by Carole Beers
Seattle Times staff reporter
Alvin M. "Tex" Johnston, the former Boeing test pilot who aced a place in aviation history in 1955 by doing barrel rolls in a 707 over Lake Washington's Seafair hydroplane course, died yesterday in Mount Vernon. Mr. Johnston, who was 84, had Alzheimer's disease.
The jet in which he performed the impromptu stunt that has become part of Seattle lore was actually a Dash-80, a prototype of the 707, which, as the first jet airliner, launched a dynasty of such craft and ushered in the jet age. He pulled off the stunt on Aug. 7 during a routine pass during a race break to show the plane to a crowd of 200,000 that included Boeing executives and potential customers.
Then he did it again.
According to reports, the late William Allen, president of Boeing at the time, became visibly upset. But Larry Bell of Bell Aircraft reportedly said, "Bill, you don't know Tex very well. He just sold your airplane for you."
"He really was one of the pioneers of the jet age," said Joe Sutter, retired Boeing Commercial Airplane Group executive vice-president. "We had been checking out the flight characteristics of the airplane, which appeared very good to him. He told the crew to stay belted in - he'd actually just done two rolls over by Mount Rainier - when he came over the course and did the two rolls.
"Tex was not a daredevil. He was a very good engineering test pilot. But he also knew the value of P.R. He decided to take some personal heat to show off the airplane."
The next working day Allen told Mr. Johnston never to do that again.
"But (the plane) was never in danger," Sutter said. "We knew the airplane could do it."
So did airline clients; sales for Boeing commercial aircraft took off.
Born on a farm in Admire, Kan., where he picked up his famous drawl as well as a penchant for wearing cowboys hats and boots, Mr. Johnston fell in love with airplanes early. He studied at Kansas State Teachers College (now known as Pittsburg State University, in Pittsburg, Kan.), Spartan School of Aeronautics, Kansas State College (now Kansas State University) and the University of Buffalo, New York.
He logged his first flight hours at age 15 when he soloed in an open cockpit Waco monoplane. Shortly thereafter he earned his private pilot's license and barnstormed through the Midwest and Texas with the Innman Bros. Flying Circus.
In 1939 he became a civilian pilot-instructor for the Army Air Corps in Texas, then ferried military planes throughout North America.
He became a test pilot for Bell Aircraft in 1942. The next six years he debuted airplanes such as the P-63 V-tailed King Cobra fighter, and the Navy's L-39, the first American swept-wing airplane.
In 1948 he flew oil-exploration missions in Louisiana, Arizona and northern Alberta for a helicopter company in St. Louis.
In 1949 he joined Boeing. He conducted high-speed and stall tests on the B-47. He became a B-52 test pilot, then Boeing chief of flight test.
During this era, he and other engineers developed the 707, precursor of the Boeing 700-series. While it was being tested, Seattle's annual Seafair festival was under way; executives wanted the 707 flown past prospective buyers attending the Gold Cup race.
Mr. Johnston obliged. He made a slow pass. Then he put the plane in a shallow dive to gain speed, pulled steadily back on the wheel to keep the aircraft nose on the horizon, set the elevators to maintain a 1G force, and rotated the wheel hard.
He later told a reporter the plane felt so steady that "it didn't know it" when it rolled.
Mr. Johnston did other testing, and from 1961 to 1963 managed Boeing's Dyna-Soar manned space-glider program. He managed the Boeing Atlantic Test Flight Center from 1964-1968.
Mr. Johnston enjoyed big-game hunting and deep-sea fishing; trophies lined the walls of his home.
Also on his wall was the axiom:
"One test is worth a thousand expert opinions."
He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1993 and the OX-5 (early engine) Hall of Fame in 1994, and earned the Elder Statesman Award from the National Aeronautic Association.
"My father was a dynamic person and we are very proud of him," said his son, Gary Johnston of Edmonds. "He believed everyone should make a contribution to society, and he felt he had satisfied that in his lifetime."
Good luck, Vic