Pilots Flock to Play About Air Disasters

When the first plane crash comes, it’s a relief.

The crash is the only deep breath the audience is able to take in between the chaos and emotion that leaves you nearly stricken in your seat. For a few darkened seconds the tiny theater feels serene. Then the black-and-white slides are projected above the stage to introduce the facts of the next dramatized flight: name, date, number of souls on board, the aviation problem. Chaos erupts again.

The play is Charlie Victor Romeo, the phonetic spelling of CVR, or cockpit voice recorder, and it is a theatrical experience that plays on pilots’ (and passengers’) worst nightmares.

Painstakingly researched and nurtured by directors Bob Berger, Patrick Daniels and Irving Gregory, Charlie Victor Romeo is more modern Greek tragedy than cheesy docudrama. It uses actual transcripts from cockpit voice recordings obtained from the National Transportation Safety Board and an elaborate sound design to transport the audience into disasters caused by mechanical failure, pilot errors or by circumstances resignedly ascribed as “acts of God.”

Collective Unconscious, which presented the play, discovered an interesting audience mix making the trek to its small Off-Off-Broadway theater. In addition to arty, Lower East Side avant-garde theater types were suits, a few more than you’d expect.

It turns out that the suits belong to aviation professionals, who have shown up in droves to witness a play that captures the emotions in the cockpit aboard doomed flights.

Both Stage and Emotions Bared

With a bare set design consisting of a makeshift cockpit, and actors on stage lit up from beneath as if by flight instruments, Charlie Victor Romeo thrusts you into the world of pilots operating in the most harrowing moments of planes in trouble.

“There’s all sorts of moments in this play where you are sitting there and you realize you can draw parallels to yourself and your life in how you handle a situation or a relationship,” said one of the play’s three directors, Bob Berger, who has been overwhelmed by the audience response.

“It’s one of the reasons why it resonates with not only aviation specialists, who have said they appreciate the honesty and accuracy of the play, but with people who just come to see it. The cockpit is this tiny space where people react and communicate and mis-communicate and things go wrong or go right.”

“I was really skeptical when I first heard about it,” said Peter Yost, a pilot and an editor and writer for AVWeb, one of the largest Web sites catering to aviation specialists. “I was quite impressed by the production. They didn’t try to have this fancy cockpit set up or anything. They just presented the actual transcripts and recreated them with such a realistic and gripping interpretation.”

Black Boxes and Greek Tragedy

The directors researched the project by reading hundreds of accident transcripts from the National Transportation Safety Board and scouring aviation Web sites.

The play uses transcripts from six aircraft catastrophes, including an American Eagle commuter jet that built up ice on its wings as it circled the airport, its crew nonchalantly conversing and flirting before their craft plummeted to the ground; Japan Airlines Flight 123, which in 1985 lost part of its tail section and crashed, killing more than 500; the 1989 crash of United Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa, following a rear engine explosion; and the final moments of a U.S. Air Force AWACS plane taking off from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska in 1995 that was downed when geese were sucked into the engines. (Read an excerpt from the AeroPeru transcript in the sidebar below.)

Aviators and critics praised the production’s intensity and hyperrealism. Pilots and aviation specialists packed the theater for what was supposed to be a four-week run this past spring, but which grew into several months because of popular demand. Continental Airlines even rented the space one night for a group of employees. A graduating class from West Point Academy came down to catch the show.

The play went on to win two Drama Desk awards this year for Jamie Mereness’ sound design and for Unique Theatrical Experience.

It’s currently running as part of New York’s Fringe Festival. After the festival, the play will start up again in the Charas/El Bohio Art Center’s Bimbo Rivas Theater in New York’s East Village beginning September 14 for a ten-week run. There are also plans for the play to tour the country at performing arts centers.

Cutting Edge of Safety Research

The play directly relates to a relatively new study in aviation called Crew Resource Management (CRM), which examines the way people work together in an airplane and how that contributes to safe or unsafe flights. The Air Force was so impressed by Charlie Victor Romeo that they use a full tape of the play in their training, and told the directors, unflinchingly, that it “can save lives.” Thus the Collective Unconscious has the right to say they are one of the only spaces on Ludlow Street with a defense contract.

Lt. Col. Lawrence Shattuck teaches a course in human error at West Point and brought his class down to see the play. “It was riveting to see the actual events unfold in such an honest portrayal and so accurately,” Shattuck said. “When the accidents are unfolding onstage you get a true sense at how rapidly these things happen.”

For Shattuck’s Engineering Psychology class, Charlie Victor Romeo was an invaluable resource. “It speaks to the concept of local or bounded rationality,” he said. “In my class, I try to get the cadets to see the accident unfold by reading the NTSB transcripts. The actors and the directors in this play are very much interested in that idea of how communication, or lack thereof, or misinterpretation plays a huge part in these situations.”

Berger recognized that the added dimension of theater can make the innate drama of accident transcripts all the more revealing. “Actors love to play people who screw up,” he said. “But pilots by their nature are not people who can play fear and confusion naturally. So the way these classes are set up for them now is that they read transcripts in class.

“But the play is more representative of the kind of fear and confusion [that exists] in the cockpit, because our actors go there, where pilots wouldn’t or couldn’t.”

Pilots and aviation specialists routinely approached Berger and fellow directors Patrick Daniels and Irving Gregory after each production and thanked them. “These pilots who are not always emotive were in tears sometimes and really grateful,” Berger said. “It was truly cool to see these people coming into the theater and interested and really moved by what was going on in here.”

Berger also plays a pilot in the production. “Emotionally you can’t do these things and not feel something. Every night that I am in the show I get really affected by what is going on. These are real people and this is what really happened in the most terrifying or the most intense times of their lives.”