Saturday, December 13, 2008

Road Trip: Holes in the Ground, part 2

Today's photo spread comes from yesterday's visit to Meteor Crater, which lies between Flagstaff and Winslow in northern Arizona. It was created about 50,000 years ago when a 150-foot diameter meteor traveling approximately 30,000 mph struck the earth from the northeast. The crater is about 4,000 feet across and nearly 600 feet deep. The rim of the crater rises about 150 feet above the surrounding terrain, which is relatively flat. The largest piece of the meteorite that has been recovered is a chunk about a yard across, which is on display in the visitor center. Visitors are not allowed down into the crater, but instead must content themselves with taking it all in from the viewing platforms. NASA has used the crater for astronaut training, and there is an astronauts wall of fame at the visitor center.

This is how it appears on the approach: the rim looks like a small rock formation.

The visitor's initial view across the crater from the visitor center, which is at the north side. The southern wall of the crater, sheltered from the sun, has snow on the ground.

These two pictures show the floor of the crater, where various efforts were made in the first decades of the 20th century to recover the meteorite.

The visitor center and surrounding landscape, seen from the highest viewing platform.

From the same platform, here's an attempt to give you a panorama-like view of the crater, from left to right:

This is the largest piece of the meteorite ever found.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Road Trip: Holes in the Ground, part 1, and other sights

I know I said that the blog was going to take a break, but I've got a wi-fi connection in the hotel room. So here are a few pictures from the road trip. Today I visited the south rim of the Grand Canyon. The December sun is not ideal for photography and I probably should have put a polarizer on the lens. In the third picture, can you find the river? It's waaaay down there! The fourth picture shows some rapids.

The Grand Canyon railway. In the summer they use a steam locomotive, but the diesel is needed to power the heating system in the coaches.

You didn't really think that I'd take a trip without stopping at an air museum, did you? I've shown you Planes of Fame's primary facility at Chino. They have another small museum near the Grand Canyon:

Martin 4-0-4
Convair 240
In my opinion, one of the prettiest aircraft of all time: the Lockheed Constellation
This Ford Trimotor isn't in the museum - it's still a working airplane, making sight seeing flights over the Grand Canyon.

The next shots are from yesterday's stop in Kingman, Arizona. There's a small air museum there too, but that's not what I've got to show you:

Yes, those are very pretty mountains, but that's not it. Look closer:
I found them! These are the SF-340's that aren't flying at LAX anymore. I counted about two dozen, so some of these must have come from the DFW hub as well. About 60 years ago, Kingman was one of the depots where most of the US aircraft from World War Two were turned into aluminum ingots. The salvage company used a giant guillotine to chop the aircraft into chunks that were then fed into the smelter. I had hopes of seeing the guillotine in action on the Saabs, but no such luck. There were more than the Saabs parked here:

All of these appear to be E-135's, with the exception of the ex-United aircraft in this last picture: a four-engined British Aerospace 146. We used to have one of these fly in and out of LAX sometimes. If I remember right, it was operated by Air Wisconsin for United, and flew into some mountain airport that served ski resorts. At LAX we called it a "BAC jet" (pronounced like the composer J.S. Bach). However, when I was in Memphis, we had a number of these flying for Northwest Airlink (operated either by Pinnacle or Mesaba, I forget which), and we called them "Avros". This was a matter of semantics, as the BAe 146 became the Avro RJ; but it's now a moot point, as the Avros left Memphis before I did, and we don't have the BACjet at LAX anymore.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Where can we go from here: The world's busiest international airports

A few days before Thanksgiving, I heard a piece on Public Radio International's program The World about the world's five busiest international airports. The rankings they used were based upon passenger count, as compiled by the Airports Council International. As it so happens, all five of these airports receive direct service from LAX:

Number 5: Hong Kong International Airport: Our primary carrier to and from Hong Kong is Cathay Pacific, who operates both passenger and cargo flights, using B747-400's. We've just started seeing B777-300's in passenger service on this route as well. Besides Cathay, we also have cargo service to Hong Kong with Singapore Cargo, who also uses B744's. Flight times seem to run between 14 and 15 hours.

A Cathay Pacific B747-400 lifts off runway 25 right, as a Delta B767-400 arrives at gate 58. This picture was taken last year, while the center taxiway was still under construction. Cathay's introduction of B773's is recent enough that I haven't managed to get a good picture of one yet; I've only seen them after dark.

I don't get many opportunities to photograph Cathay Pacific cargo aircraft either, as they also usually come and go at night. This particular aircraft was stranded here a while back with an engine problem, and I was able to shoot it as it was being towed away from the cargo ramp. Notice the partially engaged thrust reverser on the number three engine.

For whatever reason, Singapore Cargo, unlike Cathay, does operate here during daylight hours, and so is easier to catch with the camera. As you can see, this is another older shot, taken before the center taxiway was built.

Number 4: Frankfurt, Germany: Lufthansa provides service to Frankfurt using B744's. United also flies this route, using B777-200's. I have recollections that United used to use B744's on this route as well, but I haven't noticed one lately. Flight times run about 10 to 11 hours, with the B744's being a tad quicker than the B772's.

A Lufthansa B744 touches down on runway 24 right. Judging from the glare and shadow, probably around one or two in the afternoon on a summer day. Lufthansa also brings in A346's, but those operate on the route to Munich.

An early morning shot, by the looks of it. A United B772 pushes off gate 77 onto taxiway Charlie. Meanwhile, a Skywest E120 Brasilia passes on taxiway Bravo, inbound to its gate at terminal 8, and a United B752 rolls out on runway 25 left. You can see the now-open center taxiway in this picture. When first opened, it was christened Alpha-Charlie, but has since been renamed Hotel.

Number 3: Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport: Served from LAX by KLM, whose daily flight uses a B744. Flight time is about nine and a half hours.

A KLM B744 arriving at gate 28. Most of the KLM aircraft carry just the KLM logo; this particular one is marked 'KLM asia'.

Number 2: Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport: We have several flights a day from here to Paris. While no US carriers fly this route, we have two foreign carriers that do: Air France, naturally, as well as Air Tahiti. Air France uses B777's, both -200's and -300's; Tahiti uses A340-300's. The Boeings do it in about ten hours, while the Airbuses are about thirty minutes slower. Air France also brings A343's into LAX, but not on this route; they're used on flights to Tahiti. Air Tahiti also flies that route with A343's.

A trio of Air France B777-200's. In the top picture, that's Alaska's 'salmon thirty-seven' taking runway 24 left for departure. The middle picture shows an LTU Airbus A330-200, while the third picture shows the longer ANA B773 on taxiway Echo and a Delta Song B752 on runway 24 left. The Song airplane is a clue that this is another shot from last year: since Delta's bankruptcy, the Song operation has gone away and all the planes have been repainted in Delta's latest 'lazy widget' scheme.

For comparison, here's an Air France B773 and a New Zealand B763. In the much-ballyhooed Air Force tanker contract competition, the B767 lost out to the Airbus A330. The B767 is smaller than the A330, which is smaller than the B777.

And here's a Tahiti Airbus just rotating off runway 25 right. The A330 and A340 were developed concurrently, and share many features. They're essentially the same airplane, with differing fuselage lengths and engine arrangements.

Number 1: London Heathrow airport: The world's busiest international airport is served by six airlines from LAX. American flies the route using B772's, as do Air France and United. Air New Zealand uses B772's as well as B744's. British Airways also uses B744's; Virgin Atlantic, who used to use B744's, is currently the only carrier who operates Airbuses on this route: they operate A346's, which replaced their A343's. Flight times run nine and a half to ten hours, with the four-engine Boeings being slightly faster than the twins, which are in turn slightly faster than the Airbuses.

A trio of Londoners at terminal two. An Air New Zealand B744 at gate 21, an Air France B772 at gate 23, and a Virgin Atlantic A346 at gate 25. The jetway to nowhere between New Zealand and Air France is gate 21B, which is unusable when there's a heavy jet on gate 21.

For comparison, here's almost the same shot, except different:
Air New Zealand in a B772 at gate 21, and Air France with the stretched B773 at gate 23. Compare the backgrounds of these two photos: The lower one is the more recent, and shows the construction on taxiway Echo. This project was completed just before Thanksgiving. Besides replacing a lot of bad expansion joints, this project also included the relocation of taxiway Echo-8 to the east. In the first picture, the edge of E-8 is barely visible at the far left edge of the frame, behind the American Eagle SF34. In the lower picture, the new E-8 is the left of the two new concrete connectors to the runway; taxiway Victor is the one on the right, which leads to the beginning of the runway. Having E-8 in the new position allows us to use it for departure without the wake turbulence restrictions of an intersection departure.

Another early afternoon shot: Here, the New Zealand B772 is being towed away from the terminal to open up the gate for other flights. This aircraft will spend several hours parked on a maintenance ramp or remote hard stand before getting towed back to the terminal for the outbound flight later in the evening. Compare the B772 to the Japan Airlines B744 on taxiway Echo: even this, the shorter of the B777 models, is still a big aircraft. The Japan Air is on the way to runway 24 left for departure to Tokyo.

Two shots of American B772's: in the top shot, A Delta B764 lifts off runways 25 right. The lower shot shows a Continental B753 on taxiway Charlie. Both of these pictures date back to the center taxiway construction.

A United B772 in the old (pre-bankruptcy) paint scheme just rotating off runway 25 right while a Virgin America A320 taxis out on Bravo.

A British Airways (callsign: Speedbird) B744 towing into gate 121. Because of the tight alleys and concerns about jet blast, heavy jets get towed onto most gates instead of driving on. This process sometimes takes ten minutes, depending on the readiness of the tug and ground crew. Meanwhile, the aircraft is shut down, blocking the alley or taxiway. As you might imagine, this can be quite an inconvenience to the ground controller.

View from the tower will be in hiatus for the next couple of weeks while I'm on the holiday road trip. Have a safe and happy holiday season!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

By the time this hits the web, it'll be the day after Thanksgiving, aka "Black Friday." I spent the morning feasting with friends before going to the tower and doing it again. As was predicted, this year's Thanksgiving traffic was way down from last year's. For 2007, we counted about 1400 operations on Thanksgiving day. This year, we barely made 1100.

You've probably heard of the Thanksgiving ritual wherein this year's turkey receives a pardon from the president and gets to live happily ever after. This practice began in 1989 with the first President Bush. At first, the pardoned turkeys went to Kidwell Farm petting zoo at Frying Pan Park in Herndon,Virginia. Since 2005, however, the turkeys (there are actually two: the turkey, and an alternate, just in case of . . . whatever) have been flown to Disneyland, where they serve as honorary grand marshals in Disneyland's Thanksgiving Day parade. After the festivities, they become permanent residents at a Disneyland ranch. This year's turkeys, dubbed 'Pumpkin' and 'Pecan', came from Ellsworth, Iowa. After receiving their last-minute reprieve on Wednesday, the two lucky birds caught United flight 209 for their west-bound flight. Through the collaboration of the FAA, United used the callsign "United Turkey One" for this flight. The flight arrived about 5:30 pm, giving the birds plenty of time to rest up for their parade appearance the next morning.

Another recent noteworthy arrival was the Japanese Prime Minister, who stopped at LAX on the way to and from the APEC meeting in Lima, Peru, last weekend. We also had, I believe, the President of South Korea pass through on his way home. The flight from Lima to LAX is about eight hours, and they stopped here to refuel and refresh before continuing the twelve or thirteen hours across the Pacific. On a personal note, this is the second time I've gotten to work Japanese Airforce Zero Zero One (and Two: the prime minister travels with a spare 747!) The first time was a couple of years ago in Memphis, Tennessee, when the Japanese prime minister came to visit Graceland. President Bush came to town too, but I forget the occasion for them being in Memphis. I do remember being chagrined that the Japanese prime minister's planes had much better sounding radios than the president's.

Some unfinished business:

Previously mentioned, but not shown: a Skywest CRJ-900 operated for Delta. This route to Salt Lake City is the only Delta/Skywest we have at LAX. Mainline Delta also flies the route, usually with B757's or MD90's. With the demise of Express Jet earlier this year, this is also now the only Delta Connection service seen at LAX.

A Delta MD90, the first I've seen in the new paint scheme.

A US Coast Guard helicopter arrives at LAX. There are four USCG Dauphins based here - for now. The airport long-term plan calls for them to be relocated to make space for terminal and taxiway expansion.

And now, time for a couple of updates:

In the post about state capitals, I said that I had not recently noticed the United/Skywest flight to Oklahoma City. This past Saturday, I worked that flight on Ground Control, so it's still operating, and it's still in a CRJ-700.

In an earlier post about the A380, I said that LAX had four gates that could accommodate the jumbo Airbus. We now have six: Two at the International Terminal, and four of the remote gates at the west end of the airport.

As hoped for, the American Eagle Saabs have disappeared from the LAX scene. They all flew out in the course of the first week of November. So far, they've not been replaced with anything else; their routes are either being serviced with E135's or no longer being flown. I don't think we've gotten more E135's either, so flight frequency has probably been trimmed.

The American Eagle terminal at LAX, referred to by controllers and pilots as "the Eagles Nest", or just "the nest". The good news: no Saabs! The bad news: awful lot of empty gates.
This facility too will go away under the LAX long-term plan.

Note: I didn't make up the stuff about the turkeys. See this:

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fire burn, and caldron bubble. (The Fifth Gear Chronicles, part 3)

Previously on View from the Tower . . . the Jetta fifth gear swap that went pop, the tug got a new set of rubbers, and the loaner car that didn't go. Can our hero wield his magical metric crescent wrench and save the day? Stay tuned for our exciting conclusion!

As you may recall from episode one of this saga, I had ordered new pieces for the Jetta's fifth gear synchronizer cluster from the local VW dealer. Delivery time was quoted as two days. but it actually took three. Meanwhile, I reopened the transmission to finish the job of removing the existing gear set, which is where the job had stopped after the discovery of broken bits. There was still the challenge of the selector gear, which had obstinately rebuffed all efforts at removal. Having broken my modified el-cheapo gear puller in the first episode, I now borrowed a (hopefully) better puller from airport buddy Bill. You may remember Bill from the tug tire story, where his pneumatic impact wrench proved insufficient for the immovable bolt. Bill is a race car guy, and at present is working on a pair of midget cars - one for dirt track, the other for paved.

Bill's puller looked promising; its arms fit into the slots on the selector gear, which had been the beginning of my gear puller's difficulties. Nonetheless, I made sure to make another generous application of penetrating oil before getting started. The threads of the puller got a dose of heavier oil for lubrication, a trick I learned from long-time car buddy Roger. Besides being of better construction, Bill's puller had another difference from mine: it didn't have wrench flats on the bolt head, but rather a sliding handle like the ones seen on C-clamps. I snugged it up on the gear and started tightening it up. Once it was tight, the thumb handle made it a lot harder to increase the tension compared to using a wrench, and progress was slow. I thought I was finally making progress when I felt a little snap in the handle. A couple more turns, however, and the puller started wanting to cock over to one side. So I backed off and reset it for another try, taking greater care to be sure everything was centered and straight. Once again it wouldn't stay straight. When I pulled it off this time, I saw that the bolts holding the puller together had bent; all four were slightly V-shaped. I took it apart and then reassembled it using AN3 aircraft bolts (and thereby probably doubling its value). Once again into the breech! Well, something like that anyway. However this time, the puller stayed straight - right up to the moment that it snapped. There was no mistaking it: I'd broken Bill's puller too. The bolts had held, but the arm links had not - each side had failed at the bolt holes.

Pieces from Bill's gear puller on the left, the rebuilt puller on the right.

By now I figured I owed Bill a new puller anyway, so I disassembled it again and borrowed the somewhat heavier links from my broken puller to cobble it back together once more. More penetrant on the gear, more oil on the threads, and I was ready to give it another shot. But this time I upped the ante: once the puller was on and the gear was under tension, I got out the propane torch and gingerly applied heat to the gear. Using a torch to heat up machined parts is an accepted practice and sometimes necessary, but I'm always reluctant to do it for fear of damaging something. This was what the doctor ordered though - the snap I felt this time was the gear moving. I had to reset the puller again to finish the job, but I finally had the selector gear in my hand.

Compared to the selector gear, the two gears themselves were pretty easy. I did have to employ the rebuilt puller again, but the torch wasn't needed. After a week of being stalemated, I had finally gotten the first half of the job done:

Look ma - no gears!

Putting in the new gears went smoothly, but that brought me back to the selector gear and the synchronizer. Remember those loose pieces in the pan way back in the first installment? I now had to figure out how to get them back in correctly, which I obviously hadn't managed to do the first time around. Since I was still waiting for the parts to arrive at the dealer, I spent one whole evening researching how those pieces were supposed to go together. It seems I was not the first to have this problem. The problem was compounded by VW's redesigning these parts after a year or two of production.

These were the easy parts. Look at the first picture in the first installment to see the hard ones. These are the new gears; if you look closely at the gear on the right, you can see that the one in this picture is slightly smaller than the one in the first picture: Compare where the gear teeth are in relation to the big washer that holds the gear in place.

This redesign problem became more apparent when the ordered parts arrived. I realized that I had received revised parts, but did not have a revised transmission. The new parts would have to be unrevised to work with the existing stuff. Fast forward through another hour or two with pliers, cutters, bench grinder, and files. I was now faced with getting the reassembled selector gear and synchronizer back into the transmission. The selector gear was no more willing to go on than it had been willing to come off. The instructions I had did say that the factory used a press to put it together originally, and that it would have to be driven on. My first attempt at this did not seem promising, so before I got too committed I pulled it off and took stock. Time for the torch again.

Since the first application of the torch, I'd found my no-touch thermometer, a nifty little gadget that can determine an object's temperature from several feet away. So armed, I felt more secure heating the gear up for reinstallation. I don't remember how it happened, but part way through this process I was distracted by something, and when I looked back I realized that I had heated one of the retaining springs to a dull orange. This was one of the same pieces that I'd spent an hour or so revising in the previous paragraph. For those who don't already know, a good way to ruin a metal spring is to heat it to the point that it loses its temper - it becomes brittle and all the springiness is lost. Fortunately I'd ordered a spare. Unfortunately, it would also need the unrevising procedure; back to the grinder.

By the time that was done, it was too dark to continue, so another day gone. Meanwhile, I was still at the helm of Dick's airport car. It being dark, I spent a little time on the wagon's lights, as Dick had told me that it hadn't any headlights. I managed to get the low beams to work, but selecting the high beams produced a severe absence of light. Oh well, at least that was enough to get home with. A few other bulbs also needed attention, after which I made it home without incident.

The next day, having remembered to disconnect the airport car's battery and thus avoid a repeat of the no-start episode, I was back at it and managed an uneventful reassembly of the Jetta's transmission. I hadn't liked the way the Redline MT-90 oil had felt when shifting, so this time I filled the transmission with the slightly thinner Redline MTL. Once the transmission was all buttoned up, I took a test drive around the airport. The shifting action felt better, so there was one small victory. After checking for leaks, I took it out on the road. I held my breath the first time I went for fifth gear, but it went right in. The first downshift was another tense moment, but it did just fine. Phew! A few more enroute back to the hangar, where I then installed the engine bay side panel and the new aluminum belly pan, which looks and acts more like a skid plate on a four-wheel drive truck. No more worrying about road debris holing the oil pan! (A common issue on this generation of VW's, which use cast aluminum oil pans.)

All done! The Jetta shows off its new Dieselgeek skid plate.

In the subsequent week, the car has driven well. The new fifth gear drops engine rpm's by eleven percent, as compared to the original. This produces about 65 mph at 2000 rpm, whereas the original fifth gear gave about 60 mph at the same revs. I don't expect any noticeable change in fuel economy, but the car seems a little happier and quieter on the freeway. I'm guardedly optimistic that I got it right this time, but I'm ordering another set of the bits and pieces from the dealer just to make sure (a complete set of revised bits and pieces this time). Having them on hand should guarantee that I'll never need them. Let's hope so, since the acid test will be next month's road trip. Better renew my AAA . . .

Postscript: This entire ordeal would have been even more trying if not for the help from the several named airport buddies. Thanks again to Kenny, Bill, and Dick. Kenny's explanation of 220 wiring was eye-opening. Bill conceded that he'd broken his puller before I'd done so, and kindly accepted it back in its repaired condition (along with a case of Coke Zero -his favorite). Once the Jetta was restored to operational status, I spent a day fixing Dick's airport car. The main electrical problems of battery drain and overcharging both went away after the alternator was overhauled. My diagnosis of a bad voltage regulator was spot on (even I get lucky every now and then). The mysterious motor that I unplugged turned out to be the power antenna, which is mounted in the fender next to the HVAC housing. I was surprised to find that I got over 18 mpg out of that car - who'd a thunk?

The titles for episodes One and Three come from the three witches in Act 4, Scene 1 of "The Scottish Play" (Shakespeare's M@cb*th).

For those of you who are tired of this story of my mechanical ineptitude, I'll admit that I'm getting sick of it too - When I began, I had no intentions of beginning a trilogy. Stick around: I promise next time we'll get back to the big airport.