For over half a century now, private jets have become synonymous with luxury and power. No other aircraft has come close to matching the legendary Learjet as a symbol of that.
The family of business jets first took to the sky in 1963 with the Learjet 23, the unusual lovechild of American businessman Bill Lear and a group of Swiss, German, and British engineers who had just seen their original project for a domestically produced Swiss combat aircraft dashed after a crash.
After what felt like a chokehold on the executive aviation market, the Learjet family found its end in February 2021 after its parent company, Canadian conglomerate Bombardier Aerospace, put an end to almost six decades of production, which saw over 3000 units produced.
Meet the Learjet Family
The Learjet series saw fourteen different types enter series production, on top of several canceled proposals that reached various stages of completion. Despite a production run spanning 59 years, the engineers behind the project focused on evolutionary steps to the original Bill Lear design, incrementally improving the Learjet until the very end of its life. This led to a few staples present in most aircraft in the family.
The classic Learjet look is made up of low-mounted swept wings around the middle of the fuselage, typically with wing fences to improve handling and performance.
Learjet wingtips are never naked – depending on the model and operator’s requirement, the aircraft either have winglets or, in its first variants, the iconic wingtip fuel tanks attached to them. The engines are attached directly to the fuselage slightly above and behind the wing root, with the intake overlapping the trailing edge.
The empennage has a relatively small tailfin topped off with a T-tail configuration, bearing a swept horizontal stabilizer with a traditional elevator mounted at the tail end. At the rear end of the fuselage, a pair of strakes are mounted to improve directional stability.
The jets sit relatively low on the ground owing to the diminutive landing gear struts. Contributing to its small appearance is the diminutive passenger cabin, kept intentionally short to reduce its profile and just its drag.
A side-effect of this decision is that most passengers cannot stand up inside the aircraft, which has been brought up as the reason for moving towards other platforms by operators and owners mainly focused on longer routes where passenger comfort and freedom of movement weigh more than in the usual short legs the Learjet made its name in.
It would not be wrong to say the Learjet family made its name as a “flying limousine” for the wealthy and famous. Data from the aviation intelligence and analysis firm JETNET shows most Learjet flights clocked between 60 and 90 minutes, making this family of jets perfect for replacing commercial services in most domestic routes or short international ones, like commonly found in Europe.
An exception to this rule is the Learjet 36 series. While visually impossible to distinguish from the classic Learjet 35 model, the Learjet 36 trades some passenger cabin space for fuel storage, which leads to an average of about 150 minutes per flight. This marked increase in range allows it to make longer flights on both domestic and international routes, including certain transatlantic routes.
This list is an abridged version of the Learjet family based on production year and distinguishing features.
- Learjet 23 (1962-1966): First model, equipped with CJ610 turbojets, based on FFA P-16
- Learjet 24 (1966-1977): Model 23 with improvements for higher maximum take-off weight
- Learjet 25 (1966-1982): Stretched version of the Model 24
- Learjet 28/29 (1977-1982): Model 25 with a redesigned wing
- Learjet 31 (1987-2003): Combination of Model 28 wings and Model 35 fuselage and engines
- Learjet 35/36 (1973-1994): Model 25 with TFE713 turbofans
- Learjet 40 (2002-2013): Shortened Model 45
- Learjet 45 (1995-2013): Clean sheet design by Bombardier
- Learjet 55 (1981-1990): Stretched fuselage, Model 28 wings, and Model 35 engines
- Learjet 60 (1991-2012): Stretched Model 55, new PW300 turbofans
- Learjet 70/75 (2013-2021): Model 45 with newer avionics and engines
The Learjet History
It may seem odd at first, but the history of this classic business jet begins with a Swiss Air Force’s program to bolster its military capabilities after the end of the Second World War.
If its vast fleet of piston-powered aircraft had been plenty to defend Switzerland’s airspace and neutrality during the devastating conflict raging right by its borders, the introduction of British, German, and American jet-powered military aircraft in 1944 represented a paradigm shift in the post-war airspace industry.
To avoid falling behind, the Swiss government and military came together to draw up requirements for an advanced aircraft capable of defending Switzerland’s borders in case of future conflicts.
Because of the Swiss commitment to its neutrality, it was felt that relying on foreign suppliers for its air force could be potentially dangerous. Thus the new aircraft had to be a fully domestic endeavor.
Switzerland’s first jet-powered fighter was the EFW N-20, which experienced a brief flight in 1952, but was canceled during the same year. With next to no experience in developing jet engines or advanced aerodynamics configurations, the project turned out to be too tall of an order for the budding Swiss aeronautical industry.
Parallel to the government-backed EFW’s efforts, Flug- und Fahrzeugwerke Alternrhein (Flight and Driving Vehicle Plant in Alternrhein, commonly called FFA) had started its own independent project in 1947. FFA’s plan was to develop a supersonic fighter-bomber that could meet Switzerland’s demands for short field operations, a need that remained unfulfilled despite the government’s procurement of British de Havilland Vampire and Venom subsonic fighters as stopgap solutions.
The FFA project took the name of P-16 and went for more conservative choices than the N-20, accounting for the limitations of the Swiss domestic industry. The aerodynamic configuration followed a simple model, with low, slightly swept wings and a mid-mounted horizontal stabilizer attached to a fuselage built around the engine.
Instead of relying on a domestic option emerging, FFA opted for an existing British engine. At the time of its choice for the P-16, the Armstrong Siddeley Sapphire axial-flow turbojet had made its name as a reliable option, powering designs that eventually rose to a legendary status like the Hawker Hunter and the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk as its American licensed-produced version, the Wright J65.
The N-20’s cancellation led to Switzerland placing its bets on the P-16, with a 1952 order for two prototypes being fulfilled in 1955. The flight-testing regime could be described as intense, which led to the first prototype’s crash in August 1955, four months after its maiden flight. Still, the second prototype continued the program up to a total of 310 flights until 1958.
The promising results led to an initial order for four pre-production aircraft, which was quickly expanded to a full contract for 100 units in that same year.
The exciting development of the P-16 had its hopes dashed in March 1958. On its 102nd flight, the first pre-production aircraft was destroyed in an accident. The second crash in the project’s three years of flight testing was enough to discourage Swiss authorities from pursuing the P-16 as its fighter. Within a year, it was decided to procure the new British subsonic Hawker Hunter fighter, with a similar performance to the P-16.
Despite this major setback, the FFA privately funded further development of the P-16 project in hopes of attracting foreign buyers. Two new aircraft were built to a more capable standard between 1959 and 1960, and they underwent a brief flight-testing program until June that year, before the project was finally abandoned.
During the last months of the P-16 program, American test pilot William P. Lear had taken part in the type’s final evaluation flights. This marked the first contact between the Lear family and the P-16, which would eventually flourish much beyond the original ambitions of FFA’s project.
The Learjet is Born
The exciting results obtained by the Swiss team involved in the FFA P-16 did not go unnoticed by William P. Lear’s father, American businessman and inventor Bill Lear, who at the time was searching for a base design to develop into a private luxury aircraft. Lear’s first attempts were evolutions of the US Army’s Marvel concept, a very unconventional design built for short take-off and landing requirements. Around the time the Marvel conversion looked increasingly unfeasible, the P-16 came into the scene.
The timing could not have been better: the P-16 design had successfully completed its flight tests and shown its capabilities and drawbacks, while the project’s cancellation suddenly put many experienced engineers associated with it out of a job. In 1960, Lear and his associates built a team comprised of Swiss, German, and British design engineers and founded the Swiss American Aircraft Corporation (SAAC) in Alternrhein, also home to the FFA.
Using the basic aerodynamic configuration of the P-16 and many of the workers involved in its design, SAAC rushed to create a small business jet, with the project adopting the name of SAAC 23.
The initial design was largely complete by 1962, and production of the prototype had begun at the Alternrhein plant. Still, administrative issues between SAAC, investors, and the Swiss government paused the project and essentially spelled the end of the short-lived Swiss American Aircraft Corporation.
Undeterred, the core of the SAAC team moved to the United States, setting an office in Wichita, Kansas. The company got to keep the tooling and parts already built for the SAAC 23 prototype, and after a year spent reestablishing the production line at its new home, work resumed. SAAC was eventually terminated and reborn as a new company – the Lear Jet Corporation.
The SAAC 23 prototype was completed in the Fall of 1963 and performed its maiden flight on October 7 of that same year under the name of Learjet 23.
Like most things associated with the project since the P-16’s inception, the company moved at breakneck speed. The first production model was completed exactly a year after the prototype’s first flight, and a month later, Lear Jet became a publicly owned corporation. 1966 saw two new variants of the Learjet burst into the market, the Model 24 and Model 25.
Evolutions, Mergers, and Acquisitions
The early Learjet models had a great start in the market, gathering famous customers such as Frank Sinatra and playing a major role in reeling actress Mia Farrow. The commercial success made Bill Lear’s company target many acquisition proposals, leading to the 1967 acquisition of Bill Lear’s 60% share by the Gates Rubber Company for 27 million dollars. The company was subsequently rebranded into the Gates Learjet Corporation.
While the early series had been major commercial successes, the price to operate the aircraft was found to be restrictive, largely due to the high fuel consumption of the General Electric CJ610-4 turbojet engines, derivatives of the J85 that powered Northrop’s F-5 series of fighters.
Advances in turbofan engine technology over the Learjet’s first years allowed the company to replace the CJ610 with the Garrett TFE731-2 medium bypass geared turbofan. This engine family was specifically built to meet low fuel consumption and low noise requirements, as abatement regulations were becoming increasingly strict in the United States. The new engines’ lower costs and increased comfort were the main features of the Learjet 35, which first flew in 1971.
The Learjet family capitalized on its status as ‘founder’ of the business jet category to establish a market dominance: by 1975, after just over a decade of operation, the Learjet fleet around the world had exceeded one million flight hours, and over 500 production jets had been delivered on top of the prototypes.
Parallel to the engine change, Gates Learjet also experimented with replacing the old wing with a more efficient one. The 1977 Learjet 28 took the base Model 25 with the old General Electric turbojets and added a redesigned wing, with a longer wingspan and winglets on the tips. This was the first production aircraft in the world to incorporate such devices.
Despite the benefits in range and fuel economy, the Model 28 and the long-range Model 29 were both commercial failures as the market had moved past turbojet engines. The few units produced set several records with Neil Armstrong at the controls and gave Learjet valuable experience in aerodynamics refinements.
In 1977, the Learjet 55 project unveiled to the general public, making its first flight in 1979 after extensive work on the wing design and eventually reaching the market in 1981.
The Learjet 55 was built onto the improved wing of the Learjet 28 and the more efficient engines of the Learjet 35, which gave it far better performance and allowed the cabin to be expanded for ten passengers plus two crew. The wing and engine combination helped set six time-to-climb records in its class.
The Learjet fleet worldwide saw its numbers frozen between 1984 and 1986, when Gates Learjet began a shift towards high technology aerospace development which included parts of the Space Shuttle’s propulsion system.
The company’s offices and production facilities were briefly moved from Wichita to Tucson (AZ), but this move had been fully reverted by 1989. During this period, Integrated Acquisition bought Gates Learjet and renamed it simply the Learjet Corporation.
After a turbulent late 1980s, the final Learjet acquisition took place. Canadian giants Bombardier Aerospace purchased the Learjet Corporation and rebranded it as the Bombardier Learjet Family in 1990.
In that same year, the Learjet 60 took to the sky, using the successful Learjet 55 as a basis. The Model 60 was a result of an aerodynamics improvement program aimed at allowing for higher passenger capacities.
The new version differed from the Model 55 by having an extended fuselage, more powerful and efficient Pratt & Whitney Canada PW305A high-bypass turbofan engines plus new mounts to fit them to the aircraft’s body, a redesigned winglet and wing for better handling during take-off and landing, among other refinements. This was to be the last of the original Learjet series rooted in the FFA P-16 and Bill Lear’s original conversion.
The Last Learjets
With the crown jewel of business aviation in its hands, Bombardier proposed a redesign of the Learjet series, keeping up with Bill Lear’s original concept in spirit but starting over to compete with Cessna’s Citation Excel series. The resulting product was the Learjet 45, first flown in October 1995, the very first Learjet designed without P-16 or SAAC 23 roots.
The ambitious project to prepare the Learjet family for the 21st century was a necessary but costly endeavor as having no base design to build upon extended both the design and certification phases of the project. The first production, Learjet 45 was delivered in 1998 after many orders were delayed or canceled.
The Learjet 45 married the comforts of a mid-sized business jet with costs in line with previous Learjet products. While the cabin still had less stand-up room than other competitors to maintain the family’s typical high-speed performance, it had additional headroom compared to previous Learjet offerings.
A direct consequence of shedding its P-16 legacy was the lightened structure – the wings on all previous Learjet aircraft still had the multiple wing spars, and reinforcements originated from the fighter’s, which made for an extremely sturdy construction but also heavier, more expensive to maintain, and ultimately overengineered for transport aviation.
Despite having no direct heritage, the Learjet 45 kept a similar configuration to the Learjet 60 and shared its choice for the avionics suite. This has come to be a problem for current operators, as the Honeywell Primus 1000 EFIS still relies on CRT screens, which come with much higher maintenance costs than LCD equivalents. The consequence of this is that operators have to choose between paying more over the aircraft’s lifespan or making a significant investment to replace the panel.
A planned follow-up to the Learjet 45 was drawn up as the Learjet 85, unveiled in 2007 and first flying in 2014. Bombardier chose a fully digital approach to the aircraft’s design and intended to carry over aerodynamic improvements initially meant for its CSeries airliners. Despite garnering 60 orders, securing production lines, and beginning the test flight program in 2014, the Learjet 85 was canceled in 2015 in favor of the Bombardier CSeries and Global families.
Bombardier’s simultaneous commitment to the three programs came to heavily strain its market position, leading to a major inventory cull. The company’s stake in the CSeries was sold to European multinational Airbus in 2017, which saw the project renamed the Airbus A220.
Longview Aviation acquired the de Havilland name and the Q400 regional turboprop airliner series in 2018, followed by a sale of its training and maintenance services to other companies. Drawn up before the crisis, the Learjet 75 family entered production in 2013 as a more modest modernization of the Learjet 45 and stayed in production until 2021.
On February 11, 2021, the final chapter of the Learjet production was announced: the last Learjet would leave the production line by the end of the year.
While Bombardier wanted to focus on business aviation, the company decided to prioritize its own Global and Challenger series instead. Beyond Bombardier’s own challenges, the decision was largely driven by the market. Offerings from traditional competitors like Cessna continued to take a large share of the market, on top of the meteoric rise of Embraer’s Phenom line.
Despite the end of its production, it is expected that Learjets will continue filling the skies for the foreseeable future. Data shows that over 70% of the units built since 1963 are still flying, many of them with their original owners!
The longevity is a testament to Bill Lear and his team’s vision and commitment to revolutionizing luxury aviation. Even when a time comes where the Learjet will not be a common sight anymore, its name will live on as a synonym for glamorous flying.
Question: Where was the Learjet invented?
Answer: Despite being conceptualized by an American, the Learjet was conceived in Switzerland by a mixed American, Swiss, German and British team.
Question: What was the design based on?
Answer: Unusually for civilian transport, the Learjet 23 was a derivative of the Swiss FFA P-16 single-seat, single-engine fighter-bomber.
Question: Is the Learjet family still flying today?
Answer: The Learjet has shown great longevity compared to most executive jets thanks to its reliability and relatively low costs comparatively.
Question: Can newly built Learjets be purchased today?
Answer: In February 2021, its parent company Bombardier Aerospace announced that production would not continue past the fourth quarter of that year.
Question: How long did the production run last?
Answer: A total of 59 years, with over 3000 units produced, the vast majority of which are still flying today.
Question: Will Learjet maintenance continue?
Answer: Bombardier still offers manufacturer assistance despite the production line closing and is also proposing modernization programs for existing airframes.