Where Aviation Phrases We Use Came From


Balls to the Wall

A very colorful phrase, one needs to be careful when using "balls to the wall". Although its real origin is very benign, most people assume it is a reference to testicles.

In fact it is from fighter planes. The "balls" are knobs atop the plane's throttle control. Pushing the throttle all the way forward, to the wall of the cockpit, is to apply full throttle.


Early railroad locomotives were powered by steam engines. Those engines typically had a mechanical governor. These governors consisted of two weighted steel balls mounted at the ends of two arms, jointed and attached to the end of a vertical shaft that was connected to the interior of the engine. The entire assembly is encased in a housing.

The shafts and the weighted balls rotate at a rate driven by the engine speed. As engine speed increases, the assembly rotates at a faster speed and centrifugal force causes the weighted balls to hinge upward on the arms.

At maximum engine speed - controlled by these governors - centrifugal force causes the two weighted balls to rotate with their connecting shafts parallel to the ground and thereby nearly touching the sides - the walls - of their metal housing.

So, an engineer driving his steam locomotive at full throttle was going "balls to the wall". The expression came to be used commonly to describe something going full speed.


Flying by the seat of your pants

Before airplanes had sophisticated instruments and flight control systems, and even today, planes are piloted by feel. Pilots can feel the reactions of the plane in response to their actions at the controls.


Being the largest point of contact between pilot and plane, most of the feel or feedback comes through the seat of the pants.

If you are "flying by the seat of your pants" your are responding to the feedback received.


Pushing the envelope

This expression comes out of the US Air Force test pilot program of the late 1940's.

The envelope refers to a plane's performance capabilities. The limits of the planes ability to fly at speeds and altitudes and under certain stresses define what is known as its performance envelope. It's an "envelope" in the sense that it contains the ranges of the plane's abilities.

"Pushing the envelope" originally meant flying an aircraft at, or even beyond, its known or recommended limits.


Wing and a prayer

During World War One airplanes were still a novelty and untested in war. A "wing and a prayer" was first uttered when an American flyer came in with a badly damaged wing.

His fellow pilots and mechanics were amazed he didn't crash. He replied he was praying all the way in. Another pilot chimed in that "a wing and a prayer brought you back."

mflatham mflatham
56-60, F
3 Responses Jul 15, 2007

But doesn't it reference speed? That's what I thought it was implying..."I had it 'balls to the wall". we musta been doing over 100 mph..." and pretty much how people use it , right? Going really fast...u<br />
nless some guy used it in the literal sense... like "she had me 'balls to the wall' - there was no sense in lying..." Like I'm caught - can't get out of this one...

"The whole nine yards" is also an aeronautical term. It refers to the machine gun in the door of a helo. To give someone the whole nine yards was to give them the full belt of ammunition which was nine yards long.

interesting. where do you get this information?