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Source: U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission
The term “business aircraft” means different things to different people. To an automobile magnate in New England, it is a luxurious new Learjet parked at an airport near home to simplify travel to a far-flung realm of dealerships. For a syndicated New York radio talk-show host, it equates to the “fractional ownership” of a Cessna Citation X to share the substantial operating expenses with others in exchange for the occasional use of a sleek private jet. For a Texas politician, it adds up to a twin-engine Piper Navaho owned by a campaign organization to allow easy access to a widely scattered constituency.
There are some 5000 airfields in the U.S., but only 500 offer scheduled passenger service. It is the ability of a personal or corporate aircraft to reach the thousands of airfields—as well as customers and business operations—with no scheduled service that makes business flying such a phenomenon. Also, business planes allow executives to maintain tight schedules without delays that often accompany airline travel. Business aircraft include thousands of single-engine Mooney, Cessna, Piper, Beechcraft, and other designs as well as thousands more twin light planes and many types of jets. After World War II, improved radios and modern navigational aids for general planes provided invaluable reliability for business flying at night and in different types of weather.
The origins of business flying can be traced back to the late 1920s, using open-cockpit biplanes as well as enclosed cabin designs from Stinson, Fairchild and others. Planes like the distinctive Beech Model 17 “Staggerwing,” first flown in 1932, set the standard for high-performance private airplanes. Custom-built by hand, each Staggerwing was outfitted with a luxurious cabin trimmed in leather and mohair and carried up to five passengers in comfort.
Beech's Model 18 Twin Beech, introduced in 1937, was one of the first aircraft specifically designed for the transportation of business executives. Capable of carrying eight or nine passengers, the Twin Beech quickly became a favorite with small companies operating on a limited budget. The Twin Beech would be manufactured continuously for 32 years (until 1969), with more than 7,000 built.
The ancestor of one of today's elite business aircraft families, the Gulfstream I (originally built by Grumman), first flew in 1958 and quickly gained a reputation as the “Rolls Royce” of business aviation; in fact, the small airliner-sized Gulfstream was powered by twin Rolls-Royce Dart turboprop engines. Despite its $1-million price tag (in 1958 dollars), the straight-wing Gulfstream I quickly and quietly gained a significant share of the business aircraft market. Improved performance and a 50 percent increase in range was delivered by the swept-wing Gulfstream II, powered by a pair of Rolls-Royce Spey engines, beginning in 1964.
Mention the phrase “business jet” to an average person and one word immediately pops into mind: Lear. Since its first flight in 1963, William P. Lear Sr.'s innovative aircraft, built to replicate the performance and amenities of a commercial airliner, has been tantamount with executive business travel.
The Learjet 23 became the first small jet aircraft to enter mass production as well as the first to be developed and financed by a single individual. Chemical and Industrial Corporation of Cincinnati, Ohio, took delivery of the first production Learjet on October 13, 1964, one year after its initial flight. The improved Learjet 24 (the 150th Learjet built) made its debut in March 1966, and two months later, became the first business jet to circumnavigate the globe, taking just four days to complete the journey. Stretched turbofan versions of the Learjet 25, dubbed the Learjet 35/36, became the company's bestseller, and golfer Arnold Palmer flew a Learjet 36 on an around-the-world goodwill tour in 1976.
Targeted at the twin-engine business aircraft market, Piper introduced its PA-31 Navaho in 1964 to complement its existing twin-engine line of aircraft which, at that time, included the PA-23 Apache, PA-23-250/235 Aztec, and the PA-30 Twin Comanche. The six- or eight-passenger Navaho was produced in several versions (standard, commuter or executive) with different seating arrangements and cabin interiors and featured passenger-friendly features such as luggage storage compartments fitted into the engine nacelles (the housing of an externally mounted aircraft engine).
Also in 1964, Beech introduced the Model 90 King Air, an eight-passenger, twin-engine turboprop designed for passenger comfort. The various King Air models became a staple for corporate flight departments, eventually capturing more than 90 percent of the market share among aircraft in its class.
In 1983, the Beech Model 2000 Starship, designed by noted experimental aircraft designer Burt Rutan (who went on to design the Voyager) was a bold innovation in aviation design, merging a lightweight composite airframe with twin rear pusher-propellers, a forward-swept wing, and an innovative variable-sweep canard (a horizontal stabilizer placed in front of the wings) that changed shape to adjust for aerodynamic changes during flight. Designed to be competitive in speed with small business jets, the Starship proved to be ahead of its time. A commercial failure, only 53 aircraft were manufactured before production was halted—the Model 2000's $5 million price tag was economically prohibitive and ultimately more costly than its jet-powered competitors.
True intercontinental flying range of 4,174 miles (6,717 kilometers) coupled with fuel-efficient winglets (which reduced drag) marked the introduction of the Gulfstream III in 1979. This trend in drag-reducing winglets was matched by the Learjet 55 Longhorn, also introduced in 1979, and continued by the more advanced Learjet 60, which made its debut in 1990.
The unveiling of the Gulfstream IV, which first flew in 1985, took the business jet industry by storm. Designed to provide cost-effective, long-range transportation to business executives and celebrities alike, the 19-passenger Gulfstream IV improved upon its predecessor's design by incorporating a longer fuselage and a wing with 30 percent fewer moving parts while almost doubling the maximum range to 7,223 miles (11,624 kilometers).
Custom-built to a customer's specifications, the $24-million Gulfstream IV features oak furnishings, leather sofas, and a soundproof interior while a variant, the IV-SP, delivers even longer flight range. Gulfstream chairman and pilot Allen Paulson (also one of the world's top breeders of thoroughbred race horses) set numerous world records for circumnavigating the globe (in both east and west directions) in a Gulfstream IV, including a January 1988 eastbound around-the-world trip in just under 37 hours—8.5 hours faster than the previous record held by a Boeing 747SP jumbo jet!
Expanding beyond its traditional base of turboprop aircraft, Beech acquired the production rights to the Japanese Mitsubishi Diamond business jet in December 1985. Shifting production to its Wichita, Kansas, manufacturing plant, Beech's Model 400/400A Beechjet achieved success as a reliable and cost-effective business jet. One of its principal competitors, Cessna's 12-passenger Citation X, made its debut in December 1993 and immediately established itself as one of the fastest production aircraft in the world, flying at Mach 0.92 (about 600 miles or 966 kilometers per hour).
Business aircraft have continuously evolved to meet the increasing market demands for speed and comfort and the selling prices have increased just as rapidly. While a Beech “Staggerwing” could be purchased for around $15,000 in 1932, some of today's ultimate business aircraft—the Gulfstream V, Bombardier's Global Express, Boeing's Business Jet and the Airbus A319CJ—cost more than $30-million apiece. The adage from the popular movie Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come,” could easily be adopted as the motto of the business aircraft industry as well.