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“I was selling airplanes”

Published by Steve Campion. Category: Business & Industry

Boeing brought the world of commercial aviation into the jet age with the debut of the 707, but the very visible public debut of that plane, then known as the 367-80 (or simply the “Dash Eighty”), had Boeing president Bill Allen very upset.  The plane hadn’t won over any buyers yet and you could understand his nervousness (or fury) when he saw his company’s prototype jetliner do an unexpected barrel roll in front of a quarter million people and an assembled group of potential customers. The pilot was a former barnstormer who knew what he was doing.  Still

The legendary barrel roll maneuver took place over Seattle’s Lake Washington during a break in the action at the hydroplane Gold Cup races, 56 years ago today (1955 Aug 7).  Today — another hydroplane race day — we honor that memorable stunt with a list of facts and a link to a photo and video.


  • Alvin “Tex” Johnston took his first airplane ride at age 11, soloed at 15, and was barnstorming right after high school.
  • He was a flight test engineer for Bell Aircraft and then Boeing, who hired him in 1948.
  • The 367-80 (or “Dash Eighty”) would become the Boeing 707, the world’s first commercial jet airliner.
  • No planes had been sold by the time the Gold Cup hydroplane races took place on August 7, 1955.
  • Boeing president Bill Allen had invited a number of potential buyers to watch the action from a barge in the lake.
  • A quarter million other spectators were there watching the races from boats and the lake shore. They had just watched the Blue Angels perform.
  • The plan was for Tex Johnston to fly the Dash Eighty over the crowd.  It was to be a simple demonstration flyover.
  • Johnston had other ideas.  And he knew what the plane could do.
  • Also on board were co-pilot Jim Gannett, flight test engineer Bill Whitehead, and flight engineer Bruce Mengel.
  • Johnston descended as he approached Lake Washington, reaching an altitude some say was as low as 500 feet.
  • He then turned the aileron and nudged the elevators, putting the big jetliner into a 1G barrel roll, a common barnstorming stunt in which a plane corkscrews 360 degrees, turning upside down before righting itself.
  • The stunt was NOT common for a large, unsold, protoype jetliner whose company’s reputation was on the line.
  • Bill Allen was NOT amused.  Emmett Watson wrote that “ashen-faced and shaken,” Allen turned to a friend with known heart troubles and asked for ten heart pills.  Bill Yenne said that “it took him more than two decades before he could discuss the incident with a modicum of humor.”
  • Tex Johnston came out of his dramatic barrel roll 1,200 feet higher, and banked the plane into a turn.
  • Then he came back toward the lake and performed a second flawless roll.
  • Jim Gannett’s photograph from inside the upside-down airplane is on the Internet.
  • So is a video of one of the barrel rolls.
  • Early Monday morning, Tex Johnston was called into the president’s office.
  • “What do you think you were doing out there??” Bill Allen demanded. (His actual words were probably a bit more earthy.)
  • “I was selling airplanes,” Tex Johnston replied.
  • Allen didn’t fire Johnston, but warned him not to do it again.
  • Johnston’s storied test-pilot career lasted more than three decades, including 20 years at Boeing.

SOURCES: The story is legendary and details are readily available.  For this post I referenced my notes and a few short pieces in my library: “Tex Johnston” by Emmett Watson, The Seattle Times (as reprinted in Washingtonians, edited by David Brewster and David M Buerge (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1989).  Bill Yenne, The Story of the Boeing Company (St Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2005).

PHOTO by Steve Campion


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