Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Made in China

Li Jingchun, a farmer in China has built what amounts to an art installation or perhaps a plaything, a tribute to his love of airplanes. It's something that he's clearly been inspired to create. It's fun to look at and he has every right to be proud of it, but the media coverage is strange.

Not strange that it's covered at all. I'm assuming the story originated in the PRC, a local man does cool thing story. The same photos and pretty much the same story have appeared in other countries' press. There's nothing wrong with the news featuring a person pursuing an unusual hobby, it's just that the media seems to be unquestioningly accepting that the man built an airplane. An airplane is an aircraft that generates lift by airflow over surfaces that remain fixed while in flight. Look at the picture. Is the media humouring him, or do they really think an engine would solve the issues with this "aircraft"?

It's made of recycled iron plates. There is no camber to the wings or stabilizer. There are no control surfaces or provisions to attach any. The wing surface area is tiny. The propeller is clearly ornamental. Am I just being a spoilsport? I would love to play in Li Jingchun's creation with him. I think it's marvellous. But why does this bother me? There are two reasons.

One is scientific literacy. I'm scared that the people who wrote edited and approved these stories for publication can't tell that's a creative, fun structure inspired by airplane form, and not an airplane. I'm scared that readers depending on media for information will take it at face value that the structure in question is an airplane, thereby discounting the skill and calculation that goes into actually designing and constructing airplanes. Lack of respect for knowledge, skill and engineering leads to lack of willingness to fund education, research and safety.

And the other is that there are people who really do design and build airplanes in their back yards, a project as different from Li Jingchun's as writing a story in Chinese is from creating faux-Chinese writing wallpaper. Many homebuilt aircraft builders don't have access to the education and research that I just whined about in the previous paragraph, but function is inspiring form.

It's not clear whether Ding Shilu's project actually flies, but it appears he designed it himself with some knowledge of aerodynamics. Here's an EAA critique of the might-be airplane.

I don't have this guy's name, or a picture of anything other than his crotch, and his creation isn't an airplane either. It's a freaking gyrocopter. If you think the footage bluescreeened, there's more here, along with someone else in a homebuilt helicopter.

Yang Weiming built his from a kit, and the test flight was reportedly his first solo. Here's video of the flight. While the Gizmodo article suggests that the gyrocopter pilot avoided showing his face because he was doing something frowned on by authorities, the Chinese article implies that the government is quite proud of this activity and puts no restrictions at all on experimental aircraft.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

When Omni Was Futuristic

I'm VFR inbound to a controlled airport on a day with a high thin overcast. Beautiful day for flying: no glare, little turbulence, old snow still sparkling on the ground below, but the runways and taxiways perfectly clear. The controller tells me to call ten miles out and asks another aircraft to report "over the OMNI."

How retro. The OMNI? I think the term might be more common in the US than Canada, but it's still pretty old fashioned. Omni means all. A moment here for the non-pilots, because I think I've left them behind in a cloud of terminology a few times recently, and because I still remember the thrill of excitement I felt on first learning how the thing I'm about to explain works. It was like a grade nine physics class come to life and become useful. There's a thing in aviation called Very High Frequency Omnidirectional (Radio) Ranging. Very High Frequency is always and already abbreviated VHF, which is already a type of radio, hence the thing itself is called a VOR. ("Vee-Oh-Arr").

A VOR is two things, one that's on the ground and sends signals and one that's in your plane and receives, interprets and displays the meaning of the signals. The one the air traffic controller referred to was obviously the ground-based one. It sends a VHF radio signal on a published frequency. You know that a radio waves are depicted as squiggles, sine waves oscillating from start to finish, a little repeated radio shape at frequency times per second. That's what frequency means. Now this is the cool part. The same frequency signal is sent out twice. Once starting at the same point all the way around and the second time starting at the same point at north, but offset by one three-hundred sixtieth of the cycle for each degree of the compass away from north the signal is sent.

Now the percentage of you that know how VORs work are either bored or laughing at my obsession with these. It's probably the fifth time I've explained this now aged technology on my blog. And those of you who let your eyes glaze over at anything math or physics related are waiting for this paragraph to be over. But if there's one reader who didn't know this simple, brilliant navigation solution and is now about to grasp it, it's worth boring everyone else. Because the VOR receiver in the airplane measures the difference in phase (how many three-hundred-sixtieths, i.e. degrees, different the two signals are) and displays it as a needle swing. (Nowadays it can be displayed digitally, too, but that's not the super cool part). Do you see it? The difference between the two signals is the bearing from the ground station to the receiver.

I'm sorry if that was never the coolest thing you'd ever heard. I promise to find a more modern piece of technology to rave about soon. But nothing is as elegant anymore, now that everything new has a computer in it. Computers are amazing, but they don't have the simple brilliant simplicity of an airspeed indicator.

Hey look, this flight sim site agrees with me. "The VHF Omnidirectional Range navigation system, VOR, was probably the most significant aviation invention other than the jet engine." True! Jet engines are so amazing that they sound almost as impossible as this perpetual motion air car, but jets are real.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Asteroid Warning Light

Just as there are certain streets I shouldn't walk down, there are certain parts of the Internet to which I should know better than to go, but sometimes I take a wrong turn. As Randall Munroe lamented, "Someone is wrong on the Internet."

I wasn't brave enough to seek out the site the question appeared on to look at the answers given to this individual, and I know it's not fair to call them out. I have no idea how old they are nor what opportunity they have had to learn information seeking and critical thinking strategies. At least they asked.

When I taught meteorology in ground school, I used to go around the room and have everyone name a place water was found in the environment. They were usually enough people trying to be clever that the resulting list included ponds, lakes, rivers, oceans, people, animals, martinis, glaciers, the air itself, clouds, fog and so on. We'd go through the list and discuss the phase of water present in each case. Almost everyone started the class thinking that clouds were composed of water vapour. A lot of them knew that water vapour was an invisible gas in the air around them, but for some reason they rarely saw this at odds with their ability to see clouds.

While there are "clouds of gas," unqualified "clouds" are made of water, in the form of liquid droplets and/or ice crystals. The higher the altitude, the colder the air and the greater the proportion of ice to water in the cloud. The droplets may circulate upward and downward within a cloud, meaning that liquid water may freeze and ice may melt, but more dangerously, liquid water may be cooled below zero celsius yet not immediately freeze. This is dangerous because supercooled liquids tend to freeze on contact with a surface, such as an airplane flying through them. There's a readout on my dashboard giving the outside air temperature, and when that temperature is between about +4 and -15C, an amber light turns on, warning me that I'm in the icing zone. Any visible liquid moisture (clouds, fog, rain) at that altitude could be supercooled, and turn to ice on my airplane.

I don't have an asteroid warning light. Maybe on the Starship Enterprise.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Dressing Up for Leftovers

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An earlier version of this said the carrier was Alligiant. My brain must have riffed off "alleged." Good grief I'm a terrible blogger.

Anyway, these guys received vouchers good for free or very cheap first class airline travel from a family friend. They turned up dressed like paying passengers. Their attire was within the bounds of public decency and they wouldn't get a second glance boarding with regular tickets.

The problem is that they weren't flying on regular tickets. They were flying on buddy passes. The airline wasn't going to make any money off of them. Non-rev buddy travel is the airline equivalent of a restaurant employee being allowed to serve left over food to friends at the end of the night. Once all the paying customers are served, the buddies can have some, as long as they behave excruciatingly well, look so respectable that paying customers never guess they are freeloaders, and understand that they will eat what they are served and that there might not be any left for them.

Restaurant food isn't as perishable as airline seats--an empty airline seat becomes unusable by anyone the moment the door is closed--so if restaurants allow their employees to feed their friends, that's probably only in the form of allowing them to take leftovers home. Restaurant employees would probably get in trouble if their friends came in dressed casually to see if there was any free food available.

"But," you might say, "this is different. The airline has a program set up that allow employees' friends to come and get those free seats. They don't have to wait in the alley out of sight of paying customers until after closing." Well they kind of do. They have to wait in the boarding lounge until just before the flight is closed, and they are in no way guaranteed a seat, even if there are empty ones. And they have to be invisible, or at least completely inoffensive, to paying customers.

I'm going to take the men at their word that they had no idea that there was a dress code for first class travel as a non-revenue passenger. I suspect they received the pass from a family member who got it from the friend, and not directly through a friend, because an airline employee with any sense at all will, "put the fear of God into my BP riders," letting them know "I would CUT you," as comments on my Facebook feed put it. If a non-rev behaves inappropriately, the employee loses non-rev travel privileges. The rules were probably printed on the back of the pass, but I can't really fault the guys for not reading the fine print on the ticket.

Every airline has its own non-rev rules. This site lists them for many airlines. I found US Airways here. Including:

An agent will call you to the podium give you a boarding pass if a seat is available on the flight. Please do not hover at the counter asking to be boarded. If the agent asks you to check your carry- on luggage, please comply immediately. If your flight is sold out and you are not boarded, please wait until the agent is free before asking for assistance. The agent will either help you or direct you to another source for information.

During Travel

Please maintain a polite, appropriate demeanor during guest pass travel and refrain from discussing guest pass travel privileges or the fact that you are flying at a reduced fare.

Dress Guidelines

Guest pass travelers in Coach or First Class/Envoy may wear casual attire. US Airways asks its employees and their pass ride rs to exercise good judgment when selecting their travel attire. Clothes should be in good repair, neat, clean, and conservative. Unacceptable attire in any class includes any clothing that is torn, faded, soiled, wrinkled, cut−off, has ragged edges or holes; clothing with offensive graphics or terminology; and provocative or revealing clothing such as micro/miniskirts, bare midriff, halter, tank, tube or bra tops.

Coach Class: Eligible Pass Riders may wear casual attire, including shorts, blue jeans, sandals, and athletic footwear.

First or Envoy Class: Pass travelers may wear casual attire, including blue or black denim attire, skirts, capri-style pants, and sandals, provided it is well−groomed, neat, clean, and conservative. Unacceptable attire in First Class/Envoy includes tee shirts, shorts, jogging suits, athletic gear, baseball−style caps, athletic shoes, beach footwear, flip−flops including Croc−style footwear.

So jeans are okay, but not t-shirts or baseball caps. They were fine in the regular cabin, but didn't meet the requirements for non-rev travel in first class.

The document at this link describes AA's non-rev dress code for first class, including no denim clothing of any kind or colour, no athletic shoes and no skorts. (Skorts is not a typo. Who knew that the scourge of hybrid shorts-skirts was so great they had to be banned?) Notice that t-shirts are grounds for denied boarding to non-revs in any class on that airline. The price of your free ticket is complying with mid-twentieth century dress codes and being well behaved. Here's an e-how on the subject.

The pair probably wouldn't have upset anyone in first class with their casual attire, but on the off chance that a paying passenger is going to be put off by the presence of an under-dressed seatmate, the under-dressed person darn well better have paid a regular fare. There actually IS a cost of putting someone in an empty seat in first class: the person who paid to sit in the next seat is slightly less satisfied, and first class customers either pay a lot of money for their seats, or fly a lot and earn the miles to pay for the upgrade. Either way, you don't want that person to believe that another airline will give them a better chance at a row to themselves.

It's still possible that the US Airways non-rev dress codes are usually waived, and that gate agent who sent the men away to change was selectively applying the dress code because of personal racial prejudice. I imagine that is what the men's lawyer will have to argue to make the case, although the suit claims that they purchased the tickets. Technically they did, as the buddy passes gave a reduced rate, not completely free travel.

Increased airline loads make it hard enough to use a non-rev pass these days that many employees prefer to buy tickets. That combined with the terrible publicity airlines get from incidents like this might lead to the elimination of the privilege. Too bad.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

It Would Probably Work As an Air Filter, Too

I'm blogging about trying out a product, because it makes me feel important when people send me things for my opinion, and every once and a while this is fun to do. No one pays me to blog about any of the things they send me, nor threatens to take them away if I say mean things about their product. I'm not telling you what today's product is right off, because it has a kind of embarrassing name, and I have to work my way up to it. Nor am I telling you what it is right off, because I'm not really sure if it has an exact product category. "Clothing Accessory" would be appropriate. But it's not socks. I love socks. But I don't suppose anyone ever needs those tested. I'll test the heck out of any socks anyone needs testing.

I didn't immediately like today's product that much, but someone sent it to me to try and I was going to put it through its paces. I wanted to be fair and open-minded. The one they sent me is straw-coloured, a yellowy beige with a black design on it reminiscent of deciduous trees in winter or maybe neurons ... they come in a lot of colours and patterns, so the colour scheme of mine is not that important. I took it out of the package and stretched it around, finding it to be a short fabric tube, unfinished, no hem or edge or seam or anything, but it doesn't need one, as that would just add bulk, and it doesn't unravel. The diameter is sufficient to fit around my head stretched, or unstretched it sits loosely around my neck. When I felt it against my skin I wrote, "feels similar to poly-cotton." That was before I read the washing instructions. I'd assumed it was some kind of space age fabric, but actually it is a polyester cotton blend. Score one for the calibration level of my face. So one can put it in the washing machine, and then put it in the drier too, or just hang it up to dry and it will be dry in the morning.

But before I got to the bit about needing to wash it, I put it on like a hat and tyed a knot in the top. It hid the fact that my hair was not cooperating in any way, and distracted me from hating my hair. I took it off and hated my hair some more, then went out shopping with a friend, even though I wasn't dressed warmly enough. You know those early spring days when it looks warm because the sun is shining, but it's actually cold. And that's when I discovered one of the great uses of the thing. It has almost no volume, so you can keep it in your purse or pocket in a way you absolutely cannot do with a toque, but it's still pretty warm. Around my neck it works a lot like a scarf, except there are no loose ends, and it goes on instantly without needing wrapping or tying. I pulled it up over my ears to cover from my forehead to the nape of my neck, like a babushka scarf or a really skimpy hijab. (That's probably not a common word combination there). My friend--I hang with geeks--observed, "You're wearing a thing on your head," and when prompted ranked it four out of ten, on a scale of 1 being newspaper and garbage bags and 10 being mink and ermine, if mink and ermine weren't produced in cruel conditions. Four seems pretty low, but it's probably close to my sartorial average. I would not be playing Penny on the Big Bang Theory, the fashion-conscious woman-next-door role in a geek-oriented sitcom. I think if you know how to do fashion, it would probably look good on you. There are pictures and a video at the company's website on how to wear it. And the point is, newspaper and garbage bags are pretty damned warm, and less convenient to carry around than this. It was starting to grow on me.

I wore it work, and explained what it was. One of my co-workers says he had two of them. If you put it on before putting on a full-face motorcycle/snowmobile helmet you don't get your ears bent around during the helmet donning and removal process. I hate the ear-bending ordeal, so this is a big plus. The no ends, no ties, no loops, one-piece construction is especially beneficial in a cockpit where I already have headset cords, a shoulder belt, a reflective vest and oxygen lines in the vicinity of my head. It kept the seatbelt from chafing.

I also wore it for running. If you run you know the bit about going out in the cold wishing you were wearing a parka an then after a couple of kilometres needing to take off some of your clothes and wanting to throw them away. The Hoo Rag (there, I said it) works well for this. I can start off with it wrapped around my neck and/or head, and then as I warm up I can move it around, and take it off, without it being a burden. For the last kilometre or so I wrap it around my right hand, so that my fingers are warm enough to turn the key in the lock when I get home, without having had to wear gloves for the whole run. I threw it in the wash after that. It's been through the laundry a few times now, and kept its elasticity and colours.

So I like it. It's useful and convenient. I imagine it will provide rudimentary bug protection in the months to come. The title of this blog entry could be interpreted as the Hoo Rag's undoubted usefulness as makeshift protection for the nose and mouth in a dust storm, but that's not the reason for the title. It's an allusion to the product's greatest drawback: it's only one Hoo short of what my great-grandmother undoubtedly used in lieu of instrument air filters. Poly-cotton isn't all that absorbent, but in a desperate situation it could probably play that role too.