Friday is 60 years since Tex Johnston’s famous barrel-roll of the Boeing 707 prototype over Lake Washington.
It was a promotional stunt that in today’s dollars used a $144 million investment by Boeing.
And it was done without the knowledge of Bill Allen, then president of the company, who was watching. And fuming.
He was not a happy man. The firm’s future was on the line. No time for tricks.
But 60 years ago, on Aug. 7, 1955, Boeing’s chief of flight testing, the legendary Alvin “Tex” Johnston, pulled an impressive stunt in the prototype of the Boeing 707.
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This was the company’s entry into the commercial jet age.
But that afternoon, over Lake Washington, with a crowd of 250,000 attending the Gold Cup hydro races and airline executives from around the world (who were in Seattle for an annual meeting) in attendance, Johnston didn’t just do a flyover.
At a speed of 490 miles an hour, Johnston executed a barrel roll. That is, he flew the 248,000-pound aircraft upside down.
And then, as an exclamation point, he did another barrel roll, and the stunt became Seattle lore.
Allen witnessed it all from the chartered boat on the lake that included industry executives.
It was he who had pushed the firm’s board of directors to invest $16 million ($144 million in today’s dollars) into the prototype. That represented nearly all the profit Boeing had made since the end of World War II.
After the second barrel roll, Allen thought either Johnston had lost his mind or something had gone wrong. He turned to Larry Bell, of Bell Aircraft, who had a heart condition that required meds, and said, “Give me one of those damned pills. I need it worse than you do.”
Allen had reason to be concerned. Selling the passenger jet wasn’t easy. Airlines were still paying for their piston-engine planes, and they also thought consumers would be leery of aircraft without propellers.
Plus, an earlier British entry into commercial jets, the DH-106 Comet, had met a series of catastrophic accidents due to metal fatigue.
But there was no mention in the local papers about the barrel rolls. Boeing’s head PR guy at the time would later guess that mostly sports writers were covering the hydros, and not particularly interested in what was happening overhead.
Only a couple of spectators had pointed their film cameras to the sky. The only existing footage is a grainy few seconds of the barrel roll.
There was one dramatic photo, taken by Bel Whitehead, the test engineer on the flight, as he knelt by a passenger cabin window and snapped a picture of the plane inverted over Seattle.
Johnston had only informed him and Jim Gannett, the co-pilot, of the stunt once they were airborne.
After the stunt, the barrel roll story began to spread and took on mythical proportions.
It helped the story that Tex Johnston, who died in 1998, was right out of a Hollywood movie. With his mustache, he looked like Howard Hughes, when Hughes was a dashing pilot.
Johnston wore specially made cowboy boots for each test flight. He was partial to a Stetson hat. In his Boeing office, he hung a sign that proclaimed, “One test is worth a thousand opinions.”
Johnston was said to be the inspiration in the cult classic “Dr. Strangelove” for the Major T.J. “King” Kong character. It was played by Slim Pickens as the cowboy-hat-waving pilot who rides a nuclear bomb into Armageddon.
It’s been written that Allen had contemplated firing Johnston. The morning after the barrel roll, Johnston was told to go to Allen’s office, where other higher-ups also were waiting. Allen asked, “What did you think you were doing yesterday?” Johnston replied, “Selling the airplane.”
In his view, Johnston had a very rational explanation for the stunt, and why it was so safe.
Here is the explanation in his book, “Jet-Age Test Pilot,” although it helps to have piloting knowledge to understand it: “The airplane does not recognize attitude, providing a maneuver is conducted at one G. It knows only positive and negative imposed loads and variations in thrust and drag. The barrel roll is a one G maneuver and quite impressive, but the airplane never knows it’s inverted.”
Allen mulled that over and responded, “You know that. Now we know that. But just don’t do it anymore.”
Soon Allen got a sense of what a public-relations coup the barrel roll had been. That evening, Johnston was at the Allen home for a dinner that included Eddie Rickenbacker, the flying ace who became head of Eastern Airlines.
Rickenbacker walked up to Johnston, jerked down the latter’s Stetson over his ears, and said about the barrel roll, ‘You slow rollin’ S.O.B. Why didn’t you let me know? I would have been ridin’ the jump seat.’ ”
Then Rickenbacker told the head of Boeing, “Bill, that’s the way to get attention with a new airplane. I wish I could have been there.”
It had become Johnston’s job to travel all over the U.S. to show off the Dash 80, as the 707 was code-named. (Use of the number “7” in Boeing jets has a mundane explanation; it was the next sequence in model numbers. 707 was chosen over 700 because the marketing department thought it had a better ring.)
Ads from Boeing promised how much better the ride would be over a propeller: “You will cruise serenely through high, weatherless skies, so completely free from vibration you’ll be able to stand a half-dollar on edge.”
Mike Lombardi, Boeing corporate historian, says the entire company was involved in selling the 707. But the stunt didn’t hurt, he says.
“I think the legend of the barrel roll has grown bigger as time goes on,” he says.
Within a month of the barrel roll, Pan Am had ordered 20 of the 707s. Boeing would end up delivering 1,010 of the jets during the 1958-1994 production years.
A 707 would become the first jet Air Force One. Boeing could rightfully say that the 707 is one of the 10 most important airplanes in aviation history, and it represented one of the most important business decisions in history.
Still, it took a long time, if ever, for Bill Allen to forgive Tex Johnston for his stunt. Allen refused to discuss it for years.
In 1980, when he retired, Allen was presented with that famous photo of the 707 upside down.
It was not a memento he took home from the banquet, but left behind.