Final Flights: Moya Lear

 - May 28, 2008, 8:14 AM

Moya Lear, wife of aviation visionary Bill Lear and a visionary in her own right, died December 5 at her home in Verdi, Nev., just outside Reno. She was 86. A year ago, she had undergone surgery on a cancerous lung tumor, which was found to have returned last July.

Moya’s colorful life was a sort of ongoing multi-ring circus. Her father was John “Ole” Olsen, half of the vaudeville comedy team of Olsen and Johnson, whose Broadway show “Hellzapoppin” was one of the longest-running hits of its time, opening in 1938 and running for the next seven years. It was backstage at that zany revue that a young Moya met the flamboyant Bill Lear, already a millionaire thanks to his perfection and patenting of one of the first workable automobile radios. That patent was to be the first of 150 inventions. That evening was to lead to a 36-year unconventional marriage that Moya summed up in her autobiography, Unforgettable Flight.

“The book should be called ‘How to stay married to a rascal,’” she later said, recalling his highjinks and myriad infidelities. “Bill was full of hell.”

In the early 1960s Bill Lear began work on the airplane that would become the Learjet and serve as the cornerstone of the industry that eventually came to be known as business aviation. On his deathbed in 1978, Bill Lear implored his wife to finish work on the Lear Fan, a final pet project of Lear’s that combined a single-prop, twin-engine propulsion system with what would have been the first all-composite airframe intended for a turbine-powered airplane. Moya honored Bill’s final request, to the point of nearly bankrupting herself and her family. After some years of development, the Lear Fan failed to find a market and quietly faded away, remembered chiefly for its innovation and the gung ho esprit de corps of the people who worked on it, spearheaded by Moya.

While the Lear Fan faded away, Moya did not, moving on to become an author and one of the Reno area’s primary philanthropists. Among her most recent projects was a donation of $1.1 million for the purchase of an old Christian Science church where she had once taught Sunday school, for conversion into a regional playhouse that’s been called the Lear Theater in her honor.