Decembers are always challenging in the northern US. Days are short. Darkness descends by 4:00 pm as the winter solstice approaches. And then there’s the weather. Nature seems unsure just when to let autumn go and usher winter in. December, so far, has been a series of snow storms followed by melting, then more snow, then (today) rain for faster melting. Sometimes the sun shines. Usually the wind blows. Oh, the wind. Neighbors have warned me that our little ridge-top has its own micro-climate. I’m beginning to believe them. Or, maybe Nature’s simply helping me learn about Vermont winters gently as she “warms up” for the real event of winter in January and February.
This sort of weather, combined with limited daylight and holidays approaching, always throws me into a nostalgic mood. Last night, for some reason I thought about The Movie Flight, a story that serendipitously landed in my lap as I was writing my book, Growing Up Boeing. Unable to come up with any blog post ideas, I thought, I’ll share The Movie Flight with my blog readers. They might enjoy it.
The man who wrote the story – Jim Day – offered a fun glimpse into the huge leap commercial aviation technology took in the late 1950s, from propeller airplanes to jets. He captured the awe and wonder of his first jet flight, mixed with some understandable anxiety as the airplane was put through various flight tests.
First, a little additional context.
The Movie Flight takes place long, long ago, in 1956, the year of my birth. (In fact, four months before my birth, so I was just a gleam in my father’s eye.) My father, Lew Wallick, had recently turned 32. (I’m constantly amazed at his skill and confidence as such a young age.) He had been a Boeing test pilot since 1951, but didn’t transfer from Wichita, Kansas to Boeing Field in Seattle until 1955. The airplane described in Jim’s story – the Dash 80 – was more properly called the Boeing 367-80, but everyone at Boeing and in the Seattle area referred to it as the Dash 80. Only one was made, a prototype for what would become the iconic Boeing 707. Long after the 707 went into production and was flying airline passengers around the world, the Dash 80 continued to be used as a test airplane for 707 derivatives and then while the 727 was being designed. The Dash 80 has been preserved and is currently on public display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. (There’s more in the book about my father’s involvement in getting the Dash 80 from Seattle to New York City for the donation ceremony in 1972. Actor Henry Fonda plays a minor role.)
Without further ado, The Moving Flight, excerpted from Growing Up Boeing: The Early Jet Age Through the Eyes of a Test Pilot’s Daughter, 2014. (Jim’s portion is in italics.)
Around 2004, my mother hired someone to come in and clean her house every couple of weeks. This woman was close to my age. The house cleaner mentioned my mother’s name to her own father, who was retired from Boeing and living in Arizona. He wondered if my mother was related to Lew Wallick.
This sort of thing has happened too many times to count in my life. Someone with some connection to Boeing will learn my name and ask, “Are you related to Lew Wallick?”
In this case, the connection led to a wonderful story about my father and the Dash 80. The house cleaner’s father—James Woodrow Day—hired on at Boeing in 1938 as a woodworker in the old Red Barn building. He rapidly advanced through the ranks, retiring in 1978 after thirty-eight years, most in management.
On August 16, 1956, Jim took a very memorable flight on the Dash 80. “I was on cloud nine,” he told me in 2004 when I called him at his home in Arizona. “It was my first jet flight.” Jim had learned to fly at Smith Field in Kent, Washington, during World War II, doing spins and stalls and thoroughly enjoying flying. He had also flown on many piston-engine commercial airplanes for work, including the DC-3, DC-4, DC-5, the Lockheed Constellation, and Boeing C-97s and Stratocruisers. But this particular Dash 80 flight made such an impression that a few days later he wrote the story out in longhand. Jim’s story provides the unique perspective of a knowledgeable and seasoned air traveler experiencing for the first time the incredible difference between propeller and jet commercial aircraft in a way few people are lucky enough to do: during an actual test flight. What follows—with Jim’s gracious permission—is a slightly abridged version of the story he wrote in 1956.
The phone rang one day. My boss, Joe Donnelly, seemed very serious. “If you get over to the B-52 flight test hangar right away, you may get to go up on the Dash 80 for a ‘movie flight.’” [Jim reasonably thought “movie flight” meant obtaining footage for some sort of Hollywood film.]
It didn’t take long to drive from the Renton plant to the B-52 flight test hangar at Boeing Field. As I told the polite young man at the Operations desk that I was going up on the Dash 80, I wondered to myself, “Where are the pilots?” I was told to take a seat because there would be a short wait of ten to fifteen minutes as the airplane was being readied for flight.
As I nervously waited for my first jet ride, I consoled myself with the thought that at least I would be in good hands, as I thought Tex Johnston or Dix Loesch would surely be at the controls. After all, Tex was the pilot who’d barrel-rolled the Dash 80 over the Seafair hydroplane races. And Dix Loesch was the pilot who, when the vertical fin [of a KC-135] was damaged during violent test maneuvers, with great skill regained control and brought the plane back to a safe landing.
The quiet man at the desk brought me back to reality with the words, “Okay Jim, the airplane is ready.” He picked up a briefcase by the desk. I thought he was probably taking some important information out to the pilot. When we emerged from the hangar, there in the bright sunlight was the most beautiful airplane I had ever laid eyes on, gleaming aluminum lower body and yellow top with soft brown speed stripe. It appeared to be in motion even while parked on the tarmac.
As we approached the airplane, we were joined by my friend Logan Garrison of Facilities. He excitedly told me that he was also going up on the “movie flight.”
The polite young man with the briefcase entered the airplane first, directed us to a triple-passenger seat 10 or 15 feet aft of the wing as he proceeded to sit in the pilot’s seat!
Calmly and without any fanfare, he started giving instructions to the crew and very confidently flipping switches on the overhead panels, checking out the controls while at the same time visually reading all instruments on the panels.
To say that I was greatly impressed would be a tremendous understatement. Finally as we buckled up, I turned to Logan and asked if he knew the pilot. He saw my worried look and said, “No, he must be a recent hire.”
Well, that didn’t help any, and when the ground-support crew removed the two emergency escape hatches, one over each wing, I began to have a feeling of insecurity. “Well,” I was wondering, “where are the movie actors?” when in walked two men with tripod-mounted cameras. I thought “Now we’re getting somewhere.” Imagine my chagrin when they pointed the cameras out over the wings, attached the tripods to fittings on the floor and then strapped parachutes on their backs.
When the main entrance doors closed, Hank Probst, the flight test engineer, came back to make sure we were securely fastened in our seats. A voice came over the PA system. It was our pilot, Lew Wallick, giving us a brief outline of our flight plan. He told us that the cameras would take moving pictures of the wings during various flight maneuvers. (So that’s why it was a “movie flight!”)
Lew did his thing in the cockpit and soon I heard the muffled whine of one jet engine after another coming to life. It was rather unreal: no propeller blades rotating outside the window, no vibration, no loud noise like the old propeller-driven airplanes currently in use.
As Lew increased the engine RPM and then released the brakes, the airplane started moving quietly and effortlessly to the north section of the field. As the throttles were advanced for takeoff, all that power moved us down the field, slowly at first, and then faster and faster as we passed by all the airplanes lined up for delivery. Lew held her on the runway until the speed was right, then he rotated it up. We left the ground at a very steep angle; we were climbing like a homesick angel!
I couldn’t help thinking that if this were a piston-powered airplane at this steep takeoff angle it would already be in an uncontrolled stall. But this baby just seemed like it had power to burn, up and up with no letup in its angle of climb. Finally we leveled off, and the engine throttles were placed in cruise mode. It was so quiet in the airplane that there was the sensation of gliding, instead of flying, and I had a difficult time convincing myself that we were flying straight and level with such a low power setting.
Lew is back on the PA system telling us that the tests today will involve power-off, power-on stalls, near vertical turns, and emergency descents.
So here comes the first power-off. The control wheel is pulled back until the nose comes up in the stall and the tail starts to shake. Then the vibration moves up the body and out to the wings that are now flapping slightly. Finally, the speed diminishes and no longer supports the flight of the airplane, and as with most good airplanes, the nose drops as the airplane goes into a clean dive with neither wing dipping nor resulting tail spin. In just a brief span of seconds, we have dropped several thousand feet of altitude, and I have the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach like the rapid drop of an elevator.
Now we climb back up to the required altitude, and Lew comes on the PA to tell us this power-on stall will be more violent, with more tail and body motion and finally, wing flapping.
Well he sure had that right. As the nose came up in the stall and engines with full power, the whole airplane seemed to come to life with tail, body shaking, wings flapping about 10 to 12 feet at the wing tips. The engines on their pylons seemed to be rotating or contra-rotating like they didn’t know which direction they were supposed to go. With all the shaking going on I was hardly aware of the sudden loss of altitude again.
It was a very frightening procedure. When it seemed like all hell was going to break loose, Logan looked at the cameramen with their parachutes and us without any, and said, “Which one are you going to piggyback with?” With my crew-cut hair standing up straighter than normal, I shouted, “The nearest one!”
Vertical turns were not too bad. One minute the airplane is flying straight and level, then the left wing is straight up, and I am looking straight down at the ground through my window, then back level. Once more, before I could say it, the left wing is straight down, and I am looking across the body to the opposite window and looking straight down at the ground on that side.
Now Lew is explaining that we have clearance to approach Sea-Tac Airport from the south (remember, no jet traffic there at this time), altitude about 8,000 feet. He says even though there is good visibility, we will pretend we are in heavy cloud cover. When we see a hole in the clouds, we will go into emergency descent mode. At the right moment, he lowers landing gear, extends flaps, raises speed brakes, pulls the nose up, and we are dropping like a lead sled. Before I know what has happened, we are almost down to ground level. He applies some power and cleans up the airplane to buzz the runway.
We are probably 50 to 100 feet above the runway heading north at about 200 knots when he applies full power and the airplane accelerates like we are taking off all over again. As I look over at the old airport terminal, there are hundreds of people on the balcony, waving frantically at their first glimpse of America’s future commercial Jet Age.
As we accelerate, Lew pulls the airplane into a steep climbing turn and we see Vashon Island and lower Puget Sound below us.
Coming into Boeing Field is a breeze as Lew greases it onto the runway using brakes and engine reversers for its return to the nest (B-52 flight test hangar).
Before we leave the airplane, Logan and I both shake hands with Lew Wallick, congratulating him on an absolutely superb flight. (With my teeth chattering; what a superb pilot!) Coming down the stairs with my legs still trembling, I have an almost irresistible urge to kiss the ground, but I do resist.
Arriving back at the Renton plant, I made straight for Joe Donnelly’s office. “Well, Jim, how did you enjoy your first movie flight?” he asked. I replied there was never a movie that could elicit the exhilaration and admiration I felt for the people that designed and built the airplane and the crew that flew it.
It’s not surprising that Jim and Logan didn’t recognize my father; he had just transferred from Wichita in 1955. As I came to realize, though, it wasn’t long before everyone at Boeing knew who Lew Wallick was and admired him.
Jim remembered that “movie flight” lasting about an hour. They went up to Bellingham, and out over the Olympic Mountains. “Lew was so cool and collected,” Jim said. This story is one of my favorites because it shows the father I knew—friendly, modest, confident, and informative. Jim’s vivid description of the flight also provides a good sense of what “routine tests” felt like to a non-flight-test person along for the ride. Commercial airline passengers will never feel the high bank turns or violent stall vibrations Jim experienced—which test crews experience all the time—precisely because the test programs find each airplane’s limits and create airline flight manuals requiring operation well within those limits so that airline passengers are safe and never feel uncomfortable. Flight test crews routinely put the airplanes through maneuvers airline pilots should never find themselves in; they intentionally push the airplane’s envelope to prove that even in some worst-case scenario where the airplane is flying beyond its flight manual limits, the airplane will remain structurally sound.
A little bonus for my blog readers: The following photo of the Dash 80 was tucked in my father’s archives. When I stumbled upon it and asked him for background, he told me they were making fun of all the data generated during flight tests, the stuff the engineers would later pour over carefully to see if the airplane performed as expected. So much data.
I didn’t include this photo in Growing Up Boeing but I loved that it showed my father in an orange flight suit. As a twenty-something, I frequently borrowed one of his flight suits at Halloween, adding his WWII Naval Aviator leather bomber jacket, leather helmet and flight goggles, attending parties dressed as a test pilot. I mention this in the book. Just before publication, I had the pilots and engineers I interviewed and quoted review proofs to check for errors. One of them, a Boeing test pilot much younger than my father but old enough to have flown with him in the early 1980s (my father retired in 1986), said I was wrong, the flight suits were pale green or blue, not orange. I felt sure of my memory of the suit’s bright orange color – so Halloween! – but the pilot had me questioning my memory. By then, my father had passed away, so I couldn’t ask him. I poured over all the photos I had access to. I eventually found this one in my own digital archives. Whew – I was right! I emailed the photo to that pilot, who willingly admitted his error, adding he didn’t realize the suits were orange way back in the day, long before his time with Boeing.
Today, writing about this, I’m wondering: why bright orange? My best guess is they were a holdover from WWII, when the color would have made it easier to spot a pilot or crew member who had to bail from an airplane. A quick google search confirms that idea, at least that NASA often chose bright orange flight suits for space crews – a color known as International Orange – because it’s highly visible against any kind of landscape and especially so in the sea.
If this excerpt piqued your interest, you can find Growing Up Boeing, in both e-book and paperback formats, here.
Feature image: The Boeing 367-80, known as the Dash 80 – in flight over the mountains of Washington state. Photo: Joe Parke/The Boeing Company.