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Thursday, December 31, 2009

The never ending road to comercial status

It's December. I STILL haven't got my commercial pilot license!

It was supposed to all happen quite quickly once I passed the written back in May. But travel schedules, the need to change instructors (twice), and to use a heavily booked club aircraft all caused delays until October.

I had everything done, all requirements met and the examiner booked for late October, when the club's Arrow, the only complex airplane (retractable wheels and constant speed propeller) available, suffered problems with it's undercarriage (would not retract). The club mechanic diagnosed the problem, and shipped the offending part off for repair.

By the time it came back, the aircraft's annual inspection was due, so it was out of service for 2 whole months. Now it's back, and I have the examiner booked for January 22, 2010. In the meantime, I have to get 3 hours more training because the FAA rules say that I have to have had 3 hours within the 60 days prior to the test.


Friday, December 11, 2009

Give me Liberty or give me WiMAX

Here's a video I produced from a trip to Panama City:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

From Time Magazine - Self correcting time loop?

Sometime on Nov. 3, the supercooled magnets in sector 81 of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), outside Geneva, began to dangerously overheat. Scientists rushed to diagnose the problem, since the particle accelerator has to maintain a temperature colder than deep space in order to work. The culprit? "A bit of baguette," says Mike Lamont of the control center of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which built and maintains the LHC. Apparently, a passing bird may have dropped the chunk of bread on an electrical substation above the accelerator, causing a power cut. The baguette was removed, power to the cryogenic system was restored and within a few days the magnets returned to their supercool temperatures.

While most scientists would write off the event as a freak accident, two esteemed physicists have formulated a theory that suggests an alternative explanation: perhaps a time-traveling bird was sent from the future to sabotage the experiment. Bech Nielsen of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen and Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto, Japan, have published several papers over the past year arguing that the CERN experiment may be the latest in a series of physics research projects whose purposes are so unacceptable to the universe that they are doomed to fail, subverted by the future.

The LHC, a 17-mile underground ring designed to smash atoms together at high energies, was created in part to find proof of a hypothetical subatomic particle called the Higgs boson. According to current theory, the Higgs is responsible for imparting mass to all things in the universe. But ever since the British physicist Peter Higgs first postulated the existence of the particle in 1964, attempts to capture the particle have failed, and often for unexpected, seemingly inexplicable reasons.

In 1993, the multibillion-dollar United States Superconducting Supercollider, which was designed to search for the Higgs, was abruptly canceled by Congress. In 2000, scientists at a previous CERN accelerator, LEP, said they were on the verge of discovering the particle when, again, funding dried up. And now there's the LHC. Originally scheduled to start operating in 2006, it has been hit with a series of delays and setbacks, including a sudden explosion between two magnets nine days after the accelerator was first turned on, the arrest of one of its contributing physicists on suspicion of terrorist activity and, most recently, the aerial bread bombardment from a bird. (A CERN spokesman said power cuts such as the one caused by the errant baguette are common for a device that requires as much electricity as the nearby city of Geneva, and that physicists are confident they will begin circulating atoms by the end of the year).

In a series of audacious papers, Nielsen and Ninomiya have suggested that setbacks to the LHC occur because of "reverse chronological causation," which is to say, sabotage from the future. The papers suggest that the Higgs boson may be "abhorrent to nature" and the LHC's creation of the Higgs sometime in the future sends ripples backward through time to scupper its own creation. Each time scientists are on the verge of capturing the Higgs, the theory holds, the future intercedes. The theory as to why the universe rejects the creation of Higgs bosons is based on complex mathematics, but, Nielsen tells TIME, "you could explain it [simply] by saying that God, in inverted commas, or nature, hates the Higgs and tries to avoid them."

Many physicists say that Nielsen and Ninomiya's theory, while intellectually interesting, cannot be accurate because the event that the LHC is trying to recreate already happens in nature. Particle collisions of an energy equivalent to those planned in the LHC occur when high-energy cosmic rays collide with the earth's atmosphere. What's more, some scientists believe that the Tevatron accelerator at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (or Fermilab) near Chicago has already created Higgs bosons without incident; the Fermilab scientists are now refining data from their collisions to prove the Higgs' existence.

Nielsen counters that nature might allow a small number of Higgs to be produced by the Tevatron, but would prevent the production of the large number of particles the LHC is anticipated to produce. He also acknowledges that Higgs particles are probably produced in cosmic collisions, but says it's impossible to know whether nature has stopped a great deal of these collisions from happening. "It's possible that God avoids Higgs [particles] only when there are very many of them, but if there are a few, maybe He let's them go," he says.

Nielsen and Ninomiya's theory represents one side of an intellectual divide between particle physicists today. Contemporary physicists tend to fall into one of two camps: the theorists, who posit ideas about the origins and workings of the universe; and experimentalists, who design telescopes and particle accelerators to test these theories, or provide new data from which novel theories can emerge. Most experimentalists believe that the theorists, due to a lack of new data in recent years, have reached a roadblock - the Standard Model, which is the closest thing the theorists have to an evidence-backed "theory of everything," provides only an incomplete explanation of the universe. Until theorists get further data and evidence to move forward, the experimentalists believe, they end up simply making wild guesses - like those concerning time-traveling saboteurs - about how the universe works. "Nielsen and Ninomiya's theories are clearly crazy theories," says Dmitri Denisov, a physicist and Higgs-hunter at the DZero experiment at Fermilab. "In recent years theorists have been starving for experimental input and as a result, theories of second type are propagating widely. The majority of them have nothing to do with world we live in."

Nielsen concedes, "We have very little data, so theorists are going their own ways and making a lot of theories that may not be very plausible. We need guidance from experimentalists to make the theories more healthy."

"But," he adds, "in terms of our theory, we are submitting to a form of experiment. We are saying the LHC won't be allowed to produce a large number of Higgs. If it does, it would be very damaging to our theory."

Particle physics has a long history of zany theories that turned out to be true. Niels Bohr, the doyen of modern physicists, often told a story about a horseshoe he kept over his country home in Tisvilde, Denmark. When asked whether he really thought it would bring good luck, he replied, "Of course not, but I'm told it works even if you don't believe in it." In other words: if preposterous theories are mathematically sound and can be confirmed by observation, they are true, even if seemingly impossible to believe. To scientists in the early 20th century, for example, quantum mechanics may have seemed outrageous. "The concept that you could have a wave-particle duality - that an object could take on either wave-like properties or point-like properties, depending on how you observe it - takes a huge leap of imagination," says Roberto Roser, a scientist at Fermilab. "Sometimes outlandish papers turn out to be the laws of physics."

So what would Peter Higgs himself make of the intellectual controversy surrounding his eponymous particle? Speaking on behalf of his friend, Professor Richard Kenway, who holds Higgs' former position at the University of Edinburgh, says that the 78-year-old emeritus professor remains quietly confident that the LHC will discover the Higgs boson when it is eventually running at full strength. For his part, Kenway says the LHC's delays are to be expected given the size and intricacy of the $9 billion experiment. And he says if he ever needs further proof that the Higgs boson is not abhorrent to nature, he need only spend time with his friend and mentor. "If nature truly did not want us to discover the Higgs, a cosmic ray would have zapped the embryo that became Peter, preventing its development into a physicist," he says.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Curacao video

Anybody who wants to see one of the results of the visit I made to Curacao last June, should follow this link to youtube -


Monday, August 31, 2009

A muse about super powers

This weekend, my family and I flew up to New England (Boston) for my niece's wedding, which was actually held in Hartford CT. Sally went up early with Thing 2, while Thing 1 and went later to allow her some additional days in the her new school.

My niece married a nice man whom she met at work, down in Greenville South Carolina. His brothers all seem nice too. But his family are Super Christians, who belong to some really strict Southern Baptist sect. His Dad is a minister, who I heard wrote a book about why drinking alcohol is sinful.

So at the wedding, my in-laws, who are fairly religious Christians themselves, had an outdoor reception in a tent, complete with a dance floor. The Super Christians showed up, and ensconced themselves at one end, and looked down their noses at my wife's Protestant (but not good enough) family and my brother in law's big Irish Catholic (ah no - Papists!!!) family.

But not for long. After waiting an hour, the super Christians super powers failed (super-cilious-ness?) and the wine and beer came out of hiding where I had stashed them in the garage (trust those Irish Catholics to find it!!!!), and dancing broke out when the bride and groom cinched their way across the floor.

The groom beckoned to his Mom to come and dance with him, but she turned her back. Soon they all left, making a large hole with no people, soon filled by the Irish, having a good time.

Not much good, those Super Powers, if all it takes to counter them is a little dancing.........

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Commercial Pilot

I have started training for the commercial pilot’s license, and ultimately flight instructor rating. To do this, a pilot must have passed a written test, meet a long list of experience requirements, and pass a practical check ride with an examiner. To pass the check ride, you must be able to fly all the maneuvers listed in the FAA practical test guide, while maintaining heading within 10 degrees and altitude within 100 ft.

Some of the maneuvers are essentially the same as the private pilot test – you must be able to take off and land under a variety of conditions, simulating short runways, soft surfaces and emergency conditions such as engine failure in the pattern. The difference is that were as in the private rating, an emergency power off landing just had to get down on the runway in one piece, a commercial pilot is expected to touch down within a couple of hundred feet of a designated spot. Everything is more precise.

In the air, the pilot must be able to perform very steep turns (my new instructor likes 55 degrees, just shy of a 2G 60 degree banked turn), a steep power off spiral (also at 55 to 60 degrees of bank), and two performance tasks – the chandelle and lazy eight. A chandelle is an emergency avoidance maneuver. While flying straight and level in cruise, the pilot banks the aircraft at about 30 degrees, and pulls the yoke back to start a climb, while advancing the throttle to full power. The purpose is to reverse direction and climb the most possible while covering very little ground. If that baseball player who crashed in NY had done a chandelle instead of a level turn, he wouldn’t have hit the skyscraper back in 2003 or 2004. A good chandelle ends facing the opposite direction, much higher, with the pre-stall warning buzzer sounding.

The lazy eight involves a start similar to the chandelle, only without adding power, and after turning through 90- degrees and slowing, you let the nose fall through and finish the other 90 degrees in a turning dive instead of a climb. The goal is to end up facing the opposite direction, at the same altitude, but having reduced your turn radius by making it at reduced airspeed. Link several together, and it makes a kind of “8-on-its-side” pattern.

The ground reference maneuvers are the same as the private test (circling a tree in a field, flying a square pattern while adjusting for wind, S turns along a road), but with one new one, “8’s around pylons”. You select any two landmarks (a big house with a pool, a road intersection) and fly around each making a figure 8 as seen from above.

I am not really having any problem with this. I have enough experience now, and I am familiar enough with my airplane that I can make it do all these exercise. Some took a few attempts, such as the chandelle, to find out how much to raise the nose to maximize the altitude gain before finishing the course reversal, but that was about polishing it. I can quite constantly do a 360 degree steep turn, and hit my own slipstream as I level out. The more difficult part is still to come. I have to change aircraft.

A commercial pilot has to have 10 hours at least in a complex aircraft. That means one with a retractable undercarriage, and a constant speed (more efficient) propeller system. So now I will have to learn how to do all those maneuvers again, only on a bigger, faster, and more complicated airplane.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

I spent most of last week visiting a customer in the Caribbean island of Curacao. Scarlet BV offers a wireless broadband service in the Nederland Antilles islands, some of the most southerly islands in the Caribbean Sea.

Curacao is the biggest of the 4 islands that make up the Nederland Antilles, still owned and governed by Holland, although with a large degree of autonomy. The population of about 130,000 is made up of 50,000 Dutch, with the rest coming from all over. The island is very polyglot, with Dutch, English, Spanish and Papiamento (the local language, which is unique to Curacao) all of the commonly spoken and official languages. This Wikipedia entry has much more detail about the island, and some great pictures -

In 2001, the only telecommunications service came from the government owned telco monopoly, with no broadband. Gaining access to an undersea fiber line, Scarlet launched a broadband wireless service to offer competitive voice and data access. Realizing that they needed a non-line-of sight offering to penetrate the hurricane proof thick walls of Curacao residences, Scarlet converted to a TD-SCDMA based technology from Navini Networks, since bought by Cisco. The first site was a 650 foot (200m) tall refinery chimney, now they have nearly island wide coverage.

In 2009, Scarlet converted their network to Mobile WiMAX (802.16e). Most of the network was upgraded by a software upgrade, including nearly all the subscriber units, the few older base stations that couldn’t make the upgrade were replaced, and re-deployed to start service on St. Maartin. The following is the link to their website, where you can see their service pricing and marketing -

Plans to expand onto Aruba and Bonaire are well underway. Recently Scarlet was purchased by an investor group headed by Belgacom, providing access to capital for additional expansion. Cisco is also an important business partner as well as radio technology and network services provider. Scarlet now has close to 5% market share by population on the island, possibly the highest market penetration of any WiMAX service provider in the world. In fact, they have more customers than there are households on the island, showing that Mobile WiMAX offers a “personal broadband” experience, similar to cellular voice service.

And the Hilton Curacao has great Mango Daiquiris!!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Woohooo! Passed the 2 FAA Certified Flight Instructor written tests!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Changing the past

I had a revelation the other day. A full up, light came on, jaw dropped open revelation of how utterly astonishing the universe is. I tried to tell my wife about it, but she just shrugged and said "I knew that".

I was thinking about the Bell continuum. This is the strange place where all things happen simultaneously, because there is no time. The name comes about from the Bell Theory, which is itself an offshoot of the Pauli Exclusion Principle. Let me explain from the start.....

Way back in the history of quantum mechanics (about the time my Dad was born), a physicist named Wolfgang Pauli explained the fact that you could never see two electrons in the same orbit around an atomic nucleus by postulating what became known as the Pauli Exclusion Principle. It states that for electrons in a single atom, no two electrons can have the same four quantum numbers, that is, if n, l, and ml are the same, ms must be different such that the electrons have opposite spins.

The Pauli Exclusion Principle is what keeps subatomic particles distinct and separate from each other. If two particles did have the same quantum numbers, they would actually be the same particle. It has applications in electronics (semiconductors) and astrophysics. By insisting that particles must remain distinct one from another, it implies that things can only be compressed by certain amounts. The Principle is in fact what prevents my fingers from passing through the keyboard I am typing on, despite that fact that both are largely empty space.

It also says (in complex math that I won’t try to do here!) that if a particle spontaneously is created, that the sum of all its attributes combined with the other particles created from the same event is zero – all the quantum numbers add up to nothing, just as my high school teachers said I would.

John Bell extended this work and postulated the creation of 2 “entangled” particles, which he then separated and sent to mythical Alice, and mythical Bob. Alice and Bob didn’t measure anything about their particles, but one stayed home while the other flew to the other side of the world.

At exactly the same time, as they have agreed to previously, they measure one of the particle’s quantum properties, such as spin (s). The strange thing is that according to quantum mechanics (the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which I have discussed earlier), the particle that Alice has is in an undetermined state until it is measured – it doesn’t actually have a spin, it has both spins until the observer measures it. That’s how a photon can go through two slots at once. When measured, it “selects” an output, and exhibits a given spin number.

Because of entanglement, the other particle instantly has the other, opposite spin. Bob’s particle will always have the opposite spin to Alice’, no matter how far apart the particles are. Somehow, they communicate faster than light and determine their outputs. This has actually been proven experimentally to be true, over and over. Einstein didn’t like it – he called it “spooky action at a distance” and declared that “God does not play dice with the universe”.

We now know that it is true, and the hypothetical medium through which the p[articles communicate is called the Bell Continuum, and it is the place in the “Star Trek: Next Generation” series that “Q” lived.

Here’s the part that blew my mind. Distance is one thing, but we see time as being something else, something fixed in the past and changeable in the future. However, let’s suppose I look up at the night sky. A human eye is quite capable of seeing a single quantum of light energy. The impact of the quanta on my retina in effect measures the quantum attributes (numbers) of the quantum, and transmits that information to my brain where the observer lurks.

That pins down the quantum of light energy. Any other quanta with which it is entangled have to “decide” their own states as a result. Now let’s suppose that these quanta all came from a quasar stellar explosion billion of years ago, and that some of the entangled quanta have already interacted with other matter elsewhere in the galaxy (which is very likely). By capturing and observing the quantum here on Earth in 2009, I am affecting (changing?) the past all the way back to the creation of the entangled particles.

When we look at things, we are not only creating them here in the here and now (by collapsing their uncertainty waves), but we are also creating the past, and our present is being changed by people in the future as I write this.

Mouth slackly hanging open ………

Friday, April 24, 2009


Passed the FAA Commercial Pilot written test! Now for the fun part......

Monday, April 13, 2009

Totally Blind - but instrumented

Recently we had one of those rare weekend days in Dallas with low hanging cloud cover, but little vertical development (which is pilot talk for "not stormy"). The clouds just hung low over the runway at McKinney, occasionally spitting out a little rain. Perfect!

Since becoming an instrument pilot my view of weather perfection has changed. I used to like those clear blue days after a cold front had come and gone, when the air is crisp and you can see forever. I would get in a 'plane and climb as high as I could while fitting in a cross country (I was trying to build cross-country time in preparation for the instrument rating). The view was tremendous, and once I'd climbed past around 4,000 feet the air would become glassy calm.

Later I got my own aircraft, and the next year, an instrument rating. Now my idea of weather perfection is one where I can fly in actual cloud, shoot some approaches, but avoid too much turbulence, especially inside a cloud. When it rains in Texas, it tends to also storm, especially in the Springtime. Rain here tends to be an event of some violence, not something to mess around with in a lightplane.

So I launched into overcast skies, with 700 feet to the cloud base, on an IFR clearance direct KARLA, a GPS waypoint about 10 miles East of McKinney. Climbing to 2000 on a heading of 90 degrees, per ATC instructions, I swam up into clear air over a sea of white as far as the eye could see in every direction. These clouds where only 500 feet thick, and flat as a pancake.

Cleared to 3000ft, ATC gave me vectors to intercept the 212 radial from the Bonham VOR (BYP), and cleared me for the VOR-DME approach. I identified the radial using my #2 NAV and CDI, plus the DME, and also, just for grins, on my GPS. Fortunately they all agreed I was in the right place and heading in the right direction.

This pleased me. Turning in the clouds had given me what pilots call "the leans", which is vertigo. Pilots cannot trust their bodies senses in clouds, they must only trust the instruments. You turn right, and the body says you are climbing and turning left. When you can see on the panel that you are level and turning right, if you trust your sense of balance which says you climbing and turning left, you will move the controls in exactly the wrong way. That's one reason it takes so long to become instrument rated, and a reason why few private pilots complete it (almost all commercial pilots are instrument rated).

Once on the radial and 12 miles from BYP, I throttled back and descended into the murk at 2200 feet, then 7 minutes later at 22 miles on the DME down to 1400 feet, and clear of the clouds. I could see the airport dead ahead, and approach handed my over the tower. I told them I would end the approach and requested the ILS to runway 17. Cleared direct to the initial approach fix at FLUET, I recontacted DFW approach, and was cleared for the ILS. This time, I stayed at 2500 feet for the outbound leg and procedure turn, which meant I stayed mostly in the clouds, only occasionally popping out of the top at a particularly low area, or between cloud cells.

Once on the inbound leg, I intercepted the ILS glideslope, and setting up for 90 kts and 450 ft/min descent rate, came out of the soup at 1700 ft. The clouds were continuing to rise - now they were 1100 feet above the runway, making the field technically VFR. I canceled the approach and requested the GPS RNAV approach to runway 35 (the other end of the same single 7000 ft long runway at McKinney). ATC cleared me for the approach, and asked me to climb to 2500 feet, but them changed their mind and asked me to make the approach at 2000. I said "OK", because that would put me back inside the clouds, and because I could hear them working a Beechcraft King Air on the same approach. I suspected they want me to stay well below him.

At 2000 ft I kept occasionally catching sight of the ground, but by now I had got completely over my vertigo, and was flying entirely on instruments, which in the case of GPS on a real IFR flight simply meant following instructions until established on the purple line, and then descending along the GPS WAAS glideslope as indicated on the #1 CDI (just like an ILS). The main difference is that an ILS becomes more and more sensitive as you get closer to the transmitter, a GPS WAAS does not, making it very slightly easier to fly.

A GPS receiver uses satellites to fix its position in space, a constellation of 24 satellites controlled by the US military. For precision approaches, GPS uses a ground-based enhancement called "Wide Area Augmentation System", or "WAAS". WAAS approaches require an airport to have no ground facilities at all - so they are rapidly replacing NDB approaches at small airports, and even VOR/DME approaches will be a thing of the past soon.

It only took a few seconds to clear the clouds once on the WAAS glideslope - I could see the runway straight ahead about 5 miles away. I flew through a short, sharp rain shower, and landed. I didn't need the 3 approaches to legal currency, but the experience was useful, and knowing that I could do this for real was invaluable. It was also fun!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Death of Print and Mea Culpa

I heard today that RCR (I have never known what that stood for!) closed it's doors. I knew many of the people there because over my years of working in the wireless industry, I have met and briefed most of them many times. And now, like newspaper dailies, they have fallen victim to the recession and the Internet.

The recession I have no responsibility for. I did not buy a house I couldn't afford, wallow in credit card debt, or package unsustainable loans for others. Fortunately my employer has a lot of cash in the bank, and has so far avoided layoffs (touch wood). So while my 401-k has suffered, it has not directly affected me (yet).

The Internet however has been a two edged sword. Before going into the wireless arena, I worked on the early days of the Internet, mostly involved with products to bring the Internet in enterprise networks. I turned down a job offer from my current employer in 1988 when they had about 100 employees - now tens of thousands.

After working on wireless cellular networks starting in 1995, I have always worked on the evolution of wireless data services, starting with 14.4 kbps on GPRS and CDMA, culminating in my last several roles with 100% focus on it with WiMAX and 4G. I have met with RCR many times to discuss the ramifications of instant access to all the world's information from wherever you happen to be, which is now reaching it's fulfillment with 3G, WiMAX and the iphone.

One result has been the death of print media, even that following the industry itself. Talk about ironic! I used to be sorry about my career's fallout when i was on vacation and was interrupted by email, voice mail or a call, but now I'm sorry because some of work friends are suffering more immediately.

Mea Cupla.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Flying with vision (kind of)

After losing the signal for the back course for runway 35 at Mesquite, I raised my foggles and looked around fro the first time. I could see what had happened – I didn’t turn in fast enough, and the back course signal is quite narrow and weak at that range. I thought about starting over, but “D” suggested that we weren’t too far from Lancaster airport, and we could get cheap fuel there.

So I turned on the GPS for the first time. GPS has revolutionized instrument flying – certainly it has changed mine. I deliberately learned without GPS, but then upgraded my panel in the summer of 2008 with a Garmin 430W, and had it coupled to my autopilot. When this means is that I could enter the designated letters for Lancaster “KLNC”, and on the screen the GOPS showed where I was, where the airport was, what course to fly, how long it would take, and drew a nice purple line on the map display. All I had to do was to program the autopilot for follow the line, hold our altitude, and then…… nothing.

Well, not quite. I still had to find the instrument approaches in the FAA instrument procedures book, but I could have flown without that if I’d wanted to. As we got within 10 miles, I selected the GPS RNAV approach for runway 31, and told Charlie to fly directly to the initial approach fix called VIYUN. These names are usually something that can be pronounced – my favorite near Hope AK is “MEEOW”. I turned Charlie onto the final approach course, and let the autopilot fly the whole approach, except that I had to work the throttle to stay on the glideslope. Piece of cake. GPS makes everything easy.

We landed, and fueled up at the FBO. Nice fuel prices – I’ll be back for more soon!

Taking off, I selected direct PQF, a non-directional beacon (NDB) that is the initial approach fix for Rockwall airport, and tuned 248 on the Automatic Direction Finder (ADF), and instrument that is rapidly going out of style, replaced by GPS. Over the beacon, I entered a right hand holding pattern. I chose not to select the NDB approach on the GPS – it makes all approaches the same (“follow the purple line”). Instead I flew an old school by the needle NDB approach – the hardest part is that you have to time the last leg while descending and correcting for wind drift. But it went well and we crossed over the airport at 900 feet above the runway. I won't say I didn't sneak a glance at the moving map on the GPS.....

After climbing back up to 3000 ft, for the 5th approach I tuned in the Variable Omni range (VOR) at Bonham (a.k.a. BYP, on 114.6 MHz), slaved the Distance Measuring Equipment (DME), and set course to intercept the approach around 10 miles from the VOR. You can do that by flying an arc of constant radius around a VOR (or ILS), because the DME tells you if you are getting to close, or too far away. If the leg is part of a published approach, you can also slect it on the GPS, but that is once again just “following the purple line”. This was more fun.

Once the CDI (yes, the same one) showed we were crossing the 212 degree radial from BYP, I turned to a heading of 212, and then nudged about 5 degrees of wind correction to 217 degrees. Descending to 2200 ft once the DME showed 12 miles from Bonham, I called the tower at McKinney to let them know where we were. “McKinney tower, Sundowner xxx, on the VOR approach at 13 miles DME, request the VOR approach”.

“Sundowner xxx, cleared for the VOR DME approach, maintain VFR, no separation services provided. Wind 350 at 15 kts, runway 35 in use. Altimeter 30.06. How will this approach end?”

“Cleared the VOR approach, 30.06, Sundowner xxx. We’ll knock it of at 22 DME, then head south and intercept the GPS approach at ONEME.” “Roger xxx”.

Once the DMW read 22 and we were at the minimum descent altitude (MDA), I turned to a heading of 180, and climbed back up to 3000. I selected the GPS 35 approach on the GPS, and hand flew parallel to the purple line until opposite the little white triangle that represented the total mythical waypoint called “ONEME”, before turning right, then right again to follow the purple line.

“Mckinney tower, Sundowner xxx, at ONEME, request the GPS 35 approach, landing”.

“Sundowner xxx, cleared for the GPS 35 approach, maintain VFR, no separation services provided. Cleared to land number 3”.

Since I was number 3, and I was still under the foggles, I asked “D” to keep and eye open for numbers 1 and 2. GPS approaches are so easy. I hand flew this one, a WAAS approach which means it displays on a CDI like an ILS, with the same vertical and horizontal needles. The glideslope, like ILS, goes all the way to the runway, although I have to have the runway in sight at 300 feet in order to legally land. I did (with an instructor) one time fly the approach blind all the way down to 50 ft.

At 300 feet I pull off the foggles and squint at the sunlight. Pull back the power, lift the nose, lower the flaps, check the fuel one last time (I did my short pre-landing checklist at ONEME, my fixed habit – always do the checklist at the Intermediate approach fix (IAF). Touching down on the runway, 6 different approaches in bag in 2 hours of flying, I am legally current.

Strange, it feels just the same as not being current….

Flying Blind

It’s almost been 6 months since my last real instrument approach.

That one was an Instrument Landing System (ILS) approach to Erie PA, when I was visiting my parents over the summer. I flew my Sundowner from Nashua NH to Erie PA, climbing over some building cumulus cloud near Buffalo NY that took me up to 10,000 ft. As we neared the shoreline of Lake Erie, the clouds stopped, like a giant wall of orange tinted white as the sun lowered towards the Western Horizon.

Erie was reporting no ceiling (clouds), but poor visibility. So I intercepted the extended centerline (called the localizer) and descended as cleared until capturing the glide slope around 4000 feet. I followed the beam to land on runway 24. But that was in July 2008.

The FAA requires that before you can file and fly under instrument conditions, you must be “current”, which means you must have completed 6 instrument approaches and flown holds and intercepted a VOR radial within the last 6 months. So to remain current, I had to do some blind flying.

My Friend “D” owns the only other Sundowner based at TKI. It’s been in shop for a while, after a mishap with a hanger door, so he was more than happy to volunteer to be my safety pilot. Let me explain that.

When flying to currency, you can either fly in real instrument conditions (which can be hard to find in North Texas), or you fly “under the hood” – in my case, a set of goggles that fit over my spectacles, and are fogged so that I can only see downwards. So all I can see are the airplane instruments, I can’t see out. The safety pilot’s job is, well, safety. His or her job is to look for other airplanes, and to take control if the safety of flight is in doubt.

So a few Saturdays ago, “D” and I climbed into “Charlie”, my sundowner, for a few approaches. We took off from McKinney airport at 9:30am into some severe blue weather – no clouds, clear visibility due to strong winds from the North – a Texas “Blue Norther” (cold front) has blown through the night before, dashing away all the airborne pollutants and dumping them into the Gulf somewhere. I climbed in the blind to 2,500, tuned in the ILS approach for runway 17 at Mesquite and waited to intercept the glideslope.

The ILS displays on an instrument called the CDI, or “course deviation indicator”. The CDI is round, and has a vertical needle that shows which direction to fly to intercept the extended runway centerline, called the "localizer". The ILS version also has a horizontal needle for the glideslope. The pilot’s goal on an ILS is to keep the needles crossed in the center of the dial, by following the needles – if the needle is to the right, turn slightly right. If the horizontal needle is low, increase your descent rate until it is back in the center. You can fly very accurately on the ILS – airliners can even use it to land completely blind. My airplane can descend as low as 200 feet above the runway using my system.

The only problem was that with the wind from the north, we were approaching the wrong end of the runway! So I abandoned the approach a bit higher than normal to stay out of the way of departing airplanes, and climbed back to 2,500 over the runway to set up for the back course approach to runway 35.

The ILS is set up for an approach to a specific end of a runway. Some runways have an ILS for each end, usually those that host airline traffic. At some airports, you can use the back side of the ILS to fly an approach – it’s tough to do because everything is reversed – instead of flying towards the needles, you must remember to turn away from them. Some airplanes have a button that can reverse the CDI sensing – mine does not. In the real world I would probably use my autopilot on a BC approach, because it can set up to fly it with reverse sensing, but for practice, I did it the hard way.

Too hard in fact. I lost the signal right on the turn in from the course reversal turn. I did this approach perfectly when I was doing my test ride back in October 2007. But the rules don’t say you have complete the whole approach for it to count, so when I abandoned the approach at 2000 feet, that was 2 down. I needed 6.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Matrix

In “The Matrix”, the main character, Neo (which means “new”), learns that his entire reality to date has been the result of a sophisticated computer generated simulation, and that he, and everyone else, has lived his life in a pod, and used as a human battery.

This is not so far from the situation we all face, but without knowing it. We think we live in the real world, but we don’t, we live in a personal sim.

Our brains do not perceive the real world. What they receive is a set of electrical impulses, generated by sensory organs – the eyes, ears, nose, skin and tongue, representing sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. The brain creates a model of what it thinks the real world is like based on those impulses.

There is no way to prove that the brain’s working sim is the same as anyone else’s. In the old saw, how can we prove that what I see as yellow, you do not see as blue? There is not way to tell that is not the case, and it really doesn’t matter as long as your brain model is internally consistent and coherent. When I eat a cheeseburger, how can you tell that my experience of eating a cheeseburger is the same as yours?

Worse, there is no way to prove that your internal model aligns with external reality. Or even that there is an external reality. Thoughts have varied over the years on this subject. Ancient Greeks like Artistotle believed in a world that was more real than our own, they saw the heavens as the source of all pure reality, while the Earth was a pale and corrupt representation of the heavenly pureness. This is similar to the idea that there is a more real world out there, represented internally by a simulation.

Modern thinkers such as Descarte (1596–1650) attempted to prove the existence of the world and of God starting from the deduced fact of their own existence (“Cogito, Ergo Sum” – “I think, therefore I am”). Actually, he wrote in French “Je pense donc je suis", and only later in Latin. He started by eliminating all things in the universe that he could not prove, and ended with only the fact that he was observing something, and thinking about it, so he must exist. But he could not convincingly prove that anything else exists!

What this means for us is that there is no way to say with confidence that we understand the Universe, or even that there is a Universe. All we can say is that we own a consistent and coherent model that might represent the way things are. In fact, I suspect that there is no reality as such. I think that the only real thing is mathematics – the world is a set of mathematical principles encoded in what we perceive as matter and energy, but in fact all we can determine is how they interact with the brain, and with the consciousness encoded in the brain.

This takes away a lot of the issues related to quantum mechanics – the idea that the Universe is somehow interacting with me, the observer. Everything is an interaction. The Moon literally doesn’t exist when I’m not looking at it – it is a set of mathematical equations that resolve when I resolve them – the act of creation for me. The unobserved tree that falls in a forest literally doesn’t make a sound – because it doesn’t have an independent reality.

When Schrondinger’s cat is neither alive nor dead in the experiment I discussed earlier, it is neither alive nor dead because until I observe it, it doesn’t exist (for me). This is the ultimate in Relativity – not only is time relative to the observer, but so is everything else! The whole of existence is relative.

You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your relativity! Or can you?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Very Nice Day

In the cool dense air over North Central Texas, my Beechcraft Sundowner climbs like a rocket. I’m light on fuel, with three empty seats. Opposite a farm house where I’m normally about 700ft above the ground level (AGL), I turn left onto the crosswind leg, and before I can level the wings heading 90 degrees, I’m at 1700 ft above Mean Sea Level (MSL), the pattern altitude at TKI.

Turning left again, heading North over a gravel pit, I ask for and receive clearance for a series of touch and go’s. The tower warns of bird activity east of the airport, but I don’t see them. Opposite the approach end, 1,000 ft AGL, about 1.5 miles to the side, I reduce power to 1500 RPM, and lower a notch of flaps. The nose comes down, and I set up a 500ft per minute descent. I do my short pre-landing check list – mixture full rich, correct tank selected, electric fuel pump on.

Left again, this time heading west, about a mile off the approach end of runway 17, I look back along the straight in approach. The tower cleared me “number 1”, so it’s supposed to be clear, but I still look anyway. It’s a good habit, because not all airports are “controlled” by a tower. Most are uncontrolled, and rely on all pilots to communicate their position with blind radio calls. But not all pilots are conscientious, some forget, and some fly airplanes without radios. So I always look.

One more left turn to align with the extended centerline, heading directly towards the approach end at 75 kts and 500 feet AGL. The VASI lights on the left side show I’m high – one red light and 3 white ones. Sundowners glide like a rock, so I prefer to be high. I add another notch of flaps to increase my descent. Once I have 2 reds and 2 whites, I know I’m on the glide path, and pull back on the yoke a bit to reduce my descent and drop a little speed.

Over the end of the runway – a perfect 50 feet up, 70 kts and slowing. I can’t believe I haven’t flown for almost 2 months! Just above the runway, pull the nose up, but not too far – the slightest hint of a ballooning action and I stop pulling – settle, settle, pull some more – and the main wheels touch without a bounce and just a little “squeak”. Best one I’ve done this year! First one I’ve done this year!

Flaps up, full power, flying speed already – we do to “go” part of a touch and go. Climbing, I follow the same procedure. The goal is to do it the same way every time, no variance, make it habit. Now there’s a Diamond DA20 (2 seat trainer) in the pattern with me. He’s fast, but not quite as fast as me. I have to spread out my pattern a little to stay in sync. I do another Touch, another Go.

This time I deliberately delay my crosswind turn, staying straight until I reach the magic 1700 ft. I’m planning to change things up. On the downwind, opposite the tower, I see the Diamond is about to touch down. “Sundowner xxx with a request”.

“”Go ahead” says the tower. “Yeah, I’d like to make this a power off precision landing, if able” I say, trying to be polite,, but clear with my request. “Cleared for close in approach, cleared to land number 2”.

The Power Off Precision Approach is a commercial maneuver you have to demonstrate as part of the commercial FAA License. It involves pulling the engine power all the way to idle opposite your chose landing spot, and carefully controlling your turns and rate of descent to touch down within 100ft of the pre-designated spot. I’ve done power off approaches before, but this is the first one I’ve tried as a precision approach. Before I started working on mastering the commercial maneuvers, it was good enough just to land on the runway. Now I’m trying to land on a dime, without the use of an engine.

It works. I find I need to delay turning towards the runway for about 1000ft, then make my base leg, followed by turn onto approach. 1 notch of flaps on the base leg, and add more as needed on final. I do this twice, and each time touched down on the white touchdown zone stripe I chose as my target. This stripe is 1000ft from the runway end on all ILS-equipped runways – knowing that helps me judge on the downwind distances.

Finally, I left the now busier airspace around McKinney, and flew east over Lake Lavon about 15 miles while climbing to 3500 ft for some airwork. I’m practicing chandelles, another commercial maneuver. It involved flying straight and level at cruise power, then adding full power while turning and climbing at the same time. To goal is to end up facing the opposite way with the maximum altitude gain – presumably to avoid some obstacle, but also to show how well you as the pilot can control the aircraft through a radical change in pitch, speed and climb.

With 3 chandelles done, it’s time to land. I head back to the field, making a call 10 miles out over the 380 bridge. Just as I prepare to call, I hear: “McKinney Tower, Cessna xxx, 10 miles east, inbound for landing”. Oops. That’s right were I am. I rapidly look all around, and chime in with “McKinney Tower, Sundowner xxx is also 10 miles east inbound, 2000ft over the bridge, with the numbers”. He didn’t give his altitude. I gave mine, along with the fact that I already had all the weather data (the “numbers”) and my exact position.

“Cessna xx, Mckinney, ident”. With that command, McKinney is asking the Cessna to press a button on his panel that causes his “target indicator” as they call the radar return to “blossom” so he can tell who is where. “Sundowner xxx, expect left base approach runway 17.” “Roger xxx”.

I start my base leg about 4 miles away. I’ve found the Cessna, off to my left, no factor. “Sundowner xxx, cleared to land runway 17. Will this be a full stop?” “Affirmative, Sundowner xxx, cleared to land”

“McKinney tower, Sundowner xxx is cleared to land, by the way I found your birds, 700Ft AGL just north east of the approach end runway 17”. “Thank you Sundowner xxx. Taxi to parking, have a nice day”

A very nice day.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

High Speed Taxi

“Clear!” The words rang across the tarmac at TKI. As the engine caught, I positioned the throttle for 1500 RPMs to warm up the engine on a chilly day, and finished the rest of the “Starting Engine” check list.

Starter disengaged? Check. Oil pressure? Rising into the green. Turn off electric pump – pressure steady on the engine driven mechanical pump. Turn on the Avionics and radios.
“Collin County Automated weather. 22 57 Zulu. Temperature 8, dewpoint -2. winds 180 at 5. Sky clear, visibility 10. Altimeter 30.31. Contact ground on 121.8, advise on initial contact you have India”

It’s Sunday morning. Despite the previous post, I’m not in church, I am flying my Beechcraft Sundowner, a low wing 4 seater with one 180 HP engine on the front.

After contacting ground, I’m cleared to taxi using taxiway Alpha to the end of runway 17 (the number refers to the magnetic heading of the runway, in this case 176 degrees. Pilots are taught to check that the heading on their compass before taking off agrees with the number of the runway assigned to prevent taking off on the wrong runway. The Delta Commuter pilots in Kentucky a few years ago obviously skipped that part).

On the run up – check the controls are free and my own add-on line item – visually check that they move the right way and both gas caps are on. Increase engine RPM to 2200, and turn off the magnetos sequentially and then add carburetor heat, and make sure that in each case the engine drops less than 50 RPMs. Turn off the alternator and make sure that the ammeter goes negative, then turn it back on, and ensure it goes positive. Back to idle, and turn on the radar transponder, make sure I have the right fuel tank selected, fuel mixture is full rich, and electric fuel pump is on. Tune to the tower and call “Sundowner xxx is ready on runway 17, I just had some engine work done, request high speed taxi then return to the end for take off”.
I had some work done on the starter motor. It shouldn’t have affected anything else, but I’m cautious when someone other than me was doing anything to the main component that allows my airplane to go up when I pull on the stick.

“Sundowner xxx cleared high speed taxi runway 17”. I lined up, added full power, but didn’t pull back at flying speed. The sundowner skipped across the bumps, clearing wanting to go up, but I pulled the throttle lever back to idle, and let the aircraft slow down. I pulled off the runway, and called for taxi clearance back to the departure end.

Back at the end, I called for take off clearance,, and asked for some touch and go’s, which were approved. Lined up, and this time at flying speed (65kts) I pulled us off the ground, let the speed climb to 75kts and climbed out at almost 1000 ft/min.

Seems good……

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Life, The Universe, and ?????

There is nothing like the death of a parent to get you thinking. I was already of a fairly philosophical mind. Most people use that phrase to really mean Fatalist, accepting whatever the world brings, but I mean that I want to get to the root of it all. The "Why's" of the matter.

Of course I live here in North Dallas, the fundamentalist Christian center of buckle in the Bible Belt. So there is no shortage of pat answers. I should here come clean about my own religious journey – from atheist to Christian to what now? I currently go to a Unitarian church which has the advantage that I can be one thing this week, and another the next, all within the scope of the non-doctrine that defines the UU beliefs. You have to make "beliefs" plural – there are a range of somewhat incompatible beliefs at this church, from Christian to agnostic, passing through Theist (believer in a personal God), Deist (believer in a non-personal god a la Spinoza/Einstein), and Buddhist (no beliefs about god at all) along the way.

I kind of like the universally accepting nature of the UU church, but have some difficulties with the “why bother” part on Sunday mornings. But Sally likes it, and Thing 1 and Thing 2 have made friends there. So we go, if not quite religiously.

Faith. Not an answer for me. Even during my fundie days I wasn’t big on faith. I want evidence. A real Doubting Thomas here, only no risen Christ has ever offered his open side for me to put my hand in. I have never believed the Bible is the Word of God – in fact it flat out says that it is not. Read the first sentences of the Gospel According to John – it is clear that John thinks that Jesus is the Word of God – not the Bible. The Bible simply claims that the Old Testament scriptures were written by men as they were moved by the Spirit of God.

The Bible is also too internally inconstant to be literally the infallible Word (did Judas hang himself, or did he fall over a rock?). No, at best the New Testament is a collection of remembrances that honorable men assembled sometime after the fact. At worst it a sampling of writings assembled and edited 400 years later to support a clerical structure bidding for power in the Roman Empire.

The Why’s are still a mystery. Is every person precious to an all powerful, loving omniscient Being? Then why the suffering and injustice? Is the only answer a Darwinist struggle to survive and nothing means anything except the continued passage of meaningless DNA? Then why Agape and the beauty and poetry?

Mmmm, still working on it…….

The Happy Funeral

Following my father's death, he was cremated. I suppose it is lucky that we did it in that order!

My Dad didn’t want a sad funeral service in a church, so we reserved a room at the funeral home in Erie PA, put a notice in the paper, and made some calls. Dad didn’t think he had a lot of friends, but close to 200 people turned up for the “celebration”.

He had a clock in the basement that every hour made a (really loud) noise like a steam train. I hid it under the lectern so that at 2pm the funeral/celebration got kicked of with the sound of a train, and laughter! We had some readings; we watched video of him on the PBS TV station (WQLN), and then people were asked if they wanted to say a few words.

My Mom told the story of how they had met. She was a 16 year old schoolgirl, and had noticed a slightly older boy. Once day after school, she came out of class to find that her bike had a flat tire. The older boy was there, saw her distress, and offered to help her. He pumped up her tire, and offered to ride with her to make sure it would stay up. It did. They became friends, and stated dating, eventually marrying 4 years later.

Only later did he admit that he had let all the air out in the first place!

Other people spoke, one a 12 year old neighbor boy who made everyone teary-eyed by saying how much he was going to miss my Dad. Finally, the celebration ended with “When the Saint Go Marching In” played by a local jazz musician on his banjo! This man was so moved I understand he has refused payment.

Finally, a dinner for about 85 people at my parent’s club in Erie, and the deed was done. My Dad’s ashes will be sprinkled over my sister’s grave in England, in March 2009.

Several people commented to me that it was the happiest funeral they had ever been to! I think Dad would have enjoyed it.