February 9, 2019 is the 56th anniversary of the first flight of the 727, an event that was significant in the aviation world as well my own. My father – Lew Wallick – was a Boeing test pilot and piloted the 727 on that historic day. I was six years old. In 2014 – five years after my father passed away – I published a book about him and his colleagues at Boeing Flight Test in order to record their amazing stories and the roles they played in aviation history.
In January of this year, the last 727 passenger flight occurred, bringing the 727’s era as a passenger jetliner to a quiet end.
To celebrate both the first and last flights, here’s an excerpt from Growing Up Boeing: The Early Jet Age Through the Eyes of a Test Pilot’s Daughter describing that exciting first flight.
In 1960, my father was named project pilot for the 727. The airplane was still in its design phase at this time, so Dad continued testing the 707, 720, and the Dash 80 while attending meetings on the 727. He thoroughly enjoyed being involved in the design of a new airplane from the get-go, working with all the engineers and going to the various meetings. This was the first time he was able to be involved from the earliest stages of a program and have significant input in the design of the cockpit.
The 727’s design was a radical departure from the 707 in terms of engine placement: three engines mounted near the tail—one in the center and one on either side—rather than four engines on the wings.
To test design theories, Boeing engineers and mechanics installed an engine on the side of the rear fuselage of the Dash 80. It looked like a big brown lamprey sucking on the airplane’s fuselage, its tail (exhaust pipe) bent in a wiggle as if swimming alongside. They also designed and installed a set of flaps that were scaled to be like the inboard flaps on the 727, which were huge on the Dash 80. All this was done so they could test the air flow from the wing into the side engine inlet. Engineers were concerned that there might be air distortion, creating engine surge problems. (An engine surge is like a car backfire.) The extra engine mounted on the Dash 80 mimicked the anticipated placement of one of the side 727 engines.
“I flew a lot of the flights on the Dash 80 in this configuration—a five-engine jet!” Dad said. “Everything was fine. We didn’t run into any surge problems. I figured everything was going to be fine on the 727.” The day before the first flight, Boeing took some publicity photos. My father posed on the tarmac, the 727’s three engines and tail behind him. He also posed in the cockpit, in the pilot’s seat, a huge grin on his face as he looks over his shoulder at the camera. Dad pointed out that he was leaning against a temporary plywood seat back; the real seat back was installed before the first flight.
February 9, 1963, dawned a beautiful clear morning, perfect for the 727’s first foray into the skies over Puget Sound. Pilots describe this sort of weather as “severe clear”—brilliant blue skies with unlimited visibility. “A test pilot’s dream weather conditions for the first flight of the new Boeing 727,” my father said. “The airplane was ready, so we flew it.” No big deal, right?
My father was the pilot; his boss and Chief of Flight Test Dix Loesch was copilot, and M. K. “Shuly” Shulenberger was flight engineer. They each wore lace-up boots and a flight suit, like those worn by military aviators—a one-piece jumpsuit of orange or light green that zipped up the front and had a plethora of zippered pockets on the legs, arms, and chest for stowing pencils, maps, writing pads, and so on.
After a preflight briefing with engineering to go over the test plan, they headed out to the airplane, painted Boeing yellow with brown trim. Standing on the tarmac near the airstair leading up to the airplane’s main door, confident and relaxed with their bulky flight helmets nestled under crooked elbows, they stood for publicity photos while commenting on the remarkable weather. Pleasantries with the flight-line crew and several members of company management were exchanged. My father, at just under six feet, was the tallest of the three and sported the longest hair—jet black, cropped close on the sides (where a little gray was just starting to show), the longer-on-top hair parted at the side and combed back from his forehead with a bit of a wave. Dix’s hair was closely shaved, showing a receding hairline, and Shuly sported the more typical Boeing engineer crew cut. All three men were smiling broadly, exuding confidence with the subdued and controlled excitement of an experienced test crew about to fly into history.
The maintenance supervisor, quality-control supervisor, and flight-test operations supervisor reviewed the work items completed after finishing the previous day’s taxi tests as well as the status of the airplane for this day’s test flight. When those supervisors signed the flight release and presented it to my father, he signed it, accepting the airplane for flight—a formality making him responsible for the airplane.
“We had a pretty nice turnout at the Renton Airport,” Dad remembered. “It was a Saturday. The weather was clear, a nice breeze out of the north right down the runway. Perfect conditions for what I wanted.” The three days of taxi runs completed a few days earlier showed him that the airplane was ready.
Once inside the cockpit and while going through checklists and checking instrumentation, the pilots went over some emergency procedures, some “what if” scenarios. For example, if they had an engine fire midflight, since they planned to be flying north of Seattle, they’d want to land at Paine Field or Whidbey Island Naval Base. But if something happened right after takeoff, they’d want to land at Boeing Field because it had a good runway and Paine Field didn’t have a Boeing facility. They didn’t envision any emergency that would prevent them from landing somewhere, so they didn’t even discuss the possibility of ditching into Lake Washington immediately after takeoff.
The interior of the 727 looked more like the inside of a warehouse than that of a commercial airliner. The entire length of the cabin was full of instruments for recording test data. The interior of the fuselage was covered in thick padded sheets of material to keep crews from bumping heads and elbows on sharp surfaces. Once inside the cockpit and strapped into their seats, the crew conducted their preflight check of all the systems and started the three engines. They couldn’t hear the engines inside the cockpit, but the instruments and a faint hum told them all three were running smoothly. Flight-test radio cars were in position on the runway, and Tom Edmonds in the company’s F-86 chase plane had just taken off; he would be shadowing the 727. Thousands of people lined Rainier Avenue, waiting to watch the takeoff.
Taxiing to the south end of the runway, checking the brakes and steering as they went, they turned onto the runway. Dix described this moment as “the 727 settled into position like a sprinter into the starting blocks.” A Coast Guard rescue chopper and “crash boats” moved into position because the 727 would be taking off to the north, over Lake Washington, as required by the FAA.
Then, the moment of truth arrived. With takeoff clearance from the tower, Dad said to his crew, “Alright, let’s go!” Moving the throttles forward to full thrust, he let go of the brakes.
Here’s how my father later described that memorable first takeoff:
We release the brakes and go charging down the runway, get to rotation speed, rotate, lift off, nose is up, and I can’t really see the end of the runway anymore—all I see is water and Mercer Island off in the distance. When we’re about 50 feet in the air, we hear BANG! BANG! It was really loud; you could feel it. It was a big backfire—surges. Shuly said it was the center engine; he saw it on his instrument panel. I reached up and pulled all three engines back a little bit; we still had plenty of power to climb. I just left the throttles there and climbed out to a higher altitude. We let our radio crew know it was surges. Then we started experimenting with it.
The crowd on the ground, watching that initial takeoff, surely heard those backfires, but probably only the engineers in attendance realized what it was. The sounds were loud but quick, like two shotgun blasts, or as my father said, the backfire of an old Kansas farm tractor. It’s doubtful anyone would have thought it was an engine exploding or similar disaster. Still, it was completely unexpected. Dad and his crew knew what surges sounded like because they’d had them on the 707, and in fact the whole reason for mounting a side test engine on the Dash 80 was to determine whether surging would be an issue on the 727. “It’s just that we weren’t expecting it on takeoff,” Dad said. “Normally when you have an engine surge, you’re doing reversing and you suck exhaust gas up into an inlet and that causes distortion and surges. I figured I knew what it was, but I didn’t know which engine, so I pulled back on all three throttles. Shuly knew, saw it, and said it was the second engine. I was looking out through the windshield; I wasn’t watching the gauges.” An example of a test pilot’s instant reaction to an unexpected occurrence, using gut instinct and experience to address it while remaining calm. Pulling back on all three engine throttles sufficiently to stop the surges while giving enough thrust to maintain a reasonable climb rate bought them time to figure out what was going on.
Dix wrote a piece about the first flight for the March 1963 issue of the Boeing News. He didn’t mention the engine surges.
The 727 came off the ground easily as Lew pulled back on the column, and we went out over Lake Washington in a shallow, easy climb to the north. Edmonds came whipping in behind us in the chase plane and we continued our climb at about 150 knots and 2,000 feet per minute. This is well below the airplane’s capabilities, but in those first few minutes you might say that the 727 and its crew were just getting acquainted and we didn’t want to be too forward.
That’s one way to put it. The climb was shallow and easy, well below capabilities because the surges were a surprise, causing my father to throttle back.
Once at cruising altitude, the crew continued with their test program for that first flight, the program they’d been planning for days. They leveled off at about 15,000 feet, flying between Renton and Port Angeles while performing mild maneuvers on all axes—sideslips, turns, rolls, nose up, nose down—with flaps in takeoff configuration and gear still down, getting a feel for the airplane. Once satisfied with what they saw and felt, they brought flaps in to cruise configuration and brought up the gear. They then met up with a Boeing photo airplane, flying formation at 9,000 feet over Port Townsend. First-flight photos done, they went back up to 15,000 and continued testing, including some initial stall work and shutting off primary control systems so as to operate on the secondary systems. After approximately two hours of flight, they landed at Paine Field near Everett, Washington. This was the first time a Boeing first flight was required by the FAA to land at Paine Field—at the time, a fairly rural airport, before the enormous Boeing 747 production plant was built—rather than Boeing Field. It had been several years since Boeing had had a first flight. Now, the FAA was requiring at least ten hours of flight time on a new airplane before allowing landings at airports in more densely populated areas.
After landing, taxiing, and parking the 727 at Paine Field’s terminal building, the crew shut down the engines and prepared to exit the airplane. Dix described their final moments in the cockpit in his Boeing News article.
As we closed up the “office” for the day I thought that these first two hours might be likened to skiing an unfamiliar course. We take the first part easy and then when we break into the open we’re still careful, but know that the rest of the run will be all downhill and fast.
“Thanks for the ride, Lew,” I said as I climbed out of the seat.
Lew looked out the window at the bright sunny sky where we had just been. “It sure has been a good day, hasn’t it, Dix?” he said.
I knew that he wasn’t referring entirely to the weather.
A news conference was held in a small office building belonging to the airport. Then everyone left. No big celebration, as happens after first flights today. Dad, Dix, and Shuly had all left their cars at the Renton Airport. Luckily, Boeing had a station wagon waiting at Paine Field and hauled them back to Renton to retrieve their cars. “There was a restaurant right across the street from the Renton Airport,” Dad said. “We really hadn’t had anything to eat, so we went over there and decided to have lunch and a celebratory drink or two. Then we went home.”
An anticlimactic ending to an exciting and historic morning.
In 1984, production of the 727 ended with 1,832 built and 1,831 delivered. Boeing kept one as a corporate plane.
Boeing test pilots were required to stop flying at age 60; my father reached that milestone in May of 1984. He took a 737 on a test flight the day before his birthday, his last official flight as a test pilot. (And he rolled that 737. Secretly rolling commercial jets during testing is a whole other story, covered in the book.) But it turns out my father had one last test flight to fly.
I recently learned that flight actually wasn’t my father’s last time flying a Boeing jet. Retired Boeing test pilot John Cashman, who pilot on the first flight of the 777, informed me that my father not only flew the first 727 out of Renton Field in 1963, but also the first flight of the last 727 from that same airport twenty-one years later.
On August 14, 1984, there was a rollout ceremony for the final 727. The original flight crew—my father, copilot Dix Loesch, and flight test engineer M. K. “Shuly” Shulenberger—participated in the festivities.
Two weeks later—three months after my father’s sixtieth birthday—John was captain of the first flight of that last 727, built for Federal Express. Paul Leckman was copilot. Dad went along, aware of the historic significance of this last first flight and making a memorable bookend to his career association with the airplane. “I offered Lew my seat at the end of the runway,” John said. “He flew the first and last parts of the flight, with a landing at Boeing Field. He never lost his smile.”
The last 727 in commercial service – with Iran Aseman Airlines – made its final flight in January of this year, bringing to a close 55 years of service with airlines around the world. There are still 42 727s flying cargo, however, so one might still see one soaring overhead.
The original 727 – known as E1 – was flown by United Airlines until retired. The airplane was eventually donated to the Museum of Flight in Seattle. After sitting for years on the tarmac at Everett’s Paine Field, where the Museum has its Restoration Center, E1 was restored for one last short flight on March 2, 2016 to Boeing Field in Seattle, where it’s now on permanent static display at the Museum of Flight.
My father made 1,845 flights in the 727 series of airplanes; some 3,200 flight hours. Among all the commercial jets he tested and flew over the course of his career at Boeing – from the 707 through the 767 – the 727 was always his favorite.
(Cover photo: 727 rollout at Renton Field. Boeing Archives.)