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Television

‘Air Disasters’: Smithsonian Channel’s hit has a recipe of compelling stories

Director Tim Wolochatiuk, left, line producer Lana Pitkin, production designer Ricardo Barcelo and cinematographer James Griffith stand before a charred cabin set in the “Air Disasters” studio in Toronto.
Director Tim Wolochatiuk, left, line producer Lana Pitkin, production designer Ricardo Barcelo and cinematographer James Griffith stand before a charred cabin set in the “Air Disasters” studio in Toronto.
(David A. Lee)

The long-running docudrama series “Air Disasters” chooses its catastrophes carefully.

In the latest season of the Smithsonian Channel series, which premieres Sunday, a Cathay Pacific Airbus A-330 experiences double engine failure over the South China Sea, the pilot of a modified World War II P-51 Mustang fighter plane crashes into the crowd at the Reno Air Races, and a cargo DC-8 carrying a three-man crew hurtles to the ground on its final approach to the U.S. naval station in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

In planning each new 10-episode order, longtime executive producer Alex Bystram and his creative team aim for diversity in eras, locales, airlines and aircraft.

“We also try to have one high-profile accident most viewers would be familiar with, Bystram explains from the show’s production offices in downtown Toronto. In the new season, that’s LaMia Flight 2933.

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In 2016, a Brazilian soccer team traveling to Colombia for a tournament crashed just short of the runway, killing 71 of the 77 people onboard, which had a devastating impact on soccer fans around the world.

Notes Bystram: “We found Jakson Follmann, one of the surviving members of the team, and he told his story of losing not only most of his teammates but his leg. We also interviewed air traffic controller Yaneth Molina. The media initially blamed her for making the plane circle unnecessarily, causing it to run out of fuel. But that’s not what the report found. She was very eager to clear her name. It all made for a very powerful episode.”

That’s a formula that’s worked for the series, now beginning its 13th season. “Air Disasters” incorporates findings from official accident investigation reports, transcripts of cockpit voice recorder conversations, archival accident footage, computer-generated imagery and actors performing dramatic reenactments — along with present-day interviews with surviving passengers and crew members, rescuers, air traffic controllers, investigators and other aviation experts.

“Air Disasters”
Behind the scenes of “Air Disasters,” Episode 6 - Tarom Flight 371.
(Darren Goldstein / Cineflix Media Inc.)

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“We both knew from the start that compelling and heroic stories from flight crews, air traffic controllers, investigators and survivors would strike a chord with viewers around the world,” says André Barro, who co-created the show with Bernard Vaillot. The idea was to explore what human error and mechanical failure have taught the global aviation industry.

“There’s something very powerful about these extreme moments when everything is on the line,” Barro added.

Glen Salzman, co-founder and co-chief executive of Montreal-based Cineflix Media Inc. — the production and distribution company behind such hits as HGTV’s “Property Brothers” and History Channel’s “American Pickers” — agreed. “More than 100,000 planes take off and land safely every day,” he says, “yet the crashes are what capture headlines. ‘Air Disasters’ goes beyond the news story to showcase how every incident, in one way or another, has contributed to safer skies.”

Mona Lisa McGraw, a retired, Minneapolis-based flight attendant who for 21 years was married to a United Airlines pilot, has watched each episode of the long-running series at least twice. “I felt the information gave me more control so I could better assist passengers in an emergency,” she explains.

Indeed, throughout the years, “Air Disasters” has been used for training purposes by airlines, universities, aerospace technology companies and military institutions here and abroad. And it’s clearly not just airline industry professionals tuning in. Since it premiered on Smithsonian in 2011, the show has consistently ranked as one of the network’s most highly rated series.

“‘Air Disasters’ has grown more popular over time and has built a devoted audience,” says Smithsonian Channel’s chief programming officer David Royle. “Last season attracted our largest number of the much desired 25-54 viewers, and it’s one of those rare factual entertainment shows that draws broad co-viewing. It’s just a programmer’s dream series.”

“Air Disasters”
Behind the scenes of “Air Disasters,” Episode 4 - AIA Flight 808.
(Darren Goldstein / Cineflix Media Inc.)

Once preliminary research and on-camera interviews are completed, a factually accurate script rife with enough red herrings to sustain an hour-long mystery is written. That blueprint is then forwarded to key members of the production team: line producer Lana Pitkin, production designer Ricardo Barcelo, cinematographer James Griffith and directors Tim Wolochatiuk and Mark Mainguy.

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The “Air Disasters” studio, which is housed in a large warehouse in an industrial neighborhood outside of Toronto, surprisingly has only one cockpit stage and one cabin stage.

“I can reuse and repurpose essentially anything,” says Barcelo, who has been with the series since its second season and who has used his artistic ingenuity to transform the two sets into everything from a Cessna to a 747. He’s also responsible for all props and crash site scenery featured in nearby location filming.

“The cockpit voice recorders and the flight data recorders might be my favorite props,” he continues. “They’re iconic to the world of air crash investigation, and they typically make an appearance in each episode.”

Another aspect that adds verisimilitude to “Air Disasters” is the CGI supplied in post-production by Andrew Szerszen and his Pix Ray VFX Inc. squad, who use the popular industry program Houdini, which has enlivened “Game of Thrones,” “The Shape of Water,” “Wonder Woman” and a number of other projects.

“Using this tool, we can create realistic simulations of extremely complex scenes with highly accurate physics,” says Szerszen, who estimates each episode of “Air Disasters” requires between 650 and 700 hours of work.

While Bystram acknowledges that, due to a lack of accident reports, some legendary tales will never be told — Amelia Earhart, Buddy Holly, Bermuda Triangle vanishings — he does foresee a future installment spent exploring the Boeing 737 Max. “We don’t have quite enough to do that yet, but I think it might be one episode about the two accidents — Indonesia’s Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 — some time very soon. We’re all curious to see what the planes were doing and how the pilots were reacting.”

Until then, Bystram and his colleagues will continue to scour recent aviation history to bring audiences what they crave. “I think part of our appeal has to do with the fact that we pull back the curtain on flying,” he concludes. “Planes aren’t supposed to crash, and 99.99% of them don’t. So when one does, people want to know why.

“Air Disasters”
Behind the scenes of “Air Disasters,” Episode 10 - United Express Flight 6291.
(Darren Goldstein / Cineflix Media Inc.)
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“Most of the time, the answer isn’t what people were given on the day of the accident. It’s much more involved than that. These investigators come in and sort through the wreckage, sort through the data and search for clues to piece together the final minutes of a flight. Watching their journey is fascinating because it’s never just one thing. An extraordinary chain of events has to occur to bring a plane down.”

‘Air Disasters’

Where: Smithsonian Channel

When: Friday, noon

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)


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