My boss, EAA president and CEO Rod Hightower, likes the word aviator. And also aviate. I am pleased that Rod thinks of me as an aviator. But, as usual, some have groused about use of the title aviator and would rather think of themselves strictly as pilots.
Actually, pilot is an older title and predated aviation by many, many years. In its most common application, pilot is and remains the title of a person who guides a ship through the tricky conditions of a harbor. To this day all ships above a certain size are required to take on a pilot who has the local knowledge of the harbor that the ship’s captain couldn’t possibly have.
The pilot actually takes over responsibility for guiding the ship into the harbor and to the dock. When a ship sails a pilot is onboard to navigate it safely back out to open water.
A pilot can also be a device to show the way in other endeavors. For example, many airplane kits have pilot holes drilled in components. When the pilot holes are lined up the components are correctly in place and the remaining holes can be drilled and fasteners attached.
In the late 1800s France was the hotbed of aviation and people were flying all sorts of lighter than air machines. A descriptive term for the people who operated these aircraft was needed so aviator, from the French aviateur, was coined. Pilots were guiding ships into and out of harbors, but aviators were operating aircraft.
Aviator was commonly used even after the Wright brothers and others developed airplanes. Flying was a unique activity, to say the least, and it must have made sense to use a new and unique term to describe the people who operated aircraft.
Nobody knows for sure when the term pilot began to become synonymous with aviator, but I think it may have happened in the 1920 and 30s when governments began to license and regulate aviation.
Maritime pilots were already certified so it probably made sense, when it came to creating a licensing system for aviators, to call those people pilots, too. Many of the operational techniques and standards we use in aviation trace their routes to maritime traditions and standards so the idea of a captain being in command, or a pilot in command, made sense in aviation.
But aviator continues to have a broader meaning than pilot. For example, it would be correct to call a navigator or flight engineer or bombardier an aviator. I also think it is a compliment to call a pilot with well rounded and broad experience an aviator, something more than simply a pilot.
The U.S. Navy never shelved the term aviator and continues to call its pilots Naval Aviators, and flying activity Naval Aviation. Perhaps that is because the Navy was using pilots for hundreds of years before the first airplane flew and wants to emphasize the difference between maritime navigation and flying. I’m sure some Naval Aviator will set me straight on the real reason.
Of course there are several other terms for a pilot. The military typically calls the PIC an aircraft commander. If you were called the pilot on a Space Shuttle, you were actually the copilot to the commander. There is a pilot in command (PIC) on any airplane, and if there is only one pilot onboard, there is no question who holds that title. But when more than one pilot is in the cockpit, or even onboard the airplane, it is essential that only one be designated PIC and that person is called captain. Copilots are normally called first officers. First typically means head of the line, but in this case the first officer is second in command (SIC).
Then we have instructors and examiners who are also pilots in their own right, but we don’t usually refer to them as pilots. For many years large airplanes carried flight engineer who were most often pilots, too, but they were called FEs, not pilots.
My point is that flying titles are sliced and diced in all manner of ways, but there is one term that describes anyone qualified to participate in the safe and effective operation of any type of aircraft and that is aviator. We all hold different pilot certificates and ratings, but if we are good at what we do in an aircraft we are aviators, and that’s what I have always wanted to be.