Budd Davisson, June, 1993

Jonathan Livingston Crow?

"They fly for fun, you know."

"Who?" I knew full well that was the expected response and I was being sucked into a slightly off-center conversation, but that's what friends are for.

"Crows, " he said, "They fly for fun, just watch and you'll see what I mean."

The words rumbled along in the deep Carolina drawl my best friend, Jim Clevenger, makes believe is a voice. We've disagreed on a lot of things in the last 20 years, however, one thing we absolutely don't disagree on, is any thing having to do with flying. So, when he made his grand statement about the aeronautical habits of crows, I took note.

I looked in the direction he was pointing and spotted one of those typical crow herds we're all so used to seeing that we ignore them unless they happen to be centering a thermal in the middle of a runway. Although crow-watching has never been high on my personal agenda of social events, I singled out a given crow and started tracking his flight path.

Several things happen, when you separate an individual out of any crowd, crows or otherwise. For one thing, you immediately notice the generalities you had been ascribing to the behavior of the crowd don't fit any individual exactly. Each is a little different. You also find that although the behavior of the mob may be built on the behavior of the individual, that behavior is an average that smoothes out the differences between the screwballs and the genius's, the librarians and the daredevils.

When I focused in on the crow-mob and began to reduce it to individuals, I very quickly drew one concrete conclusion: Those guys may have been doing a lot of things, but looking for food wasn't one of them.

After watching this gang, I've decided crows spend so little time on work, they act as if their next meal is being delivered by Domino's. If those guys were watching the ground, it was only so they wouldn't accidentally fill a bird-sized hole full of feathers during one of their let's-see-if-you-can-do-this routines.

My eyes had barely focused on a specific coal-colored missile, when he suddenly folded his wings, actually tucked them in to reduce their span, and fell out of the air like a wounded badminton birdie. Even more interesting, he didn't simply tuck them in and fall, he was doing a tight diving turn that was under total control. At first I thought "...this guy is guessing. He doesn't know where he's going...". But, as he neared the ground, he stayed in the turn and blasted across the top of a couple of his squadron mates, as they sat on the edge of a corn field. They didn't even see him coming and scattered like, well... like a flock of crows, as he roared through their midst in a beak-to-beak, feathers to the metal, pass. He was smoking!

I wouldn't know a crow-laugh, if I heard it, but it certainly sounded as if this crow was giving the rest of the group his version of a Bronx cheer and I could swear I saw a middle feather sticking up as he zoomed away.

I had the distinct feeling this guy had read some Richard Bach.

Every where you looked crows were chasing each other's tail, playfully picking on one another and generally screwing off.

Growing up in Nebraska, we were up to our silos in crows. They were everywhere and somehow, there seemed to be a universal understanding that crows weren't serious birds. In fact, I sensed the rest of the bird community felt the same way. All the other birds, especially those oh-so-proper robins, seemed to stand aside, looking down their beaks at the crows' seemingly frivolous approach to life.

Everything that flew, from sparrows to robins, fit nicely into the order of things, with the notable exception of crows. They milled around and laughed and carried on until, when standing in the middle of a good sized flock, you couldn't even hear yourself thinking "...this would be a really good place to be wearing a wide-brimmed hat..."

Even as a kid, I knew crows were somehow different. Among other things, crows scurried around and quickly got the food thing behind them so they could get back to serious aerial tomfoolery. And I wondered, if they knew the rest of the world thought they were screw-offs. I wondered if they felt any pressure to conform. To be practical.

When I began learning to fly, I almost immediately began to feel pressure of some sort, but at the beginning, I couldn't figure out exactly where it was coming from, or what it meant. All I knew, was that the primary mission of flight, as defined by aviation's version of bird hierarchy, was clearly based on utilitarian, not philosophical terms. The stated mission was to get somewhere, as quickly as possible.

After a while I began to realize what the pressure was: The social structure of aviation was applying a subliminal pressure to be practical and it didn't feel right, but I didn't know why.

At the time, I knew flight was a wonderfully practical way to go places, but somehow, I didn't feel as if we were squeezing as much out of the experience as it had to offer. Part of me just couldn't buy into the utilitarian thing. It all seemed much deeper than simply following an airway from A to B.

Then, while we were on the way to an airshow, a friend casually put me through my first aileron roll, not realizing what long range effects that one roll would have: We weren't even back right side up, when my brain exploded and my world suddenly took a 90 degree right turn! I instantly knew what had been missing. I had been floating around on the surface of the pond, ignoring everything that lay beneath me.

I had been ignoring the third dimension and was living the aeronautical life of a robin. And the crow part of me knew it.

Enter 16 Papa Sugar.

It's important any who have the slightest interest in knowing me also get to know 16 Papa Sugar, since it is my alter-ego. It's the part of my personality and soul that lets me live the life my subconscious has always known I was supposed to live.

16 Papa Sugar is an S-2A Pitts Special. It is my crow suit.

For 22 years this silly little biplane has let me live out my silly little fantasies by removing anything remotely resembling flight limitations. It lets me slither around on my back and ignore gravity. It gives me the freedom to do and be what I want while presenting me with the enormous challenge of doing it all right. It lets me play crow in a very serious way.

And I'm not the only one out there playing crow.

There's a whole bunch of us who fly for a whole bunch of very illogical reasons. Although, none of us fly for exactly the same batch of illogical reasons, there is one reason that is central to every one of our aeronautical decisions: We fly because it makes us feel good. Period! Forget the egos, the practicalities of time saved, the love of the hardware, etc. First and foremost, flight makes us feel good.

We're not all akro pilots, we're not all antiquers, we're not all homebuilders or warbird types. We are, however, all in love with the feeling of flight and that's what I was witnessing in the noisy, feathered conflagration at Clevenger's place. I was watching some tiny aviators who were in love with what they were doing. And believe me, it showed.

It's probably hard for a crow to crack a grin, beaks being what they are, but you can bet you'll never catch a crow frowning. And, if you ever do want to see a crow actually smile, just watch one of us taxi up after a good flight and unstrap.

Now, that's the look of a contented crow.

I've always thought robins were goody two-shoes wimps, anyway!