Farewell Learjet

People have their stories about brushes with famous people. I’ve lived my life mostly in contact with ordinary folks, but grew up thinking that famous people were pretty much like the rest of us. NBC’s nightly news report featured Chet Huntley. We all know that he was an ordinary guy from an ordinary family. His dad worked for the railroad and was stationed in our town for a while. He graduated from high school in Whitehall and went to the University of Montana in Bozeman. The news show ended each night with an exchange between friends, “Good night David.” “Good night Chet.” They seemed like ordinary folks.

We didn’t know he would become famous at the time, but Dana Carvey lived in our town when we were kids. We have a picture of him playing in our backyard swimming pool.

Our family had hosted U.S. Senator Lee Metcalf in our home.

There was a story about our father’s meeting Howard Hughes that has been retold in so many different versions that I’m not sure of the details, but our father served as a flight instructor in California during the Second World War and somehow their paths crossed.

Our father had met Clyde Cessna, Walter Beech and Bill Piper and on at least two occasions bought airplanes directly from Bill Piper at the factory in Pennsylvania.

And we knew the story of Bill Lear, who not everybody can name as the inventor of the 8-track tape player. 8-tracks were the rage in car stereos when I was in high school and I had a portable 8-track stereo with a stack of cartridges. Lear was also on the team behind Magnavox “majestic dynamic speakers.” We didn’t have any of those in our house because our father was of the same build it yourself generation and our stereo had been assembled from a Heathkit. My father and one of his pilots were in Denver to see the first commercially produced Learjet. Of course they met Bill Lear face to face. The Learjet was a real breakthrough in 1963. It could carry eight passengers at over 550 mph and while it didn’t quite make the design goal of selling for half a million dollars, at $650,000 it was $400,000 less than any other jet aircraft on the market at the time.

Our father was growing his business at the time and expanding into farm machinery. The pilot who worked for our company was so impressed with the Learjet and with Bill Lear that he invested a big chunk of his savings in Bill Lear’s company. Five years later he was able to buy a new airplane and take the summer off to fly to Alaska. I don’t know how much he earned, but we thought he must have become rich from his wise stock purchase.

Growing up surrounded by airplanes and talk of airplanes, it seems a bit sad to know that the iconic Learjet will now go the way of the 8-track cartridges. Of course a few examples of both will remain in museums for generations to come, but Bombardier Aircraft, the current owner of the Learjet company has seen declining demand. Learjet will be discontinued as Bombardier concentrates on its Global and Challenger series of private jets.

Of course Bill Lear is no longer around. He was a risk taker who sold the company to Gates Rubber in 1967 in order to raise funds for other interests and projects. At the time he was working on closed circuit steam turbine cars and trucks to replace piston powered cars. The idea never came to fruition, which is why you never hear of Learium, a chlorofluorocarbon similar to Freon. It’s probably a good thing. Freon isn’t kind to the environment and Learium might have been just as dangerous.

No one in our family ever came close to considering owning a Learjet except in flights of imagination. We’ve figured out how to be very happy without access to the kinds of funds required for private jet ownership. But I did learn to identify a Learjet at the airport. I could tell the difference between it and the jets manufactured by the competition. And although it never made it to the market, I followed the development of the LearAvia composite airplane with a rear propellor that Bill Lear was working on at the time of his death of leukemia in 1978. I remember the year because it was the year we graduated from seminary and began our careers. We traveled with my parents that summer after graduation. My father speculated that Lear’s widow would see the certification of the LearAvia and it would go into production, revolutionizing aircraft manufacturing as much as the original Learjet had done. It was not to be. She sold her shares in the project and it was scrapped before the airplane was certified. It was ahead of its time. Decades later Beech went to production with the all composite, Burt Rutan designed Starship but that was a short-lived venture and those planes have now been relegated to museums. Composites have, however, revolutionized the aviation industry and are becoming common in commercially produced airplanes. It just took more time than we expected.

It turns out that Bill Lear had nearly as many wives as he had careers and I suspect that his personal life wasn’t as happy as some other people. He developed ulcers when he was in his twenties. He survived several lawsuits and charges of patent infringement. His most famous and successful projects had to be sold to others in order to raise money.

History will remember Bill Lear long after it has forgotten a lot of other folks who were a part of our lives. Some of his ideas will continue even though the Learjet is now being phased out. I have a lanyard with the Motorola brand and logo on it. It came from a meeting of the International Conference of Police Chaplains I attended a few years ago. Motorola produces portable radios used by law enforcement around the world. I don’t know for sure, but I might have been the only one at the convention who knew that the name Motorola was one of Bill Lear’s ideas. He came up with the name while on a road trip during which he and Howard Gates designed the first car radio.