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The Fathers of Modern Private Flight

  • Michelle D. Seaton

Even if Bill Lear’s name had not become synonymous with private jets, he still would be an aviation-industry legend. Lear may have started out as just another high-school dropout with a passion for making radio receivers, but he had an unusually high IQ and could be monomaniacal about his tinkering, working so many hours that he often forgot to eat. In the 1920s, Lear invented one of the first car radios. (He also invented the 8-track tape, in 1964.) Then he fell in love with flying. He built a biplane in his backyard (but he could not get it to fly). Later he bought a plane and paid a commercial pilot to teach him to fly it. He got lost on his first cross-country flight, which led him and his company, Lear Developments, to improve the signal receivers inside airplanes so that it would be easier to find beacons at airports. Then he created the Learoscope, a direction finder that enabled pilots to navigate using radio signals. He continued to invent instruments for flying, including the autopilot, which drew the interest of the U.S. military.

In 1960, at age 58, Lear was very wealthy and equally restless. Like everyone else in the aviation industry, Lear looked at Boeing’s 707, the first successful passenger jet, and saw the future of air travel. Already, airports were building longer and more durable runways to accommodate the airliners.Already, a new generation of air traffic controllers had to be trained to track them.

Lear should have been thinking about how to build instruments for these jets. Instead, he wanted to build one of his own. He wondered why a smaller jet would not sell to businesses and private owners that could afford one. Weren’t they in a hurry to get to their destinations? Didn’t they want to fly above the clouds on their own schedules? There was only one problem: Lear had never designed an aircraft.

He had loved tinkering with his old Lockheed Lodestar, a World War II–era troop transport that the Air Force had given him so that he could design new autopilot systems. But Lear wanted to see how fast the plane could go, so during the mid 1950s, he replaced the engines to give it more power. He also had his engineers remove the door handles and file down the rivets to reduce drag. Then he tore out the seats in the back and installed carpeting, a divan, and a small bathroom. He added a bar and lined the walls with paneling.

Lear sold the aircraft for $200,000 and bought two new Lodestars for a fraction of that price. He had found a new passion, and he was determined to modify the plane until he could get its airspeed above 300 mph and its range to 3,800 miles. He would rename it the Learstar and sell it as a private plane. Lear hoped to sell hundreds of Learstars, at a price of about $650,000 each. In the end he sold at least 60, but the project required huge amounts of capital, man-hours, and spare parts. Lear Incorporated (Lear had changed the company name from Lear Developments) continued to lose money on each aircraft it sold until Lear gave in and sold the aeronautics division in the late 1950s. But he remained convinced that a market for fast and luxurious aircraft existed.

So here was Lear at the end of the decade, dreaming of making another Learstar, but one with jet engines. 

Creating a jet that would appeal to airlines, charter companies, and corporate titans was a task on the to-do list of every aircraft manufacturer. In the United States, Lockheed was going forward with its JetStar. In England, De Havilland had one on the drawing board, called the Jet Dragon (also known as the DH 125, which after many iterations was renamed the Hawker 800). And in France, a jet was conceived by Dassault Aviation founder and CEO Marcel Dassault, a genius much like Lear but made from a very different mold.

Dassault was born in 1892 as Marcel Bloch. After World War II, he changed his last name to Dassault, the nickname his brother, Paul, had earned during the war while fighting for the French resistance. Paul had a preference for battle tanks, called char d’assault in French.

Not only did Marcel Dassault finish high school, he earned diplomas from engineering school and the prestigious École Supérieure de l’Aéronautique, where he was well schooled in the physics of flight. After graduation, Dassault designed the Éclair propeller, which was used on numerous airplanes. From there he designed fighter planes, and afterWorldWar I he created an aviation company that designed military and civil aircraft, including troop transports.

Although Dassault never learned to fly, he loved to be in the air. He loved the sensation of flight and became renowned for his ability to create airplanes that were agile and easy to fly. By 1935 Dassault’s company was one of the largest aviation businesses in France. As war loomed, he joined the resistance, and in due time he was detained by theVichy government and asked to design troop transport planes for Germany. When he refused, he was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, where he nearly died of diphtheria.

In 1945, within months of his release from Buchenwald, Dassault was working on a twin-engine commuter prop plane called the Flamant. It went into service in 1947 and became famous for its durability. Some were still in service 30 years later. Dassault also designed several fighter jets, each one faster than the last.

In 1960, when Lear was still hoping to build a small private jet, Dassault signed a contract with the French government to help design the prototype for a supersonic jet. The goal was to create a passenger jet that could fly at Mach 2.2, have a range of 4,500 miles, and carry as many as 50 people. Dassault’s early design specs borrowed heavily from his own delta-wing fighter jets, and they ultimately inspired the final design for the Concorde.

By1960, Lear had moved to Switzerland, formed the Swiss American Aviation Company (Lear Incorporated board members and investors had urged him not to put his name on the business because of the failed Learstar venture), opened a plant, and hired a raft of engineers to study various transport planes and fighter jets in the hope of merging the two platforms into a successful 10-seat jet.

The company started with the FFA P-16, a Swiss-made jet fighter with a thin, unswept wing design that aided its runway performance. The Swiss military had given up on the design after a couple of accidents, but Lear flew the plane and loved it. He asked Hans Studer, an engineer who worked for him, to design an airplane around the P-16 wing design.

Lear planned to build the airframe in Switzerland and then bring his own avionics and landing gear from the United States to complete the aircraft.

However, Lear did not care for the pace of the workday in Switzerland. He was used to bossing people around, bullying them into working 60-hour workweeks, if not 20-hour days. He had no patience for workers’ rights or holidays or breaks of any kind. When progress stalled on the prototype throughout 1961, Lear became increasingly frustrated.

Meanwhile, Dassault had turned his attention to the idea of a business jet. He closed a company meeting in November of that year by announcing that Dassault Aviation would soon launch its first business jet. He even had a name for it: the Mystère 20. Two days later, Dassault sketched a design of the aircraft, which would hold as many as eight passengers and be equippedwith twin jet engines positioned at the rear of the aircraft, above and slightly behind each wing. He wanted the aircraft to have a range of 2,000 miles and a speed approaching Mach 0.9. Dassault used elements of his Mystère IV fighter jet and the fuselage from his Flamant. It would be an elegant and powerful jet.

By this time Dassault was nearly 70 years old. He worked as an engineer on the project but did so from his office in Paris, while the prototype was being built at the Bordeaux-Mérignac Airport in the South of France. Every night, photographs of the prototype would be sent by train from the airport to Paris, where Dassault would make notes on them with his red pen and send them back by train the next morning. He made adjustments to everything from the height of the tail fin to the design of the staircase to the logo on the fuselage.

In 1962, Lear closed his plant in Switzerland, fired everyone, and moved his operation to Wichita, Kan., where he boasted to the CEOs of the city’s other aircraft makers—which at the time included Cessna, Beechcraft, and Boeing—that he would build and certify a business jet in record time. He practically lived inside the hangar and had engineers working a punishing schedule.

That summer Dassault’s son, Serge, attended the annual meeting of the National Business Aviation Association in Pittsburgh, where he showed a one-fiftieth scale model of the Mystère 20. It was a huge hit: Nearly 150 business-aircraft professionals signed up to receive more information. One regional carrier offered to buy a half dozen of the jets.

The Lear and Dassault prototypes rolled out within months of each other. The first-ever Mystère 20, equipped with two Pratt & Whitney engines, left the hangar in southern France on April 1, 1963. Dassault employees gathered around it for a simple group photo. A month later, on May 4, the jet had its first flight. In attendance was a group of Pan American World Airways executives, including Charles Lindbergh, then a technical advisor to the company’s president. Lindbergh loved the plane, calling the interior roomy. Given that he was 6 foot 3, this was quite a statement. Ten days later, Pan Am ordered 40 of the aircraft, the first of which was to be delivered early in 1965.

The Lear Jet 23 also had its first flight in 1963, in early October, from an airfield inWichita. Few if any of Lear’s employees fully believed the plane would fly. When it landed safely, many wept, including the test pilot. But he and other pilots would remark that the Lear Jet 23 was faster on takeoff than any plane they had ever flown. It cruised at 500 mph, an unheard of speed, even for Dassault.

Only about 100 examples of the Lear Jet 23 sold before production ceased in 1966, but Lear had achieved his goal of creating and producing a business jet. He made successive improvements to the design before selling his share of the company to Gates Rubber Company in 1969. Lear then went off on another venture, to invent a steam-powered car. He died in 1978 at age 75.

At the time of his death, Lear was developing the Lear Fan 2100, a seven-passenger turboprop made of lightweight composite materials and designed to fly at 41,000 feet. The plane featured a pusher configuration in which the propeller was positioned at the rear of the aircraft, behind the two engines. The first prototype of the Lear Fan 2100 made its maiden flight on Jan. 1, 1981, but the aircraft failed to earn FAA certification and never went into production.  

In 1990, Bombardier acquired the Learjet brand (the name is now one word), which is still defined by luxury and speed. Within a year, Bombardier plans to begin delivering the Learjet 85, a midsize jet with a fuselage and wings constructed primarily of a carbon-fiber composite. The 10-passenger, $20 million aircraft will travel as fast as 541 mph and have a range beyond 3,400 miles. 

The Mystère 20 had a fate different from that of the Lear Jet 23. As planned, Pan Am took delivery of the first examples in 1965; in the United States, the aircraft was known as the Fan Jet Falcon 20.It became a ubiquitous regional commuter airplane, used by corporations and small airlines in many countries.The company built more than 500 of them.

Dassault continued to have a hand in the operation of Dassault Aviation until his death, in 1986 at age 94. Serge Dassault inherited the business from his father and, at 88, remains the chairman and CEO of the Dassault Group, the parent company of Dassault Aviation.

The company’s latest jet is the Falcon 2000LXS. Deliveries of the aircraft are expected to begin next year. With enough agility to land on and take off from relatively short runways and a 10-passenger cabin spacious enough that it would please Charles Lindbergh, the $32.9 million super-midsize jet is a true descendent of the Mystère 20.

The Learjet 85 and the Falcon 2000LXS are the type of aircraft that Bill Lear envisioned and Marcel Dassault continued to pursue—and which both men ultimately made possible. 

Bombardier Learjet, www.learjet.com; Dassault Falcon, www.dassaultfalcon.com

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