Aviator or Pilot?


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.


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20 Responses to Aviator or Pilot?

  1. docrob says:

    After the Air Force became a separate service, the Army saw a need for organic aviation. The Air Force did everything it could to put the kibosh on the idea. The Navy, on the other hand was supportive, both philosophically and with practical assistance. For this reason, and maybe too, because the Army copied the Navy wings (just making them silver instead of gold) Army airplane drivers are called “aviators” also. After all, we wouldn’t want to be called by the same name as the “zoomies!”

  2. tom says:

    What’s in a name? An Air Force captain is a shavetail to a navy Captain. Is a harbor pilot also the PIC or is the guy who brung the ship to the harbor pilot still PIC, ie, who’s the skipper? The AF calls the PIC an Aircraft Commander. The Navy screws with ‘commander’ and has several grades of such. I wonder if the USN calls their ‘aviator who gets the blame’ the AC or something else?

  3. Jack Voss says:

    I’ve got a bent up, old ego. Just call me a pilot. My license tells me twice that I’m a pilot, and uses the word “Aviation” only once – when it talks about a government agency called FAA.
    If you feel better being called an aviator, just tell me and I’ll call you an aviator. Now, can we go get a beer?

  4. John Innes says:

    To call all pilots “Aviator” reminds me of occupations which try to improve their status by adopting an unnecessary jargon. The hope is that a jargon will raise their status to a level equal to that of professions which require specialized language e.g., physics, chemistry and medicine.

    To call a very highly skilled pilot an aviator could be justified, but to use that term for all pilots amounts to unnecessary jargon. “Pilot” is short, sweet, and simple.

  5. William Crowl says:

    For me “Aviator” is the name for someone who understands the romance of aviation. A “pilot” is someone who drones from place to place, earning a paycheck or running a business. To a “pilot” the airplane is nothing more than a machine to move from one place to the next, no more romantic than a rental SUV.

    An “Aviator” understands and appreciates the extraordinary nature of flying and is interested in the art and science of flight whether or not that flight achieves a destination and schedule and no matter what kind of machine is being flown. Most pilots are aviators but I pity the few pilots who are not Aviators.

  6. Kenneth Nolde says:

    In 1961 I became a Navigator, in 1965 I became an RF-4C Recce Systems Operator, I soloed a 7AC Champ in 1966 and from that time to my last landing in my CTLS today, I am an Aviator.

  7. Cary Alburn says:

    Often in message boards, I refer to those who fail to trim as necessary as nothing more than interested passengers–terminology I was told when I was still a student by a phase check instructor. But once certified, there is little doubt that at least the FAA considers the individual a pilot. But to get one’s panties in a twist over whether an accomplished pilot should be somehow artificially elevated to the status of “aviator” seems just a bit more than silly to me. After 39 years as a certificated pilot with a string of add-ons, I’m really happy to be known as a pilot. But I’m also still a student, because none of us knows everything there is to know about aviation, regardless of whether we choose to call ourselves aviators. It truly is a “license to learn”, and if any pilot thinks otherwise, it’s time to quit flying.


  8. Beaux Graham says:

    And let’s get one thing straight. There’s a big difference between a pilot and an aviator. One is a technician; the other is an artist in love with flight.

    — E. B. Jeppesen

  9. Thomas Boyle says:

    This all reminds me of the classic article by Richard Bach: “Aviation or Flying? Take Your Pick.” You can find it online – just search by the full name of the article.

  10. Malcolm McLeod says:

    Rod Hightower’s respect for proper terminology is refreshing.

    As for you, Mac, I’m not surprized you don’t know how to use the word when you don’t really know what it means.

    First of all, the people who flew lighter-than-air craft in France in the 1800s were not aviators, but aeronauts. It is derived from the original term used to describe all forms of flight, which is aeronautics. With the advent of heavier-than-air craft, aeronautics was divided into aerostation; being lighter-than-air flight and aviation, being heavier-than-air flight.

    So we have aviators and aeronauts, being those people who practice these respective arts. Sceptical… take a look at the criteria for the Harmon Trophy.

    For those who are unconcerned about the dumbing-down of the language or who can’t be bothered to make the distinction, I suppose that “pilots” will do.

    • Jack Voss says:

      M. McLeod sez “…. For those who are unconcerned about the dumbing-down of the language or who can’t be bothered to make the distinction, I suppose that “pilots” will do.”
      In an open debate, there will be differences of opinion. That’s what a debate is. Now, disagreeing doesn’t mean that we have to be disagreeable about it.

  11. Travis Kantz says:

    Aviator, Aeronaut, Pilot, you can call me whatever you want as long as I’m allowed to slip into that left seat and for a few moments slip thur the clouds to the peace of flight and get just a little closer to heaven.

  12. Rich Largent says:

    Good grief! Pilots or Aviators? Really? How self-important do we have to be? We fly. Why isn’t that enough?

  13. Larry Bell says:

    I am certainly happy we are finally discussing the very important topic of what we call ourselves. This has been a very pressing issue of mine for a long time. I know that many in aviation are very concerned about it as well. BTW, I really don’t care what you call me as long as I can go flying. And, I really don’t care what Rod Hightower or anyone else thinks as to what we call ourselves. I do care that we raise the level of discourse of relevant aviation topics. There are many issues we could have discussed here. The fact this discussion even made to this forum concerns me.

  14. Robert says:

    Well I lived in town, but I had Uncles out in the country. I got to help clean out the barn a lot >> I think I had a lot of learning about how and where to pile-lot>> We all have learned and made our mistakes,but by trying we have learned to do things right and not get into trouble. Does it really make a differance if you call me a Farmer or a city slicker, I take pride in doing . I also take Pride in drive-ing around in the Air for FUN. I am a PILOT!!!>>

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