Chances are… sooner or later… you’re going to find yourself in a situation you’re not prepared for. Unfortunately, some of these situations are going to require immediate action. Without time to prepare, you’re simply going to have to wing it and fly by the seat of your pants.

Have you ever thought about what that means, though? What if you don’t know how to fly? And what if you’re not wearing pants?

To fly by the seat of one’s pants is an idiom. An idiom is a phrase whose meaning is different from the literal meaning of the words themselves.

Flying by the seat of one’s pants does not require actual flight. And pants? Totally optional…

This common phrase actually means you’re acting on instinct, using your judgment and perceptions as events unfold to improvise without advance planning.

When you fly by the seat of your pants, you don’t have a plan. You just figure things out as you go along.

If you think about it, the phrase “flying by the seat of your pants” can conjure up some really funny images in your mind. Where did such a phrase ever come from?

Not surprisingly, the phrase is an old aviation saying. It appears to have originated in Great Britain as “flies by the seat of his trousers.” It was Americanized to “flies by the seat of his pants” in the 1930s.

Since early aircraft did not have the many instruments modern planes have, pilots had to rely primarily on their own perceptions and judgment. Early pilots often flew without radios and other fancy gadgets.

Instead, they learned to react to the feel of the plane. Of course, the body part that usually had the most contact with the plane was the pilot’s backside.

Early pilots developed an ability to estimate wind speed, external temperature and the overall condition of an airplane simply by paying attention to their senses — including the sense of feeling from their backsides!

If you can imagine flying a plane without a radio or other instruments through clouds or thick fog, you can begin to imagine what it must have been like for early pilots to fly by the seat of their pants!

That same feeling can arise when you’re thrown into an unexpected situation that requires action without preparation. That’s why many of us fly by the seat of our pants without ever getting near an airplane!

Of course, modern pilots are glad that they can rely on instruments rather than the seat of their pants. Likewise, you’ll probably find that a little careful planning can go a long way toward making life less stressful.


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    • That video was REALLY fun to watch, wasn’t it, Diego? We’d love to try indoor sky diving sometime…how about you? Thanks for visiting Wonderopolis and for leaving us another awesome comment! :-)

  1. Hey Wonderopolis I thought that the saying flying by the seat of your pants was true. But now I know it is not true because Wonderopolis told me.

    Maddy M.

    • Hi, Maddy! Thanks for this great comment! Have YOU ever had to “fly by the seat of your pants” and do something at the last minute that you weren’t prepared to do? We sure have! We’re really glad we can count on our instincts to help us make quick decisions! :-)

  2. We never knew what the expression “flying by the seat of your pants” meant until we read this article. It was very informational. Sometimes we don’t know what we are going to do next.

    9-11 is a good example of when the U.S. was flying by the seats of their pants. The U.S. didn’t know what was going to happen next. Do you have any examples of flying by the seat of your pants?

    • Great comment, BebSboHed!

      An example of flying by the seat of your pants might be walking into class and hearing your teacher say you are about to have a test that you forgot to study for! That would be a time when you would need to count on your instincts and past knowledge to do the best job you could (although we think it is always a good idea to be prepared for class each day…no matter what!). :-)

    • That’s a GREAT question, Kyle! There is a very powerful fan in the floor of the tube. It’s kept safely away from the people who are in the tube. The fan blows air up through holes in the floor to simulate “falling” when sky diving! It’s really neat to think about being able to do something like that, isn’t it? :-)

    • Hi, Julia! We’re not exactly sure what material it is, because there are many different manufacturers of sky diving suits. We think it must be very lightweight and durable, though (they’re getting bounced around a lot!). Thank you SO MUCH for this great question and comment! :-)

    • It does look fun, Sally. Most of the time, people don’t get THAT involved in a Rube Goldberg machine. Thanks for WONDERing with us!

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Can you fly by the seat of your pants?
  • Do you ever act on instinct?
  • What’s the opposite of flying by the seat of your pants?

Wonder Gallery

Try It Out

Ready to fly by the seat of your pants? It’s OK if you say no!

Not everyone likes to fly by the seat of their pants. Some people prefer to plan carefully. Which do you prefer?

If you don’t know, try this simple experiment with your friends or family sometime in the next week or so. Pick out two upcoming weekend days that you would normally do something together.

We’ll call one of the days “Fly by the Seat of Your Pants Day” and the other day “Follow the Plan Day.” In advance of “Follow the Plan Day,” sit down with your friends or family, and carefully plan out your day together.

What time will you get up? What will you have for breakfast? Where will you go, and what will you do first?

Make a plan that clearly sets out your meals and activities. Set specific times for the things you plan to do. Don’t forget to include time for travel and breaks.

In advance of “Fly by the Seat of Your Pants Day,” do nothing. Give the day no thought whatsoever.

Just mark it on your calendar, so that — when you wake up that day — you can put on fresh pants and proceed to fly by them!

After you’re finished with both days, take some time to think about how each day went. Did you like the convenience of having a plan to follow? Or did you prefer the freedom simply to do anything on a whim?

Hopefully you learned that there are benefits to both types of days. Careful planning is often necessary to make sure that things happen that need to happen.

On the other hand, it’s also nice to allow room in a plan for the unexpected. You never know when a surprise opportunity will present itself.

In your own lives, it’s important to plan for the future while also leaving plenty of room to be flexible. Flexibility is key so you don’t miss out on all the WONDERful things that pop up unexpectedly from time to time!


Still Wondering

Explore the literal and metaphorical meanings of seven common idioms with ReadWriteThink’s fun, interactive Eye on Idioms activity!


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