Barrel Roll In A 707? History-Making Pilot Ends Silence
Alvin ``Tex'' Johnston, the Boeing test pilot whose barrel roll over a Gold Cup course in a commercial jet 35 years ago was one of the most famous maneuvers in aviation history, has broken a long silence about the incident in his memoirs.
The book - ``Tex Johnston: Jet Test Pilot'' - was six years in the writing. It is being published by the Smithsonian Institution, which has ordered Johnston not to divulge too much detail in pre-publication interviews.
Most of the story, however, can be pieced together from an interview this week at Johnston's home in an Everett mobile-home park.
On Aug. 7, 1955, Johnston, then Boeing's chief test pilot, had been flying over the Olympic Peninsula and the Pacific Ocean at the controls of Boeing's new Dash 80, the prototype for the 707.
The plane was the company's pride and joy, its entry into the age of commercial jet aircraft. It had been agreed beforehand that Johnston would fly it over Lake Washington, where 250,000 people - including several of the nation's top aviation executives - were gathered for a Gold Cup hydroplane race, the feature event of Seafair.
Johnston, wearing a flight suit and his trademark cowboy boots, was in the pilot's seat. Alongside him, in the co-pilot's seat, was Jim Gannett. A Boeing engineer, along for the ride, also was in the cabin with a camera.
As the aircraft flew over the race course, Johnston put it into a barrel roll, a spin on its axis. Its enormous wings turned 360 degrees. As the plane briefly flew upside down, the crowd below gasped in amazement.
Inside the aircraft's cabin, the Boeing engineer placed his camera next to the windshield and clicked off a sequence of photographs.
The barrel roll went so smoothly that a glass of water could have been placed on the instrument panel, and not a drop would have been spilled because of the gravitational forces present in such a maneuver.
After passing over the race course, Johnston made a wide turn and then returned - repeating the roll.
The throngs below oohed and aahed. They had just witnessed aviation history. But if they expected to read about it in the next day's newspapers, they were disappointed. Not a word appeared.
There were rumors that Boeing had quashed the stories. But Carl Cleveland, then head of Boeing public relations, says that's not so. ``The press just dropped the ball.''
Cleveland, long retired, says that at the time of the maneuver, he was on a yacht in Lake Washington with assorted bigwigs in the airline industry, including Bill Allen, then president of Boeing.
``After the first barrel roll, Bill Allen turned to me and said, `I don't think we should have anything in the papers about that.' But I said, `All those people just saw it. I don't know how we can stop it.' ''
Cleveland says the reporters covering the race simply forgot to mention it ``for some damned reason.'' He guesses that members of the press, mostly sports writers, were more interested in the outcome of the race than in what was happening overhead.
The story spread across the country, however, embellished with the telling until it became a part of aviation folklore.
Johnston - the man who pulled it off - never talked. Now, at age 75, he's finally breaking the self-imposed silence in his memoirs.
``My publisher doesn't want me to talk much about the incident until the book comes out,'' says Johnston, who lives with his wife of 55 years, DeLores .
But he responds to several questions about the incident during an interview in the small office in his home. There is a wooden model of the 707 at his elbow, and the walls are covered with photographs of his days as a test pilot and big-game hunter.
The barrel roll, Johnston concedes, was ``the most famous maneuver in aviation history . . . I still get 10 to 15 letters a week from people wanting to know about it. Most of them want photographs.''
With a grin, he adds, ``It sold a lot of airplanes.''
Did Allen know he was going to do it? ``Hell, no, he didn't know.''
But Johnston does not deny that he knew exactly what he was going to do that day. He knew the limits of both man and machine and made two carefully calculated maneuvers. There was nothing spontaneous about it. He just didn't bother to inform the front office beforehand.
Johnston wasn't the only one who kept mum about the Gold Cup incident.
Allen refused to discuss the subject in interviews for years. Finally, in 1970 - 15 years after the barrel-roll incident - he broke his silence, telling how he felt that day.
Allen said that when Johnston performed the first barrel roll, he thought it was a mistake, that something had gone wrong.
When he saw Johnston do the second barrel roll, Allen said, he thought the test pilot had either lost his mind or the aircraft was in serious difficulty.
He said he turned to Larry Bell of Bell Aircraft, who had a heart condition that required regular medication, and said:
``Give me one of those damned (heart) pills. I need it worse than you do.''
Allen said he called Johnston into the office the next morning and asked why he had done it. He said Johnston told him he had absolute faith in the airplane and that the barrel roll, while sensational from the ground, had been well within the limits of the aircraft.
Responding to Allen's comments now, Johnston says there was never any danger to the fans below. The maneuver pulled only ``one g'' - the exact force of gravity - and was almost like sitting in an easy chair.
``I wouldn't have done anything to jeopardize the aircraft,'' Johnston adds.
According to Johnston, the time spent writing the book was more difficult than performing aerial stunts or hunting big game.
``There were several times when I wanted to tear up the whole thing (manuscript) and quit,'' says Johnston, who looks pretty much as he did in his test-pilot days, except for a graying mustache.
Johnston says he tells, in the book, how he fell in love with flying as a boy in Kansas, taking lessons in high school and flying and learning to fix airplanes while earning a degree in engineering from Kansas State University.
He barnstormed for a time with Inman Brothers Flying Circus, performing acrobatics in open-cockpit biplanes while a stuntman walked on the wings and hung from inner tubes slung over the wheels.
``I sold tickets and baby-sat the circus' lion, Thor,'' Johnston says. ``When it rained, I slept with the lion inside a Ford Tri-motor.''
As this country geared up for World War II, Johnston ferried airplanes to various military bases around the country. In 1944, he signed on with Bell Aircraft of Buffalo, N.Y., and was chief test pilot for this nation's first jet airplane, Bell's XP-59, which he flew to 43,000 feet - the first time a U.S. plane went above 40,000 feet.
``Those early jet engines,'' he says, ``had a life expectancy of just five hours . . . and some were ready to quit before that.''
Bell asked Johnston to help correct a deadly problem - wings falling off its P-51 fighter planes when student pilots engaged in simulated dogfights. He found the fatal flaw by pushing the airplane close to - but never beyond - its limits.
When this country got hold of two German Focke-Wulf 190s that had cracked up and been rebuilt, Johnston was asked to test them - to see what the Germans had discovered about combat aircraft that would help U.S. fighter pilots.
``Captured data from Germany indicated that swept wings improved performance,'' Johnston says. ``So Boeing modified a P-63 interceptor fighter to a swept-wing design, and I tested it.''
Johnston continued on the frontiers of aviation, testing the rocket-engined X-1 for the Air Force, with his friend Jack Woolams. Original plans called for the aircraft to be able to withstand 9 g's (nine times the pull of gravity). It was decided to beef it up to 18 g's.
``A good thing, too,'' says Johnston, because Chuck Yeager (``The Right Stuff'') accidentally went supersonic during a test flight in the X-1, slammed against the roof of the cockpit and was knocked unconscious. The aircraft attained incredible speeds as it bounced around crazily in the sky. Yeager pulled out just short of slamming into the ground.
Johnston lost one of his closest test-pilot friends, Ed Allen, during the war. Allen was flying a prototype B-29 over Seattle in 1943 when the aircraft developed problems and slammed into the Frye Packing Plant, just short of Boeing field. Thirty-two died.
He would lose another, Jack Woolams, after the war when both decided to enter the first postwar Thompson Trophy Race, aviation's premier test of aircraft speed and maneuverability.
Woolams was killed in a practice flight the day before the Thompson race, which required pilots to fly just a few feet off the ground as they went around four pylons. Although he was heartsick, Johnston went ahead with the race - in a modified P-39 Cobra II. He attained speeds of 420 mph and averaged 374.8 mph in breaking the record by 90 mph and winning the $19,200 first prize. Johnston gave half the check to Woolam's widow.
Bell was looking for markets for its newest product, helicopters. Johnston marketed them, showing the petroleum industry how they could be used in exploring for oil. But he preferred airplanes and was told ``Boeing is the best in the business.''
After testing B-47s and XB-52s at Boeing's Wichita plant, he moved to Seattle, where he tested the Dash 80, prototype 707-120s and 320s and then was moved into the space program - first as assistant program director for Dyna-Soar and then as director of Boeing Atlantic Test Center (BATC) in Florida for the Saturn program.
``It was a lot of fun but not as good as flying,'' says Johnston, who retired in 1968.
Johnston seldom flies today, ``because it's too expensive for a retiree.'' He also has given up big-game hunting, a sport that once took him all over the world, resulted in numerous trophies and cemented friendships with people such as the late radio and TV personality Arthur Godfrey.
``My last hunt soured me,'' says Johnston, describing how he and several other hunters flew over the ice floes in Alaska to track down polar bears. ``I shot one, but it was all so unsportsmanlike that I said `no more.' I gave away all my guns after that.''
With that Johnston grew silent. But there was one more question. Why was he called ``Tex'' if he was born in Kansas?
``I had been flying down in the Dallas area when I went up to Buffalo to work for Bell, and I walked in in these cowboy boots, and somebody said, `Hey, Tex is here!' Well, the name just stuck.
``When your mother makes the mistake of naming you `Alvin,' `Tex' isn't so bad.''
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