General Aviation - An Overview
Dr. Janet Bednarek
From the US Centennial of Flight
Perhaps the best way to define general aviation is to begin by listing what it is not. General aviation is not military aviation and it is not scheduled commercial aviation. To a great extent, all other uses of aviation in the United States fall into the category of general aviation. These uses include, but are not limited to, private and sport flying, aerial photography and surveying, cropdusting, business flying, medical evacuation, flight training, and the police and fire fighting uses of aircraft. The airplanes used in general aviation range from small, single-engine, fabric-covered aircraft to multi-million dollar business jets. They also include helicopters, restored warbirds, and homebuilt aircraft designed to use advanced composite technology. The term general aviation came into use during the 1950s. Before that time, commentators talked of private flying or business flying. Regardless of the term or terms used, the non-military and non-commercial airline uses of aviation date back to the very early history of powered flight.
Shortly after Wilbur and Orville Wright's invention
came to public attention, people in the United States began to dream big dreams
of what the new technology would bring. Many beliefs came to make up what
historian Joseph Corn called the “winged gospel.” One part of the winged gospel included a vision of a future in
which the airplane would be as common a form of transportation as the
automobile. There would be, as some put it, “an airplane in every garage.” Another part of the winged gospel included
the hope that participation in aviation would allow women and African Americans
to gain greater equality in American society. Aviation never completely fulfilled
that promise. In fact, many areas of aviation activity, including military
flying and commercial airlines, barred women and African Americans for much of
the twentieth century. However, both women and African Americans found their
first opportunities to participate in flight in general aviation.
What is now known as general aviation really did not
emerge fully until after the mid-1920s. Nonetheless, even before then a number
of individuals began to experiment with uses of flight technology that would
later become important parts of general aviation. For example, the first uses
of airplanes for crop treatment, aerial surveying, and corporate flying all
dated before the mid-1920s. Also, the first production and purchases of
aircraft for private uses also happened very early in the history of flight.
Wealthy individuals and some early exhibition pilots purchased aircraft from
such pioneer aircraft manufacturers as the Wright brothers and their chief
rival, Glenn Curtiss. Just before World War I, Clyde Cessna, a self-taught
exhibition pilot, briefly operated his first aircraft company, one he founded
with the purpose of building and selling small, relatively inexpensive aircraft
for personnel use.
Cessna and those who followed him in the 1920s and
early 1930s faced a number of difficulties as they tried repeatedly to build
the type of aircraft that would allow for the realization of the dreams of the
winged gospel. One of the biggest obstacles to the goal of “an airplane in
every garage” was the aircraft engine. Through the 1920s and into the 1930s
engines remained often the most expensive parts of the aircraft. The relatively
affordable engines available, such as the OX-5, were so large and heavy that
they demanded the design of large aircraft. Smaller, lighter engines were both
very expensive and hard to get as most of the best were produced in Europe, not
the United States. The dream of affordable, personal aircraft would have to
General aviation received a tremendous boost in the
late 1920s with the trans-Atlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh. His celebrated
feat created a great deal of enthusiasm for flight of all kinds. In particular
his flight encouraged many to continue to explore the varied uses of aviation
technology. At the same time, though, as aviation grew as an activity, government
regulations at both the state and federal levels worked to make access to
flight a little more difficult. While the new programs did help give birth to
the commercial airline industry, they also began to demand that pilots earn
licenses and that aircraft receive certification. These measures undoubtedly
helped make general aviation safer. At the same time though, the age of the
backyard builder and self-taught pilot were numbered.
Some government programs aimed at encouraging
private flying. During the 1930s the Federal government initiated a number of
programs supporters hoped would help spur general aviation. For example, Eugene
Vidal, who headed the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce, pushed
for the creation of a government program to encourage the design and
manufacture of a safe, affordable aircraft. He hoped to come up with an
aircraft that could be sold for $700, about the same price as an automobile.
While some new aircraft designs did come out of the program, overall it was a failure.
Later in the 1930s, the newly established Civil Aeronautics Authority sponsored
a pilot training program. Known as the Civilian Pilot Training Program, the
idea was to increase the number of pilots in the United States. These pilots
would not only be a “market” for general aviation aircraft, but the young men
trained in the program could more quickly become military pilots in case of
war. While this program also failed to live up to its early promises, it
nonetheless increased the number of pilots in the United States. And these new
pilots included both men and women, and both whites and African Americans.
The late 1920s and the 1930s also witnessed the
expansion of general aviation enterprises. Crop dusting, proved valuable in the
South in fighting the boll weevil, soon spread throughout the United States and
included the treatment of forested areas as well as the aerial seeding of rice
fields. Business travel also greatly expanded. While many businessmen and women
used the new commercial airliners, many also saw the value of being able to fly
wherever they needed at the time most convenient to them. These business people
helped ensure that the high-end of the general aviation aircraft manufacturing
market became and remained healthy. And during this time period the first
affordable small aircraft made their appearance. The first affordable small
aircraft was the Aeronca C-2 introduced in 1929. It sold for under $2000 and
was powered by a 36-horsepower engine built by Aeronca. Soon thereafter American
engine manufacturers, beginning with Continental, began to finally produce
small affordable aircraft engines. By the end of the 1930s Continental,
Lycoming and Franklin were all producing durable, affordable engines for small
aircraft. The horsepower produced by these engines increased from 40 to 90.
Engines like these powered the most popular aircraft of the late 1930s, the
Piper J-3 “Cub.” At the end of that
decade, a new Cub sold for just under $1000.
The coming of World War II proved both a challenge and
an opportunity for general aviation. During World War II, as during World War
I, most of the general aviation fleet was grounded. However, both general
aviation pilots and manufacturers found ways to participate in the war effort.
Pilots organized the Civil Air Patrol, an organization that eventually became
an auxiliary of the Army Air Forces (and later the United State Air Force).
Civil Air Patrol pilots performed a number of duties during the war. They flew
coastal patrol missions looking for enemy submarines. Others flew over the
nation's forests acting as fire spotters. And still others flew humanitarian
missions such as emergency medical flights and dropping supplies to areas hit
hard by blizzards, floods or other natural disasters. Their activities also
helped keep a large number of general aviation airports open and active during
the war. General aviation aircraft manufacturers provided a number of products
for the war effort. First, they acted as sub-contractors, using their skilled
work forces to produce aircraft components for the manufacturers of military
aircraft. They also sold a number of aircraft to the Army that were used in the
Aerial-Observation-Post program in which Army pilots flew small aircraft in
order to spot targets for Army artillery. And a number of general aviation
manufacturers modified their small aircraft so that they could serve as
training gliders for the Army Air Forces combat glider program.
In many ways World War II marked a high point in the
history of general aviation, at least when it came to the manufacturing sector.
Many hoped that the high level of activity would continue and even increase in
the post-war period. Given the large number of individuals trained as pilots
during the war, general aviation manufacturers hoped that the time when private
aircraft would come into widespread use was finally at hand. Hopes were high.
However, as events unfolded, World War II marked not the beginning but the end
of any golden age for general aviation.
In the decades after World War II certain segments
of general aviation continued to grow and develop. Business aviation, for
example, continued as a very healthy part of the general aviation scene. It
also witnessed important technological changes including the introduction of turbine
engines, both jets and turbo props. These high-end business aircraft remained
in demand. The late 1940s also saw the introduction of helicopters. While these
aerial vehicles also failed to become common forms of personal transport, they
did become very important in such activities as medical evacuation and law
enforcement. The biggest advancements, though, came in avionics – the radio and
navigation equipment available to general aviation pilots. Today for a few
hundred dollars a pilot, even in a small J-3 Cub, which normally has nothing
more advanced that a compass, can pinpoint his or her location and easily fly a
course to the nearest airport.
In terms of personal flying, the type of flying most
people think of first when they think of general aviation, the post-war period
witnessed a number of difficult times. First, the post-war boom in private
aircraft purchases never materialized. Many companies, including some that had
been very successful in the 1920s and 1930s, were forced out of the aircraft business.
The survivors, such as Piper, Cessna and Beech, had to work hard to rebuild the
personal aircraft market in the 1950s through the 1970s. They did see some
successes as each company made the transition from fabric-covered to all-metal
aircraft. However, both the market for personal aircraft and the number of
pilots in the United States peaked by 1980. In the last two decades of the
twentieth century, the general aviation industry, particularly in terms of
personal aircraft, struggled.
The general aviation market suffered from a number
of problems. First, lawsuits against aircraft manufacturers escalated in the
1970s and 1980s. The costs involved with these lawsuits, especially those
associated with purchasing liability insurance, pushed up the price of personal
aircraft. Given that most of the technology included in these aircraft (their
airframe and engines) had not advanced much since the 1950s and 1960s, the new,
much higher prices proved particularly difficult to justify to potential
buyers. The new prices also put these production aircraft out of the reach of
all but a few. Despite Congressional efforts to help with the liability
problem, the general aviation manufacturing industry still awaits recovery.
Further, the number of licensed pilots in the United States peaked in 1980.
Despite efforts by a number of groups to address the decline, it continued
throughout the 1990s and to the present.
One bright spot, though, was the emergence of the
homebuilt movement. Federal and state regulations in the late 1930s had all but
made it impossible for individuals to build and fly (either from scratch or
from kits) their own aircraft. In the early 1950s a group known as the
Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) formed to revive homebuilding. They
were quite successful and though the factory production of aircraft has slowed
considerably in the last twenty years, homebuilding has grown and thrived. The
EAA also welcomes into its ranks individuals determined to keep the aircraft of
the so-called golden age flying. By the 1980s and 1990s, hundreds of thousands
of flight enthusiasts, both homebuilders and restorers, were making the annual
pilgrimage to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, the home of the EAA, for the annual week-long
Much of the history of general aviation has been
shaped by the dreams and beliefs of the winged gospel. Though those dreams and
beliefs have never been realized, they remain. Despite a reality that sometimes
seemed to make the goals of the winged gospel all but impossible, the enthusiasm
with which Americans have embraced aviation technology (similar to many other
technologies) has kept the dreams alive. It remains to be seen whether they can
survive into another century.
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