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Two teenagers, a 60-hp Champ, and a 2100-mile journey

“Two teenagers flying all the way across the country in a tiny airplane. What could possibly go wrong?” During the week before we left, I studied up on our noble mount. Not exactly breathtaking performance-wise, and no electrical system meant that every other leg I would get to hand-prop it to get her going. We were very weight-limited, so we only packed the barest necessities, which all had to fit in a backpack.

“No complaints” – how I stumbled into a thunderstorm

I asked NorCal if there were any ride reports over the mountains. “No complaints,” replied the controller. We went into the clouds about over PXN VOR. No big deal. We were just bumping along V301, in and out of the clouds at first, then solid IMC. In the clouds it was just light chop, and my little Piper pretty much just flew herself, even without an autopilot. Then the world suddenly went mad.

What to do when the panel goes dark

Just after Hollister had passed under the left wing, the transponder flashed an error message, and went from their assigned squawk code to 1200. “Huh?” says the instructor, “What’s up with that?” The instructor tried to enter the assigned squawk code a couple more times, with the same result. That was exactly when the wheels fell off the cart, electrically speaking.