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This aircraft was an independent design by Bill Lear in 1976, who had resigned as Chairman of Lear Jet seven years previously. Originally dubbed the LearStar 600, Lear sold exclusive rights to produce and develop the design to Canadair, who renamed it the CL-600 Challenger.
While similar in general configuration to Lear's previous designs, notable changes were made that distinguished the new aircraft from the Learjets, including the use of a widened fuselage that allowed a 'walk-about cabin', a feature not shared by any other business aircraft of the time. The Challenger was also one of the first bizjets designed with a supercritical wing.
On 8 November 1978, the first prototype of the aircraft took off for the first time in Montreal, Canada. An 3 April 1980 test flight in the Mojave Desert resulted in disaster, the aircraft crashing due to a deep stall, killing one of the test pilots (the other parachuted to safety). The second and third prototypes flew in 1979.
Despite the crash, both Transport Canada and the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States certified the aircraft in 1980, albeit with both handing over some restrictions to pilots including a limited maximum take-off weight. A large program to reduce the aircraft's weight was then implemented to improve the aircraft's range.