Collapse of Lear jet project embarrasses Britain

Political pressure is building on the British government to rescue taxpayers' money that it invested in the Lear Fan executive jet project which recently collapsed. The British government sank an estimated $71 million into the joint British-American venture by Lear Fan Ltd. The government, which was severely criticized earlier for the loss of $96 million in the De Lorean sports car debacle, is coming under strong political pressure to salvage as much as it can from the Lear Fan shut down.

The British government had hoped to provide an eventual 1,250 jobs through the firm.

The high-risk technological venture failed to get off the ground because of technological difficulties and lack of continuing finance.

The collapse of the project is yet another industrial tragedy for the violence-torn province of Northern Ireland, where unemployment is at 20.9 percent.

If the British government is ever to recoup its losses from the project, it must retain ownership rights to the jet's advanced technology. The plane was to be made by bonding layers of carbon fiber together, making it both light and fuel efficient.

The British government's agent in Ulster -- the Industrial Development Board for Northern Ireland -- holds the rights on design and prototypes for six months. But when this period ends, a foreign entrepreneur could develop the project further without having to pay for the previous development costs.

The aircraft was the dream of the late William Lear, a United States-born electrical engineer who had a proven track record with one of the world's most successful executive jets.

But his concept of a fuel efficient aircraft constructed with carbon fibers and with two engines driving a rear propellor failed to achieve an airworthiness certificate from the US Federal Aviation Administration.

Its production schedules continued to slip.

Despite a British government rescue operation in 1982 with the help of a Saudi Arabian consortium, the production plans for the aircraft continued to fall behind schedules. With money running out, there seemed little option but to close.

Government sources point out that the Lear Fan experience had no resemblance to the De Lorean failure -- some $100 million had been invested privately in Lear Fan, and government officials point out that public money for investment is provided only for projects that already have considerable private support.

Nevertheless, the dangers of investment in high-risk new technology have again been highlighted. Government strategy has already moved to provide more support for small local ventures rather than large-scale international projects in the De Lorean and Lear Fan mold. This is unlikely to head off bitter criticism from politicians and trade unionists who have seen local hopes dashed yet again in one of the poorest provinces in Britain.

Meanwhile, the remaining 22 workers at the Lear Fan Newtown Abbey factory have begun to collect unemployment. Another 370 were laid off last year.

Some 200 workers at the firm's plant in Reno, Nev., will also lose their jobs.

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