I recall that some years ago the pilot of the A340'S first flight described its handling as "like riding a bicycle" (to me this would mean that as he went past his favourite bar he saw his friends inside so he propped it up against the wall to have a drink with them).

I can believe that despite its size and weight a large airliner would respond precisely to commands, but does the concept "flying by the seat of the pants" apply to such an aircraft?

Obviously experience and training will build up a great deal of intuition (visual, vestibular, etc) - what sort of bodily connection does an airline pilot experience with the aircraft? Is it markedly different from that of the pilot of a small plane?

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    $\begingroup$ Why the question has been downvoted? Explain at least... $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Jul 9, 2016 at 15:35
  • $\begingroup$ @mins After hours and hours in a faithful simulation, would it surprise anyone if the real plane feels the same? Even the true control forces are replaced by springs, the same as in the simulator, so of course the plane feels familiar and easy to fly. $\endgroup$ Jul 9, 2016 at 18:48
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    $\begingroup$ I wait for @Terry to answer this one! $\endgroup$ Jul 9, 2016 at 18:49
  • $\begingroup$ I don't understand why this question was closed as "unclear what you're asking", they are asking if "seat of the pants" flying applies to larger craft and, if it does, how it might differ from "seat of the pants" flying in smaller planes. $\endgroup$
    – Jae Carr
    Jul 11, 2016 at 21:10

3 Answers 3


I can believe that despite its size and weight a large airliner would respond precisely to commands, but does the concept "flying by the seat of the pants" apply to such an aircraft?

The phrase "flying by the seat of the pants" is an imprecise term, and I don't have an answer for that. However, if you allow it to mean operating an aircraft in the absence of instrumentation or other capability that is normally used, or using techniques not normally used, whether you're forced to because of failure(s) or because you prefer not to use them, then here is an observation.

In the early 1990s I was flying 747-100/200 freighters. The carrier had a contract with Japan Air Lines to haul freight between Tokyo Narita and KJFK, with a crew change and refueling at Anchorage. We used a JAL call sign. JAL had their own 747-200 freighters on the route as well, more of them than our small number of aircraft. Many of their flights would have an American flight engineer who would handle the radio going into U.S. airports. Thus, the Anchorage controllers could not tell from the radio communication whether the flight had American or Japanese pilots.

One summer Anchorage took the ILS down for extended maintenance. One severe clear day during this period we were on our descent but still well out when Anchorage approach cleared us for a VOR approach. We immediately called the airport in sight and requested a visual approach, which was granted.

Curious, when we were down I called approach control on a land line and asked why we were first assigned a VOR approach. They explained that, believing our flight probably had Japanese pilots, and having had those pilots always refuse the offer of a visual approach and request a VOR approach (in spite of the additional 10 minutes of flying), approach control had simply assigned the VOR approach.

As part of our contract, we occasionally had a Japanese check captain observe us, and the next time this happened, I brought up the subject with him. He explained that their pilots were never taught to simply look at a runway and land without reference to navigational instruments, and, lacking a robust general aviation segment, their pilots simply never had experience with doing that. He added that from their standpoint, we were a bunch of cowboys. Not the exact "flying by the seat of the pants" wording, but the same sentiment.

Obviously experience and training will build up a great deal of intuition (visual, vestibular, etc) - what sort of bodily connection does an airline pilot experience with the aircraft? Is it markedly different from that of the pilot of a small plane?

When you're flying the same airplane type day in and day out, you internalize what that aircraft can do and how it will respond. You get used to its noises and even to its vibrations if you will. And regardless of how small or how large it is, it becomes the right size, neither little nor big, especially once you're in the air. When you change airplanes, and especially if it involves a significant change in size, there is a difference.

For example, I spent the last 10 years of my career on 747-100/200 aircraft. Fifteen years after retiring, and not having been in a cockpit during that time, I went out to a local airport to check out in a Cessna 172. I knew I would have trouble with flaring too high, and I warned the instructor. My first landing was a real lesson, actually to both of us. When I said to him, "I think I should flare," he said, "you're way to high." When I said, "I've got to flare,: he said, "still too high." When I said, "I'm flaring," with the sense that if I didn't I would prang the airplane, he said, "you're still a little high, but go ahead." It took me 5 hours to check out in the airplane, most of that time for landings.

  • $\begingroup$ Sorry, I didn't mean to stop there @Terry. The first part doesn't quite address the question I was after (you discuss the question of reference to navigational aids - or not), but the second is spot-on. If you'd care to expand with anything further (from personal experience, how pilot training addresses it, any more information on that process of internalisation, etc) that would be very welcome. In particular, can you say anything about the non-visual component of that relationship with the aircraft and to the art of flying - Is it taught or encouraged? Can it be done without? Can it mislead? $\endgroup$ Jul 11, 2016 at 9:57
  • $\begingroup$ Note that "flying by the seat of one's pants" originally meant flying without fancy instrumentation, as you assumed here, It only came to have the more general and metaphorical meaning later: phrases.org.uk/meanings/139400.html $\endgroup$
    – Cody P
    Jul 12, 2016 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ "Flying by the seat of your pants" can be a real problem when your instruments don't agree with your pants. There have been several major accidents where the pilots became convinced that their instruments were wrong, and they were actually right. $\endgroup$ Jul 13, 2016 at 1:32
  • $\begingroup$ That early-90s check captain - sounds like the mindset warned against in that "Children Of The Magenta Line" lecture about the perils of automation dependency. Except the 747-100 and -200 didn't usually have EFIS, did they? $\endgroup$
    – Jack Deeth
    Feb 21, 2022 at 20:22
  • $\begingroup$ @JackDeeth No EFIS on 747-100/200 aircraft whatsoever that I am aware of. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Feb 22, 2022 at 18:46

As long as they are operating in VMC it's certainly possible. The difference in handling from a small aircraft are due to the difference in inertia, wing shape and consequent stall characteristics do certainly not preclude flying "by the seat of the pants".

So: possible yes. Desirable and common: probably not.

Although there are frequent calls for airline pilots to hand fly the aircraft more regularly to counteract the decrease in flying skills that is the inevitable result of increased automation, "seat of the pants" is not just hand flying: it's hand flying by reference to the visual and sensory inputs of the pilot without consideration of the flight instruments (e.g. judging the airspeed using a visual estimation of the angle of attack and how the airplane responds to small changes in input pressures, etc, instead of looking at the airspeed indicator).

I don't think it would be considered safe or even legal operating procedure for an airline pilot to completely ignore the flight instruments. It's certainly not part of any airlines SOP.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure this answers the question. $\endgroup$
    – egid
    Jul 10, 2016 at 3:59
  • $\begingroup$ @egid you're right. I refocused the answer. $\endgroup$
    – Sacha
    Jul 10, 2016 at 13:27

Ask Captain Al Haynes and Captain Chesley Sullenberger.

Do not ask the Asiana crew who landed short at SFO.

So the answer is: It depends on the individual crew members and their level and quality of experience.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure which accident at SFO you're referring to, but more to the point, what does the race of the pilots have to do with anything? $\endgroup$ Jul 9, 2016 at 23:59
  • $\begingroup$ Quite sure he refers to Asiana 214. If the crew consult instrument and follow procedure properly accident maybe avoided. Thus seat of pants is not a reliable means. Agree that this answer could be expanded. As of now it is too short. $\endgroup$
    – vasin1987
    Jul 10, 2016 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ @ZachLipton It is not the race of the pilots that is relevant, but the culture from which the pilots come. In Japanese and Korean cockpits there was a culture in the past that captains would not be challenged. Back in the days of three-man cockpits both KAL and JAL, as I remember, employed American crew members to counter this, knowing that, for example, an American f.e. would have no problem challenging a captain if need be. $\endgroup$
    – Terry
    Jul 10, 2016 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ Well the pilots in Asiana 214 were Korean, not Chinese as he originally stated, but in any case. I agree that culture makes a difference, and there's been a lot of human factors research on precisely that issue, but I really don't see how it answers the question to say that two [American] pilots did incredibly well in two cherry-picked extremely difficult situations and a crew of [some other country] pilots screwed the pooch in one cherry-picked routine situation. I'm also not quite sure what the question is to be honest: is it flying by the seat of your pants if you still look at instruments? $\endgroup$ Jul 10, 2016 at 20:10

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