Author Archives: Alan

How (and Why) to Get A Pilot’s License

I’ve practiced this sequence of actions more than a hundred times in the past few months, but today it’s special. This time there are passengers aboard. My wife is sitting next to me, and my daughter is in the back seat.

After announcing my intentions on the appropriate frequency, I taxi onto the runway, then ease the throttle all the way forward and start my takeoff roll.

Engine gauges are green. Hold the centerline. Airspeed is alive. Fifty five knots. Rotate. A little more right rudder. Pitch for seventy nine knots. Continue on the runway heading for another minute, then turn crosswind. There’s the runway to the left, a thousand feet below us now.

We’re flying. I’m flying.

I’m at the controls of a vehicle that weighs less than a compact car, and I just loaded my little family aboard it and drove into the sky. I’ve been dreaming about doing this since the age of five, and now it’s finally happening. I’m a pilot.

Cape Cod Bay from 5,500', on my solo cross-country flight.

Cape Cod Bay from 5,500′, on my solo cross-country flight.

If you’ve been nurturing a similar dream, perhaps I can help. You’ve probably already spent hours reading about general aviation online, maybe even searched for local flight schools and thought about calling them. But the whole process seems so alien, and so poorly mapped.

Every aviation site parrots the same vague guidelines. How long will it take? Well, 40 hours of training in theory, but more likely 60 to 80, except for that one guy who did it in less than 45, or you could get your Light Sport pilot license in 35, unless that takes longer. In any case, you can do the whole thing in two weeks. Or maybe two years. What does it cost? Maybe $5,000, unless it’s more like $10,000, but it really depends on where you live and how long it takes, and when the site you’re reading was last updated. What’s ground school? Oh, that’s essential. Unless it’s not. You should really just buy this set of videos we’re selling. And so on.

I had an advantage in navigating this mess: I grew up riding in the backs of little planes. Mom, Dad, and a couple of uncles flew and my stepfather was a flight instructor. That background inspired me to develop a detailed plan that I was pretty sure would work. It did.

Of course you can do it in other ways, but here’s what worked for me:

1. Decide why you want to learn how to fly. Because it’s been a lifelong dream? For the thrill? As an intellectual challenge? Because mastering a new complex skill is a rush? Because you want to make a career of it? Those are all great reasons, and there are many more.

The only really bad reason is “to avoid the inconveniences of modern airline travel.” Despite what the general aviation industry wants you to believe, flying your own airplane hasn’t been a useful skill since about 1978. General aviation is never cheaper and seldom faster than driving or using the airlines or other mass transit. Between the regulations of the FAA, the perversity of meteorology, the sophistication of the interstate highway system, and the laws of thermodynamics, that situation isn’t going to change anytime soon. Learn to fly for the pure joy of it, or don’t bother.

2. Save your money. Many people start flight training, then have to interrupt it because they’ve run out of cash. That ends up being much more expensive, because when they re-start their training they have to relearn everything they’ve forgotten. Don’t save just enough money for flight training, either. Expensive disasters invariably occur at the worst possible times, so make sure you can spend at least $10,000 learning to fly, and also buy a new transmission for your car or a new furnace for your house in the same year. If you can’t save that much money, it’s better to put off the whole thing until you can. My flight training cost about $8,500 from start to finish, including exam fees, books, materials, headset, and of course aircraft rentals and instructor time. Having budgeted more for it, I was pleasantly surprised to have a good bit left over.

Eight to ten grand is a lot to spend on a hobby, yes, but let’s try some comparisons. Have you looked into buying a boat? Taking up golf? Driving a sports car? Riding a nice Harley-Davidson? Those entirely mainstream activities all cost at least as much as flying. This is not a cheap sport, but it’s not an exceptionally expensive one, either.

3. Hit the books. Before taking your first lesson, study for the written test. Technically you can take this anytime before your final checkride, but it’s better to understand what the instruments do and how the plane flies before you set foot inside it. That maximizes your learning during the much more expensive time you spend in the air. I started with the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge and the Airplane Flying Handbook, both of which are available as free downloads from the FAA or cheap paperbacks from commercial sellers. There’s more in those books than you’re required to know for the Private Pilot license, but the extra information provides important context so you’ll really understand the material.

After you’ve read the background books, pick up the Private Pilot Test Prep book. You’ll also need a plotter and an E-6B slide rule (yes, you’re really expected to use a slide rule for this). Work through the whole test prep book, then take the free online tests that came with it until you’re consistently scoring above 80%.

4. Take a flight lesson, then immediately take the written exam. Your first flight lesson, and your studying for the written, will give you a very good feel for whether you want to continue with this. If you don’t, you’ll only be out a few hundred dollars. If you do, tell your instructor what you’ve done to prepare for the written test, and have them sign your logbook to approve your “home study course” so you can take the test. Take the written test as soon as possible after that, ideally before your second flight lesson. If your instructor insists you take a specific ground school course instead, find a different instructor. By the way, if you’re anywhere near western Massachusetts, the flight school at Northampton Airport is excellent.

5. Get your medical certificate. Depending on your health, you might want to move this up to #3. For a Private Pilot license you’ll need a Third Class medical certificate, which is very straightforward if you’re in good health. If you have a history of heart disease, epilepsy, or other conditions that might freak out the FAA, though, you should get this step done before you start studying. If you flunk the medical, you might look into getting a Light Sport license instead of a Private Pilot – it gives you many of the same privileges without the medical requirements.

6. Fly, fly, fly. As a freelancer, I was able to take six weeks off work and become a full-time flight student. My first flight lesson was at the end of March, and then I flew every weekday the weather allowed. By mid-May, I’d passed my medical and written, soloed, and was working on cross-country navigation. Work started up again then, but I still flew at least twice a week. I passed my checkride on 9 July, and including that the entire process took 49.4 hours of flying time. I’m certain my instructor would agree that I have no special talent for this, so anyone should be able to achieve similar results with sufficient effort and focus.

So why does the average student take 60-70 hours to finish flight training? I have a few theories, but the main difference is probably the intensity of the lessons. Immersing yourself in a subject makes it stick better in memory, which is a major reason the military trains people that way. Puttering through a few lessons a month will take a lot longer, both on the calendar and in total hours. Because time translates directly into money in flying, that will also drive up the cost. Passing the written and medical tests at the beginning also helps, because the things that happen in the airplane actually make sense to you, and the paperwork is already done for your solo flights (the medical certificate doubles as your student pilot’s license).

You might have noticed that I didn’t mention computer flight simulators. I have one and have played with it a bit, but didn’t find it terribly useful for this part of my training. The hardest part of Private Pilot training is learning how to land the plane, and even the best simulators just can’t teach that. Now that I’m licensed I find the simulator good for practicing navigation, and if I decide to get my IFR rating it should be very handy. But there’s nothing like flying in the real world. You should try it.

New England Counties, in Morse Code

I’m hoping to participate in the New England QSO Party ham radio contest again this year, and in preparing for it I’ve created a set of CW (Morse code) audio practice files. To make these, I pulled the official New England county abbreviations from the contest web site, pasted them into a spreadsheet, then repeated and randomized them a few times to get a nice long list. Finally, I used the excellent ebook2cw command-line application from Morse enthusiast Fabian Kurz (ham radio callsign DJ1YFK) to turn the text into a set of MP3 files.

In case anyone else wants to use these, I’m posting them here. If you need a version of this at a different speed, just drop me a line and I can easily generate it.

30wpm:

25wpm:

20wpm:

Playing Video Games with My Kid

Modern parents have a fraught relationship with video games. The popular view, at least among many parents I’ve talked to, is that these games are harmful and that we’re supposed to feel guilty about letting our children play them. High-profile violent titles like the Grand Theft Auto series feed this perception, even though those games are clearly identified as being for adults only.

Not everyone subscribes to the “video games are a barely tolerable evil” view, though. A lot of us grew up gaming and somehow managed to turn out okay, so we think there’s probably no harm in letting our kids do the same. As someone who was getting chased by grues and swinging across quicksand while still in middle school, I certainly fall into that camp. The scientific evidence also seems to lean that way. Various studies have found that at worst, video games are no worse than TV, and at best they may even boost intelligence.

Nonetheless, I took a multi-decade break from video games after high school, and was only vaguely aware of what was happening with console and computer entertainment during most of the industry’s development.

My daughter dragged me back into it, initially through repeated requests for game-related gifts. She wanted a Nintendo DS. Or a Wii. Or a PlayStation. Or an iPod or iPad. Or pretty much any device (besides the computer) that could be used to play video games. When it finally became clear that “all of my friends have them” was not, in fact, an exaggeration, we decided to give in just a little bit. Last Christmas, we loaded my wife’s old iPod Touch with a few games, repackaged it, and gave it to Sophie. Looking around at iPod games beforehand, I saw a gaming platform I could easily understand. Indeed, one of the top games on iOS is strikingly similar to a classic I played decades ago.

Then came Skylanders. This massively successful game-plus-figurine-collecting system became all the rage for the elementary-age set last year, and we quickly got drawn into it. Yes, I did mean to use the collective pronoun there – Sophie and I both love it. Unlike the iOS games, Skylanders is a proper modern game – more of an interactive movie than a test of reflexes. A Nintendo Wii U soon appeared in our living room, the first dedicated game console I’d used since the Atari 2600 era.

One of the great features of Skylanders is a two-player cooperative mode, so my daughter and I could battle enemies and solve puzzles in the story together. It reminded me of evenings long ago spent with my own parents, sitting around the glowing green monitor of our Apple ][ and working our way through the Scott Adams adventures. The graphics, design, and hardware have changed radically, but interactive fiction is still interactive fiction.

Sophie and I have since continued our shared gaming in the astonishingly beautiful world of Pikmin 3. This was marketed as a kids’ game, and while its action is certainly G-rated, the dark underlying themes and somewhat complex strategy and mechanics make it quite challenging. The characters are adorable, the zoomed-in scale makes everything initialy seem less threatening, and the scenery is stunningly rendered in high-definition. But underneath this thin veneer of adorability lies a story of starvation, conquest, ecological exploitation, and duplicity.

This led to some interesting parenting moments. As a real-time strategy game, Pikmin 3 calls for a combination of long-term planning and quick decision-making. It also demands some emotional fortitude. Once you’ve grown your army of tiny Pikmin, you start throwing them on much larger enemies that sometimes eat them. Whenever a Pikmin dies, it lets out a plaintive little moan and sends up a tiny ghost. Once you’ve defeated an enemy creature, it doesn’t just politely vanish like the enemies in Skylanders. Instead, your Pikmin gather around and haul its lifeless corpse back to their ship, which devours it to make more Pikmin. This is “nature, red in tooth and claw,” and it caused some real tears around here.

While anti-gaming prudes often complain about desensitizing kids to violence, this game actually seems to have the opposite effect. And someone could probably write – heck, someone probably is writing – a cultural studies thesis on the layers of meaning in the final boss fight.

So yes, I let my kid play video games, and I play them with her. If you’re not doing the same with yours, perhaps you should give it a try.

Wanna Wesort?

Now that I’ve become the world’s clearinghouse for information on Wesort sailboats (see earlier posts for background), it seems I might need to set up a classified ad section on the site. At least, I will if I get many more notes like this one from Kathy D.:

I have an old Wesort that I may give away. We have rebuilt it twice. It needs some work. I have the tiller, and drop down dagger board, the mast and all the sails are in great shape. The boat needs to be redone again. I don’t know what to do with it. I just bought a 1980 seidelmen 30T sailboat. I live in Virginia Beach Va. Do you know of anyone that might want it?

If anyone is interested in this free fixer-upper, you can drop a line through the “Contact” link above and I’ll forward your information to Kathy.

Time now for another update from the odd world of Wesort boats. If you don’t know what this is about (and think you really want to know), you can check out my previous posts on these small sailing dinghies here, here, and here. Because I’m apparently a world authority on these vessels now, people have started contacting me about them, and this weekend correspondent Barbara Buckley sent along some photos taken by her father, Dennis Buckley. Here’s her explanation:

My Dad was a part of a Severna Park group that built 18 wesorts in the 1960’s.  He is busy digitizing old photos and slides. Our boat was number 132. The newspaper article is about a sailing instruction class I took part in.  Wesorts were well-represented. I loved that little boat.

A gallery of some photos from the past two years.

Two Rare QSLs in One Mailbox

I just received ham radio QSL cards (postcards providing written confirmation of a radio contact) from two rare entities. This is part of a sub-hobby of ham radio called DXing, in which one tries to establish and confirm two-way contact with as many different parts of the world as possible. It’s like stamp collecting combined with social networking, in the nerdiest imaginable way. There’s no money in it, but one can win all sorts of nifty certificates and trophies to display, and of course bragging rights. I’m up to 118 countries, which puts me at about the intermediate level of DXing.

Most DXing conversations, if you can call them that, consist of exchanging just the bare minimum of information for the contact to count: the callsigns of the two stations, plus one additional piece of information, usually a number indicating the quality of the signal each operator is receiving. It doesn’t count for award purposes until you confirm it in writing, though, and that’s where QSL cards come in. These little postcards make hams some of the last good customers of the world’s postal services.

The two cards I just got are from Clipperton Island and Ecuador.

QSLs for TX5K and HC2/RC5A.

QSLs for TX5K and HC2/RC5A.

No, Clipperton Island isn’t technically a country, but for DXing purposes it counts as one. It’s far enough away from its official government (France) that contacting Clipperton is a different technical challenge from contacting the parent country. What makes Clipperton a rare radio contact is that nobody lives there. It’s a little speck of sand in the Eastern Pacific Ocean. The only way to contact it is to wait until someone with the appropriate gear and licenses visits, in this case a group of hams who went there for precisely that purpose. They spent thousands of dollars to fly to the nearest airport, charter a boat and crew, and land all of their camping and radio gear on the island, all so they could spend a couple of weeks holed up in sweltering tents contacting other hobbyists around the world. Of course they also had to jump through an epic series of bureaucratic hoops just to be allowed to go there. This delightfully eccentric type of adventure travel is actually quite common – it’s called a DXpedition. I contacted Clipperton on two different frequency bands (17 meters and 15 meters, if you’re curious).

Ecuador is a regular country of course, and isn’t at all hard to reach by radio from here. I’ve contacted Ecuadorian hams several times. What makes HC2/RC5A’s card unusual is the mode and the operator. Elena is a Russian woman who was visiting Ecuador, and she was using Morse code on the air. Women are a rarity in ham radio, and since knowing Morse code hasn’t been a licensing requirement in any country for several years, only a small percentage of hams remain proficient in it. The overlap of those two groups is almost nonexistent. Nonetheless, Elena’s code was excellent and I worked her twice, on two different frequency bands (30 meters and 15 meters). Now I also have the card to prove it.

What’s in a (Domain) Name?

Just over three years ago, I deleted my Facebook account and promised my friends (and “friends”) that I’d keep posting the same sorts of updates here, on the flagship vanity domain for my name. Meanwhile, I would put my work-related postings on a separate blog on my old dovdox.com domain, for people who only wanted to read my science blogging.

I failed.

The problem was my old domain name, dovdox.com. I’d originally bought it as a site for both me (Alan Dove, Ph.D.) and my wife (Laura Dove, M.D.). The Dove Docs. Get it? It was a great domain for that imagined purpose, but it turned out that Laura didn’t really have a use for her own site, and besides testing the occasional bit of server software my only real use for it was blogging. Dovdox makes a lot less sense as a science blog title. I eventually redirected incoming dovdox.com traffic here, and this became my only blog.

That didn’t really work either. People who want to read my science writing are interested in science, not what I get up to in my spare time. Friends and family members want more pictures of my kid. I need two separate sites, each designed from the domain up for a specific audience.

So here’s the new arrangement. This site is now my personal page. It’s about me, my rambling thoughts, my family, my friends, and the things we do – at least the parts I feel like publishing. A feed from my new science blog will also provide links to whatever I post there, so this site will have the whole stream of my online output. It’s my version of a Facebook wall. Incidentally, if everyone had a personal blog, we could all just subscribe to each others’ RSS feeds and watch Facebook die. Think about it.

My new science blog is The Turbid Plaque. It’ll be about science, science journalism, and science policy. If you’re here for the science – or you’re just curious about how I arrived at that title – pop on over there.

A Few Small Changes

Both regular visitors to this site may have noticed a couple of minor changes recently. In the menu bar at the top, there’s a new “Feed Reader” option. Hover over it and you’ll get a drop-down menu of different RSS feeds. Click any one of them to read a bunch of news under that topic, or click the main Feed Reader heading to get a selection of news from all of the sites I’ve connected to it.

I added this feature mainly for myself, after my preferred in-browser RSS reader (Brief) quit working just a week after Google Reader closed up shop. Many Reader refugees have fled to other “free” services, but I’m not convinced those companies will stay afloat, so I’m using my own self-hosted site as a feed reader now. The WordPress plugin RSS Multi-Importer makes this possible. I’ll probably be tweaking it a bit, but so far it seems like a workable solution. A minor side benefit is that it allows anyone visiting my site to read the same news feeds I’m reading.

I’ve also resumed posting links to each TWiV episode I’m on.

There are a few bigger changes in the works too, so if you were annoyed by the lengthening gaps between blog posts, you may be pleasantly surprised. Conversely, if you liked hearing less from me you may be disappointed.

On “Leaving Science”

I follow news about the science job market pretty closely, but perhaps the most reliable indicator I have of it isn’t in my RSS folder or Twitter feed. It’s my inbox. When graduate students and postdocs start to think their future is especially bleak, I start getting more notes from them asking about my choice of an “alternative” career. Many scientists have the naive impression that anyone with a PhD and a laptop can just take up science writing and make a decent living freelancing. I hope my previous two posts have disabused them of that notion.

Now I’d like to back up a bit and address a broader theme that comes up in these discussions: what’s it like to “leave science”? No matter how the question is phrased, the implicit assumption is that a career in basic research is the only valid purpose for earning a PhD in science. Choosing anything else carries a whiff of failure.

It’s not hard to see where this attitude comes from. In any worthwhile PhD program, students and postdocs are surrounded by principal investigators (PIs) who’ve made basic research their life’s work. Of course these people consider science the primary point of the training they provide their underlings – if they thought otherwise, they wouldn’t be where they are. Society has granted the PIs the extraordinary privilege of pursuing their own curiosity for a living. How could anyone want to do anything else?

What most PIs don’t see is that this privilege has costs, and those costs have skyrocketed in recent years. Jordan Weissmann recently provided an excellent and graphic summary of the situation, based on data from the National Science Foundation. According to those data, a biological science PhD graduating in 1973 had a better than 50% chance of becoming a tenure-track faculty member within five to six years. Those are today’s department chairs and deans. They grew up with that reality, and they have a hard time imagining that things have changed much. But things have changed, and radically; a PhD graduating today has less than a 15% chance of becoming a tenure-track faculty member over that time period, and that percentage is still declining. Basic research is now the “alternative” career. Most PhDs will do something else.

This isn’t a recent trend, and it’s not going to go away even if the idiots in Washington manage to fix the current budget clusterfuck. When I was nearing the end of my doctoral work at Columbia in the mid-1990s, the job market was already pretty tough. Many of my colleagues were brilliant and incredibly dedicated scientists, and some of these hard-core folks were heading for second postdocs, having spent more than a decade in “training” positions already. For those who couldn’t imagine themselves doing anything else, the prospect of becoming a PI was worth nearly any sacrifice. Like aspiring actors or artists, they were perfectly willing to forgo both free time and decent pay indefinitely, and dedicate their lives to pursuing their dream.

That wasn’t me.

I loved science and thoroughly enjoyed doing it. Had I graduated in 1973 I most likely would’ve pursued it as a career, but in a labor market that apparently had many more scientists than it needed, I could easily imagine doing something else. I rejected the outdated notion that a non-PI career track would constitute failure. The PhD was supposed to expand my options, not restrict them.

With longstanding interests in public policy and communication, I started looking around for jobs that would combine my scientific training with one of those fields. It didn’t take long to settle on science journalism. When I switched careers, though, I did not “leave science.”

I can’t leave science. It’s part of who I am. A scientist doesn’t punch the clock in the morning, think scientifically all day, then punch out and suddenly think some other way. It’s the same for writers; I didn’t suddenly become one the day I got my first byline. Writing, like science, is a way of thinking, and for most of us in this business it’s part of the way we’ve always thought. I’m a chimera, a scientist-writer currently employed as a science writer.

Of course one doesn’t need a doctoral degree to write science news, but I don’t think my half-decade in graduate school was wasted. Indeed, that training has helped me spot angles, carve out niches, and write stories that I doubt a nonscientist writer could’ve found. I frequently conduct 15-minute interviews that would take an English major an hour to get through, because the source and I share a common, high-throughput language. Even on stories I haven’t covered before, I can often cut a direct path to the background and sources I need to get up to speed. That’s not to say I’m better than non-PhD journalists, just on a different beat. I get jobs they probably couldn’t do and wouldn’t want, and vice-versa. There’s room for all of us.

If there ever stops being room for me, though, I won’t hesitate to change careers again. Doing research at the bench suited me when I was in graduate school, and reporting and writing stories as a freelancer suits me now. As I discussed in the previous post, business hasn’t been stellar lately, but that hasn’t been a major problem. If it becomes one I’ll move on. I won’t, however, stop being a scientist. Or a writer.