Wednesday, November 30, 2005


My First Real Cross-Country Trip

Today I made my first cross-country trip where I actually did something at the destination. I flew to Anniston, Alabama to have lunch and hang out with an old friend for a couple of hours. In all my previous cross-country flights, I simply landed at another airport, got an updated weather briefing and maybe a snack, then took off for home. But today, I got a good meal and a guided tour of a city.

I got to see the big chair!

It was a short trip, about 85 miles each way. The actual winds turned out to be nothing like the forecast, so my navigation plan didn't really work out. I didn't get lost—I was able to just follow the interstate—but I got back to my home airport about ten minutes late, because the forecast 25-knot tailwind wasn't there.

I offered my friend an airplane ride, but he wants to wait until I get more practice. A lot more practice.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


A Five-Hour Phone Call

At around 3:15 PM, I got a call from a project manager asking if I could join a conference call. "Sure." I called in and started talking to the project manager and a couple of other people. They had deployed a new version of our software yesterday, and today problems were being reported. I was one of three people who have detailed technical knowledge of the system, and I was the only one available at the time, so they hoped I could diagnose and correct the problem.

For the next half hour or so, I asked and answered questions. The problem was strange, and we couldn't come up with any theories to explain it. The worst part was that the new software version worked fine on about half of the systems where it was deployed, but didn't work on the other half. If none of them worked, it would be easy to point at the new version as being the problem, but the fact that some of them worked led us to think it might have something to do with misconfiguration, or the communications infrastructure, or user error, or something else.

After half an hour, one of the other two guys who understands the system joined the call. So we went over everything with him. Log files were e-mailed and files were transferred over the Internet so that we could all see the same information. As we added his expertise to the mix, we didn't get any closer to an explanation; we just developed a longer list of questions.

One thing we really needed was for a trusted onsite person to try a few things with one of the machines and tell us exactly what was happening. A technician was on his way to one of the problem sites. He said he would be there in about twenty minutes. So we waited. And waited. We continued discussing things and examining log files, but after an hour and a half had passed, we decided to find out where that technician was. It turned out that other (unrelated) customer emergencies had arisen, and the tech had been diverted. But he was now on his way to the original site. He said he would be there in about twenty minutes.

It took longer than twenty minutes, but the tech did reach the site and describe the situation to us. After a little investigation, we determined that this particular system had been misconfigured. The tech changed a setting, and the system started working. Hooray! Unfortunately, this only fixed one particular system. It didn't explain the problems we were seeing with the other systems.

So, we kept at it. At around the three-hour mark, the third guy-who-knows-something joined the call. So we went over everything again. More logs were e-mailed and more files were transferred. Guy-who-knows-something #2 dropped out at the four-hour mark (around 7:15 PM). The next 45 minutes were pretty quiet, as Guy #3 examined log files and software code. The only conversation was an occasional "Is everyone still there?" to break the silence. Finally, Guy #3 said the magic words:

I think I've found the problem.

He described his theory, and it made sense. On some of the systems, an operation was taking 15.2 seconds to complete. Another part of the system was only willing to wait for 15 seconds for the operation to complete, so it was giving up and attempting a retry of the operation. Thus, nothing ever got completed, just because of a 0.2-second overrun.

A quick change was made to a configuration file to increase the amount of time the system would wait, the system was restarted, and everything worked. As we all said our thank-yous and goodbyes, I looked at the timer on my phone, which indicated the call had lasted four hours and fifty-seven minutes.

So that's how I spent my afternoon and early evening: holding a phone to my ear, feeling my butt getting numb, staring at a computer screen. But I didn't have to travel anywhere, and the problem turned out to be something that wasn't blamed on me, so it could have been worse.

Sunday, November 27, 2005


Anybody Can Land a Cessna

Recently on an aviation message board, a new private pilot related a story. He was at a party, and overheard a group of people talking about flying remote control, ultralight, and powered-parachute aircraft. At some point, these people started theorizing about how their skills would transfer to real airplanes. They all agreed that "Anybody can land a Cessna. It might not be pretty, but we could do it if necessary."

The new pilot was, of course, furious. He spent many months and thousands of dollars on his training. He was very proud to have joined the elite ranks of pilots. These guys were clearly idiots. Their "aircraft" were just toys. He wanted to show them how hard it was to land a real airplane. He wanted to humiliate them.

Most pilots can sympathize. Non-pilots have no idea how much study and practice is needed to become a pilot. They think of pilots as glorified bus drivers. Or they've played with Microsoft Flight Simulator for a few hours, and think they can do it themselves.

When confronted with these people, there is not much a pilot can do. Any attempts to convince people that they don't know what they are talking about will fail. The best thing is to just let the issue rest.

The fact is that, when pilots are doing their jobs well, flying can look pretty easy. The airline industry does everything it can to assure the public that everything is routine. They don't want anyone to think that getting passengers safely from one place to another requires any extraordinary abilities. Sure, the pilots are very well trained, but the airplanes practically fly themselves!

Pilots have to accept that nobody really appreciates what what they do, or what they've gone through to learn how to do it. But the same is true for most other fields of endeavor. I've spent the last 25 years becoming the best software developer I can be, and it really bugs me when some recent college grad thinks that he knows more than I do, or when some manager thinks programming is easy because he wrote a couple of FORTRAN programs 30 years ago. I don't respond to these opinions when they are expressed, nor do I feel the need to remind them when they realize that they need my help.

The better you are at your job, the easier it looks to others. So, in a way, the "Anybody can land a Cessna" comment is really a compliment to all pilots. I hope all my passengers come away from flights with me thinking that a trained monkey could have done what I did. Maybe they'll even give me free bananas in appreciation.

Saturday, November 26, 2005



All employees are to refrain from parking in the area in front of the new addition (This is to the left of the main lobby if you’re looking toward the bldg.). This area is an construction zone heavy equipment is moved in/out of this area and if employees park there it impedes the construction process not to mention the possibility of damage to employee vehicles. The General Contractor said that this area tentatively will open for regular use 12/19/05.

I get about three e-mails per day telling me where I am allowed to park. I ignore them. Evem so. it takes about five minutes to walk from the place where I park my car to the building where I work. Mulitply five minutes times the two thousand people at the location where I work, and you can calculate the amount of money lost due to inefficient parking lot layout.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005


First Passenger

Technically, the examiner on my checkride was my first passenger, but today I took my first flight with a Private Pilot certificate in my pocket, and Mom joined me. She's the bravest member of my family. Her birthday was yesterday, so I wanted to give her a treat.

The only time she expressed any concern was during my passenger briefing when I told her what to do if the engine catches fire or some other calamity occurs at the ramp. I need to smooth out my briefing so that danger doesn't sound imminent.

We tried to fly over Mom & Dad's house, but couldn't find it when we passed over the area. The area is near a couple of controlled airports' airspaces, so I didn't want to circle around looking for it. I'll look for it again when I'm flying alone some time, so I can point it out to her if she ever flies with me again.

Sunday, November 20, 2005


Looking Backward and Forward

Now that I have my pilot license, I'm looking back on the journey, which began in November 2004 (about twelve months ago). I've written over 70 posts about the lessons, most of which are pretty boring. Here are the highlights:

After passing the checkride, I have approximately 121 hours of total flight time, with 28.2 hours of pilot-in-command time, and about 240 takeoffs and landings. I've decided I'm not going to add up all the costs, but based on number of hours in the plane and number of hours of dual instruction, the total is somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000. Note that my experience is atypical—anyone considering flying lessons should not expect it to cost that much.

(To anyone who wants to comment on the high numbers: Please don't. I'm a dangerously inept pilot. I had a terrible instructor. The owners of this flight school are a bunch of crooks. Your cousin is a flight instructor and would have trained me for practically nothing. I should have gone to _______ flight school. I should have joined ________ flying club. I should have started with gliders. You got your private, multi-engine, and instrument ratings in eighty hours and it cost you only fifty dollars and two cereal box tops. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know you're trying to be helpful, but I've heard it all before, and I don't need to hear it again. I'm satisfied with what I got and what I paid for it.)

I'm still not sure what the future holds for me and flying. For a few months, I'll keep flying at least once a week to maintain my proficiency. I plan to make cross-country trips to airports in the area that I haven't visited yet. If I keep enjoying it, I'll probably start instrument training in about six months. Otherwise, I may just give it up. I have no practical need to fly anywhere, so if I'm not enjoying it, it would be stupid to keep doing it.

But no matter what I do with flying in the future, I'm glad I stuck with it. This is the hardest thing I've ever done that wasn't connected with employment. I tend to quickly give up on activities for which I don't have a natural talent. There were a few months when flying was not much fun. I'm proud of myself for not taking the easy way out.

Uh-oh. It's been two whole hours since I last looked at my new pilot certificate. Time to take another look.


Dangerous Toys

This classic piece from The Onion gave me a chuckle: Fun Toy Banned Because of Three Stupid Dead Kids

Friday, November 18, 2005


Private Pilot Checkride

I had my checkride today for the private pilot certificate. If you're interested in knowing how I did, please send $1.00 to my PayPal account.

I kid. The test went fine, and I am now the proud holder of a Temporary Airman Certificate, granting me the privileges of a Private Pilot, with an Airplane Single Engine Land rating. The permanent certificate should arrive in a few months.

I've read other people's detailed accounts of their checkrides, and I've found them tedious, so I'm not going to write a blow-by-blow account. I'll just sum it up by saying the experience wasn't too bad. The dread and hopelessness I felt when I got up this morning, after a almost-sleepless night, were unfounded.

For you student pilots approaching your own checkrides, I'll just recommend that you relax and remember that the examiner really does want you to pass. Minor mistakes will be forgiven as long as the examiner has a sense that you are a safe pilot.

I'll also recommend that you schedule your checkride for a day with perfect weather, like I had. It makes that go/no-go decision pretty easy. Today I made three of the best landings I've ever made, and I choose to credit my superior skills, not the light surface winds.

Maybe I'll write up some more details later, but right now, I just need a nap.

My sincere thanks to my instructors and to everyone who offered advice and encouragement.

Who wants an airplane ride?

[UPDATE: If anyone is interested in all the boring details, see]

Thursday, November 17, 2005


Flying Lesson #69: Pre-Checkride Practice

This was my last flight with my instructor before the checkride. Due to moderate turbulence and low-level wind shear, conditions were tougher than usual. I wasn't very happy with how well I flew, but I choose to believe it has nothing to do with how I will fly tomorrow.

Logged today: 1.6 hours dual in N4636D, with two takeoffs and two landings.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Cell Phones in the Restroom

A few times per week, I walk into a restroom where somebody is using their cell phone.

I know mobile-phone etiquette is an evolving set of standards, and reasonable people can disagree about what is reasonable, but can we reach some consensus on these principles?

Monday, November 14, 2005


Study Plan

I should be studying every aviation-related piece of literature I have in my possession, in preparation for the test on Friday. I should also be eating healthy foods and getting more exercise. I'm only half-heartedly doing any of those things. I feel bad about that, but what can I do?

In an effort to be at least partially constructive, I've looked through the Practical Test Standards (PTS) to see what areas of knowledge I need to be ready to discuss in the oral exam, and have studied notes from my instructors that identify my weak areas. Here's how I plan to devote my aviation study time this week:

Monday: aeromedical factors, airspace classes and minimums, runway markings and lighting

Tuesday: weather and aviation weather services, study "my" airplane's flight manual, systems

Wednesday: fill out Form 8710-1, thoroughly review all the maneuvers and checklists, and do some "chair flying"

Thursday: fly with my instructor, plan the cross-country flight for the checkride, review airworthiness requirements

Friday morning: arrive at the airport a couple hours early so that I can review the airplane's documents and maintenance logs and all the other paperwork. Get a weather briefing. Then panic.

So there. I have a study plan. Now I'll start following it. Right after I read a few more blogs . . .


ATIS Out of Service

Before my last flight, while getting a computerized weather briefing, I saw a local NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) indicating that the ATIS on frequency 128.4 was out of service.

(For you non-pilots: ATIS (Automatic Terminal Information Service) is a recorded message that is broadcast continuously. It contains information about the weather, runways in use, runway and taxiway closures, and other stuff pilots need to know before approaching or departing the airport.)

So, when I tuned into 128.4 after getting the engine started, I expected to hear nothing. But it was working fine. I suspected that the NOTAM might be out of date.

It was surprising when the ATIS broadcast ended with "ATIS 128.4 out of service." It was telling me that what I was listening to was not really working. I suppose that makes sense in some bizarre FAA-sorta way.

Sunday, November 13, 2005


Flying Lesson #68: Landing Practice

Over the past couple of months, my landings have been getting worse. They are always safe, but they have been getting very "firm." I figured I had forgotten some fundamental principle, so today I asked my instructor to re-teach me how to land. That's a good thing to learn, a week before the checkride.

My instructor diagnosed the problem quickly: I was not pulling the nose up enough in the flare. I've become so concerned about ballooning up that my landings have very flat—that is, I'm keeping the plane almost level and letting all three wheels touch down at about the same time, rather than landing on the two main wheels and keeping the nose wheel off the ground. After hearing "Get the nose up! Get the nose up!" a few dozen times over the course of a few landings, things started to click. I think I know how to land now.

After the flight, my instructor put the appropriate endorsements in my logbook that allow me to do the checkride. He also gave me a copy of FAA Form 8710-1, Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application. The day before the checkride, I'll be flying with him again, and we'll make sure all the paperwork is in order.

Logged today: 1.3 hours in N9103M, with 9 takeoffs and 9 landings.

Friday, November 11, 2005


Flying Lesson #67: Course Complete

Today I flew with the chief flight instructor to finish up the final stage check. It was a short flight: he just had to watch me do the things I'd do on a cross-country flight (use a navigation log, track a VOR, call the Flight Service Station, ask for flight following, demonstrate pilotage and dead reckoning, etc.). This completes all the lessons in the curriculum.

I did OK, except that I had problems maintaining altitude, and my landing was bad. The chief flight instructor hasn't seen me make a good landing yet—he probably thinks I'm incapable of it.

I've scheduled a couple more practice flights with my flight instructor in the next few days, and then I have the checkride scheduled for next Friday. A week from now, I'll either be a pilot, or I'll be broken and bitter. Either way, I'll commemorate it with a few drinks.

Logged today: 1.1 hours dual in N4363D, with one takeoff and one landing.

One week to go . . .

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


Flying Lesson #66

Today I flew with the instructor, talking about and practicing the things I did incorrectly on my stage check. Today, I did fine on the things I did badly on the stage check, but did some things badly that I did well before. It seems I can do everything well some of the time, and some things well all of the time, but I'm not at the point where I can do everything well all of the time.

I'll have a couple more practice flights before the checkride. I hope I can pull everything together.

Logged today: 1.4 hours dual in N9103M, with two takeoffs and two landings. Cost: $288.50.

Sunday, November 06, 2005


Taking Requests

I promised I'd do the following (and I'm not going to explain any further):


The name should be blinking. If you are using Internet Explorer, it won't blink. This is a case where IE provides a superior experience to other browsers.


Flying Lesson #65: Final Stage Check

Today was the "last lesson": a stage check with the chief flight instructor to determine whether I've learned everything I need to pass the FAA practical test. It is structured the same way as a real checkride—there was an oral exam covering all the areas of aviation knowledge, and then a flight portion covering all the required maneuvers and procedures.

Things started with a thud when the chief flight instructor asked me if I'd finished planning the cross-country flight. "What cross-country flight?" I asked. He'd left a message on my answering machine yesterday, but I never got it, so I didn't know I was supposed to plan a cross-country flight. He decided to let me go on with the rest of the stage check, and we'll do the cross-country stuff on another day.

The oral exam went pretty well. There were a few questions I missed, so I know what areas I need to study for the real checkride.

The flight portion didn't go as well. There were two or three things I did that would have led to a failure on a real checkride. The perfectionist in me is very disappointed with my performance, but it really wasn't that bad, and the things I did wrong should be easily fixable. I'm going to have a couple of flights with my instructor to practice those things.

On the whole, the chief instructor said it wasn't too bad. If the next few flights go well, I should be able to do the checkride within a couple of weeks. If not, then it will take a little longer, but the end is in sight.

Friday, November 04, 2005


Flying Lesson #64

My instructor and I finished off my next-to-the-last lesson today. We first went out to the practice area and I did a few steep turns. They were better than the last time.

Then we listened to the ATIS/AWOS/ASOS for several nearby airports, trying to find the one with the strongest winds so that I could make my required crosswind landings. None of the other airports were much better than PDK, so we went back there. The winds were just strong enough to make a couple of landings count as crosswind landings.

Logged today: 1.5 hours dual in N4363D, with 6 takeoffs and 6 landings. Cost: $311.21

One lesson to go . . .

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


Too Slow; Too Fast

For several weeks, I been handling complaints about some software for which I'm responsible. I'm "responsible" in the sense that I've been assigned to fix any problems, not in the sense that I had anything to do with its creation.

For most of those weeks, the complaint was that it was too slow.

This week, I'm getting complaints that it is too fast. Why would someone complain that it's too fast? Another system component is unable to handle incoming connections at the faster rate.

Here's the funny thing: I haven't changed anything.

So I'm going to handle this new complaint by doing nothing. Maybe it will magically slow down to a speed people won't complain about. Or, more likely, half the people will continue to complain that it is still too slow, while the other half complain that it is now too fast, but I can just let them argue with one another and I'll stay out of it.


Flying Lesson #63

Today my instructor and I started the next-to-the-last lesson. This is my instructor's final chance to see what I can do and fix whatever's wrong. The next lesson (the "last one") is a final stage check with the chief instructor.

We flew to the east practice area and did some stalls and other things. We landed at Winder (after a poor approach and a couple of go-arounds), had lunch, then went back into the sky for some hood work. (I used my own new pair of Foggles. I can't believe these cheap plastic glasses cost $27!)

Unfortunately, there was little wind today, so we couldn't do the crosswind takeoffs and landings demanded by the syllabus. I'll have to do those with the instructor on Friday (weather permitting) before the final stage check. I also need some more practice with steep turns.

Logged today: 2.1 hours dual in N9103M, with 0.3 hour simulated instrument conditions, and 5 takeoffs and 5 landings. Cost: $435.69.

One and a half lessons to go . . .

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Flying Lesson #62: More Dual Night

Tonight I had a short night dual lesson to cover the things we didn't cover last time. Primarily, this was hood work.

Logged today: 1.3 hours night dual in N9103M, with 0.5 hour simulated instrument, and 1 takeoff and 1 landing.

Two lessons to go . . .

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