The first successful small-business jets.
Prior to the development of business jets, options for business air travelers were varied but limited. For corporate travel, corporations could purchase their own small, propeller-driven aircraft, modify full-sized commercial airliners, charter full-sized aircraft, or book regular passenger seats on commercial airliners. The use of full-size aircraft often entailed more expense than could be justified by the number of people flying, and the use of small, propeller-driven aircraft lacked the range, speed, and comfort provided by commercial airliners. Flying on regularly scheduled commercial flights also meant that corporate travelers had to adjust their schedules to match those of the airlines.
Business jets filled a niche that had been unfulfilled by these various options. They were small enough to be affordable, yet large enough to provide amenities, such as galley kitchens and onboard restrooms, that small general aviation aircraft could not. They had cruising ranges and speeds to rival those of full-sized airliners. Perhaps most importantly, business jets provided flexibility: Corporate officers could now fly anywhere at any time.
The Learjet was developed by William Powell Lear, a pioneering figure in the airline industry. Born in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1902, Lear left high school before graduating and lied about his age to enlist in the U.S. Navy at the age of sixteen. He learned basic electronic skills while serving in World War I. As an inventor and entrepreneur, Lear built a successful corporation specializing in avionics systems. His wide-ranging inventions included the first successful car radio and the eight-track audio cassette player.
Some of Lear’s innovations, particularly in electronics and avionics, became integral components of larger technological systems. His development of the automatic pilot in the 1930’s, for example, revolutionized aviation. Often Lear’s success as an innovator and entrepreneur was based not on his ability to invent totally new devices, but instead on his genius at recognizing new possibilities for existing technologies and on his ability to market his innovations.
In the late 1950’s, Lear founded the Swiss American Aviation Corporation (SAAC) to design and manufacture corporate jet aircraft. By 1963, he had moved the company from Switzerland to Wichita, Kansas, and renamed it the Lear Jet Corporation. Like many successful entrepreneurs, he had a knack for envisioning the market for a product before there was such a market. This was certainly the case with the Learjet. Although industry analysts were intially skeptical about the Learjet’s business prospects, for several years after Learjet production began, demand outpaced supply. Although the original market had been corporate travelers, buyers soon included celebrities for whom ownership of a Learjet had become a necessary status symbol.
The biggest challenge faced by Lear and his design team in building the Learjet was to develop an airframe that was strong enough to withstand the forces created by jet engines, that could incorporate a passenger cabin with sufficient headroom to qualify as a desirable travel option, and that could be small and light enough to be economically feasible. The airframe, engines, and other components all had to be integrated carefully into a complete aircraft system. Lear knew the potential market existed for a business jet, but he could not simply scale down an existing full-sized commercial airliner. Instead, Lear looked to the military for inspiration, incorporating many of the features of the P-16, a small fighter-bomber used by the Swiss Air Force.
The resulting aircraft combined sophisticated good looks with speed and power. The first Learjet, the Model 23, carried seven passengers and made its first flight on October 7, 1964. Powered by two General Electric CJ610-4 turbojet engines, it had an effective range of 1,875 miles and a top speed of 564 miles per hour. Learjet produced and sold approximately one hundred Model 23’s before introducing the Model 24 in 1966.
In 1969, Lear resigned from the board of Lear Jet Industries, and the company merged with Gates Aviation to become Corporation Gates Learjet. Learjet changed corporate ownership several times before becoming part of Bombardier, a Canadian corporation, in 1990. Learjets continue to be built in Wichita, Kansas, and the Learjet Model 45 was introduced in 1995. The Model 45, powered by two Allied Signal TFE 731-20 turbofan engines with 3,500 pounds of thrust each, accommodates a two-person crew and up to nine passengers.
Boesen, Victor. They Said It Couldn’t Be Done: The Incredible Story of Bill Lear. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. A biography of the man who created the Learjet. Porter, Donald J. Learjet: The World’s Executive Aircraft. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books, 1990. The story of the Lear’s business jets. Rashke, Richard. Stormy Genius: The Life of Aviation’s Maverick, Bill Lear. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985. A biography detailing the life and career of William P. Lear. Szurovy, Geza. Learjets. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1996. A descriptive book about Learjets.
Corporate and private jets