Learjet Made Business Planes Cool, But The Party's Over
Wichita has turned out tens of thousands of planes over the years, but nothing the Air Capital of the World produced could match the aura of the Learjet.
"There's no denying that there's simply never been any business jet before, or since, that has had quite the cool status of a Learjet," said aviation historian Richard Harris.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, the Learjet became the coveted status symbol of the rich and famous. It became synonymous with elegance, class and wealth.
But the party’s over. Learjet's parent company, Bombardier, said earlier this month it will stop producing the iconic jet this year and concentrate on its more profitable models. That will lead to 250 layoffs at its Wichita plant.
Bombardier only delivered 11 Learjets last year, as other companies crowded Learjet out of a market that its founder, Bill Lear, created: the corporate jet.
"The Learjet brought the business jet into the realm of almost affordable for the rich and famous," Harris said, "and for businesses eager to be on the move at a high speed and still keep their budgets in balance."
The first Learjet was delivered in 1964, but Lear saw the need for affordable business travel years before that.
Longtime Wichita advertising executive Al Higdon helped market Learjet in those early years. He said Lear gave a speech in Wichita in 1958 to a national gathering of automotive engineers.
"He basically said, you know, we got the 707 for the airlines," Higdon recalled. "Pretty soon somebody's going to develop a business jet for corporations. And if they don't do it, he said, I'm going to do it."
And he did, basing the plane on a Swiss military jet. At the age of 60, Lear moved his company from Switzerland to west Wichita in 1962.
One of the plane’s earliest customers was Frank Sinatra, who used the jet to fly from his home in Los Angeles to Las Vegas, where he performed. He once lent his Learjet to Elvis Presley in 1967 so Elvis could elope with Priscilla to Las Vegas.
Harris, the aviation historian, credits Clay Lacy, a former Wichitan, with introducing the Learjet to Hollywood. Lacy ran an aviation dealership in southern California. In 1968, he created the first executive jet charter service west of the Mississippi.
"He catered to the rich and famous and made the Learjet, which he sold, the airplane of the celebrity crowd," Harris said of Lacy. "And that gave the Learjet the status of being the airplane of the jet set and made Learjet a household word around the world."
While the Learjet benefited from its association with glittering celebrities, it also got a boost from an aggressive advertising strategy.
"They really were the first private jet, and they marketed the daylights out of it," said Molly McMillin, the managing editor of business aviation for the Aviation Week Network who has covered Wichita’s aviation industry for decades.
"The term Learjet and business jet were … just like the term Kleenex and tissue, or Vaseline and petroleum jelly."
That was no accident, said Higdon, who joined the company’s marketing department in 1964.
"That was Bill Lear’s directive, that he wanted the name Learjet to be synonymous with the term business jet," Higdon said. "So that when you saw a small jet of any kind, people would think of Learjet.
"And to do that, we had pretty much a free hand."
That included making sure the Learjet showed up in movies and television shows, which it did frequently for decades. It’s a practice now called product placement.
"But we didn't know that's what we were doing, but that's what it turned out to be," Higdon said. "Others, of course, are developing it into a science now, but we were just sort of winging it most of the time."
Bill Lear, who died in 1978, sold his interest in Learjet only a few years after it was formed.
A serial inventor, he left to explore making steam-powered vehicles. He eventually drifted back into aviation, but Higdon said he thinks Lear only visited the plant once after selling the company.
"He moved around the country, restlessly, all the time," Harris said of Lear. "And as a result, his influence here was spectacular and lasting, but his presence here was not."
More than 3,000 Learjets have been sold since 1964, but sales have dropped 90% in the last 20 years. Higdon said the end of the legendary plane was inevitable.
"It's tough," Higdon said, "but you know … almost 60 years, it's not a bad run."