Sunday, 8 March 2020

Death Valley Love Affair

For New Year 2012 we visited Death Valley with some friends. They had never been there before, so we did all the basics - a walk around Zabriskie Point, the boardwalk out to the lowest point in the United States, Badwater at 282 feet below sea level, the Mesquite Dunes. Naturally we went to the Visitor Centre in Furnace Creek. And there I bought a book which was genuinely life-changing, Roger Mitchell's Death Valley SUV Trails, along with the National Geographic map of the Park.

We had been to Death Valley several times before. The first time we flew there, landing the time-share Cessna 182 I had at the time at the Furnace Creek airstrip. This is one of the very few places where you can land with the altimeter showing a negative value. There was no car rental at the time, and we stayed just one night at the Furnace Creek Inn, not leaving the grounds except to return to the airport. It was May, still not yet summer, but it was so hot that during the night I had to sit in front of the air conditioner for five minutes to get back to sleep. In the morning we went for dip in the pool just before it was time to leave. We wondered how we could dry in time, but it wasn't a problem. In the couple of minutes it took to walk back to our room, we were bone dry, even our hair.

Later on we visited it with my teenage children, by car, and did our own tour of the basics. On another occasion, driving from an overnight stop in Tonopah back to Las Vegas to pick up my plane, we diverted through Death Valley.

The Inn was built in the 1920s by the Pacific Borax Company to develop tourism there as an alternative to borax mining. It works fairly well as a kind of time-warped luxury resort. The alternative is the Ranch, originally a low budget motel which has improved over the years. We stayed there for our New Year visit, making the most of the huge, warm spring fed swimming pool. It was a "blue moon", when the moon is full twice in the same month, and we have fond memories of swimming late at night under the full blue moon. We were in the very convivial atmosphere of the Ranch bar to welcome the New Year at midnight. After years of experience we have our own preferred rooms there, with an uninterrupted view of the Panamint mountains and convenient access to the outside, overlooking the golf course, where we can enjoy al fresco meals.

Off-Road Dreams

Our Red Jeep
The Racetrack
In Titus Canyon
Once back home, I started to read the Mitchell book. I was quickly entranced by the amazing variety of off-road trails which exist, as long as you have the right vehicle. For a normal car, there are just two roads in the Park. One runs from Scotty's Castle in the north, past Furnace Creek to Badwater in the south. The other arrives from the west, passing the Panamint Springs Resort, then climbs into Death Valley itself through the 5000 foot Towne Pass. It continues past Furnace Creek to Death Valley Junction, Pahrump and eventually Las Vegas, with another fork to Beatty, Nevada. This is all 99% of visitors see - including us, up until this time.

Even so it is an amazing place, which had already captured our imagination. Not only is it the lowest spot in the US, but also the hottest in the whole world. The record temperature is 134°F, established in 1913. Birds were dropping dead from the sky. There is almost no rain, and so very little vegetation or soil. The geology, layer upon layer of twisted rock formations, is on naked display. Yet when it does rain it is usually in destructive torrents that carve canyons and hurl giant boulders down from the mountains. In 2004 a flood destroyed one of the major roads and killed two people, while in 2015 the northern access to the park at Scotty's Castle was destroyed in another flood and may reopen in 2020.

I read every single trail in the Mitchell book, dreaming of what they must be like. The National Geographic map was my other companion, tracing out the routes. Finally in October of 2012 we arranged to fly once again to Furnace Creek. It's not an especially long flight, a couple of hours, but you fly over a truly extraordinary amount of emptiness once the Sierra Nevada is crossed. The big difference from our first flying visit was that by now, a Jeep rental place had opened. So we could fly in, rent our bright-red Jeep, and set off straight away on the journeys that I had been dreaming of for months.

We did what I call "Death Valley 201" - the most interesting of the not-too-hard trails. We started with the Racetrack, an extraordinary place where football sized rocks move mysteriously over the smooth mud. The next day we visited one of our (now) all-time favourites, Titus Canyon. When we returned I wrote blogs about our first off-road adventures in Death Valley.

FJ Joins the Family

I was completely overwhelmed by what we had experienced. I read and re-read the Mitchell book almost feverishly. I wanted to do more of this, and I wanted our own off-road vehicle to do it. The Jeep was an excellent off-road vehicle, but its on-road comforts were a different matter. From our home in the Bay Area to Death Valley or anywhere else like it is a long, long drive - Death Valley takes about 8 very boring hours if you just pound along the highway, longer if you take detours to make it more interesting. So we needed something that would be comfortable for those long drives, yet capable of even the most extreme trails.

It didn't take long to home in on the perfect vehicle: the Toyota FJ Cruiser. I spent all my spare time researching it, with much help from the FJ Cruiser Forum. I took a brand new one for a long test drive, which confirmed that this was indeed exactly what we needed.

Since I was planning to make extensive modifications, it didn't make sense to buy a new one. After various false starts, I found a 2010 model at a local Toyota dealer which ticked all the right boxes. My family thought I was mad, and I was having doubts myself. I figured that if it really did turn out to be a bad idea, I could always sell it again.

Our new vehicle was instantly baptised FJ, along with Hermine (my wife's Audi A4) and La Petitte (my Audi TT). Now I had to decide what modifications were necessary. The most important thing was to make it trail-proof, which means protecting everything underneath. I spent several chilly January weekends installing thick metal plates to cover everything from the radiator backwards to the fuel tank. I let the garage make the suspension modifications.

I spent a lot of time deciding which tyres to fit. There's a big choice, each with its advocates and its particular advantages. Given the amount of highway driving we would do, noise really mattered - and this is not a strong point of sturdy off-road tyres. The ones fitted when I bought it made a constant droning which made conversation difficult. Others that I'd test driven were even worse. Finally I decided on Bridgestone truck tyres. It took me a while to realise, after they'd been fitted, why suddenly there was such a lot of wind noise - previously it had been inaudible, masked by the racket from the tyres.

FJ's First Adventure

Our first trip to Death Valley with FJ was in April 2013, six months after we bought her. We went the long way round via Tahoe, since the Tioga pass was still snowed in. For the first time we spent a night in Bishop, the only significant town on US395 all the way from Reno until it crosses the mountains into the LA area. Even so there's not much to it, apart from Eric Schat's amazing bakery. We have since spent several nights there, and only ever found one functioning restaurant.

We entered the Park via the Saline Valley road. It's about 95 miles long from north to south, entirely unpaved and with high passes at either end. In winter the snow sometimes makes it inaccessible for days. It's a spectacular journey, never boring with the ever changing scenery. FJ lived up to our expectations both in comfort for the long highway journey and in agility for the off-road stretches.

A short side trip from the main valley road took us to the Saline Springs, an optionally nudist bathing spot. We didn't partake, but it's a fun place. From there the south pass road took us, eventually, to the Panamint Springs Resort, where we spent the night. It's a quirky place. Mainly it's a big camp site, but back then it had a few ancient cabins. Since then it has acquired some new ones, much more comfortable.

I'd really wanted to dive into the deep-end and drive the Mengel Pass and Goler Wash road. Isabelle wasn't keen, and with hindsight this was a good choice. We have since driven it, and while it's a beautiful journey it would have been a bit beyond my experience at the time. Instead, we visited the almost-ghost town of Ballarat, and then tried the easier side roads off the Wildrose road.

Aguereberry Point with resident crow - Dante's View is the
peak at the right of the picture

This was when we discovered Aguereberry Point, a summit over 6000 feet above the western side of Death Valley with astounding views along its whole length. It is almost opposite the much better known, and more visited, Dante's View. We've been there many times since. Usually we have been alone, occasionally there might be one other car there. It could be done with a regular car, most of the time, but I wouldn't be keen. The main risk is the tyres - losing one would be unfortunate, but losing more than one would be a big problem.

The name was obviously Basque, which intrigued us. Eventually it led to a deep interest in Jean-Pierre (Pete) Aguereberry, who built the road himself from his mine at the bottom of the hill, and to Isabelle giving a talk about him in his home town of Mauléon, France.

Chicken Lippincott

Death Valley is addictive. The more you do, the more you find that is still to be done. Since that first trip with FJ we have been back about ten times, sometimes on our own, sometimes with friends and family. The "Death Valley 201" trails - the Racetrack, Titus Canyon, Aguereberry Point - we have done several times, with different visitors.

One of our most memorable trips was with our friends Donna - now sadly no longer with us - and Paulo, in 2015. They drove from their home in Colorado in their brand new Jeep Cherokee.

We drove to the Racetrack. From there our planned route was down the Lippincott Mine Road, one of the most extreme trails in the Park. The road was bulldozed down the side of a mountain to provide truck access to the Lippincott lead mine. It descends (or ascends, depending which way you go) 2000 feet in about 5 miles. In places there are washouts which leave barely enough room for FJ or a Jeep, not to mention adverse camber that threatens to hurl you into the canyon's void. I can't imagine driving a truck loaded with tons of lead ore down it, relying on 1940s technology brakes - but they did.

Despite its reputation, the road is not that difficult as long as you have the right vehicle - I've driven down it twice now. There are only a few places where you need to pay close attention to wheel placement, though a single storm could make it impassable. The Park Service runs a grader down it every now and then, unlike some of the trails.

Still, it was brave decision to take a brand new vehicle down it. FJ had no problems but we had to be careful with the Jeep's regular car-style tyres. We have a wonderful picture taken at the bottom, with a look of delayed shock on Donna's face like something from a horror cartoon. A beer at the Panamint Springs Resort was a big help.

And the chicken? Dining possibilities at Furnace Creek are limited. There's a fancy, pretentious and overpriced restaurant at the Inn, and a much more basic diner at the Ranch. One meal per trip there is OK, but that's enough. Once we understood that, we have taken care of our own food. The evening after our Lippincott experience, we dined on a simple, impromptu meal made from chicken, beans and tinned tomatoes purchased in the general store and cooked on a tiny camping stove. Since then, Chicken Lippincott has been a staple of our trips to Death Valley.

Steel Pass and the The Vertebra Scale

For a long time I wanted to drive Steel Pass. This provides another access to Saline Valley from the north. Starting from a good dirt road, it leads first to the extraordinary Eureka Dunes. These rise 700 feet above the surrounding valley, with magnificent views. You rarely see other human footprints as you climb, because they are quickly erased by the wind, though critter prints of various sizes are common. After Eureka Dunes the road goes through a long patch of soft sand - four-wheel drive and even lockers essential - and then into the narrows of Dedeckera Canyon. What makes this special is a series of dry falls that are at the limits of drivability, the last one especially. I watched several videos on Youtube of people doing them. If I hadn't, I would never have believed our FJ could do it.

In fact, though, it was not even very hard. The canyon is so narrow that there is only one possible passage, so it's just a question of making sure you are lined up correctly. I even made my own video here.

Dedeckera Canyon Steps
After the steps, it's a long and very scenic drive to the top of the pass, with only one tricky stretch because of the steep gradient. From there down to the springs in Saline Valley is 12 miles in a rocky stream bed. It's not hard to drive, but it is extremely rough. The driver at least has the steering wheel to hold on to, but passengers get shaken about as if on a small boat in a rough sea.

All books of off-road trails include some kind of difficulty rating. Mitchell's is typical - 1 means you can do it in a rental car, carefully. A rating of 5 means that even with FJ it is going to be a challenge. These scales all consider the driver's viewpoint. After Steel Pass, Isabelle came up with one from the passenger's point of view, which she calls the Vertebra Scale. One vertebra means easy, maybe shaken up a bit in places but nothing worse. Five vertebrae is reserved for the descent from Steel Pass.

I thoroughly enjoyed the whole road and would readily do it again, but it has been made clear to me that it would be on my own!

Mengel Pass - Finally!

Striped Butte and the Geologist's Cabin
The Death Valley Park encompasses three principal valleys. Badwater, or Death Valley itself, is separated from the parallel Panamint Valley by a huge mountain range, reaching 11,000 feet at its highest point, Telescope Peak. There are several hiking trails across passes between the two valleys, but they are only for the exceptionally fit. Route 190 takes the 5000 foot Towne Pass. The only other vehicle-accessible road is Mengel Pass, at the southern end. It takes its name from Carl Mengel, a famous character who lived on one side and mined on the other, routinely crossing the pass - despite having only one leg.

I'd wanted to drive this road on our very first trip with FJ, but Isabelle insisted on waiting until we could have two cars. This is certainly prudent although these days it carries so much traffic that even if you broke down, someone would be on hand. Finally in October 2019 Isabelle went to a lot of trouble to organise a two-car outing. Paulo came again from Colorado with his Cherokee, though sadly this time alone. We had friends and family from England as well, making a total of five of us.

Looking down into Anvil Canyon
FJ and the Cherokee had both driven part of the way before. We drove them up Warm Springs Canyon, past the remains of the talc mine, and into Butte Valley with its spectacular rock formation. That time, we stopped at the Geologist's Cabin, having determined that Mengel Pass was too much for the Cherokee and its street tyres. This time, we rented a Jeep from Farrabee's for the day, specially for this trip.

It's a long trip so we started early, beginning with the West Side Road that runs down the "wrong" side of the Badwater flats. It passes several interesting spots including Shorty Harris's grave and Shorty's Well - named for a different Shorty. Finally we turned right on the Warm Springs road, climbing up the alluvial fan and eventually entering the broad canyon and passing by the mine.

We stopped at the Geologist's Cabin for our picnic lunch, with Striped Butte in full view in front of us. There were several other cars there, some planning to go through the pass, others not. One of the groups had been staying in the cabin.

A couple of us drove down the trail to the head of Anvil Canyon. This is now wilderness though originally it was the only drivable road up to the valley. It was from here that the "Death Valley Germans" made their disastrous decision in 1996 to try and get back to the main valley in a totally unsuitable two-wheel-drive rental car. The discovery of their remains, in 2009, is a fascinating if macabre story.
Goler Canyon

Finally it was time to start the last climb to the summit of Mengel Pass. The road rapidly becomes fairly technical, requiring careful tyre placement. Even so, FJ's extensive underbody protection several times did its job as a high rock thumped against one of the quarter-inch aluminium plates that protect everything that matters.

There were several vehicles at the summit, including one that had come that far by accident, looking for something much lower down. The descent, on the other side, was similar - a few technical stretches separated by easy but slow rocky trails. Finally we arrived at the junction for the Barker Ranch. Much has been written about this, the final hiding place for the Manson gang.

The last stretch of the road leads through Goler Canyon. I was completely unprepared for the beauty of this wild, rugged place, every bit as spectacular as Titus Canyon. From there it's a long drive on a good dirt road to the almost-ghost town of Ballarat, passing the huge Briggs mine which was still active until recently. There is still a general store in Ballarat, but all it sells is beer - which was extremely welcome.


Eureka Dunes
One of the Park's best known sites is the Mesquite Dunes, accessed by a short walk from a large parking lot beside route 190 just east of Stovepipe Wells. At all daylight hours there are plenty of people roaming the low, easily climbed piles of sand. There are several other dunes, all much harder to access. I mentioned earlier the Eureka Dunes, which can be reached directly by car with a lot of off-road driving. Others are even less accessible.

On our most recent trip, in March 2020, we decided to visit the Ibex Dunes in the far south of the park. On the way we passed through Shoshone, a tiny settlement just outside the Park which was put on the map by Charles Brown, a powerful advocate for eastern Inyo County who ended up as a California senator, yet still lived very modestly in his Shoshone home.

On a previous trip we drove close to the date farm at Tecopa, and this time we made the detour to visit it. It has an adequate water supply from the Amargosa River, not long before the latter turns through 180 degrees to head north into Badwater and eventually to disappear there. It's an interesting place, well worth a visit. It's possible to do a long hike from there through the Amaragosa canyon, though this time we didn't, to find the path of the old Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad. We left with some delicious dates, excellent date bread, and a surprising book which I'll mention later.

Buckwheat Dunes from the pass after Ibex Spring
We took one more detour from the Ibex Dunes road, to visit the Ibex Spring and the surrounding area. There used to be several talc mines clustered around the spring. The road there is easy apart from one massive washout which requires descending ten feet into a dip, and climbing out the other side, both at about a 30 degree angle.

There is another dune system in the Buckwheat Valley, one more mountain range west of the Ibex Spring. It's almost unknown - I only knew of it thanks to Steve Hall's excellent blog. We only had time for one dune though, so we stopped in the mountain pass and ate our picnic lunch in full view of the dunes, before returning to the main Ibex Dunes road.

Ibex Dunes
The road passes close to the Dunes, but it's a 1.5 mile hike across soft sand to get to them. It's worth it though, because the Dunes are much more impressive from close up than they are from the road. We didn't try to climb them. Our excuse was that they looked so superb in their pristine, untrodden state, and we didn't want to leave footprints. There are very few visitors - the ground was still damp from recent rain and it was clear nobody had been there in the previous week or so.

On the same trip we also drove to the top of Trail Canyon. On our very first excursion with the Jeep we'd tried this, but we were put off by the rough road and we were running out of time. This time we persevered. One of the highlights is a very short stretch where Aguereberry Point is visible from the road, via a side canyon. Many years ago there was a perilous zig-zag road carved into the hillside which led up there, built for a tungsten mining operation in the 1950s. A flood in the 1970s washed it away and it has not been remade.
The Morning Glory Mine Camp in Trail Canyon

At the top, the road splits in two, each fork terminating at the extensive remains of a mine after some seriously rough road. There used to be many mines up here, early ones for gold and silver and later ones for lead, antimony and tungsten. Looking up the canyon we could see the still snow-covered Wildrose Peak. It's possible to hike further to more mine remains, but it would be hard work. Apart from the thousands of feet of climb, walking in a stony wash is difficult even for a short distance. We discovered this hunting for the spring which supposedly exists. We found some vegetation but no water.

The Panamint Dunes are at the northern end of Panamint Valley, reached via six miles of easy but slow dirt road, with frequent washouts that have to be taken at walking pace. A long time ago it was possible to drive right up to them, but now they are part of the Wilderness Area and the closest you can drive is still a four mile hike. We contented ourselves with taking telephoto pictures, before continuing on an extremely rough trail leading up the mountainside to the remains of the Big Four Mine.

Panamint Dunes, from the nearest road
That wasn't quite the end of our most recent trip. We spent the night in one of the comfortable new cabins at the Panamint Springs Resort, so tired that we slept through the midnight revels of the Australians in the adjoining cabin. Next day I wanted to drive the original Panamint Valley road, the Nadeau Shotgun Trail. It was built in the 1880s by Death Valley's first freight tycoon, Remi Nadeau, to access the mines in Panamint City and elsewhere. We drove the first seven miles or so from the road, with the vertebra meter ticking up rapidly on the rocky trail and 400 miles still ahead of us, and chickened out at the first side turning back to route 178. It seems that it gets considerably rougher in the southern section, so that was probably a good call. But it would be nice to try it one day.



  • The free map given away by the Park when you pay for admission is not bad. It's available online too. It shows where all the trails are, though it would be no good for driving them.
  • My favourite map is published by National Geographic. It's printed on water-resistant plasticised paper; my copy has survived ten years of constant use, both at home and on the trail.
  • For driving the trails, or hiking, there is no substitute for the USGS 7.5 minute sheets. They show every trail, every structure and every contour line. When you are in the middle of nowhere and suddenly come to an unexpected fork in the road, they are lifesavers. For preparing a trip at home, is perfect. On the trail, I use the Topo Maps app on an iPad 4 Mini with 128 GBytes. That's enough to hold maps for most of California and the surrounding states - and the maps themselves are free. I've managed to load missing sheets in the most unlikely places, thanks to LTE.

Trail Guides

  • By far the best trail guide book is the one that got me started on all this, Roger Mitchell's Death Valley SUV Trails. It describes nearly every drivable trail, with detailed instructions and interesting historical background especially about the mines.
  • The other excellent guide is Backcountry Adventures: Southern California. This doesn't cover as many trails, but is very thorough for the ones it does cover. It has a huge amount of background information about people, places, flora and fauna, geology and much else, which all by itself justifies the price of the book.
  • The Explorer's Guide to Death Valley National Park is good too, as thorough as Mitchell.
There are quite a few other books covering Death Valley or a broader area, but these are the best.


There is an amazing amount of material about Death Valley considering how few people have ever lived there. Here are a few personal favourites. Some have been out of print for decades, but can generally be found second-hand on Amazon.

  • Pete Aguereberry: the extraordinary life story of the man who left his village in Basque France to fulfill his dream of becoming a gold miner, and succeeded.
  • DigonnetHiking Death Valley: this thick book by a Stanford professor describes hundreds of hikes in Death Valley. Most of them are only for the extremely fit, but still enjoyable reading for the rest of us.
  • Loafing Along Death Valley Trails: a collection of stories about Death Valley personalities, especially Charles Brown of Shoshone.
  • A History of Mining in the Death Valley National Monument: notable for the incredible amount of material (nearly 600 letter-size pages), this is an official survey from the 1980s to determine what the Park Service should try to preserve. The material on some of the individual mines could fill a book by itself.
  • These Canyons are Full of Ghosts: what makes this book extraordinary is that it was written by someone who was still mining for gold in the 1980s, half a century or more after most gold mining came to an end. It is packed with interesting stories. My copy comes, new but already rather the worse for wear and signed by the author, from the Date Farm in Tecopa.
  • Adventures with a Desert Bush Pilot: about a couple who flew their tiny plane (a 95hp Ercoupe) all over the desert, including many adventures in Death Valley. A must read for any pilot.

On the Web

Searching the web for Death Valley related topics could take up months of your time. There is an incredible amount out there. Luckily there are plenty of people who not only have extraordinary adventures, but take the time to write about them and write well.

My own special mention goes to Steve Hall's Death Valley Adventures: details of over 200 hikes, most of them extremely challenging, that Steve has undertaken in the park with his friends, his wife, and even carrying his young child.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

A Visit to the Préfecture

In 1991 I managed to find an internal transfer within my company that would finally allow me to move to France and live with my wife. We'd been married for a year, and together for three, but were still living apart, me in England and her in Paris.

French immigration law required me to obtain a carte de séjour, a residence permit, even though as a European citizen I had every right to work and live there. With the very helpful assistance of an office at the Sophia Antipolis business park whose job was to help companies based there, I applied. I received a scrap of paper which was a temporary permit. It had to be revalidated at a police station every three months.

After two years I was practically on first name terms with the lady at Antibes police station whose job it was. There was no room left on the paper for any further stamps. "Monsieur Harper," she said, "enough. You will have to go to the préfecture in Nice and find out why you haven't yet received your permit."

The Préfecture des Alpes-Maritimes close to Nice airport is a spectacularly ugly modern building. I duly presented myself there, and after waiting a while in a room full of hopeful would-be immigrants I showed my heavily stamped paper to the assistant. "Oh," she said, "it has been here for for over a year." It hadn't occurred to them to let me know. But anyway, I had my carte de séjour and off I happily went.

Even though possession of the permit was mandatory, I only ever had to produce it twice in the ten years I lived there. Once was at Charles de Gaulle airport, where an officious security guard at TWA (this was a long time ago) demanded it. I told him I didn't have it. He started to remonstrate. I told him I'd happily go to another airline. He let me pass.

The other time was when I registered my company car in my own name, when I changed jobs. The eagle-eyed assistant, again at the préfecture, noticed that my date of birth was wrong. They had transposed the day and month, as in an American format date, even though I had written correctly it the European way.

I went again to the ever helpful office in Sophia Antipolis. They made me an appointment at the préfecture, and at the set time I showed up. The waiting room was packed. There were two sets of chairs, one for EU citizens, the other for non-EU - meaning people from North Africa who make up most of the non-EU immigration in France. It was obvious which had higher priority.

I ignored these seething masses and went straight to the desk. An assistant pulled herself up to her full height. "Monsieur," she said haughtily, "you must go and wait your turn."

"But I have an appointment."

"Monsieur, all these people have appointments. You must take your place in the queue."

My appointment was with the chef de bureau, the man in charge.

"Mais madame, my appointment is with Monsieur Dupont." (Or whatever he was called).

She leapt to her feet. "Vous avez rendezvous avec M. Dupont! Mademoiselle Machin, this gentleman has an appointment with M. Dupont! You must fetch him immediately. Monsieur, please take a seat here. M. Dupont will be with you very shortly. I apologize for the wait."

As ever, a little name dropping goes a long way. Shortly afterwards, Mlle Machin [not her real name of course] led me behind the screens to a dingy office where at an imposing desk sat le chef de bureau. He looked exactly as you'd expect a minor official in the French administration to look - bald, unhealthy, middle-aged, seriously overweight, and very full of himself.

I explained the problem to him. "Mais Monsieur, surely it is possible that you filled the form incorrectly?"

I admitted the possibility, and suggested that it would be best to examine it.

"Mademoiselle Machin, go immediately and fetch the dossier of Monsieur Harper!"

Minor official he might be, but in his bureau it was the reign of terror. Mlle Machin scampered off to find my dossier. The official opened it, certain that he would be able to tell this pesky foreigner to take better care in the future. He gasped.

"Monsieur, you are quite right, there has been an error in my department! This is inadmissible! We shall rectify the matter immediately. Please accept my apologies. We shall issue a new card without delay."

I left with a new temporary carte de séjour, which this time did not need to be stamped by the nice lady at Antibes police station every three months.

I lived in France for another six years, before moving to California in 2001. I never received my new carte de séjour, even though I did occasionally ask at the préfecture. And nobody else ever asked for it. But it had given me a very enjoyable insight into the workings of the French bureaucracy.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

A Trip Round the World to Tahiti

At one time Air France used to have a fantastic deal on air miles during the summer, when all self-respecting French jetsetters are sitting on a beach somewhere with their families. Any trip you did was just half the normal number of miles. At that time my wife was travelling constantly, mostly with Air France, so she was accumulating miles a lot faster than we could spend them.

So one summer, about 20 years ago, she booked what most people would call the trip of a lifetime, around the world in first class. It was the same scheme that a couple of years later let us take Concorde from Paris to New York for a few days, another unforgettable memory. When she collected the ticket - still real printed tickets in those days - the agent said, "I haven't issued many like this!".

That was just after AF first class became truly lay flat. Only a few years earlier I'd flown from Europe to and from Sydney, BA one way and AF the other, and been upgraded to first in both directions. But it was just a wider seat with a bit more recline, not much better than today's premium economy as far as comfort is concerned. The food was a different story, especially on AF. But by the time of our round the world trip, the seats converted into very comfortable beds. Just as well, because all four of the flights involved were at night.


Our favourite kai-ten
sushi place in Tokyo,
still in business
over 20 years later.
Our first flight was to Tokyo. We'd been there several times before, but a visit to Japan is always a pleasure. At the time I was very interested in building valve (vacuum tube) audio equipment, which has always been popular in Japan. I'd heard of a true shrine to the art, a tiny restaurant run by Susumu Sakuma in the nearby coastal town of Tateyama. I'd managed to communicate with him through his nephew before leaving.

Sakuma-san with a small selection of his amplifiers
We took the train out to Tateyama. It's quite a long way, on a normal train - no Shinkansen in that direction. The town is right out at the tip of the Chiba peninsula, at the southern corner of Tokyo Bay. It's a sleepy place, too far to commute into Tokyo. A five minute walk took us to the restaurant, where we were welcomed by Sakuma-san and his nephew. And what a place! The restaurant was small, just a handful of tables. But every available inch of wall space was covered in magnificent valve amplifiers. His speciality was something called "direct heating", which means using valves dating from the 1930s, magnificent monsters often standing six inches tall or higher, with equally huge transformers and other components. We spent a couple of hours there, admiring the superb sound they produced as well as eating a delicious lunch. He found that each amplifier worked best for a different singer or pianist. He had one that he used only for listening to Edith Piaf! He spent his whole adult life building them, constantly with a new project under way. Sadly, he passed away last year, at the age of 76.

My other memory of that trip is a visit to Tokyu Hands, in Shibuya. I manage to visit there, or one of their other stores, on just about every visit to Japan, starting with my very first in 1982. It's almost impossible to find, hidden away in the maze of back streets west of Shibuya station. The roads are so hilly and steep that entrances on opposite sides of the store are three floors apart vertically. And if you get the directions slightly wrong, you end up in a district made up entirely of love hotels, peculiarly Japanese places where you rent a room - and a bed - for an hour or two. It's not only for affairs and other dubious liaisons - typical Japanese homes are so tiny that it's the only way married couples can get time to themselves too.

Tokyu Hands sells everything you could possibly need or imagine for any kind of handicraft, everything from knitting, sewing and calligraphy to woodwork, metalwork and electronics. It has ten floors, in a curious spiral arrangement meaning you never really know where you are. I really don't need any new tools and gadgets, but every time I go there I come away with something. On this occasion I bought a pair of parallel jaw pliers, an unusual tool which among other things makes it easy to turn bolts and nuts without having the right sized spanner (wrench). I mention this because it was important later.

Bora Bora

The sorry remains of the hotel
we were supposed to stay in
Our next flight took us from Tokyo to Papeete, the main airport in Tahiti. At that time AF had a once-weekly flight, long since abandoned, whose main cargo was Japanese honeymooners.

We'd arranged to be met there, which turned out to be just as well. The young man waiting with a little placard told us that as our flight was late we had missed our connection to our first stop, on the island of Bora Bora. But he had got us into the next flight, so that was fine. Then he paused and said,

"There was something else I meant to tell you. Let me think, what was it... oh, I remember, your hotel was destroyed in a storm last week."

"So you've booked us in somewhere else then?"

"No, not as far as I know. Why? Ask the guy from the other hotel, they may have a room for you."

That remains one of the most memorable moments in all our years and millions of miles of travel. The flight, on one of Air Tahiti's ATRs, was indeed met by a representative from the main surviving hotel on the island. He consulted his clipboard and said,

"No, there's no mention of you anywhere here. But we do have some rooms available, you should be OK."

As indeed we were. They had just one room available, a superb bungalow set on stilts over the crystal clear lagoon. It was idyllic, our only regret was that we were not spending longer there. Months after our return to France, we discovered that in fact they had booked us into another hotel, on a different island. It would have been much less good.

The hotel was run by a very distinguished French guy. He told us all about the storm which had passed through the previous week. It had been terrible and had done a lot of damage. The atolls that make up nearly all of French Polynesia are only a few feet above the sea, and with a high sea and a strong wind they can be washed completely clean. Many people had died.

Bora Bora from the air
The hotel manager told us proudly that despite the damage and spending most of the night trying to stop the main hotel roof from blowing away, they were able to serve a full breakfast on white tablecloths the next morning. He also mentioned an American who threatened to sue them. He had slept through the storm - goodness knows how - and was upset they hadn't woken him up so he could witness it.

One day we rented bicycles to ride around the island. They needed adjusting to fit us, but the rental guy didn't have the right spanner. So I went back to our room and retrieved my purchase from Tokyu Hands, the ideal tool for the job and something which should be part of every bicycle toolkit. The guy was amazed, I'm sure he thought we must be mad, to travel with a complete toolkit just in case anything was needed.


The main terminal at Rangiroa airport
Our next stop was at another Polynesian island, Manihi. We had to change planes on the way there. The airport was just an open-sided shelter with a counter in one corner, and a runway. There was a television on the wall, showing the French news. Polynesia is technically part of France, no different from Paris or Nice. If it was possible to fly non-stop from Tahiti to Paris, it would be an internal French flight, with no customs or immigration. So the news was exactly the same that people on the other side of the world were watching. And France was having an exceptionally cold spell, with snow throughout the country. It was surreal to watch images of trucks slipping about in the snow, and people being dug out of snowdrifts, while sitting in shorts and teeshirts in tropical heat.
An idyllic tropical resort on Mahini

The main island of Bora Bora is an extinct volcano, pointy like in children's books with a road and villages around the edge. Manihi is a true atoll, just a thin, more or less circular strip of land just a few hundred feet across. Atolls are interesting things. They start when an island is formed by an underground volcano. Over tens of thousands of years, coral forms a ring a little way off the coast. But the island is so heavy that gradually it sinks under its own weight. As it sinks, the coral keeps on growing, forming an apparently static ring marking the original coastline of the volcano. At Bora Bora the volcano is still there, the atoll a kilometre or so offshore. But at Manihi, and most other atolls, the volcano has disappeared altogether, leaving just the coral ring. Inside the water has silted up as the volcano sinks, and is only a few metres deep, But outside the seabed falls away dramatically, falling to thousands of metres in a very short distance. For scuba divers it is quite dangerous, since if you start to descend you become more dense and sink even faster.

A pearl farm on the Mahini lagoon
Manihi's main claim to fame is its pearl industry. It was the birthplace in Polynesia of the cultured pearl industry, in 1965. We duly visited a pearl farm to see how it is done. It's a very delicate job. The oysters have to be gently prised open and then a speck of dust inserted in the right place for a pearl to form - really a kind of scar tissue to protect the living oyster from the foreign object.

Los Angeles

F-BTVX landing at Papeete, on her
way to collect us

We spent only a couple of nights on Manihi, and then it was time to continue our trip round the world. Another ATR took us back to Papeete, where we spent one night at what must be one of the most scenically sited airport hotels in the world, on the edge of a tropical lagoon. Back then AF had regular flights from Tahiti to Paris, with a stop in LA. For a long time now these flights have been operated by Air Tahiti Nui, Polynesia's very own long haul airline. Even if we had the airmiles, such a trip is no longer possible.

We stayed only one night in LA, dutifully visiting Hollywood and other standard tourist stuff. It was hot, wet, sticky and dirty. My main memory of that part of the trip is of getting a traffic ticket from a particularly unpleasant cop, and having to deal with it from 6000 miles away in France. When I told him we couldn't attend the court because we didn't live there, he threatened to put us in jail - for changing lanes, quite legally. It left an unpleasant taste of American police which I'm afraid has only got worse after nearly 20 years of living in the country. Calling the police in the US is like jumping out of a plane with a parachute. If the alternative is certain death, it's a good idea. Otherwise, the risks are worse than just staying put, or not calling them. There have been plenty of instances where well-meaning people have called them and innocent people - sometimes the caller, sometimes someone else - have been shot and killed.

The next day, traffic ticket in hand, we boarded our final flight and returned to Paris. All our flights were on Boeing 747s, at that time still very much the Queen of the Skies and the mainstay of every long haul fleet in the world. Now there are very few airlines still flying them - primarily BA and Qantas. It is over 10 years since they last flew with Air France. Our trip lasted only about ten days - most people would probably have spent a month, but we simply didn't have the time. But our memories of the trip are just as good as if we had spent much longer.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Unicode, Currency Symbols and Cultural Hegemony

The Unicode character standard defines characters for every written language on the planet, a huge range of emoticons, and many other things besides. And, naturally, symbols for all the currencies in use, and quite a few that aren't.

In the beginning, computers represented characters using various manufacturer-dependent 6-bit codes, allowing for 64 characters. That's enough for a single case of letters, numerals, common punctuation, and a few special characters like space and newline. That's why old computers printed everything in CAPITALS - they had no way to distinguish between upper and lowercase.

In the 1960s, IBM introduced the System 360, and with it the 8-bit byte which is now completely taken for granted. (Before that, computers came with all kinds of strange word lengths - the Elliott 803 from 1962 or so had a 39-bit word). That allowed the use of 8-bit characters. But at first, one bit was reserved for error detection (the "parity bit"), so only 7 bits were used, providing for 128 characters. That allowed lower case letters to be added, and some additional punctuation such as '{' and '}'. There was also a range of 32 mysterious control characters with exotic sounding names like End of Block, most of which were never really used.

The 7-bit character set was rapidly standardised by the US in 1963, as ASCII (American Standard Character set for Information Interchange), and adopted internationally by the International Standards Organisation as ISO 646. Because it was a US standard, it did not allow for the needs of other countries. For example, it included no accented characters - it couldn't, because there wasn't room. Many countries therefore had their own national variant of ISO 646. In the UK, the rarely used character '#' was replaced by the pound symbol, '£'. Several countries replaces lesser-used punctuation by the accented letters they needed. For example in France, 'é' replaced '{'. (There is a legacy of this in the C programming language, which allows odd-looking trigraphs such as '??<' as an alternative to '{', for people who don't have '{' on their keyboard because it has been replaced by an accented letter.)

This was all a bit unsatisfactory if files need to be moved between countries, which would result in characters changing at random. There was a move to abandon the parity bit and use it to create an additional 128 code points for characters. This resulted in the Latin-1 character set, or ISO 8859, which first appeared in 1987. With this, all the major Latin-alphabet languages could be written and, more importantly, moved between countries without turning to gibberish.

None of this was any use for languages which do not use the Latin alphabet. Similar standards were defined for Cyrillic and for Greek. For Chinese and other Asian languages, 8 bits is nowhere near enough to represent all the characters - modern Chinese needs around 6,000 characters, and a great many more if historical documents are to be encoded. So each country - China, Japan and Korea - developed its own encoding for the Chinese-based characters.

Starting in the 1980s, there was a move to come up with a single character set that could represent all languages and other uses. Initially it was thought that a 16-bit character set, allowing 65,536 combinations, would cover this, but in the end to represent all languages requires more than that.

Unicode, or ISO 10646 (the similarity in the number is not a coincidence), is the result of all this. It can represent almost every language with a written representation, and a great many other characters as well. Maybe surprisingly, there is a lot of controversy around it. As one example, each user of Chinese characters has taken its own steps through history to simplify writing. The same ideogram (i.e. a character with a meaning rather than a sound) is often written differently in Taiwan, China and Japan. For example, means 'to speak' in Japanese, but the same ideogram is written in China, with the left radical greatly simplified. Should these be considered as different glyphs representing the same character, determined solely by the font in use, just like Comic Sans and Times Roman Italic, or are they different characters? This is called the Han Unification Controversy.

Anyway, back to currency symbols. ASCII defines just one of them, '$'. Other countries used various code points for their own currency symbol. Latin-1 added a few more: £, ¥, ¢. You may notice a theme here: nearly all currency symbols consist of a (maybe) mnemonic letter, with a line through it. (S for 'scudero', the original currency in the Americas, and L for 'libra', Latin for pound). For example the symbol for the Thai Baht is ฿.

I ran into this on my first visit to India recently. The character for the Indian Rupee is . This is the Hindi character , pronounced 'ra', with a line through it. The character is actually very recent, introduced just in 2009 following a national competition to replace the traditional representation Rs.

When I saw this I was naturally interested to see if there was a Unicode representation. Obviously there is, or I wouldn't have been able to write the previous paragraph. Where currency symbols show up seems to be somewhat random. The character for Thai Baht is indeed mixed in with the characters for Thai script. But the Rupee symbol, which you might reasonably expect to find with the Devanagari (Hindi) character set, is in a page dedicated to currency symbols.

The page contains some truly amazing symbols. There are symbols you've probably never seen for currencies you've probably never heard of, like the Ukrainian Hrvynia which looks like a dollar sign adapted for one of those "fill in the missing square" intelligence tests, or the Kazakhstan Tenga which is identical to the Japanese symbol for a public phone. Others have surely never been used, like the Livre Tournois , a currency used in France from the 13th to the 16th century, or the German Penny . One gets the feeling that once they had a whole 256-character code page they were determined to fill it.

My favourites among them, just because they are so visually complex, are these two. They're shown as images because very few fonts have them - inserting the Unicode characters usually results in a blank space or an empty box. The one on the left is the Spesmilo. It's an artificial currency invented alongside Esperanto in the early 20th century, with similar idealist objectives. It has never been implemented as an actual currency of any kind. But they certainly got creative with the symbol.

The second character is the Nordic Mark. This was once a real currency, used in Denmark (which at the time included Norway) in the 17th and 18th centuries. It seems unlikely that the character is much used today, especially since most systems can't display it.

There's a certain amount of cultural hegemony in all this. In theory all Unicode code points are equal. But in practice there is still an important practical advantage to being in the original ASCII 7-bit character set. The Python language copes very badly with Unicode, throwing errors all over the place when you try to use anything outside ASCII. (The excuse for Python 3 was to fix these problems, but actually it is even worse). So there is a distinct advantage to having your currency symbol be there, which is the case only for $. I'm not aware of any practical advantage of being in ISO 8859 (Latin-1), but it's still "less Unicode" than being in some remote code page along with the Spesmilo and the Nordic Mark.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Flying the G1000 - a Six-Pack Pilot's Initiation

Getting Started

My plane is not flying at the moment, for reasons I won't go into. Instead I have a good deal with a local flying club, allowing me to fly any of their aircraft subject to a checkout. They have several recent fixed-gear Cessna 182s, which make a reasonable substitute for my retractable, turbo 1980 TR182.

Most of them are new enough to have a Garmin G1000 panel instead of the traditional six-pack of mechanically driven "steam gauges" like my own plane. They do also have some older steam-gauge 182s, and I've flown quite a bit in one of them, but it seemed a good opportunity to learn some new technology.

I started by looking at the manual, readily available online. It runs to over 500 pages, making it pretty much impossible just to sit and read from end to end. It struck me how similar it is to the familiar old Garmin GNS530, which I fitted to my plane when I bought it 17 years ago. I have over 1000 hours of flying with it now, so I hoped the transition to the G1000 would be straightforward. It also includes a very sophisticated autopilot, the GFC700, which has all the features you'd find in an airliner (well, except Cat III autoland) - vertical navigation, coupled approaches and so on.

G1000 in a Diamond DA40, on the way back to Palo Alto
A G1000 installation has two screens. The one in front of the pilot is called the Primary Flight Display (PFD) and replaces a normal six-pack of mechanical instruments. The one to the right is called the Multi Function Display (MFD) and contains all sorts of other things, including the moving map, flight plan and engine instruments. They are both covered in knobs and buttons, about 40 of them, which mostly do the same thing on each panel - but not always.

Flying the Simulator

Fortunately the club also has a G1000 flight simulator, made by Precision Flight Controls. It has a panel like a G1000-equipped 172, plus an X-plane based simulator with an instructor station that lets you set up weather conditions, create failures, position the aircraft and various other things. I quickly got myself set up on this, with the help of a friendly instructor.

The first challenge was flying the simulator. It seems hyper-sensitive, unlike a real 182 which is extremely stable. It took me an hour or so to be able to "fly" it smoothly and achieve decent approaches, with the G1000 serving just as a simple glass panel replicating the traditional attitude indicator and HSI. It's very hard to land, and although that's not really necessary for learning the G1000 it does seem like something you should be able to do. Every landing is "good" in the sense that you can always walk away from it, and even use the simulator again, but at first several of them turned into simulated crashes requiring a reset at the instructor station. Once I could get the plane stopped on the runway I decided that was good enough. It's hard to get any real feeling for how high you are above the runway, something which comes surprisingly easily when flying a real aircraft. On my one and only flight in a wartime B-25 bomber I landed it smoothly even though the sight-picture is very different from anything else I've flown.

My first couple of sessions with the simulator brought several moments of severe frustration of the "How the ***** do you do that?" variety. A big advantage of an old fashioned panel, where each instrument stands by itself, is that you have a pretty good idea which buttons to try pressing even if you're not sure. For example, my panel has a GTX-345 transponder which includes a bunch of timers. Even if you have no idea how to get to the flight timer, there aren't too many things to try. With the G1000, the function could be anywhere in dozens of nested menus and soft-buttons. The flight timer is a case in point. It's there, but buried in one of the 'aux' pages - and certainly not accessed through the 'timer' soft-button, which would be much too easy.

Another example is the minimum fuel setting. It's nice to be able to set this, so you can get a warning if you reach it. In a 182 I never plan to land with less than 20 gallons. That's pretty conservative, enough for 90 minutes of flying, but with tanks that hold 88 usable gallons it's easy to do, and reduces the chances of becoming the subject of a feature article in the NTSB Reporter. There's a whole sub-menu for dealing with fuel management, allowing you to enter the actual amount of fuel in the tanks, and so it's obviously on that page. Wrong. It's under a sub-sub-menu of the Map setup page. There is some kind of logic to that, because all it does is to show a ring on the map where you will reach fuel minimums. But it certainly isn't intuitive.

Operating the simulator by myself was interesting. You could just position yourself at the start of the runway, then take off and fly just like the real thing. But it would waste a lot of time climbing and getting to the start of the approach. One nice thing about the sim is that you can position the airplane anywhere you want, for example just outside the initial approach fix. But this takes some acrobatics. If you just take a stationary airplane and position it at altitude, it instantly enters a power-off dive. That's recoverable but not really necessary.

In the end the routine I developed was to take off normally and set the autopilot to climb on a fixed heading. The next step is to leap over to the instructor station and position the aircraft at the altitude and location where you want it. But this disconnects the autopilot, so now you have to leap back to the pilot station and re-engage it, being careful to set up the same altitude as the one the sim thinks it's at. After a while it becomes routine, but there are lots of ways to mess it up. For example, before setting position, it's a good idea to think about terrain. Once I didn't, and leaping into the pilot seat was disconcerted to see the scenery a lot closer than it should be, shortly before ploughing into the trees. I had set the position of the airplane in the hills, without first setting the altitude to something that would put me above them.

Another good thing about the sim is that you can set the weather conditions. As an instrument pilot you practice under the "hood" - actually a pair of glasses adapted so you can only see down to the panel. That does a reasonable job of seeing nothing at all, as when you are in a cloud, but there is no way to simulate very poor visibility. An ILS or LPV approach can typically be flown with less than one mile, and without a sim it's pretty much impossible to know what that feels like unless you get lucky (or maybe unlucky) with the weather. Old-fashioned non-precision approaches are particularly hard. I tried the VOR 13 into Salinas, with minimums of 500 feet and one mile. You reach MDA and see... nothing at all, ploughing on through the murk, until just before the MAP you can faintly make out some runway lights. It's a great exercise but I wouldn't be very happy to do it for real. An ILS - or LPV to a similarly equipped runway - seems a lot easier, even to lower minimums. I flew the RNAV 25 to Livermore, with minimums of 200 and a half. As you reach decision height the approach lights are right there, allowing a further descent to 100 feet - no peering through the murk hoping to see something.

Time to Go Flying

After several hours on the simulator and numerous approaches, it was time to go fly for real. We flew three approaches, entirely using the autopilot down to minimums. The G1000 was a pleasure to use, and certainly a lot less stressful than hand flying. It does all seem a bit like a video game though.

With that flight over, I was signed off to go fly by myself. We took the same airplane down to San Luis Obispo for a fish taco lunch at Cayucos and an apple-buying excursion at Gopher Glen, surely the finest apple farm in the country. It was a perfect VFR day with very modest winds aloft, an excellent opportunity to give the G1000 a workout with the reassurance that if ever things started to get tricky, it would be easy to take over and hand fly. The goal, from a flying point of view, was to get comfortable with the G1000, so I let the autopilot do all the flying. Well, almost all - of course I had to do the takeoffs and landings. That led to the uncomfortable discovery that the wheels on the fixed-gear 182 are an inch or two lower than on my retractable. It's not much, but it's the difference between a perfectly smooth landing and one that raises my wife's eyebrows.

Vertical Navigation (VNAV)

One thing I really wanted to try was the autopilot's VNAV (vertical navigation) feature. The idea is simple enough. Instead of telling it the climb or descent rate you want (VS mode) or the airspeed (FLC mode), you just tell it where you want to be at a certain altitude, and it figures the rest out for itself. If you are flying an instrument approach or standard arrival (STAR), the altitudes are built in and are displayed on the flight plan page beside each waypoint. For VFR flight, you can create a waypoint on the final leg to the airport, and create a "track offset" a given distance before, and set an altitude for that. For example, on my way to Palo Alto I set a waypoint 5 miles before the field with an altitude of 1500 feet. The G1000 figures out where it needs to start the descent to meet that, for a specified (but not normally changed) descent profile, e.g. 500 ft/min. As long as you press the right buttons at the right time, it will fly the descent all by itself, leaving you only to monitor the throttles.

Sounds good, except that the documentation for how to use the feature is terrifying. It runs for several pages in the manual, mainly telling you all the things that will make it refuse to do what you want and other things that can go wrong. For example, the altitude associated with a waypoint can be shown in four different ways: in blue or in white, and in a large or a small font. They all mean different things and woe betide you if you can't remember which means what. But after reading it a couple of times and trying it in the sim, I realised that normal operation is pretty simple.

The flight plan panel shows, among many other things, the time to the "top of descent" that has been calculated. As you fly along this gradually goes down, until eventually it gets to one minute. At that point the autopilot status line on the PFD changes. There are two things you have to do, assuming you're currently flying in altitude hold: first press the VNAV button, and then set the desired altitude to something less than the first target. If you're planning to land, it makes sense to set it to minimums for the approach. If you don't reduce the desired altitude, it doesn't descend. But assuming you do, one minute ticks by and then the nose drops, the annunciator changes to say VPTH, and down you go. If there are multiple step-downs (rare these days), it will level off between them but pick up the next one and keep on flying down them until the glideslope activates.

Flying Approaches

There is one more button to press before you land. Once VNAV is active and you have been cleared for the approach, you press the APR button which sets the system up to capture the glideslope. (And don't what I did once, fortunately in the sim, and press the AP button instead - which disables the autopilot. To my pleasant surprise, pressing it again simply re-enabled the autopilot and carried on where it had left off).

If you're used to a traditional HSI or CDI display, finding the glideslope on the G1000 is far from intuitive. Instead of a horizontal bar in the middle of the HSI, it appears as a magenta diamond to the left of the altitude tape. It took me a while to find it at first, though it's simple enough once you know. For a traditional ILS, it is active as soon as the physical glide slope signal is received. For a GPS approach (LNAV or LPV) it's a bit less obvious. It shows up at the first fix outside the FAF. It's the same for the 530W, and I remember a very frustrating moment flying the GPS into Palo Alto, first wondering why it wasn't there, and then wondering why it had suddenly shown up as I flew through the fix in question, ACHOZ.

The G1000 does a very nice job of flying the aircraft all the way down the approach to Decision Height - as long as you press the right buttons at the right time. Compared to hand-flying an ILS or LPV, it's very relaxing! You can set the DH or MDA, but once again it isn't obvious where. It's called "baro mins" (not sure why specifically "baro"), and it's found on... the timer inset, unlike the flight timer. If you do manage to figure out how to set it, a serious-sounding voice calls out "minimums!" at just the right time, so it's pretty useful.

I've had one chance to try the G1000 in actual IMC, luckily, and since it was flying around the Bay Area there was plenty of vectoring, course and altitude changes and everything else that ATC can do to make a flight more interesting. Everything worked perfectly. We flew the ILS into Santa Rosa, in perfect VMC, with the pleasure of watching it keep the runway on the nose down to DH. On the way back we were in actual as we were vectored to the GPS into Palo Alto, including an initial VNAV section. I let it fly all the way down to DH, 460 feet (not currently permitted in IMC due to the Google construction, but we were already in VMC).

Odds and Ends

Since the G1000 knows all of indicated and true airspeed, as well as ground speed and current heading and track, it can figure out what the wind must be doing. It's very nice to see that displayed in a tiny inset on the PFD, giving an instant readout of headwind rather than trying to calculate it by mental arithmetic.

The PFD includes a Flight Director (FD), which is the airplane telling you how it thinks you ought to be flying it. The idea is simple: your current attitude is shown by a pair of yellow lines, which you should try and line up with the magenta lines of the FD. Airline pilots swear by them, and so does my friend who happened to get one in his plane. For myself, I don't really see the point. I'm happy for the plane to fly itself, the yellow and magenta lines always snuggled up together, but if I'm hand flying then I don't really need it. It reminds me of the annoying indicators on stick-shift cars telling you that it thinks you should change gear. At least you can turn the FD off, though it's easy enough to ignore it.

The MFD normally shows a large map, showing you where are relative to the scenery, in much better detail than the 530. It's a nice feature although you can always look out of the window, in VMC anyway. It is good to see where other aircraft are (thanks to ADS-B) relative to the scenery - it is surprisingly hard to see them even when in theory you know where they are. The map also includes terrain warnings - if it's red, don't go there. It's good while you're in the air though a bit dazzling when you're taxiing, since naturally everything is red then. You can turn it off though it's a good idea to remember to turn it back on again, especially at night or in IMC.


I've enjoyed learning and flying the G1000, and I'll miss it when I go back to my own 1980 panel, especially the very capable GFC700 autopilot.

When I started I thought, how different can it be from the good old Garmin 530? In many ways it's very similar, but remembering which buttons to push when is very different and significantly harder because there are just so many of them.

For someone who flies regularly and can stay current with where everything is and which button to push when, it is really an excellent system. I would worry about it though for the typical PPL flying an hour or two per month - it would be just too easy to need some feature and blank completely on how to get to it.

Wednesday, 3 July 2019

The Numerologist's Birthday Cake

Everybody loves to blow out candles on their birthday cake. The problem is, once you get past about 10, the cake becomes a serious fire hazard if you stick with tradition and have one candle for each year. Once you become a fully qualified adult, you'd have to be a committed pyromaniac to try. So people make compromises, just one candle, or one per decade for those "important" birthdays.

That's a bit boring though. Being interested in number theory, I came up with another idea: make the number of candles equal to the number of non-distinct prime factors of your age.

"What...???" I hear you thinking. But trust me, it's quite simple really.

Every number can be expressed as a product of prime numbers, if it isn't one itself. To recap: a prime number is one that can't be divided by anything except itself and 1, like 2, 3, 5, 31, 8191, ... and many others in between and beyond. There's a simple and elegant proof that they go on for ever - there is no "largest prime number". Unfortunately there is no room for it in the margin here.

So for numbers which are not prime - called composite numbers - you can multiply prime numbers together to make them. Here are the first few:

     4 = 2 * 2
     6 = 2 * 3
     8 = 2 * 2 * 2
     9 = 3 * 3
    10 = 2 * 5
    12 = 2 * 2 * 3
    14 = 2 * 7
    15 = 3 * 5
    16 = 2 * 2 * 2 * 2
    18 = 2 * 3 * 3

and so on. It's easy to show that for any given number, there is exactly one way to do this. Some more examples:

    99 = 3 * 3 * 11
   255 = 3 * 5 * 17
   256 = 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 * 2 * 2

The important thing, for my birthday cake, is how many numbers you have to multiply together, whether they are the same or not. So for 4, it's 2, for 16, it's 4, for 18, it's 3 and so on. For 256 it would be 8, but it's not very likely to happen.

The nice thing about this is that the number of candles varies with each year, but it never gets too big. What's the largest number of candles you can ever need? Well, 64 is 2*2*2*2*2*2, i.e. 6 candles. The smallest number with any given quantity of candles will always be a power of 2 (i.e. a number where all the factors are 2). The next 6 candle birthday is 96, which there is some chance of making. The next one would be 144, which is pretty improbable.

The first birthday with more than 6 candles would be 128, which is 64*2 and hence needs 7 candles. I don't think it's worth saving up for that seventh candle, really.

Birthdays which correspond to a prime number, like 53, only get one candle. Once you get past 3, there will never be two consecutive one-candle birthdays, since even numbers are always 2 times something. The exception is 2 itself, which is the only even prime number.

Then there are "perfect" birthdays. A perfect number is something rather rare, one where every number that divides it (whether prime or not, and including 1) adds up to the number itself. The smallest is 6:

    6 = 1 * 2 * 3 = 1 + 2 + 3

The next one is 28:

   28 = 1 + 2 + 4 + 7 + 14

After that they get big very quickly: the next two are 496 and 8128. So there are only two perfect birthdays that any of us are likely to see. (All known perfect numbers are even, incidentally. There is a simple formula for finding them. It is one of the great unknowns of number theory whether there are any odd perfect numbers. If so, they are huge: no smaller than 101500. It seems very unlikely, but nobody has managed to prove it either way).

I thought of this because it will soon be my sister's 81st birthday - the first odd birthday with 4 candles (81=3*3*3*3). The next one would be 135 (3*3*3*5), which probably isn't worth waiting for.