Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Bit of a Bender

Ok, that last video is a pushover. They just flew over the road at low level. My dad just sent me one that beats it into the dust... literally.

What about taking off from a jungle road? In a regional airliner? In Africa's Congo? In the daytime performance-killing jungle heat and humidity? Surrounded by trees so close they can smack your wings?

Still too easy? I might add that this road-turned-runway has a 45 degree bend in it.

The airplane being flown is a Czech twin-turboprop LET-410. It can carry up to 19 passengers or 3.5 tons of cargo and is widely valued for its performance in "unprepared fields". I believe a curving road in the middle of the African jungle qualifies as an "unprepared field". :)

Note: the airplane graveyard off to the left as he lifts off into the air. Looks like an Antonov An-2 Colt biplane and some other Eastern Bloc aircraft met their ends there. That's ironic, since the An-2 is widely considered a "classic" STOL aircraft. The manual doesn't even state an actual stall speed.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Only in Russia

Pick up the FAA's Federal Aviation Regulations and Airman's Information Manual. When you look through those hefty binders, you'll see page after page telling you "Don't do this" and "Don't do that." All those boring paragraphs telling you keep 500 feet away from all people and 1000 feet above populated areas, or big bad FAA will come and kick your teeth in.

Now hop on a flight to Russia and forget everything you saw in those books. :)

Let's see someone do this along Interstate 95 during rush hour:

Monday, March 17, 2008

Bird Down

We lost a T-34C on Friday. For those who've been following this blog, those are the Navy single engine trainers that make up a huge part of our traffic and operations. There are 150 of them stationed at Whiting NAS, which comprises the sectors I'm training on.

These planes are the daily bread and butter for myself and the other controllers here.

From the Pensacola News Journal:
A veteran Marine instructor and his student died Friday in a plane crash in Alabama on Friday.

Major David L. Yaggy, 34, of Pensacola, and 2nd Lt. Alexander N. Prezioso, 23, of Lake Worth, were in a T-34C Turbomentor, a two-seat, single-engine training plane, when it slammed into Chandler Mountain. Their bodies were recovered Saturday and were returned to Pensacola Naval Air Station for autopsies at the Naval hospital.

The two were flying out of Whiting Field Naval Air Station north of Milton for the first of three legs of the trip. They were headed to Huntsville, Ala., when they crashed. Their identities were released this morning at a news conference.

Yaggy was from Sparks, Md., and was a Marine for 11½ years. He served in Operation Enduring Freedom from August 2001 to March 2002 in Afghanistan. He then served two tours in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom from January to August 2003, and from August 2004 to February 2005. Yaggy graduated from the University of Richmond in 1996 and became an instructor at Whiting Field in February 2006. He is survived by a wife and daughter.

Prezioso, 23, was a Marine for nearly two years. He was a 2006 graduate from Embry-Riddle University. He was commissioned as an officer through a Platoon Leaders Course in 2006. He joined Training Squadron 6 in August. Prezioso lived in Milton with his roommates from flight school. He was not married. He is survived by his parents and a sister.

Today was declared a no-fly day by the commander of Naval Air Training. All student aviators and their instructors met today for a safety stand down that is scheduled to last the entire workday.

A memorial service is scheduled for the men at 12:30 p.m. Thursday at Pensacola Naval Air Station.

Capt. Dave Maloney, commander of Training Wing 5, said Prezioso will be awarded his aviation wings at the memorial.

Two teams are investigating the crash. Maloney said he would not speculate on the cause of the crash.

Maloney said there are 150 T-34C aircraft used for training at Whiting Field. The last fatal crash in the aircraft was in 2000
The T-34s typically head out on "field trips" on Fridays, spend the weekend away, and recover back home on Sunday evening. I was working the Whiting departure sector on Friday afternoon and I launched a bunch of the birds headed up to the Huntsville area. It's likely that I talked to those guys as they headed out - the time frames match up perfectly. Without knowing the tail number I wouldn't know for sure.

I didn't know the pilots personally of course, but since I work Whiting exclusively I've talked to a good percentage of the students and instructors that fly out of there.

Lessons Learned

I have a strong interest in aviation accidents. Reading about them is extremely educational. One of the great advantages of it is that you get to learn from someone else's situation without having to experience it for yourself. Unfortunately, given aviation's nature, sometimes that person doesn't live to tell the tale. And when that person may have been on the other end of the radio a few days ago, it's not a good feeling.

It's tragic when anyone dies in an airplane. Flight can be so magical, exciting and inspirational that it's easy to forget how easy it is to lose your life, whether it's through human error, mechanical failure, or mother nature. One moment you're ripping along at 200 knots and enjoying the world as it blurs past you, and the next...nothing. That hair's breadth between the two can be frightening for many.

Back in WWII, the Navy and Marines would train their aviators using bright yellow Stearman N3N biplanes. "Yellow Perils" they called them, and when you're talking low-time student pilots in an open cockpit biplane, "peril" is exactly the word I'd use. In a book I read by an F-4U Corsair pilot, the author talked about several incidents that happened during his training. On more than one occasion, a student pilot would make a critical error and kill himself in a fiery crash, often right in front of the other students.

The instructors would respond to this by immediately getting the rest of the students into their airplanes and taking to the air even as the wreck still burned. They figured that the longer they would wait on the ground, the greater the chance that fear would take hold of the students. It helped the students focus, strengthening their nerves and confidence. As military pilots, the students needed to understand how to cope with the presence of death and succeed despite the risks that combat flying brought.

Today, Whiting held a safety stand-down to brief the students and hold a memorial for the pilots. Tomorrow, they'll hopefully be back in the saddle with a day full of flying ahead of them, doing what they have to do to keep going and pushing forward.

My sincere condolences to the families and friends of the pilots. At the very least, their loved ones passed away serving their country and doing something they loved, which is not a claim many can make.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Pouring Concrete

There's been a lot of flap in the media lately between homeowners, airport development officials, and airspace redesign initiatives. I'm not getting into that debate; that's for other blogs and other forums. I will say that all parties should follow the letter of the law along with established procedures to make sure changes are legal, well-researched, and - most importantly - safe.

No one - outside of an aviation nut - is a fan of having noisy, stinky airplanes running through their backyards on their way to the local airport. The last thing homeowners want is more noisy, stinky airplanes making their presence known.

However, it's simple and unarguable math that building an extra runway or extending an existing one to handle larger aircraft will ease delays and add more efficiency to an airport. From an economic perspective, increased airport traffic volume (both enplanements and cargo) leads to economic growth for the communities served by that airport. Unfortunately, that math never comes down on the side of those who own houses near the airport.

That's what this post is about: finding ways for potential homeowners to make sure they're not caught on the pointy end of an airport expansion program.

The fact is, airports always grow. The exceptions include smaller, more private airports that may be stunted by residential development around them and eventually killed off by community or economic pressures. However, your typical regional and commercial airports will always need to expand to meet demands of increasing traffic and larger aircraft. New runways, longer runways, more parking, more support structures (fuel farms, parts and food vendors, maintenance, etc.), and larger terminals are built in order to meet new requirements and keep the airport competitive.

Unfortunately, many people don't seem to realize this. They move into a neighborhood, think "Oh, we're a mile and a half away from the runway end. Nothing can touch us. We can live our life in quiet, since you can barely hear those little regional jets and piston singles." Yet a year down the line they'll see a big "X" on the end of a now-closed runway as construction crews pour 5000 foot of dirt and concrete to extend that runway within 1/2 mile of their house. Within two years, the runway's been finished and flight checked, and now the newly enlarged runway brings 747's and A330's a mere 400 feet over their heads on final. Their property value plummets, since who wants to buy a house where the windows rattle every two minutes and a "quiet backyard meal" turns into a shouting match over the roar of high bypass turbofans?

How could they have avoided this? Easy. They should have looked at the Airport Master Plan. Every airport has one and it is a public document that is easily acquired by a simple phone call or e-mail to the airport manager's office. Many of them are available online, just a quick Google search away.

The Master Plan is, as the title suggests, a forward-looking document that talks about where the airport is currently and what it needs to do to improve. Future development is typically expressed in phases that cover multiple aspects of the airport, such as runways, terminals, and parking. It uses forecasts of changes in traffic and in the community to make recommendations for development. Costs and revenue sources are also discussed based upon these predictions.

For example, let's say Airport ABC has a capacity of 100,000 enplanements per year, is currently at 80,000, and is predicted to increase to 150,000 within 10 years. Up until now the airport's facilities and runways have only been able to handle aircraft up to a 737 or A320, while the majority of the traffic has been regional aircraft such as ERJ-145's and CRJ-900's. This has limited the types of aircraft airlines have been able to use for their flights.

The Master plan could include:
  • Building a new terminal to add 50% more gates, all of which are designed to accommodate heavy aircraft up to Boeing 767 or Airbus A300 size.
  • Lengthening and strengthening the existing runway to accommodate the heavier airplanes.
  • Improving the ILS approach from a CAT I to a CAT III to provide lower minimums for the larger airliners.
  • Converting the existing parking lot into a four level parking garage, tripling or quadrupling the parking spaces.
  • Expanding the fuel farm to store additional fuel.
  • Build a new cargo terminal to provide additional revenue.
  • Laying down a second, shorter runway to accomodate corporate and general aviation aircraft.
These changes normally take place over a number of years. Some of the plans I've seen go out as far as 25 years, giving home buyers in the area a good long range view of what the airport plans to do with itself. The government takes a long time to do anything; runways and parking lots don't pop up overnight, especially when funding needs to be secured.

A Close Call

I almost ended up getting burned myself. My wife and I bought a house late last year, but it took us 8 months of hunting to find the one we ended up buying. However, about two months into the hunt, we came across one that we quickly fell in love with. It had everything we wanted and we were ready to sign that contract.

Thankfully that love affair just turned out to be a one night stand, as another family bought it out from under us. Ironically, that family must be hating life right now. After we found out the house was under contract, I had the idea to look for Pensacola's airport master plan. Well, I was shocked and relieved by what I found.

However, before I get into what's coming for the airport, let me discuss the current situation.

The Present

This is what the house's owners are dealing with at this time.
  • Too Close for Comfort: We knew the house was close to the airport. However, we hadn't realized just how close. It's less than 1/2 nautical miles from the threshold of Runway 17. Take a look at this image:

    When we viewed the house in April 2007, Runway 17/35 was still under redevelopment. The runway didn't actually re-open until November 2007. So, while we were enjoying the tree-shaded backyard and musing how quiet and private it was, we had no idea that within six months we would have been treated to the sounds of Boeing 757s and Navy fighters passing only a few hundred feet overhead. I love airplanes and I don't think even I could have handled that.
  • Faster and Bigger: Normally we deal in regional jets and general aviation. However, over the past year our overall aircraft size has been increasing. Now in addition to dozens of RJ's we get up to two 757s a day, several 737s, multiple MD-88s and 717s, and now some ATR-72s. Noise volume continues to get louder and louder. However, the real boomers are the Navy's T-45 Goshawks that we're starting to see here. These single engine training jets are louder and smokier than any 757. One took off from here the other day, making the building rumble as it left a smoky trail behind it.
  • The Bunny: Many airports feature Approach Lighting Systems to lead pilots to the runway in IFR conditions. One of the most common configuration is a series of rhythmic strobe lights mounting on poles of descending heights that lead aircraft to the runway. Either because the idea resembles the animatronic rodent used in dog races or the fact that you're following it down a mysterious hole (in the weather) like Alice in Wonderland, it's commonly called "The Rabbit". Here's a diagram of one of these systems:

    That's the concept. Here's the reality: multiple ultra-powerful strobe lights mounted high on poles spaced even distances apart, flashing endlessly in rhythm every time the weather goes to pot. Each light structure has multiple bulbs, with each single bulb powerful enough to light up several football fields.

    The lights do point up into the sky and when it's clear they have nothing to reflect them back to the ground. However, when the fog or the rain comes in, the lights reflect off the mist creating an effect akin to repetitive lightning bolts.

    Now, imagine if these lights were only a few hundred feet from your house. Actually, I'll imagine it for you. Here's an animation of what it looks when I drive past there at night when it's IFR:

    You've already got noise and pollution. Now when you're trying to settle in to read a book on a stormy night, your windows are flashing like a nightclub lighting system on speed. Time to get some hotel-style "blackout curtains" I guess....
The Future

Now, what's in store for our intrepid homeowners? When I typed "Pensacola Airport Master Plan" into Google, it brought me to this page.

The two links on the top of the page discuss development within the airport's existing footprint. Both do not seem to affect the surrounding communities too much in their effort to improve the airport's facilities.
However, the red flag went up when I saw the link on the left labelled "Land Acquisition Program". If you're not familiar with the concept of eminent domain, it's time to look it up. Basically, the government has the right to take private property and use it for its own purposes. Normally this is used for public works projects, such as utilities, highways, and railroads. If the government decides it wants to run a highway over your house, it has every right to do so as long as it provides fair compensation for your property. Unfortunately for the homeowners, "fair compensation" is usually a lot less than what they were hoping for since, for all intents and purposes, their home is condemned.

The intent here is to build an Commerce Park that serves the airport. What's interesting is that Pensacola Airport has decided to be civil about it and is making it a voluntary process. Instead of tearing people's houses out from under them, they're letting the owners sell them on their own terms. Rather than grab all that real estate, it's being sold to the airport's owners one lot at a time.

How does this affect the house in question? According to the map of properties, this commerce park is just to the northwest of the airport, cornered by Tippin and Langley Avenues. This map also shows you which properties have already been purchased.

Where does the house lie?
Yup - it's just as close to the airport as the land being redeveloped. Based on what I'm seeing, I'm going to make an educated guess and say that within 5 or 10 years, the updated Airport Master Plan will have a provision for purchasing those lots to the northeast of the airport as well. I hope the new homeowners don't plan on staying there too long.

What Will Be

Buying a house is all about the potential of the space you're purchasing. Usually that means things like laying pretty wood laminate over that old vinyl floor, putting in new appliances while tossing out the old ratty ones, or simply putting up a new coat of paint to replace that nasty wallpaper. In a larger scope, you take a look at the neighborhood to see if your neighbors really take care of their houses and what kinds of developments are going on around you. Most people do that before they take the plunge, since they want to know what they're getting into.

But if you're buying near an airport, you owe it to yourself to protect your investment and research as much as you can. Pull your view even further back and look at your city's infrastructure as a whole to see how it could change over the next few years. Obviously the airport is a major part of that, but other public works projects like highways and utilities should be watched as well. Don't get trapped in a house that's both uncomfortable to live in and impossible to sell because you didn't take into account what the city had been planning for years.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Musical Journeys

As I explained a while ago, I don't listen to the radio anymore. I go mostly for independent artists and, in general, music that's off the beaten path and remains raw and mostly untouched by the distortion of record corporation hands. My search for new music feels at times like a journey around the world as I discover new artists, new instruments, and new sounds from man different places.

Here are some of the artists that have been making their way on to my MP3 player. Warning: acquired tastes ahead. :)

Asian Dub Foundation
Our first stop takes us to England. This band has so many interesting elements and influences it's hard to categorize. Musically, they blend reggae, dub, electronica, breakbeats, ambient music, punk rock, folk music, and ethnic instrumentation. Lyrically, I feel they're almost on par with the cutting socio-economic and cultural commentary of Rage Against the Machine. And their basslines... man, I wish I could write basslines as groovy and melodic as theirs.
Rachid Taha
Now we cross the Mediterranean to Algeria. In an age where the popular media associates anything Muslim with terrorism and fundamentalism, here you have an artist that sings in Arabic about democracy, altruism, and religious tolerance. Taha's music is based off of traditional Raï music, but it incorporates modern instrumentation and rock/hip-hop styles to create something unique. If you've seen the movie Black Hawk Down you've heard his song "Barra Barra" as it plays near the beginning of the film as the U.S. forces are after the informant's convoy.
  • Barra Barra: Video / Translation- Live version of the song from BHD, which is a song about the effects of war and famine on a civilian populace. The word "barra" means "outside".
  • Ya Rayah: Music Video / Live video / Translation - A modernized version of a traditional folk song about the homesickness immigrants feel for their homeland.
  • Rock El Casbah: Video / Translation- Live cover of the Clash classic, including the Clash's guitar player
Musical Trivia: In the first two videos, the 8 string guitar-like instrument played by the guy standing stage-left is an Oud, a relative of the European lute. The hand-drum played by the sitting percussionist, also on stage-left, is a Doumbek (a variant of the goblet drum).

Mount Fuji's in the distance, so we must be in Japan now, home of this downtempo hip hop artist. He's most known in the states for the soundtrack to the excellent anime Samurai Champloo. The genre is "downtempo hip-hop" - basically, music with a nice beat that's easy to chill out to. Whether you're working, cooking, or whatever, his instrumentals and occasional vocal tracks make for some mood-enhancing background music.
  • Song of Seasons: Video - The end theme of Samurai Champloo. I love the flowing bassline in this song.
  • Feather: Video - A slideshow of Japan to his music.
  • Luv Sic: Video - Another slideshow set to his music.
Yoko Kanno
Yoko Kanno is one of the premier television and film composers in Japan today, with her talents for creating audio soundscapes in high demand. In the states, she's known mostly for her amazing soundtrack work for anime series such as Ghost in the Shell, Cowboy Bebop, Macross Plus, and Vision of Escaflowne. Whereas traditional composers such as John Williams and James Horner use mainly conventional orchestras to create their film scores (mind you, to great effect), Kanno uses anything and everything. In one soundtrack, she'll have pounding industrial anthems, gentle ballads, funky pop, militaristic themes, dynamic electronica, murderous fear music, and orchestral compositions. There's simply nothing the woman can't do well.

  • Rise: Video - The theme from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex Season 2.
  • Inner Universe: Video - The theme from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex Season 2.
We've crossed the Pacific and gone "feet dry" over the western United States. Jon Crosby formed his band VAST in the late 90's and had a couple singles make it onto the radio: "Touched" and "Pretty When you Cry". However, he fought with his parent company over his 2nd album's musical direction and was subsequently dropped from the record label after its successful release.
Stories like his are the reason I don't listen to the "compose by committee and focus group" music that's on the radio today. He dropped off the music industry's radar, but has continued to release new music under his own record label.
  • Touched: Video
  • Pretty When You Cry: Video - One of the creepiest videos I've seen in a while...
  • Free: Video
  • Take Me With You: Video - A happy cheery song. :)
  • Thrown Away: Video - LOL, he's packed on the pounds since his earlier stuff.

Coming into land in New York City (hopefully La Guardia's got an arrival slot), here's a band that I've been following for a while.
They combine two of my favorite things: industrial rock music and a seductive female singer. :)