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Lord of the Skies

Learjet has been zipping jet-setters and business executives around the world for 40 years
Jim Mueller
From the Print Edition:
Francis Ford Coppola, Sept/Oct 03

(continued from page 1)

The daring maneuver in the Learjet 24 left the passengers in the rear a little spooked, but otherwise unhurt. They could thank the man who created the Learjet in the first place, for the plane's dexterity in tight situations has always been one of its attractions.

A tinkerer by nature, Bill Lear was entirely self-taught as an aeronautical engineer, despite the fact that he had no more than an eighth-grade education. Born in Hannibal, Missouri, on June 26, 1902, he grew up in Chicago, falling under the spell of a neighborhood radio buff remembered only as "Shargo." Lear supposedly spent his free time in Shargo's workshop, pulling radios apart, fiddling with primitive batteries, looking for more efficient ways to power stock sets. After a stint in the Navy as a radio operator, he went into business for himself. He invented the first workable car radio, perfecting a hum-proof B battery before selling off to electronics entrepreneur Paul Galvin in 1930; Galvin made a fortune marketing Lear's inspiration as the Motorola car radio. In 1935, Lear created the Learoscope direction finder, a device that used the government's low-frequency airways to assist pilots in pinpointing their locations aboveground; he was once photographed describing the apparatus to Amelia Earhart. Lear went on to form companies that would develop and produce the first radios used in private aircraft, as well as the first autopilot system and early electromechanical control systems that enabled fliers to decrease their reliance on hydraulics.

In 1959, he founded his business jet company, Swiss American Aircraft Corp., in Altenrhein, Switzerland, where he was joined by designers Gordon Israel and Hans Studer. According to Lear biographer Joe Christy, Studer had worked on the original P-16 fighter project for the Swiss government; the basic Lear design would share characteristics with that jet.

The Learjet would be Lear's first attempt at building a plane from the ground up. He'd had considerable success modifying military-surplus Lockheed Lodestars into the Learstar executive airplane, but this endeavor was something else entirely. Lear's competitors and industry analysts doubted that he could bring a mini-jet to market with a budget of only $12 million. (This meant no tinkering with multiple prototypes. There would be one plane to test for air certification by the Federal Aviation Administration—period.)

Lear's idea was to expand into European markets from Switzerland, but by all accounts he soon soured on the Swiss work ethic. He felt that the Swiss were lazy; they didn't move quickly enough for him. The entire Learjet operation moved to Wichita, Kansas, in 1962, to take advantage of the city's pool of airplane-building talent. Wichita, home to Boeing, Beech and Cessna when Lear arrived, had the skilled labor force that he needed to build Lear 23 jets.

Learjet 23 featured twin General Electric CJ610-4 engines capable of putting out 2,850 pounds of thrust each; the plane could reach a top speed of 561 miles per hour. Jet-fighter performance was assured, given that these particular engines were also used on the T-38 Talon and F-5 planes supplied to the U.S. Air Force by Northrop. Starting with the development phase and continuing through the next few years, Learjet 23 fuselages (and, later, those of Lear 24 and other models) went through a reported 50,000 pressurization/depressurization cycles—the equivalent of 100 years of normal flying under average conditions. Still not completely satisfied, Lear had the structural joints "deliberately cut through" at the bulkhead, the stringer joint in the fuselage, and the spar and rip joints in the wing and the tail, according to Lear biographer Christy. Then they ran the prototype through another 1,000 cycles without incident. Just to be sure. Lear liked to use the term "fail-safe."

The only serious setback occurred in June 1964, on the protoype's 167th flight, when it slammed belly-first into a Kansas wheat field. It was later determined that an FAA test pilot had tried to take off on a single engine, with the spoilers still deployed. It proved to be only a minor setback, though, because the Learjet 23 received FAA certification on July 31. The first production Learjet was delivered to Chemical Industrial Corp., in Cincinnati, on October 13 for $595,000.

The new business jet found a ready market, with more than 100 Lears sold by the end of 1965. However, it wasn't the easiest aircraft to fly. A bigger model was quickly developed that could fly more easily at lower speeds. Dubbed the Lear 24, the plane came equipped with wingtip fuel tanks that could hold an additional 364 gallons of fuel, extending the jet's range, and it included improvements such as better electrical and fire-detection systems. The jet made its debut in March of 1966. (Incidentally, a Lear 24 was featured in James Coburn's 1967 spy-film send-up In Like Flint, in which Bill Lear himself made a cameo appearance as pilot Coburn's crew chief.)

When Lear first relocated the company to the United States, the engineers and the assembly technicians in Wichita soon learned that their new boss wasn't exactly the kindly old Jasper they'd anticipated from photographs.

"Bill Lear was obnoxious if you didn't understand him," Hank Beaird recalls. "I think he fired most of his people once a week—and some were dumb enough to keep walking and not ignore him. I, personally, respected Bill. He was a genius who knew what you knew—before you knew it. I should also add that Bill Lear was an excellent pilot and built one tough airplane. They were overbuilt. The Lears had five spars [supports] in the tail and eight in each wing. Nobody else was building that kind of strength into a small jet. A Lear is still the only plane I'll fly in and out of Aspen or Telluride, because you can count on it to get you in and out with one engine."

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