Was the Lear Jet the First VLJ?


I received a letter from a reader after our story on the Cessna Mustang ran in the May issue asking me to compare the Mustang to the original Lear Jet 23, to measure 40 years of progress in light business jets. Interesting idea, and there is a valid comparison, but it's not the Lear and and the Mustang. It's between the Lear 23 and the Eclipse 500.

The reason the Mustang bears no relationship to the first Lear Jet is that the Mustang comes from the leader in business jets, not a start-up company. Cessna will soon deliver its 5,000th Citation, far more than any other business jet maker. The Mustang is an all-new design, but it is the product of the most experienced maker of light and medium-sized business jets in the world.

But the Eclipse and Lear Jet have uncanny similarities in their origins. Both are from companies whose founders and leaders enjoyed success in other businesses, but had never designed and produced an airplane of any kind. Bill Lear was involved in many business ventures before Lear Jet and was best known in aviation for his development of avionics such as autopilots and ADF receivers. Vern Raburn, founder and head of Eclipse, was among the very first people to team with Bill Gates at Microsoft and also was a pioneer in computer retailing.

Both Lear and Raburn founded their companies with the objective of building small personal or business jets at unheard of low prices and in unprecedented quantities. Despite the lack of any breakthrough enabling technologies, such as development of the microprocessor in the computer industry, Lear and Raburn promised to build jets for half or less the cost of any airplane from the existing manufacturers. Apparently the low price would result from high volume, or from production techniques that offered efficiencies ignored by the established airplane makers.

When Bill Lear began promoting his light jet in the early 1960s, Lockheed was already producing its four-engine JetStar, and North American was building the Sabreliner and large companies were buying and flying them as the first corporate jets. Hawker Siddeley was putting the finishing touches on the Model 125, Dassault was well along with development of the Fanjet Falcon, and Aero Commander was working on the Jet Commander. The business jet was already established, but Lear dismissed the airplanes from the major manufacturers as nothing more than jets originally designed to compete for military contracts. That was partly true, but no major corporate executive was sneering at the standup headroom in the JetStar, nor at the comfort and performance of the Sabreliner. Lear was after a different market, primarily the individual traveling on business, not the big corporation. And Lear was building his jet almost entirely with his own money, $8 million of it, we reported at the time.

Lear's initial plan was to convert a small Swiss fighter-bomber jet, the P-16, into a business jet, and he predicted his SAAC-23 would be delivered late in 1962 with a complete price of $350,000, we reported in our April 1964 issue. It didn't happen. Undaunted by failure, Lear blamed the Swiss aviation authorities and moved his operation to Wichita with a new promise to deliver the Lear Jet 23 for less than $500,000, a substantial price increase over the original, but still a fraction of the price of any existing business jet. A Lear Jet actually flew in October of 1963, but wholesale design changes had been made or were to come, including moving the horizontal up to a T-tail configuration, reshaping the wing leading edge to help tame the stall, speeding up the landing gear cycle time and adding 100 gallons of fuselage fuel.

Lear used the prototype as much for promotion as for development testing. The cover of our April 1964 issue had a photo of the Lear Jet flying over the New York World's Fair site even though it lacked such basic systems as pressurization. Lear relentlessly promoted the airplane in the mainstream media and focused a great deal of his attention on Hollywood and television, which gave the sleek little jet a great deal of coverage. Somebody said the Lear Jet looked like it was going 500 mph (or insert your own number) when it was standing still, and that comment was repeated over and over.

Like Eclipse, Lear aimed for single-pilot certification in the small airplane category. The Lear Jet 23 maximum takeoff weight was restricted to 12,500 pounds because that is where the rules change from small airplane to transport category. Eclipse went one step further by restricting takeoff weight to less than 6,000 pounds because that is where engine-out climb performance and other rules change and become more demanding for small multiengine airplanes. Both jets have cockpits with instruments, controls and switches arranged to be within easy sight and reach of a single pilot. The Lear Jet 23 almost received single-pilot approval, but at the last minute the FAA decreed a crew of two was required.

The Lear Jet and Eclipse sagas diverge, however, in one very dramatic area-performance. The Lear Jet was a rocket in climb and no slouch in cruise, thanks to its enormous power-to-weight ratio. The most suitable proven jet engines available to Lear in the 1960s were the GE CJ610-1 turbojets rated at 2,850 pounds of thrust. That gave the Lear Jet a thrust-to-weight ratio of 2.2, meaning there was a pound of thrust available for every 2.2 pounds of airplane at maximum takeoff weight. Fuel was going through the straight pipe engines so fast at takeoff and climb power setting that the thrust-to-weight ratio was quickly 2.0 or less, so Lear's claim that the Model 23 could climb to 10,000 feet faster than an F-100 was perhaps true.

Lear promised a cruise speed of Mach .82 and, with so much thrust available, the challenge in achieving that milestone was aerodynamic, not power. The Lear Jets did have a maximum Mach operating speed (Mmo) of Mach .81, but there was at least .02 Mach error in the pitot-static system, so true Mach was around .79 maximum. However, at that speed, which is about 453 knots true, the promised range was only about 850 nm, and that was with a Bill Lear reserve. Slowed down to about 412 knots, Lear claimed range would be about 1,600 nm, a dream that never came close to being realized.

So, in terms of performance, 40 years have added nothing when we compare the Lear Jet and Eclipse. But that's true for all jets. The original jet airliners from Boeing and Douglas cruised on average faster than a modern jet. And the Concorde, the fastest of them all, traces its design roots back to the period when Bill Lear was promoting the Model 23, so the years have not added to jet speed.

What has really changed, all for the better, are flying qualities and systems complexity. The Lear Jet 23 was and remains a handful for any pilot. For example, its Dutch roll is divergent, meaning once the combined yaw and rolling motion gets going, it will grow in magnitude, eventually making the airplane uncontrollable. That's why the airplane is approved only with one of the dual yaw damper systems engaged at all times in flight. Its stall characteristics would never be approved in a jet today even though it has a stick pusher that yanks the control column forward to prevent an aerodynamic stall. The Eclipse has a pusher, too. The Lear Jet even has a stick puller to pull the nose up and slow the airplane down in case the pilot isn't paying attention. At speeds beyond the Mmo limit flying qualities degraded quickly. And the Lear Jet's takeoff and landing speeds were much higher than even the largest business jets now in production, and most pilots would find them unacceptable.

For all kinds of reasons the Lear Jet 23 did not enjoy a good safety record. The prototype was lost with an FAA pilot at the controls. Several of the 100 or so Model 23s built were involved in some sort of accident. I certainly expect the Eclipse to have a much, much better safety record than the first Lear Jet, thanks to four decades of aerodynamic and systems design improvements and better pilot education.

But what 40 years hasn't changed is the difficulty of designing an entirely new airplane while simultaneously starting an airplane manufacturing company from scratch. Both Lear Jet and Eclipse missed every original target for delivery date, price and several areas of performance. The Lear Jet was going to be ?under? $350,000 originally, but ended up costing $600,000 or more. The original Eclipse price was under $800,000, but is now above $1.5 million. Both are still very low prices, but substantially above original goals. Lear missed his initial target date by more than three years, and, depending on which dates you look at, Eclipse is now three to six years behind.

Though Bill Lear did eventually deliver his Model 23, and Lear Jet became a household name, it's hard to call his company a business success. The company went public, but not long after the first 100 airplanes were built Gates Rubber took over the financially strapped Lear Jet to keep it going. In 1966 the company lost nearly $12 million on sales of $27.5 million. And prospects for 1967 didn't look much brighter. Only time will tell how Eclipse fares as a money-making business.

But when thinking about the original Lear Jet and the Eclipse, the most stunning comparison is in price. Even at $600,000, the Lear Jet was expensive in 1964 compared to the $1.52 million price tag for the Eclipse. I don't know what inflation adjustment would be appropriate here, but prices have certainly gone up more than two and a half times in the last 40 years. For example, in 1964 a new Bonanza cost just under $40,000, and the price is just over $500,000 today. In 1965 a Hawker 125 cost $850,000, and a new Hawker now is nearly $14 million. So how can Eclipse do it for that price when other new airplane costs have gone up by 10 times or more in 40 years? There has to be some magic in there somewhere.

All-New Under The Cowling It's obvious that the general aviation fleet is old with the average age well past 30 years for piston singles and twins. Overall, the airplanes are holding up well with very few safety issues when standard maintenance and inspection procedures are followed. However, the hardest working parts of the airplane-those under the cowling-are the components most pilots worry about most, and they should.

That's why it's great to be able to replace them all with brand-new parts, or at least new parts of everything that wears. And you also get the many design improvements that a manufacturer makes over the years. I'm talking about a factory-new engine from Continental. The company has priced its brand-new engines at a small premium over factory rebuilts, and the rebuilts are an increment above a factory overhaul. So, now you have a choice of how much ?newness? you want to install under your cowling.

A new Continental engine is exactly that. All components have never been installed in any engine before. It's the same engine that Continental would deliver to one of the many airplane manufacturers installing the engine on new airplanes. All of the design improvements and manufacturing process changes Continental makes almost continuously will be in the engine. In the past a new engine was priced at a huge premium over a rebuilt or overhaul, but that has changed. Now Continental offers new engines for about only 10 percent more than factory rebuilt.

A factory rebuilt engine-often, but incorrectly, called a remanufactured engine-contains a huge majority of all new parts from Continental and leaves the factory with zero time and a new serial number. Only the engine manufacturer can do that. About the only parts in a rebuilt that are not new are those that don't really wear, such as the connecting rods, crankshaft and gears. Even the crankcase is new on most Continental rebuilts. And like the all-new engine, the rebuilt contains the latest component design and manufacturing improvements.

Finally, there is the overhaul, either from the factory or a field service facility. In a factory overhaul more parts are reused, but all meet strict limits. In a field overhaul, the rules allow any part that is not worn beyond ?service? limits to be reused. The quality of an overhaul is going to depend on the standards and skills of the company doing the work. The factory, obviously, has the most consistent standard, though independent shops can do quality work and can customize some parts of the overhaul.

For me, it's hard to beat the new engine at Continental's price premium. For a tiny fraction of what a new airplane costs, you have the benefit of everything new in what is probably the most important part of the airplane. Sure, we need to make certain the airframe is not corroded or cracked, but those components are holding up well compared to the engine. A factory-new engine is going to bring your existing airplane closer to the reliability of a new airplane than anything else you can do.


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