The startle response
“Expect the Unexpected.” — Coach Paul “Bear “Bryant
The light blue cardboard cover of my student pilot logbook is faded and the black cloth spine is tattered. The pale black lettering on the front cover reads: Amityville Flying School—Zahn’s Airport. Amityville, Long Island, NY. Pilot’s Log and Rating Record.
Slowly leafing through each page, I recalled the minute details of my first solo after seven hours and 56 minutes of dual. My second and third supervised solos were postponed due to approaching weather. After four days, the sun finally returned and then on a late August morning in 1967, Piper J-3 Cub – N7381H with its 19-year-old pilot rotated and climbed skyward once again on the east/west runway.
During the 1960s, the traffic pattern at Zahn’s Airport resembled a yellow daisy chain of post-war J-3s, Colts, Tri-Pacers, and Apaches. The most spartan instruments, minus any radios, graced the mighty Piper Cub’s panel. Adding to a hornet’s nest of Zahn’s traffic were Bell UH-1 Huey helicopters, Cessna 0-1 Bird Dogs, and Cessna O-2 “Oscar Deuce” Skymasters flown by US Army Air Guard instructors and their students training for Vietnam deployment. If your head wasn’t constantly on a swivel and your eyes actively scanning for traffic, then you might be flying additional dual with your instructor until he had confidence enough to finally cut you loose.
The crosswind, downwind, and base legs were uneventful. Then, while turning from base to final for Runway 11, a flock of redwing blackbirds suddenly appeared out of nowhere. A heartbeat later, the Cub’s windscreen was shrouded by a dark cloud of feathers and more. This was my first encounter with the startle response. Only moments before, I had departed in a yellow J-3. Now, I landed in a yellow and red J-3.
After carefully S-taxiing back to the cavernous Zahn’s hangar, my instructor jogged toward my airplane as the Continental 65 and wooden propeller came to rest. My instructor appeared quite pleased, with an expression of immense relief, to see his young student once again. After a short post-flight debrief, my CFI endorsed my logbook and handed it back to me along with a hearty handshake. Inscribed in my student logbook was “08/29/1967, J-3 Cub – N7381H, OK to solo J-3 Cub in pattern. Third supervised solo J-3 Cub. OK to solo in practice areas. Excellent landing. Robert C. Blair, CFI 1761xxx.”
The startle response can be loosely described as a significant distraction or surprise that creates a physiological response resulting in a delayed reaction to an emergency.
Over the years, I’ve experienced other inflight distractions that triggered a startle response. Here are a few other memorable moments that come to mind:
- Beechcraft Barron baggage door popping open after rotation on runway 28 in IMC with no runway remaining at Statesville Airport (SVH).
- Several yellow jackets with attitudes swarming our ankles during climbout in a rented PA-28-R-200 at Rowan County Airport (RUQ) on a sultry July afternoon.
- Split flap condition when landing a Cessna Cardinal in IMC on an ILS runway 20 approach with an instrument student at Concord Regional Airport (JQF).
And on the lighter side… After landing at Charlotte Douglas (CLT) for a quick turn before departing for Morehead City Airport (MRH) on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year, I walked into the air conditioned pilot operations room to check weather and file an instrument flight plan. I’d planned to depart before the next traffic push at 12:55 pm. Stopping by the food vending stations (aka “Wheels of Death”), I selected a chicken salad sandwich, Lay’s BBQ potato chips, an apple, and bottled water. With lunch in hand, I walked through the double doors and outside across the blistering concrete ramp toward our Cessna. I preflighted the airplane and then contacted Clearance Delivery.
The IFR clearance promptly came back “as filed” and the flight was soon underway after routine Ground, Tower, Departure, and En Route communications. Passing through 9000 ft., I heard a loud pop from behind the copilot’s seat. The plastic potato chip bag had burst. Anxiety turned into spontaneous laughter. On the back seat perched the Lay’s bag, resembling an inflated weather balloon party favor filled with potato chips!
Now, let’s take a look at this companion article prepared by the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee and learn how to better manage the Startle Response.