Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Reminiscing on the gaming years..

I used to take gaming very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that almost a year in college was spent on an inverted nocturnal schedule that involved heavy doses of Wolfenstein, Age of Empires (AoE), and Medal of Honour. I don't play as much anymore, and most of my gaming is reduced to whatever I can run on my android tablet and occasionally my PSP. At this very moment, however, I can't even tell you the exact location of my PSP, because that's how long it has been since I last used it. It's been a different story on the tablet however, and I've been trying out that classic amongst games, Tetris. A far cry from the days of souped up computers and endless hours. 

It got me wondering, though. What was all that gaming in aid of? Did it really help me, other than to entertain? I pondered over this question a lot, and one by one, some of the lessons started coming back to me. It might sound a little corny as I go ahead with this post, but it turns out there were valuable lessons for me in gaming. Unsurprisingly, most of it came from my AoE buddies, since that's the game I played the most. It also helped that I played against people I knew and met on a daily basis - close college friends. 

It's easy to pick out the low hanging fruit first - years of time spent on various flight simulator games helped me on my journey to becoming a pilot. It's fun trying to barrel roll an airliner in MS FSX, but it's even more fun and useful trying to fly a plane as it should be flown. I will not go so far as to say that the skills translate directly into flying an actual plane, but the usefulness, especially on matters procedural, certainly cannot be discounted. But on further thought, it struck me as less valuable than what the others taught me. 

Blackmartyr - an AoE buddy - taught me the importance of winning. There are some people with an intense focus on winning, and he was one of those guys. Even if he was taking a beating, he would do everything he could - sometimes even ethically questionable stuff - to ensure that his team wins. It did not come from an innate evil nature, though. Sometimes you run into people whom you just cannot admit are better than you. For him, in such situations, victory was a good way of proving a point to himself. 

On the opposite side, RhythmSage taught me to enjoy the game. Win or lose, at the end of the day it was just a game, and the important thing was to have had fun playing. She's one of my closest friends to date, and this nature is more of a reflection of her true self, since she's generally regarded as a happy and cheerful person. We'd be on the same team, and would've just suffered a bad loss, and I'd come out of my room whining about it while she would just be calm, happy and chilled out about the whole thing. It would annoy me initially since I thought she wasn't taking this seriously enough, but eventually I picked up that skill a bit, though at far less than the ideal level a temperamental guy like me should have. In fact, she seems to have picked up more of my crankiness than she probably should've. 

C and S (I no longer remember their in-game names) taught me to take pride in my work. They were obsessed about getting their armies to march in perfect formation, and those armies were usually an intimidating sight with swordsmen marching into your territories in neat little squares and laying siege to the place. They had put a lot of effort into raising those armies, and they'd be damned if the armies were gonna look shaby. It did not matter if their armies were bulldozing the enemy unchallenged, or taking a proper hiding themselves, they were always neatly organized and beautiful to look at. Of course, on the flip side they also taught me not to obsess on one particular aspect among many, since quite often their focus on neat armies let to their being distracted from the tactical details of battle.

The last, and most important lesson came from the improbably named decaLODA. A close confidante of many years, he taught me in our AoE games to not stop fighting. You may be down to your last penny and being attacked from directions you didn't know existed, but you cannot stop fighting. When we started playing this game, one of the more skilled and powerful players named Aghust used to take on six or seven of us at a time and beat us all. Most of us would get dejected halfway through and resign from the game, but not decaLODA. He would keep fighting until he was down to the last villager, whom he would hide in a faraway corner of the game map and get him to build a multi-layered stone wall around himself. Aghust would eventually discover the villager, and turn his trebuchets against the wall and painstakingly knock a hole in them, at which point DecaLODA would kill his last villager, forfeiting the game. He may have lost, but he made life hell for his enemy until the very end. It took me a long time to digest this, but it was probably the best thing I ever learned from playing computer games. 

Perhaps all that time wasn't wasted after all.. 

Monday, 18 March 2013

The flying smart-aleck..

A long time ago, a friend asked on his blog : 

do i take a leap of faith, reach out and risk falling, failing?
do i maintain the status quo, not do anything, and wait for the universe to do it’s thing?

why does it always have to be so bloody difficult to make a choice in such situations?

And I replied, in a slightly smart-alecky way.. :

the universe does not do anything if you sit on your bum. it might discern enough to assist you if you're helping yourself. and even then, the best you could count on is a tailwind in the direction of your leap of faith that might take you a precious few additional millimetres forward. your main propellant will still be the faith in your leap. the stronger you leap, the more wind there will be beneath your wings, keeping you afloat across the abyss. its basic aerodynamic theory, actually.

Today, I read it, and smiled. :)

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Road Rage..

Mornings were never my thing. I have been accused of a lot of things but I've never been accused of being a morning person, whatever that may mean. So my foul mood was a given since I had been dragged out of bed at 5 30 a.m. and put in the driver's seat of our car. This was dad's doing. Ever since he's retired, he's declared himself too old to drive unless he has run out of options. Mom says he gets a kick out of sitting in the back seat while his sons drive him around. In any case, thanks to a combination of factors, not the least important of which was the fact that my aunt and her family who were visiting us needed to catch a train at 6 a.m., I was staring bleary-eyed out into whatever bits of road were illuminated by the headlamps. I made a mental note to myself to get the lamp checked; the dim was focused too low on the road. 

Having accomplished the task of making sure my aunt and family caught their train, we were on our way back. I was too sleepy to talk, and dad must've understood that since he was silent. Stray bits of conversation revolved around what route to take back home - I was unsure of my hometown roads and they had changed a lot in the decade I was away. As we reached the dual carriageway near palarivattom junction, I got into the inside lane with a plan to gun it and head home to bed as fast as possible. As I was about to place my reputedly heavy foot on the accelerator pedal, a mini-lorry overtook us on the outside lane and then cut in front of me without warning. I had to slam on the brakes to avoid a collision, and we were both shaken out of our silence. 

The first thing that came to my mind was an expletive, but I have over time developed the ability to shut my potty mouth when my parents are around. I was indignant. I had done everything right, and if the lorry wanted to overtake, all he needed to do was indicate that and I would've got out of his way. I floored the pedal and the car lunged forward. 

"What are you doing?", said dad. 

"Catching him," I said. "He can't get away with this." 

"Let it be," said dad. "It's pointless trying to teach him a lesson" 

We were gaining on him. "If people don't tell him he's an ass, he'll continue pulling stuff like this", I said. 

"He could be a thug". "Don't worry, nothing's gonna happen". 

When that change of track didn't work, dad fell back to his earlier point that the lorry driver will not get the message. I was right on his tail, looking for an opening to overtake. I was going to do this right, without stooping to his level of overtaking on the wrong side. Dad was telling me that it was pointless getting angry at people on the road, because there were simply too many of them. He prided himself on driving all his life in a way that had caused no one ever to get angry at him. I remembered the time when I had started driving, and he was ashamed when my overconfidence once caused a policeman to shout at us. 

I got my opening, and the car surged ahead of the mini lorry. Dad paused for a second and said, "It's an old man." 

I shot ahead, cut in front of him, and slammed the brakes, forcing him to do the same. Dad rolled down the window, shook a fist at him, and returned to lecturing me about how it was of no use getting angry at an old man who would probably continue driving like this for the rest of his life. As we drove off, I marveled at how he could teach me the right things while still playing on my team. 

I daren't tell him how I tried something similar with a bus driver while I was on my motorcycle. 

Tuesday, 16 October 2012


As the Red Bull Stratos balloon went up higher and higher into space, I was looking at the earth's curvature on the video feed. And I was preoccupied not with the feat or the associated dangers, but with the possibility that a wide angle lens may be distorting the image and making the earth look more curved than it actually would at that height. However, as the moment of the jump approached, all the hard-boiled cynicism went away for a bit, and I had to stop and marvel at what I was witnessing, via a remote video connection on the other side of the planet from where the action was happening. 

I have always been quietly grumbling about how frontiers aren't being pushed anymore. Sometimes when I see someone carrying a smartphone (and I own one myself), I often wonder about the fact that we're carrying in our hands devices that have more computing power than some of the earlier space missions did. We didn't get to see man land on the moon, and we're likely not going to see man land on Mars anytime soon. Yet we queue up at stores when the fruit company releases a new phone, and talk about it as if it were the Second Coming. I'll begrudgingly admit that frontiers are being pushed where we cannot necessarily see them, in technologies that are benefiting us on a daily basis. They might not have the same impact and visibility as landing on another celestial body, and therefore we take them for granted. I like to think that, while flying cars will probably not work out, the future did deliver a personal scaled down version of HAL 9000 in Siri, and that is kinda cool. But I digress. 

The thing is, entire generations looked at the space race, the moon landings, Concorde, and the space shuttle and were inspired to push harder at the frontiers of what we know. Somehow, I cannot see a new phone, or any of the other things that we take for granted, inspire someone to go out there an push the limits. The fact that I was watching Felix Baumgartner live sitting halfway across the globe from him alone should be something to think about, yet I was more bothered about the camera distorting the picture. I was viewing it as a spectacle, as reality television, and not as the amazing feat it truly is. He went up in a balloon. A balloon is not the first thing you think of when it comes to transportation/vehicular records that are still standing. You might start with hypersonic aircraft, solar aircraft, biofuel aircraft, pretty much any other form of flying craft before your list eventually brings you to the balloon. I didn't know there were any records to be broken on balloons, I thought we'd dealt with all of those in the earlier part of the last century, when they were still fashionable as a mode of transport/warfare. Yet, before he even stepped out of the balloon, and an incredibly engineered balloon at that, he had already set the record for the highest flight in a lighter-than-air craft. And then he broke the sound barrier in freefall, which has never been done before. 

Maybe we're all spoilt for choice, the whole lot of us. Amazing things are happening around, and we barely notice. I wonder how many people are aware of the fact that this was not just a record attempt, and that Baumgartner's jump has recorded data that would help design emergency egress systems from future spacecraft. Maybe twenty years from now, when you're flying on a Virgin Galactic SpaceShipSeven and it flies into space junk left by an old burnt-up spy satellite and you have to eject, you'll have Baumgartner amongst others to thank for getting you down on terra firma. A generation or two ago, they had the moon landings to inspire them. We have the Hubble telescope, the Curiosity rover, the Large Hadron collider and people like Baumgartner. Sure, theirs was more awesome, but I think we tend to overlook what we have. Amazing things are happening around us, and there are frontiers to be pushed everywhere. Even in a balloon. We're probably just not looking hard enough. 

Okay. I'll get off the soapbox now. 

(Also, no offence meant to balloon flyers, I just happen to have a personal preference for aircraft that I can actually control :P)

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Yet another juvenile rant..

I'm trying to roll two rants into one here; they're vaguely connected, but I'm not sure how much sense I'll make. Anyway.. 

I recently read a book called Don't Ask Any Old Bloke for Directions. It is written by an IAS officer who quits his job and goes motorcycling across India. By all accounts, it should be a book I'd normally relate to, and that was probably why it was gifted to me on my birthday a few years back. I finally got around to reading it, and I was disappointed. There were parts of the book I could completely understand and love, but the overall balance tilted in favour of disappointment. A feeling of being let down. 

To start with, the book sets up this notion of a guy who gives up everything to go on a journey of self discovery across the country. Someone who says no to a position of power in the establishment, and goes off on that classic rebel pursuit, motorcycling nirvana. The writing is shoddy and rambling at places, but has a certain charm to it, like listening to a slightly drunk guy at a party who has very entertaining stories, but the alcohol just isn't allowing him to structure them properly. However, a third of the way into the book, I got the sense that this was all a sham. He never let go of his security net, like the initial part of the book (not to mention its marketing) claimed. It wasn't quite the I-gave-up-everything-and-stepped-into-the-abyss story it was made out to be. He owned a few restaurants that placed him comfortably on the financial front, and he could afford to let go of his government job and tear up and down the country on a motorcycle. And he hadn't quite let go of the trappings of power. And that is all fine by me. He's above forty at the time this happens, has a family, and I suppose that's not the age where one can just cut the ropes, get rid of the training wheels, and let go. Hell, I would've shivered at the thought at 21. I would've devoured the book and paid no attention to its flaws had it been a simple collection of tales from the road. What ticked me off was the whole posturing, the misleading premise, and the attempt to make it sound like a Che Guevara story from India. 

Which brings me to my second point. Che Guevara had the misfortune of making an epic trip across South America on an old Norton 500, and in the process he saw the plight of the people on his continent, his people, and underwent a metamorphosis into a kickass revolutionary dude who tried to make a difference for those people. However, what he really managed to do was capture the imagination of half of the worlds douchebags, and continues to do so today. I have huge respect for the guy, and my knowledge of him extends outside of what Motorcycle Diaries tells me. I will not go into the mechanics of how he ended up as a silhouette on headbands and underpants, but I do get royally ticked off when people start putting up Che images on their blogs and facebook pages after they've done a few hundred kilometres on a motorcycle. 

George Carlin once said,"I don't have pet peeves, I have major psychotic fucking hatreds! And it makes the world a lot easier to sort out." This is my personal equivalent of that. Right after I'd read the book I mentioned earlier in the post, I saw two acquaintances start pretending to be Che after a few hundred kilometres on their bikes. I ride a bike as well, and my love of bikes is well documented. I come from a family with a strong communist background, and my own views on life are left of centre, sometimes very much socialist. However, each time I go out touring on the bike, I do not expect to return after having overthrown a government or two. The thing is, motorcycling is fun in itself. You don't have to pretend to be a South American revolutionary to have fun on two wheels. To me, those who resort to that are missing the whole point of motorcycling. The fact is, both the IAS officer and my two friends went out to have fun, and I'm sure deep inside they realized that their revolutionary abilities wont make a pimple on Che's posterior. Yet they chose to pretend. Very, very few people have become actual revolutionaries by undertaking a motorcycle tour, and none of them have really matched the scale of Che's accomplishment. There will necessarily be very few Ches and James Deans. Statistically, that makes your chances of becoming a rebel revolutionary minuscule. Less than worthless. Statistically, it probably makes you a douche. 

Che's legacy has been defiled enough by the underpants and arm-bands, and to see bikers join that parade ticked me off. So I started my own revolution, this post on a blog with 3.8 annual readers. Yeah, that'll teach them. 

Rant over.  

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Imli candy and a spoilt brat..

Seat 18A was mine, but I wasn't in it. And I was livid. I could see the little brat in my peripheral vision. All of 3 and a half years of age, he had usurped my seat. His tantrum for the window seat had put me in a spot, and I had to give it to him or else I would've ended up looking like an asshole. The flight was full, and there was no other seat free, let alone a window seat. In a rare occurrence, even the business class seats were full on this Indian Airlines flight, so that ruled out the possibility of using the clout associated with my granddad's frequent flyer card to score an upgrade. I had turned up early, checked-in early, asked for a window seat that would give me a decent view of the wing, and then was relegated to a middle seat. I wouldn't have minded an aisle seat so much. The point is, I reminded myself, that a bonafide aerospace nerd like me should never be deprived of a window seat. And this brat had done precisely that. 

Emboldened by his successful tantrum, he was looking for more things to do. His parents in the row ahead of ours did not seem bothered about his welfare one bit, and I was not very surprised. They probably needed a break. These were better days for aviation, and the flight attendant was coming down the aisle with candy for everyone so our ears won't pop on take off. I cannot remember any flight in the past coupla years providing that simple amenity. I was looking forward to the candy. It was tamarind mixed with sugar and formed into two little balls, within a single wrapper. I was never big on sweets, but this was my absolute favourite sweet in the world. I wanted to shamelessly grab a handful, but stuck to my standard practice of picking three from the tray she held out for me. The kid shamelessly picked a handful, and asked her for more. She said "Beta wait five minutes, I'll get some for you". Pfft. 

True to her word, she was back in five minutes and handed the kid an entire bag of candy. An entire bag. That's never happened to me! In my mind, I was a more deserving candidate for this largesse. The flight was going to be an hour long, and stuck in my middle seat with nothing to do, I decided to sleep. The kid had other plans. No sooner did the take off run begin than he started bombarding me with questions about the airplane. Now this presented a dilemma. I resented him for stealing my window seat and eating all the candy, but I can't resist answering (or at least attempting to answer) when people ask me stuff about airplanes. I relented, thinking that if his curiosity is piqued, he might join the ranks of us aviation fanatics once he's older. After all, it happened to me. Sure, he might grow up to be an obnoxious, candy stealing member of our community, but we're a smallish community so we could use his membership to swell our numbers. 

I started answering his questions to the extent I could. Kids sometimes make no sense, so this was no mean feat. He had his own theories about jet engines and I patiently set them straight. By my estimate, somewhere abeam Daman I lost my patience. He had more questions than I could possibly hope to answer. The kid-o-meter swung to resentment again. The sleep I had forfeited to accomplish an eventually fruitless early check-in was now beckoning me, and I was stuck in an endless barrage of infantile curiosity. In a moment of inspiration, I pointed to a cloud far away and asked the kid if he could spot a plane flying parallel to us near the cloud. Kids are kinda stupid, and he spent the rest of the flight looking for a plane that did not exist, while I slept as best as the cramped seats on the lovely but decrepit old double-bogey main landing gear wala A320 would let me. 

This morning, when waiting at the bakery section of the office cafeteria, I was reminded of the kid and this story. There, under the glass showcase that housed the confectionery, were bags full of tamarind candy. I bought an entire bag, marvelling at my re-acquaintance with the candy in the most unlikeliest of places. I hadn't seen these in years now. The kid must be twelve years old or thereabouts now. I hope he's fine, wherever he is. 

Monday, 30 January 2012

The death of magic

It was a balmy afternoon in 1993. School had come to an abrupt end at around quarter to two, and everyone was herded into the assembly hall. This was highly unusual, but the break was a welcome one for the bored kids of all sizes occupying twelve classrooms. As they walked into the hall, they noticed with interest that the curtains had been put up. Normal business was conducted in the hall without curtains; they were brought out only on special occasions. They also noted with dismay that there were no carpets or chairs laid out, as is usual for special occasions, and this meant sitting on the uncomfortable and dusty concrete floor. Some of the elder ones had figured that whatever this was, it seemed short notice. They were soon seated, and after some squirming about, were all settled in. 

A little boy of about seven or eight was sitting with eyes fixed on the curtains, about two or three rows from the front. He had to take his eyes off the stage when classmates seated nearby interrupted with chatter, but soon all eyes were on stage since they had seen some interesting looking people enter stage from the corridor. The curtains went up, and joy of joys, it was a magic show. It was the first ever magic show the boy had ever seen, and since it magically killed the remaining three periods of class, it was even better. The magician was a portly man with a mustache that looked fake, and he was clothed in flowing robes and a cape. He took centrestage with ease, and soon the kids were all in rapt attention. At least the younger ones were. 

The boy looked on transfixed as the magician performed one trick after another. An assistant disappeared inside a box and reappeared, cards were picked out with unerring accuracy, and a dove was pulled out of a hat. The man was seemingly a god, there was nothing he couldnt do. The cheers grew louder with each successful trick, but the boy was unaware of the noise. This was the first time he had seen anything like it, and he was mesmerized. The magician lifted his wand and waved at the audience indicating that he required silence. The noise fell and the kids paid attention. He required a couple of volunteers, and he asked the audience who among them would help him out. The boy enthusiastically lifted his hand, but a look around told him that pretty much every hand in the auditorium had gone up. 

Just as enthusiasm was turning into mild dismay, the magician pointed to the boy and said "you, young man. why dont you come up here and give me a hand?" Elated, the boy got up and made for the stage. They were seated in the hall according to height with the shortest up front, and if there was another perk to being short, he couldn't quite think of it at that moment. As he climbed the four or five steps up to the stage, he wondered where he would be if the magician were to make him disappear. Would he float through space? Would he become invisible? He saw the second volunteer, a boy younger than him but equally wide eyed, making his way up the stairs on the side of the stage. If they both disappeared, would they meet somewhere in the middle? What if he can't bring them back? What will they tell their moms? 

Trembling with nervousness, the two boys made it to the stage. The magician looked at them and declared to the audience that they were unfit to be his assistants. As elation and nervousness threatened to turn into dismay once more, the portly man produced two capes, and all was well again. The boys were fitted out with capes, the elder one in a fiery orange-red cape and the younger one got a leopard print cape, and the magician turned to the audience and declared them fit to be his assistants. Our boy returned to nervousness and awe. Magic was happening around him, and he was part of it. Better than a ringside seat, he was in the ring. He held out tubes for the audience to verify that they were empty, and watched stunned as the magician produced flower after flower from it. He handed him a white handkerchief and the magician folded it and then unfolded it and turned it red. Finally, after a multitude of tricks, the boy was asked to stand in the centre of the stage. 

Shy and nervous, he took the three steps necessary to propel him to the required location and stood facing the audience. There was a bit of pride in being the assistant, and he wasn't doing too good a job of hiding it as he looked at envious friends in the rows beneath. From the magicians voice over the loudspeakers, he figured that a glass of milk was being placed on his head. He felt the bottom of the glass on his hair as the magician held it above him without placing it on him. He wondered if the glass would in fact be placed on him, since he wasn't too sure he would do a good job of balancing it. He didn't want to mess up the trick and embarrass the great man. The other boy brought a straw that went into his mouth, with the other end sticking out in the air in front of him. The magician announced that the assistant was going to drink milk in this fashion. He was asked to suck in with the straw, and he did for all he was worth. 

The audience cheered in front of him, but something was amiss. There was no milk coming in through the straw, and he had been worried he messed up somewhere. Yet the audience was cheering, and when the magician stepped in front of him to show the crowd the empty glass was when he realized the milk had indeed disappeared. A strange disappointment grew within him. He wasn't as enthused as before when the magician put the glass under his armpit, covered it with the cape, and returned it full with milk again. He was asked to drink again, three or four times, with the same result. He began to suspect this was all some sort of trickery. Why was there no milk in the straw? As he stepped down the stage at the end of the show, classmates gathered around and patted him on the back and asked a hundred questions. He gave a blank smile. He saw the other boy telling stories to his classmates who had gathered around. All he could think of was to go to the playground. 

The announcement came that even though there was forty minutes left till the end of school, there would be no more class and they could all play outside until the school vans came at three thirty. He made his way to the playground and sat on one of the swings, staring blankly ahead as he filtered out the noisy kids on the merry-go-round and the slide. If it wasn't really magic, what was it? He was certainly tricking us, and there certainly had to be a how and a why. How? was there a secret pipe in his sleeve? Why? perhaps he didn't have real magical powers? Over the course of that afternoon, he had lost blind belief and was questioning everything. Three kids a coupla classes elder to him made their way to his swing. They had questions. "Tell me something," the girl who seemed to be their leader said, "did you really get milk in the straw when you sucked in?" 

"Yes", he said, looking at their slightly disbelieving faces, momentarily setting aside his struggle with magic and logic. "It was real magic." 

PS - this blog has been ignored for too long, and I intend to rectify that soon, (hopefully). the flying course is over, but unfinished posts remain to be published. I hope to do that over the course of this year believing late is better than never. This was a story written a while back, one I'm not entirely happy with, but I have nothing else to post for now. 

Monday, 12 September 2011

Notes on Flying #7 - Land Ahoy..

VT-CAD -Faithful steed so far..

"Victor Alpha Delta turning finals one seven"

That was the call for me to start running. It might as well have been the wail of an air raid siren, given the urgency with which I ran down the spiral staircase from the air traffic control tower. The tower is a favourite hangout of mine, I can spend hours sitting there helping the controllers, keeping a lookout for dogs with the binoculars, listening to the radio chatter.. I had gone up there early in the morning since I knew I was number two in the schedule for today, and I had time to kill. The chief, under whose tutelage I am, likes to have his pupils ready with the paperwork  by the time he walks into the hangar after parking his aircraft, so that the next sortie can begin with the minimum of delay. He rues the fact that the DGCA lets him fly only six hours a day, and I suspect he would fly at least double that if things were left to him. I take one last glance at the LCD screen with the weather displayed on it, making a mental note of the outside air temperature and the QNH (pressure), and hightail it out of there. 

I have a routine going. If I start the paperwork when he's on final approach, I can get it done by the time he parks. Today he's on a super short final, so I have to run. And I have to run faster because I left my headset in the classroom instead of bringing it to the hangar with me. I'm already using the temperature and pressure information to do the preflight calculations in my head as i run to fetch my headset. I haven't been using math much in the past many years, so I'm prone to mistakes, and these will be cross checked on a scientific calculator app on my android phone after I fill out the necessary dispatch forms. I run into a colleague on the way, there's no time for pleasantries, but i have to stop anyway. This throws off my calculations, and I start again as I start running. Ten minutes later, paperwork has been filled and signed, and I'm standing at the edge of the apron waiting to head to preflight. I've beaten him by about 30 seconds, and feel a bit smug about it. Maybe the student he was with was taxiing too slow. 

No words are exchanged as I'm waved off to do the preflight for my sortie on the very same aircraft that just landed, Alpha Delta. She's our regular bird, and I like her quite a bit. She's a bit of a drama queen and we've had our adventures, and i'd prefer a drama queen over a hangar queen any day. I take off across the apron towards her, not unlike a relay runner who's just been handed the baton. It's my way of putting the chief on notice : your break is short, man, I'm gonna get her flight ready before you can spell out her callsign. But today, that was not to be. As i walked around to the nose, i saw it was covered in blood and feathers. Same story with the propellers, as well as the air filter intake. I debated whether to call maintenance right away, or go ahead and preflight it before calling them. I chose the latter, since there didn't seem to be any damage (though maintenance would be the final authority on that) and the victim seemed to be a small bird, possibly a sparrow, judging from the feathers. 

I preflighted alpha delta, and then called the chief over and showed him the evidence. He had not even realized that they had struck a bird, and that further cemented my sparrow theory. Maintenance were called to take a look, and they opened up the engine cowling to confirm that there was no damage, nor were there any bird remnants inside. We were cleared to go, and ten minutes later, we were at 5000 feet cursing the clouds that were towering all around us. The lesson for today was stalls, and we could barely manage any thanks to deteriorating weather, and we soon called the tower to let them know we were returning. We reached overhead the airfield and were soon descending into the circuit pattern for approach. He was letting me do all the flying , and I was trying my best to keep her at 60-65 knots in a controlled descent with flaps down. 

At each turn in the pattern, I would make the appropriate radio call. Radios are wicked cool, and I love the way they make you sound. I wish i could travel faster than light (and therefore, radio waves) so that I can make a radio call and be at the other end to figure what i sound like (:P). or i could get someone to record it for me, but somehow that just won't cut it. back to the story, i was gliding down, all parameters within limits, and we were approaching the point where we turn for final approach. Usually when the weather packs up, I hand over controls before we commence approach, and he usually flies it down while i keep my hands on the control column to feel and understand whats going on . Today, despite the weather threatening a massive tantrum, i still had the controls. Turn finals, the command came. And i began the turn, fighting to keep everything nice and green, expecting him to take over soon. Call the tower, next command. This was even more unexpected, since he was usually in the habit of stepping in and helping with radio calls when i'm overloaded with the mere task of controlling the airplane. This was contrary to that, piling it on in a situation i didn't think i was on top of. I added the radio call to my already overflowing plate, and promptly began losing altitude, a fact i noticed only after the radio call. this, though, did not stop me from trying to sound as cool as possible on the radio, trying to emulate a veteran airline pilot on an instrument approach into a busy major airport. 

The chief drew my attention to my altitude, and the smugness of having made a decent radio call evaporated, and I was soon fighting to regain height. The current path would see me landing in the trees outside the runway fence, and we certainly did not want that. At this point, it struck me that he had no intentions of taking over controls. I looked at him enquiringly, and he waved for me to keep going. The inquisitive look away from the instruments cost me airspeed, so further corrections were in order. I completed the turn, and ended up nice and straight and level, about 80 feet left of the runway. The chief turned with a look that said 'what do you think you're doing?', and i immediately started wrestling the Cessna to the right to align with the runway in the very short time we had left. Kill power, the command came, and i pulled out the throttle. we were gliding down for the runway, it was looming up faster than i'd imagined it would, but then theory lessons came back in a rush when i felt the plane float in ground effect. I kicked the rudder for some last minute corrections, and heard 'good' from the right seat, since I had anticipated correctly. The wheels came down with a sound that was halfway between a thud and a crunch, and we were down, for a millisecond. We bounced back into the air, and must've travelled 30-50 feet down the runway by my estimation. The call came from the right to pull back on the controls, but i did not respond quickly enough, so the chief took over and brought us down a second time, and handed over to me to roll out and taxi. None of this would be reflected in the taxi clearance radio call, for which i would assume my airline pilot impression once again, giving no indication of the excitement i had just been through. 

There was something I had omitted in the story so far, it was the chief's birthday today. As we were going through the pre startup checks, he got a phone call, and I initially thought he was talking to me, not having seen the phone tucked under his headset. His son had called to wish him from back home. I was told that he wanted to spend his birthday with the family, but couldn't because too many students were waiting to be cleared. My respect for his job (as well as those of the assistant flight instructors) increases by the day. I have been fortunate to have a lot of amazing teachers in my life, but these guys are a level apart. While not discounting the others, it has to be said that it takes a lot of guts to get into the cockpit day after day, hour after hour, placing their confidence and perhaps even lives in the hands of novice after novice putting the plane through their stupidities. And that realization alone is enough for me to put in all the effort i possibly can. 

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Notes on Flying #6 - Unscheduled Operations

I woke up on time, walked out to the balcony to wait for my roommate to leave the bathroom so I could start my day. It was pouring, like yesterday. My heart sank, I could barely believe that the weather would be this foul two days in a row. Cats and dogs. I deliberately slowed down my pace, knowing fully well I would be late when the cab starts honking its horn. I was fifteen minutes late. The chief was already in the cab, and as soon as i closed the door, he turned to me with a grin and asked if i'd overslept. I did not offer an explanation. 

There was just enough light when we reached the airfield. Miraculously, the rain had stopped in the course of our twenty odd minute commute, and there was even a break in the clouds. The chief turned to me and asked me to get alpha delta (tail number) flight ready asap. I looked in disbelief, then i ran before he could repeat himself. Checklists, sunglasses, headset, notebook and map in hand, i flew through the corridors, out the door, into the apron. Engineering department scrambled after me, they were to clear the airplane before i could pre-flight it. we did our checks in parallel. me on one side, engineering on the other. fuel was drained and checked, wings were clambered on, oil was wiped off on trouser legs, alpha delta was ready. 

While we were doing the startup checks, alpha mike started up and left for the runway. We followed behind, stopping behind them on the taxiway. I was still not fully familiar with taxiing, chief was handling the plane on the ground through the tricky parts. He was assisting with the checks as well, and handled radios himself. once alpha mike departed, we started our checks. stood on the brakes and throttled up to full power to conduct magneto tests, and once all was clear, we lined up. from here on, the aircraft was mine. i peeled my eyes for 55 knots on the display, while struggling to keep her on runway centreline. at 55 knots, she started the climb without much help from my side. alpha delta was in a hurry to get things going. we were soon on course for training area juliet. we were hoping for area bravo, which is easier to get to, but alpha mike beat us to it. 

The lessons went by, one after the other. climb, descend, turn, level. I remembered the chiefs words about level flight being the toughest. I was determined to keep the airplane +/- 50 feet and +/- 5 degrees of specified altitude and heading. I was not successful initially, but managed fairly well by the end of the sortie. I heard the distinctly tamilian accent of my roommate, left seat in alpha mike, making baby steps in radio phraseology. he did a radio check call. chief suddenly got the same idea, and asked me to do the next call. it was time for us to return, and i said into the radio
"Victor Alpha Delta, inbound from Juliet, request rejoin runway three five"
"Victor Alpha Delta, descend to three thousand, report overhead", tower responded. 
"Overhead three thousand, alpha delta", I acknowledged. Chief wasn't expecting me to do that. He did not know that I've had practice. He gave me an emphatic thumbs up indicating his approval. Perhaps a bit too emphatic for the cramped confines of our Cessna. Approach was uneventful, and this time he started helping me only at about twenty feet above ground. My own landing is a while away, though I can wait. 

I hung around the hangar, since a second flight was tentative. I sat in the ATC tower listening to calls being made by airborne colleagues, wondering if the weather will pack up before i got airborne again. Three o clock seemed a long time away. I decided to check with the chief, and went and poked my head into his office. He wasn't there, but he had seen me when standing below in the hangar, and was making comical hailing gestures to get my attention. I walked over and he said to be ready in an hour, we were going again. What exactly we were flying for, I had no idea, since we weren't briefed on the next lesson. Did I care? No, I was gonna fly. I hung around the place with my flight paraphernalia, and as soon as he landed again, started with my paperwork. Pre-flight was quicker, i noted with joy, and having verified that we had just about enough fuel for two and a half hours, we set off on another hours sortie. This time there were fewer words from the right seat. I was handling radios right from the start. 

In fact, there was hardly any help coming from the right seat. I soon had the propellers turning, and found out that I will be taxiing as well. Once I was done with the rather thrilling experience of the full throttle and magneto tests, I found out that I was to be backtracking and lining up as well. It takes a lot to place confidence in a rookie to do a differential braking 180 degree turn, and i did my best not to bungle it. With some wrestling, we were lined up and ready for departure. Clearances were acquired, and we were rolling. This sortie was to be something else entirely. As soon as we were airborne, we were buffeted by winds. Cloud base was low, and winds were gusting, and to make things worse, I was in too steep a climb. There was a nonstop stream of instructions from the right seat that i struggled to follow, though never once was control taken away.

As we climbed, we passed about twenty feet under an eagle. A beautiful, majestic, magnificent bird, every detail of it etched in my mind. Seeing the bird pass by so close scared the living daylights out of me, and I saw the bird in slow motion, drinking in the details which triggered off a series of thoughts in my head that are best left for another post. Chief did not seem overly perturbed, so we continued with the program. We headed to the assigned training area, only to find that it had started raining there. It was amazing, flying in the rain. I could not see a damn thing out the window that would help me fly the plane, but unlike inside a cloud, you could still see vague shapes and colours which was a bit reassuring. I later went through the even whiteness inside a cloud, and that was a little weird since you have no visual cues whatsoever. The clouds were everywhere, and we had to weave between them. 

ATC assigned us a different area, and we headed there only to find the same story. It was raining there as well, though slightly less. We decided to make the best of the situation, and I learnt about climbing turns, level turns and descending turns while turning to avoid nasty clouds. Doing all of this while being buffeted about in our tiny cessna, and making radio calls all the while, was testing to say the least. I kept missing out little things, though I suppose there's enough time to perfect all of that. The second half of the flight was almost wordless, with the chief making only hand gestures when he wanted me to do something, and occasionally saying 'good, excellent' when i anticipated something he wanted me to do. which, of course, i obviously got a kick out of. lessons complete, we headed back for the airfield. i botched the approach this time, though, and turned in too high. chief took over at this point and flew her down, since we wouldve had to go around if i had continued flying, and with weather threatening to pack up, none of us were too keen on spending more time in the air. we came in for a bouncy landing, and i was given the job of taxiing alpha delta back to the apron. the debrief was short and positive, so after helping push the airplane into position on the ramp and completing the post flight paperwork, we went our separate ways for lunch. 

I found out that the chief sardar was looking for me, since I apparently wasn't scheduled to fly. the rest of my colleagues had been rounded up and sent to a lecture while i was darting in and out of clouds. I was drained from the flying, but i my grin widened a few millimeters when i found out that not only was i the only one to fly, everyone else was stuck in a boring lecture. It was a good day, and the flight story continues.. 

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Notes on Flying #5 - We have liftoff :)

And we have liftoff.

I flew an airplane for the first time ever today. A Cessna 172R NAV III airplane, Garmin G1000 glass cockpit equipped, tail number VT-CAH. Victor Tango-Charlie Alpha Hotel. It's not something I'll forget for a long long time, if ever.

The announcement came through yesterday afternoon, that our initial familiarization flight would be advanced and would happen today, in a bid to break the monotony of ground school. The moment the chief sardar uttered the magic words, i think i leapt outta my chair. it all seems like a blur now. we were asked to get our headsets along for the flight. the only unknown factor was weather. and having had a good spell with meteorology, i knew there was nothing we could do about it, so i asked friends who are the praying type to pray. i needed good weather today, no stone was to be left unturned.

Morning greeted us with clear skies. Visibility could've been better, but it was above the required minima. All in all, it looked like a great day for flying. I walked out of the guest house with a smile which was to remain pasted on my face for most of the day. I'd made a playlist for the commute, instead of the usual practise of listening to random songs, and was listening to five handpicked songs to go with the high spirits the day required. We were to fly right after breakfast, so I half heartedly dug at some cutlets and an omelette, willing time to move faster even though we were harldy half an hour away from flight. After breakfast, we waited in the classroom for the instructors to come brief us.

They walked in, and I've noticed they have this swagger about them when they walk in a group. They came in and quickly announced the agenda, which was that we weren't expected to learn anything from this flight and were to treat it as fun since this was a familiarization flight. They made it a point to remind us that from the next flight on, this will not hold true and that the fun ends here. They then announced who was flying with whom, and as luck would have it, I was to go first. And in a bit of extra luck, i was flying with the flight chief i described in the previous post.

We walked up to the airplane, and he asked me to sit in the left seat while he sat right. That was unexpected, since I thought I would be in the right seat for this flight, and thought that this would be little more than a demo. How wrong I was, i didn't have an inkling then. The chief ran through the startup checklist in haste, he seemed determined to outpace my ability to follow what he was doing. I was doggedly with him, making mental notes of everything he did. He startled me with his 'Props Clear' call to the ground staff, in what was to be a habit for the day. I had my headphones on, and five minutes later he startled me with the first radio check call to the tower. I didnt realize that these things come with the volume set to maximum, and i hastily reached for the volume knobs to spare my ears from permanent damage. We taxied out to the holding point short of the runway. The southerly runway was in use, and since there were taxiway entrances to the runway only at the southern end, we would have to backtrack down the runway to the north end and then turn around and take off.

H continued with the pre-takeoff checklist, and at one point set the heading bug to 171 degrees, which is more or less the runway heading, but read it out as 117. For a second I thought about asking him if there was a mistake. As part of work, I have read a lot of crash reports, and I was reminded of cases where a timid first offer failing to question the captains mistake led to a crash. Well, not on my watch, so I asked him if it was correct. He read it back correctly this time, and I was satisfied, so we asked the tower for line up clearance. Once we backtracked, turned around and lined up for a runway 17 departure, he radioed for clearance and we received clearance to take off, turn left and climb to 4500 feet. He did the take off checks, throttled up, and as we began rolling he said, 'The aircraft is yours now'.

I was stunned, and was wondering whether he had no instinct of self preservation at all in having asked a wet-behind-the-ears novice to handle the airplane so early. He must have sensed that, so he said just follow my instructions and you'll be fine. My mind was racing to adjust to the situation, and the engine noise and increasing speed did not help one bit. At 45 knots, he said to wait for 55 and pull back on the control column gently. I watched the numbers on the digital speed tape climb to 54 and at 55, gently pulled it towards me. What followed was probably the single most beautiful moment in my life so far. The Cessna 172 responded effortlessly and i knew we were off. Airborne, in a culmination of effort over so many years. I could not believe it, and I was hoping that the CFI didn't notice that I had slightly teared up with joy.

He pointed out a hill ahead and said there's a temple there that we could go check out. En route the hill, he pointed out the various military establishments scattered around Sagar town, and then asked me to make a gentle right turn. This was followed by instructions to turn left, and as I banked for the turn, he pointed out the temple constructed on top of the hill, and wondered how they constructed it and who visits it since there was no pathway visible leading up to it. For most of the ride, he was more tour guide than instructor, unobtrusively helping out with things like fuel mixture which I haven't yet been taught how to handle. He told me i could relax a bit and let go of one hand from the column, and that's when it really hit me that I was indeed flying. This was no game, this was no book, this was no simulator, it was the real damn deal. I could feel what the airplane was doing, and its responses to the minutest of my inputs. We were still climbing. At 4500, he said i could go a bit further if i want since there was no traffic above us, only two other academy cessnas with my wide eyed colleagues below.

We leveled off at 4800 on a northerly heading, and he pointed out the airfield below to my left and said we should head there. I did as told, and soon we were vertically above the airfield. He asked me to do a tight circle, and while we banked, i could see the layout of the airfield looking out from the window to my left. Coupla circles later, it was time to head north again, and we flew 5 nautical miles north of the airfield parallel to the very same highway we used to commute to the airfield that morning. Seeing the sights that we see on the ride from above was incredible. We even saw the guest house where we stay at, and all of Sagar town was visible in the distance. Huge herds of cattle grazing below made my day. I had once seen cattle from above when i went parasailing, but this was something else entirely. We were encouraged not to take photographs and focus on flying since it is the first time, else I would've clicked it. Later, maybe.

Once the sightseeing was done, I was asked to turn and line up for approach. He pointed to the moving map display that would guide me for it. I lined up pretty well even if i say so myself, and once I confirmed that I had the airfield in sight, he let me continue with the approach. About midway through it, i started questioning his self preservation instinct again, now that it looked like he was gonna let me land the damn kite. I nervously continued the approach, making small corrections to stay on centre, when somewhere between 100 and 50 feet above ground level, i felt inputs from the right side controls. Never once having asked me to relinquish the controls, he made corrective inputs to my flying and led us in to a smooth landing, perfectly timing the deceleration so that we made the first turnout without having to backtrack.

I was amazed at the level of confidence he placed in me, and was in a daze and don't remember one bit of the checklists at the end. I had flown for the first time ever, and in my mind i could now justifiably call myself a pilot, kinda, the license is a matter of legal endorsement :P It's probably the happiest day in my life. As we exited the airplane after signing the flight log, the flight chief told me "Isn't this so much better than driving? There you have all the bloody traffic and cows and you have to keep honking your horn.. " I nodded in agreement, wondering what it would have been like if the Cessna had a horn. The chief has a habit of honking like mad to get cattle to move from the road; i imagine he would honk at the clouds if the cessna were equipped for it.

There was a flurry of phone calls to be made, and after one of the conversation in which a friend asked what i planned to do now since my dream has more or less come true, I was a bit stumped. I guess its a fleeting thing, now that i've caught one, more will show themselves ahead. When I had started working in aviation, friends had told me I got my dream job. At that point, I was in a state where I was so close to the dream, yet so far. With characteristic flight geekiness, I had explained it away using the space shuttle as a metaphor. It was like the shuttle approaching the international space station. When I started this line of work, I was in the vicinity. From the earth, it would look like the shuttle had docked. But docking was a process that required effort and fine tuning to close the gap between the shuttle and the station with utmost precision. I guess that's what i've been doing all this while. Today, it's closed in a bit more. There is so much more distance left, though.

There are so many people I have to thank for putting up with this nonsense of mine over the years :)