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Lear jet project in Ulster faces airworthiness questions

A jet-manufacturing project that could bring 2,800 much-needed jobs to Belfast is running into problems. Northern Ireland Minister of State Adam Butler says the new Lear Fan 2100 executive jet may have trouble receiving its airworthiness certificate from the US Federal Aviation Administration by next February.

Belfast's Lear Fan Company, with the help of $80 million from the British government, at one stage employed 560 workers in Belfast. But delays in the development of the prototype have brought a massive layoff; only around 20 workers are still employed, mostly in security.

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The plane was developed for Lear Avia Corporation of Reno, Nev., by the late William Lear, who produced the highly successful Learjet.

The new aircraft is built from carbon materials that are lighter and stronger than the aluminum in conventional jets. Its unique design and lighter weight promise about half the fuel consumption of similar-sized aircraft. But the 2100 has failed to pass a number of airworthiness tests.

Still, management remains confident the aircraft will be given its certification by next February. Although behind schedule, it remains a front-runner for a potentially lucrative market.

''I am well aware of the anxieties about Lear Fan,'' Mr. Butler told the House of Commons. ''What matters is that there is an airplane to produce, so it is essential that all resources - financial and management - are concentrated on achieving certification.''

The government contributed $50 million to the project in 1980 and another $30 million in 1982.The second funding was marked by a financial restructuring: 85 percent of control was assumed by a Saudi-backed consortium headed by Denver oilman Robert Burch. The rest was divided between Lear's widow, Moya, the British government, and other minority holders. Only a few million dollars remain out of an investment package of some $200 million.

There are certain parallels between the Lear Fan project and the formerly Belfast-based John De Lorean car enterprise. Both centered on a new product, and both depended heavily on British funding.

There the parallels end, however. The De Lorean project failed for very different reasons. The Thatcher government insists that its financial safeguards on the Lear Fan deal are much tighter than those made with De Lorean by a Labour government in 1978 - although if the Lear Fan 2100 fails, the British taxpayers stand to lose some $80 million.

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Butler also made it clear that the company is committed to providing jobs in Northern Ireland. Earlier there were fears about the company's policy, following a claim by a senior executive that it was committed to produce only components in Ulster, not completed aircraft. Butler noted that in the 1982 agreement ''there is specific reference to manufacture and assembly of the plane in Northern Ireland.''

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