Looking Back: Bill Lear’s Legacy

 - January 26, 2007, 10:50 AM

Bill Lear possessed the soul of a true inventor. Almost entirely a self-taught engineer, Lear dropped out of high school in a search for answers to many of life’s problems as he saw them. The results were products many people take for granted, even today…the car radio he eventually sold to the budding Motorola, the eight-track tape player and the first commercially successful aircraft autopilot. Not bad for a kid with no formal education.

Lucky for us, Lear also had a passion for aviation and, in an era when business aviation relied almost solely on Beech 18s and DC-3s, believed vehemently that there was a better way for executives to travel the country in search of success. With the 1958 introduction and subsequent success of the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8, Lear realized business aviation’s future rested with jet aircraft.

Transforming that vision into reality was no small undertaking, however, as the fledgling Learjet Corp., formed in 1962, regularly flirted with both bankruptcy and success. But Lear never lost sight of the dream…a successful jet aircraft that would allow business aviation to compete with the airlines. His marketing people believed so much in the small jet that they claimed the worldwide market for business aircraft like his could easily “exceed 300 airplanes.”

Lear was also a man who recognized an opportunity. Knowing that development costs for his Learjet could easily drain the company checkbook, he jumped at the opportunity to fly to Switzerland for a look at the P-16 fighter airplane project that the Swiss government had recently scrubbed. The Swiss had a solid flying airplane with an eight-spar wing stronger than that of any small civil aircraft of the time. Always motivated by the chance to improve anything he touched, Lear bought the Swiss fighter…tooling, wind tunnel data, drawings and all.

His goals for the first Learjet Model 23 were simple: to build a slick-looking airplane that climbed like a rocket and could fly six to eight people at airliner speeds for a shoestring price, no more than $275,000 in 1963 dollars. Eighteen months later, after Lear attached the P-16 wing to a new fuselage and tail, the first Learjet 23 took to the air, altering business aviation forever with previously unseen levels of speed and economy.

The Learjet 23 evolved into a series of aircraft, all with Lear’s initial design demands at the forefront. The Learjet as an airplane became synonymous with private jet travel, and as a word it entered the American lexicon alongside Kleenex, Xerox and Coke. Lear’s marketing predictions turned out to be correct. There was indeed a worldwide market for 300 Learjets. To date, Learjet has built more than 2,400 aircraft in a dozen different renditions in the 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 series. The Wichita-based company is now part of Bombardier Business Aircraft.

If there were any weaknesses in the early Learjets, they were related to the engine technology of the time–turbojets thirsty for 25-cents-a-gallon fuel. In addition to sucking enormous quantities of fuel, especially at low altitudes, those General Electric CJ610s also spat out great quantities of decibels.

That was then. This is now.
Fuel costs $4 a gallon and airport neighbors often form community groups to fight airplane noise, despite today’s much quieter and cleaner-burning turbofan engines. As engine technology evolved, manufacturers developed new airframes designed to take advantage of the new efficiencies in both fuel and noise suppression. But efficiency comes at a cost. The price of the least expensive new Learjet in the fleet has risen to nearly $8 million for a new Model 40. Business aviation has continued to grow over the years but still faces one basic test: do the benefits outweigh the costs?

As more and more early Learjets (23s, 24s and 25s) were either strongly encouraged to use the dwindling number of airports where noise was not a concern, or became too expensive to operate, owners began retiring them to the scrap heap, a crime against aviation made more heinous by the fact that, unlike some competitors, the Learjets had no airframe life limits. The new RVSM requirement seemed to hammer the final nail in the coffin for most 20-series Learjets. If Lear were alive, he would probably have made the connection somewhere that new engines could resurrect an airplane with plenty of useful life remaining.