Tuesday, December 30, 2014


With 19 or 20 contiguous days off of work (as a result of not using all of my vacation time throughout the year), you would think that I'd get some flying done, but as it turned out, not so much.

Weather mostly, but also a degree of lassitude that I chalk up to the aptly acronymized Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

Luckily, it's not hard to fill the time stuck in the house as I have plenty of time-wasters readily available. I have auto racing sims, combat flight sims, a Kindle for reading, and I recently picked up a drawing tablet for my computer. The latter isn't really a toy - I bought it for use with shared whiteboards to help me describe things to remote co-workers over the internet - but there's no rule against using it so see if I can teach myself to draw.

Drawing is one of those things that I wish I could be good at, but simply don't have the innate skills that would allow for it to happen naturally. "Maybe with enough practice..." I thought.

Well. Maybe not, although as I learned how to use different software applications as I was working with it, I accidentally built up the skills that would allow me to customize the car paint used in one of my racing sims. I added my name and some sponsorship to this Lotus 48 Formula 1 car:

While I was at it, I painted up a Mazda 787 Lemans racer with Schmetterling sponsorship:

As far as the flight sims, well, here are a couple of YouTube movies that I recorded. This one is an attempt at formation flight in an F-86:

This one is an air to ground attack in an FW-190D:

Like I said: time wasters. I did do one productive, non-computer thing, though. With gas in my local area selling for $1.77 a gallon, I decided that it was time to bite the bullet and build myself a fueling rig to make it easier to use the cheap gas that the Rotax engine prefers over the expensive av gas (close to $6 a gallon!) I've been using. With a differential like that, the money spent on the fuel rig will be easily recouped.

In any event, a good weather forecast broke through my winter ennui today and convinced me that I would benefit from a flight down to the Ohio River to have lunch. I would normally meet Kyle somewhere, but his plane is currently broken - his oil pressure sender died as, it turns out, is quite typical in installations such as that done by Rotax where the vibration sensitive sensor is mounted directly onto a big, vibrating engine.

The senders aren't particularly cheap, so relocation solutions have popped up in the aftermarket that move the sensor to a safer location, such as the firewall. Kyle will be installing one of those in addition to replacing his broken sensor. I figure I should go ahead and do that too, before my sensor inevitably falls victim to its location in a rough neighborhood, but haven't yet worked up the requisite motivation.

The trip had a somewhat ignominious beginning when I had to recycle the Dynon to get the ADSB module to boot up. That seems to happen when it has been sitting in a deeply cold hangar. I then needed to use the spar pin override button to start the engine - those spar pin sensors are also somewhat finicky when it's very cold. Then the engine ran very, very rough for awhile, but that was rectified when I realized that I hadn't turned of the engine choke.

Electronics aren't the only things that work sub-par in the cold.

With everything finally up and running, I taxied down to the departure end of runway 4, where I did my engine run-up. That all went fine, but.... I had this nagging feeling that the canopy was vibrating a bit more than it should.

It wasn't latched.

That was enough to just stop and give my rusty flying brain a chance to catch up. A 2nd run through the pre-takeoff ritual showed everything else to be configured correctly, so off we went.

Just outside of the Bolton Class D airspace, the ADSB traffic reporting system picked up a plane on an oblique collision course with us, albeit a couple of hundred feet lower than our 3,500', Normally that's not an issue, but this one had a very long yellow arrow pointing in it's direction of travel, which indicated that it was moving fast. Sure enough, I could see it visually four or five miles away, which acted as an indication that it was big too, not just fast.  Probably an airliner, I figured, and under ATC control. Surely they would vector it around us....

They didn't. I didn't think a 400' altitude differential was nearly enough, so I yanked us into a steep climb. It ended up being a Boeing 737, as I could clearly see as it passed underneath us. It was very odd to see a plane like that at such a low altitude outside of the Port Columbus Class C airspace, but the reason became clear as we saw him make a wide right turn to land at Rickenbacker, a former military airbase now used for cargo hauling flights.

The air was smooth and we had a nice tailwind, so everything was going fine, right up until we got the hills down south. These are the very same hills I was over a few months ago when I made a prudent turn back to Bolton when the engine started running rough. There must be a jinx - we were five or six miles into the hills when I noticed the oil pressure dropping.

Within a minute it was showing 0 PSI.

My first thought was that I should have gotten that sensor relocation done, but my nearly immediate second thought was that just because the problem was almost certainly with the sensor, that doesn't mean it couldn't be something far worse, and flying over inhospitable terrain with an open question like that would be anything but prudent.

We turned back.

The first goal was to get back to the flat, empty farm fields. From there we would have a lot more options. I also set the GPS to take us in the direction of Circleville, where I knew I could land if the engine truly had a problem. Once there, if everything was still running smoothly and in the green, it's just another short hop back to Bolton.

That's what we ended up doing, but even with a near certainty that the engine was perfectly healthy, it was still somewhat uncomfortable.

Coming back into Bolton, I had to steepen my approach descent as another big plane, this one a C-130 Hercules, seemed hellbent on going right through us rather than around us. We went under him at a 400' differential.

All in all, it was one my more eventful flights to nowhere.

An oil pressure sender and a relocation kit are both on order, and I'm back to flight sims.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Coal Country

Ever on the lookout for the occasional confluence of flyable weather and a new and interesting place to visit coinciding with Myday, I was intrigued by a destination suggestion proffered by Kyle, Master Harmonica Tuner for The Jackson Two. The most common form of 'Interesting Place' is an airport with an on-premise restaurant, and while Kyle had been to Big Sandy before, I had not. So, it was "new to me," as used car buyers are wont to say.

Big Sandy is in Kentucky, which is really the only explanation you need to understand why I haven't been there. It's an odd quirk in my decades of flying that I tend to fly to the north or to the west, with an occasional exception being made for specific destinations. I suppose the 'west' aspect could be explained by the presence of controlled airspace that I have to go around if I'm headed east, but that would be considered a somewhat silly consideration if I had to testify to it in court. At 130+ mph, that simply isn't much of an impediment. A facile argument like that would quite fairly warrant an accusation of Grubering. In any event, the southern regions remain more or less virgin territory for me, while Kyle, who lives in the southern part of Ohio, has for more experience with that region.

Big Sandy is also pretty far away. And, well, gas is kind of spendy. At least the kind of gas that I'm fueling the plane with - it's somewhat frustrating to be spend almost $6 a gallon for gas that the Rotax actively dislikes while the fuel that it does like is going for less than half of that. Besides which, it's somewhat silly and wasteful for us to both fly to the same place when his airport is almost directly on the path I would follow if I was flying direct to Big Sandy. The solution was simple: I would fly south as far as Kyle's airport and we would both fly down to Kentucky in his plane. That would give him a chance to fly too, and he would be doing it for $2.67 a gallon.


And so it was that I arrived at the airport presumably dressed adequately for the conditions, but a temperature of 27F and a 9 knot wind combine their efforts in pursuit of finding any little area of skin that may have been left exposed. In this case, it was my ears. It's funny that it takes awhile to re-learn how to dress for wintry weather, each and every year. The Rotax doesn't seem to care one way or the other, especially when its oil is kept at a balmy 150F by the electric preheater. Oddly enough, the new ADSB box did object - it did not come online with the rest of the electronic gadgetry.This being a very new experience, I was at something of a loss as to what to do about it. Leaning heavily on my 35 years of experience with computers, I resolved that the simplest and more often than not most effective rectifying action would be the classic "turn it off and back on again" gambit.

It worked.

The tower was reporting a crystalline pool of air (he said sarcastically) allowing for a mind-boggling seven miles of visibility. That sounds like plenty to people that measure visibility as being able to see the car in front of you, but 7 miles in the air really isn't that much. It's not as bad as it was in pre-GPS days, but it can still be problematic in certain conditions, as we will soon see. But yes, modern technologies have absolutely addressed the two major concerns with low-ish visibility flight, in varying degree.

With regards to navigation, GPS-based navigation has completely removed the "where in the heck am I?" angst incumbent with older technologies. In the old days (the 80's and early 90's), navigation aids were sprinkled relatively sparsely about the landscape. The 'beacons' we used as references to the places you wanted to go. You would use a map and a ruler/protractor to plot a heading from the beacon to the airport you were heading to. The distance from the beacon to the airport could be a significant number of miles. The combination of the beacon and an instrument in the airplane would insure that you knew that you were on the bearing line. Trial and error would eventually allow you to setting on a heading that would more or less keep you on that line despite crosswinds, but would not provide any indication as to distance from the beacon or to the destination unless your place had a very expensive piece of additional equipment. Very few rentals had that piece of kit.

Note, please, that this form of navigation was the best case, There were also beacons that provided nothing more than a needle that pointed directly at them. You could figure out if you were on the correct line or not, but it required mental gymnastics that could be hard to master. Also keep in mind that the precision of the navigation solution lessened with distance from the beacon, so flying TO a beacon was preferable to navigating FROM a beacon.

GPS has none of those weaknesses. If you get lost while navigating with a GPS, well, you might consider a new hobby. Just sayin'.

With the old style navigation, you commonly supplemented your understanding of your current location with a technique carrying the pretentious title of 'pilotage.' Translated to its inherent mundanity, all it really means is "looking out the window." The charts showed towns, roads, lakes, rivers, railroad tracks, and any number of identifying features on the ground. In low visibility, it was easy for this technique to fail.

GPS solved all of that, and with the modern moving map technology, it is nearly impossible to get lost.

The other big concern with low visibility days was the utter inability to see other airplanes. That has been partially solved by the ADSB box that I installed. It does a pretty good job of alerting me to other airplanes, but I don't fully trust it to detect and report every possible target. There's still a bit of reliance on the big sky theory when the air gets murky. I'm jumping way ahead in the story here, but consider this picture of my arrival back at home base later in the day. There are three other planes being shown, but that are all at least 1,100' above my current altitude. What isn't shown is the Cessna that was on left base, landing at KTZR. Had there not been a control tower in operation, I might never have seen him. He was on the radio, of course, so I would/should (depending on his mood/abilities) known he was there, but the point is still valid. ADSB does not solve the low viz issues to the same degree that GPS does.

The low-ish visibility isn't always a problem. Many times it just depends on what direction you're looking in. Just off the runway and climbing to the south, the west looked fairly decent, although the picture makes it look better than it was.

The south, on the other hand... not so great. The sun tends to make the low-lying haze very opaque in the mornings and evenings.

That sharp, distinct line on the horizon that starkly delineates the murky, hazy air I was dealing with while climbing to altitude from the crystal clear air that I found at 5,500' is caused by a temperature inversion. I actually felt it before I noticed it visually; I was impressed at how well the somewhat mediocre heater was working at what should have been 20F or thereabouts. Sure enough, the SKyview helpfully provided a more accurate value: 42F.

A temperature inversion is a thin layer of the atmosphere where the normal decrease in temperature with height switches to the temperature increasing with height. An inversion acts like a lid, keeping normal convective overturning of the atmosphere from penetrating through the inversion.

This can cause several weather-related effects. One is the trapping of pollutants below the inversion, allowing them to build up. If the sky is very hazy, or is sunsets are very red, there is likely an inversion somewhere in the lower atmosphere. This happens more frequently in high pressure zones, where the gradual sinking of air in the high pressure dome typically causes an inversion to form at the base of a sinking layer of air.

Another effect that an inversion has is to make clouds just below the inversion to spread out and take on a flattened appearance. For instance, marine stratocumulus clouds over cold ocean waters; or the tops of thunderstorms when they reach the base of the stratosphere, which also forms a temperature inversion.
Like so:

On the plus side, even though I couldn't really see where I was going, I was getting there right quickly due to a pretty decent tailwind. 158 mile per hour is a blistering pace in an RV-12!

With the air as smooth as the scalp under my comb-over and the autopilot taking care of the scut work of flying the plane, I was able to just sit back and relax. With very little to see out in front of me, it was easy to just ride along watching the gauges to make sure everything was mechanically copacetic and no interlopers had popped up on the traffic display. It was also easy to be completely surprised when I noticed that I was only 7 miles away from Jackson Co. and still at 5,500'.   That extra 40-some miles per hour kinda snuck up on me.

The nice thing about a small, light plane is that it's pretty simple to just throttle back and point the nose down. I was able achieve a 1,500 foot per minute descent while also slowing the plane down to 90-95 knots. Naturally this eventually put me right back down in the scuddy air, but I have struggled with finding Jackson Co. airport on bright, shiny days to have formulated a fool proof way of finding it: I just follow highway 35 past the city of Jackson until I see the building with the red roof, then turn right about 30 degrees. That puts me on a straight line towards runway 19.

There was a problem, though. The thick, hazy air sucked all of the color out of everything, and even at 2,000' it was hard to really pick out a lot of details. The GPS confirmed that I had found the proper landmark, so I turned towards the runway. It was still hard to see that close in, but I could see enough of it to know that I was still too high. Down went the flaps, my right foot clamped down on its assigned rudder pedal, and down we came in a slip. The slip served perfectly to shed the excess altitude and I flared right over the numbers.

The wind was a direct crosswind and did nothing to slow the speed we were going over the ground, so I rolled out a little further down the runway than usual, but I was still able to make the 2nd turnoff. Just as I got the plane reined in enough to make the turn, I saw something a little unusual off to the side of the runway:

Trust me on this: just when you think you've seen it all.....

I wasn't really sure what to do about this. I didn't cotton to the idea of someone's lost dog getting run over by an airplane, but I didn't want to shut down the plane on the runway so I could jump out and get the dog. I decided I'd pull off onto the taxiway first. That actually solved everything - it was soon apparent that the dog was not lost at all - it simply belonged to a careless worker in the group of contractors that are building the new terminal building.

The plane transfer went easily enough and we were soon in the neighborhood of the Big Sandy airport. Big Sandy is coal country - any land that wasn't being actively mined already had been. The only other sign of life in the region was this imposing compound:

I'm not sure if is common to put prisons near airports or if I just notice them more from the higher vantage point I have when flying, but it sure does seem like the two are deliberately placed in proximity to each other. Presumably to aid in escapes, I guess. Seems to me that it presents something of a (wait for it.... waaaiiiitttt foorrr iiitttt.....) flight risk.

In any event, I took one look at that place and told Kyle that it must be a federal prison just by the look of it. The Feds can print as much money as they want, states can't. This one looked expensive. And with six guard towers and what looked like three separate layers of fence, it also looked like a pretty serious place.

As it turns out, I was correct on all counts.
The United States Penitentiary, Big Sandy (USP Big Sandy) is a high-security United States federal prison for male inmates in Kentucky, near Inez. It is operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a division of the United States Department of Justice. The facility also has a satellite prison camp which houses minimum-security male inmates.
USP Big Sandy is located in eastern Kentucky, approximately 163 miles (262 km) from Frankfort, and 140 miles (230 km) from Lexington.

Notable inmates (current and former)

Inmate NameRegister NumberStatusDetails
Roy Belfast, Jr.76556-004Serving a 97-year sentence; scheduled for release in 2091.Son of former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor; convicted in 2008 of crimes related to the torture of his father's political and military opponents in Liberia between 1999 and 2003; the first prosecution of a US citizen for committing acts of torture outside the US.
Vicente Garcia, Jr.43509-279Serving a 40-year sentence; scheduled for release in 2043.Second-in-command or "Supreme Regional Inca" to Chicago Latin Kings leader or "Corona" Augustin Zambrano; convicted in 2011 of racketeering conspiracy for running a drug-trafficking enterprise which engaged in murder, attempted murder, assault, and extortion.
Shain Duka61284-066Serving a life sentence.Involved in the 2007 Fort Dix attack plot; convicted in 2008 of conspiring to kill American soldiers and possessing firearms with the intent to conduct a terrorist attack at the New Jersey military base. Four accomplices are serving sentences in other federal facilities.
Abdi Wali Dire
Said Abdi Fooley
Serving a life sentence.Somalis convicted of piracy; Dire for a 2010 attack on the American warship USS Nicholas, Fooley for the 2010 hijacking of the civilian yacht Quest, during which four US citizens were killed; the convictions marked the first time in over 190 years that an American jury has convicted defendants of piracy.
Eli Mungia26371-077Serving a life sentence.White supremacist; convicted of civil rights and weapons violations for taking part in a shooting spree targeting African-Americans in Lubbock, Texas, killing one man and wounding two others.
Lonnell Glover22163-083Serving a life sentence.Drug kingpin; convicted in 2008 of drug trafficking conspiracy for his role as leader of a Washington, D.C. PCP ring, described as the largest in the city's history, which distributed over $1 million of the drug during the mid-2000s.
Maurice Douglas10951-007Serving a life sentence.Convicted in 1998 of first-degree murder in connection with the fatal shooting of Officer Robert L. Johnson of the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department on April 27, 1997; accomplice Dominic Gibson was also sentenced to life.
Grim, yes, but still fascinating in a way.

I don't claim to be an expert on the subject, or even a novice, but this looks like reclaimed mine land to me:

The black rubber stripes at the end of this road come from a pretty obvious source. I doubt if they deliberately built a road perfectly suiting for illicit drag racing, but to do so would have only required the addition of the starting lights:

As is typical of many airports in Kentucky and West Virginia, there is a hard and fast rule about landing: land short, you die.

Definitely coal country. That big chunk of black rock is a clue. There was a broken off piece sitting on top of it that I considered taking as a souvenir, but I decided against it. Coal is abused enough already by "green" electric car driving people who vilify it as an energy source, seemingly unaware that their "green" car actually runs on it. They don't need some yankee flying in from the north and stealing it.

Well, that and the fact that the place next door didn't look all that appealing should I get caught. Having now seen the list of potential roommates, I think I decided wisely.

The airport building is welcoming by anyone's standards.

As is the cafe/diner.

I held the door open for a woman that was coming in - she turned out to be the person that makes these little "who was here" signs. She said she'd be happy to make one for both Kyle and me, but we lost track of her and couldn't find her later to write down the info. Maybe next time.

Ah, 'tis the season,

The decor made it clear that this was an airport cafe to its very core:

I have been to many, many airport restaurants with cutesy, themed menus, but I don't remember ever seeing this particular pun:

Or this one, for that matter:

There were a couple things that stood out from the normal diner fare. Chief amongst them was the Captains's Pork Chop.

A close second was the 172 Monto Cristo. I had trouble getting the image, whether it be right or wrong, of a deep-fried sandwich out of my head, so I went with the Captain.

I was not disappointed!

I looked up the Monto Cristo when I got home. I don't think I would have been disappointed in it either, although I do think it should be named the Monto Crisco™ instead:

They even have a recovery room for anyone that over indulges in the fried stuff:

On the way out, Kyle notice this, and commented on how it must be a lonely job:

Having now had the chance to determine what the function of that division is, I would also hazard that it's probably a thankless job too, but shouldn't be:
The Division of Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) works throughout the state’s coal fields to protect the public from health and safety problems caused by mining that occurred prior to 1982. 
Examples of hazards that can be found on abandoned mine sites are landslides, water-filled pits, open mine portals and dilapidated equipment and buildings. The division restores these degraded sites to a safe and environmentally stable condition through a process known as reclamation. 
The division also administers a bond forfeiture reclamation program. Before coal companies begin mining at a site, they must post a reclamation bond. A company's bond may be forfeited to the Commonwealth if the company fails to mine and reclaim a site to the standards specified in its mining permit. The forfeited funds are used by the state to reclaim the site for which the bond was posted. 
AML also administers a water supply replacement program. The division extends waterlines into areas where drinking water has been contaminated by past mining.
So, yeah, I do have to admit that there is a valid point to be made regarding coal mining's effects on the environment, but that's true of nearly all of the traditional manufacturing practices. Clearly that situation is not what it used to be. There's also a strong argument for finding suitable replacements for it. 

Thorny, difficult issues to be sure.

As trying as times are in Coal Country, some of the locals don't seem overly concerned about it at all.

I have to think sleeping in the shade of a wing is a habit for this guy - the temperatures were in the high 40's, probably not high enough to provide and actual need for shade.

All in all, Big Shady is a friendly place to visit.

Reclaimed or not, it's also quite scenic.

Coming back north, I couldn't help thinking that if I was able to travel back in time, I would buy up all of the land that surrounds river confluences. They are all heavily developed in support of river-borne commerce.

I thought the difference in the color of the water was interesting. I'm guessing that it's the result of the faster Ohio picking up more silt and sediment than the desultory tributary.

The flight back was as smooth as the outbound leg had been, but the hazy air was still a factor. This was my view as I turned to the southwest for landing:

Sunday, November 30, 2014


Vertigo /ˈvɜrtɨɡoʊ/ (from the Latin vertō "a whirling or spinning movement") is a subtype of dizziness in which a patient inappropriately experiences the perception of motion (usually a spinning motion) due to dysfunction of the vestibular system It is often associated with nausea and vomiting as well as a balance disorder, causing difficulties with standing or walking.

Auto-rough /aw-tow ruhf/ referring to a humorous term used by pilots when flying over hostile terrain or water at night. Their perception or imagination is that the engine(s) sound like they're running a little rougher than when flying over more friendly terrain.

You may remember my recent incident with a rough running engine on a flight in which I was enduring less-than-optimal weather and terrain. In case you missed it, here is a video synopsis:

My first thought was that I may have been feeling the effects of a fouled spark plug. It didn't seem rough enough to be caused by the loss of an entire cylinder, but it also didn't feel like it was purely auto-rough either. In any event, it was enough to ground the airplane until I figured out what was going on.

The first step was to remove all four spark plugs from cylinders #1 and #3, which are the two that are located on the right hand side of the engine, Visual inspection showed no fouling problems at all.  In retrospect, an easier way to do this would have been to run the engine and turn off each of the two ignition systems individually. This would serve to isolate the fouled plug if, in fact, there was one.

Having ruled out an ignition problem, at least with regards to cheap, easy repairs, my thoughts turned to the carburetors. There are two of them on the Rotax 912, and each is responsible for the two cylinders on its respective side of the engine, So more specifically, I began to suspect a problem with the right hand carb. Lending some level of credence to this theory is the fact that there is a current Service Bulletin in effect on the 912 engine, and it has to do with defective carb floats absorbing fuel and becoming too heavy to effectively manage the fuel volume being fed into the engine.

The serial number of my engine is too low to have been caught by the SB, but not so low as to rule it out entirely, especially given the symptoms I was seeing. The nice thing about the SB text is that it includes directions for testing the floats for an overweight condition. You simply drop the float bowl and take the floats to a scale for weighing. If the sum weight of the two is less than 7 grams, you're good to go.

Now, when I say "simply drop the float bowl," I am ignoring the fact that the drip tray underneath the carb has to be removed. I'm not sure what that entails in airplanes other than the RV-12, but in the 12 it means removing the entire carburetor. On the right side of the engine, that is a little tricky in that it is a fairly cramped area. I managed to get it done, and the floats weighed in at a healthy 5 grams. This was good news because Rotax has yet to release a replacement float, and when they do they will be wildly in demand, It was bad news, though, because it had exhausted my troubleshooting expertise.

By now there will be readers shouting at their screens, "What about the carb balance? Have you checked that??!?!!?"

And just now, a whole bunch of other readers are saying, "Whhaaaattt???"
Many pilots are flying on the 912 series of four stroke Rotax aircraft engines. 
One of the areas that are critical for the proper performance of these engines is that the carburetors be properly set up and maintained. 
The 912 series of engines use an altitude compensating Bing carburetor. These are very reliable, and literally trouble free if properly set up and maintained.
The compensating nature of the two carbs is intended to keep them in sync with regards to the power being delivered to each side of the engine. Different power per side = rough engine. They are kept in sync by using a pair of vacuum gauges plugged in between the two carbs. We call this carb balancing.

This is a preview of a training video on the subject. Towards the end of the short video, you will see the adjustment being made. What you can't see, feel, or hear, is what it's like to do this behind the propeller of a running engine on a 27F degree morning trying to adjust those tiny nuts while they're vibrating up a storm and your eyes are watery from the frigid blast of air.

It is a distinctly onerous task.

So, why didn't I immediately consider the carbs being out of balance? Two reasons.

First, I was distracted by the Service Bulletin. It provided what seemed to be an obvious cause.

Second, the carbs had been balanced less than 50 hours ago, and carb balancing is done on a 100 hour cycle.

And, if I'm being entirely honest there was a third reason. What might that have been? Well, see above. It is a distinctly onerous task. Psychologists call this "denial" and/or "rationalization."

I called in a mechanic.

He listened to the engine for just a few seconds before determining that it was, in fact, a problem with the carbs and that the most obvious thing to do was to attempt to balance them. I was still in denial. I had always assumed that as long as I didn't diddle around with them, they would stay in tune. The mechanic squashed that idea like a flatworm under a steam roller: if that was the case, why would you need a periodic inspection?

Well, yeah, when you put it that way...

So.... more than a little embarrassment on my part, but I got the last laugh:

I made him stand behind the prop of a running engine on a 27F degree morning.

It obviously cost me more in dollars than if I had done it myself, but I figure I gained sufficient value: the peace of mind that comes from having a knowledgeable expert do the work while I watched from the sidelines comparing his professional technique to the way that I've been doing it, and the new found knowledge that if I ever get into more trouble with the engine I now know where I can get help.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Business Travel

So, I had occasion recently to travel to San Francisco on business. There was a time in my professional life when I enjoyed trips like this, but over the years they have lost quite a bit of their appeal. Co-workers that don't travel are known to make statements pointing how much better it would be to travel than to be stuck at a desk, but they should ride a few miles in seat 37E before making such judgments. And there is no 1:1 match between travel hours and desk hours.  I'm not saying that there isn't great benefit to the changes of place and scenery, mind you; I'm saying that it is not a cost-less transaction.

I am going to share an account of a recent trip as an example.

In any event, this time around it was going to be two solid days of travel to attend what was scheduled to be a six hour meeting. Time is on your side on the outbound trip, through, because there are early departures heading west and you gain another three hours as you traverse the time zones, so I figured I'd squeeze in a few time-filler meetings into the early afternoon, too.

It is, after all, corporate HQ, and I've worked with quite a few people out there for years and never met them in person. I figured I could get someone to tour me around to meet people.

I planned the trip with an outbound flight on Tuesday, since the important meeting was on Wednesday, and the return trip on Thursday rather than taking the red eye Wednesday night. Those are wicked bad if, like me, you can't sleep on an airplane.

The return trip would be the opposite of the outbound (well, duh!), by which I mean it would be a late morning departure and a very late evening arrival back at home. As you can infer from the above, I prefer an early morning departure when I have a choice. The reason for the later departure on the return leg is that I have far less control over my transportation to the airport than I do at home. In San Francisco, I would be dependent on BART, which is the acronym by which their subways/trains operate, and I have never learned how to predict how often the airport-bound trains run. Leaving a little later takes off some of the time pressure.

The nice thing about departing early from home is that the TSA line is often brutally short, so you don't have to budget in a lot of time. You would also think the parking garage would be empty early in the morning, but such was not the case this time around. The Monday travelers all got there before me.  I climbed the ramp all the way to the top floor which, being exposed to the weather, ought to come at a lower price.

The open spot that I was eventually able to find met me with bracingly cold wind chills. I didn't have a thermometer, but I estimate the temperature was hovering somewhere around five below Fairbanks, Alaska.

As predicted, though, the TSA line was in fact just about as short as could ever be hoped for, which is to say "non-existent." Seeing nothing but wide open lanes, I took the shortest, most expedient line, a decision for which I was soundly chastised. I was informed by the agent performing the ID check that I had used the "wrong line."

I turned and looked behind me, only to see absolutely no one there, and no other check gate that I could have arrived at through following a less efficient path. No, all lines led to her, and there was no one in any of the lines.  Apparently I was supposed to go through the empty mouse maze rather than take the shorter VIP line, even though I was the only one there.

You really have love the demeaning, lockstep mentality of federal agencies.

The fun had just begun, though. As I was getting ready to remove my belt before walking into the peep-show booth, one of the agents told that removing the belt would be unnecessary. Well, to be fair, his exact words were "you should be alright."

It was foolish of me to fall for such a squishy statement. Sure enough, the agent that greeted my after the peep-show asked whether I was wearing a belt. It was patently obvious what was about to happen.

Yep. The Grope.


Once at the gate, I took a look at my boarding pass and was delighted to see that I would be boarding in Group 2. That was important because it drastically improved the odds that there would be room in an overhead bin for my luggage. Now that airlines charge at least $50 to check a bag, it is not surprising that no one checks a bag unless they absolutely have to. Because we would be flying in a small, old, creaky MD-80 (aka "Mad Dog") that was designed before the time when checking baggage was viewed as something akin to having a root canal, bin space would be at a premium.

Since I normally get stuffed into Group 4 or higher, it was welcome news indeed to find myself in a much better group. Note, however, that while one could be forgiven for mistakenly thinking that Group 2 would be the second group to board, airlines these days have more preferential boarding groups than Baskin-Robbins has ice cream flavors.

For some unknown reason, we boarded late. Figures - I had a pretty tight turn in Dallas and wouldn't be able to absorb too many delays.

All went well, though, as I scored both adequate bin space and a very pretty female companion in the seat next to me. Between the generous group assignment and the attractive travel companion, I should have known that things were most assuredly not going to continue to turn out as well.

Karma simply doesn't like me that much.

We pushed back from the gate ten minutes late, but I wasn't worried. They can usually make up some time in flight. Ah, here's the captain on the PA getting ready to tell us that the delay will ultimately not matter because they can just burn a little more fuel:

"Good morning, folks. Sorry for the late departure. We can usually make up the time enroute, but we're going to be flying into some strong headwinds today. We might be a few minutes late"

Sigh. The stress ratcheted up a notch.

At least we were away from the gate and taxiing, though, and with our close proximity to the runway, it shouldn't have taken long to get to the runway.

That's why I got quite suspicious when I noticed that we had been taxiing around in circles for twenty minutes, I've flown enough to know that isn't normal, and I was keenly aware of the time slipping away. Eventually the captain came back on the PA and explained that they were driving around trying to warm up the plane, which had been sitting out all night in temperatures as low as the North Pole of Pluto, which had presumably caused the flap position lights to not operate correctly. A few minutes later, they were.

Off we went.

I suppose it isn't all that surprising to have problems like this with the ancient equipment that they use for this route. Look at this thing, resplendent in its peeling paint and obvious corrosion:

I would NEVER leave the hinge of a flight control with corrosion like this:

Once at altitude, the slide into Karmic punishment continued with the coffee cart. As the service cart came down the aisle, my Pavlovian responses were triggered by the smell of hot coffee coming my way. I stared at that cart and measured its progress like a lion watching a gazelle stroll towards the water hole.

Finally it was my turn. As the male flight attendant took my order, one of those eerily prescient moments that I suffer from now and then flashed through my mind:given my visceral need for my morning shot, they surely will be out.

They were. No more than five drops poured into my cup.

They eventually were able make another pot, and were actually so apologetic about my brief wait that they even gave me a refill after I gulped down the first one. Hmm, maybe things were going to be okay after all, even though an on-time arrival was out of the question.

The dice were rolling across the felt at this point - I would either make my connection or not.

The flight crew made up as much time enroute as they could, and tried to make up even more with a slam-down arrival at DFW followed by very energetic braking to make the earliest possible taxiway.

Looking at my watch, it looked like I had 20 minutes to get to my gate for the next flight which would be just as they were starting to board. I might still make it in time to board with Group 2. Again, that was important. When it comes to getting on the plane, it doesn't matter what group you're in if you're late. A good boarding group is like a door prize: you must be present to win.

But there we were, taxiing in with plenty of time and everything looking good until...... we stopped.

We stopped!

I knew exactly what was coming next.

"Well, folks, we did all we could to get you here quickly, but there is no gate open for us."

We sat there for twenty minutes.

On the plus side, connecting flight gate assignments were made over the PA as we waited for the gate. We would be deplaning at gate A33, and my next flight was departing from gate A37.

That couldn't be any better! I'm always reluctant to connect through Dallas because the place is notorious for gate changes. And because they have at least four terminals, your connecting flight can be miles away. Having to only go four gates in the same terminal, well, that's a lottery winning level piece of luck. When paired with Group 2, it should have been a cakewalk.

I was pretty far back in the plane, though, and those two cups of coffee had run my mood though its normal course. My caffeine-fueled mood starts at exhilaration and inexorably works its way to crankiness, which is where it was when I had to wait patiently (or at least give the appearance of such) for the people who did NOT have connecting flights to lackadaisically grab there stuff and amble up the aisle as if they were listening to Mendelssohn's wedding march or a funeral dirge.

I had already missed the beginning of boarding time by the time I got off the jet, but with only four gates to go, at least I wouldn't be in danger of missing the flight entirely.

As I came out of the jet way and quickly got my bearings, I couldn't help but notice that I was already at the desired gate, A37.

Whaaaaaattttt? What happened to arriving at A33 and ambling on over to A37? And where was my plane??

The San Francisco flight had been moved to gate C11, and I had about four minutes to get there.

That was not good news. I would have to get to the end of Terminal A, go up an incredibly long escalator, catch the monorail to ride over to Terminal C, and find gate C11.

I arrived at the gate out of breath from my exertions (no running, though, as that really isn't seemly when dragging a suitcase) and rushed down the jetway only to some to a screeching stop at the end of a line of people that were still waiting to embark.

I stood there for another twenty minutes as the line did not budge an inch.

That gave me plenty of time to stew about the inevitably having to gate check my bag and deal with baggage claim in San Francisco, when I was wondering just how it can take so damn long for people to sit down.

That last part was the caffeine talking.

Maybe. The adrenaline released during the hectic arrival may have contributed.

As I finally got on board (they delay was for a mechanic to fix a 'seat problem', whatever that means), one of the flight attendants took pity on me. There was no more open bin space to be had back in coach (not surprisingly), but she would let me use some space in first class.

Well, at least one of us was having a good trip!

Hey, speaking of stress, did I mention that I lost my cell phone the day before the trip? Yep. A three day trip with no texting, no email, no internet, etc.

It can be done, of course. People used to do it all the time. And you can go can swim with your left arm tied behind your back:  it's possible, but it's not a great deal of fun.

Monday, the day I lost the phone, had not been a great day. It was to be the only day that I would have to drive to work for two solid weeks due to the business trip and a week of vacation next week, so naturally it snowed, thus ensuring I wouldn't have to miss out on a lengthy winter commute.

I leave early enough in the morning to blaze the trail for the salt trucks and plows in order to avoid the inevitable traffic snarls as thousands of people that seemingly just learned how to drive the day before hit the roads (and each other), but it's still a pretty stressful drive. I would have preferred not to have to do it.

I ended up doing it twice.

I hadn't realized that I couldn't find my phone until after I had already gotten home from the office. A number of increasingly thorough house searches hadn't found it, so the only thing left to do was to return to the office to look there.

It was not there.

As frustrating as Monday had been, at least I was able to console myself with the thought that I would have a relaxing Tuesday - all I had to do all day was sit in an airline seat - how bad could that be?

As we've seen, it hadn't been completely distress free. Fortunately the flight to San Francisco was okay. I had only been able to score a middle seat, but it was towards the front of the plane and had the few inches of extra leg room that they try to sell to the people crammed in between more densely packed seats in the back. It's a cynical business practice, but they're struggling to make ends meet now that everyone has started avoiding the expense of checking their baggage. Just watch: it's just a matter of time before they start charging for carry-on bags too.

We're pretty much left to our own devices when it comes to trip planning, from the selection of airline and hotel all the way down to strategies for getting from the airport to the city. This is how I found myself riding on the creaky old jets of the aging US Airmerican fleet versus the typically nicer 737s of Southwest, my personal airline of choice. It came down to price: $700+ for Southwest, $350 for US Airmerican. It's not my money, per se, and no one really gives a fig in the big picture, but travel expense comes from the business unit's annual expense fund and you wouldn't want to come up short towards the end of the fiscal year - there is definitely value in face-to-face meetings and they are a resource to be jealously guarded.

As such, I broke myself of the habit of taking a taxi (roughly $50) and taught myself how to use the subway. It's called BART in the Bay Area, and it only costs $10. I use it when time and baggage allow.

It's a healthy walk from the arrival gates to the BART station, but I got lucky and got there just as a train was pulling in. There's only one line that runs down as far as the airport, so it's impossible to get on the wrong train. You can see it in the lower left corner:

I would be going to Montgomery St., and I remembered it as being a roughly twenty minute ride. I also remembered that it was fairly important to emerge from the correct set of stairs lest you find yourself on the wrong side of a busy street.

Bingo, there it is!

It's a big place!

As part of my private tour, I got to visit the outside of my boss's boss's office. The view is substantially better than that of my own office, which overlooks a parking lot, but other than that it was somewhat less spacious/palatial than I would have imagined. Although, if you consider that my ranking in the hierarchy would have me sitting in a cubicle rather than in a closed door office if I was an inhabitant here rather than in low-rent Ohio, well... things are different when office space costs are measured in the hundreds of dollars per square foot.

I can do without the view, using that math.

My hotel room, on the other had, actually was palatial. As I said, we do have quite a bit of latitude on hotel selection, but the pickings are slim in San Francisco. It is a year 'round tourist attraction, in addition to being rife with other corporate offices, so rooms command a premium. It was hard to find open rooms at all, much less low cost digs. This one was the lowest I could find (they discount it on account of the not-very-comfortable Murphy bed) at $360 per night. That price is a strong inducement to return home on the red eye flight rather than spend an extra night, but because I am unable to sleep on an airplane, the Murphy bed seemed the better choice.

The slightly inferior bed was the price to pay for a large room with a decent view. This is Union Square:

I didn't see it at first - it was the infernal racket it made ALL NIGHT LONG that made me look for it: they are building a new subway line, and they are working 24/7 to do it. I don't know what the actual purposeful function of this gizmo is, but whatever it does involves making quite a bit of racket.

I am an early riser by nature, but remove three hours from my circadian Rolex and you will find up awake and ready to go at ungodly hours. Thankfully, hotel rooms come with free coffee service, of a sort.

At that time of night, there isn't much to do other than read and enjoy the mechanical rhythms of subway digging machines,

With plenty of time on my hands, I figured it would be easy enough to find alternatives to the hotel's $25 omelet for breakfast. I didn't have my phone with me, of course, but I was able to use my very limited data plan on my iPad to Yelp for a 24/7 diner. It wasn't hard to find one. In fact, I found two, and both were less than a block from the hotel. Of the two, I randomly picked the Pinecrest.

In my never-ending search for decent corned beef hash, I optimistically selected the Pinecrest's offering. It was.... disappointing.

Still having hours to go before my first meeting, I took the other direction around the block back to the hotel and checked out the second diner. They had their menu posted on the window, and I was gratified to see that their #1 specialty was "The Best Corned Beef Hash in The City."

Lucky me! I wasn't leaving on the red eye, so I could try it the next day!

While still not as good as what I make at home, it was far above the average offering, There were actual chunks of meat in there, and the green onions added a bit of zest.  This place will be my go-to for future breakfasts when I'm out that way.

The meetings all went very well, and there were no problems at the hotel other than the frustration of having no less than three room keycards crap out on me. It was especially frustrating when I first tried to get on the elevator to the 11th floor, only to be stymied by a new system in which you enter the number of the floor you want to go to, then insert your keycard to prove you have the right to go there. There are no buttons inside the elevator cab, a fact a learned when my keycard refused to work in gaining access to the floor I needed. I just jumped in with another group (thus proving the futility of this over complicated technology that seems to be searching for a problem to solve) and got as far as the sixth floor before being ignominiously returned to the lobby. This happened repeatedly during my two day stay, and each time I had to return to the front desk for a new card.

My hopes that the return flights would go better than the outbound legs were dashed almost immediately. The first flight was scheduled to provide a slightly longer gap than the one hour window I had in Dallas to change planes on the way out, so I opted to check my luggage through in order to not have to deal with it if things got tight on the turn. As I found out on the outbound leg, it is hard to run between gates while dragging a bag. The odds were on my side this time, I figured, as it would be unlikely to face delays yet again, but I opted to place it safe.

Past performance is not an indication of future performance, but it is also no guarantee against it.

The jet back to Dallas was a 767, which is a 2-3-2 wide body. I was way back in row 37 where I new it would be a wobbly ride, but it didn't seem all that bad for so long as the seat next to me remained vacant. As it got closer to the time when they close the main cabin door, I still had an empty seat next to me. That's a great boon as legroom back that far in the plane is very tight. With only me in the row of two seats, it a much easier to spread out. In situations like these, the last few moments before they close the door are fraught with stress as late arrivals trickle down the aisle, each and every one of them a potential wrecker. I dodged all of the bullets, though, and breathed a sigh of relief as we were pushed back from the gate.

My relief was short lived. Moments after being pushed back, we were pulled right back in. There are only two reasons that I can think of for this. The first, and least likely, being the late arrival of a seat mate, and the second being a maintenance problem. A maintenance problem would be virtually guaranteed to cause another late arrival into Dallas, so the idea of a row companion was actually the more attractive option, despite its innate abhorrence.

It was, in fact, a problem with the airplane, but it was cleared up in just a few minutes. What a relief! We even landed in Dallas a couple of minutes ahead of schedule. Care to guess what happened then?

Too easy, right?

Yep. We taxied off into a vast wilderness of concrete where we parked for 15-20 minutes waiting for our gate to be open. Which, given that there was still an hour to go before I needed to board the next flight, left plenty of time to cross over to another terminal (again). A delay would be a great inconvenience, although if it stretched out too long there may have been an increased risk of incontinence brought on by my failure to plan an airborne potty trip before landing - I got caught out by an early start to our landing approach that force the illumination of the "Stay In Your Damned Seat!" light. It would also eat into the time I had hoped to use to get a bite to eat, since I had had enough of the beef jerky I carry on long trips to keep the hunger panes at bay.

Ain't air travel grand? So much to worry about, so many eventualities to plan against. It could have been worse: the guy sitting behind me missed his connection while we were parked there waiting.

His own fault, really: even if we had gotten to the gate on time, he only had 15 minutes to get to his next flight and most of that would have been spent in the slow motion parade from the back of the plane to the exit. Who books connections that close together?

What a rookie. (Says the guy who was in the same situation slightly more than 48 hours ago.)

Then the shouting started. "Get moving! We're going to miss our flights! Hurry up - what's taking so long??!"

Self important jerks. (Says the guy who was thinking the exact same thing slightly more than 48 hours ago.)

So for me, it all worked out fine. I had plenty of time to choke down a hideous $9 pizza before we started boarding right on time and without a single gate change. Imagine that! The last (and most important) leg was going to be just fine.

Well, by "we started to board" I meant 1st class. They were no sooner heading down the jetway when the PA chirped up with the very last thing I wanted to here: "we're going to stop boarding, the crew has called for maintenance. There's a problem with the airplane."

That has never been good news. Even if all they do is reset a circuit breaker, the paperwork is a good half hour delay. Worst case? I didn't want to think about it. Overnighting in Dallas was the last thing I wanted to consider.

After a half hour of no news, we were informed that there was a brake problem, but they had no idea how long it would take to fix. At this point, there were only two things I was sure of: there would eventually be a gate change as they moved us to a spare airplane, and they would lose my luggage in the process.

Neither of those proved true, though. After an hour wait (they seem longer when you don't know if it's going to be one hour or twelve), we clambered in board and headed home.

The final score does not speak in favor of using the lower cost alternative for future trips. out of four flights, US Airmercan Airlines had four maintenance delays.

There's an old trope that's nearly as time-honored as air travel itself, and it still holds true today:

Time to spare? Go by air!