The origin of the word “pilot” for operator of an aircraft?

The origin of the word “pilot” for operator of an aircraft?

William Dubois, writes the column ‘Questions from the Cockpit’ in the General Aviation News. He says, “I fly with a small antique French medallion on a chain around my neck. I guess it’s for good luck, although I’m not really superstitious. On the back is a dainty Blériot monoplane flying over trees. On the front, a Greek goddess-like figure holds a Wright Flyer in her hands. In tiny print around her are the words Conquete de L’Air — Conquest of the Air — or more poetically translated: The Sky is Conquered.”

But once the sky was conquered, all the people of the globe had a common problem: There were simply no words in any of their languages for the aircraft, their parts, their control stations, or their operators. Early aviation writers and newspaper reporters struggled with just what the Sam Heck to call a person who flew one of these new-fangled flying machines. 

The net result was that at the dawn of flight, we had quite the range of titles to choose from for our high-flying resumes. We were variously labeled as Aeronauts, Aviators and Aviatrixes; Birdmen and Birdwomen; Eagles; Fliers; and, of course, Pilots. With less imagination, other authors fell back on Operator or Occupant. 

Hey. Wait a minute. Isn’t Occupant the person who receives all the junk mail?

WILLIAM’S MEDALLION.

The A-List

Of course, aeronaut is an early label for a balloon pilot, and the term has been around since the late 1700s. I won’t bore you with the blend of French and Greek that gave rise to it, but it basically means Sky Sailor, which I confess has a lovely romantic ring to it.

In very early aviation writing you can find it used for pilots of heavier-than-air flying machines, simply because the word was there and handy, but it’s clear that the writers of the era felt a distinction needed to be made between the balloon crowd and the heavier-than-air crowd.

BACK IN THE DAY, BALLOON PILOTS WERE CALLED AERONAUTS. (PHOTO BY MEGAN VANDE VOORT)

An early contender to fill the heavier-than-air role was aviator. Its root is the Latin avis, which, depending on who you ask, means either “bird” or “bee.” At any rate, a flying creature.

In later centuries, when Latin became the Language of Science, “avian” was used for anything related to birds in a scientific context.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “aviation” leapt forth from avian, and was first used for the act or art of flying in 1863 by Frenchman Guillaume Joseph Gabriel de La Landelle, in his pioneering book Aviation ou Navigation Aérienne sans Ballons, which translates to “Aviation or Air Navigation without Balloons.” As Landelle was dissin’ balloons, and thinking forward to other forms of flying machines, it makes sense that his aviation gave rise in later years to “aviateur” in French and “aviator” in English for the operators of heavier-than-air machines.

AMELIA EARHART IS PERHAPS THE MOST FAMOUS AVIATRIX.

Now, it’s worth noting that by the Golden Age of Aviation, women pilots were called aviatrixes — using the -trix suffix to denote female gender. (Latin words use -tor for masculine and -trix for feminine.)

To this day, this label is a controversial one. My 94-year-old feminist mother regards it as a slur to female pilots, but I know plenty of fabulous female flyers who love the word. 

The Oxford Dictionary’s use-over-time-graph shows aviatrix started being used in the early 1900s, peaked in the late 1940s, then tapered off until recent years, when it’s started to gain popularity again.

Female pilots, check in via comments: How do you feel about Aviatrix?

Of course, even though Aviator is technically a masculine word, it can be used today to denote a pilot of either sex.

Birds of a Feather

Speaking of birds, with the Latin avis, the popular media in the first decade after the Wrights commonly called pilots Birdmen or Birdwomen. Some early pilots adopted the label as well. For instance, the father of aerobatics, Lincoln Beachey, used the title Master Birdman.

LINCOLN BEACHEY FLYING A LOOP OVER THE SAN FRANCISCO EXPOSITION IN 1913.

The bird phase didn’t last, at least not in that form, but pilots were sometimes called Eagles. This was probably from early combat pilots, because an eagle is a bird of prey, and because it sounds waaaaay cooler to be an Eagle than a Birdman.

Flyers

Flyer, as a word, comes into the English language in the mid-15th Century, according to the Etymology Dictionary. It initially is a world for a creature that flies, and by the end of the 1700s it became slang for something that goes fast.

Is it any wonder then, that once planes get fast, the term would be connected to aviation?

A 2006 MOVIE, “FLYBOYS,” TELLS THE STORY OF PILOTS IN WORLD WAR I.

At some point during World War I, pilots, for a time anyway, become Fliers or Flyers. Near the outbreak of World War II, we had Flyboys, a term that first appeared in 1937, according to the folks at Merriam-Webster.

Nowadays, of course, flyers tend to be the folks in the back of the plane, not in the front of the plane. Think frequent flyers.

Plotting a Course to Pilot

And, of course, we are all Pilots, which is another borrowed nautical term, one that dates back to at least 1510 as a term for someone who steers a ship. It likely comes to us from the Medieval Greek “pedotes,” which means the dude with the oar, or something like that.

Interestingly, however, Pilot is also used for the operator of a balloon in the mid 1800s, along with Aeronaut.

In terms of the word Pilot being used for airplane flyers, 1907’s Navigating the Air, by the Aero Club of America, uses the word “Pilot” fully 19 times, but it also uses “Aërial Pilot” and “Aëronautic Pilot,” as well. Clearly, even the leading voices at the dawn of flight were still experimenting with what to call those of us who flew airplanes.

Looking to Victor Lougheed’s 1909 book, as I did in the cockpit question, I found that he uses Operator most frequently, with a dash of Aviator and a light sprinkling of Pilot. However, in his glossary of terms he notes that Pilot is “a widely preferred term for the operator of an aerial vehicle.” 

Meanwhile, looking at early pilot’s licenses, we find that France’s L’Aéro Club de France starts issuing “Pilote-Aviateur” certificates in 1910, which the Aero Club of America mimics with an “Aviator Pilot” certificate a year later. Meanwhile, in the same era, the Royal Aero Club is granting “Aviator’s Certificates.” 

No pilots in England in those days.

GLENN CURTISS HELD THE FIRST PILOT’S LICENSE ISSUED BY THE AERO CLUB OF AMERICA.

Of interest, the French and British clubs were founded in the pre-airplane ballooning days, and France’s club granted “Pilot Aéronaute” certificates to early balloon flyers, suggesting that their view was that someone who flew was a pilot, and you then added either Aeronaut or Aviator to clarify whether the pilot was a master of balloons or a master of the wing.

The Pioneers

So what label did the Wright brothers choose to describe themselves? After all, they started all of this.

I reached out to Peter Jakab, the Chief Curator Emeritus of the National Air and Space Museum, to see what he knew on that subject. As it turns out, the Wrights used Operator, when they used anything at all, which was rare. Of course, these are the guys that simply called their ground-breaking (literally) airplane The Machine.

ORVILLE (LEFT) AND WILBUR WRIGHT ENSURED THAT DEC. 17 WOULD BE ETCHED AS A CRUCIAL DATE IN AVIATION HISTORY. (USAFM COLLECTION)

Jakab reminds us that Wilbur — who was the spokesman of the pair — died early in aviation history, and that ultra-shy Orville rarely gave public speeches and only a few interviews. Interestingly, although he lived until 1948, no recording of his voice exists. But Jakab says that, “as terms evolve and crystalize,” Orville seemed to accept them.

THE WRIGHT FLYER ON A NORTH CAROLINA BEACH.

Jakab told me that, “Pilot and Aviator are the two terms that survive the pioneering era,” but, “by the end of the First World War, ‘pilot’ becomes the dominant term.”

He points out that while in the 1920s or 1930s children might want to grow up to be Aviators, the term doesn’t really last beyond this time period. That’s with the exception of the U.S. Navy, which holds on to Naval Aviator — possibly to avoid confusion with boat and ship pilots.

The rest of the industry largely drops Aviator at the close of the Golden Age of Aviation, which is why we have airline pilots, not airline aviators. Jakab thinks part of the reason for this might have come from the fact that as airplanes became more complex, with multiple non-flight control operating crew members — such as navigators, engineers, and radio operators — the specificity of Pilot over Aviator became necessary. Everyone in the plane is an aviator, but only the Pilots fly the machine.

“I’ve never heard of a co-aviator,” he says, “always a co-pilot.”

William E. Dubois is a two-time National Champion Air Racer, NAFI Master ground instructor, and is happy to be called anything other than a “birdman.”