Origins         An Avenue for Change         General Aviation Today  

Do you dream of flying when you see an airplane in the sky? Today there are more ways than ever to join the aerospace community.
You can start with general aviation—but what is it?

General aviation is civilian, non-commercial flight.

It applies to things like sport aviation, business travel, humanitarian aid, agriculture, environmental conservation, and bush flying.


General Aviation: Facts and Figures

General aviation is:

  • Sport and recreational aviation
  • Business travel
  • Flying in support of humanitarian aid, environmental conservation, or agriculture 
  • Bush flying
  • and much more!

General aviation is not:

  • Military air operations
  • Scheduled airline flights
  • Scheduled commercial air cargo flights

There are more than 340,000 general aviation aircraft around the world—U.S. pilots operate 204,000 of them.

Public Air Operations (PAO), such as the U.S. Forest Service firefighting division, operate under their own flight rules but are are still broadly considered part of general aviation.

There are about 591,000 civilian pilots in the United States—and 70% fly general aviation planes.

Pilots fly all types of craft, including gliders, helicopters, corporate jets, and backcountry floatplanes.


The Origins of General Aviation

In the 1900s, any civilian powered flight was "general" aviation and commercial airlines didn't exist yet; flight was a novelty, and few people owned planes.

The Big Three

As the civil airplane progressed from experimental designs to practical transportation, three U.S. aircraft companies formed the backbone of general aviation aircraft: Beechcraft, Cessna, and Piper. In a single decade—despite the Great Depression—these manufacturers created both the aircraft and the pool of pilots that transformed general aviation. 

The Taylor E-2 Cub would eventually be transformed into the Piper J-3 Cub—the most popular light aircraft for training civilian pilots before World War II.

Before the 1930s, private flying had been for wealthy sport pilots or working pilots flying expensive planes.

Many aviation enthusiasts wished for simpler aircraft, and designers needed pilots to market their ideas. This advertisement for the sturdy steel-tube E-2 Cub had only four instruments, a fuel gauge, and sold for $1,425.

The military needed the companies' small aircraft during World War II, however, post-war, the "big three" went on to dominate general aviation production, with their legacy continuing into the 21st century. 

Walter Beech and the Beechcraft Corporation

Walter Beech risked his life savings by marketing the Staggerwing, an expensive cabin biplane, during the Depression. Its beautiful lines and performance prevailed, setting Beech Aircraft on the road to success. After Beech's death in 1950, co-founder Olive Ann Beech guided the company to steady growth.

Louise Thaden stands with her hand on the shoulder of Olive Ann Beech in front of a Beechcraft Model 23 Musketeer in July 1963. Olive Ann co-founded Beech Aircraft Corporation with husband Walter Beech and became the first female executive of an aircraft company when she took the reins in 1940. 

Clyde Cessna

Clyde Cessna began building in 1911, and formed Travel Air Manufacturing Company with Walter Beech and Lloyd Stearman in 1925. He founded Cessna Aircraft in 1927, but the company closed when his single-wing light aircraft design failed. His nephew Dwayne Wallace later rescued the company with the Airmaster and T-50 Bobcat. Generations of 20th century pilots learned to fly in Cessna high-wing trainers, from the bare-bones Model 120 to the ubiquitous 150/152 and 172 trainers.

Clyde V. Cessna helps unidentified woman (possibly his wife) climb into a Cessna AW aircraft circa 1927-1928.

William Piper and C.G. Taylor

G.C. Taylor designed an easy-to-fly light aircraft, the Taylor E-2, in 1930. By 1937, investor William Piper has supervised its transformation into the Piper J-3 Cub. It became the most popular light aircraft for training civilian pilots before World War II. 

The onset of war in Europe in 1939 alerted military officials to the need for more pilots and led to the creation of the Civilian Pilot Training Program. Three-fourths of the pilots in the program learned to fly in Cubs before joining the military.

If any aircraft can be anointed “generic light plane,” the Piper Cub is the one. A simple and inexpensive machine with gentle flying features, the Piper Cub fostered the rise of private flying and the light plane industry. Nearly 20,000 J-3 Cubs were built, and its legacy continues in light sport and backcountry Cub-based designs.

The Interwar Years

The 1920s and 1930s found the nation "air-minded." Record-setting flights commanded headlines. Exploratory flights introduced learning about science and people in the farthest reaches of the globe.

People of color and women used private flying—the only avenue available to them—to pioneer change. Pilots and the airplane community who believed in aviation's future shifted into high gear. They aimed to prove that aircraft were sound, versatile, and safe—and they encouraged investment in the field.

Charles and Anne Lindbergh "We Had Been Flying in the Land of the Midnight Sun"

In 1931 and 1933, Charles and Anne Lindbergh explored possible airport locations and air routes to Asia and Europe. The Lindberghs flew their own Lockheed Sirius aircraft 40,000 miles (64,400 kilometers), treasuring the experience. Anne, the co-pilot and radio operator, wrote two books, North to the Orient and Listen! The Wind, about their flights. Planes still fly their air routes today. 

Pictured: Anne Lindbergh (seated in dog sled) and Charles Lindbergh (behind her) pose with residents of Point Barrow, Alaska.

Watch lecture: A Pioneering Partnership
See more objects in this collection Suit, Flying, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Lockheed Sirius "Tingmissartoq" Object Suit, Flying, Charles A. Lindbergh, Lockheed Sirius "Tingmissartoq" Object Ice Crampons, Lockheed Sirius "Tingmissartoq", Lindbergh Object Can, Tomatoes, Lockheed Sirius "Tingmissartoq", Lindbergh Object Stits SA-2A Sky Baby Object

An instructor and six members of Air Youth of America look at rubber-powered flying model aircraft in Central Park, New York City, New York; circa early 1940s.

Toys Help Create the Next Generation of Aviators

Airplane toys have been popular with children since the 1920s. Through movies, celebrities, and the Cleveland Air Races, children reveled in a state of “air-mindedness.” Adventure stories based on World War I barnstormers enthralled them. 

Early aviation toys inspired kids like Neil Armstrong, who later became the first person to walk on the Moon. 

Growing Pains After World War II

Manufacturers expected a post-WWII boom in aircraft sales, but it never came. Aircraft companies, like car manufacturers, offered "improved" models every few years, with only small creative changes. By 1980, with the rise in disposable income, dealers and flying clubs helped bring the number of American pilots to an all-time high of 827,000. But the numbers slid from there. Lawsuits and a glut of airplanes closed some manufacturers. At the turn of the 21st century the market responded. New aircraft with cutting-edge equipment sparked interest and imagination.


General Aviation as an Avenue for Change

People of color and women pursued aviation through persistence, networking, and clubs. Their opportunities were limited, as military and commercial aviation barred their entry before World War II. Learn about some of these change makers below!

Amelia Earhart Explore Earhart's story Louise Thaden Explore Thaden's story Jacqueline Cochran Explore Cochran's story Jerrie Mock Explore Mock's story

In 1929, 20 women flew in the Women’s Air Derby, the first transcontinental female race from California to Ohio. They wanted respect and jobs. They achieved the former—although humorist Will Rogers dubbed it “The Powder Puff Derby”—but not the latter. The Derby proved women could fly a rugged, cross-country race. 

After the Derby, some pilots chose to organize. Ninety-nine women became charter members, with Amelia Earhart as president. Today the Ninety-Nines International Organization of Women Pilots promotes mentoring and scholarships.

Learn more about the Ninety-Nines
General Aviation in Action

Documented in our National Aeronautic Association collection is the 1961 All Woman’s International Air Race that ended in Nassau, Bahamas on May 29. The race hosted 21 contestants over a 909-kilometer (565-mile), island-hopping route. The Ninety-Nines, a group of women pilots formed just a few months after the first Women’s National Air Derby in 1929, helped to organize and manage the race.

See the photos

Making Strides for Women and People of Color Bessie Coleman

In the early 1900s, African Americans faced discrimination in aviation. Determined to become a pilot, Bessie Coleman trained in France when denied the same opportunity in the United States. On June 15, 1921, Coleman received the first pilot’s license issued to an African American woman and to a Native American woman. The license was issued by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the aviation licensing body of Europe. 

Coleman and fellow Black aviator William Powell later organized flying clubs, schools, and shows to help others access flying. Coleman's remarkable journey reflects the racist and sexist struggles many faced across the nation, and worldwide, in the 1920s—both in the air and on the ground. 

Read Coleman's story

Breaking the Color Barrier

Although Bessie Coleman made strides as the first African American to obtain a pilots license, the fight for complete equality in aviation would prove to be a long one. People of color and women gained skills and opportunities in aviation during World War II. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned racial discrimination in hiring. Military and commercial aviation finally began allowing female pilots into their ranks in the 1970s. People practicing general aviation helped at every stage of the way.

The 1939 Goodwill Flight

In 1939, Dale White and Chauncey Spencer flew cross-country from Chicago to New York City, with a final stop in Washington, DC. There they discussed the lack of opportunities for African Americans with Sen. Harry S. Truman. The pilots were denied hangar space in Morgantown, West Virginia. They flew on to Pittsburgh, landing in the dark.

Truman would go on to integrate the U.S. military in 1948 when he became president.

Read more about the Goodwill Flight


General Aviation Today

Learn about a few of the of ways people participate in general aviation in the 21st century.

Homebuilt Aircraft

By World War I, factory workers were building airplanes on assembly lines. Because the cost to buy and maintain these aircraft was beyond the means of most enthusiasts, they began to design, build, and fly their own aircraft. Today, thousands of people build sport aircraft from kits or detailed construction plan.

Ultralights and Animal Conservation

The first practical hang glider appeared well over one century ago. In the 1970s, an engine-powered glider called an ultralight came on the scene. In 1994, Canadians Bill Lishman and Joe Duff founded Operation Migration to teach captive-reared birds to migrate following their ultralight aircraft the Cosmos Phase II. In particular, Operation Migration was able to help bring the extremely endangered Whooping Crane back from the brink, until the program ended in 2016.

Humanitarian Flight

For people who need aid—vital medical help, relief services, and transportation—humanitarian flights can mean survival. Nonprofit and religious organizations, foundations, and individuals fly these critical missions. Examples of humanitarian flight include providing disaster relief to remote areas, flying adoptable pets to places where they are more likely to find a home, and transporting and providing supplies, medicine, and access to medical care.

Utility Flight

"Pilot" is just one of the many jobs in utility flight. Getting people, goods, and services to remote areas often requires teamwork. Managing crops, mapping, fighting wildfires, and more fall under the category of utility flight. Many airplanes, helicopters, and remotely piloted aircraft (RPA, or drones) in the air right now are flying utility missions. They are truly the jack-of-all-trades of aviation.

Business Aviation

Corporate aircraft transport people and cargo for two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies. Why? Aircraft save time, provide security and privacy, and fly into and out of airports of all sizes. Plus, they run on the company’s schedule. Some corporations have offices or plants in three or more locations far from major airports. Business aircraft can guarantee face-to-face connections when they’re needed most.