February 1, 2007
By Alton K. Marsh
One day soon — say, in 24 to 36 months — you'll ride into suborbital space in a Learjet. True or false?
Calvin Burgess knows your answer because he is building the modified Learjet in his hangar at Guthrie, Oklahoma, under contract to Rocketplane Kistler, an Oklahoma City-based firm. The front end of the delta-wing Learjet will carry a pilot and three passengers — wait, passengers implies commercial service; make it three humanoids — while the cabin carries liquid oxygen and RP1 kerosene. The jet climbs from an Oklahoma spaceport to 18,000 feet using conventional jet engines and lights from a customized 36,000-pound-thrust engine used in the Atlas rocket program. Tickets are $250,000 each.
How, you might ask, did Calvin Burgess get into the rocket-jet business, or jet-rocket in this case? Bombardier recommended him to Rocketplane. Bombardier, the Canadian parent company of Learjet, has seen the modified 480-knot Learjet 25 built by his Spirit Wing Aviation company. A Bombardier test pilot told him in September 2006 that Burgess has "tamed the beast," a compliment of which he is justly proud.
This Canadian-born entrepreneur began his career constructing office buildings and privately operated prisons. The profits from that allowed him to invest and direct a farm development project in Kenya.... OK, we're moving fast, but that's because there isn't room here for more than a couple of the highlights of Burgess' activities. Did I mention he owns a Douglas A-26 Invader bomber with two 2,000-horsepower engines that is converted for executive travel?
Burgess got out of the prison-building business, and a friend trying to help the people of Kenya asked him to invest in the country. So on Christmas Day 1999, Burgess was standing on the fields of a troubled government farm project trying to imagine how to reroute the Yala River in western Kenya. During the rainy season, it doubles in size to 120 feet wide and 14 feet deep and was making a swamp out of the farm. He took over the project and split the river, making it run half to the east and half to the west around the farm. It will be 17,000 acres when done and is already producing rice. Soon it also will be a fish farm and an agriculture training camp for 1,000 youth.
Many pilots have remarkable aviation achievements, but none so far has rerouted a river in western Kenya.
AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Alton Marsh has been a pilot since 1970 and has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates, aerobatic training, and a commercial seaplane certificate.
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