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Bizjet pioneers

The formative years set the tone for a new era

The timing was right when the first general aviation jets made their debuts in the 1950s and 1960s. The economy was surging. Thanks to the Cold War and the space race, factories were humming and there was a strong aerospace workforce.

A class of its own

On the jet’s American tour, actress Eva Gabor (left) gets a demo flight. (HERITAGE MORANE-SAULNIER DAHER) Paris Jets being assembled in the building that still exists today at the Tarbes, France, airport. (HERITAGE MORANE-SAULNIER DAHER) The Falcon 20—known as the Mystère 20 in its early days— gets chosen for Pan American Airways’ business jet division by Charles Lindbergh (right, wearing hat). (HERITAGE MORANE-SAULNIER DAHER) Frank Sinatra relaxes after arriving in Palm Springs, California, in his Paris Jet. (HERITAGE MORANE-SAULNIER DAHER)

But the scheduled airlines had yet to ramp up to anything like today’s levels, and they didn’t serve many smaller airports. Enterprising companies sprang up to fill this need by modifying older piston-powered airplanes—some dating to the 1930s and 1940s, and some of them from the World War II era—to serve in personal and business travel roles. Airplanes like the Lockheed 12, Spartan Executive, Douglas DC–3, and Beech 18 were put to work; some war surplus airplanes were fitted out with fancy interiors; and even some large, plush airplanes like the Howard 500 were developed.

As for purpose-built general aviation jets, their arrival owed a lot to defense contractors with excess capacity and ingenuity, so Lockheed Corporation, North American Aviation, Grumman Corporation, and France’s Dassault Aviation became players. Cessna gave us the first of many Citations, and Bill Lear’s Learjet 23, well, it made its own history. Here are five pioneering jets that started it all.

Thomas A. Horne

Thomas A. Horne

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.

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