Out of Hibernation, a Neat Old Bomber, and a Jackass Neighbor

I dragged the beast from the winter cocoon two weekends ago to clean ‘er up and start the engine. All things considered, it wasn’t that hard. First pulled the prop through a few times, as the engine hasn’t run in about six months. Didn’t seem to make sense to start it cold. Put some fresh gas in the header tank and hooked up the jumper cables to the tractor (quicker than waiting for the battery to charge), and she actually fired right up pretty readily. Once started, it ran a little rough for a few minutes, but quickly smoothed out like melted butter. Very pleased the engine. The avionics, on the other hand, didn’t do so well over the winter. First, the system didn’t really want to boot. It would freeze here during the boot process, then cycle forever. With a bit of swearing, I could usually get it to boot eventually, but something is clearly wrong:

Once it booted, another problem became apparent. The ADAHRS module is horked. It sort of worked for a while, though it showed my altitude all over the map (about 4000ft higher than I actually am). Eventually, it gave up completely, and now won’t do anything but this:

I filed tickets with Dynon on a Sunday afternoon, and bright and early on Monday morning, they responded. Both the main unit and the ADAHRS box need repair. And unfortunately, neither are under warranty at this point. The good news is that Dynon has a flat $250 repair fee for each unit. The bad news is that’s $500 I didn’t plan on spending at this point. I think I’m going to hold off on repairs until lack of functionality becomes a blocker for getting something else done. Annoying, but not really anybody’s fault. Sigh.

We bought a house in New Mexico (Las Cruces, specifically) this past Summer. We went down for Easter Break to hang out with family and eat great Mexican food. Also took the time to go with my dad to the War Eagles Air Museum about 45 minutes away, near El Paso. Fantastic little museum. One plane in their collection stood out above all others. Tell me if you can guess what it is:

Yeah, didn’t think so. I walked out the hanger door to the outside, and my brain said “Mosquito!”. Then my brain immediately said, “Wait, no. There’s no Mosquitos on display anywhere near here, and besides, those aren’t Merlin engines, they’re radials. And the cockpit is wrong. And the bomb doors are wrong. And…” So I was stumped. I mean really really stumped. It’s really unusual that I look at a plane and can’t being to guess what it is. I walked all around it, stuck my head up in the bomb bay, etc, and was finally convinced it was probably a Chinese copy of something Russian, but still really no closer to an answer. Finally found out it’s a Tupolev Tu-2. The only one in the world in display outside of Europe. Read the wikipedia article about it. It’s a really really neat airplane. I was impressed with everything about it. Well made, and a really neat design. Coolest plane in the whole place.

Living on acreage in WA, it’s been over fifteen years since I had neighbors. Our new place in Las Cruces is in a normal neighborhood. Meaning that any time we’re down in NM, I have neighbors. I tend to forget how much I despise having neighbors. Not quite sure what to do about this (see below). What they’re doing is very illegal (confirmed with a cop friend of mine), so a simple solution is to call the police each time until the problem stops. They get a ticket, and at least per Las Cruces Municipal Code, a mandatory court appearance each time, and if they don’t fix the problem, the car gets impounded. But that seems a little extreme, and I really don’t want to handle things that way. On the other hand, they know full well that the house is occupied (when we’re not there, renters are), and they continue to do this day after day. The cop route would undoubtedly stop the problem quickly, but that’s really not the kind of relationship I want to have with the guys next door for the next 20 years. Why do people have to be such jackasses? Suggestions? (ie, suggestions on how to fix, not suggestions on why people are jackasses – I think I know the answer to that one).


Meet Hillary

I bought this air drill as part of a kit of air tools from Costco about ten years ago. Most of the tools work acceptably well, but not the drill. It has terrible bearings, makes a harsh, loud, shrill noise any time it’s working, and it sets my teeth on edge whenever I hear it. I have thus chosen to name it “Hillary”, in honor of the person it most reminds me of.


Trinity Site and the NRAO/VLA

For Father’s Day this year, my wife bought me plane tickets to New Mexico. Once a year, White Sands Missile Range hosts visitors at Trinity Site, the site of the first atomic bomb test. The weekend happened to be the same weekend as Joshua’s 20th birthday, so as his birthday present, he came, as well. Even in October, New Mexico is pretty toasty compared to the Seattle area. I grew up in Southern New Mexico, but you forget how hot it really is. Fortunately, the highest we got over the weekend was about 90F. That’s off the scales for Seattle, but pretty moderate for NM.

The first treat was that our Alaska Airlines pilot received special permission to fly around Mt. Rainier on the way out. This is only about the third time this has ever happened to me flying out of Seattle, and it’s spectacular. We flew from the North around about 2/3 of the mountain before finally heading Southeast towards Albuquerque. We were right at 15,000ft at just under 300kts (not that I had my GPS turned on or anything). Amazing view:

We flew into Albuquerque, then drove down to the other end of the state to stay with my sister in Las Cruces. Here’s the view from just up the hill from her house:

That’s a lot of desert. It’s really fun on a hot summer day when it’s 110F. While in Las Cruces, we got to eat plenty of the best food on the planet (this was at Andele in Mesilla, one of the best restaurants in the known universe):

I can get great Thai in Seattle, but Mexican food just isn’t quite the same up here. On Saturday, we drove out to Trinity Site. It was about 2.5 hours from my sister’s house. Once through base security and out to the site, you have to pass through another fence to get to the site itself. And here’s your greeting:

There’s nothing out here. Just desert as far as you can see, all the way to the mountains:

This is the monument that marks the center of the 100ft tower where the bomb was detonated:

Sprinkled around on the ground are little bits of Trinitite. Trinite is a green glass made of sand that was fused by the nuclear fireball. The whole area was once completely covered by the green glass, but the Army bulldozed almost all of it underground back in the 50s. Now there’s just tiny little bits scattered here and there. This bit I’m showing was about the size and shape of a Cheerio. It’s found in all shapes and sizes, but nothing we saw was larger than a US quarter.

The only thing left on the site from before the blast was a bit of buried concrete that held one of the legs of the 100ft tower. Everything else was obliterated by the fireball:

We also got to tour the McDonald Ranch House. The room below was the room where final assembly of the nuclear core was done before transporting it two miles away to the blast site:

Here’s an image from 1945 of the engineers loading the core onto a truck. And below that is my photo taken from almost the exact same spot:

It was a fascinating and sobering experience. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to visit.

While we were in New Mexico with a couple of days to spare, it seemed worthwhile to see something else. We’ve been to White Sands National Monument a hundred times, as well as the New Mexico Museum of Space History (it was called the International Space Hall of Fame back when I worked there in High School). But one place I never visited when I lived there was the Very Large Array (officially known as the National Radio Astronomy Observatory). If you’ve ever seen the movie Contact, you’ve seen the place. So off we went on Sunday morning. Three and a half hours later, we arrived in the most middle-of-nowhere place I’ve ever been. It was beautiful. And the telescopes were amazing. There’s a small visitor’s center, which is nice enough, but the neat stuff is outside. You start with this neat little bit of history, the actual detector unit that received the images from Voyager II (it was embedded in one of the large dishes you’ll see below, not standing alone like this):

There’s also some pylons that were signed by various scientists over the years. The one that caught my eye was this one, signed by Frank Drake:

Let’s be honest, though, this is what we really came to see:

Note the size of the people standing next to the thing. And keep in mind, there are actually 27 of these antennas (well, ok, 28 including the spare) spread out across the plain inside of a circle almost 25 miles wide. They’re all tied back to a central supercomputer via fiber optic cables where the data is processed into images. Below is the repair shed, including the transport units they use to move these things around to reposition them for different purposes:

Being out on this high desert plain, they clearly have concerns about lightning, as evidenced by the massive lightning arrestors on top of the administration building. But note that even the picnic table shelters have their own lightning rods:

On the way back to Socorro to eat lunch, we stopped at a canyon called “The Box”. Beautiful:

And last, but not least, the sunrise from my sister’s back porch on Monday morning before we left for the airport. You can see the sun rising over the Organ Mountains across the desert floor:



The Bed

For Abby’s 11th birthday, Julia and I gave her a “bedroom makeover”. Whatever she wanted, however she wanted it. A couple of trips to Ikea with the big truck and a stop at Home Depot for some paint, and we were well on our way. But we couldn’t sort out the bed. Abby wanted a loft bed, but we were constrained by the fact that her bedroom has an 8-foot ceiling. The other bedrooms all have huge vaulted 15-foot ceilings, but not hers. And we couldn’t find a bed she liked that would work without her being squashed so she couldn’t even sit up in bed. Finally she asked, “Daddy, would you make me one?” I’m a network security guy, not a carpenter. Not even close. But we had to do something, or she’d be stuck on a mattress on the floor. So it began.

Abby and I started with a tape measure and a piece of paper. We measured all aspects of her room, and drew it out, so we’d know what we had to work with. We also measured the mattress so we’d know the minimum size of length and width. Then we measured her sitting at her desk (which was to go underneath the bed) and measured her height, plus added a few inches for growth. Then we started drawing. Giving her more headroom at her desk meant less when she was in the bed. Wider and longer meant less free space in her bedroom. She learned a lot about compromises of design. Ultimately, here’s what we came up with:

Next step was a trip to Home Depot for lumber:

We built it in the driveway in front of the house, since the shop is sort of full of airplane:

So, while it didn’t work out any cheaper than buying something pre-built, I think it was a valuable experience for Abby to go from an idea to a drawing to a real bed. Not only that, she got exactly the bed she wanted, and she got to help build and paint it.

We also let her paint her wall any way she wanted to. This is what she came up with (this was pre-bed, so the desk is in front of it):

Pretty neat. Way better than I could ever paint.


More Power, Scotty!

Yesterday, I started out working on the panel wiring, but to be honest, I’m tired of wiring (and re-wiring).  So I changed plans.  After all, this is a hobby, not a job.  Instead, I worked on mounting the control boxes for the flap and elevator trim controllers. They’re going to be mounted under the panel on the bottom of the avionics shelf (so I can reach them by laying on the floor and looking up under the panel).  Of course, it’s not quite that simple, since I’m almost 6’4″, and the plane is tiny, but at least in theory, I should be able to reach the boxes for future maintenance, upgrades, and repairs.  I also designed the avionics shelf so it will hinge downwards, giving me access to the ADS-B receiver, the comm radio, and the Viking engine ECU, as well as some of the harder-to-reach wiring.  I still live in fear of having to fix a serious wiring problem under/behind the panel, so I’m working really hard to make sure that everything is somehow serviceable without having to remove the front windshield and the glare shield to get at a problem.  I’ve been pretty successful at running the fuel lines so they can be replaced.  You can reach most everything either from the hellhole underneath, or by removing an access panel under the co-pilot’s seat.  And I ran the brake lines externally in a protected trough under the plane, so they can be easily replaced in an hour or two (well, excluding bleeding the lines once they’re replaced).  With hundreds and hundreds of feet of wiring that needs to run to every possible nook and cranny, that’s a much tougher problem.

Didn’t quite finish mounting the control boxes (I needed some hardware I don’t have on hand), so I decided the plane needed a serious washing.  It’s got at least a year’s worth of grime on it since the last time I washed it (maybe two years, I’ll have to go look at my build log).  I dragged the plane across the yard to the house, and got to work.  Washing the back half is easy. I just spray it with the hose and let the sun bake it dry (it’s actually sunny and 75F here today, which is warm for us).  The front half of the plane takes longer to wash than the back, as you don’t want to just go spraying a hose around willy-nilly with all those expensive electronic black boxes.  In the end, it looks much better.  Before I put the plane away, I decided to run the engine up to full power, as I haven’t done that in quite some time.  I attached the plane to the tow hitch on the back of my truck with a towing strap around the main landing gear struts, and started the engine.  Just for fun, I went back and took the transmission out of gear.  I wanted to see if the plane could pull the truck.  Turns out it was trivial.  Only had to run the engine up to about 1200RPM (prop RPM), and the tiny little plane pulled the big 3/4 ton 4×4 diesel pickup (loaded with crap) across the gravel driveway effortlessly.  That’s somewhere around 7000lbs.  I put it back in ‘R’ (didn’t want to see how far or fast I could pull it) and ran the engine up to full power.

When you’re a car nut, 110hp doesn’t seem like much.  Sure, 110hp in a Lotus Seven will really scoot, but in an era where even crappy little disposable Kias and Hyundais have 150hp, and any real sports car is well north of 300hp, 110hp is tiny.  But I’ll tell you what, 110hp driving a 72″ 3-bladed screaming propeller at 2400RPM on the front of a plane that will only weigh about 750lbs when finished (it’s probably half that right now without the wings and tail mounted) is an untamed, screaming, furious beast that is frankly just a little bit terrifying.  But it’s pleasing to see the little engine running so well.

The only problem I’m having is that my primary fuel pump is running about 45psi to the fuel injectors. The backup pump is 43psi, right on the money.  Need to talk to Viking and make sure 45psi isn’t too much (as well as what the problem might be).  Other than that, it’s running flawlessly.


For Want of a Ground

I fixed the oil pressure problem.  It had to be electrical.  That much was pretty much a given, given that I ripped out and re-routed most of the behind-the-panel wiring yesterday.  The oil pressure sensor is a 3-wire sensor using ground, +5vdc, and the sensor output.  First, I checked for +5vdc, and that was fine.  I didn’t have any way to check the sensor output itself, so next, I checked ground.  I had continuity of a sort.  Bad, but varying.  I stumbled and bumped the plane, and the meter (in continuity testing mode) started beeping.  Yep, bad ground.  Turns out I missed replacing a ground wire, and it was laying on the floor of the passenger compartment.  It would make contact with the metal and work for a bit, then not.  Once I finally found it, that was an easy fix.

I started the plane, and everything worked.  Well, almost everything.  The oil pressure sensor was working again, but my battery voltage was low enough to trip the Master Caution warning, and was reading 12.6vdc.  Way way way low for a running engine.  Then the alternator light started glowing, softly at first, then full brightness.  Crap.  Long story short, it turned out to be exactly the same problem.  Once that ground wire was fixed, then I was 100% in business again.


Running With the Prop

Spent nine hours working on the plane yesterday. Re-mounted the prop and ran the engine (see above), but that wasn’t really the interesting part. The vast majority of the work was with wiring. The wiring behind the panel has long been a mess, but cleaning it up has never been top priority. No more. While I’m still far from done, I did managed to clean it up considerably. This involved re-routing, shortening, lengthening, proper aircraft-grade electrical connectors (I did much of the original wiring using automotive-grade connectors, as they cost $0.10 each instead of $1.00 each, and I knew most of them would end up getting chopped off). There’s still another full eight-hour-day’s work of work before it’s done, but the improvement was worth the time. Only one problem. Somehow, I managed to hork the oil pressure sender. Which is odd, since I didn’t touch the ground wire or the signal wire from that sensor, only the +5vdc line. Which checks out 100% perfect. Which means I probably knocked something loose somewhere, or pulled something loose, as it still sometimes sort of works. I also managed to short out the Master Caution indicator while I was working, and blew a 0.25A fuse (which was in-line for precisely that reason). Everything else worked perfectly. I’ll get by the auto parts this afternoon for a replacement fuse, and will hopefully work on the oil pressure wiring maybe tonight or tomorrow evening.


Field Day 2016

Field Day 2016 has come and gone. I participated from the very Northeast corner of Washington, up where WA, ID, and BC come together, right where the Columbia River flows from British Columbia into Washington. I used my new SunSDR2 Pro and my Chameleon end-fed long-wire, and powered the whole thing (including lights and computers) using my homebrew solar setup. While 15 watts into a wire in the trees didn’t set the world on fire, I did make contacts all the way from the West Coast to the East Coast, and all the way down to Arizona and Florida. No DX (well, Canada doesn’t count when it’s ten miles away), but Field Day isn’t the best place for a QRP station to rack up impressive DX.

The station set up behind my truck. The weather was quite cool and pleasant, so I just slept in the back of the truck rather than setting up a tent. I brought all of the gear inside with me when I went to bed, as I didn’t want it rained on, but for the first time ever (at least since moving to WA), I had a Field Day with no rain.

200 watts of solar. It was hazy and overcast the whole weekend, but I still managed to make just enough power to run everything. I did the math, and it looks like I produced just about exactly 50% of what I would have with full sunlight. For Washington, that’s not bad. I brought my generator, just in case, but it turned out to be unnecessary.

The mighty Columbia rolling into WA. Of course, the clouds were gone by the time I took this photo.

Drove past a couple of old helicopters in a field in Central WA. I was in the middle of the agricultural belt, so I assume these having something to do with crop spraying.

The view along Highway 20 on the way home. Yep, that’s snow. Quite a lot of it in places.

Remember the Oso mud slide a while back? Wiped out a dozen or two houses and killed a number of people? That’s the mountain that collapsed that buried the houses.


Spot Messenger API

The Spot Messenger is a neat bit of gear. My 18-year-old daughter just got back from a 10-day trip down through OR, ID, MT, UT, and CO with her friend, and my wife and I wanted a way to keep an eye on where she was, and an awful lot of their trip was going to be in places with zero cell service.  I had a Spot messenger sitting in a drawer in my office, so I dug it out, put some batteries in it, and re-subscribed to the service. It’s easy to see where the thing is using their web page, or even better, via their free iPhone app.  After a few days, I started to wonder if Spot had a public API available to pull data from (it’s a lot easier than trying to do web-scraping).  In fact, they do, though there’s almost zero in the way of documentation, and what little there is kind of gives you the idea that some intern has a task to support it in his spare time.  Fortunately, it worked exactly the way it should have, and a very small amount of code lets you poll the API to get position data back (see below).  The code was written using SBCL and Quicklisp on Linux, though it should work on any modern CL that’s supported by Quicklisp (which is essentially all of them). I tried it on my Mac, and it worked perfectly.  You’ll need to fill in the glld (which is the unique Feed Identifier assigned by Spot when you share a page) as well as the optional password. If there’s no password, just set *feedpassword* to nil (no quotes).  By default, the up-to-dater thread polls the Spot API every 2.5 minutes. If you do it more often, you’ll anger the API Gods, and Spot will cut you off. A 30 second interval on checking *locations* for new data seems to work well, though you can change this with *sleeptime*.  Load the code, then do (start-spot) to start the background thread that polls the API and keeps *locations* up to date with current location data. If you want to watch the location data as it streams in (“streams” might be a strong word, as by default, the tracking is only updated every ten minutes), do (watch-spots).  That’s it. Obviously, there’s a lot you can do with the location objects other than just look at them, but this is enough to get you started. Unfortunately, WordPress eats much of the indentation when I pasted in the code, so it’s a little hard to read. But copy and paste this into your editor, save it, run it, and you should be fine.  I decided to just stick the code in github, instead of leaving potentially outdated code posted here.  So go look here for the latest version (I already added reverse geocoding to the original code).