Whether we’re going into an exam or a meeting unprepared, or whether we are blagging our way through a conversation where we’re trying to seem knowledgeable about a subject we haven’t studied in great depth, we know we’re flying by the seat of our pants. We hope to use whatever knowledge and experience we have gathered in our lives to get through the ordeal unscathed. But how did “flying by the seat of your pants” come to mean this process of putting faith in your instincts and internal resources to do a good job, even if you have no pre-determined plan?
You might have already guessed that the “flying” reference in this idiom indicates that the origin of this term comes from the early days of aviation. The term dates back to around the 1930s.
Before planes were as technologically advanced as in our day and age, they lacked some of the gadgets and instruments which pilots today use. Piloting an aircraft was partly aided by the various dials and readings and partly by engaging with the feelings the plane fed back to the pilot, be they certain vibrations, tilts and other perceivable sensations. Many of these sensations, especially the vibrations, were felt primarily through the seat of the pilot’s pants, the body part most in contact with the plane. Using his ample experience, the pilot would be able to respond to whatever sensations he gauged in order to fly the plane safely.
Even today, some “flying by the seat of your pants” may be resorted to by the pilot at certain times, like when flying through particularly bad weather.
So next time you’re flying by the seat of your pants, take comfort that as long as experience is on your side, you’re standing in good stead. Pilots have been flying by the seat of their pants successfully for decades.
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