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Historical Origins of English Words and Phrases

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fly by the seat of one's pants [Apr. 21st, 2008|11:35 pm]
Historical Origins of English Words and Phrases

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[gwoman]
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fly by the seat of one's pants
-An early aviation expression meaning 'to act based on instinct and perceptions rather than following a planned course of action; to make things up as one goes.' It seems that the phrase was first written as fly by the seat of his trousers, which sets its origins in the British Isles. A 1938 American newspaper article on the cross-Atlantic flight of Douglas Corrigan lists this wording as an older phrase and instead calls the pilot a fly by the seat of his pants aviator because he flew without the use of any instruments.



Side note:
This phrase still doesn't make much sense to me, but I'm wondering if it has any possible connection to the more modern expression pulled it out of my ass meaning 'to come up with a solution or answer without any preparation.' Any thoughts?
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: thekit
2008-04-22 07:12 am (UTC)
Is it that when you are piloting an aircraft, the inertia of turning the aircraft drives you into your pilot's chair? That would mean that when the horizon is obscured, your body can still guess which way you are heading and keep the aircraft going in the right direction.

I'm told that instrument pilots distrust their own inertial sense, as the artificial horizon instrument and compass are both more accurate and more reliable than the human ear (or ass).
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[User Picture]From: patchworkkid
2008-04-22 07:33 am (UTC)
You may find it's a reference to the ability of the pilot to 'feel' the plane. I've a friend who flies and a friend who rides horses, and both compare their experiences similarly (ie. the horse/plane speaks to you by what you can feel from it.)

My pilot friend has tales of intuitive pilots who ascertain things like wind speed, external temperature and the state of their craft just by the way it vibrates, sings, or feels in the hand. If I were a betting man, I'd bet this is what the saying refers to... especially in the context of flight without instruments.
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[User Picture]From: gwoman
2008-04-22 07:41 am (UTC)
both you and thekit seem to be in agreement on this. actually, the way you both have described it really does make this phrase make much more sense to me. thank you!
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[User Picture]From: laura_holt_pi
2008-04-22 09:42 pm (UTC)
My father explained it the same way to me. He was in the Royal Air Force and, though not a pilot, worked closely with many.
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[User Picture]From: tonight_23
2008-04-22 08:53 am (UTC)
in a sense,

it's all perverted, for a kick.
like, one's instinct doesn't need to think a thing.
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[User Picture]From: gwoman
2008-04-22 07:42 pm (UTC)
haha, i like it!
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[User Picture]From: quercus
2008-04-22 09:43 am (UTC)
For some years in early aviation, flying in good visibility was now safe and predictable, but flying in bad weather (even a light overcast) was extremely hazardous. These days you'd be "flying on instruments", except that Glen Curtis hadn't yet invented them.

So pilots relied on the only accelerometer they had, the Mk1 Backside (related to the Mk 1 Eyeball).
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[User Picture]From: gwoman
2008-04-22 07:43 pm (UTC)
that's really interesting! thanks for letting us all know. obviously i know nothing about aviation.
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[User Picture]From: miri_me
2008-04-22 12:59 pm (UTC)
Hehe, I'd always assumed that it had something to do with the effect that being in a scary/dangerous situation can have on said article of clothing ;-) One of those times I'm quite glad I'm probably wrong!!
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[User Picture]From: gwoman
2008-04-22 07:43 pm (UTC)
LOL i'm glad you were wrong, too!
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[User Picture]From: gwoman
2008-04-22 07:45 pm (UTC)
that's true. 'pulled it out of my ass' is more of a sudden inspiration, but it seems like flying by the seat of your pants might require pulling some quick moves out of your ass.
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[User Picture]From: logrusboy
2008-04-22 01:57 pm (UTC)
Seems others have covered it well. My favorite aviation-related expressions are "lost the bubble" and "check your six".
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[User Picture]From: gwoman
2008-04-22 07:45 pm (UTC)
ooh, what do those mean? well, i think i understand 'lost the bubble,' but not 'check your six.'
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[User Picture]From: logrusboy
2008-04-22 07:54 pm (UTC)
Lost the bubble: one of those nifty aviation instruments uses an air bubble to keep track of which direction is up. During spinny or turbulent maneuvers, the bubble can become difficult to find and unreliable, leading to mistakes about that whole concept of where to find the ground. This often ends badly.

Check your six: In flying, something at your six o'clock is directly behind you. Should that something be an enemy fighter, badness can ensue. Checking your six means making sure no one's about to shoot your behind full of holes.
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[User Picture]From: damien_wise
2008-04-27 03:48 am (UTC)
De-lurks, since I might be one of the friends patchworkkid mentioned above. ;)

The instrument you're referring to is the Turn Coordinator.
It's two tools in one:
(1) The ball part shows how far out if line the tail is slipping (you're moving in one direction but facing another angle because the tail has swung-out). The expression, "Step on the ball" is an easy way to remember which rudder-pedal is required to fix things.
(2) The inclined shape of the aeroplane shows how far the plane is rolling. You can spot at a glance if a wing has dipped a little low. Typically, it's used to assist with banking smoothly for well controlled turns (eg: at the indicated angle, you'll turn a full circle in two minutes).
I suppose the ball could max-out during some extreme manoeuvres (been warned that it could get to an end and stick but haven't observed that). I suppose it's possible that the gyroscope that controls the inclinometer might "tumble", like the gyro in the Artificial Horizon can do if you're in an nasty spin.

So, the expression could mean you've lost the bubble / can't rely on it because it's so spun-around.
It also occurs to me that it could be a little like "lost in thought" -- you're staring so hard at that one instrument that you're not observing the other instruments...or what you'd see out the windows if only you'd look-up for a moment.
A large part of piloting is going by what you see, some by bit by glancing at the instruments to confirm things or get important details spot-on, and a bit by what you feel "by the seat of the pants". :)

Also, what you said about "Watch your six" = "watch your back" is a pretty common interpretation.
In the context of aviation and instrumentation, "Watch your six" (or, more specifically, "Watch your T") might also be a reminder to keep an eye on your Basic Six, a cluster of vital instruments in the middle of the dashboard.
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[User Picture]From: logrusboy
2008-04-26 03:56 pm (UTC)
Re: Lost the bubble. Forgot to include that it is often used to mean variations of "lost track of what we were supposed to be doing".
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[User Picture]From: turtliewings
2008-04-22 02:38 pm (UTC)
Can you add "living daylights" to your list, if it's not there already?

Thanks!
-turtle
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[User Picture]From: gwoman
2008-04-23 12:28 am (UTC)
added!
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[User Picture]From: faderight
2008-04-22 02:54 pm (UTC)
this is how I had it related to me when I was in ground school (the precursor to flight school..which I, sadly, never got to).

in the early days of aviation (and possibly even still today, I'm not 100% sure), though the parachute apparatus was technically strapped to the back, the straps were arranged in such a way that the pilot could sit on it, using the parachute as a sort of seat cushion. when a pilot decided to trust their instincts, rather than the machine's far more accurate gauges, they'd occasionally end up (either by force of nature in an open-cockpit design, or their own judgment telling them that the machine's current course of action was not one they'd care to take part in) outside of the aircraft. obviously this meant they were floating to earth by their parachute or 'flying by the seat of their pants' (referring to the fact that what had previously been their seat cushion was now their 'aircraft').

now, my instructor may well have pulled this entirely out of his ass, but it's the explanation that has always made the most sense to me.
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[User Picture]From: gwoman
2008-04-22 07:46 pm (UTC)
hahaha, nicely put.

wow, it seems like we have a lot of pilots as members here!
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[User Picture]From: lordofhaladin
2008-04-22 04:45 pm (UTC)
hmm thanks! I have to say, it makes sense that it would have soemthgn to do wtih pilots, but I agree, it still doent make much sense.... ;) thanks anyways! :D
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[User Picture]From: gwoman
2008-04-22 07:47 pm (UTC)
glad i'm not the only one who was confused!
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[User Picture]From: morbid_o
2008-04-22 05:24 pm (UTC)
Alongside knowing one's ass from one's elbiows, it's probably just a generic bufoon's body part.
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[User Picture]From: gwoman
2008-04-22 07:47 pm (UTC)
hahaha, i like that one as well!
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[User Picture]From: k1d_v1d
2008-04-23 08:59 pm (UTC)
Hey, I was curious- I remember hearing forever ago that the days of the week were named for the Norse Gods (Wodin for Wednesday, Thor for Thursday, and the like) but I don't know whether or not it's true.
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[User Picture]From: gwoman
2008-04-24 08:21 am (UTC)
i've actually got those coming up on saturday or sunday, i think it is, so you're right on time!
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-02-16 11:07 pm (UTC)

Losing the Bubble

Yes, it is an aviation term -- and it might mean flying by the seats of your pants.

However, it really came from the bubble in a sextant or other leveling gear used to navigate. If you lose the bubble it is hard to reattain it to level your navigational device.

Come on -- let's not lose the bubble here!

Good grief!

Your friendly Aviator

Richard
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