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FLIGHT ATTENDANT: To fasten your seatbelt, insert the metal fitting…
TOM BEARDEN: The flight attendant’s demonstration was eerily authentic, right down to the rapid fire monotone, the gestures, the blank look. You could easily imagine reaching for your seat belt. But this wasn’t an airliner. It was a tiny storefront theater on New York’s lower East side. For 70 minutes, actors recreated six real life aircraft accidents using the actual words of flight crews trying to deal with impending disaster. The play was called “Charlie Victor Romeo,” phonetic spelling for CVR — the cockpit voice recorder that often provides some of the most important evidence used in a plane crash.
ACTOR: …Last 40…
TOM BEARDEN: Except for some dramatic sound effects, “Charlie Victor Romeo” offered nothing but the near verbatim words from the transcripts of cockpit voice recordings. No explosions, no theatrical props flying around, no fake blood.
ACTOR: …Delay… [Inaudible]… Go around… Go around… Go around.
ACTOR: Go around… Go around… Go around… Class 15…
TOM BEARDEN: Critics praised the stark portrayal of what happened in these doomed cockpits. They admired the combination of realism and drama, as in this plane that flew too low and clipped the treetops. (Mechanical beeping)
ACTOR: The left rotor’s failed.. Runway straight ahead.
ACTOR: Okay, okay. Tell if we’re going down. Tell them emergency…
ACTOR: Tower… Hold for emergency… Going down on the runway…
TOM BEARDEN: Or the wrenching change from humor to horror that occurred aboard an American Eagle flight bound for Chicago in 1994.
ACTRESS: Someone’s stereo radio. You guys don’t have a hard job at all. We’re back there slugging it out with all these people.
TOM BEARDEN: One moment the cockpit crew, played by Michael Bruno and Oliver Wyman, joked around with a flight attendant, played by Audrey Crabtree. In response to her requests, they demonstrated some of the automated emergency warnings.
ACTROR: Yeah, you know, it’s like I was saying before. If there’s a rain loud up ahead, they’ll tell you. How do you know it’s rain? Cause it says. Terrain. Terrain.
ACTRESS: That’s what it says, terrain.
ACTOR: Terrain. (Emergency beeper) terrain. (Emergency beeper) terrain.
ACTRESS: Okay. See y’all.
ACTOR: All right.
ACTOR: Flight 184 descending.
ACTOR: Maintain 8,000 feet.
ACTOR: Down to 8,000, Eagle flight 184.
TOM BEARDEN: As they joked, freezing rain was building up a fatal layer of ice on the wings.
ACTOR: Are we out of hold here?
ACTOR: Oh, no. Just going down to 8,000.
ACTOR: All right.
TOM BEARDEN: A few moments later, the crew lost control. (Emergency beeping)
ACTOR: I knew we were going to do that.
ACTOR: All right. I’m trying to keep it at 180.
ACTOR: All right. We got it. (Beeping)
ACTOR: All right, mellow it out. Mellow it out! (Sounds of confusion) oh God!
TOM BEARDEN: There were no survivors. When the show opened, theater critics called it riveting, but it also attracted an unexpected audience: Aviation professionals, pilots and controllers. Gary Gladstone is a longtime private pilot.
GARY GLADSTONE: I thought, “hell, no way in hell are they going to be able to… a bunch of actors, sit down and do what I’ve heard on tapes before as a pilot, or get the sense of it. But I read some reviews. I came down with a couple of friends one night, and sat here, and my heart started beating at a faster rate when the lights went out, and it was a killer evening, watching pilots and aviators in film, because… although some are very good, most of them miss the subtleties that other pilots sort of recognize. This cast is absolutely drop-dead amazing. And they had the scan going across the instrument panel the way you would in an emergency.
TOM BEARDEN: The show’s three directors are part of a five-year-old collaborative theater group called “Collective Unconscious.” Neither they nor the cast has flying experience. It was the psychology of the human interaction under pressure that first appealed to them. But in preparing the show, they quickly realized that the material had to be handled carefully.
BOB BERGER, Director: In order to attempt something like this it’s got to be done correctly, in a way that isn’t going to leave you ashamed after having been accused of sensationalizing or trivializing peoples’ deaths for the sake of entertainment. This is all internal. This is peoples’ brains. What’s happening to humans. There’s no explosions. There’s… you’re focused on these guys inside of a cockpit of the airplane thinking about what they’re going through, and understanding what they’re going through.
TOM BEARDEN: Did you have any sense that there’s a fine line you can’t cross?
IRVING GREGORY, Director: Well, yes. But being in theater for a long time, I, myself, kind of see it like Shakespeare, too. A lot of people die in Shakespeare. A lot of people die in Shakespeare. A lot of people die in tragedies of plays for thousands of years… In stories, so, yeah we tried to approach it very, very seriously, understanding the gravity of the subject matter we were dealing with, but at the same time gave it its theatrical weight.
ACTOR: 80 knots. Copilot’s airplane. Your aircraft.
TOM BEARDEN: “Charlie Victor Romeo” is not a pure documentary. The directors and cast had to imagine and create tones of voice, facial expressions, rapid fire pacing of dialogue and shifts of mood– the things that make the difference between words in a transcript, and a theatrical performance.
ACTOR: Roger that…
TOM BEARDEN: Co-director Patrick Daniels thinks the performances helped the audience see through the technical jargon to the underlying story.
ACTOR: They’re on override…
PATRICK DANIELS, Director: They may not get the details, the definition of terms, you know, what is… Does “mach speed trim” mean or whatever, but they get a kind of a visceral sense that this has a connection to the airplane and these people are trying to control it in a certain way. They understand it on a kind of a subconscious level.
TOM BEARDEN: The show opened in October. As word spread, its run was extended four times. Cast members found that aviation professionals often stayed after the show to chat and offer technical tips.
SPOKESMAN: Good job. It’s a great job.
SPOKESMAN: When the pilot term crashes, we know… Because you guys know it…
TOM BEARDEN: Army Colonel Lawrence Shattuck teaches a course in human error at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He was so impressed that he took his class to see the show.
LT. COLONEL LAWRENCE SHATTUCK, Professor, West Point: When you’re trying to teach cadets how to analyze an accident, you try to get them to put themselves into the situation as it’s unfolding. And so, you look at an accident and you say, “well they should have done this or they should have done that.” The reality is that when they were in that situation they didn’t know about that or they didn’t have access to that information. So the cadets were able to see the pilots in that situation, and get a sense of what they knew and what they didn’t know, and to see them respond to the things that were available to them at the time.
TOM BEARDEN: For some cadets, like La Tonia Kolodoye, the biggest surprise was how fast things happened.
LA TONIA KOLODOYE, Cadet, West Point: And when you’re reading through a transcript that takes you about two hours to three hours to read through completely and then you sit through a performance of that accident that takes, maybe, five minutes to show you everything that happened– and really the most critical elements of the accident happen within about 30 seconds– you really get a feel for how serious aircraft accidents can be, and how complex flights are.
SPOKESMAN: So when the enemy was coming down…
TOM BEARDEN: The complexity of human error is Colonel Shattuck’s professional field. He studies engineering psychology, the science of how humans interact with machines.
ACTOR: One-five, one-five, transponder.
ACTOR: Flaps one-five, take off recent complete time check.
TOM BEARDEN: Much of what Colonel Shattuck saw in the theater mirrored his training in the subtle ways that flight crews can make mistakes, like this Aeroperu Flight in 1996.
ACTOR: B-2 plus ten.
ACTRESS: The altimeters are stuck. Hey, the altimeters are stuck!
ACTRESS: All of them?
ACTOR: Now this is really new…
TOM BEARDEN: Maintenance workers had taped over the instrument sensors of the plane before they washed it, and neglected to remove the tape.
ACTOR: B-2 plus ten. What happened? We’re not climbing.
ACTRESS: I am climbing, but the speed…
ACTOR: Hold it. No. Keep the speed.
TOM BEARDEN: When the jetliner took off for Lima, the instruments gave false speed and altitude readings, completely disorienting the crew.
ACTOR: All crew, six-zero-three, tower go on.
ACTRESS: Okay, we declare an emergency. We have no basic instruments, no altimeter, no air speed indicator. We declare an emergency.
ACTOR: Roger, altitude.
TOM BEARDEN: The captain, played by Dan Krumm, and the first officer, played by Julia Berger, began arguing over how to get the instruments back.
ACTOR: Keep trying.
ACTRESS: There’s no auto throttle.
ACTOR: Oh, the speed.
TOM BEARDEN: The later investigation showed that was the wrong thing to do because the plane was flying perfectly. Only the instruments were wrong.
LT. COLONEL LAWRENCE SHATTUCK: Because that argument was going back and forth, they actually missed the ability to diagnose the plane properly. They spent so much time arguing about whether to engage the autopilot or not, that they missed the diagnosis. Had they just disengaged the pilot… the autopilot, they could have flown the plane themselves just using their visual senses.
ACTRESS: Speed. We have speed problems. Instruments… Flight director.
ACTOR: It can’t be… Hey look, the speed, with the power we have… It can’t be.
ACTRESS: It can’t be. It’s true. It’s wrong. 330?
ACTOR: Yes, but they’re even, aren’t they?
ACTRESS: Well, set yours on alternate air status. The one down there, the lower button. The lower one! That one down there.
GARY GLADSTONE, Pilot: I’m sitting here in my seat screaming, “look at the… Look at the compass.” I mean, that will give you your heading. Don’t look at the static instruments, and that’s what they were doing. And they were arguing with one another, and they were just… They were stunned with disbelief.
ACTOR: We’re controlling the turns by power.
TOM BEARDEN: The play ends with the recreation of the final moments of United Flight 232, the 1989 flight where crew skills and quick thinking saved hundreds of lives. On a flight from Denver, the DC- 10′s center engine exploded, destroying the hydraulic system and the disabling the flight controls.
ACTOR: Maybe we can only turn right. Can’t turn left.
ACTOR: Another 232…
ACTOR: Captain Al Haynes, played by Stuart Rudin, fought to bring the wide-body to a safe landing.
ACTOR: Okay, United 232, we understand you have normal power at one of three engines.
ACTOR: That’s affirmative.
ACTOR: I wonder about the outboard aileron. Do you think if we put some flaps out, it would give us outboard?
ACTRESS: God, I hate to do anything.
ACTOR: Uh-oh, we’re going to have to do something.
TOM BEARDEN: Haynes worked with his crew and a flight instructor, who happened to be a passenger and came into the cockpit to help.
ACTOR: Oh, thanks for coming up, captain. My name’s Al Haynes.
ACTOR: Hi, I’m Aldon Fitch.
ACTOR: How do you do, Denny?
ACTOR: I’ll tell you what, al. We’ll have a beer when all this is done.
ACTOR: Well, I don’t drink. I’ll sure as hell have one. A little right turn. Little right turns…
ACTOR: They made up new flying techniques as they went, and never lost their composure or their sense of humor.
ACTOR: And we didn’t do this thing on my last simulator check.
ACTOR: No. No. Oh, I poured coffee all over. Oh, it’s just coffee. We’ll get this thing on the ground. Don’t worry about it.
ACTOR: Incredibly, they did make it to the airport at Sioux City, Iowa. Flight 232 made it to the runway, then cart wheeled just as it touched down. 111 people were killed. 185 survived, including the entire crew. “Charlie Victor Romeo” recently ended its run, but the performances were preserved on videotape, by the air force which plans to quite for training purposes. The directors who began by wanting to put on a good show, say they are gratified to see they have created something more.
BOB BERGER: To be told by the Air Force, army and pilots who have come and seen the show that they’ve learned something and that what we’re doing is going to be of use to them, that’s just the most rewarding thing I’ve ever had happen to me. It’s just mind-blowingly rewarding. (Applause)
TOM BEARDEN: In August, “Charlie Victor Romeo” will return for a limited run in a larger New York theater. And there are plans for a national tour. And recently the play won two New York drama desk awards for best sound and for unique theatrical experience.