Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Flight School "Taxis" - a History and Etymology of "to Taxi" (like an Airplane)

In 1875, Wilhelm Friedrich Nedler, a music teacher from Berlin, Germany,  invented the taximeter; the device automatically calculates cab-fare in real time, based on time and distance covered, and which distinguishes a “taxi” or “taxicab” form an ordinary “cab.”  Horse-drawn taximeter-cabs first trolled the streets of Hamburg, Germany in 1884; and the first motorized taximeter-cabs prowled the mean streets of Stuttgart, Germany in 1897.  When large fleets of taximeter-cabs hit the streets of London and New York in 1907, they quickly became known by their new names; “taxicab,” “taximo” (in London), and more simply “taxi.” 

[For more information on the history of “taximeters” and “taxicabs,” see my post: Taximeter, Taximeter Über Alles – a History of the Taxicab.]

[For more information on the surprisingly long (much earlier than taximeters, even) history of “yellow cabs,” see my post: New York, London, Paris (but not) Munich – the Checkered History of Yellow Cabs.]

With the advent of flight at about the same time taximeters appeared, some people had fun imagining airborne taxicabs.  Speaking in 1909, and speculating on the future state of aircraft technology in the year 1915, several experienced fliers joked about the possibility:

Stephane Lauzanne: No doubt there will be 10,000 aeroplanes registered with the Paris police, of which 7,000 will be fitted with taximeters.

MM. Max and Alex. Fischer: Unification of Aero Taxi Fares. –After the 1st of May next, all flyers fitted with blue taximeters will charge 1 fr. 50 c. for the first 100 kiloms. And 30 centimes for the following 50 kiloms.  Flyers fitted with red taximeters will charge 1 fr. 75 c. for the first 100 kiloms. And 40 centimes for each subsequent 50 kiloms.

Flight, Volume 1, December 11, 1909, page 804.

A couple years later, an artist imagined a future when aeroplanes might replace street-cars, and deliver visitors to the Iowa State Fair:

The Des Moines Register (Iowa), September 3, 1911, page 15.

That same year, a French company outfitted an airplane with a “taximeter,” bringing the fanciful predictions one step closer to reality:

Topeka State Journal (Kansas), May 17, 1911, page 1.

But think about it – if flying taxis had actually become a thing, the verb, “to taxi,” might have taken on a completely different connotation.  If an aero-taxi went about its business in the air, would we have said that airplanes “taxi” only when on the ground?  As things are, however, the verb, “to taxi,” meaning an airplane moving on the ground under its own power, is related to ground-based automobile taxis; but by a slightly circuitous route.

The Verb “To Taxi”

The verb, “to taxi,” dates to 1911.  Although it is ultimately derived from an allusion to an automobile “taxi,” it may not be a direct “allusion to the way a taxi driver slowly cruises when looking for fares” (see, for example,, as generally surmised.  The origin of the verb appears to be more directly derived from the name of a specific type of airplane – a “taxi” – a flight trainer with a small engine, extra weight, and wings adjusted to prevent real flight.  Presumably those “taxis” were named after automobile taxicabs which were also confined to the ground and used for short trips; so “to taxi” was derived from automobile taxis, but only indirectly.

Flight School “Taxis”

Flight trainers known as “taxis” were first used at Henri Farman’s flight school at a military base at Moulon, near Chalons, France:

There is a special aeroplane known as the “taxi,” on which pupils are taught to fly.  Its power is low, and its plane [(wings)] so adjusted that it can only be got off the ground with a certain amount of difficulty.  For the first lesson Instructor Chateau mounts with the pupil by his side, and while alternately running over the ground and flying through the air explains the movements to his pupils.

Then comes the first flight alone.  Starting from the door of the shed the machine runs up the rising ground without being able to rise into the air.  Then the top of the slope is reached, and the downward run commenced.  If the aeroplane is handled properly it will fly over the descending ground without any particular effort of the pilot.  After covering about a mile, however, the rising ground is again reached and as the power of the engine has not been sufficient to rise to a great altitude, the wheels touch and the machine once more runs over the surface.

When it is possible to fly around the course in this manner the pupil is sufficiently advanced to take his own machine, equipped with a more powerful motor and adjusted to rise from the sloping ground.  Under this method of instruction very little time is lost in repairs.  The “taxi” has covered several thousand kilometers, running over the ground and flying in the air in the hands of various pupils without a single breakage.

The San Francisco Call, December 19, 1909, page 38.

Several other accounts of the flight school at Moulon describe the “taxi”:

Mortimer Singer [(heir to the Singer Sewing Machines fortune)] had the best preparations for the operation of an airplane. . . .  Housed in Mourmelon for a few weeks, he began his apprenticeship on the famous taxi de Voisin, which gave wings to so many people.  He then acquired a Blériot, an Antoinette and an Henri Farman biplane, with which he continued his training with the utmost diligence.

L’Aerophile (Paris), Volume 18, Number 4, February 15, 1910, page 73.

A Dutch writer, who wrote a George Plimpton-esque book about his experiences in the flight school at Mourmelon, said of the “taxi”:

[The Taxi] is a flying machine for learning to fly, but no one can really fly it.  It does not take off; it is too heavy, its engine too light.  What the “taxi” can do, however, is kick up dust in the field, like a runaway, beaten animal.

Jan Fieth, Een week als Vliegmensch (“One Week as a Flying-Man”), Amsterday, Scheltens & Giltay, 1910, page 40.

Elsewhere in the book, he describes riding up and down in the taxi, in short, back-breaking hops, twenty meters at a time, while mostly driving around on the ground.

In 1912, the French airplane manufacturer Bleriot designed a purpose-built trainer and named it after a flightless bird - the Taxi-Pinguin:

Flight, August 23, 1913, page 940.

The name “taxi,” for a heavy, low-power, low-flying trainer, was not confined to France.  Beginning in 1911, the pages of Flight magazine, published by the Royal Aero Club of the United Kingdom, is filled with reports about flight school students training in “taxis” at flight schools in England:

Baldwin was rolling and making straight flights on the school taxi; he has picked the control up very quickly and should make a good flyer.

Flight, Volume 3, October 28, 1911, page 931.

Wilkins, Baldwin and Sabelli, of the Deperdussin school, were out on the taxi, making straight flights.

Flight, Volume 3, November 4, 1911, page 963.

The Deperdussin school was very busy, Baldwin, Sabelli and Lieut. Ernie Chinnery were making straight flights on the taxi . . .

Flight, Volume 3, November 11, 1911, page 986.


The verb, “to taxi,” first shows up in the pages of Flight in mid-1911.  The earliest example relates to a training flight with an instructor and student in the plane.  Although it is unclear whether they were flying a “taxi” or a regular airplane; the flights are straight and confined to the school grounds:

Several straight flights were undertaken by Paterson with the pupil Driver as passenger in a 25 mile an hour wind.  To illustrate the qualified pupil, Driver took the machine over, and although he had only previously flown in a calm, he made a good flight from end to end of the ground.  On his return however things did not look so happy. . . . . [B]ut to the relief of everyone he manoeuvred cleverly, and landing near the railway embankment “taxied” the machine back to the hangars, smiling happily.

Flight, Volume 3, July 1, 1911, page 572.

By the end of the year, the verb appears in reports of flights by experienced fliers in real airplanes:

Mr. Oxley remarked that if the weather was favourable on the following morning he would make a flight around Filey previous to starting for Leeds to give the district an exhibition of what trick flying he could do. . . . Landing at Filey he taxied the machine to turn it round, then flew back towards the hangars . . . . [(He died shortly afterward when his plane did not come out of a dive over the cliffs at Filey.)]

Flight, Volume 3, December 16, 1911, page 1082.

In early 1912, Sir Thomas Sopwith (best known to me as the namesake of Snoopy’s “Sopwith Camel”) “taxied” his plane back to the hangar after getting lost in bad weather:
Monday was bright in the morning, but windy; in the afternoon, rain and fog started, in spite of which, however, Mr. Tom Sopwith was out on the Martin-Handasyde for a couple of spins round the aerodrome, getting lost, however, on the Mill Hill side.  Considering the weather a bit too thick for pleasant flying he taxied back to the hangars.

Flight, Volume 4, January 20, 1912, page 59.

The new verb did not find universal approval; but did receive official sanction:

It is interesting here to note that the much reprobated verb to “taxi” has official sanction.  It is a good little word, in that it is unlike any other and expresses a distinct idea, namely, that of running an aeroplane along the ground under its own power.

The Aeroplane (London), Volume 3, November 7, 1912, page 456.

The verb, “to taxi,” was finally on terra-firma.

But if you could “taxi” on land, you could also “taxi” on water or snow.

Notes on the Hydro-aeroplanes at St. Malo

Mesguich, on the Paulhan, had awful trouble with his engine. . . .  [H]e missed the houses with great difficulty, wobbled, and finally came down into the sea, and taxied back.

The Aeroplane (London), Volume 3, number 10, September 5, 1912, page 250.

When Claude Grahem-White made the first successful “hydro-aeroplane” flight from Paris to London in 1913, he had to “taxi” up the Thames from Dover to Greenwich:

[T]he first of its kind, was Mr. Grahame-White’s flight on a Morane-Saulnier hydro-monoplane, with an 80-h.p. Gnome motor, from Paris to Putney.  Leaving the Ile de Jatte in the Seine at 5.50 a.m., he flew along the river to Le Havre, arriving there at 7.55 a.m. for breakfast.  Starting again at 9.25 a.m., and flying along the coast, he reached Boulogne at 10.55 a.m.  At noon he left there for Dover, where he lunched on a friend’s yacht and stayed for the afternoon.  Leaving at 5.25 p.m., he “taxied” up the Thames through the string of prohibited areas as far as Greenwhich and flew the rest of the way.

The Aeroplane (London), Volume 5, Number 1, July 3, 1913, page 17.

In 1914, Ernest Shackleton brought an airplane on his trans-Antarctic expedition:

Shackleton also will have an aeroplane with short wings to “taxi” over the snow.”

The Washington Herald, February 1, 1914, section 2, page 11.


While it seems clear that the verb, “to taxi,” was derived from the nearly flightless training machine, the reason for calling the flightless trainer a “taxi,” in the first place, is not immediately clear.  Perhaps it relates to cruising around slowly; like a taxicab looking for a fare, as generally assumed.  But the bumpy, up-and-down rides described in early accounts of the “taxi” do not particularly sound like a cruising taxi.  Perhaps it relates to a pilot or student getting a ride back to the hangar when they can't fly back or when there is some other technical difficulty, as described in a couple of the early accounts of such “taxis.”  Or perhaps it relates to the fact that the schools basically gave rides to customers for a fee - like a taxi.


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