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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 2)

Beaird overlooked Lear's foul temper, for the most part, though there were occasions when he'd talk back to his autocratic boss. "Bill brought in an expert who said he could run our plant like a car manufacturer, and I disagreed," Beaird remembers. "I said, 'Chief, you don't build airplanes like you build cars. This guy's got everyone running around in brown uniforms looking like Hitler! Bill's efficiency expert eventually got to my department, and I told him, 'Hands off,' and he said, 'Hank, I don't like your attitude. We better go see Mr. Lear.' I said, 'Come on then, let's go.' I told Bill exactly what I thought, and he fired the man right on the spot."

Brilliant but infuriating—that's how Bill Lear was characterized. "Bill Lear could be tough going," says a longtime Bombardier staffer who prefers to remain anonymous. "He had his way of doing things, and his way was the only way. It wasn't uncommon for Bill to disappear into his workshop for a week and come out with a new part or a new system and order it bolted directly onto the planes. He'd show up on the assembly line and show the guys what he wanted and say, 'Do it exactly this way!' There was no finesse in the man. No diplomacy. His wife, Moya, would smooth over the ruffled feathers. She was a saint."

Beaird speaks fondly of his old boss's coming up with the idea for an accurate indicator for window icing in a single afternoon. Ideas came to Lear so fast, apparently, that he couldn't take the time to be nice. "I'd sell my grandmother to save just one pound of weight!" he once quipped, according to Geza Szurovy, another Lear biographer. Even after selling most of his company in 1967, he continued to be utterly consumed by business, right up until his death in 1978.

Despite the Learjet's early popularity, the company found itself in financial straits in the mid-1960s. Sizable operating losses over the first few years and increasing competition squeezed profit margins. A late 1966 recession prompted American companies to rethink nonessential purchases like a Learjet 24. Orders fell off. Finished planes sat unsold in Wichita and, according to Szurovy, Lear stock fell from $82 per share to $8.50. Lear lacked the reserves to hold on and wait for an economic turnaround. After finishing 1966 with a net loss of $12 million, he sold his company to Charles Gates, chairman of the Gates Rubber Co., staying on, Szurovy wrote, in the largely ceremonial position of chairman of the board for another two years.

Just prior to acquiring Learjet, Gates had bought Combs Aviation, which he planned to use as Learjet's national sales organization. The former head of Combs, Harry Combs, was a penny-pincher who, by most accounts, saved Learjet. Combs assumed the presidency of a newly created Gates Learjet Corp. and immediately cut costs and streamlined operations. By the end of his first year at the helm, the company had gone from a net worth of minus $13 million to plus $3.7 million.

Early on, Combs recognized the wisdom of switching to a quieter, more fuel-efficient turbo-fan engine built by the Phoenix-based Garret company. The Garret TFE731-2, installed on Gates's Learjet 35, proved to be 35 percent more fuel-efficient than the previous GE units, and Combs' timing was impeccable. The 1973 oil crisis and the resultant rise in jet fuel costs had corporate customers and foreign governments lining up for the miserly pocket jet. Indeed, orders for 90 Learjet 35s were taken before production could begin.

Combs, snatching a page from Bill Lear's personal PR handbook, decided the time was right for a second around-the-world record-setting attempt by Learjet. The 1966 record flight in a model 24 by test pilot Hank Beaird and Lear's younger son, John, had achieved a flight time of 65 hours and 39 minutes. Ten years later, golf legend Arnold Palmer, who was considered an excellent jet pilot, set out to better the world record for business-class jets in a Lear 36 equipped with extra fuel tanks. The plan was to start and finish in Denver, with fuel stops in Boston, Paris, Jakarta, Tehran, Sri Lanka and Manila, among other cities. Bob Serling hitched a ride, covering the flight for UPI.

"I was a fourth crew member," says Serling. "I felt like Lindbergh, but I didn't do a damn thing except serve up snacks and hand out bicentennial tie clips at fuel stops. I was supposed to be the official timekeeper. Arnold said, 'We're setting two records here, Bob: the speed record and the number of times we have to correct the official timekeeper's arithmetic.' "

Palmer's group circled the globe in a record 57 hours, 25 minutes and 42 seconds, with the golfer handling every takeoff and landing himself except one. "Jim Bir [a noted test pilot] took over when we spotted a typhoon coming near Manila," Serling recalls. "That one was a little tricky."

When business jets became larger and more luxurious in the mid-1970s, Learjet responded with the Longhorn 55, a model that featured extended wings with flip-up tips called winglets, which replaced the old Lear tip tanks. Winglets, originally developed by NASA, reduced the drag caused by conventional wingtips and provided additional lift. Winglets gave Learjet a futuristic signature design twist. Translation: they looked sharp and set Learjet apart from other, stodgy business models. (One imagines Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac fame stepping out of the mysterious cranberry Learjet she once claimed was sent by an anonymous suitor, its winglets standing at attention.)

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