When You Feel That A Question Needs To Be Asked, Ask It



I recently watched a news story in which a doctor at the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, asked the media to refrain from asking questions about the fact that his future son-in-law had come down with the very same tuberculosis he studies in his lab.

Is he kidding? Don't ask?

There are some questions that not only should be asked, but must be asked. Even though there may have been nothing wrong going on, saying that the media shouldn't ask questions about such an incredibly unlikely coincidence is like saying you shouldn't check your hip pocket when you see someone else holding your wallet.

I remember a time when I asked a question in an Air Force tech school. Our instructor had just said, "So, when calculating the weight and balance of this passenger aircraft, use this special slide rule to calculate that the center of weight falls between 16 and 32 percent of M-A-C."

The weight and balance of a passenger (or cargo) aircraft is recalculated each time it flies, because its payload changes. Most of the lifting force that holds an aircraft in the air is provided by the wings. The center of weight of a payload must fall over the wings or the plane will not fly well. If the center of weight is too far off, the plane may not fly at all, and may even crash on takeoff or landing. Or it may waste so much fuel that it cannot make it to its destination. I knew all that, but I didn't know what M-A-C meant.

My hand went up. "What's M-A-C?"

"Mean aerodynamic chord," the instructor shot right back.

My hand went in the air again.

"Yes, Garrett?" he asked.

"What does ‘mean aerodynamic chord' mean?"

"Oh, uh, yes. Well, uh, let me get back to you on that."

In educationese, "Let me get back to you on that" means, "I don't know, but I'll go look it up." It's a perfectly valid way to treat a question. A teacher can't be expected to know everything.

The next day, my hand went up again.

"Did you find out what ‘mean aerodynamic chord' meant?"

"I, uh, haven't, uh, had time yet."

I asked the same question for a few more days, each time watching the instructor grow more angry. Finally, I quit asking and did a little quiet investigating. I found out that no one in the entire tech school knew what "mean aerodynamic chord" meant, even though they had been using the term for years.

I thought about it. "Mean" is another word for average, "aero" refers to something that flies, and a "chord" is a straight line. I tentatively decided that "mean aerodynamic chord" meant the average width of the wing, from leading edge to trailing edge. Later on, at another base where I actually began doing weight and balance calculations, I learned from some of the older men that I was correct.

One day, one of our passenger aircraft took off for a flight to England with a stopover in Gander, Newfoundland. When it landed, the main landing gear collapsed because its weight and balance had been done incorrectly. No one was killed or injured, but the aircraft had to be replaced and required a very expensive repair.

The WAF who had signed off on the weight and balance was in big trouble, until I happened to remember that unanswered question back in tech school. I mentioned the subject to our squadron commander and he asked the WAF if she knew what M-A-C meant. She didn't, and after some more questioning, the commander determined that the fact that she did not fully understand what she was doing led directly to a glaring error.

Instead of the blame for the error falling on her shoulders, it quite rightly fell on the shoulders of the instructor who had failed to teach her the job.

Some questions just have to be asked. And when they're asked, they just have to be answered, particularly when it comes to aircraft.

The trouble with those things is you can't just pull over and park if something goes wrong.

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