Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Jan 23-24 Weekend Adventures

It is now my pleasure to relate to you, dear reader, one of the most absurd weekends I have ever had.

Photos: https://picasaweb.google.com/105494084231616659850/Jan2324Weekend

Saturday morning, I woke with a start - through system failure I was already late. I leapt into a convenient automobile and sped (figuratively speaking) to the local airport, where I, the pilot, was to fly a passenger around LA. My victim/passenger was the Australian author Matthew Reilly, who I had met by chance during his earlier visit to Caltech, keen on discovering new ways to destroy the world. MR is somewhat notorious for his books' casual adherence/disregard for the laws of physics, so I was looking forward to this flight.

The weather cooperated, the engine started with a minimum of expended credibility, and we were soon off into the hazy, smoggy, and reasonably polluted skies. We cruised east, through the Banning pass, over Palm Springs, Joshua Tree, and Painted Canyon, then descended to fly along the eastern shore of the Salton Sea. Just past Bombay Beach (not quite the same as Mumbai, for the record), we flew beneath four low-flying army helicopters, before passing the mud volcanoes, several geothermal power plants, and a quick tour of the delights of Anza Borrego desert. Flying back over Palm Springs, we saw several jets zoom past, ducked beneath the ferocious headwind, and, after a quick diversion through the practice area, landed without incident. MR headed off and I headed for the restaurant.

By 2:30pm, it was breakfast time! I ate 3 eggs, 3 sausages, 3 bacons, and 3 hams. My "water, no ice" came with ice, my over medium eggs were barely cooked, and my plain toast was buttered, so I rounded the bill up to the nearest dollar and headed back to the parking area, where my old trainer C-152 waited somewhat loyally. By now the skies were closing in, but I topped her off and soon after climbed up through a big gap in the cloud and headed for the Cajon pass. Above 5500 feet, the clouds disappeared and the snow capped mountains reared up on my left. The wind was blowing due east and produced some nice Kelvin-Helmholtz instability as the clouds swirled between the ridges. I crested the pass and turned for Barstow, keeping an eye on the clock. I fired up my GPS to keep an eye on the restricted airspace and noticed a discrepancy in airspeed. After deploying my E-6B for the first time probably ever, I determined that my 95mph plane was surfing a 40mph tailwind, which nearly made up for my bad flight planning and late departure. At Baker, I hung a left, started a descent between mountains over dunes and the Amargosa river, and just as the sun set I circled the tiny town of Shoshone before landing, parking, and packing up.

I wandered the town for a few minutes, enjoying the twilight, before settling down near a light (no insects!) and reading the book MR had given me earlier. About an hour later, the Caltech geology field trip to which I was attaching myself arrived. Soon after, about 25 super-geeks crowded the SHEAR (Shoshone Education And Research) station, a exquisitely proportioned outpost used by geologists and full of all sorts of historical knickknacks. Dinner was pasta (my favourite!) followed and preceded by conversation with many old friends. Soon after we went to the pool, which was just warm enough to induce hypothermia, then piled into a passing vehicle and went to the Tecopa natural hot spring, arriving just as the full moon and Jupiter rose over the eastern mountains.

In the geologically heated water, I put my hand on the moon's reflection, twisting the dark surface to create galaxies of shiny ripples. We stood carefully to avoid penetrating the thin insulating muddy bottom from hot gravel, and slowly cooked, half submerged to aid in our bodies' heat convection. Back at SHEAR, we dried beside the fire before retiring to bed.

The following morning I was woken in the midst of a well-needed dream by my alarm, quickly deundressed, and snaffled some bacon and eggs for breakfast. Arriving at the airport (50m down the road) I found a small layer of frost on the aeroplane - the night's minimum had been forecast at 46F, but clearly it had gotten below 32F, which is sub-ideal for starting a plane filled with regular oil. Additionally, some moisture had condensed inside the fuel tank, which I discovered during the preflight. Additionally, dipping the tanks revealed I had only 13 gallons left, half of what I started with, and the return flight would be into a headwind. It turned out that the dipstick is not correctly calibrated (haha!), but dealing with the cold was another issue. I turned the plane to face the sun, and the frost disappeared quickly. I positioned the window reflectors around the engine to warm it up, and, when the digital CHT and EGT was turned on, found that the temperature had risen sufficiently to start the plane. The battery had other ideas, but after a few attempts it all sputtered to life. 

Flying back down the Amargosa valley in the early morning, I initially had a decent tailwind. Turning west at Baker I stayed low to minimize the still strong (but not as strong as the previous afternoon) headwinds, before climbing over Barstow and heading directly for the pass. Back in the LA basin, smog replaced cloud and I pointed the bird for home, due to arrive only 10 minutes late. Sequenced for a 5 mile final, I had the luxury of doing all the prelanding stuff in plenty of time, only to have a helicopter take off right in front of me, flying the opposite direction. I took appropriate evasive action, but was amused to find that the relevant LiveATC recording http://archive-server.liveatc.net/kemt/KEMT-Jan-24-2016-1800Z.mp3 is missing the entire exchange and the first 13 minutes of the hour. I intend to follow this up and will report back. 

Back on the ground, I returned to the car, still in the previous day's clothes for a lack of time to pack in the morning's rush. I headed for home and looked forward to a relaxing afternoon.

Ha! I got home, threw my toothbrush and a spare shirt into a shopping bag, and headed out again. This time I was going to Burbank airport, and after getting lost only once (the Vineland exit is actually Sunland, who knew?) made it to Atlantic Aviation in the nick of time. I have managed to obtain a SurfAir subscription, which is an interesting exercise in airline management. Subscribers pay a fixed amount for unlimited flights (while seats remain) to 15 different California destinations. Soon enough they had us ushered onto a friendly looking Pilatus, I took my seat, and off we went. Not long after we landed at San Carlos airport, I was collected by my friend S, and we spent about 2 hours examining electronics and hanging out in the Castro/Corona district of SF. We climbed the hill at Corona Heights, admired the Franciscan Chert, which had some lovely fault scarps and Slickensides. Soon after, it was time to go, so I jumped in an Uber and headed back to the airport.

After only 2 nerve-fraying jamming-on-of-brakes we arrived, I checked in ("Hi I'm Casey." "Hi Casey, take a seat, we'll be boarding in 2 minutes"), examined the snack smorgasbord with the casual expertise of a seasoned Silicon Valley startup engineer, and reboarded the flight. From my seat I could see through the cockpit windows as we taxied and flew, and on approach to LA we bumped excitingly through the inversion layer - the westerly was still blowing like crazy. Back on the ground I drove back to Pasadena, cooked an amazing dinner of citrus/spinach/tofu/rice/cashews, basked in the hot tub, and duly passed out.

I'm sure you'll agree that was an absurd weekend. I'm rather smug that all three missions, carefully defined and compartmentalized, were a success.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

India 2015

Photos: https://picasaweb.google.com/105494084231616659850/India2015

Hot on the heels of my Australia jaunt, I took just under 72 hours to run frantically around India. The cause to which we were all drawn was the wedding of my friend and colleague T, and his extraordinary bride A. 

On Sunday December 20, 2015 I landed in Hyderabad. On the third try I found the right immigration queue (un-signposted, of course) and, by 1am, found two men with my name on a piece of paper. We trotted off the carpark and drove along a hair-raising flyover freeway into the heart of the city where, after a few (tens of) stops for directions, we found the Bank of India Guesthouse. I found my room and passed out.

Four hours later I was incredibly awake, and went to freshen up for the wedding. In the bathroom, I found no toilet paper, no shower, no soap, no towels: no problem. Mainly because I brought all that stuff, so I had a sponge bath, minus the sponge, dressed, and had a look around. Noone else was awake so I left a few notes for friends in the same building, and later walked across town to the high school building in which the ceremony was to take place, arriving around 10am.

It's worth mentioning that this walk was the first time I had been 'in' India, and I found it to be pretty cool, actually. I had been warned by a wide variety of travelers that India would be challenging in a way unlike any other country. There was crazy traffic and bad air pollution, but probably not as bad as Vietnam or China. The city was filled to the brim with noise, colour, a variety of smells (most better than downtown Los Angeles).

Hindu wedding ceremonies take a while. Like, a few weeks. In particular, T had a huge backlog of ceremonies from early childhood to get done. But first, his parents had to perform a ceremony to apologize for having allowed such a backlog to develop. You get the idea. Ceremonies included promises to study hard, to become a priest, to not become a priest afterall, and so on. Because the whole thing takes ages and is periodically interrupted by extremely loud music, it's customary to walk around, talk to people, take photos, and go shopping during the proceedings. 

Later in the evening the actual marriage ceremony occurred, wherein A was brought in in a basket, everyone was very well dressed, and T and A sat opposite each other separated by blanket. After a mere 45 minutes it was raised, and they saw each other for the first time ever, since approximately the previous day. No-one ran away, except the crowd to the banquet tables out the back, while the ceremony continued. By 10pm I was dead tired and went to sleep, but apparently things continued until well into the following morning.

That morning was a Monday, I went back to the airport pretty early to dodge traffic and took a flight out to Mumbai. On the flight I was seated next to two incredibly broad-shouldered men, at a window seat with no window. The flight was a mere 85 minutes, followed by some ad hoc taxi navigation in Mumbai. Mumbai is built mostly on a peninsula and is only about 30 miles across. It still took nearly two hours (and $8.50) to drive to the end part, where I was staying. That afternoon I found my airbnb and took things easy, downloading several lengthy reports on space shuttle aerodynamics. In the evening my airbnb host M and I went out to a nice place for the local biryani special, followed by an excellent night's sleep.

The next morning, Tuesday, I was up with the noise. I walked into the center of Colaba, the oldest, British part of Mumbai, and met up with Caltech friends D and A, getting a second breakfast, and finding some really neat interior design stuff, before exploring the area. We visited the Gateway to India, a monumental arch down by the Taj Hotel, in which we imbibed the traditional G&T while surveying the harbour. Mine was more like and T&T, though. There's also a nearby museum, called the former Prince of Wales museum, which had about a dozen really interesting and well-produced exhibits on Indian history from the Harappans through to the present day. 

That afternoon I returned to the airbnb, had a shower and got dressed for the ceremony. I took a taxi to the RC church and met everyone again. Huh? Why two weddings? Well, A's family are Syrian Christians from Kerala, so they needed a Catholic ceremony. Well, Syrian-Indian-Portuguese-Catholic. You'll see.

At some point we reached a critical mass and everyone went into the church, including T and A. No music or processions to slow down the proceedings. About 8 windows on each side of the church were wide open for air, several fans hummed. The priests spoke in barely intelligible English, and the service itself was over in about half an hour. One bible reading, one lesson, and transubstantiation only for catholics. After the photos were done we piled in cars and drove around the corner to the US Services Club, where, unusually, we enjoyed open space, air, and the sea shore for the reception.

After all too short a time I had to rush back to the airport, taking the sea bridge, a newish expressway built over the water, to get back in time. The international airport was huge and full of lines, but I was in no rush. Eventually I crawled into my seat, fitted my aviation headphones, and hunkered down for the 16 hour flight to the US. The whole flight was during the night, and at hour ten as we coasted past Iceland my steady persistence was awarded with a great view of the Aurora Borealis. Which I photographed, for any doubters. 

The United Airlines entertainment system uses a distro of Red Hat Linux which was built on December 20, 2002. Let that sink in for a second. The one impressive thing about it is that it can (sometimes) deliver smooth video, something most Linux distros still do not reliably do. 

Back in the states I deplaned around 5:30am after an impressive dark 0/0 vis landing in Liberty Newark airport, where my temporary greencard earned me a swift trip to secondary screening. There I sat around as a handful of officers played good cop/bad cop with various soon-to-be-split families with bad documents. When it was my turn I was barely coherent enough to answer in complete sentences. I managed to not implicate myself and was 'paroled' into the country, which is apparently entirely different from being admitted. 

In the next terminal I performed an airport bathroom change/shave/wash and jumped on a plane to Columbus, Ohio. Still socked in, we were number 20 for takeoff, but eventually made it into the air. Apparently the space shuttle was developed with about 100,000 hours of wind tunnel time - just before computers started to be useful. 

Just outside the Columbus airport amid drizzle and half-hearted gusts of wind I found C and her mother J, and aggressively began a long-needed series of naps. It was a privilege and pleasure to see T and A tie the knot, twice. India is certainly worthy of further attention!