Famous Sayings: #75 — ‘Flying by the Seat of Your Pants’

August 24, 2017

I can tell you’re flying by the seat of your pants.

flying by the seat of your pants, airplanes, plane, famous sayings, Douglass Corrigan
Douglass “Wrong Way” Corrigan might not have been “flying by the seat of his pants” when he flew from Brooklyn, NY to Dublin, Ireland in 1938. Cropped image from SDASM Archives (San Diego Air and Space Museum) via Flickr.

Note: Okay. I missed one installment of my Famous Sayings last week because of the move. In order to make up, I’d thought I’d give my readers a twofer.

This is a Thursday installment and there will be one tomorrow.

I chose this saying today because I made a sudden change to the schedule and chose a different saying than the one I had originally chosen for the previous week. Is this an example of my flying by the seat of my pants? Not exactly, although there might be more examples with this blog.

What Does It Mean When You Are Flying By the Seat of Your Pants?

Basically, when you are flying by the seat of your pants, you are trying to do something difficult while lacking the expertise or a set plan. In those instances, you would have to rely on your instincts. You may succeed in those instances, but observers don’t expect you to because of the difficulty of the task and the level of knowledge that is normally required to succeed in certain situations. Some synonyms of this expression are “play [it] by ear” and “wing it” (Wiktionary).

It’s very easy to decipher this meaning of this expression because of the situations in which it’s applied. For example, if a young man was asked to teach a class and he had no experience in that arena, he would in essence be flying by the seat of his pants. He would rely on his instincts and his own knowledge to try to teach the students.

Who Coined This Phrase?

It’s unclear, but the widespread usage of this expression may have started in the 1930’s.

On July 17, 1938, Douglas Corrigan submitted a flight plan from Brooklyn, NY to California. However, after a 29-hour flight, he landed in Dublin, England. Although Corrigan (who was thereafter known as “Wrong Way Corrigan”) blamed a faulty compass for heading in the wrong direction, it was suspected by people in the know that Corrigan headed to Europe deliberately. Before, his plan for a trans-Atlantic flight had been rejected (Martin).

Reports of Corrigan’s flight made the rounds, including one from The Edwardsville Intelligencer on July 19th, 1938. The article entitled, “Corrigan Flies By The Seat Of His Pants,” began thusly:

Douglas Corrigan was described as an aviator ‘who flies by the seat of his pant’ today by a mechanic who helped him rejuvenate the plane which airport men have now nicknamed the ‘Spirit of $69.90.’ The old flying expression of ‘flies by the seat of his trousers’ was explained by Larry Conner, means going aloft without instruments, radio or other such luxuries.

Gary Martin surmised the phrase might have really originated from Britain, since “trousers” were mentioned in that 1938 article cited above.

At Historically Speaking, Elyse Bruce also suspected the saying was older than people believe. In particular, she said three historical events/ sources may have inspired the expression.

  • Leonardo da Vinci studied flight in the 1480’s and he created over 100 drawings to catalogue his theories on flight.
  • The Wright Brothers were the first people to fly in an airplane in 1903.
  • Joseph Michel and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier were the inventors of the hot air balloon. On November 21, 1783, they drifted in the air with their passengers, Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent.

How Did This Phrase Develop?

Bruce said the saying likely developed because of how airplanes were flown when those contraptions were relatively new. Because engineers were just developing planes, they had a lot to learn and the instruments were often faulty. As a result, pilots had “reacted to the feel of the plane” — namely by using their behinds — in order to determine wind speeds, external temperatures and the state of the plane itself. Bruce said this was especially true when pilots were flying into clouds or fog.

However, the instance that the early flight instruments were faulty might be incorrect.

Nearly a year after the Historically Speaking post was published, a visitor left a comment pointing to an old article from The Atlantic written by William Langewiesche. The article was really a short story in which Langewiesche recounted his experience as a passenger on a commercial United Airlines flight where the pilot took a dynamic turn over the Golden Gate Bridge. This led to a long discussion about the airplane turn and how important it was.

In his piece, Langewiesche illustrated how instincts could fool a person, especially when flying and even more so when trying to perform aerial turns. In short, instruments like the gyroscopic compass and artificial horizon* were vital to pilots but pilots took a long time to trust them.

* Note: Both of these were made by American inventor Elmer Sperry.

Important Excepts

Historically pilots have made the same mistakes as passengers. Having been given the airplane, they had to learn to use it. Generations were required. Eventually they admitted that instinct was unreliable in clouds, and that they needed special instruments to tell them what was happening to the plane. Without the instruments they went into mysterious banks and dived out of control.

Veterans of the military and the airmail service still insisted they could fly “by the seat of the pants,” and they thought less of those who could not. Their self-deception now seems all the more profound because the solution to the problem of flying in clouds and darkness — a gyroscope adapted to flying — was already widely available.

Devising technology was the easy part. The more stubborn problem of belief remained. As late as 1930 one of the airlines wrote to Sperry complaining about a mysterious problem: the instruments worked fine in clear air, but as soon as they were taken into clouds, they began to indicate turns.

What Do I Think?

After doing the research, I’m convinced this saying was inspired by early airplane flight. As William Langewiesche illustrated, early pilots relied heavily on their instinct and long resisted the use of instruments to help them fly and most resisted flying in clouds and in inclement weather. Many deaths resulted until better instruments were invented and pilots learned to use their instruments to guide them through turns.

Works Cited

Bruce, Elyse. “Fly By The Seat Of Your Pants.” Historically Speaking. 10 May 2011. Weblog. Retrieved 24 Aug 2017. <https://idiomation.wordpress.com/2011/05/10/fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants/>.

Cambridge University Press. “fly by the seat of your pants Definition by the Cambridge English Dictionary.” Cambridge English Dictionary. Web. Retrieved 24 Aug 2017. <http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants>.

Langewiesche, William. “The Turn.” The Atlantic. Dec 1993. Web. Retrieved 24 Aug 2017. <http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/langew/turn.htm>.

Martin, Gary. “Fly by the seat of one’s pants.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 24 Aug 2017. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/139400.html>.

Various Authors. “fly by the seat of one’s pants.” Wiktionary. Last Updated. 25 July 2016. Web. <https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/fly_by_the_seat_of_one%27s_pants>.


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