February 14, 2013
Reaching New Heights - The Aviation Innovation of William Lear
PART 1 We at Angel MedFlight Worldwide Air Ambulance would like to pay homage to the pioneer of our air ambulances, William (Bill) Lear. Our pilots and patients alike love the design and performance of these amazing jets; they are fast, comfortable, and reliable. As safety and patient satisfaction are our primary concerns, the Learjet 35 and 60 were the two best choices for comfortable, safe, long-distance travel. Now, let's take a look back at how our preferred air ambulances, the Learjets, were born. Learjet creator Bill Lear was born in 1902 in Hannibal, Missouri. It seemed that from a young age, Bill was skilled at overcoming obstacles and standing strong in the face of adversity. He yearned for knowledge and experience. While he didn't come from a family of wealth, he was surrounded by opportunities that taught him how to politely meet people and the value of a strong handshake. Wise before his years, Bill struggled in high school because his knowledge often surpassed that of his instructors. He was asked to leave high school and then later joined the U.S. Navy. He never obtained a high school degree and forged ahead being self-taught, with a focus on wireless technology. William Lear was an avionics genius, but he began his innovative career path by his invention of the car radio. The invention was the first of its kind. Lear had other plans in mind and sold the idea to Motorola. The sale of the car radio funded his next project - the Learjet. Lear not only had a lot of knowledge about avionics - but he also began to have a fascination it. He purchased his first plane in 1931 for $2,500. He found that there were a number of improvements that could simplify the navigation process. He began conceptualizing avionic products including the Lear-O-Scope, one of the first commercial radio compasses, and the F-86 auto pilot. Lear moved to Switzerland and founded the Swiss American Aviation Company. With a seemingly unsuccessful venture of converting military aircraft fighter jets to business charter jets, Lear searched for the right team to lead the design plans for his new project. Dr. Hans-Luzius Studer of Switzerland was a renowned engineer for aircraft design. At that time, Dr. Studer was designing the FAA P-16 aircraft, closely identical to the design Bill Lear had in mind for the Learjet. Lear recruited Dr. Studer to become the lead designer of the first Learjet. Lear asked Dr. Studer to use the plans from the P16 and take what he could from that design to use on the new Learjet design. Without the money to complete a wind tunnel test, the specs from the P16 wings were carried over without change as they were already tested successfully. Bill then began recruiting the cancelled P-16 engineers at a minimum cost. Step by step, Bill could see his vision becoming a reality. Make sure to check back for Part 2 of Angel MedFlight’s three-part series on the Learjet. PART 2 The biggest challenge the engineers and builders had was time. They only had about two weeks to test the aircraft after it was fully built. They had confidence it would be a complete and successful build, but were unsure if it would actually be air-worthy. There were no systems (avionics, electronics, hydraulics, etc). In fact, some of the systems had not even been created yet. The only thing that was a constant were the established aerodynamics from the P-16. As an innovator himself, in the design phase, Lear was involved in nearly all aspects of the development process. On October 7th, 1963 in Wichita, Kansas, the first Learjet 23 took flight. This was the test flight for the newly constructed jet. Many of the skeptics from local companies including Cessna were present on the nearby roadway for the unscheduled test flight. The word of the test flight spread quickly. Families were called and radio stations were notified of the Learjet 23 test run. People that initially thought the design and approach would fail were now believers in Bill Lear's project. Once competitors, the now believers, began to submit applications to begin working for the innovative company Lear Siegler. This was an opportunity to be a part of projects they never dreamed could be a reality. The work hours were around the clock, but people still jumped at the chance. The first Learjet was soon after involved in an unfortunate accident. Although no one was hurt, Lear was completely invested in this single aircraft. The insurance coverage for the plane was paid out at full list price and the money was used to continue the construction of the next Learjet. The first aircraft contained a number (if not all) Swiss parts, which uses the metric system. The plane was assumed it would never be able to pass inspection or be certified for that aspect alone. From an unfortunate crash to a silver lining - if the plane would not be up to standards for certification, the insurance payout would have never covered the retail cost. The initial jet was not yet qualified for inspection prior to the crash. The company could not sell an aircraft, nor maintain business, without the latest version of the Learjet obtaining certification. After the newly built prototype was tested, it was inspected successfully and the Learjet 23 was certified. Today we end our three-part series on Bill Lear and his contribution to the avionics world. If you missed any of the other articles, make sure to visit http://blog.angelmedflight.com/ Bill Lear became not only the designer and founder of the company, but the primary salesman. At the time, the estimated number of business jets that would be in use was approximately 300. Lear saw tremendous opportunity in the industry. Being an elite member of the community, Lear had a great rolodex to get started. His projection for the use of jets was to include a fleet that would jump well beyond 300. He saw the potential for 3,000. Learjet production was underway and with orders coming in and deposits being paid, the company was still running short on production funds. The orders were coming in faster than anticipated. To make ends meet, existing jets were sold off to any customers with a $100,000 deposit. To begin ramping up marketing efforts to make Learjet a household name, Lear recruited a marketing team consisting of people he trusted and knew the marketing industry. His team began hiring celebrities to be pictured near or on a Learjet. Nearly every Hollywood movie star or musician would take flight in a Learjet. Soon after, the Learjet was slated to become a movie star, appearing in motion pictures, television shows, and print and broadcast advertisements. In 1965, some of the competition had made claims that they would be taking a flight around the world. Bill Lear made the decision to secretly do the same prior to the competition as he knew his Lear jets would complete the trip faster. The impromptu plan was to get as much media coverage the day of the flight - on board and on the ground around the world - setting new records for speed and altitude for any non-military jet. The company could not maintain funding as well as it could media coverage. The production costs were too high. In 1967, Bill Lear made the decision to sell the company to the Gates Rubber Company. Funding for production with a larger owner base gave way for continued production as well as product development. Even after the sale of the company, accomplishments were still being made. Not only had Bill Lear's dream of becoming a household name been accomplished, but the Learjet 28 and 29 were the first aircraft certified to fly at 51,000 feet. In the 70's and 80's, the Learjet 35 set records for sales, becoming the world's most popular jets. The company Bombardier has since purchased the Learjet design and has grown to new heights, maintaining the name of the innovative genius. The newest versions of Lear jets have made their way to the stage, including the 34, 60, and 45 which was certified in 1997. Two newest models debuted in 2002, the Learjet 40 and 45XR. Today, Angel MedFlight chooses to work solely with the Learjet, using Learjet 60s and the Learjet 35. Our air ambulances continue to operate with a perfect safety rating and we continue to offer the best service in the industry.