If you read older flying materials and books like the classic Stick and Rudder by Wolfgang Langewiesche, aircraft are very frequently and consistently referred to as "ships". Many movies and videos from World War 2 also use the word, based on what I've found on Youtube.

But today "ship" isn't used widely - if at all - and it now seems very old-fashioned. What happened? When and why did "ship" stop being a common term for an aircraft?

(Cross-posted from aviation.SE)

  • 4
    It seems like it's still used commonly in fiction to refer to spacecraft. The TV show Star Trek refers to the main spacecraft as "the starship Enterprise" in the opening theme song, and in the show Firefly, the crew of a spacecraft often refer to it as "a boat."
    – Nicole
    Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 17:37
  • It's always been pretty common to refer to a (usually fictional) craft which exits the atmosphere as a "spaceship", though perhaps not as much now as earlier.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 18:37
  • It is still a very common term among manufacturers, maintenance, and others in the industry. Google "four ship formation" - all planes and no boats.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 4:54

2 Answers 2


A fairly high percentage of early "aircraft" were what we still refer to using the word...

airship - a very large aircraft that does not have wings but that has a body filled with gas so that it floats and that is driven through the air by engines

It was quite natural to call them airships because (being lighter than air) they "floated". But the 1937 Hindenburg disaster "shattered public confidence in the giant, passenger-carrying rigid airship and marked the end of the airship era".

There were probably a small number of people who simply weren't attuned to the developing technology and vocabulary, but I don't think airship = airplane (with rigid wings and propeller) ever had any significant currency, even before the term accidentally acquired those seriously negative overtones in 1937.

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    Anecdotally the use of the term "ship" for aircraft survives in airline fleets (where aircraft may be referred to as "Ship number 12345"). There is also the heritage of the flying boats like the Pan Am Clippers which probably contributed to the use of the term "ship" through the middle of the 20th century.
    – voretaq7
    Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 18:26
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    @voretaq7: Indeed. And regardless of whether your goods are sent by air or by sea (or even by road), stuff you buy on eBay is likely to include a shipping cost. But for Anglophones in general, ship has never been closely associated with fixed-wing aircraft. Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 18:32
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    @FumbleFingers - Careful!! We'll soon be getting into the old "drive on a parkway, park in a driveway" thing.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 18:38
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    @Hot Licks: A slippery slope if ever there was one! Eventually we'll get down to the old vaudeville gag: "My nose is running, and my feet smell!" - "You're built upside-down!". (Just thought I'd save time by going straight for it! :) Commented Dec 10, 2014 at 18:44
  • About 50 years ago I read several books on WWI (heavier-than-air) aircraft. My recollection is that they were often referred to as "airships" (or perhaps "aeroships").
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 3:38

I work for Lockheed Martin and build the f35's center wing box and also at my facility we build the c130, wings for the p3, are doing the upgrades for the c5 and have just recently been awarded the contract for f22 mods and the only way we refer to the airplane is by ship so no its not outdated. Every now and then but very seldom I'll hear the term jet used but 98% off the time it's ship. I am currently working on ship # AM/14 which means it's the 14th f35 for the Netherlands. I'm not for sure where the term comes from but i assume it's airship just shortened to ship. Maybe because they use lift and not air or any other kind of gas to stay afloat.

  • Plus terms like hulls, ribs and spars are still used. The prefab ribs and ringframes constitute a "shipset". The captain and crew still dock the plane at the airport
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Dec 22, 2016 at 4:45

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