Boeing prototype jet performs dramatic roll over Lake Washington on August 7, 1955.

  • By Patrick McRoberts
  • Posted 11/25/1998
  • Essay 390
On August 7, 1955, Alvin M. "Tex" Johnston stuns the crowd at the Seafair Gold Cup hydroplane race on Lake Washington by barrel (or aileron) rolling the prototype Dash-80, the precursor to the Boeing 707, thus launching the era of the modern commercial jet. Johnston's co-pilot was Boeing test pilot James R. Gannett (1923-2006). Even Boeing President William Allen is taken by surprise as he escorts potential customers who are seeing the jet for the first time.

Flying at more than 400 miles per hour just 400 feet above the water, Johnston commenced a sudden ascent. The jet's swept-back wings spiraled as the 128-foot-long, 160,000 pound plane rolled, flying for a short time upside down. Then, for extra measure, Johnston performed a second barrel-roll. (Although what Johnston did was generally called a barrel-roll, some consider it an aileron roll in which a plane rotates on its long axis, rather than describing a "barrel" loop. However, unlike a conventional aileron, or snap, roll, Johnston maintained positive gravity through the maneuver.)

Boeing President Allen asked a guest with a heart problem if he could borrow his pills. The potential jet buyers were duly impressed. By the time Johnston broke the transcontinental speed record in 1957 by flying from Seattle to Baltimore in three hours, 48 minutes, orders for the new 707 were pouring in.

Sources: Robert McG. Thomas Jr., "Tex Johnston, Daring Jet Test Pilot, Dies at 84," The New York Times, November 14, 1998, p. A-16; Robert Douglas, "Pioneers in Aviation" video (Aiolos Productions, Ltd., 2001). Note: The designation of Johnston's maneuver as a barrel or aileron roll remains a source of ongoing discussion among pilots and engineers. To lay observers of the film record, it looks like a little of each.
Note: This essay was updated on March 16, 2004 and again on June 22, 2006.

Related Topics:   Aviation | Curiosities | Firsts

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