Budd Davisson, 1990

Defining Insanity

Arizona filled the front of the T-34's canopy but I didn't see any of the state. As I crammed the stick in the forward corner, the only thing in my vision was the twisting form of the other T-34 ahead. We were headed straight down. Mike Dillon in the other bird was making a rolling recovery out of a split-S, as I bent my machine around and down in vain pursuit.

Leaving the blue behind, the mountains rushed up to meet us and it suddenly dawned on me that Mike's son, Steve, was in the front seat. What could he possibly be thinking? A quick glance caught a kid's grinning face as he aimlessly drummed his fingers on the canopy frame waiting for these two old men to quit fooling around. No big deal! Nothing new here.

In a flash, an earlier conversation with Mike came to mind in which he recounted his wile's response to the death of one of his flying buddies. She had immediately said, "Don't you have any sane friends?" At that instant, going straight down, with the wings trying hard to point me in the direction of Mike's airplane and a complacent 20 year old in the front seat, the thought suddenly crossed my mind, "Who defines sanity? Who decides what is irrational and where the outter limits lie?"

It is obvious that a sizeable portion of society would brand this aerial cavorting as three dimensional insanity. A the same time, another portion, which is much smaller, would wonder why I was being so conservative, why I wasn't pushing the envelope harder. That portion wouldn't question my relative newness to the machine or the fact that it wasn't my airplane. All they would question was what I was doing in the contest at all, if everything wasn't going to be pushed through the firewall trying to win.

Sanity, I decided in a "G" induced grayness, is relative. Sanity is defined by the mental eye of the beholder and is something we each assume we have more of than the other guy. Insanity, on the other hand, is possessed only by others.

If we exclude the obvious insanity of murder, mayhem and working for a living, then the definition of sanity has to do with the way we conduct our lives relative to the conduct of the rest of the population. That being the case, let's question the rationality of flying. What is rational about putting ourselves in a mechanical contrivance and letting it instantly put us in an environment in which we are totally dependent upon the aircraft for our survival? This factor may be one reason personal aviation touches such a tiny percentage of the population; The rest have judged private aviation as a show of irrationality which indicates someone has crossed the line into the dark recesses of insanity.

Of course that same society, the one that judges the little airplane crowd as being three cards short of a full deck, is perfectly willing to put themselves in a gigantic, tin foil mailng tube with 300 other souls, and let some stranger take them flying. That's not judged irrational because, when surrounded by 300 business suits, crying babies and homebound college kids, it appears rational since a portion of the majority is riding with them.

If flying little airplanes causes the majority to question our psycholgical well being, then what does pushing the envelope say to them? Not long ago I was having a rare conversa-tion with my brother-in-law about something other than business and we found ourselves talking about the challenge of doing wheel landings in a Pitts. Now the brotherr-in-law could care less about flying and didn't know a wheel landing from a bagel, but he is an intellectually curious individu-al and began questioning the process. The more I explained the lack of visi-bility the extremely narrow runway, the probability of a bounce and the totally nonessential nature of the maneuver, the more he prodded for a reason to be doing it in the first place.

The explanation leaned heavily on the sheer challenge of the entire event
- and a wheel landing in a Pitts, for someone like me anyway, really can be an event. He responded with questions about why anyone would purposely make what is obviously a difficult situation even more difficult. He then began questioning the danger, something most don't even consider because we don't think it exists in that situation. He disagreed. In his mind, simply coming downhill at 85 mph, trying to thread an unseen needle and smoothly touch pavement the pilot can't see ,may not be wildly dangerous, but it's close enough.

However, for anyone to intentionally put themselves in that position for no particular reason casts some doubt on his ability to evaluate what is and isn't necessary. And that may be the difference between sanity and insanity, when measured in civilized terms. Unnecessary risk clouds the image of a person's sanity.

The brother-in-law may be right. It wasn't absolutely necessary that Dillon's T-34 remained framed in the windscreen, regardless of attitude, or that sufficient lead be figured so as to close the gap between us. In fact, it wasn't necessary we be up there at all since all we were doing was shooting pictures and imitating aerial otters.

When Mike rolled over on his back and dove out of formation, he had issued a challenge. Suddenly there was one of many such decisions we face each time we fly. . . or each time we get out of bed. In this case the decision was whether to casually motor back to the airport, or step off into an arena in which I seldom get a chance to test myself. Nothing would have been said or thought by anybody, had we drawn a beeline for the field. The challenge existed only within my head and whether I rose to it or not would be something totally private. The loss or victory would have been measured primarily by one simple fact: did I decide to play the game or take the easy way out and sit on the side lines? Was I in, or out? Just another of life's private battles. Haltingly, I played. As is always the case with this kind of decision, it was the right one.

Was this a less than sane game we were playing? It could be judged so only when measured from the outside by those who have no understanding of, or appreciation for, physical risk management and the role it plays in improving skills - and that is the primary purpose of pushing the envelope. To step into a high risk environment that is greatly beyond an individual's ability to cope is insanity in anyone's book. But, to gradually challenge one's skill, which means slowly increasing the risk factor, is progress. Without these challenges, stagnation sets in. Mental atrophy takes over and life ceases to be enjoyable, since the new and exciting often spawn the emotions we bundle up and call "fun:'

In truth, much of each of our lives borders on insanity because of the risk it places on us. In recent years I put 172,000 miles on a Honda Civic and never got out of sight of the New York City skyline. That is a true high risk environment! The guys who work high steel or daily handle thousands of volts are high risk. My brother in law, who daily gambles millions of dollars and places his mental balance and cardiac system on the line in each business deal, is high risk.

So, who defines sanity? Who can state sanity even exists, since the term is defined so many ways. I don't think I've ever felt more sane and more in control than when following Dillon through a big, swooping barrel roll. But that is a personal definition. And to answer his wife's original question, "No, Mike doesn't have any sane friends. If they were, they wouldn't be his friends!"