Blog: Eulogy for Icon Learjet

 - February 12, 2021, 11:34 AM

Bombardier announced yesterday that it was taking its iconic Learjet brand off life support and ending its production. It is a sad end for the name long generically associated with business jets as much as Coke is with cola and Kleenex is with facial tissues.

More than 3,000 Learjets have been delivered since 1964 but only 11 were turned over to buyers in 2020. In recent years, moreover, production had been anemic and the product line had shrunk to one model: the 75, an upgraded variant of the model 45, which first came to market in 1998. Bombardier, currently struggling under a mountain of debt, said it will continue to support the Learjet fleet and offer upgrades—for now, at least—but needs to focus on its more lucrative Challenger and Global bizjet lines.

When Bill Lear created the Learjet in the early 1960s, he envisioned a small, fast, and simple airplane—a concept the marketplace embraced. His 20-series and the slightly elongated 30-series­ aircraft that followed sold briskly for more than 20 years, until long after he had left the company. Riding in the back of a Learjet once meant trips to the chiropractor and exercising bladder control, but it also meant the ultimate in aviation cool: speed.

Bill Lear first came to the idea of the Learjet while living in Switzerland in the late 1950s. He subsequently set up shop in Wichita, where he took big risks during the development of the Model 23, such as skipping construction of a production prototype on soft tooling. He fed his perpetually struggling company with investor money and earnings from the stereo eight-track tape player he had developed for automobiles. 

For some pilots, the airplane was too hot to handle. “The takeoff and landing speeds were like [those of] fighters,” said aerodynamicist James Raisbeck, who founded a company that offers Learjet modifications. “The stall speed was 120 knots and when it stalled [the airplane] would roll suddenly.” Several design changes tamed some of these tendencies in the follow-on Models 24 and 25, but 20-series Lears retain a deserved reputation for demanding much of their pilots. 

Lear sold his 60 percent share of Learjet in 1967 for $27 million to the Gates Rubber Company. Under Gates, Learjet would launch one of its most popular models, the 35, and one of its most criticized, the 55. 

By the time Bombardier acquired the brand in 1990, Learjet had devolved into dysfunction. But Bombardier was already familiar with Bill Lear’s work through its previous acquisition of state-owned Canadair, then the maker of the Challenger line of business jets, a design that Lear himself had initially developed as the LearStar 600. Bombardier moved quickly to launch variants of existing models that addressed sales-hobbling deficiencies and began development of a clean-sheet design called the Model 45, which mated a midsize cabin with light jet operating economics. 

The Canadian airframer stumbled badly in bringing that airplane to market, missing program deadlines and promised delivery dates. The first Model 45s didn’t reach customers until 1998, and when they did there were problems beyond the usual teething pains associated with low serial numbers. The nadir came in 2003, when the FAA grounded the entire Learjet 45 fleet for a month while Bombardier fashioned a solution to a defective screw-and-nut assembly in the horizontal stabilizer that could lead to loss of aircraft control.

Learjet made its second major—and perhaps fatal—misstep when it unveiled the all-composite Model 85 in 2007. That airplane never made it to market. While it looked like a Learjet, it had performance akin to a much slower Hawker. Potential customers were nonplussed, and Bombardier killed the program in 2015 after throwing $1.4 billion at it. 

In 2019, Bombardier made a last-ditch attempt to keep the Learjet production line open, revealing the Liberty—basically a Model 75 that eliminates features, some standard equipment, and two passenger seats in exchange for a greatly reduced price: $9.9 million versus $13.8 million for the original. Industry analysts and some long-time Learjet customers threw shade on it. Speaking of Learjet in October 2019, Flexjet chairman Kenn Ricci told Bloomberg News, “All good things must come to an end.” 

While evaluating the prospects for the Liberty in this publication last year, I wrote, “The price of truly reinvigorating Learjet may be beyond what a restructured Bombardier is willing to pay and more than the market will support.” That has proven to be the case. 

But whenever I see a business jet, I will think of Bill Lear, who died in 1978. A few years ago, his biographer Richard Rashke told me, “There is always a need in every age for people who tinker and dream, who see things the rest of us don’t, and take risks. Lear had an eye for excellence, and when it came to airplanes, he had an eye for beauty.”