Friday, April 30, 2010


Yesterday evening, Southwest showed up with a new airplane, sporting a new addition to their state flag collection: Florida One entered service last week, and this was my first view of it. I'm glad they didn't come any later, else I wouldn't have any pictures to show you.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Three Mowers; or An Open Letter to Black & Decker: Part 2

In part one, I talked about my Black & Decker rechargeable lawnmower. Its faults, while annoying, are relatively minor, the main one being that it lacks sufficient battery capacity to mow my entire lawn reliably. To illustrate, here's a shot of my backyard taken from the back patio:

That's the mower sitting along the back fence. The first of the white-top stakes is 25 feet from the patio, and the others are 25 feet apart, with another 15 feet or so beyond the third stake to the fence.

With that in mind, I was attracted to B & D's new follow-on model when I saw it on sale at my local OSH store. It is 36-volt, as compared to 24-volts of the one I already have:

Black & Decker CM1936 36-volt rechargeable mower

Here the two are together - sizes are comparable

The feature that really caught my eye, though, was the removable battery. It fits into a recess on the top of the mower's housing, and is easily removed:

The battery out of the 36-volt mower, next to a garden hose spray nozzle for size comparison. It (the battery, that is!) weighs 25 lbs. Being removable, I could have a second battery to finish the yard when the first one started to get tired part-way though. The battery has its own charger jack; it doesn't have to be installed in the mower to be recharged.

Here are the two chargers: Old orange one and the new black one. I particularly like the decision to put the transformer blocks in the middle of the cords, instead of making them wall-warts that block adjacent outlets. More products should have power supplies like these.

Here is the combined jack for the safety key and the charger. The jack has been re-engineered and the terminals have been color-coded, ostensibly for easier use. As before, this shot was taken from below, which is not a normal viewing angle. From any normal adult stance, the color-coded jack is not visible. Get a passing five-year-old to help you.

Here are the two charger plugs, the old fiddly one on the left and the new color-coded one on the right. Unfortunately, while it looks better, the new one is still fiddly. The terminals are supposed to only go together one way, but they don't do so easily; you pretty much have to bend down and look at the jack so that you can get the plug connections aligned correctly. Again, a nearby child will have a much better viewing angle. The new model plug also uses a much smaller wire, which I expect will become a failure point.

Recalling the finger dance required by the first mower, I was also attracted by what appeared to be a simpler handle/switch arrangement. But, take a closer look:

Unlike the old model, the new one takes both hands to operate:

You have to hold the orange button with the right hand while pulling the handle with your left. I missed this little detail, and so when I went to use the mower for the first time, it wouldn't work. Only after I put it away, mowed the yard with the other mower, and then went inside to read the manual, did I realize that what looked like an easier-to-use handle really isn't. And yes, I know (now): There's a label on the lower side of the switch housing, clearly shown in the previous picture, that illustrates the operation of the switch. Keep in mind, though, that the photo was shot from the side of the unit - not from the operator's likely vantage point, from which the label is not visible.

And so, I returned it. The nuisance of the two-handed operation and the not-really-any-better charger hook-up outweighed the theoretical benefit of the replaceable battery. Said battery, by the way, costs $130 from Amazon, and is not immediately available (Usually ships in 2 to 4 weeks, they say.)

This is not meant as a diatribe against Black & Decker; I happily own what probably adds up to be a couple of thousand dollars' worth of their tools. Let me say that I think I understand why Black & Decker made the machine this way; the removable safety key will prevent unauthorized operation. The combined safety key and charger jack reduces the likelihood of mowing over the energized charger cord. One or both of these features might be required - I'm not up on lawnmower manufacturing regulations. The two-handed operation on the handle, however, seems superfluous and was sufficiently annoying that I opted not to keep the mower.

My point to Black & Decker is that I don't think the implementation of the features on this particular product was sufficiently thought-out. If the charger connections have to be made a certain way, and that way only, then a better design would utilize a plug and jack that will accomplish this with less hassle than what I've seen so far. Think of a polarized wall outlet. Or a stereo/video patch cord. Any of those have multiple conductors incorporated into one unit, and all of them will only attach in the intended manner - and they operate easily and simply. The handle/switch design of the first mower is less cumbersome than the one on the second, and can be operated with one hand. The newer model requires the use of both hands - no amputees need apply. Perhaps this mower should be a test for people learning to use a new prosthetic arm/hand. For that matter, I'll concede that the first mower's design might be a challenge for them too.

So come on, Black & Decker; I know you can do better than this. In the meantime, for a back-up mower, I reverted:

My mower fleet: The original 24-volt rechargeable, along with the gasoline-powered alternate.

And yes, I acknowledge that the gas mower also requires a two-handed procedure for starting, but that's usual on gas mowers. I expected better from Black & Decker . . .

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Three Mowers; or An Open Letter to Black & Decker: Part 1

With my history of planes, tractors, and automobiles, there can be no doubt that I am a regular user of internal combustion engines. That said, I am currently stationed in southern California; and when in Rome . . . So, shortly after getting the house last year, I acquired a Black & Decker cordless lawnmower.

Black & Decker CMM1200 24-volt rechargeable mower.
Shown here with its rear bag, although I use it in mulching mode.

What I like about it is that it is relatively quiet, and is no effort to start. Although it has almost enough battery capacity to do the entire yard if I mow really quickly and don't go more than a week between cuttings, my gripes are primarily centered around the connection point for the charger and, to a lesser extent, the operator switch.

The charger plugs into a jack in the control box on the mower's handle. This same jack is also used for the mower's key, as seen here:

The orange key plugged in: The mower is ready to go. Remove the key, and it won't run.
In the manual, B & D specifically suggests that you shouldn't do what I've done here, namely attach the key to the mower. Having misplaced any number of keys and drill chuck wrenches, I don't see not doing something like this. In a household with children, however, this would be a very bad idea.

Here's the business end of the key. As far as I can tell, it encloses a jumper wire that connects the two contacts, thus closing the power circuit.

And here's the empty jack. The key plugs into the two separate light grey connectors, left and right, thereby covering the charger's triple-wire plug in the center. So you can mow or charge, but you can't do both at once. The key is ambidextrous: it can be plugged in either way.

The charger, however, is not. It has to be inserted the correct way, or else no charging will take place. This is a head-on look at the charger plug. If you look very closely, you can see that the prong on the right has the upper corners cut off, as compared to the square prongs, left and center. This is intended to make it only plug-in the correct way. It doesn't work. Even when it is plugged in correctly, it's not a secure fit; it's easily jostled loose.

This close up of the jack shows how the charger connector is shaped to only accept the plug in the correct orientation. It's hard to see, even in this close up, which was shot from below. It's almost impossible to see from any normal position.

Another shot of the charger plug, this time with it flipped over: the odd-shaped prong is now on the left. This shot also shows how I marked the plug with yellow paint so I can easily tell which way to hold it for insertion into the jack, like so:

The charger, plugged in correctly. Even with the yellow paint, it's rather fiddly to get connected. Thanks to this, I expect that this will probably become a failure-prone part of the mower/charger system.

The switch to make the mower operate incorporates a "dead man" safety: When the operator lets go, the mower stops almost instantly. All lawnmowers are required to have this feature nowadays, regardless of power source. I wish my brother's bulldozer had had one a few years ago. The switch is operated by an orange lever attached to the control box on the mower's handle:

The orange switch lever in the Off position. It's spring-loaded to return to this position if the operator lets go of it. To use the mower, you first have to unplug the charger, then insert the key, as described earlier. The operator then extracts the orange lever from it's resting position, and holds it against the handle while using the mower:

Thanks to the shape of the housing, getting access to the lever requires a funny finger dance.
One finger pushes the lever out of its slot . . .

And another finger snags it . . .

And then the lever is held against the handle by the right hand while mowing. The finger dance is sort of tricky to figure out at first, but becomes smoother with practice.
Not a serious deficit, compared to the hassle of some other mowers I've had, but this issue will reappear in the next part.

With all the photos, this has gotten longer than I expected, so I'll break here. In Part 2, I'll describe the 'new and improved' version.

Monday, April 19, 2010


The biggest aviation news in some time has been the eruption of a volcano in Iceland. To be more specific, it's the ash plume that's the big news. Volcanic ash became known as a problem for jet aircraft in the 1980's, when there were several incidents involving airliners that experienced engine failure as a result of flying through volcanic ash. Of these, the two best known are probably British Airways Flight 9 (June, 1982); and KLM Flight 867 (December 1989). Coincidentally, both of these were B747's. In each case, all four engines failed mid-flight, turning them into 800,000-pound gliders. Once clear of the ash clouds, the respective crews were able to restart their damaged engines and accomplish safe landings. After landing, both aircraft required replacement of their engines and windshields, plus other repairs.

Although neither of these incidents involved any injuries, it's obviously not the sort of thing that should be repeated. For that reason, the European aviation authorities shut down airports and closed airspace as the ash plume approached. As I write this, there have been some successful test flights, but passenger operations are still curtailed.

Yesterday, I counted nine aircraft stranded at LAX. There may be more that I didn't find, and perhaps some I couldn't recognize, as for instance US airlines that park planes here anyway (primarily American and United). Airlines represented include: British Airways, Lufthansa, and Air Tahiti, each of whom have two aircraft on the ground here; along with KLM, Swiss, and Virgin Atlantic, with one apiece. The one missing player of note is Air France, who managed to get all of their aircraft out. I'm also not sure why Tahiti's airplanes are stuck here, since while they can't go to Paris, they're still running their flights to and from Papeete. I don't think we've seen Aeroflot here in the last few days either, although they don't seem to have an aircraft stranded here.

Map showing spread of volcanic ash from Iceland

Infographic on spread of Icelandic volcano ash cloud
I borrowed these maps of the ash cloud coverage from BBC News here and here.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The view from the tower

Most of the photos I use in my entries are taken by yours truly, using a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ18 digital camera. I've had the Lumix for a couple of years now; my previous digital camera was an Olympus whose exact model I've forgotten. In both cases, the cameras fell into the "superzoom" category, although the Olympus, being a couple of years older, had a zoom which was a good deal less than that on the Lumix. Nearly all the shots I take and show you here are zoom shots, and I even crop some of those. In keeping with the title of this blog, I thought I'd show you some shots that more closely depict what we actually see from the tower cab.

For this segment, I'm going to show you a sequence of shots, all depicting the arrival of an Air France B777 on Runway 24 Right. They were taken earlier this week, and the time is about 6 PM local DST (Daylight Savings Time). The reported visibility is ten miles. It was a somewhat hazy afternoon, although not sufficiently so to be included in the official weather observation; a pretty good day for Los Angeles in the late spring. Summer time visibility will be worse as the smog builds beneath the inversion layer that is typical for the time of year. None of these are great pictures, as they were all shot from inside the tower cab, through the dirty windows and window shades. No zoom was used, and the lens setting does not change throughout the sequence.

This is our first view of the airplane, as it passes north of the airport eastbound on the downwind for Runway 24 Right. It's about the center of the shot, just above and to the left of the spearhead of cloud projecting from the right side. The airplane is about five miles north of the airport, at seven thousand feet.

Still on downwind, now descending through about six thousand feet. If you blow up the picture, look about an inch to the right of the previous location.

In this shot looking to the east, the airplane has just crossed over the Harbor Freeway and is on a five mile final, straight-in to Runway 24 Right, at about two thousand feet. Look above the black building.

Four mile final. Look above the white building, about halfway up.

Three mile final. Now can you see it? Go up from the yellow wall of the Radisson hotel, just above the horizon.

Two mile final.

One mile final.

Crossing over Sepulveda Blvd: Half-mile final.

At the runway treshhold.


Rolling out on the runway, about to exit at Taxiway AA. You can see the camera lens reflected in the bottom right corner of the shot. The visibility to the west gets difficult thanks to all the glare as the sun approaches the western horizon. This is a problem for the pilots as well.

Just finishing the runway crossing, about to turn onto Taxiway Echo. I think I took this shot the day before the Iceland volcano; we haven't seen many Air France jets since. The dark stripe across the lower part of the shot is an extra layer of window tint that cuts glare around the bottom of the tower window shades. Nice for controllers, not so nice for pictures.

This next sequence shows a Virgin America A320 on final, also for Runway 24 Right:

We start with the airplane on a four mile final.

Three mile final.

Two mile final.

One mile final.

At the threshhold, with Southwest about to depart the parallel runway.

I've got one more sequence for you, this time on the south side of the airport. This is an American B767, arriving on Runway 25 Left:

Three mile final.

Two mile final.

One mile final.

Over the runway, about to touch down. The end of the runway is more than a mile from the tower.

In closing, a gratuitous pair of B757's:

No, this isn't out of my archive - I took this shot on April 15th: Tax day here in the states. The upper aircraft has just arrived, and is getting tugged into the gate. The lower aircraft left an hour or so later, bound for the paint shop in Victorville.