Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Episode 97: Fly By The Seat Of Your Pants Show Notes

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Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 97: Fly By The Seat of Your Pants

Record Date: January 24, 2021

Air Date: January 27, 2021



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Dan Pugh


And I’m Shauna Harrison

Every week, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from it’s entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

This week, we’re going to wing it. 

Dan: Oh, is that the phrase? Wing It? 

Shauna: Noo…. but it is related! Any guesses? 

Dan: …..

Shauna: Today’s phrase is “Fly By The Seat of Your Pants.” 

Thank you to our listener Joshua for asking about this phrase. Joshua is a junior in high school and shares that he has sent our show to his teachers and friends at different times when a phrase we’ve covered came up in discussion. So thank you, Joshua for listening, recommending us to others, and for giving us today’s topic! 


Fly by the seat of one’s pants is used in a few ways, usually to say that a person is trusting their instincts or feelings rather than relying on planning, researched data, or expertise. Sometimes it’s used in a positive manner and sometimes with slightly negative implications. 

Other expressions that have similar meaning include “to play by it ear”, “to go with one’s gut”, and “make it up as you go”. The phrase Play It By Ear was featured early in our podcasting foray, Episode 4 back in April of 2018.

Oxford English Dictionary (OED) shares, quote: 

the seat of one's pants: a person's (originally a pilot's) sensitivity to the movement or vibration of an aeroplane, motor vehicle, etc., used as a guide in controlling it. Hence, more generally, in by the seat of one's pants: by instinct and experience rather than logic, expert knowledge, or technical aid. Also in extended uses.

- End quote. 

The OED lists the first use in print in 1938. I’ll share that quote, but there are few other things to cover before we get to that one. 

Some question whether Leonardo Da Vinci’s designs from the 1400s or perhaps the invention of the hot air balloon by brothers Joseph Michel and Jacques Etienne Montgolfier in 1783 may have had some influence on this phrase. I was unable to find anything confirming this. 

Another theory that was mentioned repeatedly in forums and on various sites was that this phrase originated in Britain as “fly by the seat of one’s trousers” or “by the seat of one’s trousers”. So naturally, I had to see what I could find on that. 

There were a number of articles that mentioned the key words fly, seat, and trousers, as this one from The American Angler from October, 1887. HERE

Here is an article from the July 11, 1888 issue of the Sturgis Advertiser out of Sturgis, Dakota - later to become South Dakota. HERE 

The article continues with his speech, as well as other thoughts from the day and some recent political updates. This was followed by a few little tidbits surrounding the memorial including the following: 

An entertaining tale, but not exactly what we are looking for! 

I do love the many things I found when searching with these keywords, however, they just aren’t getting us to our idiom. So, time to move on! 

In the December 1929 issue of the magazine Popular Science Monthly (HERE) there is a fascinating article about the skill and talent involved in piloting. 

I feel this may be where the phrase got started. The article earned itself a 3 page spread, pages 46- 48, then additional space in continued sections at the back of the magazine. 

Now for that first reference from OED.

In the July 30, 1938 edition of The New Yorker, we find mention of Douglas Corrigan. Quote: 

For sometime before Douglas Corrigan flew to Dublin ‘by the seat of his pants’, we had been noticing that something was the matter with almost everybody we met.

- End quote. 

There are references to other newspapers that used this phrase regarding Corrigan as well, but those are all behind paywalls, so I won’t include direct quotes as I don’t have them. 

Although Corrigan flew to Ireland, he actually submitted a flight plan to California. He was thereafter known as “Wrong Way Corrigan” and starred as himself in the 1939 movie, The Flying Irishman.

Here is the summary from IMDB

This is the story of the historic 1938 flight of Douglas 'Wrong Way' Corrigan. Mr. Corrigan starred in this film, which chronicled his infamous flight. On July 17, 1938, Mr. Corrigan loaded 320 gallons of gasoline (40 hours worth) into the tiny, single engine plane. While expressing his intent to fly west to Long Beach, CA, Mr. Corrigan flew out of Floyd Bennett Field heading east over the Atlantic. Instrumentation in the plane included two compasses (both malfunctioned) and a turn-and-bank indicator. The cabin door was held shut with baling wire. Nearly 29 hours later, he landed in Baldonnel near Dublin. He forever claimed to be surprised at arriving in Ireland rather than California. He returned to the US as a hero, with a ticker tape parade in New York and received numerous medals and awards.

In the May 1942 edition of Harper's Magazine, a pilot shared a bit of his knowledge. Quote: 

When you check your instruments you find it is doing a correct job of flying and that the seat of your pants and your eyes would have tricked you had you been allowed to do the ‘co-ordinating’.

- End quote. 

Another article from the same year shares another perspective. This is from the Evening star November 22, 1942 edition. This paper is out of Washington, D.C. The article is titled Hot Pilot, with the subtitle In a flyer, sometimes there’s nothing so dangerous as being too good… It begins. Quote: 

- End quote. This page is archived with the Library of Congress on the Chronicling America website. ( HERE and unfortunately, just this page of this edition has been scanned and catalogued at this time. The story was written by Corey Ford and Illustrated by George Garland. I was pretty intrigued just by this little bit and I am now on a search for the full story! 

In November 20, 1958 from The Listener (under the British Broadcasting Corporation), we find this excerpt. Quote: 

That's no help to the man who's driving by the seat of his pants, as we used to say in the R.A.F. police. 

- End quote. 

Kodiak mirror. [volume], November 08, 1963, Kodiak, Alaska - HERE. In this newspaper, we are looking at a car ad. And I wanted to share this one, because it is clear that the idiom is being cleverly referred to, rather than being used word-for-word. We often see this in print, particularly in ads, when a phrase has become well-known by society. 

The ad has a picture of a car seat (not a baby car seat, but rather the seat from a car) which has the quote, “Put ‘er there, pal!” above it. Here’s what the rest of the ad says. Quote: 

- End quote. 

1972 The Times (London) 18 Sept

There was a feeling among the workforce that the firm was being run ‘by the seat of the pants’.

1978 Robert Jansson News Caper 

Thackray was not looking at the instruments... Perhaps that was what they meant by flying by the seat of the pants.

1987 Peter McCabe · Bad news at Black Rock: the sell-out of CBS news

Katz's solution was not to systematize at all, but to fly by the seat of his pants.

1993 Sports Illustrated 24 May 42/3

If you drive by the seat of your pants, you've got to be able to feel the car.

A Quick Thank You


This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons. 

Bunny Trails is and will always be free. But we are only able to make this content because of the awesome support of our Patrons like Pat Rowe and Mary Lopez. 

Because of Pat, Mary, and many others, you don’t have to pay a dime to enjoy Bunny Trails week after week. But even though Shauna and I volunteer our time, there are still real costs to making this show, including hosting fees, equipment maintenance, domain costs, and more. 

And we turn to you, our listening community, to help cover those costs. To do that, we use Patreon, a service that allows you to support the creators and artists you love. If you are in a financially stable place and would like to support this educational artform, we encourage you to check out the options at 

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Pop Culture and Modern Examples

The song by King Creosote titled I'll fly by the seat of my pants was released in 2009 HERE

I'll fly by the seat of my pants,

no air fields I'll need or want to touch down on.

I'd rather be traveling solo,

no road is long enough for me to return by.

Wrap up...

I have to say another thank you to listener Joshua for suggesting this phrase. It has been one of the most entertaining research adventures I’ve experienced. As a kid, I volunteered at the Kansas Aviation Museum. The history of flight is sort of just ingrained in me. I was amazed to find so many little tidbits and facts that I’d never heard before. This research also highlighted for me how quickly and impressively we advance. In 1783, humans were borne aloft in hot air balloons. A little over a century later, the Wright brothers took to the skies. These advances changed our global society. Now, in less than a month, the Perseverance Rover will land on Mars. And we are having genuine discussions and making plans to colonize the Moon and to have astronauts step foot on Mars. As a species, we research, we learn, we plan, we rehearse… and we leap. And along the way, there is always a point when someone has to do something that no one has ever done before. And what else can they do but fly by the seat of their pants? That curiosity and drive. That bravery and determination. I think it’s sort of what makes us human. 



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Words belong to their users.

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