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Lord of the Skies

Learjet has been zipping jet-setters and business executives around the world for 40 years
Jim Mueller
From the Print Edition:
Francis Ford Coppola, Sept/Oct 03

Ever since Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack made the Learjet 24 their aircraft of choice in the mid-1960s, the sleek executive plane with the signature T-tail and stiletto-nose design has been the ultimate jet-set indulgence—as long as you could handle the takeoff. The little executive jet, the brainchild of the legendary Bill Lear, was the airborne equivalent of Caroll Shelby's 427 Cobra—short on manners, heavy on mind-crushing acceleration. Think six passengers tucked into a nest of leather seats; their pilot receives takeoff clearance and—ka-boom! A near-vertical climb pulling two to three Gs. Whoaaa!

"My chest would pound and I'd feel my heart in my throat, because it all happens so fast," recalls Trini Lopez, a singer and Sinatra protégé who had an eight-year contract with Sinatra's Reprise record label and appeared in the 1965 comedy Marriage on the Rocks with both Sinatra and Dean Martin. "The force pushing you against your seat. You feel like you're vertical—it's so fast." Roger McGuinn, the lead singer of the Byrds, remembers experiencing a similar sensation. "The feeling was like a rocket—or what I'd imagine riding on top of a Polaris missile to feel like."

Indeed, the Lear sensation at takeoff is "the closest an average Joe comes to experiencing jet-fighter performance," says Bob Serling, a retired United Press International aviation editor and the author of a dozen books on the airline industry, whose more famous brother Rod was the host of TV's "Twilight Zone" series. "Lears fly like scalded eagles." Bill Lear's first test pilot, Hank Beaird, agrees with Serling, noting, "They [early Lears] accelerated better than a fully loaded military F-104. You'd roar out and check your climb indicator, which only went to 6,000 feet per minute, and the Lear had that beat. Lears move uphill—awfully fast."

Today, almost 40 years after Beaird's maiden flight in Lear 23 (N801L) on October 7, 1963, Learjet remains one of the fastest
business-class jets in the air—and one of the most durable. Of the 2,400 Learjets built, nearly 2,100 are still flown regularly. Bombardier, the Canadian aircraft manufacturer that took over Learjet production in 1990, continues to market jets in the $7 million to $12 million range, despite the recent industry slide in business jet sales pegged to a slumping economy. Bombardier sold 140 Learjets in 2001 and just 63 in 2002, but company insiders insist that the new Learjets 40 and 45XR will spur a comeback (see box on page 160). The jets, set for initial delivery in the next five months, are the first new models to appear since Bombardier brought the Learjet 45 to market in 1998.

As in the early days, when the iconic jet became the preferred means of travel for Sinatra's Rat Pack, Danny Kaye, the Beatles, the Stones, and Arnold Palmer, today's Learjet attracts a well-heeled clientele. Customers include celebrity aviators such as John Travolta and Harrison Ford and lower-profile corporate accounts such as Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart switched to Learjets after Sam Walton taught himself to fly; the company's in-house airline, Wal-Mart Aviation, has a fleet of 25 business jets used to ferry top management around the country. "The Lears are tools for Wal-Mart," explains Tom Williams, a spokesman for the company. "They're just a real efficient way of moving associates around the country in a hurry. They'll drop into a small airport and there'll be someone from the local Wal-Mart waiting to pick 'em up. In and out—fast!"

Other Learjet customers include interesting characters like Bill Lear's old flying buddy Clay Lacy, whose Los Angeles-based Clay Lacy Aviation executive jet charter service has three Lears among its fleet of 19 planes, including Lear's personal Learjet 25. Lacy's Learjets also take on air-videography assignments for motion picture producers, with cameras mounted to the exterior of each Learjet. Lacy himself does the flying, using a patented Astrovision camera system. ("The sort of shots you saw in Top Gun?" Learjet PR chief Dave Franson says. "Clay Lacy does those with his Lear.")

The Learjet link to Hollywood goes back to Sinatra and his cronies. The Rat Pack regularly flew from L.A. to Vegas to New York in Sinatra's Lear 24, with Ol' Blue Eyes riding shotgun in the cockpit, pointing out landmarks. "Frank liked to announce every state we'd fly over," says Lopez, the 1960s singer of "Lemon Tree" and "If I Had a Hammer," who is now semiretired and lives near Palm Springs. "Frank fussed over you in his Learjet. He'd bring you sandwiches and drinks, and ask, 'Are you comfortable, Trini my friend? Is there anything I can get for ya?' I loved flying with Frank, and with Dean and Sammy, or whoever else he'd invite along."

The Byrds' McGuinn was another Learjet frequent flier. The musician knew Bill Lear's son John in the 1960s, when the Byrds were recording tunes like "Eight Miles High." McGuinn would snatch any opportunity to jump into a Learjet, and even recorded the Byrds' "Learjet Song" using John's airplane to create sound effects.

"John once gave us a ride from Los Angeles to Pensacola [Florida] for a Byrds gig," McGuinn recalls. "I think it was [fellow Byrds members] David Crosby and Chris Hillman and Gene Clark and myself, and we had Peter Fonda along. We came into Pensacola at too high of an altitude, and John did a maneuver called a Split S to get down. I was sitting in the cockpit with him. John was a kid like us. He liked to go fast. He explained the Split S to me as a steep dive that would have us coming out upside down at the bottom. I'm agreeing with him, and he says, 'You better tell the guys back there to buckle up.' Well," says McGuinn, who was feeling a bit ornery that day, "I didn't bother."

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