Budd Davisson, Flight Training, 1998

The Risk Isn't Yours to Take

The other day a mother called the office to set up a birthday ride for her son. I wrote up the gift certificate while cautioning her never to go flying, or let her loved ones go flying with someone without checking their references and their credentials. She checked mine. Then she asked, "Is it dangerous?"

I quipped back, "Ma'am, if it was dangerous, I wouldn't be doing it."

I go out of my way to keep from lying to anyone but, as she was walking away, I knew I had just lied. I had, without meaning to, applied my own definition of danger and the risk it implies to another's life. And I was wrong for doing that.

The concept of risk and how to define it is probably one of the most subjective subjects in the world. In the first place, there are lots of different kinds of risk, lots of different kinds of danger. Some of it is part of the package we call life and we do what we can to control it. We can't avoid crossing streets, so one of the very first phrases our tiny mouths learn to repeat is "look both ways before crossing the street." There are thousands of things we learn in the act of living that weave themselves into a fabric we call survival.

We learn quickly not to touch things that are hot. We figure out how high is too high to jump. After a while, we learn to project ourselves far enough ahead that we don't actually have to jump off the cliff to know it will hurt. We become smarter and smarter, if we're lucky. That may be what anthropologists (or some other equally erudite profession) call developed-instincts. They become our guide lines which, if followed, will let us live a normal life span.

And then comes a simple question. "Is it dangerous?"

If I was to be honest with my customer, I would have turned and said, "Damned right it's dangerous, lady! We're going to be several thousand feet in the air, held there by an engine that has thousands of explosions per minute going on inside it. The wings are held on by wires and bolts I hope have no flaws. The wooden spars held together for the last flight, but I don't know if termites have gnawed just a little too far since then. Then to top it all off, the skin is nothing more than painted handkerchief material."

Knowing all of that, how could I, in all honesty, say it's not dangerous? The very concept of aviation is dangerous. It's entire goal is to get us high enough off the ground to bust our fragile little behinds.

Subliminally, we all know that. Why then, do we do it? Why do we willingly do something we know can fold, spindle and mutilate?

In the first place, the concept of danger is open to definition, which itself can be subjective. We are willing to fly because, in our minds, the element of risk isn't so high that it can't be managed. The risk can be controlled to the point that it is a valid trade-off for the myriad of pleasures and utilities it gives us.

A lot of "normal" people judge pilots as missing some part of our thought apparatus for taking the basic risk of aviation. Those same people, however, will go to a job every day where they make decisions affecting thousands of other people, involving millions of dollars, all of which generates so much stress, their health is at risk. Or they will climb in their car every morning and dive into the stream with thousands of other bleary eyed commuters headed down town. It never occurs to them that every time a two-ton chunk of metal driven by a complete stranger of unknown competency passes them going the other direction, they are no more than five feet from instant death.

Risk is very much like insanity: it is a matter of degree and definition.

What we have been hinting at here is an "acceptable level of risk"; Something that is part of living that can be managed down to minimum levels.

What then, can be said of those who occasionally push the risk envelop? They drive too fast, fly too low, zig in and out of traffic, fly the canyons and generally step outside of the "accepted" level of risk.

We often call them idiots, when they are endangering others on the road or on the ground.

What we fail to call them, is uncaring, inconsiderate and so self-involved they have totally forgotten that all they are risking is their life. When it's gone, it's gone. What they are perfectly willing to ignore is that their life is not a free-standing existence. It doesn't hang out there in space all by itself and quietly disappear as darkness closes in on it. Live isn't structured that way.

There are no lives that stand alone. All are part of a complex web of relationships and those relationships are what make illogical risk-taking irresponsible. That kind of risk means a person may die, but dozens, hundreds of others will suffer even to the far reaches of the relationship web.

Let's look at an example. You're a great pilot. One of the best. You know your airplane and what it will do. You're on a cross country and home is only a hundred miles straight ahead. You know the territory but the weather is going down. Fast! You know a gossamer decision point to turn back hangs somewhere out in front of you, but it is so vague that very likely you won't know you've passed until too late.

You take comfort from the road below. You know where it goes. So why not follow it? Why not? So you do. You've made the first decision. At that point, you're mind is in the cockpit, staring at the map. Checking it against the road. Yes, there is a damp spot developing in the palm of your hand. Yes, that internal warning has gone off. But now home is only 80 miles away and getting closer.

Visibility drops and you crowd closer to the road. You're a good pilot. Your flying is superb. The ball is right in the middle. The road is a dark slash through the haze below. You know where you are. You think.

Home is only 60 miles away. You've calculated all the possibilities. You just have to stay over the road. The weather gets worse. You go down lower. You know what you're doing.

Hey! Wake up! Like hell, you know what you're doing!! Home is just ahead and you've completely forgotten what "home" means. You've become so involved in the game of playing pilot that you've forgotten what's really at stake. You've made the ultimate arrogant mistake of thinking the only thing you're risking is your life. Well, partner, that's the cheapest, least valuable thing you're risking.

Losing your life is an easy, and many times, painless thing to do. It's a cheap ending to a glorious book. And when it happens as the result of mis-managing risk, it is also incredibly stupid. Much more than that, however, it is criminally cruel.

While you've been pushing to get home, your wife, your kids, your parents, your friends have all been going about their lives. Somewhere ahead in the klag, however, is a house with a kitchen. There's a phone on that kitchen wall. That's the phone she'll probably answer after they strain your wallet out of what was left of your trousers and find a phone number. The barely readable card clearly states, "In emergency, please call......" So, they call.

And she answers.

That, my friend, is the risk you're taking. Every time you decide to buzz a friend's house, push the weather, or do anything that increases the risk factor outside the limits of acceptability, you're risking The Phone Call.

The thing you have to remember while you're out there playing hero is that The Phone Call won't hurt you a bit. Not a bit. If you're dead, your pain is over. If not, if you've squeezed through to spend months in a hospital bed, you're going to see your pain multiplied in every love-one's face, when they come to visit what's left of you.

Either way, the results of your risk taking will touch others for a lifetime. When the risk has a negative out-come it is a giant boulder tossed in the middle of a glassy pond. The waves at the core are so huge, they capsize and upset entire lives. Many of those closest can't manage a swell that big and drown emotionally, never to recover. The ripples go on and on. There is no shore to stop them. The ripples move on, touching every one you've ever known, leaving a smudge of needless emotion on those you've left behind, regardless of how far removed.

While you're looking down on that barely visible road, trying hard to see the hazy outline of hills ahead, try to think of some of the details others will have to deal with.

Someone is going to have to pick out your coffin. Is that something you want your wife to do? Or maybe your best friend would enjoy it more. Or maybe your father.

She will ask what kind of suit they will need for you. Oh, a suit isn't needed she is told. For the rest of her life she will be haunted by the image of what they wouldn't let her see inside the closed coffin.

Am I shocking you? Am I making you mad? Are you saying I shouldn't be saying such negative things about something we all love so much? Why, may you ask, am I being such a worry-wart and playing on the horrible aspects of aviation?

I'll tell you why. Because too many of us have lost too many friends and lovers. More than that, I want to hear myself saying these things out loud so I won't be tempted to push the envelop too far.

But, what is too far? What is acceptable? This is another highly subjective concept. One of my good friends is Patty Wagstaff. Just yesterday we were talking about her getting her head back into the game for the new season. She was working at building up her "G" tolerance and becoming "...comfortable ten feet off the ground inverted..."

Is that acceptable risk? To her it is because that's what she's trained to do. Is my falling at the runway at many thousands feet per minute in a bi-winged hockey puck with a student at the controls acceptable risk? To me it is, because that's what I've trained to do.

I wouldn't do what Patty does for anything. I don't do aerobatics low. That's not part of my managed-risk profile. That's taking me outside of my comfort zone which is defined by having been there, where ever "there" may be, and practicing it over and over.

I'm not certain that Patty would do what I do, the way that I do it, for the same reason. It's not her thing. We recognize certain risks and accept them. Much more important than that, however, we are controlling our risks. We have eliminated as much of the unknown as humanly possible through training and practice. In the case of something like failing weather: There's an element of unknown risk that can't be managed. The same with an individual who, on the spur of the moment, decides to buzz a house, even though they've never been below 500 feet in their lives except on approach. The unknown element is huge. The risk commensurate.

Risk, however, is part of expanding the envelope. Of getting better at what we do. But it should always be part of a plan. Part of a gentle probing of the gray edges of unknown territory while still keeping the path back very close and open.

Almost without exception, risk skyrockets when it isn't part of a planned and managed program. In much of life, when we do something impulsive and it back fires, we can look back and say, gee, it looked like a good idea at the time. Aviation doesn't give us that option. And the pilot isn't the one paying the highest price.

The highest prices paid in unnecessary, unplanned risk-taking are paid by those closest to emotional ground-zero. Wives, kids, parents, friends. These are the ones who pay for a pilot's momentary lapse of judgment. They are the one's who carry the scars the longest. And they are the ones who don't deserve it.

So, the next time you start to do something and you feel your pulse racing and the damp spot building in the palm of the hand, listen to your subconscious. It knows when you're about to do something stupid which is out side your normal risk envelope.

Then think about the phone on the kitchen wall and picture your wife/kid/mother taking The Call. Isn't it better to just do a 180° and wait it out or forego the buzz job? No one will ever call you stupid for doing the right thing.