Monday, August 08, 2005

Going out to space... in your own little machine

NASA´s shuttle is about to come back and other than wishing good luck to the guys up there, I was wondering on a cloudy lazy Sunday morning about joining them. Going to space... How about that? HOW ABOUT THAT!!! I decided I was going to space that Sunday.
Not that is cheap (ask NASA) but if you are not that picky about seeing the blackness of space, the definitions about where space really begins in the atmosphere or the fuel consumption of a turbocharged twin, a bunch of lucky guys in general aviation can alwas go to space. No sir, not in their dreams... literally. Consider this: space is characterized to some extent by the absence of air so you cannot breathe. Also, life is not sustainable because of the temperatures existing there. Oh yes, and the spectacular views... Well, I don´t know about you, but -30C (-22F) and the need of oxigen to travel the flight levels is outer space for me. We also get the view... No way you say? Ok, here is some physics or physiology facts if you want.
1) The average useful conscious time at -30C, in shirt sleeves, which is how we fly, is about 10 minutes.
2) The average useful conscious time at FL250 without oxigen is, if you are still in your 20´s and exercise regularly... 8.5 minutes.
So... this is clearly not the biosphere! This is not the place nature designed us to survive. Astronauts certainly have more extreme conditions to face and consequently their times in case of catastrophic life support failure is less than 1 minute but, really, living 10 more minutes than an astronaut in case of catastrophic failure is not a significant difference when defining outer space. Bottom line... respect the flight levels (you ARE in outer space), stay on top of your equipment and enjoy...
IFR flight plan to Tampico... FL190... 175 KTS... Engines humming on the Skymaster... Temperatures in the green (except outside air temperature)... Oxigen flow checked on all four astronauts today... Yes, it is time for a picture. Click! A volcano view from outer space.
But this happened much later in outer space...
A little bit sooner we were still in the IFR departure from Atizapan, my home airport 13 miles from Mexico City international. It is a complicated procedure for both the pilot and the controllers since it takes you against the flow of big iron landing in Mexico City, so you have to be on top of your game. It is also usually IFR early in the morning, like today. "IXP (my callsign), radar contact, fly direct SLM, climb and maintain 11 thousand and contact departure on 120.5 immediatly for traffic information and higher altitude" We make the call, and the next controller warns us just as we are breaking ontop of the stratus layer we have been into for the last 3,000 ft now: "IXP, traffic, one o´clock, 2 miles southbound, Airbus 319, descending from 13 thousand for 12 thousand opposite direction"
Holy cow!
This occasion rivals that one time going to Oshkosh where we broke ontop to see a full moon at sunset, the view is fantastic! -Look, the volcanos are on the right!-. There was no moon this time but I swear this 319 is a beautiful alien spaceship. For a moment there I swear I can see the passengers through the windows. The sunglasses of the pilot... I think they are Oakley´s... -"Departure, IXP has the traffic in sight"-. "Roger" said the controller, I think, a little relieved. And continues: -"Continental 3495, you have traffic, twelve o'clock, 6 miles, Cessna 337 reaching 11 thousand. Descend and maintain 12 thousand" Those pilots are looking for us since they do not answer immediatly but within seconds they report us in sight. I am sure we were less than a mile from both planes and one thousand feet in altitude. It always looks much closer than that but it is a typical departure from Mexico City airspace. Clearly this is not the time for daydreaming but cannot help wondering. Where do all this people come from? Did someone curious in the window got a glance at this little machine driving us up, up and up!? I like this stuff, but the candy was still ahead for me.
-"IXP now clear of traffic, turn heading 020 to intercept V19 to Tampico, climb and maintain FL190"- says the controller sharply as if knowing I am supposed to pay attention to the airplane instead of dreaming. But my brain is still in the mood and I hear myself saying "020 for V19 to Tampico and climb to outer space..." This controller is also obviously in the mood for he replies after just one second of confussion: "Right IXP, and switch to Houston Mission Control upon reaching initial orbit..." Damn he is good! "IXP will report reaching FL190" I add returning to proper procedure. On FL190, now HE cannot avoid departing from procedure when two minutes later he sends me to Mexico Center. -"IXP, now contact Center on 126.6 and have a nice spaceflight sir"-. I switch frequencies smiling wishing the controller could see what I have in my windshield. But I am pretty sure he knows I´ll be smiling all the way to outer space...

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Yes, we physicists have a life...

Just for the record:
No, we are not boring (or bored). Yes, we like beautiful girls. Yes, we have fun. And yes we have a llife besides physics. You can see my little family with parents and sister, and the nice girl saying hi in the back is the fire of my twin-engine, physics-planes life. Other than this (just ti give the blog a human touch) I promise to stay basically on Skymasters and planes...

Monday, August 01, 2005

The pleasures of aircraft ownership (and the nature of love)

After the pass
Originally uploaded by Skymaster.
All right, yes, flying the flight levels is wonderful in central Mexico where every VFR flight is mountain flying. Enter the violent summer and high altitude airports (I operate in a region where every airport is more that 8,000 ft) and you get the idea. You need a turbocharged animal to really have a chance. But the big toys like the Skymaster comes with a price... Sometimes two. I like planes in perfect shape, and certainly the XB-IXP is close to that, so you can imagine my disbelief at FL190 when a magneto started a sputtering concert in my front engine... right after the 4,000+ annual! You want to blame the mechanic, the wrong synergy of the planets and even the bad weather that made you climb that high. But the simple truth is that airplanes are like this. After a while the problem subsided and the trip back home at 14000 ft was unevenful, but the flight levels will have to wait for my mechanic dismounting the magnetos and a 1 to 2 thousand extra bills of my pocket. You wanted to climb high...
But I should not be complaining. For one thing the flight at 19,000 ft put us above the bumpy weather below and the pilot I was testing for the plane did score very well so I can now trust someone else with the missions the 337 gets. He is a nice young guy that used to instruct a lot in the USA. He liked the T337. Also, I should not be complainig because sometimes the failures in these complex planes are not this cheap or benign. A friend´s Skymaster just had to land gear up after a door actuator failure. He is fine and the gear-up landing was a nonevent (In part, according to him, due to the excellent characteristicas of the plane) but it is still tens of thousands of dollars from flying again and my friend will have to play golf more often now. My wife said it well: "you want a beautiful girl, it costs like a beautiful girl". She is right.
I kissed her. And my friend and I still love our 337´s.