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Getting Back On The Horse

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

Last Saturday was one of those days that divides time into a before and an after. After sixty uneventful years, our airport experienced its first fatal accident. A landing aircraft, for reasons unknown, veered off the runway and crashed into a section of woods between two homes, killing one person on board and severely injuring two others. Being at the other end of the field, I didn’t know about it until several hours later.

Mercifully, I wasn’t one of the first on the scene, and don’t have images of explosions and burned passengers imprinted in my memory. In fact, I had no real desire to visit the crash site; I didn’t look closely until several days later, after the NTSB had been and gone. Beyond the charred trees though, there wasn’t much visible – when a fiberglass airplane burns, little remains.

The field reopened the next day, and as I had plans for a trip, I could see no reason not to launch. No logical reason, that is.

We all process our mortality in our own way. Most of the time, death happens offstage, out of the way, where we don’t have to deal with it directly. We’re not supposed to have our noses rubbed in it on a beautiful summer morning, amid blue skies and a pleasant breeze.

Our airfield is slightly less than half a mile long, and on takeoff there’s a fleeting moment when you start thinking that faith does play an element in this. Tach and manifold pressure normal, ground speed increasing, past 50 knots and I need 68 before I can fly… those trees are coming up awfully fast. Ease back on the yoke and we leave the ground; wheels up so we can climb as quickly as possible, and clear the trees by as much as possible. The airplane’s performance is documented and predictable – a table in the operating handbook tells what distance is needed to leave the ground, and to clear a fifty-foot obstacle. The engine and the rest of the plane are meticulously maintained, the fuel is proper and uncontaminated by water, and there’s nothing challenging about today’s weather. So why do I feel like I’ve cheated death?

Level at cruise altitude, autopilot on, new age music on the player, and some time to pause and reflect. Perhaps it would simplify things to remove this risk factor from my life. There would be financial benefits, too. I notice a small, lone sailboat somewhere off the coast of Newport, and I wonder if it’s pilot is having similar thoughts.

Most likely, I’ll be dead fifty years from now. I can run my life in a manner that will stretch that time for as long as possible, but the years would be unbearably empty. No bicycling. No pastry. No flying. And a bunch more nos that I can’t even think of right now.

All told, I think I’d rather spend the time Living, even at the risk of shortening it some. I push the disengage button on the autopilot and fly it by hand for a while. After all, that’s why I’m here.

RIP Neil Armstrong 1930-2012

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

What do you write in tribute for the first man to walk on another world?

It’s a tough act to follow, that’s for sure. If you’re of a certain age, you remember sitting in front of the television that night, gazing at the grainy black and white image, waiting, waiting, waiting… To this then-teenager it seemed like forever. And then, man’s first steps on the moon.

Being a techie, I can’t help but be amazed at what was accomplished with what they had to work with. The early 1960s: mechanical design done by hand, calculations done with a slide rule, and sitting atop close to five million pounds of kerosene and liquid oxygen hoping nobody dropped a decimal point. I read somewhere that when Kennedy delivered his famous speech in 1961 about “…landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth [by the end of the decade]”, the reaction of the rank and file at NASA was ‘What?! Is he out of his f*****g mind?’

But we pulled it off. And so my teen years were lived against the backdrop of Great Things happening. Sure, I was a child of a bunch of other things, too; the situation in Southeast Asia was nowhere near as inspiring. But that moon thing was tough to ignore. And it’s probably a factor in why I’m generally unsatisfied with status quos, even if they’re pretty good ones.

Not long ago, I came across this little gem:

The vaguely parabolic curve seems to unfortunately map to our achievement as a people over the same time period. Or maybe not; it’s tough to see into the future, as anyone alive on September 10, 2001 could tell you.

But its easier to do Great Things when Great Things are obviously happening around you. And it’s sad that the Great Things we’re doing today don’t have the panache of landing a man on the moon. Because some of them are pretty cool – miracle drugs that quietly save the lives of thousands who would otherwise have died of ‘natural causes’. New materials that make it possible to build structures, vehicles, and devices that would otherwise never have been built. The fact that we take it for granted that we can communicate with pretty much anyone, anywhere in the world instantly, and essentially for free. The list goes on. But it’s all incremental, and in a sense, expected.

I think a zeitgeist of Great Things happening around us inspires us to get more out of our lives. And that’s why things like the moon mission are important.

Thanks Neil. In addition to everything else, you made a difference for this kid.


Personal Limits

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

Menauhant Beach at 6:15 AM again. There’s a fisherman about two jetties to the west, but other than that and a few empty cars in the parking lot I have the place to myself. I wade into the water thigh-deep and then do my signature move for getting wet quickly: face the beach and fall backward. No time to change your mind. In a moment I’m floating on my back enjoying the temperate water and barely noticeable breeze.

A few hundred feet offshore there is a float marking the limit of the swimming area. Ostensibly it’s there to discourage boaters from mowing down swimmers. At this time of morning there are no boaters nearby and I’m the only swimmer.

I’m not a strong swimmer. I can keep my head above water and move around a bit, but its unlikely I’d ever win any sort of competition, at least in part because I’d never enter in the first place. But swimming out to the float has been on my mind since we moved here two springs ago.

Trying it when the lifeguard is on duty would seem the prudent course. I looked at a marine chart for the area last summer – once you’re away from the beach, the depth falls off rapidly to about twenty-five feet. Though once it’s a foot or two deeper than your height, does it really matter?

The water is calm, and I swim a bit further away from the shore. The float is now bigger, more tempting, and actually easier to reach – I’m already a third of the way there.

It’d be a shame to drown out here. If it went that way, the fisherman would probably hear my screams, but would he try to do anything about it? I can’t imagine the 911 responders getting there in less than the four minutes it takes for irreversible brain damage to occur due to asphyxiation.

Morbid thoughts. I continue swimming, telling myself that I’m just going to go a little closer. I can come back when a lifeguard is on duty to actually go out all the way, and maybe even ask beforehand if we’re allowed to swim that far. The float is even bigger now. Even more tempting. I can see some of the fissures in the red ‘Boats Keep Out’ diamond.

Seventy degrees, some high clouds, wind no more than a few knots. Not a bad day to die. Not a bad place to do so either. And everyone does, eventually.

The float is looming above me. I reach it, touch it, and shove off back to the shore. Mostly, it drifts away from my push and I get little additional momentum.

I sense that my respiration rate is up a bit as I swim back to shore, but nowhere near what I’d consider cause for concern. A moment later, I’m trudging through the muddy sand where water meets shore, and in another I’m sipping from the thermos of coffee that was in my bike’s saddle bag.

An achievement. Probably one that every teenager on the Cape has already realized, but an achievement still. There is a school of thoughts that suggests pushing past limits in one portion of your life empowers you to do the same in other portions. Which of course begs the question:

What boundary needs pushing on next?



Saturday, August 11th, 2012

If you would not be forgotten
As soon as you are dead and rotten,
Either write things worthy reading,
Or do things worth the writing.

– Benjamin Franklin


Its probably a bit late for #2, so I’d better focus on #1.


Monday, June 18th, 2012

Despite knowing about the shuttle retirement, a recent article saddened me. The Space Shuttle, for better or worse, has been described as the most complex machine ever built by man. Despite reliability and safety issues, the retired shuttles each have well over 100 million miles on the ‘clock’, and deserve both respect and honor. So, seeing a friggin’ spaceship sitting on a barge in the middle of the river, like so much trash, felt hopelessly depressing. Sure, it’s nice to know that they’re going to good homes. And I’m sure I’ll see one up close and in person at one museum or another, at some point. Perhaps the one now on board the Intrepid, on the shore of the mighty Hudson, though I’d have to reassess my intent to never visit New York City unless under duress.  But the visit will be like standing at the grave site of a loved one.

The last time I’d seen her alive was atop a dazzling orange flame, vanishing into the distance. Thanks to good luck and the generosity of a friend with a spare ticket, I’d witnessed the final launch of Discovery about a year and a half ago. Actually, there wasn’t much detail from where we stood, several miles away from the launch pad, along with thousands of others. But when that thing lit up, all the time, dollars and inconvenience of traveling a thousand miles to Florida instantly became worthwhile. On a purely visceral level the dazzling light and sound were captivating, in a way that television and print are just unable to capture. But knowing what was going on, that half a dozen men and women had just taken off on a 5-million mile jaunt, in a 27-year-old spaceship of a design known for killing all its crew every fifty missions or so, was just as extraordinary, though in a very different way.

All over, now.

I grew up as NASA did. When I was of single-digit age, Alan Shepherd was making his ballistic voyage. I was in high school when we walked on the moon. And I was at one of my early jobs on the day in 1986, when Challenger exploded. I remember a technician running into the lab shouting ‘The space shuttle blew up’. How could it be? We’d never lost one in the air until then.

Perhaps happier times are ahead. The SpaceX launch to the space station, Virgin Galactic, and others. $200k is still a bit much for me for a suborbital hop, as will be available in a few years. But if it got down to $20k, I’d give it a try. I don’t have a spare $20k laying around. But I could see making that in car payments over 5 years, and I’d gladly drive a junker for five years in exchange for that experience.

There will come a day, though, when Virgin Galactic or someone like them will lose a ship. It’s inevitable. So, would I still be willing to go if I knew the statistics were the same as the Shuttle, that is, every fifty or so missions, the ship is lost, with all hands.

I’m not as sure. But I hope I would.




Memorial Day Post

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

One of the nice things about moving is that all around you is new again. When we lived in New York, there wasn’t much I could see around me that I hadn’t seen thousands of times in the past. That’s not so any more.

Yesterday, I decided to take care of a self-imposed errand that had been in the back of my mind since we moved here – to bicycle over the Sagamore Bridge, along the north canal bike path, and then back over the Bourne Bridge. I’ve driven over these dozens of times, always lamenting that I couldn’t just stop and enjoy the views. Much easier to do so on a bicycle.

About a mile or so west of the Sagamore Bridge, I briefly noticed a monument of some sort above and to my right. I took several seconds to think through ‘I want to finish this ride, no, I’m not in a hurry, probably its not worth looking at, maybe it is…’ and screech to a halt. I turned the bike around, pedaled to the monument, and climbed the twenty or so steps to its base.


Quite the contrast to a beautiful spring day, the morning haze just starting to lift.

I imagine of all the ways to go, drowning in a breached submarine has to be among the worst. Small solace that a war was being slowly, painfully, won on the surface above.

The monument speaks of 3500-plus men who realized the importance of what they were doing, and did it. I’m indebted to them – if they hadn’t done so, I’d probably be writing this in German. Or given my religion, more likely not writing it at all.

I can’t help but reflect on what those men were at the age of eighteen, and what I was at that age. It wasn’t that many years that separated us – only about thirty or so. But somehow, they ‘got’ something that I didn’t, and I’m only beginning to understand now. Why? I’m not sure; it bears further investigation. But in the mean time, I can still be grateful for their deeds.

Rest in peace.

Rich or Poor?

Sunday, May 6th, 2012

Our trip provided the opportunity to be both, very often in the same place. Outside the resort we stayed at, Bimini definitely gave off a third-world vibe. House were small, poorly maintained, and the vehicle of choice was an aging golf cart. Inside our resort, and especially so at the one at the north end of the island, we were surrounded by luxury, as well as expensive shops offering exotic merchandise.

I can’t say I was particularly comfortable in either situation. I’m uneasy when surrounded by even mild poverty. In this case, it didn’t feel particularly unsafe, but even so, I was saddened by the situation, experiencing a feeling of powerlessness. Apart from spending some money, there was nothing I could do to help.

But I felt equally out of place at the north end, walking through a store offering simple shirts and jackets for hundreds of dollars and wristwatches for thousands. I sensed a kind of mutual irrelevance: I knew I would leave empty-handed and I suspect that the staff knew it as well.

So which is better, feeling wealthy or impoverished? I’m not sure, really. I’m glad that the hyper-wealthy exist, and I wish there were more of them. After all, they’re keeping the rest of us employed. As for those of lesser means, perhaps I’m keeping them employed – we rented a golf cart, bought some food, and the resort we stayed at employed a number of the locals.

Maybe the middle is best. It helps maintain perspective. I can aspire to the position of those in the higher tiers, and the presence of lower tiers keeps me motivated. But at the same time seeing them illustrates that, were things to go badly, the outcome would still be survivable. Were I at the bottom, I might become bitter. Were I at the top, I might start taking myself more seriously than I deserve.

I’m not sure which of those conditions is more serious.


Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

After more than eight hours of flight, I found myself at Fort Lauderdale Executive airport, with a nice line guy handing me a cold bottle of water. Another delivered my rental car right to the proper side of the plane with the air conditioner already running, as is the Florida tradition.

Mostly, the trip was uneventful. But the third leg underscored for me what a good metaphor private aviation is for life. After stopping in Brunswick, Georgia to buy gas, I checked the local weather between there and our destination, only to find the area peppered with heavy rain and thunderstorms. A full-blown thunderstorm will chew up a small plane and spit it out in parts; surviving such an encounter is unusual. One option was to spend the night in Brunswick and depart early the next morning. But stepping back, I realized that I was in a situation similar to the one every new pilot is in when he starts flying. Take too many risks and you die. But take no risks at all, and you’ll spend your flying life never straying far from your home airport. So the problem becomes one not of risk minimization, but rather risk optimization. Where’s the sweet spot in the curve where you’re pushing new horizons but are still safe?

Its really no different from what we do with the rest of our lives. Personally, I tend to err on the side of caution. And I’m probably poorer for it, not so much financially (though maybe that, too), but in terms of life experience.

In the airplane, I’m fortunately equipped with some equipment that’s able to view weather radar, but with an image that’s not quite current. I’m also equipped with a device that can detect lightning strikes, but does nothing to detect dangerous storm system that aren’t yet at the lightning-making stage. During the trip, I was talking to an air traffic controller whose job was making sure that planes didn’t collide, but who was also able to provided some limited information about weather . She could help me avoid the storm cells, but she had her own agenda that came first.

So essentially, I was integrating my own observations with those of others, and with the needs of others. The penalty for doing badly was potentially very uncomfortable. It might have been easier to wait out the storm in Brunswick. But my though was that the problem was a manageable one, even if it ended with a stop somewhere in the middle, or a turn back to Brunswick.

We made it to Fort Lauderdale with a plane well washed by the rain but none the worse for wear. And I’m an incrementally more experienced pilot, with a incrementally better understanding of my own strengths and limitations. And that feels good.

I only wish I was better at taking the lesson back to real life.