Alvin M. "Tex" Johnston (1914-1998) first took to the air in 1925, carried aloft by a barnstorming pilot who had landed near the Johnston family's Kansas farm. He was just 11 years old, but the course of his professional life was set. From that day on, Johnston pursued a passion for flying that would put him in the pilot's seat of gliders, biplanes, military planes, America's first experimental jet fighter, helicopters, and the rocket-powered Bell X-1, which fellow test pilot Chuck Yeager (b. 1923) used to break the sound barrier just months later. If it had wings or rotors, Johnston could fly it, and over his long career he became one of America's elite test pilots, a pioneer of flight in both military and commercial realms. In 1948 he was hired by Boeing to put the company's revolutionary XB-47 Stratojet bomber through its paces, and he later would test the company's YB-52 Stratofortress. On August 6, 1955, Johnston earned a special place in aviation history with a spectacular and unanticipated feat -- executing two slow barrel rolls over the Lake Washington hydroplane races in the Dash-80 prototype for the Boeing 707, the world's first commercially successful jet airliner.
Kansas Farm Boy
Born in the Corn Belt town of Admire, Kansas, on August 18, 1914, Johnston was the only child of farmers Alva Meril Johnston (1891-1967) and Ella Viola Johnston (1891-1959). One day in 1925, a barnstorming pilot landed in a neighbor's pasture, drawing a small crowd. When the pasture's owner told the pilot go elsewhere, another farmer offered the use of his nearby land. Young Al, as he was then known, asked to ride along. As Johnston recalled years later, after they landed he grabbed the pilot's hand and said, "I love you and I'm going to be just like you" (Johnston and Barton, 6).
Johnston began reading everything he could find about flying, covered the walls of his bedroom with pictures from aviation magazines, and built dozens of airplane models from scratch. He and a friend found a damaged glider, which they purchased for $25 and repaired. Towed behind his father's car, the glider familiarized the boys with the basic control surfaces of fixed-wing aircraft -- ailerons, elevators, and rudder.
In 1929, age 15, Johnston took his first flying lesson. A Waco biplane landed near Admire with instructor Toy Franklin at the controls, and Johnston bargained for an initial half-hour lesson for $10. Franklin remained in Emporia, about 15 miles away, for the next two years, and Johnston, using paper-route money, logged dozens of short training flights with him.
In 1931 a barnstorming troupe, Inman Brothers Flying Circus, flew into Emporia for the town's Fourth of July celebration. Johnston hired on as a gofer, doing everything from selling tickets to cleaning and fueling the group's four airplanes. He was maturing fast: According to his autobiography, in 1931 and 1932, when not attending school, he found time to harvest wheat in western Kansas, work on a farm and win an amateur boxing match in Oregon, visit the gambling halls of Reno, and tour the Boeing Aviation School in Glendale, California.
Johnston enrolled in Kansas State Teacher's College in Emporia in the fall of 1931. Near the end of the second semester, his parents offered to help him pay for an airplane-mechanics course at the Spartan School of Aeronautics in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Johnston arranged to work in the school's maintenance shop, with his wages applied to flight lessons, and his parents added enough money for him earn a limited commercial pilot's license.
The air hours he accumulated during two years of short training flights with Toy Franklin were applied to the license requirements, and Johnston flew his first solo within two weeks of his arrival in Tulsa. He earned his cross-country certification by flying from Tulsa to Emporia, buzzing his parents' Admire home, landing in a nearby pasture, spending the night, and returning to Tulsa the following day. After a successful check ride with a U.S. Department of Commerce flight inspector, Johnston, not yet 20, held a limited commercial pilot's license and was certified as an airframe and engine mechanic. There were jobs available for airplane mechanics, but none of them offered what Johnston wanted most -- free flight time. He took a bus to Coffeyville, Kansas, and again offered his services to the Inman brothers.
The peak years for barnstorming in American were the 1920s. Mustered-out military pilots from World War I could buy surplus Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplanes from the government for as little as $200. Essentially unregulated at first, these daredevils traveled the country, often in troupes called "flying circuses." Shows included aerobatics, parachute demonstrations, wing-walking, mid-air plane transfers, and selling rides to the more intrepid spectators. They performed primarily in rural areas, where many residents had never seen an airplane.
In 1926 Congress passed the Air Commerce Act, which required pilots to be tested and licensed and their planes certified as airworthy. The first pilot's license in America was issued by the Department of Commerce on April 6, 1927. As barnstorming became more competitive and fatal accidents more common, new regulations put a damper on the free-wheeling performances of earlier years. Several of the more spectacular stunts were restricted to higher altitudes, making them far less exciting for those on the ground, and limitations were placed on selling rides to spectators. Another blow to the barnstormers came when the military stopped selling surplus Jennys in the late 1920s.
Many found it impossible to continue, but among those who survived were the Inmans, who would endure until the late 1930s. The founder and chief pilot, Rolley Rodger Inman (d. 1947), flew with his two brothers, and his wife, Margie Lynn Inman (d. 1987), was the wing-walker. Besides the standard biplanes, the Inmans had an expensive and unusual asset for a flying circus -- a metal-bodied, single-wing Ford Tri-Motor. When introduced in 1926, this was the largest civilian aircraft in America, designed for use as a commercial airliner.
Johnston was welcomed back by the Inmans. He had only about 50 hours of flight time, but he became something more than the gofer he had been three years earlier. His main job was maintaining the engines of the Ford Tri-motor and another of the Inmans' larger aircraft. He also slept with and guarded the planes at night, a task shared with Thor, Rolley Inman's full-grown, semi-tame lion. The pay was not great, but part of the compensation was free flying lessons in the Ford Tri-Motor, one of the most advanced aircraft of the era.
Johnston's days with the Inmans would be few, however. The country was in the grip of the Great Depression, and the misery in the rural Midwest was compounded by the ecological disaster called the Dust Bowl. Crowds were sparse and revenues short. One Inman plane crashed while carrying two spectators; only the pilot was injured, but the Inmans feared the plane would be attached by the local sheriff. It was time to move on. Never short on confidence, Johnston decided to start barnstorming himself. He returned home, and with his parents drove to the Spartan facility in Tulsa. Before the end of the day Johnston owned a Command-Aire biplane powered by a Curtiss Challenger radial engine.
Accompanied by a childhood friend, Johnston spent a profitable few months in 1934 barnstorming and selling rides in Kansas and Colorado. He did only one season, realizing that "barnstorming belonged to an era that would soon be over" (Johnston and Barton, 31). When winter came, Johnston sold the plane and returned to his parents' home in Admire to ponder his future. United Airlines by then was carrying passengers across the continent in 20 hours in Boeing 247 airliners, and new and better planes were in the works. Johnston decided he wanted to work in aeronautical engineering, where he could both participate in the design of new aircraft and test-fly them. This required more education, and for that he needed money that he did not yet have.
In June 1935 Johnston married DeLores Honea (1915-1970), whom he occasionally had dated in high school in Emporia. Needing to earn a steady living, the couple became motion-picture distributors, owning the small Rialto Theater in Lyndon, Kansas, and running another, in Oklahoma. In September 1937 the first of what would be their three children was born.
Johnston had been away from flying for nearly three years and was eager to get back to it. When they got an offer on the Rialto, they sold it and moved to Manhattan, Kansas, where he enrolled in the engineering program at Kansas State University. The course work was difficult, and Johnston had to work afternoons in a gas station to make ends meet. A hired tutor helped him get a grip on the math that came with first-year engineering classes. By 1938 he was feeling comfortable with his studies, but money was tight. It was the looming threat of war in Europe that would get Johnston back in the air, and this time he would be well paid for it.
On the Wing Again
In the two decades after World War I, the U.S. Army Air Corp (there was as yet no separate U.S. Air Force and would not be until 1947) had been largely defunded, creating a critical shortage of both planes and people to fly them. To build a pool of pilots who could be called on for military service if needed, the federal government in 1938 established the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). Free ground school and flight training was given to college students through private flight schools working on contract with the government. One CPTP school was opening at the Manhattan airport, and Johnston applied for a teaching job.
He by now had plenty of hours in the air, but still needed to qualify for a flight-instructor's license. He took a 10-day leave from classes, drove to Kansas City, and earned both a teaching license and an unrestricted commercial pilot's license. He went to work at the CPTP school, earning $600 a month, a substantial amount of money at the time. (By 1944 CPTP had trained more than 435,000 pilots, including African Americans and women enrolled under the program's pioneering non-discrimination policy.)
in 1940 Johnston decided that he had enough knowledge to work in aircraft development, even without a degree. He was offered a job as primary flight instructor at a CPTP training field at Fort Hicks in Texas, dropped out of the college, and moved there with his wife and young child. He was teaching at Curtis Field near Brady, Texas, on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing America into World War II.
Now at war, America drastically ramped up aircraft production, producing nearly 50,000 planes in 1942 alone. As they poured out of factories working 24-7, the planes needed pilots to deliver them to their destinations. The air corps created a Ferry Command, using civilian pilots under military control, and Johnston signed on.
The Ferry Command flight schedule was intense. Johnston flew nearly every day and many nights, delivering a variety of aircraft -- small and large, single engine and multi-engine, trainers, cargo planes, fighters, and bombers -- to locations in the U.S. and Canada. He was racking up flying hours at a furious rate, but his goal remained the aircraft-development side of things. In late 1942 he sent out several applications, including one to Bell Aircraft of Niagara Falls, New York. He was offered a job there as a production test pilot and snapped it up. Just 17 years after that first short flight between Kansas cow pastures, Johnston's long and distinguished career in aircraft development was launched.
New Job, New Name
It was at Bell that Alvin Johnston became "Tex" Johnston, a nickname derived from his Stetson hat, cowboy boots, and penchant for calling his coworkers "pardner." (Johnston allegedly was the model for the Stetson-wearing B-52 pilot J. T. "King" Kong played by Slim Pickens in the movie Dr. Strangelove.) His first assignment as a production test pilot, in January 1943, was flying Bell's P-39 Airacobra fighters, unusual planes that had the engine behind the cockpit and a machine gun that fired through a hollow propeller shaft.
As the name indicates, "production" test pilots do pre-delivery testing of planes already in full production. The next step for Johnston was to become an experimental test pilot, an altogether riskier business, flying planes during their development phase. His path to that status was accelerated when he was assigned to fly, analyze, and evaluate a captured German Folke-Wulf 190 fighter, which he found to be a formidable warplane.
Johnston's first assignment as an experimental test pilot was the Bell XP-63 Kingcobra (the "X" signifying its experimental status), a slightly larger, supercharged, high-altitude version of the P-39. Due to its short range, the Kingcobra would never be used in combat by the U.S. military, but along with about half of the P-39s Bell manufactured, it became a mainstay of the Russian air force battling Nazis on the Eastern Front.
In addition to testing experimental models, Johnston was asked to diagnose problems that pilots had reported in operational warplanes not manufactured by Bell, including Republic's P-47 Thunderbolt and North American Aviation's P-51 Mustang, the latter of which became America's premier World War II fighter plane.
First Jets, First Prize
In November 1943 Johnston was tapped by Bell to participate in a top-secret program in the Mojave Desert at Muroc Army Airfield (now part of Edwards Air Force Base). The technology of propeller-driven planes had gone about as far as it could go; jet propulsion was the next step. Both Great Britain and Germany had test flown jet-powered aircraft earlier in the war, and America's first such plane, Bell's twin-engine XP-59A Airacomet, had its maiden flight October 1942. Johnston spent several months in 1944 testing the aircraft before returning to Niagara Falls. Ultimately, the Airacomet was a disappointment. Although 50 were produced and delivered to the military in late 1944, none saw combat and most were eventually scrapped.
A busy two years followed. Johnston soon returned to the desert, assigned by Bell to test its jet-powered XP-83 escort-fighter prototype. It too was a disappointment, and the program was scrapped. In April 1946, Johnston was the first to fly one of only two Bell L-39s, modified Kingcobras that were America's first experimental swept-wing airplanes. After that he again returned to Niagara Fall and was named Bell's chief test pilot, responsible for all testing of the company's fixed-wing aircraft.
With the war over, Johnston decided to compete for the Thompson Trophy in 1946 at the National Air Races, which had not been held since 1939. The trophy was awarded to the winner of a challenging closed-course, low-altitude pylon race. After a fellow Bell test pilot, Jack Woolams (1917-1946), was killed during a practice run, Johnston was ordered by the company not to compete, but he threatened to resign and was allowed to continue. On September 1, 1946, flying a modified P-39 Airacobra, he won the trophy. His average speed of almost 374 miles per hour was more than 90 mph faster than the 1939 winner.
The U.S. military's X-Plane Program comprised a family of experimental aircraft built by various companies and used exclusively for research. Before the program was discontinued in 1995, nearly 50 different X-planes had extended the capabilities of flight technology for both manned and unmanned craft. The first was the rocket-powered Bell X-1, which had its maiden flight on December 9, 1946. The X-1 was built for a single primary purpose -- to fly faster than any aircraft had ever flown before. Its fuselage was the shape of a .50 caliber machine-gun bullet, which was known not to tumble at high speeds. Its wings were short, straight, and thin, and it was powered by a four-chambered rocket that burned liquid oxygen and a mixture of alcohol and water. Unable to take off on its own, the X-1 was dropped from the belly of a B-29 bomber.
Johnston now had overall control of Bell's testing program at Muroc in the Mojave, which took him out of the routine test-flight rotation. He was under orders to fly the X-1 only under unusual circumstances, and he was determined to find some. On May 22, 1947, claiming he was dissatisfied with the progress being made, he strapped himself in and became just the second pilot to fly the X-1. During the flight he detected previously unreported high-speed problems with the craft's longitudinal trim system, and he ordered the plane grounded until they were resolved. Displeased by the grounding, the military took over the testing from Bell. Nonetheless, the trim problems were corrected, and on October 14, 1947, an X-1 named Glamorous Glennis, piloted by Chuck Yeager (Glennis's husband), became the first aircraft to push through the sound barrier.
When the end of the war was in sight, Bell Aircraft began to turn its focus away from the military to concentrate on commercial products, and by 1948 it had developed the first helicopter (or rotary-wing aircraft) certified for civilian use in America. Back in Niagara Falls, with few options in sight, Johnston reluctantly agreed to learn its technical details and how to fly one. He was then sent around the country (by airplane) to develop a commercial market for helicopters, concentrating on the oil industry and agriculture. Early success led to his appointment as director of Bell Helicopter's field operations, headquartered in Houston, Texas.
Johnston's work for Bell's helicopter division went well. He proved the worth of the aircraft for oil exploration in such difficult environments as Louisiana's coastal marshes and Canada's northern bush country, and he developed markets for crop dusting and uranium prospecting. But he was dissatisfied, and he longed to return to developing and flying high-performance airplanes.
The Boeing Company's XB-47 Stratojet, a strategic bomber, was a six-engine jet behemoth that first flew on December 17, 1947, launching a jet-age Boeing dynasty that endured into the twenty-first century. It is considered the most significant multi-jet aircraft in history, and it influenced the development of most commercial jetliners that came after.
On May 11, 1949, during flight testing at Moses Lake, the plane's canopy blew off, killing test pilot Scott Osler. When Johnston heard Boeing was looking for a new pilot, he applied and was hired. The family had barely settled in Seattle when Boeing announced it was relocating the test program to Wichita, where the plane's production line was being set up. It was the 12th move in 14 years for the family. Before the move, Johnston took his first flight in the Stratojet, taking off from Moses Lake and sitting in the copilot's seat. His terse comment after the flight was, "Magnificent. Performs like a fighter" (Johnston and Barton, 149).
Johnston became the senior experimental test pilot for the XB-47, taking it through the entire developmental stage. With the testing near completion, the secretary and undersecretary of the U.S. Air Force came to Wichita to take a test ride. According to his autobiography, during that ride Johnston performed what he described as two complete inside loops, one at 12,000 and the other at 16,000 feet. These briefly had the huge bomber completely inverted before recovering in a vertical dive. Later accounts characterized at least one of the maneuvers as a barrel roll. Either way, it was not the last time Johnston would do something shocking while flying an in-development, multi-million-dollar airplane.
After the XB-47 was accepted by the air force, Johnston moved back to Seattle to become the project pilot for the YB- and XB-52 Stratofortress, eight-engine, long-range, heavy bombe destined for the nation's Strategic Air Command. It first flew, with Johnston at the controls, in April 1952, and the first production model was delivered to the military in 1955. Nearly 750 would follow, and as of 2020, 65 years after that first delivery, dozens of those B-52s remained in service.
Betting the Company
In 1952 the Boeing Company, led by William Allen (1900-1985), committed $16 million (two-thirds of the company's net profits since the end of World War II and nearly $156 million in 2020 dollars) to designing, building, and testing the pioneering 367-80. Nicknamed the Dash-80, it was the prototype for the enormously successful 707 jet transport and the KC-135 jet tanker.
The British in 1952 had been first to launch a commercial jet, the De Havilland Comet DH-106, but after several disastrous depressurization accidents the 106 was pulled from service in January 1954 and never returned. Russia launched a jetliner, the Tupolev TU-104, in September 1956. It too had safety problems, but for two years was the only turbojet airliner carrying passengers, although limited to use within the Soviet Union and its satellite states.
From day one, Tex Johnston was the chief of flight testing and engineering test pilot for the Dash-80, taking it aloft from Boeing Field for its first flight on July 15, 1954 (a flight delayed for several weeks after the plane's left landing gear collapsed during a taxiing test on May 21).
A Day at the Races
After further testing and fine-tuning, it was decided that the Dash-80 would make its official debut to the public by flying over the Gold Cup hydroplane races on Lake Washington on August 7, 1955. One reason for the choice was that two influential aviation organizations, the International Air Transport Association and Society of Aeronautical Engineers, were holding their annual meetings in Seattle that week.
Johnston decided to give them a show to remember, a plan he disclosed to his copilot and flight engineer only after they were airborne, telling them, "There are more than two hundred thousand spectators. Everyone in the airplane and airline business is here ... We're going to get their attention and make this airplane famous" (Johnston and Barton, 216-217).
Johnston waited for the navy's Blue Angels aerobatic team to clear the sky, then swooped the Dash-80 over the race course on a southwest heading, just 400 feet above the water. He pulled into a 35-degree climb while applying full left roll control. The 128-foot-long, 160,000-pound plane rotated on its horizontal axis, flying for a short time upside down. In case anyone missed it, Johnston performed a second barrel roll on the return run. (Some aviators claim Johnston did aileron rolls instead of barrel rolls; others disagree.) When Boeing President William Allen asked him the following day what he thought he was doing, Johnston replied, "Selling the airplane" (Johnston and Barton, 218). It was later reported that he had practiced the stunt earlier, and he told Seattle journalist Emmett Watson, "It's not a maneuver for just anybody. It was something I gave a hell of a lot of thought to. You've got to do it right or you'll bust your ass" ("Pilot's Stunt Rolled ...").
On October 16, 1955, the Dash-80, piloted by Johnston and with Allen and other dignitaries onboard, flew from Boeing Field to Washington, D.C. in 3 hours and 48 minutes, less than half the time required for propeller-powered flights.
Johnston stayed with Boeing until 1968, working on the never-built Dyna Soar space plane and as director of the Boeing Atlantic Test Center, managing the Saturn S-1C and Apollo NASA programs. He then went into business for himself, starting a flight-simulator company and serving as president of Aero Spacelines Inc., which developed the bulbous "pregnant Guppy" transport for outsized cargo, including NASA rockets. In 1975 Johnston became chief pilot and test director for Stanley Aviation Corporation, his last job before retirement.
Widowed in 1995 after 60 years of marriage, Johnston fell victim to Alzheimer's disease. He died on October 29, 1998, while resident in Mount Vernon. Late in life he looked back on his long and varied career and mused, "From biplanes to rockets, it all took place within the span of one man's career" (Johnston and Barton, 278).