Sunday, November 27, 2005

Why I Fly (chapter 9)

We have a friend whose parents live on Camano Island. They have an older Gateway laptop that had over the years become sluggish. The computer had made several visits to the shop but the problem had never been resolved to their satisfaction. On it, they run Windows 2000, AOL 9.0 and every add-on AOL blocker / filter / spyware / autoconnect / dialer piece of software available, as well as Symantec 2005 Internet suite, and that is just the start-up.

Our friend suggested the family come up to visit with her, her eight year-old son, and her parents. They have a comfortable home on the west side of the island over looking the passage between Camano and Whidbey Islands. It was a warm October day; Sandra sat on the deck, soaked in the sun, and we all ate a lovely lunch. The kids played in the yard. The boys played pirates with wooden swords while the girls chased after them.

Meanwhile I worked on their laptop. It turns out the trouble is that it had “only” 128 MB of RAM. This is bad because just the startup process loads over 200 MB of programs. During the initial program load, the main memory fills, and it starts swapping programs out to the paging file, but many of those programs are vying for their slice of the CPU’s attention, and they are also swapping back in, delaying the loading of the next program. From power on to a useful state can take about 30 minutes.

I found another 128 MB of memory on ebay for $25. I also knew that my friend’s son had been hoping for an airplane ride, and there is a small airstrip on the island, so with a bit of coordination, I could fly up there, catch a ride to their house, install the memory. It would probably be faster to drive there than it would be to go to Paine Field, get a car-seat out of the truck, preflight the plane, put the car-seat into the plane, buckle in, taxi out, and fly, and then reverse the process at the other end. But if I flew the plane I could take my friend’s son for a ride.

The airstrip is the home of Steve Knopp, a respected pilot and mechanic. Steve built the engine that is in my plane. I use the term “airstrip” in this case with caution. If I were to rank the airports I’ve landed at by “most like what non-pilots think an airport is,” at the top, Camino is second from the bottom, just before a grass field in the mountains. The FAA list these specifications for the runway: 1750 feet long, 24 feet wide, 145 feet above sea level, asphalt in good condition. Yeaaaaah, riiiiight.

Imagine this: On the north side of the island there is a tide-flat up against 135 foot cliff covered with bushes and topped with trees. From this mass of brush and trees, a 75-foot wide notch has been cut, exposing a strip of asphalt perpendicular to the cliffs edge. The terrain and asphalt continues to slope up to the south. The persistent shade from the trees on both sides, the moisture of the Pacific Northwest sea air, and the northern exposure of the slope result in an excellent place for moss to grow. About the first third of the up sloping runway has a patchwork selection of this green, slippery, fuzzy moss shielding the asphalt.

From there the runway kind of levels out and then ends at the short barbed wire fence that separates the airport from the ditch on the edge of the east west road. Power-line poles stick up like goal posts the north end of the runway, where the power-line is diverted down underground for the width of the approach.

When you are landing to the south, you line up out over the water to fly towards the runway, reducing power and descending in to the face of the cliff. This alone is a bit troubling. As you approach the runway you have to keep the airplane above the trees at the cliffs edge, and then sink towards the unmarked threshold of the runway. Because the runway slopes up, you have to transition the airplane to not just descending but almost to a power off climb to keep the moss covered asphalt from jumping up and smacking the wheels of the plane.

Once contact has been made with the ground, applying the brakes can result in asymmetric braking on the patch of moss under one wheel and asphalt under the other, and 20 feet later the moss and asphalt trade sides. Using the brakes on this end of the runway varies from worthless to risky. I don’t use the breaks until I am past the moss.

This can leave precious little space to slow the airplane from 80 mph to stopped before encountering the fence, ditch, and road on the north end.

Landing from the other end has its challenges as well. Lining up to fly over the traffic on the road, between the power poles, over the short fence and on to the runway, and then stopping on the downward sloping slippery moss towards the cliff’s edge creates some excitement.

I don’t recommend this airstrip to new pilots. But with adequate understanding and planning, the challenges are converted into a rewarding accomplishment. Dozens of airplanes use this strip each week.

It has been foggy around here for about a week -- very odd. The fog finally broke making a chance for me to take the memory up to the island. I took the my boys and youngest daughter with me.

As we flew over the mouth of the Skagit River, my boys and I discussed the muddy fall waters flowing from the river into the Puget Sound. There was a distinct arcing line that separated the silt-laden waters of the river from the blue-green waters of the sound.

When we reached the airstrip a few moments later the winds were out of the southwest, meaning I would land to the south into the cliff and correct for the bit of crosswind at the same time.

My four year old daughter judged my landing as “Bad landing, dad!” Some how, assessing the quality of my landings became a family tradition. It had been a long time since one had been rated poorly, a trend I was quite proud of. But this time the judges robbed me. Considering the degree of difficulty and technical merit, I was thought the score was much too low.

The computer’s memory install went without a hitch. There was another error with a corrupted file that resulted in the need to uninstall and reinstall Symatec, but the short winter days forced me to head back to the plane before completing the task.

We all went back to the airstrip and the boys loaded in to the plane for the big ride. I taxied back to the north end of the runway and made my take off run up hill to the south. We were up by the middle of the runway and banking the plane so mom and grandpa could be seen out the right hand window, watching us depart.

I circled over the north coast of the island and followed it around to west side where their home is. I radioed Whidbey approach to let them know I would be maneuvering under their airspace, but planning to stay out of it. I did this for three reasons. First I wanted them to know I was there and to be aware of us, second I wanted to have established communication in case I inadvertently flew into their airspace, and last but most important if we had to make an off airport landing, my only choice during this high tide was the water, and I wanted to already be talking to the rescue team before the splash-down.

I stayed low below the Whidbey airspace. We circled their house a couple times and then dropped down to 500 feet for one last pass over the water in front of their deck. My friend’s son proclaimed he saw his Grandma on the deck. Our heading was reversed and we were pointed back at the airstrip flying north along the west side of the Island. We curved back around the shoreline to make a right-base entry into the pattern, and I stuck the plane back on the moss, and waited for the solid sections of asphalt before trying the brakes.

I swung the plane onto the taxi way and shut down the engine (oooh, another story there. In the plane our rule is that everybody’s seatbelt stays fastened until the propeller stops turning). My friend’s son bounced out of the plane ecstatic to have had the ride. He was talking several hundred words a minute to tell his mom every detail. His mom, being a pilot too, knowingly smiled and exclaimed “Tell me all about it!”

The words came from his mouth as fast as his tongue could form them and as picturesque as the vocabulary of eight year old could muster. The joy of this message was clear. He liked it, and would be looking for more in the future. His excitement was thanks enough for me.

After hugs for everyone, I loaded my family back into the plane. There was still a slight wind from the south, but after having already made two landings and one take off on this airstrip I was comfortable I could make my favorite departure. From the south end, I ran the engine up and released the brakes. Again about half way down we lifted off the asphalt. But instead of climbing, I kept the plane in ground effect and let the speed build up, following the slope of the runway down hill accelerating even more. As we reached the end, I lifted the nose of the plane enough to rise above the bushes and tree branches and we shot off the cliff between the trees and over the tide flats. This made me long for the days of open cockpits and the accompanying shouts of exhilaration.

Flying can be like crack or heroine -- it is addictive. And for those of us who are addicts, a clear day after a long series of foggy days is like our drug calling out our names. And I was not the only one hearing my name called. On the trip home, the sky was speckled with airplanes giving their respective pilots a fix of blue. On approach to Paine Field I ended up tucked between two other planes, both slightly ahead of me one to my right and one to my left. The pilot to my left decided there were too many planes headed back to the airport and he was going to fly around a bit more. He broke away to the east.

This left me to behind a slower airplane to my right. I slowed down to create space between us. And then I slowed down some more. And some more. I stretched the space out pretty well and was cleared to land behind him. As a precaution I slowed down some more, putting down 20 degrees of flaps to decrease speed and increase lift.

As I watched the airplane ahead land and make a long roll out, staying on the runway, I knew what was about to happen. As we got to about 200 feet above the ground, I was going to extend the flaps the rest of the way, but then I thought again. The pilot ahead was still on the runway, and the controller could not clear me to land as long as he was on it.

“Cessna one eight three five zulu, go around.” The controller instructed. I responded to the controller and pushed the power back in, climbing back into the sky.

I turned the plane crosswind and then downwind before getting another clearance to land. Seeing all the other planes in the pattern, I wanted to get down and clear as soon as practical, so when I was even with the end of the runway, I pulled the power off and made a gliding 180 degree turn down to the runway, stopped and off about a third of the way down the runway.

We were soon back home, safe and sound after another adventure.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Why I Fly (chapter 8)

Today I took Randy and his son Nathan for a flight.

I brought my youngest daughter Img_0559with me to meet them at the airport a bit before 2:00 pm. I made my usual pre-flight, with Nathan following intently behind, asking about each item on the list. Some questions had easy answers, some not so easy. Things like, "How come there is only a trim-tab on one side of the airplane?" is not so easy. Where as, "Why do you drain out a little bit of gas?" is much easier.

The pre-flight revealed a small amount of water in the gas tank. This can happen when it rains a lot and some seeps in around the cap, or when the moist air inside the tank condenses and the vapor turns to liquid. Either way, the water is heavier than the gas and sinks to the bottom of the tank where a small drain allows it to be removed.

RandyRandy had flown with me before, so he sent Nathan up front. Randy has this really great desire to honor others in his speech and actions. This desire extends to his son as well. We strapped my daughters car seat behind the pilots seat, and Randy climbed in next to her, and Nathan buckled into the co-pilot seat.

We continued down the check-list for starting the plane until we got to my favorite part of the list -- turning the key. Before starting a plane, there is one last check to make sure everyone is clear of the propeller. I opened the window and shouted "CLEAR!" That for me is the sign that the fun is about to start. Aside from the permission to shout (when else is it considered ok to shout?) it is the official start of powered flight. For me, the process of shouting is that transition.

The sky was covered by broken clouds again today, so after looking about we decided to head southwest. These clouds would later prove to help by keeping us closer to the details of the earth as we made our tour. Once we escaped the surly bonds of earth we headed south towards the hood canal. Img_0555Nathan began to point and ask questions. "Is that Whidbey?" and "Is that Hat Island?" and "Everett?" yep, yep, and yep. For a kid that grew up in Colorado, he knew his way around the Puget Sound.

And then he asked the question that changed the course of the day. "Have you ever flown over Deception Pass?"

We hung a right and headed north up the east coast of Whidbey Island. As we flew north we looked at Port Towsend, Fort Flagler, Fort Worden, and Fort Casey. Casey is the most popular of the three, but my boys and I enjoyed exploring Worden much more. We preceded north by Smith Island and NAS Whidbey up to the pass.

Deception Pass is a narrow opening between the mainland and the north end of Whidbey Island. The island extends south from there 36 miles. For tides to go in and out, the water must either pass through that narrow channel or travel 36 miles around the island. The current can get pretty aggressive. Deception pass from a trip earlier in the summerComplicating things, in the channel, there is another small island. The road builders used this small island as a pillar for the bridge by building one span from the mainland to the little island, and then a larger second span from the small island to Whidbey. They are graceful arching bridges that contrast with the rugged rocks they are built upon. There are very popular walking paths across the bridge. Flying over the pass in the plane is pretty. Walking across the pass on the bridge is breath-taking.

I often wonder what it would take to get permission to fly UNDER the bridge.

We flew OVER the bridge today.

Our eastward course took us back to the mainland and over to I-5. I gave Randy my camera to let him take pictures. They came out pretty good -- take a look.

After passing the Arlington airport, we crossed over to the east side of the freeway. Shortly after that we were talking to the tower to get our landing clearance, and the ride was over.

Time sharing the world from one of my favorite views with Randy, who searches out Divine beauty, is just one more reason why I fly.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Gmail feature request - intelligent addressing.

Note: While writing this I realized it is a feature needed to work around a bug.

Following the lead of
Cedric and Krzysztof, I have some gmail requests too. When addressing a mail to someone with multiple addresses, it should remember the address I used most recently, and put it at the top of the hint list.

Many of my contact use mail redirection services so their address is something like "Bob [at] myVanityDomain [dot] com" which is forwarded "poluted.namepace.random.string [at] gmail
[dot] com." (Here's the bug:) Connecting to this person in google talk required (not sure if it still does) the gmail address to be the primary address, or the invitation just did not work out. So now when I start typing bob's name, the gmail address appears first. I want a way for it to remember to use the other address instead.

As to my comment on Cedric's blog, I discovered that if I add something like "familyMember" into the notes of an email address, I can view my contacts, and then search for "familyMember" to get a list of all the people in my address book who are family members for group emails, but I'm still waiting for address groups or tags or something to make group mail easier.

One last thing. It does not appear to be possible to archive "sent" items. They are either sent, or deleted. Which mean that either you allow your sent folder to collect clutter, or you delete them all together.