Saturday, August 26, 2006

I Am "Subject 12": A Test Pilot's Tale

About a week ago I got a call from someone at the U of I looking for test subjects for an interactive cognition study of pilots. The purpose was to see how pilots processed lengthy ATC (air traffic control) instructions and what aids were useful in remembering them. The kid--he couldn’t have been over 21--who conducted the tests was a psychology undergrad in his 2nd year. He reminded me a little of Data in the methodical, almost dispassionate way in which he administered the tests.

The tests were conducted over two, three hour sessions. The first was Thursday. Before the experimentation began I had to sign a waiver saying I understood the risks involved. About the only tangible risk was the slight possibility of damage to my retina from the infrared eye tracker they were going to be using to track my instrument scan in the simulator. This eye tracker was part of a larger piece of head gear that would also track my head movements as I looked around the cockpit. The whole contraption reminded me of something from a Terry Gilliam movie—sort of menacing looking but completely harmless.

The first portion of the experiment was kind of humiliating. It involved testing my vocabulary and memory. The vocabulary part I aced. The other part though made me feel like a senile old man. That part involved listening to a tape recording of a series of sentences. As soon as a sentence was spoken I had to indicate whether it was true or false. After that series of sentences was completed I had to say the last word of each sentence read to me. I did fine when there were no more than three sentences in series. But when they got up to four I couldn’t remember anything. At first I started making things up, but finally admitted I couldn’t remember. My examiner, as nice of a kid as he was, was almost entirely devoid of humor. Any time I tried to ease my embarrassment by joking around, he’d just silently stare at me as if I was a petri dish and continue the experiment.

Thankfully, that part of the experiment ended after about an hour and the fun stuff with the simulator started. The simulator was a Frasca 142 situated in this big room in the basement of the Beckman Institute. In front of it were three big 12’+ screens on which were projected the simulated world of Frasca. Unfortunately the simulated world of Frasca is stuck in early 1990’s VGA. My flying environment consisted of a flat green earth opposite blue sky with high cirrus clouds. You could probably achieve the same effects with the display on your cell phone.

In the sim, I was tested on my ability to hear and comply with ATC instructions under a variety of conditions. Basically the conditions were:
  • Copying ATC instructions using a kneeboard with paper and pad

  • Flying without any type of memory aid at all

  • Using an “MCP”—I don’t know what that was an acronym for, but it was a touch screen that let me tap in the heading, altitude and airspeed ATC instructed me to fly
I flew each of the three conditions in both smooth air and turbulent air. I had to readback all instructions as I would in real life and all my responses were recorded. While I was doing all this, the examiner would randomly introduce air traffic into the flying environment and I would have to say, “Traffic.” whenever I spotted it.

Every section of the test began with the examiner speaking into the voice recorder, “Subject 12, (condition).” I have to admit it gave me slight chill to be referred to as “Subject 12”. But that’s science I guess. I’m sure collating research data would be much more difficult if those listening to the recordings had to hear, “This is Larry. He’s an Aries who likes trees and enjoys autumn walks in the park. He’s recently been married and his favorite treat is peanut butter.”

On Thursday all we really did was a familiarization session with the simulator and the types of conditions I would be operating under. Today was the main part of the test in which I had to don the aforementioned eye/head movement tracker. Calibrating the eye tracker was exactly like the calibration sequence you usually encounter in video games like Halo. After he’d locked the infrared tracker onto my eye, he had me look at numbered locations on the instrument panel so he could “map” where I looked in the cockpit.

After about 2 ½ hours of "flying" with the tracker cinched down on my noggin, I was getting a sore neck and a slight headache. But I kept telling myself I was doing this for the good of aviators everywhere. I was the Chuck Yeager of interactive cognition and my contribution to science might very well save the lives of countless pilots in the future. The reality is, I’ve probably done nothing more than help put a slight dent in the incidence of air traffic controllers having to repeat themselves. Still, I had about a 1% chance of damaging my retina in the process. Hey, it’s not the same as strapping myself to an X-15, but I could very well have wound up needing a good squirt of Visine.

After I was done, Data paid me (a whopping $44 smackers) and I walked over to Murphy’s Pub and celebrated my exploits with my wife and a $7 pitcher of Leinie’s Sunset Wheat. Yeah, it feels good to be a gangsta'.

Finally, my wife surprised me with the news that we are now a family. Yes, she got me a fish. A spunky little Beta which I shall call Walter. Pictures forthcoming.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

"Pee Wee Forgot to Pay"

So said the back of the diner check taped above the register at the Royal Waffle King in Somerset, KY. The Waffle King is a wonder of culinary delights, economy and service. Sandwiched between a Golden Corral (think Ponderosa) and a Sign-O-Rama on Kentucky state route 27, it offers breakfast and lunch fare 24 hours a day. And apparently the management has an understanding with Pee Wee.

Laurie and I stopped there to grab a bite on our way down to Cumberland Falls State Park. Tony, the guy at the Jamestown airport who gave us directions, said, “It’s a long way to drive just to see some falls. They ain’t nothin’ spectacular but I guess the drive’s nice.” That’s really all we were after anyway—a nice drive in the SSR with the top down. Incidentally, Tony, when not running the airport and subverting the state’s tourism industry, was an avid RC pilot. He had a Great Planes Lancair in the hangar with all the full-scale planes. He said in between chores he’d fire it up and fly it around. I don’t see why he shouldn’t. Not much goes on at the Jamestown airport on a hot and sticky Saturday afternoon outside of grass growing.

The drive was gorgeous. If you’ve never been down to this part of the country you should get over your redneck phobias and check it out. Many of the roads meander through beautiful forests and hewn bluffs. Waterfalls and creeks abound. And the folks, while certainly down home, are more hillbilly than redneck. To me a hillbilly is not the same as a redneck. Most hillbillies can read music and play an instrument and about the closest thing I’ve ever heard to a racial epithet was the term “colored person”. This is usually only used by the older set because to them that’s politically correct. At least it was back when the NAACP was founded. In fact, this trip I saw more integration in Somerset between hillbillies, Mexicans and African Americans than I do up here. In the rural areas like Somerset, there isn’t a “that side of town”. The towns aren’t big enough to segregate and people seem to get along fine.

Sure you see the occasional Confederate flag, but not nearly as many as you can see up here on the pickups in Lava’s parking lot on “18 and Over” night. Most of the people displaying them down there are out to tweak the noses of the white urbanite Yankees that only come down between Memorial Day and Labor Day to tear around the lake on their 50-foot 100mph speed boats—a demographic my Uncle Bobby affectionately refers to as, “The Ohio Navy”.

In fact, if you do decide to venture down there, don’t go until after Labor Day. That’s the time of year when there’s still the best part of the summer left and you can meditate on the gorgeous surroundings without the constant din of twin 500 cu in Chevy big blocks. This is when southern Kentucky is best viewed in its natural state. I wish I could fly all of you down at least once to see it.

In lieu of actually transporting you there, however, you will have to settle for this photographic reminiscence from last summer. I would’ve took pictures this trip, but left the camera at home, as I usually do when I go somewhere interesting. I sometimes wonder why I even bought it.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


For my fellow cigar aficionados I've added a "FUMAR UNDER $5" section to the index--my survery of cigars under $5*. As with the FLICKS section, the list will be limited to six at a time with the most recently enjoyed smoke at the top. Where possible I will link to a picture of each smoke for easy reference the next time you visit your local tobaccanist.

*$5 before tax. Caution: Cigar smoking has been deemed a criminal activity by the People's Republic of California.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Kobra

Last Saturday, I had the privilege of taking Laurie's Uncle John for a flight. Uncle John is 89 years old, and over the course of his life has assumed many mantles. Among these are husband, father, farmer, machinist and Kobra. As a pilot, it is the later that has always fascinated me ever since I met him.

You see, from 1944-1945 2nd Lt. John H. De Jong served as the co-pilot of a B-24J belonging to the 494th Bombardment Group, otherwise known as Kelley's Kobras. The group was so named after its commanding officer, Col. Laurence B. Kelley. Although the 494th didn't see action until late in the war, they played a major role in helping Macarthur's army bring the Japanese occupation of the Philippines to an end.

When John returned from the war he went back to working the family farm, but never quit flying. Every chance he got, he would rent a Cessna 172 and fly low over rural Indiana, occasionally buzzing his farmhands while they worked in the fields. Unfortunately, he had to stop flying altogether after being diagnosed with diabetes. Saturday's flight with me was his first in a light airplane in 25 years.

I'm serious when I say taking him up was a privilege. So many guys like him have followed their exploits into history. So few remain to tell their story. Before long they will all be gone and only the books will be left.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Hi. My Name Is Uncle Larry.

And I'm a popsicle addict. I don't know what's come over me, but in the last two weeks I've consumed no less that 50 of the frozen delicacies, the majority of them in three separate dozen+ binges. It all started when Laurie bought some Bomb Pops for the nieces and nephews on the 4th. They didn't eat any, so we took them home. They sat in the fridge for about two weeks until that fateful night that I was looking for a snack.

At first I thought they'd make a great way to enjoy something sweet without packing on a lot calories. The most fattening popsicle is a paltry 40 calories. What I didn't realize is that my appetite, which hasn't been denied much lately, apparently abhors a caloric vacuum and will drive me to consume as many popsicles as would be necessary to equal the same size snack it has become accustomed too. I'm beginning to understand Robert Downey Jr.

Tonight, was yet another episode. Schnuck's has their brand on sale 10 boxes for $10. Thankfully my wife is more frugal than I and she opted to use the special to get a single box for a buck. Had she taken full advantage of this offer, it is quite possible I would not be writing this now. In all likelihood I would suffering from a brain freeze lobotomy and grinning like Jack Nicholson right before the chief gives him the pillow.

In any case, consider this my plea for help. I've gone off the deep end and can't seem to reign in this unquenchable thirst for frozen sugar water and red #5. Then again, now that I think about it, I haven't really felt the same since that last teleportation experiment.