Sunday, September 27, 2009

iPhone for Pilots - ThinkDigits

ThinkDigits is a great application if you're a pilot. What's more, it's the brainchild of a very smart guy in Melbourne - made in Australia! Initially it's hard to describe what ThinkDigits is, partly because it's an entirely new class of application as far as I can tell.
I think the best way to describe ThinkDigits is as a "mind-mapping calculator". You create mind maps which are actually "flows" of calculations or "calculation models". This is quite interesting in itself because it lays out the logic of solving the problem in a visual fashion so that you can think through it. What's more it's easier to audit than an Excel spreadsheet and easier to use.
The simplest way to show you what ThinkDigits does is to work through an example. My first example is calculating crosswind component - let's imagine you get the ATIS and think "ooh that's a big number". You'll more than likely be interested in knowing the crosswind component. There are of course rules of thumb for doing that and the whizz wheel but ThinkDigits does it pretty nicely as well.
First I created three "bubbles" to take the data inputs: Rwy direction; wind direction; and wind speed. You create these bubbles by typing a number in the keypad and then dragging the result to the page. Then you can format and label the bubble. In order to update the value in a bubble you simply type a new value in the keypad and drag it over your existing bubble.
OK we've now got our data values, now we want to calculate the answer, which in this case is the crosswind component.There are a number of steps to do in order to get there. ThinkDigits has a wide range of functions built in, including trig functions. My first step was to created a simple "calculation bubble" which subtracted rwy direction from wind direction. To do this I "dragged" the function key across to the page and in the menu that popped up I selected the function (subtraction) and the various format options I wanted. Once the calculation bubble was ready I simply dragged wind direction across to it and when the bubble "pulsed" I released the wind direction bubble. A window opened and I selected which "slot" in the calculation I wanted that value to fit into (the first one). I did the same for the rwy direction but attached it to the second slot. The calculation bubble now showed me the "relative" wind direction. Next I created a new calculation bubble to convert the relative wind direction in degrees into radians. This was simply a matter of creating the bubble, selecting the radians function and connecting my last calculation bubble as the input. Each calculation bubble shows the current result of the calculation it's doing.
Next step was to calculate the sine of the relative wind direction - another calculation bubble and join the radians bubble to it. Finally a cacluation bubble for the "answer". This bubble is labelled "Crosswind" and it takes the wind strength and the sine of the relative wind direction and multiplies them. Giving a crosswind component in knots with negative values for left crosswinds.
I like it because I now have a little visual calculation page that doesn't strain my tiny mind. I have bubbles for each of the three required inputs and I simply put the values into those bubbles and I get my answer.

What you can't see in this screenshot is the the intermediate bubbles that calculate relative wind direction, convert it to radians and calculate the sine. They are all there - you can see the connectors running off the page - and you can scroll to them with one flick if needed!
I've constructed a similar page for headwind/tailwind component and I'm working on one for density altitude.
The punch line to a long winded story is that I really like Thinkdigits. It appeals to my visual nature, it's much more powerful than you first think and it is simple to use. What's more it now has a facility that allows you to share your models with other ThinkDigits users. You can find ThinkDigits in the app store and their homepage is here.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Brand Loyalty & The Viable Alternative

I've been doing some musing on this subject over the past month or six weeks. First you need some background to set the context.
This is about Apple. I've been brand loyal to Apple for the whole of the life of their flagship product - the Mac. I've either owned or used the Mac for all of that time. At various times I've run whole businesses on the Mac and since the late 1980s I have owned a Mac or Macs continuously. I like the product and despite the limitations of the earlier operating systems I've stuck with it. There are multiple Macs in the stable at the moment.
Recently an iPhone 3Gs was added to the collection. That is the point that got me wondering seriously about the other side of Apple. The iPhone is a pretty cynical exercise and I've blogged about both its shortcomings and its benefits - I'll leave you to find that. But here are two examples of a pretty cynical approach to me - the brand loyal customer:
First is the matter of Bluetooth. In the iPhone Bluetooth is a crippled shadow of its true self. Now this can't be a technical limitation because Bluetooth is a mature capability that is widely and effectively used in mobile devices by many manufacturers. I've come to the view that the limitations in Bluetooth (try sending a contact to your mate with a "brand x" mobile via Bluetooth from your iPhone) are simply driven by Apple's cynical view of what it wants to achieve with the iPhone. Note that - it's not what the user wants to achieve, rather it's what Apple wants to achieve. Pity about the customer.
The second example is Telstra and tethering with the iPhone. On the message boards you'll find comments from users who report having been told by Telstra "Apple is stopping us from offering tethering". Then you'll find posts from users who report having been told by Apple "Telstra is the one who is stopping tethering". Well all I can say is that they can't both be right! Again a cynical approach to the customer. If Apple cared about the customer then I would be able to tether my iPhone. Apple could fix this if it wanted to. Instead they delivered a "fix" in OS 3.1 that stopped all the users who had hacked tethering. I hadn't BTW. Why is it that iPhone users can't tether? Why is it even a topic of conversation? Other mobile devices have been able to tether for ever, why the issue with iPhone? It should simply be able to be done out of the box just like every other device. Delusions of world dominance anyone?
I really feel that the customer isn't at the centre of that universe. This isn't about customer centricity but about the dominance of corporate strategy.
Let's move on to Snow Leopard. I've blogged about my issues with Snow Leopard. I upgraded because I had faith that Apple would have properly tested the system and done the right thing by the customer. As you know there have been problems and big problems, stop the business style problems with Mail. But let's be clear about Apple's priorities here, their corporate priorities: iTunes was upgraded to version 9 recently and in short order we got an upgrade to 9.0.1 - very responsive, only I don't know anyone who was having problems with iTunes. But of course iTunes is a huge money spinner for Apple, unlike Mail. Feeling cynical anyone?
That brings me to my theory of the viable alternative. In my experience people make change for one compound reason: They hate poor delivery and they hate hubris. They have one pre-condition for making change when they see poor delivery and hubris: they ask themselves is there a viable alternative.
Note that, it's not "is there something better", rather it's "is there a viable alternative". Put that another way: product excellence won't cut it over poor service and a perception of a lack of interest in the customer. Customers will "chuck out the incumbent" if there is a halfway decent alternative.
I'm personally at that point with Apple: I think there are viable alternatives. Are they better than Apple products - maybe not. Does Apple demonstrate that they care enough about the customer to keep me? No they don't. Therefore I'm open to viable alternatives. A Google Android device anyone?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Death & Destruction - Update

In this post I set out the poor performance of New Zealand's transport accident investigator. That was on 6 September. Somebody must have read it because on 9 September this article based on an interview with Bevan's family was published.
Shortly thereafter I was informed that the TAIC has promised the final report on 1 October. I'll keep you posted.

Apple Snow Leopard - Update - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

This is like a post to tell the aunts how the behaviour of the problem child has been - in this case Snow Leopard. Well the short answer is not great. But I've fixed a couple of things and found a much more problematical issue.
So first the good news. The GCC printer first. This printer had been on the network for months and doing its stuff perfectly well. Then I upgraded to Snow Leopard and it disappeared. In this model - the GCC Elite XL 20/600 - you set the IP address as a static IP somewhere in the range that you are using. The printer had had the same static IP address for months. As part of the diagnostics around the problem I had checked the IP address and all the other settings multiple times. No other device was using that IP address or anything near it. All was well but still no printer.
Finally in one of those random and senseless acts I changed the IP address to another address in the range. Hey presto there was the printer, I could ping it, add it in the prefs and use it. There is no rational reason I can think of why this should have worked but hey, this is Snow Leopard. Still I now have a working printer.
The second breakthrough was with iSync. We have a Sony Ericsson W705a that we wanted to sync using iSync. We had been doing this under Leopard with no dramas. Snow Leopard said that it was a "non supported" phone or some similar language. I removed the Sony Ericsson plugins, downloaded them again (albeit the same version), installed them again and still nothing. I removed the phone from the "Phones" directory in the Library and then recreated it. I couldn't add the phone to iSync as a device. I searched the support discussions, restarted the computer, did everything I could think of. Then I stumbled on someone who had found that the permissions on the plugins directory were screwed up. So I went and had a look at that only to find that I had no permissions on that directory at all. I fixed that and that solved the problem. I could add and sync the phone!
Again this is a seemingly random event. I had been running these plugins under Leopard and syncing this phone. I had repaired permissions after each install of anything but for some reason under Snow Leopard these permissions were stuffed up. Thanks to the anonymous person who had worked this out.
That's the good over with. I've also had further improvement by doubling the RAM on my laptop. Even though Snow Leopard has a smaller disk footprint than Leopard (well done Apple) it appears to need more RAM. What had been a marginal but OK setup under 10.5.8 refused to run with any stability in Snow Leopard. That and 10.6.1 seem to have fixed a couple of the stability problems I was suffering.
Now the ugly. The very ugly actually. The Mail app is totally stuffed under Snow Leopard for me and a lot of others. There is a vast sea of questions and complaints on the Apple support forums. The main problem is that Mail downloads multiple copies of the same email. It appeared to be mainly POP accounts but unfortunately IMAP accounts are similarly affected. My first alert to this was when I came home one afternoon to find tens of thousands of emails in my inbox and my monthly data allowance totally blown. Because I need web access to my mail from time to time, I keep a copy on the server. This has been working OK with the Mail app for years. I've got around 7,500 emails in one account and it worked perfectly.
Not under Snow Leopard. Mail now downloads copy after copy. I had thought that IMAP solved the problem but I came downstairs this morning to find my laptop in the middle of downloading 13,500 new emails. None of course were new.
I've done the whole bit, deleted accounts and created them again from scratch. Created new IMAP accounts, removed the POP accounts...on and on and on. I'm amongst friends though, many people are getting increasingly angry about this and about Apple's total lack of public response. Are you alive Apple, do you care about your users?
It's now almost a month since I upgraded and I haven't had working email for most of that time. I'm relying on my iPhone which is great for a two line response but hopeless for a detailed email.
Apple: you only have to get two things right - the browser and the mail app. We can live with anything else. All you have to do is fix Mail NOW and sit around a table with Adobe and fix the Flash plugin for Safari and our lives will return to near normal.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Round and round, round and round...

It's part of every pilot's life - flying circuits. When you start your training you go off and do straight and level, climbing and descending, turns... but what you are really waiting for is to get back into the circuit and start going...round and round.
By the time you have gone solo you are sick of going round and round, and then after solo find yourself doing some more of it! It's one of the things that doesn't go away, it's there the whole time you are a pilot.
I've come to love flying circuits. The transformation happened at some stage during my training and it's stayed with me. I remember one beautiful evening, the sun low in the sky, the convective disarray of the day all but gone, flying 500' circuits and practising engine failures. I would climb to 500' and then at some random spot close the throttle and glide back to land. I suddenly realised that I had become "good enough" at this that it was fun. It wasn't a burden and in fact it was Zen-like in its simplicity and pleasure. Some circuits I would glide in, turning, turning, almost below hangar height to roll the wings level just as I touched down half way up the strip. On others I would bring the aircraft in with a steep sideslip and straighten things out just in time to flair. I could have gone on and on but the light intervened. The last landing was like feeling for your slippers on a dark morning...I know the runway is just here somewhere, hold her off, hold her off...I knew it was there!
I used to go and practice forced landings on a little dirt strip. It had a few little quirks. On final at the north end there were a couple of large trees, you needed to work out ahead of time which side you would fly of each tree. The strip was pretty short and had another little trap. Just in the touchdown zone at the north end the strip fell away about 30-40' quite suddenly. You would flair and then realise that you were getting higher and higher off the ground! The idea was to come in very close to the end of the strip and try to get down on the ground before the strip dropped away. The problem was that the fence was exactly on the threshold of the strip! It was marked with some white rags, and just waited there for the unwary.
The process went something like this: Cut the power overhead, aim for base point at 1000' then turn final at 500' (but you were always lower). The ground fell towards the strip so you would leave the first tree to the right as you turned final, leave the second tree to the left, aim for the threshold, using everything but power to get the aircraft to the right spot. Watch that fence, in fact watch it all the way until it passed safely under your wheels and then concentrate on getting the aircraft down on the ground. Now go and do it again!
The other thing about circuits is that you only get one landing per circuit (none of us bounce our landings do we?) so in that way it's like practicing a golf swing. You hit the ball and if you get it wrong you have to do it all over again, you can't correct it after its gone.
There's a new aircraft on line where I sometimes fly so this week I went with my daughter and we both got signed off in it. It was a beautiful day and the grass airstrip looked so enticing. We both have quite a few hours in this aircraft type so it was a bit of a formality. My daughter hadn't flown for a few weeks so it was a chance for her to brush up. She is the master of the landing. She has beautiful hands and feet for a pilot, a really deft touch and all of her "ground proximity" flying is a pleasure to watch. I on the other hand could best be described as "agricultural" in my flying. It works but it sometimes ain't pretty!
Flying the Savage Classic though has done wonders for my landings. They are much softer and more graceful than they were, not at all the arrivals they can be. My daughter on the other hand stuffed up her first landing. This reversal of fortune was so unusual that I gleefully filed it away for future use!
It was only the one landing that she stuffed up however. After we'd each flown a few circuits (what do you call them in North America?) we happily headed home. She said thoughtfully, reflecting on her few weeks break from flying "you don't ever forget, it's just that you need some practice". That's what currency is about I guess.
Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons pic by Sciacchitano

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Aniseed...must mean fennel

When I was a kid fennel grew wild along the railway tracks, we all knew the smell but we'd never think of eating it. Indeed I'm not sure that it was an edible variety. Then later I became used to the smell and the taste of fennel seeds in Indian cooking. The next stage in my culinary education was bulb fennel. I'd see the bulbs in the vegetable market but never buy them as I was unsure what I'd do with them.
Fennel is widely grown and widely available. I remember on my first trip to a little town south of Rome seeing a paddock with a crop with a feathery dark green leaf. At a distance I thought it was carrots. Asking my host I was told that it was finocchio. His English and my Italian weren't a match for solving the problem of exactly what finocchio was, however lunch a few days later provided the solution! Bulb fennel is sometimes called Florence fennel.
I suspect that many people find fennel interesting but they don't make it part of their diet through a lack of knowing how they will deal with it. It's easy really with lots of simple ways. It makes a great salad as long as you get a very young tender bulb, slice it thinly - paper thin - and put it into a salad with some citrus segments and a simple citrus and oil based dressing.
The most foolproof way of cooking it though is to braise it. Take a large fennel bulb and split it vertically down the middle - from head to root. When you do this you will see a wedge shaped piece of root in the base of each half. Remove this piece with a sharp paring knife and then lay the half on the board flat side down and slice the fennel thinly, starting at the root end. The slices should be 3-4mm thick and you should stop slicing when you start to get to the leaves which are darker green and have white pith in the stems. Do the same with both halves.
Heat a non-stick frying pan with some good olive oil - 100 to 150ml of oil, add the fennel and fry on a high heat moving it constantly. What you are doing is looking for the slightest browning on some of the fennel. When it reaches that point add a little water, reduce the heat and cover with a tight fitting lid. The fennel should now cook very slowly and not brown further at all. Add more water if required. After about 30 minutes the fennel will be translucent and much reduced in bulk, all the water will have cooked off. Check the seasoning, you will almost certainly need some salt and probably pepper, depending on taste.
Serve the fennel in a small bowl. It adds a flavour punch to the meal, a distinctive aniseed type flavour which is enhanced by the slow braising in olive oil. This dish is simple and just requires a little time. It tames the biggest fennel bulb!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Apple Snow Leopard - The Problem Child

If you visit the Apple support forums you'll find three sorts of people: the first lot have problems with their upgrade to Snow Leopard - the latest version of Mac OS X; the second lot are metaphorically shouting at the first saying "there's nothing wrong with Snow Leopard it's you"; the third lot are making genuine, and sometimes successful, attempts to help the first lot.
From my point of view Snow Leopard is a great leap forward that is threatening to be a PR disaster for Apple. Many of us, with faith in Apple, upgraded early. Apple was very keen to get us to upgrade and has been shouting Snow Leopard from the roof tops for weeks. Being nice and sensible I pored over the various lists of incompatible software and where I couldn't find an answer I contacted the manufacturer. Having decided that all my key software was compatible I then did a big spring clean of the Macs. Finally I set forth and upgraded one Mac and used it for a while. All seemed well and so I did the rest.
  1. Various applications began crashing randomly. The vast majority of these were Apple apps that were updated with Snow Leopard. Things like Safari, Mail, iPhoto, and despite Microsoft's protestations that it was ready - Office apps crash too;
  2. Various bits of software for no apparent reason begin to hog CPU cycles. This in turn creates load on the CPU which begins to heat up and then the fan speeds up to keep things cool. Meanwhile whatever is hogging cycles just keeps hogging until you kill the process. What's that about? The worst is Safari and the Flash plug in Safari but there are others too. Your Mac sounds like a jet taking off;
  3. Printers cease to function. I had a perfectly good printer connected by ethernet to my Airport and it had been working with no problems for months on the various iterations of 10.5. The upgrade to 10.6 has killed things stone dead. Despite two full days of working through a vast range of possible solutions NOTHING works and nothing prints. Even though there isn't a specific driver for this printer - a GCC - in 10.6 it should still work using a generic driver. Well it doesn't and it isn't even visible on the network. I can't even ping the fucking thing;
I won't bore you with all the other minutiae that are causing me grief - including the broken iSync Bluetooth process. I've zapped PRAM, fixed permissions, re-installed Snow Leopard, doubled the RAM in my system, blitzed caches...and nothing helps.
I've come to the view finally that this was a cynical piece of marketing by Apple. They rushed Snow Leopard out the door early so that they beat Microsoft who are releasing Windows 7 in october apparently.
Well all that's done is leave a whole bunch of us out in the cold with Snow Leopard and freezing our tits off.
Apple the least you can do is get your arses into gear and start releasing updates to fix some of the issues. Snow Leopard and your other apps need some fixes, why don't you fix them?
In the meantime if you haven't already updated to Snow Leopard then my advice is don't be stupid like me: wait for a couple of updates before you do.

The Love of my life - Storm Century 5XL

Well not actually the love of my life...that's reserved for a beautiful woman. But if there's an aircraft above all others then this is it. This aircraft is why you need a hangar with room for two: one spot for the Zlin Savage Classic and one for the Century 5XL. That way you can happily fool around on little tiny strips and riverbeds in the Classic and then travel long distances at 125 knots in comfort with the 5XL. What could make a pilot happier?
Stormaircraft srl is based in Sabaudia, Italy. They've been building aircraft for 20 years or more. They have two main lines of aircraft - the Century (used to be called the Storm) which is low wing, all metal and the Rally high wing, composite.
The Century 5XL is the big daddy of them all. In Italy it is flown in 2+2 configuration - 2 small seats behind the front seats to hold the children. In Australia it flies as an LSA with a MTOW of 600kg and a large baggage area behind the seats. Baggage capacity is 75kg. For an LSA the 5XL is a big aircraft. It's 40cm longer than the standard Century and the wings are longer as well. The outcome is an aircraft that has the capacity to do a genuine 120 knots indicated at sea level and true out in the high 120s at 5,000'. Combine that with a fairly benign stall around 35 knots and you have an aircraft that's fast but easily manageable.
Getting in is easy - climb onto the wing root - avoiding the flaps and standing on the designated area, put your inboard leg straight across and onto the place it lives on the cockpit floor. Then rest on the cockpit side whilst you move your inboard hand down onto the structural bar visible between the seats, bring your outboard leg onto the cockpit floor and slide in.
This is a big persons' aircraft. The seats only adjust in rake - if you are taller you can rake the seat back, if shorter then make it more upright. However at their standard setting they accommodate from around 5' 2" to 6' 5" with a cushion if you are at the lower end of that range. The rudder pedals have extensions so that you can shorten the distance to your feet. Shoulder room is great. The throttle and choke are on the centre console between the seats, as are the brakes, the fuel taps, the Hobbs and the headset jacks. Behind the seats is a massive cargo space, you could fit just about anything imaginable - including golf sticks. Just make sure you obey the 75kg limit.
The instrument panel is divided into 3 with the primary flight instruments to the left, comms in the centre - along with the prop controller if fitted, and the engine instruments to the right. Visibility is excellent, you are sitting right over the spar and you can see through an arc of over 270 degrees horizontally.
Unlike some LSA aircraft the 5XL seems like a "big" aircraft, however it's very agile on the ground and has a very tight turning circle - even without the optional toe brakes. The main gear is a set of solid aluminium legs and the nose gear is on an arm with bungees.
The standard engine is a Rotax 912ULS and this aircraft has the performance to warrant a variable pitch prop. The engine installation is very clean with lots of room between the engine and firewall. Access is through a pair of hinge up doors down either side of the cowling.
Sitting at the end of the strip the view is great and as you open the throttle the all-flying stabilator comes to life in your hand (fixed horizontal stabiliser is also available). The aircraft accelerates very quickly and is not at all busy. You need a little right rudder, but not much. First stage flaps are used for takeoff. As you approach 40 knots you gently lift the nosewheel off. This is where you'll likely get your first surprise: the 5XL has extremely light control feel in all axes and the controls are very sensitive. This is a very responsive aircraft and it will punish over-controlling. Climb out is at 60 knots with a climb rate around 1000fpm. The deck angle isn't as steep as many LSAs and visibility is good. Cruise climb is in the 70-90 knot range.
Turns require very little rudder and the roll rate is very impressive. If you want to do your fighter emulation then this is the aircraft. Va is 90 knots and needs to be respected given the roll rates that can be achieved. The aircraft is easily manageable in the turn with very little back pressure required. Stalls are pretty benign, a single finger on the stick is all that is necessary. As the aircraft slows it remains very stable, at the approach of the stall you get a very slight buffet and the break is very benign with wing drop basically absent. Stall speed is as low as 35 knots depending on configuration.
The 5XL comes into its own in the cruise. Set up and going somewhere TAS of high 120s knots is achievable at 5,000'. The aircraft really eats up the miles and is incredibly stable compared to some other LSAs. It's a great aircraft for going somewhere. Just remember to wear your sunhat and sunnies - it can get bright under the big bubble canopy. There's 100 litres of usable fuel and the burn averages around 18 lph. So that gives an endurance of around 4.75 hours plus ample reserves. At 120 knots that's a still air distance of 570nm plus reserves. Nice going.
Returning to the circuit the biggest issue is getting the 5XL slowed down. Vfe for first stage is 85 knots and for full flaps it's 75 knots. Downwind is flown at around 90-100 knots, approaching base leg you go full fine on the prop and this really helps to slow the aircraft; then as you turn base you slow the aircraft further and take first stage flaps. The flaps are electric and on presets so it's one flick of the button for first stage. The aircraft feels very controllable and manageable once the prop is in fine pitch and the flaps are out.
Many LSA aircraft don't present a stable platform for the pilot. They seem to be in constant motion - they are light and have little inertia. The 5XL is a much more stable platform than most. This makes the landing phase easier than many expect. Ideally you select full flaps as you turn final and then it's just a matter of holding the aim point and maintaining an approach speed of 60 knots. Over the fence at 55-60 knots and then into the flair. The speed will fall to around 40 knots (if you're watching!!) as you settle. Everything is very stable and manageable.
The POH lists takeoff roll on an ISA day at SL, nil wind and a sealed strip as 110 metres at MTOW. For the same conditions and 32 degrees flap you get a landing distance of 160 metres. Both of those are about right. Neither of those distances are super short but they are real distances and in line with the type of aircraft. The aircraft is very much at home on everything from sealed strips, to grass, dirt and gravel.
Just as a side note the POH for the 5XL is a comprehensive document, particularly in the area of performance data. Many POHs for LSA aircraft are nothing like so comprehensive.
If you want an aircraft that allows you to travel long distances at good speeds with big loads of gear then this is an aircraft you should seriously look at. It's also a real pilots' aircraft - it will bring a smile to the face of anyone who really loves flying.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

iPhone for Pilots - Pocket Weather

Yes I know that you can get the weather through NAIPS, but there are a few other things you can't get there - like the BOM weather radar. That's where Pocket Weather (AU) comes in. It's from Shifty Jelly and costs $2.49 or free for the lite version. Pay the money!

This is the main screen - a weekly forecast for the location of your choice. The "Locations" button at the top left takes you to a view that allows you to choose an existing location or to set up a new location from any of the sites that the BOM has data for. You can choose which sites you want the forecast, observations and radar from and then save the choice - it appears on the Locations page as a choice.
In the main page the little icon with a green "i" in it gives you a pop up with the detailed forecast for that day and if there are any warnings then a red icon with a "!" in it appears - clicking the icon again gives the details. The radar icon on the centre right gives access to the animated BOM weather radar that you chose in the Locations set up for this location.
Clicking the "Radars" button on this screen allows you to choose the range of the radar and if there is doppler wind radar at that site you can choose that as well.
Back on the Locations screen you also have buttons for National Radars that gives you access to a composite national radar, an animated synoptic chart and an animated satellite view. You also have a tides button that allows you to choose a location for which you want the tides - the view is a very nice tide graph that includes sunrise and sunset as well as tide height. Landing on the beach anyone?
I think Pocket Weather is the bees knees, there's lots more in there than I've discussed including a choice of four skins - shake the iPhone to change them. The thing for me is that it's a great situational awareness tool. Often when you are flying VFR you want to know things like "how fast is that crap moving in from the west?" or "what's behind this current belt of showers?". Pocket Weather is ideal for that sort of question. Have a look at it - you'll probably like it!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Food, food, food...

I told you I liked food and cooking, so today you are getting a recipe. Nothing fancy just simple plain fresh food.
This recipe is for a very simple dish of Spicy Spanish Mackerel. I'd never heard about Spanish Mackerel until about 20 years ago when I was working in the Philippines where it is called Tangigue. We used to have it grilled over a small coconut shell charcoal brazier set up in the back yard. It was delicious. You can find out all about it here, including a little warning that is good for all fish (BTW that page is a US page but Spanish Mackerel is widely available around the world). The higher up the food chain a fish is the more organic mercury it will tend to accumulate. The Spanish Mackerel is a predator and so a little care is necessary - don't eat it every day.
Now to the recipe. Spanish Mackerel is almost always sold as steaks or cutlets in Australia. That is the fish is cut perpendicular to the backbone into slices about 18mm thick. For this recipe you can simply use the whole steak or you can remove the flesh from the bones - this will leave you with 4 roughly triangular pieces of fish from each steak. I also remove the skin, but again you don't have to. Once you have your fish ready just pat it dry with a paper towel.
Now prepare the spice mix. This consists of:

2 dessert spoons of powdered turmeric;
1 teaspoon of chilli powder;
1/2 teaspoon of salt;

Mix the spices together on a flat dinner plate. If you like your food spicy then increase the chilli in the mix, if you prefer a more bland taste then reduce the chilli. This dish relies on the synergy between the flavour of the fish and the turmeric, the chilli is just an added bonus! That amount should be enough for two steaks of fish.
Take the pieces of fish and press them into the spice mix - make sure they are fully covered with spice and shake off the excess. The fish is a little oily so it holds the spice mix well. Put the spiced fish pieces on a plate and leave them to stand for about 20 minutes so the flavour can develop.
To cook heat a non-stick fry pan and add the smallest amount of oil. I use rice bran oil. Put the fish into the pan and cook for a few minutes on each side. How long you have to cook it depends on the thickness of the steaks. Check by gently breaking one piece if you are unsure. Don't over cook. Also make sure that the pan is hot enough that the fish doesn't stew but not so hot that the spice mixture burns before the fish cooks. It should brown slightly only.
Serve the fish with lemon wedges, potatoes (or rice if you prefer) and salad.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Death and Destruction

If you look around the aviation world you find a strange phenomenon: many of us pore over accident reports like ghouls. Indeed in places like Australia the authorities publish what is jokingly known as the "Crash Comic". I you look over here at Aviatrix you will find that she not infrequently talks about the results of crash investigations. I'm a sometimes compulsive reader of both aviation and marine accident investigation reports.
The reason for all this interest is to understand what happened and to ensure that it never happens to us! Accident investigation has also been useful in pointing the way for aviation safety. For instance the focus on human factors, CRM and the like was born out of a growing understanding that it was the human in the cockpit who was the weak link in many occurrences.
Most countries have an organisation that is mandated by legislation to carry out the investigation and reporting function. Increasingly in recent years these organisations have moved to having multi-modal responsibility, rather than just aviation.
New Zealand has the Transport Accident Investigation Commission to do this work. As TAIC's name suggests it had multi-modal responsibility. It's purpose (according to its Statement of Intent 2009-2012) is:
The Commission’s purpose, as set out in its Act, is to determine the circumstances and causes of aviation, rail and maritime accidents and incidents to avoid similar occurrences in the future.
What it doesn't mention in that purpose, and indeed anywhere else I can find is the most important word "timely". I don't know whether this is chicken or egg: either the Commission doesn't mention timely because it is not part of its brief (and it should be); or it doesn't mention timely because it would be embarrassing. And embarrassed the Commission should be.
New Zealand has a small population, estimated at just over 4 million last year by the CIA. The TAIC has currently 49 accident investigations for which it has not yet published a report. Some of those date back to 2005. As far as I can determine it published only one aviation accident report in 2008 and none so far this year.
It's no use reporting on accidents years after they happen. Mainly because the "same" accident could happen again, and maybe again whilst we are waiting for the report. Accident investigation and reporting is time consuming and often cannot be rushed. However it does not appear as if the TAIC has even subscribed to the increasingly common approach of publishing an "interim factual report" 1 month after the accident. Australia, the UK and the US all seem to be doing this now. At least it gives us something to go on.
Number 35 on the TAIC's list of accidents under investigation is the accident that killed my cousin. On 17 February 2008 he was killed when the aircraft he was flying collided in mid-air with a helicopter. Both occupants of the helicopter were also killed. My cousin was 17 years old.
The TAIC has slipped the date that it says it will deliver the accident report at least 3 times that I know of. His grandmother expected to have a report in March of this year. No report. Indeed this morning the Commission's website says:
Report unlikely to be completed before: Aug 2009
Well they're at least right about something, given that it's now September 6.
Why can't the TAIC get off its backside and clear its backlog? Maybe it lacks the staff, maybe it lacks the will, maybe it lacks the management capability that it needs to lead a decent response. I have no idea. What I do know is that it's about time it got on with its job in a timely way for the sake of all of the people who might be affected, the families, the pilots and mariners and train drivers and not least the travelling public.

Friday, September 4, 2009

TrafficTweet - Twitter that works!

I'm not convinced about Twitter, because at the core of Twitter is a problem: Twitter is the pumping station and all the rest of us are simply sampling the torrent from the fire hose. And most of us just give up. We can't sort the crap from the cream and there's no value in most of what's coming out of the hose.
When we deal with data in our daily lives we use a kind of three-step process. We say "What?", "So What?" and "What Now?". Put another way those three questions are saying "what's the data?", "what does it mean to me?" and "what am I going to do about it?". With Twitter we just get the "what" and more what, and then a bit more what. The companies that are making some sense to me are the companies that are creating apps that answer the next question: "what does it mean to me?" Because once I have help with that then I can get on with doing my stuff which is "what am I going to do about it?".
That's a long winded way of starting out talking about TrafficTweet. The name's pretty obvious, it's an iPhone app that lets me tweet about traffic issues. It gives me a nice interface to do that, means I don't have to write 140 characters of War and Peace, and keeps track of my location so that it puts the data in a sensible place. That tweet is then sent to Twitter (more on that later) and then collected back by TrafficTweet and displayed on a map in a form that I can interrogate easily.

Crowd sourced data, a great interface and all the hard work of synthesising and arranging the data done for me. I can get on with deciding to take another road or postpone my trip. I can get back to being an executive rather than a data analyst. The interesting thing is that all those tweets generated from TrafficTweet are available to everyone on Twitter. So Mobomo, the developers of TrafficTweet can only keep ahead of the crowd by the value added analysis and presentation that they undertake on the data.
I think this is a great app and the more apps like this we see the more chance Twitter has of prospering rather than churning. But come on all you people in Melbourne and the rest of Australia: Get onto the app store, download TrafficTweet (it's free ATM) and start tweeting about traffic. You'll add value and I won't feel so alone DownUnder. To see what the app can do just go into the app and search for "Los Angeles".

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Melbourne in Spring

The only thing you have to know about Melbourne at this time of this year is that everyone wishes it would stop blowing! We've had a succession of strong low pressure systems through here and it's driving everyone mad. Not as bad as the west coast of Tasmania though. They reported sustained winds of 80 knots at one stage last week!
I haven't managed to do another session in the Savage Classic yet - my instructor has had a rough time over the last couple of weeks and the last thing is that he's now nursing some cracked ribs! I'll keep you posted as soon as the next session comes along.
What I have been spending some time on though is making a table top. I fossicked around and found a piece of reclaimed river redgum. It's about 1200 x 600mm and around 38mm thick. It's a beautiful piece of timber. Like many of these slabs however it has a cup across the width.
So I've been planing away the sides to make the top flat. I've been using a low angle smoothing plane. Removing the heavy stock with the mouth wide open and then closing the mouth up to get a finish.
As you can see from the photos (sorry about the quality) there is beautiful fiddleback figure in the wood. But that of course means that the grain goes every which way. I've sharpened a secondary bevel on the plane blade to bring the included cutting angle up to around 50 degrees. I tried to remove the first major cut with a scrub plane but I got too much chip out so I reverted to slower work with the jack plane and the smoother.

My old man started out life as a carpenter and joiner. He reckons I don't need to remove all the cup - just make sure that it's "flat enough".
This is great cardio vascular exercise and it's doing wonders for my upper body and fore arms! I'll have to find another piece after this to keep up with the exercise regime!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Tecnam P92 Echo Super - Brief Review

The first thing you need to know is that I've got a real soft spot in my heart for the Tecnam P92 Echo Super. It's a great little aircraft, fun to fly, predictable, simple and robust.
But first the movie: A couple of disclaimers - no Tecnams were hurt in the making of that movie, and the "mate" of mine who created the little sound effect and the flash had it wrong! Despite appearances there was no sideloading on that wheel - the aircraft just pivoted sweetly on the right main and settled like it always does. That movie was taken during a spot landing competition and no I didn't win!! Thanks Ben for a great video.
So let's talk about the basics: made in Italy by Costruzione Aeronautiche Tecnam. Many of you will know the people behind Tecnam - at least by their history. These are the same people who built the Partenavia. The P92 Echo dates from 1992, the Super is the version with the Rotax 912ULS, not to be confused with the Echo S which is another thing entirely.
The first thing that you notice when handling the P92 is that there's nowhere to hang on to it - the only place you can pull and push on is the base of the prop. Everything else - the struts, the leading edges - are all too lightweight to cope with any handling. Construction is aluminium. The all-flying tail surfaces are fabric covered. Access to the engine is simple with two catches on either side allowing you to hinge up the sides of the cowling - like an old car bonnet. The usual Rotax stuff - check the oil and make sure you burp it first, check the coolant, check the exhaust-retaining springs, look for oil and coolant leaks and make sure all the plug leads are in place and you're good to go.
To get in you back up to the open door, bend backwards as if to do the limbo and slide your head inside, then lift your backside onto the seat and swing your inboard leg under the stick and you're in. Make sure you've put the seat right back first. Now I'm here to tell you that you can get two burly blokes into this aircraft - 6' and 6'5" totalling about 220kg. But you have to be good friends. The luggage compartment is behind the seat and is limited to 20kg - at or about 20kg you notice the aircraft becoming very light in pitch control so I think that's a real limit.
Adjust your seat, ignition switches on and turn the key with the throttle fully closed. She should start immediately. It it's cold you'll need some choke but she should still start immediately.
This aircraft gets off the ground pretty smartly. If you work on it you can be in ground effect in under 100 metres and she will be genuinely flying and ready to climb in 200 metres on a good day. The deck angle is steep in the climb - Vy is 60 knots and Vx about 50-55 knots. You should see climb rates around 1000fpm at Vy. Flaps are on a little switch like a paddle - just like its big brothers. There are no preselects so you have to watch the indicator. First stage for take off is 15 degrees. Full flap is 40 degrees or thereabouts.
Prolonged climbs at Vy on an Australian summer day are not recommended. You will overheat the engine. So I usually opt for a cruise climb of 70-80 knots maybe even 85 knots on a hot day. This will give you 5-700 fpm and keep things out of the danger zone.
The P92 is not a fighter and has none of the features of a fighter - and that includes control loads and displacements. The controls have a reasonably light force required and a reasonably long throw. This gets lighter and longer at very slow speeds. Control forces are reasonably well harmonised and there are no suprises.
These aircraft fly with a MTOW of 544kg in Australia. At MTOW the stall comes at about 40-42 knots clean, power off. No surprises, some buffet and very little wing drop. In approach config - say 3,000rpm and full flaps - you get quite a steep deck angle at the stall and you get quite some wing drop - really all pretty tame but it's there. Stall in that config is lower at around 35 knots.
Like many of these sort of aircraft the cruise attitude results in great forward visibility with a markedly nose-low appearance. Genuine cruise is around 105 knots - if you flight plan for that you won't be far wrong. Comfort for longer trips is not bad, but if you're big it's not great either. Setting up the seat is really important - you need it as far back as you can get it and still be able to get decent control deflection - otherwise your legs will be up close to the underside of the panel and it's all a bit tight.
The tanks hold 90 litres (optionally) and with a burn of around 18 litres per hour that gives more endurance than most pilots would have in an aircraft this size.
In the circuit, downwind is flown at around 80-90 knots. The aircraft is slowed below 67 knots (Vfe first stage) during base turn and then more flap is added progressively. Full flaps are limited to 55 knots. Normal approach speed is 60 knots so you have a very small margin at flaps 1 between your approach speed and Vfe. The aircraft is nice and stable though and the view of your target is brilliant. Many times in a crosswind I've run down final looking out of the passenger door window at my aiming point. The aircraft is lightweight and has a low wing loading so it moves around a lot. You have to control it very actively during the landing phase especially in gusty conditions or substantial crosswinds. From memory demonstrated crosswind is of the order of 18 knots.
As you saw in the movie it handles side slips really well. With full flaps and a decent side slip you can come in very steeply with descent rates of around 2,000fpm if you are game. Gravel and dirt strips are equally no trouble. The main gear is pretty robust but you need to treat the nose gear with some respect.
If you want a recreational aircraft that's simple and robust then you should look at the P92. Only her designer, Professore Pascale, could love her looks but she certainly gets the job done. In addition the cockpit seems reasonably protected. I've seen one that spun in from around 100 feet. The pilot survived and the cockpit didn't look as though it had lost much of its capacity!