Barrel Roll Redux

By Brian Baum

April 2016

On Aug. 7, 1955, Boeing test pilot A.M. "Tex" Johnston received a request from company management to fly the sleek new Dash 80 (707) past a crowd of 250,000 attending the Gold Cup hydroplane races on Lake Washington in Seattle. Bringing America's first jet transport over the racecourse in a low, high-speed pass, Tex smoothly pulled up the aircraft's nose and completed a perfect barrel roll. To convince the startled crowd the maneuver was no fluke, he brought the plane around and did it again.

Some 37 years later, as the public information officer for Seattle's Museum of Flight, I had the good fortune to accompany Tex to Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane for a presentation to Boeing B-52 and KC-135 pilots and crew. His talk to these airmen was appropriate, as Tex flew the first flight of the prototype of both of these aircraft.

As part of their hospitality, the base arranged for us to experience 30 minutes in the state-of-the-art KC-135R simulator. It had been many years since the then-77-year-old former pilot had been at the controls of a large jet, and it was difficult for him to absorb all of the changes made in the cockpit. The once-familiar black-and-white analog gauges in the KC-135 had given way to an array of multicolored digital dials and screens. After a few unsuccessful attempts to complete a short flight, the simulator's instructor pilot in the right seat took over control and set out to re-enact the famous Gold Cup roll for our benefit. Unfortunately, before the completion of the maneuver, the flight abruptly ended.

The simulator restarted, Tex again took command. You could see his determination as he ignored the instruments and worked the controls by feel. He asked a B-52 pilot standing behind the left seat for the airspeed reading. When the captain called out the speed that he was looking for, Tex pulled the nose up and turned the yoke hard to the left. The horizon outside the windscreen and on the instrument panel smoothly inverted and quickly righted. If any of us in the simulator were uncertain of what we had just seen, he rolled it a second time -- just like that day nearly four decades earlier.

There's that old saying about once you learn to ride a bicycle you never forget. I guess the same applies to rolling a large four-engine jet aircraft.