Fifty years ago, on Aug. 12, 1966, the Lear Jet 25 made its maiden flight in Wichita, Kansas. It was the last model to fly before Bill Lear, the inventor of ADF, the 8-track cassette and 150 other things, sold the company in the midst of a crushing recession to the Gates Rubber Co. Many Learjet models would follow through the years, including the iconic Lear 35 and 55, as the Learjet brand became a household name in the 1970s and 1980s — but the Lear 25 was the last of the original lineage.
Much of the credit for the success of Lear Jet belongs directly to the gentlemen in this iconic photo, playfully trying out the mockup for the never-built Lear Liner Model 40 in 1965. Bill Lear, of course, is in the middle. On the left is Clay Lacy, the legendary Southern California pilot and businessman; on the right is Hollywood actor Danny Kaye, a pilot and early Lear Jet advocate who threw his star power behind the brand and even served as the company’s vice president of marketing.
As the founder of Motorola, Bill Lear had amassed a fortune in the consumer electronics industry in the first half of his life. With the dawn of the jet age, what he longed to do was create a personal jet. When the Lear Jet 23, born from a Swiss military trainer jet, first flew on October 7, 1963, nothing on the civilian market could come close to its performance. The Lear 24 and 25 models that followed offered even better performance and more room inside, though all were tiny. With Clay Lacy and Danny Kaye showing off those early Lear Jets to Hollywood’s elite — and famously, members of the Rat Pack, including Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin — the popularity of the diminutive private jets exploded.
Danny Kaye, by the way, never owned a Learjet, though he did receive a type rating and flew one on a nationwide tour with chief pilot Hank Beaird, raising awareness of the brand and money for UNICEF. And while his friend Bill Lear made him a vice president this was strictly an honorary and symbolic title. “He was not in charge of marketing, nor did he ever have any line responsibility at the company,” said aviation industry veteran Al Higdon.
Today Learjet is owned by Canada’s Bombardier and still produces the Model 70 and 75. Clay Lacy, meanwhile, now in his mid-80s and with well over 50,000 hours of flight time to his credit, still regularly flies Learjets. He even commissioned a painting of that iconic photo of himself in the Lear mockup with Bill Lear and Danny Kaye — inside his personal Lear Jet, which he keeps in his hangar at Clay Lacy Aviation in Van Nuys, California.