What’s the tennis ball for?” asked one of my students. Almost every one of them ask the same old question. I answered, “That’s one of the IQ tests that came with my hangar. You can’t be issued a passing grade around here until you figure it out.”
The ball is dangling from a string that runs down the back of the hangar door. When the door is being moved, the ball dribbles along on the ground behind it, then is sucked up to chest level when the door is fully open or closed. Being as objective as I can, I have to admit that it does look a little weird, but it came with the hangar. I don’t tell them what it’s for because I know that sooner or later, they’ll figure it out for themselves. In fact, it’s one of those red-spot-in-the-forehead things: When they figure it out, they smack themselves in the forehead and say, “Duh! Of course!”
When going through the ritual of pulling the airplane out, getting ready to fly, then putting it back to bed, there are several similar brain teasers with which almost every student struggles, some more than others. Actually, I hesitate to describe them here because any potential student who reads this column will then have all the magic answers. Nah, no problem: Anyone who reads this knows better than to fly with me.
The tennis ball preys on their minds for the entire time they’re here, sometimes a week or more. I’ll see them with the ball in their hands, looking at the string, and I can practically see the thought balloon over their head, “What the…?”
They’ll still be mentally fidgeting with the tennis ball when the next IQ test appears: They see me push the airplane in and out using a Taildragger Dragger tow bar. One hundred percent of the time, they say something like, “Hey, that’s pretty cool. Where did you get that?” So many have copied the manufacturer’s address off the sticker that I should be getting a sales commission.
I’ll be fueling the airplane, and invariably, I’ll see them trying to help by getting the tow bar out of the hangar and attaching it to the airplane. Let me rephrase that: attempting to attach it to the airplane. I say “attempting” because they almost never succeed.
There are two wheels at the front of the bar and two rods sticking out of the side that everyone immediately understands is where the tailwheel is supposed to be cradled while the airplane is being pulled. But they can’t figure out how to get the tailwheel up on those rods. While I’m doing paperwork, I watch them out of the corner of my eye. They’ll push and pull the bar, squiggle it around, right to left, getting more and more frustrated in the process. We’re talking pilots of all experience levels, many of them engineers and airplane builders. These are folks who are used to being able to figure things out, but in this particular instance, they couldn’t. Don’t you hate it when a tow bar is smarter than you are? It will let them futz with it for a while, then, just short of the point where they’re ready to throw the bar over the hangar in a fit of frustration, I’ll step in, make a quick little motion with the bar and start pulling the airplane.
“Wait,” they’ll ask. “How did you do that?”
Again, I’ll answer, “You’ll figure it out. I just wanted to show you that it could be done.”
Yes, some of my students have threatened me with bodily harm. To avoid that, I generally relent and show them how to pivot the bar on the ground in such a way that the locating rods slide around the tailwheel in one sweeping motion. Another red spot in their forehead appears.
My all-around favorite test comes when we’re all done, the tow bar task is behind us, the airplane is in the hangar and covered up, and it’s “Miller Time.” The student is excited about the flying that he or she has been doing and is generally babbling away.
My car is usually parked inside the hangar, next to the right wing. I’ll walk to the other side of the hangar and pull that half of the door shut, and most of the students will walk over and pull the other one shut, meeting me in the middle. When I see them doing that, I would mentally set up the next IQ test.
Without saying a word (I have to work really hard to keep from grinning), I would stand there outside the hangar and watch as they pull the door shut. They’ll still be rambling on about the flying and are proud of themselves for helping, so we stand there and have a nice little chat. Then, anywhere from 10 seconds to as long as a full minute into the conversation, they again smack themselves in the forehead when they realize that they’ve closed the door with the car still inside the hangar and we need it to drive back through the security gates.
It’s not uncommon for us to talk for so long that it’s obvious they don’t have a clue as to what they’ve done. I’ll lean against the door and listen, while my student, who is feeling really good about himself or herself, chatters away. Then I burst the bubble: I have to remind him or her that it’s much easier to get the car out if the door is open. Another red spot.
You’d think that flying presents enough challenges without guys like me sandbagging our students. But, hey, if you can’t have fun with your students, who can?
And the tennis ball? You’ll soon figure it out.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & A, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his Website at www.airbum.com.