Your Captain Speaking
On September 14, 1944, Boeing’s brilliant and charismatic leader Philip Johnson died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. Johnson had been with Boeing since its incorporation in 1916. His untimely death left an unexpected and gaping hole in the company’s leadership at what would soon become a crucial time for the company.
Boeing tended to hire from within but due to friction between engineering and manufacturing, then Chairman, Claire Egtevdt, turned instead to an outsider, William McPherson “Bill” Allen. Allen wasn’t a pilot, engineer, mechanic, or financial guru. He was, quite simply, a pragmatic, decisive, and conservative lawyer.
Allen became President of Boeing on September 1, 1945. The next day, the Japanese formally surrendered ending World War II. Overnight, multimillion dollar military contracts were canceled and freshly manufactured airplanes were bulldozed. Allen was forced to layoff more than 85% of Boeing’s workforce. While the “cancellation crunch” destroyed several other aircraft manufacturers, Allen’s sheer force of will and relationship with important managers helped him retain a relatively intact group of engineers. Another key to Allen’s success was his collaborative approach to decision making; every senior manager had a voice in decisions affecting Boeing’s direction and focus and knew it.
As Allen attempted to guide Boeing beyond military contracts and into the commercial airline industry while simultaneously navigating the first workers’ strike in company history (one based on a seniority system that still dominates aviation), he got a big break from an unlikely source. One of his top engineers, George Schairer, was in Germany inspecting captured German research data. The information gleaned from the German data quickly became a lightning rod guiding Boeing toward the combination of jet engines and swept-wing aircraft. Perhaps even more importantly, the captured German intelligence convinced Boeing to build its own wind-tunnel and design planes based completely on wind-tunnel data.
The wind tunnel almost immediately led to one of the most important design decisions in the road to ‘modern’ jet aircraft – under-wing engines mounted in pods. Under-wing mounted engines-as opposed to wing root or fuselage mounted engines (de Havilland Comet) were both better aerodynamically but just as important, significantly reduced the risk of catastrophic failure in the event of an engine fire or uncontained engine event.
In 1950, Bill Allen flew to the Farnborough Air Show in England where he saw the de Havilland Comet, the world’s first operational jet transport. Soon thereafter Allen brought the idea of a jet transport to the Boeing board of directors. Predicting a prototype would cost $13-15 million (with others estimating as high as $20 million), Allen convinced the board to authorize $500,000 towards the development of such a program with the promise of potential military applications and the expectation of write offs from the Treasury Department. The Boeing 707 was off and running.
Technically it should have been called the B-700 but rumor has it the public relations department won an argument claiming 707 sounded better. Sharing the same 35-degree wing-sweep as the B-47, Boeing spaced out four podded engines and went big aiming for 100 passengers in comparison to the 36-passenger Comet. As with all innovations, new challenges arose. Clamshell thrust reversers were installed for noise abatement; “bird-proofing” windshields became a requirement. The swept-wing design induced dutch-roll instability (an out-of-phase combination of “tail-wagging” and rocking from side to side), requiring a stronger yaw-damper and larger tail. The 707 also had to compete with the Douglas DC-8, a plane that promised to carry more people more comfortably over a greater distance — and at a lower price. Fortunately for Boeing, the DC-8 trailed the 707 in production time enough that the Boeing was able to enlarge the fuselage and replace the underpowered engines. Allen had taken a huge risk betting the company on the success of the 707.
The decision was made to unveil the prototype, known as the Dash 80, at Seattle’s annual Seafare Hydroplane races as, that week, Boeing was hosting the annual meetings of both the Society of Aeronautical Engineers and International Air Transport Association. Top aviation executives from around the world were on Lake Washington that sunny Saturday, August 7, 1955. The plan was for Boeing’s Chief Test Pilot, Tex Johnston to do one low pass over the race course so that all present could see Boeing’s massive new entry into commercial jet transportation.
Tex Johnston, as one might conclude, was a highly accomplished test pilot and while his demonstration that day was well planned it was far from what Allen had authorized. Tex, dressed in his standard flight suit and cowboy boots and with one observer on board, (no co-pilot or flight engineer), unbeknownst to anyone and with 250,000 people anxiously awaiting the fly-over, performed a barrel role right over the hydroplane race course. Figuring that no one would believe what they had just witnessed he reversed course and on a westerly heading, with Mount Rainier in the background and right smack over the race course performed a second barrel role.
Dash 80 inverted
Allen later said that when Johnston performed the first barrel roll, he thought it was a mistake, that something had gone wrong. When he saw Johnston do the second barrel roll, Allen said, he thought that Johnston had either lost his mind or the aircraft was in serious difficulty. As the story goes, on a boat on Lake Washington he turned to Larry Bell of Bell Aircraft, who had a heart condition that required regular medication, and said: “Give me one of those damned (heart) pills. I need it worse than you do.”
Allen called Johnston into the office the next morning and demanded an explanation. Tex had a very simple explanation, “I was selling airplanes”. There are a number of conflicting stories as to what then transpired as neither would talk about it and didn’t for many years. The inside story is that Tex was fired only to be rehired a month later as the order book quickly filled. Tex’s maneuver remains among the most famous in aviation history.
Boeing ended up selling over 1,000 707s for domestic, transcontinental, and transatlantic flights in both freight and passenger configurations. Pan Am, TWA, and Continental scooped it up at a price tag of roughly $38 million in 2015 currency. But even more than its own success, Allen’s gamble revolutionized the aviation industry both in the changes it necessitated in infrastructure and logistical aspects of air travel as well as design decisions that have flowed down the lineage of Boeing aircraft as well as most other commercial transport category aircraft. The 737, 747, and 757 in particular can all trace particular aspects of their design directly to the 707.
Boeing’s incredible commercial success and reputation as the world’s premier aircraft manufacturer remain intact and are, in large part, attributable to Bill Allen and the ingenious engineers who worked with him in the late 1940’s through the early 1960’s. Allen had an oft repeated phrase that not only set the tone for Boeing but the community as well; “Boeing, uncompromising, unyielding integrity”.
Note: The above material was taken largely from: “Legend & Legacy” by Robert J. Sterling, and “The Sporty Game” by John Newhouse