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Learjet marks 50th year; NBAA 2013 ends on high note

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, at 7:43 a.m.

Bombardier highlighted the progress it’s making on its new Learjet aircraft programs as it marked the 50th anniversary of Learjet at this week’s National Business Aviation Association convention in Las Vegas.

The NBAA, the world’s largest business aircraft show, wrapped up Thursday.

The show featured 1,100 exhibitors in two exhibit halls at the Las Vegas Convention Center and a sold-out static display with 83 aircraft at Henderson Executive Airport.

The show attracted 25,425 people, including attendees from all 50 states and more than 90 countries, organizers said.

NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen called the show a success.

“The energy and enthusiasm among exhibitors and attendees has demonstrated once again the tremendous value the industry continues to place on this event as a premier national and international business aviation venue,” Bolen said in a statement.

It’s an exciting time, Ralph Acs, vice president and general manager of Bombardier’s Learjet plant in Wichita, said before NBAA’s show opened.

Its new mid-size Learjet 85 program is making headway toward its first flight, which is expected before the end of 2013. It’s in the process of delivering the first Learjet 75 and certification and deliveries of the Learjet 70 will follow later this year.

Learjet rolled out the eight-passenger Learjet 85, painted white with a red stripe, in Wichita in advance of the show.

Manufacturing has been completed and the plane has been handed over to its flight test department.

The Learjet 85, launched in 2007, is on track to enter service in late 2014, officials said.

Steve Ridolfi, president of Bombardier’s business aircraft division, said that the market is still rather sluggish overall.

It’s been five years since the economy took a steep downturn, and many sectors are still struggling.

“I don’t think we’re over all the effects of the last few years,” Ridolfi said.

Still, Bombardier is investing in new products.

“We like business aviation a lot,” Ridolfi said in an interview before the show. “We like this space. ... We think it’s a phenomenal market. ... I don’t think we can say we’re out of the woods yet, but we like our position.”

The company feels good about where the markets are going, he said.

Bombardier Learjet will break ground on a new paint facility at its site in west Wichita during the first quarter of 2014, Acs said. It still plans to build a new delivery center in 2015.

After that, “that will be it for now,” Acs said on expansion.

The Learjet 85, a clean-sheet composite business jet, is the “biggest, fastest Learjet we’ve ever done,” Ridolfi said.

The company has included lots of new technology in the airplane, he said. It’s taken a lot of work and effort, but it’s all coming together.

Its static test article has completed its structural safety of flight testing at the National Institute for Aviation Research. And the program is close to completion on system supplier requirements for safety of flight, the company said.

This month, Learjet is celebrating its 50th anniversary, which it highlighted at the NBAA show.

The company marked the first flight of the first Learjet 23, which happened late in the day Oct. 7, 1963.

Test pilots Bob Hagan and Hank Beaird made the first flight, saying its systems had performed flawlessly and that it had accelerated on takeoff faster than any civilian or military jet they’d ever flown.

Early Learjet owners included Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye and Peter Jennings.

Bill Lear, born in 1902 in Hannibal, Mo., dropped out of high school to tinker with radios and airplanes.

He and Paul Galvin of Galvin Manufacturing Co., developed the first car radio, called Motorola. The project resulted in Lear’s first patent.

He then turned his attention to aviation, going on to develop the first automatic direction finder for airplanes, the first autopilot, the first automatic landing system and the first two-way radio for private planes.

By the 1950s, he held more than 150 patents.

When he was in his late 50s, he began thinking about building a moderately priced small jet designed for the business market.

The rest is history.

Eclipse is back

Eclipse Aerospace is close to delivering its first Eclipse 550, the first plane to come off the production line since its predecessor company filed for bankruptcy.

The very light jet will be delivered to Fred Phillips, president of Petrolift Aviation Services in Shreveport, La.

The company plans to deliver five or six more planes this year and produce about two a month.

Eclipse is sold out for this year, but slots are available in 2014, a company official said.

Aircraft registry

Michael Huerta, the administrator of the Federal Aviation Association, didn’t make it to the NBAA convention where he was to be the keynote speaker at a general session kicking off the show.

Instead, he was forced to cancel to handle work associated with the FAA reopening for business, which occurred after a 16-day partial government shutdown that started Oct. 1.

In a note to NBAA’s Bolen, Huerta said the FAA was sending extra hands to its aircraft registry division to try to help the office catch up. During the federal shutdown, sales of new and used airplanes couldn’t be finalized because the registry office was closed.

Bolen said it would take some time for the office to catch up on its backlog and for services to be fully restored.

“Seventeen days is a long time,” Bolen said on the closure. Every day had a compounding impact.

Air traffic control functions were deemed essential during the shutdown and were not affected.

“We’re hoping there are no more shocks in the future,” Bolen said.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mmcmillin.

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