Sunday, September 25, 2005


Flying Lesson #53: Stage Check

Today I had a stage check with the chief flight instructor, the purpose of which was to check whether I am competent to make long solo cross-country flights. As with the last stage check, there was an oral examination, followed by a flight portion, then a debrief.

I won't go into all the details of what went right and what went wrong. In general, I did fine. However, I did get lost, which is not good when trying to demonstrate competence at cross-country navigation. The chief flight instructor was able to give me some valuable advice:

If you look at the map more often, you are less likely to get lost.

I know that's screamingly obvious to everyone else on the planet, but Kris The Idiot Boy needed the hint.

For my cross-country navigation, I have been relying a lot on dead reckoning, which means making calculations determining where the plane will be at a specified time given an initial position, heading, speed, and wind drift. I fly the right heading for the right period of time, pull out the chart to see if I'm where I should be, then neatly stow the chart out of the way to keep the cockpit nice and tidy. Instead, I should have the chart in front of me all the time, and should be noting my position mile by mile.

The chief instructor had a couple of pages of notes for other things I could do better, but there were no other big mistakes. I am now cleared for the final stage of training, consisting of a couple of cross-country flights (including a 400-mile trip) and then getting ready for the checkride.

Logged today: 1.2 hours dual in N4363D, with one takeoff and one landing, and 0.3 hours simulated instrument conditions. Cost (including 3.7 hours chief-instructor time): $455.

Saturday, September 24, 2005


20-Year High School Reunion

My 20-year high school reunion was held today. I didn't go, but I did get a call from a couple of people who were there, so I was "virtually" there for a few minutes. It was described to me as a bunch of middle-aged people with their high-school-aged children running around.

Why didn't I go? Well, my graduating class had about 350 people in it, but I'd only be interested in catching up with about a dozen of them, and I figured the chances of any of them being there were slim. I'm not a partygoer now, and wasn't a partygoer then. Being a wallflower at yet another high-school function after all these years would have been too depressing.

The reunion was held at a local park. The place where my high school used to be is no longer a high school. The new Roswell High School was built several years after I graduated, and the old building sat there closed for a few years until someone leveled the whole site and built condos.

My mother lobbied very hard for me to go. She has a fantasy that there would be some woman there who has been waiting all these years to confess her secret admiration for me. This woman and I would reconnect, fall in love, and then Mom would get more grandchildren. Sorry Mom—all the good ones are taken, and even before they were taken, they weren't interested in me.

I sometimes think about what I'd say to myself if I could travel back in time and talk to teenage Kris, and tell him what the next 20 years has in store. I'm sure that young Kris would be very happy to know that I'm flying, that I have a 54-inch TV, and that I can play Robotron: 2084 or watch the Star Wars trilogy whenever I want. He'd be disappointed to know that I never got a job as a video-game programmer, that I graduated from the University of Georgia instead of Georgia Tech, and that I don't have a Corvette. I'd try to convince him to spend less time figuring out computers and more time figuring out girls, but it would be no use: kids don't listen.

I don't like parties, but I do like people. If anyone from my high school happens to read this, I really would like to hear from you. Go Hornets!

Friday, September 23, 2005


Robotic Lawn Mowers

On one of the nearby roads I travel infrequently, there is a small building with a handmade sign out front. The sign looked like this:

Lawn Mowers

I wondered if we really had the technology for useful robotic lawn mowers. I wouldn't a machine with a big spinning blade running around my neighborhood without supervision. Of course, you know that eventually a bolt of lightning would strike a machine, suddenly making it self-aware, and then we humans would be constantly fighting for survival against armies of robotic lawn mowers.

You may not take the bolt-of-lightning-causes-sentience threat seriously, but there are many similar dangers. The manufacturers could use surplus military superweapon chips to build them. Aliens could take control of them. The mowers could cross over a haunted Indian burial ground. Terrorists could give them viruses. It's clear that that the robotic lawn-mower armageddon is inevitable.

Today when I drove by the building, I noted a subtle change:

Lawn Mowers

Ah, so apparently robotics and lawn mowers are two separate lines of products. That makes me feel a little safer, although I'll bet anyone working on both robotics and lawn mowers is eventually going to bring the two technologies together (maybe unintentionally).

I, for one, welcome our new robotic lawn-mower overlords.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Flying Lesson #52

I was hoping to have my stage check with the chief instructor today, but his schedule was full. I was able to schedule it for Sunday afternoon.

Today I flew with my instructor to review slow flight and steep turns, which I haven't done for a few weeks. It took me several minutes to get the plane properly trimmed for the slow flight. The steep turns went OK. We also did a stop-and-go at Monroe-Walton County Airport (D73) before heading back to PDK.

Logged today: 1.7 hours dual in N4363D, with 2 takeoffs and 2 landings. Cost: $315.

Monday, September 19, 2005


Thoughts on Recruiters

Back in the glory days of the late 1990's, I got a couple of calls per day from headhunters trying to lure me to other jobs. I had a bunch of important buzzwords on my resumé, and demand for any warm body was high. I found most of the recruiters' calls annoying, particularly when they came while I was at work.

Those days are gone, and now that I actually would be interested in getting a better job, I miss the attention. I still get a few e-mails and phone calls from recruiters each week, but most clearly have no idea who I am or what skills I have—their search software just matched a few words on my resumé to a few words in a job description, so they want to talk to me.

I've noticed two distinct kinds of recruiters. One kind is the technically savvy recruiter: someone who has worked in the field of software development, who actually understands the work and the people. I don't mind dealing with these recruiters, as they tend to actually listen to me when I tell them what I want, and try to find a good fit for me.

The other kind of recruiter is just a hard-sell dealmaker. They sell employees to employers using the same techniques one uses to sell houses, cars, toothpaste, or any other commodity. A person is just a skill set, in their eyes. They talk to me like they are my best friends, even if it's our first conversation. If they see "C++" on my resumé and "C++" in the job description, then I'm a "perfect fit" for a "wonderful opportunity." When I tell them I'm not interested in the position they are describing, they try to convince me that I should be. I hate dealing with these people. Unfortunately, they don't care that I hate them; they keep calling me anyway.

I've dealt with both types of recruiters from the other side too: that of an employer trying to find good workers. In that role, the huckster recruiters are even more annoying, as they present candidate after candidate who are obviously unqualified for the position. Unfortunately, these slick people are good at forming relationships with corporate HR departments and high-level executives, so I'm forced to use them even when I find them useless.

Ideally, a recruiter is an assistant to both the employer and the would-be employee. Too many are willing to pound as many square pegs into round holes as they can, as long as there is a fee attached.

Sunday, September 18, 2005


Google Pedometer

I ran across Google Pedometer, a web app that uses the Google Maps API to measure distances traveled during a running or walking workout. For example, I discovered that my jogging route is a little over three miles.

Friday, September 16, 2005


Flying Lesson #51

I can't go on to the next training stage until I pass my stage check with the chief instructor, and unfortunately, this week's business trip made it impossible to schedule the stage check. Today, my instructor gave me a few regulation and weather questions in preparation for the stage check, and then we got in the air and practiced diversions.

A "diversion" is an event when the pilot decides to abandon the current flight plan and land at a different airport. It could be due to weather, equipment failure, illness, or just because you feel like it. When you divert, you turn the plane in the general direction of the new destination, and then do all the measurements and calculations necessary to determine wind correction angle, ground speed, estimated time of arrival, and fuel usage. The calculations aren't difficult, but performing them while simultaneously flying the plane is a lot more difficult than doing them while on the ground.

My instructor played the role of a sick (or crazed) passenger, leaning over onto me, onto the controls, and so on, so in addition to managing the plane and the nav log, I had to keep pushing him out of the way. I've decided that in a real emergency, I may just push the passenger out the door.

Logged today: 1.4 hours dual in N9103M, with one takeoff and one landing. Cost: $300.

Monday, September 12, 2005


Trip Preparation

I used to travel frequently, but it has been so long that I'm out of practice. I once was able to prepare for a trip (packing, getting itinerary information, driving directions, everything) in less than an hour, but this trip is taking a little longer than that.

Among the things I had to do:

This stuff took a couple of hours. It strikes me that a software application that takes care of centralizing all this information and automating some of the steps would be valuable. Maybe I'll play around with that idea while I'm stuck in my hotel room.

Sunday, September 11, 2005


Going to Colorado

In connection with my no-possible-win assignment, I'm going to be traveling to Colorado for a few days this week. Nobody has been able to give me an adequate description of the problem (or more likely, problems) I'm supposed to solve, so I'm going on site to see for myself.

Invariably, when I've mentioned to people that I have to go to Colorado, they envy me and congratulate me on the plum assignment. Apparently they think I'll be spending my time hiking the mountains, rafting the rivers, and taking helicopter rides over the snow-capped mountains. In reality, I'll be spending most of my time sitting in liquor stores, watching people cash lottery tickets. The rest of my time will be spent in some windowless poorly-air-conditioned basement, which is the natural habitat for big computer servers.

I'm not complaining. I haven't been on a business trip for about eighteen months, so it will be refreshing to get out of the office for a few days. It's the closest thing I'll get to a summer vacation. And maybe I'll actually find out what it is that people are expecting me to fix.

Friday, September 09, 2005


Flying Lesson #50: Solo Cross-Country Flight

Today I made my first solo cross-country flight, from Atlanta Dekalb-Peachtree Airport to Anderson, SC. On the return trip, I made a touch-and-go at Athens Airport.

A "cross-country flight" is one where you land at a different airport from the one where you took off. To count as a cross-country flight for training and logging purposes, the distance between the airports must be at least 50 nautical miles (which is about 58 "real miles"). To become a private pilot, a student must have at least five hours of solo cross-country time, including one flight of at least 150 nautical miles. Today's flight gave me 2.5 hours, with straight-line distance between airports of over 180 nautical miles. My next solo cross-country flight will be over four hours long, and then there is one more solo cross-country flight in the lesson plan, so I'll be well beyond the minimum requirements.

I arrived at the airport about an hour early, and took care of filing my flight plan, getting a weather briefing, and then doing the calculations for weight and balance, ground roll length, and other performance numbers. The instructor reviewed everything, signed all the necessary endorsements on my student license and logbook, and sent me on my way.

The flight went smoothly. I forgot to switch fuel tanks at the right time, and had some trouble locating the Athens airport, but didn't make any serious mistakes. I was able to follow I-85 the whole way to Anderson, which made it pretty easy to stay on course and note landmarks along the way.

The Anderson airport was quiet. There was a small turboprop parked at the FBO, and mine was the only other plane there. The FBO's offices and lounges were empty except for a couple of people who worked there. They offered me the club car to go get lunch, but I just grabbed a Snickers bar out of the vending machine.

There is a Flight Service Station (FSS) at Anderson, providing local area advisory service. This made closing and opening flight plans easy: a few seconds after I landed, I was asked whether I'd like to close my flight plan, and as soon as I exited the pattern after taking off, I was asked whether I'd like to open the flight plan for the return trip.

I followed a Victor airway (an imaginary "highway in the sky") from Anderson to Athens. This should have made it easy to find the Athens airport, but as I got within ten miles and started looking for it, I just couldn't see it. Athens has a VOR at the field, so I just kept following the needle. I finally saw the airport when I was about three miles away, and couldn't figure out why I hadn't noticed it earlier.

On the final leg from Athens to PDK, I was able to get "Flight Following" service from Atlanta Center. With this service, controllers will notify you if other aircraft come close, and if something goes wrong and you fall out of the sky, they'll have a radar track to use to find you. I had asked for it earlier on the trip up to Anderson, but the controllers were too busy—the controllers' primary job is to assist instrument pilots, so they only provide services to visual-flight-rules pilots when those pilots as for it and the controller's workload permits.

I had a little trouble seeing PDK as I approached. I usually fly in to the airport from the northwest (where the practice area is), so I didn't know what landmarks to look for when coming in from the northeast. But I eventually picked it out of the haze. I heard my instructor's voice in another plane on the way in; he landed just a couple of minutes ahead of me.

So, with this flight out of the way, I have a stage check with the chief flight instructor, a couple more solo cross-country flights, a night flight, and then all I have to do is prepare for the checkride. It looks like I could be a licensed private pilot in just a few more weeks.

Logged today: 2.5 hours solo/PIC cross-country in N4363D, with 3 takeoffs and 3 landings. Cost: $262.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


Flying Lesson #49

My first solo cross-country flight was scheduled for today, but the forecast called for 20-knot wind gusts, so I couldn't fly solo. Instead, I flew with the instructor and practiced landings at Cherokee County Airport (47A) and back at PDK.

The x-country is rescheduled for Friday. I won't complain about today's weather. We've had beautiful clear cool breezy days for the past week, and I'm happy to wait a couple of days for a flight in exchange for a pleasant early-autumn.

Logged today: 2.0 hours dual in N4363D, with 7 takeoffs and 7 landings. Cost: $352.

Sunday, September 04, 2005


Flying Lesson #48

The instructor gave me a call this morning to let me know his schedule was clear (due to it being a holiday weekend). So I went in to the airport to do a debriefing on our Friday night flight, take a pre-solo-cross-country quiz, and do some solo flying in the practice area.

I did fine on the quiz, so this Wednesday, weather permitting, I'll make my first solo cross-country flight. The route goes up to Anderson, South Carolina (AND), then to Athens (AHN) and back to PDK. It shouldn't be difficult—I can just follow I-85 from Atlanta to Anderson, then use the Athens VOR to navigate on the way back.

The solo flight was nice. Visibility was great: I was able to see Sawnee Mountain clearly after taking off, which is about 20 NM away. I practiced steep turns and S-turns. I was sharing the practice area with a couple of other planes, so I made position announcements more often than I usually do.

I made four landings. The air was pretty bumpy near the ground, making the touch-and-goes a little more difficult than usual. My first two were very sloppy, but they got better.

After landing and tying down the plane, I noticed a red fluid seeping through the carpeting in front of the pilot's seat. Red fluid is brake fluid. I hadn't noticed any problems with the brakes. As I walked into the flight school office, they were going through maintenance issues on the school's planes, so I had an item to add.

Logged today: 1.6 hours solo/PIC in N9103M, with four takeoffs and four landings. Cost: $207.

Saturday, September 03, 2005


Flying Lesson #47: Dual Night Cross-Country

Tonight the instructor and I made a cross-country flight to Thomson-McDuffie County Airport (HQU), which is about 90 nautical miles east of Atlanta. On the way back home, we stopped at Athens/Ben Epps Airport (AHN).

Remembering all the regulations about night flying is challenging, because it seems that the FAA has three different definitions of "night":

The FAA requires that private pilot students undergo a minimum of three hours of night flight training, including the following:

This flight fulfilled the three-hour requirement and the cross-country requirement. However, I only did five night takeoffs and landings. In a subsequent lesson, I'll do the other five.

This was my first night lesson. It was a pretty good night for it: visibility was good and surface winds were calm. Once we got away from the bright lights of the metro Atlanta area, we had a starry sky.

The flight went pretty well. I'm handling the multitasking aspect of flight a lot better. However, I did manage to get us lost. The route I'd planned was supposed to take us over three other airports between PDK and HQU. When we got to the area where that third airport was supposed to be, we couldn't find it. I saw an airport beacon up to the north, and while it seemed pretty far out of the way (I didn't think I'd gone too far off-course), I figured that must be it. So I flew toward it, but checking the VOR and DME on the way indicated it couldn't the right place. It turned out to be one of the airports I had planned to overfly on the return leg, so once that was clear, it was easy to pull out my return-trip plan and figure out the course to the destination.

Landing at night is a little different from landing during the day, but it wasn't too bad. My first couple of landings were a little firm, as judging altitude above the runway is different at night, but my other landings were OK. The instructor had me make a couple of landings without the landing light on, and on one trip around the traffic pattern, he turned off the plane's interior lights (so I couldn't read the instruments).

This was the most fun I've had in a while. As I get near the end of training, flying lessons have become unpleasant chores, but I didn't mind this one.

Logged tonight: 3 hours dual night cross-country in N9103M, with five night takeoffs and five night landings, and 0.3 hours simulated instrument conditions.



Sean O'Leary and/or Sandy Suminski have an idea for helping those in need in New Orleans:

Thursday, September 01, 2005


No-Win Scenarios

A couple of weeks ago, I caught Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan on TV. I have it on DVD, so I could watch it any time I want, but there is something about randomly finding something you like on TV that makes it special.

One of the major plot elements is the "Kobayashi Maru" scenario: a simulated Starfleet training exercise in which a cadet is placed in a no-win situation. The scenario is supposed to be a test of character, evaluating how a young officer would deal with certain defeat, but we learn that young James T. Kirk found a way to win. The viewer is left to decide whether Kirk's solution was resourceful out-of-the box thinking, or just plain cheating. Kirk defends his actions by simply saying "I don't like to lose."

The movie resonated with me because I myself have recently been placed in what seems to be a no-win situation at work. There is a problem with one of our deployed systems that has been a serious issue for several months. The people who understand the system best have been unable to figure out how to address it. So I've been brought in, and despite my complete ignorance, I'm expected to solve the problem in a few weeks.

I can already see that I won't be able to make any headway on this assignment. I'm going to disappoint the project manager, the head of software engineering, my boss, and most importantly, myself. It's not reasonable to expect that I'll be able to fix this problem that others can't, but I'm going to feel bad about it anyway.

Like Kirk, I don't like to lose. So I'm looking for ways to "change the conditions of the test" so that it is possible to win, or at least to not lose. The most obvious solution is to get myself unassigned from this task, but I'd consider that a surrender. Another obvious solution is to make sure all the blame gets placed on someone else, but I don't like that.

The solution I usually choose in no-win situations is to just dive in head-first and give it everything I have. I'll still lose, but the self-righteousness and self-pity that comes with overwork dulls the pain a bit. The problem with this solution is that when I've done it in the past, I've burned myself out and quit my job soon thereafter. I'm not ready to quit this job yet, so I'm going to resist the temptation to choose this solution.

I still don't have a solution, but I'm looking for ways to get the problem redefined into something that may actually be solvable. This problem has existed for several months, and as it has been heatedly discussed over and over, it has become this monstrous set of complaints and suggested solutions. I'm not sure anyone even remembers what the original symptoms of the problem were, or all the things they've done to try to fix it. I hope there's a simple problem in there somewhere. If I can make things a little bit better, that may be enough.

In the meantime, I'll keep lying awake at night, writing blog entries at 4:00 AM.

By the way, if you are a fan of The Wrath of Khan, make sure you visit

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