Test Flight

Usually I have some destination in mind before I depart on a flight, which is pretty much required for proper flight planning, but today I took off with only the objective of testing my headsets. Along the way I ended up landing at an airport I had never visited before and flying higher than I ever had in a light plane.

Cardinal RG

Cessna Cardinal RG on the ramp at Meacham

As a result of a burglary back at the beginning of the year, I have an odd collection of aviation headsets: an original Lightspeed Zulu, a Lightspeed Zulu.2, and a Lightspeed Sierra. I use the Zulu.2 all the time, but I have not really checked out its Bluetooth connectivity with my iPhone, which can be used to listen to music and to make phone calls. The original Zulu and Sierra are used by passengers, and both were reportedly having problems.

Even though I did not have a particular destination in mind, I knew I would probably head west from Fort Worth since the winds aloft were out of the west, and I prefer to fight headwinds on the way out instead of the way back. So I did my flight planning with that in mind. No TFRs and no bad weather anywhere close, so it looked OK.

After takeoff from Meacham, I headed west and started playing with the Bluetooth connection on the Zulu.2. The headset and iPhone had been previously coupled, and turning on the Bluetooth radio on each was it all it took to get them talking again. After that, all it took to get music to stream from the iPhone to the Zulu.2 was to play it on the iPhone. The iPhone shows a menu that lets you select where the audio should go: Bluetooth device, iPhone speakers, or iPhone headset output.  With that, the sounds of  Mele O Hawaii accompanied the rest of my flight.

The sound quality was very good, but at first the music seemed to cut out at random intervals. Thinking it might be a connectivity problem, I placed the iPhone in various places around the cockpit to see if it made a difference. Nope. The Zulu.2 automatically interrupts the music whenever there is a transmission over the radio so the music does not interfere with important communications. That is a good thing.

Today was a nice day for flying and many people were out enjoying the day. My radio was tuned to a Unicom frequency used by many airports, so every time someone would transmit at one of these airports it would interrupt the music. Some of the transmitting planes were so far away I could not hear them, but the radio was picking up some signal, causing the music to be interrupted. So, if you are on a busy frequency listening to music would be a problem. Again, that is a good thing.

Next up, let’s make a phone call. That turned out to be easy as well. Just dial the number on the iPhone, then listen and talk on the headset just as if you are on the phone. (But make sure not to hold down the radio transmit button while you are doing it or you will be talking to everyone on the frequency.)

The Zulu.2 Bluetooth connectivity was working fine, so it was time to test the other headsets, starting with the original Zulu. This was my old headset. It was stolen from my home during the Christmas holiday and then recovered by the police in February. When I got it back it had been drawn on with some sort of red marker and it reeked of cigarette smoke, but it seemed to work fine. However, the last time a passenger used it they said they thought the microphone only worked intermittently.

I plugged the old Zulu into the passenger headset jacks and put it on my head. Noise canceling was working fine and transmitting worked fine too. The passenger problem was probably not keeping the microphone close enough to their mouth. It has to stay right next to the mouth to overcome all the ambient noise in the cockpit. So the result was good. No problem with the old Zulu.

However, it seemed like the old Zulu was actually a little quieter than the new Zulu.2. Could that be? I tried switching them back and forth several times, but the cockpit is so loud without headphones, and the brief blast of noise when changing headsets made it hard to make a direct comparison. (How did we fly in the old days without headsets? Seems crazy now.) The Zulu.2 has different ear seals with a reduced padding area to let eyeglass temples pass through without putting additional pressure on the side of your head. Makes them more comfortable, but maybe it is letting a little more noise in too.

I could not tell if the old Zulus were really quieter than the Zulu.2s, but I did find that pushing the Zulu.2s against my head made them quieter and they stayed more quiet even after I released the pressure. I’ll have to start doing that now every time I put them on.

The last test was the Sierra headset. It was purchased as a replacement for the two Telex headsets I had stolen, so it is new. When I first brought it home it would make a loud squealing noise whenever the noise-canceling was turned on. I sent it back to Lightspeed for repair, and it worked great when it came back from them. However, a passenger had reported hearing a loud noise when the noise-canceling was turned on again, so it was time to check it out.

I unplugged the old Zulu headset and plugged the Sierra in to the passenger jacks. I put it on and at first left off the active noise reduction (ANR). The Sierra is lighter than either of the Zulus, but its passive noise reduction was not as good either. It is noticeably louder than the Zulu when both are in passive mode. I turned on the ANR, and as expected it got a lot quieter – and no squealing. I tried various ways to make it squeal, lift off one ear and then the other, push on both sides, push on one side and then on the other, but it would not squeal. It is working fine now, and I hope it stays that way.

By this time I was approaching Jacksboro.

Jacksboro

Jacksboro, Texas. Its airport is just on the other side of the lake on the right side of the picture.

I looked at my chart to see what was interesting around here and saw that Olney, Texas was not too far away. Olney is home to Air Tractor, the world’s largest manufacturer of agricultural and firefighting aircraft. I met the president of Air Tractor, Jim Hirsch, at Texas A&M University’s aerospace engineering senior design review last week, and it sounded like a very interesting company. You don’t expect a world leading company to be located in a small west Texas town, but there they are. So off to Olney I went.

Olney is not hard to find from the air. Just look for the windmills.

Olney on sectional chart

Olney on an aviation sectional chart. Note the caution about windmills. The upside down V’s and W’s are windmills.

Windmills near Olney

Wind farm located just east of Olney.

Olney was pretty quiet on this Sunday afternoon, so I did a touch and go and headed back to Fort Worth. I was not in a particular rush to get back to Fort Worth, so I decided to see how high the Cardinal could climb.

There are various limits on how high an airplane can fly. Its service ceiling is defined as the altitude at which its climb rate drops off to 100 feet per minute (fpm), but there are other limitations. All flights above 18,000 feet have to be on instrument flight plans, so an airplane needs to be IFR capable to fly above that and there are other limitations related to aircraft instrumentation and equipment at other altitudes above that.

The service ceiling on the Cardinal I was flying is 17,100 feet. No way was I going to be able to go that high. First, federal aviation regulations require pilots to use oxygen above 14,000 feet or when above 12,500 feet for more than 30 minutes. So, I could go to 14,000 feet as long as I get from 12,500 feet up to 14,000 feet and back down in less than 30 minutes.

In the end, I got bored with climbing and stopped when I reached 12,500 feet. at that point my climb rate was about 250 fpm so going up to 14,000 feet and back down to 12,500 feet could have been completed in well less than 30 minutes. I think 17,100 feet would have been possible too, if I had an oxygen system, even though the temperature was much warmer than standard. Of course, I was well below gross weight too.

12,500 feet

Altimeter showing the Cardinal at 12,500 feet.

The top of the climb was just north of Mineral Wells, so it was a nice long descent back into Fort Worth from there. No particular place to go, but still a good time.

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Freedom(TM)

Just finished Daniel Suarez’s Freedom(TM), the sequel to Daemon, which I reviewed here. The story picks up right where Daemon ended, but this book is more of a political story than a gaming and technology story. Like Daemon, this is a fast-paced story and has enough realistic twists to keep you thinking, but as in Daemon there is not a lot of character development. That’s OK. It is still a great story, and I recommend it without qualification. I’ll talk more about the storyline below, and there may be a few plot spoilers, so if you have not read Freedom(TM) you might want to stop here.

In this second book in the series, the Daemon gradually transitions from a malicious force of evil to an apparent force for good as the real bad guys emerge – government contractors! Hey, I have seen enough examples of bad government contractors to know they can be frustrating, but the frustration is usually caused by their ineptness and not their all-powerful competence that puts them in the position of being the real government power.

As Freedom(TM) progresses, the contractors have elevated themselves to positions of power and elected officials and government employees are made irrelevant. I guess that is the reason for the trademark symbol in the title. The major struggle in this story is between the government contractors and the Daemon, which is trying to organize people into small, self-sufficient communities. The idea is these independent communities make society as a whole less vulnerable to a large-scale collapse that can happen when we all depend on large corporations, large government, and large organizations of any type. It’s kind of like An Army of Davids, but it is all being manipulated behind the scenes by a computer program.

For me that is the unsettling part of the story. Self-sufficiency is great, but how independent are people when they are being manipulated by a computer program. The downside to large companies and large government is the people at the top have to make decisions that affect the entire organization, but it is impossible for them to understand all the information they need to make good decisions. Here large government and large companies are being replaced with a large computer program, and I think the Daemon would have all the same problems a large organization would have.

The story ends before we get a chance to see how successful (or not) this type of society would be. I hope Suarez is writing a third book in the series that picks up where Freedom(TM) ends. He has a good imagination, and I would like to see where he would take that.

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Drive by customer service

I wrote previously about my poor experience with AT&T customer service. Maybe this is some sort of weird retribution, but AT&T has managed to top that experience with something even worse. They are now providing poor customer service even when I am minding my own business and not trying to interact with them.

It started last Friday afternoon, when I received a text message from AT&T on the iPhone my company provides to me congratulating me for upgrading my phone. That made no sense, since I had not upgraded my phone, so I figured it must have been sent to me in error.

A few minutes later our office administrator sent me a chat, “Why did you upgrade your phone without telling me?” OK, that seems more than coincidental. I looked at my phone more closely and found that my voicemail was no longer working and when I manually entered voicemail it said I needed to reset my password. However, it did not give me a way to reset it. Great. Maybe someone stole my identity and got a phone in my name.

I walked down to the admin’s office to see what she knew. She was on the phone with an AT&T customer service rep trying to find out who had upgraded my phone. The rep was able to determine that someone had gone into a local AT&T store and used an upgrade associated with my phone to get a new iPhone. Even worse, they used one of our company credit cards to pay for it.

After a few minutes the rep was able to give her the last 4 numbers of the credit card that was used. It did not match mine, but she was able to find one of our cards that did end in those 4 digits. A quick chat to the person holding that card, and he confirmed that he went and got a new iPhone that afternoon after his old one was damaged.  Apparently the salesperson at the local AT&T store noticed that one of the phones on our company account, namely mine, had a discounted upgrade on it, and he used that to help pay for the new phone.

So things were getting better, but I still did not have voicemail on my phone. The AT&T rep on the phone had several suggestions for fixing the voicemail, but finally he suggested I dial into the voicemail system and then he told me how to reset the password. Success! Everything was back to normal and it only took about 30 minutes. Thanks AT&T!

That is not really a big enough deal to blog about, but it gets better. Later on Friday, I received another text from AT&T asking me to take a survey about my customer service experience when I visited their store on Friday. I gave them the lowest marks on everything I could, and then explained at the end what had happened.

Today, I had the day off, so I spent a good part of the day catching up on some yard work. When I came back in from that there was a voicemail on my iPhone: (This is paraphrased and the name has been changed.) “Hi, this is Jim from AT&T. I am the regional AT&T customer service manager, and I understand in the survey you filled out last week you gave us an opportunity. I am calling to make sure all your expectations were met.”

To prove how gullible I am, my initial reaction was to think this really was a good opportunity for AT&T to improve their customer service. I think I have some good ideas of ways they can improve. So I called “Jim” back.

After I introduced myself, Jim gave me the same spiel about this being a great opportunity and wanting to make sure my expectations were met. Again, this is paraphrased, but this is how the conversation went after the introductions.

Me: “I realize I was very negative in the survey but I have had several bad experiences with AT&T customer service lately and in this case I was just minding my own business when AT&T reached out to me with more bad customer service.”

Jim: “I want to thank you for this opportunity. Did the problem you were having last week get resolved to your satisfaction?”

Me: “Yes, my phone is back to normal and everything is taken care of.”

Jim: “Good. I am glad we were able to meet your expectations. Thank you for giving us this opportunity.”

Me: “Let me be clear. My problem is solved, but my EXPECTATION is that AT&T would not have caused this problem in the first place. And I would not have complained in the survey so much if I did not have several other bad experiences with AT&T recently.”

Jim: “We are aware of the problem using an upgrade from a different phone can cause and we are working on it. Thank you for giving us this opportunity to improve.”

Me (finally realizing he is just trying to get rid of me): “OK. Thanks for your help. Everything is working fine now.”

In my mind, Jim just made things worse. I can understand that mistakes are going to happen sometimes, but for a manger to call with a “follow up” that is really just intended for him to be able to check off some box shows the hollowness of their service efforts.

How could Jim have done a better job handling this? First, when someone says something really bad about you, do not call it an opportunity. Yes, opportunity is a much more positive word than complaint, but it describes what you can do with the information you were given, not the information itself. If you then follow up by ignoring everything else said during the call and not being interested in other, unreported, problems, you sound arrogant and not really interested in improving.

Instead, Jim should have acknowledged that I had reported a problem. He did not even have to agree there was a problem, only that I had reported what I thought was a problem. Next, he should have asked me to explain the problem. Then he should have listened without interruption. And listened. And listened. The only interruption should have been if he did not understand something I was saying or if he needed more detail. Once I had my say, then was his chance to say thanks for reporting the problem, and he either could offer an immediate solution or would consider this for improving their customer service systems going forward.

The difference is that in one case he is immediately trying to put a positive spin on things to get them off his desk, and in the other case he is trying to understand the problem so maybe he can do something constructive about it. Sadly, Jim is continuing the AT&T tradition. They invented the telephone, you know.

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Daemon

I just finished reading Daemon by Daniel Suarez, a story about a computer daemon (automatically running program) that wreaks havoc in the world. The book has a similar theme to Neal Stephenson’s Reamde: massively multi person role playing computer games that bleed over into the real world. Suarez’s story is not as wide ranging as Stephenson’s, and he focuses more on the video game aspects of the story.

The other major difference is that in Reamde humans use computers to interact with each other while in Daemon, as you could guess from the title, one of the main characters is a computer program – a very powerful one. Since just about everything today has a computer chip in it and is networked, it is scary to think about something that can communicate directly with the “inanimate” devices around you and get them to do its bidding. Suarez has some imaginative, and sometimes horrific, ways this can happen.

This story has lots of action and some interesting concepts to think about, but none of the characters have much depth and at the end you do not feel you know a lot about any of them. The daemon is a computer program, so you would not expect to know much about its motivation and character. It reveals its reason for being several times during the story, but always with the same few sentences. The human characters are the same. They are very stereotypical, and we never find out much about them.

If the characters had more depth this would be an A+ story. It is a fast-paced thriller with some interesting concepts to think about, so I still recommend it. In fact, as soon as I finished it I ordered its sequel, Freedom(TM).

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Justice Served

I posted earlier about a break-in at my home over the holidays. A lot of electronics and flying gear were stolen, and I figured they were gone forever.

However, I got a call from a detective at the Fort Worth police department over the weekend, and they have recovered some of my stolen items. They arrested two people on suspicion of burglary, and among the items they recovered from the suspects was a Swiss Gear briefcase with some USB flash drives in it. One of the drives had data from my flying club on it, so the detective called a flying club member listed in the one of the files to see if they knew anything about this. The person he called is no longer in the club, but he referred the detective to the current club president, who knew all about my burglarly and quickly figured out whose items the police had recovered.

The detective called me and asked if I was missing a Swiss Gear briefcase and laptop, and if I was in the Six 4 A Six flying club. Of course, I was excited to hear they had recovered at least some of my stolen property. Then he began to describe the stolen laptop, a Sony Vaio asking for a login password for someone named Daugherty. Oops, that’s not me, and my stolen laptop was a Dell. Looks like they stuck someone else’s laptop in my bag.

The good news is I can go claim my property after the police finish cataloging the recovered items, maybe as soon as today. From the detective’s descriptions over the phone it sounds like they found my briefcase with at least some of the items contained in it and my flight bag with the headsets that were in it. They may have more of my property, but I will have to visually inspect it to see what they have. No mention of the two computers, television and other items that were stolen.

The other good news is that two people have been arrested for this. Don’t know if they were the ones that broke into my house or just intermediaries trying to sell stolen property, but either way I am glad they caught someone involved in this crime. Who knows, maybe now that they have someone in custody they can use them to track down more of the property.

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The Best Laid Plans…

Flying from Fort Worth to Texas A&M for a basketball game combines two things I really enjoy: flying and watching Aggie sports. The weather last weekend was beautiful, one of the club’s planes was available, and A&M was playing Oklahoma State in basketball – an unbeatable combination. I invited a friend from work to go along and looked forward to a fun day.

We got to the airport around 10am and began preflighting the Cherokee Six we would fly that day.

Cherokee Six

N33354

Everything looked good except all the tires needed air. The friendly linemen at Atlantic Aviation quickly took care of that problem, and we were ready to go. We got in the plane and began running through the checklist: seat belts, avionics master off, prop full, mixture full lean, throttle open 1/4 inch, beacon on, master switch on, fuel pump on, advance mixture control… Wait a minute. Why won’t the mixture control budge?

Try wiggling the mixture control a little. Nope. Nothing. Shut everything down. Try the mixture control again. Still nothing. Peer inside the throttle quadrant to see if something is jammed in there. Nothing. Take off the cowl and look inside the engine compartment. Nothing there either. We spent about an hour looking for the problem and could never find it, so we were not taking the Six on this trip.

The other club plane, a Cessna Cardinal RG. was not available because two other club members were going to work on installing new plastic trim on its interior that day. They arrived at the airport as we were working on the stuck mixture on the Six, and when they saw we were not going to be able to take the Six they offered to postpone their work and let us take the Cardinal. Very generous.

N8084B

The Cardinal

Soon we were on our way, still with plenty of time to have lunch with my daughter in College Station and make the basketball game on time. Things were looking up!

The situation improved even more once we got up to cruising altitude. We had a 20 knot tailwind. That gave us a speed over the ground of about 150 knots (~170 mph). This is fun! As a bonus, it was a crystal clear day and the air was smooth.

Dallas

Dallas and Joe Pool Lake from about 50 miles away.

The flight down to College Station went well, and we were soon having lunch at Los Cucos  Cafe. Then it was straight to Reed Arena for the basketball game. We sat down right before the national anthem started, and then watched an Aggie Big 12 win.

TAMU vs OSU

The game stayed pretty close most of the way.

After the game, we went straight to the airport to prepare for the flight home. Preflight, engine start and the taxi down to the end of runway 34 went fine. However, during our pre-takeoff engine run up, we discovered the left magneto was dead. As in, when you moved the ignition switch to the left magneto position, the engine would immediately quit firing as if the mixture had been pulled to the cut off position. I did it several times to make sure I was not imagining the symptoms. It was repeatable, so it was time to go back to the terminal and look for a mechanic.

By this time, it was getting fairly late on a Saturday evening, and there were no mechanics around. Great. Stuck away from home with a broken airplane.

Luckily, my daughter was nice enough to lend us her car, so we could drive home that evening. It’s a 3 hour drive, compared to a 1 hour flight. Not unbearable, but not as fun as flying. The only compensation was the we got to stop at Czech Stop in West for kolaches on the way home. Can’t do that in the airplane.

I drove back to College Station on Sunday to get the plane to a mechanic first thing Monday morning. He checked the ignition switch, ground wire, and ignition wiring harness for problems, and they all checked out OK. That points toward the problem being the magneto itself, so it has been sent out for testing.

That is where this story stands. The magneto is on its way to a shop for testing. I will post an update when I find out what the problem was.

And even with all the problems (I left out the part where I got a speeding ticket on the drive home) it was still a fun day. Just not quite what I expected when the day began.

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Lake Worth Rising

The Dallas-Fort Worth area has received 4.27 inches of rain in the last 24 hours. That is a record 24-hour rainfall for the month of January, and it has caused record flooding as well. Lake Worth has been a few feet low all year, but it rose over 2 feet in the last 24 hours and it is still rising. At least the rate of increase in lake level is slowing as it approaches normal.

Lake Worth levels

Lake Worth level data from the U.S. Geological Survey

I was out of town yesterday, recruiting at the Texas A&M Engineering Career Fair, and did not arrive home until late in the evening so while I knew it was raining I did not realize it had been that much and that the lake level was rising.

So it was a bit of  a surprise when I woke up this morning and looked out my back window to see — cormorants! Not just cormorants, but thousands of cormorants.

cormorants

Thousands of cormorants gather on Lake Worth

The picture only shows about half the cormorants that were on the lake. They seemed agitated and were flying in circles and swimming rapidly in random directions.

Then I noticed the lake level. You can see in the picture how the water has risen almost up to the bottom of the boat in its lift and how the jet ski is floating above its ramp. (It’s tied on the front, so it is not going anywhere.) It was still raining pretty hard and obvious that the lake was going to continue to rise so I immediately ran out and raised the boat farther above the water. The boat is not tied to its lift. It uses gravity to stay there, so if the water rose enough to float it off the lift it would drift away.

That taken care of, I left for work. However, I did not want to leave the jet ski tethered and floating loose for too long since it could bang against the ramp supports and get damaged if it started floating completely clear of the ramp. So when I got home today, I put on my wetsuit (glad it still fits!), went in the water, and pushed the jet ski farther up the ramp where it would be more secure.

Wet suit

Wet suits are good for skiing or for just working in the cold water.

The lake temperature is about 51 degrees Farenheit, so the wet suit made being in the water a lot more comfortable. It only took a few minutes to get the jet ski adjusted. Then it was time to come back in the house and take a hot shower.

If the lake continues to rise the jet ski ramp could become completely submerged. I don’t think it will rise enough to do that, but now that lake levels are back to normal I need to move the jet ski ramp closer to shore. That is a multiple-person job. It will have to wait until the water warms up in the spring. In the meantime, the jet ski probably needs to come off the ramp and go on its trailer, safe and dry on shore. Sounds like a good job for this weekend.

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