A pioneer of the “jet age,” A.M. “Tex” Johnston is one of America’s foremost test pilots. His love of aviation began in 1925, at age 11. In a pasture near his hometown of Emporia, Kansas, he took his first flight in a Hisso-Standard biplane. At age 16, he taught himself to fly and invested his after-school earnings in further flying lessons. Following high school in 1932, Johnston reluctantly enrolled in a teacher’s college, but his parents soon helped him transfer to the Spartan School of Aeronautics. First he studied airplane mechanics, but then took up a limited commercial pilot’s course.
By age 19, he had not only trained as an aircraft and engine mechanic, but had earned his pilot’s license. He worked in Inman’s Flying Circus and built time flying in a variety of aircraft. Next, he bought a Command-Aire biplane and barnstormed around the country. Marrying in 1935, he enrolled in Kansas State University, earned an instructor pilot rating, and taught in the new Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program. After Pearl Harbor, he became a civilian ferry pilot for the Army Air Force. In late 1942, Johnston declined a commission and went to work for Bell Aircraft testing the P-39 Airacobra. After testing a captured Luftwaffe fighter, he moved to Bell’s experimental flight test division.
He flew Bell’s XP-63 King Cobra and also did contract tests on other corporations’ fighters until 1943. At Muroc Dry Lake, California, Johnston tested Bell’s top-secret jet, the XP-59 Airacomet. In 1946, he modified a war-surplus P-39 and reached speeds of 430 mph while winning the Thompson Trophy at the National Air Races. He also set a new world speed record for closed-course air racing. Next, Johnston supervised Bell’s tests of the rocket-powered X(S)-1 until 1947. He then worked on Bell’s helicopter program until mid-1948. The whine of jet engines beckoned, and a tip from USAF Colonel Al Boyd sent Johnston to Boeing.
He became senior experimental test pilot on the XB-47 Stratojet at Wichita. In 1951, he moved to Seattle to become project pilot for Boeing’s YB-52 Stratofortress. He made the first flight in the YB-52, a record 3 hours and 8 minutes, on 15 April 1952. Later he flew as copilot for General LeMay in the first production aircraft. In 1954, Johnston made the first flight of Model 367-80. The aircraft led to the KC-135 Stratotanker and the 707 airliner. In the early 1960’s, Johnston was Assistant Program Manager for Boeing’s X-20 Dyna Soar, a precursor to the Space Shuttle. After Secretary of Defense McNamara canceled the Dyna Soar, he worked 4 years as Director, Boeing Atlantic Test Center, then went into business for himself. One of his companies, Aero Spacelines, Inc. manufactured the “Guppy,” an outsized cargo airplane.