Tuesday, May 22, 2012

SpaceX Falcon 9 on its way to ISS

Congratulations to SpaceX for this morning's mission perfect launch of their Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral.  If all continues well, their cargo resupply mission will rendezvous with the ISS in about a day or two.

There were lots of hugs and high-fives at the SpaceX mission control center in Hawthorne, CA in Los Angeles. The last attempted launch, two days ago, was aborted within one second of launch due to high combustion chamber pressure in engine No. 5.
Oh, so, so close. 

Unlike typical ISS resupply missions, the Falcon 9 Dragon capsule won't dock with the ISS under its own control. Instead, it will fly by the ISS following a specific path to demonstrate that it has the fidelity needed to safely approach the space station. Once it proves that it can safely navigate around the ISS, it will approach it and be picked up by the ISS's robotic arm for docking.

SpaceX CEO and co-founder, Elon Musk, said it best, "There's so much hope riding on that rocket."

Sunday, May 20, 2012

iPads in Aviation

Charts and procedures for coast to coast flying.
iPad sales, in the first two years, have blown away the pace of iPod and iPhone sales. It took the iPod four years and the iPhone more than three years to reach today's cumulative sales of the iPad.

One area where the iPad has made a big difference is in aviation. While it's an insignificant market for Apple, it's a big deal for pilots. When pilots fly, they must "utilize all available information." One of the biggest hassles of flying is that a pilot needs to carry charts (maps), manuals, and books chock-full of airport details and procedures.

When I flew from California to New York, I had to carry a bin full of books and charts (pictured above) - about $200 worth. The most painful part is that nearly all of this paperwork expires every 60 days.

Flight Planning
My location on an airport approach procedure plate.
(click to enlarge) 
Today, as a private pilot with an iPad, I only need to pay a $150 yearly subscription fee to receive all of the charts and procedures for flying anywhere in the United States. Not only can I file flight plans, download new charts, procedures, and weather on the go, but I can also see my exact location on my iPad's charts, procedures, and taxiway diagrams.

I still need to pay about $300 for an annual data subscription for my plane's avionics navigation systems. But, having redundant systems for my situational awareness ensures that I should never get lost --- unless the GPS satellite network fails.

In the event of a GPS failure then we're back to navigating via radio beacons. Which, fortunately, my airplane has three separate navigation radios for this purpose. Hopefully, though, it'll never come to that.

The costs involved with paper and electronic subscriptions reminds me of an old joke...

How do you make a million dollars in aviation?
Start with two million.

Upside Down Apple Logo

Update, May 22, 2012: CNN published an article about this blog post. 

Sometimes, even the science and studies can be wrong. Not because of an error, but because you didn't dig deep enough.

About a dozen years ago we had some discussions at Apple about the placement of the logo on the back of Apple's laptops. As you can see in this Sex and the City scene, the Apple logo is upside down when the lid is opened.

Apple has an internal system called Can We Talk? where any employee can raise questions on most any subject. So we asked, "Why is the Apple logo upside down on laptops when the lid is open?"

We were told by the Apple design group, which takes human interface issues very seriously, that they had studied the placement of the logo and discovered a problem. If the Apple logo was placed such that it was right side up when the lid was opened then it ended up being upside down when the lid was closed, from the point of view of the user. (If you're currently using an Apple laptop made in the past eight years then close the lid and you'll see that the Apple logo will be upside down from your point of view, but right side up when opened)

Why was upside down from the user's perspective an issue? Because the design group noticed that users constantly tried to open the laptop from the wrong end. Steve Jobs always focused on providing the best possible user experience and believed that it was more important to satisfy the user than the onlooker.

Obviously, after a few years, Steve reversed his decision.

Opening a laptop from the wrong end is a self-correcting problem that only lasts a few seconds. However, viewing the upside logo is a problem that lasts indefinitely.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Do You Smell Something Burning?

Unlike driving, there's always something to learn in aviation.

Annual inspection in progress.
Normally, I park my plane in a hangar. This past weekend, I visited Long Island for Mother's Day and left  my plane tied down outside, next to the runway. When we took off the next day, we noticed a burning smell inside the plane. I had spilled a little oil on the engine, the previous day, but the smell wasn't an oil burning or plastic smell. It smelled more like burnt wood or paper, much like a wildfire. Since nothing became of it - and the smell went away after a few minutes - I didn't think about it.

This week, I brought my plane in for it's annual inspection. During an annual inspection the aircraft seats and carpeting are removed and the engine, along with all of the access points, are opened up. The entire inspection process can take five to ten days.

Today, I dropped by the shop to check on the progress and the mechanics showed me what was causing the burning smell. It turns out, even though my plane was only outside overnight, that birds had started to make a nest inside my engine --- way in the back of the engine near the firewall.

Part of a bird nest found in the aircraft engine.
As part of my preflight inspection I explicitly check the engine for bird nests by looking into it from the front. But, I can only see into the front of the engine. It's not possible to see the back of the engine from the front and opening up the cowling (hood) is not viable since it's screwed down.

The bird's nest in my engine could, in theory, present a fire hazard. So, it looks like it's time to buy some cowl plugs to cover the front of the engine. The mechanics gave me a good tip when parking outside: turn my prop straight up and down, instead of horizontal, so birds can't perch on it.

I can only hope to keep learning things the forgivable way.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Soyuz Launch of Expedition 31

Last Night's 23:01 EDT Launch
Last night (aka today, if you were in Russia) I watched the lift off of Expedition 31 which put three men into orbit aboard the Russian Soyuz rocket. Although it only takes about eight or nine minutes to get into orbit, it'll be about two days until they rendezvous with the ISS. One member of the crew, Joe Acaba, was the only American and he'll be spending a few months aboard the ISS.

Last night's 23:01 EDT liftoff was the first time that I watched a live launch of a Soyuz rocket. Since it doesn't have solid rocket boosters, like the space shuttle, it burns very clean like the old Saturn V rockets.

Astronauts Shane Kimbourgh (L) and Joe Acaba (R)
I was amazed at the elegant simplicity of the entire Soyuz launch system. It's moved out to the launch site via a railroad just a few days before launch and it's propped up on what are essentially a few pegs. The pegs act as the levers of its tower support systems (imagine stepping on the tines of a rake - the wooden shaft of the rake will pop up). At lift off, once the weight of the rocket is no longer on the pegs, the towers fall back just like stepping off a rake.

What makes this launch system so elegant is that it inherently works - you don't have to rely on electrical or hydraulic systems for the supporting towers to move away at launch.

The video of the ride to orbit looked very smooth inside the capsule. The only downside that I could see is that it's cramped. I hear that the return landing is very bumpy for the crew since the capsule lands on the ground, not in the ocean, like the Apollo capsules, or on a landing strip like the space shuttle.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Nutty ATC Routes

Before taking off on a flight a pilot has two basic navigation choices: visual flight rules (VFR) or instrument flight rules (IFR).

If the weather conditions are good enough for flying VFR then the pilot simply looks outside the window to "see and avoid" other aircraft while en route.

In both good or bad weather, a pilot can fly IFR. The great advantage of IFR is that an air traffic controller (ATC) is also watching out for your well being. The downside of IFR is that the pilot has to follow the assigned route and the ATC's instructions. Many times, around busy airspace, the assigned route is far from the most direct route.

Although Teterboro, New Jersey is only about 31 nautical miles from Farmingdale, Long Island, the ATC assigned route is 131 nautical miles. While a direct flight through New York City's airspace isn't likely under VFR, it would certainly be faster than IFR.

131 nautical miles from Farmingdale to Teterboro

Skimming the Clouds

It was extremely peaceful, last Sunday, as we skimmed across the cloud tops. It looked as if you could step out and walk on them.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Eagerly Awaiting My Allen Edmonds

About a dozen years ago, I bought a couple pairs of Allen Edmonds dress shoes. The big selling point of these shoes was that they could be sent back to the factory for refurbishing. I knew, one day, that I would take advantage of their offer. After spending most of the last 12 years either working at Apple or on active duty in the Marines, I didn't have an opportunity to wear dress shoes very often.

After all this time the day finally came when it was time to send them back. Allen Edmonds sent a confirmation e-mail to me when they received them. Tonight, I received an e-mail that began with, "Remember theses?" and a photo of my shoes.

Before photo when my shoes arrived at the factory for refurbishing.
Yup, those are my actual shoes.

The e-mail also had shipment tracking info and a photo of my fully refurbished shoes.

After photo and ready for shipping

My 12 year old shoes look like new - for about 1/3 the price of new pair. I can't wait to get them back.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

NJP & Request Mast

Over the centuries, the military has done a great job at refining some processes and procedures for handling matters quickly and efficiently There are two, in particular, that stick out in my mind.

Non-Judicial Punishment
One common U.S. military procedure is Article 15 non-judicial punishment, also known as "office hours" or "captain's mast," depending on the branch of the military.

Think of Article 15 as "Judge Judy" for punitive matters. Although the defendant almost always has the option of choosing a trial by court-martial, they rarely do. It's usually a clear cut case that the defendant is guilty. They'd rather accept the lesser punishment handed out at an Article 15 procedure than a stiffer sentence from a court-martial conviction.

Request Mast
Another very effective, yet rarely used, procedure is request mast which allows any Marine to redress a grievance up their chain of command without repercussions.

A Marine will request mast when there's an issue which can't be handled at a lower level. This process cannot be denied and the request has to be passed along with no more than a business day's delay between each link in the chain of command --- all the way up to the commanding general, if requested.

What type of complaint could be so important that it can't be handled but at the highest levels? Let's just say that you'd better get this right if you're requesting mast. As a matter of fact, I've never seen a Marine, that I personally knew, request mast. But, I have heard of a few interesting stories.

Military Police
The most memorable case of request mast I've observed was requested by a Marine military policeman (MP). The MP had arrested a squadron commanding officer for DUI. The CO was booked and released. But, the case "disappeared." Obviously, the CO had influenced someone to make his problem go away.

Enter the arresting MP, who, if I recall correctly, was a lance corporal. He requested mast all the way up to the base commanding general. Lo and behold, the CO, who was a colonel, was outed. Part of the colonel's punishment was to enter "level 3" (in patient) alcohol treatment.

See, there is justice.

Author: Joe Moreno