People boarding a aircraft
In the final episode of TV’s Mad Men, advertising executive Pete Campbell and his wife, Trudy, take off for Wichita, Kansas in a perk of his new job, one of his employer’s shiny business jets.

Exiting The Mad Men Era—In A Lear Jet

As the show ended, most of its characters remained in a rut, but one was taking off for the future—in a shiny Lear Jet.
If you saw the final episode of Mad Men in May you’ll recall where the characters stood as the 1970s began: most were basically in the same rut, in a rapidly changing world. But one of them, at least, wound up with a new job, a leg up on the future and access to a business jet.
Prominently, there was lost soul Don Draper, gazing tragically out to sea from a spiritual retreat on the California coast, sourly intoning  “om om” with doe-eyed hippies while, evidently, he dreamt up nothing more groovy than a Coca-Cola commercial. Back on the East Coast, there was Don’s whiny ex-wife Betty dying of lung cancer; and that rascal Roger winding up with the ill-tempered Marie, mother of the mercurial Megan, Don’s other ex-wife. Stan and Peggy, now a couple, were still creating ads at McCann-Erickson.
Compare their plights with that of Pete Campbell, he of the smarmy face that even a mother might want to punch. A week previously, Pete had stumbled into the Connecticut home of his much-aggrieved, estranged wife Trudy (at 4 a.m. no less), begging her to reconcile and come with him to a new job in Wichita, Kansas. Perhaps dazed from being dragged out of bed, Trudy sleepily agreed. In the finale, Pete and Trudy are whisked off to Wichita with their baby daughter in a perk of Pete’s new job: one of his employer’s shiny business jets. Trudy and the rest of us knew well that Pete was no prize. So as I saw it, that Lear Jet must have sealed the deal for her.
When the final Mad Men episode aired, there was a bit of a stir in Wichita, where William Powell Lear invented the Lear Jet, and where the modern business-jet world was arguably born. Mad Men was known for exacting detail regarding period furnishings and design, so it’s no surprise that the airplane shown in the finale, a Lear Jet Model 23, was exactly right. First flown in 1963, this model was marketed as a jet-age marvel to companies that had begun switching from rail to air and expanding far wider on corporate business trips during the boom years after World War II.
Manufacturers of some competing aircraft—among them North American Aviation’s Sabreliner 40 and the De Havilland DH-125—have claimed that theirs were the first twin-engine business jets. [See “The Twin-Engine Business Jet Turns 50…but Whose Birthday Should We Celebrate?,” October/November 2013—Ed.] But Lear won the marketing battle by establishing its name as synonymous with “business jet” in that era. Matthew Weiner, the Mad Men creator, knew exactly which brand-name jet Pete and his family should fly to Wichita.
“The first customers were corporations that had propeller-driven airplanes—the Beech Super 18 and King Air were very popular—so we had to get them to trade up to jets, and that meant emphasizing things like speed,” said Al Higdon, an advertising-agency pioneer who was Lear’s public relations director when the Model 23 came on line and helped push business aviation into the jet age.
A day after the Mad Men finale aired, I spoke with Higdon, now retired in Wichita. After his years working for Bill Lear, he cofounded what would become Kansas’s largest ad agency, Sullivan Higdon & Sink. He said it was no easy task selling buttoned-down 1960s-era companies on corporate jets. In 1965, he noted, the Model 23 cost $400,000. Adjusted for inflation, that translates to over $3 million today.
Bill Lear, a famously difficult man to work for, insisted that his Lear Jet “needed to become a household word,” partly to overcome cultural hurdles a company might encounter in deciding to acquire something as flashy as a jet. “So we worked hard in Hollywood to get the Lear Jet into movies,” Higdon recalled, “and we managed to get it used as a backdrop in ads for everything from cigarettes to luggage.”
Celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Danny Kaye were enticed, often with discounts, to become customers and help promote the brand. Higdon recalled frequent trips to Hollywood to give promotional flights to the “highly visible,” who would then talk up the Lear.
On the same day I spoke with him, coincidentally, I took a tour of the Pima [Arizona] Air and Space Museum, which is a must-see for anyone interested in the history of military aviation, as well as its close historical links with civilian aviation. Sprawling over 127 acres, in open-air displays and in giant hangars, are more than 300 aircraft—generations of military airplanes, side by side with some of their relatives in private aviation.
At the museum, I stood staring at a monstrous F-14 Tomcat fighter-bomber. But a friend who accompanied me on the tour was looking with great interest at a business jet on display beside the F-14—a Lear Jet 23. “Is this the Lear Jet they showed on Mad Men?” he asked.
Nope, but it was close. The Lear 23 used on the series finale, tail number N1965L, belongs to Clay Lacy, formerly of Wichita, who founded Clay Lacy Aviation, the venerable business-aviation charter firm in Van Nuys, California. The one we saw in Pima is tail number N88B, which the museum acquired from the late Henry H. Timken Jr., said to be the first businessman to qualify as a private-jet pilot, and his wife, Louise, the first woman to type-qualify on a Lear,  in 1965.
It was only five years later, with the business-jet era still in its infancy, when Pete Campbell told his new employer, “Corporate executives should be your core business…You need [salespeople who are] comfortable with the kind of boardroom leaders that see Lear Jet as a tool, not a frivolous extravagance for movie stars and their pets.” Then he soared off to Wichita with Trudy and their daughter.
Don Draper and most of his cohorts were planted firmly in 1970, but Pete turned out to be ahead of his time.


Joe Sharkey, the author of six books, wrote a weekly business travel column for The New York Times for the past 16 years.

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