The Airport Hangar That Fueled America’s First Private Jets is Reopening


As the boom in private aviation took off in the 1960s, a hangar in southern New Jersey was right at the center of it all. At one point, the Airplane Factory of America was producing a new plane every six days, fueling America’s early love affair with private jets. Now, the factory is being rebuilt and converted into an aviation museum.

The factory was opened by aviation pioneer William Stine in 1963. It was located just outside of Philadelphia, and had room for 28 planes to be built simultaneously. At its peak, it employed more than 100 people who churned out dozens of small jets, including variants of the Learjet 23 and 24. These were small jets with a range of up to 1,400 miles that could fly as fast as 440 miles per hour. Relatively compact compared to the massive jets that would come later on, these private aircraft were becoming popular with wealthy business travelers and celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.

Stine’s company built more than 100 planes until 1967 when he sold out to Learjet for $5 million. The factory closed down almost immediately after that until it caught fire in 1972 (it was most likely caused by arson).

The first purpose-built private jets were conceived in this hangar at the Wichita Municipal Airport: the Beechcraft Bonanza and Beechcraft 35.

The first flight of the Beechcraft Bonanza took place on December 23, 1945. The aircraft was designed by a team led by Ralph Harmon and Ted Wells. It began as a single-engine, six-seater aircraft and has since developed into a twin-engined, 10-seater aircraft with a top speed of around 400 mph (640 km/h).

In the early days, many pilots flew the Bonanza for leisure. That changed in 1958 when the US military began using it to ferry high-ranking officers. In 1967, the US Air Force commissioned a line of Bonanzas for use in Vietnam.

Today, most Bonanzas are used for business purposes. But there are still plenty of enthusiasts who fly them for recreation. There are also some private pilots who use them as their primary ride to work. The aircraft has been used in numerous films and television programs, including The Big Lebowski, Airplane!, and Top Gun.

The Beechcraft 35 was developed in 1954 by Beech Aircraft Corporation as a more comfortable alternative to the Bonanza. It was initially meant

In the early days, owning a private plane was reserved for the ultra-wealthy. But in the 1960s, entrepreneurs like Bill Lear changed all that.

At a time when taking a trip on a commercial airline was still considered glamorous, the idea of owning your own private jet was the ultimate status symbol. But only the 1% could afford it. Then, in 1962, Bill Lear, founder of the now-defunct electronics company Learjet, decided to make private air travel more affordable. He developed an eight-seat business jet that was half the price of comparable models at the time.

It took off: Suddenly everyone from actors to CEOs wanted one. But there were two problems with this new demand for private jets—one technical and one regulatory. First, only about 50 airports in North America could handle planes of this size; second, most of them lacked hangars that could protect these new planes from the elements. So in 1965, Learjet and Kansas City’s Mid-Continent Airport teamed up to build a facility that could house these jets while they awaited takeoff and after they landed: The world’s largest aircraft hangar had arrived—a glass-and-steel building covering nearly seven acres.

In the mid-1970s, Bill Lear and Bob Bourns opened an aircraft hangar in Tucson, Arizona. The name of the joint venture was Lear Jet Industries. In due time, their company became world famous for the production of one of America’s first private jets.

After a hiatus of 32 years, Lear Jet and its parent company Bombardier are back in Tucson with a new corporate aircraft facility at Pinal Airpark (KMZJ). The opening ceremony took place on October 26th.

Over the course of three decades, many thousands of Learjets were built at the Tucson factory. The last was a Lear 60 that left the assembly line in April 1990.

Since those days, more than 800 miles separate the original and current facilities. The former is now part of an aviation industrial park and has been renamed Aero Park Tucson while the latter is located south of Marana on Pinal Airpark’s grounds. KMZJ covers 7,000 acres and has two runways: one 9,000 feet long and another 6,000 feet long.

During its heyday in Tucson, Lear Jet employed as many as 5,000 workers at its peak between 1978 and 1985. At its new location near Marana about 400 jobs are expected to

For much of the 20th century, Tulsa was synonymous with aviation. In the 1920s, it was the site of the Dole Air Race, one of history’s first air races. In the 1930s, it became home to the largest airport in America. And by the 1950s, it had become a mecca for aircraft manufacturing and private jets.

The creation of private jets is inextricably linked to Tulsa. In 1948, William P. Lear—a mechanic who had previously worked on radios and sound systems—moved to Tulsa to establish a business manufacturing automotive radios and other electrical equipment. But when he saw an advertisement in a local newspaper from Swiss racing pilot Marcel Dassault, Lear was inspired to start his own aircraft company.

Dassault was hoping to create a company that could supply airplanes to the French government for military use, but needed an experienced mechanic who could produce parts for him in America. Lear agreed and quit his job at Bendix Aviation Company (now Honeywell) and moved his family to France for two years to work directly with Dassault on what would become one of history’s most successful jet planes: the Mystere 20.

Lear returned to America in 1952 and established Learjet Inc., which began producing private jets in 1963.

In 1948, a small plane was spotted landing at the Santa Monica Airport in Southern California. That might not seem so unusual. But this particular plane was no ordinary aircraft: It was a Convair 240—a sleek commercial airliner with a dramatically modern design. The plane’s pilot, Anthony “Tony” Lazzara, was a World War II veteran and new airplane enthusiast (and future airplane designer) who was intrigued by the futuristic plane, and he asked to meet the owner.

His name was Howard Hughes, a legendary billionaire entrepreneur who would spend much of his life obsessing over airplanes. Hughes had bought the Convair for personal use but quickly decided it wasn’t luxurious enough for his tastes. So he gave it to Lazzara in exchange for another plane.

The pair got to talking about planes, and Lazzara began telling Hughes about the new designs he was working on. He had been tinkering with plans for a lightweight private jet that could be flown by one pilot and included a bathroom and sleeping quarters for passengers. Hughes had a few ideas of his own, and they decided to work together on an airplane. Soon after, they entered into an official partnership to design and build their jet—the first-ever twin-engine

It’s not often that a mid-century modern building becomes the crown jewel of an airport. Yet Pei Cobb Freed & Partners’ Terminal 3 at New York’s John F. Kennedy International is just that, a much-loved landmark that was almost lost to the wrecking ball. Originally designed as an aerie for Pan Am’s flying boats, the glass-and-steel pavilion opened in 1962, providing a soaring public entry to the tarmac for what was then called Idlewild Airport.

The terminal closed in 2001 and fell into disrepair before being rescued by JetBlue Airways, which moved into the building in 2008. Now it has been restored to its original glory and reopened as TWA Hotel, a 512-room hotel celebrating the heyday of air travel. The full renovation also includes two new buildings: a six-story, 500,000-square-foot office complex and a 50,000-square foot conference center—all part of a $265 million project funded by JetBlue Technology Ventures (the airline’s venture capital arm), MCR Development LLC (the hotel operator), and others.

While many might mistakenly assume the hotel is named after American Airlines’ Trans World Airlines (TWA)


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