There’s no doubt that “cockpit” is a strange sounding term, so like many people, you might be confused how the term cockpit came to refer to the area from a which a pilot controls the aircraft.

The term cockpit actually has a long and varied history behind it, originally referring to “a pit for fighting cocks” in the 1500s, to the area below deck of a ship, and the area from a which a pilot controls the aircraft today.

Why a Cockpit is Called a Cockpit

The etymology of the word cockpit is as follows:

  • 1500s: Pits in the ground constructed to house “cockfights”.
  • 1700s: A metaphor for any battle or conflict, especially those that took place in France and Belgium.
  • 1700s: In the 1700s, the term cockpit was also used to refer to the rear of a small boat where the cockswain (the person in charge of the boat) would steer and navigate, and the area where a smaller vessel would be dispatched to take people to and from shore.
  • 1914: Pilots in World War 1 used the term cockpit to refer to the cramped operating quarters of their fighter planes.
  • Today: Area from a which a pilot controls the aircraft.

So while the term cockpit originates from the pits in the ground that house “cockfights”, that were cramped and noisy, it’s easy to see how the term applies to planes, as the area where pilots control the aircraft is also cramped and noisy, especially the smaller the plane.

Some People Consider Cockpit to Be a Sexist Term

Some people believe that cockpit is a sexist term, including a Federal Aviation Administration advisory committee.

There is a push to use more gender-neutral language to create a more inclusive and diverse organization and culture, and to help reduce intentional or unintentional bias.

The FAA group has recommended referring to the cockpit as the flight deck.

The Cockpit is Home to a Plane’s Controls

In a standard commercial airliner, like a Boeing 747 or Airbus A320, there are hundreds of controls, though some are more important and more frequently used than others.

These include controls for:

  • Navigation Data
  • System Data
  • Flight Data
  • VHF Radio & Navigation Controllers
  • Fuel Control
  • Comm Selectors
  • Landing Gear
  • Engine Control
  • Auto Flight Control
  • Screen Controls

More Than One Pilot is in the Cockpit

On commercial airlines, regardless if the flight is domestic or international, there are always at least two pilots on a plane.

On many flights, there are three pilots or even more, though these tend to be long-haul, international flights.

The experience and rank of these pilots will differ by airline, though a plane with two pilots typically consists of a Captain and Senior First Officer (co-pilot).

Cockpit Doors Are Usually Locked During a Flight

Cockpit doors are usually locked throughout the duration of a flight due to safety concerns, though the cockpit door is opened for pilots to be served their meals, to go to the bathroom, and when changing shifts.

Related: Can You Open an Airplane Door in Flight?

After 9/11, Cockpit Doors Had to Be Bulletproof

After the 9/11 attacks, the FAA has required the cockpit bulkhead and door to be bulletproof to resist penetration by small arms fire and fragmentation devices

Your Pilot May Have Been Sleeping in the Cockpit

Pilots will take turns sleeping and can even sleep in the cockpit.

Pilots can also leave the cockpit and go to a more comfortable resting cabin area where they can get some quality shuteye with a bed, nice bedding, lighting control, and perhaps even temperature control.

Related: What Do Pilots Do On Long Flights?

Pilots Are Allowed to Leave the Cockpit During a Flight

Pilots can leave the cockpit during a flight to go to the bathroom, check on things in the passengers cabins, to sleep, and even to stretch their legs.

Regulations state that there must always be at least one pilot in the cockpit at any one time, though.

Passengers Can No Longer Enter the Cockpit

Many kids pre 9/11 have fond memories of being allowed in the cockpit during a flight, and it may have even kick-started many careers in aviation.

Unfortunately, this is no longer allowed.

The Terms Cockpit and Flight Deck Are Interchangeable

The terms cockpit and flight deck can be used interchangeably, with both terms referring to the area from a which a pilot controls the aircraft.

As mentioned, many people consider the term cockpit to be sexist, so the cockpit may only be called the flight deck in the future.

Helen Krasner holds a PPL(A), with 15 years experience flying fixed-wing aircraft; a PPL(H), with 13 years experience flying helicopters; and a CPL(H), Helicopter Instructor Rating, with 12 years working as a helicopter instructor.

Helen is an accomplished aviation writer with 12 years of experience, having authored several books and published numerous articles while also serving as the Editor of the BWPA (British Women Pilots Association) newsletter, with her excellent work having been recognized with her nomination of the “Aviation Journalist of the Year” award.

Helen has won the “Dawn to Dusk” International Flying Competition, along with the best all-female competitors, three times with her copilot.