How to drive in New Zealand

Start by staying on the left. :)

I found some great resources to prepare for driving in New Zealand.

Check out this interactive driving video/game, which is a good chance to practice for any driver. It definitely tests your observation skills!

Some of the road signs that I found interesting or unusual are:

Speed limit sign indicating that there is “no restriction” so the national speed limit of 100 kph applies
One-lane bridge ahead. The little red arrow means that you do NOT have right of way but instead traffic from the other direction (big black arrow) does.

There are lots of warnings that it will take you longer to drive somewhere than you may expect. I saw this billboard a lot:

and this great reminder to take breaks:

One thing I wasn’t prepared for was the extensive construction going on everywhere I went, which certainly did make it take longer to get places. Many of the roads between cities were being resurfaced in various areas, so there was a lot of slow driving on gravel. In one place, there was a sign that we were driving on “wet concrete – wash car today” (!).

I also found that gas was much more expensive. Somewhat confusingly, prices are displayed in cents per liter (e.g., “199” instead of “$1.99”). I paid between $1.99 to $2.06 per liter, which works out to $7.50 to $7.80 per gallon (!). Giving how much driving I did, this ended up being a non-trivial part of my trip costs. An electric vehicle would make even more sense there :)

Trying out the impossible turn

Recently I completed my FAA flight review, which is required every two years. (It’s hard to believe that I’ve had my license for two years now!) This involved sitting down with my instructor to go over various flight regulations and knowledge topics (planning a cross country flight, airspace, interpreting weather products, etc.) and then going up in the air to put me through my flying paces. We did some takeoffs and landings, and then just after one takeoff he suddenly asked, “Now, if your engine quit right here, could make it back to the runway?”

My brain sort of froze because this is NOT how we practice engine-out landings. I had just turned crosswind and was perhaps 700′ above the ground. This isn’t quite the worst-case scenario (that is when your engine dies before that first turn, while you’re still pointed directly away from the runway), but it certainly was unfamiliar and unexpected (just like a real emergency would be).

“Power to idle,” my instructor directed.

My stomach sank along with the engine’s RPMs as I began banking back towards the runway – the WRONG runway – the end we’d just taken off from. Meanwhile, my instructor got permission from the tower for this wrong-direction “teardrop” landing. There was an 8-knot wind pretty much aligned with the runway, which was perfect for our takeoff. According to the audio recording, I said, “You’re a crazy man, I’m landing with a tailwind!”

Him: “Yep, so, we’ll be ready for a go-around.”

I could see we were coming in high (high!) so I kept turning to make my teardrop into more of an S shape and give me more time to lose altitude. Flaps went in. It wasn’t enough. We went into a slip and that helped. And then we were close to the ground and I flared and we landed – a little long, but acceptable. Wow!

So, this wasn’t quite the impossible turn (in fact it was very possible). But doomed (i.e., fatal) attempts to turn back to the runway without sufficient altitude are a serious and continuing problem in aviation. The general advice is to pick a minimum altitude above ground (e.g., 500′, 1000′) below which, if the engine dies, you should NOT try to turn and should instead continue straight ahead.

I like this advice:

Before every takeoff, prepare yourself for a possible engine failure with a short briefing stating out loud what you will do if the engine fails on the runway, below your minimum turnaround altitude and above that altitude. Then make a quick callout as you climb through your minimum turnaround altitude. That way, if the engine fails on takeoff, your decision is easy. If you haven’t made the minimum altitude call, you don’t even consider turning around. Just get the nose down, keep the airplane flying, and look within about a 60-degree arc for the best place to set the airplane down. The bad news is that someone will almost certainly have to call your insurance company. The good news is that you will almost certainly be able to make the call yourself.

The idea is that an abort/failure briefing can help make emergency response actions automatic rather than slowed by disbelief and denial. It is also possible to practice the necessary turn, at higher altitudes and away from the airport, to determine how much altitude you’ll lose. I’ve done this, and it was quite interesting, but it lacks the scare factor and adrenaline rush and “the ground is right there” visuals of a real low-altitude engine failure. Better than nothing though!

It’s good to get to try new things with the support of an instructor. He noted that that was about the limit (in terms of minimum height above ground and maximum tailwind) in which he’d like to try that sort of thing. I translate that into my own personal minimums as: “Don’t try this at home. Yet.”

“How did you figure out what you’re interested in?”

I read a fascinating anecdote in Ted Dintersmith’s book, “What School Could Be”. Here’s my paraphrase:

A second-grade teacher (Kayla Delzer) in North Dakota created “Genius Hour” in her classroom: one hour per week in which students could go off and learn about a topic of their own choice, to become mini-experts in whatever interested them, unconstrained by the curriculum.

An 11th-grade teacher in North Dakota heard about this great idea and tried it with his students. After he announced the idea, half of his students Googled “What should I be interested in?”

This is amusing and sad at the same time. Also mystifying.

I recognize here something I’ve seen myself, recently, from college students. When I visit universities to give talks, I often get to meet with student groups in an informal discussion setting. A couple of times now, I’ve gotten student questions that are some variant of:

“How did you figure out what you were interested in?”

(i.e., what to study, or what job to pursue, etc.)

The first time this happened, I went blank. I couldn’t understand the question. I could talk about how I was drawn to computer science because I did a lot of sci-fi reading and was captivated by the ideas and what-could-be — but I’ve never thought about having a process of “figuring out” what I would be interested in. You just know.

The second time it happened, I replied, “Well, I guess it’s like asking how you know what your favorite color is!” — which is true, but not very useful. And I felt unsatisfied with myself, like I was missing something. Why would anyone ask that question? Could you really not know what your own interests are? Could you really… not have any?

Dintersmith’s story suggests one answer — that students are over-structured and expect there to be a “right” answer to everything and want to know how to get there. It comes from without, not within.

Conversations with some close friends suggested another answer — that students *do* have interests, but they don’t trust themselves. They may love horses or history or hieroglyphics, but they’re bombarded with messages about the necessity to pursue something that pays well, or has prestige, or (again) is the “right” choice. So they are weighing their interests against external forces, and maybe what that question is really asking is “how did you reconcile your interests with reality?”

I don’t think I have a good answer to that one either, since effectively I went after what I thought was most interesting and it was dumb luck that it also ends up being something people will pay you to do. I wasn’t really aware of the job market while I was a student. But now at least I may have something more useful to say, by turning back to the students and asking if it’s really concerns about employability, rather than a lack of personal interests, that they’re worrying about. Fascinating.

Spanish lessons from a soup can

While waiting for some soup to heat up, I noticed that the instructions come in both English and Spanish. The value of such parallel texts is that you can learn new words without any extra help!


Click to enlarge

For example, I learned that the Spanish word for “stovetop” is “estufa.” The phrase “lista para servir” (which I already recognize as “ready to serve”) implies that the word for soup (not mentioned) must be feminine (which it is, “la sopa”!). I also learned that a saucepan is a “cacerola.”

Interestingly, for “covered microwavable bowl” they use “recipiente cubierto apto”, suggesting that either there is no word for “microwavable,” or they assume that since this is in the “MICROWAVE” section, the meaning of an “apto” (“suitable”) bowl should be pretty obvious :)

Because these are instructions, they include a lot of verbs in the imperative tense:

  • agregue – add
  • caliente – heat
  • deje – leave
  • revuelva – stir
  • refrigere – refrigerate

The final instruction, “refrigere lo que sobre,” posed a fun puzzle. “Lo que sobre” apparently is intended to mean “leftovers” or “that which remains.” But at first I couldn’t find a verb from which “sobre” would come from (sobrir? sobrer?). (I did find that there’s a Spanish lovesong called “Lo Que Te Sobre” by Son De Cali.) After more poking around, I think that “sobre” actually comes from “sobrar” (“to remain”), which makes sense, but it means that the verb is in the subjunctive! Oh subtleties! I guess this is because you MIGHT have some leftovers but you might not. :) To me, this suggests that the translation was done by a human, because I doubt any automated translation has that level of sophistication. (Google translate turns “leftovers” into a simple noun, “las sobras.”) In English, perhaps we could modify “Refrigerate leftovers” to “Refrigerate what may be left over” (more literal) or “Refrigerate leftovers, if any” (more natural).

A solo diversion

My return from Phoenix to L.A. was a little more eventful than my trip out.

I departed the Mesa Gateway airport at 12:30 p.m. with an intersection takeoff from runway 30L. I was busy for a while as I climbed to get above KCHD (Chandler)’s airspace (which goes up to 3000′) but stay below the Phoenix Bravo (starts at 4000′). I contacted Phoenix Departure and got flight following, plus a bonus clearance into the Bravo without even asking! That simplified my route quite a bit.


Inside the Phoenix Bravo!

Most of the flight back (cruising at 8500′) was uneventful. I played around with the GPS some more. I read the map. I updated my nav log. I scanned my instruments. I crossed the Colorado river.

From my weather briefing that morning, I knew that there were some low-visibility areas in the L.A. basin – which often arises from the marine layer, which burns off by midday or early afternoon, and usually it doesn’t extend as far east as El Monte anyway. However, just in case, I had backup plans.

Three hours after departing, I entered the L.A. basin, where I discovered a soupy haze starting around Ontario. Yuck! The SoCal controller told me to report when I had (weather) information Foxtrot from EMT. The news wasn’t great; EMT was reporting 3 statute miles visibility. So there I was (over PDZ), flying about 100 mph towards a destination that was dicey. Three miles visibility is (barely) legal for VFR flight, but it is considered “marginal”, which is not a good thing. Rick Durden, in his excellent The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual, quoted Terri Watson saying,

“Anything to do with marginal weather means the pilot has to understand deep inside that she or he is entering a statistically significant realm where he or she is likely to wreck an airplane and kill or injure people.”

I also couldn’t help remembering a conversation I’d had with my mom that morning when I explained what “personal minimums” are. My personal minimum for daytime VFR is 5 miles visibility. And yet… even so… for a brief moment I was tempted to push onward to EMT. The drive to continue your planned flight is very powerful!

Information Foxtrot from EMT was 45 minutes out of date. I asked the SoCal controller if there was any update. I think he called the tower directly for me. He came back a few seconds later and said they still said 3 sm vis. I took a breath and said I would divert to POC. I had checked their ATIS too, and despite being only 10 miles from EMT, they were reporting 10 sm vis (better conditions than CNO as well).

I headed straight there, cutting through Ontario’s airspace. I don’t have any more pictures as I was busy flying the plane. :) As I approached POC, conditions seemed worse to me than 10 sm vis, but way better than 3 sm vis. Thank goodness I was familiar with the area, although I’d never approached POC from the southeast. I got cleared for a left base to runway 26L and spotted the traffic ahead of me. Then on final they told me to switch to 26R to allow an IFR departure. 26R is shorter, but I’ve landed there before so I went ahead and sidestepped to the right. (Had I not felt good about that, I could have said “unable” and presumably they would have worked around it or told me to go around).

After landing, I took a minute to collect myself. I definitely was feeling the increased mental effort from the diversion, the low visibility, and the last-minute change in assigned runways. But I made it on the ground, safe and sound! I taxied over to the transient parking area and shut down and tied up the plane. I went in, took a break, checked the weather, and called for fuel.

By the next time the weather reports updated, EMT was reporting 7 miles visibility, so I went for it. I got the plane ready, only to then discover that POC was now reporting 3 sm vis! It didn’t appear to be noticeably worse than when I’d landed, and I knew that I should be heading towards improving conditions, and also that if I took off and didn’t like it, I could turn around and land again. So I decided to proceed.

After takeoff, I climbed to 2500′, which was above the haze (nice!). However, the ground wasn’t easy to see. Once again, familiarity with the area was a boon. I transferred to the EMT tower and spotted traffic they called off my right. As I came around to final I noticed that the PAPI (glideslope light) wasn’t there! No matter, I don’t need it to land, especially at EMT. Touching down that afternoon was my 500th landing, and it was an excellent one!

Overall, it was a good experience that made me work a little harder than is typical in sunny southern California. (With conditions like that, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to go flying for fun.) Here are my reflections:

  • It’s possible that I could have made it fine to EMT on the first try, but it’s also possible that I could have ended up in deteriorating conditions, disoriented, or worse. The fact that weather reports come out only once an hour is pretty limiting. (They can be updated more frequently, but you cannot depend on that.) I’m glad that I opted to divert. I’ve wondered if I would have the strength to resist get-there-itis if I were solo and needed to make that judgment call.
  • Personal minimums are VERY useful. The whole point is that you’ve thought about your comfort zones and skill levels in advance, so that in the moment you don’t waste time trying to assess risks and (most likely) rationalize a potentially dangerous decision. Arguably, my second takeoff was less well advised, but I’d had time to think it through on the ground, and I felt good about the decision.
  • POC is a great alternate destination for EMT if there’s some reason that EMT is unavailable or closed. It is not really a great weather alternate since the two airports are so close together and therefore likely have similar weather. It worked out well for me in this case, but a safer bet would have been Riverside or San Bernardino. Since I was coming from the east, I knew conditions were better the farther east I landed. But farther east would be progressively more inconvenient, and I definitely felt the pressure of wanting to get closer to my destination if possible!
  • My ongoing project of landing at all of the L.A. airports has real utility! Having visited other airports makes it that much easier to confidently divert to them even if they were not your intended destination. Banning, Flabob, Chino, and Corona were all additional options that I had previously visited.
  • It really is true that when things pile up, even if each one isn’t a big deal, just mentally dealing with a longer list (plus uncertainty) is fatiguing and that in itself is a risk factor. When I took off the second time, I was refreshed (and my plane had full tanks). I felt much more sharp and capable, and I had plenty of options if needed.
  • Yes, I reported that the PAPI was out after I landed at EMT. Another pilot on the ground chimed in to confirm, so it was good to hear that I wasn’t imagining things. ;) (And EMT was able to send someone out to check it.)

Next adventure? Bring it on!

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