Josef “Jeff” Sipek

Instrument Flying

I was paging through a smart collection in Lightroom, when I came across a batch of photos from early December that I did not share yet. (A smart collection is filter that will only show you photos satisfying a predicate.)

On December 2nd, one of the people I work with (the same person that told me exactly how easy it is to sign up for lessons) told me that he was going up to do a couple of practice instrument approaches to Jackson (KJXN) in the club’s Cessna 182. He then asked if I wanted to go along. I said yes. It was a warm, overcast day…you know, the kind when the weather seems to sap all the motivation out of you. I was going to sit in the back (the other front seat was occupied by another person I work with — also a pilot) and play with my camera. Below are the some of the better shots; there are more in the gallery.

Getting ready to take off:

US-127 and W Berry Rd:

The pilot:

The co-pilot:

On the way back to Ann Arbor (KARB), we climbed to five thousand feet, which took us out of the clouds. Since I was sitting in the back, I was able to swivel around and enjoy the sunset on a completely overcast day. The experience totally made my day. After I get my private pilot certificate, I am definitely going to consider getting instrument rated.

The clouds were very fluffy.

Plotting with ggmap

Recently, I came across ggmap package for R. It supposedly makes for some very easy plotting on top of Google Maps or OpenStreetMap. I grabbed a GPS recording I had laying around, and gave it a try.

You may recall my previous attempts at plotting GPS data. This time, the data file I was using was recorded with a USB GPS dongle. The data is much nicer than what a cheap smartphone GPS could produce.

> head(pts)
        time   ept      lat       lon   alt   epx    epy mode
1 1357826674 0.005 42.22712 -83.75227 297.7 9.436 12.755    3
2 1357826675 0.005 42.22712 -83.75227 297.9 9.436 12.755    3
3 1357826676 0.005 42.22712 -83.75227 298.1 9.436 12.755    3
4 1357826677 0.005 42.22712 -83.75227 298.4 9.436 12.755    3
5 1357826678 0.005 42.22712 -83.75227 298.6 9.436 12.755    3
6 1357826679 0.005 42.22712 -83.75227 298.8 9.436 12.755    3

For this test, I used only the latitude, longitude, and altitude columns. Since the altitude is in meters, I multiplied it by 3.2 to get a rough altitude in feet. Since the data file is long and goes all over, I truncated it to only the last 33 minutes.

The magical function is the get_map function. You feed it a location, a zoom level, and the type of map and it returns the image. Once you have the map data, you can use it with the ggmap function to make a plot. ggmap behaves a lot like ggplot2’s ggplot function and so I felt right at home.

Since the data I am trying to plot is a sequence of latitude and longitude observations, I’m going to use the geom_path function to plot them. Using geom_line would not produce a path since it reorders the data points. Second, I’m plotting the altitude as the color.

Here are the resulting images:

If you are wondering why the line doesn’t follow any roads… Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads. (Hint: flying)

Here’s the entire script to get the plots:

#!/usr/bin/env Rscript


pts <- read.csv("gps.csv")

/* get the bounding box... left, bottom, right, top */
loc <- c(min(pts$lon), min(pts$lat), max(pts$lon), max(pts$lat))

for (type in c("roadmap","hybrid","terrain")) {
	map <- get_map(location=loc, zoom=13, maptype=type)
	p <- ggmap(map) + geom_path(aes(x=lon, y=lat, color=alt*3.2), data=pts)

	jpeg(paste(type, "-preview.jpg", sep=""), width=600, height=600)

	jpeg(paste(type, ".jpg", sep=""), width=1024, height=1024)

P.S. If you are going to use any of the maps for anything, you better read the terms of service.

FAST 2013

Since FAST starts today, yesterday was dedicated to flying out to San Jose.

Once at KDTW, I spent most of my wait there watching planes at the gates as well as watching more planes take off on 22L. Somehow, it was fascinating to watch them land on 22L and see 22R in the background — the same 22R that I got to do touch and go’s on a couple of weeks ago. I think not having to aviate first let me enjoy the sights — planes large and small barrelling down the runway and then *poof* they gently lift off the runway. At about 500 feet the gear retracts. It’s magic!

At one point, I saw the plane at the adjacent gate being prepared for its next flight. I both enjoyed seeing and sympathized with one of the crew (I assume the first officer since I suspect the captain wanted to stay warm) walking around the plane visually inspecting it. I know how annoying it is to be outside when it is cold to make sure the plane is safe to fly, yet I find it comforting that the same rules apply not only to Cessna 172s but also to Airbus A320s.

The first leg of the trip took me to KSLC. I brought my copy of the FAR/AIM with me. I read a bunch. I looked out the window a bunch. After we got past Lake Michigan, the sky cleared up allowing me to watch the ground below instead of the layer of overcast. I was very surprised to discover that the snow covered landscape makes it very easy to spot airports. Well, it is easy to spot paved runways that have been plowed.

The approach to KSLC was pretty cool. I never thought about the landscape in Utah before, but it turns out that Salt Lake City is surrounded by some serious mountains. Now, throw in winter weather with overcast and you’ll end up with a sea of white except for a few places where the mountains are peaking through.

Learning to fly in southeastern Michigan doesn’t make you think about mountains — there just aren’t any. Seeing the mountains peeking through the clouds was a scary reminder that there are more things in the sky than just other airplanes and some towers. If one were flying VFR above the clouds (which is a bad idea), where would be a safe place to descend? Obviously not where the mountains peak through, but any other place might be just as bad. The best looking place could have a mountain or a ridge few hundred feet below the cloud tops. Granted, sectional charts would depict all the mountains but it is a dangerous game to play.

I knew we would end up descending through the overcast and so I played a little game I expected to lose. Once we were in the clouds, I tried to keep track of our attitude by just sensing the forces. I knew I would fail, but I thought it would be interesting to try my best. We spent maybe 90 to 120 seconds in the clouds. At the end, I definitely felt like we were in a right bank — Wikipedia article: Spatial disorentation. I knew that we probably weren’t, but without visual information to fix up my perception there was no way for me to know.

We landed. I watched all the airport signs and markings, following our progress on an airport diagram. Once people started getting off the plane, I decided to ask to see the airworthiness certificate. The first officer (I think) found all the paperwork in the cockpit and showed me. It was really cool to see the same form I see every time I fly the 172 but filled out for an A320. (Theirs was laminated!) We chatted for a little bit about what I fly, and how it’s a good plane. It was fun.

It was time to get to my connecting flight. Nothing interesting happened. I spent about half the flight watching the outside and half reading my book.

After arriving to KSJC, I got up from my seat in the small but comfy plane (CRJ200). I grabbed my backpack from the overhead bin with one hand since the other hand not only had my hoodie draped over but was holding the FAR/AIM. I started filing out. All that was left to do was give the thank-you-for-landing-safely-and-not-killing-me nod to the crew as I exited the plane. The captain or FO happened to be standing in the cockpit door saying good bye to passengers. I nodded as planned. He responded: “good book.” I smiled.

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