The Chuck Sisto affair: Defending dangerous pilots

In October, 1947, American Airlines Captain Charles Sisto hitched a ride on an AAL DC-4 cockpit jumpseat, from Dallas to Los Angeles.  For reasons beyond the comprehension of rational minds, he thought it would be a great joke to engage the controls gust lock, without telling the pilots. [1]

American Airlines DC-4

C-54 military version of the DC-4

Captain Jack Beck, who was flying that DC-4, began to gradually roll in more and more trim for the elevators, which seemed to be resisting the normal pilot inputs on the control wheel, required to maintain the assigned altitude.  

Trimming, to relieve excessive pressure by the pilot on the controls, was accomplished by moving a small tab on the trailing edge of the elevators, which are panels hinged to the aft side of the horizontal stabilizer.  When the trim tabs were moved upward, that in turn put downward pressure on the elevators.  Downward pressure on the elevators would lift the tail of the airplane, and that in turn would lower the nose of the plane, causing it to descend.   

However, with the gust lock on, the elevators did not respond to that input from the trim tabs.  The trim tabs moved upward, as the trim control was changed by Captain Beck.  That would have normally caused the elevators to move down, but because the controls were locked, they did not.  As Captain Beck continued to roll in more and more elevator trim (moving that tab upward), it caused the plane to respond in the opposite manner, to which the pilot was commanding.  As long as that gust lock was on, the trim tab being moved upwards would tend to make the plane climb.  But with the gust lock off, the same action would tend to make the plane descend.

Additional trimming of that tab, while the gust lock was on, had the effect of winding a spring up tight, ready to suddenly release its pent up energy, whenever the gust lock might be moved back to the unlocked position.

Elevator up--plane nose up                                     Elevator down--plane nose down

Trim tab moves up, elevator moves down

And, that is precisely what happened when Captain Sisto finally decided his prank had gone far enough:  He moved the gust lock lever back to the unlocked position, without telling the pilots what he had done.

That DC-4 responded immediately by plunging towards the New Mexico desert floor.  

Because neither Captain Beck or Captain Sisto had their seat belts on, they were slammed into the cockpit ceiling with the force of that sudden and unexpected maneuver.   Their heads collided with three of the four engine propeller feather buttons.  The result was that the plane was spared a full-power dive, which would have undoubtedly led to the loss of the plane and all souls on board.  

Had they not lost 75 % of the engine power, as the plane entered the dive towards the desert floor, that plane would probably have come apart before hitting the ground.  

Fortunately, Captain Logan (flying the First Officer position) did have his seat belt fastened securely in place.  As the plane reached the inverted portion of the unplanned outside loop, only about 400 feet above the desert floor, he rolled it upright with the ailerons and managed to regain control until they could slow below the redline speed and limp to an emergency landing, which saved all 54 lives on board.

"The aircraft was placed under lock and key in a hanger at El Paso until a complete and thorough examination could be made by the Board's investigators. The day following the accident the crew made preliminary statements which indicated that there might have been some difficulty with the automatic pilot, which all three pilots stated had been engaged just prior to the maneuver previously described. For this reason tests were made of the automatic pilot which included its operation in this aircraft in actual flight. No evidence was found of any structural failure or mechanical malfunctioning of the automatic pilot or any other component of the aircraft.

Supplemental statements made by the three pilots on October 15, 1947, indicated that the automatic pilot was not engaged at any time during the flight but that Captain Sisto, sitting on the jump seat, engaged the gust lock while the aircraft was in level flight. Captains Beck and Logan further stated they were not aware of his action at the time. The aircraft started to climb and when rolling the elevator trim tab control nose-down did not return the plane to level flight, Captain Beck turned to Captain Sisto and asked, "Is the automatic pilot on?" Upon receiving a negative reply, he thought of the possibility of the gust lock having become engaged in flight and reached for the trim tab control to neutralize it. Before this could be accomplished, however, Sisto released the gust lock lever, and it being spring loaded permitted the gust lock to return to the unlocked position. The elevator was then free to be moved by the trim tab which had been placed in an extreme upward or airplane nose-down position. The sudden and violent movement of the elevator surfaces to a down position, upon release of the gust lock, caused the aircraft to pitch down violently as previously described."

The passengers and stewardesses (yes, that was the correct nomenclature, in those days......), who did not have their seat belts fastened, were also thrown up against the ceiling.  Fortunately, their injuries were only minor.

Of course that ended the pilot career of Captain Chuck Sisto----but only because American Airlines management and the CAB rejected the ludicrous defense of Sisto, by Dave Behncke, the President and founder of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). 

Dave Behncke defended Sisto to the bitter end, by arguing that 

"This incident could have been averted had the DC-4 been equipped with a properly designed gust lock system."   

There you have it in a nutshell, what the original purpose of ALPA----the purpose which the founder of ALPA, Dave Behncke, saw as more important than all other considerations in the airline industry.  More important than the safety of the trusting passengers who purchased their tickets with the full confidence and trust that the pilots would operate their plane with the highest of standards.  Trusting passengers who believed their pilots had the kind of sound and rational judgment, which could fairly be expected of anyone who even aspired to be an airline pilot.  

It was clear, from this and other bizarre behaviors of Dave Behncke, that ALPA was founded by a mental case who was incapable of discerning what was rationally and morally required of any person who would be hired to pilot airliners full of trusting passengers.  Behncke only cared about power----the power to deny airline managements the right and ability to get rid of dangerous pilots.  

Behncke set a horrible example with that case.  Effectively, he told his ALPA member pilots that their jobs were more important than safety itself.  He set the standard, that no matter how unprofessional or incompetent their conduct, they deserved the right to continue in their jobs.  The safety of the flying public took a back seat to Behncke's agenda of preserving the jobs of dues-paying members of ALPA.  

Behncke had been fired from Northwest Airlines, before being hired at United where he formed ALPA.  He also was turned down by the Army, three different times, for the commission he so desperately sought.  One could easily suspect that his dismissal from NWA and his failure to achieve the military career he wanted so badly, had an awful lot to do with the irrational driving force in his life. 

Proving that all airline pilots deserved to hang on to their jobs, no matter how incompetent they might be, seemed to be the golden chalice for Behncke.  Of course, that only applied to white pilots, since the racist Dave Behncke did not permit blacks to become ALPA members.  I don't know if ALPA bylaws at that time also prohibited women, but it sure wouldn't surprise me if that was also the case.  

Usually, those whose "thinking" arises from the swamp of bigotry and prejudice, also have a very strong bias against allowing women to compete with men----especially for the jobs which men deem the most desirable.

I pick on Dave Behncke, not only because he was founder of ALPA and its first deranged president for many years, but also because he set the tone of hatred and bigotry which is seen so often in the thinking of militant union members today.  

To justify in one's own mind, the policies of hate, threats of violence and actual violence, which is a dominant tool of American unionism, one must rule out reason, fair play and the right of each individual to think thru the issues and comment on them and to make his own decision as he sees fit, without being attacked verbally or physically, for exercising that First Amendment right to free thinking, speaking and association.

In other words, to be a good union member today, one must justify in his own mind the hatred of groups which might undercut one's quest for monopoly control of the commodity of labor.  That is why most union members favor the Davis-Bacon law, which was conceived in a racist time, for racist reasons, and which continues to harm minority groups in this country today.  

If a union member is so devoid of rationality that he thinks it is right to hate all "scabs" (persons willing to give honest work to an employer, as well as ones who believe they have the right to negotiate individually with any prospective employers), simply because they amount to economic competition, then it is no stretch at all to equally hate those of a different race or gender, who also might be a competitive threat, in the minds of such bigots.

The idea that union members are entitled to their jobs, even when they refuse to work in them; the idea that union members should never be fired, no matter how incompetent they might be; the idea that it is proper to preach hatred against and use violence against any and all competing groups----those are the ideas which spring from minds filled with bigotry and fear, from minds which do not recognize that all have the equal right not to be attacked and assaulted, even if they are not a member of a particular tribe.

In short, I see no real difference between the fundamental mindset of a Dave Behncke, a Jeff Danziger, a Ted Rall, an Orval Faubus, or a George Wallace.  They all start from a faulty premise that only those in their tribe have any right to rights.  The entire concept of equal rights for all individuals, is entirely alien to their bigoted way of thinking.  

They are opposed to the kinds of freedom and liberty which our Founding Fathers had in mind, as they wrote the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.  


Update, October 5, 2005:

To present a larger picture of Captain Chuck Sisto, I am patching in a small biographical excerpt from the WING TIPS Newsletter of the Aviation Museum of Santa Paula.  Note how it leaves out any mention of him nearly destroying that AAL DC-4, along with the lives of all on board, and that he "...left American airlines in the early 1950's..."  In fact, Sisto was fired from American Airlines in either late 1947, or in 1948. [2]  Note also the statement towards the end:  

"He was a very talented pilot and highly respected by his aviation peers." 

Gone West: Chuck Sisto Charles R. "Chuck" Sisto grew up in the Sawtelle area of Los Angeles not far from Mines Field which is now LA International Airport. He frequently rode his bicycle to the airport to watch the airplanes. Chuck soloed around 1928 and by 1929 he was barnstorming in the Salt Lake area of Utah in an OX-5 powered Waco and later in a Hisso powered biplane. He did this for several summers, hopping rides in the LA area in the winters.

By 1937, Chuck was flying for Waldo Waterman an aviation pioneer in southern California. Waterman had designed and built the first tail-less airplane named the "Arrowbile." In 1938 Chuck went to work for American Airlines. The history of his initial training with American Airlines was detailed by the famous aviation writer Ernest K. Gann who was a member of Chuck's class at American airlines, and would later record the experiences of that training in his book "Fate of the Hunter."

With the advent of WWII, advancement was rapid in the U.S. airline industry. Chuck checked out as a Captain on a DC-3 in 1941and flew personnel and supplies to Greenland and Iceland during the initial stages of the war. The U.S. government was building airports to support the aircraft being ferried to Europe to fight the axis powers. Chuck left American airlines in the early 1950's and went to work [
for]Transocean Airlines based in Oakland, California. After the demise of Transocean in 1962 he went to Japan Airlines where he was a DC-6 and DC-7 captain until his retirement.

It was while flying for Japan Airlines that Chuck became interested in helicopters. Purchasing a Bell-47, he returned to the sight seeing passenger business with the helicopter after his retirement from airline flying. In addition to his airline flying, Chuck also flew C-46's in the artic during the construction of the DEW line in the 1950's. And flew food relief flights into Nigeria during the Biafran War in the 1960's.

Ventura County locals probably remember Chuck most in his retirement, hopping airplane rides and towing banners with his Cessna all over the county. This he did for many years.

It was impossible for Chuck to retire.

He passed away on November 12, 2002. He was actively flying until just a few months before his death at 90 years old.

Chuck was a member of the Quiet Birdmen and the Grey Eagles, both aviation fraternal organizations. He was a very talented pilot and highly respected by his aviation peers. He is survived by his wife of many years, Anne Sisto, and two daughters, a son and grandchildren.

[1]  Captain Sisto actually flew the takeoff and climb portion of the flight, and then switched seats with Captain Jack Beck, who was flying the plane during the cruise portion, when the upset and high-dive commenced.  

Since Captain Sisto's medical certificate had expired, it was unlawful for him to be at the controls of any commercial airliner, with paying passengers on board.  It thus appears that he misused his Company authority, as a check pilot, to hitch a ride to Los Angeles, while he was allegedly (and unlawfully) giving "flight instruction" to other pilots.  If those two other pilots were properly scheduled for that flight, as part of their IOE (Initial Operating Experience), then they should have had a lawfully qualified check pilot/instructor on that flight with them.  Had that been the case, then Sisto could not have ridden the "jump seat," as a free ride to Los Angeles, because all three seats in the cockpit would have been occupied, as part of the required training of both Beck and Logan.  

Unfortunately, the official accident report does not explain why or how American Airlines allowed a training flight to be scheduled, with an instructor/check pilot who was not qualified to lawfully carry out that duty. Was it Captain Sisto's responsibility, as a check pilot/instructor, to do that scheduling?  We don't know.  We only know that he operated the controls of that plane, for the first part of that flight, when it was unlawful for him to do so. 

[2]  "Charles Robert Sisto was named respondent in an action initiated by the Administrator of Civil Aeronautics in which the Administrator requested the suspension or revocation of the airman certificate held by him (Sisto). Oral argument was heard by the Board, and a Board opinion was issued October 26, 1948. 

Reference Board's Opinion: D. W. Rentzel, Administrator of Civil Aeronautics, complainant, us Charles Robert Sisto, respondent, Docket No. SR-1867, October 26, 1948, in which the Civil Aeronautics Board found: that the respondent had violated certain Civil Air Regulations; that he had demonstrated a disregard for the principles of safety with respect to the operation of aircraft; that he lacked the discretion and good judgement [sic] necessary for the holder of an airman certificate with an airline transport pilot or commercial rating; and, that sufficient cause existed to Justify at the time, or any time in the future, refusal by the Administrator of Civil Aeronautics to issue to the respondent any pilot certificate or rating which would permit him to carry passengers for hire. That on the basis of the above findings the Board revoked respondent's pilot certificate effective November 5, 1948. It was further ordered that respondent shall not be issued any pilot certificate or rating which would permit him to carry passengers for hire."


September, 2005

Robert J. Boser    

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