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Lord of the Skies

Learjet has been zipping jet-setters and business executives around the world for 40 years
| By Jim Mueller | From 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."

The daring maneuver in the Learjet 24 left the passengers in the rear a little spooked, but otherwise unhurt. They could thank the man who created the Learjet in the first place, for the plane's dexterity in tight situations has always been one of its attractions.

A tinkerer by nature, Bill Lear was entirely self-taught as an aeronautical engineer, despite the fact that he had no more than an eighth-grade education. Born in Hannibal, Missouri, on June 26, 1902, he grew up in Chicago, falling under the spell of a neighborhood radio buff remembered only as "Shargo." Lear supposedly spent his free time in Shargo's workshop, pulling radios apart, fiddling with primitive batteries, looking for more efficient ways to power stock sets. After a stint in the Navy as a radio operator, he went into business for himself. He invented the first workable car radio, perfecting a hum-proof B battery before selling off to electronics entrepreneur Paul Galvin in 1930; Galvin made a fortune marketing Lear's inspiration as the Motorola car radio. In 1935, Lear created the Learoscope direction finder, a device that used the government's low-frequency airways to assist pilots in pinpointing their locations aboveground; he was once photographed describing the apparatus to Amelia Earhart. Lear went on to form companies that would develop and produce the first radios used in private aircraft, as well as the first autopilot system and early electromechanical control systems that enabled fliers to decrease their reliance on hydraulics.

In 1959, he founded his business jet company, Swiss American Aircraft Corp., in Altenrhein, Switzerland, where he was joined by designers Gordon Israel and Hans Studer. According to Lear biographer Joe Christy, Studer had worked on the original P-16 fighter project for the Swiss government; the basic Lear design would share characteristics with that jet.

The Learjet would be Lear's first attempt at building a plane from the ground up. He'd had considerable success modifying military-surplus Lockheed Lodestars into the Learstar executive airplane, but this endeavor was something else entirely. Lear's competitors and industry analysts doubted that he could bring a mini-jet to market with a budget of only $12 million. (This meant no tinkering with multiple prototypes. There would be one plane to test for air certification by the Federal Aviation Administration—period.)

Lear's idea was to expand into European markets from Switzerland, but by all accounts he soon soured on the Swiss work ethic. He felt that the Swiss were lazy; they didn't move quickly enough for him. The entire Learjet operation moved to Wichita, Kansas, in 1962, to take advantage of the city's pool of airplane-building talent. Wichita, home to Boeing, Beech and Cessna when Lear arrived, had the skilled labor force that he needed to build Lear 23 jets.

Learjet 23 featured twin General Electric CJ610-4 engines capable of putting out 2,850 pounds of thrust each; the plane could reach a top speed of 561 miles per hour. Jet-fighter performance was assured, given that these particular engines were also used on the T-38 Talon and F-5 planes supplied to the U.S. Air Force by Northrop. Starting with the development phase and continuing through the next few years, Learjet 23 fuselages (and, later, those of Lear 24 and other models) went through a reported 50,000 pressurization/depressurization cycles—the equivalent of 100 years of normal flying under average conditions. Still not completely satisfied, Lear had the structural joints "deliberately cut through" at the bulkhead, the stringer joint in the fuselage, and the spar and rip joints in the wing and the tail, according to Lear biographer Christy. Then they ran the prototype through another 1,000 cycles without incident. Just to be sure. Lear liked to use the term "fail-safe."

The only serious setback occurred in June 1964, on the protoype's 167th flight, when it slammed belly-first into a Kansas wheat field. It was later determined that an FAA test pilot had tried to take off on a single engine, with the spoilers still deployed. It proved to be only a minor setback, though, because the Learjet 23 received FAA certification on July 31. The first production Learjet was delivered to Chemical Industrial Corp., in Cincinnati, on October 13 for $595,000.

The new business jet found a ready market, with more than 100 Lears sold by the end of 1965. However, it wasn't the easiest aircraft to fly. A bigger model was quickly developed that could fly more easily at lower speeds. Dubbed the Lear 24, the plane came equipped with wingtip fuel tanks that could hold an additional 364 gallons of fuel, extending the jet's range, and it included improvements such as better electrical and fire-detection systems. The jet made its debut in March of 1966. (Incidentally, a Lear 24 was featured in James Coburn's 1967 spy-film send-up In Like Flint, in which Bill Lear himself made a cameo appearance as pilot Coburn's crew chief.)

When Lear first relocated the company to the United States, the engineers and the assembly technicians in Wichita soon learned that their new boss wasn't exactly the kindly old Jasper they'd anticipated from photographs.

"Bill Lear was obnoxious if you didn't understand him," Hank Beaird recalls. "I think he fired most of his people once a week—and some were dumb enough to keep walking and not ignore him. I, personally, respected Bill. He was a genius who knew what you knew—before you knew it. I should also add that Bill Lear was an excellent pilot and built one tough airplane. They were overbuilt. The Lears had five spars [supports] in the tail and eight in each wing. Nobody else was building that kind of strength into a small jet. A Lear is still the only plane I'll fly in and out of Aspen or Telluride, because you can count on it to get you in and out with one engine."

Beaird overlooked Lear's foul temper, for the most part, though there were occasions when he'd talk back to his autocratic boss. "Bill brought in an expert who said he could run our plant like a car manufacturer, and I disagreed," Beaird remembers. "I said, 'Chief, you don't build airplanes like you build cars. This guy's got everyone running around in brown uniforms looking like Hitler! Bill's efficiency expert eventually got to my department, and I told him, 'Hands off,' and he said, 'Hank, I don't like your attitude. We better go see Mr. Lear.' I said, 'Come on then, let's go.' I told Bill exactly what I thought, and he fired the man right on the spot."

Brilliant but infuriating—that's how Bill Lear was characterized. "Bill Lear could be tough going," says a longtime Bombardier staffer who prefers to remain anonymous. "He had his way of doing things, and his way was the only way. It wasn't uncommon for Bill to disappear into his workshop for a week and come out with a new part or a new system and order it bolted directly onto the planes. He'd show up on the assembly line and show the guys what he wanted and say, 'Do it exactly this way!' There was no finesse in the man. No diplomacy. His wife, Moya, would smooth over the ruffled feathers. She was a saint."

Beaird speaks fondly of his old boss's coming up with the idea for an accurate indicator for window icing in a single afternoon. Ideas came to Lear so fast, apparently, that he couldn't take the time to be nice. "I'd sell my grandmother to save just one pound of weight!" he once quipped, according to Geza Szurovy, another Lear biographer. Even after selling most of his company in 1967, he continued to be utterly consumed by business, right up until his death in 1978.

Despite the Learjet's early popularity, the company found itself in financial straits in the mid-1960s. Sizable operating losses over the first few years and increasing competition squeezed profit margins. A late 1966 recession prompted American companies to rethink nonessential purchases like a Learjet 24. Orders fell off. Finished planes sat unsold in Wichita and, according to Szurovy, Lear stock fell from $82 per share to $8.50. Lear lacked the reserves to hold on and wait for an economic turnaround. After finishing 1966 with a net loss of $12 million, he sold his company to Charles Gates, chairman of the Gates Rubber Co., staying on, Szurovy wrote, in the largely ceremonial position of chairman of the board for another two years.

Just prior to acquiring Learjet, Gates had bought Combs Aviation, which he planned to use as Learjet's national sales organization. The former head of Combs, Harry Combs, was a penny-pincher who, by most accounts, saved Learjet. Combs assumed the presidency of a newly created Gates Learjet Corp. and immediately cut costs and streamlined operations. By the end of his first year at the helm, the company had gone from a net worth of minus $13 million to plus $3.7 million.

Early on, Combs recognized the wisdom of switching to a quieter, more fuel-efficient turbo-fan engine built by the Phoenix-based Garret company. The Garret TFE731-2, installed on Gates's Learjet 35, proved to be 35 percent more fuel-efficient than the previous GE units, and Combs' timing was impeccable. The 1973 oil crisis and the resultant rise in jet fuel costs had corporate customers and foreign governments lining up for the miserly pocket jet. Indeed, orders for 90 Learjet 35s were taken before production could begin.

Combs, snatching a page from Bill Lear's personal PR handbook, decided the time was right for a second around-the-world record-setting attempt by Learjet. The 1966 record flight in a model 24 by test pilot Hank Beaird and Lear's younger son, John, had achieved a flight time of 65 hours and 39 minutes. Ten years later, golf legend Arnold Palmer, who was considered an excellent jet pilot, set out to better the world record for business-class jets in a Lear 36 equipped with extra fuel tanks. The plan was to start and finish in Denver, with fuel stops in Boston, Paris, Jakarta, Tehran, Sri Lanka and Manila, among other cities. Bob Serling hitched a ride, covering the flight for UPI.

"I was a fourth crew member," says Serling. "I felt like Lindbergh, but I didn't do a damn thing except serve up snacks and hand out bicentennial tie clips at fuel stops. I was supposed to be the official timekeeper. Arnold said, 'We're setting two records here, Bob: the speed record and the number of times we have to correct the official timekeeper's arithmetic.' "

Palmer's group circled the globe in a record 57 hours, 25 minutes and 42 seconds, with the golfer handling every takeoff and landing himself except one. "Jim Bir [a noted test pilot] took over when we spotted a typhoon coming near Manila," Serling recalls. "That one was a little tricky."

When business jets became larger and more luxurious in the mid-1970s, Learjet responded with the Longhorn 55, a model that featured extended wings with flip-up tips called winglets, which replaced the old Lear tip tanks. Winglets, originally developed by NASA, reduced the drag caused by conventional wingtips and provided additional lift. Winglets gave Learjet a futuristic signature design twist. Translation: they looked sharp and set Learjet apart from other, stodgy business models. (One imagines Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac fame stepping out of the mysterious cranberry Learjet she once claimed was sent by an anonymous suitor, its winglets standing at attention.)

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.