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Currently, American aviation can be classified into three areas: military aviation, commercial airline (including air mail and cargo service) and general aviation. Although helicopters and gliders fall into this category, the vast majority of general aviation aircraft are airplanes. The airplanes under this catagory (group) are generally smaller than the type used by commercial airline companies and can use the shorter runways of private airports or even an open field or deserted road or lake for landing. Since these smaller aircraft can come and go when they need to and land almost anywhere, they can serve in areas ranging from business and commercial activities to instruction and pleasure. Since World War I general aviation now includes about 80% of all aircraft in the United States.
During the 1920's much of the American public was introduced to flying by watching the "flying gypsies", or "barnstormers". Who were they? In 1919 hundreds of military service pilots were released from duty after World War I; at the same time hundreds of airplanes made for the War were released for sale. One in particular, the Curtis JN-4 and JN-4D or "Jenny" as it was affectionately called, cost the government $5,000 to make, but was liquidated (sold) for only a few hundred dollars. The low price and availablity made it a great buy for the ex-military pilots. The Jenny was not the only barnstorming airplane, but because it was so popular it became the primary trademark of the "flying gypsies". The Jenny, with two cockpits and two wings, had a 90HP engine with a cruising speed of 60 MPH. These ex-military airmen traveled across the United States and gave thousands of people their first ride in an airplane, for a small fee. This captured the interest of Americans and ensured the future of general aviation.
By the mid 1920's barnstorming was not as popular. Many accidents and fatalities (deaths) caused people to be fearful or nervous about flying. This fear continued for many years. During this time, though, general aviation continued to grow. Many of the barnstormers went on to establish (set-up) "fixed base" operations where services such as protective hangars, repair shops and maintained runways would encourage the continued growth of general aviation. The Maycock Flyers, located in Michigan in 1919, claims they began the first non-scheduled flying service. Aerial service for non-scheduled commercial aviation soon became very necessary.
The need for aircraft services grew quickly during the 1920's. This was due to hundreds of young, inventive aviator entrepreneurs (business owners). There were few regulations or restrictions, so many new things were tried. There were many valuable services given, for a fee. Surveying, photography, emergency services, scenic tours, and transporting sportsmen to remote regions for hunting were just a few.
One bold individual, Major Jack Savage, introduced himself to New York City by writing "Hello U.S.A." in chemical smoke in the sky with his airplane. (This is called skywriting.) An advertising executive with the American Tobacco Company, who spotted his writing in the sky, immediately signed the Major to a $1,000 a day contract to do skywriting, advertising the cigarette company. Other uses for the airplane soon followed. Politicians, looking for votes, flew from city to city. Reporters and photographers were following close behind to report the events, or perhaps they flew to cover other events, such as an earthquake. During the prohibition era (when it was illegal to sell alcohol) law enforcement officials used airplanes to look for rum-runners, who in turn used aircraft to avoid capture.
Business or commercial flying continued to expand even if some areas declined or ceased (stopped). The speed and flexibility of flying was improving all through the 1920's and 1930's. Many companies had their own airplanes or chartered (rented) airplanes for use in their business. Many businesses, such as breweries, supply firms, petroleum corporations and mining companies saw the advantage of flight. Dozens of companies owned their own airplanes, such as Walgreen Drugstores, Jell-O and AC Spark Plug.
Another wonderful use of the airplane was discovered by the agricultural (farming) community. A pilot with a plane equipped for aerial dusting could cover 500 acres per hour! A task that would normally take days and an entire crew! The pilot could seed a flooded rice field or eradicate the boll weevil from a cotton field with a powdered insecticide, all for a fraction of the usual cost and time expenditure. A similar application that soon followed was forest fire location and fighting. "Smoke jumpers" were flown to a fire and dropped by parachute or landed in a field near remote fires.
Aerial photography and surveying would become very important to society. First used to map cities, for tax purposes, it was later used in Alaska for a large project. Supported by several organizations, including the Bureau of Fisheries, the Division of Roads and the Department of Agriculture, the Alaskan group mapped 23,000 square miles of territory, much of this never seen by humans before! Later, the petroleum (oil) industry would also benefit by surveying routes for laying pipeline while the helicopter could be used to lay the pipeline itself. Again, the airplane could be used to monitor the line, once it was laid. Huge amounts of time and energy were saved by the use of airplanes.
Flight instruction is another sub-catagory of general aviation. You must have a pilot's license to fly. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires 40 hours flying time to get a license. Some states, like California, require more - up to 60 hours flying time. The person must be at least 16 years old (14 for gliders) to get a student pilot's license and 17 years old to get the full private pilot's license. In addition, the pilot must pass the Private Pilot Written Examination, a flight test, a third class physical exam and get a license to operate the radio-telephone necessary to operate the two-way radio used to communicate with ground control. Flight instruction costs about $25 per hour for the instructor and another $50 or more per hour or the aircraft. The student pilot should fly at least once a week, but two times a week is better. There is some ground instruction and the lesson/flight plan is reviewed both before and after the flight. It will take from 3 to 6 months to get the license. This license usually allows the pilot to fly a limited number of small aircraft. Other licenses can be obtained for larger aircraft, such as commercial airline or flying by instruments only. Another way is to become licensed for a specific of aircraft.
Actor John Travolta is an excellent example of a person who fits another catagory of flying - for personal pleasure. He is also licensed to fly several different kinds of aircraft. He has flown more than 4500 hours as a pilot in command and has spent more than 4200 hours in jets. He is rated (licensed) to fly six different kinds of aircraft: Gulfstream II, a Learjet 24B, a Hawker Siddley 125-1, a British Vampire, a Canadian Tebuan CL-43 and a Cessna Citation I. He owns three aircraft all of which have a top speed of over 500 miles per hour. His smallest, the Canadian Tebuan CL 43, seats only one while his Gulfstream II seats 14. Mr. Travolta can be quoted: "for as long as I can remember, aviation has given me a heightened sense of adventure and hope... and in fact makes me feel anything is possible." Other "for pleasure" flying activities include racing, gliding and aerobatics. Sport racing is very popular. In Reno, Nevada, every summer, there is an entire week dedicated to sport racing. There is a World Aerobatics Contest (doing tricks with an airplane in the air) which is taken very seriously with scoring similar to figure skating. The winner is more likely to be someone who tried harder moves (in the air) than someone who flew a simple pattern extremely well.
Another pleasure flying area is gliding. Pilots who enjoy gliding are most often towed into the air by another plane. Then they search for "thermals" (columns of rising warm air) to keep themselves aloft. A pilot may use a thermal to rise higher or to continue gliding. Thermals are often "capped" by clouds, making it easy for the pilot to find them.
As was mentioned, many areas of flying were developed following World War I and are still used today. There is risk in flying, so the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) now regulates aviation practices much more closely than during the 1920's and 1930's. Other agencies and groups, such as the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) and the Bureau of Aviation Safety help monitor (watch) and regulate aviation safety.
To this day new uses for general aircraft are still being discovered. An executive needs to be in a meeting in New York on Monday and then to another meeting in a remote town in Alaska on Tuesday. Recently, on Mt. Everest, a helicopter pilot saved lives at an elevation never attempted before. In Wyoming a rancher located 11 stray cattle from his private airplane, radioed his ranch hands to go get them. The same rancher dropped alfalfa bales to his cattle in a high pasture where the snow was too deep to bring them back. Off the coast of California an aerial spotter found a school of salmon and reported their location to a commercial fisherman nearby.
With a little imagination, you too can sit down and list ten, twenty or
thirty different uses of general aircraft.
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