Frank Sinatra owned one. Elvis Presley flew in one. So did Bono and countless other rock stars, celebrities and business hotshots. The Learjet, first made in 1963, became synonymous with exclusive travel, a limousine of the skies for the 1 per cent.
Bombardier Inc.’s decision to stop production of the plane at its factory in Wichita, Kan., amid weak sales ends an aviation era for an aircraft that for decades has been loved by the ultrarich and pilots alike.
“Oh, my gosh. That’s terrible,” said pilot Keith Lorch when told of the plane’s demise.
The Learjet was the creation of American aviator and inventor William Lear. More than 3,000 of the sleek jets have flown since, cutting a distinctive shape above the clouds with a bullet nose and twin rear-mounted engines.
Mr. Lorch’s first job as a professional pilot was in 1970 as a Learjet co-pilot and mechanic in Omaha, Neb., flying his employers’ architects and engineers around the United States and, occasionally, Canada. He has since logged 16,800 hours in the plane.
“The Learjet has been my bread and butter since 1970,” Mr. Lorch, 78, said from Phoenix, where he flies a Learjet as a corporate pilot.
In almost half a century at the controls, he has flown executives and celebrities, crossing continents and oceans in the aircraft he says is fun to fly. The jet is known among pilots for its quick handling and high rate of speed – on takeoff and ascending.
“I like to tell people it’s more like driving a sports car than driving a cement truck,” Mr. Lorch said.
The Learjet, which costs about US$9.9-million, seats up to nine people and has a range of 3,850 kilometres. That would have been enough to get Mr. Sinatra home to Palm Springs, Calif., from Toronto.
“It’s a sad day,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice-president of analysis at Teal Group, a Washington-based aviation consultancy.
The Learjet, he said, was a pioneer in executive aviation and independent travel, forging a new market segment that ingrained itself in pop culture with the counterbalanced appeals of jet-set thrills and leather seats with legroom.
“What wasn’t memorable, right?” Mr. Aboulafia said. “You could make a strong argument it was the only business jet with a little bit of fighter aircraft DNA in it, because it kind of looked like that.”
Although the pandemic slowed all manner of aviation spending and travel, COVID-19 is not solely to blame for the end of the Learjet, which has long been a niche product that competed with similar models made by Cessna and Embraer, he said.
“The knives were already in its back,” Mr. Aboulafia said. “The pandemic might have accelerated it by a couple years, but it had been delegated to a one-a-month program for years. It was a strategic decision to not invest in the future.”
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