Flying by instruments to San Diego

I’m not yet certified to fly in the clouds. But recently, events conspired to end up with me in the pilot’s seat, on a instrument flight plan, all the way to San Diego!

It was a rather last-minute decision. Manuel and I had planned to go to a tour of the SoCal TRACON facility in San Diego. These are the voices we hear over the radio that guide us around the southern California airspace and help us not run into other planes. Another pilot planned to take a second plane. But then it got too cloudy and stormy for us to fly, and the other pilot had a brilliant idea: invite an instructor (David) along, all pile in to one plane, and then make it into an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) lesson!

We decided that I would fly the segment from El Monte (KEMT) to Montgomery Field (KMYF) in San Diego. It was an hour of flying that was packed full of new activities and skills to learn. And that was all before the tour!

This flight felt like a return to my early lessons. My instructor talked me through every step, and I did what he told me to, feeling a little bewildered at several points when things happened quickly. He commented that the usual first IFR lesson involves going to the practice area and being told to hold a heading — not to execute a cross-country flight. :)

We requested a “tower enroute” (TEC) clearance from KEMT to KMYF, which meant we didn’t need to pre-file an instrument flight plan. The TEC route between these two airports is pre-specified, and their use is encouraged in SoCal (they aren’t available everywhere, just in busy airspace). So, while we were waiting to depart, the ground controller came back with the clearance, which we had to write down and then read back before being allowed to depart:

“Cessna 54678 cleared to MYF via the San Gabriel Valley runway 1 obstacle departure procedure, Paradise (PDZ), Victor 180, HAILE (intersection), Victor 66, Mission Bay (MZB), climb and maintain 3000′, expect 9000′ 10 minutes after departure, stand by for squawk.”

We plugged all of that into the GPS and then were ready to take off!

Once we got away from the airport, David had me put on a “hood” (“view limiting device”). In this case it is a set of blinders that clip onto my glasses so that I can only see the instrument panel and nothing outside the plane. While flying this way, everything felt more touchy. I worked to monitor airspeed, altitude, heading, and power, while paying attention to the radio (fortunately, David did all of the talking). I also had to periodically check the engine and exhaust monitor, the outside temperature (to decide if we needed to worry about potential icing), the suction gauge, and the directional gyro (for deviation from the compass). That’s about twice the number of things I have to monitor during regular VFR (Visual Flight Rules) flight.

Other challenges:

  • Maintaining heading and altitude. This seems really basic, but it’s amazing how much your peripheral vision helps on this! No such input means you have to consciously think through everything, and your intuitive sense of direction often battles with what the instruments say. Disorienting!
  • You are always thinking about what you could do next, so you can do it early. There are times in IFR flight that are so busy they can be truly overwhelming. If you can spread the tasks out in advance, you are less likely to get overwhelmed.

Along the way, we entered the San Diego Bravo space! And there wasn’t even a fanfare on the radio — nothing. Awww.

We flew for an hour, and then about 20 miles away from MYF, the controller started giving me vectors to gradually turn me around and line up with the ILS (Instrument Landing System). At right is the actual ground track from our flight. That bump out to the east near MYF is the result of those gradually turning vectors.

His vectors made us skip over most of the standard approach segments, which was confusing enough, and then he was giving us altitudes also seemed lower than the specified approach (but maybe that is fine?). Once on the ILS, things got better: you line up with a radio beacon coming from the airport and then keep it centered, horizontally and vertically, to end up right at the airport.

At about 700′ off the ground, David let me take off the hood — and I saw RUNWAY in front of me! I had a very nice landing and then taxied to the transient parking area. We shut down the plane and then too a Lyft to the SoCal TRACON center. The tour was excellent! Here’s what the control room looks like (with no people inside):

They let us sit at the controls in a training room:

And then we took a Lyft back to the airport for our return flight.

Since I was wearing a hood while flying, I couldn’t look outside the plane nor take any pictures. So I took pictures on the way back instead :)

Here is a residential area not far from MYF, soon after taking off:

Here we crossed out over the coast:

The clouds grew thicker beneath us:

In a break in the clouds, I spotted a little runway! We weren’t going there, but it’s always nice to spot nearby emergency options.

And finally, we made it back to El Monte! Very eventful and exciting day.

I won the National Adult Spelling Bee!

In 2009, I signed up for the National Adult Spelling Bee (in Long Beach), and I managed to come in second place. It was great fun! I went back in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. Each time I did reasonably well, but I never quite managed to vault into the #1 position.

Until this year.

This year I didn’t plan to go to the spelling bee at all. I had plans to take some friends flying. But the weather turned bad for flying, so our sightseeing trip was deferred, and I found myself with just enough free time to head down to Long Beach for the Bee. I hadn’t prepared! I hadn’t studied! But I went anyway!

I then spelled many words, in round after round:

  1. budget
  2. waiver
  3. genealogy
  4. xenophobia
  5. centime
  6. didactic
  7. reconnaissance
  8. glucosamine
  9. foppery
  10. funambulist – a wire-walker (tightrope-walker)
  11. specious
  12. chilblains
  13. dermatophyte
  14. glissade
  15. cathect – to invest energy in
  16. accrete

and at the end, it was down to two of us, and then Anne misspelled “splith”, and my next word was “accrete”, and it was a home run! What a thrill!

And the best part? The Bee gives you $500 for yourself plus $500 for the charity of your choice. So the very next day, I walked into the Monrovia Public Library and presented them with the check – and oh, the look on the librarian’s face! It was like winning a second time all over again.

The usability of everyday things

I’m taking a class on “Web Usability”, and our first assigned reading is The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. This is a very readable tour through design principles that can help us create devices and systems that are easy and even enjoyable to use.

The book is peppered with interesting examples of bizarre or cryptic designs. Norman seems particularly fond of talking about light switches (such a simple device, and yet so many are hard to use!). As a pilot, I also enjoyed the frequent examples he cited from the world of aviation, where a bad interface can mean the difference between life and death. However, he also says that his personal rule is to avoid criticizing unless he has a solution to offer. Now there’s a high bar!

Norman identifies “discoverability” (can you figure out what actions are possible?) and “understanding” (do you know what the controls/displays mean?) as key components of good design. He also emphasizes the importance of a user having a good “conceptual model” of the device – even if that model is inaccurate in a technical sense. A successful model is one that allows the user to operate the device successfully.

I also found his discussion of the balance between “knowledge in the head” (memory and learned skills) versus “knowledge in the world” (objects, signs, instructions) to be thought-provoking. It makes sense to try to strike a good balance between how much advance training/prep the user needs versus how much they’ll have to read/learn/absorb while using the device. Going too far in either direction makes things harder to operate.

One of the biggest takeaways for me was his encouragement to remove the concept of “error” from an interface. He points out that when we don’t understand something another human says, we don’t say “You made a speaking error.” Instead, we interact and try to figure out what meaning was intended. Similarly, devices (and computer programs) could shift from “error” feedback to help or guidance that aids the user in specifying their intent in the form that is needed. He suggests that we think of a user action as an approximation to what is desired, and help the user to improve it. Great idea!

Chapter 5 is devoted to an analysis of errors: different types, different causes, and different remedies. I like the suggestion to treat errors as learning opportunities (for the user and for the designer); we can brainstorm ways that the error could be entirely precluded in the future. I will be on the lookout for ways to apply this in my ongoing flight training.

Some quotes I enjoyed or found insightful:

  • “Machines require us to be precise and accurate, things we are not very good at.”
  • “We have to accept human behavior the way it is, not the way we wish it to be.”
  • “We use logic and reason after the fact, to justify our decisions to ourselves (to our conscious minds) and to others.”
  • “How can the designer put knowledge in the device itself?”
  • “Expert [users] minimize the need for conscious reasoning.”

Flying to Rarotonga

The Rarotonga International Airport (RAR) has a runway that is 7,638 feet long.

I am flew there on a 777-200. That seems like a rather short runway for a big jet. I’ve landed on longer runways myself (like San Bernardino or Ontario). Curious, I looked up the minimum runway length for a 777-200. According to the Air Cyber Alliance, it is 8,563 feet. Yes, that is longer than the Rarontonga runway. Eeek?

Minimum runway lengths are dictated by how much space the plane needs to take off (which is generally longer than the space needed to land. Yes, this means planes can land somewhere and then be unable to take off again). The minimums are calculated for the aircraft when fully loaded, at max gross weight. So one way to take off in less distance is to reduce the load – fewer passengers, less cargo, or less fuel.

According to the seat map, my return flight is nearly or completely full of passengers, so they won’t go that route. And they can’t skimp much on fuel: the flight from RAR to LAX is quite long (4,688 miles, 10 hours) and the 777-200 has a maximum range of 5,240 miles when fully fueled. Plus, you don’t just take exactly enough fuel to get there; you need extra fuel in case you have to divert or circle or otherwise go out of your way. So maybe they just reduce cargo?

I noticed that they schedule return flights to depart close to local midnight – probably trying to use the coolest part of the day to improve the plane’s performance. And by “coolest”, I mean 78 F. Challenging for flying. I want to chat with these pilots!

How strong is that sunshine?

I am heading to the Cook Islands in a few weeks to explore the island of Rarotonga. This is a tiny island, covering 26 square miles and with a population of 10,000, in the south Pacific.

To prepare for the trip, I have been monitoring the weather out there. This is their rainy season, so it’s getting pounded with thunderstorms (eek!). I’m hoping it will clear up a bit before my trip.

In addition to thunderstorms, I noticed the weather report on the UV index, which has been varying from 7 to 9 during the day. At first I thought maybe the max value was 10, but then saw it go up to 11. So I looked up what exactly the UV index is. I learned that it doesn’t have a max value! It’s a measurement of the amount of “sunburn-producing UV radiation”, so it focuses on the amount of radiation in the 295-325 nm range. It is unitless, and the range is linear (so a UV index of 10 is twice as strong as 5). It was originally designed so that 10 would correspond to typical noontime summer (max) sunlight. However, this was established in 1992, and since then, higher and higher values have been observed, up to the world record of 43 (!!!) in 2003, although that value is contested and might “only” be 26.

Wikipedia’s guidelines suggest that one should limit midday exposure if the UV index is anywhere over 3, and over 6 yields “high risk of harm from unprotected sun exposure.” If it gets over 11, “unprotected skin and eyes can burn in minutes.” So, time to break out the sunscreen and protective clothing… unless I’m stuck indoors due to thunderstorms :)

Older entries »