AL LOOKS BACK

Traveling with Bill Lear was
always a memorable experience

By Al Higdon
Former Beech and Learjet Communications Executive
Cofounder of the Sullivan Higdon & Sink Ad Agency


This photo of Bill Lear in front of 7 of his Learjets was taken in early 1965 to demonstrate that company production lines were indeed flowing and Learjet intended to compete aggressively in the business jet industry.

A few of our own airplanes became available for Lear Jet company travel in late 1964. Into 1965, Bill Lear, recently type-rated, was often airborne in one of them to attack a looming problem or take advantage of an upcoming opportunity.

I was with him on a number of those trips. And though those days are now more than 50 years ago, these excursions remain vivid to me. During those trips, 3 factors were constant: Lear was always in a hurry, the left seat was his, and we had to be prepared to have him tinker with all sorts of active avionics at FL 410.

In a hurry? Like his once firing up and taxiing out, dragging the still-plugged-in external power unit behind, with line guys frantically running and yelling after the airplane. The EPU connection was later quickly redesigned.

First-time passengers' eyes would widen as he would emerge from his seat up front, at cruise altitude, turn toward the cabin with cable wire from behind the instrument panel in one hand and a screwdriver in the other, heading towards them, ending by stretching out 10 feet of cable down the center aisle. These instances fortunately never caused a ripple in any flight, but company engineers did present him with a screwdriver featuring a constantly swiveling handle for Christmas one year.

Bill Lear was proud of the Learjet's 1-inch thick birdproof windshield, and would happily document its toughness to company visitors.

I still find myself cringing at the thought of my 1st time accompanying Bill Lear on a trip. Late in 1964 he had been invited to talk to the management organization of General Electric's West Lynn MA facility, where the Lear Jet's CJ610 engines were produced. I had only 1 previous flight in a Lear Jet but thought I pretty much knew the cabin protocol.

As we taxied to a stop in front of awaiting GE dignitaries, I took it upon myself to open the airplane's clamshell door, normally the copilot's function. First, I opened the top half outwardly, then disengaged the lever for the door's bottom half. The final step was to slowly release a cord to lower the bottom half of the door, keeping pressure applied to the cord.

But my grasp on the cord was faulty and the lower door plummeted downward, its cord pulling me right through the opening, onto the tarmac. Looking back from his left seat at his PR man awkwardly uprighting himself from the tarmac below the airplane, Bill Lear was not pleased.

Bill Lear earned his Learjet type rating late in 1964 at the age of 62. And when he flew, the left seat was his.

The 1965 NBAA was a major event for the fledgling Lear Jet organization. We were well into a banner year which later netted 80 deliveries – more than all other business jets combined. Lear was in his element. Our stock, which opened earlier in the year at $10, was now north of $80, and he was advising everyone within earshot to buy, because, he predicted, it was going to $300. Within a year it had plunged to below the original $10, before gaining once more.

Just as he was never with cash on hand, he didn't like to be bothered by convention trivia like a registration badge. Re-entering the show hall one afternoon I encountered the president of our company and a security guard engaged in a mini shoving match. At issue was the fact that Lear had attempted to enter the exhibition area naked of the necessary identification, to which the guard, who had not a clue who this guy was, had taken exception.

In time we were able to intercede with the proper ID and things quickly got back to normal. Life in the midst of Bill Lear could be pleasant, harrowing, joyous, unsettling. Never boring.

Al Higdon spent 12 years as a public relations executive with Beech and
Learjet before co-founding an advertising/pr firm that represented more than a dozen clients in aviation, including Learjet and Cessna, over a 25 year period before his retirement at 60 in 1996.