By S. Clayton Moore
Everything old is new again at Best Jets Ltd., an innovative aviation management and jet modernization center now open for business. The company is taking an old favorite, the 20-series Learjet, and renewing it with high-tech engines, avionics and interiors.
Best Jets is now offering a series of upgrade packages for the 20-series Learjet in Silver, Gold and Platinum packages that make the Learjet match up, and in some cases, surpass even the newest and sleekest corporate aircraft. The company was proud to show off its innovative conversion packages in two sleekly outfitted Best Jets 21st Century Lear 25s at the Saab Aviation & Business Jet Preview at Centennial Airport (APA) on August 8.
With more than 100,000 square feet of state-of-the-art facilities at Grayson County Airport (GYI) in Denison, Texas, Best Jets is ready to expand its operations. They include outfitting corporate aircraft with new amenities, providing engine upgrades, and generally renewing some of America’s best-loved aircraft.
“We’re talking about an airplane that some incredibly talented people designed, manufactured and certified, which has survived the test of time and has enough life built into it to serve another whole generation,” said Roger Humiston, the founder of Best Jets. “We’re applying the upgrades to it and presenting it back to the business community as a terrific option.”
Humiston founded the company with his wife, Kate Woolstenhulme, a talented artist who designs the custom Best Jets interior upgrades, and her brother, Steven Woolstenhulme, who manages much of the company’s software customization as well as shared management agreements.
Humiston has more than 30 years of experience in the aviation industry as a corporate pilot, jet charter pilot, FBO owner/manager and director of operations for various charter companies. He learned to fly at Arapahoe County Airport (now Centennial Airport) in 1968 at Clinton Aviation, before going on to fly for companies like Dillon Food Stores and Koch Oil. Later, he formed his own charter company, which resulted in strange adventures like flying explosives to Pakistan or computer supplies to war-torn El Salvador for Texas Instruments. Later, he flew as an internationally rated captain and check airman on the American Airlines Alliance program.
He’s also had a long, affectionate relationship with the Lear company, first flying GE engines to East Coast maintenance bases in a Beech 18 from G.E. Strother in Winfield, Kansas, and later going to work for Lear as a flight instructor at the factory. He even flew Bill Lear’s widow Moya to attend various ceremonies in his Learjet for several years in the 1990s, as a small token of appreciation for the couple’s contribution to general aviation.
His most recent successful venture was Best AeroNet Ltd., a discount jet fuel network servicing the corporate jet aircraft industry. With the need to travel throughout the country visiting network affiliates, Humiston and Woolstenhulme co-purchased a Lear 24 with several partners in 1997, outfitting it with the latest amenities.
“All at once, we found ourselves not just in the fuel business but in the aviation management business,” Humiston recalled. “Some of our owners wanted Lears of their own, so we fixed them up with refurbished aircraft with more robust motors. Then, people wanted us to do it over and over again.”
After struggling in cramped facilities at Addison Airport, the company moved to Grayson County Airport three years ago, where they now have a 25,000-square-foot engine overhaul shop, a 40,000-square-foot airframe maintenance facility, and another 35,000 square feet devoted to aircraft interiors.
“We got serious about refurbishing 20-series Lears and either selling them outright to individuals or companies, or putting them into shared-ownership programs where we retain the management of the aircraft,” Humiston said.
One of Best Jet’s most unique upgrades is General Electric’s propulsion modernization upgrade for the 10,000 hour TBO Solid Spool Compressor Rotor on the proven CJ-610 engine. Humiston used his old contacts from when he flew GE engines as part of his cargo flying duties to put together a high-tech engine shop in Denison that services not only the CJ-610 but also its military grade sibling, the J-85 engine with afterburner.
“I figured they needed a little help selling this upgrade to the commercial market, and I was right, but they needed more than just help selling the upgrade,” Humiston said. “So I teamed up with GE, and they helped me gather up the tools and equipment to build an engine overhaul shop right there in Denison. We’re the only facility in the world with the precision grinding equipment and tooling to install this propulsion modernization system.”
Humiston is also struck by the similarity and synergy between the military’s use of the J-85 in the popular T-38 training and his own upgrades of the Lear 25.
“I think there’s a tremendous correlation between what the military is doing with the T-38 and what we’re doing on the civilian side,” he said. “The generals couldn’t find a replacement for the T-38, so they’ve upgraded the engine and installed new avionics. Now the T-38 will be flying until 2040. I like that proven aircraft concept because that’s what the Lear 25 is: a proven aircraft. There’s no replacement for the Learjet either.”
While Humiston has flown nearly every commercial aircraft available in the last 30 years, his love for the Lear is obvious, and as a former instructor for the company, he knows what he’s talking about.
“When Bill and Moya Lear came out with the 20-series Lear, it was a radical leap forward in technology and performance,” he said. “There hasn’t been anything produced in the meantime that performs better, has better thrust-to-weight ratio, better reliability or does just about anything better than a Lear 25. That’s why we’re backing that airplane and bringing it forward into the modern era.”
Even if the upgrades available through Best Jets were put on a brand new factory aircraft, they would be extraordinary. The company has put together three different packages for customers, branding them as Silver, Gold and Platinum, each with an increasing level of sophistication.
One of the more appealing benefits is that each includes a modern restyled interior and paint scheme designed by Kate Woolstenhulme based on the tastes and desires of the customer.
“The OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are catering to a specific marketplace and they’re finishing out aircraft to a pretty standard appearance, unless somebody has their own designer and really breaks the bank to create something unique,” Woolstenhulme explained. “We’re doing a custom interior, but we’re modernizing it so that the aircraft appears as if it rolled out of the factory today.”
To reach that goal, Best Jets pulls out the entire interior of each aircraft to install the latest soundproofing materials, as well as a new air system so that each all-leather seat has its own air gasper. In building the interior, Woolstenhulme and her technicians use the most luxurious woods and other materials.
They’ve installed in-flight game tables hidden inside the drink rail, an Iridium satellite telephone and a flight display area capable of showing the aircraft’s position or playing CDs or DVDs. By restructuring the cabin interior, Best Jets has even been able to install a private lavatory behind the cockpit as well as more storage areas. Finally, Woolstenhulme custom matches each aircraft’s color blend, based on interviews and research trips to each client’s home and office, so that they form an appealing combination both outside and in.
The Silver upgrade package added to a existing aircraft is available for approximately $850,000; it includes an avionics package with dual Garmin GNS-530 displays, King IHAS 980 Hazard System, the CJ-610 Legacy engines with mid-time or better remaining, as well as the interior upgrades. Moving up a level, the Gold version upgrade is priced at $1.8 million and includes all the conversions included on the Silver edition, but the engines are freshly overhauled and include new 10,000-hour solid spool compressor rotors.
At the very highest end of the spectrum is Best Jets’ 21st Century Platinum conversion, which includes several very special features for $2.35 million. In addition to the upgraded engines and Woolstenhulme’s beautiful interiors, the Platinum Lears are being outfitted with a new avionics suite upgrade from Universal Avionics, installed and custom-fitted by Stevens Aviation. It includes a full complement of three UNS 890-R Vision 1 synthetic vision displays, FMS, TAWS, radio control units, Collins AHRS, RSVM, Comms, Navs, DME, traffic displays and new audio systems. On a recent visit to inspect the Universal 890R installation in a Best Jet Lear 25, Hank Beaird, the original Learjet test pilot, said, “The avionics have finally caught up with the design of this aircraft.”
“If you’re safety-conscious at all, this synthetic vision system sells itself,” said Tom Wright, a regional marketing manager with Universal Avionics, who’s partnering with Stevens and Best Jets on the upgrades. “If I were flying this aircraft, I would want this technology. You have everything right there, seeing the terrain from two different views, plus all your normal flight instruments. If you can’t fly the airplane with all those systems in place, you have a real problem.”
Humiston believes that the Platinum version of his conversions will soon be the most popular version of Best Jets’ offerings.
“We think that once we’re able to install the Universal 890 cockpit, there will be no reason to install anything else but it,” Humiston said. “For the price point that we’re offering, we believe we have the finest airplane, with the most modern equipment available, that you can buy anywhere in the world today.”
While the market for a completely refurbished Lear ranges widely, Best Jets is seeing a distinctly corporate bent to their customers so far.
“We think our market for this aircraft will be small corporations who need jet transportation to help build their business but can’t afford the price tag on a brand new jet,” Humiston observed. “We can provide a corporate CEO a fast, safe, reliable airplane at a moderate price way below what a new jet would cost—but they still get all the modern features available. In fact, we’ll have better instrumentation and more amenities than some of the most expensive jets that money can buy.”
While Best Jets is happy to seek out a Lear to convert and sell to a customer, they’re also happy to apply their considerable skills in conversion to a customer’s already-purchased Lear or Falcon.
“We’ll be glad to outfit other people’s airplanes,” Humiston confirmed. “If you have an old Lear and you’re complaining about it not being worth anything, even if it’s simply because you haven’t had time to pour any money into it, we can fit it. You can bring it straight to us and for a certain dollar amount, upgrade your aircraft to the Gold, Silver or Platinum level and get an appraisal for up to three million dollars. Your airplane is renewed.”
The company’s biggest challenge these days is keeping up with demand. Best Jets has completed 12 conversions so far and has the capacity at its facilities in Denison to work on eight aircraft at a time. But it’s only recently that the company has been growing in all its various aspects, including the Lear renovations as well as engine repair, maintenance and refurbishment and airframe maintenance.
“We’re not well known yet to the aviation world as an engine overhaul shop,” Humiston admitted. “It’s not something you go and blow your horn about before you’re up and running. We now have the capacity, the people and the equipment in place, so we want to start getting the word out to people about our upgrades, our propulsion modernization program, and our airframe shop.”
On the upgrade side of the business, Best Jets is working towards streamlining the Silver, Gold and Platinum conversion process.
“Right now, it takes four to six months, depending on what needs to be done to a specific aircraft,” Humiston said. “We need to get that time down to three months. We’re not quite there, but we’ve made a lot of progress in the last year. We’ve also made a lot of partnerships with people like Stevens Aviation, so that if we need a paint slot or need help with an interior, they have the capability. Our hope is that as we go out and buy up enough of these airplanes, we’ll license quality providers like Stevens to install conversions under the Best Jets name.”
Humiston believes that his team’s vision for the Best Jets 21st Century Learjet program would meet with Bill Lear’s original dream for the 20-series Lear.
“I believe that Bill Lear’s idea was for an aircraft that business people could throw their briefcases on, go out and do their business, and be back home that night,” Humiston mused. “He got a lot of criticism about the cabin not being big enough and would say, ‘You can’t stand up in your Cadillac either.’ It was just a reflection of his idea of the airplane as a corporate transport to get your business done and get you home. I don’t think the mission for this airplane has changed one bit.”
In fact, Humiston could only think of one more item that the Learjet really needs to be successful.
“The only thing this airplane needs, in my mind, is a new generation of pilots,” Humiston laughed. “We’ve tried to wear this airplane out for 40 years, and we haven’t been able to do it. I think the new generation of pilots coming up has the mindset to take advantage of the kinds of technology with which we’re outfitting these aircraft. This is really a new generation of airplane for a new generation of pilots.”
For more information, visit [http://www.bestaero.com] or [http://www.bestjets.aero].