Aviation History

The day Boeing test pilot Alvin “Tex” Johnston Barrel Rolled the prototype of the Boeing 707

Boeing Company President William Allen asked “Tex” Johnston: “What the hell were you doing?” He replied “I was selling airplanes.”

After World War II, the British paved the way for commercial jets with the de Havilland Comet. Tragically, structural problems that led to catastrophic accidents grounded the Comet — and enthusiasm for the commercial jet.

Until the advent of the Boeing 707.

The Boeing 367-80 was the prototype for the Boeing 707.

Boeing Company President William Allen and his management are said to have “bet the company” on a vision that the future of commercial aviation was jets. In 1952, the Boeing board gave the go-ahead to commit $16 million of the company’s own money to building the pioneering 367-80, nicknamed the “Dash 80.” That then-huge amount represented nearly all the profit the company had made since the end of the World War II.

They set out to counter public nervousness. The Boeing strategy was to use the Dash 80 prototype for press and customer flights and an advertising campaign that was directed at the public, stressing the comfort and safety of jet air travel.

As part of the Dash 80s demonstration program Boeing test pilot Alvin “Tex” Johnston performed a barrel roll to show off the Boeing 367-80, as the incredible video in this post filmed on Aug. 6, 1955 shows.

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According to the video description, Allen invited representatives of the Aircraft Industries Association and International Air Transport Association to the Seattle’s 1955 Seafair and Gold Cup Hydroplane Races held on Lake Washington on Aug. 6, 1955. Boeing’s 367-80 was scheduled to perform a simple flyover, but Tex Johnston instead performed a barnstormer style barrel roll to show off the jet airliner.

The next day, Allen summoned Johnston to his office and told him not to perform such a maneuver again, Johnston replied that doing so was completely safe. Allen asked him: “What the hell were you doing?” Johnston replied “I was selling airplanes.”

Tex kept his position as a test pilot and did not get into any legal trouble for his actions. His flying style and cowboy type dress (Johnston earned his nickname, “Tex” because he always wore his Stetson cowboy hat and cowboy boots while on the flight line) is said to be the inspiration for Dr. Strangelove character Maj. T. J. “King” Kong, who, in rodeo style, rode a balky nuclear weapon to its target.

The Dash 80 prototype led to the commercial Boeing 707 and the military KC-135 tanker.

Boeing Chief Test Pilot John Cashman stated that just before he piloted the maiden flight of the Boeing 777 on Jun. 12, 1994, his last instructions from then Boeing President Phil Condit were “No rolls”.

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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