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Ever since the first successful powered flight in 1903 by the Wright Brothers aviation has evolved into a broad spectrum of practical and pleasurable services. Currently, American aeronautics can be broken down into three distinctive categories: military aviation, the scheduled commercial airline (including air mail and cargo service) and general aviation. Essentially, general aviation is a catchall for everything that doesn't fall under the first two categories. Although this includes gliders and helicopters, the vast majority of general aviation aircraft are airplanes. The airplanes under this category are generally smaller than the type used by airline companies and can utilize the shorter runways of private airports or even an open field, deserted road or lake for landing. Flexible in scheduling and highly maneuverable, these planes can serve an impressive array of needs and activities ranging from business and commercial requirements to instruction and pleasure. Evolving in the post World War I era of the 1920's, general aviation now accounts for approximately 80% of all aircraft in the United States.
Much of the American public was introduced to flying first hand by what was called the postwar "flying Gypsies" or, as they were later dubbed, "barnstormers". In 1919 scores of service pilots were released from duty; similarly, hundreds of service planes were also released. One in particular, the Curtiss JN-4 and JN-4D or "Jenny" as she was affectionately called, cost the government $5,000 to manufacture, but was liquidated for only a few hundred dollars. The availability and attractive sticker price made the Jenny a keen investment for military pilots. While the Jenny was not the only barnstorming plane, because of her popularity she became the primary trademark of the flying gypsies. The Jenny, a tandem-cockpit biplane, had a 90HP engine with a cruising speed of 60 mph. These ex-military airmen traversed the country and gave thousands of people their first airplane ride for a small fee, thus capturing the interest of Americans and ensuring the future of general aviation.
By the mid-1920's, the sensation of barnstorming was waning. Accompanying the exciting stunts were unfortunate accidents and fatalities which would create an apprehension with flight that would take many years to erase. This would prove only a small setback for the inevitable progression of general aviation. Many of the barnstormers would go on to pioneer "fixed-base" operations where services such as protective hangers, repair shops and maintained runways would encourage the continued growth of general aviation. The Maycock Flyers, a business located in Michigan in 1919, claims they began the first non-scheduled commercial flying service. Aerial service for non-scheduled or non-predictable events soon became overwhelmingly necessary. Some 70 years ago this seemingly imaginative advantage of aircraft for surveying, photography and emergency service, among other applications, expanded as an invaluable and often lifesaving service. This "commercial" sub-category of General Aviation is now a completely separate entity from regularly scheduled mail, freight and passenger service.
Nowadays the commercial aspect of general aviation is extremely broad, but this status owes much of its development to the hundreds of young, inventive aviator entrepreneurs that seemed to flourish in the 1920's. Certainly regulations and restrictions were few, allowing a broad range of experimentation. They found money could be earned by providing scenic tours or for transporting sportsmen to remote regions for hunting or prospecting. They could maintain contact with back country ranchers or miners, delivering them supplies or could transport a seriously injured individual to a hospital when weather or ground travel conditions would certainly have meant death. One enterprising and inventive individual, Major Jack Savage, introduced himself to New York City by writing "Hello U.S.A." in chemical smoke on the horizon. An advertising executive with the American Tobacco Company who spotted his insignia immediately recognized the suggestive appeal of a cigarette brand's smoky signature in the sky. They proceeded to sign the major to a thousand dollar a day contract. General society was not far behind as politicians rallied for voter support by flying from city to city. On their heels, likewise flying, were the reporters and photographers to document the events; or perhaps they flew to cover other enticing news such as an earthquake. During the Prohibition era, many local governments utilized aerial law enforcement to scout for rum-runners, who, in turn, procured their own aircraft in an effort to evade capture. With the advent of wire photo service, such fast-breaking news events as political developments or natural disasters no longer required air travel for their stories. This did not affect the need for air transport for those who might have been injured during a natural disaster.
While these diverse commercial aspects of General Aviation grew and either maintained a demand or dwindled as other technologies replaced their needs more prudently, business flying continued to expand. The advantage of aviation in business was noticed by individuals keen to the needs of business growth. With an airplane there was speed and flexibility and many cities were still devoid of formal airports with their large runways and scheduled flights. Even today the ratio of airports available to small aircraft as opposed to scheduled airline service favors the small aircraft by a huge margin. If a company could not afford to purchase their own staff and plane, then they could simply charter one. With the continued expansion of fixed-based operators capable of handling the smaller personal aircraft, the web of support for small business flight was well on its way by the late twenties. A diverse range of businesses including breweries, supply firms, petroleum corporations and mining companies clearly saw the advantage of flight for their particular business. In fact, by 1930 dozens of companies owned their own planes including Walgreen Drugstores, Jell-O and A-C Spark Plug.
Another incredible discovery for aviation pioneered in the 1920's and 1930's was the use of the airplane not because of its ability to transport, but rather due to its bird's-eye view of the world. It would not take long for the agricultural community to realize the value of aerial application of insecticide or seed. A pilot with a plane equipped for aerial dusting could cover 500 acres per hour! A task that would normally have taken days and an entire crew! The pilot could seed a flooded rice field or eradicate the boll weevil from a cotton field with a powered insecticide, all for a fraction of the usual cost and time expenditure. A similar application that would soon follow was forest fire location and fighting. Not only are the planes used to dust the forest with fire inhibitors, they are also used to locate trained fire fighters into key areas of a fire's path in an attempt to thwart its progress. These men and women are appropriately called fire jumpers.
Aerial photography and surveying would prove invaluable to society. First used for reappraisal of municipalities for tax purposes, it was later used in a massive project to map remote regions of Alaska, areas never seen by humans before. Supported by a number of 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. The petroleum industry would also benefit by surveying potential routes for laying pipeline while the helicopter could be used to lay the pipeline itself. And again the airplane could be used to monitor the line once it was laid. Huge amounts of time and energy were saved by these inventive implementations of general aviation.
Any flying done while training pilots or maintaining pilot competence is considered instructional flying which, along with business and commercial, is a sub-category of general aviation. Although the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires only 40 hours flying time, in California it takes about 60 hours of logged flight time for students to accomplish all the prerequisites for a flight test. In addition to the practical flight test a successful score on the Private Pilot Written Examination is necessary to qualify as a student pilot. The student pilot has than to fly at least 20 solo hours to fulfill the requirements for the official license. In the United States, the student license requires the individual be at least 16 years of age (14 for gliders), to obtain the private pilot's license you must be 17; both require English literacy. Additionally, the student must pass what is called a third class physical examination by an approved doctor and finally must obtain a license to operate a radio-telephone necessary to operate the two-way radio used to communicate with ground control.
In addition to providing dependable and regulated flight environments, many local flying clubs offer instructional services and perhaps even scenic flights. Advertised for business or pleasure, scenic flights cost approximately $105 for a one hour flight for one to three passengers (a possible business client for this service might be a real estate agent showing a property aerially). the flight instruction cost is approximately $25 per hour for the instructor and $49 to $63 per hour for a Cessna 152 or Cessna 172 respectively. It is recommended that an individual plan to fly at least once a week, preferably twice a week. The lessons usually include a one hour flight with some ground instruction. The lesson plan is reviewed with the instructor before and after the flight. Completion of a Private Pilot Certificate typically takes three to six months. A pilot can further his or her training by obtaining an instrumentation rating for "blind" meteorological conditions and under the control of Air Traffic Control. Next might be a Commercial Pilot Certificate which enables the pilot to carry paying passengers. This pilot must pass a stricter Second Class medical examination. A First Class Medical Certificate if required by individuals flying for an airline. To pass this exam, one must be in excellent physical shape and have no serious health problems. Type Rating is another way of qualifying a private pilot. They are issued by aircraft type and qualify the pilot to fly another plane within the specified type.
The last sub-category of general aviation is flying done by individuals for sport or personal pleasure. John Travolta is an excellent example of an individual who flies for personal pleasure. He has accumulated 4,500 of pilot-in-command hours and spent 4,200 hours in jets. He is rated to fly in these six different types of aircraft; a 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." Similarly, sport and recreation such as competitive aerobatics, racing or gliders are done for sheer interest and pleasure. National and international competitions entice thousands of enthusiasts, both competitors and spectators. In Reno, every summer there is an entire week dedicated to sport racing. There is a World Aerobatics Contest which is taken very seriously; similar to gymnastics or figure skating, there is a special scoring system where each maneuver has a "difficulty coefficient" or "K factor". This factor is then multiplied by another factor, the result is a judgment of how well the competitor negotiated the maneuver. The winning score is more likely someone who tried the harder moves than someone who flew a simple pattern extremely well. Certainly the interest in aerobatics aviation is strong enough that there is an Aerobatics Club of America.
Gliding could certainly be considered a subdued version of aerobatics: somewhat of a dance with the atmosphere. Most often towed into the sky by another plane (some now have small engines to relieve this necessity) pilots who enjoy gliding (sometimes called soaring) use thermals to lengthen their flights. Thermals are columns of hot air rising from the earth's surface and are often capped by clouds. Once in a thermal the pilot spirals the plane until the thermal dissipates or the desired elevation is reached. At this point the pilot levels the flight and straightens in the preferred direction. Again, the pilot looks for more cloud capped thermals since they are the glider's link to sustained flight.
As mentioned earlier, the basis for many current uses of the airplane within general aviation was pioneered during the years following World War I. Many of the same services and uses still exist, only now they are monitored more closely and therefore safer. the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was founded to manage and regulate aviation. As there is risk in flying, the FAA must closely monitor all areas and associations of flight. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has special group dedicated solely to aviation; the Bureau of Aviation Safety. Likewise, where informal groups once gathered to share the mutual interest in flying, there are now official clubs with rules and regulations.
Without doubt, the 1920's were rich with experimentation of the multifaceted application of air-transportation and aerial viewing. Within 25 years of that historical first powered flight by the Wright brothers, the airplane's impact on society was incredible. Since then, some of the applications are now just a representation of the era, like the barnstormers, while others continue to prove their worthiness. To this day new discoveries of the usefulness of general aircraft continue. A development executive needs to be at one meeting in New York on Monday. and another one in a remote town accessible only by small aircraft on Tuesday--a potential site for a development project; 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 and quickly deployed his ranch hands with explicate instructions on their location; last winter that same rancher used his private plane to drop alfalfa down to his cattle in a high pasture when the snow has completely covered the grazing land; off the coast of Northern California an aerial coast guard spotted a large school of salmon and radioed the information to the commercial fisherman below; a family just arrived on Hawaii and chartered a plane to catch the breathtaking view of the volcano and then tour the other islands before landing on Kauai for their vacation. With a little imagination, you too can sit down and list ten, twenty or even thirty different uses of general aviation aircraft.
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