a personal memoir

Harry Combs, a renaissance airman, helped push Learjet to success

By Alex Kvassay
Former salesman for Beech and Learjet

Alex Kvassay, "The Champagne King" Count of Chandon of Moet et Chandon and Harry Combs in 1972.

Harry Combs was a very well known major player in the general aviation business. This is not a biography of Combs, that would take a thick book, only my experiences of working with him in the aviation business.

I first knew Harry when he was Beechcraft distributor in Colorado. As I worked in the Export Department, I really did not have much contact with Combs, but we were on minimal but friendly terms.

Harry was a man of firm opinions and did not hesitate to make them known in a rather loud voice. I once overheard Frank Hedrick, then Beechcraft President, saying: "Here comes Harry, after hunting tigers all year long, he comes to Wichita once a year to tell us how to run our business".

Harry was the motivating spirit behind the Gates purchase of Learjet. Both Harry and Charles C. Gates were of Denver, Colorado. Harry directed the transition from Bill Lear to Gates. At that time, he took no official position in the company and after Gates Aviation was formed, Harry sort of faded out. After the death of Hig Gould, the Gates appointed President of both Learjet and Gates Aviation, the company sort of drifted without any firm leadership.

Three of us from the Wichita office, Bill Webster, treasurer, Griff Doyle, general manager, and I, international sales VP, flew to Denver and told Harry, there is a power vaccum, we are drifting, we need him to take over. He said that Mr. Gates already had asked him to do this, but he hesitated.. But, if the three of us will support him, he will do it.
Harry was easy to work for, sometimes. We both had great interest in history and archeology.

Harry Combs in 1972 with the Duke of Leinster, chairman of CSE, Learjet distributor in the United Kingdom.

On joint overseas trips we always found a detour to some historic site. Harry had a fantastic memory. He could recite verbatim long paragraphs from Julius Ceasar's speeches. Once, I took into his office a South African farmer and potential customer.

After asking him where his farm was located, Harry proceeded telling him about a fight near his farm during the Boer War—naming the British sergeant who was decorated afterwards. The South African was flabbergasted—he knew nothing about this. (Could it be that Harry just made up the story?)

When it came to abandoning the GE CJ-610 engine, which was a perfect engine but with high fuel consumption and high noise levels, and go with the Garrett fan-engine, the Gates Aviation crew, being ignorant of aviation in general, much opposed this. Harry had already decided to go with Garrett, but he appreciated my support at a Denver meeting where I told them if we stay with GE, in two years time we shall be out of business.

But we did not always agree. I fought Harry's idea of exchanging the wide entry door of the Learjet with a narrow door. Our overseas customers, as well as many in the US, used full-time or occasionally our airplanes as air ambulances. For this, the wider door was an absolute requirement.

No competitive bizjet in our size category could accommodate a stretcher without tilting it 90 degrees—at which point the patient may fall off. Most other airplanes started with a smaller door and were sometimes forced into designing a larger door by customer demand. I won the argument only partially—the size of the door became an optional choice for the customer.

Admiral Fernando Gonzales (L) of the Mexican Navy, accepts delivery of a Learjet 24 from Harry Combs, in 1972.

This very much upset the production people, because they had to know way back on the production line which size door to build. But Harry was even more upset when he saw my Model 36 demonstrator coming down the production line with a wide door.

He stormed into my office asking for an explanation. I told him that my customers would not buy the narrow door version. "Why not"? "Because I never told them about it".

A company in Newton, Kansas, made a lot of money reinstalling the old wide door in Learjets on the used market. The used price of an older model Learjet automatically was 100,000 dollars higher than one with the narrow door.

Similarly, long arguments followed about the move of parts of Learjet production, along with the domestic marketing, to Tucson, Arizona. Of course I lost the argument about the move, but Harry agreed when I told him that the international marketing must stay in Wichita.

One of our greatest selling points was the structural strength of the Learjet. The customer must see our wings with the eight main spars, this cannot just be explained with pictures. Harry agreed. I stayed in Wichita. But in the long run, the Tucson operation was not a succes and was greatly downscaled.

Harry Combs presents a full-scale flying replica of the Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk NC on occasion of the centennial celebration commemorating the brothers' first flight in 1903. Also shown are an unidentified male nurse, The Honorable Gale Norton, then US Secretary of the Interior, and Astronaut Neil Armstrong. Combs died at 91 shortly after this ceremony.

We kept up the friendship long after we both left Learjet. Being invited to Harry's ranch in Montana, where we did not mention our old arguments, was considered a big honor in aviation circles.

Harry was a great admirer of the Wright Brothers and authored a highly-acclaimed book "Kill Devil Hill" about them. A friend near Washington DC,, Ken Hyde, was building full size flying replicas of the 1903 Wright Flyer. He told me Harry Combs's book was his inspiration and he really would like to meet him.

I picked up the phone and called Harry. After long negotiations, mainly conducted by Jim Greenwood, Harry bought the number two airplane and presented it to the Museum at Kitty Hawk at the 100 years anniversary celebration. By then Harry was nearly 91 and in bad health.

But he willed himself to stay alive until he could make this presentation, which he made, from a wheelchair. His family members told me that this project kept him alive, health-wise he should have died long ago. Harry showed us how willpower can keep you going against all odds.

Harry was a real character and a real friend.

Alex Kvassay sold corporate aircraft for 30 years, earning a reputation as the industry's premier international salesman of his day. Now 86, retired and living in Wichita KS, Kvassay continues to travel for pleasure—recent solo trips have taken him to Argentina, Libya, North Korea and Cuba.