A Brief History of My Time with Piper Dakota N38505

Museum Archive Photo of Dakota
Gary and Family with The Dakota in 1998

I have always wanted to fly as long as I can remember and was fascinated by airplanes and the sky as soon as I was old enough to play with my first airplane toys. My childhood home of Danville, VA has a very nice airport just a few miles from town. One day in 1961 when I was 5 years old, my father paid the local FBO for my first airplane ride in a Piper Cub, the most vivid memory from my childhood. Both of my parents worked hard to provide for our family and my next flight would be 10 years later at age 15 when my father saved a little money and surprised me with a special 3 hour introductory flight instruction package. Those 3 lessons behind the controls of a Piper Cherokee intensified my love of aviation and helped me gain confidence in myself for the remainder of those difficult high school years.

A few months after high school graduation, I could finally afford to begin weekly one hour flight lessons. I first soloed in January 1975 in a Piper Colt, transitioned to a Cherokee 140 and earned my private pilot’s license 9 months later in October 1975. I continued to rent various aircraft over the years and added my commercial and instrument ratings in 1982. Even though I never began a full time flying career, I had other goals of someday owning my own business and my own airplane. My passion to fly was still very instrumental in my non-aviation career path that resulted in my own successful business that has grown from my garage in 1990 to locations in 3 states. But that is another long story.

Enough about my personal life. Let’s jump to 1998, eight years after getting married and starting my business in Raleigh, NC. My daughter is 2 years old, my son 6 months old. My wife suggests to me one night that I have worked hard for a long time and I should begin my search for an airplane to use for business and family travel. She was right again, just as always, so without hesitation, I began searching for a used Piper Archer. There were a lot of Archers for sale, but a 1979 Piper Dakota, N38505, caught my attention. Her design and flight characteristics were similar to the Archer except that she had a bigger engine with more horsepower. She could carry more weight and fuel than an Archer and had optional air conditioning, which would be nice during those hot summer NC days. The seller and the plane were in Memphis, but after having a mechanic check her over, I bought her sight unseen and hired a ferry pilot to fly her to me. It was very exciting to see her coming in for landing at my home airport on November 18, 1998.

After I studied her log books in more detail, I discovered that she was the very first Dakota of over 800 manufactured by Piper. And very recently, when I googled the number N38505, a link appeared to the Piper Aviation Museum in PA. The museum staff had archived beautiful advertising photos of her in her original 1979 paint scheme. A previous owner repainted her to her present colors in the 1980’s. For over 14 years, it has been a real pleasure flying N38505. I upgraded the avionics, including a Garmin 530W with XM weather, a few years ago (View of cockpit panel 2012). An engine overhaul was needed two years ago after a 3 inch crack was found near the air conditioner attachments, but she was due soon for an overhaul anyway. She hasn’t been used for family vacations as often as expected, but has definitely made the management of 3 business locations more efficient. And I have found that when focused on flying an airplane, it is the only time I can truly relax and forget any other worries. But above all else, flying N38505 provides me a special sense of freedom and accomplishment that will last a lifetime.

One of my most interesting flights in N38505 was on October 7th, 2011. A few minutes before sunset, I was downwind for runway 6 at Ocean Isle Beach airport in southern NC. There were no other aircraft on the local frequency. I glanced to my left, looking south over the ocean and spotted a strange orange light at least three miles away at about my same altitude. I and other witnesses had seen the same strange lights on three separate occasions a few months earlier while standing on the beach. The light appeared stationary this time, even though some of them during previous sightings made unusual maneuvers that ruled out any type of flares. Since this was my first sighting while flying and I now had a chance to get a closer look, I turned toward the light and flew out over the ocean directly toward it. About a minute later and approximately 1 mile from the light, it vanished suddenly without any dimming. I flew around the area for a couple of more minutes to see if it would reappear before I landed.

My next and last sighting was 5 days later around 8 PM while standing on the same beach. Luckily, I had my video camera running this time, recording the full moon and distant lightning over the ocean, when at least a dozen orange lights appeared over the next 20 minutes. Some local news stations aired a short portion of my video clip and after more research, I found that these strange lights are reported frequently along the coasts of NC and SC. Multiple reports from so many witnesses prompted an undisclosed TV network to send a film crew this January to film a UFO documentary to be aired sometime later this year. They heard about my video and asked me to fly N38505 around the sighting area and to describe my experience. I agreed to participate mainly just to see N38505 flying on TV. When asked what I thought the lights might be, I just said that I had been flying over 38 years and that I had never seen anything like them before. I wasn’t going to assume they were extraterrestrial craft. That’s what the “U” stands for in “UFO”s, “unidentified” flying objects.

Gary Travis
April 21, 2013