Learjet is a manufacturer of business jets for civilian and military use. It was founded in the late 1950s by William Powell Lear as Swiss American Aviation Corporation. Learjet is now a subsidiary of Bombardier and marketed as the “Bombardier Learjet Family”.
The Learjet started life as an abortive Swiss ground-attack fighter aircraft, the FFA P-16. Development started in 1952 and prototypes were ordered the next year. The first prototypes flew in 1955 and construction and testing continued until 1958 when an order for 100 was placed. This was reversed soon after due to a crash of the third prototype. Two additional prototypes were finished, the last in 1960, but the project was ended at this point.
The basic structure of this aircraft was seen by Bill Lear and his team as a good starting point to the development of a business jet, which was originally intended to be called the SAAC-23. The wing with its distinctive tip fuel tanks and landing gear of the first Learjets were little changed from those used by the fighter prototypes. The tooling for building the aircraft was purchased and moved to Wichita, Kansas, in 1962. LearJet was in a temporary office which opened in September 1962 while the plant at Wichita’s airport was under construction. On February 7, 1963 assembly of the first Learjet began. The next year, the company was renamed the Lear Jet Corporation.
The original Learjet 23 was a six- to eight- seater and first flew on October 7, 1963, with the first production model being delivered in October 1964. Just over a month later, Lear Jet became a publicly-owned corporation. Several derived models followed, with the Model 24 first flying on February 24, 1966 and the Model 25 first flying on August 12, 1966. On September 19 of the same year, the company was renamed Lear Jet Industries Inc.
On April 10, 1967, Bill Lear’s stock—he held approximately 60% of the company (US$27,000,000)—was acquired by the Gates Rubber Company of Denver, Colorado, United States, with Lear remaining on the board until April 2, 1969.
About this time it was hoped to make the Learjet the first supersonic business jet, with the ability to accelerate vertically upward. The Learjet made several visits to the Ag Aviation Academy at Reno/Stead Airport, with the chief pilot holding informal talks to students.
In 1969, the company was merged with Gates Aviation and the company name was changed to Gates Learjet Corporation. In 1971, the first Model 25 powered by a Garrett TFE731-2 turbofan engine was flown. This aircraft later became the successful Learjet 35. That year, the company was awarded the President’s “E” Award for promoting export sales.
In 1974, the worldwide Learjet fleet had exceeded the one-million-flight-hours mark and in 1975 the company produced its 500th jet. In both instances they were the first manufacturer to do so. By late 1976, the company had increased the number of aircraft being produced each month to 10.
On August 24, 1977, the Learjet 28 made its first flight. The Learjet 28/29 was based on the Learjet 25, and received a completely new wing fitted with winglets, resulting in improved performance and fuel economy. The Learjet 28/29 became the first production jet aircraft to utilize these winglets, which are now a common sight on most business and commercial airplanes. The winglets inspired the name “Longhorn” for the short-lived Learjet 28/29 series and for some of the more successful models that followed.
On April 19, 1979, the prototype for the Model 54/55/56 series had its first flight, and on July 7, 1983 a standard production Model 55 set six new time-to-climb records for its weight class.
In 1984, Gates Learjet announced the start of their Aerospace Division, a high technology endeavor. However, by the end of the year the company had ceased production of its commercial jets in an effort to reduce inventories. This lasted until February 1986, when the company headquarters were transferred to Tucson, Arizona, and production was restarted both in Wichita and Tucson.
On September 10, 1985, the Aerospace Division was awarded a contract to produce parts for the Space Shuttle’s main engines. In 1987, Gates Learjet was acquired by Integrated Acquisition and the next year the name was changed to Learjet Corporation. By January 1989 all production had been moved from the Tucson facility back to Wichita.
In 1990, Bombardier Aerospace purchased the Learjet Corporation. The aircraft were then marketed as the “Bombardier Learjet Family”. On October 10, 1990, the Learjet 60 mid-sized aircraft had its first flight, followed on October 7, 1995 by the Learjet 45. In October 2007 Bombardier Learjet launched a brand new aircraft program, the Learjet 85. It was the first FAR Part-25 all-composite business aircraft.
On October 7, 2008, Bombardier celebrated Learjet’s historic 45th anniversary of the first flight ever by a Learjet. As a way to commemorate this, Bombardier Business aircraft (a division of Bombardier Inc.) decided to launch the Year of Learjet campaign, a year-long celebration to honor Learjet’s contribution as a pioneer to the private business jet industry. One of the most memorable event to mark this celebration occurred at the Franborough Air Show, when Formula One racing driver Lewis Hamilton raced a Learjet and won.