Electronic Design
William Lear: Aviation Legend Makes Waves In Audio, Too

William Lear: Aviation Legend Makes Waves In Audio, Too

Lear (2005)

Don't tell your children this—William Lear left school in the eighth grade and joined the Navy at age 16. Then after World War I, he learned to fly.

Partly from those experiences, the designer of the Learjet piloted his genius to create electronic inventions that made an impact on the radio, aviation, and sound industries.

Most commonly associated with corporate jets, William Lear earned more than 100 patents for aircraft radios, communications, and navigation equipment before he died in 1978 at the age of 75. His most groundbreaking inventions are the radio compass and autopilot in airplanes, as well as a workable car radio. He's also credited for the beloved eight-track tape player.

Lear's commercial creativity began when he was only 20. That's when he founded his first company, Quincy Radio Laboratory, and invented the first practical automobile radio. This nonbattery home radio receiver had a built-in speaker. Two years later, in 1924, he sold the radio so it could be mass-produced.

The buyer was Galvin Manufacturing Corp., later called Motorola Corp.—short for "motor victrola." It was the new company's first major product. Lear followed this invention 10 years later with the universal radio amplifier design. RCA subsequently purchased it for use throughout its line of radios.

Once World War II began, airplanes grabbed Lear's attention. He created two new companies, Lear Corp. and LearAvia Corp. Lear saw how important it was for pilots to know where they were flying regardless of visibility. Using his radio knowledge, he invented the first reliable aeronautical radio compass and an automatic pilot system. This "Learmatic Navigator" kept planes automatically on course by locking into radio broadcasts. Its value was recognized with the prestigious Frank M. Hawks Memorial Award.

Lear's companies supplied more than $100 million in equipment for World War II Allied military forces. Many experts say his inventions and other advances helped secure the Allied victory.

Award-winning automatic landing

The war came to an end, but Lear's innovations did not. His next developments were the miniature autopilot for fighter jets and the first fully automatic landing system. He created the latter by adding an approach coupler to the lightweight autopilots so pilots could land in low-visibility conditions.

President Truman awarded Lear the 1949 Collier Trophy for development and production of the Lear F-5 Automatic Pilot and Automatic Approach Control systems. Shortly thereafter, the technology was transferred to passenger planes in the Caravelle jetliner. That led the French government to honor Lear in 1962 for making possible the firstever completely automatic blind landings of passenger flights.

Lear tried to retire, but it didn't stick. In 1959, he emerged from his retirement in Switzerland to create the Swiss American Aircraft Company (SAAC) and the product that carries his name. He wanted to develop a small, luxury corporate jet that could fly in and out of small airports, offering great flexibility to corporate leaders. The single-seat Swiss strike fighter prototype, the FFA P-16, was the inspiration for this new undertaking.

With the help of Swiss aircraft designers and engineers, Lear transformed the fighter's wing and basic airframe design to the now famous Learjet 23 Continental. However, he ran into problems with suppliers and production tooling in Switzerland. So he created a new company in 1962, Lear Jet Industries, and moved the new aircraft's assembly to Wichita, Kans.

A test aircraft flew 167 times and accumulated 194 hours before a Federal Aviation Administration pilot crashed it. (The pilot had overlooked the retraction of the jet's lift spoilers.) A second prototype was soon built, and the FAA officially certified it on July 31, 1964. Chemical and Industrial Corp., a company from Cincinnati, Ohio, purchased the very first Learjet and received it on Oct. 13, 1964.

Successful publicity

Lear wasn't one to keep his invention grounded. In 1965, he authorized several flights designed to capture publicity. Pilots John Conroy and Clay Lacey along with five passengers flew a Learjet 23 round-trip between Los Angeles and New York in 11 hours and 36 minutes. A few months later, pilots Henry Beaird and Ronald Puckett and five others flew to an altitude of 40,000 ft in seven minutes, 21 seconds, making it faster than an F-100 Super Sabre fighter jet.

Though the Learjet 23 was a quick commercial success, pilots found it very challenging to fly. So Lear designed the Learjet 24, improving the lowspeed handling and increasing range, size, and speed. Once again, Lear demonstrated his plane's ability with worldwide publicity. From May 23 to May 26, 1966, the Learjet 24 circumnavigated the globe in 50 hours and 20 minutes, simultaneously making or breaking 18 world records and becoming the first business jet to accomplish the feat.

The Learjet was ideal for target towing, photosurveying, and high-altitude mapping, but it eventually faced tough competition. Initial operating losses were hard to overcome. Gates Rubber Company of Denver, Colo., bought Learjet in 1967. Bombardier, a Canadian corporation, has produced the jets since 1990, under the name of Learjet Inc.

The perfect endless loop

In the 1960s, Lear developed the eight-track tape player with four stereo programs. Each program ran in parallel on eight tracks for the entire length of a single, continuous tape loop. When a solenoid coil detected the splice where the loop was closed, it sent a signal to the playback head. This shifted it over to the next pair of tracks.

In the 1970s, Lear returned to small aircraft. He designed the Canadair Challenger and sought a way to develop an antipollutant steam engine. He also worked on the Lear Fan, built totally from composites, but he died before it could be completed. The same thing happened with an antipollution steam engine.

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