Dave Barry

The rubber band man

(This classic Dave Barry column was originally published Aug. 3, 1997.)

If you are a regular reader of this column, you know that I make it my business to report on Stuff That Guys Do. A good example is the sport of snowplow hockey, in which guys driving trucks use their snowplow blades to knock a bowling ball past trucks driven by opposing guys. This is not to be confused with car bowling, in which guys in low-flying airplanes try to drop bowling balls onto junked cars. I've also reported on guys going off a ski jump in a canoe, and on guys trying to build a huge modernized version of a catapult-like medieval war weapon and then using it to hurl a Buick 200 yards.

These are guy activities. These are activities that, when you describe them to a group containing both males and females, provoke two very different reactions:

Male reaction: ''Cool!'' Female reaction: ''Why?''

The answer, of course, is: Because guys like to do stuff. This explains both the Space Shuttle and mailbox vandalism.

Today I want to report on another inspiring example of guys doing stuff. There is a guy in Van Nuys (rhymes with ``guys''), Calif., who is planning, one day soon, to roll down an airport runway and become the first human in recorded history to take off in an airplane that is powered by a rubber band.

I am not making this up. I have met this guy, a 44-year-old stunt pilot whose name happens to be George Heaven. I have also seen his plane, which he designed, and which is called the Rubber Bandit. Do you remember the little rubber-band planes that you used to assemble from pieces of balsa? This plane looks a lot like those, except that it's 33 feet long, with a wingspan of 71 feet and an 18-foot-long propeller. The body is made from high-tech, super-lightweight carbon fiber, so it weighs only 220 pounds without the rubber band, which weighs 90 pounds.

This is not your ordinary rubber band such as you would steal from the supply cabinet at your office. This is made from a continuous strand of rubber that is a quarter-inch wide and 3- ½ miles long; if you stretched it out, it would extend for 24 miles, which means that -- to put this in scientific terms -- if you shot it at somebody, it would sting like a mother.

The rubber band has been folded back over itself 400 times, so now it forms a fat, 25-foot-long, python-like rubber snake on the hangar floor at the Van Nuys Airport. When the big day comes, a winch will wind the rubber band 600 to 800 times, and everybody involved will be very, very careful. You have to watch your step when dealing with your large-caliber rubber bands. I know this from personal experience, because one time a friend of mine named Bill Rose, who is a professional editor at The Miami Herald and who likes to shoot rubber bands at people, took time out from his busy journalism schedule to construct what he called the Nuclear Rubber Band, which was 300 rubber bands attached together end-to-end.

One morning in The Miami Herald newsroom, I helped Bill test-fire the Nuclear Rubber Band. I hooked one end over my thumb, and Bill stretched the other end back, back, back, maybe 75 feet. Then he let go. It was an amazing sight to see this whizzing, blurred blob come hurtling through the air, passing me at a high rate of speed and then shooting wayyyy across the room, where it scored a direct bull's-eye hit smack dab on a fairly personal region of a professional reporter named Jane.

Jane, if you're reading this, let me just say, by way of sincere personal apology, that it was Bill's fault.

The thing is, Bill's rubber band was nothing compared with the one that will power George Heaven's Rubber Bandit. If that one were to snap when fully wound, in the words of Rubber Bandit crew chief Tom Beardsley, ``it has the potential to kill someone.''

Then there is the whole question of what will happen if the Rubber Bandit -- with Heaven sitting on a tiny seat hanging below the fuselage, between the wheels -- actually takes off. I keep thinking about all the balsa model planes I had when I was a boy. I'd wind the propeller until my finger was sore, then I'd set the plane down on the street, let the prop go and watch as the plane surged forward, became airborne, and then -- guided by some unerring homing instinct that balsa apparently possesses -- crashed into the nearest available object and broke into small pieces.

I discussed this with Heaven, who nodded the nod of a man who has heard it all many times. He told me he was not worried at all.

''You're out of your mind,'' I said.

''I know it,'' he said.

So there you have it: A Guy On A Mission. Heaven (who looks and sounds a little like the late Robert Mitchum, although he denies this) hopes to make his historic flight around the end of August. He's trying to raise money so that he and his crew can finish the Rubber Bandit. Naturally you are wondering if he has approached the Trojan condom company about a sponsorship; the answer is yes, he did, and -- incredibly -- Trojan turned him down.

But he and his volunteers have been working on this project for two years, and I don't think they're going to quit. So keep an eye out for news on the Rubber Bandit. If you live near Van Nuys, you should also keep an ear out, and if you hear a really loud twanging sound, duck.