With condensation partially obscuring the windows, the first officer calls the altitude as the captain nudges the control stick forward, sending the airplane down another 150 feet, the tip tanks seemingly about to skim the waves as we scream along at 250 knots.
“That’s probably him on radar,” the first officer barks, studying the small screen in the center stack. Soon the USS Dewey, a guided-missile destroyer, fills the sloped windscreen, its guns poised and ready, and then in a flash the ship is behind us. Had we been the bad guys, the ship’s close-in weapons system (CIWS) would have torn us a part in seconds.
Such was my introduction to flying in a Learjet. It was the summer of 1987 off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, where Flight International was acting as a practice target for the U.S. Navy gunners—just another day at work for the versatile Learjet, but an eye-opening experience for this young associate editor at Professional Pilot magazine.
We struggled to near the airplane’s maximum altitude on a warm day over Tucson, the nose bobbing up and then down as it gasped for the last few feet. Finally, the demo pilot in the right seat suggested I turn on the autopilot and let the automation have a go.Years later, as an editor at AOPA, I would get my first chance to fly a Learjet, the 31A. The new model’s delta fins were said to tame the earlier models’ attention-grabbing stall behavior at mid- to high altitudes. And indeed they did, as I wracked the airplane around in the mid-30s in ways you would never handle a Lear 20 series. But the highlight of this flight was the crawl to Flight Level 510, the highest I have ever been. We struggled to near the airplane’s maximum altitude on a warm day over Tucson, Arizona, the nose bobbing up and then down as it gasped for the last few feet.
Finally, the demo pilot in the right seat suggested I turn on the autopilot and let the automation have a go. Sure enough, we soon crested—barely—the mark. And, yes, the sky up there is really dark and yes, you can see the curvature of the Earth.
My next encounter with the Learjet would be a few years later in 1997 when an all-new model, the Learjet 45, was in development. Then I had a chance to wring out a pre-production airplane from Wichita. The Learjet 45 debuted brake-by-wire, digital engine controls, and trailing link landing gear for the company—all components that were meant to be leveraged in future models, such as the Learjet 75, which debuted in 2013 after many delays. Meanwhile, the all-composite Learjet 85, announced in 2007, languished under financial and delivery challenges throughout Learjet and its parent company, Bombardier. The 85 was canceled in 2015.
Bombardier eventually shored up its financial situation, but Learjet, acquired by the Canadian company in 1990, still struggled for relevance in an era of more modern designs. Finally, in 2021, Bombardier announced that Learjet’s six decades of production would come to an end in early 2022. True to its word, the company delivered its last airplane, a Model 75, to Northern Jet Management in March 2022.
Wichita and Tucson produced some 3,000 of the pointy-nosed jets, with designer and founder Bill Lear making the first delivery of the Lear Jet 23 in 1964. Remarkably, 2,000 of them are still flying today, fulfilling all sorts of missions around the world, including target towing and mock intercepts like I first experienced 35 years ago. Bombardier vowed that product support would continue—not surprising, given the lucrative market for these still-hard-working airplanes.
It’s been said that Learjets are like Piper Cubs. Whenever the general public sees a little airplane, they think it’s a Piper Cub. Whenever John Q. Public spies a business jet, it gets dubbed a Learjet. I guess that’s why it’s often referred to as “the iconic Learjet.” In this case, it’s an accurate description, for no model symbolizes the varied business jet market as the highly recognizable and often revered Learjet.
We will miss seeing new models lift off the runways at Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport. But wow! What a ride it’s been.