Flying Friday: the one with thunderstorms

I lived in the Bay Area for about five years. Among the many weird things I experienced there, one that particularly sticks with me is the way people acted when we got a thunderstorm. They’re quite rare in that part of the country and the arrival of even faint thunder was considered quite an event.

Of course, here in the southeastern US, thunderstorms are as common as pickup trucks, especially in the spring and summer. As I write this, here’s what the airspace near me looks like. When I look out my window, there are plenty of building cumulus clouds, but the real action is off towards Chattanooga.

It’s not necessarily intrinsically harmful to fly into, through, or under falling rain or snow. (Hail isn’t great, though!) However, when rain falls, it displaces air, and the result is that you get updrafts and downdrafts. Those can be harmful. In fact, the common rule of thumb is to avoid flying within 20 nautical miles of the boundary of a thunderstorm (like the one just northeast of the PRONE intersection above). That’s because, in the FAA’s words, “All thunderstorms have conditions that are a hazard to aviation. These hazards occur in numerous combinations. While not every thunderstorm contains all hazards, it is not possible to visually determine which hazards a thunderstorm contains.”

Notice that I was careful to use the word “thunderstorm” and not “rainstorm” or “rain cloud” in the preceding paragraph. That’s the crux of the problem: your eyeball alone can’t tell the difference. Thankfully, we have radar, which is where the image above comes from. There’s lots to say about modern weather radar, and all the modes and capabilities it has, but the best way to think about it from an aviation perspective is that it can show you two important things: is there precipitation in the area you’re going towards, and what are the winds doing?

If you shoot a beam of radar energy into a cloud, some will be absorbed, some will scatter off in various directions, and some will be reflected back to the receiving antenna. By magic, it’s possible to figure out quite a few things about a storm cell based on this reflection and a few other parameters, like the tilt of the antenna. For example, if you look at the Doppler shift of the returned reflections, that tells you something about the relative movement of air and water masses in the beam, which you can use to figure out which way the storm’s moving and, oh yeah, if it is showing signs consistent with the formation of tornadoes.

Anyway, enough about that. What I wanted to talk about today is something radar can’t tell you.

Before I get into that, though, I should spill a dirty little secret. Most of us don’t even have radar in our planes. The FAA broadcasts radar images through a ground-to-air datalink system known as FIS-B. This is worlds better than not having any radar imagery in the cockpit, but it’s super important to know that it’s not a real-time picture. FIS-B datalink images can be up to 15 minutes delayed, which means that they show you where the weather was. That means that what you see out the window is king, not what your FIS-B receiver shows. This is extra true because what the FIS-B radar shows you is a composite picture that tells you there’s precipitation (and if so, roughly how much). It doesn’t tell you at what altitude the cloud based or tops are, how much precipitation is reaching the ground, or much else of use.

With these limitations in mind, you can’t depend on ground-based weather data to distinguish between a rain shower and a giant thunderstorm, the more so because that ground-based data won’t show you where there’s lightning.

In the image above, you can see little blue lightning icons. Each one indicates a lightning strike picked up by what is basically a bare-bones radio receiver– lightning strikes make a hell of a lot of radio-frequency noise (as any AM radio listener can tell you). This noise is in the form of radio waves called sferics. With the right receiver you can pick those sferics up and triangulate their source– even better, you can do that in flight and get accurate, instantaneous real-time lightning data.

Why do you need to know where the lightning is? Because that’s where the thunderstorms are. Thunderstorms can have lightning (duh), extreme turbulence, hail, wind shear, and/or icing– and the only one of these that is easily detected from a distance is lightning. So it’s a pretty good proxy: you won’t ever see lightning if there’s no thunderstorm.

The picture above shows a live display from a recent flight I took from Decatur to Auburn. Each one of those little crosses is a lightning strike. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out that the more little crosses there are in an area, the less you want to be there. This screen is from a BFGoodrich (yes, them) Stormscope, which is basically this small LCD screen, a small box with a primitive computer in it, and a small array of antennas inside a flat enclosure on the outside of the airplane. The antennas pick up sferics, the computer estimates distance and bearing, and the screen shows you a +. There are newer, fancier models than this– mine was made in 1991– but they all work essentially the same way. In this case, I get a real-time, 360° view of lightning activity at up to a 100-nautical-mile radius, which is pretty great.

Compare what you see on the Stormscope view above with what the FIS-B picture looked like, below. On the bottom display (which is set to “track up”– so that the airplane’s southerly track is towards the top of the display) you can see a bunch of awful-looking red and yellow. I took these pictures a few minutes apart, so they don’t line up precisely, but they’re close enough to get the point across.

Of course, the best solution would be to have real-time in-flight radar and lightning data and ground-based FIS-B. Why?

  • Radar shows you what’s in front of you now, with good resolution and detail
  • A Stormscope shows you whether is lightning (and therefore, thunderstorms) embedded in the clouds you see via eyeball or radar
  • FIS-B feeds can show you radar imagery from the area where you are (including beyond immediate radar range), or over all of the continental US, which is really handy when you want to look ahead towards your destination.

Remember that earlier I said lightning is a good proxy for the presence of thunderstorms. The absence of lightning doesn’t mean you’re good to go, though. You can still have a thunderstorm with no lightning. That’s why a Stormscope alone isn’t enough to keep you out of trouble.

I don’t yet have radar, although this airplane did at one time and still has a good-condition nose radome. Until I equip a radar (which, let’s be honest, probably won’t ever happen), having the Stormscope along makes it much easier to decipher what’s happening in those clouds so I can give them an appropriate berth.

Thunderstorms are a hell of a lot more fun to watch from the ground than to fly through.

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Travel Thursday: managing flight and calendar stuff

I used to fly a lot– in February 2020, just before the Big You Know What, I got an email from Delta telling me that I had crossed the two-million-mile mark with them. I say this not to brag, but to frame a key need I have: effective calendar management around flights. My business travel is starting to pick up again, but the steady drumbeat of news stories and anecdotes about how awful commercial air travel is right now spurred me to mention a few tools and strategies I use for managing this kind of stuff.

First, let’s filter out what I’m not talking about: searching for and pricing flights, choosing a preferred set of travel vendors, etc. The choice of Delta-vs-American (Delta, duh), whether to change planes in Paris vs Amsterdam (Amsterdam, hands down), or whether it’s true that you get the lowest fares when booking on Tuesday (nope)– these are interesting topics for another time but there are also zillions of travel blogs and videos and so on that cover that stuff. Instead, I want to focus on a fundamental issue: how do I track and organize my calendar around travel.

I’ll start with TripIt, because I did start with TripIt. I’ve had it since 2008 and it is an incredibly useful tool for several purposes. First, it’s an all-in-one trip planner. By forwarding airline, train, ship, car, and hotel reservation confirmations to the service, it automatically assembles itineraries and then gives me a simple interface, on web, mobile, and Apple Watch, to show me where I’m going and when, and how much layover time I have at each segment. Here’s an example for a recent trip from Huntsville to Kraków to London to Huntsville.

TripIt gives an easy-to-read summary of all aspects of a trip

The basic service is free, but I happily pay $49/year to get the “pro” feature set. This includes push notifications of airport gate changes, flight time changes (both for delays and advances), and a service that will alert you when a purchased airfare drops so you can get it reticketed and recover the difference.

TripIt also has the very useful feature that you can easily share your trips. When I have business travel, it’s easy to share the trip with Erica so she can see my itinerary. Better still, when we’re traveling together, we can both update and edit the itinerary– so while I’m booking flights, cars, and hotels, she can be planning, booking, and adding tours and other activities. Then we both have a complete up-to-date map and timeline of our travel, which we both love.

Then there’s Flighty. This app is pretty much magical. Like Tripit, it tracks flights, and it can notify you of gate changes, delays, cancellations, and so on. In practice, I tend to get notifications from Flighty 5-10 minutes before Tripit. This may not sound like much, but a 5-minute head start on rebooking when your flight’s been suddenly cancelled can be huge.

Flighty can read flight data from TripIt and write it to my iPhone calendar (which in turn is synced with my Exchange Online mailbox). Boom! When I book a flight, it shows up on my calendar with the time zones and locations correct… which means my coworkers can see when I’m in flight, avoiding double-booking. When a flight’s delayed, Flighty’s smart enough to update the calendar on its own. Flighty also ingests FAA delay data, which in itself is super useful. The Flighty app is beautifully designed and their support team is very responsive to feedback.It’s well worth the yearly fee (which I think is $40).

Speaking of FAA delay data… there’s an app for that. Or at least a web site: https://nasstatus.faa.gov/. Lots of people don’t realize how much trouble can be caused by a few storms in inopportune places. Delays at major hubs (like Atlanta, Chicago, or JFK/Newark/LaGuardia) cascade really quickly across the rest of the system–so if there’s a ground stop for bad weather, or storms that reduce traffic flow, or pretty much any ATC-related issue, the delays will spread a lot faster and further than you might expect, often leading to stories in your favorite media outlet with headlines like “travel meltdown.” Although it doesn’t really relate to travel calendar management, I mention this because I usually take a quick look at this page a couple of times on the evening before and morning of my commercial flights. That gives me a sense of what might lie ahead. It’s also my go-to when I have friends or family traveling and I want to keep tabs on whether they are likely to get to their destination on time.

Maybe a future topic: why the Jacksonville Center ATC facility is the biggest single contributor to widespread delays! For now, I’m going to get busy doing the travel expense report I procrastinated to write this.

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Flying Friday: the one where I didn’t fly to the Bahamas

Some of you may remember two previous articles here: one about dispatch reliability and one about piston engines. If you like, you can consider this one to be titled “on aircraft piston engines, part 3”

One of the best reasons to buy an airplane is to use it to go places. In my case, a big part of the reason for buying a twin was so I could comfortably fly over water, mountains, and other places where a single-engine plane might leave me as an involuntary glider pilot. Not long after I bought Carmen, I started roughing out plans to fly to the Bahamas with Erica, since neither of us had been and there are many out-islands with small airports to visit. Unfortunately, then I made a critical mistake.

See, what had happened was…

The American Bonanza Society is the largest national club for owners of Beech aircraft, including Barons. I could go on for pages about how valuable their magazine and tech support forums have been, but I’ll ask that you take it as stipulated. One of the services they offer is the ABS service clinic, a comprehensive review of an airplane hosted by a master mechanic with long Beech experience. For another post, I’ll talk about the details, but for now, let me just say I was blown away by how much Wayne Whittington taught me in a 90-minute exploration of the guts of my airplane. One of the bonus services included in the clinic is a borescope inspection, performed by a technician from Continental Motors, the company that makes the engines.. This inspection is conceptually simple: you pull out a spark plug, stick a borescope inside, take some pictures, and then examine them looking for signs of badness. These signs might indicate damaged, sticking, or fouled intake and/or exhaust valves, corrosion, space aliens, rude graffiti, and so on. There’s lots of lore concerning how to interpret these pictures and signs. In my case, the examination found this:

This is a thing you do not want to see in your engine

“What is that?” you ask. Well, to the inspector, it looked like a crack in the plating of the cylinder barrel. That brown discoloration is a little unusual but not in itself a bad sign, but a crack in the plating is bad because it might allow part of the plating to break loose and go ricocheting around the engine. Armed with that picture, I ordered a replacement cylinder and made plans to take the plane up to Winchester to let Jon Foote work on it.

A quick digression. Continental makes engines, including the IO-470-L engines on this plane. But these particular engines were built by a gentleman named Bill Cunningham at PowerMasters. He used stock Continental parts to start with but added some other, better parts along the way, including Millenium cylinders from Superior Air Parts. See, one design feature of most piston aircraft engines is that the cylinders aren’t cast into a single block– they bolt on individually and can thus be repaired or replaced individually.

Anyway, I emailed Bill, who said that he hadn’t seen a similar defect and that he would definitely replace the cylinder. For fun, I decided to ask Superior, the cylinder manufacturer, if they wanted to have a look at the cylinder once it was pulled. The gentleman I spoke to there, who owns their QA team and has been manufacturing parts for aircraft engines for nearly 40 years, said he definitely would like to see it and that he definitely wouldn’t fly the cylinder in that condition.

Instead of going to Winchester, I had the cylinder diverted from Winchester to Decatur and dropped the plane off at the local shop. This caused a double-barreled delay: first UPS took a solid week to change the delivery address on the cylinder, then the shop, which is shorthanded just like every other aviation shop on this blessed blue planet, had to fit me into their complicated schedule. I begrudgingly booked tickets on Delta to Nassau. (More on that later.)

The truth is revealed

Finally, the day before we were supposed to leave, the mechanic called. “I pulled that cylinder,” he said. “That’s not a crack or a scratch; it’s just a tooling mark.”

Silence.

“Wait,” I said. “You mean that there’s nothing wrong with it?”

“Nope,” he said cheerfully. “Want me to put it back on?”

Reader, I did want that very much. But in the interest of aviation safety, I decided to put the new cylinder on instead. These engines have been around a while, and I didn’t see the value in putting the old one back on when I already had a new one handy. There’s a degree of risk any time you remove a cylinder, but that ship had already sailed, so overall it was less risky to put the new one on instead, especially because I did want the manufacturer to check out that beauty mark.

Then we went to the Bahamas. Amazing trip, about which more another day. I was a little sad each time I saw the empty apron at Staniel Cay, where my Baron would have fit perfectly, but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the trip. What most certainly did diminish it was when Delta cancelled our return flight, then booked us onto another flight that got us home about 1am on Monday morning, 6 hours later than scheduled.

Anyway. later that same Monday morning I texted the mechanic. One of the bushings on the rocker arm for that cylinder was worn and needed to be replaced, so they were waiting on a part which was hopefully going to arrive “early this week.” By the time I got to the airport about 1130 to drop off some oil filters so they could change the oil, the new part had arrived and was installed. By Tuesday afternoon, they’d done a thorough ground run and leak check, and it was time for me to go fly it.

Breaking it in

A brand-new cylinder has to be broken in. The piston rings and the cylinder lining will of course rub against each other; at a microscopic level, you want there to be a nice cross-hatched pattern that allows some oil to lubricate the cylinder-ring interface. so the goal of the break-in procedure is to accelerate this process so that the rings form a tight seal against the cylinder wall. It’s important to keep the cylinder temperature high, but not too high. Superior has a detailed procedure for this, which I followed religiously.

(You might wonder why you don’t have to break in car engines. Fair question– which this article about cylinder finishes helps answer. tl;dr the car engine already has the right finish machined in from the start.)

I flew a break-in flight, following Superior’s recommendation to the letter, in the form of a big triangle: Decatur to Monroe County (KY) to Clarksville (TN), ending up at Thom Duncan Avionics in Fayetteville. They put in a new Avidyne IFD440, which was an adventure in itself, and then I flew home again.

What I learned

I still would much rather have flown myself to the Bahamas, and I hate having spent money replacing a part that, by all appearances, was still serviceable. However, when the guy who built the engine and the engine manufacturer and the cylinder manufacturer all say “I wouldn’t fly that” I am certainly not going to argue with them. I’d make the same decision again today if faced with the same facts. Insh’allah, this cylinder will last for many more years.

The old cylinder has gone back to the factory for inspection. When they’re done with it, I plan to have them overhaul it so I can keep it as a spare; lead times on new factory cylinders can be 4+ months so it’ll be good to have an extra on hand. No word on them quite yet what’s wrong with it.

In the meantime

A postscript: as I mentioned, I finally did make it to Thom Duncan Avionics for a bit of an upgrade. We replaced one of the two ancient Garmin GNS430Ws with a shiny Avidyne IFD440, the smaller sibling of the IFD540 that did so well for me in 706. We had a weird problem where the display and bezel lights of. the IFD would blink off and back on, but the unit worked fine on the bench. After a bunch of trial and error, we determined that was because the cross-fill setting that allows automatic sync of flight planning data between the two GPS units wasn’t working. If you have two Garmin units, or two Avidyne units, great. If you have one of each, you can’t do the sync (which isn’t unexpected) but you’ll get the blinking (which was unexpected, and is also undocumented in the Avidyne install manual).

The combined stack: IFD on the top, then the GNS430, then the GTX345 transponder

One of the drawbacks of the 440 is that its screen is smaller, but Avidyne has a very clever solution for this: the IFD100 iPad app, which you can think of like a remote desktop session for your IFD. I found that putting ForeFlight and the IFD100 app side-by-side on my iPad mini worked wonderfully well. As you can see below, there’s a lot of information available. I can use the IFD100 app to have a completely independent view of the data that the in-panel GPS has while still looking at charts, airport info, and so on in ForeFlight.

Because the iPad mini is mounted on a RAM mount on the yoke arm, I can easily flip it 90º. If I want to use both apps together, I put it in landscape mode; if I’m just using ForeFlight (as when I’m briefing and preparing an approach and want to see all the plates), then portrait mode.

I put the new configuration to the test by flying down to Auburn to pick Matt up for his birthday, then flying to Atlanta to go have a bison burger at Ted’s, and then back. It works better than I expected, and it’s making me rethink my original plan to put the larger IFD540 in the panel– I can save quite a bit by keeping the 440 and using the iPad display instead.

In our next episode: what’s a Stormscope, and why would you want one? Stay tuned!

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Flying Friday: the one where I bought another airplane

Meet Carmen!

2022 has been pretty damn exciting so far; I started a new job in January, got married in March, and bought an airplane today. Carmen is a 1968 Beech Baron 55. She got the name after I told my family I was going to San Diego to look at a plane. My sister asked what I was going to name it. I said I didn’t know, and she suggested Carmen… from San Diego… because where in the world… and thus it was done.

The previous owners took great care of the plane, and were willing to let me lease the plane while we got all the loan paperwork squared away, so I’ve already accumulated just over 25 hours, including trips to Texas, Florida, Auburn, and Washington DC. She’s a joy to fly, burning about 45% more fuel to go about 40% faster but with the additional safety of a second engine. My plan is to make minimal upgrades or changes for the next several months while I get more familiar with the equipment that’s already installed, then decide what (if anything) I want to change. As with any 50-plus-year-old airplane, I expect that there will be minor squawks and tweaks required but, because David and Charles stayed on top of major items, I don’t expect anything too heinous.

If you need me for the next few months, I’ll probably be at the airport.

It’s still a little disconcerting to see the propellers on the wings and not right in front of my face

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2021 year in review: flying

In a year when a lot of things weren’t all that great, it turned out to be a pretty good year in the air for me.

First, the top-line totals: 138 hours flown, 21 of which were in multi-engine airplanes. By comparison, in 2020 I flew 78 hours. And, of course, the biggest top-line item: Erica proposed to me, in flight, on our way down to Florida. (If you’re keeping track, that marks the second proposal to take place in my plane while I was flying it, the other being my friend Eric popping the question to his then-girlfriend).

It would have been a gross understatement to say I was surprised
ATC amended my route to include the HEVVN intersection and, upon hearing “heaven,” Erica just went for it.

Second-biggest flying milestone: I got my multi-engine rating. Interestingly, I guess #becauseCOVID, the FAA’s database doesn’t show the new rating yet; thankfully I have a piece of paper signed by my DPE that makes it official, though.

There were some other neat milestones this year as well, including several trips to New Orleans for wedding planning, a half-dozen Angel Flight missions, a midmorning flight into Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson for a visit to the Delta Museum and lunch with my boss, visits to my mom for Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving, an unplanned stop in Mississippi for the worst thunderstorms I’ve ever driven through, and a few trips down to Auburn to visit Matt.

This year’s map is pretty heavy on the southeastern US…

Operationally, the airplane did well this year– no major maintenance problems, no cancelled trips due to maintenance, and no unreasonable expenses. We replaced the old Avidyne MLB100 with a shiny new SkyTrax 200, which means we now have dual-band ADS-B In for traffic, and we took advantage of Aspen’s very generous upgrade offer to replace our EFD 1000 with a new Pro MAX unit that all 3 of us love. We also put in a new set of LED strobes and lights courtesy of Gallagher Aviation and they’re a huge improvement over the old incandescent ones.

Any honest review of this nature has to include a few things that didn’t get done, too. I made two attempts to go back to GATTS to complete my commercial single-engine rating. On the first, the weather was uncooperative; on the second, I just wasn’t prepared to take the checkride and elected to go home instead of blowing up my schedule to extend my visit. There were a couple of trips (including to DC for the Marine Corps Marathon) cancelled #becauseCOVID, and two where we went commercial (Maine and Miami) due to weather-vs-schedule. Those kinds of cancellations are part of flying general aviation, though– it’s not Delta.

2022 goals? Easy. Fly as much as I can; average at least 1 public-service flight (whether that’s for Angel Flight, Pilots and Paws, or whatever) a month; get more multi-engine time, and get either my single or multi commercial rating.

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2021 in review: my favorite books of the year

Most years, I try to gather and post a list of my favorite books from the year as a sort of gift guide. So far this year, I’ve finished 154 fiction and non-fiction books. Some of them are re-reads (for example, I re-read Dune, which I last picked up in 1990 or so), and some of them are new. (As you can probably tell from that number, I am far more likely to read than I am to watch TV or play video games.) I didn’t keep a separate list of “books I started that I couldn’t finish” but there definitely were some– with so many good books out there, and so many waiting patiently in my Kindle app and local library, life’s too short to slog through stuff like Harrow, no matter how many best-of lists it appears on.

First, a brief commercial. You can get a free browser plug-in called “Library Extension” that is pure magic: any time you load a book’s page on Amazon.com, the extension will show you if your local library has it in its collection, and then let you place a hold on it with a click or two. This has absolutely increased my reading rate while simultaneously saving me money.

Now, to the list. In no particular order, my favorites of the year.

Holdout: civil disobedience meets The Martian. An astronaut aboard the International Space Station won’t come home when ordered (but there’s a good reason!) The author is a long-time space journalist and his knowledge and experience are expertly matched with intricate characters. The plot is a little less credible in some spots than I’d prefer, but still a terrific read.

How to Find Your Way In the Dark: a Jewish teenager comes of age right before WW II. The characters are outlined with a master’s skill and precision, the dialogue is moving and funny, the plot has enough twists and snaps to maintain a good speed, and the questions the novel raises– and the answers the characters find, or don’t– are enduring. The second book featuring Sheldon Horowitz, Norwegian by Night, is disappointing by contrast but it introduces the major character in…

American by Day: a Norwegian police detective goes to America to find her brother. Lee Child called the book “ingenious,” and it is. Fish-out-of-water novels can either work or blow up, and this one super works. I hope there will be at least one sequel.

Billy Summers is not what you think it is. It’s a novel about an Iraq War veteran that doesn’t wallow in his service; it’s a crime novel where the key subtext is staying out of crime; it’s a love story where there are no ripped bodices. King has such power of language that he can elevate a boring story or make a good story really blast off. And the ending… oh my.

In the Company of Killers: one of the best spy thrillers I’ve read in the last ten years or so… and it’s about African poachers and a thinly-veiled version of National Geographic. Anything I say about the main characters or the plot would just spoil it.

The Last Stargazers: after reading this, if you don’t want to become an astronomer, there may be a deficiency of poetry and wonder in your soul. Terrific recounting of the nuts and bolts of being a working deep-space astronomer threaded into discussions of Big Astronomy, Big Science, and Big Questions.

On Desperate Ground: the Marine Corps’ fighting withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War is legendary, and for good reason. I knew the story, as do all Marines, but not in this level of detail, nor told with this level of urgency.

Jade City trilogy. There are robot people, and dragon people– I’m normally 100% Team Robot, but this fantasy trilogy, set in a sort of Singapore-esque Asian nation where some people are able to use jade as a sort of amplifier for various paranormal powers, is crisply plotted and so, so well-characterized. The author says she drew a lot of inspiration from Hong Kong gangster movies, but the world she’s built is uniquely hers.
Scorpion. Sometimes an author throws off so many ideas, so rapidly, that reading the book is like watching someone using a grinding cutter: a continual fountain of sparks, some of which will get stuck and start fires. That’s exactly what Christian Cantrell has done in this book. Cross-time communications, shoe radar, autonomous quadrotor taxis, bespoke assassination weapons, and lots more… but the ideas aren’t the story. The story itself is propulsive and, in some places, shocking; there are plenty of sharp-edged plot twists and a terrific cast of characters.
Winter Counts

How the Word is Passed: deep, and deeply moving, examination of the everyday nature of racism embedded into some obvious and not-so-obvious places. Until I read this, I didn’t really fully appreciate the meaning of Juneteenth. The plot is simple: the author travels around (Angola Prison in Louisiana, a Confederate cemetary, Galveston) and just… talks to people.

This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: deeply scary book about information warfare and cyberattacks, told in a plain, no-nonsense, approachable style that highlights some of the key problems of the digital world we all live in. Nicole Perlroth won a bunch of awards for this, for good reason. Pair it with Andy Greenberg’s Sandworm for extra scare factor. Highly recommended for people who are not already super techy.

Razorblade Tears and Bull Mountain. Two completely different hard-crime novels. One features a Black felon whose struggle to stay legit goes awry when his gay son is murdered. One features a clan of Georgia peckerwoods who engage in multigenerational criminal shenanigans. Despite the difference in settings, both are terrific. Both struggle with some weighty questions: what’s a family? what duty of loyalty does one person owe another? are there unredeemable crimes? Read them both.

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Flying Friday: Aircraft multi-engine land: done

It’s trite, but true, that your pilot’s certificate is a license to learn. If I had a nickel for every time I have heard, or said, that, I’d be writing this from a warm beach somewhere instead of while looking out at the frost in my back yard. There’s always something more to learn about aerodynamics, weather, regulations, flight planning, the systems of the aircraft you fly, and so on. One way to get some applied learning is to pursue additional ratings or certifications, since every FAA-issued rating or certificate requires at least some degree of additional education or learning.

(brief digression: a “certificate” is a class of what normal people would call a license. The FAA issues private, sport, commercial, and airline transport pilot certificates. A “rating” adds on to your certificates. Ratings may be issued for the category (airplane, helicopter, balloon, etc), class (single- or multi-engine), and/or type (land, sea, etc). For example, the FAA-approved way to list my current qualifications is that I hold a private pilot certificate with the airplane multi-engine land (AMEL), airplane single-engine land (ASEL), and instrument rating airplane (IRA) ratings.)

For some ratings, it’s hard to say whether they’re practical. I’ll probably never own a seaplane or an airplane with a tail wheel, but there’s still valuable learning to be gotten from pursuing those ratings. Thomas Haines wrote a great column about this in the December 2021 AOPA Magazine. Depending on what you want to fly, though, those ratings may be practical– thus my interest in getting my multi-engine rating.

My original plan was to go do my commercial single-engine training at GATTS, then add my multi rating locally. For a variety of reasons that didn’t work out well, so my backup plan was to get my multi rating over the summer here in Huntsville and then finish my commercial training with the famous and internationally known John A Blevins. My goal was to start the multi training July 15… and that’s where the fun started.

The first factor is that most flight schools don’t have any twin-engine airplanes. There’s a grand total of one rental twin here in Huntsville. Fortunately it’s at Revolution Flight, which is about a six-minute drive from my house. The second factor is that, at least around here, there aren’t that many multi-engine instructors. It wasn’t until the beginning of August that my schedule, the airplane schedule, and the instructor’s schedule all meshed for me to start flying. I flew with John Kilcrease, who was an excellent and patient instructor (and a retired Army helicopter pilot).

The multi-engine rating requires a practical test but there’s no written test. However, there’s a ton to learn about aerodynamics and aircraft performance before you can safely operate a twin. That’s because, for most light twins, 80% of the excess thrust comes from the second engine– so when you lose an engine the flying characteristics change pretty drastically. This is especially true at high density altitudes, i.e. when the air is hot. Flying a twin when it’s 90° outside is very different than when it’s 50°. Since I live in Alabama, hot weather is the norm.

I started with the Sporty’s multi-engine video course, which is what Revolution uses. It’s beautifully filmed and animated, and it’s a good introduction to the basics but it didn’t go into enough depth on the systems of my particular airplane, or on the aerodynamics of single-engine operation. The YouTube videos by PrettyFlyForACFI were super helpful as supplemental material, and I read everything I could find about the 1967 Beech Travel Air that I was going to be flying.

Finally it was the appointed day for my first flight. I met John at the airport, preflighted the airplane, and started the engine. I mean the first engine. Man, it was weird not having a propellor spinning in front of me. Then I started the other engine and we taxiied out for takeoff.

One of the maneuvers you have to demonstrate for the checkride is an aborted takeoff. We got to do that on my very first takeoff, because John’s door popped open. (In case you’re wondering, the procedure is simple: call out “ABORT ABORT ABORT,” close both throttles, and stay on the runway centerline. I did it flawlessly, yay me). We fixed the door, taxiied back, and simulated an engine failure on takeoff, then taxiied back again to take off for real… at which point the door popped open again so we called it a day. Not the greatest introduction.

Later flights went much better. John led me through normal and short-field takeoffs and landings, in-flight engine shutdowns and restarts, single-engine landings, single-engine instrument approaches, and all sorts of failure scenarios. Thanks to smoke from western wildfires, I got a good deal of actual instrument time, and the sweaty Alabama weather made a great laboratory for seeing how the performance data in the pilot’s handbook translated to real-world airplane performance. As an example, the Travel Air can climb at just about 50 feet per minute with one engine on a hot day with two people aboard– 50fpm is a lot if you’re climbing stairs but it’s a recipe for meeting trees if it happens to you on takeoff and you’re not exceptionally quick.

During training we had a few assorted maintenance issues, as is common for rental trainers. The biggest was a 4-week wait for a new set of left engine control cables, which started about a week before my original checkride appointment. Factor in my work and personal travel, and John’s travel, and I wasn’t able to rebook my checkride until the beginning of November.

DPE Max Gurgew has a really good reputation in our local area, although I’d never met him. My first positive impression, from booking the checkride, was that he has a good web site that clearly lays out the required items and lets you request a time slot online.

I’d reserved the plane from 7a-noon on a Taco Tuesday, with the plan being that I’d pick it up at KHSV and fly over to KMDQ to meet Max. I got to the school at 0705 and…. no airplane. Despite calling the day before to confirm that it’d be on the line at 0700, and despite wearing my lucky shirt (“it’s a great day” on the front, “for tacos” on the back) someone had parked it in a far-away hangar, so I had to wait for the Signature line guys to go get it. By the time I was done getting the logs, having the plane fueled (which also was supposed to be done the day before), and preflighting, it was 815. I got a clearance, taxied out to 36R, started my takeoff roll and, oops, the door popped open.

ABORT ABORT ABORT, throttles to idle, stay on the centerline.

At least that was a familiar scenario. I taxied clear and wrestled the door back into position, called tower again, and took off uneventfully for 0.2 of flight time over to KMDQ. Easy normal landing.

Then the door wouldn’t open to let me out. That was fun. Eventually I got it unstuck and walked in to meet Max.

As his reputation foretold, Max was pleasant and engaging in person. We chatted for a few minutes, then started the review of my certificate application. (brief digression: any time you add a rating, you’re really reapplying for a newly issued certificate, which means there’s more paperwork than you might expect. The FAA uses a system called IACRA for certificate applications and, although no one likes it, we’ve all learned to work around its many quirks and misfeatures.)

This took a bit of time because I’d made a mistake on my application: for category/class upgrades, you have to fill in total flight time and pilot-in-command (PIC) time in the category/class. In my case, I’d gotten the PIC time field wrong, since you can’t log PIC time in a category or class where you aren’t rated unless you’re the sole occupant and have the correct endorsement. This took a few minutes to fix, then Max went over what we’d be doing on the checkride. He also asked me to sign a liability waiver, which I haven’t had to do on other checkrides (but it’s been a while since my last one so maybe this is more common now).

The oral exam was very straightforward. We started with a discussion of Vmc, the minimum controllable airspeed. Vmc is super important because if you drop below that speed, there won’t be enough air flowing over the rudder for you to maintain directional control. We discussed how manufacturers certify Vmc for an airplane (requiring me to walk through a discussion of SMACFUM), and the balance between controllability and performance. I used a whiteboard to discuss how the critical engine is determined (PAST), and we discussed the Vmc controllability-versus-performance table but he didn’t ask me to draw or recite it from memory. He quizzed me about various single- and twin-engine speeds and limitations, which was a weak area for me (e.g. I knew Vmc and Vyse but didn’t remember Vsse offhand).

We covered some basic performance: what service ceilings are, what accelerate/stop and accelerate/go distances were for this plane (trick question: there’s no published accel/go for this plane, so I calculated that as the sum of accel/stop and normal takeoff distance over a 50’ obstacle under the given conditions). He then gave me a scenario: “you’re flying IFR cross-country from Huntsville to DC at 9000’ and you have an engine failure. What do you do?” In this case, the single-engine service ceiling for this airplane is 4400′, which means that’s the maximum altitude you can expect to climb to on one engine. Since there’s terrain between here and DC that’s higher than that, the correct answer was “get away from terrain and land ASAP”.

The systems discussion covered fuel (how many tanks, capacity, how does crossfeed work), landing gear (power system, emergency extension, sensors/switches, actuation), and propellers (how feathering works, how the prop governor in a twin differs from a single). Having flown the plane for a dozen hours or so meant that I had some practical understanding to go along with my book learning, which is exactly what the oral exam is meant to determine.

After a short break, we walked out to preflight. Wind was 12G20 but nearly right down the runway centerline, and sky conditions were 4500’ scattered. Max had prebriefed me on the sequence to expect. After a normal and successful preflight, I did a short safety brief (I’m the PIC, we will use positive exchange of controls when needed, alert me if you see/hear/smell anything funny/odd/dangerous, eyes outside), started up, and did a standard takeoff brief covering what I’d do in case of a failure before or after liftoff. I did a short-field takeoff to the north, followed by a long climbing turn to get around some patches of clouds, called KHSV approach for flight following, and climbed to 5500’ for maneuvers. We never got further than maybe 7nm from the airport throughout the maneuvers.

We started with slow flight, then power-off and power-on stalls, steep turns, and the Vmc demo. Even though I’d beat it into my head already, Max did me the favor of asking for clearing turns for each maneuver—so we’d fly a maneuver to the north, do a clearing turn to the south, then do the next thing, then back north, etc. After the Vmc demo, he had me demonstrate an in-flight shutdown of the failed engine, followed by a restart. I was following the checklist procedure, which requires use of the boost pumps, but he had me turn them off to avoid flooding the engine.

After the restart, we flew back towards the south to let the engine warm back up, then I demonstrated an emergency descent. In this airplane, you extend the gear below 130kts and pitch down for 130kts. That worked fine, until I recovered and retracted the gear. At that point, we both heard a Satanic grinding coming from the gearbox. (In this plane, the gear is driven by an electric motor, which drives a reduction gearbox, which drives a star gear linked to all the actuating rods– this video shows it in detail). I looked at him, he looked at me, we both made faces, and he said “Let’s see if we can put the gear back down.” We did, and we got a green light (this airplane only has 1 gear light, not 3, but there’s a nosewheel mirror), but we also got more grinding. My heart plummeted because I knew I was about to get the Big Disco.

See, when you’re doing a checkride, there are 3 possible outcomes. You can pass, you can fail, or you can get a “discontinuance,” which just means that you couldn’t finish the ride for some reason that wasn’t your fault… like demons possessing your landing gear. Think of it like pressing “pause”. You still get credit for anything you did successfully before the discontinuance… but the examiner can ask you to redo anything she wants to at any time, meaning that you could essentially have to repeat the entire test.

Anyway, with the gear down, he took the controls so I could brief the RNAV 36 approach back into KMDQ; about 5nm from the IAF he failed my right engine and I flew a fairly sloppy approach to a full stop. I think he gave me a few charity points here because although I was stable, I was just a hair under ¾ deflection above the glideslope until inside the FAF. In the debrief he pointed this out, and said that in a real-world situation it would be better to stay above glidepath if possible, but to keep in mind that doing so might make it impossible to get all the way down on a short or confined runway. Fair point.

After landing, I secured the plane and we debriefed. Once my MEI arrived, he ferried the plane back to KHSV; the school requires all maintenance ferry flying be done by their staff. Maintenance jumped all over the plane (I was climbing out the door when they hooked up the tug and started towing). They couldn’t identify anything wrong with the gearbox after an inspection and swinging the gear two dozen times, so they serviced it, put on two new main tires for good measure, and gave me the plane back.

I spent the rest of the day and the next morning fidgeting while waiting to see if I’d be able to fly again this week. A combination of weather, the DPE’s travel, my travel, and the airplane availability meant that I could either finish the ride in the next 5 days or wait until Thanksgiving week. Another instructor graciously gave up his reservation so I could grab a time slot late Thursday afternoon, with the caveat that weather might require me to take an MEI with me to fly over IFR, then work the pattern. Unfortunately, we had crap weather so I couldn’t fly that day, or for the rest of the week.

Cue annoying hold music. (In reality during that time, I had an amazing trip with Erica to Romania, which made the waiting significantly easier!)

On Monday, I flew with John again just to make sure I wasn’t rusty. The weather was beautiful and I flew well. The cool weather granted me the novel experience of actually being able to climb well on one engine. More importantly, Satan had left the area and the gear functioned flawlessly. I verified with the Revolution staff that the plane would be ready at 0630 the next morning and arranged to meet John there.

On checkride day, I rolled up to Signature at 0635; the plane was waiting, so I flew to MDQ and met with Max. After a few minutes of chit-chat, he quizzed me from memory on V speeds, asked a few scenario-based questions about performance based on the current weather, and then it was time to fly. We stepped out and did the remaining maneuvers: engine failure on takeoff, normal takeoff, normal landing, normal takeoff to an engine failure in the pattern and a one-engine landing, and a normal takeoff to a short-field landing. I flew really well. The debrief was short and to the point, he handed me my temporary cert, and it was time to fly home again.

A few specific items of gouge about Max as a DPE. Like every DPE there are specific things he wants to see.

  1. Don’t change airplane configuration until you’re clear of the runway and stopped. When you do, ask the PM to confirm that your hand is on the flaps (not gear) before you bring up the flaps.
  2. Do a takeoff briefing for each takeoff covering normal and engine failure scenarios.
  3. Do a runup on every flight, even if you just flew in from an airport 10nm away.
  4. During one-engine approaches, keep your hand on the good throttle as much as possible. This prevents you from accidentally moving the wrong throttle.
  5. Know power settings, not just speeds, for various phases of flight. I was embarrassed about this, since I use memorized power settings in my plane and never even thought to wonder about them while training in the BE95.
  6. Fly good and don’t suck. (OK, I might have added this one on my own.)

On to my CMEL next!

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Mac users, bundles, and OneDrive

In a recent spasm of optimism, I decided to start keeping, and sticking to, a budget.

(brief editorial interruption: yes, I know, I know. Just like my reaction when people say “yeah, I know, I should exercise but…” and I’m all like BUT EXERCISE IS THE GREATEST WHY WOULDN’T YOU JUST… that’s me with budgeting.)

I used to use Quicken back in the day, but in an attempt to avoid anything having to do with Intuit, I decided to find an alternate app and quickly settled on Banktivity after seeing it mentioned on Daring Fireball. I set it up to ingest my key banking and credit card accounts, let it gather some data, and started sketching out a budget. Life was good.

As I do with all my other important documents, I stored the Banktivity data in a folder in my personal OneDrive. OneDrive has been unfailingly reliable for me since before it was called Windows Live Mesh. I can’t remember any time when I ever lost data from it, and as Microsoft has added better support for version history and better sync robustness, there have been any number of times where a buggy app or stupidity on my part would have caused data loss if not for the ability to snatch a file back from the jaws of death.

Earlier this week, I upgraded my Mac mini to macOS Monterey. This seemed to go flawlessly and, as far as I could tell, all my OneDrive data was present.

This morning, I tried to open Banktivity. Instead of its normal behavior of opening the last-accessed file, I got a dialog asking me if I wanted to create a new file… never a good sign. Interestingly, the dialog didn’t offer to let me open a previous file (this appears to be a bug, btw). I used File > Open Recent, picked my Banktivity file, and saw… this.

A blank budget? That’s worse than no budget at all

On the plus side, Banktivity opened the file; on the minus side, it appeared to be empty. This was no bueno.

I verified that the file was present in my local OneDrive folder and tried opening it again, with the same result.

When that didn’t work, I reached out to Banktivity support. One of the things I appreciate about IGG, makers of the app, is that they have really good live chat-based support. Tim, my support rep, ran me through a couple of tests to see if we could figure out what might be wrong. In that process, I saw this horrifying sight:

Of course, the file shouldn’t be zero bytes.

“No worries,” I told Tim. “I’ve got a backup in OneDrive.” So I went to look in the OneDrive web client, where I saw this…

Uh oh. That’s not a great sign either… but at least now I knew what was going on.

See, when Apple introduced macOS way back when, the file system natively supported having two “forks” (what we’d now refer to as “streams”) in a file: the resource fork and the data fork. When they switched to the file system used in NeXTSTEP, that mutated into the concept of a file bundle. A file bundle looks like a file (it’s one icon on the desktop, its components are moved, copied, or deleted as a unit, etc), but it’s really a directory tree. (“Document package” is apparently the current preferred term for this mechanism but because I’m old-school, I’ll keep calling them “bundles.”)

As many macOS applications do, Banktivity uses a bundle instead of a flat file.

At some point, somehow, either macOS or OneDrive had lost the flag indicating that this directory should be a bundle. Since the OneDrive web viewer correctly shows the directory structure, my money is on the OneDrive sync mechanism having some kind of bad interaction with macOS Monterey.

The fix turned out to be pretty simple (but honestly I’m lucky it worked). In the OneDrive web client, I selected the folder and clicked “download.” Since OneDrive knew I was asking for multiple folders in a single download, it bundled them into a zip file, which I downloaded. When I extracted it, macOS recognized the bundle flag and displayed only a single document icon, which then opened properly in Banktivity.

I later confirmed with Banktivity that they don’t support using cloud file sync tools for live Banktivity documents, which is nice to know now. Thankfully I didn’t lose any data. Meanwhile, I’m following up on this issue with the OneDrive team to see if they know about it and/or have a fix for it.

(editor’s note: I wrote this post specifically to procrastinate updating my budget for the month. Time to get back to it…)

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Iceland 2021 day 5, horses and the Blue Lagoon

(Day 0; Day 1; Day 2; Day 3; Day 4)

I managed to make it through my first 50 1/2 years on the earth without sitting on a horse. In the last year, though, I’ve ridden what I have learned are known as “tourist-string” horses in Kentucky, Missouri, Florida, and now Iceland. This is 100% because of Erica, but it turns out I sort of like riding them. So it was with a cheerful smile that I headed out to Is Hestar to go ride some Icelandic horses on our last full day in country.

A few fun facts about Icelandic horses: a) don’t call them “ponies”; b) if a horse ever leaves the country, it cannot come back (thus preventing the spread of horse cooties); c) they use unique saddles because d) they have a unique gait. They also have an extremely distinctive mane, reminiscent of Rod Stewart from 1979.

We reserved a 2-hour “lava tour” ride at Is Hestar for Sunday morning. It’s an easy drive to the outskirts of Reykjavik, where you wouldn’t necessarily think there was any place to ride. However, their barn sits right in the middle of an extensive network of multi-use trails and is right next to a pretty good-size, 8000-year-old lava field. After a short safety briefing, we were assigned to our horses and saddled up to go ride. The photo above is me meeting my horse, whose name I can’t remember; he, and a couple of his compatriots, seemed to think that I had some horse candy in my pocket. (Spoiler: I did not.) After I saddled up, it became clear that, once again, I had gotten a horse who had his own plan for the day that didn’t necessarily align with mine. I sort of yanked him around the paddock a bit, culminating in a visit to the water trough for him that ended only when our guide opened the gate. (Another horse also had a long drink and then wiped his nose all over my knee, so that was fun.)

A word about the guides: they did a great job managing the 10 of us who were riding and our mounts. They were friendly, outgoing, full of interesting horse trivia, and just overall pleasant to be around. It didn’t hurt that the weather was absolutely gorgeous as we rode around the back side of one of the trail loops and out into the lava fields.

After about an hour, we stopped a field where the horses like to snack. This had roughly the same effect as throwing a box of pizza rolls into a room full of teenage boys. The snack break provided some good photo opportunities, though.

One of the things I noticed quickly on my first visit is the contrast between the purple clumps (and, if you’re lucky, fields) of lupine and the black, gray, and brown shades of the landscape. Above is a good sample of what I mean; we happened to be there during peak season, which isn’t all that different than visiting Texas when bluebonnets are doing their thing.

You bet your sweet little horse that I was wearing a helmet.

After letting the horses snack, we rode back; the guides offered anyone who wanted to a chance to test out the faster gaits for which Icelandic horses are known, but as a super novice rider I was happy to pass on that opportunity.

After surviving the horses, our next stop was the Blue Lagoon. This is maybe the only borderline-controversial thing we did. I say that because there are essentially two camps of opinion: “the Blue Lagoon is an overpriced and stupid tourist trap” in one corner, versus “the Blue Lagoon is the best thing EVER” in the other. The truth lies somewhere in between.

The lagoon itself is about 45min outside of Reykjavik; it’s attached to the Svartsengi power station, which you can see from some distance away when you’re driving on the south coast road. The high mineral content of the water in that area gives it a unique color, and some bright spark decided years ago that the naturally heated water would be perfect for a spa. The whole Blue Lagoon complex is dedicated to that proposition; it’s themed and marketed as a spa, which isn’t normally my thing, but I figured it was worth a try.

When you arrive, the arrival flow is very much like I imagine a fancy spa would be: you check in, get an RFID wristband, pick up any options you prepaid for (we got robes and slippers), then go to the sex-segregated changing rooms.

Pro tip; Iceland, by law and custom, requires people to shower naked before entering shared baths like the waters at the Blue Lagoon. If you’re not used to communal showers, well, you’d better get used to them. (Some places, like the Blue Lagoon, do have more private showers, but don’t count on privacy anywhere else!)

Freshly showered, we went out into the water. There’s a large map showing the temperature zones of the overall lagoon. With a pretty much infinite supply of 105-degree-F water, they mix it so that there are warmer and cooler zones. One of those zones contains a swim-up bar; our package included one drink apiece, so we got our drinks and went to go… loiter in the water.

That’s it. That’s what there is to do at the Blue Lagoon. Oh, and you can get mud facials. The water has an extremely high silicate content, so they salvage some of the silica and use it to make face mask mud. I tried it. Do I look any younger in the below photo? No? Maybe you should save your money and not buy the mud when you go, then.

One of the common questions I see people asking on Reddit etc is “how long should I plan for a Blue Lagoon trip?” You absolutely could stop off here on the way to or from the airport as long as you keep an eye on time. I’d say 2 hours (not including travel time) is about right; after about 2 hours, we’d gotten our recommended daily allowance of spa fun. It wasn’t crowded, but there’s nothing to do or see other than the water and the mud. One note: little kids are allowed there, so if you want a child-free visit, you’ll have to find a spot as far away from the kids as possible. There were tons of adventurous 20-somethings; I’d say that was the main demographic but I suspect it varies by season and day of the week.

After a relaxing shower, we jumped back in the car and headed back into town. We had a little time to kill, so we went to the penis museum. Ahem. I mean the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which sounds way more scientific. Summary: save your money. It’s very much a one-note whistle and, while well-executed, there are only sny preserved animal dicks you can look at before they all blur together. The $70 or so it cost for two museum admissions plus two drinks could’ve been better spent.

For dinner, we wanted to go to Svarta Kaffid because it was right down the street from the hotel. We went there about 10pm on our first night and they politely but firmly said “oh, we’re closed”– despite their door signs and Facebook page both saying they were open until 11pm. Despite that, we decided to give them another try. The Icelandic meat soup was solidly OK– the bread bowl was an A+ but the soup, IMHO, wasn’t as good as it was at the Hotel Skogafoss.

After dinner, it was an easy, short walk back to the hotel so we could pack up to go home.

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Iceland 2021 day 4: up north to Langjökull

(Day 0; Day 1; Day 2; Day 3)

Astute readers may notice that, so far, I haven’t said anything about the entire northern 2/3 of the country. For reference, it was snowing in the north while we were there, and although I originally wanted to fly up to Akureyri, the timing of our trip just wouldn’t work for getting that far north. I didn’t want to miss the “ice” part of Iceland completely, though, so we decided to do one of the canned tours of Langjökull.

First, though, we had some business to conduct in town: a COVID-19 test, as required to return to the US. There are private test providers, but the easiest way to get a test is to register on travel.covid.is. Pick the city you’re in and a time, pay the fee (EUR 50 for a PCR test or EUR 30 for a rapid-antigen test, either of which are accepted in the US), and show up at the appointed time– that’s it.

The test location in Reykjavik is at a government health clinic not far from downtown. We had a 915a appointment (the first time slot available on a Saturday) and showed up at about 855a to find a line of 100 or so people. That was a little offputting but, once they started testing, we were in and out within another 15 minutes. I’d wanted to leave the city by 10am to make our 1230p tour time, and we were on the way by about 930a. The emails with our test results arrived within 90 minutes; unlike all the fooling around with the Rakning C19 app, it just worked.

To get to Húsafell, our route went mostly along highway 1, but northbound this time. Just before Borgarnes (where there’s a very cool-looking bridge across the water), we turned onto highway 50, which took us further north. Along the way we went through the Fáskrúðsfjarðargöng tunnel, which was unexpectedly cool. The real star, though, was the view. On the left, ocean and mountains. On the right, plains and mountains. Ahead, mountains, fields with horses and sheep, the occasional road-crossing sheep, and a continually variable cloud deck. It was a gloriously scenic drive, but fairly slow; between the occasional rain, the continual wind, and the 90kph speed limit, it took us just under 2 hours to get there. Just before we got to the Hotel Húsafell itself, we passed a golf course (surprise #1) that was right next to a lava-stone runway (surprise #2).

The Húsafell park complex, in addition to the hotel and golf course, has a ton of campsites and trails. It has a well-known thermal spa (the Canyon Baths), fishing, golf, and winter-focused activities like snowmobiling. I didn’t know about its extensive trail network or I’d’ve planned some extra time just to hike around the area… maybe next time. Anyway, When we got to the hotel, we found that nothing opened for another 20 minutes or so (surprise #3) so we walked around a bit. Once it opened, we had a quick lunch (pizza, nothing remarkable) to kill some time until the tour was to meet. We’d booked this tour with Arctic Adventures, mostly because we got to drive around in the bad boy pictured below, but that first required us to get on a boringly regular tour bus to drive to the base camp. The drive was interesting because it was mostly on unimproved roads that I wasn’t too sure the bus could handle. We made it to base camp without incident, though.

At base camp, we left the bus and queued up to get onto the ice truck that would carry us up above the snow line. Now, I should mention at this point that the truck can carry up to 46 people, and I think we had 40– so this was the most crowded-tourist-like activity of the entire trip. (Plus the driver’s dog, who rode in the cab the whole way!) The tour operator recommended dressing for cold, dry conditions, which makes sense given that you’re going to be on a glacier. “Dry” is relative though; it started lightly snowing as we loaded into the truck and snowed more and more as we climbed.

The cave entrance is at about 4200′ elevation. Surprisingly, it felt warmer there than it had at base camp or at the hotel, partly because the air was dry, partly because there was minimal wind, and partly because the sun had come out. After a short safety briefing, our guide took us into the cave complex. “Cave” is a little bit of a misnomer because the whole thing is really a man-made tunnel, not a natural cave, but “cave” is easier to type so that’s what I’ll call it.

The cave system forms a big loop; you enter, walk through what looks like a big sewer pipe, and come out into an anteroom with benches, where you add crampons to your boots. You’ll need them, as the floor of the cave is… ice. In some low-lying spots, there’s accumulated meltwater. If your boots are waterproof, you’ll have no trouble; if not, well, you probably should’ve worn some (but the guide will give you giant waterproof overshoes at base camp if you need them).

The cave system is lit with LED lights, some of which are inside the ice and give a sort of surreal glow to the scene. You can clearly see the seasonal ice rings, and the horizontal striations in the ice show where the seasonal snow-thaw-melt-freeze cycle has taken place really clearly. The ice is surprisingly textured, too.

Along the way through the cave, there are several hollowed-out chambers, one of which is a “wedding chapel”. Funnily enough, it contained nothing other than a tarp-covered digging machine; no alter, ceiling lights, etc. Our guide said the digger was stored there pending repair. One of the chambers is festooned with lights, and one is basically an echo chamber. My favorite was the one shown below; it’s basically a horizontal crevasse in the ice that shows all the different colors and textures to great advantage.

The last chamber is lit specifically to enable these kinds of cool silhouette photos

When we exited the cave, it was snowing steadily and visibility was no more than a few hundred yards. It wasn’t quite a whiteout, but it was pretty close. On one hand, it’s a glacier, so of course it was snowing. On the other hand, it was June. On the drive back down the glacier, which was pretty slow due to the snow, we saw a rented Land Rover that had gone off-road and was stuck, flipped at about a 30-degree angle. Our driver stopped and picked them up and dropped them at base camp with the rest of us; after that, it was an easy drive in the big bus back to our starting point.

Pro tip: there are lots of places in Iceland that have roads. Just because there’s a road, don’t assume that you can actually drive there. Check safetravel.is (especially for “F roads”, which aren’t paved and/or have very steep terrain) before you go anywhere.

Pro tip: as I mentioned before, you’ll never go wrong in Iceland by buying the maximum rental-car insurance that you can get. Note that these policies almost always have an exception for “door damage due to winds”– the winds are strong enough to snatch the car door out of your hand and break the mechanism, especially on small cars.

We skipped past the falls at Hraunfossar and Barnafoss (which are right next to each other) on the drive up, but stopped on the way back. I have to say that this complex was my favorite overall of all the waterfalls. “Hraun” is Icelandic for “lava,” which is why these falls have their name; instead of the typical gravity-fed water-falling-down falls, the complex here is made of falls where water that’s permeated the lava falls down. The rocks and colors are just spectacular.

As with several of our other stops, there’s almost no actual hiking involved here– you park (it’s free), walk about 100 yards, and boom, there are the falls. There’s a trail overlooking Hraunfossar that you can use to walk downriver; we saw (and heard) several sheep on the falls side. If you then walk back to the Hraunfossar trailhead, there’s a complex of trails that leads you around Barnafoss, including a bridge that lets you cross the river to get a different set of views.

We had a bit of light drizzle while exploring the falls, but the skies cleared nicely as we drove back to the south. As on the drive up, the landscape unrolled before us with plenty of horses, farms, sheep, mountains, and meadows to look at, and the coastal views were amazing once we turned southeast. After we got back to the city, we headed out for our planned dinner: Icelandic hot dogs.

Yes, that’s right: hot dogs, that American staple, are a bit of a delicacy in Iceland. They’re made using a lamb/beef/pork mix, and they’re reputed to be delicious. We walked over to BBP first, because it was closest to our hotel, and found the stand below.

It’s exactly what the picture shows: hot dogs and Coke-brand drinks. No side items (fries, chips, etc); no beer or wine; no desserts. Just… hot dogs. We each had one. As expected, they were delicious, but not really dinner by themselves. We decided to walk over to the Reykjavik Sausage Company, which gave us a chance to walk along the waterfront in the (chilly, windy) sunshine. When we got there, guess what: hot dogs, Coke-brand drinks, and… ice cream. Still not a real dinner, but we made do with an additional hot dog (BBP’s were way better) and some ice cream, then headed back to make an early night of it.

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Iceland 2021, day 3: snorkeling Silfra and driving the Golden Circle

(Day 0; Day 1; Day 2)

In 2017, I got to see part of the Golden Circle but this version was going to be different. As a refresher, the “Golden Circle” route has 3 primary attractions: Thingvellir (I’m using the Anglicized spelling because I don’t know how to make a “Þ” except by copy/paste), Geysir, and Gullfoss. I’d skipped Thingvellir on my previous visit, but was determined to see it this time, especially because we had a special treat in mind: snorkeling!

Yes, you read that right. Snorkeling… in Iceland… in water at about 34 degrees…. between the North American and Eurasian continental plates. This article sums up some of the unique points of this location for scuba diving, most of which apply for snorkeling. The tour companies that highlight this make it sound like you’re actually diving right in between the plates, but the actual gap is several kilometers– you can see a visible ring, sort of like a bathtub ring, around the surrounding hills that shows the plate boundaries. With that said, this was still a remarkable experience.

Dive.is and Arctic Adventures are the two primary vendors offering tours there, although there are several others. We chose Arctic because the schedule fit our needs better, but I suspect they’re very close to identical. before we could snorkel, of course, we had to get to the park, which was about a 30-minute drive. We got there early enough to walk around a bit. The park itself is a giant open space, featuring the largest lake in Iceland, camping sites, and a generous network of trails. Our instructions said to go to the P5 parking lot, where we found a small trailhead and bathroom shed, plus a whole bunch of very territorial ducks.

Some of the trails are paved, others are wooden boardwalks.
This flagpole marks the site of the first democratic parliament in the entire world, probably the thing for which Thingvellir is best known (and the reason it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Random waterfall at Thingvellir

We walked around for half an hour or so, then walked back up the road to the planned meeting place. As we walked, we passed what looked like a small creek; I jokingly said “heh, watch, that’ll be where we dive.” When we got to the parking lot, we found it filled with several excursion vans and a bunch of people half-dressed in dive gear, so we knew we were in the right place.

The handbook that the tour operator provides says you should wear a thin thermal base layer, including socks; it also cautions that your hands, face, and hair will get wet. I’d never worn a dry suit before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. They had us dress in heavy insulated coveralls, then pull the dry suit on over it. The dry suit has attached boots, and it zips closed across the backs of your shoulders. Water can only potentially get in in two places: your wrists and your neck. Our guide, Halli, added rubber strips around our wrists and a sort of choker around the collar to keep water out, then we put on the provided neoprene balaclavas. By the time we were fully dressed the only really exposed skin was around the lips and chin. “Dry suits” now join “Crocs” and “swim caps” on my short list of “things that are never, ever sexy.”

After everyone was dressed, we walked across the road and… right back to the creek I’d seen earlier. Sure enough, that’s where we would start our dive. There’s a platform there with steps that lead down into the water; the first section is very shallow, so the procedure is to enter the water and immediately roll onto your back. Halli made the good point that the air is warmer than the water– so the more you keep your hands out of the water, the more comfortable you’ll be.

The clarity of the water and the colors of the surrounding rocks are phenomenal

We were in the water for a total of about 30 minutes. That was just long enough to see some amazing sights while not being completely immobilized by the cold. There isn’t a lot of marine life, but there are some amazingly vivid green grasses, not to mention a rainbow of colors in the rocks themselves. The water is indescribably clear. I was glad that I didn’t take a camera with me because a) with lobster-claw gloves I wouldn’t have been able to operate it and b) it was freeing to be able to just look around without worrying about photo composition and so on.

Neither Erica nor I had any problems with mask or snorkel leaks, but I got water inside my dry suit up to my left elbow, and my hands were frozen by the time we got out to the point that I couldn’t button my trousers when getting dressed again. Thankfully they provide hot chocolate (and bonus cookies!), and once dressed you warm up pretty quickly.

Next up was Gullfoss. The road there leads right past Geysir, but because we were hungry (you might be sensing a theme here), we wanted to grab lunch at the Gullfoss restaurant. They’re known for their all-you-can-eat meat soup, although, times being what they are, now you only get two refills. Still a bargain, though, especially when you’re already chilly. Soup, bread, and drinks for two, plus one dessert, was about $45. Once fortified, we went out to go see the falls. The restaurant/gift shop overlooks the falls, so you walk down a trail to join the trail abutting the falls, then go to the left across the headlands. Walk far enough and you’ll come to a set of steps that let you descend to a rock on the far side of the falls.

The view from the trail approaching the falls
A view from closer to the top (note the little tiny people on the trail for scale)

We’d planned to stop at Geysir on the way back, so we did, but it was a little disappointing. Geysir itself seems to have gone dormant (and there’s a sign to that effect). Strokkur, another geyser in the same complex, erupted a few times while we were there, but it was mostly an opportunity for us to walk around looking at the mineralized water and doing a bit of people-watching. I’d previously learned that, unless you are both very skilled and quite lucky, photographing geysers is a good way to spend a lot of time waiting tensely and then being disappointed with the outcome, so I didn’t bother.

On that note: compared to my 2017 visit, it’s clear that tourist traffic is way down. While there were almost always other people nearby, at no point before Geysir did we really feel crowded: the airport was nearly empty when we arrived, restaurants weren’t full, there wasn’t a lot of traffic on highway 1, and the major tourist sites weren’t crowded. Friday and Saturday nights downtown were busy by comparison, but during the day the area around Laugavegur where we were staying was empty too. Our hotel wasn’t full. However, because of Geysir’s layout (and because leaving the path means stepping into nearly-boiling water, which tends to keep people from wandering), the crowd looked bigger than any of the other places we had been before.

Kerid crater wasn’t on my original list, but Erica had read about it and it wasn’t far from Geysir, so we drove over to see it. It was a real highlight- it’s beautiful, and I’d never seen a “real” crater (apart from flying over Mount Hood) before so it was a good stop. As with most of the other places we stopped, there was really no infrastructure besides a small parking lot (about US$4 to park). There are two trails: one goes around the upper perimeter of the crater, and the other (which is reached by a set of steps inside the crater) leads to a trail that circles the lake. The contrast of the red, brown, and black shades of earth, the blue-green of the water, and the various greens of vegetation is really eye-catching.

As with most of the other attractions we visited, anyone in even moderate physical condition could easily do the Kerid crater hike– I think the total distance around the top and bottom together was a little less than a mile, and the steps into the crater bottom are widely enough spaced that they were easy to navigate.

For dinner, we went back into town and went to Lebowski Bar, an American-style sports bar analogue with a great mixed drink menu and a “The Big Lebowski” theme. One appetizer, two burgers, one beer, and two mixed drinks set us back about $85. The food was good, though, and service was faster and more attentive than any other place we visited on the entire trip. After our meal, we went walking around downtown and ended up stopping up at the Laundromat for a nightcap. All in all, it was a great day and I loved the flexibility of being able to move around instead of being tied to a bus-tour itinerary.

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Iceland 2021, day 2: the south coast

(Day 0; Day 1)

Pro tip: remember the lava video from day 1? In the US you’d never be able to get so close to something so dangerous. In Iceland, though, their approach is much more grown-up. Hazards are clearly marked but, even on the steepest cliffs or most dangerous areas, there aren’t that many physical barriers to actively prevent you from doing stupid things. So don’t be stupid. (Included in “don’t be stupid”: traffic laws are vigorously enforced and, if you pay your fine on the spot in cash, you get a 25% discount.)

Other things you should be aware of that may be forbidden include drones (not allowed in national parks and at most attractions), driving without headlights, pulling off the side of the road to take pictures, and driving on closed roads.

The “Ring Road” is the English nickname for Icelandic highway 1, which goes more or less around the perimeter of the island. The perimeter of Iceland is about the same length as the perimeter of Kentucky, so you can see that driving it might take you a little while. Many visitors rent a camper van and navigate all the way around the ring, stopping whenever they want to see one of the many sights, but that requires you to spend a ton of time d…r…i…v…i…n….g at 40-50mph on narrow roads, possibly in high winds, rain, and/or snow, and that wasn’t how we wanted to spend our trip. Instead, we agreed that we’d take a day and drive from Reykjavik over to Vík and back. Several tour companies offer bus tours along this route, but we couldn’t book one for any of the days we wanted to go, again due to low tourist demand. In the event, this worked out well and I’m glad we did the tour ourselves.

Our planned route was to start in the city, stop at Seljalandfoss, then Skógafoss, then on to Vík. The map above shows the actual route we took– I mistakenly navigated us to Selfoss, which was a non-event since it was pretty much on the route anyway.

First stop was the waterfall at Seljalandfoss. It’s clearly visible from the road, so you can’t miss it. You have to pay a few hundred ISK to park (around US$3), and there’s a small coffee stand and bathrooms. The waterfall itself is a super easy hike. In the first picture below, you can see a few tiny people in the background; you can easily hike behind the waterfall, then up a small trail (maybe 200 yds) onto the other side.

Midway up the small trail on the approach to behind-the-waterfall
Us just before walking directly behind the waterfall. There’s a lot of spray and mist but the path is rocky enough so that it’s not slippery. Once you get back to ground level, if you go to the far edge of the parking lot, you’ll see a path that takes you to the lesser-known Gljúfrafoss waterfall, which has a cave you can go into. It’s not really marked, but it’s only about 1/4mi and the path is easy to see. The odds are pretty good that you’ll get wet while you’re in here, but it’s worth it to stand on the big rock.

Standing on the big rock inside Gljúfrafoss
Awwwww…..

We spent about an hour there, then it was time for the short drive to Skógafoss. Like Seljalandfoss, it’s easy to see from the main road, but it’s also well marked by signs. Along the route you can see some Icelandic turf houses if you’re interested. There’s also a building with a big painting of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption from 2010, and there used to be a museum and visitors’ center, but it’s now closed.

The Skógafoss waterfall is another easy hike (maybe 1/4mi) from the parking lot to the base of the falls. Unlike Seljalandfoss, there are plenty of sea birds around, both in flight and nesting in the cliffs.

A set of about 300 steps leads off to the right side of the waterfall and the headwaters that feed it. It’s not an especially taxing climb, it just takes a little while. The view from the top is absolutely worth it, though. The trail continues on for another half mile at least; for that distance you’re hiking alongside a rocky stream, but the view down across the valley and towards the coast is better so we just stayed there for a few minutes admiring it.

We were pretty famished so elected to have lunch at the nearest restaurant, the Hotel Skógafoss. There are one or two other restaurants there, along with some rental cabins and another hotel. Excellent choice. The food was inexpensive (about $45 for two entrees plus dessert) and delicious. I had Icelandic lamb soup (which is the Icelandic equivalent of Swedish meatballs– nearly every place has it) and Erica had a really good lamb burger.

We’d previously debated whether to walk out and see the crashed plane at Sólheimasandur. It crashed in 1973 and the US Navy basically just left the wreck in place– it’s not the kind of thing you can see every day, so we decided we felt perky enough to do it. The hike is super easy: 45min out on a level trail, mostly packed gravel with some bigger rocks embedded, will take you to the plane. Sure enough, when we got there we found… a crashed airplane. Exactly as advertised. (Note that the trail is marked but there aren’t any signs, bathrooms, or water available.) The weather couldn’t have been nicer, though– it was about 45 degrees, with a steady but not obnoxious wind, mostly-clear skies, and plenty of sunshine.

The view going back towards parking was better than the view of the airplane, if I’m honest.

Our next planned stop was the Dyrhólaey nature reserve, which gets its name (literally “door hole” in Icelandic) from its famous arch. This was the closest thing to an American-style national park that we had seen so far; there’s a small visitors’ center with bathrooms, and there are park rangers. When we were there, they closed the preserve daily at 7pm to protect seabird nesting grounds, although this is seasonal. It’s no more than a couple hundred yards from the parking area to the main trail, so it was probably the easiest walk of the entire day.

The views across the water and along the coast were stunning. You can see the black sand beach and one set of the Reynisdrangar basalt sea stacks at Reynisfjara
We didn’t see any puffins but other seabirds are plentiful.
This is the original lighthouse, still operational. There’s a pleasant trail leading around the promontory that holds it.

After Dyrhólaey, our next stop was the black-sand beaches at Reynisfjara. By the time we got there, the clouds had lowered quite a bit and the wind had picked up. As we walked towards the beach, we saw signs cautioning visitors about “sneaker waves” so we stayed well away from the surf line itself (more because we didn’t want to get cold and wet than because we feared the waves!) The black sand of the beaches is really arresting– the area closest to the water is actually sand but then above the waterline it turns to shale pebbles, not unlike the beaches near Nice. Apart from the color, it’s… sand. It crunches like sand, absorbs water like sand, and shows footprints like sand. One major difference that I noticed between Gulf beaches and this area: we didn’t see any sea life– no crabs, bugs, etc., and no birds hunting for critters along the waterline.

There’s a small cave and a really interesting formation of basalt columns. They look so regular and rectangular that they give the appearance of being man-made… but they’re not. They’re just the right height and shape for a quick photo perch, though.

The pebbles made a fantastic accessory for my favorite action figure

By the time we were done on the beach, it was around 7pm and, once again, we were ready to eat. We drove the short distance to Vik to explore a bit and find dinner. The highlight was seeing this church, which was designed by the same architect as Hallsgrimkirkja. You can’t tell from looking at it, since this looks pretty much like every other local church we saw the entire time, and it sure doesn’t look like Hallsgrimkirkja.

A view from the church looking back towards Reynisdrangar

For dinner, we ended up at Halldorskaffi, mostly because it was open; after a short wait, they seated us and we both ordered the lamb sandwich. They were good but not exceptional; for dessert, we shared a slice of meringue cake but the star of the meal was the accompanying locally-made ice cream. We left the restaurant about 830p and were back in the city right at 11pm to rest up for our next set of adventures.

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Iceland 2021, day 1: Reykjavik and the volcano

We’d budgeted the rest of our first day for exploring around Reykjavik, so once we were freed from quarantine that’s what we went out to do. It was chilly with a fierce wind, which made it feel quite a bit cooler.

Nifty street art on the side of our hotel

Our first stop was the Sun Voyager statue. There are a few other statues along the waterside path known as Sæbraut, but it was so windy that we didn’t walk to see them. (We did, however, see two super-ostentatious yachts owned by Russian oligarchs, so that was nice.)

Sun Voyager, with both mega-yachts off to the left

Next was Hallgrimskirkja, which was easy to navigate to because you can see it from practically everywhere in the city. It was an easy 10-minute walk from the hotel.

Before we actually went into the church, we stopped at the famous waffle wagon. I’m not saying that I would eat one of these waffles every day, but I probably would try. After that, we entered the church itself and paid the EUR 8 apiece to go into the tower. It’s well worth it for the views, as you can see below (and even better on a clear day).

If the street itself is painted, I suppose that qualifies as “street art”. Interestingly, you can’t see the colored stripes from the church tower itself because there’s a slight downhill slope starting at the top of the stripes, where the man is standing in this picture.
Some more assorted street art

Nether Erica nor I like to shop much, and in any event many of the downtown shops are either closed outright or have restricted hours because of a lack of customers. We decided that, since it was going to be daylight for at least another 8 hours, to head to the volcano at Fagradalsfjall. (No, I don’t know how to pronounce it.) It is an easy drive, past Grindavik and inland a bit. The Icelandic weather service has a really helpful page showing current conditions, which we checked ahead of time, and there are several webcams showing live views. However, safetravel.is has a lot more volcano-specific info. Here’s what it says as I’m typing this on Monday, 21 June:

Strong wind (13-18 m/s) and even more in wind gusts and rain. Not the day to visit the eruption. Tuesday and expecially Wednesday better choices.

If you poke around the SafeTravel website, you’ll see that there are three paths: A (which is now closed because it has lava all over it), B, and C, which is a newer path that goes down to the Nátthagi valley next to the river of lava. We opted for B, which is pretty difficult on its own. It was 45 degrees with a 25mph wind when we started off, which made it feel like 25 degrees, but we were dressed for it.

Pro tip: be prepared for variable weather in the same day, with anything from full sun and high 40s to moderate rain, 20+ mph winds, and temperatures in the high 30s. Bring some good base layers, heavy socks, and wind and waterproof clothing. You’ll need it.

First we walked on what might have been the “C” trail. It wasn’t marked, and it led to a big lava plain, so it might have been Nátthagi, but maybe not. When we got there, we found that the volcano was in shield mode, with new lava flowing underneath the existing top cap of cooled lava. No dramatic eruptions, sadly. Now’s probably a good time to point out that volcano conditions change rapidly too, so what you see there might be different from what we saw.

You can see the faint glow of lava behind Erica and to the right.
Caution: contents may be hot
The picture really doesn’t do justice to the scale of the lava field.

As you might expect, it’s noticeably warmer as you get closer to the lava— uncomfortably so if you get too close. We saw some British tourists who had the presence of mind to bring marshmallows, which they toasted over the lava. The smell is hard to describe, too: hints of sulfur, brick, and rock, but also toasted.

We traced our steps back to the trail fork that was marked with a sign saying “Trails A and B”. It was easy to see where the paths diverged because an ICESAR team had trail A blocked off. Then it was just a matter of hiking. The hike itself was pretty challenging— there are some steep sections with loose tuff, and the steady wind didn’t help much. The scenery was pretty amazing though. I didn’t include lots of pictures here because they really don’t capture the sweep of the view.

You’ll meet this rope just when you need it the most.
The elevation profile for the trail B hike, See that sharp peak in the middle? That’s where you’re grabbing onto the rope pictured above.
A panorama— zoom in!
We were super proud of ourselves for making it to the top

It was after 10pm when we finally made our way back to the parking lot, not that you could tell from looking at the (cloudy) sky. We drove back to the city and started looking for a place to eat. This turned out to be troublesome for two reasons.

First is that lots of places are either closed or have limited hours because of low visitor counts. The other is that many of these same places haven’t updated their hours on Facebook, TripAdvisor, or what-have-you. So the first two places we tried to go were either just closing when we arrived or had already closed their kitchens. We managed to get in to Forsettinn maybe 5 minutes before the kitchen closed. Too bad that their menu was so limited— we compromised on a pepperoni pizza, which was pretty decent, especially considering how hungry we were. Then it was back to the hotel for bedtime, with the prospect of our trip to the South Coast dancing in our heads.

Pro tip: restaurants in Iceland are expensive. We had a 9” pizza, one beer, and two “hot White Russians” and it was about US $80. Be prepared.

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Iceland 2021, day 0: notes and travel

I had a great visit to Iceland four years ago but didn’t get to see everything I wanted to. That presented a natural opportunity to take Erica and catch up on the stuff I’d missed so we planned a mid-summer sightseeing trip.

Many of the online blogs and guides you’ll see for Iceland (and I won’t link to them here!) say things like “this place is so magical” or “here’s your ULTIMATE guide to the BEST things in Iceland.” That irritates me, so here’s my practical (and hopefully useful) guide to what we did. I won’t pretend that any of it is the magical / ultimate / best, but it will be an accurate rendition that may help you in deciding what to do. We wanted to have an enjoyable time and not engage in the grinding cost-cutting (“buy a loaf of bread at Costco and make your own sandwiches!”) or frenzied drive-a-thons (“we saw every waterfall in Iceland in 8 days and it only took us 150 hours in the car!”) that seem endemic in Iceland travel. The most useful source that I found was the /r/VisitingIceland subreddit on Reddit, both for helpful tips but also for counter examples of people being stupid so I could avoid doing the same.

Before you go: all of the requirements for traveling to Iceland in the plague time are listed at travel.COVID.is. Make sure you read it thoroughly! We saw several people at various places who had problems caused by their own failure to read and follow the requirements. Until July 15, you have to have a COVID-19 PCR test at the Reykjavik airport and remain isolated at your lodging until it comes back but those requirements can change. You must also complete a web form that requires you to upload proof of either your vaccination status or your recovery from COVID. That form will result in you getting a barcode in email that you’ll need later. Iceland also recommends that you download the “Rakning C-19” app for exposure notification.

Getting there: we decided to fly Delta. They have daily flights to Reykjavik from Boston, JFK, Atlanta, and Minneapolis. It’s cheaper to fly Icelandair but then you have to get to one of their cities first, so it isn’t cheaper any more, at least for us. If you do book Delta, be aware that pretty much every Saturday they’re loading future schedule changes into their system, so your flights may change unexpectedly. Keep an eye on them. We checked in at Huntsville, flew to Atlanta and thence JFK, and got to Reykjavik about 715am. At Huntsville and again at JFK, we were required to show both our CDC vaccination cards but also the Icelandic pre-registration barcode. Apart from that, it was just like any other Delta flight.

Arrival in Reykjavik: at the airport, as is typical, first you clear customs, at which point the customs officer will ask to see your barcode. Once that’s done, you’ll pick up your bags. For our trip, since PCR tests were still required, we joined the queue and waited maybe 5 minutes to get nose-poked. After that, we took the shuttle to the rental car area, picked up our rental from Blue, and drove to our hotel.

A word about driving: Iceland has many more road hazards than most American drivers are used to, including wandering sheep, roads with no shoulders, narrow roads, one-lane bridges, poor visibility, and tightly enforced speed limits. Do yourself a favor and pay the extra for the full-liability rental-car insurance. It will protect you from cost associated with rock chips, paint dings, dents from garage parking, and so on. I also sprang for the 4G WiFi puck offered by the rental company and this was a good move, since it meant we could keep our phones connected as we drove around.

Staying in Reykjavik: originally we wanted to book an Airbnb. Until the next rules change, you can only do this if the Airbnb host agrees that they will honor the quarantine requirements (you must quarantine in a private room, with its own bathroom). The one we liked best didn’t answer our question about this, so we decided to pick a hotel instead. The Alda Reykjavik got very good reviews and was centrally located, so we made reservations there. There were other less-expensive options, but I wanted the downtown area to be within easy walking distance and this turned out to be a good choice— plenty of restaurants and bars nearby, easy access to parking, and very walkable. Breakfast was included, and it was very good, with fresh bread and pastries, cold cuts, cheeses, fruit, skyr, cod liver oil, and surprisingly good coffee.

After checkin, we went to our room to wait for our quarantine results. Since I’d booked us the economy double room, we weren’t surprised to see how small it was (very typical of European hotel rooms, of course). We were hungry, but the front desk was kind enough to send up a breakfast box, then we napped and waited. If you preregister with the Rakning C-19 app, your test results are supposed to show up as an in-app notification. They do, but just as a single notification— you can’t go back and see them later, and we didn’t get an email or SMS notification. We got the popup after about a 4.5 hour wait, which seems to be pretty typical. The COVID.is website has a chat function that you can use to reach a human, and our helpful human sent us the negative test results, so we grabbed our jackets and headed out to walk a bit and go to the volcano. Stay tuned…

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Flying Friday: country mouse goes to the big city

I sometimes describe my airplane as a time machine: in some cases, it lets me get things done in less time, and in others makes possible things I couldn’t do at all without it. One of my recent flights was a great example.

Last year, I learned that the Delta Flight Museum exists. Even better, they have monthly surplus sales, where they sell off all manner of airline-related stuff-n-junk. These range from the desirable (airplane seats! monogrammed coffee mugs!) to the maybe-not (those paper-thin blankets they used to give coach passengers) to who-would-want-that (wooden coffee sticks with the Delta logo). Each month has a more-or-less random assortment of stuff, announced only a few days in advance. The sales are always on the second Friday of each month, but despite knowing well in advance when the sales would be held I hadn’t been able to squeeze in a visit. I decided that the May auction was going to be my first visit and booked the plane for that Friday.

In completely unrelated news, my employer has banned almost all work-related travel. I’ve met exactly three of my coworkers, not including my boss, since the acquisition. My boss happens to live in Atlanta and had to go to Hartsfield to pick up a family member the same day as the auction.

Did I mention that the Delta museum is across the street from the Signature FBO at Hartsfield?

So my trip plan was semi-complete: fly to ATL, visit the museum, have lunch with my boss, fly home.

Then a wrinkle intruded: Matt wanted to come back home for the weekend to attend a graduation party but didn’t want to drive. No problem— Auburn is a 45-minute flight from Hartsfield, so I’ll swing by and pick him up, then return him Sunday.

Plan complete, I filed a flight plan from Decatur to Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Intergalactic Airport. One thing people sometimes don’t realize about aviation in the US is that everyone has (or is supposed to have!) equal access to the National Airspace System. It is perfectly legal for me to fly my little single-engine Cherokee Six into the World’s Busiest Airport. In fact, I did so in the midst of the pandemic-induced drop-off in air traffic last year. However, that ability comes with the responsibility not to a) screw up and do something stupid and b) not to impede the flow of all those big ol’ jet airliners. Because of the way Delta groups flights into blocks, some times of day are less busy than others, so I picked one of the less-busy times and filed for arrival during that time. Atlanta’s airport layout is fairly complicated, with five parallel runways and a maze of interconnecting taxiways. However, they happened to be using runway 8R for arrivals, and that’s the one closest to where I was going.

FAA airport diagram for KATL

The airport diagram for Atlanta— if you zoom in you get a sense of how much stuff is going on there

The flight over was completely uneventful— I filed for a direct flight from point A to point B, and flew exactly that until I was about 30 nautical miles outside Atlanta. Then ATC sent me to an intermediate intersection for a few miles, then told me “706 is cleared direct KATL, max forward speed.” What does that mean? Well, in my plane, normal cruising speed is 135 knots, or 155 mph. The absolute minimum airspeed for an Airbus A320 is about 115 knots— so if I’m going as fast as I possibly can, it’s only a little faster than the speed at which an airliner will drop from the sky. So “max forward speed” is definitely a relative concept. 

Foreflight

See those little blue arrowheads in front of me? They all have “DELTA” painted on the side

Perfect approach, normal landing, and an easy taxi to Signature. Like most other large airports, there are landing fees at ATL, but it’s only $11 for a single-engine piston airplane— compared to hundreds of dollars at Boston or SFO. Signature normally charges a $39 handling fee, but they waive it if you buy 15 or more gallons of fuel. The downside is that their fuel is ~$2/gallon more expensive than elsewhere, so there’s a little calculus required to figure out what’s cheaper. In this case, it worked out best to buy the fuel, so I did. Signature graciously used their crew van to run me over to the Delta museum area (it’s only about a half-mile walk) and dropped me off right in front of the surplus sale.

The sale? Well, what can I say. It was exactly what I expected. There was an A320 ADF antenna, a bunch of Delta-logo T-shirts, some cocktail napkins, coffee mugs from the Sky Club, and other assorted stuff. I bought a wall-mounted automatic soap dispenser ($5), a 747 farewell tour shirt ($5), a Delta-logo knit cap ($2), a backpack ($10), and a 4-pack of those little cocktail napkins you get in flight ($1). They had retired MD90 aircraft seats, but I reluctantly passed them by because I’m not sure where in our house I’d even put them.

Shopping done, I was able to wander around the museum grounds. Although it’s closed, you can walk right up to the static displays, so I did.

Delta static 747 display

This is a retired 747 that’s been outfitted as an event space— you can rent it for meetings, wedding receptions, parties, and so on. Sadly it’s closed for now.

IMG 5542

For some reason I found this hilarious. Why a Mini Cooper? I wish they would showcase the BBQ grill built from a PW2000 jet engine.

IMG 5544

I walked back to Signature and stashed my stuff in the plane. I noticed a bunch of black Suburbans and some cop-looking people wandering around, but then my boss showed up and we went to Malone’s to grab a burger. (Excellent choice btw— very solid bar food.) We had a very pleasant lunch, then he dropped me off at Signature to fly my next leg to Auburn. 

Side note for some pilot jargon. Normally when you’re getting ready to depart an airport that’s in controlled airspace you need a departure clearance. The traditional way to get this is to call someone on the radio (or, worst case, the phone), have them read your clearance to you, copy it down, and read it back to them. The FAA has slowly been rolling out a program called PDC, where your clearance is automatically generated and sent to you via an app or an SMS message. Not every airport has it, but Atlanta does, so instead of calling them on the radio, I just waited for the clearance message to arrive… except it didn’t, because I was leaving about an hour before my original planned departure time. I called the clearance delivery frequency, told them my call sign, and in about 2 minutes had a poppin’ fresh PDC. I programmed it into my panel-mount GPS and then noticed a flurry of activity off to my right on the ramp— the Secret Service gang was milling around. The reason was the arrival of “Coast Guard 101,” which you can see below. I never did find out who was on it but I assume it was a civilian DoD or USCG official, as military officers don’t usually get Secret Service protection.

IMG 5547

In any event, I got my taxi clearance, which was for the second of the five parallel runways. This required me to taxi to the end of one runway, watch a couple of airplanes to land on it, wait to be cleared to cross that runway, and then hold short of the runway I wanted to be on before I could leave. That made for some excellent views.

IMG 5548

yet another big jet

My departure clearance was pretty straightforward: radar vectors from ATC took me out near the Atlanta Motor Speedway (and its attached airport), then turned me on course to Auburn. I had a completely uneventful flight there, landed to pick up Matt, and flew home again. Within the space of about six hours, I was able to go from home to Atlanta to Auburn to home again, which would take me at least 8 hours of time on the road alone, plus I was able to visit the surplus store, meet my boss, and pick up my kid.

It’s a time machine, I tell you.

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