Habit patterns don’t always transfer

Amish boy
Amish boy to Air Force pilot—not your typical path to the cockpit.

Before getting into the meat of my story, I think a brief introduction is in order. I grew up Amish on a small farm in Marshall County, Indiana. One of the few non-Amish farmers in our neighborhood had a J-5 Cub. When he departed his grass strip to the east, he flew over our house at about 300 ft. One day, at age 5, I walked over to ask for a ride. Without hesitation, he pulled the J-5 from the hangar and off we went! I have never forgotten the feeling that came over me during that first flight. From that day, my friends tell me that I routinely talked about becoming a pilot someday. What a crazy dream for a little Amish boy! Well, that dream came true on August 4, 1966, when my wife pinned on my USAF silver pilot wings.

I spent the next four years flying the Lockheed C-130E Hercules. Much of that time was spent in Vietnam. The throttle quadrant had a mechanical stop at flight idle. To get to ground idle, the throttles had to be lifted up and retarded further, to a ground idle detent. Retarding the throttles further activated the reversing system. With over 4000 hours in the Hercules, I’m sure you can imagine how deeply ingrained that after touchdown throttle movement was.

After leaving active duty, I joined an Air Force Reserve unit. Over a 14-year period, I first flew the A-37 and then the A-10. During that same time, I also flew more than 30 different civilian airplanes. Finally, in 1976 I was hired to fly a Lockheed JetStar for a Fortune 200 company in Chicago. First step was the completion of simulator training.

JetStar
The JetStar is a four-engine Lockheed, but it’s not a C-130.

It had been more than six years since my last flight in the C-130E. However, I immediately felt at home in the JetStar. The entire instrument panel was identical to the C-130E. Of course there were some differences in the engine gauges, but all were stacked the same. Even the throttles were identical. The only difference was that the reverse levers were piggybacked about halfway down the front of the throttle levers. My simulator instructor did not ask me anything about my flying background.

After my first landing, with the throttles at the idle stop, I very smartly pulled up all four throttles and moved them to the reverse range. One minor problem: that is the procedure to shut down the engines! The simulator got really dark. My instructor laughed and said that all former C-130 pilots do the same thing on their first few flights. He recommended that I move my hands to the piggyback levers as soon as the throttles are retarded to idle. I followed that procedure for the nine years I flew that airplane.

In 1981, the company added a King Air B200. Here we go again! It had the same reversing procedure as the C-130. During training, I found myself back in the old habit pattern for reversing. I didn’t fly many trips until I decided that no pilots would be dual-qualified.

When you look at the military and the airlines, you will see that very few pilots are current in more than one airplane. On a “Dark and Stormy Night,” we revert to the most deeply ingrained habit pattern!

8 Comments

  • Man, you’re right on: Recency (or rather, non-recency) of experience and the law of primacy both add to the ‘flustered’ valve’s opening to the full hot position. Not too long ago I came back from a three-week vacation. On my first flight back I welcomed the passengers on board “America West Airlines” instead of “American Airlines.” Fortunately for me, the announcement was accepted and heeded in the normal manner of pilot announcements: No one heard it. At least no one mentioned it. And the phlite attendants didn’t even realize that I had made ANY announcement. I immediately felt better – realizing that nothing had changed in the three weeks I had been gone…

  • Dale, great to see your article in Air Facts Journal! That’s the first time I’ve seen a photo of you as a civilian pilot. With you married to my cousin I’ve had the privilege to hear numerous aviation adventures from the WGAP, and look forward to even more shared in the journal!

  • The law of primacy applies to the modern airline world, too, and thankfully we have simulators to demonstrate that. The side stick in the A-330 I fly is completely electronic and thus provides no feedback to the pilot, unlike the yoke found on Boeing and other aircraft. After a V-1 cut in the simulator, I rotated and then allowed my attention to wander to the engine instruments and warning indications. I was waiting for the airplane to “talk” to me, because in every other airplane you could feel when the pitch was just about perfect. It never did, of course, and before I knew it I was all the way to the back of the stick, the airspeed was decaying rapidly, and there was not enough altitude to recover. Stop the sim, reset, and do it again. It was an incredibly valuable lesson and one I have never forgotten. I pass it on to every new first officer: “Remember, the stick tells you nothing!”

  • I have always liked Lockheed’s products and am interested in the flying characteristics of the Jetstar. I have some 8 x 10 B&W glossy photographs of Gulf Oil’s polished aluminum Jetstar at Burke Lakefront in Cleveland in the early 60’s. A classic design and a beautiful example.

    • Flying characteristics of the JetStar. Of the more than 40 different airplanes I flew, the JetStar was the most stable instrument platform. Tradition holds that Lockheed realized that many of the pilots “checking out” in the JetStar would have no previous jet experience. They introduced many features to make it an “Old Pilot’s” airplane. A few of these features include; leading edge slats, more effective flaps, and a rudder bias system. A unique feature is pitch trim. There is no pitch trim tab. Instead, the entire tail assembly moves when pitch trim is activated. The downside of this system is elevator authority. If proper takeoff pitch trim is not set, there may not be enough elevator authority to rotate for takeoff. Supposedly, the reduced authority also reduced the chance of overstressing the airframe during flight. On landing, the JetStar almost landed itself. If approach speed is right on V ref, retarding the throttles to idle at the threshold causes the tail to settle and no additional flare is required to “grease it on” every time. I had some regret when the company sold the JetStar; however, it was short lived when they purchased a brand new G-III. What an airplane!!!!!

  • I did an accident investigation on a F-4 accident on T/O . I believe the pilot, then flying 737 for a major airline, used a procedure from his day job that got the Phantom airborne way early resulting in lift off early and a crash. Both crewmen safely ejected and were on the ground 28 seconds from brake release. There’s a C&W song here somewhere but I can’t remember the words. Something about the right thing at the wrong time.

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