Tuesday, June 30, 2009
There's a control tower out there, somewhere:
Kind of quiet today. I was going through my blog roll and came across a funny little video someone had posted.
Remember when Delta came out with the "hot flight attendant" aircraft safety video a year or two ago? It hit the web and TV news like wildfire and caused quite a stir. But watching it now, there's absolutely nothing remarkable about the video other than the fact the spokeswoman's, well, a hottie. Outside of a "no smoking" finger waggle, she just delivers her lines with a smile.
Here's the "Deltalina" vid for those that don't remember it.
Well, you gotta love the Kiwis of Air New Zealand. When they make an inflight safety video, they also do it wearing a smile... and little else.
Two words: body paint. (And yes, it's safe for work - all the bits are strategically covered)
Could anyone imagine a U.S. airline doing something like that? Oh, the scandal....
Monday, June 22, 2009
My wife's lovingly cared-for vegetable garden is shriveling up (except for the eggplants). The water bill's sky high from all the sprinklers we've been running. I've had to curtail my bike riding because the heat is so oppressive.
Friday, I was working a Skylane landing at a local field. He was at 8000. I told the guy to descend to 3000. He replied, "Is there anyway you can make that a pilot's discretion descent? We're trying to stay up as long as possible to keep cool." I granted his request. Having flown Cessnas all over South Florida in the thick of summer, I can relate to that lovely greenhouse effect those big windows provide.
On Saturday, I planned to head down to the beach and find a nice place outdoors to do some creative writing. The 110 degree heat index changed my mind in a big way. As much as I love the ocean and the outdoors, I felt like I was going to melt.
Instead, I headed on down to the Naval Aviation Museum, laptop in tow. I figured, it's free, it's air conditioned, and it's full of airplanes. There are worse places to write about real aviation and about ficticious aerial adventures in times long past.
With a view like below, I can't complain. Plus, the Cubi Bar Cafe makes a darned good chili, that was absolutely worth eating even though it was hella hot outside.
(Taken with my crappy laptop webcam, as I stupidly left my regular camera at home)
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
A shout line works like it sounds. You key up another facility - let's say, our tower - and your voice immediately gets "shouted" out over a loudspeaker in the other facility. They're typically used for positions that require extensive coordination and rapid response times, since you can immediately start talking. The other facility then picks up the line.
Say I take the handoff on Cessna 123 from Jacksonville Center. They switch the aircraft to me and he comes over requesting a descent. He's still 5 miles inside Jax's airspace so I can't descend him without their approval. I call up Jax's Crestview Low sector and say, "Crestview Low, Pensacola West, ApReq (approval request)." They hear that come over the speakers on their end. Then the Crestview Low controller - or his D-side - answers me. "Crestview low." I then say, "Request control for lower, Cessna 123." They make sure it works for them, then say, "Cessna 123, your control, [operating initials]." I say my initials, unkey the landline, and then tell the Cessna, "Cessna 123, descend and maintain [altitude]."
Ring lines actually ring like a telephone line on the other end and you can't speak until the other side picks up the line. They're used for lower intensity positions like Flight Data, where time and action aren't always critical.
Here's the thing: I'm not 100% sure on the shout lines, but the ring lines are essentially regular phone lines. They have actual telephone numbers associated with them by the phone company.
Let's look at the phone company for a second. When a customer cancels a line, that number gets sent back into the phone company's pool of available numbers. When the FAA asks the phone company for phone lines for its facilities, the phone company dips into that pool of numbers and gives the FAA however many numbers it asked for.
However, the FAA has no idea who was using those numbers beforehand...
One afternoon, I'm working Flight Data. The line from a local control tower rings. I pick it up, answering, "Pensacola Flight Data."
"Hi, yes! Is this Brownsville Baptist?"
"Uh, no. This is-"
"I'm looking for Pastor Larry. Is Pastor Larry there?"
"No sir, this is Pensacola-"
"But I'm looking for Pastor Larry. I need to speak with him. I was wondering if-"
"Sir, you have the wrong number."
"But I really need to speak with him. Can you tell me-"
"Sir, again, you have the wrong number."
"Oh? Are you sure Pastor Larry's not there?"
"I'm sure he's not here, sir. You have the wrong number."
"Oh, well sorry about that. God bless!"
"You too, sir."
Well, apparently that ring line's particular number used to belong to Brownsville Baptist Church of Pensacola, FL. Maybe they moved. I don't know. Whatever the case, they cancelled a phone line, the number got recycled, and it wound up in the FAA's hands when the FAA setup their landlines. But somewhere, somehow, there are plenty of people out there who think it still belongs to BBC.
Those kind of exchanges happen at least a couple of times a month, although it was the first time it happened to me. I'm always so tempted to just "run with it" but I feel bad about doing it. Others have different ways of handling them.
For instance, there was the time a coworker here got a call very similar to the one I just described. "I'm sorry," he said, "Pastor Larry's not here at the moment. I'm new here, but let me see if I can find his number for you."
And... he proceeded to give the caller another controller's cell phone number.
A minute later, we hear a cell phone go off in the break room.
Confused hilarity ensued. :)
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
However, if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, you might not just be watching the action. You could be in the action.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
I'm fortunate to be part of this original, exciting venture. My story "A Grain of Sand" is one of the ten short fiction pieces featured in its inaugural issue, available now for $1.99 on the Apple iTunes App Store. It's humbling to be included alongside award-winning authors with decades of writing experience and hundreds of works in print.
What is steampunk, you ask? It can best be described as "a past that never was". Think of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Think of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, or The Island of Doctor Moreau. These are all predecessors of what has become known as steampunk. Most stories take place in the 1800s and very early 20th century, but fill them with science fiction technology and fantastical inventions. Some use historical settings, others create entire new worlds. It's a very broad genre with unlimited possbilities.
I love the genre, because it's essentially a giant "What if?" Very exciting stuff.
The full press release from the creator of Steampunk Tales:
>Steampulp Publishing LLC has released the world’s first electronic pulp fiction magazine created exclusively for the iPhone and iPod Touch. Emulating the style of the pulp adventure magazines of the 1920s and ’30s, Steampunk Tales #1 contains first-run and original fiction written by an A+ list of award-winning authors.
Issue #1 contains 10 short stories (between 4,300 and 11,000 words) for the unbelievably low price of $1.99. Authors contributing to Issue #1 include Jay Lake, Catherynne M. Valente, SatyrPhil Brucato and G.D. Falksen. The cover art was painted by popular artist Melita “Missmonster” Curphy. Steampunk Tales is distributed exclusively via the iPhone App Store and features the unique Steampunk Tales Reader, which renders the stories with a retro-futuristic Victorian flair never before seen in any eBook reader application.
“We stand at the beginning of a revolution in the distribution of print,” says John Sondericker III, founder of Steampulp Publishing. “The combination of low distribution costs and the potential for high volume sales allows us to provide an astounding value for the consumer. The timing is perfect to re-introduce the world to the ‘Penny Dreadfuls’, and the iPhone is a platform that can truly do them justice.”
Steampulp Publishing LLC is the first and only company to release a fiction magazine exclusively on the iPhone platform. New issues of Steampunk Tales will be released monthly. Steampunk Tales will be one of the first applications to implement several of the forthcoming iPhone 3.0 features, as 3.0 will allow readers to purchase back-issues as well as new content from within the Steampunk Tales Reader.
Saturday, June 06, 2009
Most other sims offer a hangar full of aircraft. Microsoft Flight Sim X has twenty. The latest iteration of the IL-2 Sturmovik series now has a whopping 246 flyable aircraft. However, in each of those, the aircraft are "dumbed down" so that the minimum of learning is involved before the pilot takes to the sky. The flight models are reasonably accurate, so the aircraft perform well enough, but in terms of cockpit operation most aircraft above the piston twin level are severely limited. For instance, if you're flying the A321 or B777 in FSX, don't expect a truly functional Flight Management System without buying an expensive 3rd party add-on. But, it also won't complain about TOGO and flap settings when you push the throttles to stops for takeoff. It makes it easier for new pilots to fly.
DCS:Black Shark, on the other hand, simulates only a single aircraft, the Russian Kamov KA-50 Black Shark attack helicopter. One aircraft, you say? How can that be any fun? Easily. There is more detail put into this one aircraft than an entire squadron of Microsoft Flight Simulator or IL-2 Sturmovik aircraft.
Here's a user-created video showing what the sim looks like in action.
Flying and fighting this thing is more akin to a first person shooter than a jet simulator such as Falcon or Lock On. Rather than screaming in the Mach numbers and the flight levels in your F-15 and launching AMRAAMs at targets far beyond visual range, here you're low and in the dirt. Those are trees whipping past your windshield, not clouds. Below the radar is the name of the game. And you need to be careful. No Rambo antics. You need fly intelligently. If you wander too close to that M-1 Abrams while you're trying to lock it up, it will blow your ass out of the sky with its 120mm smoothbore.
The KA-50's role is similar to that of the AH-64 Apache or Mi-28 Havoc: low level attack and interdiction. However, it is unique in three regards.
- First, it has a coaxial rotor system which gives it excellent maneuverability and survivability. The entire engine and transmission is kept very compact. Without a tail rotor, there's no chance of a Black Hawk Down "Super 64" moment.
- Secondly, it has only a single crewmember. Every other attack helo in the world operates with two: a pilot and a gunner, usually seated in tandem. This divides up the workload very efficiently, allowing the gunner to focus on the tasks of targeting and weapons deployment while the pilot flies and navigates.|
The Black Shark forces one person to take on all of these roles. It's a challenge, because you're operating a high performance aircraft at extreme low levels, deploying numerous weapon systems - laser-guided missiles, rockets, and 30mm cannon - and communicating with your wingmen. When you're in the weeds, keeping track of your enemy, dodging SAM launches, and
- Lastly, it is not an all-weather aircraft. While you can use it at night and in bad weather, it's not designed for it. It doesn't have thermal imaging sensors or radar warning receivers. It doesn't have an actual radar like the Apache Longbow has mounted on its rotor. It's strictly a line of sight aircraft and the most important sensors are the pilot's eyeballs.
Cockpit and Systems Complexity
This is by far the most complex simulator I've flown outside of the real full-motion Level-D Boeing 757 sim at Alteon. Like most advanced aircraft, you're literally surrounded by control panels. In front. Above you. To the left and right. Even behind your shoulders.
However, unlike most other sims, all of those panels actually function. You're immersed in a fully clickable cockpit. 99% of the switches, buttons, toggles, rotary pots, and dials operate as they do in the real aircraft.
The developers modeled nearly every system to its full functionality. Hydraulics. Engines. Avionics. For a full list, check out this page on the developer's site.
For beginners, there's a "Game" mode which simplifies everything. It's designed for folks who want to fly the missions, but don't want to deal with learning all the controls. It simplifies everything down to something like Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X where you've got radar, big glowing compasses, target icons, and all kinds of computerized help to assist you on your way.
But when you're in "Realism" mode, this is not IL-2 Sturmovik where you press "I" to start the engine and a few seconds later you're trundling down the runway in your P-51. The sim requires players to do some actual study and practice with the systems, almost like you would if you were learning to fly the real aircraft. And when these systems break, the results are pretty interesting.
Example: I got shot up by flak during one of my missions. I crested a hill, didn't see the convoy directly below me on the far side, and got a belly full of 23mm from a ZSU-23 Shilka. I quickly turned tail, but not before the damage punched holes in my hydraulic lines and caused a fire in my right engine.
I triggered the right engine fire extinguisher, cut the fuel for the right engine, and shifted the throttle (not the collective) for the left engine from "auto" to "emergency" so I could sacrifice engine life for raw engine power. At the same time, I was getting a "Main Hydro" warning. This bird's hydraulics control landing gear extension, cannon movement, and the flight stabilization system. Not wanting to make a belly landing, I lowered my gear before all the fluid bled out. A minute or so after the attack, I lost my pitch and bank dampeners, turning a normally steady helicopter into the "Phugoid Cycle Queen". I actually made the 20km trip back to base and landed safely, although I think those 23mm shells damaged my pride as well.
Flight Model Realism
The flight model physics are second to none. Vortex ring states are very accurately modeled. VRS occurs when you're descending rapidly with little forward airspeed, so essentially you're dropping vertically into your own rotorwash. Aircraft move relative to the air around them. If you're settling into your rotorwash your helicopter is now flying in descending air. If you try to add power to arrest your descent, it only worsens the state. Your only real recourse is to nose over and start moving laterally away from the rotorwash to build up transitional lift. If you're too low to the ground to recover... BOHICA.
VRS is just one facet. The Black Shark's a tough bird, but you need to be careful just like in the real aircraft. Overly hard maneuvering can cause your co-axial rotors to touch and, well, that's a bad thing. Pouring on too much collective for too long can make your blades meet as well. Hard landings will result in blown tires. Strong winds will have you weathervaning, which make landings even more interesting. Overspeeding will tear your helo apart. Rotors and engines will ice over when weather conditions are right.
And trimming. Trimming is a constant in this helicopter. In a fixed wing aircraft, you can dial in the trim and use that setting even when you make minor changes to attitude or speed. Not here. Trim, trim, and trim some more at the slightest change. After a while, it all becomes natural.
Hovering is also a real feat the first time you do it. The helo does have an auto-hover function, but you really do need to learn to hover on your own. Heck, that's Lesson #1 when flying a real helicopter. Finding that perfect balance of power, attitude, and trim is tricky. Your first few missions will inevitably end in disaster since hovering is part of, well, landing. But soon, you'll get the feel for it. Smooth transitions from 280kph speed runs to a complete standstill behind cover will be easily executed.
All that sounds tough, right? A lot to learn and process? That's what makes the sim so great. These are all issues that real-life helicopter pilots deal with and they're accurately modeled here.
And that's just flying the helo. I haven't even talked about weapons, communications, or the world you fly in.
In the simulator, Russia and the former Soviet republic Georgia have gone to war over oil. The United States and other NATO forces have stepped in to assist Georgia, sending in carrier groups and marines. What began as an insurgent action is now a full-blown war between major military powers. You're dropped into the middle of this situation.
DCS:BS features four different campaigns, all based around different stages of the war. The developers have done a good job of bringing the region to life using a combination of satellite imagery and 3D modeling. Some areas make for good helicopter country with plenty of foliage and terrain cover. Canyon running is quite fun. Then there are the wide open plains where your only protection is to fly as low as possible. You don't pick your warzones; they pick you, and you need to make the best of it.
The orders of battle for both sides include all kinds of units. Main battle tanks. SAM batteries. Air strikes. Command posts. Attack helicopters. APCs. Artillery barrages. Aircraft carriers. Individual soldiers armed with Stinger or Igla MANPADS. You need to operate carefully and use cover to your advantage to remain hidden.
Wide open fields = no cover
The weapons and their support systems are just as accurately rendered as the flight model.
Targeting is built around the Shkval electro-optical targeting system. The video from a camera on the helo's nose is displayed inside the cockpit on a screen below the HUD. A laser designator provides the range and there are various modes for Air-to-Ground and Air-to-Air that calculate lead times for moving targets. (It's damn satisfying to engage another helicopter and blow them out of the sky). The system is only visual, not thermal, so you can't track, say, the heat bloom off a tank's engine.
Missiles: The KA-50 carries up to 12 Vikhr laser guided Anti-tank Guided Missiles (ATGM). They've got about 7.5km worth of range and good striking power, easily able to kill an M-1 Abrams or T-72/T-80.
Targeting and firing takes a little practice, but it soon becomes second nature. Take a look at how many steps I need to go through to take out an enemy tank.
Once I've killed the first one, I can just repeat steps 3, 8, and 9 to engage the next one. Acquire. Lock. Fire. Acquire. Lock. Fire. Rinse. Repeat.
Rockets: A variety of rocket pods can be carried, with different quantities and sizes of rockets. They can be fired in selectable bursts, with the smallest number being 2 rockets.
Cannon: Unlike all other attack helos, which have a chin turret controlled by the gunner, the KA-50 has a 30mm cannon on a semi-rigid mounting on its right side. While obviously it doesn't have the traverse of a traditional chin turret, it makes up for it in other ways. Remember step #6 above, "Auto-turn on target"? Enable that, and when you lock up a target the helicopter will automatically rotate to engage it nearly as fast as a chin turret moves.
The mounting is also more stable than a chin turret, increasing accuracy. You can select between high explosive and armor-piercing rounds with the flick of a switch. For instance, you can engage a couple of Stryker AFVs with your AP rounds. Then you can switch to HE to kill soft targets like soldiers and trucks.
Multiplayer and Communication
In this world, you don't fly alone. You're usually accompanied by at least one wingman on each mission. Now, the game's communication menu has all of the usual combat flight sim commands. "Engage my target", "Return to base", and such are all represented.
However, what's unique to this sim is the Datalink feature. It's a computerized system that allows each aircraft within a flight to exchange targeting data with its wingmen silently. It's terrific for maintaining situational awareness and delegating tasks for your wingmen.
Here's how it works:
- Each flight member is assigned a number from 1-4 at the start of the mission. You just dial in the number on a control panel knob.
- As you fly to your mission area, you can view each of your wingmen's position on the moving map display. It'll literally show a #2 for your first wingman, #3 for your next wingman, etc.
- You acquire a target and use the Shkval and laser to lock target.
- Using the control panel on the top left of the windscreen (green and yellow buttons) you can save the target's type and location into your helicopter's memory.
- Using that same panel, you can then transmit that target's location to your wingmen (note the 1-4 and Send All buttons)
- You can then delegate responsibility for those targets to your wingmen.
Let's say our mission is to destroy a platoon of tanks, protected by a pair of antiaircraft artillery guns. I can lock up the AAA guns and save each of their positions to memory. Then I can transmit their locations to my wingmen - AAA battery #1 to Wingman #1, and AAA battery #2 to Wingman #2. Once they've received it, I can then order each of them to "Engage Datalink Target" and they'll head off on their own to do my bidding. I can then lock up the tanks and send them to them as well. Once they've taken care of the AAA, I can order them to help me take out the tanks.
Online Multiplayer works nicely, although there is no voice chat. However, most reputable servers have an associated Teamspeak or Ventrillo channel. The server browser is easy to use and there are a variety of custom missions out there thanks to a growing community of Black Shark players. The datalink feature works online as well. It adds a lot to the sense of teamwork.
Most of the online missions are co-op, with all the players on one side working towards a single goal. However, there are a few servers with red vs. blue missions. It's immensely satisfying to go head-to-head with someone and blow them out of the sky before they even know you're there. :)
If you like your simulators challenging and deep, this sim is for you. It will take practice and effort to get familiarized, but once you've nailed the systems it's a lot of fun. Unlike MS FSX, where "anyone" can fly a Boeing 777 right out of the gate, there's a definite learning curve. It can be downright hard at times.
It's all about the little rewards. When you make that first landing without blowing your tires or crashing, it's an accomplishment. When you achieve your first hover without Auto-Hover, it's an accomplishment. When you watch your first missile launch strike home, it's an accomplishment. And the first time you aviate, navigate, target, fight, and communicate your way through a mission, it's a hell of an accomplishment.
Thursday, June 04, 2009
Yesterday, we had a VFR T-34 orbiting over Whiting NAS at 9500 feet. He was there for what must have an hour and a half, cutting holes in the sky, not talking to us at all. We know he was a T-34 because he had never squawked 1200 when the Whiting departure sector terminated his radar services and was therefore on his departure squawk code. I was actually able to locate a strip on him.
Note: Just a word on the T-34 flight plans. Many Whiting T-34s will file VFR departure flight plans with a route similar to this: NSE..TROJN..VFR..1R8. NSE is Whiting NAS, the TROJN fix is a local fix and 1R8 is an uncontrolled airport about forty miles west of here in Mobile's airspace. However, the "VFR" in the route terminates the flight plan's routing and doesn't let us handoff to Mobile. Essentially, what that flight plan means is that the T-34 wants to 1) depart Whiting, 2) terminate radar services locally once they're clear of Class C, 3) play around locally VFR, and then 4) eventually head over to Bay Minette on their own.
Here's the problem. All of our high altitude northeast jet departures have to go out over Whiting, climbing to 10,000 feet. Due to an Eglin AFB restricted area to our east, we have a very narrow corridor of about a 360-030 heading off Pensacola. At the same time, all of our high altitude jet arrivals from the northeast are descending to 11,000, coming in through the same corridor.
Once Jacksonville takes the handoff on our 10,000 foot departures, they are permitted to climb them up to 15,000 feet. So, that usually works out nicely, as we step the 11,000 arrivals down and they climb the departures up and out.
It looks like this:
However, this is what that T-34 was doing.
Perfectly legal? Yes. He was clear of Class C. He had his transponder's Mode C squawking over the Class C. He had followed his flight plan to letter. Depart Whiting. Climb clear of Class C. Go play VFR.
Complete headache for us? Absolutely! Of all places and altitudes to go goof around, he had to choose those. It couldn't be worse. It seemed like everywhere we had an arriving or departing airliner, he was right in its face. Seriously, every time. It's like he had some kind of "Sixth Spidey Ninja Sense" or something.
On top of diverting our attention to make sure our IFR traffic was clean, we actually had to do a good amount of coordination with Jacksonville Center to get higher with the airliners to top the guy. "Crestview low, Pensacola East, ApReq one five thousand, Delta 1282." And with our corridor we don't have a lot of room to maneuver. Quite frankly, it was dangerous. We were lucky not to get a TCAS Resolution Advisory.
Normally the T-34s that play over Whiting do so at 5500 to 7500 feet. It's unusual to see them go higher. Those altitudes aren't a problem at all and give us plenty of room to maneuver. We can step our arrivals down to 8000 or 9000, which clears both the departures climbing over them to 10,000 and the VFR traffic maneuvering below them.
But 9500? And not talking to us? Bad altitude. Like I said, what that guy was doing was legal. But here, legal and safe don't necessarily jive.
In contrast, earlier in the day, I worked another T-34 departing Whiting. He specifically requested a VFR block above Whiting up to 10,000 feet and told me exactly what he was doing (basic instrument maneuvers). He knew he was going to be in the way and he wanted to get traffic advisories.
In short: If you're a T-34 pilot and want to be directly over Whiting at higher than 8500 for extended periods of time (especially 9500!) please call approach for Flight Following. That way we can give you traffic calls, know what you're doing, and advise the airliners if you have them in sight. Otherwise, if you want to remain anonymous and at higher altitudes, please work more towards Brewton airport. It's a much quieter area and out of harm's way.
Wednesday, June 03, 2009
Suddenly, the West side gets an emergency call. A Beechcraft Baron about 15 miles NW of the field is in serious trouble. He's lost oil pressure in both engines. For you non-pilots out there, oil does the same thing in airplanes as it does in cars: it lubricates and assists with cooling the engine. Unlike a car, you can't just pull over on the side of the road and call AAA for a tow. The pilot's looking at imminent engine seizure here.
On top of that, the airplane's electrical system is going to pot. Maybe his generators are dying. Maybe his battery's shot. I don't know. He apparently was able to communicate his issues at first, but his transmitters soon died. All he had left was his transponder. He could only acknowledge ATC instructions with a transponder IDENT flash.
The controller working the West coordinated with the tower and passed on the information. Due to the radio issues, they decided to leave the aircraft on the approach frequency. The approach controller told the pilot, "Cleared to land." IDENT flash. In he goes to the field.
In the meantime, I had multiple inbounds to the field from my side. A Lear, Skylane, and an air carrier Beech 1900. As each checked on, I told them to expect a delay due to an emergency in progress and immediately reduced the Lear and Beech 1900 to 190 knots. No use in getting them to the field more quickly if the runway is fouled. I vectored the Lear and Skylane around for some spacing. My instructor advised me to keep the Beech 1900 inbound to the field.
The Baron comes in and - thankfully - lands without incident. I call up the tower, ensure the runway is clear, and start landing my inbounds. The Beech 1900 lands, then the Lear, then the Skylane. I especially thanked the Skylane for his help, as I really had to vector the heck out of him.
All of this took probably ten minutes from start to finish, if that.
Everyone worked so well together. The West controller's steady voice, guiding the shaken pilot towards the field using what tools he had at his disposal. The tower guys giving us their airport. The patience and understanding of the other inbound pilots. It's just a good feeling watching everyone work so hard to ensure that pilot made it safely onto the ground. Truly humbling.