It doesn’t keep me up at night, but on certain rare occasions I have wondered why it is that airplanes “taxi” from the ramp to the runway and back again. Why, after all, don’t they just “roll” their way from one place to another, or simply drive, given that they are always on the ground when they do so.
Taxis and taxiing probably intrigue me because taxis are in my family’s blood. My cousin and his wife owned a taxi company in the Bronx. Gertrude Martell kept the drivers in line and seemed to run the show. She was a tough character, and was known around town as “Gravel Gertie”. For a few decades you could mention her name to any cab driver in the city and they would have at least have heard of her. My father drove a cab in his twenties at night to augment the income from his day job selling candy, as did my grandfather and others in the family as well. I always wanted to drive a taxi, but my dad thought it was too dangerous and used his influence to extinguish my fantasy (as in, “I forbid you to drive a taxi.”) To this day I pause when I get an email from Uber or Lyft and spend at least a few seconds considering my options.
The word “taxi” is merely an abbreviation for “taximeter,” a meter that measures the distance traveled in order to determine the fare, or “tax”. (“Tax” stems from the Latin “taxare”– to censure, charge, or compute.) Airplanes have dreaded Hobbs meters that measure the amount of time that an airplane’s engine is cranking; they are the bane of every student pilot because those meters determine how much your lesson is going to cost. At one point they were designed to switch on when the electrical system was ignited, but pilots quickly figured out that they could switch off the electrical master and taxi just fine without electricity, so Hobbs meters were redesigned to be switched on and off by oil pressure, so that they will run as long as the engine is running. But the use of the word “taxi” for what airplanes do on the ground pre-dated the invention of Hobbs meters, so the Hobbs “taximeters” in airplanes could not have been the origin of the term.
The most likely origin of the word in connection to what planes do on the ground dates back to Henri Farman’s flight school outside Paris in the early 1900s. In order to train new pilots, Farman used a “simulator”—an airplane with shorter wings and a heavier body, one that could not fly (or at least not fly too high or far) in the hands of an overly eager newbie, but could simulate the feel of an airplane. Farman thought it would be a good idea to create an airplane with “clipped wings” in order to not risk too many of the flock in the hands of inexperienced pilots.
Mostly, these “simulators” would roll around the ground like a taxicab driving slowly down the street looking for fares, and eventually folks began calling the machine a “taxi”. The expression took hold and spread to other schools. That’s the story, but if anyone knows otherwise, I won’t stick to it.
Regardless of the word you use for it, if you’re in an airplane, you have to find a way to get from your hangar or parking spot to the runway in order to get yourself off the ground. Maybe that’s why Mark Twain so famously said that there are only two things in life that are inevitable: death and taxis.