First solo flight

On June 12, I made my first solo flight in an airplane.

We were at the El Monte airport. The wind was out of 230 at 5 knots, visibility 6 miles, with clouds overcast at 1900 feet above ground level. Mild conditions. I got ready for a regular lesson in my usual plane, N19760 (a Cessna 172), and with my instructor David in the right seat I began doing practice circuits around the airport. Take off, turn right, fly back, turn right again, and land. We did this 6 times, and then my instructor said, “You want to go do it on your own?”

I agreed, feeling a mixture of excitement and apprehension, and then he asked for permission for us to taxi over to the side and drop him off:

By this point, the winds had picked up to 7 knots, straight down the runway, and the clouds had lifted to 2300 feet. Good conditions.

So my instructor hopped out of the plane and turned on his handheld radio, and then I closed his door and taxied up to the runway all by myself and requested permission to take off.


The tower gave me permission and I started rolling down the runway, then took off and into the air.


Everything was pretty normal. In fact, it was surprisingly normal. It felt so very familiar — I was thinking, “I’ve done this more than a hundred times.” I was so focused that I barely noticed that David’s seat was empty. I also knew he was listening on the radio, so it felt like he virtually was along for the ride.

I was cleared to land behind another plane, so I verified that I could see that plane (which was nearly on the ground) and then began my descent.


Here I am ALMOST on the ground:


That landing went beautifully — so well that I felt comfortable going around again. On your first solo, you do at least one takeoff and landing, and up to three of them total.

The second landing was a little shaky. I started to drift to the left a bit, then had a minor balloon, then got the plane down on the runway. But I was still good to go again, and David waved encouragingly from the sidelines.

The winds had picked up to 11 knots, variable between 170 and 230 degrees. As long as they don’t get too far off of 190, it’s not an issue, but it does make for some little twitchy adjustments as you descend towards the runway.

The third landing was fine, although not stellar. I got clearance to taxi back to park the plane, and then, unexpectedly, the tower controller gave me her congratulations:

Here I am after getting out of the plane on only slightly shaky knees. I did it!


Thanks very much to David (who also took these pictures and recorded the audio) and the Caltech flying club and everyone else who’s been encouraging me in this process. I still have a lot of work to do before getting my license, but this feels like a big step!

Chino Airshow and spins

Earlier this month, I got to attend my first airshow. It was hosted by the Planes of Fame museum at the Chino airport. I got to see a lot of historical planes (mainly WWII era) as well as some aerobatics!

Here is a shot of multiple planes, centered on a Lockheed P-38J Lightning (WWII):

Lockheed P-38J Lightning

Next we were treated to some loops and dives by Rob Harrison, the “Tumbling Bear”:

Aerobatics - upside down

Aerobatics - loop

And later in the day we saw even more impressive aerobatics by Sean Tucker in a biplane. Here I captured the end of his 9-rotation spin and resulting dive (not yet recovered!):

Aerobatics - spin

I was thrilled to see a spin in person! Spins used to be a normal part of a pilot’s repertoire — at the very least, pilots learned how to recover from an accidental spin entry. But the FAA found that more student pilots (and instructors) were being killed doing spin training than were being killed by accidental spins. So today, pilot trainees are not allowed to do them, even to learn how to recover, and so they are surrounded by a thick aura of mystique and danger. See this fascinating article for more details: The Spin Debate. My instructor, however, encourages me to go sign up for an aerobatic lesson from a flight school that is certified to teach them. I’d love to do that after I manage my first solo flight!

A floral rainbow, annotated by Google

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking to the library and I was struck by so many beautiful flowers along the way in people’s yards and gardens. I decided to collect a few and share them here. (Click for bigger versions of each.)

Then I thought I would try out Google image search on each one to see if it could identify each flower by finding a match within the first 10 hits (in some cases I looked through many more than that, hoping to find a match, but it seems that if it isn’t in the first 10 then it isn’t going to find it).

Red passion flower. Google: failure (not found in the top 10 hits).

California poppy. Google: hit #5. Success!

Orange lily. Google: hit #1!

Probably some kind of daisy. Google: could not find an exact match.

Google: failure. Closest match is a “balloon flower” which has pointy petals (these are rounded).

Google: failure. I think their image search is only looking at color distributions rather than shape features. Object identification is hard! (Does anyone know what this is?)

Cape mallow (or some other kind of mallow). Google: hit #10. Barely snuck it in there!

Google score: 4 of 7. I guess we still need flower identification handbooks. And humans! :)

Amelia’s Last Flight

Amelia Earhart planned to write a book about her around-the-world expedition. It was to be called “World Flight.” She wrote some material before departing, and she sent back notes and logs from various stops across the globe. When the flight ended prematurely, her husband assembled the pieces and notes into a book that he published as “Last Flight.”

The first-person narration gives you a real sense of Amelia’s voice and character. She was fearless, in an awe-inspiring way. She was ever ambitious, reaching for the next challenge. She was also very interested in encouraging women in engineering (and aviation in particular). She criticized the way boys and girls were (… are …) shuffled into certain kinds of hobbies. “With rare exceptions,” she wrote, “the delights of finding out what makes a motor go, or batting the bumps out of a bent fender, are joys reserved for masculinity” (p. 47).

To enable her plans to go around the world, she acquired a plane that seems mammoth to me:

“The plane itself is a two-motor, all-metal monoplane, with retractable landing gear. It has a normal cruising speed of about 180 miles an hour and a top speed in excess of 200. With the special gasoline tanks that have been installed in the fuselage, capable of carrying 1150 gallons, it has a cruising radius in excess of 4000 miles. With full load the ship weighs about 15,000 pounds. It is powered with two Wasp ‘H’ engines, developing 110 horsepower” (p. 50).

By comparison, the Cessna 172 that I am learning to fly carries a maximum of 40 gallons of fuel and has a max takeoff weight of 2300 lbs. It has a cruising speed of 120 mph and a radius of about 600 miles. It would take a long time to get around the world that way!

She chronicles her travels from Miami to Brazil, then over to Dakar in Africa, then through India, Thailand, Singapore, Australia, and Lae in Papua New Guinea. Even knowing in advance that her trip will be truncated, it’s hard not to gain enthusiasm and confidence that it will somehow succeed, after she travels through so many different places, weather, and challenges. The book ends, necessarily, abruptly.

… and we still don’t know exactly why.

Grammar police

Recently I came across this article: “Stop shaming people on the Internet for grammar mistakes. Its not there fault.” The author urges more compassion for the oh-so-common grammar mistakes that we are all prone to and provides an interesting dissection of the cognitive reasons for those errors.

“Mocking another person for making one of them is like mocking a heart for skipping a beat. Errors are a routine part of our cognitive systems,” the author, Andrew Heisel, claims.

While “mocking” isn’t productive, I think “awareness” is. Some grammar rules do seem needlessly arcane, but others have evolved to reduce ambiguity and increase communication. And so I find the Twitter bot called Grammar Police, which automatically detects and tactfully points out grammar errors in tweets, to be both fascinating and useful.

Mr. Heisel introduced me to this bot by way of criticizing it. But the bot has 19,500 followers, and I don’t think that they all subscribe merely “to pretend, 25 times a day, that you’re perfect and other people’s foibles are not your own.” In fact, I observed that some of those whom Grammar Police called out in an automated post actually thanked the bot. The bot’s postings might even inspire some readers to look up “nominative case.”

Now I’m thinking that a statistical analysis of the bot’s 85,400 tweets (and counting) would be quite interesting. What are the most common types of errors? And how many of them inspired a thank you?

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