CORINTH INFORMATION DATABASE VERSION 1.3
(c) 1995 Milton Sandy, Jr.
The Life of Aviation's Maverick, Bill Lear
...What Lear needed in mid 1934 was a customer who would order a
direction finder and who would help bear the development cost. An old
friend, Roscoe Turner, gave him the opportunity he had been waiting for.
Turner asked Lear to design and build a radio receiver-
transmitter, intercom, and direction finder for the standard Boeing 247
transport he would fly in the MacRobertson International Air Race from
London to Melbourne, Australia, which the New York Times called "one of
the greatest races ever held in the world." Simply having equipment in
Turner's airplane, international race or not, meant publicity, for
Lear. Turner, who called himself Colonel (even though he wasn't one)
and who sported a waxed mustache and wore a pale blue uniform with
gleaming riding boots and a scarlet scarf as wild as the lion cub who
frequently rode with him, was an aviation institution. He had set a
string of transcontinental flying records, and his shelves were filled
with air race trophies. Although Turner had known Lear from the Glenview
airport days, he hired him principally because Reeder Nichols, his
radio man for the MacRobertson International, had suggested him. Nick,
of course, had built Radioaires for Lear along with Warren Knotts and
With a scant six weeks to design and build the gear, Lear put his
and Link's engineering team on the project in shifts around the clock.
The radio receiver operated on sixteen different frequencies; the
transmitter delivered 160 watts. Whenever he couldn't get out to his
Waco at Roosevelt Field on Long Island, Lear tested the direction finder
from his Plymouth sedan, driving around Manhattan. As takeoff day
approached, Turner and his copilot, Clyde Pangborn, who (with Hugh
Herndon) had flown the first nonstop flight between Japan and the
continental United States in 1931 in a Wasp-powered Bellanca, were the
only fliers with a direction finder in their ship. Laura Ingalls, the
U.S. race coordinator, had written to the Army Air Corps to ask if it
would equip each U.S. plane with a Kruesi radio compass, but the Air
Corps told her it had no spares, thus passing up the opportunity to have
its equipment tested under tough flying conditions.
Before he left for London, Nichols promised Lear he'd radio
messages to him during the race whenever he had the chance, so it was
with great anticipation that Lear waited for the morning of October 2,
In all, there were twenty planes, from Australia, Britain, Hol-
land, and the United States, competing for the $50,000 purse sponsored
by MacPherson Robertson, an Australian businessman who called the race
to commemorate Melbourne's centennial. The pilots had to make five
control-point stops along their 11,323-mile route: Baghdad, Iraq;
Allahabad, India; Singapore; and Darwin and Charlesville, Australia.
They could stop or refuel anywhere else they liked.
Early on the morning of October 2O, the planes took off into
overcast skies from the Mildenhall Aerodrome just outside London. Each
leg of the race was hazardous in its own way. Turner and Pangborn's huge
Boeing 247D, which United Airlines was using for its transcontinental
flights, bucked a fifty-mile-an-hour headwind all across Europe. "We
saw nothing from London to the Alpine peaks," Turner reported. "Then we
got a glimpse of the Adriatic." The Boeing touched down in Baghdad in
fifth place, well behind the sleek crimson de Havilland Comet piloted
by two Englishmen. Before the day was over, five planes had dropped out
of the race because of mechanical problems. Turner and Pangborn were
the only Americans still in the air.
On the second leg, Turner and Pangborn had to cross mountains
at night, and they ran into trouble when they flew 200 miles beyond the
airport over dense jungles, where every tree looked like the last. They
were lost. "When we saw our gasoline gauge showing zero," Pangborn
reported, we tried to keep up our spirits by joking about whether we
would be killed by crashing into the jungle or be eaten by tigers."
Although the gauge didn't show it, the Boeing transport still had a
hundred gallons of gas. Reeder Nichols put the ship back on course by
picking up a radio beam from Allahabad on Lear's radio compass.
The third leg, to Singapore, was smooth. Two pilots in a British
Fairey Fox had crashed into the hills near Rome and were dead. Turner
and Pangborn were now running third.
The fourth leg of the race led them across shark-infested waters
at the southwestern tip of Borneo and across the Java and Timor seas.
During the two-hour flight along Borneo, Nick worked a list of radio
stations around the world, setting several world transmission records on
Lear's radio - KSF and KPH in San Francisco; KUH Manila; LGN in Bergen,
Norway; FOAL Marseilles; and the S.S. President Jackson, 1,000 miles east
of Yokohama, Japan.
One of the Boeing's engines faltered over the Timor Sea because
of a broken fuel supply line, and Turner and Pangborn had visions of
bobbing in the ocean, waiting for the great whites to come by for
breakfast. Instead, after waiting two hours for repairs in Darwin in
northern Australia, they took off across the Australian desert for their
last checkpoint at Charlesville. On the final flight, to Melbourne,
Nick radioed Lear thru San Francisco, 9,000 miles away: "On home
stretch ... arriving Melbourne at daybreak ... transmitter and receiver
Turner and Panaborn came in third, behind the two English men (C.
Scott and T. Campbell Black) in their de Havilland Comet and two Dutchmen
(J.J. Moll and K. D. Parentier) flying an American Douglas DC-2 transport
that TWA was using on transcontinental flights. The Englishmen had
streaked to Melbourne in 2 days, 4 hours, and 35 minutes, shattering the
old record of 6 days, 17 hours, and 45 minutes.
After eighteen straight hours of sleep, Nichols wrote to Lear
from Melbourne: "I want to express my thanks to the boys in the
laboratory and the shop for the thorough manner in which they mastered
every detail of the design and construction of what I honestly believe to
be the best equipment ever installed in an airplane. It is a great
source of satisfaction to me to know that among our other worries, I was
not bothered by the thought that my radio would let me down ...
"The direction finder worked beautifully, especially when coming
into Charlesville. This country is absolutely featureless and every mile
looks just like the last 1,000 miles you have passed, so it was great
to pick up bearings 450 miles away and run a chalk line over the jungles
until we hit Charlesville right on the nose. Never did the equipment
Like Commander Mcdonald, who once advertised Zenith radios as the
choice of explorers because he had sent a Zenith short-wave set on a
National Geographic expedition to the Arctic, Lear milked the
Turner-Pangborn 11,000-mile flight for every drop of publicity he could
get, printing their telegram and letters of congratulations and thanks in
his brochures. But the Army Air Corps still clung to Kruesi, and if they
followed the rough-and-tumble MacRobertson International, they never told
Lear. They merely placed an order for one Lear radio compass.
In January 1935, three months after the air race, Lear publicly
unveiled his direction finder, which he called the Learoscope. He had
become a master at public relations. NEWSWEEK did a major story on him
and his radio compass, the first on the market for the independent pilot.
Although the technology had been available for several years and
inventors in the United States and England had been working on it, Lear
was the first person to design a prototype that worked flawlessly and
consistently. Elements of the instrument could have been patented, but
without the money for a patent attorney to research radio compasses,
electrical circuits, and antennas, Lear did not file for any.
Technically, the Newsweek feature story "Radio Compass: Fly by
it and Listen to Broadcast Music" was sound; but it was filled wvith Lear
hype. Lear had told Newsweek that his company had "made a quarter of a
million" in Chicago on the Radioaire and that he had come to New York
because he was afraid he was getting "in a rut." In fact, he had fled
Chicago because he was dancing on the brink of financial disaster. If he
had sold $l00,000 worth of receivers there, he had been very lucky.
Lear also told Newsweek that he had actually worked on the Army
Air Corps' radio compass at Wright Field, and that had quit because he
had been "completely ostracized by Army pilots for his generous criticism
of their radio technique." It is not surprising that Geoffrey Kruesi
wrote an angry letter to the editor. "The fact is," he said, "Lear never
was employed at Wright Field so he could not have 'left.' Nor did he
ever work on the army radio compass. His sole connection with Wright
Field was that he built a compass at the order of the government, the
exact value of which has not yet been determined."
Around the same time that the NEWSWEEK full-page story appeared,
the NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE ran a piece about two Yale men, Dr. Richard
U. Light and Robert F. Wilson, who had just returned from a five-month,
40,000 mile, zigzag trip around the world in a Bellanca Seaplane with a
Lear five-band receiver. "We're just a couple of amateurs flying for fun,
experience, and firsthand information," Dr. Light told the HERALD
TRIBUNE. "And [we were] saved from bother by first-rate equipment. We
were never in difficulty, aloft or afloat. We particularly recommend the
two-way radio which functioned perfectly."
Soon after these two stories appeared, Lear talked World
War I ace Captain Eddie Rickenbacker into putting a Learoscope on an
Eastern Airlines flight from Miami to New York. (Rickenbacker was working
for Eastern at the time.) In a press conference after the flight,
Rickenbacker called Lear's direction finder "the most important air
navigation aid developed to date."
Turner, Pangborn, Nichols, Dr. Light, Rickenbacker, an
international air race, and a 'round-the-world flight - these were all
heady endorsements of Lear's radio and direction finder, but the Army Air
Corps still kept Lear at arm's length. So he took the next logical step.
He brought his direction finder to the Bureau of Air Commerce, which
wanted to improve private flying as well as commercial aviation and which
had been working on a radio compass for fifteen years without much
success. If Lear could get the bureau to endorse his radio compass, he
figured he would have a better shot at reaching the roughly 7,500 private
pilots in the country as well as the major airlines. He convinced
Director Eugene Vidal to commission the bureau to test his Learoscope to
see if it would be of any value to the private pilot. Vidal hired his
friend Amelia Earhart, for $1 a year, to fly Lear's direction finder
(slightly rebuilt according to bureau specfications) in her bright red
Lockeed Vega primarily to determine its possibilities as an air
navigation aid for private owners of aircraft." To draw Earhart as a test
pilot was a promotional coup, for the aviatrix- the first woman to cross
the Atlantic, one year after Charles E. Lindbergh- was a darling of the
media. Vidal asked her to make notes and observations to assist [the
bureau] to perfect the instrument."
The AIR COMMERCE BULLETIN described the purpose of the test: "The
[Lear] radio direction finder will simplify cross-country air navigation,
especially for the private flyer, if it measures up in practice to the
results obtained experimentally. Universal application is its main
advantage because there is always some type of radio station in operation
in almost every section of the country at all hours. Successful
application of the radio direction finder would contribute to the safety
of flight by helping to eliminate accidents brought about by airmen
straying from the plotted course."
At the invitation of the Mexican government, Earhart selected a
nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Mexico City as the first test. "I've
always wanted to visit Mexico but have never seemed to get around to it,"
announced Earhart, who had recently soloed from Hawaii to California. "I
will ... put in the Lear radio 'homing' compass that I am supposed to
test ... I intend to use it in this flight, thereby combining business
with pleasure, for I always loved Mexican music and all I'll have to do
is tune in on a Mexico City station, and use it just as though it were a
Lear couldn't have been more pleased. Earhart drew crowds of
tens of thousands wherever she landed around the world, and the press
reported her every flight. Besides, no one had ever flown nonstop from
Los Angeles to Mexico City. If she succeeded, Earhart would be setting a
new world record- with the Learoscope in her sporty little Vega.
To promote the Learoscope and his new two-way radio for small
airplanes, the Lerophone, Lear scheduled a cross-country tour that would
end in Los Angeles, where'd he'd deliver his radio compass to Amelia
Earhart, with a drum roll if possible. At each stop along the way Lear
hoped to demonstrate the Learoscope to airmen and to the local media, and
to talk to Bureau of Air Commerce radio operators (the bureau had
seventy-eight transmitting stations by then) on his Learophone. He was
counting on commercial radio stations in major cities asking for live
air-to-ground interviews with him. Although three or four giant
companies, like the Bendix Aviation Corporation (which had Purchased
Kruesi's patents) had radio compasses on their lab benches, they were
more interested in the lucrative military and commercial markets than in
the private fliers, most of whom could barely afford gas.... [pp. 69-75]
Source: Richard Rashke. STORMY GENIUS, The Life of Aviation's
Maverick, Bill Lear. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company,
Data transcription by: David M. Sandy, June 6, 1993.
Last Update: September 27, 1995
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