707 Flight Testing – And Not Talking About Rolls (1956)

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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!    

Read the June 25, 1956 story: Test Pilot Report on Boeing Jet 707

This blog was originally published on June 2, 2015.

Discuss this Blog Entry 18

on Feb 6, 2015

In 1955, talk was cheap. Rolling the dash 80 sold the 707!!

on Feb 9, 2015

Tex did many things that he did not repeat. In the 50's he returned a B-47 from a Wichita test flight and taxied it INTO its nose hanger. When he braked it to a stop, the forword fucelage sprang up and down! Since Tex's head and the canopy nearly hit the buildings steel beams, it was not repeated.

on Dec 21, 2015

The roll caused many pilots to smile. "Tex" was a bit of a hero to many for doing it.

on Feb 25, 2016

I wonder if other pilots tried the same thing with such type aircraft and were not as successful. Any misstep in pilot control input and that +1G changes really quickly. High pylon side loads come to mind.

on Aug 5, 2016

Those were the days, my friends, when pilots flew "by the seat of their pants". They don't make'em like that any more.....

on Aug 5, 2016

I'm intrigued, what happened to "And Not Talking About Rolls"?

on Aug 5, 2016

I think the 'Rolls' in the title refers to Bill Allen's attitude about the 1-g barrel roll, and the statement "Johnston also never spoke about the roll in public for another 15 years." Before I read the article I thought they were referring to Rolls-Royce Conway engines, which were not part of the early 707s but became standard on the -420 variant.

After reading the article and watching the video clip, the one thing that puzzles me a bit is Tex referring to the maneuver as a "chandelle". The chandelle is required as part of the test for a commercial license, but it is a climbing, minimum radius 180º-turn that is intended to show a pilot's command over the aircraft. It's a move that initially was part of a fighter pilot's repertoire. Other than a test of piloting skill, it is most useful as a quick escape from a box canyon.

on Aug 7, 2016

I was there that day for the two rolls that Tex did. He did a climbing turn over the area of Kenmore which I would call a minimal chandelle. At any rate, it was a climbing turn that resulted in a 180 degree maneuver.........which carried him back over the same area again for a second roll in exactly the same place as the first one!

I have seen dozens of air shows and Reno Air Races over the years. But the Gold Cup Roll remains the "Finest Hour", to me, of pure airmanship and guts! I was fortunate enough to meet Tex 30 years later and enjoyed a nice conversation. His book, "Jet Age Test Pilot" is a great read. I believe it came out in circa 1992. ..................Bert Fletcher

on Aug 5, 2016

I grew up in Seattle and as a kid I saw Tex do the roll from my front yard. Amazing man, amazing airplane!

on Aug 10, 2016

Lucky you! Did you take a picture?

on Aug 5, 2016

I wonder if slightly less wing sweep would have eliminated the Dutch Roll characteristics of the 707?

on Aug 5, 2016

In the '70's I was working at Toulouse on the Concorde project. At that time there were persistent rumours that Andre Turcat had done the same thing (rolled Concorde).

on Aug 5, 2016

60 years later you'd think a '87 could do as much -- or better
Boeing management are wimps

on Aug 7, 2016

Yes, Concorde was rolled during testing. . .

on Aug 7, 2016

The Avro Vulcan was also rolled while it was in Flight Test. It had a pretty fair roll rate! Bert Fletcher

on Aug 7, 2016

During the development tests of the late and lamented Walter M602 engine (would be to the PW 100 the same as the M601 /oh, now the H80/ is to the PT6), Czechoslovak test pilot Jiri Tlusty rolled the Il-18 four-engined turboprop, a testbed with the M602 in place of one inner Ivchenko AI-20. In his words no hair-raising experience - a barrell roll at +1 g all the time - oil and fuel happily flowing the proper way. He did it several times, just to test how it feels. You can probably roll the Mriya this way...

on Aug 9, 2016

I met Tex Johnston under the Dash 80 at an airshow at Boeing Field in the 1990s. He was in quite a talkative mood and we chatted about 15 minutes. I couldn't help but bring up the Gold Cup roll maneuver, at which point he surprised me by saying that was nothing compared to his rolling a B-47 and a B-52. I don't think he was kidding.

on Aug 10, 2016

"Damned Tex Johnston had balls", that was a hell of a test pilot, that all should be to push the envelope even further, higher and faster. That was one of the greatest aviation milestone like Boeing used to do!! Not like those Airbus Xerox machines!
For god sake I'd love to see an A-380/350 or Dream-liner doing a roll barrell!
There are lucky guys here for having met such great guys! Today all is about procedure and to comply with the plan, such boring times. Why not building a "Tex Johnston" academy to teach with former military pilots (they know how to handle themselves) to breed some new kind of pilots avid of pushing on each sorties boundaries!

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