a personal memoir

Alex Kvassay's 3 decades in aviation have brought success and many memories

By Alex Kvassay
Former Beech, Learjet and Canadair Sales Executive

Alex Kvassay attended school in his native Budapest, Hungary.

Upon discharge from the US Army, I badly needed a civilian job. But with a degree in Law from a Hungarian university and having been a sergeant in the US Army, I was not really qualified for anything.

With the help of a New York employment agency, I was invited by Beech Aircraft Corporation to a job interview in Wichita. Before going, I asked US Navy Commander Henry Holz, who worked at the desk next to me, "Is this a Navy aircraft that lands on beaches?" His answer was, "No, there was a real Mr Walter Beech."

During my interview at Beech I confessed I knew absolutely nothing about airplanes. My only previous flying experience was hitching rides in my PFC uniform from Offutt Air Base in Nebraska to Washington DC. But no one at Beech actually cared about my lack of aviation knowledge; they just needed someone who could travel and speak foreign languages. I spoke a few languages, including English – ze bestest! Beech officials said they could teach me how to fly easier than teaching foreign languages to a local Kansan.

To gain his US citizenship, Alex enlisted in the US Army, where he served for 3 years.

My job consisted mostly in visiting Beech dealers all over the world. Beech was not organized for factory people to make direct sales. In my 12 years at Beechcraft I directly sold only 1 aircraft, a Beech Model 18 purchased by Surinam Airways.

And I made that sale only because no one else at Beech knew where Suriname was – or that the country even existed – and therefore there was no Beech dealer there.

On weekends, I also used to ferry single-engine aircraft to New Orleans, New York or San Francisco, where they were crated and shipped overseas. I did this just to build up some flying time.

I probably would have stayed at Beech for the rest of my career had Bill Lear not come to Wichita to build his Learjets. I was introduced to Bill Lear by Harvey Anselm, who was a good friend of mine from my days at Beech and an early defector to Learjet. Bill subsequently asked me to start an international sales department for his company. Several Beech executives had already joined Learjet, including my friends Jim Greenwood and Al Higdon. Those of us departing Beech were called the Italian boatsmen: "Gone-to-Lear."

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Alex Kvassay (left) was a member of an established group selling Beech aircraft outside the US through a strong distributor/dealer network. Other managers on that team were (L–R) Dwight Hornberger and Dick Showalter, and Chief Michael Neuburger.

I sold Learjets directly to the Onassis, Thyssen, Guinness and Bin Laden families, also to King Hussein of Jordan, Colonel Ojukwu, president of Biafra, the Yugoslav government, and a total of 21 foreign air forces. Sales were also concluded through foreign dealers appointed by me in my capacity as vice president of international marketing.
My sales tactics were simple: when you hear of a prospective customer, get off your ass and go to him as quickly as possible.

Almost always I got there earlier than other aircraft salesmen and made the sale. On one occasion I overheard a telephone conversation where they mentioned that Jim Taylor, sales chief for Cessna Citation, was planning to go to Manila. I knew of only 1 potential bizjet customer in the Philippines, and that was General Hans Menzi. So I left for Manila the same day and beat Taylor to the sale by a couple of days.

After both had departed Learjet, Bill Lear (L) invited Alex Kvassay (R) to join him in selling Learstars, later marketed as Challengers by Canadair.

In 1976 I left Learjet and joined Bill Lear at Canadair in Montreal to serve in his new Learstar 600 program (later renamed as Challenger). I was selling paper airplanes since deliveries were 5 years hence. When Bill left the program in a huff claiming that they were making a "Fat Albert" out of his design, I could see the handwriting on the wall and also departed. At that point I had already sold 7 of the still non-existent Learstar 600s in Europe.

With a small headquarters crew, pictured here, Alex Kvassay (center) ran an operation that sold more Learjets outside the US than any other manufacturer. Other members of the international sales group were (L–R) Marge Taylor, Joanna Jacquinot, Tom O'Meara and Jim Bir.

In 1977 I joined with Donald Duncan, his son Robert, and Harry Barr of Duncan Aviation in Lincoln NE. This joint venture was called Management Jets Worldwide and we had offices at LeBourget Airport in Paris, France. Our 2 European partners were Alec Couvelaire in Paris and Per Alkaersig in Copenhagen.

I was the president and only employee of the company, and was actually stationed in Paris. By 1982 I was burned out by the continuous trips between Paris and Wichita, and retired at the age of 55. By mutual consent, we liquidated the company.

Harvey Anselm, with whom Alex Kvassay had worked at Beech, preceded him to Learjet and introduced Alex to Bill Lear, leading to a job offer that put Kvassay in charge of Learjet's international sales between 1965 and 1976.

But I already was addicted to travel by then. I had spent virtually my whole adult life traveling so it was tough to stop. Besides, there were places where no business airplanes were operated, like North Korea, North Viet Nam, Cuba, Tibet, Timbuktu, St Helena Island, the North Pole, South Pole, Libya and Syria, so I went to them.

When Alex Kvassay was detained on entering the US in 1948, he was bailed out by US Army Colonel Jack Lanterman, with whom Alex remained good friends until Lanterman's recent death at 99.

I participated in 2 around-the-world record flights, one in a 747 and the other one in a Concorde. In all, through my career and later, I've circled the globe 27 times, crossed the Atlantic 493 times and the Pacific about 80 times, and visited a total of 184 independent countries (out of 197 presently).

And for good measure, I've spent 3 weeks aboard a Soviet nuclear-powered icebreaker in the North Sea, and I've been a passenger on the famed Blue Train in South Africa and the Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow to Beijing. I have watched a Space Shuttle launch at Cape Kennedy and a Soyuz launch at Baikonur in Kazakhstan. I also made many valuable friends during my years in the business, such as Neil Armstrong and Paul Tibbets.
After retirement I started a writing career. First I wrote a book titled Alex in Wonderland comprising my memoirs as an international business aircraft salesman.

And I've also written approximately 150 travel and aviation articles, including those you've been reading as "Alex Remembers" every month since May 2010 in Professional Pilot magazine. I now live in retirement in Scottsdale AZ.

Alex Kvassay spent 30 years in international business aviation sales, working for both Beech and Learjet, concluding with Management Jets Worldwide, of which he was CEO, based in Paris. His book, "Alex in Wonderland", outlines his life and career. Now 90, his 300 scrapbooks assembled after each of his milestone trips abroad, serve as basis for this series.