Bombardier has announced that it is to end Learjet production at the end of 2021 after 58 years of the aircraft’s production. The company wishes to pursue and develop its Challenger and Global Series business jets, which make up the majority of its revenue. This event will result in the loss of 1600 jobs. Over 3000 Learjets have been produced in 12 different variants.
Founded by American entrepreneur William P. Lear in 1959 under the name Swiss American Aviation Corporation (SAAC), but renamed to Learjet in 1963, the company’s 1st project was to create a business jet based on a single-engine Swiss prototype fighter jet, the FFA P-16. Learjet’s 1st aircraft, the Learjet 23 (which seated between 4 and 6 people), was similar to this fighter jet, in that both aircraft had narrow fuselages with the engines facing outwards, which was said to provide good aerodynamics due to the arrival of airflow from a larger angle. 101 Learjet 23s were produced between 1964 and 1966. The aircraft had a very poor structure, which led to 31 accidents occurring, 19 of which were fatal. The Learjet 23 wasn’t usually operated by private individuals, but mainly by aircraft lessors, charter airlines, motor companies (such as McCulloch) and banks, probably for the CEOs of these. This was because private business jets were vitually non-existent until the early 1970s, as commercial flying still remained the privilege of the upper classes. Later on, the upper classes would convert to business jets, whereas commercial flying would become accessible to the working people. From the late 60s to the early 80s, more powerful and larger variants of the Learjet 23, the Learjet 24 and 25 (which respectively seated 6 to 8 and 8 passengers and began production in the late 60s), were produced in larger numbers. These Learjets were powered by different types of the General Electric CJ610 engine, a non-afterburning turbojet, (turbojet engines don’t allow bypass air [that cools the engine’s core], which makes them inefficient as the engine is prone to over-heating) which is definitely a non-efficient engine. Accidents in these aircraft remained frequent, the Learjet 25 retaining a 19% crash rate. In 1977, Learjet began the production of the Learjet 28/29 series, different from the previous Learjets due to the addition of winglets, which reduce drag (the physical force that impedes an aircraft’s progression through the air). Only 9 were produced, as the CJ610 engines that the 28/29 series used were becoming outdated and the aircraft too noisy. Subsequent aircraft, such as the Learjet 31 and 35/36 series were a resounding success, both powered by more modern Garrett TFE731 turbofan engines and the latter acheiving a production of almost 750 aircraft. Though capacity and design would remain similar to previous versions (the Learjet 31 eliminated its tip tanks to put in place winglets), other technological advances would be made. The Learjet 35’s pressure compressors (the 1st part of a jet engine) were the same as that of the Boeing 747 and its turbines (the 2nd part of an engine after the core, where combustion takes place) were that of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, which led to a good all-around behaviour. Range for the Learjet 35 was increased to 5295 km from 2728 km for the Learjet 24. It is clear that the change of engine made the Learjet 35/36 series an outstanding success. Of course, with the increase in aircraft quality came a change in price: the Learjet 24, which cost around $989K brand new from the assembly unit, came nowhere in comparison to the $4.8 million for the Learjet 35. The Learjet 35’s creation in 1973 was at a time when the Dollar was following a relatively short downtrend, before a crash into a highly inflated market in 1985 forced many aircraft manufacturers to stop making their aircraft. Currency trends must be taken into account when analysing an aircraft’s price. This didn’t effect the business aircraft market as much though, as the Learjet 35 continued to be produced until 1994. On the other hand, production of the larger, 10-seat Learjet 55, whose cabin was almost 1ft wider than the previous versions, was terminated in 1987 after 147 aircraft, possibly due to the economic crisis but probably to give place to the Learjet 31 project, which began in the same year. An extension of the Learjet 50 would be incarnated in the Learjet 60. Learjet was incorporated into Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier in 1990 following the economic crisis of 1985, just as McDonnell Douglas would be incorporated into Boeing in 1997. The owner of Garrett AiResearch (who produced aircraft engines), Allied Corp, did likewise by merging with Signal Companies in 1985 to form AlliedSignal, which was later incorporated into Honeywell, another engineering and aerospace industry company. Many mergers took place and the monopolies became bigger. But, there was still some good news, as the Learjet 31 continued to be produced until 2003 und projects for the Learjet 45 and the Learjet 60 began in the early 90s. By then, Learjet had become a famous brand, and aircraft technologies had been perfected. The Learjet 45 opened upon the recently created light-jet market, directly competing with the Cessna Citation Excel, whereas the Learjet 60 was a continuation of the medium-sized jet, the latter of which was becoming less popular by the day, as new potential buyers were looking for more luxury in a more concise space. Embraer’s Phenom 300 would offer some competition to the two business jet giants in the 2nd decade of the 21st century, but was too late to fill the market. Although the Learjet 45 retained the same engine as most of the previous versions, the Garrett TFE731, its maximum speed was of 858 km/h instead of 829 for the Learjet 31 and its range was of 3167 km instead of 3021. But these were only minimal changes. The most important modifications that the aircraft underwent weren’t structural, but more abstract: the Learjet 45 was one of the first business jets to be small, fast, yet comfortable and safe, with only 14 accidents for 629 aircraft built, which is 2.5% crash rate. It managed to combine everything that Learjet had been working on since the early 60s into a functioning, relatively efficient, all-around use business jet. Most of all, it was the 1st Learjet to attain a certain standard of noise level, which made it more attractive. The Learjet 60 project attained 400 aircraft and was powered by 2 Pratt & Whitney PW305s, an engine used by larger business aircraft, which implied the use of new engine support pylons. A smaller version of the Learjet 45, the Learjet 40, was also successful, with some pilots declaring that its preformance was better than what was written in the booklet. The Learjet 45 and 60 both stopped being produced in 2012. The next Learjet project, the Learjet 85, which first flew in 2014, was an absolute failure, with only 2 aircraft ever made. This was due to large over-spending, which led to a $2.6 billion loss for the project and a total $4.9 billion loss in the 3rd quarter of 2015 (which was when the project was cancelled). Bombardier wrongly believed that it could revive the mid-sized jet industry, which had been asleep for a long time. The project was too far-stretched in terms of aircraft structure (which was intended to be a composite, made of 2 materials) and aircraft performance, whose range was expected to reached 4800 km (3000 mi). The only Learjet still in production is the 70/75 series, which features touchscreen avionics, and of which 156 have been produced. This small Learjet, which is actually a variant of the Learjet 45, is the best quality medium-sized jet out there, but lacks orders, but is largely being pushed out of the market by Cessna’s cheaper M2 Citation Jet, which had delivered over 200 aircraft. Cessna is now looking to the largest small and medium-sized business jet producer, and the end of Learjet will help the company to take that place. Notice that both Learjet and Cessna were founded in Wichita, Kansas, where all the old boy aviation pioneers are from. To conclude this article, it is evident that Learjet wasn’t the resounding success that many aviation sites make it out to be. It took many crashes, technical failures, and adapting to the new demands of the business jet industry, all fields in which Learjet was behind, and that it has also been thoroughly beaten in the small- and mid-sized markets by Cessna as production costs were much higher than those of Cessna. One must also take into account, that Bombardier has a long history of failures and wrong market decisions, such as a failed merger with Boeing, cancellations of numerous projects and the sale of the C-Series jet project to Airbus after losing $9 billion from its creation, a 19% drop in orders in 2013 as well as unprecedented government loans, so this doesn’t come as a surprise. On the contrary, the Learjet 45 was successful and Learjet is widely known for producing the best-quality business jets (at least recently), but the company’s sales aren’t comparable to other jet manufacturers such as Gulfstream, Cessna and Hawker. There is one main reason for this: overspending, which forces aircraft prices to go up, and then the market moves to someone else. As a comment, I must say that I find Learjets to be the most beautiful jets, as their curves and interior are more plesant and old-fashioned, not just a white bride’s gown with swirling TV cameras. Maybe my taste is just different from that of potential business jet buyers.
Curtesy of McCloud, your fanatical but honest aviation blogger.