In 1963, the first Learjet 23 rolled out of the company’s manufacturing plant in Wichita, and on March 28, the last, a Learjet 75, emerged from that same facility in Kansas.
On Wednesday, Learjet’s parent, Bombardier, announced that the site would become the company’s US headquarters as well as an expanded service center, flight testing and engineering facility and home to the new Bombardier Defense group. Roughly 1,300 of the 1,500 employees have been retained and the company said it is hiring. Bombardier has vowed to support the more than 2,000 Learjets still flying with parts, maintenance and even upgrades.
“Learjet started right when people realized the benefits of point-to-point hops between cities that were not connected by commercial aviation,” Mark Masluch, Bombardier’s director of communications, told Robb Report. “It became synonymous with business aviation and a true productivity tool for executives and a status symbol.”
Frank Sinatra had one of the first. Danny Kaye had one later and even owned a piece of the company. The brand was name-checked in Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” made appearances on The Dating Game and even showed up in the final episode of Mad Men. Like Scotch Tape and Kleenex, Learjet became synonymous with an entire product category, a single-name stand-in that referred to a particular brand but broke through the public consciousness to serve as a generic term for any light business jet.
Bill Lear, a serial inventor who also dreamed up the first successful car radio, an early autopilot system and the eight-track tape player, got the idea for a private business jet in the late ‘50s. He built a preliminary model in Switzerland, based on a Swiss fighter jet, before officially launching the company in Wichita. The facility produced more than 3,000 jets and became a pop-culture touch point.
“It’s sad from a historical standpoint, no one wants to see those storied brands go away,” says Brian Foley, an aviation industry consultant. “But the industry as a whole is only delivering 700 jets a year and there are 34 models to choose from. In recent years, Learjet only delivered about 10 or 12 of those 700, so in that overcrowded market it’s a minor loss.”
The problem was even more acute than that, as the light-jet category in particular fell off. “With each passing decade the needs changed,” says Masluch. “First it was city-to-city, then it became coast-to-coast, then trans-Atlantic, then trans-Pacific. People used to enter the market with a light jet and work their way up, but now, with the range needs and the amount of wealth creation, they go right to a mid-size or even a $60 million global jet.”
At the same time, Bombardier struggled with accumulated debt, which drove it to sell off its C Series commercial jet project, its rail business, the de Havilland turboprop line and its aerostructures business, among other assets.
Still, within the last decade Bombardier dedicated resources into Learjet, attempting to develop the mid-size, all-composite Learjet 85. The project was announced in 2008, but after a series of production difficulties and cost overruns it was cancelled in 2015. After that, Learjet appeared to be flying on borrowed time. Bombardier announced in February that it was shuttering the brand.
Bombardier will focus on its midsize Challenger line and the long-range Global Express family, which, according to Masluch, “are more stable and have a predictable client base.” Those larger aircraft also carry much higher profit margins than the light-jet Learjet brand.
The company’s creation of a defense segment means that it will be modifying its Global and Challenger aircraft for military operations. It said that the US Air Force has ordered six Global 6000 jets as part of its Battlefield airborne Communications Node program. It also said that it will continue to expand the service center for its Learjet, Challenger and Global aircraft. Bombardier had three service hangars in Wichita about five years ago. Now there are seven.
“Wichita was the obvious choice as the home of our new US headquarters and Bombardier Defense,” Éric Martel, president and CEO, said during a ceremony this week announcing its new plans. He praised the area’s longstanding tradition of business aviation.