I'm writing a sci-fi story involving aircraft and space craft. I'm struggling to get the terminology right for referring to a pilot being 'in the air' either on a mission or a training exercise. I have a feeling there is a phrase for this but I'm struggling to think of it.

The context would be military, as in the following sentence:

She kept the Squadron Leader updated as much as she needed to, but she preferred to keep comms chatter to a minimum when she was in the air.

  • $\begingroup$ Related: A phrase pilots (may) say to another, instead of "good luck, is "Blue side up!". $\endgroup$ – DarcyThomas Nov 1 '17 at 3:02
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    $\begingroup$ Make a cool one up! Slipped? (As in "surly bonds of Earth".) Uber-terra? Litho-detached? (Inspired by a Kerbal Space Program player referring to "Litho-braking".) "Maintaining an air gap"? "Saving Daisies"? "Saving on tyre wear"? $\endgroup$ – Grimm The Opiner Nov 1 '17 at 12:46
  • $\begingroup$ @GrimmTheOpiner: Haha, yes! 'Saving on tyre wear' is a great one. $\endgroup$ – tommypyatt Nov 1 '17 at 13:21

She kept the Squadron Leader updated as much as she needed to, but she preferred to keep comms chatter to a minimum when she was...

Military-related terms:

General terms:

  • ...in the air
  • ...airborne
  • ...at the controls
  • ...flying
  • ...in flight
  • ...on a mission
  • ...doing (her) rounds
  • ...aloft

There might be other, more technical terms in use in the military for specific operations or missions but I have no experience there.

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    $\begingroup$ If I may offer a suggestion: aloft $\endgroup$ – nexus_2006 Oct 31 '17 at 19:37
  • $\begingroup$ @nexus_2006 That's a good suggestion, I've made this a community wiki answer so that other people can add them directly. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Oct 31 '17 at 19:41
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    $\begingroup$ Most of those terms refer to being in the air for a specific purpose, or doing something specific while in the air. They're not appropriate for simply saying that someone is in the air. $\endgroup$ – user2357112 supports Monica Oct 31 '17 at 19:44
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    $\begingroup$ Aloft is the first word that comes to mind for me, but the problem I see with aloft, as well as "in the air", "airborne", and to a lesser extent "flying" is that these are things that occur in the atmosphere. The OP is looking for a word that satisfies both "flying" in atmosphere and in space. Perhaps "piloting", as in "...when she is piloting her ship." $\endgroup$ – Devil07 Oct 31 '17 at 20:25

Mostly when a pilot is busy in flying, the phrase used it in the air.

In your example, it will appear as:

...she preferred to keep comms chatter to a minimum when she was in the air...

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    $\begingroup$ It would be possible to say: AIRBORNE. $\endgroup$ – eduardoguilherme Oct 31 '17 at 18:04

I've used the term "wheels up" before.

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    $\begingroup$ This usually refers to the specific moment of take off. "Wheels up at 0745" $\endgroup$ – candied_orange Oct 31 '17 at 21:37
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    $\begingroup$ The phrase 'after wheels-up' would work, then. Sentence becomes "she preferred to keep comms chatter to a minimum after wheels up". $\endgroup$ – Ben Nov 1 '17 at 5:10
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    $\begingroup$ So long as it is not accompanied by shiny-side-down! $\endgroup$ – dotancohen Nov 1 '17 at 9:15

Since you've had many in-atmosphere answers, here are a few for not-in-atmosphere flight:

  • In / On orbit
  • Weightless
  • Parabolic (Usually used to say that something is above the Karman line but has not achieved orbital velocity)
  • Off-planet
  • $\begingroup$ There's also exoatmospheric which literally means not-in-atmosphere. $\endgroup$ – MSalters Nov 1 '17 at 13:38
  • $\begingroup$ why parabolic, surely that would be an elliptical sub-orbital trajectory? $\endgroup$ – jk. Nov 2 '17 at 9:35
  • $\begingroup$ @jk I guess a segment of an ellipse looks approximately like a parabola. If you throw a baseball (or a fire a canon) at ground level under ideal (e.g. airless) conditions, the trajectory above the ground looks like a parabola though it's, more accurately, a segment of an ellipse. What makes the difference (between a parabola and an ellipse) is whether you travel far enough for the direction of gravity to change. $\endgroup$ – ChrisW Nov 2 '17 at 9:47
  • $\begingroup$ @jk. It seems that sub-orbital trajectories often encounter a large nickel and iron obstacle which prevents them from completing an ellipse. $\endgroup$ – dotancohen Nov 2 '17 at 10:06
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisW yes they look parabolic because the earth is locally 'flat', if you are getting up to Karman line then you are probably moving enough that earths curvature is important. I just though it was a bit odd cos at that scale you can have a parabolic trajectory but it has the opposite meaning in that it actually escapes. I guess jargon doesn't necessarily have to make sense though $\endgroup$ – jk. Nov 2 '17 at 10:12

Here is one more that might help...



Another option not yet mentioned, from U.S. military jargon, is in country, though this carries some contextual baggage. It's similar to in enemy territory and might be used by, for example, a carrier pilot while in an assigned combat or patrol area. It might contextually suggest to the reader that radio silence or strict concentration is important to the specific mission at hand. It would be less fitting if you want to suggest to the reader that this pilot's general, personal preference is simply to avoid chit-chat in the cockpit.

There's also the phrase sterile cockpit which just means a policy of avoiding distractions in the cockpit. This is a common phrase among pilots and would be used as in "She preferred to keep a sterile cockpit."

(Of course, these nuances will only matter to readers familiar with the jargon. There's always a balance to be struck between impressing those who know the jargon and alienating those who don't. Everyone understands "... while airborne" and pilots won't look at you funny for saying it.)


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