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Going Rogue: A Boeing Test Pilot’s Compelling Sales Strategy

Strategy

Going Rogue: A Boeing Test Pilot’s Compelling Sales Strategy image 707rollA picture taken from the flight deck of Dash 80 showing the plane flying upside down while Tex Johnston performs a barrel roll.

The Birth of a Compelling Sales Strategy

It was August 6, 1955 and good flying weather in Lake Washington, Seattle. Boeing Test Pilot Tex Johnston was at the controls of the company’s sole Dash 80 prototype of the now iconic 707. He was slated to demo the aircraft to representatives of the Aircraft Industries Association (AIA) and International Air Transport Association (IATA). All he was supposed to do was make a few passes and let the crowd see the plane. He had a slightly different sales strategy, however. And, eventually, it would help Boeing introduce America to the Jet Age.

The Jet Age Arrives

Here’s a little bit more about the gamble Boeing had taken. The company knew that the Jet Age had arrived and was the way of the future. Airlines, while initially wary, would have to upgrade soon, and Boeing knew their competitors would not rest on their laurels. So they invested 2/3rds of their post WWII profits into the development of the Dash 80 prototype. Gambling with the company’s future, Boeing’s leadership decided to set up production lines once the prototype was near complete. They did this without having a single order.

Crafting a Compelling Sales Strategy

At the same time, the public was very concerned about the safety of Jets. The first passenger jet introduced, the De Havilland Comet had suffered three fatal crashes which resulted in the type being withdrawn from service. Additionally, Boeing understood that the airlines were at the mercy of the public. While those Airlines bought and operated the aircraft, their decisions were driven by the flying public.

So, Boeing launched an advertising campaign that went directly to the public. They showed people and children that flying could be more — an enjoyable, quiet, and smooth ride that only a Jet could provide. They had scheduled Tex Johnston’s flyby in Seattle to show off the prototype with Airline executives, industry pundits, and government officials in attendance.

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Going Rogue

Tex Johnston had been told to make a few passes over the crowd and that would be all. But Tex understood the audience needed to be sold on the plane’s performance and safety. He had a little more in mind than just a simple fly by. Here’s what happened.

He was flying at more than 400 miles per hour and was ready for the flyby. But suddenly Johnston pulled back on the controls, and the plane started to climb. He started a complete 360 degree roll, flying for a short time upside down. Then, as the crowd watched in amazement, he did it again. The potential jet buyers were duly impressed. Bill Allen, the president of Boeing who was also in attendance, was in shock.

The Aftermath

The next day, Johnston was summoned to Bil Allen’s office to explain himself. Allen was furious and demanded to know what Johnston was thinking, foolishly risking the company’s sole prototype.

Johnston’s reply was simple: “I was selling airplanes”

He then explained how it was a safe maneuver and hadn’t risked the aircraft in any way. Allen told him he appreciated the explanation, but to never do it again.
For more, you can listen to Johnston tell the story in his own words.

While Johnston’s actions were seen as reckless, it created a buzz amongst the airline executives in attendance. They had studied the economic case study behind the plane and knew all the technical details. Seeing a passenger aircraft pull off that sort of stunt, however, was something else entirely.

In the end, the 707 sold over 1,000 copies and it brought the jet age to the flying public. Furthermore, it established Boeing as a bona fide jet maker and set the foundation for the large presence Boeing has today in Commercial Aviation. Ultimately, that’s the true definition of a compelling — and successful — sales strategy.

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