Podcast: Learjet - An Inside View From Those Who’ve Been There

Don Grommesh, Bill Lear’s employee No. 8, served as chief engineer, vice president of Learjet engineering and vice president and general manager of customer service.

Al Higdon, Joined Lear Jet in 1964 and helped make Learjet a household name. Higdon, now retired, is co-founder of Sullivan, Higdon & Sink, now Signal Theory.

Dave Franson, joined Learjet as director of public affairs from 1997 and served for seven years. Franson is now president of the Wichita Aero Club.

Photo credit: Learjet

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Rush transcript.

Molly McMillin:            Good day and welcome to Aviation Week's Business and Commercial Aviation podcast. I'm Molly McMillin, Managing Editor of Business Aviation for the Aviation Week Network and thank you for joining us today.

Today we're visiting with three former Learjet Executives, who will give us an inside look at Bill Lear and the launch of Learjet, the lessons and events that culminated in the decision to stop production, along with the Learjet's place in history. Joining me, is Don Grommesh, Bill Lear's employee number eight. Don joined Learjet in 1962 after working with Mr. Lear in Switzerland on the design of the first business jet. At Learjet, Don was Chief Engineer, eventually serving as Vice President of Learjet Engineering and Quality Assurance. Under Bombardier, he served as Vice President and General Manager for Customer Service for Learjet and Canadair. Don retired in 1995.

Molly McMillin:            Next is Al Higdon. Al left Beech Aircraft in 1964 to join the Learjet Corporation, where he served as Manager of Information Services and Director of Public Relations. Under Al's efforts the Learjet became a household name went synonymous with the term, business jet. After co-founding the Wichita based  Sullivan Higdon & Sink Advertising, now Signal Theory, Al provided outside advertising from 1972-1985 to Gate's Learjet, which had purchased the company in 1967. Now retired, Al was honored by the Wichita Aero Club in 2015, for his longtime contributions to aviation.

Molly McMillin:            Last, but not least, is Dave Franson, who joined Learjet as Director of U.S Public Affairs in 1997, a position he held for seven years before returning to his consulting firm, Franson Consulting. During his tenure, Dave worked for Learjet presidents Matt Bateson and Jim Ziegler. He also produced a video history of Learjet to mark its 40th anniversary in 2002. Dave now serves as President of the Wichita Aero Club.

Molly McMillin:            Thank you Don and Al and Dave for being here and joining us today. Let's start with Don. Don, why was Bill Lear in Switzerland back in the day and what were you doing there with him?

Don Grommesh:         Oh, well, probably for couple of reasons, maybe three. The Swiss people had just designed and built a jet fighter, which was canceled, and Bill thought some of that design and very change could be used in building a business jet. So number three, I guess engineers were available over there and their price was about two-thirds of what they were charging there in the United States, so I think he thought that was a good price and besides his wife, she loved Switzerland, and that was a great place to go and relax. Switzerland, by the way, is a beautiful place if you've ever been there. If you haven't, you should go.

Don Grommesh:         When I arrived there, I had a meeting with Hank Waring and he... By the way he gave me my Badge No. Eight. And Bill was number one and his secretary was two and Hank was number three, by the end of that, I was number eight, because there were a few other guys from the shop that he had hired. And so, when I got there …  they wouldn't allow me even to look at their drawings. I think they were afraid we might take it away from them. I remember there was a pub next door that they used to go there and have a two-hour lunch and after about two months, I think Bill gave up on that and decided that's not the place to build the airplane, even though he had bought the design rights for the P16, including their manufacturing jigs.

Molly McMillin:            So why did he come to Wichita, Don? What attracted him?

Don Grommesh:         Well, I think the main reason was... it was the Air Capital of the World and since they just had canceled the 407 and a lot of engineers, like myself, were there and were available… Everything in Switzerland that Bill had acquired was shipped back to Wichita and we had the drawings and everything so, all of these were on the metric system. And so, we were all happy about that (moving back to the U.S.)  especially my, my wife was happy about that, because we had five children and she was not able to go to Switzerland, so that's what happened there.

Molly McMillin:            Okay. We'll come back to you Don. And Al, why did you leave the stability of Beech to join Learjet back in the day?

Al Higdon:                   I was probably 28 years old at the time. I was married, but we had no children at that point. I already loved aviation greatly. This just looked like an exciting, new chapter in aviation and I wanted to be part of something that was potentially pretty special, and it was, Molly.

Molly McMillin:            Tell us, what was the culture like when you arrived there?

Al Higdon:                   Well, it was an energy level that was new to me. Little or no company politics were there. Everybody did seem to be pulling in the same direction. Long working hours, as I know Don can attest to, were expected and accepted. Bill Lear was the focal point, but it stopped with him. You first stayed out of his way if could and keep your head down and keep moving towards the objective.

Molly McMillin:            So, tell us about... Bill Lear gave you the edict to make the Learjet name a household term and one that was synonymous with the business yet. And I've heard stories of people looking up and seeing a small aircraft and saying, ‘There goes a Learjet,’ and you were instrumental in that. Tell me, how did you do that or what did you do?

Al Higdon:                   Well, number one, the principle focal point on that success story needs to be my boss and mentor, Jim Greenwood, who I worked for at Beech. He left to go to Learjet, he asked me to join him with in the first year, which I did. So I worked for Jim Greenwood during that period, but the fact is that Bill Lear had to move fast. He had five well established airplane manufacturing competitors, already vying for control for the emerging business jet market. And we at that time, were by far the little guy. He knew he had one shot to get a leg up and that was to move into the marketplace with a quick, forceful leap. In Public Relations, Jim Greenwood, in my objective, was to get the name and image of Learjet, in as far as many people as possible and do that as quickly as possible.

Al Higdon:                   We tried to do this by working with movie and television producers to feature Learjets being boarded and flying to faraway places. And advertisers of other products and services from luggage to cigarettes to, you name it (wanted) o show their products with Learjets. We also landed dramatic record setting flights from around the world, speed runs, altitude climb rate flights, all of this was to reinforce the unparalleled high-performance of what was now being dubbed, the businessman's jet fighter.

Molly McMillin:            Frank Sinatra bought one and he lent it to Elvis, and you seem to have gotten a lot of attraction, how did that come about?

Al Higdon:                   Well, a lot of that was because Bill and Moya Lear were connected to [inaudible 00:09:09] Hollywood. Moya Lear's father was,’Ole’ Olsen, who was a part of the team of Olsen and Johnson, from vaudeville days. So, they were naturally linked with the Hollywood star system, I guess. And we had numerous visitors to Wichita, from Danny Kay to [crosstalk 00:09:34] dozens of Hollywood people, sport celebrities, media personalities, politicians who were intrigued by what was going on in Wichita with the Learjet. They wanted to see it, many of them flew in it. It was just a pretty exciting time. We were dubbed by the local media in Wichita not too long after we arrived as being, Learjet, that's Hollywood East and we accepted that mantel.

Molly McMillin:             That's funny. Dave, I think you'd mentioned that one time that people who left the other companies to go to Learjet were called the Italian boatmen?

Dave Franson:            Yeah, that's right, Molly. I stole that from Al. He's the one that actually told me the story.

Dave Franson:            It stated that, when Bill Lear got to Wichita, he recognized that there was a lot of talent available at the other companies. And so he was cherry-picking guys like Don and Al, who were highly thought of. And they would leave their companies and they were referred to as Italian boatmen, because they were, ‘Gone-to-Lears.’

Molly McMillin:            What was the first aircraft flight like?

Don Grommesh:         Oh, I remember that very well. I didn't even know we were going to go fly. But anyhow. I remember that it was getting dark and it was about five o'clock in the afternoon on October 7th and I remember that so well. And all of a sudden Bill came up and started telling everybody ‘We're going to go flying - we need to fly this. We need to fly.’ Everybody started scrambling and trying to get things going. And, you've got to understand that, the airplane... we had the structure, but there were very little systems in the airplane, so we weren't sure why we were doing that. But I think Bill, he needed the publicity.

Don Grommesh:         And so, I remember Hank Beaird and Bob Hagan, they were going to be the pilots and I remember they were talking about parachutes and Bill said, ‘You're not going to need any parachutes. Bring that damn airplane back here!’  I quick, ran home and got my video camera and thought man, if we're going to take this airplane up, which I had no doubt we could, but you know it was... we'd never done anything like this before.

Don Grommesh:         Anyhow, it did take off and I did get some nice video shots and I'll tell you, for me it was a wonderful dream come true, and yet we had so much to do. We had to certify that airplane, because, youhave to remember that at that time, there were very little systems in the airplane. Now, the guys had run some taxi runs and at one point they did lift it off a little bit. I remember when they were practicing, but nothing like, ‘Okay, we're going to go fly.’ So, we didn't have any telemetry or anything. So we went and man, I'll tell you, everybody was amazed.  I was just sorry that my wife was not there for that first flight. A lot of people came and there were people lined up around and I guess the word got out that we were going to fly.

Al Higdon:                   I want to jump on what Don said. He touched on it. Apparently, I was at Beech at the time, so I was not part of this. But the local radio stations did get a hold of the fact that the airplane was going to fly. And I know the entire length of the runway, this was after dark, well most it was dusk, right Don?

Don Grommesh:         Man yeah. [crosstalk 00:13:57]

Al Higdon:                   And there were car headlights lining the runway from stem to stern. It must have been an amazing sight.

Don Grommesh:         It was!

Dave Franson:            I think, Don, I might even have used some of your video of the airplane flying in that 40th anniversary, because we had video of the first flight, so thank you for that. And an interesting side note to all of this, and this is how influential Bill Lear was to everybody in his company, and for that matter, in town. Bob Hagan sat in the left seat of that flight. He was the pilot along with Hank Beaird, and October 7th is Bob Hagan's wedding anniversary. And so, rather to get to go home and take his wife out for a nice anniversary dinner, he was flying passes over the Learjet factory and showing off for all people lined up along the road.

Molly McMillin:            Who would like to talk about what happened to that first airplane?

Don Grommesh:         What happened to the first airplane? Well, I remember that well too, because I was coming to work, and I saw smoke coming out from the field close to the Learjet factory. And when that happened, it was on June 4th, and there... well, the FAA was going to do some checks on the airplane and I remember that the guy took off with the spoilers up and never put them back[crosstalk 00:15:47]

Don Grommesh:         FAA test pilot were in the left seat and our guy was in the right seat, but I know he did it unknowingly. But anyhow, that airplane settled out in a wheat field about a mile from the factory. It broke a fuel line and a fire started and, thank God everyone got out safely, but there was obviously no way that a firetruck could get to that because it was kind of muddy out there in that field. And I remember that, later on, that was probably the biggest blessing that Bill Lear ever had, because he had a $500,000 (insurance) policy on that airplane and he collected it and up until that time, Bill had asked us all to take half pay…. And so, he collected the $500,000 and we were all so happy, because we started getting our money and by the way, that airplane was built in the metric system so, we could have never sold that airplane to anybody.

Don Grommesh:         I remember him (Bill Lear) calling the FAA in Washington, D.C and (talking about how the accident) ruined his life and his factory and all his dreams couldn't come true and he was expecting a lot of help (with certification) and my gosh, after that we really did get a lot of help from those people.

Dave Franson:            And that airplane was certified on July 31st, 1964, after having flown for the first time on October 7th, 1963. Try to match that kind of schedule with any airplane program nowadays.

Don Grommesh:         Oh yeah, that was fantastic…. I was meeting with the FAA people, and it was midnight. And I said, you know Jack, that was Jack Caron at the time, and I said ’I bet you got that that certificate in your briefcase’ and he said, ‘Yeah, but I guess I was just kind of holding out because I really thought this whole thing went way too fast’  So, at midnight he pulled it out of his briefcase and he said, ‘Okay Don, here's the certificate…. It was July 31st.  I just have to remember that exact time, because he waited until exactly 12 o'clock, because I said, it had to be done on July 31 because...like my job depended on it.

Al Higdon:                   Not only was it certificated in 10 months after first flight, I think that the total dollar investment certification was about $11 million. Try to do that these days.

Molly McMillin:            Al, you had talked about some of your highest and lowest points while you were at Learjet. Can you talk about those?

Al Higdon:                   As Don and Dave can attest, you certainly had both. I think for me, the real adrenaline rushes were a couple of record setting global flights that were made, one in 1966 and one 10 years later in 1976. The 66th flight was with a Learjet-24. Globally 22 stops, made it in record time, set 22 world speed records and then 10 years later on the bicentennial of America, 1976 on the week of the National Annual Aviation and Space Writers Association convention and meeting in Denver. A Learjet-36 piloted by Arnold Palmer and a couple of Learjet pilots plus Bob Serling, who was the former UPI writer and author of a number of aviation books, was the official recorder, made the same trip and beat the time of the Model-24.

Al Higdon:                   Those were three day events. Very exciting and a lot of international media attention so we were happy about those. Clearly the downer for me was, and  I think Don will agree, it was 1966, there were three, at the time, unexplained fatal crashes of Learjets. That came at a terrible time for the company. We had significant momentum going in sales. We just delivered 80 airplanes the year before, 1965. Those flights, those accidents, brought things to a screeching halt and a time of great devastation and desperation for the company and none of us had a good time during those episodes.

Molly McMillin:            What led up to Bill Lear selling the company to Gates?

Don Grommesh:         Oh, I tell you, a lot of things. With Bill selling all those airplanes, I just... just drive me crazy, because all of a sudden, he was hiring new people and new general managers and it was a crazy time. But I think the worst move he made - he wanted to move the corporate headquarters to San Diego.

Don Grommesh:         We were building a Model 40 at the time, and that was a 40-passenger airplane. And we had a Model 28 that we called the 28 passenger and then we decided to go to a 40. I don't know, it was kind of a crazy time. And then, not only did he move the corporate headquarters, but then all of a sudden, he said, ‘Well we're going to design the wing up here too on that airplane. So, I had to be traveling back and forth between San Diego and Wichita. And not only that, he bought... decided he wanted to buy the Brantly Helicopter company. And he said, okay Don, to make that successful, we need to stretch it to four-place airplane. That was about more that we could all handle….

Don Grommesh:         He just had too many things going. He ran out of money and all of a sudden, in 1967, the board of directors said, enough is enough. And so, they sold the airplane... their whole business to Charlie Gates. Who, I'm sorry, but Charlie knew nothing about building airplanes. I... love the man, but ….

Al Higdon:                   I would say the culture did shift with the Gates Rubber company of Denver, buying controlling interest, in Learjet. As Don said, they were not really airplane people and that showed. But they did bring a stability. They sort of slowed things down.

Don Grommesh:         Yes

Al Higdon:                   And we sort of shifted our marketing from being the Hollywood airplane to being one for responsible corporations, who wanted the fast, dependable small jet to get their transportation needs in. So, there was a marked shift in the culture of that time.

Molly McMillin:            And not to jump too far ahead, but Dave, you were there in the 90s and the early 2000s when it had already sold to Bombardier. Can you talk a little bit about that and what, how the culture changed again?

Dave Franson:            Well, of course. I joined in 1997. Having been in the industry for a number of years before that, and when I got to Learjet... Actually, I had been called by my friend Mac Beatson, who had worked with me at Allied Signal. And he was the president at Learjet at the time. And he said, … we need some help and I had started my consulting business. So, I tried to have Learjet as a client, but they kept asking me for more and more time and eventually I said, okay, fine. And I joined the company. It was interesting coming from another culture at that point in time.  Don and Al both had come from different companies as well…  Learjet had gone through quite a catharsis if you will, after the Gates Rubber Company decided to sell it. They sold to Integrated Resources. There was a concern that the company might even be disbanded and sold in pieces. And Bombardier bought it out of a distress basically, in 1990.

Dave Franson:            And the culture, by 1997, had been established a little bit, but it still had a sort of a Canadian component that was Canadair and the American component that was Learjet. But Learjet was the name that everybody knew, I mean, Bombardier actually did a survey to find out what would be the best name to call the company. And by a wide margin, Learjet became the obvious choice, because it was known by everybody. Bombardier is a family-owned company, so their family decided to keep their own name. But the reality was that there was still a little bit of a, I call it a barrier between the two entities.

Dave Franson:            And so you get there and Learjet is developing new airplanes. They had announced the 45, but it had taken a lot of time to get to certification and finally when I got there in '97, the airplane was pretty close to certification and we certified it. They began delivering airplanes and in the time that I was at Learjet, from 1997-2004, we delivered 250 Lear-45's and even developed a derivative of it, the Lear-40, and delivered 17 of those. Learjet-31 was already in production.

Dave Franson:            Don tells a great story and I'll let him do if he wants... it's about Charlie Gates actually leaning up against an airplane in a hanger saying, ‘You know, we might want to consider updating this airplane,’ which he thought was a 35, and it was actually the prototype 31A.  So, there were things developing... Learjet 60 was in full production and it was doing very well, and we delivered 190 of those during those seven years that I was at Learjet.

Dave Franson:            But what's interesting about it, was the culture seem to be moving forward and we seem to be gaining momentum. But it's like Y2K hit and for some reason that just chopped the legs out from underneath the Learjet production. The numbers went way down, I think we went down to like 70 airplanes for the whole year in 2000, out of Learjet. I think, probably the biggest reasons were that, even Bombardier, they weren't necessary taking a page from Bill Lear's book, but they were investing in an awful lot of stuff and trying to do things rather aggressively financially. And, they ended up selling the original part of the company, because of recreational vehicles, the Ski-Doo's a few years later. They invested happily in their real production and expanded their real section of the business, considerably, at a great deal of cost. And they began to put a lot of money into the C Series and into the Challenger-300 and other airplanes. And there wasn't much left for Learjet.

Molly McMillin:            The Learjet was the iconic business jet and somewhere over time, the competition kind of overtook them, right? Al, can you talk about that a little bit?

Al Higdon:                   Yes, I think so. Certainly, Learjet was the early front runner by quite a distance. And locally in Wichita both Cessna and Beech were sort of hanging back. Beech tried to enter the jet market by first marketing the British built, DH-125, and then they got into the Mitsubishi product line and a few off-brand things like that. Cessna, very wisely, I think, kind of took their time. In 1972, I believe it was, they came out with the Citation-500, which was much slower than the Learjet. We used to laugh about the Citation suffering bird strikes from the rear, which was probably not appreciated across town. Nonetheless, they just kept plugging away and built several new models on top of that. They went faster and were longer range, and they just built from the ground up. They were a larger company and more financially able to sink money into R&D, which they did very religiously and wisely. And Cessna then became the emergent leader, and deservedly so.

Molly McMillin:            We have just a few minutes left. I wanted to ask each of you what was your reaction when you heard that Bombardier is planning to stop production later this year on the Learjet-75.

Don Grommesh:         Well, I have to say that was very sad to hear about it. I don't know, I just feel so sad that they spent way too much money on airplanes up there and didn't pay attention to the Learjet down here. Because I think it had a great future and I think it still does, because when I was running the service departments, I think they decided to hang on to that. We were making lot of money in service than they were in selling new airplanes and service is a wonderful business.

Al Higdon:                   I would have to say that the rumor mill had been active for several years, prior to that, so it certainly was no surprise, maybe a surprise not a shock. It was really inevitable, apparently, with the increase in competition from newer, more modern, higher tech jets They were marketed effectively and the Learjet, as Don said, just had not been able to keep up with the developing new product lines.

Dave Franson:            I grew up with the Learjet. These guys were at least adults by the time the Learjet first flew. Learjet was actually certified on my 15th birthday. And I was used to Learjet being the iconic airplane. I know we all have seen people look up into the air and see a business jet go by. It could be a Gulfstream; it could be a Citation. But invariably they would point up and go ’Look, there goes the Learjet,’ because it had become the iconic airplane for business aviation.

Dave Franson:            And with 50 years in this business now, it;s always been there. And when you go to NBAA, Learjets were flying in in record time and having announcements about things that were milestones. And I remember all the excitement... In 2007, we had an announcement and it was a very nice ceremony over at Learjet's facilities, to announce the Learjet-85 that was going to be a primarily, composite airplane and a bigger new project…  And unfortunately, by 2015 that was gone too.

Don Grommesh:         That's a beautiful airplane, I might add. I was out there for it and I thought, man, this is rejuvenating the whole place and it's going to go again.

Dave Franson:            I still have pictures of it. It's a beautiful airplane. [crosstalk 00:34:40]

Dave Franson:            And so, reality is, Molly, I mean, I was saddened by it. I have loyal feelings towards my colleagues and my former colleagues at Cessna, I worked there for quite a while, on two different occasions as a matter of fact. And I've worked with folks at Beech as a consultant and with other companies. I have a tremendous amount of affection for just the business, airplane business segment and all of the airplanes in it. But I just felt a true remorse when I heard that there won't be any more Learjets produced. The upside of it is, as Don pointed out, service business makes a lot of money in the business aviation industry and there's still over 2,700 Learjets out there, so there still going to be an opportunity to look up in the sky and point and say, ‘Hey, there goes a Learjet.’

Molly McMillin:            Right, and as you point out, Wichita is still going to have their service center for Bombardier Globals and Challengers. It will still be the site for aircraft testing and also operate as a Center of Excellence for special mission aircraft…. On that note, what... I'd like to hear from each of you what do you think Learjet's place in history is?

Al Higdon:                   Well, I think it's already showing up on a number of Top 10 most famous, best known, most successful business aircraft since time began. And I think it will not fall from that list at all. It has its place. As we've talked about it, it is the iconic small business jet and it always will be, I think.

Molly McMillin:           And Don?

Don Grommesh:         Well, I think that it showed the world what can be done if people really want to get together and do it. And nobody could believe that you can build a business jet in that short of time and put it on the production line. Even to me, having worked on the T-37 for almost 10 years. What we did with that airplane and, it had to be built. And we were family. People don't realize that, how wonderful it is to be working for a company, and the engineers were down on the floor working with the people as much as they were up at their desks.

Don Grommesh:         And that's what made the whole thing work out so fine. And people loved each other and everybody helped each other and there was none of you can't do this because it's not in your job description type thing. I will always remember that. That was the most wonderful experience, after even working on the T-37, which I thought was great experience…..

Dave Franson:            Bill Lear created a situation... In 1958, Clay Lacey tells us the story that, he (Bill) came to Wichita for the Society of Automotive Engineers Aviation meeting that they had. And he told the assembled people here in Wichita that, if Cessna or Beech didn't take the initiative to build a jet (a) business airplane to compete with the new (Boeing) 707 that was now transporting people for the airlines, that he would do it ,and he kept his word. He came back in 1962 and did it.

Dave Franson:            And what happened out of that is, that both Cessna and Beech were compelled at some point in time, and of course other companies as well, to build business jets. And so, you can say that Bill sort of created two things, as far as I'm concerned. He created a business jet marketplace and competition that has brought us wonderful airplanes and extraordinary machines that transport people sometimes, 65,000 nautical miles nonstop, at high speeds and high altitudes, with great amenities….

Dave Franson:            And he also revived a sense of the Air Capital of the World pride in Wichita, by building yet another airplane here that drew great attention. Give Al and Jim Greenwood a lot of credit here. They helped us keep our title as Air Capital of the World. And now, we have 300,000 reasons in this town why we're still the Air Capital and they all are airplanes that were built here, but those 3,000 that were built by Learjet are certainly iconic airplanes and ones that help us maintain our leadership in that regard.

Molly McMillin:            Unfortunately, that looks like all the time we have. We could talk a lot longer. Thank you Don, Al and Dave. I sure appreciate you being here.

Don Grommesh:         Well, thank you, Molly. We wouldn't be doing this without you so...I give you a lot of credit.

Dave Franson:            Well, Molly, I always look up to all of my elders, so I look up to Al and Don a great deal, and you could look up to me!

Molly McMillin:            Thank you for listening. If you have any comments, feel free to contact me at [email protected] and you can subscribe and download Aviation Week podcasts on iTunes. Thanks for listening and thanks for joining us today.

Molly McMillin

Molly McMillin, a 25-year aviation journalist, is managing editor of business aviation for the Aviation Week Network and editor-in-chief of The Weekly of Business Aviation, an Aviation Week market intelligence report.


1 Comment
The 20 Series Lears were the first I flew with Harvey Hop, he former Navy and I former Marine Corps, in the very early 1970's. I flew the 20's and the 30's and loved them all. This is a wonderful history.
James Henderson