In 1956, the Australian inventor David Warren developed a prototype for a “Flight Memory Unit” for commercial airliners that would record instrument readings and cockpit audio recordings. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) showed little interest in the model and reportedly brushed it off as an unnecessary device that “would yield more expletives than explanations”. Wiser minds prevailed, of course, and by 1960 Australia was the first country in the world to require airliners to carry so-called “black boxes” (which are actually orange, but that’s another story).
June 2 - June 3
Directors: Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, Karlyn Michelson
Producers: Caterina Bartha, Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels
Writer: Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, Irving Gregory
Editors: Karlyn Michelson
Cast: Robert Berger, Patrick Daniels, Noel Dinneen, Irving Gregory, Debbie Troche, Nora Woolley, Sam Zuckerman
Premiere: January 21, 2013 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: January 29, 2014
US Distributor: Independent
Black box data has been essential in flight failure inquiries over the last 50 years, and indeed the recovery of the flight data recorder (FDR) and cockpit voice recorder (CVR), which are housed in the same component, is now considered the most critical stage in any crash investigation. The audio from the cockpit reveals not only important details about what’s being said, but about what’s not being said - the background noise or instrument warnings that can indicate everything from an on-board fire to a physical struggle (i.e., United Airlines Flight 93).
And of course at a more disturbing level, the audio from the cockpit reveals the horror of helpless individuals facing imminent catastrophe, creating an eerie permanent record of someone’s last moment alive. This drama of doom serves as the inspiration for Charlie Victor Romeo (see: Cockpit Voice Recorder), a documentary based on a play based on the black box transcripts from six airline incidents and accidents that occurred between 1985 and 1996. The play was developed in 1999 by Bob Berger, Patrick Daniels, and Irving Gregory, who also act in and co-direct the filmed version. The play premiered before 9/11, of course, and well before Air France Flight 990, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 (its black boxes were recovered in 2011), and Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which disappeared somewhere in the Eastern Hemisphere in earlier this year.
As evidenced by the MH 370 search, the theories and confirmed causes of plane crashes can be wildly varied: a rogue pilot, a hijacker, bad weather, bad decisions, faulty equipment, or in the case of TWA Flight 800, even a conspiratorial missile strike. Whatever the cause, one imagines (or at least I imagine) insufferable screaming and chaos as the humanity on board collectively come to grips with their own mortality. While not based on voice recording transcripts, Paul Greengrass' masterful United 93 offered a somewhat different depiction of this stereotype. Certainly there was a lot of horror, but there was also heroism and hope among the passengers. Charlie Victor Romeo depicts similarly gutsy determination in the cockpit, with the pilots desperately but calmly attempting to control their fate, knowing too well the responsibility they bear for the helpless souls trapped behind them.
To that end Charlie Victor Romeo is uplifting—a tribute to the pilots and crew forced to react to the worst-case scenario they hoped they’ve never have to face. As a passive observer it’s a challenge to appreciate their bravery, however, because you are so consumed with tension and anxiety. Charlie Victor Romeo is essentially a video recording of the live stage play, and the sparse set design of the cockpit does not allow your attention to focus anywhere but the traumatic events unfolding in front of your eyes. I admit, I was at first a little withdrawn from the film; it looked and felt like a bad Saturday Night Live sketch set-up. But the actors honor their characters and give each person a surprising amount of depth in the few minutes we spend with them before disaster strikes. And I eventually came to appreciate the brilliance of Charlie Victor Romeo’s simplicity—like a passenger on one of the doomed planes, you are trapped in your seat, helpless do anything but brace for impact.
As you can imagine, your first flight after watching Charlie Victor Romeo is a unique one. That opportunity came for me two weeks ago on a trip to South America, and even though I’m not a nervous flyer, I was definitely a little more on edge for the take-offs and landings. I imagined what the pilots were seeing, saying, and thinking, wondering if they truly ever become comfortable carrying hundreds of souls up beyond the clouds and back down again. It’s a remarkable thing, the airplane, and Charlie Victor Romeo powerfully examines the intersection between human nature and mechanical malfunction. If I gained a little more fear of flying because of it, I also gained a great deal of respect for the faceless voices that crackle out from the cockpit. We complain about leg room, snacks, and in-flight entertainment, but if Charlie Victor Romeo shows anything, it’s that we should just be happy if we go up and come back down in one piece. I know I’ll make it a point to give an extra nod of thanks to the pilot next time I put my feet back on the ground.