The year was 1955. Thousands had flocked to see the annual Seafair Cup unlimited hydroplane race on Lake Washington, Seattle. Coinciding with the Seafair week, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) also decided to hold its annual convention in Seattle that year.
A view from the Boeing 707 prototype as Tex Johnston barrel-rolled over Lake Washington on Aug. 7, 1955. The photo (re-mastered) was taken by his test engineer, Bel Whitehead.
August 7th, 1955: Boeing’s chief of flight testing Tex Johnston was to perform a simple flyover of the Boeing 707 prototype over Lake Washington in Seattle during the annual hydroplane races for the benefit of industry executives who were watching from chartered boats on the lake. However, Johnston decided that he was going to impress everyone with something an airliner was not supposed to do. Little did he know he was about to enter into aviation history that even today has people talking.
Boeing was testing the 707 prototype, otherwise then known as the “Dash 80”. Boeing was known for building large jet aircraft for the US Air Force, and this was the first passenger jet developed by Boeing. The president of Boeing at the time, Bill Allen, realized it was the perfect opportunity to show off the prototype to all the airline executives who had assembled in Seattle from around the world.
‘The famous barrel roll over Lake Washington’
Instead of performing a simple flyover over Lake Washington, and with a crowd of 250,000 attending and airline executives from around the world watching, Johnston decided to surprise everyone by performing a barrel roll which would place the aircraft upside down for a couple of seconds. According to the Seattle Times, he executed the barrel roll at a speed of 490 miles/hr. (789 km/hr.).
Then, just in case anyone had missed it, Tex Johnson repeated the manoeuvre.
Bill Allen was dumbfounded as he witnessed it all from the chartered boat. Allen had pushed the Boeing’s board of directors to invest $16 million (about $150 million today) into the prototype. This amount 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.”
Later when Tex was interviewed he said, “I knew that no one would believe what they had seen, so I turned around and I came back and repeated the same thing on a westerly heading.”
In his book “Jet-Age Test Pilot,” Johnston explains, “The airplane does not recognize attitude, providing a manoeuvre 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 manoeuvre and quite impressive, but the airplane never knows it’s inverted.”
It was supposed to be an uneventful flight and didn’t even have a minimum crew. Luckily, one of the test engineers on the aircraft happened to have his camera with him and snapped a picture that later became famous, showing the aircraft on its back, the engines up on top of the wing, and Lake Washington below.
The general public had some hesitancy transitioning from propeller-powered aircraft to jet aircraft. The structural flaws and fatal crashes of the British-made de Havilland DH-106 Comet which had met a series of catastrophic accidents due to metal fatigue a few years earlier had made passengers sceptical of jet-powered aircraft. This changed everything.
Bill Allen was not very happy with Johnston’s unapproved aerobatics and called him into his office to explain his actions. Johnston replied that the manoeuvre performed at one G was harmless.
To this, Allen responded, “You know that. Now we know that. But just don’t do it anymore.”
Tex 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.”
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.
It is a fact that the legend of the barrel roll has grown bigger as time goes on.