William Powell Lear, Sr., an inventor and entrepreneur, arrived in Wichita in 1962 with plans to revolutionize business aviation. Lear’s aim was to create a small private jet with the advantages of an airliner, but with much lower costs. In 1964, after 164 test flights, the first Learjet 23 was ready for certification.
Plans For Lear Jet In Wichita
Bill Lear created the Lear Jet company on a 64-acre site adjacent to Wichita’s largest airport. At the time, he explained his choice of Wichita in this way: “If I was going to build automobiles, I would go to Detroit. I’m building airplanes, so I’m going to Wichita.” Wichita, home to Beech Aircraft, Cessna Aircraft and Boeing, Lear had the skilled engineers and production workers he needed to succeed. It wasn’t long before those leaving for Lear became known as the “Italian Boatmen,” for they were “Gone-to-Lears”.
The Learjet And A Swiss fighter
Bill Lear moved to Wichita from Switzerland, bringing with him blueprints for a Swiss FFA P-16 fighter, some production tooling and plans for a new business jet. The Learjet was based partly on the Swiss fighter.
Learjets Ready For Delivery
The Learjet captured the attention of the industry and the attention of dozens of actors, comedians, musicians, athletes and politicians who came to Wichita to see the aircraft. Soon, the local media dubbed Wichita’s Learjet site as “Hollywood East.” Frank Sinatra bought a Learjet 23 in 1965, and flew himself and his Rat Pack friends between Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Palm Springs. Sinatra lent it to Elvis Presley on his elopement to Priscilla. Within a few years, the name Learjet was synonymous with the term business jet. At the time, all sightings of small aircraft were identified as a Learjet. Here, Lear holds up seven fingers to show off seven Learjets ready for delivery.
A Race Car in the Sky
An early Learjet 23 brochure. The Learjet was the only private aircraft capable of flying 550 mph. Early marketing dubbed it the “fighting businessman’s jet.”
The Last Safari
The Learjet was featured in a number of movies, songs and in pop culture. In 1967, a Learjet 23 received a special paint job to appear in the film “The Last Safari.” James Bond parachuted out of one, and a Learjet was featured in Carly Simon’s 1972 song, “You’re So Vain,” in Pink Floyd’s “Money,” and in the TV show “Madmen.”
Bill Lear was known as a brilliant yet colorful character. Here, Lear is “testing” a windshield.
Bill Lear The Inventor
Bill Lear, a high school dropout and self-taught inventor, was best known for the Learjet. But he received more than 120 patents in his 46-year career for a variety of projects. His inventions included the 8-track tape cartridge, the first successful car radio, early autopilot systems and radio direction finders.
The Learjet 23 set 18 speed records in an around-the-world flight in 1966, in a three-day trip with 17 stops. Ten years later, Arnold Palmer, a Learjet fan and owner, was one of three pilots flying around the world in a Learjet 36 equipped with extra fuel tanks. They flew 22,984 mi. in 57 hr., 25 min. Other pilots included Jim Bir, a Learjet demonstration pilot (right of Palmer), and Bill Purkey, (right of Bir). Bob Serling, former UPI aviation editor and author of a number of books, including “The President’s Plane is Missing,” was the official NAA recorder on the flight.
The Learjet 60
Credit: Bombardier Learjet
After the company sold to Gates and then Integrated Acquisition, Bombardier purchased the Learjet Corp., in 1990, its fourth owner. Bombardier launched the Learjet 60, a midsize, medium-range business jet the same year. It also launched the Learjet 60XR followed by the Lear 45.
The Learjet 85
In 2007, Bombardier launched the all-new Learjet 85 midsize jet, its first all-composite jet and its largest and longest-range Learjet. Citing a weak market and struggling with larger financial issues, the company paused and then canceled the program in 2015. With concurrent development of the C Series airliner and the ultra-long-range Global 7500, Bombardier had undertaken too many projects at once, officials said.
The Learjet 75 Liberty
Bombardier’s Wichita plant produces the Learjet 75 Liberty but production rates have been low. The company delivered 11 Learjets in 2020, compared to 12 in 2019. The Learjet 75 received FAA type certification in 2013. In 2019, Bombardier refreshed the aircraft with the revamped Liberty model. It removed some seating along with the auxiliary power unit, external lighting and lavatory sink and reduced the price to help it compete. Bombardier announced Feb. 11 that it plans to halt production at the end of 2021 to focus on the more profitable Challenger and Global models. The company will continue to support the 2,000 Learjets flying.
William Powell Lear, Sr., an inventor and entrepreneur, arrived in Wichita in 1962 with plans to revolutionize business aviation. From the rollout of the first Learjet 23 to being featured in films and TV shows including James Bond and Mad Men, explore the adventurous journey of how this happened.
Molly McMillin, a 25-year aviation journalist, is managing editor of business aviation for the Aviation Week Network and editor-in-chief of The Weekly of Business Aviation, an Aviation Week market intelligence report.
I was one of three Coast Guard pilots who flew the Commandant to Geneva Switzerland for a conference on May 2nd 1961. We attended a cocktail party, in uniform, to honor the Commandant. While standing there, this gentleman bounded over to us and introduced himself as Bill Lear, and I am going to build a business jet here. We silently said "yeah, sure", as he explained that Messerschmidt would build the tail section, etc, etc. It was a fascinating conversation with an obviously enthusiastic and knowledgeable man. Since then I have bumped into the Lear products periodically; the last time working a proposal for IAI in a successful bid to sell four Astras to the Air National Guard to replace the C-23s.
Thought you might like to hear of this added bit to the Lear legend.
Captain USCG Retired