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OPINION: In praise of the Challenger

If you had typed "Bombardier" into a search engine for most of this year, the chances are the results would not have made pleasant reading.

The Montreal-based firm was humiliatingly forced to hand its flagship CSeries airliner to Airbus after investing billions of dollars in the programme, sold its slow-selling Q400 turboprop to a tiny Canadian rival, and hinted that its regional jet business may be next to go.

The latest announcement of 490 job losses at its Belfast aerostructures operation - a marquee name in the UK's aerospace industry and vital to the Northern Ireland economy - is just the latest piece of dismal news.

Yet, the one part that appears to have a solid future is where it all began in aviation for the one-time manufacturer of snowmobiles 40 years ago this month.

Although Bombardier did not take over the near-bankrupt Canadair until 1986, it was in November 1978 that the Bill Lear-inspired Challenger 600 flew for the first time. Since entering service in 1980, around 1,000 of the large-cabin business jets have been shipped, with the latest iteration, the Challenger 650, still notching up 18 deliveries in the first nine months of 2018.

The Challenger 600 series gave Bombardier a foothold in the aviation market that allowed it to develop the smaller, super-midsize Challenger 300 (now 350), and the ground-breaking Global series around the turn of the century - not to mention, of course, the CRJ family of regional jets based on the Challenger platform.

Further acquisitions of three other ailing businesses - de Havilland Canada, Learjet in Wichita, and Belfast's Shorts - turned Bombardier by the late 1990s into the world's number three aircraft maker behind Boeing and Airbus.

Its larger and smaller siblings - the Globals and the Challenger 350 - may outsell it these days, but the larger Challenger helped define modern corporate aviation, remains a stalwart of the sector, and is one of the aircraft on which Bombardier's future hangs.

Not bad for a 40-year-old that in its infancy broke Canada's national aircraft manufacturer.

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