Memorial Day Weekend 1958
By Lew Wallick
In early May 1958, Boeing Flight Test moved 707-121, N707PA painted in Pan American
colors, to Edwards AFB in California for the continuation of 707 certification tests. The test program included runway performance, aerodynamic performance, climb performance, thrust and drag in all flap and gear configurations, handling qualities, and system tests. The reason for testing at Edwards was excellent weather, minimal traffic, and convenient test
As Memorial Day approached, the LA newspapers each day had stories of the marvelous DC-8 and how it would be superior to the 707. The local news media was strong supporters of Douglas Aircraft in those days (unlike the Seattle media in regard to Boeing). The news all published stories of Douglas’ plan to fly the DC-8 on Memorial Day weekend (Saturday, as I remember), and bleachers had been erected on the airport for employees and family to witness the first takeoff at about noon.
On the scheduled day, it was just another test day for the 707. Arise at 4:30 A.M., have
breakfast, go to the airport, and take off at 6:30 A.M. to conduct the first test flight for that
day. Our plan was to proceed to the vicinity of Catalina Island and conduct low altitude
climb performance and drag/thrust tests. We proceeded with our test plan and flew test
conditions until we had burned fuel to the level we could no longer maintain the gross
weight and center of gravity needed for the test conditions, approximately 9:30 A.M.
My co-pilot was Walt Haldeman, a CAA test pilot stationed in the LA region of the CAA.
As we departed the test area, we climbed to about 15,000 feet and set course for Edwards AFB. By coincidence, the route was almost over Long Beach airport where the DC-8 was to make its flight. When we reached altitude, we heard over the radio the various Douglas photo stations, wind measuring stations, and other test support talking on the common flight test radio frequency we also used to communicate with our mobile radio station at Edwards. Walt and I discussed flying over the Long Beach airport and taking a look at the DC-8. About 15 miles from Long Beach, I selected tower frequency, identified myself as 707 Papa Alpha, and requested to overly the airport at 5,000 feet.
The tower acknowledged the request, and after a brief pause asked if we were a Boeing 707.
I confirmed we were indeed at Boeing 707. The tower cleared us to overfly at 5,000 feet.
Shortly, the tower came back and cleared us to 3,000 feet, which I acknowledged. Very
shortly, the tower cleared us to 1,000 feet, which I again acknowledged. (They were really getting into this!) When we were about three miles from the airport, with no request from me, the tower cleared us to overfly the airport at any altitude we wished! I again
acknowledged the clearance. We lowered the landing gear and flaps and descended to about 500 feet (maybe it was a little lower) and flew the length of the runway, added thrust at the end of the runway, and climbed out to continue to Edwards. All of a sudden, as we were over the airport, there was absolute silence of the flight test radio frequency. We continued to Edwards and landed and planned a second flight for the afternoon.
The next day, Walt informed me we were probably in trouble—at least he was. Mr. Douglas had called the regional CAA Office and raised HELL with Walt’s supervisor. Apparently, when we made our flight down the runway many of the local radio media people were in the coffee shops surrounding the airport. When they heard us fly by, they ran outside and saw a jet transport with in those days heavy black exhaust climbing away. They immediately, and typically, reported by telephone that the DC-8 had successfully began its first flight and on and on with their prepared spiels. As a result, many Douglas employees heard these reports and very few actually showed up to witness the DC-8 takeoff. This really upset Mr. Douglas.
I later found out that they also called Bill Allen and apparently read him the riot act as well.
No one in Boeing management said anything to me, good or bad. When the Convair 880
was scheduled for its first flight, Walt and I joked about going to San Diego, but decided it was too far away.