The Tale of the Learjet’s Forgotten Swiss Roots

Flug- & Fahrzeugwerke Altenrhein FFA P-16 (S/N J-3003)

Switzerland’s Forgotten Jet Fighter Era

Switzerland, a country renowned for its precision and craftsmanship, once held the potential to become a major player in aviation history, particularly in the construction of fighter jets. It’s a chapter in history largely forgotten today but had all the ingredients to craft a significant narrative. Regrettably, due to more political than technical reasons, this potential remained largely untapped, and the Swiss fighter aircraft developments N-20 and P-16 became symbols of missed opportunities.

On April 25, 1945, Switzerland got a taste of the jet age when a Messerschmitt Me-262, the world’s most advanced operational jet fighter at the time, made an emergency landing due to fuel shortage on the military airfield at Dübendorf. Swiss scientists and engineers were able to glean insights into the new technologies of the jet age from this event, fostering the groundwork for the development of the Swiss aeronautical research and industry.

The Rise and Fall of the P-16

The P-16 venture began in 1952 when the Swiss Federal Military Department commissioned Flug- und Fahrzeugwerke Altenrhein (FFA) to develop a Short Takeoff and Landing (STOL) capable combat aircraft. The design was unique and tailored to the specific needs of the Swiss Air Force, which required an aircraft that could fly in and out of short strips in narrow, high-mountain valleys.

Regrettably, the P-16 project was met with a series of unfortunate events, leading to its eventual demise. Despite the P-16 showcasing excellent flight characteristics and impressing international experts, potential buyers failed to materialize, and the P-16 project was finally abandoned in 1969.

The Birth of the SAAC-23: A New Beginning

Despite the P-16’s unfortunate end, the story doesn’t end there. In a twist of fate, the P-16 was the basis for the development of the SAAC-23, a business jet. This transition was prompted when Bill Lear Jr., the son of aviation pioneer William Powell Lear, evaluated the flight characteristics of the P-16 in Switzerland. The excellent flight characteristics of the P-16, especially its STOL performance, intrigued him.

Bill Lear Jr. shared his positive impressions with his father, who was living in Switzerland part-time. Inspired by the P-16’s capabilities, Bill Lear Sr. got in touch with Dr. Claudio Caroni, the owner of FFA, and they agreed to start work on the SAAC-23 prototype, which eventually became the Learjet.

The Dawn of the Business Jet Era

The advent of the business jet era began in the 1950s, when manufacturers started offering commercial airliners tailored for corporate executives. Among the early pioneers was Bill Lear Sr., who entered the market by converting Lockheed Model 18 Lodestars into elegant private business aircraft, named the Learstar.

While the Learstar enjoyed limited early success, its top speed was constrained. The advent of turbojet engines in the 1950s paved the way for a new generation of executive transports that could travel much faster at higher cruising altitudes. Leveraging this innovation, Lear envisioned a lightweight aircraft with jet fighter performance, which ultimately led to the birth of the iconic Learjet.

In conclusion, the Learjet, a symbol of luxury and speed, owes its origins to the forgotten era of Swiss fighter jet development. This tale serves as a reminder of the hidden links that often exist between seemingly unrelated chapters of history.

Hamel, Peter G, and Gary D Park. 2022. The Learjet History. Springer.

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