Budd Davisson, Plane & Pilot

Secondary Victims

A friend of mine died a while back and it was sad to see him go. Sandy Hudson was an irascible old guy who would accept you exactly as you are and ask only that you do the same for him. He was a rough-cut diamond of a person who had far-reaching effects on three or four generations of pilots.

No, Sandy didn't die in an airplane accident but he was the secondary victim of one. He was one of those statistics that the NTSB has no way of compiling and which no computer can identify.

Every airplane accident is a rock tossed into a pond and the NTSB keeps records of the splashes, but they have no way of following and recording the ripples. Sandy was one of those ripples. A few months before, Sandy had lost his son in an airplane accident at a fly-in and Sandy never got over it. There's not one of his friends that doubts that he died of grief; that his heart just couldn't handle what had happened and finally gave up. Even though it may be supposition on the part of his friends, it is still a medical fact that people who suffer major shocks as a result of losing a loved one are ten to fifteen times more likely to die in the next two years than one who's had no such shock.

It has often been said that . a moment's carelessness can last a lifetime and nowhere is that truer than in aviation where a temporary lapse of caution can cause a permanent wave of pain and anxiety as the ripples of the splash spread out over family and friends. At the instant "I think I'll buzz the guys" flashes through your mind you've totally forgotten that you are part of a densely woven fabric of life and breaking the thread that attaches you to the rest of the fabric can cause the entire thing to come unraveled until, what was once a tightly-woven family unit, is a loose and tattered tear-soaked rag.

I remember one Sunday afternoon watching a guy saunter around the ramp exuding airport macho from every pore. Periodically he'd climb into his old triple-tail Bellanca and go out and prove his machismo (and stupidity) by doing (badly) a couple of loops in the pattern. Finally, he went charging off in close formation with a friend's Cherokee trying, to prove that, although he didn't have the experience, he did have the guts. He finished the afternoon by pulling up in front of the Cherokee and losing his tail in the process. Fortunately he was alone and the Cherokee was able to land in a field with no damage to the occupants.

Mr. Macho was gone. He didn't have to live with the pain, the anguish and the suffering that his wife and kids now inherited. He didn't have to come home to the empty house that was full of memories. He didn't have to go through the process of talking to insurance companies, cleaning out closets and settling up bills. He had already done his number; he had impressed his friends; he had lived out his Steve Canyon fantasies and he didn't give one single thought to his family until the Bellanca was on its back, spinning frantically toward the ground, its cockpit filled with panic and fear.

The smoky hole that always indicates a negative outcome from a moment of stupidity contains much more than the mortal remains of a plane and a pilot; it marks the final resting place of the normal life of all those who loved him, because a major part of each of his loved ones died right alongside him.

It always infuriates me when I see people taking risks, because the risk they are taking isn't really theirs. They aren't risking just their life; they are risking the life of their entire family and risks like that are stupid-plain stupid.

Remember, I'm one who is prone to doing stupid things-it's part and parcel of the job. But some things are more stupid than others and I know it. There's a certain envelope which defines the outer limits of "normal" stupid, beyond which I know I'm taking a risk that should not be taken. Sometimes it's tempting to fly a little closer, to fly a little lower, to get the photograph that will be a little bit better or a little different than the rest-but is it worth it? Absolutely not!

I have several very firm rules that I never break. You might call them rules for preventing an attack of stupidity. The first is that before leaving home to go to the airport on some sort of a mission that I know will test my common sense, I gather both my kids together and hug and kiss them because I want that to be the last thing on my mind when I climb into the airplane. I want my family to be the constant thought that always pulls me back into the realm of common sense. The second rule I have is that when I am knowingly approaching the outer envelope of common sense and am beginning to push my luck, I force a picture upon my mind's eye: I picture myself invisible and standing in the kitchen when the phone rings and some impersonal voice tells my wife that I have dug my own hole and I visualize the reaction she and the kids will have to the news that daddy is not coming home this time. I can't cause that kind of pain I refuse to cause that kind of pain just to give myself or someone else a little bit higher profile thrill in an airplane.

So Sandy is gone, a victim of an accident he had nothing to do with. But maybe many of us who knew him will think a little harder the next time we're about to do something that tests our common sense. Next time maybe we'll think past the cockpit and realize the long-lasting effect our mistakes will have on others and will ask ourselves "Is the risk really worth it?" BD