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General Aviation

General aviation is an industry that came to symbolize America's finest qualities -- inventiveness, imagination, technological innovation, individualism, self-reliance, and quality workmanship. Many of these companies -- Cessna, Beech, Piper -- had been building airplanes for decades.

The term `general aviation aircraft' means any aircraft for which a type certificate or an airworthiness certificate has been issued by the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, which had a maximum seating capacity of fewer than 20 passengers, and which was not engaged in scheduled passenger-carrying operations. Various types of aircraft can be used in general aviation operations, including single-engine and multi-engine piston aircraft, turboprops, turbojets, helicopters, gliders, and experimental aircraft. The general aviation fleet in the United States consists of about 211,000 active aircraft. Turboprops, 3.2% of the total, are aircraft driven by both jet thrust and propellers. Examples of uses include business and corporate flying and air taxi. Turbojets, 4.0% of the total, are aircraft powered by a turbojet engine. Examples of uses include corporate flying and air taxi.

While this fleet is diverse, certain activities are generally associated with specific types of general aviation aircraft. For example, corporate flying generally involves the use of turboprop and turbojet aircraft, while personal and instructional flying generally involves the use of single-engine propeller-driven aircraft. The largest category of general aviation aircraft is single-engine propeller, which in 2002 made up 68 percent of the general aviation fleet.

As the 1930's drew to a close, the general aviation manufacturers offered the private owner and fixed-base operator a variety of high-priced, luxurious aircraft, as well as a number of inexpensive, more austere models. Among the latter, the Piper J-3 Cub is without question the outstanding example. The prototype of the Cub, first flown in 1931 during the early days of the Great Depression, fostered the development of a number of light, low-powered, and, above all, inexpensive aircraft. The aircraft was initially produced by the Taylor Aircraft Company, which was subsequently acquired by William T. Piper and became the Piper Aircraft Corporation. The original Cub was refined and improved through the years and appeared in the definitive model J-3 form in 1937. The aircraft is illustrated in figure 4.15 and is seen to be a conventional, strut-braced, high-wing monoplane equipped with a fixed landing gear. The Cub carried two people seated one behind the other in a small enclosed cabin, one side of which could be opened to provide cooling in warm weather. The aircraft was equipped with brakes and had a steerable tail wheel; but most J-3's had no electrical system, hence, no starter, and, of course, no radio.

General aviation aircraft designed for business and pleasure are available in both single-engine and twin-engine models; most models are equipped with horizontally opposed reciprocating engines. However, several high-performance turboprop types are offered. Single-engine types may be had with high- or low-wing location, retractable or fixed landing gear, controllable-pitch or fixed-pitch propeller, and in sizes varying from two place to seven place. The twin-engine aircraft usually employ the lowwing location and have retractable landing gear and controllable-pitch propellers. The twins may be had with or without turbosupercharging, with or without pressurized cabins, and with varying seating capacities.

The modern aircraft designed for business or pleasure is almost invariably of all-metal construction, as contrasted with the metal, wood, and fabric construction typical of the pre-World War II general aviation aircraft. Reliability of the internal systems employed in the aircraft and the precision of the radio and navigational equipment have greatly improved as compared with pre-World War II standards. The general aviation aircraft of today are almost universally equipped with an electrical system to power the radios and other types of equipment installed in the aircraft and to operate the self-starter. Hand starting of production aircraft is a thing of the past. The cabins of these aircraft are generally relatively comfortable, are equipped with heaters for wintertime and high-altitude use, and are sometimes equipped with air conditioning for use on the ground and at low altitudes in the summer. The open cockpit is a thing of the past in production aircraft, except for special sport and aerobatic aircraft. Many aircraft employ complete instrumentation and communication equipment for flight under IFR conditions. Most contemporary aircraft employ a tricycle gear that greatly eases the problem of aircraft handling on the ground. The basic aerodynamic configuration of contemporary general aviation aircraft, however, differs little from those in use in 1939.

General Aviation (GA) is a vital component of the aviation sector and the national economy that accounts for some 77 percent of all flights in the United States. It encompasses a wide range of activities, from pilot training to flying for business and personal reasons, delivery of emergency medical services, and sightseeing. Operations range from short-distance flights in single-engine light aircraft to long-distance international flights in corporate-owned 'wide-bodies,' and from emergency aero-medical helicopter operations to airships seen at open-air sporting events. The sole characteristic that General Aviation operations have in common is that flights are not routinely scheduled; they are on-demand.

General aviation accounts for three-quarters of all aircraft that take off and land in the United States. These aircraft encompass a wide range of flight operations at nearly 19,000 general aviation airports nationwide. According to the National Air Transportation Association, the general aviation industry contributes about $100 billion to the U.S. economy each year and accounts for about 1.3 million jobs.

General aviation was an industry that became the victim of its own success. The better it built the planes, the longer they lasted; the longer they lasted, the greater the potential liability because of judicial interpretations, such as strict liability, that altered tort law. General aviation was in a classic catch-22 situation -- a quality industry that was being punished because of its success.

In 1980, there were 29 U.S. manufacturers of general aviation aircraft and 15 foreign manufacturers. Now that ratio has been reversed. In 1992, there were 29 foreign manufacturers of general aviation aircraft and only 9 U.S. manufacturers.

In 1986, battered by product-liability lawsuits and soaring insurance costs, Cessna Aircraft Co. stopped producing propeller-driven airplanes. After 60 years in the field, the world's largest manufacturer of single-engine light aircraft bailed out and focused on jets. Cessna, which once produced about 6,500 aircraft per year stopped building, totally stopped building small piston aircraft. By 1994 about 120,000 Cessnas were still in operation and their average age was 27 years. Since 1986, that company had spent over $20 million a year -- $160 million over the 8 years from 1986 to 1994 -- defending lawsuits, involving aircraft as old as 47 years.

Beech Aircraft spent over $100 million in legal fees over four years to defend itself from 203 product liability lawsuits. This, despite the fact that in none of those cases did the National Transportation Safety Board find Beeches' Aircraft to be defective. These added costs have forced many manufacturers to curtail production and have forced many potential aircraft purchasers completely out of the market.

Piper Aircraft Corp., another major player in the industry, tumbled into bankruptcy for the same reasons. Other U.S. light-plane manufacturers struggled through economic woes. By 1994 that industry was manufacturing only a fraction of the airplanes it was building just 15 years earlier. The whole U.S. general aviation industry sold only 444 planes in 1994. Piper made 108 of them.

General aviation aircraft sales by U.S. manufacturers dropped from 17,000 aircraft built in 1979 to 954 such aircraft in 1993. For single engine, piston aircraft, the decline has been even more significant, from 14,000 units in 1978 to 555 in 1993. Along with the loss of production there has been, more importantly, the loss of over 100,000 jobs in general aviation manufacturing and the related industries.Just in Wichita alone, Beech Aircraft employed 9,000 workers in 1980. Today they employ 5,000. Cessna Aircraft employed 15,000 people in 1981. By 1994 Cessna employs 5,300. And Piper Aircraft, of Vero Beach, FL, while they had 8,500 people working in 1979, by 1994 had just 360 employees. The decline in general aviation manufacturing worsened the US position in international trade. In 1980, the US exported $120 million surplus in single engine piston aircraft, but that surplus declined to a bare $5 million in 1992.

The increase in product liability costs has occurred even though the safety of the general aviation aircraft has been improving, consistently improving over recent years. The number of fatal general aviation accidents has dropped a staggering 700 percent since the end of World War II. The general aviation accident rate itself dropped about 30 percent from 1981 to 1994. Most general aviation accidents are not caused by defects in the aircraft or the parts but are caused by pilot error, weather or poor maintenance.

The general aviation industry won a huge battle in 1994 when Congress passed a landmark product liability bill intended to breathe new life into a declining industry. The legislation limited product liability for planes to 18 years after production. Cessna immediately announced plans to resume production of its small planes.

S. 1458, the General Aviation Revitalization Act passed the Senate in March 1994. This was the culmination of a 7-year effort to take up legislation to relieve the general aviation manufacturing industry from excessive product liability costs. The issue of liability reform for the manufacturers of general aviation aircraft had been pending in Congress for nearly a decade. During this period, the general aviation industry had lost thousands of jobs. The House Committee on Public Works and Transportation has been a strong supporter of this legislation for many years. In 1988 and 1989, it reported general aviation product liability legislation to the House, but those measures were blocked by a very effective effort of the American Trial Lawyers Association.

The general aviation industry was able to show trends measured over a period of time which indicated that the small plane industry was being usurped by foreign competition. In addition, the bill was very tailored in its intervention. The general aviation bill imposed an 18 year statute of limitation within which a person may bring suit.

The General Aviation Revitalization Act established a Federal statute of repose to protect general aviation manufacturers from long-term liability in those instances where a particular aircraft has been in operation for a considerable number of years. A statute of repose is a legal recognition that, after an extended period of time, a product has demonstrated its safety and quality, and that it is not reasonable to hold a manufacturer legally responsible for an accident or injury occurring after that much time has elapsed.

S. 1458 did not preclude an individual's ability to bring a lawsuit regarding an aircraft. It merely provided some relief to the manufacturer of the original frame and parts from liability, after the product has left the manufacturer's possession and control for a reasonable period of time. Furthermore, this bill provides for, what is in effect, a rolling statute of repose for all replacement parts--component, system, subassembly, or other part -- on an aircraft.

Five years later, industry leaders hailed the results of the liability law as "an unqualified success" that had exceeded all expectations. "I think the numbers are as good or better than anyone could have possibly hoped for," said Ed Bolen, president of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

The safety of general aviation has been improving. The total number of accidents declined from 3,233 in 1982 to 1,989 in 1998-a decrease of 41 percent-while the accident rate fell from about 10 to about 7 accidents for every 100,000 flight hours. Even with these improvements, general aviation's accident rate remains about 24 times higher than the accident rate of scheduled commercial aviation. Within general aviation, some types of flying are safer than others. The safety record of corporate flying, for example, rivals that of commercial passenger airlines. Other types of flying, such as personal and aerial application, have considerably higher accident rates. More than two-thirds of general aviation's accidents, both fatal and nonfatal, are caused by pilot error, including mistakes related to procedure, skill, and judgment.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 15:29:24 ZULU