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Originally published October 2, 2010 at 10:02 PM | Page modified October 4, 2010 at 7:12 AM

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The tale of Boeing's high-risk flight into the jet age

Until 1958, more people crossed the Atlantic Ocean aboard ships than on airplanes. And fewer than 1 in 10 American adults had ever even been on an airplane. In the new book "Jet Age," author Sam Howe Verhovek takes a look at how Boeing President Bill Allen and test pilot Tex Johnston changed everything by betting the company on the jet age.

"Jet Age: The Comet, the 707 and the Race to Shrink the World"

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Check out "How Boeing's commercial aircraft have evolved" by going to www.seattletimes.com and searching for the Boeing timeline interactive graphic.

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In the Seattle of 1955, there was no Space Needle to give the city a signature skyline. Tucked away in that quiet upper left-hand corner of the map, Seattle was still seven years away from hosting the World's Fair. Yet the city had something to show the world, and in recent months the eye and ear had been drawn upward toward it: a large, loud, fast-moving blur of metal soaring over the waters of Puget Sound and above the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges. This 95-ton silver, brown and canary yellow-colored bird was the prototype for a passenger jet being developed by the local aircraft company. That firm happened to have been started in Seattle nearly 40 years before on the whim of a young Michigan lumber and mining magnate.

William Edward Boeing had come to the Pacific Northwest just after the turn of the century to check out the timber prospects. When his fancy was seized by flight during his very first trip aloft over Seattle's Lake Washington on the Fourth of July in 1914, it did not take long for Bill Boeing to imagine himself as an aircraft maker.

The Boeing & Westervelt B&W Seaplane, made of wood, wire and Irish linen, with a 125-horsepower engine and a top speed of 75 miles per hour, was in the air by June 1916. Though the market for airplanes was much larger on the other side of the country, Boeing decided to stick it out in Seattle chiefly for this reason: There was so much good wood in the area. "Built Where the Spruce Grows" was the Boeing Airplane Company's motto. As time went by, aluminum replaced wood as the preferred material for aircraft, and with cheap hydropower, the Pacific Northwest was an ideal place for this commodity, too.

The phenomenal efforts of Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers helped lead the Allies to victory in World War II. But as the 1950s dawned and the Korean War sputtered down into a stand-off, the Boeing Airplane Company had a giant challenge on its hands, one that company executives sometimes delicately referred to as "the peace problem." While Boeing had thrived as a military manufacturer, its performance in the commercial market bordered on the anemic.

Douglas Aircraft seemed to have a magic touch as it developed new, bigger, propeller planes into the 1950s: the DC-4, the DC-6, the DC-7. Meanwhile, Lockheed Aircraft was working in concert with Trans World Airlines' principal owner, Howard Hughes, who even with spells of madness was one of the most visionary figures in aviation history. Together they came up with the elegant Lockheed Constellation, a dolphin-shaped, triple-tailed, four-engine airplane that in some configurations was the most luxurious machine ever to soar in the sky. Some had 18 sleeper cabins, with crisp-linen sheets, turn-down service, fresh flowers and four-course meals.

The Boeing Airplane Company, by contrast, was a three-time loser in the commercial-aviation industry. Not only did its 10-passenger 247 lose out to Douglas' larger DC-3 but the company also lost millions on the bulbous-nosed Flying Clipper airships operated by Pan American World Airways in the late 1930s. And it lagged with the luxurious but expensive "Stratocruiser," a giant flying tub that was vastly outsold by its Douglas and Lockheed competitors.

As the 1950s began, Boeing did not have a single new commercial airliner in the design stage. But in a way, Boeing's failures contained promising seeds, for the company made a move initially eschewed by its more successful competitors in civil aviation. Boeing decided to build a jet airliner.

Boeing's decision represented an astounding gamble and, for five lonely years, the company forged ahead without even persuading a single customer to commit to buying its airplane, in either its commercial or military configurations. Some of the brightest luminaries in the airline industry questioned whether there was much need for jet-speed travel. "The only thing wrong with the jet planes of today," said the head of TWA, "is that they won't make any money."

So Boeing built a single prototype, officially called the 367-80 but much more widely known by the company nickname "Dash-80," and this was the plane that had started showing up in the skies over the region in 1954. The airplane would become known as the 707, a machine whose DNA can be deduced in any Boeing jetliner designed and flown since.

The Dash-80 was big. In fact, it could hold nearly three times as many passengers as Great Britain's de Havilland Comet, which had started flying passengers in 1952. And even Boeing's top officials conceded the plane was so much bigger than any before it that a single crash could instantly become the most deadly accident in the history of aviation. Boeing, after fishing around with no success to find a paying partner in the development of its jet airplane, in either its military or commercial form, decided to build the plane on its own. The board committed $15 million — a huge figure for the day, representing a quarter of the firm's net worth — for research and development of what it simply called "Project X." It did so largely at the prodding of one man: William McPherson Allen, the company president who took over in 1950 when it had less than 1 percent of market share.

SELF-EFFACING, introspective, a balding, jug-eared securities lawyer raised in small-town Montana, Allen hardly fit the mold of a swashbuckling gambler. The airline world was full of such larger-than-life characters: Juan Trippe of Pan Am; Hughes of TWA; Eddie Rickenbacker of Eastern, which dominated lucrative routes linking the Northeast with Florida vacation spots and the rest of the South.

But jet engines consumed far more fuel than their propeller counterparts, and no one could promise at that point to provide an airliner configuration that could make it across the ocean nonstop. That obviously undercut the main advantage of the jet — speed — and made U.S. airlines extremely leery of committing to buy a jetliner. The airlines, having invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the postwar period in the latest generation of propeller planes, were extremely hesitant. They were making good money flying those planes; why trade that for the uncertainties of the jetliner?

Many top executives, in both the airline and aircraft manufacturing business, did not believe that an effective jetliner could be developed without massive government funding. "Government financial aid will be required if we are to overtake and pass the subsidized British aircraft industry in its bid for domination of the future jet transport field," Boeing declared in 1949. "No company can risk its capital in the building of a wholly new type of airplane, such as the jet transport."

No American airline was willing to stick its neck out to buy something that might not work in the marketplace, and apparently no U.S. air manufacturer was willing to build one without some commitment from the airlines. It was a chicken-or-egg dilemma, so even as the U.S. blasted full speed ahead with military jets, pushed on by the growing Cold War with the Soviets, nothing was done about a jet airliner.

Still, Pan Am's Trippe knew the Jet Age was coming, and he foresaw, more clearly than anyone else, how air travel would eventually become the province of the masses. Others were also beginning to see a new market for international tourism by Americans during the relatively prosperous 1950s.

By 1952, Trippe was willing to go all-in on a gamble to make Pan Am the pre-eminent jet carrier in the world. His arch-rival, Hughes, had entered the fray, obsessed with the notion of making TWA the first U.S. airline to fly jetliners.

Suddenly, American, Eastern and United were pounding on the door at Boeing, Lockheed and Douglas. What in the world had changed?

One galvanizing force was obvious: the Comet. Despite all the American skepticism, the Comet was in the flush of success in 1952. The British had done it, and they were reaping the prestige. There was a waiting list of a month or more on some Comet routes.

Bill Allen had agonized over the risks of jumping into the civilian fray and failing, which could ruin his company and all but shut off the lights in Seattle. He had gone around the table, not once but several times, with his team of engineers and salesmen, some of whom were adamantly against a commercial jet. With the Cold War on and the Pentagon eager for jet fighters and bombers, why risk it?

Actually, Allen, the lawyer, had discovered something very interesting about the question of whose money the company would be spending. During the Korean War, Congress had put an "excess profits tax" in effect, intended to prevent military companies from making out too well because of increased demand during a war. As it happened, the law essentially defined "excess profits" as anything above what a company had made during the peacetime period of 1946-1949. For Boeing, of course, peace had been a sock to the pocketbook; it had hardly made anything in that time. Therefore, as orders ramped up for the war, Boeing stood to face the "excess profits" tax on virtually every dollar of its profit, while a company such as Douglas, which had had its hands full rolling out propeller-driven airliners after the war, wouldn't face the higher trigger until its military sales equaled the bonanza it had made on commercial sales.

What Allen clearly saw was that now was the perfect time to plow a huge amount of company money into an audacious new development project. All of it would be a legitimate business expense, reducing the "profits" for the coming years, but so what? That was all money that would have basically gone to the government. As long as he could persuade the board that he was putting the company in a long-term position of leading the field with a jetliner, its members were unlikely to object. Yes, it was a huge gamble, but for every dollar of the dice roll, only 18 cents of it would have been Boeing's money to keep anyway.

Allen was feeling increasingly confident that Boeing would get the important military contract for a jet tanker — and the tanker was about the right size for a big new airliner as well. Why not aim at both targets with one airplane? Such was the genius of the Dash-80 prototype that it could be pitched to both the Air Force and the airlines, for two entirely separate purposes.

In April 1952, Allen got the board's go-ahead, and told his engineers to draw up some plans. Boeing was developing a product that would shrink the world, but the airlines weren't at all sure whether to go with Seattle's pioneer jet prototype or wait to see what Douglas, a proven winner with commercial airplanes, would come up with. So Boeing would need somebody to sell its airplane, a master showman, a politician, a first-class schmoozer, someone whose enthusiasm for what the company had to offer could push a sale across the finish line. Boeing had him, right in the cockpit.

Bill Allen sat in a boat on a sunny August day in 1955 with old friends, relaxing and awaiting the start of Seattle's famed hydroplane Gold Cup races on Lake Washington. He was one of 350,000 people gathered at the lake to watch the races, and among the crowd were hundreds of visitors who made up a veritable Who's Who of the world's aviation industry. Word was leaked that Boeing's Dash-80 jet would do a test run during a break in the race schedule. For many in the air industry, it would be their very first look at the giant jet.

The massive bird lumbered down the runway, south of downtown Seattle, and headed west out over the Olympic Peninsula for an initial round of tests. This was an airplane insured for $18 million, with one unusual provision in the contract. Only one man could be at the controls.

This man was Alvin M. "Tex" Johnston, the company's chief test pilot, who oozed all of the swagger that Allen, his boss, kept so carefully in check. Strong, profane, funny, he was a character practically out of Hollywood's central casting. In fact, he would one day serve as a model for the Slim Pickens bomber-pilot character in Stanley Kubrick's dark-comedy Cold War classic, "Dr. Strangelove." Johnston often insisted on wearing his cowboy boots and even his Stetson when he flew, and on the wall of his office at Boeing headquarters he hung a sign that let people know his view of his place in the pecking order of a company filled with brilliant designers and engineers.

"One test is worth a thousand expert opinions," the sign read. Johnston got his start as a barnstormer in his native state, Kansas, where at one point he earned his keep as a daredevil flying crazy loops and zags with his Ford tri-motor plane.

Tex, an admiring colleague once said, "could make anything fly."

Johnston was cruising on this Sunday afternoon at about 450 miles per hour in the Dash-80 when he cut it back and came down over Lake Washington at only 300 feet. The audience ooh'ed and aah'ed and pointed at the brightly colored jet. He pulled the big jet up at a 35-degree climb. And then the screaming plane dipped its wing and started to turn over, rotating slowly, at one point completely upside down, the yellow and silver tail section pointing straight down toward the water. On board his boat, Allen briefly felt sick to his stomach. The 707 looked to be soaring out of control. If it crashed anywhere near the crowd, it could cause hundreds of deaths. If it crashed anywhere, the 707 project would clearly be dead — and so would the company.

But then, as Allen and the rest of the crowd watched, the plane continued its roll until it had completed a full 360-degree rotation. The plane soared several hundred feet higher, then reversed course and came in again toward the lake, tilted and went into a slow, full-circle rotation. No one could hear Johnston, of course, but up in the pilot's seat, he was letting out whoops of joy. Down below, on the lake, Allen was seething.

What Johnston had done was both unauthorized and unthinkable. The day after he did it, Johnston endured a severe dressing-down from Allen and other senior Boeing officials. Tex held his ground. "I've always sold airplanes by demonstrating them," he said. ". . . There were the airplane people, rival manufacturers, everyone who meant anything in aeronautics. Never before has that quality of talent been assembled in one spot to see anyone's airplane, and probably never will be again. So I just had to do it."

Reckless stunt or brilliant salesmanship, Johnston's barrel roll certainly got people in the industry talking. On the very night of his dressing-down, Johnston showed up at Allen's house in Seattle's Highlands neighborhood for a cocktail party and dinner with the aviation luminaries. Allen planned to give Johnston the cold shoulder. But before Allen could say or do anything, Eastern Air's garrulous Rickenbacker, the one-time Flying Ace and Medal of Honor winner, went up to Johnston, grabbed his Stetson, and pulled it down over his ears.

"You slow-rolling son of a bitch!" Rickenbacker shouted joyfully at Johnston. "Why didn't you let me know you were gonna pull that? I would have been riding the jump seat!"

Rickenbacker turned to Allen. "Damn, Bill!" he said, "that's the way to get attention with a new airplane!"

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