Pilots Flock to Play About Air Disasters

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.”

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