What Bill Lear invented in 1963 his company continues to perfect and with the introduction of the advanced Learjet 85 – the first all-composite business jet on the market – Learjet, a division of Bombardier, will continue to lead in its market niche. Lorie Greenspan tells the story.
Last October Bombardier wrapped up “the year of Learjet” with a celebration that included a commemorative ceremony for the first manufactured Learjet 35 aircraft, now on permanent display at the Learjet assembly facility. As Bombardier moves forward today with the next generation Learjet 85, it might be worth stepping back to reflect on the ingenuity that propelled the Learjet to its place of prominence in the realm of business jet travel, and recall a bit of witticism from the man who started it all: “If it looks good, it will fly good.”
That “Learism” from William Powell Lear oversimplifies his work as an innovator in myriad markets – but it was aviation on which he staked his future. With $10 million of his own money, plus an additional $8 million borrowed from banks, he set up a factory at Wichita (Kansas) Municipal Airport in January, 1963, employing a work force of 75 people.
In a bold move, Lear decided to skip the normal step of hand-building a prototype for flight testing, instead moving directly into production. Without a prototype, he risked the possibility that his designs might fail, forcing him into a costly redesign and retooling process that could very well sink his company. However, in the time that it would take to develop and perfect the prototype the competition, he reasoned, could well be on its way to developing similar models. As a result, Lear had to be absolutely sure of every aspect of the Learjet’s design.
On Oct. 7, 1963, the first Learjet Model 23 rolled out of the 96,000-square-foot facility for its maiden flight. Despite a later nonfatal crash of the first model, others flew exactly as Lear envisioned, and subsequently sailed through FAA certification. When the first Learjet was delivered on Oct. 14, 1964, Lear had collected 72 firm orders for the new jet. This sent other companies scrambling into the market. However, it was five years before Cessna produced a jet, and even longer before companies such as Dassault could make a dent in the market.
So Lear’s gamble paid off. He had, for the time being, a monopoly on the business jet market. At the time he reportedly remarked: “In a situation like this, you’re either very right or very wrong.”
ALL THE RIGHT MOVES
Recently Learjet has taken a cue from its namesake’s view on business by creating a series of hugely successful Learjet business models, under the umbrella of its parent, Bombardier, Inc., a world-leading manufacturer of transportation solutions, with revenues of $US17.5 billion. Its Learjet 85 is its latest example of how “looking good” pairs successfully with “flying good.”
Designed to provide a larger, more comfortable cabin than any existing midsize aircraft, the Learjet 85 aircraft’s 665-cubic-foot cabin is the largest Learjet aircraft cabin ever – offering eight passengers a stand-up environment built to ensure superior productivity.
A key element of the aircraft’s cabin is its large windows, measuring approximately 12 x 16 inches, maximizing the amount of natural light into the aircraft as well as passenger viewing capability.
The standard double club configuration floor plan features a generous 30-inch pitch between the seats, a full service galley, full lavatory, three large storage closets, providing in-flight access to a total of 30 cubic feet of storage space. All cabin seats are fully berthable with the capability to deploy four at any time for optimum comfort.
The new Learjet 85 will be the first Bombardier Aerospace jet to feature an all-composite structure and will be the first all-composite structure business jet designed for type certification under U.S. Federal Aviation Administration FAR Part 25. The all-composite structure will allow Learjet designers to maximize cabin comfort while minimizing drag and improving performance. “Being a composite means it will burn less fuel, making it more environmentally friendly as well as easier to maintain,” explains Leo Knaapen, manager of industry associations and public affairs for Bombardier Aerospace.
BUILDING ON PERFORMANCE
True to its legendary heritage, the Learjet 85 aircraft is set to deliver a one-two punch in the category of performance. It’s powered by two Pratt & Whitney Canada PW307B engines, each boasting 6,100 pounds of take-off thrust each at sea level 86°F (30°C) and low noise levels, while the advanced low NOx emission combuster offers reduced environmental impact. The clean-sheet Learjet 85 aircraft targets a high-speed cruise of Mach 0.82 and a transcontinental range of up to 3,000 nautical miles.
The new Learjet 85 aircraft flight deck combines advanced technology with superior design elements for a cockpit environment unlike any other midsize jet. The latest in technological advancements from Rockwell Collins – the new Pro Line Fusion avionics suite – is once again paired with superior design aesthetics to create the ultimate Learjet flight control environment.
Since acquiring Learjet Inc. in 1990, Bombardier Aerospace has carried forward the brand’s proud legacy by launching eight high-performance and fuel-efficient aircraft, all of which have been well-received by the savvy business traveler. So far the Learjet 85 is proving to be no exception. Last August the company received an order from Synergy Aerospace Corp., a sub-holding of Synergy Group and owner of OceanAir Táxi Aéreo Ltd in Brasil and PAS and Helicol in Colombia. The Learjet 85 aircraft will be operated by OceanAir’s charter service business unit and based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
In addition, London Air Services (LAS) has placed firm orders for five Learjet 85 aircraft, valued at approximately US$86 million, based on the 2008 list price of typically equipped aircraft. LAS is the first Canadian operator to place a firm order for the new all-composite jet.
Learjet is now in a joint definition phase involving all suppliers working together to finalize the details of the Learjet 85 design; explains Knaapen, “We outsource a lot of work and become integrator of the systems.” In 1985, the company started to outsource to a plant in Queretaro, Mexico, for the manufacture of all primary and secondary structures; everything else – design, flight testing, customer support, final assembly and interior completion – takes place in Wichita.
However, with the addition of the Learjet 85, four aircraft will be designed or built at the same time – which has never happened in Learjet’s history, Knaapen notes, and is forcing a hard look at current operations. “We’re currently exploring opportunities on how to accommodate four production lines in Wichita,” he adds. “One option is to expand with a new facility or expand existing building or radically redesign our production lines as they currently exist.” It’s anticipated the company will start delivery on its Learjet 85 in 2012.
THE SKY’S NO LIMIT
In the meantime the global world of business travel continues to expand on what Bill Lear envisioned in the 1950s as a ripe opportunity. In November, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association reported worldwide deliveries of general aviation airplanes for the first nine months of 2008. A total of 2,977 airplanes were shipped in the first three quarters, valued at $18.2 billion, compared to 2,918 units valued at $15.1 billion during this same period in 2007.
In the United States, in particular, Knaapen explains several reasons for growth: “We have a sophisticated air transport industry in this country and a well-defined infrastructure, with pretty good access to maintenance personnel and pilots, plus taxation here is low – other countries apply luxury taxes to jets. And the cost of training to become a pilot here is cheaper. There’s a lot of factors as to why the U.S. is a leader in the use of business aviation.” He quickly adds, though, “It’s a mature market in the U.S. A typical corporation purchases a new jet every five to seven years. The market is approaching a saturation point here.”
However, he adds, other regions are quickly catching on: Knappen cites that in the last four years there’s been a flip in U.S. sales versus the rest of the world; where it used to be 80-20 favoring the U.S., it’s now 30 percent U.S. and 70 percent for the rest of the world.
“This is because in large markets, such as China and India, where business aviation didn’t exist, they’re now opening their borders and developing business jet travel, allowing people to fly into remote areas lacking rail or roads. But other regions are also discovering the business of business aviation,” Knaapen says.
And so as Bombardier holds to its place among the top three aviation providers in the world and a leader in the niches of regional and business jets, Learjet will soar, proving that Lear’s flight plan was as good in 1963 as it is in 2008.