Charlie Victor Romeo: Real-Life Cockpit Drama Comes to the Stage in New York City
AVweb's Peter Yost reviews an unusual New York stage production whose title comes from the phonetic spelling of CVR — cockpit voice recorder. The play depicts the human drama that occurred in the cockpit during six aircraft accidents, with dialog faithful to the actual CVR transcripts. Yost credits producer/director Bob Berger for resisting the urge to "dumb down" or take liberties with the technical material. If you're within range of New York, this one's definitely worth seeing.
Rare is the movie or TV show that presents an accurate portrayal of anything aviation. Rarer still is a stage production about aviation, let alone an accurate one. But Charlie Victor Romeo, a new play that captures the human drama that occurred in the cockpit during six real-life airline accidents, does a very credible job of capturing the tension, confusion, frustrations, fears and courage of the pilots and flight attendants on the doomed flights.
The title comes from the phonetic alphabet representation for CVR, the cockpit voice recorder that is so eagerly sought after all airline accidents. The 70-minute show is currently running at the Collective: Unconscious Theater at 145 Ludlow Street, New York, N.Y. With an intimate theater that seats about 50, the audience is close enough to the set so that they almost feel as if they are in the cockpit during each scene.
The six accidents depicted in the play, some of which AVweb readers are familiar with, include:
- American Airlines Flight 1572, an MD-83 that crashed in Granby, Conn., November 1995;
- American Eagle Flight 4184, an ATR-72 accident in Roselawn, Ind., October 1994;
- AeroPeru Flight 603, a Boeing 757 that went down in October 1996;
- YUKLA 27, a U.S. Air Force E-3A AWACS mishap in September 1995;
- JAL Flight 123, a Boeing 747 that crashed on August 1985; and,
- United Airlines Flight 232, the infamous DC-10 crash at Sioux City, Iowa, in July 1989.
Each scene begins with a simple black and white slide giving the flight information, location, number of persons onboard, and probable cause. A simple, low gray cockpit faces the audience, behind which the cast sits as they present a chilling re-creation of the final moments of each flight. Another slide showing the final outcome and number of casualties, if any, is projected at the conclusion of the scene.
Director/producer Bob Berger deserves credit for not "dumbing down" the material for a general audience, as the cockpit conversations include all the technical jargon that occurs in a typical airline cockpit, with the actual voice recorder transcripts followed as closely as possible, although some were shortened somewhat for brevity.
Berger told AVweb that the main purpose of the play was not to trivialize or sensationalize these accidents, but to show the real drama and human emotions that occur at the most trying of times. Berger and his cast, none of whom have an aviation background, talked to pilots and flight attendants, plus studied accident transcripts and visited Internet sites such as AVweb to learn as much as possible about aviation.
Their efforts seem to have paid off: The only inaccuracy I noticed during the drama was the use of the word "speedometer" instead of "airspeed indicator" during the AeroPeru scene. But in all fairness to the cast, it appears that this is how it was translated from the original Spanish CVR transcript, so they can't really be faulted for using a term that most pilots would not use. Actress Julia Berger was particular impressive in this scene as the second officer who argues with the pilot about the best way to control the 757 whose airspeed/altitude instrument system is completely screwed up because the static ports have been taped over by ground crews.
The ensemble did an excellent job of being true to the cockpit conversations, including the banter, the tensions, the expletives and the arguments. The voice of ATC was also well done, capturing the monotone, rapid-fire instructions most pilots will recognize. Most impressive though, were the realistic sound effects that added so much to the experience, an effect you just can't get reading the CVR transcripts. Sound designer Jamie Mereness did a great job capturing the pulsating rhythm of the ATR-72's propellers, the muffled whine of the 757 and DC-10's turbofans, and the various cockpit sounds such as blaring warning signals, the "thunk" of landing gear extension, and the rumble of spoilers being deployed. Hearing the aircraft sounds and watching the crews' terse dialogue and grim expressions as they struggle with the stricken aircraft had my pulse rate increasing more than once.
The best, and final, scene is the recreation of United Flight 232. Actor Stuart Rudin as Captain Al Haynes ably captures the calm but frustrated demeanor of Haynes as he struggles to keep the wallowing DC-10 upright after a massive control system failure. [Editor's Note: Be sure to read the Al Haynes profile by AVweb's Joe Godfrey.] The scene also has the most actors on stage at once, with Haynes, the first officer, the flight engineer, and the dead-heading pilot who volunteers to control engine thrust to help maintain some semblance of control. The scene accurately depicts the incredible teamwork involved in flying the crippled trijet to the airport at Sioux City, Iowa.
Producer/Director Bob Berger and his cast and crew should be commended for taking an obviously sensitive subject, with gobs of technical speak, and portraying it in an accurate and gripping fashion. Thankfully, since commercial air travel is still one of the safest forms of travel, CHARLIE VICTOR ROMEO is the closest any of us will ever get to experiencing those tense final moments of a commercial flight gone bad.
For more information on tickets and show dates, visit the theater group's web site.