When thunderstorms get in your way

On July 6, I flew myself to Palm Springs. This is a short hour-long flight that takes you just outside of the L.A. basin. It turned out to be a record-breaking hot day across SoCal, so the primary things on my mind were keeping the engine cool enough to function and assessing the impact on airplane performance. Palm Springs is only 476 feet above sea level, but given the forecast high of 118 F (!), the density altitude would be above 4000′! (Here’s a handy density altitude calculator.) That means that the airplane would perform as if it were trying to land/take off from an airport at 4000′ elevation. Definitely something to factor in (faster ground speed on landing, longer landing roll, longer takeoff roll, reduced climb performance, etc.).

During preflight, I discovered that the plane’s landing light wasn’t working. I wouldn’t need it for my outbound flight, which was in the morning, but it would potentially constrain my options for a return flight. I decided to proceed and marked it INOP.

I got flight following to Palm Springs at 5500′. I was keeping a close eye on the engine cylinder head temperatures (CHTs), because it was so hot. To keep these values low enough, I had to throttle back and lower the nose, and I was only able to climb at about 150 fpm. In retrospect, I’m thinking that it might have been wiser to not take the plane out on such a hot day!

Along the way, I saw a fire burning at the Cajon Pass. SoCal ATC was busy calling traffic alerts with lots of mentions of firefighting aircraft, which were taking off from San Bernardino. They were all well north of my path.

When checking NOTAMs before my flight, I learned that PSP had changed their ATIS frequency from 118.25 to 124.65 as of May 31. Curiously, the official airport diagram (updated June 21) still had the old frequency. As I got closer, I checked both frequencies until I came through the Banning Pass and could finally pick it up – and sure enough, it was the new frequency. I was glad I’d gotten the NOTAM! Especially when I tuned in and heard that it was 46 C at PSP. I’ve never before heard an ATIS temp in the 40s!


Final approach to runway 13R at Palm Springs

Palm Springs airport was dazzlingly bright and empty. The tower gave me my choice of runways, so I took the big one, 13R (10,000′ long! Why not?). It has a 3000′ displaced threshold, so it feels like it takes a looooong time to get there on final. :) In my flight planning I’d learned that it’s a common mistake to think that the second dark strip to the left is runway 13L. It’s not! It’s a taxiway. I’m glad to learn from others’ tips this way.

I had a nice landing and then was told to “roll out” to taxiway B at the other end, which also took a long time. In this case, landing long (to end up closer to the exit) seemed like a bad idea since if I needed a go-around, I would want all the runway I could get. I parked and got to enjoy a very nice FBO experience. I even got to cool off with a post-flight swim! First time I’ve visited an FBO with a pool!

For my return flight, things got a little more interesting. I had planned to fly back on the afternoon of July 7. Waiting until the evening would be better, when it would be cooler, but since the landing light was INOP, I had to get back before sunset. On the morning of July 7, I found that thunderstorms were forecast for the afternoon. There was also a big TFR over San Gorgonio, where another fire had started burning. This was also (just) north of my intended route, but it could mean worse visibility due to smoke.

By midafternoon, the METARs were getting hairy, with TS (thunderstorms), LTG (lightning), CB (cumulonimbus), and TCU (towering cumulonimbus). From what I could deduce, a thunderstorm with lightning was raining on Ontario (just north of my path) and cumulonimbus clouds were squatting over March (just south of my path), likely with associated turbulence and up/down drafts that can extend 20-30 miles out, exactly where I would be flying.

These conditions were a clear “do not fly” signal. So I decided to stay an extra night and fly home in the morning, when it would not only be cooler but also be before any afternoon atmospheric drama would develop. Even when rationally you can clearly see that the right decision is to cancel, it still takes (maybe always will take) an effort! But as a bonus, I got to spend more time visiting family, seeing The Incredibles 2, and having a lovely dinner.

The next morning, it was “only” 99 F when I took off. I was assigned runway 13L this time (the short one), which I determined was still long enough (4952′) for my needs. I expected to depart left traffic, but curiously I was told to make right traffic. It felt weird to turn and keep climbing over the departure end of 13R, but I assume there must have been some traffic east of the airport they wanted me to avoid. As I climbed, another plane called in complaining that they couldn’t get the ATIS, and the tower told them about the month-old frequency change. Now I’m wondering if this is a test to see who is actually reading NOTAMs?

The tower asked me to follow highway 111, which leads northwest away from PSP, at or below 3000′. He seemed happy that I knew where this highway was and could comply. Eventually he handed me over to SoCal and thanked me for my “help” (I still don’t know what he was having me avoid, but happy that he seemed happy). I came back through the Banning Pass, slowly climbing to 4500′, and then SoCal asked me to divert north around Ontario’s airspace. I had planned to go south via PDZ, but okay, I obligingly turned north and spent some time fiddling with the GPS to change my flight plan. In retrospect, I think I could have just communicated that I was heading to PDZ and that might have been fine – they probably just wanted to keep me out of the busy part of ONT’s space. But this way I got to fly over the San Bernardino airport (see left).

The rest of the flight was uneventful and I was home in time to quickly pack for a work trip to Sweden the next day!

How to check your mail before you check your mail

Recently I discovered a new service offered by the Post Office called Informed Delivery. Once you sign up, the Post Office sends you a daily email around 8 a.m. that contains a PICTURE of each piece of mail that they plan to deliver to you later that day. It’s like getting to peek inside your mailbox from afar… no, it’s like peeking into the FUTURE of your mailbox, from afar!

My understanding is that this service came about because the Post Office already scans each piece of item for routing, so why not share the pictures with the recipients.

Why not indeed? I immediately had to wonder who would request this service. Maybe it’s for folks who suspect that mail is being stolen out of their mailboxes? Or just for those of us with an impatient streak?

Well, having signed up myself, I can now report on my experience. First there’s the signup process. Wow, that was onerous! In theory, you can verify your identity online. In practice, I apparently failed at least one security question (these are like the ones you have to answer to get a credit report, not questions you selected yourself) and then had to wait 72 hours (that’s three days) to try again.

On my next try, I failed again.

For those of us unable to authenticate online, you can do it in person at a participating post office. It’s not enough to show up with id; you also need a QR code that they email to you but mysteriously won’t display in my iPhone mail reader. (The message helpfully suggests that if the code won’t display, print it out instead.) Fortunately, doing a “save all images” from the message meant that the QR code plus 6 other doodads ended up in my Photos and I was able to get properly scanned and verified.

Now I get a mailbox email every morning! It’s great fun. And yet… it also takes a bit of the fun out of the evening ritual of opening the mailbox, not knowing what you’ll find. It remains to be seen whether I’ll continue the service or revert back to surprise mode. :)

Preparing for alternates pays off!

In June, I flew up the coast with my friend Sarah Elizabeth to visit the tiny Oceano (L52) airport, which is close to the ocean and also has good lunch options nearby. At that time, we were getting a lot of morning marine layer clouds over the coast, and after assessing the weather, I decided to fly an inland route to avoid the clouds (KEMT -> KIMMO -> GMN -> FLW -> L52). You can see my planned route, and the magenta polygon surrounding the coastal “airmet sierra” (cloudy) area, at right. Conditions were looking good after 11 a.m. for San Luis Obispo (KSBP) and Santa Maria (KSMX), which are directly to the north and south of L52 (which doesn’t have its own weather station). We took our time getting the plane ready to allow more time for the clouds to burn off and departed around 11:30 a.m.


[Picture by Sarah Elizabeth]

The inland route went very well. The airplane’s climb was lethargic because I was trying to keep cylinder head temperatures below 400F. It took 20 minutes to reach cruise altitude (8500′). However, it was smooth sunny sailing after that. In fact, it was clear the whole way until the very end.

As we got close to L52 at about 1 p.m., I could see a layer of clouds. That was vexing, since neighboring SBP and SMX were still reporting clear skies! A little bit of cloud was hanging RIGHT OVER the runway I wanted. Still, there was some hope. If the clouds were at least 2000′ above the ground, I could come in and land safely under them. So I kept descending in the clear area to the north of the cloud. Lower and lower… I got down to 1500′ and the clouds were STILL well below (and to the south of) us, so no go. I couldn’t believe it! We were just over a mile north of the runway, with clear skies, but the runway couldn’t be reached!


Clear to the right and beneath us, clouds to the left (where the runway is).
[Picture by Sarah Elizabeth]

I powered up and climbed over the ocean to about 2000′, circling. I was very glad that I had alternate plans all ready to go. I had the runway diagrams for both SBP and SMX at hand. I decided to divert to SBP (San Luis Obispo), and Sarah Elizabeth and I smoothly and calmly handled the diversion (she was handling comms the whole flight). Diversions can be stressful because you quickly have to change your plans, navigation, radio frequencies, etc., all while maintaining good control of the airplane, watching for traffic, etc. But this one felt like a piece of cake because we had everything we needed ready to go. Having a co-pilot is a huge help, too!


Beautiful coastline!
[Picture by Sarah Elizabeth]

After we landed at SBP, we found a very friendly FBO (Nice bathroom! Free ice cream! No landing fees!) and had a very tasty lunch at the Spirit of San Luis (ha!) restaurant. This flight also tipped me over 200 hours of flying experience! :)

Here is my path, starting at EMT in the southeast and heading up to SBP in the northwest. You can see the kink where we tried to land at L52 but then had to divert to SBP.

But look how close we got! L52 is the little white line just south of our track:

After lunch, we headed back with Sarah Elizabeth piloting and me handling comms. She did a nice loop around the KSBP pattern, and then we headed south. By this time, the clouds had cleared away from L52, so she got to land there! It’s a tiny little runway (2325′ long) and quite narrow (see picture at right).

As we taxied back to take off again, a huge heron flapped its way across in front of us. Wow! We flew south along the coast (since the clouds were more favorable) and got to see Santa Barbara, and then as we approached L.A., we saw a lot of cloud over the ocean that almost duplicated the coastline, which was cool. Then clear skies all the way inland to our home base at KEMT.

Time flies when you’re not learning

This short Scientific American article tackles something that’s been on my mind of late:

Why does time seem to speed up with age?

I regularly look back and feel that another year has zoomed by, yet at the same time I can remember stretches of time as a teenager that seemed to go on much much longer. Why is that?

This article posits that

“… our retrospective judgment of time is based on how many new memories we create over a certain period.”

I doubt that it’s something like a numerical counter (“5 new memories over the last hour… check.”). But I could believe that it’s a function of the compressibility of experience. I imagine that repetitive experiences are highly compressible, which is why I can’t individually remember brushing my teeth every day for the last month. But new memories would by construction not be compressible: they represent new information that your brain has opted to preserve at higher fidelity (maybe because they are useful, or surprising, or trauma-inducing).

New memories also capture moments of learning. So those long stretches that bunch up into a sense of time that’s been skipped over… do they also represent periods of non-learning? The horror! Or even worse – learning that has since been forgotten? Well, maybe not; memories aren’t always well anchored in time, so you might retain the information but have forgotten when you learned it. Whew!

How to make chocolate

While in Guatemala, I took a class called the Bean to Bar workshop at the ChocoMuseo in Antigua. This two-hour delight really did go from how cacao grows – to how beans are extracted from the pods, dried, and roasted – to how the cacao nibs are removed, crushed, ground, mixed with other things, and aerated – to make what we call chocolate.

We learned that the ground cacao paste does not become “chocolate” until it is mixed with some sugar. So 100% dark chocolate doesn’t exist; it is 100% cacao :) (and nearly inedible, even for chocolate lovers!)

Quite possibly the most challenging step was when we each took a turn stirring and roasting the beans, which was when our friendly host asked each of us to tell us something about ourselves (in Spanish!). He got really excited about my job at JPL and wanted to know if we’d found life beyond the Earth :)


We roasted cacao beans, then split them open to get the nibs out.

Grinding was a frenzy accompanied by a group chant: “Choco, choco, la-la! Choco, choco, te-te! Choco-la, choco-te, choco-la-te!” Aerating the mixed chocolate by pouring it back and forth between two pottery carafes was also tricky to do without spilling!

We made two kinds of hot chocolate (drink): Mayan (cacao, water, chili, honey, and BLOOD) and European (cacao, milk, sugar, no blood). We used spices instead of blood :) and most agreed that the Mayan was more tasty than the European.

Next, we poured chocolate (I chose 70% dark) into individual molds and added flavorings as desired – I went for cinnamon, mint, cashews, ginger, orange slices; others chose cayenne, salt, gummy bears (?!), and other options I’ve forgotten. Mine turned out tasty, but SUPER intense, and sort of crumbly, possibly due to its dark level and lack of wax/gum/binders/whatever they put in store-bought chocolate.

We also made chocolate tea. It turns out that you can steep the cacao bean shells (from which the nibs were removed) in hot water and make a tea that tastes like a cross between coffee and tea :) I brought home some of this “tea” with a cinnamon flavor. Yum!

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