Budd Davisson, Plane and Pilot Magazine

Dad’s Bolt Box

Experience, like extra nuts and bolts, has to be there when you need it

Every workshop worth its salt has a “bolt box” or something similar. It’s the designated repository for small bits of hardware and miscellaneous “stuff” that you have no known use for, but intuitively you know throwing it away is a bad idea.

In my dad’s case, the bolt box was actually a big, old drawer that sat on the floor under the workbench. There was an unwritten rule that when you took something small off of a mechanical contrivance of any kind, you didn’t throw it away, you tossed it in The Box.

The result was that The Box was at least eight inches deep in little nuts, bolts, screws, cabinet door handles, washers, and widgets that dad figured “…someday I’ll need that.” When you found yourself stumped for a part, you went trolling through the depths of the drawer with a long screwdriver, turning over the continually replenished, 40-year layer of old hardware. I have a similar snowdrift of mechanical debris under my own bench.

Those of us in aviation all have a similar catch-all for miscellaneous stuff, only we call it “memories” or “experience.” Every thing we’ve done, seen or heard gets tossed into our mental Bolt Box in the hopes that we’ll find it again, when the time comes to reapply it to a new use.

I’m continually impressed by the incredible depth of some pilot’s mental bolt boxes. I’m not talking about those who have all sorts of degrees and/or opinions and love to argue aerodynamic minutia. No, I’m talking about the kind of pilots who, when they’re maneuvering an airplane, seem to have a special ability to reach into The Box and come out with exactly what’s needed at that exact instant and can make it work. They go about their work quietly and efficiently with a minimum of fuss.

The more I fly, the deeper my bolt box becomes and, as I sift through the miscellaneous goodies, the more I realize that the art of flying is just that: it’s an art and, with the exception of only a few areas, it is anything but a black and white science. Physics be damned, what works in one situation doesn’t necessarily work in another. Sometimes you have to dig through The Box and take a piece of one concept and stitch it together with pieces from two or three others to make the airplane to do what you want.

To be completely frank about it, I’m increasingly aware that there are as many gray areas in aviation as there are black and white ones and I’m beginning to feel as if I know less and less about what I do. I’m a trained and reasonably experienced aeronautical engineer and I’m supposed to know this airplane stuff, but my flying experiences are often contradictory to that I know are theoretical facts. It’s frustrating and sometimes I think I knew more back when I knew less. Or at least I thought I did. 

When I’m being backed into a conversational corner by an individual who is absolutely convinced that he is working with a black and white issue, I usually find myself digging through my bolt box, which often confuses me because I find so many items that in one situation or another don’t seem to fit the facts. I know the person’s statements are right, but I’ve seen a ton of gray areas that throw a different light on them, while the person who is on the offensive has probably been working in the middle of the envelop his entire life where the light is bright and direct, which yields only one interpretation. In confrontational situations like that, believe it or not, I often find myself at a loss of words and can’t truly explain my position. I’ve spent a life time working at the edges of the envelop, not in the middle, and I guess I’ve collected too many gray-colored gizmos for my bolt box.

When I get into those kinds of intense discussions, I sometimes feel as if the person on the other side doesn’t have a bolt box at all. Rather than digging through their accumulation of bits and pieces looking for parts that fit, they go to the flight training store and buy a complete concept that is designed just for that purpose. Most of the time, in regards to the specific point they are trying to make, they are right. However, they think that by proving that single point, the entire concept is suddenly cast in concrete and there’s nothing else to learn about it. Huh! This could be my problem.

Every single week either a student or the airplane shows me something new. Just when I think I know something, it becomes clear I don’t. Usually, it’s something I thought I totally understood but obviously didn’t. Each time that happens, a tidbit of new information is dropped into The Box. You’d think that when that happens, it would make each of us a little smarter and more capable of arguing our case. Maybe that’ll happen some day, but right I know for a fact I don’t come close to having 10% of the answers, much less all of them. In fact, I think I’m just now starting to figure out what some of the questions are.   At this rate, by the time I get to the end of my flying career, I’m not going to know a single thing.