Long Solo Cross-Country Flight

Yesterday I finally managed to do my long solo cross country flight. It went pretty well. I was planning to fly to Los Banos, Castle, Modesto and then back. The wind at Los Banos was 12 gusting to 18 knots which is beyond my solo limitations; so I skipped that and flew direct to Castle. The handoff from NorCal to Castle went well; I’m getting better at spotting airports from the air; which is helpful :). The landing at Castle was uneventful; I taxied to transient parking, shutdown the plane and headed in for the bathroom. It’s a quick hop to Modesto from Castle, and then a longer flight back to Palo Alto. All in all – everything went smoothly and I’m pretty happy with how I was able to handle the flight.

Photos! (entire album is here)

Monterey Peninsula

Unusual Attitudes?

Castle Airport – Made it!

Mount Diablo from the South East

Altamont Raceway
Altamont Raceway

Why the BMW sits low on one side.

I always wondered why the BMW sits slightly lower on one side than on the other. I thought it might be years of sitting lop sided because of the fact that the handbrake only grips on one side. It’s caused the fender liner to get all torn up as well (I thought this was because of me driving over those annoying concrete things in parking spaces….

It turns out there is an explanation….

The spring has snapped. Damned Previous Owners!!

The truly annoying thing is that I’ve had both the BMW dealership and a tire/alignment shop examine the car to look for exactly this kind of thing, and neither of them found it. I’ll be ordering springs today :).

Learning to Fly & First Solo.

After flying with Hans back in January – I quickly got to thinking about how cool it was to fly, and how accessible it was to do so. I had tinkered with flight simulators a lot when I was a kid, but I always just assumed it would be utterly unthinkable to actually consider flying a real airplane.
It turns out that learning to fly is not cheap, but it is doable. Since it takes a while to learn, the cost can also be spread over a few months. There are various numbers out there, but think about between $10k to $20k to obtain a private pilot license at the current time. I also live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which increases the cost some.

The first thing I did was to figure out which of my friends had any contact with the aviation community and find a good instructor. I had worked at Viant after Vance Cochrane was there. Vance recommended Dominique Marais as an instructor at West Valley Flying Club – so I took a discovery flight with her in an old Cessna 172. Since I wanted to broaden my horizons a little, I also took a discovery flight with Tim Stingle in a Diamond Katana. My flight with Tim was much more intense than the flight with Dominique, as he took more of a “drop you in the deep end” kind of approach, plus the Katana is really a very light and maneuverable plane. I like the variety of planes that West Valley has available, and I think Dominique’s teaching style works better for me – so that’s how that decision was made. In retrospect Diamond Aviation is no longer listing the Katana’s on their site, and I more often fly out of Palo Alto, so I’m very happy with my choice, and Dominique is a great (and patient) teacher and a fun person to be around.

The next issue I ran into was getting a TSA clearance to learn to fly. Since I was still a green card holder when I started my training I first had to get a new UK passport, and then apply to the alien flight student program. You don’t need this for your first “discovery flight” with a flight school, (you can also log your discovery flight, so get your logbook first), but for any subsequent flight training in the air, you need this. I kept my frustration to a minimum by doing a lot of ground study while this was going on.

My early training was thick and fast. The learning curve is steep at the beginning – and there are a lot of things to remember, and new things are introduced almost every lesson. This makes the process very rewarding, and the first time you execute a takeoff, or a steep turn, it is all memorable and fun.

After a few months of training, Dominique felt that I was ready to solo, and my confidence level also started to improve to the point where that was possible. I left it a little late getting my Medical certificate. This was a big mistake. The fact that I am asthmatic meant that I had to go to the hospital for a ~$2000 set of lung tests before I could get my medical certificate. Having done that, I’ll have to have the same batch of tests done again this year, since they only issued me a single year certificate. The delays and issues with getting this done meant that it took about 3 months from start to finish and was quite stressful and difficult to organise.

Having gotten my medical and preparing for the solo phase check; naturally all my skills fell apart in a ball of nervousness and anxiety; so some more time was then spent correcting this.

Finally, on November 2nd, 2007 I did my first solo. 3 laps of the pattern at Palo Alto airport. This was a huge moment for me and I enjoyed it immensely. I’d always messed around with flight simulators on the computer when I was a kid. I never even considered it would be possible to actually learn to fly. I also didn’t expect it to be one of the most rewarding things I’ve done.

Waiting to get through security so you can be safe?

Boing Boing carried this story today about ridiculously long lines to get through security at Heathrow. Of course, this story is replicated anywhere in the world where there is a flight to the US. It occurred to me that the line to get through to security has now become a bigger target for a terrorist than what’s on the other side… and you don’t have to go through security to get there. As Alanis says… “Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?”

Rails: The Other Foot.

It didn’t take very long at all to develop an initial version of my rails app – in fact – I’ve found rails to be immensely productive. Using yum and gem to install components also seems to be a big win. The whole development process was so ludicrously fast, in fact, that it caused me to be suspicious of what exactly I was giving up. It took me quite a while to figure it out; and in the end it came in the deployment stage.

It turns out that Rails is not thread safe. I was quite surprised to learn this, especially since ruby does in fact support threading; it’s just that Rails … doesn’t. This is a bit of a scalability issue, but it turns out that it’s not really a huge problem: I save SO much time in development, and what I was really trying to do was to throw an idea out and see if it sticks, which I am able to do. If it does stick and I need to scale it, I will gladly either hire some engineers to re-implement in Java, or buy some more servers, or probably both.

As for deployment, that isn’t fully sorted out in the same kind of way that it looks like it might be. My original thought was to go to FastCGI and plug it into Apache. Way back when (1997-1998 vintage) I worked with some large perl applications that used FastCGI, and it was always a nightmare with a bunch of processes spun up and some of them dying, turning into zombies and consuming large amounts of CPU. This experience still seems to be the state of the art, and the main reason why FastCGI is a bad idea. James Duncan Davidson has an excellent discussion on this topic on his blog. Further trips through the blog-o-sphere reveal yet more information, including the “pack-of-mongrels” approach which is detailed on Coda Hale’s blog. Thanks to both of these guys for very succinctly laying out solutions and issues on rails deployment.

The summary of this is that I have a cluster of mongrel servers running on my box, and I can deploy the application in an automated way (“cap deploy”) from my user account and have my latest code rolled out from development to production. The front-end server is apache, which seems to have grown load-balancing abilities in the form of mod_proxy_balancer. This is reasonably slick, and better than I would have had setup for a java app. Having said that – I would have been able to deploy my java app in tomcat, which is capable of handling a lot more traffic than my pair of mongrels. Of course, I don’t actually have any traffic, so much of this is mute anyway. All of this probably took about 4 hours of work or so (including some other minor deployment issues I ran into). Not bad at all.