What do a CEO of a fortune 500 company and James Bond have in common? They both use business aircraft to get around—even if their actual business (fictional or real) might be quite different.  

Corporations around the world depend on airplanes. No electronic device, teleconference, email, or social media has replaced traveling to conduct business. Business aviation gets people where they need to go—faster than a traditional commercial flight with an airline. It’s part of a flexible and timesaving business plan.  

Businesses became involved in aviation after World War I, advertising with company logos painted on open-cockpit biplanes. Later in the 1920s, closed-cabin monoplanes had more reliable engines, which enticed business travelers to take business flights with more comfort and a sense of security. 

Business aviation progressed in the post-World War II boom years. Businesses converted surplus transport aircraft like the DC-3 to private planes. At the same time, terminals for private airplanes, called “fixed-based operators,” provided a base for repairs and other services. Jets created specifically for business use arrived in the 1960s, flying greater distances at high speed.

Hondaille Industries Inc., Douglas DC-3-209A on the ground at 86th Street Airport, Miami, Florida, circa 1955. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Today, most of the business aviation fleet are turbine-powered (turbo-prop and small jet) aircraft. One of the most well-loved business aircraft is the Lear Jet. Self-taught engineer William “Bill” Lear conceived and branded the Lear Jet. A pioneer in radio and avionics (aviation electronics), Lear designed the first auto pilot for small aircraft. Once he created this small cabin jet perfect for business use, brilliant marketing did the rest.  

William Powell "Bill" Lear, Sr. stepping out of doorway of a Lear Learstar transport (developed from the Lockheed Lodestar). Location unknown, circa late 1940s. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

What made the Lear Jet stick out? Business jets like the Lockheed JetStar, seen in the photo below, and North American Sabreliner were expensive and too large. The smaller Lear Jet targeted corporate, executive, and personal jet users. Suddenly “business jet” became “bizjet.” 

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A Lockheed Jetstar. Notice how much sleeker the Lear Jet is in comparison. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

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Lear Jet 23 in flight over farmland; circa 1964-1966. This particular aircraft was the second Learjet, and the first production model built by the Lear Jet Corporation. This aircraft is now a part of the Museum’s collection. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Celebrities loved the Lear Jet’s speed and its sexy look. Frank Sinatra and the “Rat Pack” flew in them, and 007 tumbled into a freefall from a Lear 35 in Moonraker. Lear Jets turned up in pop music, like the Byrds’ Eight Miles High, Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain, and Nicki Minaj’s Muny.  

The first Lear Jet flew in October 1963. The second prototype, Model 23 N802L, is now part of the Museum’s collection. It flew 1,127 hours and 864 flights as a test aircraft. Successor airplanes, now called Learjets, flew to speed and distance records with pilots like astronaut Neil Armstrong and Clay Lacy, who opened the first Lear dealership at Van Nuys Airport in California. 

The Lear Jet 23 at the Udvar-Hazy Center. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. 

Most people will never fly on business aircraft. But for those who do and the companies that employ them, business aircraft support their success. When “time is money,” efficient business flight is money in the bank.  

Related Topics Aviation Aircraft General aviation
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