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Early Business JetsText by Divan MullerEven to those who have little or no interest in aviation, business jets are seen as the ultimate form of air travel. Where did the concept originate? Let us look at some examples of these aircraft, which were the first of their kind.Lockheed JetStar - Bill LarkinsLockheed JetStar
In terms of new aircraft, 1956 was an exciting year in the history of aviation. The Bell UH-1, Convair F-106, Boeing KC-135, as well as Dassault’s Etendard and Mirage III, all took to the skies for the first time during that year. It was also the year in which the US Air Force (USAF) realised that it needed a new kind of aircraft. USAF decisionmakers announced the requirement for two light jet transport aircraft: a smaller one for training and utility roles, as well as a larger one for light airliner and transport duties. Unlike normal requests for design proposals, this announcement offered no money or development contracts. In other words, development of the aircraft would have to be funded by the companies which would manufacture the aircraft, whilst hoping the USAF would be interested in purchasing the resulting products.
Lockheed had already been interested in developing a small airliner, so the possibility of having the USAF as a customer was just enough incentive to begin developing such an aircraft. Lockheed’s Kelly Johnson, undoubtedly one of the best aircraft designers of all time, directed the programme which followed the specifications of the larger of the two required concepts. The resulting aircraft, called the JetStar, completed its maiden flight on 4 September 1957. Although perhaps not realised at the time, it was an important moment, as that date marked the birth of the business jet. The sleek aircraft had swept wings and two turbojet engines mounted on each side of the rear fuselage. Even today, more than sixty years later, the JetStar continues to look surprisingly modern, albeit perhaps in somewhat a retro-futuristic way. The USAF purchased sixteen JetStars. Eleven of these were used as VIP transports, whilst the remaining five aircraft were used to test and calibrate airport navigation aids. JetStars have seen service with civil, government and military operators around the world. In total, 204 examples were built, of which 40 were improved JetStar II variants. Interestingly, Kelly Johnson himself used a JetStar as his personal transport aircraft, whilst rock and roll star Elvis Presley famously owned two JetStars. North American Sabreliner - Tomás Del CoroNorth American Sabreliner
Unlike Lockheed, North American Aviation developed an aircraft which followed the specifications of the smaller concept described by the USAF. As it happened, North American engineers had been working on ideas for small jet-powered transport aircraft since the early 1950s. As with the JetStar, North American’s aircraft resembled the configuration of modern business jets. The aircraft’s wing and tail design was similar to that of the company’s F-86 Sabre fighter. Therefore, it was named the Sabreliner. This twin-turbojet aircraft completed its maiden flight in September 1958. The USAF and US Navy received more than 150 examples, of which the majority were ordered by the USAF. However, the aircraft proved to be quite successful from a commercial perspective, as more than 800 Sabreliners were built. Production lasted until 1982, but the Sabreliner continued to remain relevant in the industry, as a result of various modernization initiatives. Hawker Siddeley HS.125 - Pedro AragãoHawker Siddeley HS.125
Meanwhile, in England, De Havilland began working on a business jet of its own, which it named the DH.125 Jet Dragon. The aircraft first flew in August 1962 and its subsequent developments would remain in production for about five decades. When it entered production, the aircraft’s designation was changed to HS.125, as De Havilland had been merged into Hawker Siddeley. As a result of various corporate mergers over the years, the HS.125 was later produced by British Aerospace, Raytheon and Hawker Beechcraft. More recent variants of the HS.125, such as the Hawker 900XP, have kept the aircraft type relevant and up-to-date in a modern, digital world. The HS.125 was the first aircraft specifically designed from scratch to serve as a business jet and has been described as Britain’s most successful civil aircraft programme, with more than 1 700 examples built. That said, many of these aircraft saw service with military operators, including the South African Air Force. Dassault Falcon 20 - Steve WilliamsDassault Falcon 20
Today, France’s Dassault Aviation is well known for its line of Falcon business jets. However, its first business jet was originally named the Mystère 20. Development of the aircraft began in 1962, with the aircraft completing its maiden flight in May 1963. In the USA, the aircraft was marketed as the Fan Jet Falcon and later the Falcon 20. As a result, the aircraft became known simply as the Falcon 20, making it the first of Dassault’s famous Falcon jets. Production lasted until the 1990s, with more than 500 examples built. Learjet 23Learjet 23
American inventor and businessman Bill Lear began development of his first aircraft, the Learjet 23, in 1962. He used elements of an experimental Swiss ground attack aircraft to design his business jet. The Learjet 23 first flew in October 1963 and remained in production from 1964 to 1966. A comparatively small number of Learjet 23s were built: only 101. However, the aircraft was the first of a series of more successful Learjets which remain in production today with Canada’s Bombardier. Into the future
The 1960s saw the development of more business jets, paving the way for marques that would become synonymous with luxury air travel. The Gulfstream II, for example, took to the skies in 1966, whilst Cessna’s first business jet, the Citation I, flew for the first time in 1969. As technology progressed, business jets have become faster, quieter and more efficient, but let us not forget the pioneering jets of the ‘60s, many of which remain in service today.
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