Franklyn, a Sport Pilot from Virginia, writes: I figured that as you write “Questions from the Cockpit,” you’d know how the cockpit got its name. Why is the cockpit called the cockpit?

There are three competing theories to explain the use of the word “cockpit” as the name for the nerve center of an airplane. Strap in, we’ll fly through them all.

The Control Center Hypothesis

For background, you need to know that the word cockpit itself first appears in print in the 1580s, and was used to describe the arena used for cock fights (with birds), but as the Oxford English Dictionary points out, over time, the term evolved in other directions. 

One of these, and bear with me through all the twists and turns, gets royally far from cock fights, and might well land in airplanes.

Here’s the tale: In 1635 a theater in London called The Cockpit was torn down to make room for buildings to serve King Charles I’s cabinet. Apparently, Londoners continued to call the new cluster of buildings “the cockpit” after the old theater, which in turn, got its name from being built on the site of an actual, Honest-to-Pete cock fighting site.

All of this led to Robert Barnhart, in his book the Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology, to suggest that cockpit evolved into a synonym for control center and that this was later applied to the control centers of airplanes.

Meanwhile, on a different tangent from this same set of facts we have…

The Blood and Guts Hypothesis

In addition to being used as a synonym for control center, apparently in the 1700s, soldiers started using “cockpit” as a metaphor for the site of grisly combat, especially when the fighting was in an enclosed area.

The Word Detective website has suggested that the word cockpit was then “adopted by pilots in World War I, who applied it to the cramped operating quarters of their fighter planes.” It is, after all, a small pit where plenty of fighting takes place.

Related to this, in the 18th Century, wounded sailors were taken below decks during combat, where the ship’s surgeon and his mates would tend to them — a bloody business that led to the surgeon’s station being called the cockpit.

And it’s also on the high seas that our third contender comes from…

The Nautical Connections Hypothesis

The word cockpit had a second and completely independent evolution on the waves, one that has nothing whatsoever to do with cock fighting. I’d like you to meet a different flavor of pilot from the kind we hang around with: The coxswain.

A cockswain (also known as coxswain) was at first the boy servant in charge of the small boat that was kept aboard to row the ship’s captain to and from the ship (as seen in the painting The Missionary Boat by Henry Scott Tuke.) (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Initially, the word cockswain is used to describe the person in charge of a small vessel. The title comes to us from “cock,” an Old English term for a small boat, and “swain,” which means servant. A cockswain is a boat servant. Over time, this title led to the steering compartment of smaller boats, where the cockswain sat, being called a cockpit.

As early aviation borrowed a host of other terms from the sea, many commentators have suggested that this is the source of cockpit as we know it. 

The history vault

So how can we sort all of this out? Which of the three theories is correct?

One approach is to look at early aviation writing to try to figure out when the word cockpit first appears in print in relationship to aviation. 

Is it when flight decks became complex enough to merit being considered control centers?

Is it found in the writings of the World War I aces?

Or does it come from an earlier point in time?

The earliest printed reference to cockpit in aviation that I could find came from 1909. That’s five years before World War I, and only six years after Kitty Hawk. It’s in the book “Vehicles of the Air” by Victor Lougheed.

In discussing aeroplane seating for pilots and passengers, Lougheed tells us, “So far, most of such seats have been of the most elementary construction, as is suggested in the illustrations throughout these pages. Lately, however, some of the more advanced craft are appearing with very comfortable arrangements for seating the operator, as is particularly evidenced in the boat-like cockpits provided in the Bleriot, Antoinette, and R.E.P. machines.”

It intrigues me that this very sentence, near the dawn of aviation history, directly connects our cockpit back to those of boats. But is it the origin of cockpit in aviation? 

I believe that it is. 1907’s “Navigating the Air” by the Aero Club of America, makes no mention of cockpits. Of course, at that time, well prior to the trio of planes cited by Lougheed, most pilots were seated on open wings, or in chairs lashed to struts forward of the wing. We didn’t need the word cockpit earlier as there was no pit! But by 1915, cockpit is in common use in numerous books.

But was Lougheed, and his book, influential enough to brand the operator’s compartment for all time? Who was Lougheed, anyway?

The founder of the Society of Automotive Engineers, he may well have been the first aeronautical engineer in the modern sense of the word. In addition to his astonishingly comprehensive “Vehicles” book, he wrote several other highly technical books, and numerous articles, on the budding world of aviation. He designed engines, wings and propellers, and held numerous patents.

The first Blériot XI in early 1909, just months before his successful flight over the English Channel. (George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress)

And it might interest you to know that the proper pronunciation of his Scottish last name was Lock-heed. Yep, Victor was the older brother of Allan and Malcolm Lougheed, the founders of the Lockheed Aircraft Company, who changed the spelling of the company’s name to avoid pronunciation problems. 

Of course, buried in some little-known book in the dust bin of history there could well be some earlier use of the term, but until we can find it, Victor Lougheed gets my vote for the father of the cockpit. 

Flight Deck or Cockpit?

After diving deep into the history of cockpit, let’s look at the future: In late May, deep in a four-page memo called What’s New and Upcoming in Airman Testing,” the FAA blew up our time-honored cockpit.

In the middle of a bullet list summarizing the changes in its new release of the “Aviation Instructor’s Handbook,” the Feds announced: “Cockpit” has been replaced with “Flight Deck.”

The FAA is also ditching “student” in favor of “learner” in the book, and will do the same with both terms in all resources going forward. Apparently, the shift from student to learner reflects an ongoing trend in higher education— although there’s no word yet on whether the Student Pilot Certificate will be replaced with a Learner Pilot Certificate. 

Sorry. That was rather snarky of me, wasn’t it? 

Anyway, the decision on cockpits is a little less clear, although it appears to fall into the same broad category of trying to be sensitive to the power of language.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the power and effect of words on people. I do. But while flight deck is a fine fit for me when it comes to the big iron, I confess I find it a bit pretentious for the light aluminum that I fly. 

Will the pilot community go along with this, or like continuing to call the 14 CFRs the FARs, will we stubbornly stick to our Old English?

I honestly can’t see myself mounting the wing, lifting my leg over the high wall of my fuselage, and stepping down into my flight deck. And, while I’m not planning on renaming my column Questions from the Flight Deck anytime soon, I’d love to know how you feel about this change. 

Do you like it? Or are you going to fight the flight deck like an angry rooster?