The Golden Age of General Aviation

The Golden Age of General Aviation can really be  many eras, but the most appropriate I think is when General aviation really grew into a useful tool for the masses, which occurred shortly after World War II, and during the post-War boom in large scale production of airplanes during the 1950′s and early 1960′s.

Prior to world War II, general aviation was restricted to the very wealthy, or large corporations with very far-sighted  management. The Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Mellons participated to some degree or another with private flying, and many of the oil companies of the 1930′s owned and operated a corporate airplane.

But it was in the 1950′s that you could find a Cessna, Beech, Piper, or even Ercoupe dealer in many medium and large towns across America. A businessman could buy a Cessna 182 or Bonanza and cover a regional territory at almost the same speed as an airliner of the day. Car travel was very different in the 1950′s, the Superhighways and interstate highways system didn’t exist, so car travel was largely in un-air-conditioned vehicles on 2-lane blacktops across America. A slow-moving truck and on-coming traffic added days to a trip that could be done in hours in a Cessna 182 or Beechcraft Bonanza, so the private flying boom was off and running ( or flying!)

Flying has always been expensive, but it was practical. I can remember avgas at  $1 per gallon, but when you were covering the territory at 180 miles per hour,  and avoiding extra motel stays and expenses, it made sense  instead of barely averaging  50 mph ( even in the luxury cars of the day, road travel was tedious and slow).

The queen of the fleet for an owner-flown business or personal airplane was the Gold standard, the Beechcraft Bonanza. What the Beech Bonanza was in 1950 is what the Pilatus PC-12 is today. Prestigious, fast, and state-of-the-art.  Most airline travel, between short distances, like a salesman or businessman would travel, would have been via the airlines or the train, or driving. the Beech Bonanza offered the SAME speed as many of the airliners of the day ( Douglas DC-3 on short trips). Both averaged about  160 mph, so Mr. Businessman was keeping up with the airlines on speed and setting his own timetable. And it worked and Olive Ann Beech sold a LOT of Bonanzas ( and so did Cessna sell a lot of 182′s and later 210′s).

If you were a mid-size company, big enough that the Executives needed reliable transportation for 4 or 5 with some comfort, the King of The Hill corporate airplane was a Twin Beech. It featured fold-out desks, a separate potty area, and a refreshment center, and would set you back about $75,000 for a new one. The equivalent today would probably be a Cessna Citation Sovereign or Hawker 900 or Gulfstream G-200 in the mid $15 Million range. And if you were really in the big-time, you chased around the country in a converted Executive DC-3 or Lockheed Lodestar. The Lockheed out ran the DC-3 ( 200 mph vs. 160 mph) but the DC-3 was about 50% larger and carried 6 more people in a VIP style  interior. that was living! Arthur Godfrey had his own DC-3, and Elizabeth Taylor’s husband, who probably had fewer close friends but in a bigger hurry, opted for the Lockheed Lodestar. IBM bought an Executive DC-3, but JAckie Cochran, famed aviatrix , businesswomen, and best pal of several Presidents,  had her own  Lockheed Lodestar.

Today, the DC-3 vs. Lockheed rivalry is best seen probably between a Falcon 900 vs. Gulfstream vs. Challenger.  When you look out on the ramp and see a gleaming new G-V pull up, know that in a few years from now, that will be the classic aviation business airplane that people are writing about.
But after all, as they say,…. time flies.