"Get me a paddle …"

Posted 02/05/04

By Walt Gunn 

With the permission of the author, the following is excerpted from "A Life Aloft from DC-3 to 747" (Wings Publications, 1988), the memoirs of retired TWA pilot Walt Gunn. In this yarn, he recounts the tale of a lightning strike on the 747 he was driving through a stormy approach to ORD.

As I (requested) permission to veer to the left to avoid an ominous-looking blob on the radar, it struck! A "static discharge" (lightning strike) of gargantuan magnitude brightened the sky a hundred fold with a deafening, crashing sound. The episode lasted but a second. Pulses escalated for minutes. In some measure, I was acclimated to static discharges over the years. This one doubtlessly ranked among the most severe …

Even in midday, the flash was blinding, brightening the cabin as the strobe-like flashes pierced the windows. More distressing was the deafening explosion. Any sleeping passengers surely were awakened by the blast. Others must have thought we had been victimized by a bomb. Pulses peaked. The cabin attendants called to the cockpit to ask if we were still in one piece. Later, several cabin attendants reported there was a scattering of shrieks with prolonged, muffled groans throughout the cabin, but no panic …

The 747 weathered this assault and flew normally for the approach and landing after the "fireworks" attack. While taxiing to the gate, a Northwest Airlines 727 that was following us called to the ground controller: "O’Hare ground," the pilot said, "that TWA Jumbo ahead of us has lost part of his tail!" Hearing this, I glanced at the copilot and engineer. Only stares.

The controller asked if we had copied Northwest’s message?

I replied, "We copied, but I don’t think it will bother us now. How much and what part is missing?" I asked.

"There’s nothing above the flag on the vertical fin, and some wires are flopping around up there," said the observing pilot.

That answered why we had lost our VOR radios, which was the only consequence we noticed in flight after the hostile blast from the cloud mass. After thanking the pilot, we continued taxiing to our gate.

As we secured the plane at the gate, I asked the engineer to go down and check the tail damage while I saw the passengers off … not the usual procedure, but I wanted to reassure any dubious passengers that we were never really in harm’s way. By their countenances, it was apparent that the passengers fared well through the frightening ordeal. Perhaps their pleasantries were expressions of gratitude for arriving safely!

Jack Passarell was my flight engineer that day. He really knew his profession and an airplane could not be in better hands. He was a true pro? As I descended the outside ramp from the enclosed jetway, Jack met me.

"Walt," he said, "it really cleaned off the tip of the stabilizer (the only non-metallic portion of the vertical tail) … just a few shreds of fiberglass and the VOR antenna wires are dangling!"

My first view of the six-story-high tail confirmed Jack’s report.

Strangely, non-metallic surfaces are more vulnerable to electrostatic discharges on airplanes – just another mystery involving the positive and negative ion families feuding in our atmospheric environs. While viewing the damage, Roy Davis, maintenance supervisor at O’Hare, joined us to survey the problem. It would be his chore to make the airworthy repairs and get the bird back in the air.

With Davis standing at my side, I asked Passarell how much of the tip of the tail was lost. After some study, he offered, "At least five or six inches, Walt!"

I turned to Roy, asking him the same question. Davis shifted his unlit cigar to a corner of his mouth. He startled both of us as he answered, "I can’t tell you by inches, but I’ll tell you this, Walt … get me a paddle and I’ll go across Lake Michigan in it!"

Davis went on, "I’ve seen one before – never put one on though – but it’s about four-feet tall and three-feet wide, and 24-feet long. Upside down, it’s like a big canoe!"

I chuckled uncontrollably, as I could visualize Roy Davis paddling across Lake Michigan, cigar and all. Roy’s parting comment as he returned to his hangar office was, ""Not going to answer my phone any more today."

Bewildered at his statement, I had to ask, "Why, Roy?"

He came back, "Walt, you blew that tip off somewhere along the Fox River, and I do not want to go out there and pull it out of someone’s roof!"

Roy didn’t have to make the trip. The part was never found. Passarell learned the hazards of underestimating the size of parts on a 747, especially when his vantage point is six stories away. Roy informed us that the American flag on the tail was at least five-feet tall, but few would guess it to be more than two or three feet.

Roy Davis gained fame in the movie Airport in which George Kennedy played Roy’s role as the tough, cigar-chewing foreman, (Joe Patrone).

Walt Gunn (1942-1981) served in Flight Operations and was based at BUR, NYC, CHI and MKC.

Editor’s note: I am reminded of my own first encounter with the legendary Roy Davis. I was standing on the ORD ramp with the captain of a Convair 880 who had just arrived from JFK, while Roy was trouble-shooting the inbound crew’s complaint of "a whistling noise" emanating from the first officer’s sliding cockpit window. Roy appeared at the top of the boarding the stairs (the jetway was inop) and called down, "Cosley, get your skinny butt up here, I need your help."

I bounded up the stairs to hear Roy ask if I had any chewing gum. I did(Dentyne), and gave him a stick. He promptly popped it in his mouth, chewed a few times, and then took the wad out to jam it in the seal between the window frame and the fuselage.

"There, that oughta hold until they get to L.A.," he muttered.

"Aren’t you gonna do something more than that?" I asked.

"Nah," he replied, I got too many broken airplanes on my ramp as it is, and I don’t need this piece of (junk) messin’ up my day. Besides, it’ll overnight in L.A. and the clowns out there need the work!"

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