MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Why Are Pilots’ Stations Called “Cockpits”?

I’ve always been fascinated by the audio that comes from a plane’s cockpit. But have you ever wondered…“Why is it called a ‘cockpit’ in the first place?”

In aviation terms, the cockpit is the control center from which the pilot directs the functions & flight path of an aircraft. Commercial planes have them, as do military aircraft. Heck, even spaceships have them (Han Solo & Chewbacca spent most of their time in the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit). But the earliest planes didn’t use the term (remember, Orville Wright controlled his aircraft while just laying on top of the wing). So, how did the pilot’s station come to be known as the “cockpit”?

Well, there are a few possible explanations, though none are gospel. What’s known for certain is that the word “cockpit” first appeared in the 16th century as the term for an arena in which roosters were forced to attack one another in cockfights. Cockfighting areas were dug into the ground, so as to keep the roosters from getting out & away, hence the word “cock pit”. But that doesn’t really have anything to do with airplanes, though (especially considering that the concept of flight wasn’t really on folks’ minds in the 1500s).

One connecting thread, though, might’ve been a London theater called The Cockpit, which had been built on the site of an old rooster-fighting cockpit before the theater got torn down in the 1600s to make way for apartments for government officials. But even with the theater gone, Londoners ultimately continued calling the new apartment building The Cockpit. And, because it was where the brain trust of the country resided, “cockpit” started to become synonymous with “command center”. Pilots may have also taken a cue from another definition of the term. The term cockpit expanded to include any type of war zone, and since fighter planes would regularly engage in combat with other aircraft, they were essentially in an airborne cockfighting ring, or cockpit.

One other theory revolves around the word “cockswain” (nowadays usually spelled as “coxswain”), which was a term for a person in charge of a sailboat. The cockpit came to mean the area from which the boat could be steered, after which the term likely could’ve potentially migrated to the world of aviation.

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BROUGHT TO YOU BY: Berryville Graphics