On Aug 7, 1955, Boeing’s chief test pilot, Alvin “Tex” Johnston famously rolled the company’s Dash 80 707 prototype over the astonished crowds gathered for the Gold Cup hydroplane race, the main event at Seattle’s Seafair.
Johnston calculated the 1g barrel roll maneuver, conducted twice, was perfectly safe and would prove to the world that the 707 was not only as strong as an ox but as agile as a fighter.
But while nobody could fault Johnston’s test piloting skills, his aerobatic display was certainly not appreciated by Bill Allen, Boeing’s president. Watching from the company’s yacht on Washington Lake, Allen had no warning of Johnston’s intentions and was as shocked as everyone else. After Johnston’s second roll, Allen turned to one of his guests, Larry Bell of Bell Aircraft who had a heart condition, and said “give me one of those damned (heart) pills. I need it worse than you do.”
In a 1990 Seattle Times story about Johnston, Carl Cleveland - Boeing’s head of public relations in the 1950s recalled that Bill Allen wanted the story suppressed, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands had just witnessed the aerial event. Cleveland remembered Allen turning to him on the yacht and saying “I don’t think we should have anything in the papers about that.” Naturally, Cleveland explained there wasn’t much Boeing could do to stop it but, to his immense relief and amazement, none of the papers carried the story the next day. It seemed most of the press there that day were sports writers more interested in hydroplane racing than aircraft. In these days of social media and instant reporting such a scenario is unthinkable today.
The next day Johnston was called into Allen’s office to face the music. Despite his protests that he was “selling the airplane” Allen simply told him to never repeat the performance. Allen himself could barely bring himself to talk about the barrel roll for years. Speaking to a conference in Seattle in 1977 he said “it has taken nearly 22 years for me to reach the point where I can discuss the event with a modicum of humor.”
Johnston also never spoke about the roll in public for another 15 years. At the time of Aviation Week’s 1956 707 test pilot story by Russell Hawkes the subject was still very much taboo. There is no mention of the 707’s roll performance in the report, which ironically mentions Johnston’s view that “for the sake of passenger comfort it may be desirable to use half-rate turns in holding patterns and instrument let-downs.” The story does, however, go into great detail about the overall impressive handling capabilities of the 707. It also reveals some interesting test highlights including the fact that during early phases of high-speed evaluation air-flow separation at the rudder induced such violent buffet that the flight engineer’s panel was ripped from its mounts!
This blog was originally published on June 2, 2015.