AL LOOKS BACK

Early days at Learjet were the best of times, and the worst of times

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


The Learjet 23 was developed out of a Swiss fighter-bomber, the P-16. Here, both ships are shown in Altenrhein, Switzerland in 1965.

Fifty years later, people still ask me, "What was it like, working for Bill Lear?" My response always has been, "They were 3 of the best years of my life but I wouldn't want to go through them again."

Bill Lear was everything you've heard that he was. Visionary. Brilliant. Mercurial. Controlling. Passionate. Demanding. Engaging. Funny. And much more. I came onboard his totally self-funded company in 1964, and up until he sold to it The Gates Rubber Company of Denver in 1967, it fit no previous mold in the annals of American business.

This Learjet prototype 1st flew on October 7, 1963. It was destroyed the following spring in a non-injury FAA test flight. When the insurance check covering the accident was received, Bill Lear said he had sold his 1st airplane for full list price.

The Learjet workforce was comprised of several hundred people drafted from some of the best engineers, production men and women, and other skilled workers from Wichita's existing aviation industry, augmented by a few others from elsewhere.

Company workers gather around the original Learjet in this 1963 photo.

Lear said, "If I was going to build cars, I'd go to Detroit. I'm building airplanes; that's why I'm in Wichita." His raiding of the local talent was not well received by managements at Beech and Cessna, who, along with Boeing, "owned" the town at the time.

The party line went from "He'll never build the airplane" to "If he builds it, it will never fly" to "If it flies he'll never get it certificated" and then to "If he gets it certificated, it'll never sell." So much for prognostications; Learjet number 3000 was just delivered.

Until 1967 the airplane brand and the company were identified as Lear Jet. Early company workers had a common mentality that it was "us against the world." This was for good reason—virtually no one outside the company gave the program much chance for succeeding.

Moya Lear was the calm, supportive counter-point to Bill Lear's controlling personality. And she was always the perfect hostess to the throngs of well-known celebrities who stopped into Wichita to visit and view the Learjet activities. Here she greets soon-to-be-President Richard Nixon in 1966 as Al Higdon (L) looks on.

Bill Lear projected himself into every facet of the company, but his passion was the airplane's design. Engineers once confronted him with the complaint that part of the fun in engineering was making decisions, and Lear was making all the decisions. "Fine," he responded. "You put up half the money and you can make half the decisions."

Making the name Learjet synonymous with "business jet"

Here are 3 stalwarts in early day Learjet management positions. From left: Bill Webster, a steady hand on finances as treasurer, including times when cash was very short; Don Grommesh, who joined Bill Lear in Switzerland, before Wichita, and rose to head of engineering; and Bill Landers, experienced manufacturing chief with history dating to WW II aircraft production. Others with major roles included Bill Sipprell, vice president and general manager, and Bill Eikenberry, head of sales.

Coming to work each day brought unexpected problems along with a few minor victories. My boss Jim Greenwood, director of public relations, and I, as manager of information services, had been charged by Lear to "make the name Lear Jet synonymous with the term business jet." That was our daily mantra, along with a few dozen other chores. But everyone at the company was also multi-tasking, working hard and, occasionally, partying hard too.

Learjet engineers claimed it was not unusual to return to their drawing boards in the morning to find their work riddled with new marks and lines, along with the initials WPL. A Learjet engineer once said, "You know, after thinking about it, Bill Lear was usually right."

Key players in that race to certification and initial deliveries included Bill Sipprell, vice president, number 2; Bill Webster, treasurer; Bill Eikenberry, head of sales; Don Grommesh, chief engineer, who had begun with Lear in Switzerland; and Bill Landers, production chief.

And there were so many other employees for whom Saturday was just another day at the drawing board or on the shop floor, and for whom a call from Lear might have them scurrying to the plant on Sunday as well.

One calming presence over what often was a scene of furious activity was Moya Lear, Bill's bright, warm-hearted, compassionate buddy-to-all wife. As our resident saint, she smoothed hurt feelings and sleepless nights when we felt like we were taking 2 steps forward and 1 step back. God bless her.

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.