29 April 2007

Supersonic Glory Days

Call it an affliction, but I revel in noticing details. Most of the time, it's for my own enjoyment and, some might say, as a self-verification of my level of Situational Awareness.

Some people go through life looking, but not really seeing. There are some really interesting things out there, if you slow down and look around. Here's an example:

The next time you're boarding a United Airlines airplane at the San Francisco Airport, take a moment to look at the jetway control panel:

I wonder how many people have passed this console and not seen the square buttons along the left side of the panel? These buttons are pre-set positions for the jetway -- buttons that could be pushed to move the jetway to match up with the entry doors on certain types of airplanes. The jetways controls at SFO were built in the late 1960s and early 1970s -- in the heady days of commercial aviation when everyone thought we'd be flying hypersonic space-airliners by 2007. At the time, United Airlines held six delivery positions for Boeing's upcoming Model 2707 SuperSonic Transport, or SST. In 1969, it was natural to assume that we'd all be zipping around the world in SSTs very shortly.

And there, on the jetway panel, is a remnant of those days:

Besides the "SST" button, the panel is also a showcase of some of the long-gone aircraft that United Airlines has flown over the years: L-1011, DC-10, A300, B-707, DC-8, B-727, DC-9, BAC-111. It's aviation history, right there in front of you.

Interesting sidenote: Most of the Customer Service agents who operate these jetways have never even noticed the buttons, and have no idea what the letters and numbers mean. Man, am I getting old...

22 April 2007

Denver Sunsets

Denver Ramp Sky 1
Copyright 2007 V1VrV2

Denver Ramp Sky 2
Copyright 2007 V1VrV2

Without a doubt, Denver Airport is a great place to go to see photo-worthy sunsets. The sky there always gives you something new. Oh, sure, you can go to the island of Maui and see spectactular colors every evening. Maui's sunsets look like postcards (which is why there are so many postcards of sunsets available there). They're peaceful -- the prototypical sunset that sends you off to bed with memories of fluffy, pink clouds and whatnot.

Denver's sunsets startle you with their aggressiveness (and sometimes, their blunt weirdness). It must be the proximity to the mountains that causes them to surprise you with colors and patterns you don't see on any Hawaiian beach.

These sunsets taken were 24 hours apart. And I'll bet that if I had stayed another day, I'd have a third photo to share with you.

13 April 2007

Lazy Summer Sunday

Lazy Summer Sunday
Copyright 2007 V1VrV2

This photo is for all my pilot friends in the midwest U.S. who are now suffering under a blanket of unexpected and uncalled-for snow.

Patience. Summer is coming. April is certainly living up to its reputation as the cruelest month, but May is coming soon.

I like this photo because it evokes something far away and slightly blurry in one's memory. Like green grass...

11 April 2007

New General Aviation Safety Study: A Waste of Time of Monumental Proportions

Safe Arrival
Copyright 2007, V1VrV2

You know, there ought to be a Federal law that prohibits university eggheads from publishing anything related to aviation unless they hold an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) rating. It’s my opinion that far too much money gets spent on worthless “research” like this – research that rediscovers facts we already know, makes no useful contribution to anything, and is full of fundamental flaws. Here’s the latest farce from the world of academia:

A pair of researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has released the results of their study which found that general aviation (GA) aircraft are 82 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than airliners. Their research was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

According to a Reuters article, “the researchers called so-called general aviation flights a public safety problem and urged the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Administration to do more to improve safety of small airplanes.”

“I would like people to realize that the huge majority of aviation deaths occur in general aviation,” said epidemiologist Susan Baker, who wrote the analysis with Dr. Guohua Li, a professor of emergency medicine. According to the study, over 91 percent of U.S aviation crashes involved General Aviation. The rate of fatal crashes per 100,000 flight hours has remained steady for many years at around 1.3 in GA, versus 0.015 for the airlines. This means that the airlines are 82 times safer than GA.

The article defines General Aviation and lists some of the types of flying encompassed by the definition: Recreation, business jets, emergency medical services, sightseeing, flight training, traffic reporting, search and rescue, firefighting, crop dusting, logging or other purposes.

OK, first of all, is General Aviation really a “public safety” problem? Other than the extremely rare times when a small plane crash-lands in someone’s back yard, how much is the “public” really involved in GA? Recreational General Aviation is a fairly esoteric endeavor pursued by only a small percentage of the population. It’s an activity that requires a high level of training and what I’ll call “specific intent of purpose.” In other words, it’s not something a person can simply decide to do one day, like playing golf, renting a jet-ski, or attempting to ride a unicycle. For this reason, people who fly must involve themselves in it for a long period of time in order receive even the lowest levels of qualification and access to the activity itself. The other forms of General Aviation are even more esoteric and specialized.

Flying airplanes is a skill-set that is perishable and subject to all sorts of variables – atmospheric and weather conditions, natural aptitude, personal motivations, pilot distractions, health issues, maintenance factors, infrastructure and air traffic control limitations, communications, and many others. These factors affect every airplane that leaves the ground, whether it’s piloted by a 20,000-hour professional or by a newbie student pilot. The difference is that, in airline flying, these variables are highly controlled and their consequences mitigated, partially because of the vast difference is capability of the airplanes and the behind-the-scenes maintenance and operational guidance that supports them, and partially because of the vast depth of experience and judgment of the crewmembers that fly them. Airline companies are in the business of making money. They make money by safely flying millions of people each year from Point A to Point B. Crashing airplanes for any reason is highly undesirable to their bottom line, and they go to extraordinary and expensive lengths to assure the safe conduct of their flights.

My point is that comparing General Aviation with the airlines is like comparing a one-person, 12-foot sailboat with a 1,000-foot long cruise ship. There’s simply no point in comparing them. Other than the fact that they’re both “watercraft,” and they’re both commanded by human beings, they are of a completely different nature.

Worse, the Johns Hopkins study includes types of general aviation operations that are of an inherently dangerous nature, like crop dusting and firefighting, and lumps them in with far less risky types of operations like business and corporate transportation. If comparing airline operations with General Aviation as a whole is pointless, then comparing these diverse subsets of GA is at least as pointless. The study might have narrowed its focus and compared only business aviation with the airlines, but if it did, those results were not released in the reports that ran in the media.

What, exactly, are we to glean from this study? Should the government require advanced ratings and thousands of flight hours in order for a pilot to qualify to fly a 4-seat Piper Archer? Should the FAA mandate the installation of $10 million worth of weather radar, traffic collision avoidance systems, ground proximity warning systems, auto-land systems, autopilots, IFR instrumentation and other improvements in all 1940s-vintage Piper Cubs (an airplane worth around $25,000)? Should flight schools and Fixed-Base Operators (FBOs) provide customized dispatch services utilizing the latest digital satellite datalink capabilities to upload real-time flight planning and weather routing information to the cockpits of each and every weekend pilot who rents a small plane from his local airport to go sightseeing with his family every weekend? Should manufacturers re-engineer every 450-pound recreational ultralight airplane with 40G-capable seats, six-point, computerized airbag-equipped harnesses, and titanium roll cages? Should agricultural applicators (crop dusters) be banned from flying low, since low-flying is cited as a dangerous endeavor?

Of course General Aviation has a higher accident rate than the airlines. It always will, and no amount of money or technology can make the GA accident rate as low as commercial aviation. Driving a jet-ski will never be as safe as taking a Caribbean cruise on an ocean liner. While we can certainly try to improve the GA accident rate (and we’re always trying), we cannot regulate or even mandate it down to anywhere near the levels the airlines enjoy. It’s just an economic and technological reality.

I don’t mind if people want to research topics like this. I even support the efforts of such research if something good and truly reasonable comes from it. Aviation safety is a concern to all aviators. My concern is with the ridiculous overall premise of this particular study, the highlights of which were widely reported in the mass media for a two day period, and were read and/or heard by millions of unsuspecting laypeople.

Why are researchers allowed, and even encouraged, to grandstand in this manner? Maybe media outlets are so desperate for filler that they’ll print anything that sounds interesting, regardless of its validity. Maybe these particular researchers (one of whom is allegedly a private pilot) simply decided to spend their grant money on an easy-to-research topic that was almost guaranteed to get their name in the papers. Whatever the reason, it’s another example of spurious and foolish science, foisted upon us by people who ought to have better things to do.

06 April 2007

Contrails and Other Imaginary Things

Trail in the Blue
Copyright 2007, V1VrV2

My Mom says that one day, when I was about three years old, I was sitting in the grass behind our house watching an airliner pass high overhead. I turned to her and said, "Plane pulls line 'cross sky, Mommy."

I watch contrails from close-up now, and I still can't think of a more concise way to describe them. They're still fascinating, and still beautiful to me.

Just for a laugh, I occasionally check up on what the "chemtrail" kooks are doing. These are the people who sincerely believe that contrails are a government conspiracy to secretly spray the public with dangerous, DNA-altering substances. These people have extensive websites containing hundreds of photos purporting to be "proof" of the massive program to control our minds (or whatever it is they believe). Every one of their photos looks like to me like normal contrails in a normal sky. Some days, the sky is covered with spread-out contrails, and some days there's not a single one in sight. Sometimes the trails cross in interesting ways: X's, Z's, tic-tac-toe crosses, and even oblong ovals. All of this is utterly normal, everyday stuff, and yet there are folks who see something completely different when they look up. It's an interesting sociological phenomenon.

It's very similar to the widely-reported "Phoenix Lights" event in 1997. A city full of people "saw" something. A big, V-shaped, black something with lights on it that flew over the city. I saw video footage of the object, and what I saw was something I've seen many times before: A military fighter aircraft, many miles away behind a mountain range, dropping regularly-spaced flares. In fact, I used to fly aircraft that dropped flares just like them.

Every once in a while, a passenger on my plane will frantically ring their Flight Attendant Call button and point to something out the window. It could be a far-off aircraft landing light, or the twinkling lights of a nighttime city passing behind a cloud, or something else they can't figure out. Most often, it's a meteor, or the Northern Lights, that gets their attention.

One time, we were crossing the Atlantic on our way to Amsterdam. It was 2:00 AM. We were 400 miles northeast of the coast of Newfoundland. The Captain and I were deeply immersed in eating our fine Rubber-Chicken cuisine and discussing the day's news between bites. The cockpit's bright, overhead lights were on, so we couldn't see much outside. Suddenly, two Flight Attendants called us at the same time, from two different locations in the airplane's cabin.

The first F/A said, "The passengers are really concerned about what's going on outside, and frankly, so am I." The other one said, "Yeah, what IS that?"

The Captain and I looked at each other. We had no idea what they were talking about. The Captain reached up and turn off the dome lights, plunging the cockpit into darkness. There, stretching from in front of the aircraft's nose to far behind our left wing, was the brightest, most pulsating, and most bizarre example of the Aurora Borealis either of us had ever seen. This wasn't just the usual shimmering curtain of gentle blue/green light. It was a wild, gyrating swirl of blue and white light, like what time-travel looks like in a bad sci-fi movie. It was a veritable light storm.

No matter who you are, there are times you just end up using the f-word, because no other word will do. This was one of those times. (Actually, I believe we both added the prefix "Holy," which makes it OK because it's sort of a religious thing.)

We watched the lights for awhile, then the Captain made an announcement to the passengers, carefully explaining what everyone was seeing. It was a good announcement -- soothing and calming without being too wordy, technical, or dramatic. Nevertheless, when we reached Amsterdam and the passengers were deplaning, one burly man strode up to us and loudly proclaimed, "You don't expect me to believe that was anything but a UFO, do you? There ain’t no way those were some kinda 'Northern Lights,' or whatever..." Then he was gone, before we could even reply. He didn’t want to hear any explanation.

Or maybe he merely had to hurry off to his hotel for the Chemtrail Enthusiasts Club's annual "ChemCon" Convention.

04 April 2007

Risky Photography, Part 2

Position and Hold
Copyright 2007 V1VrV2

Approach Light Perspective
Copyright 2007 V1VrV2

These photos were taken shortly after the one in the previous entry. My goal was to capture the excitement and technical nature of airport operations. And, of course, to not get myself arrested...

Shortly after I took the second photo, a white Chevy Blazer rolled up. The driver, a uniformed officer, wanted to know what I was doing. The smart-aleck part of my brain briefly considered answering, "Looking for signs of intelligent life," but instead I held up my camera and my airline ID and said, "Just taking some artistic photos." He examined my ID and said something like, "Well, don't stay here too long."

The absurdity of this reply was stunning. "Why?" I thought, "Do I look more suspicious with the passage of time? If taking lots of photos of this airport is illegal, is taking only a few of them somehow MORE legal? How long is OK, and at what point do I become a criminal? Isn't this a public street? What the hell are you talking about?"

I also briefly considered telling him that, two hours before, I had landed a Boeing 757 on that very runway, and that there wasn't much I couldn't have already seen in the course of my job.

I didn't say any of it. I smiled and said, "OK." And that's why you're looking at these photos now. Silence is the better part of valor, I guess.

03 April 2007

Risky Photography, Part 1

B-777 Approach, LAX
Copyright 2007, V1VrV2

Some photos are taken at significantly more risk than others. Standing in the middle of Sepulveda Boulvard in Los Angeles is risky enough. Aiming a camera at a commercial airliner, closeup, might also get you harrassed by the airport cops. If you stand 100 feet underneath a Boeing 777 on approach with full flaps extended, you have about three seconds left before you'll nearly be knocked off your feet by the downwash.

All three factors came into play with this shot, so I hope you enjoy it. It's all part of my service to you, the loyal blog reader.

An Adventure Has Begun

Riveting Experience
Copyright 2007 V1VrV2

"I had always wanted an adventurous life. It took a long time to realize that I was the only one who was going to make an adventurous life happen to me." -- Richard Bach

I've been "offline" for a few months -- not blogging, not writing a whole lot. My spare time, what little there is, has been consumed with an airplane. In this case, it's a home-built airplane project, a Vans RV-8.

Its arrival in my workshop signified the beginning of a new, great adventure for me, and I've been throwing myself into the construction process with all the zeal of a kid building a sand castle at the beach. The rewards have been tangible. My outlook on life is clearer, I'm less concerned with what's going on in the popular and media cultures, I notice more details in everything, and I've made some new friends along the way.

It's like anything else in life -- the more you devote your attention to something, the more important it gets.

This project is something I've looked forward to all my life, and half the excitement of the past several months has been watching myself enjoy the process so much. In the past, I've had a tendency to put off the really Big Things until conditions are "just right." However, as a wise person once pointed out, if you wait until conditions are just right, you will never get started. This project has only begun to teach me things. I have a feeling that drilling, de-burring, countersinking and riveting are merely the smallest lessons. The real lessons are coming from a whole different level.

02 April 2007

Fire up your Microsoft Flight Sims

Meigs Field, January 2007
Copyright 2007 by V1VrV2

This week marked the 4th anniversary of the destruction of Chicago's Meigs Field by mayor/tyrant Richard M. Daley. The above photo depicts what the airport looks like today.

Today, I flew around KCGX's virtual traffic pattern on my computer, just to spite Mayor Daley and his arrogance. It's a shame this is the only way we can enjoy the place anymore. I don't think I'll ever be able to walk in the park that replaced the airport without my blood pressure rising to unsafe levels.

Let's vow to never let this kind of thing happen again.