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Sun, 20 Aug 2017

Seattle to LA, Episode 3: Over the Grapevine and Flying with David


The crop duster takes on his 500 gallons(!) of pesticide while Norbert wakes up

The Grapevine (as I understood it at the time -- research now suggests I've got the wrong name) is a range of mountains that stretches roughly east-west north of Los Angeles. As I chatted with the crop duster pilot that already-hot morning at Mefford Field in Tulare, CA, he casually mentioned, "Are you worried about going over the Grapevine?"

Well, I hadn't been, until he mentioned it.

I had, as expected, slept poorly at Mefford Field. Between the heat and the freeway noise (somewhat attenuated by wearing earplugs, but that introduced its own discomfort), I woke up frequently, and slept only lightly. Still, I did sleep, and I didn't feel particularly tired when the brightening sky woke me up around 6.

The other thing that had woken me up was some variety of large truck trundling by, its diesel engine loud against the backdrop of commuters on the freeway. It pulled up and parked nearby, and I figured it would be prudent to get up and see if I'd inadvertently parked the plane in the way of someone's activities for the day. A man popped his head around my plane, and I asked if I was in the way; he said no, but that they were about to make a whole lot of noise.

I arose to see a tanker truck parked 30 feet away, with a caged area in back where a man in white coveralls was already busily mixing something from slickly packaged white cardboard boxes. My suspicion was confirmed when one of the crop dusters rolled up, its big turbine motor screaming oddly as it idled. The gent in the coveralls dragged a big hose over and attached it to a port on the plane. Pesticides. I thought it was hilarious that they were packed up in very clean, white boxes with a colorful swoosh on the side, looking like packaging for shoes or industrial toilet paper more than semi-controversial chemicals.

I ended up chatting with the ground support guy and the pilot both, at different times. The ground guy was talkative, and was much easier to talk to, since the plane wasn't sitting there screaming for most of our chat. The pilot seemed very nice, though between his noise-cancelling headphones and my earplugs against the turbine noise, we said relatively little to each other.

Then he made his comment about crossing the Grapevine, and I started worrying that maybe I was taking the whole thing too lightly. I walked behind their hangar and made my requisite call to Flight Services to check the weather.

It was great in the San Joaquin valley, where I was, but in the Los Angeles basin, there was a heavy overcast, and the briefer didn't think it would burn off until 11 am or later. It would take me most of my flying time before I would encounter the overcast, so this wasn't a huge deal, but it meant I couldn't really start the trip in earnest for a couple of hours from that point.

Mefford Field, although many things, was not a place I felt like hanging around for a few hours. I googled up "california airports with restaurants" or something, and found that Bakersfield Muni (L45) in Bakersfield had a cafe attached that sounded intersting: the Rocket Cafe. Bakersfield was just about an hour's flight from Tulare, so I packed myself up and alighted into the intangible aether at 9 am almost to the second.


A town amidst the fields, somewhere north of Bakersfield

The flight to Bakersfield was uneventful, and I passed the time by listening to Ruby 2, a somewhat inscrutable sci-fi radio drama from the 1980s that my brother and I used to listen to. Every so often, Bakersfield Approach or Norcal Approach would interrupt the story with a radio call, but since I've had the story memorized for decades, this was no real impediment.

Land in the San Joaquin valley seems to be largely given over to agriculture, which makes sense for an enormous flat plain with lots of sun and reasonable access to water. Occasional towns dot the landscape, connected by long threads of freeways.

Eventually Bakersfield hove into view, and I navigated around Meadows Field (BFL) to the smaller Bakersfield Muni, a few flight-minutes further south. I dropped down and taxied into the parking area for the Rocket Cafe.

The Cafe itself is a large room with a bar, many tables, and profuse displays of sports memorabilia. Pretty much what you'd expect from an airport bar. I ordered an omelette with hashbrowns and a glass of orange juice as I continued reading the pulp WWI book I'd picked up for my brother David, who's researching for a story set in an alternate WWI timeline.

An hour and a half after shutting down the engine, I was firing it up again, wondering how slow the takeoff would be in the heat of a Bakersfield summer day (about 100° F; answer: not substantially worse than all the other fields I'd departed in the high 90s). Breakfast sat comfortably in my belly, and the weather reports around LA had shown complete improvement, so there was nothing to stop me from continuing with the trip (but the air conditioning in the restaurant was sure nice, and I took the opportunity to charge a radio that had been doing excellent work).


I-5 running straight as an arrow toward the pass south of Bakersfield

As I flew toward the mountains, I realized that there was no way I was going to climb high enough to be comfortable before I reached them, so I started doing the flying equivalent of switchbacks, zig-zagging over the valley trying to gain altitude. I initially aimed for 7500 feet, but eventually climbed up to 9500 as the mountains loomed larger.

Because I was so high, the actual traversal of the mountains was completely uneventful, though Norbert's oil temperature was creeping higher with every climb, so I was keeping an eye on it in the heat. I tried to spot the handful of airports that the map showed were present, but only saw one or two. My ability to recognize airports improved noticeably during the trip, but Agua Dulce (L70) remained hidden to me.


The final pass, with LA in the hazy distance

I told my air traffic controller that I would start my descent as I passed over the final mountain toward Burbank, but he had me stay high to allow jet traffic to pass under me. That was an odd feeling, to be flying over the jets in a Champ. I had several altitude holds as I descended toward El Monte (EMT), my final destination. The LA airspace is quite busy.

Finally I was allowed down, and made the approach to El Monte. The tower told me to turn for the base turn into landing over the 210, but since I didn't know where that was (I was directly over it, as it happened), his explanation delayed me until it made more sense to make a straight-in approach. I landed at El Monte and shut down at 1:06 pm, 48 hours and six minutes, and 15.8 flight hours, after I'd departed Harvey Field in Snohomish.

Flying with David


Norbert on the ground at El Monte

My brother has never flown with me before. Since he lives in LA, and I live in Seattle, the factors have never come together before. Additionally, he's preparing to write a story about a plucky young woman who successfully flies a WWI era monoplane against all odds as part of her adventure, and I've been consulting with him on technical aspects of the airplanes and tech in the story. It was completely logical that we should go for a flight together to put some of the theory we'd been talking into practice.

We drove to the airport (a day and a half, and one very welcome shower, after my arrival), and I gave him the preflight speech as we drove. Which control does what, what to do in a variety of foreseeable emergencies, the order of events and what to expect, etc. We went over the plane, and I gave him a narrated preflight inspection. It was all good material for the book.

We strapped in and called the tower for takeoff clearance. I had reset the video camera to record full-speed video, so that he could have a visual reminder of what we'd done. Unfortunately it's not set up to record our intercom audio, which is too bad. We took off to the south, and followed the traffic pattern to depart the area to the northeast. The air was bumpy from all the heat rising off the pavement, though not unusually so.

I had forgotten, in the many years since we were children, that David used to get seasick on the sailboat we had. It briefly crossed my mind that morning, but I forgot to mention it in the preflight discussion. It turns out this sensitivity hasn't changed.

We flew over to the practice area east of El Monte, and discussed the various features on the ground. He mentioned he was feeling a bit ill, so I decided we would avoid the more strenuous maneuvers I'd been planning to demonstrate -- nothing aggressive, but steep turns can be tough on the ol' motion sickness.

I demonstrated a power-off stall (David's wife had given me a very disapproving look when I mentioned we'd try stalls, and I had to explain why it was safe, and wasn't as bad as it probably sounded; in brief, a stall makes the wings fly less efficiently, but if you do it a couple thousand feet in the air, it's simple to recover from, and offers basically no danger -- it's something every student pilot learns to do early on). I demonstrated a power-on stall. David said, "Oh, I think I'm gonna throw up," and I heard him anxiously opening up one of the airsick bags helpfully tucked into a little pocket directly in front of the passenger. The mic went quiet for a minute, then he returned, saying, "Ugh, but I feel better now."

We decided to return to the airport and land, to reassess if it made any sense to continue flying. We were quickly down, and David said he felt better, so I restarted the motor and we went up again, with the goal of giving him at least a few minutes of stick time. Before we'd even made it to pattern altitude, another bag came out, and I called the tower back to ask for a return to the lovely, stable ground.

He felt bad for cutting the flight short, but I assured him it was no trouble: through the previous owner's foresight, there were airsick bags ready for use, and the only downside to the adventure from my point of view was that I had two fewer airsick bags now. I felt bad that the motion was bad enough to make him sick, but there was no way to control it in that situation. It's too bad we didn't go flying on the previous, overcast day, simply because the air probably would have been calmer. But, as he said, hindsight is 20/20. He was still able to get up in the air, and despite getting ill, had a good time. Who knows, maybe his plucky young woman adventurer will also suffer a bout of airsickness, now.

Next: Can a Champ really fly from LA to Ashland in one day?

Posted at 19:57 permanent link category: /aviation


Sat, 19 Aug 2017

Seattle to Los Angeles in a Champ: Day 2

In the previous episode, I described getting myself from the Seattle area to Ashland, OR.


Hint: my tent is in the corner

I didn't sleep well in Ashland, overwhelmed by the sound of crickets and cars occasionally driving by on the road behind the airport. I was too warm to start, and then too cold until I woke up and dragged the sleeping bag over me. The sky started lightening around 5:30, and I was thoroughly awake by 6.

I'd planted the tent in front of a parking spot for the Brim Aviation hangar. As I was making my somewhat bleary way to upright, someone parked further down the lot, and came over, asking if he could help me (I had the impression he thought I was homeless). I explained that I was flying through and had sought a dark place to sleep, and he laughed. He said it was a good thing I was up, because they were about to get really busy with fire-fighting flights.

I finished packing myself up, and got the weather briefing on the phone (I was pleased to find that the terrible cell coverage I'd expected was actually pretty good, particularly once I was on the ground). Nothing of note except the smoke, which was going strong from a number of local fires. Norbert looked surprisingly majestic in the early-morning light as I packed up and got myself ready to go.


Norbert in the sunrise light

I got myself oriented, and taxied out to runway 12, surprising a deer as I went. It bounded over a wire fence, then turned to look at me curiously as I trundled past in my green and black plane. I lined up on the runway, and launched at 8:18 am. Someone had called on the advisory frequency that there were a pair of heavy military helicopters transiting the area, and they passed me by as I climbed away from Ashland, making altitude to get over the pass just south of town.


Two heavy military helicopters passed me by

Up and over the pass -- for some reason, it was really fascinating to see the roadworks under me as I flew over I-5 -- and into the valley beyond, for my first tantalizing view of Mt. Shasta. The smoke was pretty heavy, and I ended up climbing all the way up to 9500 feet (the highest altitude I aimed for on this trip, though I reached it several times) to get clear of the smoke. The smoke continued to have its interesting scent, but I blew my nose orange afterwards, so I think I'm happier to have not lingered there.

The route that I-5 follows after Ashland is well defined by a series of distinct small mountains to the east. I had a vague impression that they might have been formed by a giant putting down a series of toy mountains and arranging them for a pleasing visual effect. Of course, I viewed all this through a layer of smoke, and the haziness contributed to the dreamlike feeling of it.

Onward and upward. I finally reached 9500 feet, and leveled out to cruise above the smooth white layer of smoke. I noticed an odd optical illusion, where when I looked at something that I thought was level with me, evidence told me it was actually lower. For instance, I would have sworn the smoke layer was level with me as I passed Mt. Shasta, but I knew for a fact that it was between five hundred and a thousand feet below me. The illusion was particularly strong when looking at mountain peaks. I'd spot one that I was sure I'd smack into if I flew over it, and on the chart it said the actual elevation was two thousand feet below me.


Mt. Shasta from 9500 feet, civilization just visible below

Once past Mt. Shasta (which has its own weather station, that I tuned into as I passed), it was over the many-tentacled Shasta Lake, and on to the broad, flat valley that starts at Redding, and continues south all the way to the Grapevine mountains that spread north of LA.

My next stop was at Willows (WLW), which I had initially (ha!) planned to be my first day's stop. It took me nearly 3 hours to fly from Ashland to Willows, and although I could have done it had I launched exactly on schedule, I'm really glad I didn't. The remainder of the flight to Willows was unremarkable except for one thing: the temperature inversion.

As I descended into Willows, the temperature on my $6 aquarium thermometer (with the temperature probe jammed into the little fresh-air vent around ankle level), the temperature slowly climbed from about 20° C at altitude to the high 20s, then there was a palpable spike. I wasn't looking at the meter as I descended, but I could feel it as I passed into the inversion. Suddenly it seemed like it was 10° C hotter.


Willows, CA (WLW)

On the ground in Willows, it was hot and dry. I pulled up to the self serve tank, and filled the plane up. I had been in communication with Glenn, who I was hoping to visit in Placerville (PVF), both to meet him, and to see his airplane. As you can read elsewhere, I'm just starting on a project to build a Marquart Charger biplane, and Glenn is a huge proponent of the type online. When he moved to California as I was planning this trip, it was obvious I'd have to stop in.

So, I launched from Willows just past 11:30 am, and climbed to 7500 feet, as much to escape the heat as anything else. I flew past Sutter Butte, which is an odd sight in the middle of the otherwise completely flat plains of the valley. I had to give Beale Air Force Base a wide berth, as they had a Temporary Flight Restriction around the field, which seems to be pretty much perpetual. Once I was around that, it was direct to Placerville.


Placerville is somewhere in them thar hills

The approach to Placerville was hillier than I'd been expecting. The map shows that it's in the foothills of the mountains, but somehow it doesn't make clear just how hilly it really is. As I dropped down once I was finally sure I had the field in sight (I didn't want to lose altitude until I was sure where I was going to land: the Champ is not a quick climber), I traded radio calls with someone else who was departing, and fought the controls a bit as the wind tossed me around. I braced myself for a difficult landing. It was on the "handful" side of the "easy-peasy:handful" spectrum, but manageable.

As I was tying the plane down, I got a text on my phone: "We're sitting at Norbert's ten o'clock in the open hangar." I walked over and shook hands with Glenn and his wife Judi, and we immediately started into the biplane talk. We've been conversing online for many months as I've sorted out what kind of biplane I wanted to build, and we were immediately comfortable talking planes.


Glenn's Charger

Glenn showed me over his plane, and some of the special touches the builder put in. I sat in the cockpit and noted how I fit -- generally pretty well, though the rudder pedals were a bit closer than I really wanted them, but it's simple enough to get them placed properly while building. My plane will definitely have the pedals in the right spot, and I will hopefully build them in such a way that they can be moved for different pilots (though perhaps not easily).

Glenn kept glancing apprehensively at the windsock on the runway, and I could see why. It would swing back and forth between running directly down the runway (good) and straight across the runway (bad). The fact that it was variable was the worst part of the situation, though. It would make landings in the comparatively twitchy Charger somewhere between "handful" and "disastrous" on the ol' spectrum. "Easy-peasy" was not in the offing. So we decided to go to lunch instead. We had a lovely Mexican lunch at the base of the hill on which the Placerville airport is perched.

Back at the airport, the weather had calmed just enough that Glenn was willing to go flying, so he prepped the plane and pulled it out. I slipped on the flying helmet and goggles, he fired up the engine, and we taxied out to the runway.

The takeoff was interesting: the movements of the plane were much more sharp and definite than the Champ. The tail raised abruptly, and we lifted off very definitely, with none of the "yeah, sure, I guess" feeling the Champ conveys. Of course, it's got 60 additional HP (150 vs. the Champ's 90), and only weighs a hundred or two hundred pounds more.

We climbed for a minute or two, chatting over the intercom as we flew. My microphone was quiet, so I found myself covering the mic with my hand and leaning forward to avoid the wind noise that constantly threatened to drown me out.

Glenn gave me control of the plane, and I did some gentle maneuvers -- we were both feeling full of heavy Mexican food, so aerobatics were definitely not in the cards -- getting a feel for the plane. For the short time that I flew it, it was very pleasant and really just felt like an airplane. There was nothing surprising about it, it just did what I asked it to do. I wasn't willing to wrench it around between my lack of experience and our full bellies, but my time at the stick was pleasant.

I noticed that I also felt much more in control than my last open-cockpit flight, in Oregon with Dave in his Starduster. Not that anything was substantially different beween the Charger and the Starduster; I think the big difference was between my ears. I was much more mentally prepared this time, I think.

When we were back down, they offered me a place for the night in their spare room, which was a very tempting offer (particularly as I thought back on the night half-awake in a tent in Ashland). However, I felt a powerful urge to keep moving: LA was still over 300 miles away, and I needed to cover more distance.

So, I bade them a fond farewell, and went back to my plane. I filled it up with gas as the wind gusted around me, and taxied out to the runway. Glenn and Judi were right behind me, bound for an ice cream social at a nearby airpark. It was funny to watch their short flight on my ADS-B display, which shows a map overlaid with my route, and other airplanes in the air around me. I took off just before 5:30 pm and aimed myself southward for somewhere between Fresno and Bakersfield.

My destination wasn't exactly set in stone. I'd targeted Porterville (PTV), which has the cheapest fuel in the area, but the GPS remained insistent that I would arrive about 15 minutes after sundown. Since the plane isn't legal to fly at night, I considered my other options. Cell coverage came and went at random in the air, and I tried several times to look up the local airports online as I flew. I finally got my search result back, and decided on very little information to try for Mefford Field (TLR) in Tulare. The fuel price (five cents per gallon higher than PTV) was the only definite fact I had, but I assumed based on its size and location that there would be facilities like a bathroom available. The GPS said I'd be there just before sunset, so I decided that was good enough.

Flying a plane built in 1956 when you're my size is always a compromise. Planes were built for the size of the average person at the time, which was about a 5' 7" man who weighed 150 lbs. I am... larger than this. The problem I was really running into was that my legs are longer than the stretch to the pedal was designed to accomodate. Add to this that my body has started getting painfully stiff in the knees if I sit in one position for too long, and there was a recipe for some trouble.

I had discovered as I flew down to Ashland that I could cross my legs around the control stick, though this left the problem of cruise rudder: the plane needs a pretty constant 3 or so pounds of pressure on the right rudder pedal. It's not a lot, but if it's not there, the plane flies a bit crooked (or "uncoordinated" in pilots' parlance). An uncoordinated plane is basically flying with one side to the wind, which makes everything less efficient and increases drag by a lot.

The thing I realized as I sat there with crossed legs was that the rudder pedals for the passenger (who sits behind the pilot) are right next to the pilot's seat. I could drop my hands right onto the rudder pedal on either side of my seat. So, I just added that rudder pressure with my right hand while I flew with my left. It was hard to coordinate the controls, but I worked on it as I flew and slowly got better.

Crossed legs didn't solve the problem that I really wanted to straighten my legs, but at least it resolved the issue of keeping my knees in only one position for the entire flight.


I think those are house boats

Flying over the hills toward Mefford, I passed a number of lakes that seemed to have a series of house boats on them. There was no obvious way to get to or from the house boats, so I'm not sure what the deal was with them. Perhaps there was some kind of water taxi available.

I had a small monocular (basically a compact telescope) with me, and it came in handy any number of times to identify things on the ground, or occasionally other planes. Telescopic examination of the little white dots on the lake suggested they were house boats, mostly because I couldn't imagine what else would be shaped that way.

Soon enough I was past the hills and back out over the flat valley plain. It was another race with the sun, but the sun had a dirty trick up its sleeve: as I went further south, sunset got earlier and earlier. Still, I was once again able to get my wheels on the ground a few minutes before the sun completely disappeared below the horizon.


Norbert faced by a large crop duster the next morning

Mefford Field was not really what I was expecting, though it made perfect sense for where I was. There was a self-serve tank, and I'd noted a sign for Johnston Aviation pointing the opposite direction of where I was going. But other than that, there was a small crowd of very distinctive looking agricultural spraying planes: crop dusters, and not much else. There was no FBO (fixed base operator, the jargon for the typical pilot services business found on most airstrips), and it became increasingly obvious that I would have no access to a bathroom. I picked a tiedown spot that was further away from the lights, and noted with interest the dust skittering away in the wind as I pulled the chains out of their recesses in the pavement to hook the plane to the ground.

Tied down, I pitched my tent, suddenly aware of the noise of the freeway only a couple hundred feet away. The pavement radiated heat, adding to the heat that was already in the air -- I took a picture with the thermometer in the background, blurrily showing what I think is 37° C (98° F). I am not a great fan of heat, and I knew it was going to be an uncomfortable night. I thought harder about finding a hotel in nearby Tulare (pronounced "to-larry"), but laziness overcame me. I washed my face off at a hose attached to one of the hangars, and did my best to sleep on my thankfully insulated sleeping pad.

Next: Over the Grapevine and flying with David

Posted at 21:04 permanent link category: /aviation


Fri, 18 Aug 2017

Taking That Long Cross-Country

Last year, I took a long cross-country flight in a rented Piper Warrior, from Seattle to Mono Lake in California, just east of Yosemite National Park, about as far south as San Francisco. It was a cool trip, but it was breathtakingly expensive at $130 per hour plus tax.


Norbert

So this year, when I found myself the owner of a 1956 Champion 7EC (known affectionately as Norbert, after the dragon hatched by Hagrid in the first Harry Potter story), it occurred to me that I should look at another long cross-country. I fixed my sights on Los Angeles, so that I could visit my brother: we rarely get to spend any time together, and when we do, it's always in the context of a family gathering like Thanksgiving or Christmas.

I just returned from the flight (like, this evening -- I should be taking a shower and going to bed, instead I'm sitting here writing), and wanted to relay some of the more interesting parts.

I planned to take a week to make the trip: I'd fly down on Saturday and Sunday, hopefully stopping in Placerville to visit a friend who has a Marquart Charger biplane. David (my brother) and I would hang out for a couple of days, go flying, etc., and I'd return later in the week, again taking two days. I'd take a week off from work to accomplish all this, and hopefully have a few days at the end to recuperate.

As the time was running out to my week's scheduled vacation, Seattle welcomed (if that's the right term) a choking haze of forest fire smoke from nearly 100 fires burning in the interior of British Columbia to the north. I tried going flying the weekend before I was to leave, and basically had to turn around and land after half an hour -- the smoke just kept getting thicker, until I didn't feel I could safely fly through it any more. I just couldn't see well enough.

So there was some anxiety about my ability to leave on Saturday morning as planned. Fortunately, the weather seemed to be on my side, and late Friday night, a westerly wind came in and started clearing the smoke. Of course, in its place, it left a low overcast, so my start on Saturday was still delayed for three hours, waiting for the clouds to lift a bit.


Packed to the gills, I say!

I was eventually able to take off on Saturday, the plane packed relatively to the gills with Stuff: I was planning to pitch a tent next to the plane on my overnight stops rather than finding a hotel and doing all the phoning and taxicab riding necessary for that eventuality. I'd realized when I got to the detailed planning that there was no way I'd make it to LA in two days if I was going to stop and hang out to talk biplanes for half a day, so the plan was now to stop the first day in Ashland, near the Oregon-California border, and again somewhere in the valley, between Fresno and Bakersfield.

Norbert, being a Champ 7EC, is not what you would call a speed demon. In perfect conditions, it cruises at about 85 MPH. If you're trying to burn all the gas as fast as possible, it'll cruise up to 105 MPH, but the plane is perceptibly unhappy at that speed. So I banked on about 85, forgetting about (or, perhaps, imagining improbably favorable) wind.


Downtown Seattle is somewhere out there in the haze

So, I launched in the early afternoon of Saturday. The smoke was still a distinct presence as I left, and it would become a running theme of the trip.

I ended up recording time-lapse video of the entire trip, which will be posted later, once I've had a chance to catch my breath a bit.

The first leg would take me from Snohomish, north of Seattle, to Stark's Twin Oaks Airpark (7S3; every airport has a code, like SEA for SeaTac, or PDX for Portland International), in Hillsboro, OR. I had planned on about two and a half hours, and it ended up taking almost three. I planned to fly the route at 9500 feet to save fuel (the plane is more efficient the higher it flies) without giving sufficient thought to the wind at different altitudes. I averaged 70 MPH on that leg. The only reason it went any faster than driving a car is that I could fly in a straight line, and didn't have traffic to deal with.


Mt. Rainier in smoke

Once at Twin Oaks, I fueled up and ate half the sandwich I'd brought. After too much dithering, I bought a quart of oil after I used the quart I'd brought with me, then I was off again, bound for Roseburg (RBG).

The flight down to Roseburg was unremarkable, except for the continued presence of the smoke. There were particular altitudes where it was concentrated the strongest, and flying through them smelled like someone had turned campfire smoke into a candy, and I was smelling the result. It was pleasant and nostalgic and vaguely disturbing all at the same time.


Dashcam shot of the industrial fuel pumps at RBG as I taxied up

Roseburg was a cool little airport, just off I-5, and tucked neatly between all the hills. As I flew the traffic pattern to come in for a landing, I was very nearly level with some rich-looking houses on a hill west of the field. I found myself wondering if those rich people had expected to have ratty small plane pilots looking in their windows all day, when they bought their fancy house on the hill. Refuelling at Roseburg was bizarre, as the fuel pump looked like something designed by a Windows 95 screensaver, and it took me almost ten minutes to figure out how to actually ground the plane, turn on the pump, and pump my gas. The only reason I made it under ten minutes is there was an airport geezer (this is a term of affection for people who hang out at airports watching the planes come and go) who came over and offered his insights into the industrial-looking system. I regret not taking a picture, but I was in a hurry. (Update: found a shot of it in the time-lapse footage!)

Norbert is an odd plane in one way: it has navigation lights and a landing light, but it doesn't have a rotating beacon or strobe light. You need at least nav and either beacon or strobe to be legal to fly at night, so Norbert is not technically night-legal. There's no one around who would bust me for it, but I make every effort to not fly in the dark.


A smoky sunset from the air near Ashland

The reason I was in a hurry leaving Roseburg was that by my calculations, I could just barely reach Ashland (S03) by sunset, which is the legal limit for this plane. I'd previously called the airport, and gotten permission to pitch a tent there (other airports I called all gave me a very CYA "no camping allowed" response, with various poorly-reasoned excuses offered along with the official policy).

So I poured on the meager coal (Norbert is not a powerhouse), and shaved a corner off my flight from Roseburg to Ashland: I'd planned to follow I-5 (giving me a convenient if highly dangerous emergency landing strip -- I plan every flight for the contingency of the engine giving out, since I've only got one), which would have meant flying to Grants Pass (3S8), then onward to Medford (MFR) and Ashland. I decided instead to go up to 9500 feet, giving me extra clearance over the mountain peaks, and fly directly from Roseburg to Medford. I lost the safety net of having the freeway nearby, but it meant I would make it to Ashland before sunset.

Once I was committed to my path, I started to question my own judgement. The smoke was pretty thick, and the sun angling through it from near the horizon made it completely opaque to the west. I could still see to the south, in my direction of travel, but when I looked west to spot the comforting ribbon of I-5, the smoke shook its proverbial head and said, DENIED! I pressed onward.


Rogue Valley International through the smoke

It was with some relief that I spotted Medford's Rogue Valley International Airport (MFR). The mountains I crossed to get there were particularly forbidding-looking in the smoke. I told Air Traffic Control that I was going to descend to below the smoke deck, since the remaining distance to Ashland would pass quickly. I kept glancing behind me and at the clock, and managed to get wheels down in Ashland just as the sun dipped below the horizon. I was within a minute of arriving too late. After having left Seattle three hours late, I was astounded the timing had worked out so well.

I gassed up the plane and pitched my tent behind a hangar, trying to get myself away from all the sodium-vapor lights around the airport, and the rotating beacon (a green and white rotating light that advertises a land airport to the night flyer, but also sweeps the airport grounds every few seconds). The Ashland layout was pretty nice: there was a bathroom available, and the tiedown fee was a mere $7 per night. There was even a picnic table, at which I had the other half of my sandwich for a late dinner.

It was with contentment at my accomplishment that I lay my weary head down to sleep, and listened to the crickets going mad in the dark around me.

Next: the flight to Placerville, and flying a Marquart Charger biplane

Posted at 22:19 permanent link category: /aviation


Sat, 29 Jul 2017

Building a Biplane: Boring Video Edition

If you're following along this journey because you're maybe going to do it yourself, or you really want to know the nitty-gritty of how an airplane is built, have I got a treat for you! If you're just kind of interested but not that interested, probably skip this one.

Posted at 23:34 permanent link category: /charger


The Time Has Finally Arrived

When I bought my Ninja 250 in 2006, I knew it wouldn't last forever. I didn't know what might be around when it came time to replace it, but I know the answer now. The Littlest Ninja started smoking recently, indicating some form of semi-advanced oil usage, and I have neither time nor inclination to tear the engine down and overhaul it.

So, it's time to look at the small-bike market. And what a market it is!

Kawasaki has kept the dream somewhat alive, with the Ninja 300. It's fuel-injected now, and no longer looks like it was designed in the late 80s. Yamaha has entered the ring, with the YZF-R3. I've never owned a Yamaha, so this is especially interesting. Honda has the CBR300. And, somewhat unexpectedly, KTM has the 390 Duke.

I start with my obvious biases: I like twins. Single-cylinder bikes have never appealed much to me. Three- and four-cylinder machines are fine, but usually have too little torque and too much rev to make good 250cc class street bikes. Twins seem like the right configuration at this particular size. However, I'm going to withhold judgement with the KTM, since it's a single, and I've read overwhelmingly positive stuff about it.

I recently took a trip with a friend, where we traded off between my Ninja 250 and my SV650 (which is how I spotted the smoking, as I followed the Ninja) on a long weekend of riding. It was an informative weekend: he's riding a Harley Sportster now, and was stunned at how easy life is on a more upright bike. He also confirmed what I've long thought: although the SV is a great bike, there's something very engaging about the Ninja, and it's both more interesting and more enjoyable to ride.

So my inclination is to stick with something very 250-ish with the new bike. The Honda Grom and the Kawasaki Z125 are very interesting looking, but don't hold out any promise of being distance bikes, and I will continue to take multi-hundred-mile trips on whatever is my next bike.

With this in mind, I went out to one of the local testosterone-parlors and tried my hand at a Ninja 300 and a YZF-R3 (they'll call me when a 390 Duke shows up, apparently they're hard to find at the moment). Each bike I rode was a used example, the R3 being from 2015, and the Ninja from a similar vintage, though I didn't note the exact year.

The YZF-R3

I rode the R3 first. My initial impression was very favorable. A narrow tank and light perceived weight while sitting still were very Ninja 250-like. I liked the instrument cluster, with its 180 degree tachometer. I really like that it has two headlights, and when the high beam goes on, the low beam stays illuminated. More light, as they say, is better. It also has the turn-signal lights on all the time as markers. Points to the Yamaha for lighting. None of them are LEDs that I noticed, so demerits there, but not terrible.

Upon starting the bike, the impression went down a little bit. The engine sounded oddly clunky, and the throttle cable was hugely loose without any obvious way to adjust it. Obviously this is a used bike, so I'm not placing any real weight on the loose cable, but the fact that I couldn't figure out how to tighten it was a little distressing.

The suspension felt good sitting still, which is a major improvement over the stock Ninja 250: I had to spend $800 or so upgrading the suspension to make it feel like I wasn't riding a children's toy. The tool compartment under the passenger's seat is miniscule, which is disappointing considering how much space could be offered there. It doesn't have any sort of grab bar, which seems like an odd ommission.

Once rolling, I noticed a thing which became a running theme: the clutch starts its engagement smoothly enough, but right at the end, I had a very hard time not jolting as it went from slipping to fully engaged. It became distressing as the ride went on, and one out of four shifts was distinctly abrupt. However, the gearbox was smooth and precise and very nice to use.

In coming to a stop, I noticed that the front brake engages with a sharp bite, though it's not unusually powerful once it's engaged. The front suspension had an odd clunking feeling as I tried to come to a smooth stop, as if I was completely lifting off a set of springs as it uncompressed. I noticed this several times, enough that it was a little distracting.

On the brief stretch of freeway I rode, the amount of heat sweeping past my legs was impressive. The Ninja 250 blows air under the seat, making it uncomfortably hot, and I'm not sure which I dislike more.

Interestingly, after riding both bikes and getting back on my 250, I realized that none of them was noticeably more powerful. This was surprising, since on paper at least, both the R3 and the Ninja 300 have considerably more oomph than the 250. It may be that with my grr-grunt break-in procedure (lots of high-pressure action inside the cylinders, and progressively longer heat cycles, avoiding any thought of RPM), my 250 is simply an unusually powerful example, and the used bikes I was riding were broken in per the factory method.

My overall impression of the R3 was that it was very Ninja 250-like (a good thing), with a considerably sharper clutch and transmission. The suspension was a bit soft, and the rest of the bike was about the same. If I were buying a race bike, the R3 would be at the top of the list, particularly with some suspension upgrades.

The Ninja 300

Getting on the Ninja after the R3, the first thing I noticed is that it feels distinctly heavier sitting still. According to Wikipedia, the Ninja is indeed 17 pounds heavier, but it felt like more than that. I assume it keeps its weight up a little higher, which contributes to a perception of weight at a standstill.

The particular bike I rode was customized by the previous owner, so I was treated to adjustable shorty levers on the handlebars (bright pink!), and an aftermarket CF muffler with a distinctly blatty sound. I also realized, as I rode along, that the handlbars were twisted to the right about 10° from where they should be. Based on this, I rode more gingerly than I might have otherwise done. I had no desire to find out what else about the bike might not be completely straight. Fortunately, it showed no bad habits as I rode; the handlebars were just a little disconcerting.

I immediately noticed that the clutch was much more pleasant to use. No abrupt jolt at the end of engagement. The gearbox was also about half-way between the mushy clunk-box in the 250 and the scalpel I'd found in the R3. Had I ridden the Ninja 300 first, I would have been impressed, but after the R3 it felt a bit disappointing. Still, it worked fine, and would not dissuade me from owning a Ninja 300.

The instrument cluster on the 300 is a little disappointing. For some reason, they have set up the tachometer with about a 100 degree sweep (it's more than that, but it feels very limited), so that it's hard to tell what the needle is pointing at. It includes a fuel gauge, but no indication of engine temperature (the R3 has engine temperature, and also fuel efficiency, along with a better tach; points to the R3 for instruments, without question).

On the heat issue, I noticed a little heat sweeping past my legs on the freeway, but not a huge amount like on the R3. It seemed better controlled, and much less present.

I was again surprised to find that the 300 is not much more powerful than my 250. I assume this is something where the difference would make itself known as I rode it less conciously. I think I was expecting a really substantial power increase over the 250, and that just wasn't there. I also have to keep in mind that these were used bikes, with over 4000 (R3) and 2000 (Ninja) miles on the clock. A new, properly broken-in bike may be a different matter.

I was almost unaware of the suspension on the Ninja 300, so I'll call that a win. I did bounce the front once at a stoplight, and found none of the clunking like I'd felt on the R3. It just felt smooth and solid. The feeling of solidity continued on the freeway, where the 300 felt a bit more planted than the R3, but only barely. Neither bike would excite any comment except for the odd clunk coming to a stop on the R3. The 300 also felt slightly better sprung for someone of my relatively heavy weight.

My overall impression of the Ninja 300 was that it was a bigger, more refined bike than the R3. This is not necessarily a positive thing, as one of the things I really like about the 250 is that it feels just a little toy-like, as if it shouldn't be as awesome as it actually is. The Ninja 300 felt a bit like moving from a small but sporty car like a Miata to a heavier sporty car, like a mid-range BMW.

The Intangibles

There are some on-paper specs that matter to me. Probably the biggest one is fuel range. Reports I've read suggest that the R3 will expect to get fuel efficiency in the 50-60 MPG range. The Ninja 300 is supposed to get up into the 60s, even to 70 if you're riding very gently. The R3 has a tank capacity of 3.7 US gallons, and the Ninja has a tank capacity of 4.5 US gallons. This all boils down to the fact that the Ninja will have about 50-70 miles more useable range than the R3 if they're ridden with equal spirit. That's a lot, when you're looking at 200 vs. 270. Many are the times I would have been happy to have another 50 miles available before refuelling, and that is a compelling thing.

Kawasaki has a long, long, looong track record with small street bikes. The first Ninja 250 came out in 1986, and by the time my 2006 was purchased, they'd probably paid off the tooling 15 years previously. Yamaha has been making small bikes for a long time too, but not in this particular format. I feel like they've done a great deal of work on single-cylinder engines for dirt bikes and dual-purpose bikes, and I don't know how well that translates to this kind of baby twin track bike. This is probably a minor issue, but it's one that occurs to me.

I haven't made any firm decisions. I really can't, until I've tried out the 390 Duke. It comes so highly recommended that I would be foolish to act without giving it a chance. So, I must wait patiently until whatever import issue is sorted out, to give the Austrian contender a chance. I'm very curious to see what I think.

Posted at 17:14 permanent link category: /motorcycle


Tue, 18 Jul 2017

Building a Biplane: Makin' Ribs

With the completion of rib #5 (of 44) last night, I've entered the phase of building where things get kind of boring. It's still enjoyable and gratifying work, but it's hard to describe to anyone else in a way that makes it sound interesting. So, when you get bored half-way through this description, I won't be offended if you wander off to look at cat pictures or something.

I've built up my kit of parts, and am progressing through the ribs. I'm building the -293 (the part number, pronounced "dash two nine three") ribs now, and will be discarding the first two for various technical faults. There are sixteen -293 ribs, and the Skybolt builder I visited in Oregon advised me to have at least one spare built up and on hand, so I have 14 to go.

Each rib takes about an hour and a half to build. I had hoped they'd go quicker with the kit ready, but I guess that's what they take. I don't want to rush, since rushing just leads to mistakes. It's a ten-year project anyway, so a difference of half an hour per rib is absolutely inconsequential.

The procedure I'm following now is as follows. First, I put the nose piece and all the truss pieces into the jig. Some of the pieces need to be trimmed slightly on the sander, but some just drop into place. Then, lay out the gussets for each joint. Mark the gussets' positions with pencil so I know how far out to put glue. Wipe down all the sanded plywood surfaces with MEK to remove dust. At this point the compressor is already at pressure, and the stapler has a full load of staples. The two gussets that overlay the nose piece need to be trimmed beforehand, but the remainder get trimmed with the router once they're stapled down.

Now, mix the glue. I was trying the "squirt out N equal lines of each" method, but kept coming up short on the hardener, as marked by uneven levels in the bottles. T-88 epoxy should be mixed 1:1 by volume, or 100:83 by weight. Since my volume attempts were noticeably off, I switch to weight, and have been happy with the result. The $9 drug-dealer scale on Amazon is perfect for this task.

Once the glue is mixed, you have 30 minutes before it starts to thicken and get hard to work with. That's just enough time to carefully coat each joint in glue, coat each gusset in glue, position the gussets, and staple them down, working one joint at a time. I'm careful to align the gussets such that they don't impinge on the space for the spar (the rectangular openings near the ends of the rib). Any excess glue I see gets wiped up with a disposable rag.

Once all the gussets for a side are glued and stapled, the rib comes out and goes over to the router table, where I trim down any gussets that overlap the outer edge of the rib. Have to wipe the glue off the joint first, so as not to gum up the router blade too badly. The rib is then flipped over, and the same MEK wipe/mark/glue/staple/cleanup/router routine happens again on the flip side. The single rib in the photo above has just come off the router table after its flip-side gussets were attached.

So it's not the most challenging of work to do, but it is definitely satisfying to see the stack of ribs grow one by one. I need to figure out a better storage solution than just stacking them on a shelf, but that's what I've got for now. Before you know it, I'll be swimming in ribs, and trying hard not to damage them.

Posted at 14:05 permanent link category: /charger


Tue, 04 Jul 2017

Building a Biplane: Building Your Own Kit


A completed rib for the Charger

The Marquart Charger is typical of most amateur-built biplanes in that it doesn't have a kit. You get a bunch of sheets of paper with ink marks on them, and your wits. If you're really lucky (I'm not), there's some variety of build manual to give you a hint how to do things.

I am very fortunate that I have the Biplane Forum (where I'm known as IanJ) as a backup, and between reading existing threads and information, and asking questions, I get about as much support as if I had a designer I could call. Unfortunately Ed Marquart, who designed the Charger, passed away in 2007, so calling him is not an option (though I understand he was a very helpful guy).

Because there's no kit for the Charger, I get to make everything myself. However, that doesn't mean that I completely ignore the kit world. For instance, I can take some of their ideas, and make them my own.


Eight little rib noses, ready to go

This weekend's idea that I'm taking for my own is to produce my own mini-"kit" of parts to build ribs. It's hardly revoluionary, but it will give me a little taste of what a kit-builder's life is like, as I take nearly-finished parts from their labelled containers, and put them together with a minimum of fuss to crank out completed ribs. It also satisfies my slightly OCD heart to be able to bag and tag parts and keep them perfectly organized to facilitate the task.

So, I've cut out 15 of each truss-piece, and 15 top- and bottom-pieces, and will soon have 15 nose pieces cut out, and enough 1/16" plywood gussets cut to make the remaining 15 ribs of the first type (there are around 60 ribs in total, so this is nowhere near finished, but it's a start). Then I can knock out a rib an hour, or maybe even faster. It's debatable if this actually saves me much time in the grand scheme of things, but it's a little bit more efficient to mass-produce some parts, then use them later.

As I've finally been able to tell people, "I'm building an airplane," and now, finally finally finally, it's actually true.

Posted at 22:40 permanent link category: /charger


Thu, 29 Jun 2017

Imagine A World...

Scene: INTERIOR DAY, a corporate restroom, clean but not conspicuously so.

Establishing shot of a men's restroom sign, with a small icon figure of a man on it.

SFX: The sound of urine splashing into a toilet bowl.

CUT TO slow dolly shot past several empty urinals. Brief CUT TO tasteful but slightly flickering flourescent lights above.

V/O: [In the style of super-dramatic "In A World..." preview voiceovers] The year is twenty-seventeen. [PAUSE] And we still haven't figured out how not to piss on the seat.

CUT BACK TO slow dolly, which stops on a sit-down toilet. A man of average build, dressed in business casual, facing away from the camera, is standing in front of it, relieving himself. The seat can be seen beyond his legs, and it is down. Close-up of him zipping up his zipper and fastening his belt as he turns away to leave. We never see his face.

SFX: Footsteps and door close as he leaves without washing his hands. Different footsteps approach.

Semi-wide handheld shot showing the toilet from average man height, as if we are coming to use the toilet. A few yellow droplets are scattered on the seat.

CUT TO close-up of a man's face slightly from below, which goes from blank to mild disgust.

MAN: Ugh.

Fade to black.

VFX: Black-background with white lettering: Don't be that guy.

Posted at 14:13 permanent link category: /misc


Tue, 27 Jun 2017

Building a Biplane: Finally, A Real Airplane Part

As the clock rolled past 10 pm, and bedtime was looming, I mixed up the second batch of epoxy, and set to work. I had been working for the last hour and a half making the final preparation for finishing off the first Real Airplane Part of my build: a wing rib.

It all started, for the purposes of this story, on March 19th, 2017, when I placed the order for the 1/4" capstrip and aircraft-grade plywood that would make up the majority of the materials needed to build the wing ribs. Wing ribs are the airfoil shaped pieces that are parallel to the airflow over a wing, and give it the correctly shaped cross-section. There are around 60 in the Marquart Charger, in a variety of forms.

I ordered the capstrip knowing it would take a while to arrive, but I didn't imagine it would take as long as it did: almost exactly three months. Still, I had a plan to use up some of that time productively, as previously documented. I would build up the templates and jigs that would enable me to build ribs once I had all the materials on hand.


In-progress rib jig

After about two months of waiting with gradually decreasing patience, I went out to a local hardwood retailer (with huge eyes, and massive self-restraint) and bought a few sticks of wonderfully tight-grained Douglas Fir. This was cut down into 1/4" sticks which would fill in until the proper Spruce arrived. I used this and the previously created nose template to make up a gloriously fake rib jig (seen above in progress).

Finally, the day arrived, and my order from Wicks arrived: a selection of mahogany plywood (1/16", 1/8" and 1/4" thick -- imagine for a moment 1/16" plywood, that's less than 2mm thick), my 650 feet of 1/4" capstrip, and some random spruce blocks that will doubtless come in handy in the future.

Still, I couldn't leap in like I might have wanted to: my schedule was packed to the gills with other projects -- I hadn't known when the wood would ship, and wasn't going to put my life on hold waiting. So, I had some theatrical engagements take up my evenings, and a weekend of lovely weather saw us painting the outside of the garage rather than me working on ribs inside it.

The process also ended up taking longer than I had expected, with more setbacks than I had anticipated: cutting plywood for the gussets with a razor knife, the tip of the knife broke off without me realizing it, and I spent some very unproductive minutes scraping unsharpened steel against the final ply; mixing the glue demonstrated that my glue-dispensing skills are rusty (it needs to be mixed 1:1 to work right); cutting template pieces out of cardboard proved useful, but took more than an hour; and the staple gun started misfiring until I realized I'd never oiled it (it's brand new). I had cut the sticks for the rib last week, so I spent two evenings this week just getting the gussets and staple gun sorted out.


Completed wing rib

Still, last night I was able to hold up a completed wing rib for the first time ever. It's only the first of about a zillion pieces, and more head-scratching than I care to think about. I may not even use it in the plane as I answer my own questions about glue mixture and staple placement. But it's done, and I've taken the first real step on the path to building a biplane.

How do you eat an elephant? Well, one bite at a time.

Posted at 16:13 permanent link category: /charger


Tue, 13 Jun 2017

Comparing Bikes

My friend A. came over the other day to test-ride motorcycles with me. He's been riding a modified Harley 883 Sportster for either most or all of his motorcycling life, but is considering moving to a V-Strom 1000 soon. I have a Ninja 250 and an SV650, and the SV in particular seemed like a useful thing to ride before getting into a V-Strom, being based on the same engine.

We started him off with the Ninja, on the theory that it makes more sense to radically shift riding position without having to worry about a motorcycle that would also like to leap into action. He found it reasonably comfortable, obviously not overpowered, but also not underpowered. The idea of an engine that spends its entire life revving faster than his own bike's redline was a bit mindblowing, but we did a good circuit around Ballard, and it worked well. He appreciated how easy it was to negotiate turns, and how generally effortless the bike was to ride.

There's a stretch of interesting, twisty road from Golden Gardens to the ridge above it, and we rode that several times as he got a feel for the bike. We pulled over on Crown Hill to switch mounts, and he went off for a quick low-speed toddle around some neighborhood streets on the SV, to get a feel for it before we launched into traffic. Upon his return, he said, "It feels like an angry demon between your legs!" I grinned and said, "Yup." The SV is a considerably hotter bike than the Ninja.

We did the same route, going through some traffic and stop-and-go, and then up the road above Golden Gardens. Again, repeating several times. After he'd done that a few times, we swapped back again, and he re-rode the road (say that five times fast) on the Ninja. I thought his comment at this point was very interesting: "The Ninja takes a lot more work to ride the same route."

The reason that's interesting is that to me, the Ninja takes less work. You certainly have to plan a bit more, and it doesn't have the effortless handling of the SV, but the SV is much more willing and ready to get you in trouble if your attention lapses for a second. If you want to ride around with traffic (the vast majority of my riding), the Ninja is a far easier bike to control. If you want to blast along twisty mountain roads, I still think the Ninja is easier, though it's probably my decade-plus familiarity with the bike that gives me that feeling.

We finished with some freeway riding, including a delightful long on-ramp that gives you a chance to unwind a bike safely -- something the SV absolutely requires if you want to experience its engine's full potential for a few seconds. This is another reason I have long preferred the Ninja: just getting on the freeway with spirit requires more or less 100% performance from the bike, and you're going 60. Using the same control inputs on the SV would rocket you up to 100 MPH before you were sure what was happening. If you're not paying close and careful attention, the SV is deadly. The Ninja is a bike you can wring out on a regular basis, and still be going more or less safe traffic speeds.

We rolled back to the house, and A. got on his trusty Harley to head for home. Before he did, his comment to me was, "Time to get back on the pig..." He sent a text later describing the ride home as feeling like he was trying to guide a drunken friend along the sidewalk -- you're pretty sure he'll make it, but have to hope he won't make too big a fool of you. I'm sure A. is going to enjoy his V Strom when it arrives.

Posted at 10:22 permanent link category: /motorcycle


Mon, 01 May 2017

Building a Biplane: The First (Almost) Real Part

I have just finished the first physical part that is very nearly a real airplane part, in my nascent project to build a Marquart Charger biplane.

As I mentioned last time, I'm going to start on the ribs. In the intervening time, I've gotten the floor painted, built my (first) worktable, and started moving stuff in to the garage. I also acquired my welding equipment, but that's a topic for a different post.

The worktable, conveniently, is built with a 3/4" MDF top surface. It's 33" by 8', so there was a convenient strip of MDF left over from that project. I've now measured and marked the airfoil coordinates onto a piece of that MDF for the rib jig, but lacking 1/4" wood, had to set it aside for a moment. I am not going to print out the rib from the plans at full scale, since I've already found a couple of minor drafting errors, and will work off the printed measurements instead. To some extent, the exact dimensions of the internal structure of the rib isn't very important, and long as it's consistent between ribs. I will naturally be striving to be as close to plans as possible, but there's likely to come a time when I'll have to choose between how it's drawn, and how it's measured.

In any case, lacking the capstrip, but having the MDF, I decided to proceed with the rib nose template. This ended up being (like probably every single thing I do on this project) easier said than done.

First, I grabbed a sheet of graph paper, and measured out the coordinates of the airfoil, as far as the nose would go, and drew it out with the help of a somewhat precariously grasped steel ruler to approximate the curves between points. I also discovered that my graph paper grid was neither quite exactly straight nor quite exactly 1/4" per square. So, marginal. Still, it looked nice on paper.

One problem quickly presented itself, though: what was up with these notches? The nosepiece is notched with 1/4" by 3/8" cutouts, for stringers that run along the leading edge, supporting the sheet of thin aluminum that makes up the leading edge of the wing. But the stringers called out in the later plans were 3/8" by 3/8", not 1/4" by 3/8". Hmm. I asked the question on the Biplane Forum, and the general consensus was that since I was planning on plywood leading edges anyway (generally stiffer and more resilient than aluminum, though probably a touch heavier than the very thin Al called for in the plans), I could just omit the stringers. The plywood would be plenty strong enough to support itself without stringers. Also, bonus: one less order of expensive spruce to buy.

So, that bit of mental gymnastics out of the way, I decided to draw out the nosepiece in CAD, so I could be 100% sure I had the airfoil shape right. One of the comments in the thread pointed me to airfoiltools.com, which gave me a plot of 80 points of the NACA 2412 airfoil that the Charger uses. I saved that list of points to a file (here if you want it), and wrote a quick Python script, which turned into a quick FreeCAD macro (here, but you'll need to modify the file location to suit your installation) that draws out the airfoil for you. If there's enough interest, I may update that macro to handle other airfoils, but at the moment it just does the one.

Anyway, I now had a way to quickly and easily draw a correct NACA 2412 airfoil in FreeCAD, but making the nosepiece shape was more complicated. I ended up spending about 5 hours farting around trying to make FreeCAD do what I wanted, before I figured it out (email me if you want details, it's too far into the weeds for this post). Of course, now that I've figured out how to do it, I can make the nosepiece in about 10 minutes.

All that work resulted in this PDF file of the drawing, which, if you print it out at 100% scale (it slightly overprints on Letter size paper, but the nosepiece is all there), gives you a 100% size, accurate drawing of the nosepiece.

Finally, finally, I was ready to make the MDF template. I carefully cut out the template from the printed sheet, and glued it down to the MDF. The jigsaw took away most of the excess, except on the inside edge, where I couldn't quite turn quickly enough, and had to leave a big chunk. I busted out the files, and started the long, tedious work of filing down the last little bit of MDF to exactly match the printout.

Two hours later, I was the comparatively proud owner of one rib nose template, lovingly handcrafted out of artisanal fiberboard.

This will be the master template, from which I'll use the router to make a copy in MDF, which will then be used to cut out actual rib nosepieces. The master will get locked away somewhere safe, so that if I mess up the copy template, I can make another one that will hopefully be exactly the same. It's a good theory, anyway.

It's nice, finally, to be making airplane parts (or very nearly airplane parts). The build feels like it's almost started. Only 11 years after I first started thinking seriously about it. As occurs to me every time I ponder it, if I had only started then, I'd be done by now!

Posted at 22:32 permanent link category: /charger


Tue, 18 Apr 2017

Leveling Up

I recently had the opportunity to level-up my airplane game: changing a tire.

I've changed many a tire on motorcycle, bicycle, and once or twice on a car, but changing a tire on an airplane was a new experience. I can see why the FAA allows pilots to do it: it's surprisingly easy.

On a motorcycle with a tubeless tire (which has been a lot of my experience), you have to employ a distressing amount of force to unseat the bead, and getting the tire fully on the rim can be a surprising amount of work as well. Seating the bead is an exercise in "Will it explode and kill me?" as you apply 80 PSI to a tire rated for 40, and it slides into place with two loud BANG! noises.

An airplane, on the other hand, is a gentle, simple affair. You jack up the landing gear leg (simple on the Champ I was working on, my 1956 Champion 7EC), undo the axle nut, and pull the wheel off (carefully placing the bearings to the side, to be cleaned, inspected, and repacked with grease). The tire is deflated first, just in case the axle nut was the only thing holding it together. Then you undo the three bolts holding the wheel halves together, and pull them out of the tire. No force required, it just all gently comes apart.

In my case, I was missing some key components, so the process took much longer than it should have. I didn't have replacement cotter pins (special aviation cotter pins are required, though at 17 cents apiece, they don't exactly break the bank), so I had to walk over to the maintenance hangar and spend $1.80 on 10. After I took the wheel halves apart, looking over the bolts that hold the halves together, I wasn't entirely convinced they were aviation-grade hardware, so another walk to the maintenance hangar, and $20 later, I had a complete set of replacement hardware for both wheels.

As it came time to re-assemble the wheel with the new tire in place, it became obvious that I was missing a torque wrench, so I toddled off to Harbor Freight to blow $22 on a small clicker wrench in inch-pounds -- the one I have at home can't be set to a small enough value to deal with aviation hardware, so I hadn't bothered to bring it. I switched on the air compressor that came with the plane, and.... nothing happened. Poked around a little bit, but it wasn't obvious what was wrong, so I drove up the road to a bike shop and bought the fatty-est floor pump they had, and now I've got an air source that doesn't make any noise or need any power.

Fortunately, I had the appropriate grease (AeroShell #5) on hand, and greased up the bearings as I reassembled the whole mess in the afternoon sun, wishing the rain clouds would come back so I'd stop overheating. The axle nut is a weird one, just a round section of pipe, appropriately threaded and with holes spaced every 30° around its circumference: it should be basically finger tight, then you throw a cotter pin through it to keep it from coming loose.

Unfortunately, I discovered that the axle nut cover has two of three screw-holes stripped out, so I'll be taking it to someone for some Helicoil action. I'd hate to see my lightweight hubcap spinning away from me on landing some day.

In all, though, the experience of changing an airplane tire was gentle and lightweight compared to dealing with motorcycle or even bicycle tires. It was delightful in how easy it was. I can't wait to tackle the next one, particularly now that I've got all the bits and pieces read to go.

Posted at 20:51 permanent link category: /aviation


Wed, 05 Apr 2017

Rust-Oleum RockSolid Initial Impressions

I'm nearly done with building the garage that will house my future airplane-building shop, and one of the final steps was to finish the floor. For this job, I decided to use Rust-Oleum RockSolid Polycuramine floor paint. It was reasonably well reviewed, and seemed to be at least as good a choice as straight epoxy, but allowed a much wider lattitude of temperature for application, which appealed to me as the Northwest weather has not been warm.

I prepped the garage, taping off the bottom of the walls, and over the threshold for the big door. The citric acid etch was reasonably easy to apply and deal with, although I suppose I won't know how well it worked until I've been beating on the floor for a few years. Certainly once washed off, the floor was completely clean.

The paint itself was easy to mix, and the "burst pouch" that holds the paint made mixing quite straightforward. I squished around the paint as directed, both before and after mixing the two sections together, and the first coat seemed to go on reasonably well. I bought the two-car garage kit, intending to put two coats of paint on the floor (and there wasn't a one-car kit in the store that I could find, so why not).

Unfortunately, the instructions about working in a series of 4x4' sections were hard to follow, as the first time I set down the pouch full of paint, it fell over and spilled paint into a three-foot puddle before I glanced over and noticed the problem. Of course, that puddle was at the back of the space, far from the door I'd eventually be exiting, so I ended up painting in two long strips with a clear path down the middle so I could get back to the paint puddle to refresh my roller. Ironically, that may have saved me some trouble on the first pass that I only encountered on the second pass.


The first coat; click to embiggen

The results of the first pass were decent, but far from perfect: lots of pinholes in the paint, and a few patches of discoloration where some contaminant was clearly present. Even so, when I looked in on the paint the next day (when it was clearly done curing, assuming the instructions could be trusted) I thought it was still wet, it was so shiny. A touch confirmed that it was cured, though. Impressive! Pity about the pinholes, but the finish quality was amazing.

I let the floor sit for a couple days while I waited for time in my schedule to apply the second coat. It's ok to wait up to 7 days for the second coat, so I was well within the recoat time limit.

I had noticed on the first coat that the foam roller cover they supply with the kit was pretty terrible at staying on the roller frame -- it would worm its way off the frame as soon as I started rolling, and I pushed it back onto the frame at least fifty times over the hour that I was putting on the first coat. It was even worse on the second coat.

For the second coat, I got clever, and dropped the paint pouch into a 2 gallon bucket to keep it from flopping over and repeating the paint-puddle experience. This worked perfectly, and I recommend it as a good practice with this kind of paint container. I was able to follow the directions, and put down a ribbon of paint every 4 feet, trimming in the edges with a cheap-as-possible chip brush, after the nice synthetic brush I'd used the first time completely failed to clean out with mineral spirits as they suggest. I threw that brush away, as it was clear I'd never get the epoxy out of it, and it would be (ahem) RockSolid in a matter of hours.

Unfortunately, the ability to follow the directions made it harder to finish on time. I would have been better served by keeping a roller tray full of paint, as the ribbons from the pouch were hard to spread, and resulted in thick lines that took a lot of time to smooth out. I was rushing toward the end, to avoid working past the rated pot time of the paint (one hour for the temperature I was working at).

Unfortunately again, the roller cover that liked to inch off the tool continued to do this, but I must have tapped it too hard at some point, trying to re-seat it, and the cardboard tube, soaked in paint, just turned to mush and started shedding pieces into the paint as I rolled. This further increased the time I was taking to cover the floor, as I kept stopping to pick out shreds of roller cardboard. The shredded roller cover, in addition to losing pieces of cardboard into the paint, soon lost structural integrity, and a large flap of loose foam was flopping around as I rolled into the final quarter of the job.

There's no question in my mind that my technique was at least partly to blame, but I don't think I'm unusually incompetent among the target market for this paint. The decision to make the roller cover based on a cardboard tube was no doubt a very good one from a cost standpoint, but it made the resulting experience for me pretty frustrating. A fiberglass cover (even the super-cheap latex roller covers are based on a fiberglass tube) would be less likely to inch off the roller, would not be at all susceptible to decomposition in the paint, and would add a dollar to a $200 kit, a price I would gladly pay to not experience the aggravations I went through last night.

It appeared, from my painting last night, that the first coat was surprisingly prone to scuffing. I'm not sure what was doing the scuffing, but I came across a number of scuffs on a floor that I had literally only walked on gently, in carefully cleaned Converse hightops, for a few minutes. Hopefully I'm wrong, and I was seeing wet paint that I misinterpreted as scuffs, but that's not consistent with how I was spreading the paint. I'll know in the next week or two, and hopefully the paint will cure and get harder over time so I'm not just walking around on a two-hundred-dollar scuff-fest. It won't be the end of the world if that does happen, but it will serve to invalidate Rust-Oleum's claim that this stuff I just laid down is "20x stronger than epoxy."

When I peeked in this morning, I was surprised to discover much stronger patches of discoloration than I'd seen in the first coat. The roller marks were still pronounced (I'd been hoping the second coat would be smoother than the first, where I was flustered from the spilled paint at the beginning of the job), and the pinholes were no better than they had been on the first coat. I followed the directions carefully, and did what they said, though I can only assume the problem is in my technique and not in the product. Perhaps I didn't mix the paint thoroughly enough the second time around, after the first time worked out pretty well.

Based on what I know at this point, having not yet walked on the second coat or given it more than a cursory look, I'd make the following recommendations to anyone else wanting to use this product (some of which are probably standard practice that I'm deducing through my mistakes):

  • Wash off the etching solution a couple times more than you think is necessary
  • Get a friend to help. Working solo, I was too slow, and it took me a bit more than an hour to finish my 240 square foot space
  • Buy different roller covers, based on fiberglass tubes. Super low nap, and foam would be ideal
  • Keep the paint pouch in a bucket to prevent spills
  • Working from a roller tray will result in a more consistent finish
  • Epoxy destroys (specifically, hardens in/on) everything it touches, so only use disposable supplies
  • Mineral sprit clean-up is only true if you can positively wipe with it (rather than relying on it to dissolve the paint)

I don't know yet if the final coating is any good or not, though I don't have any reason to suspect that it will be bad. The wide application temperature seems like a good thing, but I wonder if painting onto a 45° concrete slab, despite being inside the stated temperature range, might have contributed some to my problems.

The kit was overkill for how I used it. If I could have bought the etch and paint separately, I would have been happier to save money on the paint chips I decided not to use, the second bag of etch I didn't need, and the terrible, disintegrating cardboard-based roller covers. I'm sure the company is happier to sell me a kit than individual pieces, since they get the profit whether I use the whole thing or not, but I found myself annoyed at the wasted money and materials.

I'll put up an entry in a few weeks or months and report back on how the floor covering is working out at that point.

Posted at 11:40 permanent link category: /misc


Wed, 22 Mar 2017

Building a Biplane: Gathering Materials

I am finally making some forward progress on actually building a biplane, instead of merely thinking about it, and doing activities that prepare me for the eventual build.

The first thing to figure out about the build -- about what happens the first time I take a piece of wood or steel and try to turn it from raw wood or steel into an airplane part -- is where to start. The Marquart Charger has so very many parts.

So, I fell back on a couple of reasonably simple tests: 1. What can I do that will not be a huge committment (in case I hate it and realize it's a waste of time)? 2. What do I already have the skills to do?

The answer to #2 is simpler than #1, so I'll address that first: I know how to work with wood. Although I've had a class in welding, and I was reasonably happy with my progress there, I currently lack equipment to perform welding, and my skill level at the end of class was clearly... beginner. There's work needed before I want to honestly assemble any airplane parts with my welding skill. So, woodworking was a logical starting place.

The only parts of the plane that are made of wood are the wings. The wings are made of these parts, when viewed simplistically: wooden ribs, built up out of little sticks and epoxy; 12 foot long spars that cost hundreds of dollars each; and some steel cables, fittings, and welded parts. The ribs need to be built before the wings can be assembled, so ribs are a fairly obvious starting place.

The rib is built up of 1/4" spruce sticks known as capstrip. The general idea is, you build a jig to hold the various pieces in place by cutting out a piece of plywood or MDF, then screwing blocks or inserting pins, then you cut out a bunch of capstrip to the appropriate lengths, fit them into their locations, and glue the whole thing up with epoxy. Those little squares are made of 1/16" thick aircraft plywood (don't even ask how much aircraft plywood costs), and are also glued on, then stapled in place. Once it's all held together with staples, you can pull the rib out of the jig, flip it over, and glue down the plywood gussets to the other side, and start on another one. There's also the plywood nose-piece which needs to be prepared beforehand.

So, then my list of things I need to acquire before I start goes like this:

  • 600 or so feet of 1/4" capstrip
  • Several square feet of 1/16" plywood
  • Several square feet of 1/4" plywood (for nose-pieces)
  • Epoxy and supplies (mixing cups, stir sticks, etc.)
  • A fancy staple gun
  • Fancy staples
  • Some hardware-store plywood or MDF
  • A way to cut the nose-pieces so they're identical to each other

As you can imagine, not every store in town carries aircraft certified plywood. There's no market for it. So, that has to be ordered from a specialty supplier in Illinois. Ditto the 1/4" capstrip: specialty supplier. Fortunately, the epoxy and supplies are easy to find locally. The special stapler (a Senco SFT10XP-A/D) wasn't available locally that I could find, but was available online. Special staples from Senco are ridiculously priced (mostly because they come in quantities sufficient for building 100 airplanes), so cheap Chinese Ebay staples are on hand for a trial, and if I don't like them I can order the name-brand ones. The MDF I'll be using for a jig hasn't been acquired yet, but is easily available at any lumber yard for not very much money.

The fancy wood has been ordered, but I don't yet have a delivery date from the supplier.

Of course, I have a stumbling block: the garage isn't finished yet. I've been dragging my heels on getting out there and tackling the final steps, which are to clear it of everything and paint the floor, then to move all my workshop stuff into the space and build a work table for the plane.

There's also the unacknowledged missing tool: how to cut out the nose pieces? I can do it with the jigsaw I already have, but really a bandsaw is the right tool for the job. I don't want to put theater-quality parts into this plane, I want aircraft quality parts. So there may be a major-ish tool purchase on my path before I can really start.

Even with the impediments and stumbling blocks in front of me, it's pretty cool to be getting close to actually sawing wood on the first part of my very own biplane build!

Posted at 14:33 permanent link category: /charger


Mon, 06 Mar 2017

Calling the Bet

The following story is true, to the best of my knowledge.

A group of pilots were sitting around shooting the breeze one morning recently. The coffee was hot, the room was warm, and the sole politically liberal pilot was sitting with a group of Trump supporters. This took place a week or two after the 9th District Court of Appeals returned a preliminary ruling upholding the stay on Trump's travel ban executive order.

The conversation turned, as conversations do, to the subject of politics. One of the Trump supporters eventually made the assertion that, "80% of the decisions handed down by the 9th District Court of Appeals are overturned by the Supreme Court." After mulling this over for about 2 seconds, the liberal pilot looked at the speaker and said, "No they aren't." The Trump supporter was quick to defend his position: "Yes, they are. I read about it on [a right-leaning news website, the name of which I've forgotten]. It's absolutely true."

There was a round or two of "No they aren't" and "Yes they are," then the liberal pilot cut this useless tactic off with, "I'll bet you a hundred thousand dollars you're wrong." This caused the conversation to pause. His tone clearly indicated he wasn't kidding, and in a group of retired people who can afford to own airplanes, it wasn't outside the realm of probability that he actually had $100k to back up his bet. The pilot who'd suggested that 80% of the 9th Circuit's decisions were overturned (an obvious falsehood on its face -- there are only a fraction of 9th Circuit decisions which go to the Supreme Court, much less than 80%) eventually responded, "I can't do that," his tone suggesting he was just a trifle hurt the bettor would make such a suggestion.

Then why did you say it in the first place?! railed the liberal pilot, to himself. He didn't say anything out loud, though, for the point had been sufficiently proven.

The following story, as far as I know, is also true (and to be clear, the terms Seattleite and Montanan are only used for identification purposes, with no negative sentiment expressed):

A 30-something Seattleite was visiting his old stomping grounds in Montana, and was in conversation with an old friend who had stayed in Montana, when the topic of the upcoming election (this was several months before the November 2016 election) was raised. The Montanan said, with absolute sincerity, "You know, there's going to be some kind of a false-flag terrorist attack around the election, so that Obama can declare martial law and install himself for a third term, and eventual dictatorship."

There was that familiar pause, and the Seattleite said, "No way." "Definitely," responded the Montanan, explaining briefly the somewhat convoluted logic which supported this view. The Seattleite extended his hand for a handshake and said, "I'll bet you a thousand dollars that won't happen." The Montanan demurred, but the Seattleite persisted, "Come on, you just said this is guaranteed. This is easy money, why won't you take the bet? I'll give you a thousand dollars when martial law is declared in November." And yet the old friend from Montana wouldn't take the bet.

These stories, to me, suggested a new and interesting tactic to combatting the kind of false news and conspiracy theorization which seems to be running so strong on the right side of the political spectrum these days. It's not a tactic that will work with a group. It's not a tactic you probably want to try on social media (betting is illegal in most jurisdictions, so leaving hard evidence around that you're engaging in it isn't the best idea). But one on one, with people who have a sufficient level of trust to honestly place this kind of a bet, it seems foolproof:

When someone makes a clearly absurd assertion that is easily disproved and yet they seems to stick to it, call that bluff. Make the wager, and make it big enough to be a scary amount of money (or whatever commodity may be offered) if they lose. If they take the bet, you (seeker of the truth that you are) get their money. If they don't take the bet, then you get to have the conversation we're all itching to have: Then why do you persist in this madness if you don't really believe it?

Posted at 09:12 permanent link category: /misc


Thu, 09 Feb 2017

For All Your Pink Slip Needs

Should you find yourself wanting to send a message to someone, perhaps the person currently infesting the White House, perhaps on March 15th, 2017, I have generated some useful files for you.

Download the appropriate PDF files here:

Pink Slip front
Pink Slip back
Pink Slip front and back

The "front" and "back" files are single pages, allowing you to print with just about any printer -- do a sample print to see which way you need to turn the paper when flipping it into the printer's feed tray. The "front and back" file is both pages in one file, to facilitate printing on duplexing printers.

When printing, print onto pink cardstock. Any cardstock should be fine, but to strictly qualify for the 34 cent postcard stamp, it should be between .007" and .016" thick.

I highly recommend US Flag postage stamps for those of you mailing through the US Postal Service.

Posted at 21:16 permanent link category: /misc


Thu, 26 Jan 2017

The Time Has Arrived

I must, regrettably, break my long, long streak of not discussing politics on this journal.

With the arrival of Trump as President (I still shudder when I associate those words together), there is no more time to pretend it will all be ok. We're only five days in, and already he's issued executive orders to:

  • Fast-track the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL Pipeline
  • Defund overseas organizations that provide any positive information about abortion
  • Gag all US agencies from discussing climate science, global climate change, or other scientific data
  • Repeal the Affordable Care Act without any hint of a plan to replace it
  • Punish "sanctuary cities" (including Seattle)
  • Build a wall on the border with Mexico
  • Roll back business regulations (how exactly is unclear)

He continues to natter on about voter fraud, for which there is no evidence. He has repeated on live TV that he thinks waterboarding and other torture methods are acceptable, and should in fact be used by US authorities. The list goes on, and as time passes and this post ages, this will most likely look like a tiny drop in the ocean of evil that he attempts to enable.

The refrain I hear over and over again, and which I repeat myself, is, "But what can we do about it?" Fortunately for us, a group of people who lived through the Tea Party years has assembled a handy guide for us:

The Indivisible Guide (local cached copy, check the source site for updates)

I will be going through the Guide, and seeing what it has to offer. The time to sit back and let the politicians sort it all out is over. If we want to continue to have a country as we currently recognize it, you and I and everyone we know needs to act, now.

Posted at 15:07 permanent link category: /misc


Sun, 08 Jan 2017

Adventures in 14/48, or, Why Are There Cello Pegs on the Ground?

I was invited to play with the band in 14/48 this weekend, and gladly accepted -- I've never been invited to be part of the show before. I've photographed, but that doesn't feel the same, since that job has no impact on what actually happens on stage. It's not one of the Five Disciplines (acting, directing, writing, designing, band).

I didn't know what exactly I'd be in for, but was excited to find out, and glad to have my friend Kenna in the band with me. I was also apprehensive: although I've been playing cello since the age of 8, I am not really fluent with the instrument at this point in my life. I've played a number of shows in the last few years, but those were situations where I had a month or two to practice and get the music down before I ever showed up on stage. The nature of 14/48 is such that you don't even know what music you might play until part way through the day. There's literally no way to be prepared other than to have a willing attitude and reasonable skill with your instrument.

As it turned out, I was the least skilled instrumentalist in the band, which was a good thing. Everyone around me was fantastic, and I was able to pick and choose my moments to concentrate on; I could really add the cello's voice where it mattered, without having to worry about supporting the whole show. Our keyboard player is, for his actual day job, a music director in musical theater. He is the choral master at a church, supporting (if I understood this correctly) three different choirs. He is skilled at keyboards, the same way that I am skilled at computer programming. Our guitarist, likewise, is absolutely proficient at his instrument. Also the drummer. Also the multi-instrument woodwind player I sat next to. They were an unbelievable crew, and I was humbled to be in their presence, but also so glad that I could allow their skill to shine through when the music was beyond me, or simply inappropriate for cello.

The first show, on Friday, went quite well. I flubbed my solo in the first show of the night, but nailed it in the second. There were some good cello moments, and the whole process was enjoyable (setting aside my own feelings of inadequacy, which are just par for the course).

The second show, on Saturday, was shaping up to be just as good, though there were fewer clear moments where a cello was called for. We had a good rehearsal, and were much more comfortable with each other as a group. I even had the fortune to contribute the seed of an idea that grew into the opening song.

We set down our instruments as the stage manager called out that she wanted to clear the stage so they could open the house for the 8:00 show and let the audience in, and all looked good. We filed back to the Bullit Cabaret, which was serving as a huge greenroom for the festival. It was that interminable wait between when you've finished preparations for a thing, and the actual doing of the thing.

A few moments later Lesley, the multi-woodwind player, came up to me with a slightly worried look on her face, and said, "There are cello pegs on the ground!"

I had a long moment where I tried to decide if she was joking or not -- she didn't seem the type, but the idea of my tuning pegs just falling out seemed preposterous. I decided she was joking, and said, "Ha! Funny joke!" but her expression didn't change. She repeated, "There are cello pegs on the ground. I think you should go take a look."

In a way, I had been prepared for this. On Friday, the C string on my cello had just come completely loose. I figured it was the cold, dry air outside interacting with the very warm stage environment. In that case, I'd just re-tuned and all was well, if a bit disconcerting. No further problems that night, though.

I got to where I could see the band area, and sure enough, there were two tuning pegs lying innocently on the ground under the cello, and three of the four strings were hanging loose. No problem, we still had five minutes, and it wouldn't take that long to re-tune. I walked out on stage, grabbed my cello, and prepared to head back to the Bullit.

Oh right, the cord. I'd forgotten that we'd plugged in the electric pickup for tonight, so I leaned over to pull it out without applying much critical thought to my actions. The C string, the only remaining taut string, came loose as I tugged on the tight connection, and there was a clatter as the bridge fell to the ground. Crap, thought I. Jen, one of the singers, had been hovering in the wings to see what was up, and I called her over to give me a hand as I disconnected the cable with a bit more care and gathered up the pieces to try to salvage the situation.

It was as if the cello had simply gone slack, like one of those toy figures where you press in the bottom of the base and it all falls over bonelessly. I found myself thinking of gelatin that suddenly de-gels and goes all sloppy.

There was no damage done, but you generally try to avoid completely releasing string tension on a bridged instrument like this, to avoid any chance of the soundpost falling over; that's the piece of wood that spans inside between the belly and the back of the cello, which keeps the belly from cracking inward under the pressure of the strings. If it falls over, you're pretty much done unless you've got the special tongs luthiers use to manipulate a soundpost, which I do not.

I carried the pieces back into the cabaret space and sat down with the cello on my lap, and started stringing the C back into place, trying to line up the bridge where it was supposed to go. The little lightbulb went off in my head though, and I stopped and peered through the F-hole, trying to spot the soundpost. Uh-oh. Flashlight came out, and confirmed: the soundpost was down. I almost laughed with actual delight: this was a completely new experience, and one over which I now had absolutely no control. It was very freeing, in a way. I was never worried, just trying to fix problems as they arrived, which is a very comfortable place for me.

By this time, a small crowd of concerned bandmates and performers had gathered around me, and I tried to explain what was happening, and that, essentially, I was done for the night. There was no recovering from this. I think they were expecting grief and agony, and I just sat there smiling at the universe's joke.

We conferred for a bit, and I ran through the runsheet that Nathan, our keyboardist, had so helpfully put together. We determined that there was nowhere that the cello just had to play (and which would therefore require that actors be notified), and Jessamyn, the stage manager, ran off to get things rolling again. The one cue I'd had that would have been important to communicate to actors had been cut by the director just before we went on, which turned out to be a stroke of good luck in the event of Cello Catastrophe.

I debated what to do with my bandmates, and we eventually decided that I'd come out anyway, and as soon as possible, we'd get Jason's bass guitar from storage and I could continue on that (I played bass guitar for a while in high school, and although I hadn't touched a bass for 5+ years, that would be better than just sitting there occasionally clapping or singing into the complete absence of vocal mic in front of me). Kenna handed me her tambourine, and I made some half-hearted taps when it felt right, but the first act I felt pretty naked just sitting there with no instrument. The band is also the source of many sound effects, to which I was contributing, but half my sound effects were based on having a cello in front of me.

Fortunately for me, Jason and Dan, the drummer, were on the ball, and produced the bass out of thin air at intermission. I had an instrument to play, even if it had been ages since I'd played it. Why not have my reintroduction be on stage, in front of 150 people, for songs I'd never played in my life? Sure!

It actually worked out pretty well, all things considered. Nathan was already playing a bass part on the keyboard, so I was able to come in and contribute to the sound when I could figure out which notes I needed to play. It turns out, to my unwarranted surprise, that "I Wanna Be Sedated" by the Ramones is basically played on open strings on the bass. It's super easy.

Between the 8:00 and 10:30 shows, I was able to scamper off to a quiet part of the theater and practice a couple of the other songs so I would be slightly more ready, and the 10:30 show did feel a bit more solid.

One thing that I found myself explaining over and over to people after the shows were finished was that although the cello explosion was a disaster as far as being able to play during the show, it's a more or less trivial operation to have fixed once I get it into the violin shop. Resetting a soundpost is a matter of a couple minutes for a skilled luthier, and restringing the cello is similarly very easy -- I would have done it myself if the soundpost had still been in place, and it would have delayed the start of the show by less than five minutes.

One advantage of explaining the situation over and over was I gained some cool insight into how a cello is constructed. The body of the cello is made of a particular type of wood (actually several similar types, but identical for the purposes of this discussion), and the pegs are made of a different type of wood. I think the soundpost is also made from a different type, but I'm less sure of that. I'm guessing that the materials are chosen such that the pegbox (where the pegs hold the ends of the strings, just under the scroll at the top of the neck) will expand faster than the pegs themselves. This means that the pegs should never have an opportunity to crack the pegbox where they pierce the sides, resulting in an expensive repair. Likewise, the soundpost material is probably chosen so that it won't elongate, or will elongate at a slower rate than the belly and back of the cello, so there's no chance of it accidentally cracking one of those huge pieces of wood.

Repairs to the belly and back are regularly made, because they're such relatively vulnerable pieces. Most repairs end up making the instrument sound better, although they negatively impact the value because they're visually ugly (where "present" counts as ugly, even if the luthier did a perfect job with the repair). So it would make sense to pick materials that would tend to prevent these kinds of damage. I'll be interested to chat with the luthier when I bring my cello in next week. (Conveniently, it needed to go in anyway, to repair a bruise in one edge.)

Several people commented that I have a very good 14/48 story now, and that's certainly true. We were asked to sign the wall with other 14/48 artists who have appeared at ACT Theater, and I signed as Ian "Cello Exploder" Johnston.

14/48 was a great experience for me, and I'm glad that I was invited, and actually had time in my schedule. It was fantastic meeting my new bandmates, a couple new theater faces among many familiar ones, and to have been part of an ever growing history of Very Quick Theater in Seattle.

Now, to get this pile of cello parts in to the shop...

Posted at 14:55 permanent link category: /theater


Fri, 30 Dec 2016

A Simple Accounting

As I am extremely unlikely to fly for the remainder of the year (all one and a half days of it), I decided to tally up my flying hours.

2013 4.0
2014 8.8
2015 8.5
2016 71.4

Just a sliiiiight jump there in 2016.

Posted at 11:12 permanent link category: /aviation


Tue, 27 Dec 2016

Avare ADS-B Notation

Warning: Deep nerding ahead. It's safe to skip this one if you're not super into aviation and ADS-B.

This year, Kwanzaa-bot brought me a Stratux box, which is a little Raspberry Pi-based ADS-B receiver. Neat!

So, I hooked it up and set up Avare, my aviation app of choice, to read the data. Totally works. Neat!

But, what the heck does it all mean? There are these hard-to-see dots, and small text, and although it's cool to see other airplanes flying around, it seemed a bit obscure and hard to understand. So, I ended up digging into the source code, and figured I'd write up a quick document to let other folks know what the ADS-B display is actually showing you in Avare.

Decoding the ADS-B Data in Avare

ADS-B traffic data in Avare is represented by a colored dot with a line extending out of it, and a small text area beneath the dot. The dot moves as updates are received, but if an update is missed, the dot will not move.

Dot color: The dot is colored to indicate the vertical position of the traffic. The colors are as follows:

Green: Traffic is more than 1000 ft/300m below you
Red: DANGER! Traffic is less than 1000 ft/300m below you
Magenta: DANGER! Traffic is less than 1000 ft/300m above you
Blue: Traffic is more than 1000 ft/300m above you

Barb direction and length: The line extending off the dot (called a barb in the source code) shows the velocity of the traffic. The longer the barb, the faster the traffic is moving. The direction it points shows the indicated heading of the traffic.

Text info: Each target has text associated with it, in a small box below the dot. This consists of two pieces of data, separated by a colon. The first is the callsign of the traffic (such as ASA1234 or N12345), and the second is the target's altitude.

If your altitude is known, the altitude will be displayed as a + or - value (eg, +5000 or -120). If your altitude is not known, the target's pressure altitude (ie, altitude above sea level) will be displayed, with PrA' appended.

NOTE: when you see PrA', remember that you must refer to your own altitude to determine if the target presents a danger to you or not. PrA' traffic will always be colored blue.


I'm looking forward to flying with ADS-B In on my tablet, and I'll be glad to know what I'm actually seeing on the screen. If I find changes to how it works, I'll try to update this document.

Posted at 11:36 permanent link category: /aviation


Categories: all aviation gadgets misc motorcycle theater

Written by Ian Johnston. Software is Blosxom. Questions? Please mail me at reaper at obairlann dot net.