Lear Jet 23
by Jerald A. Slocum (1978)
Originally published in Flying Magazine, October 1978 issue.
The pictures appearing herein are from our own archives.
WILLIAM P. LEAR was driving to the factory when he spotted the column of black smoke rising from a field near Wichita Mid-Continent Airport. Moments later, his worst fears were realized when he found the prototype Lear Jet in the center of a muddy wheat field, fire spreading from a damaged tip tank. Both test pilots stood nearby, unharmed. This airplane was the embodiment of four years of single-minded determination and unremitting effort, as well as nearly $8 million of Lear's personal fortune. Yet on that drizzly morning, he could only watch helplessly as the first Lear Jet was completely destroyed by fire.
A problem that continuously confronts historians is to discern the degree to which people controlled events--or how much they were manipulated by them. The creation of the Lear Jet is particularly difficult to document because of Lear himself: he was a dynamic, multifaceted man with a penchant for seizing opportunities invisible to others and quickly turning them to his own ends. He was known to make mincemeat' of disaster even as it happened-later implying that the new tack he subsequently took had always been intended. As he told it, the genesis of his airplane was an ascending glissando of daring decisions, brilliant insights, outrageous gambles and sundry triumphs over adversity and bureaucracy, culminating in an airplane so perfect that, at one point, Lear envisioned selling them like TV sets.
There is, perhaps surprisingly, a good deal of truth in this view; but it is also true that Lear's methodology often worked against him in subtle, powerful ways and, in the end, placed him in the unlikely role of being his new company's chief liability.
The concept of a jet designed specifically for business use was not very radical in the late 1950s. Many corporations were looking for a more modern airplane to replace the odd assortment of Gulfstream ls, Howard 500s and DC-3s then in use. There were two jets already on the market--the Lockheed JetStar and the North American Sabreliner although both had been originally designed for the military and were very expensive. Lear could see that a small, relatively inexpensive corporate jet was an idea whose time was coming; visualizing his name on it no doubt made the idea even more enticing. At the time, he was the head of a very successful firm he had founded that built autopilots and related hardware. He approached the board of directors with his idea of building a new airplane and received his first setback: they refused to have anything to do with it. To anyone else in Lear's position, that, no doubt, would have been that. But Lear, in a gesture that was quite typical of him, left his company and headed for Switzerland.
In addition to being Lear's second home, Switzerland seemed to offer promise: he felt that it would be easier to attract investors, assemble a design team and establish a production facility there than it would in the States. But more important, Switzerland was the home of the P-16 fighter-bomber, a promising design plagued with systems problems that Lear wanted to use as the nucleus for his new airplane. He named his new company the Swiss-American Aviation Corporation and, using the basic design of the P-16's wing, large tip fuel tanks and cruciform tail (hard tooling for which already existed), designed a compact, svelte fuselage that held two pilots and seven passengers. The engines were to be the civilian version of the military proven General Electric J-85, which put out 2,850 pounds of, thrust.
But the project soon bogged down, partly because of the Swiss Government's rigidly structured bureaucracy and partly because Lear found himself constantly at odds with people who literally and figuratively didn't speak his language. The final nail in the coffin may have been the Government's attempt to tax the project before there was even sheet metal in the jigs. By early 1962, Lear was arranging to return to the U.S.
At this time, a great many people had heard of the project, and numerous municipalities tried to entice him to their cities. Lear finally selected Wichita for the same reason that had originally lured him to Switzerland: an abundance of aviation-wise workers and executives. The SAAC designation was left behind, and the airplane became known simply as the Lear Jet Model 23. (During the Wichita period, Lear Jet, which also became the company name, was written as two words; before this, and after the Gates takeover in 1967, it was written as one.)
Getting the first business jet onto the market was turning into a horse race. In Europe, the German Hansa Jet and the British DH 125 were firm commitments by their manufacturers. In this country, Aero Commander had announced the Jet Commander, a brand-new design by Ted Smith, a man as respected within the industry as was Lear by laymen.
The Jet Commander beat the Lear Jet into the air primarily because Lear had lost so much time with the false start in Switzerland, but the race was far from over: the first airplane to receive a type certificate would be recorded in history as the first business jet.
To that end, Lear drove himself and everyone around him with a missionary's zeal and a complete disregard for the rhythms and demands of normal life. He became totally familiar with each part of his growing organization and was sensitive to everything that happened within it. He infused those around him with his own excitement and sense of purpose, welding them into a team willing to work long hours under his near-dictatorial leadership for a dream that became as much theirs as his. Everyone from executive to engineer to secretary to janitor eagerly watched the airplanes taking shape in the jigs.
Lear's modus operandi consisted of cruising through the factory, peering unexpectedly over someone's shoulder, asking questions, offering advice, listening to suggestions and dispensing nuggets of praise or verbal hand grenades where needed. He went about armed with a cerebral appreciation of aircraft design; a handyman's knack of seeing the simplest, most direct route to a problem's solution; and an unshakable faith in the correctness of his vision. Every component, from the largest structure to the smallest fastener, passed under his careful scrutiny, a situation that, had it been anyone but Lear, might well have been intolerable. To those who did object, he offered decision-making responsibility in direct proportion to capital invested - an invitation that produced no takers. (Indeed, bankrolling the entire project was beginning to tax even Lear's considerable resources.)
The airplane that emerged from all of this was as far from conventional wisdom as it was rigorously state of the art. The JetStar and Sabreliner were, conceptually, scaled down versions of airline and military jets, while the Lear Jet-and, to a lesser extent, the Jet Commander--had more in common with light aircraft. Thus, while the competition featured cabins that were similar in size to existing corporate aircraft, Lear produced a smaller, circular cross section that was both light and very strong. He reasoned that passengers would no more object to not being able to stand up in an airplane than they would to sitting in an automobile.
Lear was as much the archetypal passenger as he was the chief designer, a fact that produced a number of interesting variations on familiar design themes. The competition's airplanes all used a single-piece "bank vault" door, much beloved for its strength by structural engineers but less popular with passengers, mainly because the resulting opening is relatively small.. Lear went instead for a two-piece affair, the top half folding upward to provide some small shelter from the elements, the bottom half descending to become an entrance step, and the opening cut into the fuselage in such a way that the passenger simply steps up into the airplane. He also designed an electric motor that, during the closing sequence, pulls the two halves together tightly enough to align the locking pins with their respective holes - a Rube Goldberg device that made closing the door more than a flick-of-the-wrist operation. Nevertheless, the Lear Jet door is simple, light, cheap to build and, once it is closed, it is as strong as the fuselage. And passengers loved it.
Simplicity that came perilously close to crudity and Lear's fanatical preoccupation with weight are perhaps the two most often heard reasons for the Lear Jet's success. First-timers in the, airplane's cockpit always remark how small and jewel-like everything is, and how everything necessary for the operation of a sophisticated jet has somehow been placed on such a small panel. The various systems reflect the same back-to-basics thinking that went into the door, yet all have back-up systems that are, if anything, even simpler. Lear wouldn't hesitate to redesign store-bought components to save a few ounces of weight; and he said he would "kill his grandmother" for a few pounds. This prompted the adoption, by everyone in the plant, of a new standard: "How many grandmothers does this weigh?"
But his attention to details sometimes came at the expense of larger problems. When the number-one airplane was still a few months from its first flight, Lear heard rumblings about the cruciform tail: some engineers doubted that the elevator, with its fixed horizontal stabilizer, would be able to hold up the nose in forward-CG conditions; others wondered about the elevator's proximity to the engines, since airplanes with similar setups had experienced fatigue problems caused by the high-frequency vibrations emitted by the engine exhaust. Neither was so critical that it couldn't wait until the first flights. But Lear, in characteristic abhorrence of what he now decided was a flaw; put the project behind schedule in order to install a T tail. (About this same time, it is interesting to, note, the folks at Bethany rolled the prototype Jet Commander back into the shop to stretch the fuselage this made it appear that both parties had, in effect, called time out.)
There is also little doubt that, engineering aside, Lear was considering the aesthetics of such a change-a fact that became obvious the day the first prototype was rolled out of the hangar for its official debut. By any standards, the Lear Jet is a beautiful airplane: the old saw that it "looked as though it were going 500 miles per hour just sitting on the ramp" was surely first heard here. Another that equates looks with flying qualities proved accurate when 001 made its first flight a few weeks later: "perfect," said the test pilot, and the race was on.
Lear had hoped to save time by obtaining the type certificate under FAR Part 23 (the rules for aircraft under 12,500 pounds gross weight) rather than the more stringent Part 25, which governs transport-category aircraft. But the Wichita FAA, then not very familiar with jets, threw him a curve by tacking on some additional requirements that threatened to slow down certification. Moreover, the competition began referring to the Lear Jet as a "lightplane," hinting darkly that there must be some reason why Lear would not subject it to the more rigorous Part 25. In reality, the airplane met or exceeded the most important of Part 25 criteria; the main exception was the bird-proof windshield, later added as part of the changeover to the Model 24. But at that point, it would have taken too long to start all over with Part 25, so Lear had to content himself with contradicting rumors by a flurry of press releases.
One of the FAA's additions required that Lear establish balanced field lengths; and it was here that disaster struck. Testing for single-engine climb performance, with an FAA test pilot in the left seat and Lear's pilot in the right, N801 Lima left the ground with one engine actually shut down (normally not done until the very end of the testing phase) and the spoilers inadvertently extended. In this configuration, it was something of a-miracle that the airplane flew at all; as it was even with the gear retracted, it refused to climb much beyond ground effect, and it just managed to clear some trees at the end of the field.
In the cockpit, meanwhile, confusion reigned: an engine restart was unsuccessful because of improper procedure, and neither pilot thought too check spoiler position. Soon the-airplane began to settle slowly and, with a field just ahead the pilots elected to put the gear down and ride it in.
Considering the company's precarious circumstances, the loss of this prototype should have been a crippling blow. But counting Lear down and out was a risky business. Before the wreckage ceased smoldering, he was on the phone arranging, prodding, cajoling, threatening-the Lear of myth and legend rallying against the combined forces of human failing and capricious fate.
Soon the number-two airplane-which had just returned to flight status following a hard landing accident-was readied for a special flight; the FAA hurriedly processed the paperwork that would allow it to travel beyond the testing area; and Lear's salesmen at the then-in-progress Reading Show were told that their airplane would be making a surprise appearance. Even as the news of the crash of the first prototype reached the show, Lear had landed giving everyone a firsthand look at his new airplane as well as an explanation of the accident-with the result that he almost completely negated what might have been some very bad publicity.
Less obvious but equally significant was the fact that the FAA's involvement in the crash handed Lear a lever powerful enough to move an entire bureaucracy, and things began to happen very fast indeed. On July 31, 1964, less than two months after the accident and an incredible nine and a half months from the Lear Jet's first flight, FAA Administrator Najeeb Halaby personally flew to Wichita to present the type certificate to Lear, beating the Jet Commander by over three months to the title of first business jet.
But of greater significance in the long run was Lear's success in meeting the important design objectives. The Lear Jet's empty weight was an amazing 6,150 pounds. The Jet Commander weighed over 1,000 pounds 'more empty, and its gross weight was 16,000 pounds, versus the Lear Jet's 12,500 pounds-an important difference since they both used the same engines,- The Lear Jet went out the door for under $600,000; for that money, there wasn't another airplane flying that could touch it.
Demonstrator airplanes began criss-crossing the country, dazzling the rubes, setting new records, leaving in their wake impressive statistics and stories that made the airplane seem nothing less than a Century Series fighter in disguise. Pilots found the airplane easy to fly-once they caught up with it-but were quick to allow that it was indeed "a hot ship"-thus becoming willing propagators of the growing mystique.
The airplane generated great interest, partly on its own merits and partly because Lear kept it in the news. Yet the pleonastic emphasis on the airplane's exhilarating performance was perhaps the first indication of error in Lear's thinking. The average corporate passenger, accustomed to the performance of piston-powered aircraft, was hopelessly unprepared for a first flight in a Lear Jet. The salesman would put the company's chief pilot in the left seat, then, gleefully demonstrate a straight-up departure while in the rear, the glow from the boss's white knuckles lighted the cabin. The airplane's radical looks and performance, along with Lear's maverick reputation, on, probably put off as many customers as they attracted, and most of the early Lear Jets were sold to individuals very much like Lear.
Meanwhile, Lear Jet Inc. became a publicly owned corporation, allowing Lear to sell stock, which provided a badly needed infusion, of operating capital Faced with backlog of orders Lear increased production to 10 airplanes per month. While the plant was being expanded he began work on recertifying the airplane under Part 25 (` this later became the Model 24)-, developing a stretched version (the Model 25), as well as designing a mini-airliner that could carry up to 40 people.(the Model 40, which never progressed beyond the mockup stage).
For Lear, it was business as usual. But his radiant optimism could not hide the fact that the entire operation rested on still-shaky foundations. One particularly troublesome area was marketing. Lear's much-touted vision became strangely myopic when it came to selling his very specialized airplane. And in the absence of a better plan, a hodgepodge of distributors and dealerships arose, working within overlapping territories and competing as much with each other as with other manufacturers. Lear failed to come to grips with this long after it became obvious that they were not selling 10 airplanes per month.
The situation became further strained when within six months beginning in the fall of 1965 three Lear Jets crashed under disturbingly similar circumstances each was climbing through inclement weather when the pilot inexplicably lost control of the airplane. It was later determined that one accident had been caused, purely by pilot error but enough circumstantial evidence accumulated around the other two to at least point a finger of suspicion at the electrical system and a flaw that, under the proper conditions, could knock out the gyro instruments. The FAA, having nothing better to go on ordered a fix that was subsequently made standard; meanwhile Lear, who had not a kind word in a hundred for the FAA came up with his own fix based on the theory that water freezing in the elevators would unbalance the surfaces resulting in catastrophic flutter. Between the two-or perhaps in spite of them--the pattern of accidents--was never repeated. The damage to the airplane's reputation, however, took, far longer to repair and the accidents became yet another element that soon turned the backlog of orders into a surplus of unsold airplanes.
Even so, a healthy company could have survived all this, Yet Lear continued to operate as he always had--undaunted and unflappable, diversifying when he should have retrenched, convinced that if he just moved fast enough, the Lear legend would somehow both sustain and protect him.
And so a corporate catharsis disengaged William P. Lear from his creation and in so doing ended an era. The free-wheeling halcyon flavor that characterized the operation from the beginning gave way to sound business practices, personified by Charles Gates and associates, who viewed the Lear Jet as a capitalist tool ― no more, no less ― and which was exactly what was needed,
Credit Gates with the fact that the airplane is today the world's most successful business jet, with more than 800 various models delivered. Credit Lear; however, with the fact that it is the cliché bizjet, metaphor of a life style, bauble' of the rich as well as indispensable tool of enterprise, the standard - fairly or no - against-which all others are judged.
Today, Lear Jet Model .23 serial number 002 - the airplane Lear flew to the Reading Show - hangs in the Smithsonian, suspended forever in flight, a symbol not only of America's first business jet but of that uniquely American phenomenon William P. Lear.•
"Simplicity that came
perilously close to
Lear's fanatical preoccupation with weight are perhaps
the two most often-heard reasons for the Lear Jet's success."
[To see a Lear Jet 23 in flight click here.]