Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Fly By The Seat Of Your Pants

Posted by Admin on May 10, 2011

To fly by the seat of your pants is pretty tricky especially since it means you’re doing something difficult without the necessary experience or ability to achieve success.  The phrase comes from back in the day when airplanes — being very basic without all the fancy gadgetry planes have today — were flown by pilots who reacted to the feel of the plane.

Naturally, the part of the body that had the most contact with the plane was the aviator’s backside.  The phrase flying by the seat of your pants came to mean how pilots flew planes which was to react to how the plane felt to the pilots in such situations as determining wind speed, external temperature and the state of the plane the pilot was flying.  Sometimes pilots were unable to see while they were flying because of cloud or fog, and that’s when flying by the seat of their pants as well as instinctively really paid off since instruments of the day oftentimes gave faulty readings.

Over time, the phrase has been used to refer to a number of things or situations as evidenced by the article “Pies-N-Thighs Returns!” in the Village Voice newspaper of April 20, 2010 which read in part:

Yet, in addition to excellent chicken, something about the place struck a romantic chord with diners, evocative of Williamsburg’s can-do, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants spirit at the time, and it quickly became one of the neighborhood’s most beloved dining establishments. The place was closed by the Department of Health in January 2008, and since then fans have collectively held their breath, fearing that the owners — Sarah Buck, Carolyn Bane, and Erika Geldzahler — would chicken out, and never reopen.

During World War II, the Tuscaloosa News ran an interesting article on April 23, 1944 entitled, “Flying Taught Without Flight” written by James F. Strebig, Aviation Editor for the Associated Press.  The article began with this:

A training device by which student-pilots can learn to fly safely without leaving the ground has been developed for use after the war.  John H. Geisse of the Civil Aeronautics Administration research staff, who fathered the development, says it’s the only training machine for teachings “flying by the seat of your pants.”

And on July 19, 1942 the Pittsburgh Press quoted 25-year-old St. Louis Brown infielder and former Army Air Corps flyers Johnny Berardino as saying:

“There’s an old Army saying that you’ve got to be able to fly by the seat of your pants.  I don’t know  just what that means.  Something about being sensitive to pressure changes there.  I didn’t have it.”  You can hardly criticize Johnny Berardino for that.  He doesn’t play baseball that way either.

Many claim that the phrase dates back to 4 years earlier on July 19, 1938 and the  Edwardsville Intelligencer newspaper article, “Corrigan Flies By The Seat  Of His Pants.”   Douglas Corrigan of infamous ‘Wrong Way  Corrigan’ fame had submitted his flight plan to fly from Brooklyn to California.  Rather than wind up in California, he wound up in Dublin 29 hours after taking flight.  He claimed that his compasses had failed him but rumours were rampant that it had been a purposeful miscalculation on the part of the aviator.  The article read in part:

“Douglas Corrigan was described as an aviator ‘who flies by the seat of his pants‘ today by a mechanic who helped him rejuvinate 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.”

The expression is probably a little older than that.  Even though Leonardo da Vinci made the first real studies of flight in the 1480’s and catalogued the over 100 drawings illustrating his theories on flight, it was the Wright brothers who were the first to fly in 1903.  It’s safe to say that they flew by the seat of their pants.

However, it’s also quite possible that brothers Joseph Michel and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier, the inventors of the first hot air balloon, may also have been somewhat responsible for the phrase when they and their passengers Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and Francois Laurent took to the skies on November 21, 1783.

4 Responses to “Fly By The Seat Of Your Pants”

  1. D.C. said

    I’ve said this expression so many times. Still, I have to chuckle that the sensitive instrumentation could not compare to one’s backside. It’s a wonder we ever got off the ground!

  2. M. C. said

    This is not quite correct: it’s not the instrumentation that was faulty — it was the backside! Many pilots claimed they could “fly by the seat of [their] pants” and only recalcitrantly accepted better instruments in the cockpit. This approach claimed many lives, as it is almost impossible to do this in cloud. Humans aren’t built to orient themselves without visual cues, and without those cues, one’s instinct starts to give indications of movement that are incorrect and dangerous.

    See http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/langew/turn.htm for more on the dangers — and eminent impossibility — of flying by the seat of your pants. He writes: “The more stubborn problem of belief [that the “seat of one’s pants” was more accurate than the instruments] 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.” The instruments, of course, were correctly reporting turns, but the pilots thought they were flying straight ahead!

  3. […] Fly By the Seat of Your Pants (http://www.idiomation.wordpress.com) […]

  4. […] We didn’t think this vacation out thoroughly. We knew that Josh wanted to go to the Maryland Renaissance Festival on Monday, but other than that, we flew by the seat of our pants. […]

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