Tag Archives: hobbies

Things I do for fun.

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.

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 a Wesort?

Boatbuilders come and go, so it’s no surprise that virtually all of the vessels in my earliest sailing memories are now out of production. Most of them, though, survive in boatyards and have fan clubs online, so information about them is never more than a Google search away. Not so the Wesort.

Before I was even big enough to hold a tiller, I remember my father teaching older kids how to sail at Indian Landing Boat Club on the upper reaches of the Severn River. The club had a sizable fleet of a type of boat called a Wesort. As I recall, it was about 12 feet long, had a daggerboard and a cat rig, and seemed well suited to the light, variable winds and shallow waters of the upper Chesapeake. Looking back, I now think it was probably some variation on a sharpie.

Web searches on this boat are completely uninformative, though, at least with respect to the boat. I did learn a bit of the fascinating (and apparently disputed) history of the Piscataway Indian tribe, also known as the We-Sorts. So did the We-Sorts build Wesorts, or was Wesort a corruption of Westport, a neighborhood in Baltimore? Or was Elmer Fudd somehow involved in the design?

These are the kinds of things I ponder in my spare time.

The Right to Repair

There’s a bill in the Massachusetts legislature right now that I really hope passes: it’s called the Right to Repair act. It would require automakers to publish all of the diagnostic codes and repair data for their vehicles, and make them available to anyone for a reasonable price. Independent auto shops and parts dealers are lobbying hard for it, and so are occasional tinkerers like me.

If you live in Massachusetts and are sick of having to take your car to the overpriced, often incompetent mechanics at the dealership, please write to your state Representative and tell them to pass this. If you’ve forgetten your Representative’s name, check the House site.

For folks in other parts of the country, feel free to cheer for us. Once again, Massachusetts is on the verge of doing something the rest of you will thank us for later.

Neptun Commands New England

Today, the First Coast Guard District gets an appropriately named new commander:

The Coast Guard is holding a change-of-command ceremony Friday in Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall to install Rear Adm. Daniel Neptun (NEPP’-toon) as commander of the district that covers more than 2,000 miles of coastline from New Jersey to the Canadian border.

Neptune. Image courtesy NASA.

A Neptune that has not achieved the rank of Rear Admiral. Image coutesy NASA.

It’s actually called a Change of Watch, but in any case I’m happy to see that Neptun is climbing the ranks. Oddly, the Coast Guard doesn’t seem to have a reasonably sized PR photo of the fellow, so this image of his namesake will have to do. Let’s just be glad there’s no Rear Admiral Uranus.

Weight Loss Reminder: There Are No Shortcuts

A paper in the latest issue of Cell Metabolism seems to promise a new generation of fat-loss drugs. The researchers knocked out sarcolemmal ATP-sensitive potassium (KATP) channels in mice, causing the animals’ muscles to burn more energy. As a result, the mice were thinner:

Inefficient fuel metabolism in KATP channel-deficient striated muscles reduced glycogen and fat body depots, promoting a lean phenotype. The propensity to lesser body weight imposed by KATPchannel deficit persisted under a high-fat diet, yet obesity restriction was achieved at the cost of compromised physical endurance. Thus, sarcolemmal KATP channels govern muscle energy economy, and their downregulation in a tissue-specific manner could present an antiobesity strategy by rendering muscle increasingly thermogenic at rest and less fuel efficient during exercise.

Of course, a fat-burning pill is the Holy Grail of the pharmaceutical industry, but if I were a drug developer, I’d hold off charging after KATP channel inhibitors. That’s because the abstract giveth, but the data taketh away. See, for example, Figure 7 (I don’t want to repost the figure here because Elsevier has been prickly about copyrights in the past, but the paper is open-access, so you can just click the link).

In the graph, note that the knockout mice are indeed less heavy than their wild-type colleagues on the obesity-inducing diet, but the weight curves are exactly the same. They’re both gaining. The experiment ends at 160 days, which means the mice were just hitting middle age.

There’s also the issue of side-effects, which we can practically guarantee in any potential KATP channel-targeting drug. The knockout mice had reduced endurance in an exercise test, but I’d bet a beer that’s not their only problem. Previous work has shown that this channel is a critical part of stress responses in both skeletal and cardiac muscle. Even taking a hypothetically perfect KATP channel-targeting compound for weight loss would be like popping a zit with a chainsaw: it might work, but is it worth the risk?

I’m not the only scientist skeptical of this approach, either. Greg Cooney, an Associate Professor at the Garvan Institute in Australia – who I’m guessing was a reviewer on the Cell Metabolism paper – just sent out a press release throwing some much-needed cold water on the weight-loss hype. In it, he reiterates the fundamental problem at the root of the obesity pandemic.

“The energy you use in your home can come from a coal-fired power station, hydroelectric power, or a wind turbine. You won’t know which because the end result is electricity. The energy that fuels your body can come from fats, proteins or carbohydrates. You won’t know which because the end result is ATP, or cellular energy,” says Cooney, concluding that “Your body will use the energy it needs and store the leftover fats, proteins or carbohydrates as fat. When you do the sums, it’s ultimately a matter of calories in and calories out.”

So how do you lose weight? Eat less and exercise more. Nobody likes that answer, but continuing to ask the question isn’t going to change it.