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William Powell Lear

William P. Lear

1902-1978

William P. Lear was born June 26, 1902 in Hannibal, Missouri. His love of aviation was born at Grant Park in Chicago where he volunteered as a "grease monkey" on the early mail planes. Dropping out of high school, he focused his energies on studying radios and by 1922, after serving in the U.S. Navy, he was in business for himself. He developed a "B" battery eliminator, created an advanced sound system, and introduced the automobile radio. In 1931 he purchased a bi-plane, learned to fly, and, observing the limitations of existing systems, became devoted to developing a radio guidance system for airplanes.

Lear applied his knowledge of electronics to aviation, designing and producing radio-operated direction finders and navigation systems, electronics, automatic controls, and fluid handling devices. Presiding as chairman of the board at Lear, Inc. from 1949 until 1962, Lear moved to Grand Rapids when the wartime demand for his direction finders, actuators and other components outpaced the capacity of his Piqua, Ohio plant. It was Grand Rapids where Lear developed and tested the F-5 autopilot, and it was for this contribution that Lear won the prestigious Collier Trophy in 1949.

In the late 1950s the design of the Lear Jet, a radical new jet-powered business aircraft, was born. Making its maiden flight in 1963, the Lear Jet completed a flight around the world in 1966, setting 19 records. Forming Lear Avia to develop jet aircraft, he initiated the design of the "Lear Fan," a revolutionary all-composites pusher passenger airplane.

Honors bestowed on Lear have included the Horatio Alger Award in 1956; the Golden Plate Award, Cresson Medal, and "Spirit of St. Louis" Award in 1972; and the Golden Omega Award in 1977. With more than 150 patents to his credit, Lear died in 1978 at the age of 75.

He was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame on July 22, 1978 and the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame on August 21, 1993 for his exceptional contribution to aviation through his entrepreneurship and development of radio-operated navigational systems and business jet aircraft. Noted for his love of a challenge and inventing genius, Lear did more for pilot safety than any other man of his era.

Smithsonian Institution Affiliations Program