Do you walk to school or carry your lunch?
Such reads the label on the delicious confection “Screaming Yellow Zonkers.” It is a testament to the brilliance of advertising that I remember the label better than the taste of the product. I am a fan of the non sequitur, both in literature, life and, you guessed it, aviation.
The great non sequitur in aviation is the condition known as cross-controlling an airplane. It happens when you point the ailerons and the rudder in the opposite direction, resulting in uncoordinated flight. When turning an airplane, pilots are taught to dip one wing with an aileron, and use the rudder to move the tail so that it follows the direction of the turn. The result is an airplane whose tail follows its nose, creating a balanced or coordinated turn. If, on the other hand, you point the rudder in the opposite direction of the turn, the tail will wag the dog, and some say that can be dangerous.
The result of cross-controlling an airplane is something referred to as a slip. It is not at all unlike what happens in a car when driving on ice or hydroplaning and you turn the wheels to the left but your car careens to the right. Unless you are a stunt driver or a really hormonal teenager it is not something you typically want to do in a car.
Uncoordinated flight can more easily lead to an aerodynamic stall, which means that the wings stop developing lift. That can result in a dangerous condition known as a spin, and unless you are doing aerobatics or training for a disaster, that can put you on an unwelcome path to a rather abrupt meeting of airplane to ground to undertaker.
So, I had read or had been told by some old wife that cross-controlling an airplane was a thing to be avoided. My first flight instructor thought all that was hogwash. “Real men,” he would say, “cross-control their airplane.” He never actually said that, but I know he thought it. Once, just to prove it to me, he cross-controlled the little Cessna we were in all around the pattern. “It’s a perfectly legitimate way to control an airplane.” I believe he actually did say something just like that.
There are people who spend much of their grown lives cross-controlled. They point their noses in one direction while going in the other. They are living out the wrong gender, working in a job they hate, trapped in a world or lifestyle, sometimes of their own making, in which their hearts are aimed elsewhere. We cross-control our lives for a variety of reasons; I suspect most do it out of fear of the consequences, letting other people down or feeling unable to survive the consequences of living authentically.
Then again, there are times pilots cross-control their airplanes intentionally. I, for one, enjoy doing it when I am coming in too high and need to lose altitude quickly. It is called “crabbing,” because your airplane comes to the earth quite sideways looking like a crab walking in the opposite direction its head seems to be pointing. It’s quite a beautiful thing when you dip a wing, push the stick forward, and use full opposite rudder. Suddenly you are looking at the ground beneath you through the side window rather than your windscreen, using the fuselage of the airplane to increase drag and both hasten and cushion your arrival.
The sad and perhaps most dangerous thing is when we cross-control our airplanes unintentionally. Maybe we have relied too long on autopilots, and lose track of the fundamentals. We forget how to slip intentionally, so instead we slip unintentionally and fall. We let our airplanes control us, and take the simple way out. We forget how much courage it takes to fly an airplane or live a life. It all becomes too easy.
I believe that failure to intentionally cross-control emanates from discomfort with and a lack of appreciation for the beauty of the non sequitur. We want our lives to follow a sequential path. We don’t want to choose between walking to school and carrying our lunch, but instead we like to choose either to walk to school or take a bus. A mentor of mine used to be proud of how he would tell stories to his grandchildren of when he was a little girl. As a child, my brother taunted me with the funniest joke he ever heard, a foreshadowing no doubt of my tussle with radios. One bear in a bathtub asks the other bear to pass the soap, whereupon the other bear responds, “No soap. Radio.” My brother then laughed riotously. I never got the joke, until I realized years later that that was the point. The joke was on me.
That was not a fun lesson, but it was a lesson nevertheless. Sometimes, life is not sequential. Sometimes, we need to break the rules, cross the controls and approach the ground sideways. The consequences can be dangerous, but therein resides the need for courage.