Unless you’re quite a bit younger and have been deprived of some of the greatest music in the last century, you know the song:
To everything, turn turn turn/ there is a season, turn turn turn/ and a time to every purpose under heaven.
And you also know that the lyric is an adaptation from Ecclesiastes, with the exception of the words “turn, turn, turn” and the “I swear it’s not too late” for peace at the end. Pete Seeger joked that he wrote the music to the song and “six words,” although I don’t know how or why he came up with the “turn turn turn” part. It certainly worked, especially for the Byrds who had a smash hit with it. (When it was released previously by the Limeliters it was called “To Everything There is a Season.”) I imagine that the notion of turning captured for Seeger the essence of the bible passage, that we can turn away from one path and go down another, or perhaps simply that we have choices in life. There may be a time for war and a time for peace, but we humans have the agency to turn away from one and point ourselves in another direction.
King Solomon, of course, was the dude who enabled a couple of women to save on DNA testing by cleverly instructing the alleged mothers to cut their disputed baby in half in order to determine maternity, and he’s also the guy who is the attributed author of Ecclesiastes. I have neither a bone nor baby to split with Solomon the wise, so if he were around I might be inclined to confess a failing in order to get some aeronautical advice. It’s about turning. Are you ready? I am whispering now. I really don’t know how an airplane turns.
There, I said it. Sure, I know the answer I was supposed to memorize to get the question right on the exam, having to do with ailerons creating unequal lift and all that, and I sort of know what that means, but that doesn’t really explain it. According to Rich Stowell, who knows more about the physics of flying in his fingernail than I do in my BMI-challenged body, the primary way an airplane turns is—hold on—the elevator. That’s the thing on the tail that you usually think makes the airplane go up and down. (That’s why it’s called an elevator, after all.) But you see, flying an airplane is tricky, because most earthbound people think of turning in a two-dimensional way, and flying happens in a 3-dimensional way. In other words, when you change the path of an airplane from going straight and level, you are curving its path, and that is a turn.
So, for example, if you say to a fish, turn around and look at me, and the fish could understand your thick Cockney accent, the fish could choose to swim in an upwards loop, a downwards loop, a sideways loop, or any other loop it chooses and still turn around and look at you. All it would need is its tail operating the way an elevator does (although with eyes on its side, it might need a bit of rudder as well).
Now, while I am a bit embarrassed about my lack of understanding of what is probably some basic physics, I am not alone. According to that same Rich Stowell (who used to bother me with his aerodynamic lectures in the tiny room where I was trying to pay attention to my own instructor), of the 900 pilots he has asked (he does this for a living), about a quarter of them said that it is the rudder that turns an airplane. Even a fish knows better than that!
For any of you who might have considered flying with me but have changed your minds now that I have confessed that I don’t know how an airplane turns, you should have figured out by now that I do know how to make an airplane turn. I won’t explain it to you now; you’ll have to trust me on this. There is an essential difference between knowing and doing, and on top of that there is the fact that there are also a lot of different kinds of knowing. Once you do something well enough, it could be argued, conscious knowing (e.g., verbal explanations) often disappears. My friend David once witnessed me catch a hard hit line drive just above the dirt after diving like a bolt of lightning. When I came up with it I humbly said, “I have no idea how I did that.” David, looking incredulous, said “It was just luck.” Fat chance.
While there are plenty of sources to which I can turn to learn more about turning, I prefer to consult the admired atavistic ones, such as King Solomon and Pete Seeger. Just slightly less atavistic would be the words of Leslie Bricusse as channeled through the voice and melody of Anthony Newley, who asks “Who can I turn to, when nobody needs me?” And rhetorically answers: “My heart wants to know and so I must go where destiny leads me.” Destiny? Really? Are we all just dogs on Fate’s leash?
Let go of the controls and the winds of destiny surely will turn us, whether we like where it takes us or not. Ultimately, I suppose, neither Solomon, Seeger nor Bricusse tell us how to turn, but when Seeger adds the words “I swear it’s not too late”—great activist that he was– he’s hinting that maybe we can willfully decide to move from here to there. And maybe, after enough practice, while we may not know just exactly how our airplane turns, we already know how to make it go where we want it to go.