Trip report: Bermuda Triangle Challenge 2023

This post should have been titled “Bermuda 2021” but hey, what can you do?

Back in ancient times, Erica found a race called the Bermuda Triangle Challenge that looked like fun, so we signed up for it with the intent to run it in 2021. I booked a hotel, got plane tickets, and then… it was postponed twice because of COVID. We finally made it there to run it this year, thus this trip report.

The first challenge: getting there

The BTC is a three-race series: a one-mile race down Front Street on Friday night, a 10K around the island on Saturday morning, and either a half- or full marathon Sunday morning. As the race weekend fell over the Martin Luther King Day holiday weekend, we decided to arrive Thursday and come back Monday.

Sad fact: there is no 100LL aviation gasoline to be had in Bermuda, so I couldn’t fly us there. Carmen carries 136 gallons of usable fuel, which equates to about 5 hours of flying time, less a one-hour reserve. I could get us to Bermuda easily, but I wouldn’t have enough fuel to get back. That meant we were going to have to take a commercial flight, and that turned out to be surprisingly difficult to schedule. We ended up flying HSV-ATL-BDA on Delta on the way out and then BDA-JFK-DCA-HSV on American for the return, both booked with frequent-flyer miles. The routings were weird because of seat availability, but the timing worked out OK.

The race organizers had designated the Hamilton Princess as the official hotel, so originally that’s what I’d booked us into. Tourists are generally not able to book rental cars, and so I wanted to minimize the amount of travel required for packet pickup etc. I had paid a deposit equal to the room charge for 4 nights when originally booking, and the hotel agreed to apply the full amount to the 2023 race weekend, so we were all set.

Day 1: arrival, lighthouse, and fish

After a completely uneventful flight, we arrived at the Bermuda airport to a lovely sunny afternoon. Bermuda is long and narrow, and there are really 3 major roads: the North Shore Road, the South Road, and (wait for it) the Middle Road. The airport is on the northeast corner of the island, and our hotel (and downtown) are right under the “H” in the word “Hamilton” in the map below. I had pre-booked airport transfers with CEO Transport, so our driver met us at baggage claim and off we went. Taxis are plentiful, and the drivers all have to pass a London-style exam on island geography and street names before they get licensed, but they only take cash. There’s no Uber or Lyft, but there’s a local app called Hitch that serves the same purpose.

thanks to Apple Maps for this view of the islands (Bermuda is a bunch of islands, not just one)

After about a 20-minute drive, we arrived at the hotel and found our room ready. They’d unexpectedly upgraded us to a room with a water view– I say “unexpectedly” because they had tried several times to sell me expensive pre-arrival upgrades. When I say “expensive,” I mean “the upgrade was 1.5x to 7x the actual room rate”, so I certainly didn’t expect to get anything for free. We dropped our bags, let our phones charge for a few minutes, and then set out for our first excursion, to the Gibbs Hill lighthouse. (Notice that I didn’t say anything about “lunch” yet…)

The lighthouse is about a $30 taxi ride from the hotel. (Bermuda uses the Bermudan dollar, which is tied 1:1 to the US dollar, and every place we went accepted either or both.) The lighthouse itself is pretty spectacular– it’s made of cast-iron panels bolted together and was only the second of its kind in the world when it was built. There’s a small gift shop that sells tickets for $4, with which you can climb to the top. Note that the lighthouse itself closes at 4pm– lots of things in Bermuda close early, and this was our first introduction to that concept. We climbed to the top using the 180+ narrow spiral steps inside the lighthouse casing, where I shot this panorama:

a panorama from the top of the lighthouse
I like the way the curved railings turned out in this photo.

The views over the island are pretty spectacular too. The camera doesn’t really capture the zillion shades of bright paint used on the houses, but you can see that all the rooftops are white. That’s because Bermuda doesn’t really have much of a water system. Most houses have cisterns that catch rainwater from the roof– the roofs are terraced to improve the catch rate then painted with lime, both as a means of purifying the rainwater but also for temperature control.

Not a bad view

The lighthouse itself is still operational, and it also has a surface-search radar (which you can see at the very top). The nearby grounds are pretty small so the whole visit couldn’t have taken more than half an hour or so.

There’s just no way to take a lighthouse picture that doesn’t look phallic.

By this point we were both super hungry, and there’s a small Indian restaurant on the lighthouse grounds… but it didn’t open until later, so we had our driver drop us at a restaurant we’d seen on the way to the lighthouse called “Lost in the Triangle” (or LITT). We shared an order of fried wahoo bites (think “fish nuggets”) and then both had fish tacos, which were excellent. Dinner for two, with 2 beers and 1 mixed drink, was about $110. It turns out Bermuda is pretty expensive– you should expect to pay $10 or so for a beer, $15-20 for a mixed drink, and $25+ for an entree at most local restaurants. Restaurants typically add a 17% gratuity, too.

After dinner, we started walking back to the hotel. Fun fact: Hamilton has lots of streets with no shoulders or sidewalks, and some of them have retaining walls or hedges that come right up to the edge of the road. Walking thus turned into a game of dodge-the-car more than we wanted to, so after darkness fell we stopped off at Crow Road Park and got a taxi back to the hotel. And so to bed.

Day 2: kayaking and the Butterfield Mile

Friday was our first “race day” but we didn’t really have much scheduled in the morning. We went to Devil’s Isle for breakfast and coffee, and it was excellent. They have a great selection of dishes, including huevos rancheros and a bunch of gluten- and/or dairy-free foods. The coffee was quite good. How did the restaurant get its name? Fun question.

Brief history lesson: Bermuda is named after Juan de Bermudez, who accidentally found it by wrecking his ship there. The Spaniards left as quickly as they could because they thought the island was populated with devils– the Bermuda petrel (or “cahow”) makes a loud screeching noise, and that plus the noise of previously-shipwrecked wild hogs scared them enough that neither Spain nor Portugal settled the island. Made of sterner stuff, the British did settle it after a 1609 shipwreck. The shipwreck victims refused to leave (since they were supposed to go to Jamestown and had heard conditions there were bad), so the British Crown claimed the island and turned it into a prison colony.

Anyway. Breakfast was delicious. Our next item was to go pick up our race packets. Somehow our registration had been lost in the shuffle due to the double deferment, but the registration team got us sorted out reasonably quickly. The race swag is terrific: a small folding cooler bag, a really nice heavyweight jacket, and a short-sleeve race tech shirt.

some of the race swag
You can’t tell from the picture, but the jacket is probably 1/2″ thick and quite warm

The rest of the race expo was pretty unremarkable, except for the excellent locally-made rum cake shown below. As you might expect, it didn’t last very long.

We stashed our stuff back in the room and headed to the pool. The hotel has a lovely large infinity pool and a good-sized hot tub, both with great ocean views, plus a smaller adults-only pool off to one side. We spent a couple of very pleasant hours sitting in the sun and reading; it was a little cool for being in the water, but not bad at all. The big issue was the wind– a steady 15-20kt wind coming from the south led to a note from the hotel telling us they’d be putting all patio furniture in the room overnight to keep it from blowing away. (Several of our taxi drivers said “every year the weather is terrible at race weekend!” so this is a known issue).

Note the edge of the infinity pool.

For the afternoon we’d booked a glass-bottom kayak tour at Robinson’s Marina. We told our cab driver that we wanted to get lunch on the way– did he know a good place to get a fish sandwich? Turns out he did. Check this beauty out:

I would cheerfully eat one of these every day for the rest of my life.

Seaside Cafe provided the above behemoth: about half a pound of fried wahoo served on fresh, thick-cut raisin bread. This is a local delicacy that I was eager to try and it was SO GOOD, y’all. I happily ate every bite and it was well worth the $17 price.

Our guide was terrific– he grew up a short distance from the marina and knew the local area very well. We saw one large sea turtle, a few parrotfish, and a good variety of seabirds (mostly herons and gulls). Partway through we stopped at the Morgans Island Nature Reserve for a beach break. Because we mostly stayed in the harbor, even though the wind had picked up a good bit the paddling was completely manageable.

in the water!

The harbor area is pretty shallow– at its deepest it’s maybe 10′– and the visibility was superb. The pictures don’t really do justice to the clarity and color of the water. Interestingly, there’s not a lot of grass on the bottom in the shallows, as you might expect.

On the beach at the nature reserve

The columns above are characteristic of limestone– the water erodes them over time. Our guide, who was in his late 20s by my guess, said they had noticeably eroded since his boyhood nearby, which isn’t really surprising. One thing he said that did surprise me was that rent for a one-bedroom apartment could be as high as $5000/month! A later perusal of apartment rental listings confirmed that. Ouch.

After kayaking, we decided to stop at Horseshoe Bay. We’d seen it several times while driving by; it’s well-known as one of the most popular beaches in Bermuda, and even though it was too cool and much too windy to swim, we still wanted to see it. The beach was mostly empty except for a gang of kite surfers and a few other beach-walkers. In the summer, it’s apparently crowded, and the facilities (including a snack bar) are open. Today, not so much. After a few photos, during which I manfully resisted the temptation to climb on the cliffs that had big signs saying “danger! do not climb these!” we headed back to the hotel to prep for the race.

Those kite surfers were flying
the beautiful Erica in her natural habitat

So, that first race. We had both previously agreed that the point of this challenge for us was “go home uninjured”– neither of us was adequately trained, and racing a 1-mile race sounded like a good way to get hurt. The race is a short loop on Front Street, the main drag in Hamilton. There was a good crowd of several hundred runners, including a large contingent of school-age kids and some elite milers who were there chasing prize money. We had a nice jaunt out and back, nothing too speedy, and collected the first of our four Challenge medals. Then it was time for a quick shower before dinner at the Mad Hatters. The food was superb, as was the company, but the service was a bit slow.

Brief digression: Bermuda is a really interesting hybrid of what Americans think of as “island time” and British-ness. Cars drive on the left, houses and buildings have names (“Waterloo House”) instead of just street numbers, there are frequent references to kings and queens, and so on. The pace of life seems quite a bit slower than in the US, but not as relaxed as the Bahamas or Jamaica. Nearly everything’s closed on Sundays, and many businesses close at 4 or 5pm during the week. Restaurants aren’t open late (e.g. Mad Hatters closed at 9pm), and there’s not much in the way of night life. Bermuda is not where you want to go if you want a Mallorca-style party atmosphere.

Day 3: the 10K and stormy weather

The Saturday forecast called for the weather to steadily worsen. When we went to bed Friday night, I half expected to wake up to a text saying the 10K had been postponed. When we woke up, however, it was only raining intermittently, and there was a steady brisk wind but it wasn’t terrible. We got up, had in-room coffee, and headed downstairs to catch the shuttle. The 10K started from the National Sports Centre, which was nowhere near walking distance from the hotel. After a quick shuttle ride, we arrived at the venue and wandered around, including doing a few warmup laps around their track, then it was off for the 10K.

The race course was quite scenic– we left the stadium, ran on Middle Road for a while, and then got onto North Shore until we approached the sports centre again. We stopped for a couple of photo opportunities, as one does. The wind was steady, and it was warm (maybe 70º) and quite humid. We’d both started the race with long-sleeved tech shirts on, but I shed mine about halfway through.

A scenic selfie stop along the 10K route

The race finishes on the running track at the sports centre, which was neat. We got our second medal and then enjoyed the post-race festival for a bit; the organizers had a hot dog cart, a table with four kinds of draft beer from one of Bermuda’s two local craft breweries, and a bar serving rum drinks made with Gosling’s, plus a few other assorted snacks.

Two medals earned, two to go

We went back to the hotel to clean up, had a snack at the hotel coffee bar, and got ready to meet our tour guide. Meanwhile, though, the weather was steadily worsening. I wish I’d taken a picture of the radar view– but one interesting nuance of Bermuda is that there are some gaps in offshore radar coverage because of where Cuban and Bermudan radar coverage sits. That sometimes makes storms appear out of nowhere (from a radar perspective; they’re visible on satellite).

The weather as we started our tour was… not great

Erica had found a local tour guide and taxi driver named Carol who is apparently locally famous for her knowledge and personality. She was terrific. We spent about four hours with her driving all over the island, all the way up to St Georges at the north end. As a retired policewoman, she had a lot of offbeat local knowledge and was overall just a pleasant and wonderful companion. The weather kept us from seeing some of the landmarks in detail; for example, we couldn’t drive up to Fort Hamilton because the roads were closed. We did get to visit Crystal Cave, which was originally discovered by two teenage boys who were chasing a lost cricket ball.

A view inside Crystal Cave

During the last hour of the tour the weather improved briefly, just long enough to get us back to the hotel, but as it was forecast to worsen again, we decided to try the hotel’s room service. It was pretty decent, although their fish sandwich wasn’t nearly as good as the one from Seaside.

Day 4: the half-marathon

By the time we got up Sunday morning, most of the weather had passed– it was still cloudy and breezy (and warm!) but not stormy. The start line for the race was actually at the end of the hotel’s driveway, so we didn’t have much of a commute. The RD asked runners to gather about 1/3mi down the road, where the finish festival would be located, so we wandered down there for a pre-race picture and some gentle warmups.

Excited to take my work running shirt for its first outing

The last half-marathon we ran together was Tear Drop in 2021, and because our training volume was low, we’d agreed to just treat this as a long extended photo opportunity and not a race per se. After the starting horn, we got out on the course and enjoyed seeing some of the same areas we’d already seen, plus some new territory, including a photobomb by St Mark’s Church.

The race was well-supported, with several hydration stops, on-course entertainment from (at least) 3 bands, and two stops serving Gosling’s rum drinks. There were a surprising number of spectators, too, even in the residential areas, and nearly every single one of them would shout, wave, or otherwise signal their support. That’s such a nice change from the races I’m used to, where on most of the course there’s no one but the runners; we really enjoyed that aspect of all 3 races.

It’s hard to overstate how refreshing my Dark and Stormy was at this point

The weather steadily improved; it got warmer and sunnier the longer we were on the course. (This improvement was deceptive; more on that in a bit.) At the finish festival, we feasted on hot docs, Haagen-Dazs, and local pastries, then headed back to the hotel for some hot tub time.

mission accomplished!

Not surprisingly, the hot tub was jammed with other runners, so we socialized for a little while, then tried to sunbathe. This was frustrated by the unwanted arrival of more rain, so we decided to wait it out in the room and then do a self-guided walking tour of Hamilton. We walked through the cathedral, saw the outside of the parliament and supreme court buildings, got rained on a bunch, and made the short climb up to Fort Hamilton just before they closed. The view was well worth the excursion, especially the beautiful garden area at ground level between the inner and outer walls. (Sadly I didn’t take any pictures of this!)

looking back to the northwest from Ft Hamilton

We did dinner twice, sort of– we’d made reservations at Hog Penny for dinner, but were both famished, so we stopped off and had some excellent nachos and a beer flight to tide us over at the Pickled Onion. As it turns out, two dinners is just slightly more than the recommended amount of food, even after a half-marathon, but I certainly don’t have any complaints. Hog Penny, which opened in 1957 and is Bermuda’s oldest restaurant, had a trivia contest going while we were there, which added a festive note to our excellent pub food-style dinner. I had an excellent shepherd’s pie, Erica had fish and chips, and we split a sticky toffee pudding for dessert. Good stuff.

Day 5: the trip home

Travel home was uneventful. The best part was probably the spectacularly large rainbow we saw on the drive back to the airport. Our American flight BDA-JFK was delayed about an hour, but that delay didn’t keep us from getting home on time.

We didn’t get as much beach time as I would have liked because the weather was uncooperative, and there were several local landmarks and activities that we didn’t have time for because we built our visit around the race schedule. It’s a lovely island, with a relaxed and friendly population, and I’d like to go back.

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2022 year in review: my favorite books

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.

Next, previous years’ best-of lists: 2015, 2016, 2017 part 1 and part 2, 2018, 2019, and 2021.

This year I didn’t read as much non-fiction as I have in some past years, and, of what I did read, most of it was solidly average. This year featured four standouts:

Extra Life: a marvelous recounting of the history of life extension, wandering off along the way into epidemiology, statistics, actuarial science, and a variety of other goodies. Captivating.

Running the Dream: suppose, as an amateur runner, you put your normal life on hold and went to train with elite professional runners. How much could you improve? Funny, moving, and motivating, all at the same time.

Bonk: the delightful Mary Roach, our national literary treasure, turns her wit to the topic of human sexual behavior. Five stars. Anything else I say would be a spoiler.

Full Spectrum: you might not think a book about the science of color would be that interesting, but Adam Rogers has tied together color theory, physics, chemistry, optics, archaeology, economics, and history to tell the story of how humans perceive color and what influence that’s had over the centuries on commerce, art, science, and society.

Now, on to fiction. This year (so far, anyway), I read 128 works of fiction. Some were disappointing (Stross’ Dead Lies Dreaming, Burke’s Every Cloak Rolled in Blood); others were good, but not exceptional. This year’s best from my POV:

Damascus Station: a tense, taut, tradecraft-y thriller from a former CIA case officer, set in the unfamiliar territory of modern-day Damascus. A standout choice because of its plotting and tension.

American War: vividly imagined tale of a future America after the second Civil War. It is simultaneously exactly what you’d expect (north vs south, anyone?) and nothing like you’d expect.

How Lucky: like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but set in Athens, Georgia — a wheelchair-bound man sees something that might be evidence of a crime and chaos ensues. Booklist said “beautifully written and suspenseful, at the same time being all about goodness and caring without once being sappy, or, well, sentimental,” and I can’t improve on that description at all.

The Deep Blue Good-By: why, oh, why, hadn’t I read any of the Travis McGee books before?!

The Oracle Year: imagine that you woke up one day with foreknowledge of the future, but it’s things like “the bodega on 34th Street will be robbed on June 9th”. What would you do? Probably not what the characters in this book did. Very cleverly plotted, with terrific and memorable characters.

Termination Shock: finally, a Neal Stephenson book where he returns to his old form. After his last couple of stinkers, it’s nice to know he hasn’t completely crossed the Heinlein-Clancy line, or the point in an author’s career in which commercial success leads to the mistaken belief that editors are superfluous.

The Fifth Season: it took me a while to warm up to this book, but the more I read, the more engrossed I was with the characters and the world that Jemisin has built. I’m looking forward to the other books in the series.

Cold Water: the next installment in the fantastic “Fractured Europe” sequence that started with Europe in Autumn. I went back and re-read the first 4 books in the series and was delighted with how much more I enjoyed them after a decade of travel throughout Europe; my expanded experience added a lot of flavor.

Amok: the latest installment from Barry Eisler goes back to the early 1990s to provide a back-story for Dox, one of my favorite characters in his other books. It is at once an origin story, a meditation on forgiveness and growth, an exploration of the Indonesian civil war, a travelogue, and a love story. It’s been a real pleasure to see Eisler’s characters grow and evolve, along with his storytelling skill, over the years.

Noble House: 1300+ pages of soap opera set in 1963 Hong Kong. This book was perhaps the best I read this year from a standpoint of evoking a sense of time and place as I read it. Michener and Clavell (and maybe Wouk) practically invented the 1970s genre of “massive doorstops of historical fiction” and this is probably the ultimate example of the genre.

I’ve already got quite a backlist for 2023, so expect to see another list around this time next year!

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Flying Friday: Carmen goes to the doctor

A couple of weeks ago I dropped Carmen off at the airplane doctor for an annual inspection. “What’s that?” said no one. Well, I’ll tell you what it is, since you didn’t ask…

The FAA requires regular inspections of most airplanes. That sounds vague, but the truth is that the requirement varies according to what the airplane is used for, whether it’s an experimental or amateur-built (E/AB) airplane, and so on. For my purposes the FAA regulation that applies is FAR 91.409:

…no person may operate an aircraft unless, within the preceding 12 calendar months, it has had (1) An annual inspection in accordance with part 43 of this chapter and has been approved for return to service by a person authorized by § 43.7 of this chapter

That seems straightforward enough. Back in February, I hired a mechanic in California to perform what’s commonly called a “pre-purchase inspection”, and then I had the excellent experience of taking Carmen to one of the service clinics sponsored by the American Bonanza Society, where master mechanic Wayne Whittington did a very thorough checkout using the ABS clinc checklist. However, neither of these are considered to be an “inspection in accordance with part 43,” as the FAA says above.

FAR part 43 annual inspections are required every 12 calendar months; the last one on this plane was done 4 November 2021, so a new one is required before 30 November 2022– you get until the end of the month when the last annual was signed off. It’s bad to let a plane go “out of annual,” because legally it is considered unairworthy and can’t be flown without a special permit at that point. It’s easier and cheaper just to make sure that doesn’t happen.

One part of the annual ritual of inspection prep is to make a comprehensive list of all the things you might want to have the mechanic inspect, fix, or change. This is just a starting point, because more often than not a thorough inspection by a trained professional will find things that the pilot’s missed. Here’s the list I gave to Jon, with my notes to you in italics:

  1. Annual inspection per the Beech maintenance manual (this manual is what FAR part 43 says you have to use to make the annual legal)
  2. 3 common items that seem to have been done each preceding annual. (I didn’t check to see if these were in the manual or not)
    • Check and service unfeathering accumulators (these accumulators are small tanks of nitrogen that apply pressure on demand to push the propeller out of its “feathered” position)
    • Check and service shimmy dampener (think of this dampener like a horizontal shock absorber mounted on the nose gear to keep it from wobbling)
    • Borescope inspection of all cylinders
    • Compression test of all cylinders. (If any are low, we’ll talk about whether to replace the cylinder or try another way to fix the underlying problem, depending on whether it’s the rings, the intake valve, or the exhaust valve)
  3. Fix a small crack in the skin of left aileron. (Although this sounds scary, it’s not; the crack is in a little piece of cosmetic metal that sits over a bracket to hide it, not part of the structure of the aileron)
  4. Replace the instrument air filter (this filter keeps crap from the carbon vanes of the vacuum pump from getting into the vacuum-driven flight instruments)
  5. Verify compliance with AD 2007-08-08 and AD 91-17-01 (more on this below)
  6. Oil change both engines 
  7. Replace main tires 
  8. Service brakes, using new pads; replace discs if necessary 
  9. Replace fuel cap O-rings (each fuel cap has two O-rings to help seal it, and these wear out over time)
  10. Install fluorosilicone washers on 2 main tank fuel caps
  11. Check front seat inertial reels; fix if needed (the pilot side seems awfully slack)
  12. Fix socket/bulb/wiring of leftmost glareshield panel light
  13. Fix “hitch” in electric trim in “Down” mode—it is binding or hanging. “Up” mode works OK, manual trim in both directions works ok.

A good mechanic will help you identify things that are legitimate airworthiness or safety issues and prioritize those. In the above list, probably the most safety-critical item is the seat belt reels– the accumulators, dampener, oil change, air filter, and so on all need to be done eventually. I’m thankful that the prior owners maintained Carmen to such a high standard so there aren’t any known lurking horrors– but Jon may find some, which is the whole point of doing annual inspections.

One key part of the annual is that the mechanic will verify compliance with airworthiness directives, or ADs. These are important maintenance actions that must be complied with– for example, AD 2007-08-08 requires periodic inspection of a part that locks the landing gear in the “up” position to ensure that it will work properly when needed. This inspection must be done every 100 hours; there are other ADs that must be performed periodically, so Jon will check all of the ADs that apply to this plane (and its engines, and propellers) and make sure that they’re complied with.

I also decided to have the propellers overhauled. The manufacturer recommends that these particular props be overhauled every 6 years or 2400 hours. These props were installed in 2008 and have close to 2400 hours on them, so it’s time– but, as with engines, the “time between overhaul” (TBO) is a recommendation– for ordinary general aviation operations under part 91, owners aren’t required to observe that TBO. It’s legal for me to keep flying engines and propellers as far past TBO as I want to. With engines, you can do compression checks, borescope inspections, and oil analysis to get a good idea of the engine’s health– but with propellers, you can only see the visible parts of the prop, and that’s it. There’s no good way to non-destructively inspect the propeller’s components, other than the blades. That’s because the propeller hub isn’t visible when the propeller’s mounted, not to mention that it contains a bunch of seals, springs, and other parts. That’s because this plane uses constant-speed propellers, where the propeller governor changes the blade pitch so that the propeller maintains the commanded RPM even as the engine power changes. (For more on how constant-speed propellers work, this explainer is pretty good). With all that in mind, I decided to go ahead and have the props overhauled since the plane would be down The overhaul process can take a while– the shop I chose, First Flight Propellers in Mississippi, is currently estimating about 4 weeks. This seems like a long time, but the overhaul process is quite involved, plus once the overhaul’s done I’m good for another 6+ years.

Once the propellers have been overhauled, Jon will reinstall them, run the engines for a leak check and general test, Then I’ll pick the plane up when the weather is good and do a test flight of at least 30 minutes, staying in the vicinity of the airport just in case something is amiss. Assuming that goes well, I’ll fly Carmen back to the hangar and enjoy another year of being in compliance with 91.409. I’m looking forward to it!

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So I got a new engine cylinder

As I was working on another post, it dawned on me that I hadn’t finished the story of why I didn’t fly to the Bahamas. As you might recall, in that post I talked about how the ABS service clinic found an anomaly in the cylinder, one that my local mechanic thought was no big deal. To be cautious, I sent the cylinder back to Superior for them to look at it. Then I promptly forgot about it, because I was busy flying to Asheville, Dallas, New Orleans, Atlanta, Auburn, Memphis, and Augusta before I bothered to ask Superior for an update. Turns out the cylinder lining was in fact cracked, but on the inside where the crack wasn’t visible. My precautionary cylinder change turned out to be a necessity, one which saved me the potential for an unpleasant in-flight event and a bunch of additional costs driven by one bad cylinder trying to turn the whole engine into junk.

I noticed that after the cylinder repair, the right engine was leaking small amounts of oil. North Alabama Aviation couldn’t be bothered to try to fix it, so I had Revolution Flight take a look and they identified it as an upside-down gasket installed on the rocker arm cover. This is exactly the kind of small but infuriating maintenance error that every pilot has to learn to deal with. While I could have flown the plane over to Decatur and stormed into the shop to demand that they fix it, I decided instead to write this short note to memorialize their poor performance (along with the ridiculously long time it took them to do the repair in the first place) in hope that future generations will see it when they’re shopping for a maintenance shop.

Back to cylinders. For many engine types, having a cylinder replaced is super common. For example, the large turbocharged TIO-540 used in many models of the Piper Malibu is notorious for requiring frequent cylinder changes because of the operating conditions: the engine’s crammed into a small space with marginal cooling, then operated at high altitudes where turbocharging is used, which increases the heat and pressure regime that the cylinders run under. It’s less common to have to replace them on the normally-aspirated IO-470 engines that my Baron uses, but it’s not uncommon. So far, since the two engines were installed, there have been 3 cylinder changes (out of 12 cylinders total): this cracked one in 2022 and two others back in 2013 or so due to low engine compression. That’s not too bad.

Maybe that’s a good topic for a future post: why cylinders get low compression in the first place, and what you can do about it. Hold that thought…

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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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