How does a Boeing test pilot sell airplanes? Barrel rolls

Sixty years ago, Boeing test pilot ‘Tex’ Johnston gave perhaps the most famous sales pitch in history in the skies over Lake Washington.

He was flying Boeing’s Dash 80, the precursor to the 707 and KC-135, for thousands of spectators at Seattle’s Seafair hydroplane races. Executives from the Aircraft Industries Association and the International Air Transport Association were also in town and at the races.

In 1954, Boeing became the first American airplane maker to unveil a jet airliner prototype, catching its competitors largely flat-footed.

The new plane became popularly known as the Dash 80. Boeing had officially designated it Model 367-80 as a ruse to mislead competitors. Model 367 was Boeing’s internal designation for its propeller-driven C-97 Stratofreighter. So, to outsiders, calling it Model 367-80 made it sound like the company was designing another variation of the Stratofreighter.

After the Dash 80 made its public debut and started test flights, it became apparent that the tail design needed to be improved. It was not a major problem, but competitors started saying that the airplane was unstable, Johnston said in an interview years later.

He was scheduled to fly over Seafair during the Gold Cup Races. Some sources say it was Aug. 6, others say Aug. 7, 1955. (Either way, I haven’t had time to determine which is correct. If you have a definitive, first hand source, let me know. Contact info at end of story)

Johnston knew that airline industry execs would be watching. He knew that a barrel roll does not put a huge amount of stress on an airframe and that the Dash 80 could handle the maneuver, he said.

So, flying over Lake Washington, Johnston rolled the jetliner — twice.

That next day, Boeing President Bill Allen asked him to explain himself.

Johnston famously said that he was “selling airplanes.”

He also assured his boss that the roll had been perfectly safe.

Nonetheless, Allen told him not to do it again.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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