I Learned About Flying From That

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I was excited about buying a 1966 Piper Cherokee 140, discovered in Trade-A-Plane. I negotiated with a gentleman in Owensboro, Kentucky, who finally accepted my offer for $10,000 after several conversations on the phone. I never saw the airplane but made a deal that if it was not as advertised, I would not take it. The airplane was supposedly in excellent condition with a fresh annual inspection, certified IFR, new paint, a good working instrument panel and ready to go.

To save money I took a bus from my hometown in eastern Pennsylvania on a summer morning and after traveling all day, finally made it to Owensboro. I stayed in a little hotel that night and got a ride the next morning to a crop duster's farm where the airplane was located. I was truly in the middle of nowhere. As soon as I saw the airplane I started to have concerns. The airplane was freshly painted but the job was poorly done. Looking at the logbooks, the owner was an IA and had done all of his own annual inspections and I could not find any entries for the paint job in the logs. I could not find any evidence that the control surfaces were balanced either after the work. I also saw a leak in the right brake line, found a small engine oil leak, the clear window was taped up to hold it closed and several other problems, but I thought that I could fix most of them myself when I got home. He did check the engine compression in front of me and all cylinders were in the low 70s.

I thought about the long trip that I took to look at this airplane and the amount of time that it would take to get home, so I decided to go ahead with the purchase and handed the man a cashier's check for the money. I was also "airplaneless" at the time and that was unacceptable. This airplane was the second Cherokee 140 that I have owned, so I had several hundred hours in type.

I received a weather briefing and took off VFR to start my journey home. Soon after takeoff I noticed the attitude indicator was cocked to one side about 10 degrees, but the suction was okay so I just continued on. It was not long before the weather deteriorated, so I landed at an airport and filed IFR for the remaining part of the trip.

The weather forecast included a chance of thunderstorms but I thought ATC would keep me out of danger. I was in the soup at 7,000 feet just east of Pittsburg when all hell broke loose. The airplane started being pounded by rain or hail and I could not hold altitude. I tried my best to just fly the airplane as all of us were taught in basic flight instruction. All of a sudden a loud "boom" occurred and at first I was so startled that I did not realize that it was lightning. I thought the engine might have exploded. The trim handle blew off the top of the cockpit and landed on the floor. The cockpit started to fill with smoke, so I struggled to open the clear window that was taped shut and took breaths out of the window. I just started to pray and made a gentle descending turn to the west to avoid the mountains and get out of the clouds. My cocked attitude indicator was still working and I tried my best to compensate for the 10 degrees. Finally, I broke out of the clouds and I was in the clear. Still praying, I saw my wings were attached and the engine was running normally. I finally found Allegheny County Airport by referring to my charts and watched the airplanes in the pattern and entered behind one of them. On final I strained my eyes to find the tower on the field and thank God I saw a green light.

I landed and taxied up to the tower. A controller came running out when I got out of the cockpit and scolded me because I did not rock my wings to acknowledge the light signal. I told him that I was struck by lightning and did not want to rock anything. When he saw my white airplane that was covered with black soot from above my head to the tail he was apologetic. The number one communication whip antenna was a nub melted down to the fuselage and there was a dent in the fuselage as well. The smoke in the cockpit evidently came from the insulation of the antenna cable that was burning above the headliner. The FAA regulation that material inside a cockpit cannot sustain a flame may have saved my life.

My brother lives in Pittsburgh so I called him to rescue me so I could relax for awhile. The next day I took a bus home.

A Week LaterThe airplane cost about $3,000 to fix. After new fuses, a new antenna and cable and a good check over, it was ready to fly again. The dent in the top of the fuselage and a small hole where the lightning bolt exited the airplane on the bottom remained as a grim reminder of the day's events. However, the magnetic compass in the panel always indicated 320 degrees no matter what the direction the airplane faced. The engine was magnetized and even moving the compass to the windscreen only helped slightly. I never flew it IFR again and eventually sold the airplane for a very reasonable price.

I am a private pilot with over 2,000 hours, with SEL and MEL instrument ratings. However, I feel that I am one lucky guy who had God as my copilot. So many other things could have gone wrong to drastically change the outcome. Suppose the ceiling would have been 200 feet or less? Suppose the unbalanced control surfaces would have experienced "flutter" or worse? Suppose the thunderstorm would have been more severe? Suppose the attitude indicator would have failed completely?

Ever since that day so long ago I have set a personal ceiling minimum of 1,000 feet before I travel IFR anywhere. For me, that was a good decision given that I fly about 125 hours per year and feel that I need to allow a margin for error in case of unexpected emergencies. I hope to grow to be an old pilot.

To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go to barryrossart.com.