When Learjet rolled out its first business jet in the 1960s, Al Higdon, who was doing public relations for the company at the time, had an important job to do.
Higdon, who was honored Saturday night with the 2015 Wichita Aero Club Trophy at the organization’s annual gala, said the marching orders came straight from Bill Lear.
“The direction he gave to Jim Greenwood, my boss at the time, and my mentor, was “make Learjet synonymous with the term ‘business jet,'” Higdon said during his keynote address.
Higdon said he and Greenwood — who “literally wrote the book on promoting business aviation” to the masses — worked throughout the 1960s and beyond to get the aircraft featured in movies, TV and in major advertising spots across the nation.
Some such films included “Ice Station Zebra,” “The Last Safari” and “In Like Flint.”
It appeared in print advertising for products ranging from luggage to cigarettes.
And Higdon had more than 100 magazine covers featuring the Learjet on the wall of his office at the company.
While the aircraft itself wasn’t everywhere, he said, the Learjet could certainly be seen everywhere as a result.
Higdon went on to help found the Wichita advertising firm of Sullivan Higdon & Sink, where he continued to work with aviation clients —among others — until his retirement in 1996.
And his work with Wichita State University and a lengthy list of local nonprofits have helped make him well known in the community.
But his years with Learjet at the fore of the burgeoning business jet industry were “heady days.”
And they were not without their more interesting personal moments for Higdon.
On one of his earliest flights on a Learjet, Higdon flew with Bill Lear to Boston where the boss was slated to give a speech.
Higdon went to open the clam shell-style door on which one section opened up and the other section opened down.
The bottom portion at the time included a cable the operator would use to let it down.
Usually, Higdon said, that was the job of the copilot. On this day, however, he decided to he would do it himself.
As the plane rolled up to a collection of dignitaries from General Electric — which built the Learjet’s engines at the time — Higdon swung into action.
He pushed the top half out and up and then released the cable on the bottom half of the door.
“I grabbed the cable, but I didn’t do it with the proper grip, so I preceded to fall right out of the door and onto the ground,” Higdon said. “Bill Lear was not pleased.”
It was a humorous anecdote from a man who always enjoyed what he was doing and has helped make Wichita a better place at each step of the way.
It’s safe to say he more than got back up again.
You can read more about Higdon from his recent Q&A with the WBJ.