An 'aviator' and a 'pilot' both refer to someone who can fly a plane. Then, what's the difference between them? Do native speakers really differentiate them in daily communication?
"The pilot" is the person in direct chrage of flying the aircraft. "A pilot" is a person qualified to assume such a role, or a person who frequently does so. The word "pilot" can also refer to a person who directs a ship or boat, or figuratively who directs anything. An "aviator" is a member of the crew of an aircraft. S/he might or might not be a pilot. I agree that "aviator" is a bit more old-fashioned.
‘Aviator’ is anybody operating an aircraft. This includes at minimum the pilot and any co-pilots, but may also, depending on context, include any navigators, flight engineers, or any other flight crew responsible for actually operating the aircraft. In most modern usage, ‘aviator’ is not typically heard much outside of academic settings, and is generally considered borderline archaic
‘Pilot’ is a bit more complicated. The term originated in the maritime industry, being essentially equivalent there to ‘helmsman’, and specifically referring to the person who actually steers the ship (as distinguished from the navigator, who plots the course to be taken, and the conning officer, who decides where to go). The word is still used in the maritime industry in this sense today, though it may refer to a specially trained helmsman who is responsible for piloting a ship through a specific area (usually a harbor pilot, who is responsible for piloting large ships into and out of a specific harbor). When it needs to be unambiguous, this sense is usually called a ‘ship pilot’ or ‘maritime pilot’.
The aviation industry directly borrowed the term from the maritime industry (and, originally on larger aircraft, did the same with term navigator). Usage in the aviation industry these days has shifted a bit though, with the term these days almost always indicating someone who is licensed to fly an aircraft, as well as generally being used to refer to the officer in command of a flight crew for an aircraft (with others responsible for flying the aircraft being known as co-pilots). When it needs to be unambiguous, this sense is usually called an ‘aircraft pilot’, though it may be further qualified by the type of aircraft the pilot normally flies (for example ‘fighter pilot’, ‘cargo pilot’, or ‘bomber pilot’).
The same term is also used for the person responsible for steering a spacecraft, either in the maritime sense (as seen in a lot of science-fiction, such as in Star Trek), or in the aviation sense (as used by the US government currently, as well as seen in science-fiction). There are a huge number of alternative noun phrases for this sense, based on what terminology is used for the spacecraft in question (for example ‘shuttle pilot’).
Complicating further though, the term ‘pilot’ in English has a whole slew of other meanings, including:
- A small scale test or trial of something.
- A special initial episode of a television series, used to sell the series to a production studio. This may or may not be also be the first episode aired, and may more specifically be called a ‘television pilot’. This is a more specific sense of the above sense.
- A special vehicle that drives ahead of a vehicle carrying an oversized load, to warn other road users of the approaching vehicle (this is mostly an Australian thing in my experience, different terminology exists elsewhere).
- A small hole drilled or dug as a guide to drill or dig a larger hole. Mostly used in the mining, machining, and carpentry industries. May also refer to the guide at the front of a drilling tool that is designed to follow a pilot hole, or to a tool used for creating a pilot hole.
- A pilot light
In American English today, I normally hear the term aviator used to describe either someone who made a significant contribution to the field of aviation, or a military pilot (particularly “Naval aviator” or “Marine aviator,” since members of the U.S. Air Force are “airmen” instead).
If you check, for example, Wikipedia’s List of Aviators, you will see that it is divided into three categories:
While all of these people were pilots (and some still are), many are also noted for contributions in areas such as aircraft design and manufacturing, navigation or popularization.
notable people from various professions who are also pilots:
It is, however, rare to hear people in the third category referred to as “aviators.” They meet the dictionary definition, and Wikipedia includes them, but in a separate list at the bottom of the page because they get in on a technicality.