Learjet. It sounds fast and it is. This airplane has had a place in our aviation consciousness for a long time as the ultimate in speed, wealth, luxury and convenience. When first introduced by Bill Lear in 1964 it became synonymous with these things and more. Lear had bought the tooling for a Swiss ground-attack fighter aircraft (FFA-P16) and shipped it to Wichita, Kansas. So began the Lear 23. Soon the Lear 24, in various iterations, followed, and the myth, or several myths, were born.
As a college student, I watched in stunned silence as a Lear 24 taxied up to a small upstate New York terminal where I was working the Avis Rent A Car counter and driving an airport limousine. After that, I could think of nothing but Learjets. A friend gave me a tie tack in the shape of a tiny silver 24. I wore it everywhere. He later gave me an elegant model of the airplane, which sat atop my bureau in the one-room dorm facility I later occupied while in school in New York City in 1967. In the close confines of a big city, that Learjet held promise of escape and adventure. It prompted me to get a private ticket. Back in those days of limitless future, I hoped one day to own and fly one.
It has turned out that owning a Learjet won’t be in the cards for me. Some 44 years later my financial situation isn’t likely to change that much for the better fast enough to realize that dream. But I have, finally, learned to fly one.
This past May I attended FlightSafety International in Atlanta to get typed in the Lear 31. The 31 is the most evolved direct descendant of the early Learjets and the last designed before Bombardier Aerospace took over in 1990. The Lear 31 first flew in 1987 and the 31A was delivered up until 2003. With winglets (Longhorns!), EFIS and 3,500 pounds of thrust per side, this was the ultimate evolution of Bill Lear’s concept.
Though this was not my first jet type rating, in a way it was. By that I mean that previous ratings were great fun, but my likelihood of ever really flying the Cessna 500 jet or the Boeing 737 on any regular basis was virtually nil. With the 31A, I might have a chance of flying for Elite Air in St. Petersburg, Florida, and so I was much more attuned to this training and way more focused on paying explicit attention.
On a spring Thursday I took an early (very) flight to Atlanta to make class at the FlightSafety facility near Hartsfield-Jackson by 8 a.m. There I met Victor Bucci, Learjet and Hawker pilot, a man with an amiable mien and a patient manner. Right away it was clear that this Learjet was some kind of animal. Just a few facts, please: Maximum cruise altitude? 51,000 feet. If the mach trim isn’t working, max allowable speed? 0.78 Mach. What is max cruise altitude if the spoilers are in-op? Flight Level 410, because you can’t get down to a safe breathable altitude within the allotted time without them when flying any higher than that. I don’t know about you, but these are not numbers with which I am habitually acquainted.
For the next five days, we worked our way through power plant, ice and rain, hydraulics, flight controls, electrical system and more. On day three, Vic put me in the simulator. It did not go well.
My first takeoff never happened. We careened down the runway oscillating from side to side as I took out runway lights with equal attention to the left and right sides of the pavement. Those rudders were sensitive. When I finally got airborne, trailing all sorts of pieces of airport equipment and debris, I made a mess of the steep turns. Either I could maintain altitude (sort of) while the airspeed ran away until the over-speed warning horn activated, or the altitude varied by hundreds of feet. Over-speeding a Learjet is the ultimate abuse of power.
Afterwards, Vic said that I had good control of the airplane except for the speed, altitude and directional control. That pretty much covered all three axes of flight. I was disheartened, and the trip back to the classroom didn’t do much to alleviate my fear that I would never be able to manage this beast.
On day five, I took a written test covering the ground-school portion of the training. Once I passed, I headed home for a few days of work, only to return three days later to begin the process of actually touching the switches and knobs that make Learjets go so fast. Jay Christensen was my SIT instructor. SIT stands for systems integration training. This felt a little like the first day of the third year of medical school. I’d been learning about anatomy (electrical) and physiology (Mach tuck) and pathology (engine fire) in the abstract. Jay was the perfect teacher for this exercise, as he made it all come together. Now I was to see how the electrical circuits are required to fire the engine fire-extinguishing bottles. Integration is truly the word for it.
The five simulator sessions were all flown with a copilot. Mine was Kris Gaudet, a quiet, professional young pilot recently out of the Army. You had to look at his name tag very carefully to see the miniature purple heart just to the right of his name. He never spoke of his experience that led to this award and I never asked, but from our time in the darkness of the simulator cockpit, I know that Kris is my kind of American. Besides, he saved my bacon more than once with his quiet urging: “We could put the flaps up to improve rate of climb.” And his grandfather is a Flying magazine reader.
Vic was my simulator instructor, an unusual event occasioned by my odd schedule. For this I was grateful, because I had developed an easy rapport with this experienced aviator-teacher. Vic pointed out that I could delegate things to Kris that I was doing for myself. As the sims progressed I got better at asking (telling? commanding?) Kris to engage the autopilot or to hit the IAS (indicated airspeed) button when I zoomed through Vapp speed on the single-engine missed approach climb-out. I was often reminded of my friend JC’s quote: “Next time I go through the glideslope, turn the autopilot on!”
With time the steep turns got better and the concept hung together in a way that only repetition and relearning can provide. On the next to last day, the door light came on, and sudden decompression followed. I fought to get my oxygen mask on over my glasses. At FL 410, you’ve got only a few seconds to accomplish this before you pass out. It was a good thing to learn in a simulator, and my subsequent donning times got better. This was fortuitous because I soon smelled something burning. I thought maybe the simulator was overheating, but I acted as if there were fire in the cockpit and headed for the airport (Wichita, in this case). Smoke filled the cabin. This was the very realistic feature that FlightSafety has installed in its simulators. It is a smoke machine that you can buy in a novelty store to place in your shrubbery on Halloween to scare young trick-or-treaters. It sure scared the colonic contents out of me.
On Memorial Day, I took one last review sim ride and then the oral test and simulator flight test. Jay was my examiner. I was unusually anxious. I held off on coffee, paced the break area and tried to memorize again the immediate action items: engine fire-shutdown, emergency descent, etc. Somehow, this seemed like a very important test.
Jay started easy but within a few minutes I had run up against the limits of my knowledge. Jay is a natural teacher and I found myself learning, not just answering. After almost two hours, we headed to the sim. I was very glad to see Kris; his familiar countenance made me relax just a little.
We got in, got started, got headed out for runway 1L at Wichita, ran our checklists, lined up and took off. The steep turns were OK, not great, but within ATP and type rating standards. We did some stalls, not a big deal. We shot approaches to minimums, we flew missed approaches, we held, we managed pitch trim malfunctions. We did an RVR (runway visual range) 500-foot takeoff. We lost an engine at V1 and managed to get airborne and climb at V2. I was getting limp from adrenalin exhaustion and concentration fatigue. As we wheeled back around to land with that one engine out, I smelled smoke again. With masks on we headed for the runway. Jay had given us a fire in the engine that was running! We ran checklists from memory as the 1,800-foot RVR runway came into sight. On the ground I commanded that both fire handles be pulled as I set the brakes. Kris fired the bottles; I brought the engine to cutoff and killed the batteries.
As the smoke cleared, Jay reached over and shook my hand. “We have a tradition here in Atlanta,” he said.
He handed me a small silver pin. It was the Lear 31; not too dissimilar from the pin I wore so proudly a thousand years ago. I am wearing this one still.