BILL LEAR: Stormy Genius Roiled with Radical Ideas!

By: Mike Sion.

 RIFE magazine


Fat in the bank with nothing to do, It was 1967. The inventor whose patents included the car radio, autopilot, eight-track tape and lightweight executive jet had sold his interests in Learjet Industries. Boredom was worse than death!

So when an associate suggested Bill consider developing a steam engine for automobiles—Lear leaped. He’d be the man who ended air pollution! Soon after, Lear learned hundreds of acres in Nevada were for sale, cheap, on the former Stead Army Airbase.

Lear’s wife, Moya, wanted to settle into their home in Beverly Hills, and let the family enjoy some stability. But Bill was amped up. Within months they’d moved to a 40-acre spread in Verdi , Lear leased some 2,000 acres at Stead with an agreement to buy from the City of Reno. The land could be sold to developers; but Lear’s focus was setting up Lear Motors Inc., to produce a steam-powered engine to replace the internal-combustion engine.

He committed $10 million and 200 engineers set to work, with Lear promising ‘an enormous breakthrough!’ People believed him.

Riding Radio Waves to Success.

Breakthroughs were what William Powell Lear lived for. Like many driven geniuses, he was monomaniacial.

Born June 26, 1902, in Hannibal, Mo. he’d been an only child raised in Chicago by a domineering mother. His father was an unsuccessful businessman, which just repelled the ambitious Bill, He tinkered at home with electricity and anything mechanical, withstood his mother’s ridicule, quit school after the eighth grade and repaired radios for cash,

At 16 he joined the Navy, learning radio electronics. At 22 his inventing career took off. He developed the B-battery eliminator, allowing radios to be powered by household electricity. Then he set sights on a practical radio for automobiles. He and a partner made radio coils half the standard size and sold their patents to the company that later became Motorola,

At 29, Lear bought a plane . Frustrated at following railroad tracks to find airfields, he developed a radio direction finder. He continued revolutionizing aviation, developing autopilots and an automatic landing system.

Lear’s weakness? A tempestuous nature that made it real difficult to work for him---—or live with him, Divorced thrice (with three children), he had no anchor. The instability was solved after he met Moya Marie Olsen—a thin, big-hearted girl 12 years younger who was the daughter of “Ole” Olsen of vaudeville’s Olsen & Johnson.

Christmas Eve 1938, Lear went backstage at Olsen & Johnson’s Broadway revue

“Hellzapoppin”’ and asked Moya out. He took the lonely 23-year-old to the Stork

Club. His charm, harmonious voice, and dancing prowess swept her away.

Moya, a great listener, became Bill’s confidante, They married in 1941 and she bore four children: John, Shanda (pun suggested by Ole), David and Tina. Without Moya’s gravitational center, Bill would have crashed and burned before launching his latter inventions.

During World War II, Lear’s companies raked in $100 million in defense orders and his automatic pilot sealed his fame. Connected to his mercurialness was his penchant for mischievousness. One time he, Moya and son David were flying in Lear’s Beechcraft over Nevada. Lear, engrossed in perfecting his autopilot, realized he was in a military zone. Air Force fighters were closing in. He switched on the autopilot, put David in the pilot’s seat and he and Moya ducked out of sight.” When those jet boys came over for a closer look and saw a 3-year-old boy at the controls;’ Lear recalled, “I thought they would go right through their canopies:’

It’s a miracle Moya never put a sharp object into, or through , Bill, given his unbridled libido. During Prohibition he’d offered ladies glasses of scotch in his office then diluted the whiskey at the water cooler.... ,that contained colorless grain alcohol, Having perfected the autopilot, he’d initiate companions into the mile-high club,

Moya showed saintly tolerance, He’d confess flings, waking in the morning to say, ‘Goddamn, I did it again.” Moya decided a gander’s needs differed from a goose’s . There was no other way to stay married to a man who could be most considerate one day, cruel the next. Anyway, she loved him.

In 1960, Lear saw the demand for a fast jet for executives, He sold Lear Inc. and founded Learjet. The twin-engine, sound-proofed, eight-seat Learjet cruised at 518 mph and dominated its market by 1967.

In 1964, Lear developed the eight-track -cartridge and player for his Learjet. The consumer version showed up by 1965 in Fords. What seemed a Midas touch really was the result of uncanny vision and perseverance. The secret of success;’ Lear said,”is really hard work. It won’t happen by itself:’

Lear trusted that whenever he needed inspiration he could unleash his imagination into the universe and retrieve a brainchild. A UFO website suggests Lear’s eight- track tape and Learjet originated from secret government information gleaned from aliens. But no extraterrestrial help could rescue Lear’s quest to develop a low- emissions cxternal-combustion engine.

Lear Motors’ engineers toiled to perfect a steam boiler to heat a chemical solution and power a six-cylinder engine. They settled on a steam turbine using kerosene, but their bus model could never top six miles per gallon. The 1974 oil embargo and price escalation killed Lear’s project.

Fearing financial ruin, he unleashed his imagination again. The result, another business jet: the LearStar 600, which Canadair bought. Lear was soaring again. His next baby: an executive jet named the Lear Fan’ for its tail-mounted propeller powered by two turboprops. The fuselage was constructed from lightweight composites. It would cruise at 400 mph, get 12 miles a gallon and use a third the fuel as the Learjet. Lear gambled $25 million, but he never saw the Lear Fan fly.

Succumbing to leukemia in 1978, his last words to Moya concerned the Lear Fan: “Finish it, Mommy:’ After he died, the quiet woman who’d stitched needlepoint,

hosted dinners and raised four children gamely donned the mantle of chairwoman of LearAvia Corp.

The Lear Fan garnered 198 advanced orders, but ultimately failed FAA certification,

Officials said if the gear mechanism running the propeller failed, the plane would crash,

 Moya remained visible in Reno—white-haired, outgoing, husky voice lapsing into Broadway songs at benefits, She directed donations from the Bill and Moya Lear Foundation, including $1.1 million to buy a downtown church, now the Lear Theater; and 347 acres around Silve r Lake for a stop-over place for migrating birds, A concourse at Reno-Tahoe International Airport is named for the Lears,

Moya died in 2001, and—like Bill—is still missed,

                                                                        Michael Sion helped Moya Lear

                                                                        edit her book. Ill & Moya Lear:

                                                                        An Unforgetable Flight.


RLIFE magazine.

October 06, (pgs. 36-37)

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