Bill Lear: The man behind Learjet

Alasdair Whyte

With the Learjet celebrating its 50th anniversary in October 2013, it is worth looking back at Bill Lear, the inventor of the aircraft.
Bill Lear's Learjet in 2013 - this one is operated by Clay Lacey
Bill Lear’s Learjet – 50 years after the first delivery

William (Bill) Lear was an amazing man. Self-taught he started off working in radio where he was one of the inventors of the car radio – which was called the Motorola (the company’s name was later changed to this) – and the eight track music cartridge.

He was also a pioneer in aircraft auto-pilots, direction finders and he developed the first automatic landing system. In 1978 when he died he was trying to launch steam power cars as well as another aircraft.

But his greatest achievement is arguably the Learjet.  His first attempt to build a jet was in Switzerland with the Swiss American Aviation Company. When this failed he moved to Wichita in Kansas and launched the Learjet 23. The first flight was on October 7, 1963.

Despite the first aircraft crashing as part of its FAA certification tests the Learjet went on to be a big success, however the company had real cashflow problems and in 1967 he sold his stake to Gates Rubber Corporation. Bombardier acquired Learjet in 1990.

Lear was definitely a character. If you want proof of that you just have to remember that he called one of seven children Chanda (so she was Chanda Lear like a chandelier). He also loathed pickles or tomatoes and his staff were told they should never be in the same room as him.

But he was a genius. And as Lear said: “All rich geniuses are supposed to be eccentric. So I am.”

Lear was never shy of making a statement so rather than writing about him, here is Lear in his own words.


Bill Lear on Learjet

“They said I’d never build it, that if I built it, it wouldn’t fly; that if it flew, I couldn’t sell it. Well, I did, and it did, and I could.”

“We’ll sell ‘em like bananas – in bunches.”

“This plane is going to be just like the Volkswagen. Ten years from now it will look just the same. But it will fly faster, land slower, use less fuel and be more reliable.”

“Everything that has happened in my life – all of the things that have gone wrong – flying this airplane makes it all worth-while. It is as much thrill now as the first time.”

“Nothing climbs like a Lear Jet. Not even military planes.”

“Two of something is twice as likely to go wrong as one. Keep it super-simple. If something isn’t designed into an aircraft it can’t go wrong, and it will never require service or replacement.”

After criticism that the Learjet cabin was too small: “Some of these guys think they want hot food, standing up bar, sit-down toilet, lie-down couch, walk-around headroom, everything up to and including hot and cold running bidets in an airplane. Who the hell needs it? In my plane it takes one hour from Detroit to New York, two hours from New York to Miami. Well, let me tell you about these big, slow scows. After two hours even wall-to-wall girls is no substitute for getting there.”

On the Learjet’s cabin height: “You can’t stand up in a Cadillac, either.”

“An average-sized man sitting in my jet has twenty-eight inches of headroom. Anybody with more than a twenty-eight-inch head should buy some other kind of airplane.”

On cutting weight: “Don’t you know that I’d sell my grandmother to save just one pound?”


Bill Lear on running a successful business

“The trick is to discern a market – before there is any proof that one exists.”

“Surveys are no good. I make my surveys in my mind.”

“Could five hundred people have painted the Sistine Chapel? Suppose one man wasn’t there.”

To an employee who disagreed with him: “I’ll make you a deal. You put up half the money and you can make half the decisions.”


Bill Lear on flying

“If you ever get caught in instrument conditions and you don’t know instruments, you have to fly instruments the rest of your life – about a minute and a half.”


Bill Lear on his life

“I resolved first to make enough money so I’d never be stopped from finishing anything. Second, that to accumulate money in a hurry – and I was in a hurry – I’d have to invent something that people wanted, and third that if I ever was going to stand on my own feet, I’d have to leave home.

“For me the best of life is the exercise of ingenuity – in design, in finance, in flying, in business.”


Bill Lear on women

Lear’s wife Moya told the story of one of Lear’s girlfriend in New York. The girlfriend said that Lear should divorce Moya and that she would move to Grand Rapids to live with him.

Lear answered: “Then who would I get to replace you in New York?”

Sources: They Said it Couldn’t Be Done: The Incredible Story of Bill Lear by Victor Boesen and Quotes Wise

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