Since the 1960s, Learjet and Gulfstream became locked in a contest to develop the fastest and most luxurious business jets. The two companies pulled no punches and introduced some of the most iconic aircraft to ever grace the skies.
Competition between Gulfstream and Learjet had a lukewarm ending in 2021 when parent company Bombardier announced the permanent closure of the Learjet production line. In contrast, Gulfstream has continuously expanded its product range, focusing on the large business jet segment.
Comparing the fleets and trajectories of both companies is fascinating since it sheds light on how two of the most innovative American design bureaus played their cards while chasing blistering performance that remained commercially viable.
Bottom Line Up Front
Learjet and Gulfstream preferred evolution over revolution, and most of their aircraft are developments of select few private jets. From the 1960s until the 1990s, all variants in production could have their roots traced down to the Learjet Model 23 and the Grumman Gulfstream II.
After straying from the original designs, the two companies focused on the segments perfected over the years. Under Bombardier, Learjet pushed out the clean sheet Model 45 in 1995. Gulfstream acquired designs from Galaxy Aerospace in 2001 and launched the G650 in 2008. There are no Learjets in production today. Gulfstream still offers midsize and large business jets.
Learjet vs Gulfstream Fleet Comparison: Main Differences
Learjet and Gulfstream are arguably the most iconic American business jet manufacturers. Although the two companies specialized in segments of executive aviation and only competed directly occasionally, a common thread to their aircraft is their incredible performance. Learjet and Gulfstream made fast aircraft that are fun to fly and can take the owners where they need to be.
Most of the Learjet fleet attacks the light and midsize segments. In comparison, Gulfstream made a name for itself in the large category, with occasional forays into the super-midsize market.
The Learjet family can comfortably fly coast-to-coast in the United States, and some models can perform transatlantic flights. This does not come close to the Gulfstream range of aircraft, with global transoceanic reach. The adopted Gulfstreams brought from IAI all beat 3390 nautical miles. While less than the original products, this is still an excellent range.
The cabin amenities in the two fleets are appropriate for their scope. Both have comfortable seats, a galley, and a lavatory, but the latter pair are considerably more comprehensive in the Gulfstream. It is also possible to add sleeping berths on the larger jets while retaining a good passenger capacity, which is unimaginable in the Learjet.
Acquisition and operation costs for the two fleets are worlds apart. New Gulfstream jets typically cost twice or more than all Learjet models, and the proportion holds true for the price per flight hour. The acquisition costs are a lot closer in the used market. There are growing concerns among Learjet owners that these aircraft will become unsustainable to own and fly due to dwindling spare parts supplies.
While both companies are synonymous with executive aviation excellence, the market ambitions of Gulfstream and Learjet rarely crossed paths. The most popular aircraft sold throughout the peak of the competition could have their roots traced back to the very first entries in each family, the Learjet 23 and the Gulfstream II. Logically, the capabilities, visuals, and prices also follow their ancestors.
- Low acquisition and operation costs
- Good short runway performance
- Excellent cruise and climb speeds
- Cramped passenger cabin
- Limited seating
- Difficulties with spare supplies after Bombardier discontinued the Learjet line
- Unmatched range
- Large passenger capacity
- Best speeds in the large jet segment
- Prohibitively expensive for most operators
- High operation costs
- Frequent delivery delays on new units
It is painful to talk about Learjet in the past tense, but that is the reality of the most famous business jet maker under Bombardier’s stewardship. No new Learjet units have left the factory since 2022. The company honors maintenance contracts and parts supplies for the remainder of the fleet.
The first comprises the Learjet Models 23, 24, and 25. These were pioneers of the business jet world and introduced the aesthetics and performance we associated with the Learjet brand.
The common ancestor of early Learjet aircraft is the FFA P-16, a failed Swiss proposal for a single-seat, single-engine attack aircraft. Bill Lear had taken great interest in the project during its development. When the Swiss military canceled the program, Lear built his company around the core of the engineers working on the P-16 before moving the entire operation to the United States.
- Learjet 23 (1964-1966, 101 built): Business jet with swept low-mounted wings with wingtip fuel tanks, a high T-tail, a compact cabin, and short landing gear legs, setting the template for most Learjet versions to come
- Learjet 24 (1966-1977, 259 built or converted from Model 23): Improved design based on the Model 23, certified under FAR-25 rules
- Learjet 25 (1967-1982, 369 built): A stretched cabin with seating increased to eight passengers
After launching its first three models, Learjet garnered extensive experience, and its business jets were famous worldwide for excellent performance at great prices. The company considered the Model 25 aerodynamic arrangement mature, but there was room for improvement.
- Learjet 35/36 (1973-1994, 738 built): First Learjet with TFE731 turbofan engines, with long range and a quieter cabin
- Learjet 28 and 29 (1977-1982, 9 built): Model 25 fuselage with Longhorn wing
- Learjet 55 (1981-1987, 147 built): Larger cabin and Longhorn wing
- Learjet 31 (1990-2003, 246 built): Model 35 fuselage with Longhorn wing and newer avionics
The Bombardier Learjet
In 1990, Canadian giant Bombardier Aerospace acquired the Learjet Corporation. Learjet got to keep its branding and operated as a contained bureau under the Bombardier structure. There were noticeable changes to the design philosophy of newer projects.
The production of Bombardier Learjet aircraft ran from 1990 until 2022, ending the most famous business jet family in history. Bombardier still offers business jets from its other lines.
- Learjet 60 (1993-2012, 400 built): Model 55 with aerodynamic refinements and Pratt & Whitney Canada PW305A engines
- Learjet 40/45 (1998-2012, 642 built): First clean sheet design since 1964, with a lightened airframe, TFE731 engines, and modern avionics
- Learjet 70/75 (2013-2022, 145 built): Engine and avionics upgrade to the Model 40/45
- Learjet 85 (Canceled): Proposed upgrade to the Model 70/75, discontinued due to Bombardier financial issues
The Gulfstream name entered the market in 1958, headquartered in Savannah, Georgia. The iconic image of Gulfstream Aerospace makes it easy to forget the multiple crossovers with other major aviation powerhouses throughout its history.
The team that would spawn Gulfstream started as a division of Grumman Aircraft Engineering before breaking off to develop business jets. From that point until today, Gulfstream partnered with Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) on the Westwind Astra and the Galaxy Type. In the late 1990s, General Dynamics acquired Gulfstream.
One of the most impressive feats of Gulfstream is that even today, many of its products can trace their lineage back to the Gulfstream II, the very first jet in the portfolio.
The Grumman Years
Gulfstream started off as a division of Grumman, and it was under the American designer that its first projects came to be. The partnership was one of many Gulfstream would forge during its long history of developing business aircraft.
- Gulfstream I (1959-1969, 200 built): Executive turboprop
- Gulfstream II (1967-1980, 256 built): First Gulfstream business jet, with swept low-mounted wings, a high T-tail, and Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan engines
Gulfstream Aerospace became a force of its own shortly after the Gulfstream II hit the market. The company continued to refine its maiden business jet design. As the 1980s approached, it became clear that it was time for an overhaul.
- Gulfstream III (1979-1986, 202 built): Aerodynamic refinements to the Gulfstream II
- Gulfstream IV (1985-2018, 900 built): Lighter wing, stretched cabin, and new Rolls-Royce Tay medium bypass engines
- Gulfstream G100/G150 (1985-2017, 265 built): Originally the IAI Astra midsize jet, acquired by Gulfstream in 2001
- Gulfstream V (1995-2002, 193 built): Long-range Gulfstream IV derivative with Rolls-Royce BR700 engines
Gulfstream launched an aggressive program to replace its existing lineup, culminating in five new families introduced since 1999. Upgraded versions of older models stayed in production for some time. By 2021 all Gulfstream aircraft in production were new designs.
- Gulfstream G200 (1999-2011, 250 built): IAI Astra Galaxy acquired by Gulfstream in 2001
- Gulfstream G500/G550 (2004-2021, 600 built): Improved Gulfstream V with Rolls-Royce BR710 engines
- Gulfstream G280 (2012-present, 200+ built): Improved Gulfstream G200
- Gulfstream G650/G700 (2012-present, 515+ built): Fastest and farthest flying Gulfstream, with a top speed of Mach 0.925 and range of up to 7500 nautical miles
- Gulfstream G500/G600 (2018-present, 188+ built): Clean sheet family with side stick controls
Take the Gulfstream IV and the Learjet 35, two of the best-selling models from each company.
The Gulfstream IV has a wingspan of 77 ft 10 in, while the Learjet 35 is 39 ft 6 in wide. The length tells a similar story, with 88 ft 4 in for the Gulfstream and 48 ft 8 in for the Learjet. The tail of the Gulfstream IV sits at 24 ft 5 in, compared to the meager 12 ft 3 in on the Learjet 35.
The picture is clear: a Gulfstream costs twice as many aircraft as a Learjet.
On the other hand, as far as the overall arrangement goes, these are similar aircraft. All Learjet and Gulfstream aircraft have swept wings mounted low on the fuselage, with a high T-tail and a pair of engines mounted on fuselage pylons.
One uniqueness of the Learjet family is the low-rider ramp look. As a legacy of the Swiss P-16 fighter design that helped spawn the project, all Learjet aircraft have short landing gear legs and ride very close to the ground. This holds true even for the models designed from scratch after Bombardier acquired the company.
In comparison, all Gulfstream aircraft have good ground clearance, including those designed by IAI and developed further as part of the Gulfstream portfolio.
The wings on the Learjet stand out from the Gulfstream. Until the Model 35, Learjet wings had a slight sweep and large area, rounded off by wingtip fuel tanks. This is one of the most iconic features of classic Learjets.
The first deviation from the trend came in 1977 when the Model 28 debuted the Longhorn wing featuring a sleeker profile and large winglets instead of tanks. From that point on, the looks on both fleets converge. Besides early versions of the Gulfstream II, all Gulfstream jets have winglets and a wing profile similar to the Longhorn wing Learjets.
In one sentence, if a Learjet could take Frank Sinatra across the United States, a Gulfstream could take his entire entourage worldwide. The musical legend was one of the most famous enthusiasts of the Learjet family. He owned one of the first units ever made, a Learjet 23 he named “Christina II”.
This storied jet flew Sinatra and his then-wife Mia Farrow on their honeymoon in southern France and also spent some time loaned to big names like Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis Jr., and Elvis Presley. Christina II flew The King to his wedding to Priscilla.
After legendary travels in the United States with the odd hop across the Atlantic, Frank Sinatra sold his Learjet 23 and bought a Gulfstream II in 1967. The gap between the two aircraft is comparable to Sinatra’s popularity boom.
From the beginning until the end of the Learjet family, the company offered aircraft with good cruise speeds, coast-to-coast range, and excellent climb characteristics. The seating never exceeded 10 in practice, and while there is a lavatory and a small galley, the amenities are nothing to write home about.
Gulfstream always boasted a large passenger capacity (typically up to 19). With enough range to comfortably cover transoceanic routes anywhere in the world, these aircraft also have some of the highest cruise speeds among business jets to make these routes on time.
Many Gulfstream owners who use this capability bring one or two flight attendants for added comfort. Most Gulfstream models have a closed lavatory and a fully-equipped galley, with all the amenities needed for a luxurious long trip.
The Financial Balance
Most of the Gulfstream portfolio can fly faster, farther, and more comfortably than any Learjet unit. This performance and luxury do not come for free, with a steep price difference between the two American aircraft manufacturers.
Whereas the 1990s Learjet 45 hit the market with a price tag of $10 million, the contemporary Gulfstream IV cost a whopping $26 million from the factory. The cost of second-hand units has fallen significantly since these aircraft ceased production, and today the two jets cost roughly the same.
A used Model 45 costs between $2 million and $4.5 million. As for the Gulfstream IV, prices range from $2.5 million to $4.7 million. While it might seem like a sweet deal considering the better performance and passenger capacity, the costs stack up.
For approximately 450 yearly flight hours, Aircraft Cost Calculator estimates the Learjet 45 to cost about $1.583 million a year, a third of which are fixed costs. This works out to $3517 per flight hour. Assuming similar usage patterns, the Gulfstream IV costs the owner $3.370 million yearly or $7488 per hour.
The Gulfstream gives you twice the plane for twice the price, simple enough, right? Well, almost. While Bombardier discontinued the Learjet line wholesale, Gulfstream has only expanded in recent years.
Starting with the waning years of Learjet, many operators have complained about difficulties stocking an adequate amount of spare parts. One source told me it was common to have payments refunded by suppliers because they could locate a single unit in the market.
This means that while the Learjet is considerably cheaper to own, it also spends much more time in the hangar than the Gulfstream. What is the point of owning a private jet if it cannot fly?
Which Is Better?
Both companies primarily focus on different segments. Learjet made better midsize jets, even though the IAI models incorporated by Gulfstream are respectable challengers. Gulfstream is the undisputed winner in the large category.
Five or ten years ago, the categories made them difficult to compare. In 2021 things changed when Learjet became history. Today, Gulfstream has the best long-range jets and super-midsize ones in the shape of the G280.
Question: Is the Learjet or Gulfstream cheaper?
Answer: The Learjet is cheaper to acquire, and though the difference is not as big in used aircraft, the operational costs set the two fleets apart. Running a Learjet costs half as much as a Gulfstream, but there is a catch. Since Bombardier closed the Learjet production line, many owners have complained about parts shortages, making the savings worthless since an expensive jet that flies is still better than a grounded one.
Question: What is the fastest Gulfstream jet?
Answer: The fastest Gulfstream aircraft in the market is the G650, with a top speed of Mach 0.925.
Question: Can you buy a new Learjet?
Answer: No. Production of the Learjet family ended in 2022, with the Model 70 and 75 being the last aircraft manufactured. While it is possible to buy low-hour Learjet models, there are concerns about long-term operations now that Bombardier closed the production lines.
As most Learjet and Gulfstream products fall into different categories, direct comparisons are tricky but not impossible. There were overlaps, such as the Gulfstream G150, which competed directly against the Learjet 60. The Learjet offering was faster but with shorter legs.
A more cynical view would say that Gulfstream is the better manufacturer because its plans to revitalize the fleet led to a surge in orders and a bright future. Learjet failed to keep up after merging with Bombardier, and its new parent company eventually put its in-house products ahead.
When looking for a midsize jet for flights in the same continent plus the occasional transoceanic foray, I would go for a Learjet. Lower acquisition and operational costs, smaller ramp footprint, smaller crew, and stunning looks. This option is slowly going away due to parts shortages. If you can find a reliable supplier, a Learjet will serve you well for a decade at least.
Should I need to fly larger groups or have the range to reach anywhere in the world with few stops, there is nothing like a Gulfstream.
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