Former Learjet Officials React to End of Iconic Era

 - February 11, 2021, 2:00 PM
Bill Lear established the Learjet factory in Wichita in 1962 after the city offered him its first-ever industrial revenue bonds for a 64-acre complex on the west side of Eisenhower National Airport.

When Jeff Miller came to Learjet in 1993 as director of public affairs, the Wichita airframer was once again on solid footing: it had recently been purchased by Bombardier, which was providing “a lot of resources” for product development. It was “a vibrant place” and, during Miller's three-year stint there, that product development led to the introduction of the Learjet 60 and Learjet 45.

Bombardier, he said, was “in an investment mode and quite willing to invest in new models, so it was an exciting time to be at Learjet.”

But Miller, like other former Bombardier Learjet employees who spoke to AIN today following the company's announcement that it plans to end production of the iconic business jet brand, said it didn’t come as a huge surprise that its Canadian parent planned to end the brand’s 58-year run after years of slipping delivery numbers for the Learjet 75.

From Miller’s perspective, Learjets are “probably some of the most beautiful, capable business jets ever built. It’s sad to me that they’ll not be built anymore.”

Business aviation industry analyst Rolland Vincent, who was head of strategy and analysis for Bombardier from 1991 to 1997, shared Miller’s sentiment but concluded that without any new aircraft planned for the Learjet line, its fate was predetermined.

“I think this is a decision the management team has been facing for quite some time…the competition at the light end of the market has been tough,” said Vincent, who is now president of Rolland Vincent Associates and director/creator of JetNet iQ. “We haven’t seen the response that needed to be made from Bombardier in that segment. Bombardier didn’t have an airplane there so this was coming.”

Vincent added that there is still value in the Learjet brand and that perhaps with a partner willing to provide the capital, Bombardier could still do something with it. But, he added, “I think right now the strategy is to stop the bleeding, to turn the ship around, to pay down some of that debt. They’ve got $10 billion in debt, a lot of it at high interest rates, so the issues are financial right now for the company. They’re not strategic in that sense.”

Dave Franson, U.S. public affairs director at Learjet from 1997 to 2004, said today’s announcement marks the end of an era. “The Learjet put business aviation and especially business jets on the map,” commented Franson, president of the Wichita Aero Club. “There were other business jets—the Jet Star comes to mind—but Learjet became the iconic business airplane.”

He said that Learjet founder Bill Lear came to Wichita in 1958 to speak to a Society of Automotive Engineers session on business airplanes, where he told Beechcraft and Cessna, "'If you guys don’t build an airplane that will compete with the new jet airliner, the 707, I will.’”

Further, when Franson joined the Wichita aviation industry in 1974 by way of Cessna, “we hadn’t been building jets very long. If you think about it, the Citation I think was begun in 1969. By the time I got there, we had them in production but there weren’t that many sold. Learjet was the target basically. We had to try and catch up to the Learjet.”

Like his other former Learjet colleagues, Franson said he could see that Learjet’s days were numbered based on Learjet 75 delivery numbers, which had steadily trended down to a dozen or fewer in the past three years.

“When I worked at Learjet, we used to say that you had to do about three dozen airplanes a year just to keep the lights on in the factory,” Franson said. “So, if you do the math, obviously it’s been a pretty dark factory.”