a personal memoir

Overcoming difficulties with Australian Learjet certification

By Alex Kvassay
Former salesman for Beech and Learjet

Australian authorities awarded type certification for the Learjet 20 and 30 series in Mar 1972. Shown in the office of Australian Dept of Civil Aviation Director General Sir Donald Anderson are (L–R) Gates Learjet Pres Harry Combs, Learjet Distributor for Australia Bib Stillwell and Anderson (presenting certification papers). Stillwell would later move to the US and become president of Gates Learjet.

In 1966, with Learjet still under the leadership of Bill Lear, and with Ed Chandler as the overall sales chief, I took a visitor from what was then the Australian Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) to meet Chandler in his office.

Almost the first question this official asked was, "What about stalling a Learjet?" Some rumors were already circulating about a problematic stall characteristic of this particular model of aircraft. Chandler, not being an aviator, spotted an Executive Jet Aviation pilot, Dick Rittiger, in the lobby and called him in. When asked the very same question, Rittiger said, helpfully, "Don't ever try to stall a Learjet—you'll be killed." This was the beginning of our long association with the DCA.

Bib Stillwell was a Ford and Beechcraft dealer in Melbourne, Australia. He was a keen pilot as well as being the Australian racing car champion for 7 consecutive years. He was a good friend from my Beechcraft years. In the late 1960s, while visiting Stillwell in Melbourne, I tried to persuade him to become the Learjet distributor for Australia.

He was hesitant and brought up the rumors about the stalls. Rumors travel fast and had already reached down under. I invited Stillwell to come to Wichita and try the aircraft for himself.

In Wichita, with Bib Stillwell flying and Jim Bir in the right seat, we climbed to 15,000 ft and stalled the beast in every possible configuration. The stick pusher activated, the nose dropped slightly—it was just another normal genteel stall. Stillwell was convinced and immediately on his return home started working on Australian certification with his good friend Sir Donald Anderson, the director general of the DCA.

A couple of years later, I happened to be in Rio de Janeiro when I received a call from Wichita that Learjet Pres Harry Combs and his wife were leaving for Australia on a personal visit, and wanted to meet with Bib Stillwell and Sir Donald while there. And I had to meet them in Melbourne. The following day.

The simplest way would have been to fly back to Los Angeles and on to Melbourne—but this would have taken too much time. The only other possibility was to catch a LAN Chile flight coming in from London that could connect to their once-a-week flight to Easter Island and Tahiti. But the flight from London was 6 hours late, making this impossible.

I called my good friend José Afonso Assumpção, founder and president of Líder Táxi Aéreo and Learjet Brazilian distributor, and soon I was winging my way to Santiago de Chile in a Learjet 36. I did not even clear into Chile (which was then ruled by the socialists under President Salvador Allende) but waited in the international departure lounge.

Somehow, while visiting the washroom, my passport, along with my health certificate, my Australian visa, my travelers checks and my airline ticket, fell out of my pocket. I did not notice this until they called my flight.

I made a quick check, but there was nothing in the washroom, which meant I had to make a quick decision to go or not to go without all these documents. I still had my boarding pass in my breast pocket, so I went ahead and boarded the Chilean 707.

After we were airborne, I went up to the cockpit to discuss my problem with the captain. He happened to be Jorge Jarpa, an old friend. "No problem," he said. He would call ahead to Tahiti and have the US and Australian consuls meet me on arrival. This sounded like a winning idea.

Landing in Tahiti, I quickly discovered that no such consular offices existed in Tahiti. Bingo. But I was met by a most competent Qantas representative. I had 6 hours between flights, during which time he practically adopted me. He took me to the French police, who issued me with a temporary French passport valid for 3 days.

Then we went to the American Express office where they gave me $250 in checks just on my signature. Next it was on to the hospital to receive the required shots for Australia, and then my new friend issued me a new airline ticket. He called the nearest Australian consul—in New Caledonia—who, after checking with Stillwell by phone, authorized my entry into Australia.

My timely meeting with Combs was now assured—but I was close to a nervous breakdown. A few days later I obtained a new US passport from the US Embassy in Canberra, Australia, with Harry Combs as my witness.

On a subsequent trip to Australia with a Learjet 24, flown by Hank Beaird, our chief test pilot, we took Sir Donald Anderson on a local demonstration flight. Immediately after takeoff, he fell sound asleep. I figured there was no point in just wasting fuel, so we landed back in Melbourne. Sir Donald woke up on landing and thanked us profusely for a wonderful flight.

We sold our demonstrator aircraft to Sir Leslie Thiess in Brisbane—another friend from Beechcraft days. But we could never deliver the aircraft to him without Australian certification, so a few weeks later we had to go back and bring the aircraft home.

This was a rather harrowing flight when the weather closed in on us before we reached Greenland. (The Learjet 24 did not have transpacific range, hence the Atlantic crossing.) After some nervous discussions with ground controllers, we landed at a DEW radar station on Baffin Island, Canada, almost out of fuel. There we could refuel from 5-gal cans.

When Bib Stillwell bought his first Learjet 24 demonstrator, it had to be delivered with a US registration and was actually registered in my name. After more delays, we finally received the Australian certificate of airworthiness and Stillwell could start selling a few airplanes for us.

When Stillwell lost his Australian pilot license following a heart attack, he moved to the US and, eventually, on Harry Combs' retirement, became president of Gates Learjet. Actually, as a foreigner he could not be employed in the US, but he was paid as a consultant and was the only Learjet CEO who parked his personal Learjet 36 on the ramp. Later, in the 1980s, he went back to Australia and died of another heart attack.

The moral of the story is this—hang on to your passport. My lost items never did show up. And if this had happened with today's airport security, I would probably still be in Tahiti.


Alex Kvassay sold corporate aircraft for 30 years, earning a reputation as the industry's premier international salesman of his day. Now 85, retired and living in Wichita KS, Kvassay continues to travel for pleasure—recent solo trips have taken him to Libya, North Korea and Cuba.