Fly by night – into a curious situation

I mostly fly during the day, so it’s easy to get out of practice with night flying. Recently I went out at night to refresh my memory (and skills). I started with one loop around the pattern at El Monte. After I took off, the next pilot reported a balloon near the runway threshold, so the tower asked me to look for it and suggested landing long just in case. I did as requested and did not see the balloon. After I exited the runway, they had ground personnel drive onto the runway and check it out. They couldn’t find anything either, so I was cleared to take off again.

I departed to the east, heading for the Brackett airport (KPOC). It was a smooth and uneventful flight. Flying at night in L.A. is a visual pleasure. Navigation tends to be easier, since the streets and freeways are all lit up. You can see other planes more easily, too, with their lights. Inside the cockpit, we use a red light to illuminate the instruments (which are also backlit) to maintain night vision. I was also wearing a headlamp as a backup. I like my headlamp, but it keeps giving me a headache. I think I need to upgrade to one for people with large heads. :)

At Brackett, I did several landings and takeoffs for practice. I mostly had the place to myself except for a pilot who came in and landed to get fuel. It was nice getting to focus more attention on just flying, and the controller was very friendly and accommodating (he was probably glad to have someone to interact with).

On my return to El Monte, a strange thing happened.

7:54 p.m., Me: “El Monte tower, Skyhawk 54678, 7 miles NE of the field at 2200’, inbound for landing with Juliet.”
<no response>

7:55, Me: “El Monte tower, Skyhawk 54678, 7 miles NE of the field, 2200’, inbound for landing with Juliet.”
<no response>

El Monte is a class D airport, which means you cannot enter their airspace unless they acknowledge you with a response that includes your callsign. While waiting for a response, I got this:

7:55, Tower: “Attention all aircraft. El Monte class D services will be terminating in 5 minutes.”

The El Monte tower closes at 8 p.m. At that time, the airport converts from class D (with tower services) to class G (without). When it is class G, you can enter without anyone’s acknowledgment (just by announcing yourself). But it was still 7:55, so still class D.

Me (confused, thinking maybe they mean it’s already class G since they aren’t answering me?): “El Monte traffic, this is 678, 6 miles NE of the field, north of the 210, inbound, will make a left base for 19.”

7:56, Me (realizing it must still be class D, so I can’t just enter without acknowledgment): “El Monte tower, if you’re still there, I think I do still need your approval for the next 4 minutes to enter your airspace. This is 678.”
<no response>

At this point, to avoid entering their airspace, I turned my descent into a climb and started circling outside.

7:58, Me: “El Monte tower, Skyhawk 54678, remaining clear of your airspace for 2 more minutes, just to be safe.”
<no response>

7:59, Tower: “Attention all aircraft. El Monte tower is terminating class D services. Class G airspace and noise abatement procedures are in effect. The frequency for pilot-operated lights, CTAF, and SoCal approach is 121.2 [etc.]”

8:00, Me: “El Monte traffic, Skyhawk 54678, 7 miles NE of the field, 2100′, inbound for left base for 19.”

I came in and landed. No one else was around. It was a very strange experience.

I think I made a fine decision by staying legal and remaining outside until 8 p.m. I discussed it with my instructor later and he identified some other things I could have tried:

  • Try switching to my #2 radio in case I was able to receive but not transmit, and that’s why they weren’t answering me. This is unlikely, since I had just been talking to the Brackett controller, but it would be a good troubleshooting step.
  • Try calling the El Monte ground frequency and see if they would answer there.
  • Switch to Brackett’s frequency and test my radio again with them. They could probably even call El Monte using a land line and wake them up. :)
  • Enter the airspace, assuming that I had a radio problem, and look for light signals (standard procedure if your radio fails). I don’t like this strategy, and if they still didn’t see me or respond (with the light gun), I would end up in a weird state where until 8 p.m. I wasn’t legally cleared into their airspace, but when the clock chimed 8 I could proceed as if it were untowered. This would probably have happened right about when I was on final approach. So probably I could have landed legally. But… ugh.

Ultimately, it comes down to just 5 minutes of time (7:55 to 8:00 p.m.), which seems pretty trivial. But that was the five-minute window in which I found myself, and I had to make a decision about how to proceed. Flying is full of moments like this! It wasn’t an emergency; I wasn’t in danger, and I wasn’t scared, just perplexed. I knew that if I didn’t feel comfortable or wasn’t able to land at El Monte, I could go right back to Brackett and land there. Circling not only helped me stay outside of El Monte’s airspace, but it also gave me time to think about the situation and how best to proceed.

Later I pulled up the ATC recording to see if possibly my radio had suddenly failed and that’s why they didn’t respond. Nope. You can hear all of my queries go unanswered. I typed the exchange above directly from the recording.

Well, if it ever happens again, I now have a good list of backup strategies to try!

Big data in 1981

Browsing the JPL archives, I came across this image from 1981 for the Voyager 2 mission’s encounter with Saturn. It was designed to illustrate how Voyager 2 would be sending back soooooo much data – look how many books it makes! (Click to enlarge)

Voyager 2 data
Image credit: JPL Photolab, 1981.

I love that in 1981, the artists measured data in terms of books :) Not many people had their own computers or would have understood a discussion of disks or files or bits or bytes, so this was the perfect visualization. Even today, I find it more charming and tangible than most “big data” graphics I’ve encountered.

Cassini has, rightfully, gotten a lot of press lately for its gorgeous images of Saturn, but Voyager 2 was there first and captured its own beauties, like this one:

GPS navigation in airplane mode!

Recently on a trip to Ireland, in an effort to reduce my cellular data consumption, I put my phone into airplane mode while driving across the country. Imagine my surprise when, an hour later, I checked my phone and found that it was still correctly reporting my location, and giving me directions!

I scratched my head about this for a little while. The moving map was updating my position even in airplane mode! It was also scrolling the map as I moved. So it must be the case that

  1. Google Maps downloads and caches enough information that it can continue to show you the relevant map info even if it loses a data connection to its server, and
  2. The GPS receiver in the phone continues to operate in airplane mode.

This had never occurred to me! I was able to confirm it at other times during the trip. If you try to get directions from Google Maps when in airplane mode, it doesn’t work – you can’t search the maps. But if you get the directions started, then go into airplane mode (i.e., turn off cell data), then it will correctly continue to give you directions. However, if you deviate at all, it cannot re-route you, so you have to figure that out for yourself.

I decided to test this during a recent cross-country flight. Right before a flight from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, I got driving directions from Google maps (see right; it wants me to start on Sepulveda Blvd) and then I put the phone into airplane mode.

A few minutes after takeoff from LAX, we were out over the ocean and Google Maps was still urgently telling me to get onto Sepulveda Blvd:

I checked on the directions periodically throughout the 5-hour flight.

Each time we had made some more progress, but we were so far off the (road) track that Google Maps kept saying to go back to Sepulveda Blvd and start over.

As we got close to the Philadelphia airport, we were close enough to match up with a road (briefly) and the directions made more sense.

So cool! This means that even when an airplane doesn’t bother to give you that awesome moving-map track of where the plane currently is, you can still get it, IN AIRPLANE MODE, on your phone! (But only if you got some directions first.)

First transatlantic flight

Recently I got to visit the site of the first transatlantic flight’s landing – in Ireland. The June 1919 flight was achieved by John Alcock and Arthur Brown in a biplane.

These were two interesting aviators! They were both pilots during WWI (although not together), and they were both taken prisoner (Alcock in Turkey, Brown in Germany) and then (presumably) released. Alcock approached an airplane company called Vickers to suggest that he fly their Vickers Vimy IV bomber in the race to see who would be the first to cross the Atlantic. Brown joined up later and due to his exceptional navigational skills was chosen to fly with Alcock.

The 16-hour flight itself sounds pretty harrowing. They departed Newfoundland at 1:45 p.m. They had several equipment problems including the loss of their radio, intercom, and heating. They were flying in a biplane with two open-cockpit seats! Bad weather meant Brown couldn’t use his sextant to help them steer from 5 p.m. until midnight. Happily, they still made it to Clifden, Ireland, and ended up landing next to Marconi’s transatlantic wireless station (an excellent visual landmark). Unfortunately, they thought they spotted a stretch of open ground to land on that turned out to be a bog, so when the plane landed and slowed, it sank nose-in. They escaped unhurt but the plane was damaged. Still, heroes who won the 10,000-pound prize!

From Wikipedia, this appears to be an actual photo taken after landing:

They also carried a small mailbag so they could count their flight as the first transatlantic airmail flight :)

As usual, I am awed by the courage and daring of early aviators!

The Art of Getting There

Today I had the pleasure of visiting the Pasadena Museum of History. I went to check out their exhibit on railroad-inspired art. It was delightful! Among other things, several of the pieces were inspired by the very steam locomotive that I got to operate a few weeks ago (see art at right!), as well as other engines and people from the Nevada Northern Railway.

One artist whose work I enjoyed was Bradford Salamon. The first item in the gallery is a dynamic locomotive he painted (titled “Unknown Adventures”), which sadly I cannot find online or on his website to share with you (and photos were not permitted). It was accompanied by a charming statement describing how he enjoys painting “portraits” of objects, not to reproduce the objects, but instead to trigger a memory or feeling associated with them. He paints typewriters, phones, radios, cars, … and trains. Here is one of his trains that I was able to find:

There were also several woodblock prints from Japan that were commissioned to get the public excited when trains were first introduced in Japan (~1850s). Because they were commissioned before the trains actually arrived, and none of the artists had ever seen one, they often copied from U.S. or British publications that showed steam engines… and in one case a steam fire-engine (to put fires out)!

One artist copied from a picture of a train on the Panama Railway, in which one car had “U.S. Mail” printed on it; in the Japanese version, this became “U.S. Maus” (‘maus’ happens to be ‘mouse’ in German). The gallery showed the source images that the artists had used, and you could definitely see how “Mail” could be misinterpreted as “Maus” if you did not speak English!

Here is the Panama original (but not at high enough resolution to read the relevant letters):

Now I want to ride the Panama Railway! You can – it’s a one-hour ride that costs only $25, and includes an open-air viewing deck! Time for a trip to Panama? :)

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