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Boeing Frontiers
April 2004
Volume 02, Issue 11
Boeing Frontiers
Historical Perspective

Eddie Allen, the dean of test pilots


Eddie Allen sits at the controls of a B-17Edmund T. "Eddie" Allen, a pioneer of modern flight test and arguably the greatest test pilot ever, flew for nearly every major aircraft manufacturer and took some of the most famous planes of all time up for their first flights. His flying and engineering skills were so well-regarded that some insurance companies would insure test flights only if Allen was at the controls.

Allen was born in Chicago on Jan. 4, 1896, and attended the University of Illinois. As a Lieutenant in the Signal Corps during World War I, he served as a pilot instructor and was also assigned to flight testing at McCook Field in Ohio. After the war, he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in the summers was chief test pilot for the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics at Langley Field in Virginia.

In 1925, he became an air mail pilot for Boeing Air Transport and also served as a test pilot for the various aircraft manufacturers that made up United Aircraft and Transport Corporation.

In 1934, Allen went to the fledgling North American Aviation and took its first airplane, the NA-16 trainer, on its first flight. As a freelance pilot, Allen contributed to flight testing of the Douglas DC-1 and was the first to fly the Curtiss C-46 Commando, the giant Boeing XB-15, the 307 Stratoliner and the 314 Clipper.

In April 1939, Boeing gave him a permanent position as the head of the company's Research Division, and direct charge of all flight testing and of aerodynamics and wind tunnel research. Even this permanent position at Boeing did not stop the Army Air Force from borrowing Eddie Allen for the first flight of the Lockheed Constellation.

Allen was not the image of the daredevil test pilot that Hollywood promoted. In contrast, he was very slender, and some described him as frail. He considered himself an engineer as well as a pilot and insisted that the test pilot should be involved in the development of new aircraft and not just in flying them. Allen developed a systematic approach to flight testing and set standards that are the basis for modern flight testing. He also formed a dedicated flight-test and aeronautical research organization at Boeing and insisted that the company develop its own high-speed wind tunnel--an idea that was directly responsible for Boeing being in position to take the leadership in the development of large swept-wing jets.

As the United States became involved in World War II, Boeing was awarded a contract to build the most technologically advanced airplane of the war: the B-29 Superfortress. Of course, Allen was the test pilot.

On Sept. 21, 1942, Allen took the first XB-29 on its initial flight and continued as the program's chief pilot until Feb. 18, 1943. On that date, during approach to Boeing Field, an engine fire led to the crash of the XB-29, which claimed the life of Allen and 10 other crew members.

Allen is remembered not only as an unmatched pilot but also as an outstanding scientist. Losing him was devastating not only to the people of Boeing but to the aviation world. Time magazine wrote: "Eddie Allen, who had no peer in his combination of piloting virtuosity and engineering skill...probably no other man in aviation could be so hardly spared."

Eddie Allen's contributions were recognized with some of aviation's greatest awards, including the very first Chanute award in 1939. In 1942, he was selected to present the prestigious Wright Brothers lecture.

He was posthumously awarded the Daniel Guggenheim award, and The Boeing Company dedicated its high-speed wind tunnel and aeronautical research laboratories to him. Those facilities are still known today as the Edmund T. Allen Memorial Aeronautical Laboratories.

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