Monday, April 25, 2005

This Just In

(A bit of history geeking.)

While looking around the web for facts about the National Mall in Washington, I ran across the story of Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the namesake of the L'Enfant Plaza, among other things. His story, and the story of the genesis of Washington, D.C. are quite interesting, but I won't recount it all here.

Pierre Charles L'Enfant was a French-born Major in the United States Army, under General George Washington. He was hired by Washington to be the architect of the new nation's capital city in 1791, and in the next six months created a grand plan for the city. Six months after that, he was fired by Washington because he "forged ahead regardless of his orders, the budget, or landowners with prior claims."

Apparently, L'Enfant was a difficult genius; he envisioned that the United States would one day be a giant empire, and the reports of his original plan indicate that it was rather more baroque and imperial than the city which eventually emerged, being compared to Versailles and Paris. As his name suggests, upon being relieved he childishly took all of the plans for the city and returned to France, although he came back to end his days in the U.S., in disrepute and petitioning Congress for back pay.

With the plans gone, commissioner Andrew Ellicott would have been in trouble, but for one of his assistants: Benjamin Banneker, son of a former slave and a free black woman. Most unusual for a black man in that time and place, he was a highly educated mathematician, astronomer and publisher - even held in high esteem by Thomas Jefferson, who sent along Banneker's astronomical almanac to the French Academy of Sciences. Banneker saved the capital project by reproducing the plans in their entirety from his own memory, which were subsequently improved on to create the modern city in place today.

So the capital city of the United States of America was designed by a rude Frenchman - and a brilliant black man, in between two of the biggest slaveowning states in the country, Maryland and Virginia.

Capitol G, day two

Originally uploaded by AviatorDave.
Late Sunday morning we headed into D.C. again, but at the Smithsonian Metro station Gail hopped off the train, while I rode on for a sidebar of my own - The National Postal Museum.It's located in the old Post Office building next to Union Station, which is a grand place that I will have to go back and revisit.

The Postal Museum is not that big, and lightly attended, as you might imagine. It takes up one floor and a courtyard, and documents the U.S. Postal Service of course; most of the exhibits would only be of interest to philatelists. (Among them: "The History of the Envelope!" Whee!) But in the courtyard they have three old airplanes suspended from the ceiling; in the center is an Air Mail D.H. 4 biplane, the significance of which I describe in my photo caption. It wouldn't draw much attention in the Air & Space Museum, just an old dun-colored biplane with no guns or bombs or famous pilots. So it resides quietly here, along with an old mail truck and a horse-drawn delivery wagon; I photographed it from every angle, in my own unique awe. I've read everything I could find about the exploits of the Air Mail fliers, and I imagined what it must have been like to pilot a machine like this, through all kinds of weather, across the nation. It was difficult and dangerous, and I'm glad I fly with the benefit of modern technology - innovations these pilots came up with to save their own necks. From everything that I've read, most of them did it for their love of flying, and I guess that's why I feel a kinship with them.

Having figured out the Metro system, I gave it a miss and walked back to the National Mall, crossing in front of the Capitol dome. My path to the Hirshhorn Museum, where I was to meet Gail, took me by the Museum of the American Indian, which I had never seen. It opened on September 21, 2004, and is a fascinating building to behold. The architecture is like a stylized Pueblo village; it was designed with Native American consultants, and incorporates a creek that was in place at the site. For such a large building, it is very organic; almost no straight lines, and well integrated with the ground beneath it. The redirected creek flows down the side of the building and splashes over massive natural rocks, before flowing around the side of the building.

Continuing past the Air & Space Museum (which I've explored many times, natch) I came to the Hirshhorn, one of the Smithsonian's art museums, this one devoted to contemporary art. It too is an architectural wonder, built as an upright tube; the gallery floors are circular, and consist of an inner ring looking on the courtyard and an outer with natural light. The whole building seems to float in the air, as it is built on tapered pillars that lift it a full two stories off the street level; the space created under and around the building is unique and ultra-modern, yet very comfortable. in the center is a tall fountain, and sculpture gardens line the perimeter. I walked around it once, then went inside to find Gail, who was just finishing her trip through the exhibits.

We went next door to the Air & Space Museum for the last hour before it closed; Gail explored the machines that interested her, and I revisited my old favorites. Then we finished the day on the Mall in front of the Capitol, trying to snap photos of the seagulls and exploring the older fountains and sculptures at this end.

We will surely be back; we have only begun to explore all the sights in Washington. What's not to love - clean public transit, free museums and tapas!

Capitol ideas, day one

Originally uploaded by AviatorDave.
Scranton, despite being nestled in the Pennsylvania hills, is well-positioned for day trips to some of the biggest cities in the northeast. Over the past few months I've been happily re-exploring my region with Gail, my peripatetic paramour. Last weekend we turned south to enjoy the spring weather in Washington, D.C. for a few days.

Washington would have been a short flight, under two hours, but the Baltimore/Washington airspace is still somewhat restricted; all flights must be filed ahead of time and flown precisely as filed. The penalties for deviation range from the severe (loss of flying privileges) to the extreme (interception!), considerations which take some of the lighthearted fun out of private aviation. Besides, the old problem of transportation; there are no longer any easy-access general aviation airports near the capitol.

A far easier matter to drive, less than 3-1/2 hours to New Carrollton, Maryland where there was a reasonably-priced Ramada and a MetroRail stop. Washington has one of the nicest subway/rail systems in the country, so we were able to leave the car and zip into town, cheaply and in about 20 minutes. (What we didn't find out until the next day is that for only $6.50, we could have purchased unlimited-travel weekend passes! Oh well, that's what I get for not reading the machine carefully.)

Thus delivered via Metro to the downtown area, we emerged soon after lunchtime Saturday from the L'Enfant Plaza station - named, no doubt, after some French toddler who was somehow a key figure in the American Revolution. (Research is not my long suit.) We made our way to the main building of the Smithsonian Institution, the castle, and spent some time exploring the beautiful flower gardens in the cool sunshine.

Looking over the plentiful signage outside, we decided to make our first visit to the Museum of Heritage and Culture; to indulge our avid interest in things cultural, and because Kermit the Frog is there. He was, as promised, along with many other fascinating exhibits - such as Julia Child's kitchen, transplanted from her New England home. Admission is free, by the way, to all of the Smithsonian museums; and they are among the best anywhere in the nation.

After the museums closed, we spent some time walking up and down the huge National Mall, taking pictures and watching the sun set. At the new World War II Memorial, a school band played patriotic music, and we explored the area in photos. The new monument is smaller than I imagined, at least on the scale of the other landmarks on the Mall, and somewhat fragmented - it feels like they tried to put in a lot of ideas and detail about the great conflict, an impossible task. But it works well, very approachable on a human scale; and the complexity of it reflects the many facets of American involvement in the war - one which still shapes this nation's view of the itself and the world, sixty years later.

As the sun set, we realized that we had wandered a long way from the commercial sections of town, so we hailed a cab and asked to go to Chinatown. The driver left us in front of a chophouse which looked okay, but we walked two blocks farther and I spotted a sign: "La Tasca", a Spanish tapas bar and restaurant. Tapas! Gail's favorite way to eat, and we had missed out on tapas and sangria when I was in Vancouver. We made a beeline for the door, right across 7th Street. We ordered two sangrias while we waited for the table, which was ready almost immediately; the dishes were all fabulous, and the restaurant has a great atmosphere and decor. A keeper.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

"The nose, it is huge!"

Wide eyed
Originally uploaded by AviatorDave.
I was idly searching for references to my Flickr photos on the internet; most of them are from Gail's site, naturally. But then I came across this entry from a blogger in Japan, and laughed out loud. Seeing Hugh's face among all that Kanji script was funny enough, but then I fed the link into Babelfish for a translation.

The headline: "The, the nose it is huge the !"

The caption: "When... with you thought, it was pattern."

Hugh is now officially world-famous! My thanks to the person who posted his photo, and to all his fans out there.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Another weekend flies by...

We wrapped up the weekend at our home base, bucolic Cherry Ridge airport. The weather was still unreasonably great, so I took my mother for a short ride over Lake Wallenpaupack - which was deserted, this early in the season. One sailboat and a lone fisherman were the only human presence on the long lake, not even worth going down for a buzz.

High-speed pass
Originally uploaded by AviatorDave.
Gail took some more video, including my version of a high-speed pass; I made a low approach at cruise speed and flew down the runway at about 125 m.p.h., which is as fast as I care to go in my 50-year old plane. Then I topped off the tanks and put 02P in the hangar, and went to join Gail and Mom in the airport café for a buffet dinner, before the Cherry Ridge Pilots' Association meeting. This august body meets once a month to discuss matters of import to the pilots based here, such as maintenance and improvements to the runway, fuel costs, et cetera.

When possible, we have a guest speaker at the meetings; Sunday we met Bill Starr, a private pilot who is working as a volunteer copilot on a vintage C-54 transport. The plane, named "Spirit of Freedom", is a 4-engined airliner built in 1945 as a transport for the US military, and one which participated in the historic Berlin Airlift during 1948 and 1949. The interior of the plane has been remodeled as a museum, and tours the country and world to commemorate the event.

Starr gave an abbreviated version of a PowerPoint presentation about the Airlift, and told us about what it's like to fly the vintage machine. When he was finished, Gail prompted me to ask Bill for a copy of his presentation, which he cheerfully shared with us; Gail copied it to her Powerbook, along with all the period videos.

Later at my mother's house we looked over the weekend's flying pictures and video, and enjoyed our increasingly-competitive 3-way Scrabble game. (Read that as, "Mom and I are not getting beaten quite so soundly by Gail lately!) The three of us are also playing online games during the week at The Pixie Pit.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Firefly, in a City of Lights

Saturday we slept late and lazed around the house until afternoon, then headed back out to the airport, as the great weather continued to beckon. I suggested heading south; we could look up some 'net friends, and/or visit my old chum Chris. Which is what we did, as it happened; Gail and I had dinner with Chris and his wife Carrie, and their little girl Kyra, who was pleasant company despite being not quite over an earache. We didn't get any other replies to our short-notice invite, so when we left Allentown we decided to go east and have another look at Manhattan from the air - at night!

My flying comrade Dale had recommended the Hudson River flight at night; it's certainly one of the most striking sights in the country, and we arrived at the Verrazano Bridge in less than an hour. Rather than go through Air Traffic Control as we did last time, I descended to below 1,100 feet to scurry under Newark's airspace, and we skimmed low over New Jersey and out across the dark water. (As I checked out all my gauges, to see that our trusty Lycoming engine was ticking away happily.)

Barnstorming Manhattan
Originally uploaded by AviatorDave.
The VFR-legal airspace is a narrow layer between 800 and 1,100 feet, and the uprights of the Verrazano bridge reach almost that high. I approached the bridge on an oblique from the southwest, then flew right between the goalposts and turned north towards Manhattan. The water below was dark, but everywhere there were lights; cars, highways, buildings and even the ships on the bay shone like diamonds. As we crossed Governor's Island I slowed the engine, flipped on our landing light and announced our position on the radio, as Gail carefully worked the video camera. (Some stills from the video are in my album here; Gail's journal entry is here.)

Air traffic was light in our immediate area, although helicopters crisscrossed the city and international jet traffic swam far overhead. I was busy keeping an accurate course and watching for traffic, but I still had opportunity to boggle at the massive city on my right wing. At 950 feet, several of the skyscrapers reached higher than we were. Seen from our vantage point, the city was a brilliant crosshatch of lights and glowing towers, with traffic flowing in the streets like molten lava. When we passed downwind of the tallest buildings, we were rocked by some light turbulence, and I held tight to the reins so that Gail could keep filming.

We kept on all the way up the west side of Manhattan, and after a while we crossed the George Washington bridge and passed east of Teterboro. I increased the power again and turned west, and waited until we were clear of the New York airspace before climbing up to 4,500 feet. The night was brilliantly clear, though moonless, and Gail dozed as we droned over the mountains. In 35 minutes we were back over Honesdale, and I circled and keyed my transmitter to turn on the runway lights. (Or what's left of them; many of the marker lights are out, mostly on the east side.) I eased us lower until the landing light picked out the trees, slipped into the dark clearing and touched down.

Weekend plans? Up in the air!

Originally uploaded by AviatorDave.
Spring has well and truly sprung here in the northeast - this weekend was beautiful, perfect flying weather. And fly we did...

Our Tri-Pacer had some attention from the mechanic last week, for a weak left magneto (there are two separate ignition systems on the engine, as a backup. Normally both work at the same time, but before takeoff it's standard procedure to run the engine on each side separately to test them.) The mechanical trouble turned out to be minor, and 02P was pronounced fit to fly. Still, I don't like to expose my passengers to unnecessary risk; so I decided to take the plane up for a short solo flight to make sure everything was in order.

Gail wanted to try out my old video camera anyway, so she stayed on the ramp to take pictures of me and the plane in action. The resulting video was neat to see; I've never been able to see myself fly from the outside, or my plane in the air. (Of course, when I'm out on the ramp, I always watch the other guys, and silently rate their landing technique!) The most striking thing was how slowly the plane seems to be moving on landing, and it does land slower than more modern planes. It was built in the grass-strip era, and like its ancestor the Piper Cub it can alight very sedately, at around 50 miles per hour.

The plane was running great, and apparently is making a bit more power now that the ignition is timed correctly. So I picked Gail up and we headed out for a flight around the area. We landed at the International airport in Scranton for some oil, then took off again to watch the sunset. Coming back north to Cherry Ridge, we did a touch-and-go landing back at Scranton - then, I had an opportunity to scare myself a bit. Climbing out of Scranton, I reached down to switch fuel tanks; the valve is out of sight next to my left knee, and invisible in the dark cockpit. About 30 seconds later, a most unsettling phenomenon - the engine quit! Bad news, since there's only one... Training kicked in and I pushed the nose down for best glide, and turned back to the runway, still well within gliding range behind us.

I got on the radio and called for an emergency, and was given clearance to land on any runway. I switched back to the left tank and pushed the fuel mixture to full rich, and the engine caught again; I kept on course for the airport until I was satisfied that we had power restored, and could run on either tank; apparently I had overswitched the valve in the dark, and the handle was leaning towards the "off" position. Feeling a bit foolish, I told the controller that we were OK and turned back north for home.

Gail wasn't too shaken up by the incident; unflappable as always. I'm just glad that I reacted as I was supposed to do, and that if had been a more serious problem we would have gotten down safely. And now, one more factoid is programmed into me: grab a flashlight and LOOK at the valve, when flying at night. I'm already in the good habit of only switching tanks near a runway; that little brass valve could always break or jam when you turn it. Healthy pilot paranoia...

We flew again Saturday and Sunday; I'll post separately, more flying stories to come. (They get better than this one!)

Monday, April 04, 2005

Friday Five

OK, it's Monday, but I got these from Mick's journal:

1) What's the one movie you've seen more times than any other?
Hard to say, but my hunch is that Casablanca edges out Star Wars by several dozen viewings.

2) If you could turn one book, comic book or other print story into a feature-length movie, what story would you pick and why?
One book that I've always thought would make a great Sci-Fi movie is Ringworld by Larry Niven. With today's CGI, it would be tremendous visually; and it features some great alien-race characters in lead roles, which would be an interesting acting challenge. But hey - we all believed Gollum, right?

My favorite books of all time are Asimov's Foundation series; but some Hollywood vandals destroyed I, Robot. And George Lucas shamelessly harvested a lot of ideas from Foundation for his disastrously dull Star Wars Episodes I-III.

3) Whom would you cast?
Hum - the lead character is Louis Wu, a 200-year-old (but young-looking) human. Described in the book as multiracial, a worldweary guy with a sense of humor - I dunno, Bruce Willis would be fun. There's action in the role, too. How about Samuel L. Jackson as Speaker-to-Animals?

4) What one movie would you like to see "updated for the year 2005"? (IE, a remake)
Gosh, it seems that everything out lately is a remake or sequel; almost always disappointing, with a few notable exceptions. I'm more likely to hope that they don't have a go at one of my favorites, as a vehicle for whatever emaciated hack is hot that week. (Please, please, please - stay away from Casablanca!)

Hey, I thought of one: The Flying Tigers. It's a true story, and a good one. It would be great to see it treated dramatically, without John Wayne's bombastic lurching around.

5) What one movie are you most looking forward to this year?
I'm with Mick - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.