Since I was a young adult I’ve always been an admirer of Bill Lear. The inventor of the car radio, the 8-track music cartridge and, among other things, the business jet that bears his name. Lear, who was born 115 years ago today, had a notable sense of humor, naming his second daughter Crystal Shanda (who they always called Shanda).
I came to know about Lear in the early 70s when I was in the audience at a taping of the Merv Griffin show in Los Angeles. Lear was a guest on the show along with the McWhirter twin brothers — Ross and Norris — founders of the Guinness Book of Records. A few years later in 1975 Ross was murdered by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA). In 1977 Lear would die in Reno of Leukemia. He was 75.
Bill Lear was a creative genius, a self-taught radio engineer with an 8th grade education. After a nearly 50 year career he received well over 120 patents. Shanda said of her father, Dad was always scribbling ideas and designs on restaurant napkins and table cloths, all the while telling jokes and discussing the infinite possibilities of the mind.
Lear was controversial, a demanding taskmaster, described as a hot-headed dictator. John Zimmerman, a former aviation writer said people would like Bill one minute and hate the ground he walked on the next…. Working for Bill was very, very difficult. He surrounded himself with good people, but it was not an easy life.
Sometime after developing the car radio, and helping to create Motorola in about 1930, Lear struck out on his own and founded Lear Developments, specializing in aviation instruments and electronics. Over the next 32 years as president, and later Chairman of the Board, his achievements in the industry were legendary. His inventions included navigational radios, the first autopilot for jet aircraft and the first fully automatic aircraft landing system.
His company, headquartered in Santa Monica, California by 1962 employed 5,000 with plants in California, Michigan, Ohio and Germany. But after a falling out with company officials that same year Lear sold his interest for over $14-million. It was then that he formed what eventually became Lear Jet Industries headquartered in Wichita, Kansas.
The Learjet 23 developed just a year later was the first ever cheap, mass produced business jet and the industry never looked back. By 1975 the company had produced over 500 Learjets. A Learjet would go on to hold the speed record for a cross-continent Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. flight in 1983. It took 4 hours 12 minutes. That record remained until it was broken seven years later. This time it was the SR-71 and it took just 64 minutes.
Today Learjet is a division of the Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier Aerospace. Still made in Wichita with over 3000 employees the Learjet 70 and 75 are the most trusted light jet aircraft among Fortune 50 and 500 companies.
Bill Lear’s humor was legendary. Here are a few of what came to be known as Learisms:
On aerodynamics: “If it looks good, it will fly good.”
On management: “If you put up half of the money, you get to make half of the decisions.”
On reducing weight in the Learjet: “I’d sell my grandmother to save one pound.”
When criticized you couldnt stand up in a Learjet: “You can’t stand up in a Cadillac either”
“Publicity is good, no matter how bad.”
All rich geniuses are supposed to be eccentric. So I am.
~~ Bill Lear ~~
In July 1978 Lear was posthumously inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame.