features Looking back on the life of the legendary Learjet

The Learjet was one of the first business jets to grace Canadian skies, and the fleet continues to perform across the country today. Here, we pay tribute to this legendary aircraft following the recent delivery of the last of the line.
Avatar for Frederick K. Larkin By Frederick K. Larkin | June 15, 2022

Estimated reading time 13 minutes, 34 seconds.

It was during the 1950s when business aviation expanded across North America. Large companies recognized the advantages of private aviation and began to purchase piston-powered former commercial airliners and military transports. The two most popular types, the Douglas DC-3 and the Lockheed 18 Lodestar, offered comfortable cabins and airliner-like cruise speeds. Being unpressurized, they flew low and slow.

Then, with the development of appropriately sized jet engines during the late ‘50s, the world’s first two business jets were created. The prototype Lockheed 1329 JetStar first flew at Burbank, California, on Sept. 7, 1957, and the first North American NA-246 Sabreliner flew at Los Angeles on Sept. 16, 1958. Shortly after, other airframers recognized the demand for corporate jets and followed suit. The results were the de Havilland DH-125, the Dassault Falcon 20, and the Aero Commander 1121 Jet Commander.

Bill Lear and N660LJ, the Lear Jet 24 (serial number 24-133) that was owned by William Lear Enterprises Inc. National Aviation Hall of Fame Photo

William Powell Lear, an American entrepreneur living in Switzerland, believed that interest existed for a compact jet. In 1960, he established Swiss American Aviation Corporation at St. Gallen. His proposed aircraft featured the tip tanked wings of the Swiss-designed FFA P-16 jet fighter. In 1962, at the age of 60, Lear moved the company to Wichita, Kansas, and later renamed it Lear Jet Corporation. The prototype Lear Jet 23 first flew on Oct. 7, 1963, and was certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on July 31, 1964. The first customer aircraft (serial number 23-003) was delivered as N200Y on Oct. 13, 1964. In February of the following year, Executive Jet Aviation of Columbus, Ohio, took delivery of its first Lear Jet 23. By the end of 1965, it was operating 19 examples.

As the aircraft’s popularity grew, Lear Jet became the generic name for any bizjet, and it was synonymous with celebrities. Owners included singer Frank Sinatra (N175FS), golfer Arnold Palmer (N1AP), and defense attorney F. Lee Bailey (N808LJ). The aircraft’s inclusion in popular culture was confirmed in 1966 when The Byrds recorded “2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song).” Then in 1971, Carly Simon sang the words “you flew your Lear Jet up to Nova Scotia” in her tune “You’re So Vain.”

The Family Expands

Over the years, corporate jet designs have evolved based on three key criteria: increased speed, greater range, and larger cabins. As the Learjet family grew, new engine technologies and airfoil designs enabled the company to create models that met those three criteria. More fuel efficient and quieter turbofan engines, together with supercritical airfoils with winglets, allowed the newer models to outperform their predecessors and attract buyers.

Top: The first Lear Jet produced. N801L (serial number 23-001) first flew on Oct. 7, 1963. Bottom: The last Learjet produced. N2022L (serial number 75-154) was delivered on March 28, 2022.

After the model 23 came the model 24. It boasted an increased maximum takeoff weight (13,500 pounds/6,125 kilograms versus 12,500 lbs/5,670 kg), increased cabin pressurization, and more powerful engines. It first flew on Feb. 24, 1966, and was certified just 21 days later.

Over the following decade, variants of the 24 were offered that provided improved performance. But one thing remained constant: the passenger cabin, which held up to six people.

Eventually, customers wanted something a little larger, so the company obliged and developed the Lear Jet 25. Its stretched fuselage accommodated two additional passengers. The prototype 25 first flew on Aug. 12, 1966, and received its certification from the FAA on Oct. 10, 1967. Subsequent versions of the 25, manufactured during the following 15 years, provided enhanced speed and range.

(It should be noted that the Lear Jet brand name become one word when the company was renamed Gates Learjet Corporation on April 2, 1969.)

C-GUAC, a Gates Learjet 35A (serial number 35A-309), that was operated by Fox Flight Inc. between August 2005 and July 2020. Michael Durning Photo

When Garrett AiResearch’s TFE731 turbofan engine was certified in August 1972, Gates Learjet used it to develop a better performing model: the Learjet 35, which was essentially a 25 with a 13-inch-longer cabin and TFE731s. Then, for customers who wanted to fly further, the 36 was introduced. Its 500-mile-greater range was enabled by the substitution of the 35’s aft three-place bench seat for a fuel tank. The 35 and 36 models were both certified on June 28, 1974.

The company entered the mid-sized market when it introduced the model 55 in June 1977. It featured a much larger cabin, wings with NASA-designed winglets, and more powerful TFE731 turbofans. The prototype 55 first flew on April 19, 1979, and was certified on March 18, 1981. Eventually, 147 units of the 55 family were built. Its successor was the Learjet 60, which had a slightly longer cabin, more powerful Pratt & Whitney Canada PW305A turbofans, and a 10 percent greater range. The Learjet 60 was clearly a success, as 430 were produced.

The company never ignored the market’s entry-level niche. By combining the fuselage of the 35A with the wings and winglets of the 55, it created the Learjet 31. The first example flew on May 11, 1987, and was certified on Aug. 17, 1988. In July 1991, the improved 31A variant received the FAA’s blessing and, ultimately, almost 250 31/31As were produced.

A Bombardier Learjet 75 Liberty wearing the Bombardier house colors. Chad Slattery/Bombardier Photo

Until Sept. 14, 1992, all of the Learjet 20 series and 30 series models had used the same fuselage design of the original model 23. That day, the model 45 was introduced by Bombardier – Learjet’s final owner. It’s first flight on Oct. 7, 1995, took place exactly 32 years after the first Lear Jet had flown. A total of 455 model 45s and 45XRs were produced. Learjet also manufactured a shortened variant, the Learjet 40, with a total of 133 40/40XRs produced.

In an effort to upgrade the 40/45 family, Learjet introduced the 70 and 75 models on May 14, 2012. They had improved avionics, more powerful engines, and canted winglets. Both were certified on Nov. 14, 2013. Production of the smaller 70 ended in 2016 after only 13 were built. The model 75 remained in production until the last of the 154 built was delivered to its new owner on March 28, 2022. 

Canadian Context

The post-Second World War Canadian corporate flagships were DC-3s, Lodestars, and Grumman G-73 Mallards. Canadian business aviation entered the jet age when the T. Eaton Company of Toronto received a Lockheed JetStar on March 19, 1962. Serial number 5021 wore CF-ETN and replaced a DC-3 (CF-ETE) that went to Hudson’s Bay Company in Winnipeg.

Bill Lear had been monitoring the Canadian market when he spoke at a Canadian Business Aviation Association gathering in Montreal on Sept. 8, 1962 — 13 months before his prototype’s first flight. The first Canadian example, a Lear Jet 23, was delivered as CF-TEL to Turnbull Elevator in Toronto on Sept. 24, 1965. It replaced a Lockheed Learstar (CF-CEC) that Turnbull had acquired in May 1962. Incidentally, the Learstar was a Lodestar that had been modified by one of Lear’s earlier ventures.        

CF-KAX, a Lear Jet 25 (serial number 25-016) operated by Mackenzie Air Ltd. at Winnipeg, Manitoba, on June 17, 1971. Tim Martin Photo

Other early Canadian Lear Jet operators included the Province of British Columbia in Victoria (CF-BCJ), and Northern and Central Gas in Toronto (CF-ECB and CF-UYT). By the end of 1969, there were four Lears among the 44 Canadian-registered bizjets.   

Many Missions

Learjets currently perform a wide range of missions across Canada, including transporting corporate executives and middle management personnel between company facilities. One well known operator is Walmart of Bentonville, Arkansas. According to civil aircraft registers, the world’s largest retailer operates five Learjet 40s and nine Learjet 45s. One of the 45s is based at Toronto.

As Walmart founder Sam Walton grew his company, he regularly visited all of his stores to interview customers and staff. Flying his own Ercoupe aircraft (N2623H), he kept abreast of merchandising trends and monitored operational efficiencies. Sixty years later, the Walmart fleet supports the same activities.

Learjets are also used for military training. Top Aces of Montreal, which provides advanced airborne training to leading air forces, operates four Learjet 35As in a variety of roles. These include electronic warfare, employing jammers and emulators; target towing for naval gunnery training; and acting as targets for NORAD radar training on all three Canadian coasts.

N405GJ, a Gates Learjet 35A (serial number 35A-354) operated by Trinity Air Ambulance, crossing Maho Beach at Sint Maarten. Frederick K. Larkin Photo

When Skies asked James Manning, Top Aces’ VP of Contracted Airborne Training Services (CATS), why the Learjet 35A was selected, he said: “Because it met the specific technical and performance requirements of our CATS contracts. Its altitude, speed, and endurance performance are well suited to our mission sets.”

Moreover, Learjets are utilized for air ambulance operations; the aircraft have been configured as flying intensive care units for decades. Equipped with stretchers, ventilators, defibrillators, and other emergency medical systems, Learjets have saved many lives.

Today, Fox Flight Air Ambulance of Toronto has three dedicated Learjet 40XRs; Latitude Air Ambulance of Hamilton has a pair of medevac-configured Learjet 35As; and Helijet International of Vancouver operates a Learjet 31A that can quickly be converted into an air ambulance.

As well, Montreal-based Starlink Aviation operates a trio of Learjet 45s that are regularly used as air ambulances. The company routinely transports patients to Europe, India, South America, and the Middle East. According to Gilles Bruneau, Starlink’s president, “the aircraft have a good ratio of cost to revenue.”

When Skies asked Fox Flight’s president, David Fox, about the company’s Lear 40XR, he described that “after doing the fuel modification, I had a 2,000-mile aircraft — one of the longest flying aircraft in this category. Plus, I had room for four seats, a stretcher, and [over] five feet of cabin height, which makes it comfortable for the medical crew.”

“We have room for built-in cabinets up front where we can store all the medical supplies,” added Katrina Rankine, Fox Flight’s director of operations, “and all the monitors are mounted at the front where they are easy to see.”

Lastly, Learjet aircraft are commonly used for leisure travel — especially after the Covid-19 pandemic caused people to use bizjets for the first time. Holiday-related flights have been an increased source of charter revenues.

Sunwest Aviation of Calgary, for example, manages three Learjet 45s and offers them for ad hoc charters. Ian Darnley, Sunwest’s director of business development, told Skies, “The Learjet 45 has an excellent payload/range and speed capability that beats any aircraft in its category.” He also noted that the airplane’s cabin features an eight-seat double club arrangement, as well as a lavatory — a layout that is much appreciated by passengers.

There are more than 2,000 Learjets currently in service around the globe, including 42 in Canada. Andy Cline Photo

With more than 2,000 Learjets currently in service around the globe, including 42 in Canada, Bombardier has said it is committed to providing parts and service support “well into the future” in order to keep that fleet airborne. In fact, the after-sale support of all of Bombardier’s aircraft models is expected to become an important contributor to the company’s future financial performance.

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