William Powell Lear, Sr.
Near the end of World War II, Lear was flying from Michigan to California in his twin Beech with his wife Moya and four-year-old son David. He was putting the finishing touches on his L-5 autopilot and was extremely engrossed in his work. Unfortunately, this caused Lear to miss the fact they had crossed into the western Air Defense Identification Zone without giving prior notice by flight plan. The Air Force scrambled fighters to intercept and identify the craft. When Lear spotted the fighters he placed David in the pilot’s seat and hid on the floor in the back with Moya. When the pilots came close Lear told his son to smile and wave at the man in the other airplane. Lear collapsed with laughter thinking about how the pilots were going to report this threat to Western Security.
- Invented direction finders, lightweight air radios and autopilots for aviation.
- Received the Collier Trophy in 1949 for developing the F-5 autopilot with a control for landing aircraft in “zero-zero” weather.
- Unveiled his radically new jet-powered business aircraft the Lear Jet in 1963.
- In 1977, Lear initiated the design of the Lear-Fan, a high-efficiency, turbine powered pusher-propeller driven business type airplane.
One of the outstanding pioneers of aviation, William Powell Lear, Sr., who had finished only the eighth grade and served a hitch in the Navy, became a non-paid “grease monkey” working on U.S. Air Mail planes flying out of Chicago in 1919. Unfortunately, on his first airplane ride the plane turned turtle on landing.
Lear was born in Hannibal, Missouri in 1902 and later moved to Quincy, Illinois. He parlayed a boyhood fascination with radio into a radio sales and service shop as a boom in radioes swept the nation. Later, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he opened Lear Radio Laboratory in his home, while also briefly attending high school.
In 1924, after returning to Chicago, Lear began an amazingly creative career in radio. After developing a “B” battery eliminator that enabled radios to operate on household electricity, Lear invented a radio speaker and amplifier system that produced unbelievably fine sounds. His creation, called “Majestic,” was an overnight success. Before long, he began work on a revolutionary new idea: a radio for automobiles. It proved to be another success and he christened it “Motorola.”
In 1931 Lear’s first real involvement in aviation came when he purchased a Fleet biplane and, after only two and a half hours of instruction, performed his solo flight. Later, during his first cross-country flight to New York, he learned firsthand the perils of aerial navigation and vowed to find a better way.
Soon after acquiring a Stinson Reliant, Lear established Lear Radio at Chicago’s airport and began to manufacture aircraft radio receivers to aid navigation by picking up radio beacon signals. But he discovered that most pilots still were flying by the seat of their pants, and by 1934 Lear was bankrupt. After moving to New York, Lear demonstrated his knack for adaptation by creating an all-wave radio receiver for which RCA Victor pays him $50,000 for patent rights and $200,000 in consultant fees. With working capital in hand, Lear began to develop a radio direction finder for airplanes. When it was perfected, he named it the Lear-O-Scope, and later received the Frank M. Hawk Memorial Award for this important aircraft navigation aid.
In 1941 Lear married the lovely Moya Marie Olsen, daughter of comedian Ole Olsen of Broadway fame. During World War II, he built his Lear-O-Scope for the military and also began development of a compact autopilot for fighter aircraft.
After the war, Lear moved his aircraft instrument business to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he perfected the Lear F-5 Autopilot. This proved to be a major contribution to aviation because it had the ability to lock onto homing signals and land aircraft in “zero-zero” weather.
In 1949 Lear sold Lear Radio and established Lear, Incorporated, in Santa Monica, which placed his F-5 autopilot into production. For this “greatest achievement in aviation in 1949″ he later received the coveted Collier Trophy from President Truman.
By 1956, over 100,000 F-5 autopilots had been built, including some for French Caravelle jetliners. For this achievement Lear received the Great Silver Medal from the City of Paris. Later, a Caravelle equipped with his autopilot made aviation history by completing a series of completely blind landings.
In 1960 Lear moved to Switzerland, and there conceived the idea for a revolutionary new airplane: a small private jet that would offer the same advantages as jetliners, but at a fraction of the cost.
In 1962 Lear, a colossal gambler, decided that his idea was worth investing every cent. Lear sold all his interests in Lear, Incorporated and formed Lear Jet Industries in Wichita, Kansas. His goal was to produce the first jet aircraft ever developed and financed by a single individual, and to do it in record time. By October 1963, the jet was making its initial test flights. They confirmed Lear’s belief that he had a gold mine, for his creation was able to fly at over 40,000 feet, hit 605 miles per hour and outperform most military fighters.
In June 1964, after 164 test flights, the first Lear Jet was ready for certification. But with a Federal Aviation Administration pilot at the controls, it crashed at takeoff when he forgot to retract the lift spoilers. This was a hard blow, but Lear pushed ahead and two months later the FAA certified a second prototype.
The first year sales of the Lear Jet totaled an amazing $52 million, and eventually more than 700 would be built, providing limousine quietness and comfort for the working executive and smooth controls for the corporate pilot. The spectacular launching of the Lear Jet had amply demonstrated Bill Lear’s talents in successfully entering new, untried fields.
The Lear Jet was not the only feather in Lear’s cap, for from his Lear Stereo Division sprung the eight-track stereo tape player and cartridge system, which became the standard for automobiles, and by 1978 an $8 billion a year industry as well.
In 1967, Lear set out to conquer new fields that would utilize his ingenuity, drive and inventive genius. Lear sold Lear Jet Industries for $28 million and bought Stead Air Force Base near Reno, Nevada. There, one of his major undertakings was the development of a radical new pollution-free automotive engine. After establishing Lear Motors Corporation, he quickly selected the steam engine as his base and set out to overcome its historic problems. Lear developed an external combustion, vapor-driven turbine engine which had very low emissions and was capable of powering a transit bus. But the undertaking was a massive one, involving a myriad of difficult problems. After investing $17 million from his own pocket, Lear was forced to conclude that while his engine was operationally successful, it was not as fuel efficient as a conventional engine.
But meanwhile Lear had created Lear Avia to develop jet transports, and in 1977 tackled the problem of the rising cost of fuel for business jets. His approach was again a bold new aircraft concept called the Lear Fan, a silk-smooth, streamlined-aircraft with its twin jet engines built into the fuselage and geared together to drive a pusher propeller at the unique tail assembly. His goal was a low cost aircraft that would operate at one-tenth the cost of a typical corporate jet, and Bill Lear bet $25 million that his would be the next generation of business aircraft.
Lear never saw the Lear Fan fly, however; his health began to fail. In early 1978 he was diagnosed with acute leukemia. He died in Reno, Nevada. His family scattered his ashes over the Pacific.
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