Writing: Why is it a “Pilot”

I work in tech, and you hear a lot about “alpha builds” and “beta testing” and “pilot programs” – and the first two make perfect sense.  Alpha is first, beta is second.  It’s “pilot” that caught my attention the other day.  Why DO we call it a pilot?  TV shows have “pilot” episodes.  We have “pilot” groups in implementations.  Or “pilot programs” when testing new theories.

So I turned to my trusty Google and found…. well, not a lot really.  I was sorely disappointed with the curiosity of Quora.  I was utterly let down by Wikipedia.  I turned to Dictionary.com and read through definitions (this is not 100% of the definitions, just 1 from each category):

  • (n) a person duly qualified to steer ships into or out of a harbor or through certain difficult waters.
  • (v) to lead, guide, or conduct, as through unknown places, intricate affairs, etc.
  • (adj) serving as an experimental or trial undertaking prior to full-scale operation or use: a pilot project.

Interesting… but still not an explanation of how it got used beyond boats. Etymology Online wasn’t entirely useful either.

Sense extended 1848 to “one who controls a balloon,” and 1907 to “one who flies an airplane.” As an adjective, 1788 as “pertaining to a pilot;” from 1928 as “serving as a prototype.” Thus the noun pilotmeaning “pilot episode” (etc.), attested from 1962.

So…. it just happened?? I don’t believe that, but I DO accept that we can’t completely track the lingual adjustment. So I thought up some of my own theories. Here’s the one I like the best.

Post WWII there was such a preponderance of military men in media – movies, tv, books, etc. that “pilot” was more about “steering” a series or idea than it was about “boat.” And “pilot” for planes was still new enough the word had some…. flexibility in its use at that time.

Writer, nerd, and perpetual student. I am obsessed with books - both the reading and the making of them. If I won the lottery I would try to have the best private(ish) library in the world. It wouldn't be totally private because the whole purpose of having books is helping other people find a book they will love. I have 2 cats, Genkii (energy) and Kawaii (cutie). I will mention them regularly because they are a daily delight in my life. Granted, sometimes when I'm playing video games they are not so much "delight" as they are "distraction"... but I love them regardless.