Step inside the cockpit of six real-life air disasters
By Joshua Tanzer
January 26, 2014 | 8:27am
Seven hundred and ninety-three people died in the making of this movie.
“Charlie Victor Romeo,” opening Wednesday at Film Forum, started as the twisted brainchild of a Lower East Side theater company in 1999. It takes you into the cockpit, face to face with the pilots, as six real-life air disasters unfold. In some cases, hundreds perished; in others, people got lucky.
The original play, staged at the now-closed Collective:Unconscious on Ludlow Street, became a favorite among theater-goers, pilots and even the US Air Force.
“It wasn’t conceived to be a terrifying experience,” co-director Bob Berger says. “We are attempting to bring people close . . . to witness it.”
In each of the six mishaps, actors re-enact the dialogue from the plane’s cockpit voice recorder (or “CVR,” from which the film takes its title).
Often the language is technical, as the pilots try to respond to haywire instruments, warnings and alarms. Sometimes it is strikingly human. Some re-enactments end with a screech of metal and the screen going black.
Part of the show’s power is in these silent moments, knowing that we have just been watching the final minutes of hundreds of people.
For the audience, the shock is mixed with something else — an almost spiritual sense of closeness to the souls lost.
“We have been thinking of this as a memorial,” said co-director and cast member Pat Daniels. A relative of one of the pilots even saw the show and was moved by the portrayal, he said.
“The transcript is like a voiceprint, and a voiceprint is unique to every individual,” he said. “I think that they were looking for something and found something.”
United Airlines Flight 232, one of the flights portrayed in “Charlie Victor Romeo,” after the plane crashed in Sioux City, Iowa in 1989.Photo: Getty Images
People also leave with an admiration for the crews who fight for the lives of those aboard their planes.
“This is not therapy for people who are afraid of flying. Or at least we never thought it was,” Berger said. “[But] people, everywhere that we’ve gone, have all said things like, ‘Wow, I definitely get on an airplane and [pay attention] when they say welcome aboard and you look to your left and there’s the cockpit.’
“Everybody has a different take on a group of people that they really weren’t paying attention to,” he said.
In its scrappy downtown days, “Charlie Victor Romeo” won a 2000 Drama Desk award and attracted a following among pilots, who flew in to see it. The Air Force became big fans, videotaping the performance and using it to train its own crews — and forming a lasting relationship with the off-off-Broadway company.
It was an odd couple, at first.
“They had preconceived notions about artists on the Lower East Side — like, you guys are probably some long-haired hippie freaks,” Berger laughed. “And we had our own preconceived notions about them.”
But Berger came to realize how “CVR” fit the ethos of the aviation world. The industry prioritizes accident investigations in order to make flying safer, he said, and this show helps pilots understand their own decision-making in a crisis.
Although the show doesn’t relate directly to terrorism, it was the connection with the Pentagon that hit home for Berger on 9/11.
Preparing to stage “CVR” in Texas at the time, Berger checked to make sure his Pentagon contact was OK after the attack.
“The e-mail I got back within a few hours was, ‘Yeah, we’re all fine,’ ” Berger recalled. “Then they said, ‘What are you going to do with the play?’ ”
“I came to the conclusion that if guys like [him] are telling me we’re useful, then this isn’t about drama, this isn’t about entertainment,” it’s also about saving lives, Berger said.
“He said, ‘You’re goddamn right. You keep on doing what you’re doing.’ ”
Three flights from ‘Charlie Victor Romeo’
1) American Airlines Flight 1572
- Nov. 12, 1995, East Granby, Conn.
- Crew incorrectly set altimeter and thought the plane was 70 feet higher than it was. Plane hit trees on approach and lost hydraulics, but pilots were able to make a hard landing. No fatalities.
- Excerpt: “It’s gonna get bumpy. They’ll be throwing up.”
2) Aeroperú Flight 603
- Oct. 2, 1996, Lima, Peru
- Static ports left taped over by maintenance crew, causing loss of all instruments. All 70 aboard died.
- Excerpt: “Right now we are stalling.” “We are not stalling. It’s fictitious! It’s fictitious!”
3) United Flight 232
- July 19, 1989, Sioux City, Iowa
- Crash-landed after failure of tail engine and flight controls. Of 296 on board, 111 perished.
- Excerpt: “We’ll have a beer when this is all done.” “Well, I don’t drink but I’ll sure as hell have one.”