Bombardier Challenger 650
Bombardier Challenger 650

Bombardier Challenger 650

An airplane project that Bill Lear began nearly half a century ago has been refined into a design that’s now considered a classic.

By 1974, 72-year-old Bill Lear was frustrated, tired, and sick. The serial inventor and entrepreneur, best known for giving us the Learjet but also a whole host of other things— including the stereo eight-track tape player and the first automatic aircraft landing system—had just blown $17 million trying to develop an automotive steam turbine engine for an uninterested market. In typically Lear fashion, he moved hyperactively on to the next thing.

From his compound at the old Stead Army Airfield in Reno, Nevada, he recruited a talented team of aeronautical engineers, including Richard Tracy, who would go on to work on the Aerion supersonic business jet. Lear’s goal for the team: design a business jet that mated slick supercritical wings to a comfortable, long-range cabin, propelled by a new generation of fuel-efficient turbofan engines recently developed for the U.S. military. And thus was born the Learstar 600, which would eventually be morphed into an entire line of business and commuter jets, including the Bombardier Challenger 600 series, the company’s larger Global series, and its CRJs—Canadair Regional Jets. (Virtually anyone who has flown commercial from a U.S. small market airport over the last 30 years has been on a CRJ.) 

Since 1978, in fact, the line has accounted for more than 4,000 aircraft across 28 makes, models, and variants. And while many of their specifications differ, all of them share Bill Lear’s vision of mating highly efficient wings and engines to long range and a comfortable, approximately eight-foot-wide cabin.

The Challenger 600 series is the longest-lived of these and has been in production for 41 years. It fills today’s bizjet market niche between the super-medium and traditional large-cabin aircraft. And when you consider that America went from the Wright brothers’ first flight to Chuck Yeager’s penetration of the sound barrier in 44 years, the 600 series production run is nothing short of amazing. Along the way, it has been modernized across five major block changes and 17 variants. The last two block changes have been significant.  

Bombardier Challenger 650 windows
Bombardier Challenger 650 windows

With the Challenger 605 in 2007, Bombardier made the cabin windows larger and taller and positioned them higher along the fuselage. This addressed a long-standing complaint about Challenger 600s: you had to bend down in your seat to see out the passenger windows. The larger windows and new window reveals increase viewing area by 30 percent and let in more light.

The Best Variant Yet

Unveiled in 2015, the Challenger 650 is the latest and by far the best variant yet: a symphony of large-jet interior styling and convenience features joined with the latest avionics and tweaked engines that are even more efficient than their predecessors. Late-model 650s are an exceptional value, considering their original list price of nearly $33 million: a 2015 copy can be had for $14 million while a 2020 one has already depreciated to $21 million, according to the aircraft valuation service Vref. And that makes it a better buy than some used—and smaller—super-mediums. 

The 650 features a redesigned cockpit and cabin and improved GE CF34-3B MTO turbofans that provide, greater payloads, and more range from challenging airports during high/hot operations. Maximum range is 4,000 nautical miles with six passengers and standard NBAA IFR reserves. The 9,220-pound-thrust engines have 5 percent more takeoff thrust than the engines on the aircraft’s immediate predecessor, the Challenger 605. The additional shove, which facilitates shorter takeoff distances, is pilot selectable via a new performance thrust setting and does not affect engine maintenance, provided it is used no more than 10 percent of the engine’s logged running time. The new feature is particularly effective at airports such as those in Aspen, Colorado, and Hilton Head, South Carolina. 

The extra thrust does not increase overall fuel consumption but it does propel the 650 to an initial climb rate of more than 4,300 feet per minute. GE supports the engines for new and used aircraft via its OnPoint hourly maintenance plan, which covers overhauls, parts, loaner engines, and certain labor charges. Compared with the 605, the 650 also affords longer service and inspection intervals and lower hourly direct operating costs. 

Up in the flight deck, the 650 features the Bombardier Vision flight deck, which is based on the Rockwell Collins Pro Line Fusion avionics system and was originally designed for the larger Global 6000. Vision offers large 15-inch displays and includes such safety improvements as head-up guidance, synthetic vision, enhanced vision, MultiScan weather radar, and the Integrated Flight Information System.

Bombardier Challenger 650 Interior
Bombardier Challenger 650 Interior

A Flexible, Distinctive Cabin

Nice as the cockpit is, the capacious 1,150-cubic-foot cabin is this airplane's most distinctive feature. The flat floor is almost eight feet wide and there is six feet of headroom. The cabin provides lots of flexibility. You can equip it with extra-wide, fully reclining single-seat executive chairs or side-facing three-place couches without sacrificing aisle clearance or making the space appear cramped. The double divan configuration is especially popular with operators who regularly make transatlantic crossings. The big cabin also eases placement and installation of large bulkhead video monitors and other entertainment equipment as well as furniture monuments such as side rails, credenzas, and conference tables.

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Production is ending for the more than half-century-old brand, whose name became synonymous with “business jet.”

The 650’s restyled cabin seats up to 12 and borrows design elements from the aborted Learjet 85 and super-midsize Challenger 350. Improvements over the 605 include wider seats, a galley with a temperature oven, more personal storage in and around the seats, and Lufthansa Technik’s Nice HD cabin management/inflight entertainment system, which accommodates HD and audio/video on demand. Styling cues from other Bombardier models include larger interior window cutaways to let in more natural light, bullnose accents that run the length of the drink rail, in-wall speakers, and stylized passenger service units. 

The changes to the 650 were a hit. Fractional-jet-share provider NetJets immediately ordered 25 and through 2020 Bombardier has delivered more than 150. 

Bill Lear died in 1978, two years before the Challenger 600 came to market and decades before the design’s significance would be fully appreciated. While he will always be best known for the Learjet, his most impactful contribution to aviation may well be the concept that evolved into the Challenger 600 and its best example, the Challenger 650. 

2015 Bombardier Challenger 650 at a Glance


Passengers: 10–12 

Range: 4,000 nm (NBAA IFR reserves, 6 passengers) 

Cruise speed: 470 knots 

Maximum takeoff weight: 48,200 pounds 

Takeoff distance at MTOW: 5,640 feet 

Service ceiling: 41,000 feet 

Engines: 2 GE CF34-3B MTO, 9,220 pounds of thrust each


     Height: 6 feet 

     Width: 7 feet, 11 inches 

     Length: 25 feet, 7 inches 

Baggage capacity: 115 cubic feet