““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
The Twin-Engine Business Jet Turns 50...but Whose Birthday Should We Celebrate?
Late in the day on Oct. 7, 1963, the first Learjet 23 took flight for the first time in Wichita, Kansas, just before the sun slipped below the prairie horizon. A local radio station reported that the Learjet was making its maiden flight, and people jumped in their cars to see the sight. The crowd cheered. Grown men cried. The Learjet was on its way to defining a new category of aircraft and becoming an enduring icon of business aviation.
That's the way Bombardier Aerospace puts it in the company’s official history of the Learjet, but that’s not the way one Learjet engineer remembers the event.
“The first flight was a hurry-up deal,” recalls Don Grommesh, who retired as vice president of engineering for Learjet and was one of the first engineers hired by company founder Bill Lear in 1962. “There were no crowds, just a handful of people who witnessed it.” It was the aircraft’s second flight, planned to maximize publicity and exposure, that drew a crowd, Grommesh adds.
And, while most aviation aficionados agree that the first Learjet Model 23 and the early Learjets that followed came to define twin-engine jet transport for business operators, the question of whether the Model 23 was the first aircraft of its type continues to burn as hot as jet-A fuel in a turbine engine. The North American Aviation Sabreliner Model 40, the De Havilland DH-125 (later known as the Hawker Siddeley HS-125), the Lockheed JetStar and the Aero Commander 1121 Jet Commander each have also laid claim to being the world’s first twin-engine business jet. With a prototype flight in May 1963, the Falcon Mystère 20 was a contender, too, but it was not certified in the U.S. until June 1965, much later than the others. The two-engine foundation of business aviation today is generally thought to have been birthed 50 years ago in 1963. But key events in the development, testing and sale of twin-engine business jets predated and postdated that year, and the question of which aircraft was first depends largely on how you define “first.” (See PDF below.) History in the making, it seems, is never as well formed as the glistening contrails that tailgate a jet aircraft.
Consider this amorphous cloud, for instance: The JetStar first flew in 1957, but that twin-engine model was never sold in the corporate marketplace. The first flight of the prototype DH-125 occurred on Aug. 13, 1962, which was more than a year before the Learjet flight over Wichita. The FAA certified those aircraft in the second half of 1964, but it approved the Sabre 40 more than a year earlier, on April 17, 1963. If corporate twin-engine jet transportation did not begin until a business customer actually began flying the aircraft, then the winner might be the Sabre, which was first sold to Pet Milk Company on Oct. 24, 1963, about a year before the first sales of the DH/HS-125 and the Lear 23/24. Even the 1963 Sabre 40 sale lagged behind the 1961 corporate sale of the JetStar, but, by that time, the JetStar had been re-engined with another two powerplants, making it a four-engine executive aircraft. Cloudy indeed.
What is clear is that the question of which airplane was first is still energetically debated in aviation forums on the Internet and, to a lesser degree, in the halls of today’s aircraft manufacturers. These companies have found that the reputations of legacy models can still propel sales of new airplanes, sustain values of aging ones and drive maintenance services.
Today’s Sabreliner Corporation, for instance, has long claimed in news releases and website postings that the Sabre 40 was the world’s first twin-engine business jet. Until a few years ago, the company flew Sabre One, the first Model 40, as its flagship partly to showcase its maintenance and refurbishment services to prospective customers.
Bombardier now builds Learjets and an April 2013 document from that company leaves little doubt of the importance it attaches to the model’s history. The Learjet, it says, “pioneered the corporate aviation market” during the twin-engine bizjet era.
Yet Grommesh, a sharp-as-nails 82-year-old who still lives in Wichita, says the early Learjet folks did not consider themselves to be in a race against any other fledgling bizjet manufacturer. “We couldn’t have cared less about what the competition was doing,” he recalls. “The race we ran was to have something certified before Bill Lear ran out of money.”
In fact, Grommesh says, airlines were the real competition to the Learjet at the time, as they had all of the corporate business that was not bouncing around in slower and lower propeller-driven private aircraft. “We were looking to be able to compete with the airlines and go as fast and as high as they did,” he notes.
Former Learjet marketing head Al Higdon remembers the rivalries a little differently.
“We felt we were competing against the giants Lockheed and North American and certainly the British [De Havilland] and as well as the Commander people,” says Higdon, who directed Learjet marketing for many years. “We thought we were the little guy on the block, but that we had the fastest and best aircraft.”
Higdon concedes that the answer to the question of who had the first corporate jet is “sort of a murky picture.” He adds, “The Sabreliner and the Lockheed JetStar preceded any others, but they were designed in military competitions, and those two manufacturers converted their military designs to applications for commercial use,” while the Learjet 23 was “a clean-sheet civilian design.”
For its part, Lockheed Martin is satisfied today to call the JetStar “the world’s first truly successful business jet,” just not a twin-engine jet. Kenneth Ross, director of communications and public affairs for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, acknowledges that the JetStar began as a U.S. Air Force design but notes that its success is demonstrated by the 204 civilian quad-engine models that rolled out of the Lockheed factory in Marietta, Georgia, through 1980.
At Beechcraft, public affairs manager Nicole Alexander calls the DH/HS-125 “the first purpose-designed aircraft for business operators.” In 1964, Hawker-Siddeley had taken over De Havilland Aircraft Company, and the aircraft became known as the HS-125.
The Aero Commander 1121 Jet Commander, built by Culver City, California-based Aero Commander, first flew on Jan. 27, 1963, but was not certified until late 1964, and corporate deliveries did not begin until early 1965, according to Beechcraft’s Alexander. After the company was purchased by North American Rockwell, which was then assembling the Sabreliner corporate fleet, the Jet Commander rights were sold to Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) which undertook a series of modifications to create the 1123 Westwind. Jet Commander production reached 150 aircraft in the U.S. and Israel.
“When Pet Milk Company took delivery of the first commercial Sabre 40 sold in 1963, a new era in business aviation had begun,” proclaims Sabreliner in its literature. On that basis, the company, now based in St. Louis may well be accurate. The Sabre 40 clearly beat all other twin-engine business jet contenders to market, and the manufacturer delivered 137 of them through September 1974. According to the company, many of them are still flying.
Originally developed as the U.S. Air Force T-39 transport, the Sabre 40 seated four to five passengers in most configurations and carried them as far as 1,650 nautical miles and at speeds of up to 600 miles per hour.
“Sabreliner had everybody beat,” says Ken Flieg, the company’s just-retired head of corporate aviation. “If they had stayed in production, there would have been more Sabreliners flying than anything else.”
As it is, 439 Sabreliners of various models were assembled before production ceased in 1981. By contrast, Learjet had produced its 500th aircraft by mid-1975, most of them Model 24s, and Learjets are still being manufactured today.
“One reason that the Learjet was able to [lay claim to] being the first was that, after delivering three aircraft in the fourth quarter of 1964, we delivered 80 in 1965,” Higdon says. “That was more than all of the other manufacturers combined, and we documented it at the time.”
For many years, the Learjet name has been for business jets what Kleenex is for facial tissue, and, of all of the aircraft mentioned in this article, only the Learjet 23 is displayed by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, Virginia. As far as the Smithsonian is concerned, “the jet age reached the general aviation market with the arrival of the remarkable Learjet.”
As Higdon says, “Bill Lear had given us the mandate to make the Learjet name synonymous with business jet,” whether it was first or not.
William Poe welcomes comments and suggestions at email@example.com.
Bill Lear’s Biographer Remembers the “Stormy Genius”
Richard Rashke’s Stormy Genius: The Life of Aviation’s Maverick Bill Lear ranks among my favorite aviation books. This 1985 biography of the Learjet’s inventor is a brisk read that should prove fascinating even to those who don’t care much about airplanes.
I bring up Rashke’s book because this October marks the 50th anniversary of the first flight of the Learjet, an airplane so popular that its name is still erroneously used to describe any private jet. Lear never made it past seventh grade yet managed to invent the car radio, the stereo eight-track tape system, the automatic aircraft direction finder, autopilot, the aircraft automatic landing system and the Canadair Challenger, a large corporate aircraft that gave birth to the regional-jet industry.
All told, Lear held nearly 200 patents for everything from radio coils to steam buses. He made and lost several fortunes along the way and was a notorious philanderer who married four times and had seven children. His mercurial personality sometimes made him hard to work with, but he was a master showman and self-promoter whose company was sought out by the rich and famous.
I caught up with Rashke recently in his Washington office and asked him what made Lear tick. “The simple fact is that Bill Lear never grew up,” Rashke said. “He was like a kid with dreams and that made him so endearing and so charming. He would just dream of new stuff all the time. He was an entrepreneur, not a businessman. Had he been a businessman he would have developed one product and stayed with it, but Bill wasn’t that kind of person. He would develop one thing, get bored with it, then find a new challenge and move on.” Lear sold Learjet in 1967 for $27 million to the Gates Rubber Company. Its current owner, Bombardier, acquired the brand in 1990.
Sometimes Lear developed products, such as the Learjet, out of passion. “He did have an eye for excellence and when it came to airplanes he had an eye for beauty,” Rashke said. “He didn’t want a clunker. He wanted it to look beautiful and he simply wanted to develop the absolute best.” Other times, Lear was all about plugging a cash-flow problem, such as when he developed the eight-track cassette tape to pump money into the Learjet’s development.
Through it all, he maintained a unique style. Rashke’s favorite Lear story relates to the automatic landing system. The inventor had invited several Air Force generals aboard the demonstration aircraft, which he piloted. He placed the aircraft on approach for landing, engaged the auto-land system and let go of the controls. Fearing for their lives, the generals panicked, loudly. The system worked and the plane landed without incident.
Bill Lear died in 1978 as he was working on another aircraft design, the LearFan, a fuel-efficient aircraft fashioned from composites that later flew but never saw production due in part to inadequate funding.
“There is always a need for people who tinker and dream and see things the rest of us don’t and take risks,” Rashke observed. “Who knows where Lear would have gone if he hadn’t kept running out of money?” –Mark Huber
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What our readers had to say
Regarding "The Twin-Engine Business Jet Turns 50...but Whose Birthday Should We Celebrate?" [October/November 2013], I worked for Bill Lear in Reno 1969-1978. He would cook for you at lunch in the Stead Air Field headquarters conference room kitchen. Working for Bill was an adventure.