There are few names in the jet industry in the US that have roots as deep as the Learjet name. About a year ago, the production of all Learjet aircraft was seized by the parent company Bombardier. This followed the cancellation of the Learjet 85 program. Bringing an end to a legendary legacy, one that started out when the very notion of the private jet was one of great novelty, Learjet is a name that will always be remembered in the annals of history for its consistency and commitment to innovation. Today, we will be looking back towards Learjet, a company that is now deceased, yet will always have a lasting impact on the private jet landscape for decades to come.
Learjet was a trailblazer when it came to crafting the very first private aircraft made for luxury travel. The design was based on a military aircraft known as the ‘Marvel’. However, the main difference was the fact that they substituted the fuselage-mounted turbojet engine in return for ducted fan turboshaft engines. That design ended up being scraped however due to infeasibilities in the project. The final design for the first Learjet ended up being borrowed from a Swiss fighter jet, the FFA P-16. Bill Lear’s eye for detail was exemplified by the choice of the P-16. He believed that the jet had all the right features for it to be transformed into a business luxury jet that would set an important precedent for years to come. They incorporated the Swiss American Aircraft Corporation in Switzerland at that time, with engineers being collected from all over Europe to work in it. The landing gear of the original Learjet was a reminder of its fighter aircraft lineage as well. The production started out as a project in Switzerland but eventually moved out to Wichita, Kansas. This is exactly where Learjet’s trademark American blood comes from. There are few states in the US that exemplify Americana as powerfully as Kansas does. It is the setting of The Wizard of Oz, perhaps the most iconic movie ever made. It also now became the home base of a company that is more American than any other, Learjet.
In 1963, the first examples started rolling off the assembly line. The company was shortly after renamed Lear Jet Corporation. This is how the original Learjet 23 came to be. It was an 8-seater aircraft released to positive reviews by buyers. This rise in the fortunes of Learjet led the company to become a publicly owned company. This led to the onslaught of great aircraft in the next few years. The Model 24 took flight in February 1966 and the Model 25 in August of the same year. In September, the company had a new name, Lear Jet Industries.
The rising fortunes of Learjet would catch the eyes of many suitors. Chief amongst those was the Gates Rubber Company. Bill Lear’s 60% stake in the company was acquired by Gates for $27 million, a truly staggering sum at that time. It was merged with Gates Aviation and became the Gates Learjet Corporation. The model 25 would eventually evolve into becoming the Learjet 35, one of the best-selling aircraft in history.
By 1974, Learjet aircraft had flown over 1-million flight hours around the world. In a year, they would be the first company in the entire world to boast production of 500 jets. Both of these achievements paved the way for mass industrialization of the jet industry, with many people realizing that it was a viable business model to have. In 1977, the Learjet 28 first touched the skies. The winglets on the Learjet 28 changed the game in many ways. This has the effect of drastically improving the top speed of the aircraft as well the fuel efficiency, both of which were huge achievements at that time.
After conquering the skies, Learjet had to take on space. Gates Learjet started its Aerospace division in 1984. This means that now Learjet would be producing parts for the Space Shuttle’s main engine. This move was iconic for a number of reasons. It further imbued Learjet with the sense of American pride that they had always espoused from day one. It also affirmed the public’s trust in the company. More than anything, it was a stamp on the authority of Learjet, its consistency is such that it was being depended upon for the most crucial of missions, man’s wish to conquer space.
Learjet’s different ownership stints were not to be stopped, even at that time. In 1987, Gates Learjet was bought by Integrated Acquisition and the name was restored to Learjet Corporation. In fact, by 1989, production was completely moved back to Wichita from Tucson. In many ways, this was seen as the homecoming of Learjet. The brand that started out as a few aircraft engines now returning home as the engine supplier of the space shuttle. It had been quite an eventful two and a half decades for Learjet.
In 1990, Bombardier would acquire Learjet. They were renamed again to Bombardier Learjet Family. In 1990, the Learjet 60 would start production with the Learjet 45 coming into the fold in 1995.
The Learjet 60 was essentially an improved version of the Learjet 55, having an extended fuselage and greater power. However, the truly intrinsic difference between the 55 and 60 was the aerodynamics. This included a new wing cuff and wing-to-body fairing. Basically, it increased the wing chord and improved the handling by a vast amount. The engines had been completely overhauled which required brand-new pylon to be designed, manufactured, and used for this aircraft. What is even more interesting about the Learjet 60 is the fact that it is in use by a variety of militaries and governments around the world. Used mostly for VIP transport, these jets are being used by Argentina, Colombia, North Macedonia, Malaysia, Mexico, Moldova, and the US itself. This reinforces the narrative that Learjet is one hell of a dependent aircraft brand.
In 2005, Learjet would launch the Learjet 60XR. It made a variety of improvements to its predecessor, with 5 different floorplans, LED lighting, overhauled insulation, and even a completely improved cabin management system. The idea was to make the Learjet 60 even more complete than it already was at that time and they succeeded in doing that. It was criticized for being shorter than its competitors such as the Hawker 800 XP. This was mainly due to the fact that it was the evolved version of Learjet aircraft which were smaller in size. The aircraft had a range of over 2200 nautical miles. It could cruise at a speed of 0.76 Mach, which was a very impressive number for its class. In total, there are 112 of the 60XRs in service, with the average price being anything from $3 million to $4 million depending on the condition and the model year in question.
The Learjet 45 would form another crucial step in the Learjet Legacy. It was seen originally as a super-light business jet. This was a market that was at that time cornered by the Cessna Citation Excel. The main thesis was to be able to provide an aircraft that was more powerful in terms of top speed and was able to cut flight time by a large margin. Since it was their first design that did not evolve out of the original Model 23, the main aim was to make Learjet aircraft more competitive with modern innovations that had come to the fore in the past 30 years. It was also the longest development cycle that the company underwent in its history. The stage had been set for Learjet to deliver an aircraft more successful than anything else they had ever done in their entire history. Learjet might have ruled the roost in terms of private jet travel in the past decades but they were not about to be caught complacent and lose their position on top of the perch.
The development began in secret in 1989. By 1995, the first prototype had taken to the skies. By 1998, consumer deliveries had begun. The Learjet 45 went on run for more than a decade that saw its place cemented in the annals of history as one of the most successful aircraft ever. By 2006, 300 Learjet 45 aircraft were delivered to excited customers. After 4 more years, they had delivered over 200 more to take the total tally to 500 aircraft.
Just like any paradigm shifting product, there were some hitches along the way for this aircraft. Some mechanical and electrical problems were spotted in initial versions of the aircraft, which included faulty pressurization and cracked windshields. These were not minor issues. These were issues that could seriously hurt Learjet’s reputation and go against their reputation as reliable manufacturers. However, the worst was yet to come. In 2003, FAA made the assessment that a faulty fastener system could easily break, sending the plane into the ground. They made the decision to ground all Learjet 45s. This was as big a disaster as any for Learjet, with hundreds of its aircraft not being allowed to fly. The situation endured for a month as Learjet scrambled to fix its aircraft.
The consensus had developed that the Learjet 45 did not deliver on Learjet’s reputation of being an extremely dependable manufacturer. Popular opinion amongst operators was that the Learjet 45 was a force of nature, with its performance and cost being absolutely excellent but the constant maintenance issues were certainly a pebble in the foot of the Learjet 45. Today, a used Learjet can be found for anything from $1.5 – $5 million.
Delivered in 2003, this was the baby brother of the Learjet 40. It essentially had a shorter fuselage and took the place of the 31a in Learjet’s family. It was fundamentally superior to the 31a, mainly due to the addition of creature comforts that were absent in the 31a. The aircraft is roomy for its size and could accommodate 7 passengers with 2 people on the crew. The wingspan stood at 48 feet and the height stood at 14.5 feet, showing that the baby brother was not so much of a baby after all. It could go up to a frankly impressive 0.81 Mach and had a cruise speed of about 534 mph. The range stood at a very respectable 2137 nautical miles which were certainly above the average for aircraft of its size.
After delivering a slew of legendary private jet aircraft that will live long in the memory of aircraft enthusiasts around the world, Learjet ceased production in February 2021. There is still support for maintenance of currently deployed Learjets though, exhibiting their dedication to the consumer. Now, the Learjet name is going to pass on to myth. A story of what once was a great brand, one which gained the trust of the entire world with its respect in tandem. It is never a happy sight to see a project and a vision so vast meeting its demise. What started out as imagination in the mind of Bill Lear decades ago now has a legacy that won’t be easily replicated. Learjet benefitted from what is known as ‘First Mover’s Advantage’ in economics. They were one of the first companies in the entire world that decided to invest in the idea of a luxury private jet. It was at the time when humans had just gotten used to the idea of air travel. Being able to market private jets to the wealthy of that time was an arduous task. In contrast with the consumer culture of today, where a few shoutouts from an ‘influencer’ is enough to move a product, Learjet had to really make the market understand the value of the private jet. Today, it is a multi-billion-dollar industry growing at an exponential rate every year. Learjet might be gone but their vision still remains, powering the lives of people even today.