““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Learjet 45 & 45XR
Bombardier's Learjet 45 is a study in contrasts. It is a breakthrough aircraft that had a troubled and lengthy gestation period, and its operators have a strong love-hate relationship with the airplane and its product support.
The experience of one Midwestern company that flies a pair of these eight-passenger, 2,000-nm-range turbofans is typical. It bought the airplanes new, and delivery was promised for 1997. They didn't show up until 2000 and had not been in service long when they started to develop "issues." The maladies included pressurization problems, cracked windshields, fried power distribution panels, errant alarms, and-at least once a month-trouble serious enough to ground an aircraft. Then, in August 2003, the FAA grounded all Learjet 45s after finding that a defective screw-and-nut assembly for the horizontal stabilizer (little wing atop the tail) could break and send the airplane into a fatal dive.
The entire fleet sat on the pavement for a month while Bombardier struggled to fashion a fix and get it into the field. Not coincidentally, it was about this time that the airplane's resale value hit its nadir, down to $5.2 million.
Factory product support for Learjets has never been best in class, and after several years of incremental improvement, it slid squarely into the basement-again-according to the annual Product Support Survey in our sister publication, Aviation International News. Operators continue to report parts shortages, parts shipping errors and an occasional annoying lack of urgency exhibited by customer service agents.
With such a menu of misery, you might expect that the airplanes wouldn't fly much and that their owners would be trying to unload them-but you would be wrong. The disgruntled Midwestern operator flies each of its Learjet 45s 650 hours annually and it has no intention of selling them. And resale prices for Model 45s are climbing, now averaging around $6 million for a 1999 edition that sold new for $8 million.
What explains this seeming incongruity? It's simple. The Learjet 45 has the direct operating costs of a light jet, like a Cessna Citation II (around $1,800 an hour); flies a lot higher (51,000 feet), faster (534 mph) and farther (2,032 nautical miles with four passengers and IFR reserves); and has a more comfortable cabin (410 cubic feet). Payload with full fuel is a respectable 1,600 pounds, and up to 500 pounds of baggage can be split between nose and aft compartments. In fact, the Learjet 45 is more like a midsize-cabin jet such as a Raytheon Hawker 800XP or Citation VII. In other words, it delivers the performance and comfort of an airplane that costs millions more-and for that, most operators are willing to overlook a little inconvenience from time to time.
Work began on the airplane in 1989 as a replacement to the wildly popular Learjet 35 series. The Model 45 was a clean-sheet-of-paper design that made extensive use of customer focus group data, computer modeling and lean manufacturing design. The aircraft's roomy, flat-floor cabin was designed first, and then the rest of the airplane was built around it.
For a model in this category, that cabin is quite comfortable. The eight reclining passenger seats are arranged in a double-club configuration and have both in-base and floor tracking and slide and swivel motions. Outboard seat arms can be raised and lowered. Fold-out tables deploy from the sidewalls. A large lavatory with sink, belted flushing commode and wardrobe is in the aft cabin. A small closet and refreshment center is opposite the main entry door.
The designers outfitted the front office with the most cutting-edge avionics of the day. The system is built around Honeywell's Primus 1000. All flight and navigation information is displayed on four large screens that incorporate engine instrument and crew alerting system data. The system allows maintenance crews to download diagnostic information directly to laptops, greatly speeding troubleshooting of the avionics and engines.
Power comes from a pair of Honeywell TFE731-20-AR turbofans rated at 3,500 pounds of thrust each at up to 88 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level. The recommended overhaul interval is 5,000 hours. A digital electronic computer controls the engines and manages critical inputs and settings.
Balanced field length at maximum gross takeoff weight (20,200 pounds) is 4,405 feet, while runway length required at maximum landing weight (19,200 pounds) is 2,660 feet. With typical loads, this makes the airplane a good short-field performer. The electronic braking system, trailing link main landing gear and massive Dee Howard thrust reversers combine for soft landings and sure-footed and smooth stopping power.
Bombardier began delivery of a longer range variant, the Learjet 45XR, in 2004. The aircraft features a 1,000-pound increase in maximum takeoff weight, slightly more fuel capacity and a pair of Honeywell TFE731-20-BR engines that reduce balanced field length at higher temperatures, improve time to climb and deliver better high-speed cruise. Under certain circumstances, the Learjet 45XR's performance improvement is dramatic. For example, out of Aspen, Colo., the XR with eight passengers aboard will fly almost 1,000 nautical miles farther than a standard Learjet 45. The XR also has a restyled cabin with more comfortable seats, additional legroom and better lighting.
Through the third quarter of 2006, Bombardier delivered 312 Learjet 45 series aircraft. About 40 of these are XR models.
Almost a decade after it was introduced, the Model 45's value proposition remains unchanged. Once in a while, operators need patience and persistence when seeking parts and support, but most continue to believe that the airplane's benefits outweigh the occasional pain of ownership.