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Reading a book, I came across an expression I really can't parse.

For some developers, the invocation of the word plan is cause for alarm. Endless meetings with pointy-haired bosses creating reams of printed Microsoft Project plans that nobody understands or uses are a valid cause for alarm. So, techies often overcompensate in our rebellion against perceived overplanning by constantly flying by the seat of our pants.

I understand what he's saying with that last sentence—that sometimes developers go too far in avoiding planning—but can't make head nor tail of how he puts it. Can anyone explain the logic (if any) behind this phrase?

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What's with all the computer-related questions lately? –  Joe Blow Jul 2 '11 at 21:42
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The context whence the question arose may be computer-related, but the question itself certainly is not. –  Jonik Aug 17 '11 at 3:49
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(Or alternatively: Stack Exchange, sadly, still largely revolves around software developers and their hobbies.) –  Jonik Aug 17 '11 at 3:49
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5 Answers 5

up vote 10 down vote accepted

The meaning and origin is covered in this article on The Phrase Finder. An extract:

Meaning

Decide a course of action as you go along, using your own initiative and perceptions rather than a pre-determined plan or mechanical aids.

Origin

This is early aviation parlance. Aircraft initially had few navigation aids and flying was accomplished by means of the pilot's judgment.

This Sydney Morning Herald article also says that before advanced instruments, pilots would have use the feel and slide of the seat to tell how the plane was moving.

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Thanks! Couldn't decide which of the top answers to accept, so I chose the most upvoted one. Also, I posted a small additional point that helped me understand the phrase. –  Jonik Aug 17 '11 at 4:14
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Flying by the seat of one's pants was originally a literal (or nearly-literal) phrase, meaning to use all of one's senses -- including lateral and vertical "G forces" transmitted to your derriere through the seat -- to control an aircraft in flight. Early flight "instrumentation" consisted largely of a magnetic compass (which is only useful when flying straight and level) and a length of string (really!) to tell you the direction of airflow relative to the plane.

While the phrase may have been used in a pejorative sense in your example, it isn't always the case. Improvising everything in life probably isn't a good idea, but instruments (metrics) lie, and blindly following procedures can exacerbate a problem that situational awareness and instincts developed through experience could have nipped in the bud.

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Especially ironic, you can't tell purely from feeling the G force if you are flying level or in a banked turn. Until the invention of the gyroscope artificial horizon it was very dangerous to fly without a visible horizon –  mgb Jul 3 '11 at 3:57
    
In one of the WWII bombers, (I think it was the Halifax), the co-pilot's seat was not precisely level. This could cause pilots to go off course, and the training programmme had a full session on counteracting "bottom effect". –  TimLymington Aug 17 '11 at 9:48
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It means the same as "play it by ear" or "wing it" - to improvise plans and procedures as necessary.

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The other answers perfectly explain the meaning and where the phrase stems from.

In addition, one thing that personally helped me understand the logic—or how the phrase can make any sense—was this definition of "seat" in the NOAD (emphasis mine):

2 a person's buttocks.
the part of a garment that covers the buttocks.

You see, I had thought "seat" can only mean a chair or such! (Probably related to the fact I'm a 2nd language speaker.)

Incidentally, NOAD's "seat" entry also gives this definition for "by the seat of one's pants":

(informal) by instinct rather than logic or knowledge.

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In WW1 in the open cockpits they sat on the parachutes, when they finally got around to making them for the guys in the air, maybe it has something to do with that?

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WWI pilots didn't have parachutes - it was felt that it would encourage them to abandon a damaged but servicable aeroplane. And pack parachutes weren't invented until the mid 1920s –  mgb Jul 3 '11 at 15:50
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