Archive for December, 2013

Icing Encounter

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

Today I had my most serious icing encounter since I started flying in 2000.

Brenda and I are returning from one of our holiday trips out to the East, and today’s legs were planned as McKinney (TKI) to Midland (MAF), and Midland on to El Paso (ELP).  We encountered worse weather than expected, including picking up ice in the descent into our diversion airport. It was a tense experience, to be sure, but I think that I handled it overall pretty reasonably.  I feel like I owe my flight instructor and regular safety pilot a beer or a dinner, though.

No icing airmets were out there though a fairly benign IFR airmet for ceilings was active.  The terminal forecast for our destination and intermediate points looked reasonable.  All points were reporting clear skies when I checked the weather initially as well.  I was aware that there was a frigid airmass coming in from the north, so there was that to keep in mind.

Climbout was unremarkable, though there was some moisture in the clouds, the outside air temperature looked good, and there was no ice.  As we continued on, the cloud tops were getting higher, and looked more substantial than a dispersing layer.  Then there’s a KingAir that misses an approach at a small airport.  Sounds like the conditions are worse than the forecast.

At this point I’m about halfway through the leg, and these don’t look like the improving conditions that were forecast. Let’s talk to Flight Service and see how things look at Midland.

Midland has a fairly low ceiling and high tops.  And while I’m talking to the briefer, a pilot report comes in about icing outside Midland.  OK, that’s definitely not good.  Abilene (ABI) is coming up, which is a sizeable airport with an ILS. The ceiling is low, but I’m pretty sure there’s nothing better around.  Let’s get on the ground wishing we were in the air.

I’m talking to Abilene approach and request the diversion.  The controller gives us a vector and starts working us in.  He asks for a reason for the diversion and I tell him that the weather’s getting worse at my destination and that I’d like to find out on the ground.  That’s a standard question, but it sounds like he thinks it’s a good reason.

He gives me pilot’s discretion to descend for the approach, which allows me to decide when and how fast to enter the clouds.  He and I both understand that ice may be a concern, though no one’s reported it here yet.  I actually request higher; I’m in the cloud tops and seeing visible moisture.  He grants it and we talk about the fact that the water is still water both up here and down at the airport.

By now I’ve reviewed the approach plate and set up the GPS and navigation radios so I know where I am relative to the path I’m taking down.  I don’t know that there’s ice in the clouds, but I want to spend as little time in there as possible.  I’ve got the carberetor heat and pitot heat on as well.

When I get close, I let the controller know I’m starting down and drop in fairly fast.  I’m also planning to fly the approach at as high a speed as possible, again to get out of the clouds as quickly as possible.  Also, if there’s ice, I want to have as much power available as I can.

For a while, it’s like all the other approaches I’ve flown: blind gray outside, water moving up the windscreen.  The controller vectors me on to the approach.  Right about when I capture the glideslope, I realize that the water that was moving up the windscreen is not moving up the windscreen anymore.  We’re in ice.

This is scary.  I’m at least as frightened as the time I spun a 150 by mistake, but there I had an instructor to make it all better. I want very badly to dive for the ground as fast as possible to get out of the ice, but I force myself to follow the approach.  Hitting a pole because I panicked is not going to help anything.

It is very nerve wracking. Things I know about ice keep popping into my head, and sure enough all of them are true.  Ground speed slows (though there is a lot of gusty wind in play as well). The other thing I force myself to remember is that though ice is not good, an Archer will not fall out of the air because some ice appears.

Stay on the approach. Stop overcontrolling. We don’t want to try this twice. Keep the speed up – “fun fact: airframe ice raises the stall speed” says my helpful brain.  It also reminds me that the defroster should be on in case this ice stays on the windscreen.  I don’t need the irony of breaking out and not being able to see the ground through the ice.  Put the heater on, too.  Can’t hurt.

Before we break out – I’d guess 1500-1000 feet above the ground – we get into warmer air and the plane sheds ice.  The windscreen clears, and I worry that it’s just the defroster working.  But the plane feels like herself again.

I still keep the airspeed good and healthy in case I’m wrong.  We break out at 500′ or so with the approach lights in sight, and it feels like my plane again.  There’s the business of landing in 20 knots of wind, with gusts, but that’s easy enough after the ice.  The wind is straight down the runway; add enough speed to compensate for a gust and all’s well. The wind is the one part of the forecast that is as advertised.

I’m still jumpy enough to ask for a braking report on the runway, but it’s just wet and not very wet.

I report the icing in the clouds and taxi in. I ask the tower to relay a thank-you to the approach controller.

Before I go inside, I check the airframe.  There’s still a thin layer of ice on the leading edges of the wings and the stabilator.  I’d rather not see that again.

I’m not happy to have encountered unforecast icing conditions, but I do think I picked up on them reasonably quickly and navigated them as safely as possible. I’m very happy that I’ve kept IFR current and proficient – especially at doing things like flying an ILS at high speed.  I’m glad that my brain is crammed with fun facts about ice and that it apparently retrieves them under stress.  Evidently all those hours reading about flying are worthwhile.

I learned some things, too.  I’ll be extra skeptical about weather in general and Texas weather in particular.  But really, I want to remember two big ideas:

I want to remember that I can land under stress so that I have the confidence to take action when I need to. I want to remember that the source of that confidence was doing the work to merit it.

I want to remember how scared I was when I saw that ice start accumulating.  Anticipating and avoiding danger is the game to play and that terrifying jolt is how we know to keep playing.

Review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

This is my third time through Zen and the Art, and I always find something new and interesting. Robert Persig’s work is a strange shaggy dog of a book that’s part philosophical treatise, part maybe-memoir, part reflections on the times.  I think some of it is indispensable, some of it is self-indulgent, some of it is brilliant, and some of it is misguided.  It’s a very open conversation with an interesting author.

The parts I invariably enjoy the most and get the most out of are the discussions of worldview and philosophy of seeing the world with a clear mind. Every time I’ve read it, I’ve found new and interesting insights and inspirations in these parts of the book, which are mainly the early parts.  These sections are an approachable, conversational description of, well, lots of things.  Of particular interest to me are the insights into how different people view technology, and how technologists (in particular) can benefit from arranging their thoughts on technology and problem solving.  There’s much more in here, and that description undersells it.

The parts I like less are the memoir and family drama associated with the main character coming to terms with the costs of acquiring this knowledge and trying to get recognition of that work from the academic orthodoxy. That’s certainly driven by my views on orthodoxy.  I don’t seek much validation from the orthodoxy about my worldview.  I try to keep an open mind when people smarter than me talk, but I really dislike arguments from authority.  The climactic parts of the memoir center around the author’s reaction to the authority unfairly crushing his attempt put forth his ideas.

I understand that the memoir wouldn’t be interesting if the system of thought wasn’t compelling. I empathize with the author’s sincere pain – and the pain of others rejected by the system. I understand that the 60’s and 70’s were different times, and that a frustrated philosopher couldn’t publish on the Internet and gain a following there.  But I still feel like so much of the angst and despair of the memoir was avoidable.

And then I wonder if that’s exactly the lesson Persig is trying to get across.  Zen and the Art is interesting because it does encourage looking at old things in new ways, probably including Zen and the Art. Or not.  I go back and forth.

Persig’s book remains a fascinating, consciousness-expanding work.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Equoid

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

Equoid is a novella by Charles Stross set in his Laundry Files world where he imagines unicorns as realized by H. P. Lovecraft. These things are all so distinctive that if you know the ingredients you’ll know if you’d like the pie.

I know Stross but not the Laundry Files, so this was a way to dip my toe in that water.  As a place for a new reader, it was a pretty good jumping on point.  I was intrigued by the references to other parts of the universe, but never distracted from the story.  The ideas were pure Stross, which is to say lunatic, inspired, and carried to their logical endpoints with gusto, detail and humanity.

Good fun.


Review: The Golem And The Jinni

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

I quite enjoyed Helene Wecker’s Golem and the Jinni. It’s a light fantasy set in the ghettoes of New York City in the late 1800’s wherein events conspire to loose a Jinni an an unbound Golem on the world. Wecker does a particularly good job of showing the reader both the city and the human condition through the eyes of her two fictional fish out of water.  There is something of a buddy-cop sound to the description: the Golem is tuned to people’s needs and lives to serve others while the Jinni is a swashbuckler who poorly understands consequences.  They do learn some of the expected lessons, but as with much of the book the execution elevates the tale.

The plot is well-constructed and detailed without being overly intricate, but my favorite parts were the introduction and set-up.  Wecker spends quite a bit of time introducing her protagonists and then introducing them to the city, doting on characters whose role in the plot is fairly minor.  This is a strength of the book.  I enjoyed watching these characters grope their way into the 1890’s and into human society by extension.  Each is reasonably realized, even when their incompleteness is intentional.  It is fun to see what they will do next, even without a driving plot.

The driving plot does arrive, wrongs are righted, old grudges worked out, characters redeemed – all the fantasy tropes.  That’s all executed competently.  I enjoyed watching it, but wasn’t gripped by it in the way I might be in a Cornwell tale.  I did come away wondering how the characters would react to all the derring-do, and that’s at least as interesting for me.


Review: Marvel Comics The Untold Story

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

Sean Howe has produced an interesting and coherent history of Marvel Comics.  As a long time comics reader, I’ve certainly heard some of the stories related in here, but Howe excels at putting them into a coherent larger framework.

The Marvel company has had a collection of creators nearly as flamboyant as their published characters, and the temptation to make this a collection of just comics anecdotes must have been significant.  Howe does a nice job of hanging those anecdotes on the arc of the company itself as it moved from an upstart comics company, through a few fumbling attempts to reach other media, to today where some of the most popular and lucrative characters in the world are from Marvel.  He has an excellent sense of the overall narrative, which makes the book very readable.

The story itself is both messy and recent, however, and still very much a part of living history.  Comics buffs like me enjoy hearing the stories of artistic give and take that led to the creation of these stories and characters.  On the other hand, who created what and how can be a matter of millions of dollars, and in some cases the living protagonists are fighting those battles in court. The Untold Story does a nice job of showing how those problems can arise when creators are riffing on ideas that they don’t know will go anywhere, but that become assets to a large company owned by no one the creators knew at the time.  Or worse, when the ideas become assets of a company paying people the creators did know at the time.  Conflicting accounts would be par for the course, even if the creators were not larger than life.

One of the somewhat distressing issues with The Untold Story is that it occasionally muffs its comics history.  These are generally little things – toy tie-in comics ascribed to the wrong franchises or alien names misspelled – but it is distressing that when so many of the facts are in dispute, a few indisputable ones are dropped.

Overall an interesting history of living events.



Review: Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish

Sunday, December 1st, 2013

David Rakoff can write in a style that is so charming, playful, and amusing that the emotional depth of his work can catch the reader by surprise.  That’s the case with Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. It is a consistently diverting and enjoyable mosaic of lives that shifts from charming to profound when a few key connections are made.

The novel is told entirely in rhyming couplets, which presents challenges to writer and reader. For the reader it can be offputting and gimmicky, and I suspect that some will avoid Love because of the format.  For the writer, the difficulties of maintaining the form without letting the form be the book are substantial.  Too many forced rhymes or sentences split across couplets and the reader is yanked from the story.

Rakoff is up to the challenge, and more importantly has chosen the form to serve his purposes.  This form is a staple of children’s literature, and using it puts the reader into the mindset of absorbing a simple tale that will raise a smile. Rakoff delivers the simplicity and the smiles, but is ambitious enough to deliver a wallop as well.

Strongly Recommended.