Three years after introducing his new 707, William Allen had burned through $16 million of stockholders equity and had yet to sell one plane; his vision stood on the edge of failure. Buyers were holding back waiting for a look the soon-to-be-released Douglas Aircraft jet-powered DC 8.
Allen’s opportunity to show off the 707 came on the afternoon of August 7, 1955. It was a warm sunny day with 200,000 spectators congregated on the shores of Lake Washington to watch the annual speedboat races. William Allen ordered Tex Johnston to take the plane up and give the hometown crowd a look at the new 707. On a yacht, anchored offshore, the Boeing president and his executive team were entertaining the heads of virtually every major airline in the world, in town for a conference, They came to get a good look at the plane Boeing had staked its future on.
Well, they got it. Approaching the lake Johnston turned to his co-pilot, “We’re going to get their attention and make this airplane famous.” Flying towards the assembled crowd at a 490 mph, altitude of 200 feet, Johnston took the big screaming jet over the racecourse for a thrilling up-close look. – Then, to everyone’s surprise, the 707 suddenly started climbing and began rotating on its axis. Its long, swept-back wings rotating around the body in a barrel roll. Aviation executives gasped as the plane flew briefly upside down in a slow, languid roll. Just in case no one had noticed, Johnston made a shallow dive down to 300 feet and did it again.
A dazed Bill Allen popped a few heart pills as he watched his $16 million dollar investment flip through the air flying upside down seemingly out of control. Either something was wrong with the plane or the pilot had lost his mind. His distress was understandable; you just don’t do that with an airliner; fighter jets perhaps but not a 128-foot-long, 160,000-pound plane with four heavy jet engines and a 130-foot wing span.
Dash 80 air to air photo by Joe Parke (inverted photo)
The next day a seething Allen called Johnston to his office. ” What do you think you were doing yesterday.”The test pilot held his ground,” I was selling the airplane“ he told Allen, “I didn’t do anything the plane couldn’t’ do…it was never in an unsafe condition.” (100 years of Boeing Russ Banham) No doubt about it, Johnston put the 707 on the map…Or, as an aviation friend reassuringly told Bill Allen, ”Tex has just sold your plane for you.” within a month Boeing received its first order from Pan Am.