Tex Johnson did a barrel roll in a prototype 707 during a first look at a an air show with a lot of potential customers in attendance. When his boss called him into his office and said “What the hell were you doing?”, he replied “Selling Airplanes.”.
December of 1942, Tex went to Bell Aircraft as a flight test engineer, flying the P-39 Airacobra and the XP-63 during their prototype phases. He also flew the XP-59 and the first US jet. He earned his nickname, “Tex” because he always wore his Stetson cowboy hat and cowboy boots while on the flight line.
Once WWII had ended, Tex bought and modified two surplus Airacobras to enter and win the Thompson Trophy at the 1946 National Air Races.
On May 22, 1947, after having helped design the rocket-propelled Bell X-1, Tex got to fly it. He stayed on at the program as a design advisor for the modifications and trim controls because he had discovered that they were not usable in the configuration they were manufactured at high subsonic speeds. On the Discovery Channel in 1991, he told of his experiences in the rocket plane for the documentary series “Frontiers of Flight” stating “…the airplane was just gorgeous” and that its 18 G design was “indestructible”.
In July 1948, he became a test pilot for Boeing, flying the B-47 Stratojet and then piloting the first flight of the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress prototype.
Tex is most known for doing a barnstormer style barrel roll-over maneuver in Boeing’s revolutionary 367-80 jet in a demo flight over Lake Washington outside of Seattle on August 7, 1955. The maneuver was caught on film and has been frequently seen on Discovery Wings cable channel in a three-minute short as a part of the Touched by History series when the channel was still on the air.
Tex was called before the then-president of Boeing, Bill Allen, for rolling the plane. He was asked what he thought he was doing, and responded, “I was selling airplanes”. He kept his position as a test pilot and did not get into any legal trouble for his actions. His flying style and cowboy type dress is said to be the inspiration for Dr. Strangelove character Maj. T. J. “King” Kong, who, in rodeo style, rode a balky nuclear weapon to its target.