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.

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