One of the More Unusual Pilots at Transocean Airlines

Charles "Chuck" Sisto, who was copilot to Captain Stich during 1953 while they were flying Muslim pilgrims to Mecca and Medina from Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Tehran, Abadan, had an unusual background. He had been a senior check pilot at American Airlines after World War II, and that prestigious position came to an abrupt halt after Sisto was on a flight from Dallas to El Paso in a DC-4.

What happened came close to killing a planeload of people, and seriously and tragically disrupted the career of that early pioneer in aviation.

Here is what Happened

The American Airlines DC-4 aircraft was on a flight from Dallas to Los Angeles, flying at night, at 10,000 feet. just east of El Paso, with 54 people on board. The captain was Jack Beck and the copilot was F. Logan. Also on board was American Airlines check captain Charles "Chuck" Sisto. The flight was just west of El Paso at 10,000 feet when Sisto engaged in a little frivolity that almost killed everyone on board.

Sisto reached behind the captain's seat and placed the aircraft gust lock into the locked position, holding it there. This gust lock was only to be applied while the aircraft was on the ground, and never in the air. What it did was to lock the flight controls in the neutral position.

The aircraft was on autopilot. As various factors cause the aircraft to climb or descend, the autopilot moved the trim tabs on the elevators to compensate and keep the aircraft at the altitude set by the pilot.

The deflection of the trim tabs causes the much larger elevator control surface to move in the opposite direction, thereby maintaining the desired altitude. If the autopilot signals the elevator to provide a downward movement of the aircraft, which results with the elevator control facing downward. The downward movement of the elevators is caused by the trim tab at the end of the elevator moving in the up position, and the airflow over the upward-positioned trim tab causes the elevator to go in the opposite direction, and causing the nose of the aircraft to pitch down.

However, when the elevator is locked in position, it cannot move in response to the control tab. Therefore, a signal by the autopilot that would normally result in the aircraft pitching down (the trim tab being in the up position), the upward position of the trim tab will cause the aircraft to climb rather than the desired descent.

The combination of the autopilot continuing to raise the elevator trim tab to cause the aircraft to pitch down, and the pilot's additional effort to manually roll in more elevator trim, caused the aircraft to continue its pitch-up attitude.

Realizing that his prank was putting the aircraft in an undesirable attitude, and without notifying the pilots, Sisto returned the elevator gust lock to the unlocked position. This in turn caused the aircraft to acts normally to the extreme nose-down trim tab setting. The aircraft suddenly pitched down and went inverted.

Only the copilot has his seat belt fastened. Inverted, the head of the captain and Sisto hit two of the four engine feathering buttons, causing those engines to cease operation.

According to what Stich was told by another American Airlines captain, the copilot managed to get the airplane upright and level out about 400 feet above the ground, so close that the exhaust illuminated the ground. The aircraft then landed at El Paso, Texas.

 After the aircraft landed, the crew was praised for saving the aircraft from what they claimed was an autopilot malfunction. But a test of the autopilot confirmed that it was not capable of having done what was done.

The pilots then changed their statements. They stated that the autopilot was not engaged prior to the mishap, and that the copilot was hand-flying the aircraft and applying elevator trim manually. Eventually, it came out that Sisto had engaged the elevator gust lock which led to the aircraft upset.

As I had discovered from experiences I had with the pilots' union, ALPA, the pilot's union president, Dave Behncke, defended Sisto, stating that "The incident could have been averted had the DC-4 been equipped with a properly designed gust lock system."  

Ironically, Behncke also protected the corruption of certain United Airlines flight managers at Denver that had been responsible for the conditions that resulted in many of the fatal airline disasters experienced by United Airlines from 1950 to 1978, including those that I reported when I was giving the assignment as an FAA inspector to correct the conditions responsible for the worse series of airline disasters in thee nation's history.

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. 

Early Portrait of Chuck Sisto

Were it not for Sisto's character, he would have been portrayed in a much more favorable light, since he was a pioneer in the aviation field. Sisto started flying shortly before the stock market crash of 1929, and barnstormed around the western part of the United States. In 1938, Sisto became a pilot for American Airlines. Based upon experience, he should have been smart enough to realize what could happen by applying the gust lock on the DC-4, and especially upon the sudden release of the gust lock after considerable trim tab was applied.

Sisto died in November 2002 at the age of 90.