During the 20th century, William P. Lear was an innovator and market disrupter like Elon Musk today. Lear successfully engineered and marketed automotive radios, aircraft radio and guidance electronics and servo mechanisms, and the lowest cost small business jet which became known simply as the Lear Jet.

What drove Bill Lear to conceive, engineer and market the products he did? To begin with, Lear was inspired by inventors and entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. He was asked by one magazine editor the motivation for his success.

“I resolved first to make enough money so I’d never be stopped from finishing anything,” Lear replied. “Second, that to accumulate money in hurry–and I was in a hurry–I’d have to invent something that people wanted…” Lear had an intuitive sense of what was needed or desired in a specific market, but just as important, how to exploit existing technology to offer something new and better.

By the late 1950s, Lear Inc. employed 5,000 people in several divisions across the United States and Europe. He travelled constantly, and did not like the relatively slow speed of commercial prop-driven passenger plains, or the schedule limits imposed by large commercial jets. A wealthy man, Lear owned an estate outside of Geneva, Switzerland. Switzerland had a small military aircraft industry.  He was intrigued by the design of the Swiss P-16 fighter jet with its wingtip fuel tanks and other features.

The Learjet was inspired by design features of the Swiss FAA P-16 military jet.

The Swiss P-16 formed the genesis for the design of a new, small corporate jet to compete with the North American Aviation Saberliner and the Lockheed JetStar. He worked with a core group of his engineers and product designers to produce renderings and market analysis to present to the company’s board of directors. Lear had been successful in many fields, but the management team was skeptical the new jet, with its very high capital expense to produce and no previous aircraft manufacturing experience. Even if financing could be obtained, why would anyone buy the unproven Lear Jet?

When the board of Lear Inc. voted down the idea, Bill Lear negotiated a buyout of his shares in the company. Lear took the money and established a new company in Switzerland to work with the manufacturer of the P-16, FFA, to help him engineer and produce the prototype of the jet. The Lear Jet was, in fact, considerably different in configuration and design from the P-16. Lear’s jet was to be powered by two General Electric turbofan engines mounted on the rear fuselage.

There were supply problems and other issues during the jet’s development in Switzerland, so Lear moved the development work to Wichita, Kansas in 1962. Development of the jet moved quickly, and by September 1963 the first jet, with unpainted aluminum surfaces, began its flight tests. The test pilot took a step approach to these tests, but eventually the jet achieved a top speed of Mach .85. FAA validation testing followed, and several months later, the Learjet received its FAA Type Certificate in July 1964.

Today, the Learjet Model 31A is built by Bombardier. (photo: Bombardier)

The first production Learjet Model 23 left the Wichita hanger in October 1964 and the order book was filling up quickly. Corporations and wealthy celebrities were lining up to buy their own sleek Learjet. The jet became a status symbol and an outward display of individual wealth, despite being the lowest priced business jet on the market. Over the years, the Learjet was revised and lengthened. Some years ago Learjet was purchased by Bombardier, which manufactures the jet today.

Anthony Young ©Personal Spaceflight Advisors LLC
direct email: anthonyhyoung@gmail.com