Lear Jet - How Bill Lear built the Model 23

Numerous books have been written about Bill Lear and his Lear Jet, yet none have captured the real story of how this remarkable airplane came to life. Lear was such a colorful character that most writers end up repeating anecdotes that are entertaining but fail in their understanding of what it took to put this program together.

The site editor for aerotalk.com was there and provides this first ever first person account of the exciting days that gave birth to the airplane that changed business flying forever.

By 1960, William Powell Lear had already achieved a lifetime of accomplishments:

  • Inventor of the car radio and founder of Motorola.
  • Inventor of the airborne radio automatic direction finder.
  • Winner of the Collier Trophy for the design of the F-86 autopilot.
  • Converted the Lockheed Lodestar to a Learstar
    boosted the speed from 220 mph to 280 mph
    Increased range from 1,600 miles to over 3,000 miles

Not bad for a guy who dropped out of school with an 8th grade education. He was now running Lear Inc, a respected supplier of electro-mechanical devices for airplanes. When his board of directors balked at developing a new light jet, he sold his shares to Siegler (now Lear-Siegler) and went to Switzerland to build it himself.

A private Swiss company, Flug-und-Fahrzeugwerke Altenrhein (FFA) had developed the P-16 fighter jet in hope of selling it to the Swiss Air Force. After two of the prototypes crashed, the P-16 went into a holding pattern about the time Bill was looking for a place to build his jet. With the dollar at a very favorable exchange rate, it looked like a perfect fit.

At FFA, Dr. Hans Studer designer of the P-16 and his team of European engineers, launched into Bill's new airplane. Technically, they did a superb job. They borrowed the 8-spar wing concept from the P-16 and laid out the structure for Bill's SAAC-23 (Swiss-American Aircraft Corporation, Bill's 23rd iteration).

While much has been written about the 8-spar wing, it is only part of the story. Most airplanes utilize massive fittings for the wing-to-fuselage attachment. Dr. Studer used eight 3/8" bolts, 4 per side. Fail-safe testing proved only seven were needed to carry the loads. They were so strong, the design was still in use in later models even though the weight had nearly doubled. One secret, the bolts were in line, like a hinge, the center section of the wing was allowed to float. The reason was simple. No matter how stiff a wing is made, it will flex. Why try to restrain it, give it room to deflect.

And for those would be aircraft designers who might like to copy the design, don't do it without checking with the site editor. There are nuances in the design that goes beyond what can be described here.

The 8-spar wing has received all of the attention, but the 5-spar vertical was equally impressive. Three of the spars extended down deep into the tailcone mating with three canted bulkheads. It was very strong, very efficient and light in weight.

A keel beam ran from the nose gear back past the engine beams. It was the backbone of the airplane. The skeleton of this airplane was well conceived. The airplane was incredibly strong.

During static tests for certification, the Model 23 suffered only one minor structural failure, a small shear web in the baggage compartment. It was repaired within 24 hours, the test re-ran, the structure carried the loads. At the conclusion of structural tests for certification, there were seven failures of the static test rig making the score 7 to 1in favor of the airframe, much to my embarrassment as manager of the structural test program.

That is getting ahead of the story. Dr. Studer's aerodynamic reports based on his wind tunnel tests were text book. We may have not understood all of the words on his charts, but Cl max was maximum lift coefficient in any language, same for all of the nomenclature.

Design drawings were produced in ink. A time consuming process, they should last 50 years. Everything was well documented...production jigs were being fabricated. But, Bill came to the conclusion that at the current rate of progress, the airplane would never get built. Watching the nose gear effort was a clincher. A Swiss company that made watch parts had the contract to build the trunnion (the main fitting attaching the nose gear to the fuselage). It had 36 separate machining operations. In America, the trunnion would be made from a forging and have 3 machine operations. Something had to be done.

Bill hired Hank Waring who was Cessna' chief engineer for the Military Twin Division. Hank led the group that designed the T-37, the Cessna 310, 320 and 411. Waring in turn hired another 8-10 lead engineers in various areas such as systems, structures, engines and technical. He took his team to Altenrhein for a couple of months of familiarization before moving everything to Wichita.

Setting up shop in a vacant hangar, the lead engineers hired a second tier of worker bees mostly from Cessna, which is when I came on board as employee # 41.

So far Bill had made good decisions. The General Electric CJ-610 engine was proven. Its weight and fuel specifics known. Dr. Studer had a good basic design for the airplane that was backed by solid engineering analyses. Included in the reports was a weight estimate based on experience from the P-16. And now, Hank Waring with his team from Cessna who knew how to work together and had play books as to how to build and certify new airplanes.

One of the play books was a complete set of Cessna Design Standards that must have gotten stuck in one of the engineers brief cases when he left his previous employer. An invaluable resource and required for certification, this document details every procedure used in the manufacture of an airplane. The hundred or so subjects vary from how to prep various materials before paint, how to paint, how an acceptable rivet joint would look, what a flanged lightening hole would look like. To generate such a document would take years. It did not take long to replace the Cessna letterhead with one from Lear Jet.

After Bill decided to relocate in Wichita, things happened very quickly. The city provided 64 acres for the company and floated the first ever Industrial Revenue Bond for Wichita. A large metal building was erected and six months later, January 1963 we moved in.

Engineering was located in the balcony; there was only one office in the building and that was occupied by Mr. Lear. Office walls, Bill thought would impede communications between the designers. Drawing boards, slide rules or desk calculators were state-of-the-art tools (the prototype was nearly be ready to fly before the company acquired a computer. It was purchased to help in the loads and weights group).

Everyone worked long hours, 6-7 days a week, not because we had to but because we wanted to. Engineers were on weekly salary and received no extra pay. If Bill was in town, he would beat most of us to work in the morning and be there when we went home. We could not keep up with this "Old Man" (as everyone referred to him, but not to his face). It was not until 25 years later at a reunion for Lear employees in the California home of Bill's secretary June Shields, that she confessed he would take an afternoon nap in his office.

During this period, John Lear, Bill's son, played a key role without much credit. Every couple of weeks, he would produce a slick company newsletter. It tied the company together and focused everyone on the goal. To be doing something was one thing, to read about it in print made it real.

John's maternal grandfather was Ole Olsen, a famous vaudeville comedian. To handle crises over the years, his family had developed a battle cry, "Sound the bugles and CHARGE".

It wasn't enough to name the newsletter "CHARGE", on Friday afternoons around 4 pm, booming over the loudspeakers came the thunder of hoof beats, the sound of the bugle, and then a resounding "CHARGE!" Sophomoric? Perhaps. But it was a morale booster and made everyone feel like they were a part of the calvary.

With formal training in graphic arts design, John also designed the logo for the company. It would remain in use until Gates Rubber replaced it with the "flying mop", designed by a high priced California ad agency, Carson-Roberts. For historical reference, it was C-R who changed the name of the Lear Jet aircraft to the Learjet. And if you are interested in some real trivia, it was C-R, when they were based in Chicago, who helped Hugh Hefner launch the first issues of Playboy.

When Bill came to Wichita, he hired Jack Graham, a local pilot to fly his Learstar. The aircraft was in the Air Transport Category and required two pilots. When Jack asked who the second pilot would be when Bill was not on board, Bill said "you know how to fly the plane don't you? I'll pay the fine if you get caught."

Keep in mind, in 1962 we don't have e-mail, the wide spread use of FAX machines would not happen until 20 years later, the airlines were mostly flying Connies and Electras, Fed Ex did not exist, UPS did not have any airplanes, the best the airlines would guarantee was 3-days for an air shipment, the Interstate Highway system was not very well developed. The Learstar performed all of these rolls.

One just can't overstate how important the Learstar was to the success of the Lear Jet program. As Bill's funds began to run short, he would make frequent trips to New York or Jack would be dispatched to pick up the money people and bring them to Wichita. If not headed East, Jack would be headed West. California was a treasure trove of aviation firms, Bill had key friends in most of them. Since the Lear Jet was not in competition with these West Coast companies, he could access experts in every field for free; his friends were happy to help out.

It was on one of these trips that one of the most fateful decisions for the airplane was made.

While it was an impossible goal, somebody decided the prototype should fly on Mr. Lear's birthday, June 26, 1963. A large sign counting down the days before first flight hung near the door of engineering. You went to the bathroom you checked that number, you went home at night you checked that number, it drove us all. That number was down in the fifty's when Bill went to California for more consultations.

At Douglas Aircraft, one of his friends asked him what he intended to do about sonic fatigue. Bill shot back " what is sonic fatigue?" At that point the airplane had a cruciform tail. The horizontal stabilizer was about half way up the vertical tail and the energy coming off the jet exhaust would impinge on the horizontal and cause premature failure due to fatigue. Bill got second opinions that evening, woke Jack up at his Santa Monica motel with orders to get the Learstar ready for an immediate departure for Wichita.

The prototype was well along in the assembly process, tooling existed for the cruciform tail, the company was very short on cash, and investors had agreed to put up more money once the prototype flew. As the Learstar neared Wichita we were at work, one day closer to the scheduled first flight; Jack radioed in that all engineering managers should be in Bill's office when the Learstar hits the ramp. Something big is up!

Bill already knew what he needed to do, convert to a T-tail...he wanted to know how fast the change could be made. Both the vertical and horizontal had to be re-designed, the control system re-designed and a stick-pusher system would now be required to keep the airplane out of a deep stall configuration. Another significant change was to add servo-trim to the horizontal stabilizer and eliminate the trim on the elevator.

The June first flight date was out; it would be October before the plane would fly. It was a correct decision, it was a gutsy decision and there was not the slightest hesitation on Bill's part to make that decision.

The tail change enhanced the already sleek lines of the Lear Jet. An important aspect to Bill. Even today, one could take a 40 year old Lear Jet, give it a new coat of paint and put it next to a new Cessna or Beech jet just off the line. The Lear Jet would win the beauty contest hands down.

Bill Lear was involved with every aspect of the program...nearly every design decision in the program. After everyone had gone home, it was typical for Bill to visit every drawing board and review the days work. He would pencil in changes or leave notes. One of his biggest concerns was weight. He knew the success of the airplane was dependent on keeping the weight out of each individual part.

Some engineers resented his involvement. It caused a lot of problems...it caused a lot of turnover. He had a clear vision of what he wanted and he was not going to let an engineer's ego or feelings get in the way. Any engineer who went out the door, could be replaced in a matter of days, it was nice to be in Wichita.

Change was constant. Ed Schmued the acknowledged father of the P-51 Mustang and a consultant to Bill in the early days, told Bill that on the Mustang, they never spent more than five minutes on any decision and never re-visited those decisions. Bill did not follow that advice. He was always making changes, it made the airplane tough to put into production.

When a drawing was released, small changes were made by DCN's (Drawing Change Notice), a handy printed form on standard typewriter sized paper. Some drawings would have a stack of DCN's a half-inch thick. It was hard to build to these drawings...hard for quality control to inspect to these drawings. These were procedural aspects that Bill was really not attuned to, he just wanted the best possible airplane.

One might compare the program to a symphony orchestra. Bill was the conductor; Hank Waring had put the musicians in place. Bill could not play the instruments but he knew the sound he was looking for. And if there was a musician who was not quite in tune, he was out the door. They should have put a revolving door in the office to personnel. Apart from the first group that signed on, the turnover from later arrivals was quite high.

Take Jim Griswold for instance. Jim came from Cessna and was highly regarded, one of the best engineers Cessna had to offer. When he came on board, Bill and Jack were out of town. A dense fog lasting several days delayed there return.

Without any direction, Jim decided the airplane would be better off with a one piece door rather than the two piece clam shell and started with the re-design. Jim pitches this to Bill on his return and that was the beginning of the end for Jim Griswold at Lear Jet. He went on to become the father of the Piper Malibu and created his own piece of aviation history.

Glenn McCormick was another. At Cessna he scheduled the 411 program down to the day and hour the prototype would fly...absolutely one of the best and most knowledgeable program managers in General Aviation. When the Lear Jet program seemed to be floundering with organizational and schedule problems, Mac was brought over. He was soon back at Cessna, there was no way anyone could manage or schedule a Bill Lear program.

Sam Auld

One who did connect with Bill was Sam Auld. Sam came from the West Coast where he had worked on autopilots and electronic systems. Even though Bill lacked Sam's formal education, the two spoke the same language and had enormous respect for each other. They may have even been friends, unusual for the narrowly focused Bill Lear.

At Lear Jet Sam had a big job. The airplane needed a yaw-damper, nose-wheel steering, stall warning system, stick-shaker, stick-pusher, trim systems and later a full 3-axis autopilot. The two of them knew how to design these components, knew how to build them.

Bill had another resource for many of these type of components which would speed development of the aircraft in the early stages but prove to stain the reputation of the company once the aircraft got into the production.

Palley Surplus in California sold surplus equipment. Much of it salvaged from military airplanes before they were melted down to make beer cans. Items that Bill had sold to the military for big bucks were now in cardboard boxes gathering dust. Hydraulic components, servos, gyros and the like, could be purchased for little more than the scrap value of the metal. It was all built to military standards, most everything could be reconditioned and made as good as new. The Learstar brought tons of this equipment to Wichita; new Lear Jets rolling off the line had many components that came from Palley Supply.

During the first couple of years of service, three Model 23's crashed due to unknown causes. The use of surplus components became an issue or as competitors would say, the aircraft was built using "junkyard components". It put a wet blanket on sales about the time manufacturing was getting the production line moving. Fortune 500 companies shunned the Lear Jet, some even putting out edicts that company executives not fly in Lear Jets owned by other companies. This did not change until Gates Rubber bought the company and was able to provide assurance that surplus equipment was no longer used.

Another series of events provide another glimpse into the working of Bill Lear. The early Model 23 aircraft had seven electric fuel pumps. Two in each wing, one in each tip tank and one in the fuselage fuel tank. From day one they had a high failure rate. In spite of the fact they were of new manufacture, the high failure rate was known in the market place and did not help the image.

Electric fuel pumps were Bill's area of expertise, airborne electro-mechanical components. Months went by, all manner of testing took place but no one could figure out why the pumps were failing. Finally on one of his trips to the West Coast he learned of a jet pump system used in military aircraft that had no moving parts. It relied on excess fuel volume produced by the engine driven fuel pump that was routed in a small line to the fuel tank and the jet pump. It would pick up more fuel and return to the engine in a bigger line.

Bill learned the Ronson Company (yes, the same company that made cigarette lighters for your coffee table) made jet pumps for the military. He contacted them, asked for a jet pump for testing and a quote for a production order. They complied with both requests. The pump worked fine...the price would be about $4,000 each. An outrageous price for an item with no moving parts. It took less than a week for Bill, the engineers and machinist to design a small casting, a screen to keep debris out of the pump, and two standard AN hydraulic fittings, one modified on a lathe to convert it to a nozzle. The cost in production, about $200 each. Four of the seven electric pumps could be replaced by Bill's jet pumps.

Post script to the story:

About the time Bill was getting the jet pump designed, somebody figured out why the electric pumps were failing. The brushes were backed by a single spring. There was a resonant frequency in the airplane that would excite the brush...cause it to vibrate...cause it to arc and burn. The fix was simple. Back the brush with a second spring. Now no single resonant frequency could excite the brush. The jet pumps stayed.

Lastly, one more key element was the FAA's involvement in the certification process. The lead region for General Aviation aircraft was in Kansas City. They gained that status through their activities with Beech and Cessna. Regulations of the day had a 12,500 lb cut off for small airplanes. One pound more and the airplane was in the Air Transport Category CAM 4b.

Bill wanted to certify under the Small Airplane Category. CAM 3 as it was known, was never intended to cover high performance jet aircraft, after all the 707 had only been in service a few years, the jet age was just beginning to evolve. The company and the FAA worked together to draw up a set of special conditions that borrowed from CAM 4b, items like two pilot operation, fail-safe/safe-life structure, loss of engine takeoff performance, nearly everything but a bird proof windshield.

Yet there was one item that proved to be very contentious. Part 4b required an opennable side window for the pilot. Bill thought it was an archaic requirement dating back to when piston engines were located on the nose and an oil line might break rendering any view through the window impossible. There was no easy way to put an openable side window in the airplane so Bill pressed on with no window. One afternoon Hank Waring was arguing the point with Jack Carran, the FAA chief in Kansas City when Bill walked up. Bill said he wanted to talk to Carran so Hank handed Bill the phone.

Bill used all of his rational arguments, Carran did not budge. He got louder, angrier and redder in the face until Carran finally said, "Bill, go open your front door and I will be able to hear you better". Bill finally told him "I am not going to put an _______ openable window in the windshield, and if you want to go to bat, step up to the plate!" Carran got the message, the requirement went away.

On the working level, the FAA was very helpful, very cooperative. It got even better after the prototype crashed during certification testing with an FAA pilot in the left seat. During a series of touch and go's, the spoilers were inadvertently left extended during take off. The airplane struggled to get airborne, cleared a road, then settled back to the ground, belly landing into an open field. The pilots walked away, the airplane was destroyed by fire. It was a godsend for the program:

  • Bill protested to Washington and received some sympathy that manifested itself into even better FAA cooperation.
  • The airplane was fully insured. The company desperately needed the money.
  • The airplane had little value as a test airplane since it had been rushed into flight and could never have been updated with all of Bill's latest changes.


When Bill decided to build the airplane in Switzerland, the driving factor was the favorable exchange rate and the capabilities of FFA.

What he got for his money was a brilliant advanced design project, solid aerodynamics and a very strong and efficient structural concept.

He did not find a company capable of getting the job done.

When Bill hired Hank Waring and his team from Cessna, he got a nuts and bolts kind of group who knew how to build airplanes.

Had the Cessna team been tasked to develop the original design, the airplane would have probably been a failure. Collectively, they were not in the same league as Dr. Studer.

The Cessna team did not have the experience with advanced systems such as yaw dampers, stick shakers and pushers, electric nose wheel steering. With Bill Lear and Sam Auld, it was, been there...done that!!!

From the major tail change to the thousands of minor changes, the question of good luck or good decisions blurs.

What is crystal clear however are the facts:

  • Bill was involved in the project
  • Bill was engaged in the project
  • He believed in what he was doing
  • He bet his and his family's fortune on the project
  • He was fully committed to the program's success

Bill Lear anecdotes You Haven't Heard
Engineering Roster, November 16, 1962
Engineer Salaries - 1962
Where did you go Jack Armstrong?
If You Can Do a Better Job it's Yours
Engineer to Copywriter, One Not So Easy Lesson
Bill Landers, Production Ramrod
Evolution of the RoadRunner
The T-Shirt King
Lear Jet Stereo 8
You Don't Get a Second Chance With Bill
Lear Jet Pilots Retrain Air Traffic Control
The Icing Tests
The Accidents
How Bill Lost the Company
Moya Lear and the Big Payoff