Requiem For Aviation’s Hottest Image Enhancer


This could appear on a check ride, if your examiner watches too much YouTube: What do LR23, 8-track, and Frank Sinatra share? The answer without thinking, because I haven’t, is: They made the 1970s marginally tolerable. Each is connected to Bill Lear, who invented the Lear 23 personal/corporate bottle rocket in 1964 and channeled Alexander Graham Bell (discovered Bell Helicopter in 1876) by shouting from his lab, “Shanda (Lear’s daughter), come here. I’ve invented Learjets, making our name synonymous with glitzy air travel. Let Billy Piper keep his Cubs, Clyde Cessna his Skylarks, and Wally Beech his Musketeers. I’m goin’ Hollywood!” If your name’s Lear, what other career possibilities exist? King of Scotland? His favorite daughter, Cordelia, declined comment.

Ask theater majors to identify “Lear,” and they’ll respond: “All in The Family!” Sorry, that’s Norman Lear (b. 1922), who may have owned Learjets but didn’t invent them. Neither did Bill. No relation. William Lear (1902-78) invented or improved numerous technological hits, before he revamped the Swiss FFA P-16 fighter into the Lear 23.

Not that Norman Lear was an aviation slouch. As a B-17 radio operator/gunner in World War II, he flew 52 combat missions with the 15th Air Force and received the Air Medal with four Oak Clusters. Sinatra received an Oscar with almond clusters for portraying an Army private in Hawaii. Not the same.

Bill Lear gave the world Learjets after inventing the 8-track cassette tape, which made it possible to endlessly loop Sinatra’s “That’s Life.” Bolstering his aviation bona fides in 1965, Mr. Sinatra acquired one of Bill’s first LR23s—white with orange trim—and shanghaied rat packers to “Come Fly With Me” into the egosphere as the 1970s approached in a cultural dust storm.

Speaking of the 1970s—and we agreed after the 1981 PATCO strike, never to speak of them again—something evil this way comes from aviation’s closet. Not the leisure suit I wore to my 1979 FAA job interview but, instead, the ugly reality that leisure suits cost less today than 43 years ago, despite higher petroleum prices. Apparently, demand is low for clothing spun from the same plastics that cover airplanes. Price drops indicate deflation, a condition pilots might experience after not flying for months, then rushing through preflight in anticipation of slipping surly bondage, only to discover the Cessna’s nose strut has deflated.

Deflation in aviation economics is a shimmering Mirage, made less affordable as costs rise and product availability stalls. Longer ago than recently, I ordered a new engine mount for my 1974 Citabria (7ECA). I knew the price would be steep but reasonable in aviation terms. I’ve admired American Champion’s parts and tech support and was told to allow four weeks for delivery. Pages flipped off the calendar, and with that target now a memory, I’ve quit calling for updates and will reuse the old mount with new rubber bushings, until my ship comes in from Vladivostok. I know the part isn’t on a slow boat from Russia but might as well be, given its hostage status in the supply chain.

Econ 101 holds that scarcity levers prices up. That’s inflation, unlike when I inflate crosswind component to explain botched landings. Without checking markets, I’m guessing new Learjets cost more than in the autumn of Sinatra’s life. Such inflation doesn’t bother me since I’ll never buy any jet. There’s nowhere I need to be in a hurry, and even if I could afford a Lear, I lack the cool factor to arrive in style. But I have spent time around them, on the ramp and in the radar room.

Two things I learned about Lears: 1) Don’t spill Jet A on the captain’s leisure flying suit, as I did in 1978, because it will melt like the Wicked Witch of the Westwind, as polymers revert to their unnatural states. 2) In ATC, never make a Lear second. I’ll explain.

In my inglorious ATC career, I worked at two approach controls—Monterey, California (MRY) and Des Moines, Iowa (DSM). The latter was more challenging with its mix of airline, GA, military (A7s, F-16s, C-130s), and spit fire thunderstorms. Monterey tower/approach (TRACAB), by contrast, was laid-back with soothing coastal fog, mellow traffic, free tickets to the Jazz Festival (true), and cable TV in the tower, so controllers could watch PGA tournaments (also true). It was golf that attracted the periodic onslaught of Lears and Gulfstreams vying to be first, because celebrities headed for Pebble Beach waited for no one.

Payola aside, when given a string of arrivals, someone goes first and others follow with lip service to “first come, first served.” FAR 91.117 restricts most airplanes to 250 knots (IAS) below 10,000 feet. But 250 runs two miles-per-minute faster than 130-knot piston singles, giving jets the edge. Controllers issue speed reductions, but those aren’t instantly effective. Often, it’s best to snake Lears onto the ILS first and let ‘em rip. But thinking jets will always outrun props is a rookie trap, as I discovered when desperately trying to slow a hotrod Metroliner (twin turboprop shaped like a sharpened pencil) to follow a lumbering Boeing 737. I apologized to the Merlin after slowing it to unreasonable speeds.

Learjets have been in my aviation world since I first heard one depart from Teterboro Airport (TEB). Hands over my ears, I marveled at the sooty grandeur of this lawn dart, blasting across the Manhattan skyline. I knew GA’s future would burn kerosene, but mine needn’t. Let others get where they’re going in less time than it takes to mix a second martini, while I make unplanned stops for directions. That said, I was mildly saddened to learn that Bombardier will cease Learjet production, no doubt to resurrect the 8-track tape market.

Ending Learjet’s run won’t kill an icon or my aviation dreams (only the FAA has that power), because as Ol’ Blue Eyes crooned:

“I’m gonna roll myself up–

In a leisure suit–



My, my”

Other AVwebflash Articles


  1. I’m pretty sure that William Lear invented the 4-track tape prior to the 8-track tape. (I have some). He also helped Bob Galvin invent the car radio. Do you know where he’s buried ? No fair looking it up!

    • Sounds like the ubiquitous endless-loop tape cartridges (“carts”) that we used in broadcast radio stations, back then.

      They came in at least two form factors:
      One, about the size of an 8-track cart.
      Another, steroid-infused monster that was almost a foot square.

      The latter held 12 HOURS worth of audio, when recorded and played back at the cart machine’s slowest (of three) speeds.

      I remember a local restaurant (Friendly’s) that had a playback-only deck, and stack of 12-inch carts. Muzak for the hungry masses.

    • Lear invented the 8 track tape cartridge and player. Earl Muntz invented the 4 track tape cartridge and player.

  2. How sad that my own Learjet career is ending as the Learjet era is also ending. Even when (Lord willing) I’m flying roomier airplanes (with lavatories), I’ll always miss the Learjet.
    To Bill I say, “blue skies and tailwinds!”

  3. Hilarious. As I’ve written before, there’s only one other aviation writer I know of who can so expertly weave Shakespeare into his stories – and you’ve pipped him here. When it comes to humourous prose, you are the master of your craft, Paul. Bravo!

  4. Thanks Paul. Another fine column/story/rant. Raising a martini glass to Berge, who has transcended mere “writer”hood to… Humorist!

  5. Excellent. And, a Lear 23 is still it! I was surrounded by T-38s at my last USAF base in the mid ’60s. A Lear 23 came to the base for a demo. It and a T-38 took off simultaneous on the base parallel runways. They both, pointing almost straight up, had damn near the same climb rate, and a T-38 was no slouch. Maybe our base pilot throttled back just a bit for our guest, but still unreal watching the two max climb.

    • That doesn’t surprise me a bit. The T-38 and the Lear 20 series used the same engine (J-85 for the military, CJ-610 for the civilian). The T-38 did have an afterburner attached, which I think was just unfair. It was a fuel-guzzling engine down low, though, so I doubt they used the burners for long.

    • . . . Which made an appearance in the “Mission:Impossible” pilot, flying the team out of a fictional Latin American country while under fire from truck mounted .50 calibers.

      And for another famous Learjet, I give you Clay Lacy’s N1965L:

      First time I saw it was in the premier of “The Time Tunnel” in 1966, depositing a Senator on a dry lake bed in Arizona beneath which was a $8 billion time machine;
      Last time I saw it was in the finale of “Mad Men”, taking the Campbell family from (presumably) Teterboro to Wichita.

  6. And the original Learjets may have been weaponized once cheap to buy.

    As for 8-track tape cartridges, the technology was endless loop not number of tracks as such. Radio stations used them for short things like station ID/promos, commercials, even very popular songs. Usually a rack of a dozen or two near the announcer. But they were not reliable with heavy use, had to be refurbished or junked before oops! on air.

    • “Top 40” AM stations frequently used the cart machines for primary playback. They were actually pretty durable; most often an “oops!” was the beat-up cart itself rather than the machine. Ah, the old days 🙂

  7. 1934 was the year Lear filed for the patent for the car radio. His last project, the Learfan c. 1970. Bookend to a helluva career.

  8. There were/are cartridges and cassettes. The 8 Track was/is a cartridge with an endless loop. The other is a cassette. Big diffs! Both lost, in the end, to…..vinyl!

  9. Great article. I used to fly those Metros, even into Monterey. Redline was 248KIAS and our mantra used to be “248 to the gate”.
    The key to being a controller’s dream below 10 was not being able to fly fast but to slow down quickly, which is one thing that turboprops in general and Metros in particular do very well. Bring the throttles back to flight idle and those big geared props turned into barn doors and the pencil got dull very quickly. We could (and often did), cross the marker clean at 248 and still turn off mid field while the slick-jet “I can go down or slow down but can’t do both” drivers often start slowing 20 miles out for the requisite speed stabilized approaches.

  10. Read the book “Fly Fast, Sin Boldly” by Bill’s son. He explains in detail how Bill actually developed the jet. The 23 was simply his 23rd design effort and was not based on the Swiss fighter. He designed the tooling as production rather than developing a proof of concept hand built prototype. That gave him a huge leg up on his competition. Of note is the efforts of Lockheed and other manufacturers to lobby the FAA to withhold type certification. They failed, and failed.

  11. I was fine until he mentioned the Metroliner. He called it a Merlin but most of us who had to occasionally fly in one called it the “sewer tube”. It was similar to the WW II Martin B 26 (aka the Baltimore whore since it had no visible means of support) in that both the B 26 and the Metroliner had to have their wings lengthened to be marginally safe to fly in.

    • They did add wing extensions on the Metro III’s, but they left the ailerons where they were which left the control response and handling near cement truck category.
      From a pilot’s standpoint, the shorter wing versions were lighter on the controls, more maneuverable, and nicer flying overall IMO.

  12. Paul: I enjoyed reading your piece and, as you almost always do, you managed to weave in music references to the subject at hand. I believe you and I have traded music comments in the past and I’m also thinking that we might be close in age and therefore share some common musical touchpoints from our younger days.

    With that in mind, I give you this obscure blast from my past and a salute to Bill Lear’s flying creation:

    Sinatra it ain’t but perhaps you remember it? Keep up the great work!

  13. I’m surprised that you failed to mention the other Sinatra Learjet connection…..Frank’s mother was killed in one in January, 1977, a CFIT into the side of Mount San Gorgonio NW of Palm Springs.

    Aircraft failed to make a right turn as called for on the SID, leveled off at 9,000 ft [“Maintain nine thousand straight ahead?”] and dutifully flew into the side of the 11,500 foot peak, killing her and three others.