The Legendary Learjet
The Rogue Aviator: in the Back Alleys of Aviation will leave the reader aghast at the rocky-road roller-coaster-like ride that Ace Abbott experienced as he bounced from one job to another. There is, however, a challenger for the most unstable, radical aviation career. Interestingly, that possible title could go to the son of one of the legendary icons of aviation, Bill Lear. Bill Lear was an adventuresome inventor who pioneered the development of listening to music on tape with the old “eight track” cassettes. His more renowned invention is the first private jet that became a household name, and that, of course, was the Learjet. From around 1968 until the mid-1980s the Learjet was to private jets as Kleenex was to bathroom tissue. If you lived in the Hamptons your country club colleagues would ask if you were going to take your Learjet to the Palm Beaches even though your jet might be in actuality, a Cessna Citation (often referred to as a “near-jet” by the Learjet pilots because it was so slow). The son of Bill Lear had a leg up on an aviation career as his Dad had an iconic stature in the aviation world. Now for the rest of the story—that would be the trials and tribulations of John Lear’s remarkable aviation experiences:
John Lear gave this talk on July 9th, 2004 to a group of fellow pilots in Las Vegas at the “Hangar of Quiet Birdmen” or QB meeting. Each month one pilot in the group gives a 15 minute talk on his career.
John Lear on John Lear:
One of the anguishes of advancing age is losing old friends. The upside of that, though, is that I get to tell the story my way because there is nobody still around to say otherwise.
I learned to fly at Clover Field in Santa Monica when I was 14. However before I got to get in an actual airplane Dad made me take 40 hours of Link with Charlie Gress. I can’t remember what I did yesterday but I guarantee you I could still shoot a 90 degree, Fade-out or Parallel radio range orientation.
When I turned 16 I had endorsements on my student license for an Aero Commander 680E and Cessna 310.
I got my private at 17 and instrument rating shortly thereafter. The Lockheed 18 Lodestar was my first type rating at age 18. I went to work for my father and brother flying copilot on a twin beech out of Geneva Switzerland after I got out of high school. Dad was over there trying to peddle radios to the European airlines.
However just after I turned 18 and got my Commercial I was showing off my aerobatic talents in a Bucker Jungmann to my friends at a Swiss boarding school I had attended. I managed to start a 3 turn spin from too low an altitude and crashed. I shattered both heels and ankles and broke both legs in 3 places. I crushed my neck, broke both sides of my jaw and lost all of my front teeth. I managed to get gangrene in one of the open wounds in my ankles and was shipped from Switzerland to the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque where Randy Lovelace made me well.
When I could walk again I worked selling pots and pans door to door in Santa Monica. In late 1962 Dad had moved from Switzerland to Wichita to build the Lear Jet and I went to Wichita to begin work in Public relations until November of 1963 about 2 months after the first flight when I move to Miami and took over editing an aviation newspaper called Aero News. I moved the newspaper to El Segundo in California and ran it until it failed. I then got a job flight instructing at Progressive Air Service in Hawthorne, California. From there I went to Norman Larson Beechcraft in Van Nuys flight instructing in Ercoupes.
In the spring of 1965 I was invited by my Dad back to Wichita to get type rated in the model 23 Learjet. I then went to work for the executive aircraft division of Flying Tigers in Burbank who had secured a dealership for the Lear.
In November of 1965 my boss Paul Kelly crashed number 63 into the mountains at Palm Springs killing everybody on board including Bob Prescotts 13 years old son and 4 of the major investors in Tigers. I took over his job as President of Airjet charters a wholly owned subsidiary of FTL and flew charters and sold Lears. Or rather tried to sell them. It turns out that I never managed to sell one Learjet in my entire life.
In March of 1966 2 Lear factory pilots Hank Beaird, Rick King and myself set 17 world speed records including speed around the round the world, 65
hours and 38 minutes in the first Lear Jet 24. Shortly after that flight I got canned from Tigers and moved to Vegas and started the first 3rd level airline in Nevada, Ambassador Airlines. We operated an Aero Commander and Cherokee 6 on 5 stops from Las Vegas to LAX. This was about the timeHoward Hughes moved to Las Vegas and I was doing some consulting work forBob and Peter Maheu.
The money man behind Ambassador was Jack Cleveland who I introduced to John Myers in the Hughes organization. Cleveland and Myers tried to peddle the 135 certificate to Hughes without success and Jack ended up selling Howard those phony gold mining claims you all may remember. I went back to Van Nuys and was flying Lear charter part time for Al Paulson and Clay Lacy at California Airmotive, the Learjet distributor.
That summer I started a business called Aerospace Flight Research in Van Nuys were I rented aircraft to Teledyne to flight test their Inertial Guidance Systems. We had a B-26, Super Pinto and Twin Beech. I think we lasted about 4 months.
I then went to work for World Aviation Services in Ft. Lauderdale ferrying the Cessna O2 FAC airplanes from Wichita, fresh of the assembly line toNha Trang in Viet Nam with fellow QB Bill Werstlein. We were under the 4440th ADG Langley VA. and hooked up with a lot of other military pilots ferrying all manner and types of aircraft.
Our route was Wichita to Hamilton, Hickam, Midway, Wake, Guam, Clark and then in country. The longest leg was Hamilton to Hickam an average of 16 hours, no autopilot, no copilot, and one ADF. We also had 3 piddle packs.
Arriving in Nha Trang we would hitch a ride to Saigon and spend 3 days under technical house arrest, each trip, pay a fine for entering the country illegally, that is being civilians and not coming through a port of entry, catch an airline up to Hong Kong for a little R and R and straight back to Wichita for another airplane. I flew this contract for years.
During some off time in 1968 I attempted to ferry a Cessna 320 from Oakland to Australia with the first stop in Honolulu. About 2 hours out from Oakland I lost the right engine and had no provisions for dumping fuel. I went down into ground effect (T effect for you purists) and for 3 hours and 21 minutes flew on one engine about 25 feet above the waves and made it into Hamilton AFB after flying under the Golden Gate and Richmond bridges. An old friend Nick Conte, was officer of the day and gave me the royal treatment. Why did I go into Hamilton instead of Oakland? I knew exactly where the O club was for some much needed refreshment.
In September of 1968 between 0-2 deliveries I raced a Douglas B-26 Invader in the Reno Air Races. It was the largest airplane ever raced at Reno, and I placed 5th in the Bronze passing one Mustang . It was reported to me after the race by XB-70 project pilot Col. Ted Sturmthal that when I passed the P-51, 3 fighter pilots from Nellis committed suicide off the back of the grandstands. In the summer of 1970 I helped Darryl Greenamyer and Adam Robbins put on the California 1000 air race in Mojave, California. That’s the one where Clay Lacy raced the DC-7. I flew a B-26with Wally McDonald.
I then started flying charter in an Aero Commander and Beech Queen Air for Aero Council a charter service out of Burbank. They went belly up about 3 months later and I went up to Reno to work for my Dad as safety pilot on his Lear model 25. After my Dad fired me I was personally escorted to the Nevada/California border by an ex-Los Angeles police detective who worked for Dad and did the muscle work.
I went back down to Van Nuys and was Chief Pilot for Lacy Aviation and was one of the first pilot proficiency examiners for the Lear Jet. In the summer of 1973 I moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia as Chief Pilot and Director of Operations for Tri Nine Airlines which flew routes throughout Cambodia for Khmer Akas Air.
I flew a Convair 440 an average of 130 hours a month. We had unlimited quantities of 115/145 fuel and ADI and were able to use full CB-17 power (which was 62″ for any of you R-2800 aficionados). In November of 1973 I moved to Vientianne, Laos and flew C-46’s and Twin Otters for Continental Air Services Inc. delivering guns and ammo to the Gen. Vang Pao and hisCIA supported troops.
We got shot down one day and when I say we, Dave Kouba was the captain. We were flying a twin otter and got the right engine shot out. Actually the small arms fire had hit the fuel line in the right strut and fuel was streaming out back around the tail and being sucked into the large cargo opening in the side of the airplane and filling the cockpit with a fine mist of jet fuel.
I held the mike in my hands, “Should I call Cricket and possibly blow us up or…?” (Some of you may remember “Cricket”… “This is Cricket on guard with an air strike warning to all aircraft”.) But Davy found us a friendly dirt strip and we were back in the air the next day. When the war came to an end in 1973 I moved back to Van Nuys and started flying Lears for Lacy again until October when I went up to Seattle and sat in on a Boeing 707 ground school for Air Club International on spec.
3 weeks later I ended up in the left seat of the 707 with a total of 8 hours in type. Air Club begat Aero America and we flew junkets out of Vegas for the Tropicana and Thunderbird Hotels. I left Aero having not been fired and in the summer of 1975 I was Director of Ops for Ambassador Airlines flying 707 junkets also out of Vegas.
After that airline collapsed I moved to Beirut, Lebanon in September of 1975 and flew 707’s for 2 years for Trans Mediterranean Airways a Lebanese cargo carrier.It was a very interesting job in that they had 65 stations around the world and you would leave Beirut with a copilot that had maybe 200 hours in airplanes and fortunately a first rate plumber and off you’d go around the world. My favorite run was Dubai to Kabul, Afghanistan with a stop in Kandahar. Kabul is a one way strip, land uphill and take off downhill, it was 6000 foot elevation with no navaids.
During those 2 years I made many round the world trips and many over the pole trips. In 1977 I moved back to Vegas and was Director of Operations for Nevada Airlines flying DC-3’s and Twin Beech’s to the Canyon. In September of 77 I was called to Budapest for another CIA operation flying 707’s loaded with arms and ammo to Mogadishu.
Leaving Budapest then refueling in Jeddah we flew radio silence down the Red Sea trying to avoid the MiGs based in Aden, whose sole purpose on earth was to force us down. The briefing was simple. If you guys get into trouble DON’T CALL US. Back to Vegas in December of that year I was hired as Chief Pilot for Bonanza Airlines operating DC-3’s and a Gulfstream 1 from Vegas to Aspen.
After that airline collapsed I was hired by Hilton Hotels to fly their Lear 35A. In my spare time I flew part time for Dynalectron and the EPA on an underground nuke test monitoring program. I flew their B-26, OV-10,
Volpar Beech and Huey helicopter. I also flew the Tri Motor Ford part time for Scenic Airlines. In 1978 my Dad passed away and his will left me with one dollar, which incidentally, I never got.
In 1980 I ran for the Nevada State Senate district 4. I lost miserably only because I was uninformed, unprepared and both of my size 9 triple E’s were continually in my mouth.
I got fired from Hilton shortly after that and moved to Cairo, Egypt to fly for Air Trans another CIA cutout. After the Camp David accords were signed in 1979 each country, Egypt and Israel were required to operate 4 flights a week into the others country. Of course, El Al pilots didn’t mind flying into Cairo but you could not find an Egyptian pilot that would fly into Tel Aviv. So an Egyptian airline was formed called Nefertiti Airlines with me as chief pilot to fly the 4 flights a week into Tel Aviv.
On our off time we flew subcontract for Egyptair throughout Europe and Africa. All this, of course was just a cover for our real missions which was all kinds of nefarious gun running throughout Europe and Africa which we did in our spare time.
And now that our beloved 40th president has passed on I can tell you that in fact (with my apologies to Michael Reagan) the October Surprise was true. The October surprise for those of you that don’t remember happened during October of 1980 when Reagan and Bush were running against Carter and Mondale. George Bush was flown in a BAC 111 one Saturday night to Paris to meet with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Bush offered the Khomeini a deal whereby if he would delay the release of the hostages held in Tehran until Reagans inauguration, the administration would supply unlimited guns and ammunition to the Iranians.
In order to get Bush back for a Sunday morning brunch so that nobody would be alerted to his absence he was flown back in an SR-71 from Reims field near Paris to McGuire AFB. Of course Reagan won, the hostages were released and one of my jobs in Cairo was to deliver those arms from Tel Aviv to Tehran.
Unfortunately, the first airplane in, an Argentinean CL-44 was shot down by the Russians just south of Yerevan and Mossad who was running the operation didn’t want to risk sending my 707. The arms where eventually delivered through Dubai, across the Persian Gulf and directly into Terhan.
During the 2 years I was in Cairo I averaged 180 hours a month with a top month of 236 hours in a 31day period. I spent a 6 week tour in Khartoum flying cows to Saana, North Yemen in an old Rolls Royce powered 707.
Back in Las Vegas in December of 1982 I sat on my ass until I was out of money, again, and then went to work for Global Int’l Airlines in Kansas City, another CIA cutout run by Farhad Azima, an Iranian with a bonafide Gold Plated Get Out of Jail Free card flying 707’s until they collapsed in October of 83.
During the summer of 1983 the FAA celebrated its 25th Anniversary at the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City. There was much fanfare
and speech making and 2 honored guests. Bill Conrad from Miami, Florida who had the most type ratings, I think over 50. And myself. I had the most airman certificates issued of any other airman.
After Global’s collapse I went went to work for American Trans Air flying 707’s. I wrote their international navigation manual as MNPS for North
Atlantic operations was just being implemented and became the first FAA designated check airman for MNPS navigation. ATA then added 727’s and thenLockheed L-1011’s. For a very brief time I was qualified as captain in all three.
After getting fired from ATA in July of 1989 I became a freight dog flying DC-8’s for Rosenbalm Aviation which became Flagship Express and after that airline collapsed I was hired as Chief pilot for Patriot Airlines out of Stead Field in Reno, flying cargo 727’s from Miami to South America. After getting fired from Patriot I went to work for Connie Kalitta flying DC-8s then the L-1011 on which I was a check airman. Kalitta sold out to Kitty Hawk International which went bankrupt in May of 2000.
I was 57 at the time and nobody is going to hire an old f*ck for two and a half years except to fly sideways as a FE so I turned in my stripes and ever present flask of Courvoisier. Except for one last fling in March of 2001 where I flew the Hadj for a Cambodian Airline flying L-1011’s under contract to Air India. We were based in New Delhi and flew to Jeddah from all throughout India. There was absolutely no paperwork, no FAA, no BS and for 6 weeks we just moved Hadji’s back and forth to Saudi Arabia.
One final note, in October of 1999 I had the honor and extreme pleasure to get checked out in a Lockheed CF-104D Starfighter. My instructor was Darryl Greenamyer, the airplane was owned by Mark and Gretchen Sherman of Phoenix. It was the highlight of my aviation career particularly because I survived my first and only SFO in a high performance fighter.
One other thing, some how I managed to get he following type ratings: Boeing 707/720/727, Convair 240/340/440, DC-3, DC-8, B-26, Gulfstream 1, Lockheed Constellation, Lear Jet series, HS-125, Lockheed L-1011, Lockheed L-18, Lockheed P-38, Martin 202/404, B-17, B-25, Grumman TBM and Ford Trimotor.
I also have single and multi engine sea, rotorcraft helicopter and gyroplane, and lighter than air free balloon. I never got all categories having missed the Airship. And in case you are interested many, many airmen have lots more type ratings.
What I did get, that no other airman got, was most FAA certificates: These are: the ATP, Flight Instructor with airplane single and multi-engine, instrument, rotorcraft helicopter and gyroplane and glider. Flight Navigator, Flight Engineer, Senior Parachute Rigger, Control Tower Operator, A&P, Ground Instructor, Advanced and Instrument and Aircraft Dispatcher.
I have 19,488 hours of Total time of which 15,325 hours is in 1,2,3 or 4 engine jet.
I took a total of 181 FAA (or designated check airman) check rides and failed only 2. Of the thousands of times I knowingly violated a FAA regulation I was only caught once but never charged or prosecuted.
The farthest I have ever been off course was 321 miles to the left over the South China Sea in a 707 on New Years day 1977 on a flight from Taipei
to Singapore. The deviation was not caught by Hong Kong, Manila or Singapore radar and I penetrated six different zero to unlimited restricted areas west of the Philippines. I landed in Singapore 7 minutes late without further incident.
How, you ask, did I get so far off course? The short answer is I was napping at the controls. I have flown just about everywhere except Russia,China, Mongolia, Korea, Antarctica, Australia or New Zealand.
I am a senior vice-commander of the American Legion Post No.1 Shanghai, China (Generals Ward, Chennault and Helseth) (operating in exile) and a 21
year member of the Special Operations Association.
Now some of you may be asking why so many airlines collapsed that I worked for and why I got fired so many times. My excuse is simple. I am not the
brightest crayon in the box, I am extremely lazy, I have a smart mouth and a real poor fucking attitude.
This blog prepared by Ace Abbott, author of The Rogue aviator