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Mention the phrase "private jet" to the average person and one word immediately pops into mind: Lear. Since its first flight in 1963, William P. Lear Sr.'s innovative aircraft, built to replicate the performance and amenities of a commercial airliner, has been tantamount with executive business travel.

The name comes from Missouri native William Powell. Lear - a prolific inventor whose achievements included the first successful car radio, the first eight-track stereo tape system, navigational radio systems and direction finders for civil and military aircraft. Bill Lear formed the Radio Wire and Coil Company in 1922, created Motorola Corporation and founded Lear Inc., which later merged with the Siegler Corp in the 1950s.

William Powell Lear was born in 1902 into a poor family in Hannibal, Missouri. When he was six, after his parents divorced, Lear moved to a Chicago tenement with his mother. Completing his education through the eighth grade, Lear befriended a young junk dealer and began spending much of his time tinkering with discarded electronic devices. At age 16, Lear began work as a mechanic at Chicago's Grant Park Airport. There he gained technical knowledge and skills relating to aircraft, while he acquired exposure to the business world and proper social comportment during his brief tenure as an assistant in the office of a prominent businessman.

By the age of 20, Lear was an experienced self-taught radio technician. He established a small shop in Quincy, Illinois, and set out to improve home radio sets. He succeeded in miniaturizing radio coils, eliminated the need for storage batteries, and made other modifications that are still in use today. His business became profitable, and his work soon brought him to the attention of such major manufacturers as Majestic and Motorola.

By 1934, Lear had exhausted his small radio fortune and was bankrupt. Depressed, but determined, he returned to his workshop and began mapping out yet another invention. This next product was the "Magic Brain," a common electronic chassis that could be used in a variety of radio set models. Lear assembled, demonstrated, and sold the idea in only two weeks, receiving a contract for $250,000 from RCA.

During World War II, Lear concentrated the efforts of his company on electromechanical devices for military aircraft, including cowl controllers and auto pilot devices. After the war, Lear Incorporated pioneered all-weather flying instruments that won Lear a commendation from President Truman and an honorary degree from the University of Michigan.

The holder of 150 aviation-related patents and a high school drop-out, Lear abandoned his retirement in Switzerland to establish the Swiss American Aircraft Company (SAAC). In 1959, SAAC began work on Lear's latest invention - a private luxurious jet aircraft with the flexibility to fly passengers and freight in and out of small airports around the world. Lear undertook his bold gamble without the benefit of a market survey to evaluate the consumer demand for such an aircraft, relying instead on pure intuition.

At the urgining of Bill Lear Jr, his son, the Learjet design was based on the single-seat FFA P-16 (P-1604) fighter-bomber which had been flown in prototype form by the Flug und Fahrzeugwerke A.G. in April 1955. (Five P-16s were built before the project was discontinued.) Lear recruited a group of Swiss aircraft designers and engineers to transform the fighter's wing and basic airframe design into the cornerstone of a revolutionary aircraft-originally designated as the SAAC-23 but soon renamed as the Learjet 23 Continental.

The Learjet 23 became the first small jet aircraft to enter mass production as well as the first to be developed and financed by a single individual. Problems with suppliers and production tooling in Switzerland compelled Lear to shift assembly of the new aircraft to Wichita, Kansas (under the new name of Lear Jet Industries), where the prototype Learjet 23 made its first flight on October 7, 1963, from Wichita's Mid-Continent Airport, nine months after work had begun on the project. The original Learjet accumulated 194 hours of flight time in 167 test flights until it was destroyed in June 1964 when it crashed at takeoff with a Federal Aviation Administration pilot at the controls. The cause of the accident was determined to be pilot error-retraction of the jet's lift spoilers was overlooked. However, a second prototype Learjet 23 soon received formal FAA certification on July 31, 1964.

The new business jet was an immediate commercial success, with more than 100 sold by the end of 1965 at an initial price of $540,000 each. Unfortunately, the original Learjet 23 also developed an unwanted reputation as a very demanding and unforgiving aircraft for the average pilot to fly - a major factor in the strategic decision to quickly design a successor. The high cruising altitude and long endurance flight capability of the Learjet also made it an ideal aircraft for target towing, photo-surveying, and high-altitude mapping. A number of foreign Air Forces, including Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, Mexico, Peru, and Yugoslavia, modified the corporate jet for military missions.

As the private jet market became more competitive, Lear Jet had difficulties remaining profitable and substantial operating losses accumulated over the first few years of production. The greatest weakness in Learjet Industries was the sales network. Eager to get orders for the jets, Lear hastily assembled a list of dealerships throughout the country. Many of these dealers ignored their sales boundaries and few had ever sold an airplane in the Learjet's price range. As a result, the front line sales force was fragmented, disorganized, and unprofessional. Without an effective marketing program, even the profitable Learjet could no longer stem the wider losses. That year, the company lost $12 million on sales of only $27.5 million.

Once again starved for capital, Lear sought an able, deep-pocketed partner. In 1967, the company was sold to Gates Rubber Company of Denver, Colorado, and renamed the Gates Learjet Corporation. On April 2nd 1969, Bill Lear resigned as Chairman of the Board. He went on to develop the LearAvia steam powered car, the Learstar 600 (later to become the Canadair Challenger) and the revolutionary Learfan - before his death on May 14th 1978.

In 1976, Gates Learjet relocated a significant part of its production in Tucson while continuing with some completion, service and marketing functions in Wichita. With the slow-down in the business jet market, Learjet sales fell and Gates came under pressure over the financial position. After a series of successful years, the entire industry entered a market slump in 1982 and Learjet again experienced difficult times.

In 1986, Gates Rubber Corp announced its intention to sell its majority stake in Learjet. A number of agreements were signed by Gates and prospective buyers. The first to express interest was New York investment house MJ Rosenthal. The agreement with Rosenthal was terminated in December 1986. Cobey Corp of Boston then stepped into the void with its own bid. The company, in fact, signed two agreements to buy Learjet. A third firm, InterConnect of Connecticut, made a bid following termination of the Cobey agreement. This was followed by the final bid and agreement with Integrated Resources.

In August 1987 Gates announced that it would sell its 64.8% interest in Gates Learjet to Integrated Acquisitions Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Integrated Resources Inc., of New York. Eager to cut its losses, Gates agreed to part with its Learjet shares for nearly $57 million. This led to the moving of most production from Tucson back to Wichita. In mid-1989 a financial crisis in its property business forced Integrated Resources to seek buyers for Learjet once again. Integrated Acquisitions, a subsidiary of Integrated Resources, which later filed Chapter 11 and sold the company for the second time in three years. While Learjet had maintained a highly talented core engineering group throughout the '80s, it was a difficult period for the company. With resources to invest in new products limited, its share of the business jet market fell from nearly 50 percent to 11 percent by 1989. Despite a recovery in jet sales, Integrated Resources was saddled with repayment obligations on $2 billion in debt that it could no longer meet. Learjet was profitable but unable to secure loans because of its parent company's poor condition.

Several new acquisitors expressed interest in purchasing Learjet, including Chrysler's Gulfstream Aerospace unit, British Aerospace, and Toyota Motor Sales. In early 1990, Gulfstream let a Letter of Intent to buy Learjet lapse. Instead, Gulfstream itself was acquired from Chrysler by a partnership of Gulfstream Chairman Allen Paulson and Forstmann Little & Company.

On June 29th 1990, Learjet was acquired by the Canadian company, Bombardier Inc. and the name was changed to Learjet Inc., a division of Bombardier. Learjet's acquisition by Montreal-based Bombardier Inc. changed the company's prospects dramatically. With Bombardier's support, Learjet was able to embark on a new product development initiative, initially focusing on two derivative aircraft-the Learjet 31A light jet and a substantially enhanced midsize model, the Learjet 60, which today is the leading seller in the midsize segment. In late 1992, at the National Business Aircraft Association convention in Dallas, Texas, the company announced the formal launch of the Leanet 45 development program.

Learjet was able to accelerate development of the Learjet 45, and utilize state-of-the art manufacturing systems at two sister companies -- Bombardier's de Havilland unit in Toronto, which builds the aircraft's wings, and the Shorts division in Belfast, Northern Ireland, which produces the fuselage shown here being delivered by cargo aircraft. Learjet retained overall design responsibility for the aircraft and final assembly takes place at the company's main plant in Wichita, Kan.

Under Bombardier, Learjet has experienced a renaissance, developing new aircraft offering exceptional value to users. These include the Learjet 31A light jet, the Learjet 60 midsize jet, the leader in the midsize category, and the Learjet 45 aircraft, designed to offer midsize comfort and capability at light jet economics. This advanced aircraft took to the air October 7, 1996.

Learjet, which operates as a U.S. subsidiary of Bombardier, has its manufacturing facilities and corporate offices in Wichita, Kan. Learjet operates customer service centers in several locations as well as aircraft refurbishment and completion centers for Learjet and Canadair Challenger aircraft.

More than 1,800 Learjet aircraft have been built and delivered in the United States and 40 countries worldwide since the first Learjet aircraft went into service in 1964, serving the needs of business transportation and performing a wide variety of special missions. These include such diverse operations as electronic warfare simulation, aerial photography, airways calibration, air ambulance, target towing, radar training, fire control radar, electronic countermeasures, jammers and 360 degree surveillance radar.

The company also is active in the aerospace subcontracting business. Under a subcontract with Lockheed-Martin, Learjet builds major structures for the Space Shuttle's external fuel tank. Learjet is poised for growth in the years ahead, with the introduction of a new generation of advanced aircraft. As of 2000 the company employed more than 4,000 people at its various operations around the world.

Number Built
Construction Numbers From
Also c/n 015A, 028A, 045A, 050A, 065A, 082A. Some conv. to Model 24
24 & 24A
Model 24 and 24A, mixed
24E & 24F
Model 24E and 24F, mixed
c/n 25-065 to 25-069 not built
25B & 25C
Model 25B and 25C, mixed
Current production
Current production
Includes two Model 55ER
Current production

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 02:59:13 ZULU