a personal memoir

Beech and Learjet sales in post-war Germany

By Alex Kvassay
Former salesman for Beech and Learjet

Photo-Porst Capt J Sondermeir (L) accepts the keys to the company's new Queen Air from Hans Friedebach, salesman for German Beech distributor Travelair. The aircraft was registered in Switzerland for tax purposes. Its owner, Hans-Heinz Porst, was later convicted of espionage for East Germany.

It took a long time for German aviation to recover after World War II. This was not for lack of an aviation-minded public. There were many former Luftwaffe pilots who wanted to get back into aviation—whether as an owner, the CEO of a large corporation or as a corporate pilot. Adolf Galland, former chief of Luftwaffe fighter pilots and recipient of the Iron Cross with Swords and Diamonds, became a Beechcraft Bonanza owner.

The piston-engine Beechcraft Queen Air was the first modern aircraft with a suitable corporate cabin size. It became popular instantly in Germany in the 1960s. But business aircraft ownership was usually not publicized.

Most aircraft were for the use of the chief and his family—employees rarely even heard that the corporation owned an aircraft.

To make sure of this, almost all Queen Airs going to Germany were painted with a light blue bottom, a white top and a dark blue stripe. And never a corporate logo anywhere. By just looking at it, you could not tell who owned the aircraft.

Adolf Galland, shown during WWII as Luftwaffe general of fighter forces (L), was an ace who became a Bonanza owner after the war (R).

Of course, there is always an exception. Hans-Heinz Porst, owner of a large chain of retail photo shops, had his Queen Air painted pink with a green stripe. This may not have been such a brilliant idea in his case. A few years later, Herr Porst was arrested and jailed as a spy for communist East Germany. Maybe nobody told him that, as a spy, it would be better to be inconspicuous.

The later turboprop King Airs were and still are very popular in Germany.

The unique Learjet 24A

The early Learjets were an instant success, but I must admit that we had a compelling competitive advantage over all the larger business jets—at that time the Hawkers, the Sabreliners and the Falcons. The first Learjet 23s were certified in the utility category with a maximum gross weight of 12,500 lb. Up to this weight, a German pilot could fly them with a "Commercial 2" license.

Most of the old timers were ex-Luftwaffe pilots and did not possess the "Commercial 1" license necessary to fly a heavier aircraft. Obtaining such a qualification would have required more studies and tests, and they were not about to go back to school. So if the boss had purchased an aircraft heavier than this 12,500-lb limit, the pilot would have lost his job.

(L–R) US Dept of Commerce's George Payne presents Presidential "E for Export" award to Learjet Chairman Charles Gates and Kvassay. Backdrop is Volkswagen's Learjet 24.

Our new Learjet 24, starting with serial number 100, was a transport category airplane with a 13,000-lb takeoff gross weight. It therefore required a Com­mercial 1 license. But if there's a problem, there is always a solution. We certified a new model—the Learjet 24A—with a maximum gross weight of 12,500 lb. The 2 models—24 and 24A—were identical except for a small placard on the instrument panel restricting the maximum fuel load in the fuselage tank. This restriction was difficult to check and easy to ignore—although, actually, given the short distances in Europe, this was really not a serious handicap.

Dietrich Puetter, the chief of pilot licensing at LBA—Germany's Federal Aviation Office—was very upset about the 24A and very unhappy with me. At one Hannover Airshow, my good friend Bernie Joklitschke, of Aero Dienst, was getting ready to fly the President of Pratt & Whitney Canada, Thor Stevenson, and his wife to his home base in Nuremberg. At the last minute he told me, "Alex, I don't have a copilot—you must come with me." I protested that without a German pilot license I would obviously be illegal—but never mind. The passengers and the captain were already sitting in the aircraft when up walked Herr Puetter.

I was standing at the cabin door when he started a fairly long conversation, telling me that he'd given up fighting the Learjet 24A, that it would be almost impossible and very lengthy to try and change the German pilot regulations. "Alex," he said, "you have won!"
By then, the people aboard the aircraft were getting annoyed and asking, "Who is this copilot who is delaying the departure?" Finally, I slunk into the cockpit like a wet dog without trying to explain why I could not get into the aircraft in the presence of the man from LBA.

One up on the Hansa Jet

A German competitor to the Learjet soon surfaced in the form of the Hansa Jet. This aircraft was made by Hamburger Flugzeugbau (HFB), a wholly owned subsidiary of the Thyssen Steel Works. When Thyssen was ready to buy its own corporate jet, it was thought to be a foregone conclusion that the parent company would buy the aircraft produced by their own subsidiary.

But not so fast. There were problems with that scenario. The company was still largely owned by the Thyssen family. While the chairman, Hans Gunther Sohl, was highly respected as a corporate guru in Germany, some of the Thyssens referred to him as a "hired hand." During my meeting with Dr Sohl I hinted that the Hansa was larger than the Learjet, which 3 members of the Thyssen family already owned.

Today we might say it would have been "politically incorrect" for him to buy an aircraft larger than the Thyssen family's Learjets—but this expression was not yet part of the English language.

But the deciding factor was probably when Capt Johannes Huebner, the Thyssen corporate pilot, firmly refused to fly the Hansa Jet. Of course, as a former Messerschmitt Bf109 pilot, he did not have a Com­mercial 1 license and his job depended on this decision. For us, this was not just another sale but a great publicity stunt—the Thyssen Company did not buy the aircraft they manufactured but bought the Learjet instead.

By the time I left Learjet in 1976, there were about 25 Learjets flying in Germany. The latest number I have is from 2010, when about 70 Learjets were registered in Germany. This is more progress than it seems because many of those sold in my times would be about 40 years old by now and are probably retired.

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.