The term general aviation commonly refers to any aviation activity that is not a commercial or military flight. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) defines general aviation as “that portion of civil aviation that does not include scheduled or unscheduled air carriers or commercial space operations.” The International Civil Aeronautical Organization (ICAO) defines it similarly.
General aviation operation: an aircraft operation other than a commercial air transport operation or an aerial work operation.
Needless to say, general aviation encompasses a wide range of aircraft and functions. Non-commercial air operations include recreational flying, corporate aviation, sightseeing tours, traffic reporting, aerial photography, flight training, emergency medical services, search and rescue, firefighting and crop dusting. General aviation aircraft include small single-engine planes, helicopters, corporate jets, gliders and even homebuilt aircraft.
Prior to the 1950s, most non-commercial air travel was referred to as either private flying or business flying. As aircraft became more ubiquitous in a myriad of different industries, the more encompassing term of general aviation became common.
Today, there are over 220,000 active civil aircraft in the United States used for general aviation purposes. More than 80% of all certified pilots fly general aviation aircraft, and the majority of those planes are single-engine planes.
According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there was an average of 1,475 general aviation accidents every year over the last decade, and since 2010 over 3,300 people have been killed in crashes involving general aviation aircraft. The majority of those fatalities can be attributed to inflight loss of control, including, for the most part, engine stalls. Weather is also a major contributor, especially when inexperienced pilots are forced to fly by only their instruments in low-visibility conditions. Private aircraft also are not equipped with many of the safety features and redundancies large passenger jets have, like extra engines, backups for navigation systems, and in most cases, private flights do not have co-pilots.
While the accident rate in commercial airlines has been dropping, the number of general aviation crashes has remained basically the same for many years. In fact, between 2002 and 2005, general aviation accounted for 91% of all aircraft crashes and 94% of aviation-related fatalities in the U.S.
In an effort to reduce catastrophic incidents, the FAA formed the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee in an effort to identify risks and develop safety measures like technology improvements and new training requirements. Their goal is to reduce accidents by 10% over a 10-year period.