General Aviation: On threshold of a new dawn
After 37 years as a General Aviation pilot and after 18 years of serving the now over 407,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association as one of its Regional Representatives, I’ve learned the need to explain the term: General Aviation.
The late, great humorist, Robert Benchley, divided the world into two kinds of people: “Those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who do not.” But the world of aviation is divided into three parts: Commercial Aviation (the airlines), Military Aviation (armed aircraft and troop transports) and General Aviation (those smaller aircraft you see at community airports).
Think of it this way: Subtract Military Aviation and Commercial Aviation and what is left over is General Aviation. So, set aside your images of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the Boeing 737s and 747s, etc. and picture those low-wing, single-engine Pipers and those high-wing single-engine Cessnas and many other brands that comprise a fleet of over 200,000 General Aviation aircraft flown by over 600,000 pilots.
While the scheduled airlines serve about 374 airports, General Aviation aircraft can reach over 19,000 landing sites that range from the largest Commercial Aviation airports to that wheat field where a Piper Cub brings in a badly-needed part to get some farmer’s wheat-harvesting Combine going again.
Just like Commercial Aviation, General Aviation has had its up and downs (humor intended). Both forms of aviation were impacted by the 9/11 attacks by the Islamo-fascists and by our national need to increase our security against further attacks. Well known is that both Commercial and General Aviation were shut down shortly after that second hijacked airliner hit the second tower at the World Trade Center. Little known is that General Aviation was the first to get back in the air because our government needed physicians, nurses, whole blood and other medical supplies flown to where the victims of 9/11 were being treated – and flown by aircraft too small to be a security threat. So, the Federal Aviation Administration called on the pilots of Angel Flight, the Air Care Alliance and other General Aviation pilots known for their previous willingness to do the kind of people hauling and supply moving that was needed during the hours immediately following the 9/11 attacks.
It was almost a week before the airlines were allowed to resume service. Ironically, after its heroic services in the hours following the 9/11 attacks, General Aviation was then shut down and remained shut down long after the airlines were allowed to resume service. I know this full well because I could not fly our Piper Turbo Arrow III from Granby, Colorado, to its scheduled appointment in the paint shop in Oklahoma until the General Aviation ban was lifted. While we waited, fellow-pilot Wonder Wife and I decided to scrap our original paint scheme. Our crystal ball pictured an attack on Western Civilization that would last for the rest of our lives. So, we decided to have our aircraft repainted to look like a war bird, and we did.
Now, to the point of this column: Despite the setbacks in the wake of 9/11, General Aviation is on the dawn of a dynamic transformation. The advent of the new Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) and the Sport Pilot License will lead to the massification of General Aviation. Instead of an expensive medical exam, a valid driver’s license will do. In the middle of the spectrum, we are seeing the production of Technically Advanced Aircraft (TAA) with incredible navigation systems and engine performance displays that make flying appear so simple that one wonders if any instruction is needed. Just kidding. At the higher dollar end, are the Very Light Jets (VLJ) being produced by several manufacturers targeting smaller businesses and well-heeled individual aircraft owners. Combine that with NASA’s Small Aircraft Transportation System (SATS) and, as Al Jolson predicted, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”
William Hamilton, a syndicated columnist, a featured commentator for USA Today and self-described “recovering lawyer and philosopher,” is the co-author of The Grand Conspiracy and The Panama Conspiracy – two thrillers about terrorism directed against the United States.
©2005. William Hamilton.