November eight zero one four november was the prettiest and fastest Cherokeeone forty I had ever seen. It had a leather interior and new paint in my favorite colors: red, white, and blue. Full gap seals, pants, cruise propand a one sixty horsepower engine modification gave it an honest one hundredand thirty five MPH cruise speed. I liked it so well, I didn't even haggleover the price. It was a no squawk airplane... almost.
The first thing I noticed inside the cockpit, when I quit fondling the leather seats, was a large, natural wood, custom-made handle on the overheadtrim crank handle. The original trim handle had been a wimpy little plastic thing that you could never find when you really needed it. The wooden trim handle had a nice feel to it, but it caused me a moments concern. The F.A.A.side of my brain told me that a wooden handle was not on the original equipment list, and had not subsequently been approved, and therefore was illegal. Then the other half of the grey matter said, "so what! It feels good and looks good." I decided to leave it in.
I flew the Cherokee over four hundred hours and got to know it pretty well.The heading indicator would jump a few degrees every now and then. That'snot much of a complaint in four hundred hours, but sometimes, when you weren't looking, it would slip twenty or maybe forty degrees in on you.On long cross country flights it got to be a game. You could watch it workperfectly for twenty minutes, then while you were looking up the next frequency, it would slip a cog or something and change the numbers. Ofcourse that was no problem, the magnetic compass was hanging right up thereon the windshield, always knowing where it was going.
I flew my family to the Bahamas, then down to Key West. The Cherokee even ran smoothly over water. My confidence level was so high on that trip thatI came back across the Gulf toward the Florida swamps at night. It was sooodark out there. I don't really like to fly single engine airplanes at night.The options are much reduced if there is a problem to deal with. However,a night landing in the water would probably be safer than a night landing in the mountains. Still, it gave me the willies to think of it. You know,sharks and all.
I watched the instruments closely, fiddled with the mixture control and theradios a lot. I was looking down into the dark toward what must have beenwater, when I caught the heading indicator flipping over again. I looked upto the compass for the truth but the compass wasn't visible. Its little light had died. The place where the compass should have been was a dark area into which no light reached. I felt for the compass and found it, butyou can't read a compass with your hand. I reached into the glove box for the trusty flashlight. It was gone. I calmly asked if anyone had a lighteror matches. No one did. It was the first time I had ever regretted that wewere non smokers.
You learn a few tricks over the years. Once in a Comanche with a bad generator, I had been able to hold a sheet of white paper near the compassto reflect the light from a town below. No such luck now. There was not a single light to be seen below and if we were headed west, there wouldn't beany more lights before we ran out of gas.
I saw the heading indicator change numbers twice more. I began to wonder ifwe had drifted into the Bermuda Triangle.
I know how to find the Big Dipper and draw a line to the all too faint NorthStar. Too bad it was cloudy. There were no stars visible. I tried the cigarette lighter on the panel, even though I knew it had been disconnected.A panel mounted cigarette lighter had saved me one rainy Georgia night in aCessna one forty. The little Cessna's one and only interior light had quitwhile I was over pine forests and low on gas. I had reached a highway thateither went to Atlanta or into the wilderness, depending upon which way I turned. The cigarette lighter's warm red glow had illuminated the compasslong enough to show me the way home. That was the night I had vowed to carry a flashlight... always.
The compass didn't respond to my gentle tapping. I could feel the wires behind it, but moving them didn't help. I turned the panel lights up anddown. It made no difference.
As I thought the situation over, it occurred to me that in all of the Cherokees I had flown in the past, the compass had been visible in the redglow of the ceiling mounted light. In this one, all of the instruments werevisible except for the compass.
The compass! The one instrument who knew whether I was going to Florida or Mexico. I took a good look at the overhead light and saw the problem.There, basking in the interior light's red glow, was the handsomely carved,custom made wooden trim handle, carefully adjusted to a position that cast ashadow on the compass.
I moved the trim handle an inch or so, read the compass, reset the headingindicator and turned back toward Florida. Then I made a note on the edge ofthe chart to buy some flashlights and a plastic trim crank handle.