The 50th anniversary of the first flight of the first Learjet, the Model 23, on Oct. 7, 1963, begged to be celebrated and Bombardier obliged with gusto, holding two events at the company’s main assembly facility in Wichita on October 4 and 5 and inviting current and former employees and their families, a few special guests and owners and operators who brought examples of almost every Learjet production model. Only the Learjet 55 was absent, as the aircraft planned for the celebration could not make it at the last minute.
Attracting some of the most attention at the main “Learjet 50 Years of Flight” event on October 5 were several Learjet 20-series models, including a 23, owned and flown by Clay Lacy himself, and an even rarer model 28, brought to Wichita by LR Services of Allentown, Pa., which manages and operates the jet for its owner. Only five Learjet 28s were built, plus four 29s, which are 28s with the addition of a long-range fuel tank that replaces two passenger seats. Lacy also brought his Lear 25, which was flown to Wichita by his son.
Lacy, who is owner and CEO of Clay Lacy Aviation of Van Nuys, Calif., had his 23 repainted in its original paint scheme for the celebration and made three fly-bys at the beginning of Saturday’s event. His first two flybys alternated with two flybys by a Learjet 70 flown by Learjet test pilots, and then Lacy came back for an unexpected third. After passing over the assembled crowd, he pulled the turbojet-powered 23 into a steep climb and zoomed through the cloud deck, apparently to the surprise of Ralph Acs, vice president and general manager of the Learjet product line, who emceed the opening of the day’s activities.
At the soirée for invited guests at the Learjet customer delivery center the evening before, Acs recognized 82-year-old Lacy for his long association with Bill Lear and Learjet. Lacy, in turn, expressed his gratitude and praise for Lear, his jets and the company, and then added, “There’s only one thing that disappoints me: we’re still flying at the same speeds we flew in the sixties and seventies. I thought we’d be flying supersonic business jets by the eighties, at least Mach 2.”
Back To Flight Status
Jim Dinan, LR Services pilot and vice president, told AIN that his company had just brought the Learjet 28 back onto flight status after its owner had told LR to park it in late 2010 because the increased price of fuel had made the six- to eight-passenger jet’s operating costs were too high for it to be competitively offered for charter. We journeyed in the 28, which has an endurance of about two to two-and-a-half hours, from Allentown to Wichita with a fuel stop in Illinois, climbing to 50,000 feet on the first leg.
Another a hit with attendees at the “50 Years of Flight” event, based on the continuous line of visitors waiting to climb its airstair, was a Flexjet Learjet 40XR, whose pilots opened the door so attendees could step inside to ogle it, as well as photograph themselves in its well-appointed interior. The LR Services 28 was the only other aircraft opened to allow visitors access to its cabin.
The first assembled Learjet 85 also made an appearance, although it stood partially disassembled inside its hangar and far back from the hangar door. Several employees appeared to be working on Learjet’s new flagship in preparation for its first flight, while their coworkers were showing their families around the facilities and enjoying the festivities.
On hand for both the Friday evening event and Saturday’s big “come one, come all” employee event were two legendary Learjet employees: Dan Grommesh and Alex Kvassy.
Grommesh, an aerodynamicist, became Learjet’s eighth employee in 1958, its chief engineer from 1962 to 1988 and then director of the customer delivery center until he retired in 1995. He told AIN he gave up his previous job at Cessna after management decided not to continue with a business jet at that time. Bill Lear hired Grommesh, who believed business aircraft needed to be jet-powered to compete with the airlines, to work with him in Switzerland on the development of what became the Lear Jet 23. When asked what was the riskiest thing he ever did at Learjet, Grommesh said it was boarding an airline flight bound for an unknown job in Switzerland with Lear, while leaving his wife and five children behind in Wichita.
Alex Kvassy sold Learjets from 1965 to 1976 and had gone with Bill Lear to Canadair to develop the Lear Star 600 (which became the Challenger). Kvassy had not been back to Learjet since he had left 37 years ago, he told AIN, yet several people he did not recognize came up to him to say hello. He continues to promote business aviation and writes the monthly column, “Alex Remembers,” for Professional Pilot magazine.
A Family Celebration
Along with the numerous customer Learjets on display (at least one of which, a Learjet 24F, was on the market, offered by Northeastern Aviation at Republic Airport in Farmingdale, N.Y., while another 24 sported Stage 3 engine-noise suppressers offered by Newton, Kan.-based Avcon Industries), a number of Challengers and numerous experimental Learjets and Challengers graced the facility’s tarmac.
Some of the latter aircraft had apparently been moved out of the Bombardier Flight Test Center hangar to make room for several inflatable “playgrounds,” a balloon-twisting clown, a popcorn machine and other attractions for children. In an adjacent hangar Learjet provided lunch on one side while local organizations and company human resources and admin personnel staffed tables focused on health and employee benefits.
Employees could buy raffle tickets (with the proceeds going to charity) for a sightseeing flight around Wichita in Bombardier Corporate CRJ Shuttle, which took place at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
Meanwhile, visitors walked on roped-off paths through the production areas for the Learjet 40/45, 70/75 and 85. Outside on the ramp, between the production buildings and the Flight Test Center, several dozen employees showed off their “fancy” cars and trucks, while Blue Eyed Soul, a local–and quite talented–rhythm-and-blues band, entertained in what turned out to be the surprisingly good acoustics of the ramp area.
While the morning began brisk with gusty winds, low clouds and a temperature of 48 degrees, the cold front that had brought stormy weather the night before (including devastating tornadoes in Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota) passed through the area, the sun came out and the temperature went up. Bill Lear must have been smiling.