General aviation

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General aviation (abbr. GA) is one of the two categories of civil aviation, encompassing all aircraft flights other than scheduled airline activity. It includes both private and commercial flights.

It includes everything from privately-owned light single-engine aircraft to business jets, news gathering, police, pipeline patrol, emergency medical flights, crop-dusting, rotorcraft, gliding, sport ballooning and many other aerial activities.

A general aviation scene at Kemble airfield, England. The aircraft in the foreground is a homebuilt Vans RV-4
A general aviation scene at Kemble airfield, England. The aircraft in the foreground is a homebuilt Vans RV-4

Much of the traffic in general aviation is flown under visual flight rules (VFR) in contrast to airline traffic which is nearly always flown under instrument flight rules (IFR). Under IFR, air traffic control provides separation from other IFR flights (and in class A, B, and C airspace, from VFR flights as well) to prevent mid-air collisions.

The ground facilities needed for most general aviation flights are generally less sophisticated than those required by most military aviation or airlines operating scheduled flights, but there are many differences between the smaller grass aerodromes and those capable of accepting the larger corporate aircraft on long-distance and/or international flights. Some of these differences simply reflect the different speeds and capabilities of aircraft types in common use, whilst others reflect regulations imposed to safeguard the safety of pilots, passengers and nearby communities.

Most public-use airports, including airports which are served by commercial carriers, have some general aviation traffic, although GA users are sometimes subject to user fees at the larger airports.


Hindrances to GA advancement

GA has tremendous potential to revolutionize the way people transport themselves. With thousands of airports across the United States, people could theoretically get far closer to their ultimate destination with GA than with traditional hub and spoke airline travel. The most significant obstacles GA must overcome are:

  • The price of GA is prohibitively high, with the cost of aircraft often running into the multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars and the price of Avgas traditionally running far higher than automotive gasoline. The FAA requires that production, or "certified," aircraft meet stringent safety and performance requirements. These high standards mandate extensive testing and engineering, the costs of which are spread over a relatively small (compared to automobiles, for example) number of aircraft produced and sold. Homebuilt aircraft do not have to demonstrate the same level of engineering and safety, and are deemed airworthy under the much less stringent "experimental" category. These "Homebuilts" are usually significantly less expensive than fully certified production aircraft. With these factors contributing to the price, earning a pilot's license usually costs US$5,000 - US$8,000. Additionally, the maintenance costs of keeping aircraft in airworthy condition add up very quickly. In the United States especially, general aviation manufacturers pay high premiums for product liability insurance, reflecting the many lawsuits - exemplified by the United States' liberal tort system - resulting from aircraft accidents, most of which do not result from actual failures of the product. This drives up the cost of aircraft, insurance, and maintenance.
  • The ability to reach a destination on schedule greatly depends on the weather. GA aircraft and pilots operating under Visual Flight Rules are unable to fly safely (or legally) in weather that commercial aircraft operate in routinely. Additionally, GA aircraft and pilots operating under Instrument Flight Rules often do not have access to the deicing equipment and weather radar available to scheduled commercial flights.
  • The perceived safety of small private aircraft is relatively low across the general public (and safety requirements for most general aviation aircraft and pilots are indeed less stringent than scheduled airlines). In reality, the safety of any given flight is largely dependent on the pilot's judgment and knowledge of his or her own limitations. Mechanical failures play a role in only a small percentage of GA fatalities, and are usually compounded by pilot error.
  • The difficulty in getting from destination airports to their final destinations poses another problem to pilots and passengers. Car rental companies have tried to fill this void by placing small rentals around at small airports, but have met with mixed success.

Uses of GA

Because of the hindrances listed above, the use of GA has remained limited to pleasure flying for private pilots, and business aviation (or BizAv) often on highly expensive business jets for high ranking executives.

Private Piloting

Most general aviation pilots are private pilots. These pilots are allowed to fly by themselves or with passengers, provided the weather meets certain criteria and they do not accept compensation for their services.

Some pilots also pursue an instrument rating which allows them to fly by Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) so that they may navigate by reference to their aircraft instruments in visibilities lower than the minimum required under Visual Flight Rules (VFR), and at altitudes above 18,000 feet. However, even under instrument flight rules, smaller airplanes often do not reach that altitude; most smaller airplanes lack pressurized cabins, requiring the pilots to breathe oxygen from a tank above 10,000 feet, or 5,000 feet at night, and there is a limit to the altitude at which carbureted airplane engines can operate.

Becoming a private pilot usually requires about 50–70 hours of flight training, a rather rigorous curriculum that encompasses meteorology, navigation, simple aircraft maintenance, study of the applicable regulations, and best practices in the cockpit, along with aircraft maneuvering, followed by knowledge and flight examinations. Private pilots can rent aircraft from flight schools or from flying clubs or buy one of their own, sometimes in a partnership with other pilots.

Business Aviation

Business aviation (or Bizav) occupies a large place in the GA community. Most Bizav users fly highly sophisticated, expensive, luxurious and complex aircraft with well trained crews. Because of a variety of factors including better aircraft, more experienced crews (typically professional pilots instead of private individuals), and a larger support group, business Aviation has a much better safety record than the rest of GA.

Fractional Ownership

Fractional ownership is a relatively new segment of the Bizav market. Pioneered by NetJets, a fractional operator provides shares of aircraft (typically expensive ones) for a "fraction" of the price. Typically, a fractional share owner is allotted a certain number of flight hours per year for the number of years in the contract. After the contract expires, the owner can sell back his share at market value minus a service charge. Some controversy has arisen lately because of the fall in business aircraft values. Some owners claim salespeople "promised" a higher value for their aircraft share, although more often than not, that price was not written into a contract.

Recent Advances

With the introduction of Very Light Jets or VLJ's, larger, faster, better air-taxi operations have been envisioned. The low operating cost of the VLJ's is purported to allow customers to fly private jets to the thousands of small airports across the country for not much more than the price of a coach airline ticket. Some of the major VLJ's in production are;

And some of the larger players in the new air-taxi arena are;

The wreckage of John T. Walton's experimental general aviation aircraft in Grand Teton National Park.
The wreckage of John T. Walton's experimental general aviation aircraft in Grand Teton National Park.

Safety Factors

General aviation does not enjoy the same safety record as the commercial airlines, who have proven themselves safer than any other form of transportation (including walking). This safety record continues to be hindered by pilot error, not mechanical or other causes. With 85% of general aviation accidents classified as being caused by pilot error, most of the effort spent on improving the safety record is spent in the areas of pilot awareness, training, and judgment. [1]

In 2001, general aviation had an accident rate of 6.56 accidents (including 1.22 fatal accidents) per 100,000 hours flown, while large air carriers had an accident rate of only 0.24 accidents (including 0.04 fatal accidents) per 100,000 hours flown. [2]


See also

Lists of Aircraft | Aircraft manufacturers | Aircraft engines | Aircraft engine manufacturers

Airports | Airlines | Air forces | Aircraft weapons | Missiles | Timeline of aviation

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