There are few names in aviation history that are perhaps as significant as Bill Lear’s. Unfortunately, if his name was uttered in front of the average person today, there is a good chance that they might not know the man at all. This is perhaps one of the reasons why the legend of Bill Lear is so powerful to the people who care enough to listen. His influence far extends the borders of the private aviation industry, mainly due to the fact that he is the first person to have truly realized the potential of the jet aircraft as a vehicle for the transportation of the business elite in the world.
The man behind Learjet, Bill Lear’s list of achievements is long enough to have an entire novel written on him, but we will try our best to sum up the incredible things that he did, especially his early life, which really set the tone for what was to come from Bill Lear. Most of our focus is going to be on his aviation related exploits so let’s get everything else that we did out of the way first.
Casting A Wide Net
One could consider Bill to be a real master of many arts, something that is incredibly rare in this world dominated by the concept of specialization. Bill Lear on the other hand, managed to develop the 8-track cartridge, something that you might not remember. If you do, then you understand the impact this man’s entrepreneurial spirit had on the consumer world. The development of the car radio is also something that is often attributed to Bill Lear, as he played an incredibly important role throughout the development phase of the 8-track cartridge. However, the best of his exploits perhaps, was producing the first commercially successful private jet aircraft.
Bill’s story starts out at the turn of the century in small-town Missouri. Coming from a broken family, Bill had to spend his childhood with his aunt. Some might say that this early life experience helped shape him as an individual as well. Bill Lear would end up moving to Chicago, where he first got into aviation. He started out in a job on an airfield, which would be his first exposure to the world of aviation. After that, he spent a summer with his father, where the father-son duo ended up re-building a Model-T car. One can say that the engineering spirit got into him due to this particular experience. A brief stint in the US Navy followed. After being discharged, he decided to complete his High School education and his mathematical aptitude can be understood by the fact that his High School degree was math intensive. He was on track to complete the entire High-School degree in 1 year instead of 4 but was dismissed due to conflicts with his teachers.
One can start to see the pattern at this point. It was obvious that Bill Lear was no ordinary man. He possessed immense intellect and could understand many technical things that most people would have had a hard time with. Considering that we are looking at the early 20th century, such minds were not to be found easily.
Entering The World of Aviation
The very first aircraft that Bill bought was a Fleet biplane for $2,500. The moment he first looked at the aircraft, something in his mind clicked, and it was that particular click that would drive his later success in this particular sector. The next step was to found Lear Developments, a company for his imagination to run rampant. These products included radios for aviation, autopilot systems and landing systems. Before anyone knew it, the Second World War had already started. For a lot of people, it meant destruction of the higher order. For a few people like Bill Lear, it meant profits of the highest order. The products that he had developed were in extremely high demand due to the war, and the company ended up earning north of $100 million during this period. Lear Developments had hit it big, and a name change followed that saw it become Lear Incorporated. During this time, Bill Lear moved properly into the aviation business as well. However, the greatest achievement coming from his time was yet to come.
The Learjet 23
Bill Lear ended up moving to Wichita, Kansas to work on the SAAC 23 design. At that point in time, it was a potentially good idea that could become the next big thing if it was completely executed perfectly. Now, it is important to understand the cultural shift that was happening in the 60s as well. When the dust settled after the war, Europe had to contend with the realization that there were no winners in the battle. Every nation had lost more than it had gained. Britain, as a direct consequence of the expenditure on the war, lost its place as the most powerful nation on Earth to the US. Except the cold war, the rest of the 20th century was a peaceful period for the developed nations of the world. What would naturally follow was an increased level of globalization. Industry began to pop up everywhere. An American businessman could own a business in France without much of an issue.
However, the issue was that the wealthy businesspeople of the world did not have a reliable source of air transportation that could also guarantee them comfort and privacy. The world was getting richer by the day, and it soon became clear to people like Bill Lear that private aviation was going to be one of the industries that would grow exponentially with it. The first flight of the prototype Learjet 23 took place in October 1963. While the initial impressions were really positive, it soon became clear that it was not going to be easy. A few months later, the prototype ended up crashing. It is important to know that there was human error that had caused the plane to crash and not the plane itself. This is a crucial piece of information because the FAA ended up awarding the Learjet 23 its type certificate to fly. In October 1964, the very first delivery of this legendary aircraft was made.
What made the Learjet 23 so special was one singular reason. It was the only jet that was commercially viable for businesspeople to buy for their use. It was nearly half a million dollars cheaper than any other alternative private jet on the market. What gave it another edge was the fact that it was better in terms of its experience compared to its competitors. It could seat 8 people and transport them in luxury across the world. By 1966, a hundred and one aircraft had been delivered to customers. What is perhaps even more incredible is that this grandfather of a jet is still in commission. In fact, Learjet used the same platform for the next 3 decades to build other successive aircraft as well. In the world of private aircraft, this is the Ford Model T or the Atari. What’s similar between all of these products is that they weren’t the first ones to pioneer the technology they were using. However, they were the first ones that the customer could make sense of, which is exactly what made them such successes in the first place. After all, the customer does not care how revolutionary your technology is. All they care about is what kind of solution is being delivered to them and at what cost. This is what makes a product that can not only transform a market but also create a completely new one.
At the end of his life, one might imagine that Bill Lear was quite satisfied with all that he had achieved. In 1978, the 75-year-old Bill met his maker and died of leukemia. He was cremated and scattered at sea. Today, it has been nearly 44 years since Bill died. Even the company he must have loved so much, Learjet, is no longer producing new aircraft. However, the essence of his ideas still lives today and there are so many massive private jet manufacturers who owe their existence to him. As they say, the man dies, but the things that he does in his life, those are what truly live on and stand the test of time.