Alvin “Tex” Johnston
His Stetson hat, cowboy boots and string tie made Johnson the real-life image of a Hollywood daredevil test pilot. But in reality he was an accomplished professional. Even his daredevil barrel roll with the Dash 80 in 1955 was well planned and practiced before he executed it in front of 200,000 spectators at Lake Washington.
- Earned his pilot and mechanics license before the age of 20 and became a barnstormer.
- Joined the Army Air Corps Ferry Command after Pearl Harbor, ferrying aircraft to their destination.
- Was a test pilot with Bell Aircraft Company in 1942 testing the XP-59A, the country’s first jet aircraft.
- Won the Thompson Trophy in 1946 at the National Air Races.
- Began working for Boeing in 1949 and was the project test pilot for the XB-47, the world’s first swept-wing jet bomber and for the XB-52.
- Chief of Flight Tests for the 367-80, the Dash 80, the 707 prototype and the USAF KC 135 tanker.
- Worked on the X-20 Dyna Soar program and the Saturn S-1C and NASA Apollo programs.
Al Johnston was born on August 18th, 1914 in Admire, Kansas. At the age of eleven, after his first flight as a passenger in a barnstormer’s plane, he caught the flying bug and became obsessed with becoming a pilot himself. Due to limited finances, he began flying lessons in small 10 to 20 minute increments at the age of fifteen.
While attending Kansas State Teacher’s College, Al persuaded his father, Alva, and mother, Ella, into allowing him to pursue a career in aviation. They enrolled him in an airplane and engine mechanics course at the Spartan School of Aeronautics, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At Spartan, Al earned not only his aircraft and Engine Mechanic’s license, but also his Limited Commercial Pilot’s license, all by the age of twenty.
After graduation, Johnston went to work for his friends, the Inman brothers, owners of Inman’s Flying Circus. He sold tickets for the show and maintained the engines on the Inman’s aircraft in exchange for Ford tri-motor flight instruction and flying time. After leaving the Inmans, Johnston purchased a biplane and teamed with Harris “Dinty” Moore to establish his own successful barnstorming operation and, at the same time, earned his Transport Pilot’s license and Flight Instructor rating.
In 1935, Tex married DeLores Honea and, shortly thereafter, enrolled in mechanical and aeronautical engineering courses at Kansas State University. As a result of Hitler’s aggression in Europe, President Roosevelt formed the Civilian Pilot Training to improve the quality and quantity of pilots in the United States, and Tex was quick to sign on as a CPT instructor pilot.
After Pearl Harbor, Johnston joined the Army Air Corps Ferry Command and began ferrying new military aircraft from the factory to their destinations. As a ferry pilot, he gained more flying time and experience in many types of advanced multi-engine aircraft.
By 1942, Tex’s long line of flight credentials and experience brought him to the attention of Bell Aircraft. Relocating to Niagara Falls, New York, Tex began his career as a production and experimental test pilot. At Bell, Tex firmly established himself as a superb test pilot and worked on some of the nation’s most advanced aircraft: the P-39 Airacobra, the V-tailed YP-63, the P-47, and the P-51 Mustang. In addition to testing U.S. aircraft, Johnston also revealed the superb handling characteristics of the German Focke-Wulf FW-1 90 by flight testing a captured plane. This job is also where Johnston picked up the nickname “Tex” as a flight mechanic caught sight of Johnston’s cowboy boots when he was boarding a P-39.
Tex’s credentials as an outstanding pilot and engineer resulted in his selection to the top-secret XP-59A Airacomet project at Muroc Dry Lake in California’s Mojave Desert-flight testing America’s first jet aircraft. Tex was becoming one of the most sought after engineering and development test pilots in the country.
At the completion of the XP-59A project, Tex found himself busier than ever, juggling the role of developmental test pilot for several programs and aircraft. While completing test flight work on another jet aircraft, the XP-83, he also worked on the developmental problems of the L-39, the first experimental 35 degree swept-wing airplane to fly in the U.S. At the same time, Tex was also program coordinator and remote control pilot for the Navy remote-controlled F-7F twin engine fighter. This test consisted of Johnston demonstrating the performance of the F-7F via remote control atop a station mounted on top of a truck.
The biggest event in aviation at that time was the National Air Races, held annually in Cleveland, Ohio. Johnston and his friend Jack Woolams decided to enter the 1946 races in a pair of modified P-39 Airacobras. Despite the loss of his good friend Jack in a pre-race accident, Tex went on to enter the race, winning the prestigious Thompson Trophy as well as the Allegheny Luddlum Cup for establishing a new world speed record for closed course air racing, 373.908 MPH.
Due to his extremely full flight schedule, Johnston had to forego other projects in order to complete his workload. Consequently, Johnston was eclipsed from a large part of the X-1 project. Tex did, however, manage to become the second pilot to fly the Bell X-1, and grounded it for relocation of the longitudinal trim control switch and a 20% reduction in the longitudinal trim rate and increased windshield defogging before it went supersonic under the reigns of Captain Chuck Yeager.
Despite his love of flying high performance aircraft, Tex reluctantly took on his next assignment as director of Bell Helicopter field operations in Houston, Texas. During the next few years, Johnston and Bell successfully demonstrated the financial and operational benefits of utilizing helicopters for crop dusting and oil exploration in difficult terrain, such as the Louisiana swamps.
In 1949, growing weary of flying helicopters, Tex was employed by the Boeing Airplane Company in Seattle, Washington as a project test pilot for the XE3-47, the world’s first swept-wing bomber. In Seattle and later in Wichita, Kansas, Tex saw the XB-47 fully through its developmental stage and discovered the requirement for lateral control spoilers to prevent flex-wing wind-up and aileron lateral control reversal. He also became the first, and probably only, pilot to “buzz the tower” and then barrel roll a multi-engine jet bomber. By the time the XB-47 testing was nearing completion, Johnston had been appointed senior experimental test pilot and representative in charge of the Wichita Boeing Airplane Company production and flight testing. In 1951, pursuing another developmental flight project, Tex moved back to Seattle to assume the role of project pilot for the XB-52, successfully guiding the eight engine jet bomber through its developmental stage. The Strategic Air Command was eager to get the B-52 into their inventory and onto alert and President Eisenhower congratulated Johnston after a successful and impressive demonstration of the big bomber.
Soon afterward, Tex was promoted to Chief of Flight Testing at Boeing and undertook the task of developing and selling Boeing’s prototype of the future of aviation, the Dash 80. Tex piloted the first flight test of the Dash 80 on July 15th, 1954. On October 16th, 1955, Boeing demonstrated the speed of the Dash 80 by making a transcontinental flight across the U.S. in 3 hours and 48 minutes.
In another demonstration of the Dash 80′s performance capabilities, Tex performed two barrel rolls at the hydroplane Gold Cup race. The maneuver not only impressed perspective buyers, but also startled an unexpecting Boeing president, Bill Allen.
After flying the Dash 80, SAC’s General Curtis LeMay awarded Boeing the contract to supply the KC- 135 as the Air Force’s primary refueling tanker. The Boeing 707-120 became the first certified jet transport in the United States and Tex set off across the world selling the airplane to many international airlines.
From 1960 to 1963, Johnston served as assistant program manager for Boeing’s Dyna Soar, X-20 program until the program was canceled by Secretary of Defense McNamara. In 1964, Johnston was named director and principal executive of the Boeing Atlantic Test Center managing the Saturn S-1C and Apollo NASA programs until 1968.
From 1968 to 1971, Johnston headed his own business: Tex Johnston, Total-in-Flight Simulator, Incorporated in Santa Barbara, California. In 1975, he assumed the position of chief pilot and director of the test department of the Stanley Aviation Corporation, manufacturer of personnel escape systems for fixed and rotary winged aircraft. Tex also headed his own consulting business in Everett, Washington.
Looking back on the many landmark achievements and aviation “firsts” spanning his life, Tex Johnston states, “I thank almighty God for the opportunities, personal skills, and guidance I was provided.”
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