Switzerland & Midwest Connections: The Learjet Iconic Business Jet with Swiss Roots
At the end of 2021, after 58 years, production of the iconic Learjet aircraft ceased in Wichita, Kansas. The dream and the vision that brought William Powell Lear to Wichita in 1962 to build the world’s iconic business jet had its beginning in Switzerland and with a Swiss made military jet.
Going It Alone
The Second World War had clearly demonstrated the importance for countries to have a powerful air force. After the war, the Swiss government bought a large number of foreign fighter planes, however, to be as independent as possible, it also invested millions in the development of its own fighter aircraft. After the development of numerous prototypes and long discussions in commissions, the parliament in 1958 approved the purchase of (100) P-16 aircraft from the Flug- und Fahrzeugwerke AG (FFA) in Altenrhein (Canton St.Gallen). The aircraft was the brainchild of Hans-Luzi Studer, who later worked with Bill Lear on the development of the SAAC-23.
Unfortunately, the dream of a Swiss-made fighter was short lived. Seven days after the decision, a pre-series P-16 crashed into Lake Constance due to problems with the hydraulics. Three years earlier, the first P-16 was also ditched in Lake Constance after a fuel supply malfunction and the Federal Council cancelled the 100-plane order.
According to Bill Lear Jr., who was invited by FFA to test the P-16, the aircraft was a very capable fighter and that the test pilots lacked experience. Lear junior himself was an illustrious figure. In 1946, at the age of seventeen, he bought a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, the best fighter in the U.S. Army at the time, making him the youngest pilot ever to fly that aircraft. Later, he flew for the U.S. Air Force, the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Following the test flights of the P-16, Bill Lear senior asked his son about the various flight characteristics of the fighter. The son was impressed and in particular the innovative wing structure of the P-16 with its aerodynamic fuel tanks, was of interest
From Switzerland to Kansas
Bill Lear senior first moved to Geneva in 1955 and his son followed in 1956. In 1959 Bill senior envisioned building an aircraft and the airplane he had in mind was called the SAAC-23 (Swiss American Aircraft Corporation-23rd design). As it was originally anticipated that the aircraft would be built in Switzerland it became obvious that FFA in Altenrhein might be an ideal place to accomplish this–especially in view of the Swiss government’s recent decision to cancel the P-16 project. Lear reached an agreement with FFA to begin work on the SAAC-23 prototype. Before series production started in 1962, a dispute between Lear and FFA boss Claudio Caroni ensued. The exact circumstances remain unclear and both sides blamed each other. Lear abandoned the construction of a prototype that had begun in Altenrhein and began series production in Wichita, Kansas. There, the Learjet 23 took flight and customer deliveries soon exploded. In 1965, the first year following certification, the company produced twice as many planes of all other business jet manufacturers combined. The world began to take notice of this relatively small executive transport that looked like it was traveling at its 560-mile-per-hour cruising speed while still sitting on the ground. Within a few short years, the name Learjet was synonymous with the term business jet. Virtually all sightings of small jet aircraft were immediately identified as a Learjet.
The Swiss jet fighter development regrettably ended with the P-16, albeit many other successful types of aircraft were built in Switzerland over the years (for example Pilatus, which builds renowned commercial, private as well as military training aircraft). In place of the P-16, the Swiss Air Force settled on the British Hawker Hunter. Hans Studer died in 1971, aged 64. Bill Lear senior died aged 75 in 1978 and Bill junior passed away in 2009, aged 81.
You can visit the Swiss Air Force Center online at www.airforcecenter.ch, or see the P-16 and other Swiss aircraft in person at the center in Dübendorf, which is located near Zürich.