Seventeen Seconds in the Life of a Boeing Experimental Test Pilot

Excerpt from 'Growing Up Boeing: The Early Jet Age Through the Eyes of a Test Pilot's Daughter'
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ew Wallick and Dix Loesch shortly before the 727’s maiden flight;

On the day I was born in December 1956, my father, Lew Wallick, was doing what he did for a living, what he loved best: testing airplanes for The Boeing Company. I admit I find it very cool that my birth certificate lists my father’s “Usual Occupation” as Test Pilot. On that day, Dad was copilot with pilot Ray McPherson on the first flight of the number-two KC-135, the military version of the 707. He’d been a Boeing test pilot for five years, first flying B-47s, then the B-52 and the XB-47D (which he hated, although he kept a large photo of one on his office wall, maybe to remind him how lucky he was to not have to fly it anymore). Eventually, he would fly all of Boeing’s jets during his 35-year career, becoming chief test pilot in 1970 and director of Flight Test in 1974.

My father’s extraordinary career shaped me in ways I didn’t fully understand or appreciate until I was well into adulthood. In fact, I didn’t realize he was a test pilot until I was in high school, and even then—in our family and among our friends, many of whom had Boeing connections—it was no big deal and not remarked upon. I mean, I knew he was a pilot. He regularly took us flying in many types of airplanes, which was always fun and in my world, pretty normal. But I had no clue that he was an experimental test pilot, or that such an occupation was dangerous or considered glamorous. My father suggested that if teachers or anyone else asked me what he did for a living, I should say he was a Boeing engineer. Which he was. He was a very skilled, very modest engineer who—I eventually learned—just happened to also be a highly skilled test pilot.

Boeing test pilots meeting in 1959 (Wallick, hip on desk in middle row)

In 1960, my father was named project pilot for the 727. A project pilot acts as the consultant to the engineering team, during development and certification of a new plane, and is a proxy for all the pilots who will eventually fly the airplane in commercial service. Very few test pilots are named project pilots; it’s a prestigious thing. Over the decades, such designations created many legendary associations—and stories—between a particular test pilot and an airplane model. This is one of the stories of Lew Wallick and the 727 that became legend within Boeing.

The 727’s unique design—three engines on the back and a T-tail—meant it handled quite differently than the 707. Early in 1963, the crew on a British prototype BAC 111, also a T-tail design commercial jet, entered a deep stall during testing. Unable to recover, the airplane tumbled to the earth, killing all onboard. Understandably, the FAA had concerns about the ability of the T-tail 727 to recover from a similar stall. For certification, the FAA wanted proof that the 727 could recover from a flap-down stall even with the spoilers up, a wing configuration normally used only upon approach for landing.

Boeing test crews had already successfully completed the stall test using this configuration. All that remained was repeating the test with the FAA pilot at the controls.

The Wallicks on the tarmac in 1957 (author’s collection)

My father estimated that over the course of testing and certifying the 727, as many as 700 stalls were performed, starting with the inaugural flight when he and Dix Loesch, then director of Flight Test for Boeing, flew approaches to a stall. The pilots and engineers became concerned about handling characteristics as the 727 approached a stall; after buffet but before stall speed, the nose had a tendency to pitch up. “We knew from wind-tunnel tests that this would be dicey testing,” Dad said. On the second or third flight of the 727—still a minimum-crew flight so only Dad, Dix, and M.K. “Shuly” Shulenberger, flight engineer, were onboard—they did a pitch-up maneuver, sort of a prelude to a stall. Dix described the sensation of that maneuver to me in 2004.

“It’s an awful, sickening feeling, because you just sit there, falling, nothing going on until finally, finally the nose starts coming down.” When pressed, Dix said it was probably a good ten seconds before the 727’s nose started to go back down. Don Cumming was in the radio room during that flight and said there were several seconds of silence from the crew until he heard my father say, “Well, let’s not do that again!”

Publicity photo of Wallick in the 727’s not-quite-ready cockpit (note the missing instruments and plywood seatback

A deep stall—when the nose pitches way up—is a highly dangerous condition. There’s no precise definition. My father described it as “a stall that reaches an angle of attack well beyond normal stall angle, where the airplane loses all its normal tendency to pitch nose down on its own; a super stall.” No pilot would ever intentionally do one, in testing or at any other time, unless they were suicidal. A deep or super stall is especially dangerous in swept-wing airplanes with a T-tail design (such as the 727), where the horizontal stabilizer and elevator are set high on top of the vertical tail fin. As the nose of the airplane rises and the wings’ angle of attack increases, airflow over the wings becomes turbulent, causing ever-increasing buffet. As the wing begins to stall and lose lift, the turbulence also affects the airflow over the high T-tail, making its control surfaces ineffective. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to control the pitch of the airplane.

On this 727 test flight, in the autumn of 1963, my father, an FAA pilot and full crew were flying the number-one 727. My uncle Jesse Wallick was one of the flight test engineers onboard. Tom Edmonds was flying alongside the 727 in Boeing’s F-86 chase airplane, providing the crew with visual observations and feedback.

The 727 cockpit could accommodate five—a pilot, copilot, flight engineer, and two test operations members—and was roomy enough for them to sit comfortably without interfering with one another. The cockpit crew wore lace-up boots and military-style flight suits—one-piece jumpsuits of light green that zipped up the front and had pockets on the legs, arms and chest for stowing pencils, maps, writing pads and so on. Traditional aviator attire that over time gave way to dress shirts, ties and jackets.

Each pilot had access to a full set of controls. There were instrument panels all around them—above their heads, directly in front, above and below the windshield, and slightly behind them on the sidewalls of the cockpit. Dials, levers, switches, lights and gauges all fanned about in an amazing number and variety. A band of windows allowed them to see forward as well as to the side and below. On the floor between the pilots sat the aisle stand, which held the engine throttles, fuel controls, flap levers, trim controls and some radio controls. Each item of critical importance was within easy reach of their hands or feet.

Every item, that is, except their parachutes. These were stowed in the main body of the airplane. My father told me that the pilots considered these to be nearly worthless, actually; they’d only use a parachute to exit the airplane if it was stable and flying level—if it were on fire, for example—otherwise, they would be too busy trying to save themselves by controlling the airplane to consider putting on a parachute and jumping. If they did decide to strap on parachutes to escape a flying 727, they’d jettison a cargo door in the belly to jump. Not a pleasing prospect. As Dad said, they’d only be kidding themselves.

Dad and the FAA pilot took the 727 up to about 14,000 feet, flying in clear skies over the less populated areas of western Washington between Port Townsend and Shelton. During each test condition, everyone in the cockpit was all business, calling out air speed and angles of attack, observing and writing down instrument readings. Between test conditions, everyone would relax and chat.

They got to the critical “flaps down, spoilers up” test. The FAA pilot set up the stall with the desired flap setting and spoilers full up, as required by the test plan. And even though my father had learned from past experience to watch this particular FAA pilot closely because of his tendency to pull back too far on the control column, Dad said he was still taken by surprise when the guy abruptly pulled back so hard that the 727 entered an extreme angle of attack—70 degrees rather than the usual maximum of 25 to 30 degrees—what an aerobatics pilot would do to start a snap roll or a spin. Suddenly, unbelievably, they were in a deep stall.

My father immediately took over. “I’ve got it,” he said, forcefully taking the controls of the stalled and falling Boeing 727 from the FAA pilot. Those three words were all the rest of the crew, including the FAA pilot, needed to hear; in that moment, they put their fates in my father’s hands. Fueled by seat-of-the-pants instinct and a burst of adrenaline, my father quickly and simultaneously lowered the spoilers and pushed the control column all the way forward to the instrument panel; raised the flaps to five degrees; alternated right and left rudder and aileron as the airplane’s wild gyrations required; and firewalled the throttles (pushing the throttles as far forward as possible). Keeping his eyes on the horizon as the wings dipped to what felt like 45 degrees on each side, Dad did everything he could to return the wings to level as all three engines roared with the added thrust and the airplane rolled and yawed like a crazed mechanical bull trying to go backward.

“It was way beyond flying; it was floating, and falling,” Dad said of the airplane’s handling. “I was concerned we’d go into an uncontrolled spin, perhaps the hardest maneuver from which to recover. I just reacted; I wasn’t even thinking, didn’t take time to analyze, just acting on survival instinct and adrenaline.” He described his reactions as ingrained, based on years of flying at the envelope’s edge.


As he fought the controls to stop the airplane’s oscillations, the 727 finally responded, and the nose slowly edged back down toward the horizon. After losing nearly 4,000 feet in altitude, the wings finally regained normal lift and the 727 leveled off. Dad throttled back and took a deep breath. Then he lit a cigarette. Several minutes of complete silence hung like a thick fog in the cockpit before anyone regained enough composure to speak, knowing just how close they had come to total disaster, certain death. Photo: The cockpit crew for the first 727 flight, clockwise from left, Lew Wallick, Dix Loesch and M.K. “Shuly” Shulenberger

Jesse was tasked with manually recording various data during the flight. He had just taken off his seat belt to stand and peer over the pilots’ shoulders to obtain specific numbers when the unexpected deep stall began. As the airplane’s nose pitched severely upward and he heard my father say, “I’ve got it,” Jesse felt the wings roll at least 30 degrees to one side, then swing the same amount to the other side, then back again, through three such alarming cycles while Dad fought for control. Jesse struggled to stay on his feet, grasping anything he could for balance as the airplane’s frame vibrated from the buffeting. “I was worried it would spin,” he said. “Then I hoped it would spin, so the nose might go down. It was awful quiet in there.” Dad described that side-to-side rolling as similar to something he did in training as a World War II Navy cadet, an aerobatic maneuver called “the falling leaf.”

Tom Edmonds remembers that test flight vividly. Under normal circumstances, it was difficult for him to fly the F-86 slowly enough to match pace with the 727 when it entered a typical stall test maneuver. On this day, he found himself unable to stay alongside at all as the 727 lost all forward momentum. Tom watched the nose of the 727 pitch upward at an angle that he knew was way too severe. He flew past, trying to watch over his shoulder as the bigger jet fell back behind him. He didn’t get to see the rolling so dramatically felt by those onboard but was able to circle back to witness the recovery.

When the flight test data recordings were later analyzed, the angle of attack trace was off the scale. For seventeen long seconds the elevators were full down (control column full forward) and no air speed data were recorded as the 727 simply fell back and down toward the earth, seconds that felt like an eternity to those onboard.

In April 1986, Samuel Lewis “Lew” Wallick Jr. retired from Boeing. A Navy aviator and fighter pilot during World War II, he dedicated his life to airplanes, joining Boeing as a flight test engineer in 1951, and was soon promoted to test pilot, flying B-47s. Wallick flew all of Boeing’s jets during his 35-year career: the B-47, B-52, Dash 80, KC-135, 707, 727, 737, 747, 757 and 767, as well as most of the derivatives. He was project pilot for the 727, became chief test pilot in 1970 and director of Flight Test in 1974, positions he held until his retirement. Wallick was honored with the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Chanute Flight Award, and in 1999, was inducted into the Museum of Flight’s Pathfinder Hall of Fame.

Before he died in 2009, he began helping his daughter, writer Rebecca Wallick, collect the stories of his years at Boeing. She went on to interview many others in Flight Test. Growing Up Boeing: The Early Jet Age Through the Eyes of a Test Pilot’s Daughter recounts not only Lew Wallick’s story, but also those of his “band of brothers,” who pushed the envelope of jet travel—with true tales of ejector seats that failed, strange flights with Howard Hughes and the truth about who actually rolled Boeing’s big jets (hint: not just Alvin “Tex” Johnston over the 1955 Seafair).

Find Growing Up Boeing (Maian Meadows Publishing, February 2014) at the Museum of Flight store (9404 E Marginal Way S; 206.764.5704; museumoflightstore.org), The Aviator’s Store (7201 Perimeter Road S; 206.763.0666; theaviatorsstore.com), and Amazon.com. For news on author readings, visit growingupboeing.com.

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