A Hawker and a Musketeer enter the picture, then a different relationship with Learjet

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

(L–R) Harry Combs and Al Higdon first met in 1961 when Combs was a Beech distributor in Denver, and Higdon was a Beech public relations staff member. In 1972, as president of Learjet, Combs persuaded Higdon to return to Learjet as a consultant to head the firm's public relations activities. Photo taken at 1996 NBAA Higdon retirement event.

While departing Learjet on very good terms in 1971 to open our own advertising and public relations firm, I did not ask for any business from them, nor did I expect to receive any. General aviation was deep into hard times. Unemployment in Wichita reached 11% that year and bumper stickers were appearing that read: "Will the last one out of Wichita please turn out the lights." And this was a year to start a new business? None-the-less, Sullivan Higdon Inc was born 4 days before the July 4th holiday.

Charles C Gates Jr was CEO of Denver-based, family-owned Gates Rubber Company, which in 1967 purchased Bill Lear's 60% ownership in Learjet. An experienced pilot, Gates and his company owned majority interest in Learjet for the next 18 years.

In our first 60 days I got an unbelievably welcome phone call to have lunch with my old friend Bill Robinson, then head of public relations for Beechcraft. We were to be joined by Lloyd Harris, who had sales responsibility for the HS-125 line that Beech was marketing in the US for Hawker Siddley. Lloyd and I did not know each other, and it was clear during our lunch conversation he was trying to get a bead on me and my knowledge of promoting business jets.

About an hour after I got back to the agency office I received a call from Robinson asking if I would like to enter into an agreement to represent Beech in helping promote the HS-125. While I confess to a bit of queasiness after all those years with the Learjet program, this was a new day. I said "yes" and threw myself hard into that effort.

Bill Robinson was an experienced and highly capable aviation communicator, serving during his career as head of public relations for all 3 Wichita general aviation manufacturers, Cessna, Beech and Learjet.

That initial work for Beech led to additional projects for both the single-engine Musketeer line and helping to launch the newly-announced Beech Aero Club concept headed by my friend Mike Gordon. My partner Wendell Sullivan, also a Beech alum, did the lion's share of our agency's work on these programs.

In the early 1970s, Beech Aircraft marketed the HS-125 business jet in the United States, with Higdon helping to promote the brand for a brief time in 1971 and 1972.

Later in our 1st year I got another phone call that reversed much of our then current aviation activities and headed Sullivan Higdon onto a new, but also quite well-known, path. Harry Combs, who in 1966 had sold his Denver-based FBO Combs Aircraft to The Gates Rubber Company with plans to retire, was brought out of retirement in 1972 at the request of 3 Learjet officials who had implored him to accept presidency of the struggling Learjet. Combs was eager for me to take over the company's public relations program on a contract basis.

Jim Taylor had an impressive resume when he took over the Learjet program in 1985, having previously introduced the French-built Falcon into the U.S. in the 1960s, and heading marketing for the Cessna Citation when it entered service in the early 1970s.

This was an easy decision for me, and I said "yes," thus ending our cordial and beneficial relationship with Beech to avoiding any conflict of interest. I was back with an office at Learjet 3 days each week directing a staff of 6, and spent the other 3 work days at Sullivan Higdon on Learjet and other client business. Soon after my contract for PR began, we were awarded all advertising business for Learjet, which we continued until 1985.

James R Greenwood spent his entire career in aviation as a pilot, a public relations executive, an FAA official, an author, and an industry advocate.

These Learjet days, too, were fun and rewarding, but they were different. Much of the start-up spark had gone out of the business and there was an ongoing turnover of senior people. In the mid 1970s, I did help facilitate the return of Jim Greenwood to the company from his position as director of public affairs for the Federal Aviation Administration, which he had accepted in 1969. This was a very good move for both Learjet and Greenwood.

During Al Higdon's 21 years with the Learjet program, activity on the company's production line ranged from highly busy to barely moving, depending on how the economy and other factors influenced order rates.

In 1985, James B Taylor, an acknowledged legend in bizjet marketing, was hired to head Learjet. In truth, while our relationship was totally cordial and professional, it was not one either of us drew much satisfaction from. The company was again on hard times and openly offered for sale by Gates Rubber. Budgets were trimmed to the bone and our firm's assignments were getting slimmer and slimmer.

By this time, our agency, now going by Sullivan Higdon & Sink to reflect addition of new partner Vaughn Sink in 1979, had too much aviation communications talent onboard to let sit idle. One day in late 1985 I walked into Taylor's office and politely resigned the business I had been a part of for 21 years, freeing the agency to seek another major airframe manufacturer as a client.

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.