SETI with Dr. Jill Tarter

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This time on Airspeed, we talk to The SETI Institute’s Dr. Jill Tarter about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and how we can get involved.

More information about the institute:

SETI Institute
515 N. Whisman Road
Mountain View, CA 94043
Radio show/Podcast
Volunteer opportunities

More information about Dr. Tarter:

TED Prize address

CAP G1000 – Scenario 2 Flying the Glass

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4.5 behind the glass yesterday. This was Flight Scenario 2 in a four-flight series learning to fly a CAP Cessna 182T Nav III with the Garmin G1000 glass cockpit. We launched around 4:00 local and got back around 9:00 with a break at KJXN for fuel and bio break.

A pretty exhaustive flight. From KPTK up to KBAX with the RNAV 22 and published miss and hold, over to KMBS with the ILS and published miss, then to KJXN for the VOR 24 before heading back to KPTK for the LOC B/C for 27L. The idea here was for me to do most or all of the flying and the operation of the G100 and the GFC 700 autopilot.

This I did. I competently navigated the aircraft, but clearly have a bit of learning to do when nonstandard stuff happens. I was fine when Cleveland Center routed us over to the Peck VOR (ECK) instead of giving us a couple of intersections for which I had asked. It has something to do with the limitation of radar coverage by Cleveland Center over there in Michigan’s thumb.

The issues I’m having have largely to do with how to pick up an approach from various places, including how to get the airplane to fly an approach from some intermediate point on the approach. I’m fine if I’m going to fly the thing full-procedure from the IAF. But the moment a controller tries to be helpful and set me up for something less than the full procedure, everything goes to hell and I end up flying it with the heading bug and controlling the VNAV myself with the VS key and the Nose Up/Nose Down. I know that the avionics are capable of doing a lot more than I’m squeezing out of them and that’s both frustrating and a motivation to hit the books and the Garmin-provided PC Trainer to nail it down before the next flight.

As ever, Michigan Wing check airman Capt Tim Kramer was there in the right seat. A lot more quiet this time, as is appropriate for this scenario. Tim did a lot of explaining on the first scenario flight last week. This week was all about letting me figure out when I had problems and at least describe the problem, if not fix it.

I’m having that slightly bewildered feeling that usually proceeds a few critical “a-hah!” moments. I’m going to spend some more time with the manual and the PC Trainer to see if I can work out these kinks. I really want to competently fly the next flight with the avionics taking me all the way to minima. Because I’m also going to have to deal with failures and related stuff on that next flight and I really need to have my poop in a group on the fully-functional platform before dealing with failures.

The plan is to fly Scenario 3 and then do a fourth flight to put it all together and get the rest of my CAP-required 25 landings before the Form 5 checkride with the wing check airman. I’m planning to fly with LtCol Leo Burke, with whom I’ve not yet flown, the better to get to know him and to fly with as many of the wing check airmen as possible. You learn something new every time you fly with a different check airman and I’m looking forward to that, too.

First Flight in the Super Decathlon

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Okay, there’s aerobatics. Then there’s aerobatics in the American Champion Super Decathlon. Holy crap!

I’ve been flying the Citabria Aurora at Sutton Aviation since last April. No flies on the Citabria and I really like that airplane. 118 hp and great flight characteristics. But the Super-D has 180 hp, about 2.5-ft shorter wings, inverted fuel and oil systems, and a constant speed prop.

The Super-D has enough power and maneuverability to really rag you out if you want to go up and do that. And that’s exactly what I set out to do yesterday. I have a military demo flight scheduled for May and I need to go up and start rebuilding my acro tolerance so I’m good to go for the flight. Not that I have any problem hurling when it’s called for after a reasonable amount of maneuvering, but my tolerance is way down from last year. That’s okay. Even airshow performers have to build up after a long winter by flying progressively longer aerobatic sessions.

My tolerance is at about 20 minutes with some breaks between maneuvers. The best I’ve ever had was about an hour straight last right after the Thunderbirds ride. The goal is to try to fly every week or so between now and mid-may to build that tolerance back to an hour.

And the Super-D is the right platform for that. Because of the better power and the inverted systems, Barry Sutton, my acro instructor, added the Immelman (a half loop after which you roll right side up at the top), knife-edge flight (rolling to 90 degrees of bank and then kicking in all of the top rudder to fly sideways), four-point rolls (stopping the roll at 90, inverted, and the other 90 before rolling wings level), and rapid aileron rolls. We also did a hammerhead.

The Super-D makes the old maneuvers more intense because the additional power means that you can do aileron rolls in level flight without losing lots of altitude as with the Citabria and you get a lot more hang with the hammerheads. You can’t quite helicopter up there with two full-size humans in the aircraft, but you get a lot of hang. And the Super-D makes the new maneuvers possible, mostly because you can add sustained inverted flight to the repertoire.

I’m looking forward to flying this aircraft a lot more over the next few weeks!

Flying the CAP Cessna 182T – Capt Force Transitions to Glass

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I’ve begin training on the new CAP Cessna 182T Nav III, which is to say a gorgeous 14-month, 450-hour old Cessna 182 with the complete Garmin G1000/GFC 700 avionics system with Capt Tim Kramer, one of the Michigan Wing’s check airmen. Tim is a real evangelist for the glass system and he’s put something like 15 Michigan Wing pilots through the training in the last year or so. He approached me about getting qualified in it and I jumped at the chance.

It’s a great airplane and it’s very capable. It’ll do everything from cruise at 600 AGL at 90 KIAS to haul hiney at 135 KIAS at 10,000 MSL, all while essentially flying itself to ATP standards.

I’m an approx. 230-hour pilot with (as it pertains to this kind of flying) an instrument rating and complex and high-performance endorsements. And I’m as competent with electronic systems as anyone I know. I was the only primary student that Eamon Burgess ever had from whom Eamon had to take away the VORs. But the G1000 is another animal entirely.

The idea with the G1000 is to give the airplane to the autopilot at 800 AGL and let the autopilot fly her until you’re at minimums. Which means a whole new level of understanding the systems and a whole new way of looking at flying. First, I have to know the systems a lot better than I’ve known systems on simpler aircraft in the past. And, most counterintuitive and new of all, I have to become an airplane manager in flight.

That’s right. You give the airplane to the autopilot and then you monitor and manage it en route. For a guy who’s spent most of the last six or seven years hand-flying airplanes and having instructors ignore the autopilot (even where the airplane has an autopilot in the first place), it’s a really new experience.

But it makes a lot of sense. CAP is a professionally-run organization with big shoes (er, boots) to fill. We do 95% of all Air Force supervised inland search and rescue in the United States and we need all of the sophisticated tools we can get. This airplane will help a competent pilot get to and from the search area quickly, accurately, and efficiently and it’ll fly the search pattern automatically to ATP standards. Then it’ll get everybody home for crew rest and to prep for the next sortie. If I’m going to be a valuable asset to the squadron, I need to be able to operate this aircraft to its full capabilities and that’s what this training is all about.

And, even if I was just flying CAP’s aircraft for selfish reasons, I’d still want to learn to fly the glass. It’ll be awhile before it becomes hard to find round-gage aircraft to rent, but the time is coming and you need to be comfortable with glass if you expect to fly long-term.

The training is very involved, but I’m doing it right. I did a full day in the classroom last year and then Capt Kramer and I spent four hours on the ramp with a ground power unit going over the systems. Only after that did we launch. We did an approx. 200-mile four-point trip around the state last week VFR. Gorgeous day and I learned a lot about the airplane. Friday, we file and do roughly the same thing IFR (I’m planning KPTK KBAX KMBS KJXN KPTK). The third flight will be IFR with gage and system failures. Then the Form 5 checkride in the airplane, probably with LtCol Leo Burke, with whom I have not flown yet.

I’m excited about learning to fly and manage this aircraft. And, by the way, as a Civil Air Patrol pilot, I fly this gorgeous airplane for about $38/hour dry (and fuel runs about 14 gallons/hour – call it $56/hour at $4.00/gal.). You can’t rent a beat-up C-172 wet for $94/hour! And I only pay to fly CAP aircraft when the Air Force isn’t paying for my flights. And the Air Force pays for a fair amount of flying.

If you’re a US pilot and not in the US Civil Air Patrol, what the heck are you thinking? Truly! What the heck are you thinking? Yeah, you! Check out for information and a unit near you.

Eleanor Flies

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Okay, this might be overshare, but I thought that I’d share it anyway. Not a lot of 100LL or JP-8 in this episode, but maybe some hypergolics and other propellants.

I grew up with folk music of many kinds. My godfather is a folk musician who occupied my parents’ couch for some time in the 1960s. Both of my parents made genuine attempts to play and sing, even if they never bought into a lot of the words.

If you don’t know what a hootenanny or fake book is, then you and I probably came away from the movie A Mighty Wind with much different impressions. I lived a little of that. Yes, some of the music in my housewas a form of child abuse. But the rest was amazing. I was ten years old before I realized that Tom Paxton, Tom Rush, and Bob Gibson weren’t necessarily household names.

I got my first guitar at the age of six. I started alto sax at 10. Drums at 12. I’ve never become particularly good at any instrument but, in the course of the last 20 years or so, I’ve become passable on about a dozen instruments.

About five years ago, I began collecting small instruments. I like them because they’re portable and I like the sounds that most of them make. I think that the mandolin is about the sweetest-sounding instrument on (or off) the planet. I’m not very good at it, but I amuse myself with it. That’s me on mando on the theme music, by the way. I also picked up a set of shuttlepipes, a very small version of the bagpipes with a concert A chanter and two drones encased in a box about the size and shape of a baking power can.

If you were at Firebase Airspeed over the last two years at Oshkosh, you know that I usually pack up six or seven small instruments and bring them along in the hopes of launching ad hoc jam sessions of the kind that erupted when Jason Miller, Kent Shook, and others visited one night.

About five years ago, I was thinking about interplanetary travel. As busy as the first mission to Mars is going to be at times, it’s also going to be very boring at times, especially in the cruise phase to and from the red planet. That would make for exactly the kinds of gaps and spaces in which pioneers and voyageurs of all ages have written, played, and sung enduring folk music.

Hey, what would the folk music of a journey to mars and back be like? The instruments would have to be small enough and light enough that the astronauts could take them along in their personal volume and mass allotments (and we’re talking about decisions like cutting off all of your hair so you can take along an extra set of mandolin strings). And you couldn’t really use instruments that you couldn’t effectively play in microgravity.

So I kept on acquiring little instruments when the opportunity arose. Like the Ashbory bass with its 18” scale length and silicone strings. Or the Kikkerland hand-cranked music box mechanism that comes with paper tapes that you punch and then crank them through the music box.

So I decided to do an album project. Songs from the Sheffield: The First Folk Music of the Journey to Mars and Back. Theme from Milliways, which you heard in the last music episode, was the first tune and I need to re-record that on the smaller instruments for the project.

With a busy work schedule, flight training, airshows, and a great family, I’m generally too busy to lower myself into the musical well for more than about a song at a time. I know, cry me a river, Steve. Everybody’s busy.

But in November of 2007, I heard a piece on PRI’s Studio 360 about The MacDowell Colony. It’s the oldest artists’ colony in north America. It’s located on more than 400 acres near Peterborough, New Hampshire. The application process is tough and I gather that about one in eight applicants are accepted. But, if you get a residency, you get a studio out in the woods for between two and eight weeks do your art. No phone. No cellular signal. No other buildings within sight. A magical person named Blake Tewksbury sneaks up to your studio door at lunch time and leaves a picnic basket for you. In the evenings, you head to the main house and have dinner with the other artists, who might be composers, novelists, architects, painters – you name it.

Who knows. You might get the studio where Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town. Or the studio where Aaron Copland wrote Billy the Kid. Check out the short film MacDowell Moments at the colony’s website for a great overview.

Or you might get the studio where Steve wrote that piece that gets played after dinner all the time in the crew quarters on the way back from Mars.

That’s the idea, anyway. I’ve been planning for more than a year to apply for a residency and this is it. The deadline is April 15 and I’m putting the finishing touches on the application right now.

It seems unlikely that I’ll actually get in, especially in light of the caliber of the artists that they usually choose. But a MacDowell residency with that two weeks of solid, solitary, and protected opportunity seems to be the only chance of getting it all out of my head, on paper, and onto a hard drive. Can you imagine two weeks in a studio in the woods fully of tiny instruments, a few microphones, and a MacBook Pro?

I’m applying as an interdisciplinary artist and I have to submit two samples of my work. Sometimes Alternates Fly is going to be one. I thought that the other should be an example of the kind of song that I’m going to write. There are going to be raucous songs making fun of flight surgeons and noble ballads about exploration, but the one that immediately came to mind deals with the long separation from friends and family that any interplanetary journey necessarily involves.

It’s called Eleanor Flies and it comes directly from imagining how I’d feel if I were on the outbound leg of a Mars mission, having recently left my four-year-old daughter, Ella, (pictured at the top of this blog entry) knowing that she’d be pushing seven before I returned.

As will shortly become clear from the demo recording, I’m not applying to MacDowell as a vocalist. Or a performing musician for that matter. The instrumental parts are a little rough and my furnace decided to add a little realism to the session by dying the night before I started recording. I recorded the whole thing crouched in front of a little electric space heater. But, then again, this project is about imagining the constraints of making music in the process of making the big journey. Taking the next step. The people who will play and sing whatever music comes out of the trip will, after all, be pilots and mission specialists first and musicians second, if at all.

Maybe a lawyer and pilot crouched in his basement over a space heater cranking a music box mechanism on a banjo head or trying to get his fingers to work in the cold while playing mandolin is a pretty good proxy for what we can expect. Regardless, I know for sure that it’s a good proxy for those who dream a little harder than most about this stuff and care about it more than they can say among the usual cocktail crowd that they encounter.

So take a seat right over here on the bulkhead in Cargo Area Charlie. I know it looks like a suburban basement with a tangle of cables running all over the place and a little space heater in the middle.

But close your eyes and imagine with me. It’s not hard. I know.

This is Eleanor Flies.

Download a full 256 MP3 version of the song here: