Flying is statistically the safest form of transportation. It’s a popular sentiment, one commonly recited to restore confidence in the important industry after tragic disasters like the deadly Germanwings crash last week. For writer and film producer Roger Rapoport, however, that statement isn’t as accurate as we’d like to think.
"Let’s not compare apples and oranges; let’s not compare a ride to the grocery store with a 6,000-mile flight because they’re not the same," Rapoport said. "The truth is that, on a per trip basis – not on a mile basis – the numbers look a little different. But here’s the difference: If you crash your motorcycle into a median, it’s a lot different than what happened on Tuesday when 150 people died.
"There will be people who will say, ‘Well, statistically those people were safer in that plane going to Germany than if they were on a motorcycle or in a car.’ But that isn’t much comfort to anybody at the airline, at Airbus, the families or anybody because it still happened."
It’s a topic of extreme personal importance to Rapoport. The journalist grew up as the son of an airplane part manufacturer, and back in 2009, he put his knowledge and interest to work researching Air France Flight 447, which stalled and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 228 passengers and crew. He documented his findings in his 2011 book "The Rio/Paris Crash," noting a lack of complete training for the pilots which caused them to react poorly to ice crystals causing problems with their airspeed instruments.
"You would think that the pilots would have some experience flying at 35,000 feet, but not true; in fact, under current regulations, pilots are not supposed to fly the plane over 29,000 feet because of spacing issues in air traffic," Rapoport noted. "They prefer to have the computers flying at those altitudes to avoid a potential mistake. But on the flip side, when the automation goes out, you really do need to know how to fly the plane, and flying the plane in thin air handles a lot differently. It’s kind of like the difference between driving down a road in a snow storm and driving down a road on a sunny day.
"It’s actually not that overly complicated," Rapoport continued. "It’s just that they were discouraging them from doing it and not training them to do it, so when these pilots’ computer konked out because of icing, they didn’t really know how to handle it."
Now, after an encouraging nudge from his publisher, his research and the story of the Air France Flight 447 is moving to the big screen with "Pilot Error." In the film, directed by Joe Anderson, actress Kate Thomsen plays a Milwaukee reporter investigating the disappearance of a fictionalized version of the crashed Rio to Paris flight, her best friend being one of the passengers lost in the accident. With the tone of a ripped from the headlines conspiracy thriller, she eventually discovers the troubling truth behind the crash, the pilots and the training that got them there.
The independent movie will make its Milwaukee-area debut tonight at the Ridge Cinema in New Berlin, showing at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. After each screening, Rapoport – as well as veteran airline training pilot and accident analyst Michael Hahn and Milwaukee actress Deborah Staples, a familiar face for local theater fans – will partake in a talkback, discussing the all too real (and, considering the Germanwings crash and last year’s missing Malaysia Airlines flight, all too timely) revelations Thomsen’s character finds over the course of "Pilot Error."
"The most important safety item on an airplane is the pilot – and I mean a well-trained pilot," Rapoport said. "Well, pilots have been so devalued, and they’re so underpaid at the start. As a result, there’s a shortage of pilots right now, and the industry’s starting to recognize this problem."
Though the film was predominantly shot in Michigan (where tax credits have been in effect since 2008) and a bit in France, Milwaukee – seeing as it is the main character’s home – was also a primary location for the shoot. The airport, Downtown and several other local areas are all used throughout "Pilot Error."
According to Rapoport, this production will be the last to receive a Wisconsin tax credit from the state’s now-eliminated program. Even without that financial bonus, however, Rapoport noted that he couldn’t imagine not shooting in Wisconsin.
"The reason is three-fold: the talent, the locations and the audiences," Rapoport explained. "For an indie producer, this is the perfect place to make a movie – especially to show it. Some things are more important than a tax credit."
As for the future of film in Wisconsin, Rapoport notes the biggest reason why people don’t make movies in the state is fairly straightforward: People don’t invest in movies in Wisconsin.
"The kinds of people who invest in movies in other places aren’t as prevalent in Wisconsin; there’s no question about that," he said. "People invest in theater and symphony and dance and opera and a million arts programs, but there’s not a lot of investing in film. That may be the explanation."
The result is a kind of cyclical, self-defeating logic: There are few film investors in Wisconsin, which means few films are made in Wisconsin, which means few investors look toward Wisconsin. It’s a cycle that Rapoport hopes the state can eventually break out of.
"There’s certainly no shortage of talent or audiences," he noted.
And as for the subject of his film – the future of air travel safety – the onus is mostly on airline companies and the airline industry to better train its pilots and prepare them for the often unpredictable troubles that can occur during a regular flight. However, Rapoport also notes the public needs to be ready to sacrifice for their safety as well.
"Ticket prices are so cheap, and the industry has done such a good job of shaving costs that we’re getting a bargain, but I think all of us should be prepared to pay a little more money so that pilots can get paid a little bit better and get the training they need."
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.