General Aviation - An Overview
(Historical information provided courtesy of the US Centennial of Flight Commission, Dr. Janet Bednarek*)
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 wait.
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 convention.
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.
* The US Centennial of Flight Commission was formed to celebrate 100 years of heavier than air aviation history. Their website can be found here.