Levels of human wealth have only skyrocketed in the 21st century. In the present day, we are a richer society than ever before in the entire history of the human world. This has had a direct effect on the luxuries that the rich among us are able to afford. In 2022, nothing symbolizes money and wealth more than private jets. Go on to the Instagram Feed of your favorite celebrity and you are sure to find a picture of them walking outside of a jet that they have chartered. Private jets are more than just objects made of steel that can fly in the sky. Private jets are able to symbolize a lifestyle reserved for the richest in society. Now, there is a Marxist argument out there that opposes the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few people, but we all know that private jets are a thing to behold. These private steel birds have become the representation of an image that is so powerful that even the chartering of a jet industry has climbed to levels of popularity that have never been seen before.
Man’s wish to rule the skies was initially fulfilled by the Wright Brothers. Seeing their aircraft scale the skies and break a wall that had been mocking humanity for millennia must have been a truly staggering sight. In many ways, it was a paradigm shift that allowed humans to think in another dimension, the air. The spillover effects were incredibly powerful as well. Perhaps the biggest result was the invention of the fighter jet. The skies of Europe would be filled with fighter jets fighting each other for air superiority during the second World War. Perhaps the invention of the fighter jet had brought about significant destruction to the earth. Einstein would not have imagined how his work would be used to bring about the atomic bomb. At the end of the second world war, beautiful innovations had been reduced to cogs in the war machine.
The story was not to end there though. The atomic bomb would eventually be utilized to produce clean electricity for the world and the science of aviation that the Wright brothers had pioneered would be used to bring about a revolution in civilian aircraft travel. This is the history of the private jet.
In terms of the first truly civilian aircraft, the title can really be bestowed to the Morane-Saulnier MS.760 Paris. Having its maiden flight in 1954, this jet was not a blueprint of what private jets needed to be but more of a point in a direction that others after it would be able to take. It was fundamentally different from the jets of today as it only had two rows bereft of an aisle in the center. It also had a canopy that is generally used in fighter aircraft. It formed a middle ground between what a military aircraft was and what a business jet was going to be. As is the case often with pioneering technology, the jet was simply ahead of its time and was severely lacking in some places before it could be considered by the public at large. It was eventually considered a commercial failure and was scrapped.
The first aircraft that was truly built for flying privately was arguably the Learjet 23. It was the brainchild of maestro Bill Lear. 104 of these jets were built between 1962 and 1966. Considering that more than a hundred jets were built in a time period that was barely longer than 5 years, we can see that the demand for a private jet was certainly in the market.
Large Business Jet
The moment the light business jet had become quite successful, imaginations started to be floated toward the large business jet. The idea was that there were many businesses around the world that were so big that they needed to transport entire entourages through the air and would gain from a dedicated large business aircraft. This is where the company that is perhaps the most famous private jet manufacturer in the world, Gulfstream, would really take center stage. The Gulfstream II weighed a staggering 65,000 pounds. The sheer power of the Rolls-Royce turbo fans which were rated at 11,400 pounds-force each was able to take this absolute behemoth in the air. It was another moment when the world realized that private jet travel had a long way to go still and there were more innovations yet to come. A total of 258 were built and delivered to customers, with many still running today.
Another big player would start to really make its mark in the market. Cessna’s Citation I had its first flight in 1969. It was a very important jet due to a variety of reasons. Nearly 700 were produced which signaled a much bigger jump in terms of sales compared to the jets that came beforehand. It was also comparatively affordable and started to signal a possibility to prospective owners that they could indeed maintain a jet without much issue.
Dassault is a name that is most frequently associated with their fighter jets. However, they also have a very respectable name in the private aviation industry as well, with their private jets being able to harness their expertise in the military industry and building a final product that is even more polished than before. The Dassault Falcon 50 was released in 1976. It was also quite a heavy jet, weighing in at over 40,000 pounds. It would eventually evolve in the Falcon 900.
In 1978, the Canadair Challenger made its first flight. What was even interesting is that it was actually based on a concept that Bill Lear had come up with. It would also form the basis of the ventures of Bombardier, a company that is sure to be known by anyone who knows even a little bit about aviation. It was actually first known as the LearStar 600. Eventually, Bill Lear would be phased out of the development of this aircraft, and a T-tail was added to give it some enhancements. After being bought by Bombardier, the jet would play the role of the springboard that would establish a line of production that has been long and consistent over the years. The jet would end up being stretched into the Bombardier CRJ, a jet that was used as a regional airliner. However, the best was truly yet to come. The Challenger would be molded into the Global Express, an aircraft that is immortal in the annals of private jet history. In a production run that ran more than a few decades, the Challenger was able to sell 500 jets after the turn of the century. In fact, in 2015, the 1000th Challenger was sold, bringing a truly satisfying end to a legend in the aircraft industry.
The design of a Mitsubishi aircraft would end up being the Hawker 400. Another aircraft that was able to establish a foothold in the market, the Hawker 400 XP was able to sell 950 of these variants. The most dominant trend of the 1970s was the establishment of aviation empires that would stay there for years to come. What needs to be understood about private jets is the fact that they are extremely expensive to develop. This means that the production run really needs to be running for a long time for the company to be able to make money on the project as a whole. A lot of aircraft that were first in production in the 70s were still being produced in the 2010s. Compare that to a phone that is hardly in production for a year before a new model comes out. Even cars swap out their entire platforms a few years, with refreshed models coming out every year with regularity. So, the 1970s were the first decade that truly ratified the thesis of jets being a long-term seller for companies. The early movers such as Cessna, Gulfstream, and Learjet would end up forming dynasties in the world of aviation.
While the 80s were certainly much drier than the 70s in terms of the scale of innovation that was being introduced, there was one thing that would truly change the face of commercial private aviation. That was the introduction of fractional ownership of jets. For a lot of people, jets were out of the question simply because they were too expensive. However, there was also a space in the market that could be exploited. It was the fact that most people who owned a jet were only able to fill a fraction of the jet’s total flight hours. It would just sit for the rest of the time, gathering dust. The ‘word’ fraction is very important here. In fractional ownership, an individual only owns a fraction of the aircraft, 1/8th or 1/16th, meaning that they are entitled to a certain number of flight hours a year. This slashes down the total cost by quite a bit and allows more people to buy jets.
In terms of sheer nostalgia, there is no decade more loved than the 90s. Even today, it seems like every other post on any social media site is reminiscent of the 90s. In the world of private aircraft, the 90s were a quiet time. Not much in terms of innovation, with a few models such as the Learjet 45 and the Beechcraft Premier I being released.
The turn of the Century
The biggest jets in the world had already been made. While companies like Bombardier and Gulfstream were trying to push the envelope further each day by producing a bigger and more powerful aircraft, Honda tried to go exactly the opposite way. It seems like Honda is able to do it all. They are mostly known for their reliable cars, motorcycles, and even lawn mowers. So, when the HondaJet first came along, the expectation was that Honda would be able to deliver on its promise. They certainly did deliver on their promise.
The HondaJet become one of the most critically praised jets ever released. It was mostly praised for its performance, design, and the fact that Honda was able to fit such quality in a package that was so small compared to other private jets. This trend of lighter jets started to take shape even more. The Embraer Phenom 100 flew for the first time in 2007, becoming an incredibly popular jet and eventually evolving into the Phenom 300, a larger aircraft that was still part of the light jet category. More than 600 of the Phenom 300 have been built since.
During the recession of 2008, the production of private jets went from an all-time high to declining due to political and economic uncertainty. In recent years, demand has started to rise again, with high-net-worth individuals beginning to revive their interest in private jets.
This is the story of private jets all the way from Bill Lear’s first attempt to the high-tech private jets filled with a plethora of amenities that we have today. It is an industry that has always been on the cutting edge and has been ruled by the individuals and companies who were able to take risks to put them in front. Many names have ruled this industry, and many have faded as well. Learjet for example ceased to be in 2021, with the company only remaining to service Learjet models already in production. There are many innovations that are still on the horizon for private jets, with some saying that the golden age of private jets is yet to come.