It’s 25 years since the collapse of the much-vaunted Lear Fan Jet project in Belfast – and that, plus the loss last week of 400 jobs in the giant Bombardier plant – has brought painful memories back for Arnold Hatch.
Mr Hatch was the fifth employee to join Lear Fan, which started with such high hopes in 1980, but which collapsed five years later without the innovative plane – aimed at the millionaire market – carrying a single passenger. The parallel to Bombardier is that both companies suffered in the private plane sector.
The former Craigavon Mayor was the accountant of Lear Fan, based in Newtownabbey, and witnessed from close quarters, the demise of project. And to this day, he mourns what was “a wonderful, innovative development, but which fell on the sword of the Americans refusing to grant it an airworthiness certificate, with the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) making almost impossible demands”.
He added, “We all had doubts about the motives of the FAA. Their demands were so unreasonable that the project was bankrupted, owing £millions, having run out of money. So many people put all their efforts into the project, and it was such a shame that it failed because of the FAA.”
Mr Hatch added, “The problems was that the firm – founded by entrepreneur Bill Lear – had initiated an inventive carbon fibre which made the plane infinitely lighter than traditional aluminium. They simply could not convince the FAA, who insisted on four times the normal specifications – their demands grew and grew, along with the bills and the firm simply could not sustain the losses.”
Ironically, three prototypes had taken to the air with spectacular success, orders topped the 200 mark. But without that certificate, passengers couldn’t be accommodated in the planes, including Mr Hatch, even though he was one of the first employees.
“The irony is that carbon fibre is now a major part of so many planes, making them lighter and more economic. The Lear Fans – powered by a rear-mounted propeller – were superb. They were aimed at the luxury market, designed to fly eight to 10 people at more than 400 miles an hour, and their light weight promised fuel consumption of 10 miles a gallon better than those of any competitors.
“The Lear research and development HQ was in Reno Nevada. I was taken out there five times a year, and it was very impressive. But the stubbornness of the FAA, plus other problems, meant that only the test flights took to the air. I’d loved to have travelled in one, but without the FAA certificate, that was impossible.”
As the financial problems snowballed, a huge refinancing took place in 1982, when the British Government came up with another $22 million, in return for five percent of the equity and assurances that the manufacturers would increase the size of the work force. The Zoysia Corporation, an American consortium formed by Saudi Arabians, put up another $60 million in exchange for 85 percent of the equity.
Thousands of jobs had been anticipated, but without the FAA certificate, the employment peak was 500 and the factory had to be mothballed in the hope that the FAA would change its mind. But the green light never came, and as the writing appeared progressively clearer on the wall, Arnold Hatch formed his own successful small business – Craigavon Technology at Seagoe Industrial Estate - and has since retired.
Coming on the heels of the doomed DeLorean car project in Dunmurry (which had failed in 1982), it was a double whammy for the industrial hopes of Northern Ireland. But while John DeLorean had left Northern Ireland under a cloud, Lear Fan had been a victim of its own futuristic innovation.
Said Mr Hatch, “The irony came years later when the carbon fibre material was embraced by the major airlines and is so strong and light, it has become a vital component in aircraft construction.”
Maybe the DeLorean demise was even more ironic. Just a year after the DeLorean gull-winged car ceased to be manufactured, along came the classic trilogy film series ‘Back To The Future’ which would have sent the sales into the stratosphere had production not ceased in such sudden circumstances.
There are thought to be about 1,000 still in circulation – mainly in America - and a healthy industry has grown around them to keep them on the road, with spare parts and maintenance.
Mr Hatch said, “The 1980s were peak times in the Northern Ireland troubles, and the British Government, in those days of Direct Rule, was pulling out all the stops to bring industry to deprived areas, hoping that employment would lead to peace. Around 2,500 worked in DeLorean at one stage and the aim at Lear Fan was equally ambitious. The Government had no alternative but to pull the plug.”