The Elements of Flying
I was departing from a Dallas reliever airport the other day — yes, I am being purposely vague — in a very cool, very hot airplane — yup, more of the vagueness — when my here-to-remain anonymous flying buddy in the right seat mentioned that most operators of that particular airplane flip on the yaw damper shortly after takeoff, a comment he punctuated with a pointed and friendly push of the button labeled “YD.”
What he should have said, of course, was something to the effect of, “More right rudder, you idiot!” or something like that, a point he would have been perfectly justified in punctuating with a whack on the head with a rolled up high-altitude en route chart. He was either being nice or being realistic enough to recognize that many pilots use the yaw damper in the airplane and reserve the use of the rudder pedals for the sim. In either case, it was a little thing, the ball half out on a steep climbing departure, but it was sloppy.
In any case, hearing this admonition, my mind somehow improbably went to, who else, E.B. White and Wolfgang Langewiesche, two guys who knew a thing or two about the little things.
Of my half dozen or so life passions, two of them — writing and flying — are the subjects of strange little books full of practical advice that have somehow taken on almost mystical significance to us who care enough to want to know just a little too much about such things. The books in question, many of you have already figured out, are Stick and Rudder published in book form in 1944 by Wolfgang Langewiesche, and The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, published in 1959. (The latter is commonly referred to simply as “Strunk and White.”) For the record, I never took to trying to outsmart perfectly innocent little fish or to spoiling otherwise pleasant walks by chasing a recalcitrant little white ball around the countryside with a a stick, but I do recognize that other pursuits have their holy texts, too. I prefer words and wings.
In Stick and Rudder, Langewiesche instructs about such seemingly mundane topics as angle of attack and the nature of lift. In Strunk and White, E.B. White, a former student of Strunk’s at Cornell, turned his professor’s little book of style hints into a remarkably practical yet meditative guide on ways to be kind to the English language, such as by not recklessly tacking on phrase after phrase until the horse has unequivocally stopped whinnying. I recognize there are big differences between creating readable prose and piloting an airplane: For one, aerodynamics are universal. Whereas the rules of prose in French and English are profoundly different, rudder pedals in both nations, to the equal dismay of student pilots in Marseilles and Morristown, speak the exact same language.
Still, the big-picture similarities between the little books are striking. The writers of both works — Langewiesche, for the record, was an Ivy Leaguer, too, a Columbia man — approach their subjects in much the same manner, in a remarkably earnest and thoughtful way, as though their advice were just another bicycle maintenance manual — don't get me started on Charles Taylor, the bicycle mechanic behind the Wright's success — though in both, the authors feel free to wander off while pondering the whys and wherefores of word order and adverse yaw, subjects we readers usually take for granted.
That's the paradox of both guidebooks and the magic of them too. Through all the nuts and bolts, the stick forces and semi colons, the p-factors and m-dashes, a greater truth emerges. We're left with a compelling sense that despite the details, despite the ten thousands little things that compose the larger pursuit, there’s at last a relationship between the doer and the deed, a relationship that matters.
In my mind, that's precisely what being a pilot is all about and why those of us who care can't seem to shut up about it.
We've got a relationship.
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