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  • Writer's pictureMichael Kennedy

What You Didn't Know About Bill Lear

Bill Lear, known for designing the world’s first business jet more than 50 years ago, demonstrated his sales skills the same way he handled everything else — passionately.

On one occasion, a potential client was sitting in a Learjet mock-up (not unlike the Lear 45 in the image above and below) and he complained to Bill Lear that he couldn’t stand up. Bill Lear replied, “You’re absolutely right, and you can’t stand up in your f — ing Rolls-Royce, so if you want to be able to stand up, walk around, and fly three times slower, then buy yourself a DC-3.”

With the conversation over, the prospect ordered a Learjet!

I had the good fortune of meeting Bill Lear on December 31st, 1977. I was only 14 years old. Like any kid into planes and jets I thought the Learjet was the coolest thing in the sky… until I learned about his LearFan.

(Vintage image of the LearFan making its maiden flight. Photo credit: Torch Lewis)

At the time he was working on his final project: the LearFan 2100, (pictured above), a radical twin-engine, center-thrust, pusher prop-jet made almost entirely from composite materials (half the weight and twice the strength of aluminum alloy). Composite technology was highly advanced for the early ‘80’s when most aircraft were made of the more common aluminum alloy.

Lear’s goal was to make his prototype Lear Fan airworthy by December 31st, 1980. Its maiden flight, however, was on January 1, 1981. The British government, which helped fund the project, declared the LearFan’s first flight date “December 32nd, 1980” in honor of the late inventor’s hard work and determination.

Bill Lear knew I wanted to be a pilot. As young as I was, he still encouraged me to get my instrument rating. He wrote me a note on a slip of paper (above) during a New Year’s Eve party - note the writing... to reinforce his forward-thinking message. Five months later, at the age of 75, Bill Lear died of leukemia in Reno, Nevada.

Ultimately, only three LearFans were made, but Bill Lear’s composite technology revolutionized the field of aviation and is found in most airplanes and commercial aircraft today. A legendary inventor, businessman, pilot and salesman, Bill Lear was a true inspiration to this 14-year-old kid. I earned my instrument rating when I was a few years older and the LearFan continues to have a special place in my heart, along with Mr. Lear.

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