Tuesday, 9 October 2007

William (Bill) Powell Lear 1902 – 1978

William Powell Lear was born June 26, 1902, in Hannibal, Mo. He was an only child; his parents separated when he was 6. Lear came up with his own bluprint for success by the time he was 12.

"I resolved first to make enough money so I'd never be stopped from finishing anything," Lear said later. "Second, that to accumulate money in a hurry - and I was in a hurry - I'd have to invent something that people wanted, and third that if I ever was going to stand on my own feet, I'd have to leave home."

He ran away from home after graduating from the eighth grade. He lied about his age and joined the Navy but didn't like regimentation and got an early discharge.

In 1919, Lear quit a $40-a-week job to be a mechanic at Grant Park Airport in Chicago, servicing many of the first air-mail planes. He was rewarded with flying lessons in place of a paycheck. Lear then formed the first of a string of companies. He was president of Quincy Radio Laboratory in Quincy, Ill., from 1922 to 1924; president of Lear Radio Laboratory in Tulsa from 1924 to 1928; and part-owner of Radio Coil and Wire Co. and Galvin Manufacturing Co., both of Chicago, from 1926 to 1930. About this time, Lear developed the first car radio at Galvin, which was to become the Motorola Corp. Motorola successfully mass-produced the car radio.

In 1930, Lear took his profits and founded Lear Developments, which became Lear Inc. and later Lear Siegler Inc. The companies specialized in aerospace instruments and electronics.

Some have called Lear's 32 years as president and later chairman of the board his most creative time. In 1935, Lear invented the Lear-O-Scope, one of the first commercial radio compasses. He received the Frank M. Hawks Award for designing the Learmatic Navigator in 1940.

In 1950, President Harry Truman gave Lear the Collier Trophy for development of the F-5 autopilot, the first ever for jets. The city of Paris presented Lear its Great Silver Medal for his aid in developing the autopilot for the Caravelle jetliner in 1962. By 1962, his company, headquartered in Santa Monica, Calif., had 5,000 employees and plants in California, Germany, Michigan and Ohio. But Lear and company officials had a falling-out and that year Lear sold his interests for $14.3 million.

Lear had come up with the idea of building a small, fast and cheap business jet in 1959. Now, with 30 years of experience and cash in the bank, he had the money and freedom to go ahead with his newest dream. "When I designed the Learjet, I didn't design it because I wanted to make a jet aircraft but because I needed an airplane that would compete with the airlines and would be economical enough that I could afford to operate it."- Bill Lear, 1972.

Lear formed a company in Switzerland and began working on the design of the Learjet there. Then he surprised nearly everyone by deciding in 1962 to build the new Learjet in Wichita.

The city agreed to help finance Learjet Corp. and issued its first-ever industrial revenue bonds. Lear set up shop next to Wichita Mid-Continent Airport and began working on the first Learjet Model 23, a simple, sturdy seven-place business jet that would fly 500 mph.

On June 4, 1964, during a routine certification flight, the first Learjet crashed and burned in a cornfield after takeoff. The Federal Aviation Agency test pilot at the controls and the Learjet test pilot riding along weren't injured in the crash, believed to have been caused by human error.

The good news was that the $500,000 insurance policy on the plane enabled the company to make its payroll and gave it financial breathing room. Another Learjet was completed and certified by the FAA just nine months after the crash.

Lear had an odd sense of humor and willingness to try the extraordinary; he once imported a team of midgets from Californa to work inside the slender fuselages of the first Learjets built in Wichita. But by late 1966, hard work and devoted employees weren't enough. Learjet was on the verge of bankruptcy, partly because Lear had branched out too fast into avionics and stereo sets and plastic products.

The company had built 146 Learjets before Lear sold it to the Denver- based Gates Rubber Co. on April 10, 1967. Although Learjet was about $13 million in debt at the time of the sale, Lear eventually made about $18 million from the sale.

In 1968, Lear bought the old Stead Air Force Base at Reno, Nev., for $1.3 million and established Lear Motors Corp. and LearAvia Corp. There Lear worked on a low-pollution engine that could run on steam, hoping to make the internal combustion engine obsolete. The project fizzled.

Returning to aviation, he designed the Learstar 600, a 12-place business jet. Canadair bought the manufacturing rights and renamed it the Challenger. Lear was working on the Model 2100 Learfan, a radical seven-passenger plane with two turboprop engines powering a propeller on the tail, when he died of leukemia May 14, 1978.

Lear was posthumously inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio, on July 22, 1978.