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The Evolution of Private Jets

From the fabulous forties when butlers served passengers on the Pan Am Clipper, to the sixties when Dassault Falcon, Gulfstream and Embraer took flight with their first private jets, to the flying palaces known as executive airliners we have today, we take a look at just how much the private jet industry has changed and adapted to meet the standards expected in the current private aviation market.

The dawning and evolution of the private jet

It’s 1965 and wildly popular singer Frank Sinatra has just taken delivery of a private jet. By now a music mogul with a record label of his own, Ol’ Blue Eyes is courting Mia Farrow, who will soon become his third wife. They’ve already had one date – he took her to the movies, to watch the war film None but the Brave, in which he starred. But for their second date, Sinatra is pulling out all the stops. He wants Miss Farrow to visit his home in Palm Springs, and offers to fly her there in his Learjet23.

The 20-year-old soap opera actress, who will become one of Hollywood’s most famous female stars, makes the trip in the 23’s compact cabin which, though less than five feet wide and just more than four feet high, offers plenty of comfort in the shape of a leather sofa and a minibar. You would expect nothing less from a gentleman famous for custom-tailored tuxedos and pinstripe suits.

Farrow is impressed. Less than a year later, the new Mrs Sinatra boards the Learjet23 for a honeymoon in the south of France.

Sinatra’s private jet is not done with serving the cause of lovers. In 1967, Sinatra lends the 23 to none other than Elvis Presley, who is about to elope with 21-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu. The pair fly from Palm Springs to Vegas and back on the same day, proving that there’s no better plan than a private jet if you want to get something done discreetly and fast.

Sinatra is something of a pioneer, because private jet ownership is only starting to emerge in the 1960s. Learjet leads the way in 1963. The 23 is not the first private jet – that distinction belongs to the JetStar, which Lockheed released in 1950 – but it is the fastest. Modeled after a German military fighter jet, it can fly you to your Vegas wedding chapel at 561 miles per hour, setting a high benchmark for its successors.

Dassault Falcon is next out of the starting blocks, with the romantically named Mystere 20. Then, in 1966, Gulfstream moves the goalposts with the spacious Gulfstream II. With a passenger capacity of up to 19, and a range of up to 4000 miles, no refueling required, it can get you and a small wedding party to the chapel on time. In Brazil, Embraer gets in on the private jet act, with the Bandeirante Twin-Turboprop, and in 1970 Boeing ups the ante with the 747 VIP Private Jet. Cessna follows with the Citation 500 in 1971. It isn’t as fast as the Learjet, but it’s simple to fly, and set to become one of the most popular private aircrafts for several decades.

The early years

Vintage propeller plane in flight
Vintage propeller plane in flight

The history of private jets is really the story of aviation. Early aviation was a private affair, because the first aircraft typically only had room for a pilot and a single passenger. These were usually World War I aircraft, and anyone wanting to catch a ride could expect an open cockpit, helmet, goggles and a good deal of engine noise.

Entering the flying business was relatively easy for adventurous pilots who had made it home from the war. There was a surplus of training aircraft and other castoffs from the war, which an enterprising pilot could make available for services such as aerial photography, spying and policing, emergency rescue, and crop dusting.

Aircraft with enclosed cabins and extra seats made their appearance towards the end of the 1920s, and by the 1930s businessmen who had managed to hold on to their fortunes throughout the Great Depression, were starting to use private aircraft to reach locations not serviced by commercial aircraft, or to overcome time-consuming road transport over long distances.

The forerunners of private jet travel included the two-seater Piper Cub, whose 65-horsepower engine could reach speeds of 85 miles per hour, the Cessna Airmaster, with twice the number of passengers and twice the speed, and the Beechcraft Model 18, with two 450-horsepower engines that could deliver cruising speeds of up to 220 miles an hour, and a cabin that could squeeze in up to nine passengers.

The Piper may have been smaller and slower than its rivals, but its horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine was a design and engineering innovation that would shape modern light-plane design for years to come.

Piper, Cessna and Beechcraft continued to dominate the emerging light plane industry after World War II, while war surplus bombers and transports took to the sky with refitted cabins to appeal to corporate tastes. The 1950s saw progress in the shape of compact radio communication and navigational equipment that allowed pilots to take off in bad weather, as well as more luxuriously-appointed pressurized cabins. Onboard lavatories provided much-needed relief on long flights.

The business jet takes off

Businessman shakes hands with private jet pilot
Businessman shakes hands with private jet pilot

The golden era of piston-engine aircraft was coming to an end in the 1950s, and the era of the business jet commenced when the Lockheed JetStar took off with 10 passengers and two crew on 4 September 1957.

The next decade would see many future legends on their maiden flights, including the IAI Westwind (in January 1963, when it was launched as the Jet Commander), followed by the Dassault Falcon 20 a few months later, and the game-changing Learjet23 later the same year. Gulfstream added size to speed with the Gulfstream II, the first in the Gulfstream Aerospace long-range family, while Cessna kept it light with the Citation I.

In the seventies, the Dassault Falcon got bigger, and Cessna grew its Citation family, while over in Canada the prototype Canadair Challenger got ready for its first flight. This 43 000-pound craft powered by two 9 200 pounds-force CF34 engines, laid the groundwork for the long-range Bombardier Global Express family, after Bombardier acquired Canadair in 1986.

The 1980s had little to offer private jet enthusiasts as, sobered by a financial crash at the start of that decade, business jet manufacturers preferred to modify existing designs rather than make massive investments in new, innovative aircraft.

Two aircraft broke the innovation drought in the 1990s – the Learjet 45 in 1995, and the Beechcraft Premier I three years later – but the private jet industry entered the 21st Century literally firing on all cylinders.

Embraer was first to break the mold. Unlike its competitors, which typically designed business jets first and then developed airliners from there, the Brazilian aerospace conglomerate turned things around by deriving the Legacy 600 from its family of airliners.

Within months of the Legacy 600 blasting into the sky with its Rolls-Royce AE 3007 engines, the mid-range Bombardier Challenger 300, previewed at the 1999 Paris Air Show, made its maiden flight. This sophisticated, transcontinental, high-performance private jet is a mainstay of the super mid-size category that in many ways sets the bar for modern private jets. It features a large and comfortable interior cabin, one of the quietest in private aviation; can take off and land on short airfields, and reaches speeds of up to Mach 0.82 even at high altitudes.

On the light end of the spectrum, 2002 delivered the 5,290-pound Eclipse 2002, the first in the very light jet category.

As the demand for private jet travel continued to grow, so did the private jet industry. Political instability and the 2007-2008 global financial crash slowed down delivery for about a decade, but by 2018 industry pundits were predicting that several new designs would enter service over the next five years.

High on the list of private jets to look forward to, are the Gulfstream G600 and Gulfstream G750, the Embraer Praetor 500/600, the Dassault Falcon 6X and the Bombardier Challenger 750. The Cessna Citation family will also grow, with a CitationJet CJ4, Citation Hemisphere and a Citation Mustang keeping the legend alive. And Ol’ Blue Eyes would have been glad to hear that a new Learjet, the 70XR/75XR, is expected to join the fleet in 2021.

What’s inside?

Glass of champagne inside private jet
Glass of champagne inside private jet

While private jets extended their range and increased their cruising speeds over the past several decades, cabin design likewise evolved from the days Mia Farrow was feeling a little cramped in the orange-trimmed interior of Sinatra’s Learjet23.

In many ways, the luxurious appointments of private jet cabins recall the glamour of the 1940s when butlers served tuxedoed passengers on the earliest commercial airliners. While commercial air travel has become more accessible, and almost anyone can now enjoy indifferent service while dressed in a tracksuit and sneakers, private jet travel offers a return to glamor and luxury – only at much faster speeds and with onboard Wi-Fi.

Comfort is king, which is why the interior designers at Embraer are working on a power seat that will be able to accommodate you, the passenger, in up to 21 different ways.

The company’s vice-president of interior design, Jay Beever, has high ideals for the perfectly executed cabin. “The most important thing today is how to maximize ergonomics and craftsmanship,” he has said. “We call it a ‘butler with wings’ in that it serves its passengers information without them having to ask. We believe that a perfectly executed cabin should be like hidden zones of lingerie with pops of color, like the bottom of a Louboutin shoe, or the inside of a Hugo Boss jacket.”

All this would’ve been very much to the taste of Frank Sinatra, who would have equally appreciated the evolution of in-flight entertainment on long flights. From the first in-flight film screening in 1925 (of silent film The Lost World on a flight out of London), to personal screens putting hundreds of films and games at passengers’ fingertips in the 21st Century, the way we entertain ourselves mid-air has undergone as much progress and innovation as the engines that propel our aircraft through the sky. Private jet charter flights continue to raise the bar, with Wi-Fi speeds that permit live streaming, and cabins roomy enough to bring gym equipment on board and work out while you travel.

To get your chance to fly on some of the most sophisticated and luxurious private aircraft, and experience some of the finest private jet services available on the market today, why not contact your local Air Charter Service office about chartering a private jet.

To see more of the aircraft we have to offer, check out our aircraft guide and see which private jet would be perfect for your private jet charter needs.



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