Some musings about airplanes, photography, and our penchant for seeing things the way we need to see them

In the early 1950s, Boeing bet the company’s future on the development of the Dash 80, a groundbreaking aircraft that would go on to become the KC-135 aerial tanker and the world-shrinking 707 airliner. During a demonstration flight in 1955, Boeing test pilot Tex Johnston decided to show off the capabilities of the sole prototype by performing a barrel roll. Though Johnston knew the maneuver was perfectly safe, Boeing president Bill Allen was not happy, and he called Johnston in to the office to express his displeasure. The wily Johnston replied simply, “I was selling airplanes.”

On board during that flight was a Boeing engineer who happened to have a camera with him, and he shot this dramatic photograph of the Dash 80 inverted over Seattle. In a recorded interview years later, Johnston himself describes the now-famous photo of “the airplane on its back and the engines up on top of the wing.”


But wait a second–if the aircraft were upside down, wouldn’t the photographer have been upside down too? Like the Dash 80, this famous photo has been inverted. But why?

Because our brain needs it to be inverted. The photo makes sense because we see the ground where it’s supposed to be—under our feet—with the airplane upside down, as if we are observing the barrel roll from outside the barrel. However, assuming the engineer was strapped into his seat, then he and his camera were inverted as well, and the photo would really have been taken like this, unless he was holding his camera upside down:


As true as this second photo is, though, it’s hard for us to make sense of it. We have trouble processing the image because the plane, which is supposed to be inverted, is right side up, while the world, which should be under our feet, is upside down (or really, downside up). But the camera doesn’t know one direction from the other. It works without any “gravitational bias” and doesn’t know or care which way is up (or down). But does the camera, as a dispassionate observer, have the power to change our perceptions and put us in that seat back in 1955 with our heels over our head?

I have never been in an airplane that was inverted. I’m not sure I want to be. But I would wager that, if I were, I would still perceive the world as right side up, even though I was right side down. My camera, however, would tell a different story, perhaps the true story, even if my brain refuses to believe it.


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