54 years ago today, test pilot Tex Johnston performed a barrel roll in a Boeing 707 prototype in front a group of prospective buyers over Lake Union.
As part of the Dash 80’s demonstration program, Bill Allen invited representatives of the Aircraft Industries Association (AIA) and International Air Transport Association to the Seattle’s 1955 Seafair and Gold Cup Hydroplane Races held on Lake Washington on August 6, 1955. The Dash-80 was scheduled to perform a simple flyover, but Boeing test pilot Alvin “Tex” Johnston instead performed a barrel roll to show off the jet airliner.
The next day, Allen summoned Johnston to his office and told him not to perform such a maneuver again, notwithstanding Johnston’s assertion that doing so was completely safe (“It’s a one-g maneuver. It’s absolutely nonhazardous, but it’s very impressive,” explained Johnston to Allen).
To date the only other four engine jet transport aircraft known to have been rolled is Concorde which was extensively rolled during testing by both British and French test-pilots. Other big four engine jet aircraft have done barrel rolls; for instance, the Avro Vulcan XA890 was rolled by Roly Falk on the first day of the 1955 Farnborough Airshow, but it was a bomber. The barrel roll story appears on a video called Frontiers of Flight – The Jet Airliner, produced by the National Air and Space Museum in association with the Smithsonian Institution in 1992.
The legacy of the 707 barrel roll lives on: Boeing Chief Test Pilot John Cashman has stated that just before he piloted the maiden flight of the Boeing 777 on June 12, 1994, his last instructions from then-Boeing President Phil Condit were “No rolls.”
Video of the event.
Photo taken from the cockpit while the plane was halfway through the maneuver.
Tex Johnston had an accomplished career in aviation in both the military and private sectors, and even won the Thompson Trophy race in 1946.
Photos are from the LIFE archive.