On long poles, sportiness and belly buttons

January 6, 2008

Each Sunday, as those who know me well can attest, I read William Safire’s On Language column in the New York Times Magazine before pretty much anything else.  If you love language, you love his column.  This week I was surprised to see him credit “long pole in the tent” as the hot metaphor emerging in the new year.  But it all made sense once he identified the expression as an “aviation term.” 

It took me back to my days at Eclipse Aviation (2000-2005), where the long pole in the tent was a topic of regular discussion.  Among the various definitions Safire ponders, the one closest to our use was the one attributed to Tony Velocci editor of Aviation Week as “the thing among a list of tasks for a project that will take the longest to do, or alternatively, the thing that will ‘hold everything up.’” 

I’d come from the high-tech world into Eclipse, a company that was composed of equal parts computer industry folks and aviation world folks with a sprinkling of military veterans.  It was a fertile environment for cross-pollinization of metaphors and buzz words.  “Long pole in the tent” was the first of many expressions I picked up there. 

Two other favorites: 

Sporty – aggressive, optimistic.  A schedule could be sporty, as could a sales target or an aircraft spec.  I believe that Ken Harness, our VP Engineering, now COO North America of Diamond Aircraft, brought this phrase with him from a previous life at Sikorsky, though fellow Eclipsers should feel free to correct me. 

Belly button – responsible person.  As in “Who’s the belly button on this?”  Gene Garnes, our VP Program Management, contributed this expression and if memory serves correctly, he brought it from his former career in the U.S. Marine Corps. 

Put them all together and you get.  “X is the long pole in the tent for getting into flight test, which we’re planning for May.  That’s sporty!  Who’s the belly button on this?”