Once considered the transport of the rich and famous, the latter are now more attracted to larger, more luxurious private aircraft. Credit: Eileen Antonio photo.

It was the epitome of luxury jet travel for the super-rich and famous for decades.

Old blue eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, became an early adopter 50 years ago, in 1965, when he took delivery of one of the first examples of the Learjet 23.

He named it Christina II, after his youngest daughter. A week after taking possession of the plane, Sinatra flew it to the Newport Jazz Festival, where he resurrected his singing career.

Elvis Presley reportedly borrowed Sinatra’s Learjet to elope to Las Vegas in 1967.

But times have changed.

These days, celebrities seem to prefer competitors like Gulfstream (Tom Cruise), and Bombardier’s larger planes like Global (Oprah) and Challenger (Jay-Z).

If you’re Drake, you’re going with a full-size Boeing 767 — a commercial jet refitted for private use.

This week, aircraft manufacturer Bombardier — citing dwindling sales and the need to cut costs — announced the last ever Learjet will be built in 2021, along with the loss of 1,600 jobs.

The Quebec-based aerospace company announced the moves in posting its quarterly financial results, which showed the company lost US$337 million in the last three months of 2020.

The job cuts will bring the company’s total workforce down to about 13,000 people around the world.

The iconic Learjet was the creation of the US inventor Bill Lear.

Modelled on a Swiss fighter aircraft, it allowed up to eight people to travel in comparative luxury – although not to stand upright in the jet’s small cabin.

But a serious setback early in its development nearly ended the aircraft’s glittery future.

On its very first test flight on Oct. 7, 1963, the original prototype came down almost as quickly as it went up, then erupted in flames just beyond the runway. Lear could only watch in dismay as his dream literally went up in smoke.

“Number one crashed,” recalls Clay Lacy, a longtime friend and business associate with Lear, who died in 1978. “It was the best thing that ever happened to Bill Lear.”

“They took off with the spoilers up, and an engine shut down,” Lacy says.

The spoilers are meant to slow the airplane when it’s time to descend, and it is nearly impossible to take off if they are left up. The guy in the captain’s seat was a Federal Aviation Administration pilot. He and the Lear pilot sitting next to him had neglected to put the spoilers down for takeoff.

The airplane didn’t get much more than 10 or 20 feet into the air and eventually settled back down into the field, where a wing tank ruptured and it caught fire. Nobody was hurt in the accident.

About 3,000 planes have been built since the first Learjet 23 flew in 1963. Bombardier acquired the Learjet company in 1990 but has announced it will discontinue the model. Credit: Learjet.

At first it seemed like a disaster, but soon Lear was able to turn the accident into exactly the break the company needed.

“He was getting low on money,” Lacy says. “And he had it insured for $500,000.”

An historical twist of fate.

By modern standards, the Learjet did not have a lot of space, just enough for two leather seats in back, a port-side seat near the door, a three- or four-person divan on the starboard side, and, on Sinatra’s plane, a pullout card table.

His Learjet also included a liquor cabinet, the contents of which helped ease Sinatra’s fear of flying. (Before every flight, his valet — an ex-Navy officer — would call airports along the route to double-check weather reports.) 

Anyone who wanted to travel fast and travel in style bought one. The list price was US$495,000.

With gas at 18 cents a gallon and the cost of maintenance and upkeep, it cost roughly $135 an hour to operate — nothing for a Hollywood celebrity.

The Learjet was featured on TV programs like The Dating Game, where winners would be whisked off to Las Vegas or San Francisco. Within a few years, the Learjet name had become part of popular culture.

About 3,000 planes have been built since the first Learjet 23 flew in 1963. Bombardier acquired the Learjet company in 1990 but has announced it will discontinue the model to focus on its other business jet models, the Global and Challenger series.

Eric Martel, the chief executive of the Canadian manufacturer, told analysts that the decision had been made as part of a cost-cutting plan designed to save U$400 million a year by 2023.

“Passengers all over the world love to fly this exceptional aircraft and count on its unmatched performance and reliability.

The Learjet 23 was the toy of the super rich. Above, illustrious Rat Packers Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, before catching a flight. Credit: Photo by John Bryson.

“However, given the increasingly challenging market dynamics, we have made this difficult decision to end Learjet production,” he said.

Bombardier said it would continue to support and maintain existing Learjets, and would offer upgrades to avionics and interiors at the Learjet factory in Wichita.

The company delivered almost 20% fewer business jets in 2020, down to 114 aircraft.

Bombardier is currently a shadow of its former self, having gone from an integrated transportation conglomerate that made planes and trains of all shapes and sizes, into essentially a niche maker of business jets.

The jet’s real appeal to Sinatra and his Rat Pack friends was that it could shuttle them quickly between Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Sinatra’s home in Palm Springs.

With a top speed faster than 500 mph, the jet enabled hasty exits, which proved handy the time that Sinatra and Dean Martin got into fisticuffs with fellow diners at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills during a birthday celebration for Martin.

When the plane picked them up at a nearby airport the following morning, Martin sported a black eye and blood on his shirt, while Sinatra wore a makeshift sling on his arm. No matter.

They were up and away in a few minutes, heading to another state to wait out the news cycle and let their injuries heal out of the public eye. 

Sinatra and Mia Farrow flew in the jet to the south of France for their honeymoon. Marlon Brando and Sammy Davis Jr. took it to Mississippi to join Martin Luther King Jr. in a civil-rights march, and Dean Martin loved to take it to movie sets.

Sinatra sold the Learjet in 1967 and purchased a Gulfstream II. 

— Sources: Robb Report, The Guardian, CNN Business, CBC News, Wired

This five-to-seven-passenger Learjet 23 had a top speed of about 560 miles (900 km) per hour and a range of 1,830 miles (2,945 km). Favoured by celebrities, Learjet became almost a generic term for the many executive jets that followed. Credit: Eileen Antonio photo.