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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

(continued from page 3)

Gates Learjet looked beyond the traditional market for business jets, selling 30-series models to groups as diverse as the Peruvian air force and Singapore Airlines. Learjets were used for mapping uncharted portions of Mexico and South America, as well as for air-to-air and high-altitude photography, and even as high-speed air ambulances.

The Longhorn 55 and the more modest 35/36 models kept Learjet profitable through the early 1980s, until a second recession, deeper than that of the early 1970s, sent the company into serious red ink with a $23 million loss in 1985. Szurovy, in his biography Learjets, emphasized that all American jet builders were suffering by 1984, but the others had corporate parents whose pockets were deep enough to allow them to ride out hard times. (Raytheon owned Beechcraft and General Dynamics purchased Cessna, while Gulfstream was then a division of Chrysler.)

In August of 1987, Gates Learjet was sold to Integrated Resources, a New York leveraged buyout firm. Learjet's primary assets at the time included two models: an updated Learjet 55C and the new Learjet 31 (considered by many to be the smoothest handling of all Lears). Integrated Resources, however, also proved to be underfunded and ill-suited to the task of producing quality aircraft in a highly competitive market, and in 1989 the company filed for bankruptcy.

Bombardier, of Montreal, acquired Learjet the following year, and shortly afterward announced that it was developing the Learjet 60, whose quiet operation would be one of the aircraft's key selling points. The first planes were delivered in 1993. Meanwhile, in 1992 the company unveiled plans for a smaller model, the freshly engineered Learjet 45, which would reach customers for the first time in 1998. The 45, Learjet's first plane designed entirely on-screen by CAD/CAM—software that affords two- and three-dimensional images of a subject as it's being created—seated eight passengers, had a range of 2,100 nautical miles and flew comfortably at 51,000 feet. Szurovy described CAD/CAM files being "directly loaded into numerically controlled milling equipment that automatically makes the parts. This technique meant 50 percent fewer parts were needed compared to earlier construction methods. The forward fuselage bulkhead, for example, was milled from a single piece of metal in eight hours, compared to the conventional alternative that would take 75 parts and eight days to build."

Even with all the changes through the years, the Learjet retains the cache it enjoyed when the Chairman of the Board jetted around the country. Just make sure you're strapped in when it rockets off the runway. A Lear will still make your heart skip, but you wouldn't want it any other way.

 

Jim Mueller is a freelance writer living in Chicago.


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