Flying by instruments and circling in the sky

I’ve begun training for my instrument rating as an airplane pilot, and it is SO FUN! I’ve been flying since 2014, and those skills are an important base to start from, but in some cases it’s like learning to fly all over again. An instrument rating qualifies you to legally fly through the clouds even when you can’t see outside your airplane. If you stay current and sharp with your instrument and aircraft control skills, you can do it not only legally but also safely. :)

My first instrument flying lesson was fantastic. We started with an introduction on how to file an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) flight plan and to obtain a “clearance” from air traffic control that enables you to fly that plan. We filed the flight plan by phone (good practice since I usually file my VFR (Visual Flight Rules) flight plans online). The plan was simple: depart CVO (Corvallis airport) using the SHEDD4 departure procedure to the SHEDD intersection, then return to CVO (via an approach to runway 17 which means going north first).

Aviation map of flight

Aviation map showing route from CVO (lower left) to SHEDD (right) to INNOP (top) and back

We taxied to the runup area and requested our clearance to depart. They gave a clearance, “void in 5 [minutes]” and as I acknowledged it, they amended it to “void in 2” so we expeditiously turned to the runway and took off. The whole flight was done on a sunny clear day, to gain experience with the procedures and develop spatial awareness while I can still see outside the plane. Next time, we’ll do it with blinders on!

The SHEDD4 departure procedure has you take off and do a climbing left turn to intercept the 081 radial (a bit north of due east) from the CVO VOR (a radio beacon). You follow this radial out to the pre-defined SHEDD intersection and “hold” there. SHEDD is an invisible point in space defined by the intersection of specific radials from two VORs (in this case, CVO and Eugene (EUG)).

I had little idea how to fly a “hold” (oval in space, anchored by SHEDD), but in addition to instruments that receive the VOR signals, we also have a GPS receiver, and it knows about SHEDD and how to fly a hold. In this case, coming in on 081 to a hold defined on the 360 radial from EUG, we executed a parallel entry. This may sound pretty jargony, but it’s not that complicated. We basically followed path #2 in this diagram (if you assume north is down here):

Initially the hardest part for me was that the air traffic controller kept telling us about other airplanes to watch out for, and I was trying to look for them and manage the instruments and plane all at once. Fortunately, my instructor took over watching for traffic and encouraged me to focus entirely on the instruments (which normally is a no-no in regular VFR flight!).

We flew around this oval (often called a “racetrack” but you’re the only one in the race) a few times and it was great fun. You’re aiming for precise turns and precise headings, while maintaining your altitude and airspeed. As you get better at this, apparently a hold can actually be a break during which you can plan your next activities (if you need some planning time).

We then flew out to do an instrument approach to the Corvallis airport, which is entirely different from how I approach in visual conditions. We went to another intersection (INNOP), flew a “procedure turn” to get lined up, and then flew an RNAV/GPS approach to runway 17. This kind of approach gives you vertical and horizontal guidance in the form of little white needles that form a centered cross when you are descending correctly in the right direction. If you drift left, right, up, or down, one of the needles also moves and gives you visual feedback on how to correct it. We got down close to the airport and then landed normally.

What a fun beginning! It feels like I am peeling back a layer of reality to see under the surface to a whole new world of instrument procedures. It reminds me of the feeling when I discovered geocaching (there are secret treasures everywhere!), or even when I started flying airplanes and realized there were little airports all over the place (the L.A. basin has 25+) and also pathways and patterns in the sky. All of this activity and organization going on, and it’s invisible until you start looking and learning about it. More, please!

NOTAMs are now Notices to Air Missions

I recently discovered that the FAA term “NOTAM” (the acronym for Notice to Airmen) changed to stand for Notice to Air Missions in December of 2021. NOTAMs are useful information prior to conducting any flight; they can warn you of closed runways, firefighting activity, aerobatic activity, equipment that is out of service, and more. I always find it kind of amusing (and archaic) to be referred to as an “airman”, and it’s great to see that the FAA is catching up with the fact that not all of us are men. The first female pilot to receive a license in the U.S. was Harriet Quimby in 1911… 110 years before this change. As of 2021, there were 64,979 female U.S. pilots, of 720,605 total (9% female).

NOTAMs are useful, but regrettably cryptic in their language (e.g., “WI” means “within” and “U/S” means “unserviceable”). Recently I planned a flight with a friend to the Salem airport for lunch. Included in the NOTAMs for Salem that day was:

AD AP ARFF INDEX A NOT AVBL AND AP CLSD TO AIR CARRIER OPS

I did some googling and searching to finally figure out that this meant that certain firefighting equipment was not available, so “air carrier” operations were not permitted (but general aviation, my kind of flying, was). This was puzzling because Salem doesn’t have any air carrier (commercial) operations. Because flying to an airport that is closed is generally a bad idea (not to mention embarrassing), I called the Salem airport manager to be sure I understood the NOTAM. He confirmed that I could still fly in, and mentioned that they are required by the FAA to post this NOTAM even though they have no commercial service. In this case the (irrelevant?) warning just led to a lot of extra questions and effort – but maybe it is useful if an airline flight has an emergency and is trying to decide where to land? I dunno. It also occurred to me that even as the pilot of a small Cessna, I too might want to have firefighting capability present if I needed it… :) However, my flight was uneventful and the lunch was fun!

Now that they’ve updated NOTAM, perhaps they’ll find a way to update terminology for the pilot’s license (actually a certificate) itself. I likewise find it amusing and quaint that I hold an Airman’s certificate to fly a plane.

Wasps carry grass… and other things

While cleaning my windows today, I removed the screens and made an unpleasant discovery. Some insect had wedged bits of material into little nests around the edges of two window screens. I brushed it off, noticing that each nest looked like brown dried grass with a bright green squishy center. Then I looked more closely at what plopped onto the ground. The bright green bits looked like baby grasshoppers. Were they grasshopper nests? (In the windows?!)

Then a wasp flew up… carrying one of the bright green grasshopper like things, which was a bit larger than it was! It flew to where the screen had been and kept bumping along the window frame looking for the nesting site (presumably). Was it food? What? This is exactly what it looked like:

Some googling brought me to this description of the grass-carrying wasp, an insect I’d never heard of. Apparently they bite off bits of grass to wedge them in “cavities.” They then hunt for tree crickets. When they find a cricket, they sting it, paralyze it, and carry it off to sequester in a grass-lined nest, then lay an egg on it. When the egg hatches, the larva can immediately start eating the cricket. I was nauseated by the description, yet simultaneously felt bad at having cleaned out all the nests, after reading the very sympathetic description of this “beneficial wasp” at the above link. (Apparently ridding the trees of crickets that feast on them is good, and the wasps are also pollinators and not aggressive.)

Still, I don’t really want them in my windows! And I think my forest offers many other hollow woody crevices for the wasps to populate. To me the most salient part of their behavior is the cricket-hunting, paralysis, and egg-laying, but I guess the grass nesting is kind of interesting too (it’s not just for the birds!). I hope they enjoy feasting on the local tree crickets!

Why it’s called ascorbic acid

Recently I came across this fascinating discussion of the mystery that scurvy posed: a painful and ultimately fatal disease for which the cause was unknown. Was it caused by bacteria? Something in food? Food preservation processes? Overwork? It was a major issue for sailors in the British Royal Navy, including Captain Scott:

Scott and Scurvy

But what makes this an especially captivating story is not how the cause was found, but instead how it was subsequently LOST, impacting many people’s lives for the worse, before being rediscovered. Go read the link above to find out more!

While reading it myself, I came across the word “antiscorbutic” to describe a property of lemons – that they could help prevent scurvy. Anti-scorbutic. Theories even developed that some foods could be “scorbutic” – actively causing scurvy.

And in the end when vitamin C was isolated and demonstrated to conclusively eradicate scurvy (which we now conceive of rather circularly as a lack of vitamin C), it now makes perfect sense that it should also go by the name ascorbic acid: an acid that prevents scurvy. Nice!

Also of interest: the reason we suffer when we don’t ingest enough vitamin C is that our bodies can’t produce it internally but it’s needed for a variety of life maintenance procedures. It turns out that humans are in the minority on this: most animals can manufacture their own vitamin C. We, and guinea pigs and bats and a few others, cannot.

Modern day logging sports

Today I got to observe a Logging Sports Competition hosted by the Oregon State University Forestry Club. I had noticed the logging sports arena at Peavy Arboretum during a hike there and was eager to come back and see it in action!

The first event was buck sawing, in which each contestant had to push and pull a “peg and raker cross-cut saw” to slice through a log. Some make it look easy, and others showed how hard it was! Both of these folks were aces:

Next was the “choker race”, in which contestants had to carry a choker (a flexible cable apparently used for hauling large logs) with them through an obstacle course. They had to scramble/leap over a massive downed log (6′ in diameter), then find and unhook their choker from another 4′ log, then climb over a pile of 3 logs, then jump over a low beam, then trace their way back and reattach the choker around the 4′ diameter log.

Then teams competed in the pulp toss, where they alternated throwing logs back and forth (as with horseshoes, but so much heavier). The teams each had one lumberjack and one lumberjill :)

Next was a chainsaw event (with chaps, safety goggles, and earplugs, but no gloves (?)). And then was the horizontal chopping event, wow! The precision and efficacy of these axe blows were very impressive. Yes, they are chopping right between their feet.

Amusingly, I recently watched an episode of Little House on the Prairie (“Founder’s Day”, 1975) in which they had the same wood-chopping competition!

The final event I watched was the axe throw – I’m amazed that this is even possible, to hurl an axe end-over-end and have it stick into a wood target 20 feet away.

Overall I was impressed by the difficulty of these challenges and the skills displayed. I wish I could have seen birling (log rolling) too!

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