American female pilots in WWII

Did you know that American female pilots flew, and died, for their country in WWII?

For a brief period from 1942 to 1944, the U.S. trained and employed 1,102 female pilots (WASPs) to help with the war effort. They weren’t allowed to fly in combat, but they performed other duties that consequently freed up male pilots to head overseas. Those duties included variously low-prestige and/or high-risk activities such as:

  • flying planes from where they were assembled to the port from which they’d be flown to the war fronts
  • towing a canvas target for ground troops to shoot anti-aircraft guns at (really!)
  • testing newly repaired planes to certify them to be sent back out to the front

They also learned to fly large bombers that, in some cases, no other pilots were willing to fly. These planes (such as the B-29) were often prone to engine fires or other issues. Yet after a few women pilots were trained to fly them, and started providing instruction in the strategies they developed to avoid or deal with those problems, male pilots became willing to take over the controls. The B-29 was later used to drop the bomb on Hiroshima.

Despite their excellent track record in terms of safety and efficiency (e.g., in delivering planes across the country), the WASP program was canceled in late 1944, and women were not allowed to fly military planes again until 1977 (!).

WASPs were, in fact, never an official part of the Army (the Air Force had not yet been created) because Congress had not included “pilot” in its list of wartime duties women were allowed to perform. WASPs therefore did not receive military insurance, and those who died while performing their duties (38 women) received no government recognition. This changed in 1977 when President Carter signed a bill that recognized WASPS retroactively as having served in active duty, and WASP veterans received official honorable discharges.

Other countries employed women as military pilots in battle during WWII. In Russia, female pilots were called night witches (fascinating reading) by the Germans who often tangled with them in the air at night. From what I’ve read, our female pilots would have been willing to do the same.

For more info on WASPs and their accomplishments, see WASP on the Web.

Breakfast versus afternoon tea

What is it about a tea that renders it suitable for a particular time of day?

It turns out that “breakfast tea” and “afternoon tea” have no particular standard definitions, but there are conventions. In general, a breakfast tea has a higher caffeine content, while an afternoon tea is meant to create “the perfect feel for a day winding down”. No amount of caffeine gives me a “winding down” feeling (just “winding up”!), but at least this way I can pick an afternoon tea if I want a smaller dose in the morning.

There’s also an interesting historical evolution of the content of a cup of tea that was dictated by the availability of tea imports from different parts of the world (originally China, then also India and Africa).

And what about English, Irish, and Scottish breakfast teas? Here’s a capsule summary (full details):

  • English breakfast: Full-bodied and rich. Originally a China black tea but now frequently includes a strong Ceylon tea component. May also include teas from Assam, Africa, and/or Indonesia.
  • Irish breakfast: More robust than English breakfast. Generally has a strong Assam component, giving it a malty flavor.
  • Scottish breakfast: Typically the strongest of the three. May include teas from China, Assam, Ceylon, Africa, and/or Indonesia.

A malty flavor in tea? I’ll have to pay more attention next time I get to try an Irish variant. The increase in strength for the Scottish breakfast blend is hypothesized to arise from their softer water (took more/stronger leaves to brew?).

Many sources characterize the different tea types (black, green, white, etc.) as having different amounts of caffeine (e.g., Choice Organic Tea’s tea guide). However, there are no industry standards, and tea packages do not typically indicating the caffeine content. Empirical studies have found that caffeine content ranges all over the map for all types of tea. Some example studies (interesting reading!):

Neither study did a breakdown of caffeine content for breakfast vs. afternoon teas, although Friedman et al. reported higher amounts of theaflavins (a beneficial antioxidant) in breakfast teas.

The Chin et al. study also found that brewing your tea in 8 ounces of water yields more caffeine than using 6 ounces (but about the same rate per ounce) and that at least half of the caffeine is extracted after just 1 minute of brewing.

(By the way: what an awesome research topic! Sounds like fun times in the lab.)

How to land a plane without the engine

For some fascinating reading, check out Gene’s Top Ten List of Pilot Killers. The list is full of good advice and warnings (all quite sobering, given the fatalities mentioned).

Item 6 (“Failure to maintain proficiency”) in particular gave me food for thought. It’s easy to assume that you’re as proficient now as the day you got your license. When was the last time you practiced a (simulated) emergency while driving your car? (e.g., tire blowout, run out of gas, pedestrian runs in front of your car) Was this even covered in your driver’s ed course? For pilots, how often should one practice such simulations in a plane, after getting a license?

I’ve now had the “opportunity” to practice landing after an engine failure. This sounds terrifying, but actually it was empowering. I got to see how the plane behaves with no engine power, and stay in control and survive it.

We were flying along at 1300 ft when my instructor pulled the throttle to idle and said, “Ok, land the plane.” We’d covered the process, and he coached me through it, so I wasn’t completely on my own. And in this simulation, we don’t actually turn the engine off. “The first rule of emergency simulations,” he said, “is don’t make the simulation into a real emergency.” With the throttle at idle, the propeller keeps spinning, but there’s no thrust powering the plane — instead, the wind is turning the propeller freely.

The first thing you do is get the airplane positioned for its “best glide speed.” I was surprised to learn that airplanes do glide. They can make a good amount of distance even with no propeller power. They aren’t *great* at it, but it’s enough to get you down safely if you stay in control. For this plane, that speed is 80 mph.

Next, you look around for a good landing spot. Since we were flying the airport pattern, our best landing option was… the runway, half a mile off to the right.

Next, you do some standard checks to see if there’s an obvious, correctable problem with the engine. Does it have fuel? Is the mixture rich enough? Is carburetor heat on? Are both magnetos selected? Is the primer locked?

Assuming that none of these fixed the problem, we practiced a forced landing. We were already cleared to land, so we began a gentle curve to bring us around to the runway, keeping an eye (as usual) on airspeed, descent rate, and altitude. We were a little high even with no power, so we put flaps on to increase drag and help us slow down and descend. When we were close enough, I adjusted closer to the regular landing speed (70 mph) by raising the nose and then glided in. I think this was less scary than it might have been because we normally deliberately take the engine to idle just before landing. But the ability of the plane to not fall out of the sky even without engine power was eye-opening to me, in a good way.

This was a great experience, and in conjunction with Gene’s list of Pilot Killers, I now wondering how often one should practice this kind of simulation even after you’re licensed and flying on your own. Pull the throttle to idle on purpose and make sure you remember how to get down safely? Maybe a good idea!

Harry Potter en español

I picked up the first Harry Potter book, in Spanish, as a fun opportunity to practice (and improve) my Spanish skills. The writing level is a bit above my current reading level, but it’s fun to be pushed a little, and my vocabulary is definitely benefiting.

Reading this translation also raises interesting questions about the translation process — which is one of those topics that you think you understand until you think about it a bit more.

Some American readers will be amused by the Spanish title, which is “Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal” (the Philosopher’s Stone) — which is the literal title in British English, but not the American one. It was changed to “the Sorcerer’s Stone” apparently due to expectations that “philosopher” would not appeal to American children, and that they wouldn’t know what the Philosopher’s Stone was.

Chapter 1 is titled “El niño que vivió”, which again is literally the same as in English: “The boy who lived.” However, the verb “vivir” in Spanish doesn’t quite have the nuance that “live” does in English (that it can also mean “survive”), so it probably comes across a bit oddly to Spanish readers.

The first sentence includes a bigger translation gap. The English reads:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

That final phrase (“thank you very much”) is a clever injection of the characters’ voices into what is otherwise simple narration — a charming bit that apparently wasn’t translatable. The Spanish version replaces this phrase with “afortunadamente” (“fortunately”), which gets the meaning across, but loses the charm.

One of the other large gaps is in dialect. Hagrid appears near the end of this chapter, with his rough, uneducated dialect (e.g., “Lily an’ James dead — an’ poor little Harry off ter live with Muggles”). Apparently this is hard or impossible to convey in Spanish, so he sounds (as far as my limited ear can tell) like a normal person: “Lily y James muertos… y el pobrecito Harry tendrá que vivir con muggles” (“Lily and James dead… and poor little Harry has to live with Muggles”).

There is one place where the translation, I think, improves on the original. When Albus Dumbledore walks along Privet Drive, putting out street lamps with a silver lighter, that lighter is called the “Put-Outer” in English, which is awkward and clunky. (One thing Rowling is generally very good at is coining apt and elegant names, so this stands out.) In Spanish, it is the Apagador, from the verb “apagar” (to put out, turn off, extinguish), and that has such a better feel to it!

I’m up to chapter 5 now, make slow but enjoyable progress. Once I finish this book, I want to move on to some books at a similar level that were originally written in Spanish. That should give much more of a “real” feel for the language, without the obstacles posed by translation.

Flying to a new airport

At my most recent flying lesson, we flew to a new airport. I’d read up on what would be involved, but didn’t anticipate the amount of complexity! It was as if we’d been driving around the parking lot (to practice takeoffs and landings) and suddenly we turned on to the freeway to drive to the next town. (The next block is probably a more apt metaphor, but right now the jump feels extreme.)

Here is the route we took. It’s about 13 miles of total flying from El Monte (my home airport) to Brackett (which felt like another planet).

We flew south of the 10 freeway at 2300 ft, then angled northeast towards Brackett. This looks really obvious and clear on a map. It is distinctly harder to navigate in the air, while things are moving, with an L.A.-style hazy soup lying over everything. Thank goodness I live here, so I could recognize the freeways from ground experience.

The distance between the airports is short enough that you have to really be on the ball. As soon as you leave El Monte airspace, you have to switch over to Brackett’s ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) to listen to weather conditions at Brackett. That way, when you call Brackett to request permission to land, you can indicate that you’re up to date on those conditions. So you’re flying along, keeping an eye on your airspeed (~100 knots) and altitude (2300) and heading while listening to the radio while scribbling down the ATIS notes.

All too soon, you’re ready to enter the Brackett pattern, which like El Monte is 1000 ft above the ground, except that the ground is distinctly higher here (1000 ft instead of 300 ft). So you’re aiming for an altitude of 2000 instead of 1300, and all the ground references look wrong/different (because they are). However, we managed to land, and then do our regular pattern work of takeoffs and landings (with totally different visual references than at El Monte, plus it’s a left-turning pattern instead of right-turning. So many new things!).

Brackett’s control tower was quite busy that day, because there was an airshow going on to the north and they had to manage traffic diverting around that. A couple of times, we had to extend our approach (downwind) because the tower was too busy talking to other people to clear us to land. Meanwhile, my instructor called out helpful/distracting things like “watch out for that flock of birds”, and at one point I spied a blimp to the north (part of the airshow?), and Brackett has two parallel runways, so I had to be super careful turning for final approach. My instructor also threw in a surprise touch-and-go (arrrgh!) which led to a rather embarrassing fishtailing takeoff on my part (but he claimed it was “good enough because the centerline never got out from under your wings” (!)) and a soft field takeoff (the terrifying one where you take off a few feet and then try to fly really low along the runway — which, oddly, feels like you’re diving at the ground). However, I managed communications okay (with coaching when new/unexpected things happened).

My brain was definitely full (or over-full) from that lesson! Next time, we’ll be back at El Monte and practicing takeoffs/landings. My instructor says he likes to alternate between pushing students outside their comfort zones and returning to the comfort zone to solidify things. Here’s hoping. :)

In other news, I just crossed the 10-hour mark in terms of my total flight time!

Older entries »