Fighting fire from the air

In late June, a forest fire came within a mile of my house. I stood outside transfixed, watching the firefighting planes dive and drop red fire retardant in a scarlet line on the hillside to keep the fire from reaching us. Truly awe-inspiring!

I’m now preparing to interview one of those pilots, for a course project. California’s state firefighting organization is CalFire, which employs helicopter pilots year-round and airplane pilots seasonally. CalFire has 23 Grumman S-2T airtankers that drop the fire retardant, and two of them are based nearby at the Hemet-Ryan Air Attack Base. You can browse California’s most recent fires.

This is not an easy job, and the qualifications are steep – 1500 hours of flying experience, 1200 of which as pilot in command. To pilot an airtanker, you must also have commercial, multi-engine, and instrument ratings. You have to be willing to fly low and slow, in steep terrain, with powerful winds and in the heat. Any one of those is a risk factor, and combining them all together makes for some of the most challenging flying out there.

Aerobatic pilot superstar Patty Wagstaff has also joined CalFire: she doesn’t fly the large airtankers but instead flies smaller tactical aircraft, in which she helps the flight supervisor monitor the fire and coordinate its response. Talk about precision ground reference maneuvers!

But the job is risky (pilots die), and the planes are expensive, and there is some debate about whether they are a cost-effective way to fight fires. Yet by now the public expects to see them out there on the front lines, and I can attest that it was very cheering to see them keeping that fire away from my home. (It is impossible to see all of the ground firefighters from the same distance, sadly!)

I’m very much looking forward to talking to one of these pilots in person! So many questions to ask. :)

Dipthongs in Spanish

I’m going through an interesting course on Spanish phonetics with the goal of improving my pronunciation. The course started out by going through the alphabet with pretty basic stuff, but now it’s getting more interesting and challenging. In lesson 5 we tackled dipthongs (los diptongos), which are two vowels that are blended into a single sound.

We have a lot of these in English, but as native speakers we don’t really notice them until they’re called out. An example is “ay” in “ray” – it’s really two vowels (“eh” and “ee”) that are blended together. (Here are more English dipthong examples, aimed at Russians learning English!).

Spanish identifies quite a lot of them, and these helped me finally understand some details I’d noticed but couldn’t figure out before. For example, “día” (day) is only one syllable, but I kept wanting to pronounce it as two (“dí-a”). Instead, it’s “dyah”, one syllable. And in general Spanish seems to default to stressing the second-to-last syllable, with an accent employed to override this; the dipthong concept now explains why “comedia” (which is stressed on the second syllable) doesn’t need an accent on the e: “dia” is (again) one syllable, not two!

This contrasts with the hiatus, which is when two adjacent vowels are pronounced separately (and in separate syllables). An example in English is, in fact, the the “ia” in “hiatus” :). In Spanish, words like “caer” (to fall) and “leer” (to read) have hiatuses.

Next up are lessons on where the stresses are placed in Spanish words!

Hand signs that convey sound

Sign language is a way to communicate with symbols: each gesture has a particular meaning.

But don’t be misled by these simple examples; sign language isn’t simply a signed form of English. Its grammar and usage are quite different. People who grow up Deaf and learn, say, American Sign Language (ASL) as their first language must learn English as a second language.

One strategy to help bridge this gap is “cued speech”, in which the speaker communicates with both voice and signs simultaneously, but the signs are used to convey sound (phonemes), not meaning. As Wikipedia says, “It adds information about the phonology of the word that is not visible on the lips” and can therefore help improve lip reading skills as well (a similar mouth shape could make more than one sound, like “b” and “p”, so the listener can distinguish “bear” and “pear”).

Here’s a short video:

This got me thinking about the ways that we communicate in writing. For example, in Japanese, kanji is a symbolic language like ASL (characters indicate meaning). Hiragana and katakana are phonetic (spelled the way they sound). It can be difficult to remember how to pronounce all of the kanji, even for native speakers (and younger folk may not have encountered a particular kanji yet). So it is common (e.g., in newspapers) to annotate a kanji with its pronunciation using tiny hiragana letters above it (called furigana), to help you pronounce it. Rather like cued speech, but for text!

From this perspective, an alphabet is a curious thing. It’s not (quite) phonetic (at least in English), and it’s not symbolic; letters have no independent meaning. Yet it is very versatile, and just 26 letters suffice to allow us to represent all of English. Learning correct pronunciations for otherwise identical spellings, however (words ending in “ough” such as through, tough, though, etc. being the canonical example), is left up to the reader.

Flying to Oceano, by the beach

Today I flew to a little airport north of Los Angeles that is right by the beach – Oceano County airport (L52). There was some uncertainty in the morning as to whether the weather would be suitable; the marine layer was hanging out along the coast, and at 7:30 a.m. I got this alert for Airmet Sierra (IFR and mountain obscuration — basically means CLOUDS and “VFR not recommended”).

Airmet Sierra

However, I waited until the updated TAFs (Terminal Area Forecasts) came out at 10 a.m., and they were favorable – the clouds had dissipated at many locations along the route and were expected to continue to improve. I took off from El Monte and flew to Santa Monica, where I picked up Manuel. We then took off for Oceano, with me piloting and Manuel handling comm. For this takeoff, I got a “line up and wait” instruction for the first time! I rolled onto the runway and readied myself to stop and sit there, but then the controller cleared me for takeoff before I’d quite stopped so I went full throttle and took off.

We’d planned to get flight following to Oceano at an altitude of 6500′. However, when we made that request, the SoCal controller was too busy and told us to try back later. He then started chewing out some unfortunate pilot who was flying IFR but apparently wasn’t adhering to her assigned altitude and/or heading. Another VFR pilot called in with a flight following request and was also denied. Eventually we switched to another frequency and got someone who was less busy. Having ADS-B in the cockpit (which plots nearby planes on the GPS display) is great as a source of additional information, especially when the controllers are too busy!

Here is a shot of the beautiful coastline as we headed northwest:


It took us an hour and 20 minutes from SMO to Oceano. It was smooth and uneventful. Near the end of the flight, we went right over the Santa Maria (SMX) airport, which was one of the stops on my long solo cross-country flight as a student pilot last year. It was fun to be going a bit further and to a new destination!

Oceano is a tiny airport, with a runway that is only 2300 feet long. That is plenty of space to land a Cessna 172, but it’s also important to be ready to go around if anything delays the landing. The most likely runway in use (given the weather reported at the nearest stations) was runway 29. We were coming from the southeast, which set us up almost perfectly for a straight-in approach. But for an untowered airport, it’s better to approach with a regular downwind entry so you have more time to scout out the runway (and any traffic). So I swung to the west and came up along the beach, then entered downwind for 29 on the 45. No one else was there. I treated it like a short field landing and came in steeply with full flaps. I didn’t land right at the start of the runway; I think I’ve gotten so used to El Monte’s displaced threshold that I feel uncomfortable aiming for the dirt before the runway. But of course, the plane always floats and it’s probably perfectly fine to do so. Still, I had plenty of runway; I didn’t even use up half of it. It wasn’t my best landing as the plane was swinging a little left and right (wind, I assume) and I touched down not quite aligned. I think I should have added power to delay touching until we were fully straight. But this was minor and the landing was safe and controlled.

Here’s the view on final approach to runway 29!

Oceano runway 29

We parked and decided to go get some lunch. This biplane was running its engine nearby (coughing and sputtering, poor thing). Someday it would be fun to go for a ride in an open cockpit! The airport also has bikes you can borrow to get around and a campsite!


We walked 3 blocks to the Rock & Roll diner, which is converted from two old train cars! It is charming and fun. :) It serves diner fare, BBQ ribs, Greek food (?), and Mexican food.

Rock n roll diner

We returned to the airport, added fuel to the plane, and then got ready to leave. The clouds were rolling back in. Vandenberg airport was reporting IFR conditions, although Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo (our closest weather-reporting airports) were still clear. We watched the noisy biplane take off, and I think he may have had a paying customer, because he was dipping his wings in crazy maneuvers before even clearing the runway! I’m not sure I want to go flying with him!

Manuel was the pilot for our return to SMO, with me on comm. That meant I had more opportunities to enjoy the view. I took pictures of all of the airports we flew over and also a nice shot of clouds off to the side and below:


For most of our flight, though, it was clear skies. Manuel took us on a more coastal route than I had used on the outbound trip. Here is Point Dume:

Point Dume

As we approached SMO, we observed that there were some clouds in that area. We kept a careful eye on them and decided it was acceptable for a VFR approach. Manuel made a very nice landing on runway 21! He hopped out and I started back up to return to EMT before the clouds thickened. 25 minutes later, I was back at El Monte! What a great flying day!

Learning kanji with modern tools

One of the challenges that Japanese presents to the aspiring language learner is that it employs three writing systems that you really must learn. Hiragana and katakana are syllabaries in which each symbol stands for a sound. That is, they are phonetic representations of spoken words, and there aren’t that many of them to memorize – less than 50, plus some diacritical marks that modify the sounds to create additional variants.

Kanji is different. Kanji are logographic characters that were borrowed from the Chinese. “Logographic” means that each character represents an entire word or phrase. There is no longer an obvious connection between words and their pronunciation, so you must instead memorize the sound that goes with the symbol, as well as its meaning. Since there are far more words than there are syllables, there are thousands of kanji to learn. Intimidating!

Today, however, we have great technological assistance for memorizing things. Spaced Repetition Systems (SRS) have become popular for learning not just languages but also subject-specific terminology in your native language. For kanji, we have wanikani. It teaches you kanji in little doses, then tracks how long it’s been since you were tested on each one and periodically quizzes you to keep your memories fresh. Anything you get wrong comes back more often, enabling you to focus memorization effort where it’s most needed.

So far, after a few weeks of daily practice, I’ve learned 60 “radicals” (common kanji building blocks), 45 kanji, and 83 vocabulary words that use those kanji. I have several more under active practice and repetition. It’s fun!

Another great tool for reinforcing your kanji is the wanikanify Chrome browser extension. Once you enter your wanikani API key, this extension converts any text in a webpage using what kanji you have already learned. Here’s an example from


You can see that the English text was literally translated into kanji whether or not it makes sense in context. 本 means “book” as in the object that you read, not to “book” a hotel. However, just seeing the reminder of what “book” is helps! And if you mouse over the kanji, a voice speaks the kanji out loud! (Here, “hon”.) It also displays the original English text that was replaced, in case you don’t remember (or the context is so odd that it doesn’t make sense).

As you learn more kanji, more of the page will be replaced with vocabulary you should be able to decode. Effectively, you are reading English in kanji, which is how kanji came about in the first place – the Japanese mapped their oral language into the Chinese characters. To actually learn Japanese, you must also be diligent about learning the pronunciation (which wanikani also quizzes you on). These tools combined make for great practice and great entertainment!

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