By Dr. Angelle Khachadoorian, Air Force Culture and Language Center’s Associate Professor of Anthropology
/ Published February 06, 2020
When you finished getting spun up on gyroscopes and Air Force slang, you probably thought, “This information really re-caged my assumptions!” Actually, unless you’re in the Air Force, especially in the flying business, you are unlikely to use the word “re-cage.” The first time I heard this highly evocative term, it was said enthusiastically and positively. Yet, for me, it immediately conjured a dramatic and negative mental image of a cartoonish Mr. Hyde figure, enraged and bursting from his Victorian suit, top hat dented and cravat askew, shrinking down into his normal, placid Dr. Jekyll self.
To a member of the flying community, recage simply means readjust or reorient. To a civilian listener “to cage” or “to re-cage” sounds like restraining or calming someone while they are having a destructive emotional reaction. On the positive side, anyone capable of recaging themselves is a not entirely erratic individual. They have the self-awareness to take in information, do a bit of analysis and then reset their switches.
The term itself is a reference to setting a gyroscope, safely housed in a frame called a “cage,” back to its original neutral position. I have wondered if the earliest gyroscope cages were open-work so that its movement was visible to the pilot. Now gyroscopes can be boxed rather than in an open cage because there are electronic tools to evaluate its movement, rather than flyers just eye-balling it. But the term lives on.
The choice of the word “cage” is particularly interesting. The gyroscope’s case could be called a rack or frame, both of which work just as well. Listeners interpret a fundamentally different meaning with the word “cage” because cages are meant to confine living, animate, willful creatures that resist being controlled or contained. The need to “cage” a gyroscope, rather than frame it or box it, appears to reference its dynamic and seemingly purposeful actions as it follows the leadership of its true guide – gravity. It doesn’t sit passively or inertly in a rack. Instead, it needs to be bound up in a cage.
Perhaps the gyroscope, especially early mechanical versions, were seen as being like unpredictable but necessary animals in the cockpit. You need them but they have minds of their own. Yet, they are fairly predictable in the sense that they are aligned with the earth and not just flinging themselves around willy-nilly. In fact, if they are flinging themselves around, there is a much larger problem going on here!
Labeling the gyroscopes framing appears to me to be a very obvious form of “personification” (a concept related to anthropomorphism) in which humans assign attributes of living things to an inanimate object. Personification has deep psychological roots and occurs in literature and in efforts to explain complex concepts in science (see the fascinating article “Personification is Your Friend: The Language of Inanimate Objects” for an overview and references: https://daily.jstor.org/personification-is-your-friend-the-amazing-life-of-letters/ ). Militaries have practiced personification throughout history and throughout the world. We see it in referring to ships as “she” (the mother who carries her children safely in her body), or in building a connection between U.S. Marines and their rifles (see “A Military Tradition Institutionalized” https://encompass.eku.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1186&context=jme ).
“Animating” the gyroscope by seeing it as a willful, but necessary, resident of the flight deck, then caging that entity, is a symbolic effort to control the powerful forces of the natural world. Flying is a temporary and heavily mediated practice, utterly dependent on the technology that allows humans to briefly overcome one of the most primal forces in earthbound lives: gravity. Gyroscopes remind people in cockpits that gravity is always waiting on the periphery of their vision, so that caging this marker of a human limitation is a form of conquering it as well.
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