Stick vs. Throttle

There are basically two kinds of airplane pilots: those who will tell you that throttle controls airspeed, while elevator controls climb; and those who believe that airspeed is dependent on aircraft attitude while throttle governs altitude. Their differences are traceable mostly to the backgrounds of their flight instructors, to when and where those worthy mentors themselves learned their craft.

Each group views the other as ignorant fools, or perhaps suicidal maniacs. What do you suppose would happen if two from the opposing camps were cornered in a cockpit with each other? Fact is, so long as they kept quiet, they could fly together happily for years as a crew, each unaware of the other’s dangerous proclivities, because, however fundamentally different their beliefs, their actions are pretty much the same. Asked to descend at a constant rate, one will pull the power back while letting the nose fall to avoid losing airspeed, and the other will put the nose down and reduce power to avoid speeding up. To all but the shrewdest observer it looks just the same.

This fiercely partisan disagreement about airspeed has a counterpart in politics. People here in the United States have learned to sort themselves by party name, without thinking much about how they really act or what the other group really believes.

Down at the shore, when it’s time to do the work to restore the wetlands, everybody’s in their old clothes and they look pretty much the same because they’re covered in mud anyway. One person may be there hoping to preserve the beauty of the place he learned to love with his family as a child, incensed that the view from his home has been compromised by the thoughtlessness of others. Another may be a newcomer who can’t believe that lax regulations have permitted environmental degradation by vested interests. These two people may be new best friends, at least until they see each others’ bumper stickers back in the parking lot.

It may be possible for some to transcend the name-calling.

Pilots are taught certain procedures as exceptions from doctrine: if the airplane is meant to climb at full power, then even a “throttle” pilot will control airspeed with pitch alone, because power is then said to be “fixed.” A “stick” pilot will learn to speak of “the area of reverse command” when demonstrating minimum controllable airspeed even though, for him or her, nothing has really changed.

What pilots from either camp probably always do, without realizing it, is use the elevator to control the variable that is of immediate interest to them. On the edge of a slow-flight stall, you put the nose down right now, no matter who you are; then you can add the power that will let you fly even slower. If you’re a duster with his prop in the crop, you won’t use the stick to speed up or slow down, because it’s busy with altitude, regardless of your ideology. The two tribes are kept apart by the need to cling to platitudes.

When you’re looking for people to defend your homeland, you’re looking for ones who, at their very core, are loyal, brave, resolute, and who can and will carry out orders single-mindedly. When you’re deciding what the threats to your country actually are, it seems to me, you want people whose faith is not blind, whose skepticism extends to their own beliefs, whose circle of respect includes others with whom they may not agree, and for whom power is not the only mechanism for resolving disputes. Nobody is going to be able to demonstrate all of these characteristics at once; but maybe there are already a few people who realize that all of those virtues have a place.

— Scott McKee