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August 05, 2007

A Damnedest Thing

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

We went to Seattle's annual unlimited hydroplane race yesterday to catch the first "heat" and the air show by the Navy's Blue Angels aerobatic demonstration team.

This brought back memories of one of the damnedest things I've ever seen -- something that took place at the same Lake Washington venue 7 August 1955.

There was an airshow that afternoon between race heats, just as now. I think the Blue Angels performed that day also, though I won't bet my life on it. But that's not what I'm talking about.

Approaching the race course, heading north over the center of the lake, came Boeing's 707 airliner prototype, the famous Dash-80 -- then about a year old. When it got to the race area it seemingly started to bank, but didn't. Instead it did a stately barrel roll, a sort of corkscrew maneouver, not a tight Blue Angels type roll.

This was completely unexpected and those of us in the audience had a profound What In Hell Is Going On Here reaction.

I won't swear it was the damnedest thing I ever saw, but it ranks highly.

Below is a photo taken from the aircraft when it was upside-down.


Piloting the Dash-80 was colorful test pilot "Tex" Johnston (who actually came from Kansas). An account of the incident is here.

And here is a link to a YouTube video showing a not-very-clear film of the barrel roll and Johnston (who died in 1998) explaining what happened.

Johnston maintained that what he did was perfectly safe: the stress on the airplane's wings was one "G," the same as in normal level flight. So it seemed pretty hairy, but really wasn't.

Nevertheless, there were no other 707s (technically, the prototype wasn't one either -- it was simply Boeing design number 367-80) and if it were destroyed, Boeing would have suffered greatly. So as Tex explains in the video, Boeing chief Bill Allen gently told him never to repeat the stunt. Johnston never did.

Me? I'm glad I was there to witness it.



posted by Donald at August 5, 2007


Heavens to betsy! I can imagine that that made heads shake in confusion. Is that the only time anyone's ever put a 707 through a barrel roll?

Posted by: MIchael Blowhard on August 6, 2007 1:13 AM

Michael -- According to Tex Johnston's autobiography (link here), pages 202-4 in my hardback copy, two rolls were made over the race course. He suggests that a practice roll was made en route. So perhaps three rolls took place that day. (He also mentioned that the Blue Angels were indeed flying that day and that his flyover took place just after their performance ended.) He did so because a large number of aviation industry notables were in town for a meeting and he thought that the stunt would be good publicity, which it was.

I don't know if barrel rolls of jet airliners were done by others. But apparently it's an easy task if done right.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on August 6, 2007 2:00 AM

Good grief - I've heard and read about that stunt for years, and you were there to see it? Wonder if anyone's been tempted to try that in a 747. . .

Posted by: Derek Lowe on August 6, 2007 9:47 PM

A 747 has been rolled, by accident. It was Taiwan-based China Airlines. The link to the story:

The plane is apparently still flying and is for sale!

Posted by: Kurt9 on August 7, 2007 12:32 PM

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