From Swiss Roots to American Wings: The Transformation of Swiss American Aviation into Lear Jet Industries

William “Bill” Powell Lear, Sr. (Credit Learjet)

Beginnings of Swiss American Aviation Corporation (1962–1963)

Bill Lear was a visionary, a dreamer who dared to dream big and aimed for the skies. He founded the Swiss American Aviation Corporation (SAAC) with a daring plan – to create a high-class, jet-powered airplane for personal and business use. During the phase of creation, the SAAC underwent several transformations, morphing into the Lear Jet Corporation and finally into Lear Jet Industries, Inc.

Navigating through numerous hurdles and investing a substantial $14.7 million (approximately $130 million today), Lear remained unwavering in his pursuit of his dream aircraft. While operating in Switzerland, he found himself tangled in bureaucratic hurdles and cultural misunderstandings, resulting in significant financial losses. Determined to overcome these challenges, Lear made a drastic decision to shift the production from Switzerland to the United States.

Marking Milestones in Bill Lear’s Aviation Odyssey

The journey of Bill Lear, spanning across three different companies, was replete with achievements and changes. Some of the key milestones include:

  • In 1955, Lear moved to Switzerland, marking the beginning of his ambitious project.
  • By 1961, the design of SAAC-23 was complete.
  • In 1962, Lear decided to relocate production to Wichita, Kansas, owing to the difficult circumstances in Switzerland.
  • In 1963, the newly built Wichita plant was ready, with an expansion in the workforce to 75 employees.

The Transformation: SAAC to Lear Jet Corporation

Lear didn’t randomly choose Wichita, Kansas as the new hub for his ambitious project. Wichita offered its first industrial revenue bonds and housed an existing aviation workforce, making it an ideal location for building the SAAC-23. Groundwork for the new Wichita plant started in August 1962, and production initially begun in Switzerland continued here.

The transition involved moving the production of the SAAC-23 from the Flug- und Fahrzeugwerke Altenrhein AG manufacturing facility in Switzerland to the newly built plant at Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport, now Eisenhower National Airport. The move was not without challenges; before resuming production, modifications to the design were necessary, which included moving the engines and tail aft and increasing the size of the rudder.

Assembly of the SAAC-23 began on February 7, 1963, using parts from the Swiss plant. The new Wichita plant welcomed SAAC on March 9, 1963. On April 26, 1963, the company underwent another transformation and became Lear Jet Corporation. Shortly afterwards, they renamed the SAAC-23 as Lear Jet Model 23 Continental.

Comparing Specs: SAAC-23 vs. Lear Jet 23

A comparison of the specifications of SAAC-23 and the production Lear Jet 23 showcases the evolution of Lear’s design. Intriguingly, the SAAC-23 featured in the 1962 brochure of the Lear Jet 23 before the modifications took place. The brochure showed the Lear Jet 23 with the engines and tail moved aft – changes that later manifested in the production Lear Jet 23.

Bill Lear’s journey was a testament to his grit and perseverance. Despite the trials and tribulations, he never lost sight of his dream. The transformation from Swiss American Aviation Corporation to Lear Jet Corporation was more than just a name change; it marked the culmination of relentless effort, an indomitable spirit, and an unwavering vision for the future of aviation.

Hamel, Peter G, and Gary D Park. 2022. The Learjet History. Springer.

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