Yes, but not much has been going on here lately…
Here’s the annual list – pretty sparse last year:
San Francisco, CA*
New York, NY†
Abu Dhabi, UAE
Yulara, NT, Australia
Los Angeles, CA†
Hong Kong, China*
All places had overnight visits, unless marked with †.
* Multiple entries, non-consecutive days.
† Daytrip only.
This movie review is a guest post by Andrew Lau
Arrival is executed in the style that fools most film critics into thinking there’s a lot more going on than there really is.
That understated style where the camera lingers a lot longer than it should on everything. Where dolly moves and zooms are slow and seemingly deliberate to imply depth and meaning.
Where the camera is placed wide and never cuts into the emotion. Where people talk at one end of the room but are photographed (with an extra long lens) from the other side in silhouette. Yes, that style.
Amy Adams, translator extraordinaire, is called by the military to communicate with aliens upon their arrival on Earth. She meets with the over-sized squids and tries to decipher their language of circular, squiggly, inky lines.
Meanwhile, there’s a little confusion about what the inky lines mean. Suspicious and jittery, the Chinese decide the aliens have come to blow our planet away. They gather their military forces to blow the aliens away first… but Amy works it all out before the shit hits the fan.
Not giving anything away here. All this is in the trailer.
The film has a fabulous aesthetic — the spaceships and aliens are unlike anything we’ve seen before. The music is GREAT and the tone is consistently mournful keeping within the theme of loss.
Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” is effectively used, anchoring the emotions of our heroine, allowing the audience into her state of mind.
But if you watch the film carefully, you’ll see the film is mostly style. There’s little tangible substance. There’s so little story content in this film it could, and should have been a 45 minute short.
The film lacks in conflict and drama between the cardboard-thin characters. What you see in the trailers isn’t the tip of the iceberg. It’s what you get. Cut and dried. That’s it.
Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) directed this and makes these choices deliberately. He’s just being himself. I’ve decided he’s more a minimal stylist than story-teller.
After the initial awe and excitement of the alien landing and first-contact, whether or not you enjoy this film will depend on your taste. Whether or not you are bored, will depend on if you’re just happy to go along with style.
If you’re into films where people gaze into the distance mournfully or stare at computer screens with deep bewilderment for long periods, this is the movie for you. If you’re a film-maker or film-geek who gets excited by long-lens silhouette shots, this is the movie for you.
If you want a concrete story with in-depth characters and tension, this is NOT the movie for you.
Arrival is about the importance of communicating. Communicating with honesty, integrity and transparency. It takes time to understand what doesn’t make sense and points of view that are opposite or different to our own.
Arrival was released days before Donald Trump was elected into office, making these ideas all the more poignant for these politically divisive times.
I can say I love what the film’s story is about, but not how the film goes about telling its story.
Arrival gets 7 out of 10, for style.
* * *
Stu’s note: Based on a Ted Chiang short story, the concept for this movie was instantly interesting to me. However, it’s a slow-paced film with many contemplative shots that linger too long. As Andrew mentions, the style of this movie makes you think there’s more to the story than there really is. After the movie, I felt like there was something deeper that I was missing, but additional probing with friends failed to turn up much. Many science fiction movies of this type provide a fertile seed for “what if” conversations about free will, predestination, and soothsaying, but Arrival didn’t feel like a typical sci-fi movie in that respect. Instead, it focused on exploring the idea of communication – both intra- and interspecies – while doing so in an innocuous manner that didn’t provoke the “what if” kind of curiosity that I love about sci-fi.
Now that iPhone carrier subsidies have ended at all the major carriers, most people are going to be paying full freight for a new phone. For a 256GB iPhone 7, that’s $849 (or closer to $925 after you include California state sales tax). Apple also allows people to pay this amount off in monthly $35.37 installments over 24 months, without any interest charges. However, if you want to sell your phone within those 2 years, I haven’t looked into how the installment plan affects that.
Other options include going on Apple’s iPhone Upgrade Program, or a carrier upgrade plan like AT&T Next.
iPhone’s Upgrade program is a 24 month contract which generally allows you to upgrade to a new unlocked iPhone every 12 months, and comes with AppleCare+ over the same period. AppleCare+ covers two incidents of accidental damage, subject to payment of a $29 service fee for screen damage and $99 for any other type of damage, plus tax. For the 256GB iPhone 7, the upgrade plan is $40.75/month.
After you’ve made 12 payments on the plan, you can trade in your iPhone with Apple for a new one, and the 24 month clock starts all over again. If you complete 24 months of payments, the phone is yours to keep.
Rumor has it that the next version of the iPhone is going to be a significant upgrade (I’m guessing it won’t be the iPhone 7S, and it might not even be called the iPhone 8). So, might it be worth going on the upgrade program to take advantage of this?
The easy way to look at it is that if you upgrade after a year, you’ve essentially leased the phone for 12 months for $489 (or slightly less if you remove the AppleCare component, which is baked in at essentially the $129 retail price).
Because the phones are now sold out-of-contract and unlocked, you could instead simply buy a phone outright and then next year attempt to sell it on eBay or similar. As long as the phone hasn’t depreciated more than $489 (or $414 if you factor in sales tax), you’ll be ahead. In other words, the target sales price is $435.
I’m thinking that as long as you keep your phone in good condition, you’ll be able to sell it for more than $435 in a year’s time. An eBay search shows used 128GB iPhone 6S models regularly selling for $500 and up.
You can think of the difference in your actual resale price and $435 as the fee Apple is charging you to buy the iPhone from you instead of you having to go out and sell it yourself.
It’s interesting to note that Apple also offers a trade-in program, which currently values an unlocked 128GB iPhone 6 in good condition at $225, so you can see where the margin lies there.
In summary, now that carriers aren’t subsidizing new phones, locking them, or locking customers into 24-month contracts, you can essentially run your own upgrade program if you’re comfortable with selling your phone at the end of the year if you want to upgrade. You could do this before, but now that we don’t have the option of buying a subsidized plan (which essentially gave a very substantial discount for getting locked-in), this approach becomes a lot more attractive.
I passed my private pilot checkride on Friday! The checkride, otherwise formally known as the Practical Test, was the final step to qualifying as a private pilot, which allows me to take passengers with me.
After getting postponed a couple times due to poor winter weather, spring rolled around, the weather was sunny, and the checkride was finally on. I had chosen a Friday based on examiner availability and not having to battle the weekend air traffic.
The examiner would arrive at 8.00am, so I turned up at the airport at 7.00am so I could do some last minute prep work. John, my instructor, arrived minutes later. “Did you see what’s happening outside?” I walked outside to see a workcrew with a huge drill opening up a hole in the tarmac – right in the middle of the ramp and right in front of 2407N, the plane I had booked. “Let’s hope they’ll be gone in a couple hours.”
John retrieved the plane’s maintenance logs from the hangar while I borrowed the Pilot Operating Handbook from the plane. We then spent some time fiddling around with an online FAA application form – you have to report the hours you’ve spent doing various things, and it was a chore making sure all the numbers were right.
Tom turned up at 8, and we sat down to do the administrative work. Turns out that our application form was still not quite correct, so after two more attempts we finally got that squared away and the test could begin.
The exam starts with an oral portion, followed by a practical portion where you actually do the flying (with the oral exam technically continuing through the practical portion).
The oral is open book and I had all my notes and materials arranged in front of me. But, I had drilled this stuff quite a bit so it turns out that I didn’t need to refer to the notes very much. The examiner, Tom, tossed out a few questions about documents and other requirements needed to fly – thankfully, fairly straightforward questions. He asked when the weight & balance data expired, and I had to um and ah about that for a while before I half-guessed out that it’s only going to change if the aircraft is modified.
Tom gave me a METAR to decode and left the room while I did so. I made relatively short work of it given that I had printed out the METAR decoding section of the FAA’s Aviation Weather Services document, which makes the decoding process very easy. I was done after about 10 minutes and sat there twiddling my thumbs for another 10 minute before Tom stepped in. “Oh sorry, most people take 45 minutes to do this.” Tip: Bring the AWS document to checkrides – you’ll need it to decode thorny PIREPs and METARs.
I got through the rest of the orals pretty unscathed, except for when I was stumped but what I needed to do if the altimeter setting reported was 32.10, since the plane’s altimeter adjustments don’t go that high. Turns out there’s a Part 91 rule that says you need to check the NOTAMs to figure out what to do. He asked some questions about charts (“point to one place where you can fly with 1 mile visibility, 500′ below clouds, 1000′ above clouds and 2000′ lateral to clouds”), aircraft performance, aircraft systems, the FAA’s special emphasis areas, and a few other things that I can’t quite remember now.
The oral was done after a couple of hours, and then it was on to the practical test, which was the bit that made me the most nervous.
The drilling crew had disappeared from the ramp, but they had left behind an orange cone, again directly in the path of my plane. I picked it up and saw it was covering a hole.
Someone suggested that I pull the plane around it instead of trying to taxi around it, so I did so after finishing my preflighting.
As I prepared to start the engine, a problem arose that threatened to end the exam right then and there (and I would have to pay $350 to resume it another time). A big red X appeared through the right digital fuel gauge. I had seen this problem before – it was an issue with the fuel tank being overfilled, and it would be X’ed until the fuel level dropped a little. However, the plane was not flyable with an inop fuel gauge. It was not, in pilot-speak, airworthy. I groaned.
“What’s wrong?” Tom asked.
“The right fuel gauge is inoperative,” I replied, pointing at the screen.
“Can we fly with that inoperative?”
“No,” I sighed.
I was pretty sure the slight slope the plane was on was causing the gauge issue. To make matters worse, when I wiggled in my seat to get the fuel sloshing inside the tanks, the gauge would flicker between being dead and coming back to life. So frustrating.
“Look, if you can go back in and sort this out, I’m happy to continue.”
We went back in and a discussion ensued between John, Tom and myself. I was pretty sure that the problem would be fixed by draining the right wing of a half gallon of fuel. But there was no easy way to siphon it off.
“You’re PIC [pilot in command], it’s your call,” Tom said. It was my call, and I was still being tested. If I made the wrong call, Tom could end the test right then and there.
In the end, I decided that I would take the plane out to try and burn some fuel off. I decided I would not attempt to take off, but instead just took it for a drive around the airfield. Fortunately, the regulations state that “no person may take off an aircraft with inoperative instruments or equipment installed,” with the emphasis being on “take off”, so it was ok to operate the aircraft as long as it stayed on the ground.
After starting a lap of the field, the fuel gauge corrected itself and I brought it back and shut the engine off.
I told Tom it was working again, only to find out that when I restarted the engine it was displaying the angry red X of disappointment again. “Look, I’m ok with you taking it out to the run up area, and if it’s working then, we can go,” Tom suggested.
We were now ready to go, and Tom got into the plane as I started the engine. He had had me plan a cross-country flight to Lodi (which he would divert me from), so I asked ground control for a Right Dumbarton departure that would send me over East Bay into the Central Valley.
As expected, as soon as we started taxiing, the gauge sprang back to life and stayed that way. Phew.
In the run-up area, everything went smoothly. Tom noticed that the plane to the right of us in the run-up area had a door loose, so he called into the tower to report that and it was fixed. (Incidentally, if a door comes ajar in flight, there is a procedure in the manual for dealing with it.)
We took off and after reaching the Dumbarton Bridge, I turned right and started the timer to track time to the next waypoint, over Sunol Golf Course. I had estimated 7 minutes.
Tom asked me to stay at 2500 feet. The air was smooth and I trimmed the plane for level flight. Tom tapped twice on the standby altimeter. “I think this thing is broken.” I glanced down and was pretty sure he was joking. “Private pilots aren’t meant to hold an altitude this steady.” The air in the East Bay was incredibly hazy, but seemed to clear up as we got closer.
Forecasted winds were double of what they were when we were in the air, so I made a course adjustment to compensate, and 7 minutes 10 seconds later we were over the golf course.
At Sunol, Tom asked me to plan a diversion to Salinas, which mean that I needed to estimate the course bearing and fuel needed to get there from my present position. “And you can’t use GPS,” he added. I unfurled my chart, which is always an unwieldy exercise, while sneaking quick glances back at my heading, altitude, and out the window for traffic. Unfold map. Check instruments. Check outside. Look for Salinas. Check instruments. Adjust pitch. Check outside. Use thumb to estimate chart distance. Check instruments. Adjust pitch. Check outside. Use hand to estimate heading. “150 degrees and 60 nautical miles, which is about 30 minutes and 5 gallons of fuel,” I declared. Tom was satisfied with that answer and told me to bring it in for a landing at Livermore, which was now quickly approaching.
(Incidentally, I checked after the test what the actual distance was from Sunol to Salinas and it turned out to be 57 nautical miles and 153 degrees!)
I turned to avoid entering Livermore’s airspace and got ATIS. I had a quick reference chart on the back of my kneeboard with frequencies of Bay Area airports. Much easier to look up than the chart. I called Livermore tower and was told to enter left base for 25L.
As I began my descent to pattern altitude, Tom said, “If the engine gave out here, could you make the field?”
“Then why are you still descending?”
When I brought the plane in for a normal landing, the deceleration caused by my braking sent everything loose in the cabin shooting forward, including the kneeboard, chart, nav log and pen that were on my lap. By instinct, I took one hand off the yoke to try and catch the airborne paraphrenalia, which I half succeeded in doing. Unfortunately, I had also succeeded in losing control of my rudder pedals and the plane swerved to the left. I had to quickly adjust, and we skidded side-to-side on the runway. Crap. I decided to let go of everything and concentrate on steering the plane, dropping everything to the floor.
“Yeah you don’t want to do that,” Tom said.
A little bit shaken, I exited the runway and promptly dialed in the wrong frequency for ground control. Twice. “No, it’s point 6.” Tom mentioned. I had a mental block. By convention, when a ground frequency is given as “point something”, the three numbers before the decimal point are standard. And right now I couldn’t remember what they were. After an interminable 5 seconds, my mind become unstuck and I punched in 121.6.
We taxied back to 25L and he asked me to do a soft field takeoff. That went smoothly, and then on the downwind leg he asked me to pull the throttle to idle and called in to the tower to alert them we’d be doing a short approach.
I was having trouble judging distances (and 25L didn’t have VASI or PAPI lights), so I erred on the side of caution and kept high. As I circled onto final, I hit full flaps and realized we were still way too high. I put the plane into a forward slip.
“Not at 55 knots, you’re not,” Tom mentioned.
Shit. I immediately pushed the yoke forward to pitch down and gain speed. I always have trouble remembering to do that.
By the time I released the slip and rounded out, half of the 2700 foot runway had passed us and the end was looming. A short approach is meant to simulate an engine failure, and in the real world, I would only have one shot at landing. I might have been able to make it. But I wasn’t going to find out one way or the other.
“I’m going around,” I said.
Tom was silent on the next circuit.
“What sort of landing would you like?”
“A normal one.”
We were meant to be doing performance landings, so I thought he was going to let me land before telling me I had failed.
When we landed, he told me to show him a short field takeoff, so I guess I hadn’t failed. And when we came back around, he asked for a short field landing.
Finally, he told me to get a left crosswind departure and perform a no flaps takeoff. I had actually never done a no flaps takeoff. John had always taught me to take off with 10 degrees of flaps, and Cessna recommends that take offs have those flaps in. There’s not much difference, but I suspected there could have been a difference in rotation speed. I thought it was 55 knots, but I seemed to recall it being 60 knots for no flaps. So I hedged, and took off as the airspeed indicated about 57-58 knots. (Turns out that it should be 55 even with no flaps.)
On the climb out, Tom took the controls and I put on foggles. He gave me some vectors to follow. Then he was on the radio with Livermore Tower reporting that he was seeing a fire on the ground and did anyone know about it. He took the controls from me temporarily to check it out and reported back that it looked like it was a controlled burn. With foggles on, I didn’t see any of it. When I got the controls back, I was battling the turbulence coming off a ridge of hills trying to maintain my altitude and heading.
After some more vectors, Tom took the controls from me again, asked me to close my eyes, and put the plane in an unusual attitude. I came out of my seat at one stage. After Tom barked “Recover! Recover!” I opened my eyes and saw we were in a dive. I recovered. We were now heading back to the Bay.
Tom had me do slow flight, followed by clearing turns in slow flight, a power off stall, and then a steep turn to the left (which turned out quite well). Tom then simulated a medical emergency and asked me to perform an emergency descent to 1500 feet.
After recovering the plane, we headed towards the salt ponds and he had me do turns around a point at 1000′. I slipped to about 950′ at one stage, which technically broke altitude requirements over congested areas (although also technically, we were over a field so it wasn’t really congested).
Then it was back to Palo Alto for a no flaps landing. I circled a couple times to get ATIS, joined the traffic pattern, struggled a bit with getting the speed correct, but had it mostly stabilized by the time I was on short final. I landed long and had to use the last runway exit. I just needed to taxi back to parking without hitting anything on the way, but then I was done!
Tom was silent all the way back to parking. After I shut the engine down, he turned to me and remarked, “Congratulations. I’ll see you inside for the paper work.”
The club’s printer was low on toner, so Tom had printed me out a temporary private pilot certificate complete with white streaks down the middle of the page where the toner had run out. The FAA would send me a permanent certificate within 120 days, but right then and there, I was a brand new pilot!
Apparently, this blog has now reached the age of majority.
Haven’t done this for a couple years, but here’s the list for last year:
Four Corners, UT/AZ/NM/CO
Monument Valley, AZ
Porta Westfallica, Germany
Abu Dhabi, UAE
Panama City, Panama+
Seoul, South Korea
Panmunjeon, South Korea+
All places had overnight visits, unless marked with †.
* Multiple entries, non-consecutive days.
† Daytrip only.
A few articles have been written recently about the sale of Good Technology, a mobile security startup, to BlackBerry for about $425 million, after having attained Unicorn status through a previous round of private financing.
It’s a sorry tale for the employees, who saw the value of their common stock fall about 90% in a matter of months. To make matters worse, some forms of equity compensation require employees to pay taxes when they vest, meaning some employees were paying large amounts of tax on illiquid stock – the income tax withholding rate can be around 45% in California – only to find out that the tax they paid was more than what the stock was ultimately worth. Worse still was that some employees had purchased shares on the secondary market in the months leading up to the sale. (Good appears to allow its stock to be traded privately – not all companies allow this.)
Good had a layer of preferred stockholders – presumably all of them are financial investors – who had first dibs on the sale proceeds, leaving the common stockholders – which is what employees were – with the scraps. Good’s board is now facing a lawsuit from its common stockholders citing breach of fiduciary duty (most of the board were de facto representatives of financial investors – which is common, but does lead to a perceived conflict because directors are meant to be looking out for the company and not their funds, especially as the interests of the two may sometimes diverge). Employees are also complaining that executives painted a much more rosy picture of the company’s health than it really was, essentially misleading them as to the value of their stock. From a corporate law perspective, that is all very interesting stuff to me, but that’s not what I’m writing about.
Good filed to go public in 2014 so its financial statements were public. I am far from being a finance or accounting expert, but if I was going to buy more of my own company’s stock and further concentrate my position in it, I would take a very good look at its financials. I took a cursory look at Good’s 2014 financials. The following analysis is based on my shaky and questionable understanding of financial statements.
As with a lot of unicorns, Good showed strong revenue growth, rising from 117m to 212m from 2012 to 2014. However, revenues are only part of the picture. Good was not profitable. It was actually making large operating losses at 89m, 116m and 84m from 2012-2014. Earnings (or rather, losses) after interest, tax and depreciation were roughly the same. Large losses, by themselves, are not necessarily bad, as long as there is a good reason for them. If the losses are caused by investment and R&D activity, that can be positive, as long as you see positive results from the investment. If the losses are occurring because the things the company are selling are inherently unprofitable (and that includes all the support infrastructure that goes into selling and supporting things), then that’s bad. Good’s sales and marketing expenses were high, but they had actually pared down on that expense in 2014 while increasing revenues (a good sign), and reducing its losses. So if that trend were to continue, Good would eventually get to profitability.
But an 84m loss is a lot of money to be burning through to get to profitability, and so we look at its balance sheet. And that’s where I see a problem – going into 2015, they only had 25m in cash available, plus another 50m or so that its customers owed it. That’s not a very long runway, when in the previous year they were burning through about 7-8m a month.
Sure enough, they were struggling in 2015, and by the time BlackBerry was circling, they had apparently exhausted their short term assets and needed bridge financing of $40m to tide them over during acquisition talks.
As a company employee, you’re at the coalface, so you are normally operating at an information advantage to an outside investor. You can see what is happening in the company on a day to day basis, and you know the people that make the company tick. So to double down on your employer can be a reasonable decision to make. But I feel that a lot of employees in the Bay Area don’t really make use of all the information that’s available to them. There’s perhaps an overreliance on what they get told by management:
At an all-hands company meeting in June, Ms. Wyatt again said Good was spending responsibly. Thanks to the cash from a recent $26 million legal settlement, she added, the company had “a ton of options,” including an I.P.O., according to a video of the gathering.
“We were under the impression that Good was doing well, that there was nothing wrong with cash flow and that we had a lot of options,” said Igor Makarenko, Good’s chief information security officer, who has been an employee since 1997.
If I was told that, and I was looking at the financials, I would have been nervous and asking some very specific questions.
In a part of the world where equity can make up a large percentage of employee compensation, I sometimes find it jarring how little an understanding there is among employees of how it works. Silicon Valley startups give equity to employees to incentivize performance and make them feel like owners – as the company’s fortunes rise and fall, so too do yours. But it’s also a financial investment, and you have to act like a financial investor if you really want to understand it.
(Or you can just join a company like Netflix, which replaces the typical equity component with cash compensation, leading to very high salaries. They do have an option purchase plan, but you have to consciously allocate some of your comp to equity.)
Still inching along towards getting my private pilot license. The weather hasn’t been cooperating lately, and there was a stretch of about 6 weeks where I only flew once. I’m currently sitting on about 55 hours of flying, which is about average for the stage I’m at. It’s definitely taken longer than I thought it would, given that I started in mid-March.
I took the private pilot knowledge test a couple weeks ago. It’s a computer-administered test. 60 multiple choice questions over 150 minutes. There’s an outline book you use to study it, and you can get through it in a couple weekends. Compared to the MBE for the bar exam (200 multiple choice questions over 6 hours), this one was a piece of cake. Took me 60 minutes for a 97%, but I think if you eyeball the questions requiring chart reading and calculation and make educated guesses, you should be able to get through the whole thing with a passing grade in under 40 minutes. Not that a pilot wants to just scrape by on a test like this – the main person that’s going to lose out if they don’t actually know the materials is the pilot.
KPAO-KSTS-KPAO: 7.00pm Thursday 11/19 (3.1 hours) – 824LB
Earlier this week, I met my night flying requirements. Before you can take the checkride (the practical test that’s the final hurdle to getting a license), you have to clock 3 hours of night flying, including a cross-country flight of at least 100 nautical miles. You also have to perform 10 full stop landings at night.
John was kind enough to accommodate my request to fly north up to Santa Rosa in Sonoma, which would be a much more interesting route than going south to sleepy Salinas (another popular training route). The weather over San Francisco is always a bit iffy, but fortunately the weather held and we had a beautiful calm, clear night under a waxing quarter moon.
By the time I arrived at the airport after work, it was almost completely dark. John was caught up in rush hour traffic on the 101, so he texted me that he would be a bit late. Preflighting was a challenge, as was seeing around the cockpit. There wasn’t enough gas in the tanks, and fuel service had closed for the day, so we had to taxi over to the fuel island where I got my first chance to refuel a plane. It’s almost exactly like refueling a car, except that you first need to ground the plane with a metal cable, there are two tanks to fill, and there’s no auto-shutoff valve so you have to watch the tank closely to see when it’s getting full. The Cessna I was flying holds 53 gallons of usable fuel.
With the tanks all full, we were ready to go. The route we plotted would take us into San Francisco’s Class B airspace, up along the 101, over the city, between the Golden Gate and Alcatraz, into North Bay and up to Santa Rosa. On the way back, we would fly via the Skaggs Island VOR and Oakland.
Flying at night was equal parts beautiful and unnerving. Shortly after we took off, we were handed off to San Carlos Airport’s tower and were directed to transition their airspace while keeping the 101 off our right side. Ahead of us, two trickling streams of white and red – El Camino Real on the left and the 101 on the right – traced their way up the Peninsula through the glistening city lights. On the right we could see the black surface of the bay waters, framed by the lights of East Bay towns flickering in the haze. On the left, city lights extended for a short distance before abruptly terminating in an inky darkness. The foothills were there, but it was disconcertingly impossible to see them.
The night both sharpens and hides. While during the day other aircraft are difficult to see – beyond 3 miles, it’s difficult to spot anything other than large jet airliners – at night the distractions and background fades away, leaving just the moving flashes of airline strobe lights. Traffic becomes less of a concern, and focus turns more to “terrain avoidance” and hoping that there isn’t a stray cloud right in front of you.
San Carlos Tower handed us off to San Francisco Airport’s tower and, for the first time, I got to speak with the same people that speak everyday to the airline pilots who take us to lands much farther than Sonoma.
“San Francisco Tower, Skyhawk 824LB, Level 1500.”
SFO Tower cleared us into their airspace and then went back to directing the big jets. “United 455, San Francisco Tower, Wind 290 at 5, Runway 28L, cleared to land.” Off our right side, we watched as pairs of airlines landed on the twin runways of 28L and 28R, while pairs took off on 1L and 1R, alternating in a graceful aeronautical choreography. “American 218, Wind 290 at 6, Runway 1L, cleared for take off.” Two points of light, Skywest 312W and American 218, started crawling down the runway, followed by a small shift in angle indicating that they had become airborne.
“Cessna 4LB, fly to the control tower and then make one left 360.” They wanted us to make a circle to create some spacing for the jets that were taking off. I pointed the plane directly at San Francisco airport, flew overhead, and then started my left turn, 1500 feet above the ground. We had an amazing view of the airport.
“Tighten up the turn a little bit,” John said, as the plane pointed towards the foothills, still cloaked in blackness.
With the turn completed, we resumed our course and flew over the city, the Golden Gate and Bay Bridge extending like arms from downtown San Francisco. Then we were in North Bay, with the city lights rapidly fading behind us, and the terrain rapidly becoming more rugged and less populated. It felt like we were leaving civilization – and more so when we were handed over to Oakland Center.
Airspace is carved up into different pieces for air traffic control to manage. Generally, the busier the airspace, the smaller the chunk that gets sliced off for an air traffic control facility to handle. Airport towers deal with the areas immediately surrounding the airport (and potentially neighboring untowered airports) and Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facilities can control airspace spanning thousands of square miles around them. Oakland Center, the callsign for the Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC), is responsible for millions of square miles of coverage – a staggering amount of almost 10% of the Earth’s surface area, mostly over the Pacific Ocean. It spends the majority of its time directing jet traffic at altitudes where even the tallest mountains don’t reach.
It is not unusual, but it is relatively uncommon for an ARTCC to be watching over a small Cessna crawling up the California coast at 6,500 feet. It was just an indication of how relatively remote things were even a short distance north of a major world city.
Mount Tamalpais was supposed to be off our left side but, without any lights, land, sea and sky had merged into an inscrutable void. Ahead of us, small islands of lights – the towns of Novato, Petaluma, and Santa Rosa – speckled in the void as beacons to our destination.
By the time we were about 25 miles out from Santa Rosa Airport, Oakland Center told us that the airport tower had closed for the night and then terminated our radar services, meaning that they were no longer tracking us. We were alone in the night.
At night, airports can sometimes be difficult to make out among the other city lights, but Santa Rosa airport was pretty easy to see. A slowly rotating green and white light beacon marked the airport. The airport had what’s called pilot controlled lighting. You tune your radio into the airport’s frequency, press your microphone button several times and then, magically, the runway illuminates, emblazoned with a frame of light. There’s a certain sense of satisfaction that comes with being able to press a button at a distance of 10 miles and turning on a whole bunch of bright lights.
We landed at Santa Rosa and then returned to Palo Alto Airport without incident. Landing at night was not as difficult as I thought it would be and, after I had dutifully made ten landings, we called it a night. This was the longest flight that I had done to date, and although it was tiring (especially after a workday on which someone had decided to schedule a 7.30am meeting), it was one of the most fun flights I’ve had.
So, what do I have left to do? I have a couple hours of solo flying to complete, as well as an hour or so of hoodwork, and then it’s all down to preparing for the checkride. Winter is coming and with it, if you believe the meteorologists, the rains, so hopefully I can get it done before they hit.
Over the last couple months I’ve been trying to get my cross-country solo requirements out of the way. For the purposes of meeting the requirements to get a private pilot certificate, a “cross-country” flight is any that involves you landing at a different airport than the one you took off from, where the airports are at least 50 nautical miles apart (in a straight line). I was a fair bit more nervous about the solo cross-country (XC) flights than my first solo flight, because you really are kind of alone up there. When you’re going around the traffic pattern, that’s familiar, but when you’re going to somewhere you’ve never been with before, and you’re in the skies sharing the frequencies with the airline carriers, it’s something else.
XC 1: KPAO-KSNS-KPAO (Palo Alto – Salinas – Palo Alto)
The first XC was a relatively easy one, as John had taken me on two XCs to Salinas before, so I knew what was going on.
At Palo Alto, I called ground control to ask them for a left Dumbarton departure with flight following to Salinas. A left Dumbarton departure is one where you take off from the runway and hang a left at the Dumbarton bridge, which is a couple miles North of the airport. Flight following is basically a service that air traffic control offers to VFR pilots. When you’re flying VFR (visual flight rules) – in other words, flying by looking out the window – you’re pretty much on your own. You’re not speaking with air traffic control, and no one’s telling you where to go. (The exception is if you want to enter the airspace of a towered airport, then you need to talk to ATC.) When you pick up flight following, ATC keeps tabs on where you are. They help you spot traffic and guide you around it (although the pilot always has ultimate responsibility for avoiding traffic), and sound the alarm if your radar blip unexpectedly vanishes from their screen.
I took the coastal route down to Salinas, flying over the Santa Cruz mountains, over Santa Cruz, Moss Landing and into Salinas. It was a nice, clear day, and a lot of GA traffic seemed to be heading down to Monterey. Palo Alto tower handed me off to Norcal Approach, and when I told them my intended altitude was 5500, they cleared me into San Francisco Airport’s airspace to get there (since it was above me at the time). SFO’s airspace is a category called Class B airspace, which is what surrounds all major U.S. airports normally up to 30 nautical miles in radius (the airspace looks like an upside down layered wedding cake). My flying club doesn’t allow students to fly solo into Class B airspace because it’s just a bit too busy in the Bay Area. (My instructor didn’t think much of that rule, and he gave me a Class B solo endorsement anyway, even though it’s just symbolic.) I declined the B clearance and ATC told me to stay underneath the Class B shelf.
After overflying the mountains, I realized that there was almost nowhere good to land – it basically was miles of densely forested hills. The alternative would have been to ask for a downwind departure and fly down the peninsula on the Bay side of the hills. But I’m not sure that it’s dramatically better – I guess you could land on the 280 in an emergency, but it’s still heavily populated, and the airspace is busier, especially as you skirt by San Jose’s airspace.
I made it over the Santa Cruz pier and headed across Monterey Bay. Salinas was somewhere in the distance, but the ground was a bit hazy. I was vectored for traffic briefly, before turning back to the short. The airport came into view after I passed abeam the smoke stacks of the power plant at Moss Landing.
Salinas’ tower works at a different pace to Palo Alto’s. The controllers speak slower and trip up on their words a little more, but on the other hand, there’s not a lot of traffic there so there’s no need to speak quickly.
I joined the downwind too close to the runway and overshot final by an embarrassing amount. No matter. I landed, taxied back, and took off for the return journey.
On the return, Norcal Approach twice asked me to confirm my destination was Palo Alto. The second time, I realized they were asking because they were curious – the direct route back to Palo Alto would have been via the Bay side of the mountains, but I was heading up via the mountains and then to Woodside, where I’d make a right turn and cut back in towards the Bay. But they didn’t know that, so I told them I was going to Woodside first. John told me later on that I should have mentioned any unusual routes when picking up flight following so they don’t get confused.
Our normal practice area is up near Woodside, and that afternoon was swarming with students doing maneuvers. “Cessna 1SC, caution multiple targets,” I was told. I always find that terminology peculiar, since targets connotes something you’re trying to aim at, and in this case you’re most decidedly not.
I cut back over the hills into more traffic. A Cessna ahead of me was also going to Palo Alto, and I was told to follow him. A Surf Air Pilatus was also crossing in front of my path from right to left.
“Cessna 1SC confirm you have Pilatus in sight, your 12 o’clock”
“1SC has traffic in sight”
“…and confirm that you have traffic you’re following as well”
“1SC has traffic in… uh… that traffic in sight as well,” I responded awkwardly as my eyes were glued out of the window.
Back in Palo Alto’s familiar airspace, I put the plane down and was exhausted.
XC 2: KPAO-KSCK-KSAC-KPAO (Palo Alto – Stockton – Sacramento Executive – Palo Alto)
The second XC was my “long” solo XC, which requires landing at 3 different airports, separated by at least 150 nautical miles. John set up my route to Stockton (where we had been once before) and Sacramento Executive (which we had not). Although both were large, towered airports, they were supposed to be relatively sleepy places.
I asked for a right Dumbarton departure, headed to my default Eastbound waypoint of the Sunol golf course, crossed Mission Pass and was in the Central Valley. Pleasanton to the left, Livermore below, wind farms, and then miles upon miles of fields. The weather in the Central Valley at this time of year is pretty consistent – warm to hot (low 30s Celsius) and clear skies with some haze.
The flight to and landing at Stockton went fine. After landing at Stockton, I contacted the tower instead of ground because the flip-flop switch in 501SC is sticky and has a habit of flipping twice when you press it once (and I didn’t double check the frequency change). Tower set me straight. Then in the runup area, I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to switch over tower or wait until ground told me to switch (it’s meant to be the former), and ended up deciding to make a call to tower, except that I had forgotten to switch over to tower and was still on ground. Oh well. The tower kindly set up flight following for me to Sacramento. Stockton tower wished me a “safe flight” upon departing their airspace and I wonder if they chose that valediction because they figured out I was a student pilot.
I made a right 45 departure from Stockton and decided to set the autopilot. I told Norcal I was going up to 4500 and set the auto pilot. I mustn’t have set something correctly, because auto pilot blew through 4500 and I only realized when I was at 4600. I tried to fiddle around with the autopilot to try and fix it, and unthinkingly tried pushing down on the yoke with autopilot still engaged (to which the plane responded with a verbal reprimand, although I can’t remember what it said – something about trim). By the time I finally got with the program and disengaged the autopilot, the plane was almost at 5000 feet.
I found Sacramento Executive without much of a problem, made a good approach and then spoiled everything with a horrible landing. Ballooned, lost a bit too much airspeed, and came down a bit hard and bounced (at least it was on the rear wheels!). Then I slammed on the brakes and the tires were screeching (I wasn’t sure why because they don’t normally).
The departure was the worst part of the flight and a great learning experience. Sacramento Executive Tower had cleared me for a straight out departure and told me that I would get my squawk code “in the air” (the code that lets ATC track you when you have flight following). I took off and moments later was given my squawk code. I was about to type it in, when it was followed by a traffic advisory at 11 o’clock. So I diverted my attention to looking for an RV that was coming in to land and entering the downwind. In the meantime, my GPS navigation was showing that the next waypoint was off to the left, when it should be straight ahead, and I was confused. The tower radioed in again and asked me to set my squawk code. Followed by another traffic advisory. Meanwhile I’m trying to concentrate on take off and pitching to the right angle and bringing up flaps. Tower radios and asks me why I’m turning left. And I’m not trying to, but I had hit task saturation in trying to attend to the take off, squawk code, traffic, and the weird GPS issue. The result was that I dropped the ball on my heading and had started to drift off to the left. I had just finished setting my squawk code when tower radioed again, this time very irate, and told me to set my squawk and what the hell I was doing still turning left (he didn’t say “hell” – they keep the words professional in the air, although the tone sometimes isn’t). Still a bit confused, I asked what heading I should be on and was told that I had already turned so it didn’t matter, and that I wasn’t supposed to turn until I was told to. Later on, I realized the GPS was still using the previous flight plan and I hadn’t activated the flight plan for the next leg, so it was showing the old inbound track to the airport.
A few learning moments:
1. I could have asked to wait for the squawk code on the ground. That would have been one less thing to worry about during a critical stage of flight.
2. I had my priorities wrong and should have completely ignored the GPS – while I was under tower control, my focus should have been on following their instructions and not on something that really didn’t matter at that stage.
3. I could have set a heading bug when lining up on the runway.
4. I could have mentioned I was a student pilot.
Anyway, I was a bit shaken up after that. Fortunately, the final leg was the longest one, and I had a bit of time to relax a little and take in my surroundings. I set auto pilot again, watching the altitude like a hawk. It blew through my target again, but this time I was ready for it – I disengaged autopilot, leveled the plane and put the autopilot into altitude capture model. I had some great views on the way back, with Mount Diablo passing by my right wing.
Getting back to Palo Alto was relatively uneventful, although I had another poor landing. It was a 2.5 hour flight, but I felt completely wasted. When I got home I took a nap.
XC 3: KPAO-O27-KPAO (Palo Alto – Oakdale – Palo Alto)
You need to clock 5 hours of solo XC time, so I needed to do one more solo. This time, John sent me to Oakdale, which was near Modesto. Oakdale is a small, single runway untowered airport in whoop whoop. I had only been to one untowered airport – Half Moon Bay – and only once, when there wasn’t anyone else in the pattern at 8am on a weekday. I thought Oakdale wouldn’t be too bad because of its location, and the fact that my course in would be a 45 entry into the left downwind, so I didn’t have to do any maneuvering to get into the pattern.
Norcal terminated flight following, and I switched over to the CTAF frequency for Oakdale (the common comms frequency that people talk on when there’s no tower). I was immediately hit by a barrage of position calls for Oakdale.
“Oakdale traffic, Young Eagle 123 is over the candy factory, making left traffic for 28, Oakdale.”
“Oakdale traffic, Cessna 12345 is turning final for 28, Oakdale.”
“Oakdale traffic, Young Eagle 234 is over the ammo depot…”
At 1500 feet, I was having trouble spotting the airport. And I hadn’t the faintest clue where the candy factory or ammo depot were. They weren’t landmarks on the charts. And what was Young Eagle?
I immediately began to get very nervous. It was clear there was a lot of traffic in the area, and I didn’t know where any of it was.
A plane – it looked like an old military prop plane – materialized off my right wing. He was flying on the 45 for a left downwind entry like me, and I didn’t know what to do. I recalled something about a plane on the left having right of way or something (the correct answer is actually that the plane on the right had right of way), but in the time I was searching my memory banks, the other plane had quickly sped ahead, resolving that problem for me. I fell in behind him.
I sighted the runway and made my call: “Oakdale traffic, Skyhawk 824LB entering left downwind for 28, Oakdale.”
Except that it wasn’t the runway. It was just a road. I frantically looked around for the airport again and, with relief, located it. I didn’t know what to do regarding my erroneous position report and I had probably just confused everyone else in the area. There was so much comms traffic that I was trying to listen to, I didn’t end up correcting my call. I just made it again when I was actually on downwind and hoped no one would get hissy. More people were reporting over the chocolate factory and ammo plant. (One day I’ll have to head back there and check out the chocolates.)
“Ok, I think I’m number 3,” someone said over the radio. Hmm. I started quickly scanning the pattern. There’s one plane on short final. Another turning base. Don’t see anything else… that can’t be good. Is number 3 behind me? What number am I? Then I saw number 3 ahead of me on the downwind. I put in 20 degrees of flaps and slowed down more, waiting for the plane to turn base and final and pass me before I turned base. Ok I hope I’m number 4 and I didn’t cut someone off who thought they were number4 . I finally got on final, saw the plane ahead clear the runway, and relaxed. The landing was a decent one.
On the ground, there seemed to be a bunch of people in older military-style planes going around, but I taxied past them all back to the runway and didn’t get a good look.
On the way back, I got vectored around some skydivers and had some traffic to look out for, but otherwise had an uneventful return.
Just saw The Martian. Best movie of the year for me.
I watched it with a group of five friends – each with a PhD* in various fields – biology, quantum physics, applied physics, and two in electrical engineering. (They could’ve stood in for the crew in the movie!) They thought the film was pretty legit in the science department, so I’ll take their word for it.
If you like science or space, go watch it. If you have young kids and you want to see if you can kindle or stoke their interest in science, go and watch it with them. Really enjoyable, engaging movie.
A couple other thoughts.
I found their casting decisions to be really positive – it felt more diverse on the racial and gender front than I would have expected for a Hollywood production. I think it must have been a conscious decision to cast a woman as the mission commander – she has to make some very tough decisions to make in the movie, and she makes them in a way that unambiguously shows she’s a strong leader. Fictional characters can make great role models, and the women leaders in The Martian can inspire the girls who watch the movie to aspire to the same.
I also found that the Chinese tie-in was interesting. There’s of course the heartwarming angle about scientists cooperating free from politics (and it’s a good reflection of how scientists around the world really do collaborate on all manner of projects). But ironically, politics has also probably influenced those scenes being in the movie.
That’s because the political climate of the day often dictates who plays the villains in movies. During the Cold War, the Russians were always the bad guys. These days, the Russians are making a comeback of sorts – there are so many movies and TV series these days where the Russian mob is involved. On the other hand, I think Hollywood has backed off from casting Chinese as the bad guys. My theory is that it’s driven by financial interests. The Chinese movie-watching market is a huge one, and you don’t want to alienate such a large audience by casting their country in such an antagonizing way. The Chinese are also starting to reach out to Hollywood with financing (did you notice the Alibaba Pictures logo at the start of the latest Mission Impossible?). It’s also not good to antagonize your funding sources. The Chinese tie-in also recognizes the rise of China as the world’s second largest economy and the ascendancy of its space program.
The movie also kind of gave a shout out to lawyers as well! I actually studied space law in law school and participated in an international space law mooting competition, so it was cool to hear the bit about space pirates!
Anyway, go see the movie.
* Yes, I am the Wolowitz of that group: