Last Learjet Rolls Off Bombardier’s Wichita Assembly Line

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On June 4, 1964, Bill Lear laughingly told his executive staff gathered around a conference table in Wichita, Kansas, “OK, we’ve just sold our first Lear Jet!” But the “customer” was the insurance company.

As related in Richard Baske’s biography of Bill Lear, “Stormy Genius,” an FAA test pilot had neglected to retract the wing spoilers before a certification test flight, and the prototype Lear Jet 23 crashed into a field off the end of the runway. It burned to ashes, but not before the FAA pilot and company test pilot escaped uninjured. The insurance money enabled the struggling company to eke out the seven weeks needed to achieve certification on July 31, 1964, and Lear Jet #2 was delivered to its—real world—cash customer shortly thereafter.

After innumerable corporate twists and turns since then (during which “Lear Jet” morphed into “Learjet”), the last of Bill Lear’s legacy, a Learjet Model 75, was delivered on Monday (March 28). It was the last of more than 3,000 aircraft produced under the brand, many under the governance of current production-certificate holder Bombardier Aerospace, and went to an unnamed customer of Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Northern Jet Management. It represents the 24th Learjet to make its way through Northern Jet’s pipeline and will join the company’s managed fleet.

Bombardier, which announced plans more than a year ago to discontinue Learjet production, assured all operators it will continue to support the product line. Executive VP of operations Paul Sislian said, “Bombardier is committed to making sure that these 2,000 aircraft presently in service will keep flying well into the future.”

Tonya Sudduth, VP of Learjet operations, told the crowd at the rollout, “There’s no doubt that today is an emotional day for many of us, as it marks the end of the production era of Learjet. However, the emotion that I’ve seen most prominent in all of my conversations with [employees] over the past several days and months is pride. Pride for being part of this amazing legacy. And pride in making a lasting mark on aviation history.”

Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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12 COMMENTS

    • Well, not at Starbucks. But my famous voice – plus $2.30 – buys a medium at our local Dunkin’ Donuts stores.

      I remember when a nickel – five cents! – did the deed at a local independent coffee shop, cleverly named “The Cup.” Now, the TAX comprises $0.15 of that $2.30 DD fix.

      Bombardier-supplied spare parts for Lears probably will outlast me, but I question whether the same will be true for the owner of this last example.

      Would you like a refill?

  1. I remember when corporate jets in general were referred to as “Lear Jets” by those outside of aviation circles. Even when the first Cessna Citation was rolled out, this was the case. Long ago and far away now. Truly the end of a great era in aviation.

  2. It breaks my heart to hear that the last Learjet just rolled off the line.

    I was the Director of Manufacturing Control Systems from 1984 to 1985. It was my job to implement a new manufacturing control system. I remember getting frustrated trying to convince the VP of Manufacturing that the new system would help him. To get my Mojo back, I would go out to the flight line and sit in the cockpit of a completed Lear 35. 20 minutes later I would come back in pumped up and ready to get the job dome. I loved flying back and forth between my two implementation teams in Tucson and Wichita on the corporate Lear 35 shuttle.

    At that time, The President, Bib Stillwell, had over-produced to the point where we had over 60 green airplanes in stock. In order to keep the optics in check, the unsold airplanes were spread out to little airports all over the country. It broke my heart to have to lay off my team and myself and to watch the VP I was working for lay himself off. I watched as employee after employee refused severance packages knowing that they would get none just so they could work for the company a little while longer. Shortly after I left, Bombardier bought the company. When I went to Tucson to get my retirement money, the vibes were not the same.

    Still to this day, I wonder whatever happened to Pratt and Lambert, the two cats that lived at the paint shop. On their collars were quarter sized official Learjet ID badges with the title “Rat Cat”.

  3. It is a shame to see the iconic Lear line end. Still the sexiest plane on the line. Bill Lear was a real innovator, car radio, ADF, Autopilots, Learjet and more. I hope the people there at the factory do not lose their jobs.

    Every once in a while I see an older Lear depart and it is always a thrill.

  4. Those of us who traveled the adventurous life of aviation careers (mine being some 53 years) have a lot to owe the dreamers, idea generators, makers, users, successors, and failures – plus, I must admit, regulators, who all did their part in creating the evolution of manned flight.

    Risk-takers of the likes of Bill Lear and so many more, contributed their lives, loves, treasures, and passion to the unstable, high risk, and always exciting businesses through fear, anxiety, courage, joy, boredom, excitement, sadness, and persistence. They were leaders, some good, some great, some tyrants, but all with strong willed goals in mind.

    I am both sad and happy to see the final milestone of the Learjet idea of Bill Lear. God bless him and all those who climbed aboard his dream. I wish those who were in the final picture well in the continuation of the best career choice one could make, in my estimation.

  5. In the mid-1970s as a boy I had a plastic blow up “model” of the Lear 23, tip tanks and all. It was big too with nearly a 4′ wingspan (and comparable length) and hung from my ceiling. My father got it from some business aviation promo event back then if I remember correctly. Man if I could have ever kept that away from my throw-away zealot mother as I outgrew things – what a collector’s item it would be today!

    From that moment on I loved them and as I got older admired them even more when I got my private ticket and started observing them up close at FBOs. Learjets were used not just buy corporations and wealthy individuals, but also the USAF (known as the C-21A for brass and other VIP transport) and NASA. When the Longhorn wing first came out with the futuristic winglet for the 28/29, it just rocked the world in 1977 being able to attain an astonishing FL510 where you really can appreciate the earth’s curvature. From there better and better variants were introduced with the 31/55/60, the highly popular 45 line, and the end of the line 70/75.

    That said, in all those years, there was strong competition up and coming with more roomy interiors even if they only capped out at FL41-450. But when Bombardier bought out Learjet, the writing was on the wall. The 85 project was cancelled which would have filled that roomy interior gap between midsize and super midsize that Learjet was lacking – owners and passengers wanted more interior room. But there just wasn’t room for two different dance partners at the ball with mid-size competition from the new Citation lines and especially that new bizjet threat from South America named Embraer.

    To this day I still miss the sounds and visuals of the old turbojet Lears rocketing down the runways then leaping into the air in a high pitch climb out like a fighter (still available on Youtube videos though!). RIP to Bill Lear and to an American icon in business jet aviation that set a new bar. You know made it when non-aviation people referred to any private/bizjet generically as a Learjet.