The Need for Speed
From Bomber to Businessliner
Stephen A. Ruby, aviation writer EAA # 406241
When World War II ended, the push for economic growth enabled returning veterans to attend the College of their choice due to Congress jump starting the GI Bill providing housing, job training, and a host of oppurtunities to boost activity that was lost in the depression of the 30’s.
The aviation boom was on and small airplane companies initiated production schedules to allow just about anyone to purchase an aircraft tailored to fit his or hers travelling needs. Beech, Piper, Cessna, Taylorcraft, and Lockheed all had developed airplanes to meet new pilot start-ups and fairly certain such an industry would sustain itself in the established “boom” economic arena.
In June 1950 the aviation industry once again came to a screeching halt when hostilities broke out in Korea and it was only then, if you had an airplane suited for military application, you would be assured of assembling a product where all metal, aluminum, and completion schedules belonged to the Defense Department.
The short lived war in Korea ended in 1953. It was here that another push to re-start civilian aviation required a serious injection of economic assistance. Forecasters never predicted accuracy to reflect real time billings or deliveries, so the numbers fell short with those perceptions. The airplane shipments were less than favorable, when you look at what actual production activity took place at Cessna, Piper, and Beech. The Wichita trio experienced a rather bleak output.
Durell Unger (Dee) Howard started Howard Aero in 1947 based in San Antonio, TX. He had worked previously with Braniff, Western, and Slick Airways performing checks and inspections on their fleet of Curtiss C-46’s, DC-4’s, and Douglas DC-6B’s.
Dee Howard began conversions of Lockheed PV-1/B-34 Bombers because of their availability as war surplus machines. Dee purchased these surplus aircraft from the RCAF (Canada) and the SAAF (South African Air Force). The Lockheed transports retained the robust size ideally suited at placing executives in plush speedy transports providing 300 mph cross-country comfort for the discriminating buyer. There were enough of these airplanes to adequately inventory a spare parts initiative, allowing for numerous modification. The infamous Ed Swearingen was Dee Howard’s first employee. Numerous STC’s incorporating fiberglass nose extensions, streamlined engine nacelles, and picture windows breathing new life into existing ex-military surplus airplanes, so much so, that it was designated Howard Super Ventura, and later the Howard 350 in reference to it’s cruise speed. Meanwhile, Bill Lear and Gordon Israel were cranking out their conversions of the civilian Lodestar creating the Learstar Mk.1 and 2 under Learcraft Corp. Santa Monica, CA. In 1955 Butler Aviation, Chicago, IL., took delivery of a Learstar Mk.1. with options for 50 more and Learcraft intended to convert 200-300 aircraft but financial oversight, sales inadequacies, and other business activities, halted further improvements and 60 aircraft were built.
One day Howard heard the rumble of an A-26 outside. It belonged to a wealthy Mexican man who had told his pilots to go up there and find out where they could get some dual flight controls like the Reynolds plane had. Dee said he knew where to get the parts and they agreed on a price and that the work would take two weeks to install them. While working on the plane, Dee told Ed, “look at the bomb bay of this plane someone is liable to fall right out of it”. The plane had a poorly designed stair and the bomb bay was not secured or modified per the standard passenger conversion. Concerned for the safety of those who would ride on this plane Dee went ahead and did the modifications necessary to make the plane safe and in stellar fashion. The Mexican pilots showed up and were pleased with the work, but right away noticed the modifications to rest of the plane, they promptly said, “We’re not going to pay for this extra work,’ Dee replied “Just wait a minute, I was worried your boss might just fall right out of this thing, there is no charge for the work.” About a week later he again heard an A-26 rattling away outside. Out stepped a well dressed Mexican man and his two pilots, he wanted to meet ‘an honest Gringo, he had never actually met one’. This was the beginning of a great friendship and you know one good turn deserves another. The Mexican was wanting a plane that could fly nonstop from Mexico to New York and provide ample cabin space so that he could actually walk around on such a long trip.
Dee got right to work on it and determined that the only plane that would be adequate would be the Lockheed PV-1 or B-34 Ventura bomber. Lockheed also made a Loadstar L-18 but no way would it have the speed or range to do the job. Most of the military conversions just did not have the cabin space for passengers. The Ventura though had potential and he told the Mexican about it. He was quite enthused after hearing what Dee had to say and said, “So why don’t you do it?” Dee replied, “You’re talking about a lot of money somewhere near 2 to 3 million dollars to get a program like that certified and get a good flying plane out of it”. He told Dee he would agree to a joint venture with him and was willing to invest three million dollars. That was the story of how Dee got into the airplane manufacturing business.
As Dee sat across the street at his favorite lunch place Jims Café with Ed Swearingen, he thought up ideas and drew them out on napkins. He said, “were going to have to accommodate this new engine and get a handle on the weight and balance for the plane, we need a bigger lever”. He promptly went back to the office and asked his top engineer how much of an extension the Howard 350 would need to be stretched to give it what he was looking for. He estimated that 4 ft would do it, so 4 ft it was, now the new plane would be 4ft longer. To prove it, with the least expense of time and money he took one of his PV1’s and cut it in two. The modified conversion flew weeks later and proved to be a whole new plane. They were very pleased with the performance changes.
The new 500 would incorporate dramatic changes that most believed to be simple conversions to the then PV-1. This is however not true. The most important fact about the Howard 500 is that it is a new aircraft, carefully designed by Dee and his staff. Those that say that it is a conversion know very little about what they are saying or what Howard did. While it is true that the 500 is somewhat of a “highbred” in that it used many parts from other planes. Again this kept cost down and saved time. For example, the propellers are Constellation blades and the spider or hub comes from an F4U Corsair, a # 60 spline 4 bladed propeller. The Landing gear, straight off a PV-2 (the PV-1 gear was just to light for the increased wt of the 500) but with some huge mods such as how it attaches to the airframe.
Concerning the airframe, how could it be that one could simply put glue on an existing PV-1 structure and get it approved as a pressurized plane certified under the then CAR 4B (transport category) certification? That is not only absurd but impossible. You must design around the fact that you are going to pressurize the aircraft. The 500 has a fuselage former every 6 inches. The PV-1 has them about every 20 inches or more much like a DC-3. The designs were indeed similar and one lead to the other, many parts from the PV-1 interchange, but not without some modification. Dee modified almost every part that came from the Ventura. I can tell you that there are very few, if any parts that are a direct interchange. I have had to learn the hard way what mods to make on the parts I repair or exchange. It is definitely an on going learning process to be certain. I can see his point of view, or the evolution of each piece as I mess with them or repair them. We all tend to come up with ideas on how to improve a product when we use it for any given length of time. That is exactly what he did with the Model 350 as it lent itself to the design changes found in the 500.
Major airport terminals were lined up with DC-3’s, DC-4’s, and Constellations servicing the traveling public for the airline community. The only new executive aircraft being made available were the Cessna 310, Beech Twin Bonanza, Beech 18, Piper Apache, and the Aero Commander all in the light to medium twin category enabling time schedule parameters to be met for the businessman/owner. The larger types were relegated to converted military aircraft ending their careers in the “boneyard”. This is where Dee Howard, Bill Lear, Gordon Israel, and Ed Swearingen directed their talents producing speedy conversions of the Lockheed twins aptly named “baby Constellations”, with there low-slung fuselages, easy entry locations and large size, consistently being transformed into big piston powered executive aeroplanes. The only mass produced airframes available in quantity at reasonable prices were the inventory stored at these facilities and only the Beech model 18 came anywhere near a radial powered business twin currently in new production. By 1955 Howard Aero initiated development of the mighty Howard 500 that was sure to be the latest, greatest aircraft to be built combining extreme cruise, range, and over the weather capability. The prototype Howard 500 flew in September 1959. Too late for it to be a considerable contestant in the corporate boardroom flying chariot race.
The bustling activity at centers converting ex-military aircraft were providing engineering, manufacturing and employment options assuring an economic boost to the general aviation sector. While this element is sure to bring CEO’s, sales associates, and board of directors a timely way to travel, the thinking became that of more range, speed, and comfort. The Howard 500 fits here, it had the right combination of all previously mentioned criteria, but is pressurized and offered an airliner style stand-up cabin with a solid 340 KT speed. The Howard could fly 2800 miles non-stop, with a pressure differential of 6.75 psi, 35,000 foot altitude is routinely realized at gross weight (35,000 lbs.) but the FAA insisted that such advanced capable, large piston-powered twins needed more time for certification, so Durrell Unger Howard continued his modifications to Lockheed surplus Ventura’s, while devoting as much time to the 500 project, respectively. The advancements aviation was undertaking enabled these talents to invent the latest technology in avionics, electronics, and navigational aids, so much so that autopilots, ADF’s, and DME were being equipped in just about anything that flies. New IFR procedures implemented by the FAA required Air Traffic Control to work at incredible pace placing some smaller aircraft at risk for not keeping with this technology, here is where the Aeronca Champ, Cessna 172, and the Piper Tri Pacer excelled as trainers for the new pilot starts. The small airplane manufacturer engaged this technology assuredly, allowing new pilots a conformal setting embracing these new systems. The Howard 500 often confused as being a converted PV-1/B-34 Lockheed patrol bomber, was neither. It was a brand new airplane with a new fuselage, wing center-section, and outer wing panels powered with the last production version of the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 CB-16/17 developing 2500 HP per side, they were still being produced for the DC-6B and it featured auto-feathering and two stage supercharging with ADI ( water injection). 22 Howard 500’s were ordered and sold and now only 2 of them fly while an additional 3 can be re-built or restored. Still boasting extreme range numbers the Howard’s performance was so advanced that on a 400 NM trip the Howard 500 could beat a Lear 24 to it’s final destination. Dee Howard’s crown jewel was in fact so advanced that it competed favorably with modern jet airliner service. FAA certification was awarded on February 20, 1963, and as Dee puts it “10 years too late”.
The Jet Age
By 1957 General Aviation was assured success as a viable transportation solution. President Eisenhower initiated the National Highway System and the intercontinental freeway expansion was underway. All current jet aircraft were relegated to the military, Marines, Navy, and Air Force. This is where a technological leap forward was met. Boeing had flown their model 365-80 slated for the Air Force as a speedy aerial tanker replacing the KC-97 and introduced as the KC-135. Pan American Airways jumped on the bandwagon and ordered the commercial version called the 707 starting trans-Atlantic service to London in about 7 hours, jet airline service came of age. The British were first with the Comet, but airframe failures resulting in several accidents delayed them getting things going until a fix was made, meanwhile, American aviation companies targeting the business community were considering such novel ideas for execs. In 1959 Grumman Aerospace introduced the Gulfstream I, now here is an airplane for everyone, seating for 10 in a stand up cabin, 30,000 foot ceiling, a nose wheel and turbo-prop powered. The Gulf I was, and is, the turning point in executive travel combining a large airframe, 310 knot cruise speeds, with all-weather reliability. Gulfstream in rather quick succession filled order books with the Rolls Royce Dart turbine powered clean machine. Howard Aero still persistent with the 500 was about ready for certification when the FAA upped the ante with new 4B restrictions in which they placed additional safety standards for business airplanes matching those of airline standards. You could not fly the airplane for hire until these restrictions were satisfied.
The US Air Force in 1956 released a proposal for their UCX/UTX (Utility Transport) programme and McDonnell entered the Model 119/220, a four-engined 10 seat mini-DC-8 powered with the Westinghouse J34. Only one was built losing out to the Lockheed model 1329 called the Jet Star. Clarence “Kelly” Johnson infamous Lockheed designer/engineer built everything with a purpose, form and function, and of course, speed. The Jet Star was no exception, it retained a large cabin originally housed with a pair of Bristol Siddely Orpheus engines and fairly typical of the day in appearance borrowing design parameters from existing military aircraft. The power supplied by Bristol became problematic and an alternative source was installed the Pratt & Whitney J60 (JT12D) of 3300 lbs. of thrust. Johnson a serious man of his word decided a 4 engine installation gave stellar performance, and with that, increased fuel capacity comprised of “Slipper Tanks” mid-section in the wing. The design concerns were what was needed to give acceptable range numbers. The Lockheed Jetstar is fast, big, comfortable, and at the time expensive. 204 examples were built when production ended in 1978.
The other player here was North American Aviation with the F-86 inspired Saberliner (NA-265) while components wise, the mid-sized jet retained little semblance of the victorious air superiority fighter……. Sabreliners enjoyed better success than their counterpart, primarily because of lesser operating costs, two engines instead of four, but the Jetstar had a bit better range with a cost of operations to go along for the ride. The Model 40 is the civilian version had a bigger interior and more speed. T-39’s began showing up in Air Force and Navy units in 1962 but the prototype T-39 made it’s first flight in September 16,1958. Production of the T-39A commenced in June of 1960 but not until later did they become available. Over 800 Sabreliners were built with better than 200 delivered to the military, establishing itself as a well rounded aircraft incorporating strength, integrity, and performance.
Now it appears the jet age is becoming more applicable where the business community is looking to advance to newer concepts offered by military design and engineering uniformity. Foreign aerospace manufacturers were quick to supplement their entries into the small jet market confines by offering similar aircraft bred by military enlistment. Hawker Siddeley, German conglomerate GMBH, and Dassault-Brequet of France added their entries, the DH-125 the Hansa Jet HFB 320, and the Mystere 20. DeHavilland was initially involved in the ball game but bowed out due to lack of interest sighting financial interests, sold his share and brought in Hawker Siddeley as a sort of-merger on board and developed the “Brits” entry level bizjet the HS.125, the best selling medium sized aircraft resulting in good short-field characteristics powered with the Bristol Siddeley Viper 522 turbines. Certification took place in June of 1964, shortly thereafter deliveries commenced. The DH-125 went through several upgrades and in succession the first of which is Bae (British Aerospace) 400, 600, 700 and the Raytheon picked up production which is now Hawker..The Hansa 320 jet was met with some intrepidation due to the accident rate it experienced during development, a good slow-flight handling airplane it just never caught on, consequently very few were built. Production ceased in 1973. Radical design parameters introduced the forward swept-wing at 25 degrees enabling comfortable approach speeds below 103 KTS, powered by the GE CJ-610-4 (2,850 lbs. of thrust) it became victim of short range numbers as well.
The Fan Jet Falcon came aboard due to Juan Trippe’s move to bring the sleek jet into Western markets and 40 were ordered initially with a sign-on for 120. Pan American Airways sent these Falcons to Burbank where they were outfitted with executive interiors. Executive Jet Aviation (EJA) where the late Paul Tibbets was President based in Columbus, Ohio. The nation’s leading jet charter business at the time. EJA employed a fleet of Falcon 20’s, combining rakish appearance and fast cross-country performance in a mid-sized jet and caught the attention of Fred Smith in 1971 with his fledgling overnight package company. Federal Express quickly established this timely product of which the Falcon played a decisive role in creating the infamous jet delivery system. Numerous engine modifications and extended service life options enabled the Falcon Jet a position that is still manufacturing top of the line long range wide body business aircraft. The Falcon 20 paved the way for the Falcon 50, 900, 900B, 2000, and brand new 7EX. Turbine and Jet aircraft routinely served the business community quickly and established the concept of jets designed for executive use was not very radical in the late 1950s. Many corporations were looking for a more modern airplane to replace the odd assortment of Gulfstream Is, Howard 500s and DC-3s then in use.
“The Real Maverick”
William P. Lear Sr. born in Hannibal, Missouri was an eccentric, hard-driven individual whose inventions resulted in over 150 patents, the Learjet Stereo 8 (eight track tape player) jet autopilots and hardware. Lear could see that a small, inexpensive corporate jet was an idea whose time was coming; visualizing his name on it no doubt made the idea more enticing. He approached the board of directors pitching his idea and suffered his first setback, they wanted nothing to do with it. Lear in his usual manner left the company and headed to Switzerland. In addition to being his second home, Switzerland seem to offer a gleam of hope in regards to easier acquisition of investors, assemble a design team and establish a production facility there than it would be in the States. But more important was the fact that Switzerland was home to the Swiss P-16 fighter-bomber, something the Swiss did not want, mainly due to systematic problems plaguing flight performance that Lear wanted use for the creation of his airplane. Swiss American Aviation Corporation (SAAC) was what he named the Company to begin the endeavor of his project utilizing existing parts from the P-16, wings, tip tanks, and cruciform tail (hard tooling for which already existed), designed a compact circular fuselage that held two pilots and seven passengers. Powered with the civilian version of the General Electric J-85, pumping out 2,850 pounds of, thrust.
Problems began arising when it was found that the Swiss Governments rigidly structured bureaucracy and Lear’s inability to communicate effectively with language barriers becoming a frustrating endeavor making the exchange of ideas improbable. The final blow may have been the Governments attempt to tax the project before sheet metal was in the jigs. Bill Lear made the decision to return to the US in early 1962. At this time folks caught wind of the projects relocation and rumors began to surface, and municipalties trying to lure him to their cities. It was decided to select Wichita, KS. The midwest aircraft hub contained the necesary workforce, talent, and marketplace ideal for aircraft manufacture. Beech, Cessna, and Boeing all had plants there so recruiting manufacturing-wise executive personnel was accessible. The Swiss (SAAC) was left behind and now became Lear Jet Corporation and the airplane simply got designated Lear Jet Model 23. The move was made to get the first business jet into the air and it was turning into a drag race. Aero Commander had announced the Jet Commander, a brand-new design by the respected Ted Smith, a man within the industry culminating experience from his World War II Douglas A-20 Havoc, and A-26 Invader designs.
The Jet Commander actually beat the Learjet in the air, primarily because Lear lost so much time in Switzerland, but the race was far from over; the first jet to receive type certification would be recorded in history as the first executive jet. To that end, Lear drove everyone around him crazy with his overzealous approach to familiarizing himself with every aspect of the manufacturing process. The first Lear Jet flew October 7th, 1963 and that eventful day the aesthetically pleasing business jet had arrived. Lear wanting to certify the airplane under Part 23 (the rules for aircraft under 12,500 pounds) to save time but under the more stringent Part 25, which governs transport category aircraft. The Wichita FAA, not very familiar with jets, by then anyway, threw him a wrench requiring more stringent items that threatened to slow down certification. In July 1964 that is what exactly happened the Lear Jet Model 23 and was certified by levelling the playing field somewhat, provisions were met to push the airplane into production. The FAA considered this obligatory giving the Lear it’s stamp of approval. October was met with the first customer, National Distillers and Chemical Co. taking delivery of N200Y. The Lear Jet had arrived and beat the Jet Commander as certified by three months.
Thus Bill Lear had invested 12 million dollars of his own money to fund production and an initial rate of 10 aircraft per month was perceived, then every aircraft dealer wanted to come on board, so there were more Lear Jet sales personnel than jets available. The airplane generated great interest, partly on it’s own merits and partly because Bill Lear kept in the news. Exhilarating performance is the trademark of the Lear Jet and soon records were being performed in the time-to-climb category by demonstrating climb to 41,000 feet in 7 minutes and 21 seconds, with seven on board at gross weight 12,500 pounds. Soon Lear’s were criss-crossing the country in record time by making flights from Los Angeles to New York and back in short order. John Conroy and Clay Lacy flew a Lear 23 roundtrip in 11 hours, 36 minutes. In 1965 more than 100 were sold at an initial price of $565,000 dollars and it quickly caught the eye of the Hollywood scene, Danny Kaye, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin got on board and flew around to Las Vegas for shows at the Sands.
Lear Jet again quickly embarked on a campaign to demonstrate the improved aircraft’s performance. In the span of just four days, from May 23 to 26, 1966, the Lear Jet 24 became the first business jet to circumnavigate the globe, traveling 22, 993 miles in 50 hours and 20 minutes of flying time, establishing or breaking 18 aviation world records. In all, 259 Lear 24’s were built. As the private jet market became more competitive, Lear Jet had difficulties remaining profitable and substantial operating losses accumulated over the first few years of production. In 1967, the company was sold to Charles Gates of Gates Rubber Co, Denver, Colorado, and renamed it Gates Learjet Corp. Bill Lear remained on the Board of Directors.
The Lear Jet is responsible for being the first business jet to be certified with winglets, and the first to be flown at 51,000 feet, and as of 1977 delivering 1000 aircraft, establishing it as a technological innovation and a commercial success. Few products, before or since, enjoy the instantaneous name recognition.