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This Is What a Plane Crash Feels Like

Charlie Victor Romeo, which opens today in New York, is a new film that uses actors to reenact the black box transcripts from six real airline disasters, some of which were fatal. It's easily the most horrifying film I've seen this year.
January 29, 2014, 5:10pm

Are you afraid of flying? Are you the type of person who grabs the hand of the passenger next to you, terrified that within ten seconds of flight the aircraft will explode and plummet to earth in a blazing fireball? Your fear makes sense, even though it’s largely irrational—in the past decade, the death risk for passengers in the US has been one in 45 million flights, which means you could fly every day for an average of 123,000 years before being in a fatal crash.

America has a deeply complex relationship with commercial aviation. We invented the airplane in this country, and we’ve made countless heroes of various pilots and aviators. But we’re never really sure what goes on in the cockpit, are we? Are pilots up there on red alert, saving our lives while we complain about the beef stroganoff? Or are they playing Candy Crush the whole time? Considering the amount of deadly train crashes caused by engineers texting and playing cell phone games, it makes sense to at least ask the question: What’s going on in the cockpit during a deadly crash?

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This is the basic question posed by Patrick Daniels, Bob Berger, and Karlyn Michelson, the filmmakers behind Charlie Victor Romeo, a new film adapted from a play first staged in 1999. The film is built completely from the black box recordings from six plane crashes, some of which were fatal. Costumes, sets, and direction are understated, and very little about the transcripts has been changed—each segment begins with a sterile placard indicating the make of aircraft, date, and how many passengers and crew were onboard. We never leave the cockpit, and watch normal flights go dizzyingly amiss as the pilots struggle—and often fail—to control themselves, and their aircraft.

It's a combination of avant-garde theater and documentary, but in reality it’s pure and horrifying date visualization, and easily the most terrifying thing I’ve seen this year. It opens today in New York at Film Forum (more info on that right here), so this week I met with Patrick and Bob to discuss aviation, disaster, and whether they’re afraid of flying after 15 years of working on this thing.

Sam Zuckerman, Noel Dinneen, and Nora Woolley in Charlie Victor Romeo. Photos courtesy of Collective:Unconscious

VICE: OK, this movie is completely terrifying, and I never want to fly again. Is my fear irrational?
Bob Berger: It’s totally irrational.

Why?
Well, let me put it this way. I’ve worked as a cameraman, shooting disasters for the news. When a tragedy happens, it’s all about portraying the most powerful information as strongly as possible, but that’s not always the facts and statistics, it’s about the emotion. In film coverage and news about aviation disasters, it’s all about the emotional power of tragedy. You see victims’ families, flaming wreckage, and mid-air explosions. The reality is that nobody in an actual emergency does anything like what you think you’d do in an emergency.

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I think I’d probably freak out if I was in the cockpit.
Yeah. If you were actually sitting in the cockpit, you wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing, because you’re not a trained professional dealing with a problem. All of us get into emergencies—I’ve been in a few car accidents, for example—if you’re lucky, you deal with it well. The point of this film is that we wanted to show the difference between what we imagine people do when things are going wrong, versus what people actually do, which is incredibly impressive to us. They fight like hell to save a plane full of people. The fear in this film and this play comes from watching real people experiencing a really intense emotional experience.

Can you tell me a bit about the script? I was surprised how much I could understand, considering I don't speak pilot.
Well, let’s think about the language of aviation. You could call in nomenclature, or you could call it jargon. Pilots use very specific words to say very specific things. The news doesn’t exactly trust us with those words when they speak to us about what happened during a plane crash. We tried our hardest not to dumb anything down, and leave the script as close to the black box transcripts as possible. This stuff is real.

You must have read so many transcripts from so many crashes. How did you decide which ones to film?
Patrick Daniels: We started out with a bunch of possibilities and the production method at the theater demanded that it be an hour and ten minutes or so. We needed the crashes to fit together into an abstract narrative. We needed drama, and we needed something that a veteran airline captain wouldn’t be intellectually disappointed in and an audience could understand.

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I was shocked by how short some of these crashes were, and how quickly things turned for the worse.
Yeah, and the film is all pretty much in real time. It’s horrible.

Nora Woolley, Irving Gregory, Sam Zuckerman, and Patrick Daniels in Charlie Victor Romeo.

What were some of the surprises that you guys had while working on the play and the film?
Well, the crashes we chose focused on a period of time I’ve come to realize was pretty much the end of mechanical problems on aircrafts.

The classical period of airline disasters?
Exactly. It’s sort of a flip way to think about it, but you know what, aviation minds itself in an incredible way. In a commercial sense, this is a business. They’re here to make money, and yet for aviation, safety is good business in a way it’s not in other industries. It’s impossible to cut corners to make a few extra bucks. That’s something that doesn’t surprise me necessarily, but it hadn’t occurred to me in that way. When I think of corporate culture, I think of something different than that. It’s very heartening to realize that other industries are following that example, and more and more, this will come to the fore as our species develops. It’s surprising to me that giant corporations think in that way, but it’s in their interest to operate like that.

How about you Bob? What were you surprised by?
Bob Berger: I found that pilot error is nothing like locking your keys in your car. That’s a lesson I’ve had beaten into me over 15 years. The reality is that human error is a complicated chain of events that under any other circumstance, a link in a chain would break and nothing would happen, but mid-air on a commercial aircraft, something can go really, really wrong. I learned how communication effects outcomes. I’m incredibly impressed with these people.

I have to be honest, this movie really freaked me out. I wasn't afraid of flying before, but I think I am now.
Well, don't feel afraid—feel safer.

I don’t.
Now that I've been working on this, every time I board a plane I’m always checking how many rows ahead or behind the exits are, or making sure there isn’t any garbage on the floor. The thing to remember is that when you’re on a plane, you aren’t a passenger—you’re crew. The world of commercial aviation doesn’t think of you as impassive cargo. They think of you as a member of the crew. Flight attendants aren’t there to serve you drinks and get you pillows. They’re there to take care of you if something happens, and part of that is teaching you how to be an active participant. That makes me feel safer.

Charlie Victor Romeo opens today at Film Forum in New York, and you can buy tickets right here. If you live in LA, the film opens at the Downtown Independent this weekend—more info here.

Follow Ben on Twitter - @b_shap