James R. Gannett, a retired Boeing test pilot who helped launch the jet age, died of a brain aneurism June 17 at his home in Redmond, Wash. He was 83.
Gannett’s interest in aviation was sparked as a boy when his father gave him $1 to take an airplane ride. That ride led to a life-long love affair with aviation. Gannett earned a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Michigan and proceeded to make a career out of aviation.
From 1950-1954 he was in the Air Force at Edwards Air Base in California where he tested experimental aircraft. After leaving the service he became a test pilot for the Boeing Co. in Seattle. Gannett is best known for his role as copilot on the Dash-80 (the prototype of the Boeing 707) that performed two barrel rolls over Lake Washington in 1954 during the summer boat races. It is said that the impromptu aerobatic display boosted Boeing’s sales on the spot, as several airline executives were attending the boat races as guests of the company.
Because the 707 was new technology, Gannett played a pivotal role in helping create the FAA’s rules for certification of jets and the procedures for training pilots to fly the 707. That work earned him the inaugural Iven C. Kincheloe award in 1958 from the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.
In the 1960s Gannett became the project pilot for Boeing’s supersonic transport airplane. He held the position until the early 1970s when Boeing and the federal government pulled the plug on the design.
Gannett continued to help develop and test Boeing aircraft until his retirement. Some of his work included developing better cockpit instrumentation for Boeing 7-series airliners.
Gannett never forgot the joy of flying small aircraft. At the time of his death he was still an active general aviation pilot. He spent Saturday mornings at Wings Aloft, a flying club at King County International Airport/Boeing Field in Seattle. Although retired, Gannett was always working on a project to make flying safer. He often brought in his notes on an intuitive attitude indicator he was developing for general aviation aircraft. He had a keen interest in developing technology and frequently grilled the club’s instructor pilots about the use of the G1000 and the techniques used to train pilots who were in transition from steam gauges to glass cockpits. Other topics of special interest for him were noise abatement procedures at the airport and a 180° turn that would allow you to return to the runway in the event of a loss of engine power on takeoff. Gannett, with the patience of a seasoned instructor, would describe the “Gannett turn” in detail to the uninitiated, using his hands to demonstrate the appropriate bank angles needed to safely execute the maneuver.