break the bank at Wurst Kitchen, a window in the front where, in the evenings, you can walk up and order some of the finest house-made wursts and hot dogs and slather them with amazing relishes. Foo(d): AS220 is an arts space that serves as a lively hangout spot for creative types. It makes sense, then, that there’s an eatery here, too. The airy restaurant specializes in locavore fare designed to feed artists, Curt says, so you’ll find huge portions for the budget-friendly price of $10. Curt grabs an order of the popcorn-like crispy chickpeas ($2) a few days a week.  CULTURE: Despite it being one of the area’s top regional theaters, Trinity Rep offers $20 ticket deals for every show. Also, it’s affiliated with Brown University, which offers student performances for $5 to $10. But these are no scrappy affairs. “It’s like going seeing an actor before they were famous. You’ll catch actors that you’ll see for years to come," he says. AS220 is a local favorite located between Brown and Trinity. To hear Curt talk of it, it’s “an un-juried and uncensored place for artists, from visual to performance art to music to slam poetry. There’s a ton of programming and rotating gallery exhibits in three downtown spaces. You’re absolutely seeing people as coming into their own.” It’s located near Swan Point Cemetery, a 200-acre garden cemetery home to HP Lovecraft’s resting place.  Rhode Island School of Design has its own museum with collections that Curt says are nothing less than “awe-inspiring.” Unlike most museums, he explains, they curate paintings, furniture, home items, clothes, and costumes all in the same space. “You’ll have a Jackson Pollack next to a Corbusier chair next to a Nick Cave jacket. It’s just so interesting to see how all art is interconnected. Fashion is painting is theater is music. It’s all influenced the same way,” he marvels. Sit down and take it all in when you’re done at Bolt Coffee, the adjacent coffee shop with plenty of sandwich offerings. 


Live Like a Local in Italy

When it comes to traveling in Italy, Budget Travelers have always been big fans of “living like a local.” That means eating where the locals eat, visiting the off-the-beaten-path galleries and museums that tourists often miss, and hitting the best trails for cycling and hiking, many of which are not well known to Americans. That’s where Tourissimo got our attention. The bespoke cycling and hiking tour operator takes travelers into a super-local world of cycling and hiking in Italy, immersing them in the interests that are most important to them. When I sat down recently to chat with Tourissimo’s founder, Giuseppe “Beppe” Salerno, I was inspired by his enthusiasm, passion, and know-how. These are truly unique, customized travel experiences that manage to elegantly combine world-class service with a sense of adventure and discovery (not always easy to do). Bespoke tours offer a variety of potential experiences. Starting at $2,500 per person, tours may be escorted or self-guided private tours; tours include an excellent guide-to-guest ratio of 1:9, choice of activities (including wine tasting, cycling clinics, cooking lessons, and much more), bikes and equipment, and 3-4 star accommodations (with the option of an agriturismo lodging experience on a working farm). Tourissimo guides have personal connections to the regions where they travel and deliver a true locals’ point of view, including cultural immersion, traditions and customs, and the opportunity to meet local food and wine producers. Maybe because my great-grandmother was born in Palermo, I’m especially excited about Tourissimo’s upcoming “Sicily Magnifica Cycling Tour,” which explores the storied island’s historic past and vibrant present, including a stop in the town of Corleone, where novelist and screenwriter Mario Puzo set portions of The Godfather. Touring Sicily by bike is the kind of brag-worthy vacation most of us would love to check off our list. To learn more, visit Tourissimo.


Portland, Oregon's Year-Round Dining Deals Make for a Heckuva Happy Hour

It's not enough that Portland, Oregon is a major player on the world's dining stage. Apparently, the chefs and restaurant owners there are pretty committed to making sure everyone in the city--including tourists--have an opportunity to indulge in their delicious handiwork. Every weekday, restaurants around town, from unassuming neighborhood joints to highly regarded, award-winning dining destinations, offer their fare for a fraction of the standard menu prices. Locals refer to it as “happy hour,” but that’s hardly factual. More like “ecstatic hours” (with an “s”!) Some spots reprise the after-work specials late-night each night. Others insist on drawing it out for the entire afternoon and evening. Consider, for instance, the hip lounge-like Gold Dust Meridian: from 2PM to 8PM Monday through Saturday and all day Sunday they offer bites like deviled eggs and BBQ meatballs for $5 and crab cakes and calamari for just $6. There are also $4 to $6 drinks. At the Observatory, an airy neighborhood institution, Happy Hour runs daily from 2-6PM then Sunday through Thursday again from 10PM to close. During that time, treats like oregano fry bread are $3, drafts top off at $3.75 and cocktails, which this place is known for, are just $5. In fact, during these designated hours, terrific cocktails and excellent wine and beer are sold throughout the city at prices that make you think they're going out of style. The city’s top chefs are deep in the game, too. The menu at Nostrana, a top-rated Italian enoteca under the watch of Chef Cathy Whims, a six-time James Beard Award finalist, includes items straight off the dinner menu for a fraction of the price, like the house charcuterie for $5 (vs. $18) and pizza margherita for $7 (vs. $12). At Oven and Shaker (pictured), her more relaxed pizzeria with a strong cocktail focus, people gather for $7-$10 artisanal pizzas and $7 craft cocktails from 2.30PM to 5.30PM during the week and 10PM to close every night. Fancy burgers, ramen, sushi, Tex-Mex, spaetzle, steak sandwiches, Latin American classics—you can find it all for a song somewhere in the city before or after the dinner rush. Maybe you chalk it up to Pacific Northwestern hospitality or maybe it's just Portlandians’ obsession with getting out and socializing. Either way, it’s a local way of life that’s a traveler’s fantasy.


Great Fall Getaway: Portsmouth, NH

Here in the Northeast, we’re already noticing the shadows getting longer, the nights cooler, and, of course, the kids are getting ready to head back to school. But rather than mourn summer’s end, we’re getting psyched for… you got it… leaf-peeping season! My wife and I just got back from a weekend “escape from New York” to one of our favorite New England destinations, and I realized that Budget Travelers need to know: Portsmouth, New Hampshire, belongs on your autumn to-do list. We loved our stay at The Port Inn, an Ascend Hotel Collection Member, part of the Choice Hotels International family (late October weekday stays from $149/night, 505 U.S. Highway 1 Bypass, Portsmouth, NH 03801, 603-436-4378, portinnportsmouth.com), and it’s really an ideal base of operations for enjoying peak foliage season on the New Hampshire coast (approximately late October to early November). The Port Inn is one of the longest-operating lodgings in the Portsmouth area, combining the homey welcome of a family-run hotel with beautifully appointed furniture and fixtures thanks to a recent renovation. Waking up to the delicious complimentary hot breakfast (including excellent, locally roasted White Heron coffee) felt downright indulgent. We really enjoyed exploring Portsmouth’s downtown, which includes cobblestone streets and a historic wharf and must-sees like the John Paul Jones House, the preserved colonial buildings at Strawberry Banke, and the exceptional Riverrun bookstore. We’re also big fans of Portsmouth’s Flatbread Pizza, where you can watch your meal cook in an open wood-fire oven, and New Hampshire’s short-but-sweet 18 miles of coastline, especially Odiorne Point State Park and its kid-friendly Seacoast Science Center. In fall, don’t miss the Inland River & Fall Foliage Cruise for a unique way to experience the vibrant New England colors. Portsmouth's Port Inn was such a good experience, I looked into other Ascend Hotel Collection properties, which manage to combine an upscale lodging experience with authentic local flavor (not always easy to do) in prime leaf-peeping territory: They include the Hotel North Woods, Lake Placid, NY; and the Port Inn, Kennebunk, Maine. Happy autumn!