The History of Business Aircraft
When you realize that there are only 500 airfields in the U.S. offering scheduled passenger service, it is no wonder that personal and corporate flights have become an industry in itself. Whether it is the Learjet of a shipping magnate, media mogul with a partly owned Cessna Citation X or the tough talking politician in his Piper Navaho, business aircraft facilitates convenience and efficient travel to engage in and meet important business or personal appointments.
Business aircrafts come in all models, from the single-engine Cessnas and Pipers to twin light planes and the Learjets. Post-war development has equipped planes with the necessary radio communication and navigational capabilities to make round-the-clock, all season business flying a reality.
Business flying first came into being in the late 1920. Open-cockpit biplanes and Stinson, Fairchild and other enclosed cabin designs were employed, but it was the unique Beech planes that became early pacesetters on efficient private flying. The Beech Model 17 “Staggerwing” from 1932 was a picture of luxury and comfort with leather and mohair fitted cabins that could seat 5 passengers. Its cousin, the Model 18 Twin Beech from 1937, was created for the purpose of economy business flying and could seat up to 9 passengers. Its popularity was established with a production line spanning 32 years and over 7,000 units manufactured.
The Grunman-built Gulfstream business aircraft line debuted in 1958 and was widely acknowledged as the “Rolls Royce” of business flying, no doubt due in part to leveraging on its twin Rolls Royce Dart turboprop engines. The $1-million price tag of the Gulfstream I did not deter buyers and steadily established itself in the business aviation market, while a increased performance delivery came with the creation of the Gulfstream II in 1964.
And who could forget the Learjet – William P. Lear Sr.’s innovation from 1963 that is now synonymous with all things business flying, an icon of luxurious business travel. The Learjet 23 was the first mass-produced and individually built and financed small jet aircraft, and was delivered by the Chemical and Industrial Corporation of Cincinnati, Ohio, on October 13, 1964. March 1966 saw the introduction of the higher performance Learjet 24 which would be the first business aircraft to fly round the world, within 4 days. Record breaking sales were established with the production of the Learjet 35/36 – a modified Learjet 25 with stretched turbofans. The Learjet 36 saw a 1976 global goodwill trip piloted by world famous golfer Arnold Palmer.
The Piper PA-31 Navaho entered the business aviation market in 1964, staking its claim on the twin-engine quarters. It came in three versions that catered for various needs in seating capacity and arrangements, outfitted with user-friendly cabin features including the ability to carry luggage in the engine nacelles. The same year saw the unveiling of Beech’s Model 90 King Air, another twin-engine aircraft that could ferry eight passengers in comfort. As evidenced by its eventual 90 percent share of the market within its class, the King Air quickly became a mainstay for corporate flight departments.
Beech continued to innovate and produced the Beech Model 2000 Starship in 1983. The brainchild of Voyager creator Burt Rutan was a statement of innovative aircraft design with comparable speeds to small business jets, but the Starship flopped commercially. Too expensive at $5 million, only 53 Starships were produced.
Meanwhile, the Gulfstream III, Learjet 55 and Learjet 60, introduced over the years from 1979 to 1990, established winglets which greatly reduced drag and thus saving fuel. This resulted in increasing intercontinental flying ranges of 4,174 miles with the former and continues to see improvements today.
In between in 1985, the Gulfstream IV was released to the industry and immediately shook its foundations and grabbed it by the neck. Ferrying up to 19 passengers in luxurious interior fittings such as luscious sofas and oak furnishings, it was built with celebrities and business moguls in mind. The Gulfstream IV and IV-SP were the result of customized user requirements. Built at a cost of $24-million, it made possible cost-effective long distance flights of close to 7,223 miles, with lengthier fuselage and less moving parts on its wings. To add to its legend, Gulfstream chairman Allen Paulson sensationally broke and established countless flight records whilst flying across the world, such as clocking in 8.5 hours faster than the Boeing 747SP jumbo jet for a trip around the world in January 1988 that lasted under 37 hours.
Beech continued to establishing itself as a source of cost-effective and reliable business aircrafts above the turboprop aircraft market via its Model 400/400A Beechjet, with the acquisition of the Mitsubishi Diamond production rights. Their competitor Cessna also made its mark with the Citation X, as it became recognized as a speedy production aircraft, clocking speeds of Mach 0.92.
Prices of business aircrafts continue to escalate while striving to satisfy ever-changing market demands for comfort and speed. Compared to a Beech Staggerwing which cost only $15,000 in 1932, $30-million is the asking price of many a business jets today. However, there is no visible lack of demand despite prohibitive costs, as in any business – where there is demand, the sales will come.