AL LOOKS BACK

As he says goodbye to Learjet, Al Higdon reflects on his many good times and quality friendships

By Al Higdon
Former Beech and Learjet Communications Executive
Cofounder of the Sullivan Higdon & Sink Ad Agency


Olive Ann Beech, cofounder of Beech Aircraft with her husband Walter in 1932, was singularly in command of the company following Walter's death in 1950. She was the nation's first woman to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

As an employee of Beech Aircraft for 4 years and Learjet for nearly 8, my experience cup was running over with amazing memories by 1971. How the heck was I so lucky as to be on the scene for the launches of both the King Air and the Learjet – 2 brands exceeding 100 combined years of market prominence?

I was lucky to also work with and for some of the giants in the general aviation industry: Olive Ann Beech and Frank Hedrick of Beech; Bill Lear and Harry Combs at Learjet; and countless other men and women both at those 2 fine organizations and so many others in aircraft manufacturing, avionics, engine production, and fixed base operations.

That's not to mention all the consultants and the business and trade media, the latter group teaching me much of what I learned about the industry.

Frank Hedrick joined Beech Aircraft just prior to beginning of World War II. He became CEO at time of Mrs Beech's retirement, a position he held until sale of Beech to Raytheon in early 1980s.

An important linkage with the broader general aviation industry for me was my involvement with the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) public affairs committee. I served on it for many years, representing Learjet. In this group were a dozen smart, articulate people, passionate about the industry and committed to its success.

Bill Lear's early 1960s vision for possibilities of the business jet industry flew in the face of a forecast at that time that a total of 300 units might ultimately be built cumulatively by all manufacturers combined. He personally funded his company through its first 6 years.

The growing awareness of the Learjet and the relevance of business aviation for me were played out at numerous social events that my wife, Judy, and I attended during those years. Inevitably, the conversation often got around to the Learjet and business airplanes in general, by people not even associated with the industry! "Thank God I'm not in the business of touting washing machines," I would quietly say to myself.

Former Learjet executive Linden Blue (L) and Al Higdon worked together on Learjet marketing and promotional programs. Blue went on to serve as CEO of Raytheon Aircraft (now Textron Aviation-Beech) and is now vice chairman of defense contractor General Atomics.

At Beech and later Learjet I was mentored by Jim Greenwood, who literally wrote the book on how to promote general aviation. That he was my close friend and actually appreciated my work was one of the rewarding experiences of my life. Jim died in 2012 at the age of 91.

Here are 4 close friends with a combined 170+ years in general aviation. From left to right are Doug Allen, independent film producer; Clay Lacy, Clay Lacy Aviation; Al Higdon; and Alex Kvassay, former Beech and Learjet international marketing chief.

Also at Beech I met, worked alongside, and became best friends with Wendell Sullivan, at that time the company's assistant advertising manager. He would later become my co-founding partner of an advertising/public relations firm bearing our names.

Charles Gates (L) persuaded Harry Combs (R) to come out of retirement to head Learjet in 1971. Gates owned the Gates Rubber Company, which in 1966 bought Combs Aircraft and in 1967 bought Learjet.

Among others I worked closely with at Beech and Learjet were Alex Kvassay, no stranger to Pro Pilot readers, who at time of his retirement in 1982 had sold more business jets outside the US than anyone else in the industry. My buddy Linden Blue was my tennis partner on too many occasions to count; he went on to establish a significant legacy in aviation and, more recently, defense at General Atomics, which successfully produces UAVs for government use.

Benn Isaacman came to Learjet from Atlantic Aviation in 1968 to head up all interior design. His work over the years greatly improved Learjet interior appearances and functionality. He continued to set industry standards throughout his post-Learjet career.

Also looming large in my Learjet memory bank is Benn Isaacman, who was a true game-changer in conceptualizing how business aircraft interiors are designed, produced and installed. Another talented friend was Doug Allen, an independent film producer of dozens of commercial videos for the industry, including a princely number of great ones for Learjet.

By early 1971, with the economy and the industry struggling mightily, I had an itch to move on. Wendell Sullivan and I for years had talked about starting our own business and now the time was right for both of us. In early June I gave notice to the Learjet program, and on July 1 we opened the doors of Sullivan Higdon Inc.
But we never closed our doors to aviation.

Al Higdon spent 12 years as a public relations executive with Beech and
Learjet before co-founding an advertising/pr firm that represented more than a dozen clients in aviation, including Learjet and Cessna, over a 25 year period before his retirement at 60 in 1996.