books have been written about Bill Lear and his Lear Jet, yet none
have captured the real story of how this remarkable airplane came
to life. Lear was such a colorful character that most writers end
up repeating anecdotes that are entertaining but fail in their understanding
of what it took to put this program together.
The site editor for aerotalk.com was there and provides this
first ever first person account of the exciting days that gave birth
to the airplane that changed business flying forever.
By 1960, William Powell Lear had already achieved a lifetime
- Inventor of the car radio and founder of Motorola.
- Inventor of the airborne radio automatic direction finder.
- Winner of the Collier Trophy for the design of the F-86
- Converted the Lockheed Lodestar to a Learstar
the speed from 220 mph to 280 mph
Increased range from 1,600
miles to over 3,000 miles
Not bad for a guy who dropped out of school with an 8th grade
education. He was now running Lear Inc, a respected supplier of
electro-mechanical devices for airplanes. When his board of directors
balked at developing a new light jet, he sold his shares to Siegler
(now Lear-Siegler) and went to Switzerland to build it himself.
A private Swiss
company, Flug-und-Fahrzeugwerke Altenrhein (FFA) had developed the
P-16 fighter jet in hope of selling it to the Swiss Air Force. After
two of the prototypes crashed, the P-16 went into a holding pattern
about the time Bill was looking for a place to build his jet. With
the dollar at a very favorable exchange rate, it looked like a perfect
At FFA, Dr. Hans Studer designer of the P-16 and his team of
European engineers, launched into Bill's new airplane. Technically,
they did a superb job. They borrowed the 8-spar wing concept from
the P-16 and laid out the structure for Bill's SAAC-23 (Swiss-American
Aircraft Corporation, Bill's 23rd iteration).
While much has been written about the 8-spar wing, it is only
part of the story. Most airplanes utilize massive fittings for the
wing-to-fuselage attachment. Dr. Studer used eight 3/8" bolts, 4
per side. Fail-safe testing proved only seven were needed to carry
the loads. They were so strong, the design was still in use in later
models even though the weight had nearly doubled. One secret, the
bolts were in line, like a hinge, the center section of the wing
was allowed to float. The reason was simple. No matter how stiff
a wing is made, it will flex. Why try to restrain it, give it room
And for those would be aircraft designers who might like to copy
the design, don't do it without checking with the site editor. There
are nuances in the design that goes beyond what can be described
The 8-spar wing has received all of the attention, but the 5-spar
vertical was equally impressive. Three of the spars extended down
deep into the tailcone mating with three canted bulkheads. It was
very strong, very efficient and light in weight.
A keel beam ran from the nose gear back past the engine beams.
It was the backbone of the airplane. The skeleton of this airplane
was well conceived. The airplane was incredibly strong.
During static tests for certification, the Model 23 suffered
only one minor structural failure, a small shear web in the baggage
compartment. It was repaired within 24 hours, the test re-ran, the
structure carried the loads. At the conclusion of structural tests
for certification, there were seven failures of the static test
rig making the score 7 to 1in favor of the airframe, much to my
embarrassment as manager of the structural test program.
That is getting ahead of the story. Dr. Studer's aerodynamic
reports based on his wind tunnel tests were text book. We may have
not understood all of the words on his charts, but Cl max
was maximum lift coefficient in any language, same for all of the
Design drawings were produced in ink. A time consuming process,
they should last 50 years. Everything was well documented...production
jigs were being fabricated. But, Bill came to the conclusion that
at the current rate of progress, the airplane would never get built.
Watching the nose gear effort was a clincher. A Swiss company that
made watch parts had the contract to build the trunnion (the main
fitting attaching the nose gear to the fuselage). It had 36 separate
machining operations. In America, the trunnion would be made from
a forging and have 3 machine operations. Something had to be done.
Hank Waring who was Cessna' chief engineer for the Military Twin
Division. Hank led the group that designed the T-37, the Cessna
310, 320 and 411. Waring in turn hired another 8-10 lead engineers
in various areas such as systems, structures, engines and technical.
He took his team to Altenrhein for a couple of months of familiarization
before moving everything to Wichita.
Setting up shop in a vacant hangar, the lead engineers hired
a second tier of worker bees mostly from Cessna, which is when I
came on board as employee # 41.
So far Bill had made good decisions. The General Electric CJ-610
engine was proven. Its weight and fuel specifics known. Dr. Studer
had a good basic design for the airplane that was backed by solid
engineering analyses. Included in the reports was a weight estimate
based on experience from the P-16. And now, Hank Waring with his
team from Cessna who knew how to work together and had play books
as to how to build and certify new airplanes.
One of the play books was a complete set of Cessna Design Standards
that must have gotten stuck in one of the engineers brief cases
when he left his previous employer. An invaluable resource and required
for certification, this document details every procedure used in
the manufacture of an airplane. The hundred or so subjects vary
from how to prep various materials before paint, how to paint, how
an acceptable rivet joint would look, what a flanged lightening
hole would look like. To generate such a document would take years.
It did not take long to replace the Cessna letterhead with one from
After Bill decided to relocate in Wichita, things happened very
quickly. The city provided 64 acres for the company and floated
the first ever Industrial Revenue Bond for Wichita. A large metal
building was erected and six months later, January 1963 we moved
was located in the balcony; there was only one office in the building
and that was occupied by Mr. Lear. Office walls, Bill thought would
impede communications between the designers. Drawing boards, slide
rules or desk calculators were state-of-the-art tools (the prototype
was nearly be ready to fly before the company acquired a computer.
It was purchased to help in the loads and weights group).
Everyone worked long hours, 6-7 days a week, not because we had
to but because we wanted to. Engineers were on weekly salary and
received no extra pay. If Bill was in town, he would beat most of
us to work in the morning and be there when we went home. We could
not keep up with this "Old Man" (as everyone referred to him, but
not to his face). It was not until 25 years later at a reunion for
Lear employees in the California home of Bill's secretary June Shields,
that she confessed he would take an afternoon nap in his office.
During this period, John Lear, Bill's son, played a key role
without much credit. Every couple of weeks, he would produce a slick
company newsletter. It tied the company together and focused everyone
on the goal. To be doing something was one thing, to read about
it in print made it real.
John's maternal grandfather was Ole Olsen, a famous vaudeville
comedian. To handle crises over the years, his family had developed
a battle cry, "Sound the bugles and CHARGE".
It wasn't enough to name the newsletter "CHARGE", on Friday afternoons
around 4 pm, booming over the loudspeakers came the thunder of hoof
beats, the sound of the bugle, and then a resounding "CHARGE!" Sophomoric?
Perhaps. But it was a morale booster and made everyone feel like
they were a part of the calvary.
formal training in graphic arts design, John also designed the logo
for the company. It would remain in use until Gates Rubber replaced
it with the "flying mop", designed by a high priced California ad
agency, Carson-Roberts. For historical reference, it was C-R who
changed the name of the Lear Jet aircraft to the Learjet. And if
you are interested in some real trivia, it was C-R, when they were
based in Chicago, who helped Hugh Hefner launch the first issues
Bill came to Wichita, he hired Jack Graham, a local pilot to fly
his Learstar. The aircraft was in the Air Transport Category and
required two pilots. When Jack asked who the second pilot would
be when Bill was not on board, Bill said "you know how to fly the
plane don't you? I'll pay the fine if you get caught."
Keep in mind, in 1962 we don't have e-mail, the wide spread use
of FAX machines would not happen until 20 years later, the airlines
were mostly flying Connies and Electras, Fed Ex did not exist, UPS
did not have any airplanes, the best the airlines would guarantee
was 3-days for an air shipment, the Interstate Highway system was
not very well developed. The Learstar performed all of these rolls.
One just can't overstate how important the Learstar was to the
success of the Lear Jet program. As Bill's funds began to run short,
he would make frequent trips to New York or Jack would be dispatched
to pick up the money people and bring them to Wichita. If not headed
East, Jack would be headed West. California was a treasure trove
of aviation firms, Bill had key friends in most of them. Since the
Lear Jet was not in competition with these West Coast companies,
he could access experts in every field for free; his friends were
happy to help out.
It was on one of these trips that one of the most fateful decisions
for the airplane was made.
While it was an impossible goal, somebody decided the prototype
should fly on Mr. Lear's birthday, June 26, 1963. A large sign counting
down the days before first flight hung near the door of engineering.
You went to the bathroom you checked that number, you went home
at night you checked that number, it drove us all. That number was
down in the fifty's when Bill went to California for more consultations.
Aircraft, one of his friends asked him what he intended to do about
sonic fatigue. Bill shot back " what is sonic fatigue?" At that
point the airplane had a cruciform tail. The horizontal stabilizer
was about half way up the vertical tail and the energy coming off
the jet exhaust would impinge on the horizontal and cause premature
failure due to fatigue. Bill got second opinions that evening, woke
Jack up at his Santa Monica motel with orders to get the Learstar
ready for an immediate departure for Wichita.
The prototype was well along in the assembly process, tooling
existed for the cruciform tail, the company was very short on cash,
and investors had agreed to put up more money once the prototype
flew. As the Learstar neared Wichita we were at work, one day closer
to the scheduled first flight; Jack radioed in that all engineering
managers should be in Bill's office when the Learstar hits the ramp.
Something big is up!
Bill already knew what he needed to do, convert to a T-tail...he
wanted to know how fast the change could be made. Both the vertical
and horizontal had to be re-designed, the control system re-designed
and a stick-pusher system would now be required to keep the airplane
out of a deep stall configuration. Another significant change was
to add servo-trim to the horizontal stabilizer and eliminate the
trim on the elevator.
The June first flight date was out; it would be October before
the plane would fly. It was a correct decision, it was a gutsy decision
and there was not the slightest hesitation on Bill's part to make
The tail change enhanced the already sleek lines of the Lear
Jet. An important aspect to Bill. Even today, one could take a 40
year old Lear Jet, give it a new coat of paint and put it next to
a new Cessna or Beech jet just off the line. The Lear Jet would
win the beauty contest hands down.
Bill Lear was involved with every aspect of the program...nearly
every design decision in the program. After everyone had gone home,
it was typical for Bill to visit every drawing board and review
the days work. He would pencil in changes or leave notes. One of
his biggest concerns was weight. He knew the success of the airplane
was dependent on keeping the weight out of each individual part.
Some engineers resented his involvement. It caused a lot of problems...it
caused a lot of turnover. He had a clear vision of what he wanted
and he was not going to let an engineer's ego or feelings get in
the way. Any engineer who went out the door, could be replaced in
a matter of days, it was nice to be in Wichita.
Change was constant. Ed Schmued the acknowledged father of the
P-51 Mustang and a consultant to Bill in the early days, told Bill
that on the Mustang, they never spent more than five minutes on
any decision and never re-visited those decisions. Bill did not
follow that advice. He was always making changes, it made the airplane
tough to put into production.
When a drawing was released, small changes were made by DCN's
(Drawing Change Notice), a handy printed form on standard typewriter
sized paper. Some drawings would have a stack of DCN's a half-inch
thick. It was hard to build to these drawings...hard for quality
control to inspect to these drawings. These were procedural aspects
that Bill was really not attuned to, he just wanted the best possible
compare the program to a symphony orchestra. Bill was the conductor;
Hank Waring had put the musicians in place. Bill could not play
the instruments but he knew the sound he was looking for. And if
there was a musician who was not quite in tune, he was out the door.
They should have put a revolving door in the office to personnel.
Apart from the first group that signed on, the turnover from later
arrivals was quite high.
Take Jim Griswold for instance. Jim came from Cessna and was
highly regarded, one of the best engineers Cessna had to offer.
When he came on board, Bill and Jack were out of town. A dense fog
lasting several days delayed there return.
Without any direction, Jim decided the airplane would be better
off with a one piece door rather than the two piece clam shell and
started with the re-design. Jim pitches this to Bill on his return
and that was the beginning of the end for Jim Griswold at Lear Jet.
He went on to become the father of the Piper Malibu and created
his own piece of aviation history.
Glenn McCormick was another. At Cessna he scheduled the 411 program
down to the day and hour the prototype would fly...absolutely one
of the best and most knowledgeable program managers in General Aviation.
When the Lear Jet program seemed to be floundering with organizational
and schedule problems, Mac was brought over. He was soon back at
Cessna, there was no way anyone could manage or schedule a Bill
One who did connect with Bill was Sam Auld. Sam came from the
West Coast where he had worked on autopilots and electronic systems.
Even though Bill lacked Sam's formal education, the two spoke the
same language and had enormous respect for each other. They may
have even been friends, unusual for the narrowly focused Bill Lear.
At Lear Jet Sam had a big job. The airplane needed a yaw-damper,
nose-wheel steering, stall warning system, stick-shaker, stick-pusher,
trim systems and later a full 3-axis autopilot. The two of them
knew how to design these components, knew how to build them.
Bill had another resource for many of these type of components
which would speed development of the aircraft in the early stages
but prove to stain the reputation of the company once the aircraft
got into the production.
Palley Surplus in California sold surplus equipment. Much of
it salvaged from military airplanes before they were melted down
to make beer cans. Items that Bill had sold to the military for
big bucks were now in cardboard boxes gathering dust. Hydraulic
components, servos, gyros and the like, could be purchased for little
more than the scrap value of the metal. It was all built to military
standards, most everything could be reconditioned and made as good
as new. The Learstar brought tons of this equipment to Wichita;
new Lear Jets rolling off the line had many components that came
from Palley Supply.
During the first couple of years of service, three Model 23's
crashed due to unknown causes. The use of surplus components became
an issue or as competitors would say, the aircraft was built using
"junkyard components". It put a wet blanket on sales about the time
manufacturing was getting the production line moving. Fortune 500
companies shunned the Lear Jet, some even putting out edicts that
company executives not fly in Lear Jets owned by other companies.
This did not change until Gates Rubber bought the company and was
able to provide assurance that surplus equipment was no longer used.
Another series of events provide another glimpse into the working
of Bill Lear. The early Model 23 aircraft had seven electric fuel
pumps. Two in each wing, one in each tip tank and one in the fuselage
fuel tank. From day one they had a high failure rate. In spite of
the fact they were of new manufacture, the high failure rate was
known in the market place and did not help the image.
Electric fuel pumps were Bill's area of expertise, airborne electro-mechanical
components. Months went by, all manner of testing took place but
no one could figure out why the pumps were failing. Finally on one
of his trips to the West Coast he learned of a jet pump system used
in military aircraft that had no moving parts. It relied on excess
fuel volume produced by the engine driven fuel pump that was routed
in a small line to the fuel tank and the jet pump. It would pick
up more fuel and return to the engine in a bigger line.
the Ronson Company (yes, the same company that made cigarette lighters
for your coffee table) made jet pumps for the military. He contacted
them, asked for a jet pump for testing and a quote for a production
order. They complied with both requests. The pump worked fine...the
price would be about $4,000 each. An outrageous price for an item
with no moving parts. It took less than a week for Bill, the engineers
and machinist to design a small casting, a screen to keep debris
out of the pump, and two standard AN hydraulic fittings, one modified
on a lathe to convert it to a nozzle. The cost in production, about
$200 each. Four of the seven electric pumps could be replaced by
Bill's jet pumps.
Post script to the story:
About the time Bill was getting the jet pump designed, somebody
figured out why the electric pumps were failing. The brushes
were backed by a single spring. There was a resonant frequency
in the airplane that would excite the brush...cause it to vibrate...cause
it to arc and burn. The fix was simple. Back the brush with
a second spring. Now no single resonant frequency could excite
the brush. The jet pumps stayed.
Lastly, one more key element was the FAA's involvement in the
certification process. The lead region for General Aviation aircraft
was in Kansas City. They gained that status through their activities
with Beech and Cessna. Regulations of the day had a 12,500 lb cut
off for small airplanes. One pound more and the airplane was in
the Air Transport Category CAM 4b.
Bill wanted to certify under the Small Airplane Category. CAM
3 as it was known, was never intended to cover high performance
jet aircraft, after all the 707 had only been in service a few years,
the jet age was just beginning to evolve. The company and the FAA
worked together to draw up a set of special conditions that borrowed
from CAM 4b, items like two pilot operation, fail-safe/safe-life
structure, loss of engine takeoff performance, nearly everything
but a bird proof windshield.
Yet there was one item that proved to be very contentious. Part
4b required an opennable side window for the pilot. Bill thought
it was an archaic requirement dating back to when piston engines
were located on the nose and an oil line might break rendering any
view through the window impossible. There was no easy way to put
an openable side window in the airplane so Bill pressed on with
no window. One afternoon Hank Waring was arguing the point with
Jack Carran, the FAA chief in Kansas City when Bill walked up. Bill
said he wanted to talk to Carran so Hank handed Bill the phone.
Bill used all of his rational arguments, Carran did not budge.
He got louder, angrier and redder in the face until Carran finally
said, "Bill, go open your front door and I will be able to hear
you better". Bill finally told him "I am not going to put an _______
openable window in the windshield, and if you want to go to bat,
step up to the plate!" Carran got the message, the requirement went
working level, the FAA was very helpful, very cooperative. It got
even better after the prototype crashed during certification testing
with an FAA pilot in the left seat. During a series of touch and
go's, the spoilers were inadvertently left extended during take
off. The airplane struggled to get airborne, cleared a road, then
settled back to the ground, belly landing into an open field. The
pilots walked away, the airplane was destroyed by fire. It was a
godsend for the program:
- Bill protested to Washington and received some sympathy
that manifested itself into even better FAA cooperation.
- The airplane was fully insured. The company desperately
needed the money.
- The airplane had little value as a test airplane since it
had been rushed into flight and could never have been updated
with all of Bill's latest changes.
WAS IT GOOD LUCK OR GOOD DECISIONS?
When Bill decided to build the airplane in Switzerland, the driving
factor was the favorable exchange rate and the capabilities of FFA.
What he got for his money was a brilliant advanced design project,
solid aerodynamics and a very strong and efficient structural concept.
He did not find a company capable of getting the job done.
When Bill hired Hank Waring and his team from Cessna, he got
a nuts and bolts kind of group who knew how to build airplanes.
Had the Cessna team been tasked to develop the original design,
the airplane would have probably been a failure. Collectively, they
were not in the same league as Dr. Studer.
The Cessna team did not have the experience with advanced systems
such as yaw dampers, stick shakers and pushers, electric nose wheel
steering. With Bill Lear and Sam Auld, it was, been there...done
From the major tail change to the thousands of minor changes,
the question of good luck or good decisions blurs.
is crystal clear however are the facts:
- Bill was involved in the project
- Bill was engaged in the project
- He believed in what he was doing
- He bet his and his family's fortune on the project
- He was fully committed to the program's success