LEARJET 85 STORY
Category: Business Aircraft - Development & Certification
Author: Mike Vines
Learjet 85 story
Bombardier Links With Grob
Airplane makers form partnership to develop the new Learjet 85.
When Bombardier Aerospace unveiled a model of its proposed long range Learjet ‘NXT’ at Dubai last November, not many would have guessed that this mid-size high-speed business jet would be an all composite aircraft. An even greater surprise, however, came as Bombardier announced in January that composite aircraft specialist Grob Aerospace of Germany would be named as the strategic development partner, responsible for developing and manufacturing the first three prototypes of what is now officially known as the Learjet 85.
The Learjet 85 will be the first Bombardier jet to feature an all-composite structure, and the first all-composite business jet designed for type certification under FAR Part 25. Learjet design teams are currently on site at Tussenhausen-Mattsies, as part of this joint conceptual design phase.
The aircraft, a clean-sheet design, will have a high-speed cruise of Mach 0.82, and a transcontinental range of up to 3,000 nautical miles with four passengers with NBAA IFR 100nm alt. reserves, in ISA conditions. It is designed to provide a larger, more comfortable, stand-up cabin than any existing mid-size business jet, and to be fitted with two double club seating arrangements for eight passengers.
The Learjet 85’s all-composite structure will allow Learjet designers to maximize cabin comfort while minimizing drag and improving performance. Exceptional strength-to-weight ratio, reduced maintenance, and extended service life are key characteristics of all composite airframes and the ultra-smooth surfaces (no rivets) of the carbon fiber structures permit superior aerodynamics. Other major competitive advantages of composites include a reduced structural parts count, which is around 14,000 in the Learjet 45, compared to around 1,000 for the Lear 85. The airframe will also be less vulnerable to corrosion and fatigue damage.
“Composite structures allow designers to optimize all aspects of the aircraft’s internal cabin volume and exterior aerodynamic qualities, thus optimizing performance as well,” said Niall Olver, CEO, Grob Aerospace. “Since delivering our pioneering glider aircraft in the 1970s, Grob has delivered more than 3,500 aircraft that have flown over seven million hours on five continents. We look forward to building the first Learjet 85 prototype structures and growing our working relationship with Learjet.”
Brad Nolan, Bombardier manager for Learjet Project Planning, says Bombardier’s interest in Grob started at the 2005 Paris Air Show when Grob brought its (then) yet to fly spn all-composite light business jet to Le Bourget. According to Niall Olver, “We have been working on the Learjet 85 very quietly for about a year. A lot of work has been done and we are quite far into the process of detailed design. We will start building sub structures this year.”
Preparing the way
There is already a work force of about 40 working on the program at Tussenhausen-Mattsies, Bavaria, which will increase to around 70 as the program gains momentum. Grob Aerospace will be making a sizeable investment to prepare for the Learjet 85 aircraft in terms of tooling and machinery, as well as the increased workforce and a new assembly building.
“We’ll be building a new hangar to accommodate the Learjet building process. The size of the Learjet 85 is not a challenge to us, but we need more space to assemble them as the plan-form of the Lear 85 is roughly the size of a Challenger”, revealed Olver.
Meantime, explaining the decision to go the all-composite route for the Learjet 85, Nolan adds, “We did a lot of under-the-table market research at NBAA last year and we felt people were more likely to ask us why we weren’t building a composite aircraft given what Boeing and Airbus are attempting. The simplification of build, and the dramatic reduction in the number of parts for the composite aircraft are also a major reason. It will give good value to the customer as it will be priced roughly the same as the Citation Sovereign, but be a more competitive aircraft.
“The best way to look at the new Learjet 85,” he continued, “is to look at the Lear 60 as a basis – the Lear 60 cabin height is 68 inches, whereas the Lear 85 is 71 inches, so it is three inches taller and two inches wider than the Lear 60, it is also 300 inches longer, bulkhead to bulkhead. We wanted to make sure that we could move people from the Learjet 60 into an even more comfortable double club eight seater but with a 3,000nm range.”
Asked if the Learjet 60 will be pulled, Nolan replied, “It’s done really well in the last couple of years, especially with the ’60XR having a new avionics suite. We’re building 25 aircraft per year and orders each year exceed that. The market will tell us what we do with the ’60, but at the moment indications are that it is very healthy and we have the desire and capacity to build both if we can.”
Nolan also explained the reasons behind Grob’s selection. “Grob blew away the market when it showed up at the 2005 Paris Air Show with its spn light business jet. It is a very innovative company and we spent around a year with Grob doing due diligence before we made a decision. Midway through that period the relationship was further enhanced when Niall Olver’s syndicate bought Grob Aerospace.”
Olver is not only CEO of Grob Aerospace, but also CEO of ExecuJet which is a long-time Bombardier Aerospace sales and maintenance representative in over 30 countries. It also has FBOs and maintenance operations in Europe, Dubai, South Africa, and Australia and manages a 100 strong fleet of mainly Bombardier business jets worldwide.
Nolan continued, “After we’d seen the spn at Paris we sent a team over to Grob to basically better understand its processes, both on the material side for its out-of-autoclave low pressure composites (the low pressure carbon fiber production system does not require expensive autoclaves), and to physically check how the aeroplanes were built and the repeatability of the process. As we worked with them we were impressed by the level of innovation, the simplicity of the operation and the quality end product. It was difficult to say ‘No’!” said Nolan.
In answer to World Aircraft Sales Magazine’s enquiry as to whether the Learjet 85 project was on the cards back then, Nolan replied; “Yes, we were already working on an aluminum aircraft in parallel, and eventually made the composite construction switch. It was not the Learjet 85 that we know today though. We looked at many, different iterations, like lengthening the Learjet 60 and putting Learjet 45 wings on it. We looked at many different ways of achieving a 3,000nm range aircraft before we decided to move to the clean sheet design you see today.”
Bombardier says that the public unveiling of a full size mock-up will be at the upcoming NBAA Convention in October this year - but before that, and before EBACE in May, the company says it hopes to release the first roll-out date, first flight date, and entry into service date for the aircraft. More performance details and a list of the major suppliers are also planned to be released around the same time.
The way ahead…
When asked why this new aircraft is named a Learjet rather than a Challenger, Nolan explained, “For those 600+ Learjet owners out there it has to be a Learjet. They are the people who use the delta fins, the high speed performance, and love the Learjet’s pointy-nose ramp appeal. The Learjet 85 has been specifically created as the ideal Learjet in the mind of Learjet owners.”
Expanding the point, Nolan reveals that through market research there is an 85% probability that Learjet customers will trade-up to either a new Learjet, or a new Challenger aircraft. “The strategy is to tap into the fact that we have so many Lear 45s and 60s in the marketplace, and that these owners are itching to trade-up to an aircraft with a 3,000nm range and eight seats.”
Although yet to be announced, the price of the Learjet 85 is to be competitive with the Citation Sovereign which is in the ‘upper $16 million-dollar region’ at the moment Nolan explained, but the Learjet 85 will have a much larger cabin volume than its Cessna rival, he’s quick to reiterate.
The first three test aircraft being built by Grob will be test flown in Germany by Bombardier test pilots, and after acceptance will be flown to the Bombardier Flight Test Center (BFTC) in Wichita so that the flight test program can truly begin. The first flight of the prototype won’t be out of the 3,000ft Grob airfield but probably at Memmingen, an ex-NATO base some 10-15 km away which has ILS and a long runway.
“Our actual industrialization strategy in terms of where and by whom the production wings and fuselages will be built is a business case that we’re still running,” says Nolan. “But the final assembly, interior completion, and paint job will still be done in Wichita, as it is today on the Learjet 45. The Lear 45 wing is built in Toronto, and the fuselage by Shorts in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and then freighted to Wichita for final assembly.
Olver adds that the Learjet 85 repetitive production could be re-sourced after Grob has finished the three prototypes. “From our point of view our space could be used for future developments - Wichita is the center of gravity for this aircraft.
He also explains that Bombardier is happy that there is no conflict of interest between the Learjet 85 and Grob’s spn. “The agreement states that we won’t compete with Bombardier under the duration of the contract. I’m happy that there is enough scope for us, given the size of the Learjet 85, that we can grow the size of the spn substantially before we need to worry about that.”
There was some talk that Bombardier was interested in buying the spn program. World Aircraft Sales Magazine asked if there was any truth in this. “No,” stressed Olver. “No one knows what the future will hold, but to be explicit there is no current plan to sell the company, or for them to buy it.”
He went on to explain a little about the thought processes, and how the Learjet 85 came about. “The Learjet 45 was a clean sheet design and a far better aircraft objectively than the Citation XL which has been evolved over decades. The cabin of the ‘45 is not stand-up, whereas the XL is perceived to be stand up.
“So I said to Bombardier, why don’t we build a stand-up fuselage for the Lear 45 which could have the same wing, the same structure, and the same systems? The supply chain would be of minimal impact. Bombardier started looking at our technology, and realized that we could do that, and then I suggested ‘why don’t we do the whole darn thing’.”
“So,” asked World Aircraft Sales Magazine, “were you an element in starting this whole ball rolling?”
“Well yes I was,” replied Olver. “You can say that I showed them the concept and they liked what they saw. I didn’t realize that they would go for a completely new aircraft. That’s when the thinking really started. Grob has become a real player.”