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What Do Mars and Bicycles Have in Common?

It’s a lovely day.

The sky outside is an impossibly brilliant blue, with just the occasional cloud to add texture and remind me that nature is hard at work, even if I am not.

This is an absolutely perfect day for flying. Definitely VMC (For my non-aviation friends and readers, that is Visual Meteorological Conditions, meaning that navigating and staying in control of the aircraft is performed by looking out of the windscreen – rather than flying in cloud or above the cloud, thereby having to fly by using the aircraft instruments, known as Instrument Meteorological Conditions).

The perfect day for a fifteen minute trundle over to the airstrip, to pull my aircraft from the hangar. A quick but thorough pre-flight inspection, and then away up into the sky, to meander through the air, with no particular place to go.

Maybe a leisurely buzz south to the coast, then east to Beachy Head, and then back over the sunlit rolling chalk and downlands that make up large swathes of Sussex and Hampshire.

So, why then, am I sitting here in my den, hammering an article into my keyboard.

Well, for one thing, my aeroplane is currently being reassembled after a major rebuild. It’s sitting forlornly in the gloom of the hangar, its wings rigged, and its engine and systems all fitted. However, with no flight control surfaces rigged, she might as well be a boat.

Fully rigged, engine and systems up and running – but no flight controls…

Secondly, I am awaiting the arrival of the technician from Autoglass to change the windscreen on my car.

Travelling back home from work one afternoon, I thought that I had come under machine-gun attack, and the volley of stones that hit the screen might as well have been real bullets, as they plunged deep into the laminated glass, and with a noise like a pistol shot, three long cracks propagated across the screen.

A short phone call to my insurers and £75.00 lighter, and the windscreen would be fixed. It appeared that as I had previously had two chips repaired, this would be a brand new screen.

Well, I was expecting to have to make an appointment to drop the car off at a repair station, but no, it would be changed on my drive, and all in about an hour.

So, staying with the vehicle theme, some of you may have read my previous article on the levels of pollution that is caused by the interaction of car tyres on roads?

No?

It may be worth a read if you are interested in sustainability, climate change and pollution.

Vehicle tyres degrade with use, and the erosion of the tread causes the release of micro-particles that wash into waterways, and ultimately into the seas and oceans.

So, a new piece of space-age technology caught my eye.

My first exposure to NASA[1] was as a barely-ten-year-old boy watching the launch of Apollo 11 on the 16th of July 1969, and subsequently watching recorded footage of the lunar landing on school TV on Monday 21st July.

To say that I was awestruck was an understatement.  Subsequently I couldn’t read enough about space, and became an avid reader of the science fiction pulp magazines such as Astounding Science Fiction and Amazing Stories that my dear old Dad used to buy from the secondhand bookstall not far from the tube station.

I think that by the time I was 13, I had the complete works of the mighty Isaac Asimov on my bookshelves, and was familiar with all of the Sci-Fi greats; Arthur C Clarke, Robert Heinlein and Philip K Dick.

A few days before the launch of Apollo 11, the BBC aired it’s first episode of Star Trek, and I had become a fan almost instantly.

The Crew of NC-1701 Starship Enterprise – Star Trek the Original Series

And I have been a real fan of quality science fiction (not to be confused with science fantasy such as the Marvel Superheroes) ever since.

There has always been, however, a blurring of the lines between science fiction, and science fact. Which drives which?

In Star Trek, (the original series) we saw Captain Kirk being presented with what looks like an iPad tablet for him to sign. Uhura, the Comms Officer wears what looks like an ancestor to a Bluetooth earpiece, and Motorola designed a flip phone that looked suspiciously like a Star Trek communicator.

Lt. Uhura, wearing her early Bluetooth earpiece… Photo Courtesy ViacomCBS

I have to admit, that I am REALLY looking forward to using a dematerialisation transporter. Imagine just setting the co-ordinates of a friend’s house in California, and hitting the button and arriving microseconds later.

A universal replicator that ends poverty, and makes the use of money totally redundant…?

I digress…

So, it seems that Science Fact is now about to follow what was Science Fiction up until a few decades ago.

The continuing exploration of Mars has been conducted to a great extent by the Mars Rover vehicles, which have been sedately pottering over the Martian landscape since 1997. Kitted out with sensors, cameras and communications equipment these vehicles have been surveying our nearest planetary neighbour.

Perseverance, the Mars Rover – Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech

In order to traverse the hostile terrain, the current rover, Perseverance, is equipped with six 52.5cm (20.7 inch) wheels made from aluminium and springy titanium spokes. The wheels are fitted with cleats for additional traction.

Well…

It seems that the NASA-developed tyre technology may be coming to a vehicle near you – well, initially, a bicycle near you!

NASA – Not just a Space Agency! Designers, Developers and Scientists

These highly advanced tyres are designed by the SMART (Shape Memory Alloy Radial Technology) Tire company, and manufactured by NASA using a highly elastic material called NiTinol+.

The Rover’s wheels – Light, and very robust! Photo Courtesy NASA/JPL-CalTech

Virtually all elastic materials will stretch, and then they may almost revert back to their previous shape and strength. Most will lose their resilience and potency – think of a well-used bungee strap.

The clever thing about the metal alloy used in the construction of Perseverance’s wheels is that it actually changes its molecular composition when it is flexed or distorted. Once no longer subjected to any loads, the material simply returns to its prior profile, and the molecules are rearranged to their previous composition.

Tyres constructed from this material would no longer need to have inner tubes, or be inflated with air – no more punctures, less weight, and the added strength of Titanium.

The outer surface of the “tyre” may be coated with a highly resilient synthetic rubber called Polyurethanium.

The robust nature of the tyre combination means that a SMART tyre will probably exceed the life of the vehicle to which it is fitted! There will be no risks of punctures, and deflations, no need to use sealants or carry a spare wheel.

In comparison to conventional steel, this new alloy, known as METL, is thirty times quicker to recover to its original profile. This made it ideal for use in the hostile environment and rugged terrain of Mars.

Now the good news!

These revolutionary tyres are about to be launched – initially for bicycles, which will enable further development to be carried out for heavier vehicles.

SMART Tire prototype clearly showing woven metal construction, Photo Courtesy SMART Tires

SMART Tires has already collaborated with the Micro-mobility scooter provider, Spin (owned by the Ford Motor Company) to develop tyres for electric scooters.

Currently, this is a small-scale project, but in due course, it will become a primary challenge for the $250 billion global tyre industry to adapt to and deliver. This will be driven, in part, by the ever more urgent need to reduce emissions of any kind.

SMART Tires aims to launch their range of tyres to the cycling community by 2022, and once in full production, will no doubt start developing wheel/tyre units for the automobile and motorcycle industries.

Prototype SMART Tyre designed for a bicycle – Photo courtesy SMART Tires

I imagine that the launch range of bike tyres will be expensive initially, and will appeal to only the upper echelons of competition cyclists, but the economy of scale will undoubtedly reduce prices to the level where they may be bought in your local high street bicycle shop.

So, in the words of Captain Jean-Luc Picard…

“Make it so!”

Well, Maybe buy one of these after I have bought the tyres! If I have any cash left!

[1] National Aeronautics and Space Administration

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COVID 19 – Lockdown and Walking with Nature

I’m sitting here in the early evening enjoying my back garden, listening to the birds as I mull over this article. My terrace is bathed in warm, golden sunlight, as Sol starts to dip majestically behind the trees lining the nature reserve.

I am so very fortunate. I have managed to make the right decisions – either by luck, intuititon, or skill, that have resulted in me living in a beautiful part of the UK. Or it could be SWMBO’s excellent judgement.

I don’t question SWMBO’s judgement – she is, after all, with me, so her decision making and judgement skills are refined.

I live in Hampshire which, like most of the UK, has a timeline of civilisation that extends 14,000 years into the past.

Roman Emperor Claudius invaded Britain in AD 43 and shortly thereafter (in the larger scale of things), Winchester became the County Town of Hampshire.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with the British concept of county towns – a county town was the ancient equivalent of of a capital city, but at county level. Traditionally, a county town is the most important or significant town in a county.

Winchester is not only the county town of Hampshire, but also a city in the truest sense of the definition.

In the UK, most people use the term “city” to describe any large town, but the status of a city was traditionally only given to towns that had a Cathedral – King Henry the Eighth establishing the first ones during his reign. To this day, the UK’s monarch has to grant city status to any town.

Winchester cathedral was consecrated in 1093, and is a wonderful old building, which seems to have history seeping out of its walls and emanating from its very fabric.

The opulence of Winchester Cathedral

Winchester is about 24 miles west of where I live. It is a beautiful old city. It is where the ancient English King, Alfred had his royal seat.

King Alfred the Great – Still watching for marauding Vikings…

The old part of the city, in which the ancient cathedral sits, is a maze of tiny cobbled streets and lanes.

Winchester City centre. Disney or Universal take note…

I digress.

The area in which I live is also historic. There has been a human settlement here at least since the 14th Century; the Roman army crossed the River Wey at Lindford, about 1 mile away, whilst en-route to battle in the west of the county in the early part of the the last millenium. The crossing over the local stream has been here since 1350, but the current bridge was refurbished in 2008.

So, we are in Lockdown.

According to Her Majesty’s Government (HMG), we are allowed to exercise once a day. So, this last Sunday, SWMBO and I decided that we would partake of some gentle exercise in the form a walk through the Deadwater Valley Nature Reserve.

It was a beautiful afternoon, with a light zephyr tousling the crowns of the trees as we left the house. A six minute walk up the hill took us to the entrance of the nature trail.

The trail is cool, the smell of damp sphagnum moss mixed with that wonderful, rich, loamy, peaty aroma. The sunlight pierced the canopy with spears of golden light, impaling the shy bluebells and forget-me-nots hiding on the floor of the woods.

Quiet – and with no risk of bears or vampires…

We continue wandering, sowly, drinking in the scents of the woodland. The information board informs me that this is a home to Stag Beetles, Slow Worms, Sparrowhawks, Red Admiral butterflies, Nuthatches and Goldfinches – together with the occassional Roe or Muncjac deer.

We plod on, hand in hand, humbled by the sheer abundance of plants, insects and wildlife.

The Deadwater Sream, slowly meandering its way towards the River Wey…

We see few people on the trail; those that we do are keen to ensure that we all comply with the two metre separation. Sometimes, we yield to walkers coming towards us, standing in the undergrowth so tha they may pass. Natural selection seems to ensure that next time we meet fellow walkers, they hold back for us to pass.

However, the social niceties are maintained, with many “good afternoons”. “please”, “thank you” and “have a good one” as we contine our walk.

The trail isn’t crowded by any means; we are in solitude for most of it – just us, walking, talking, laughing. Soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying nature.

Bluebells carpet the walk – just about everywhere. I love Spring – my favorite season

We continued on, walking generally north until we reached the exit point, where the new housing estate starts.

Not wanting to just return on the same route, we decide to wander through the small town suburbia and re-enter the reserve a little further down.

It’s a relief to leave the road once more, lined as it is, with high density housing, and populated with bus stops, garage blocks and parking bays.

We re-enter the reserve, skirting the sticky muddy morass near the stile, and test the waterproof capabilities of our footwear as we stride on through the silty puddles that surround the more glutinous mud.

Looking at the tracks in the earth, I immediately deduce that the trail is used by mountain bikers, hikers, walkers, children and dogs.

Eat your heart out Sherlock Holmes. Go back to your flat Hercule Poirot.

Whilst the nature reserve isn’t large, we have never visited before, so I was happy that I had a fully paid up account with the Ordnance Survey, and had access to excellent charts.

Using the app, we quickly planned how we would return to the end of the park nearest our home.

Our route back took us past a picturesque pond, which, according to the information board, was home to Toads, Frogs, Herons and Dragonflies.

The pond, basking in the sunshine, as it has done for over 100 years.

Sadly, we didn’t see any of them, but it has given me an excuse to come back again to check it out more regularly.

I would not necessarily have discovered this wonderful place if I hadn’t been on lockdown – so something good has come about as a result of COVID19.

My day today has been filled with catching up on various tasks around the house, so maybe tomorrow I will dig my bike out, and go and explore in a bit more detail.

A great way to do an hours exercise without having to go to the gym, which I find abhorrent at the best of times.

Go Well…

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Aircew Airport aviation Corona Virus COVID 19 Cycling English Culture Exercise Flight HEALTH pilots Society Transport Travel Work

My Loss is My Gain…

I woke up on the 1st of January with mixed feelings. It was the start of a brand new flying year, and I could look forward to lots of aerial fun with the Super Cub, always assuming that the lousy weather would improve. 

However, there was a cloud of a different type on my personal horizon; the dreaded CAA biannual medical that assures the residents of Aviation House at Gatwick that I won’t suddenly collapse at the controls, incapacitated and crash land, demolishing a primary school or even a whole suburb.

I, like many of you, do not enjoy undergoing medicals. I’m not a screaming hypochondriac, neither am I so decrepit that I would automatically fail. It’s just that – well, I don’t like medicals. 

I also suffer from White Coat Syndrome and this has a tendency to elevate my blood pressure to stratospheric levels. In an effort to control my incipient hypertension, I gave up caffeine and reduced my salt intake years ago. 

But, as my long-suffering partner frequently points out (her being an ex-nurse and all), it is a complete waste of effort if I continue to eat the wrong things, and dare I say it – drink beer.

Beer – It’s not just for breakfast…

So, there I lay on New Years morning, considering that ominous red ring on the calendar, the date three months away, upon which I would have to say “Ah” and cough whilst staring skywards.

I had been making some half-hearted attempts at weight control since October when I first accepted that 95kg (209 pounds) was a little too much weight to be carrying around.

So, I came to the conclusion that drastic action was needed. Damn it, I needed to exercise. Back in the day, I had swum competitively. played rugby, and did a lot of cycling. However, these days, my exercise routine seemed to have slipped, and my work out was to play chess by an open window and glug beer.

This wasn’t a particularly constructive programme, so I had to do something more constructive. I decided to pull my old bicycle out of the garage.

Better across the South Downs than the A30 to Heathrow…

It wasn’t looking very well. It, like me, needed some serious attention.

I put it up into the bike stand, and inspected it. It needed new brake pads, a new chain, a new chainring, and a new cassette on the rear wheel.

The next day, all the parts arrived from Amazon, and I spent a happy morning removing the worn components and fitting and adjusting the new ones.

Now I was ready to rock!

My initial effort included a fairly regular cycle ride into work, a distance of some eight miles, coupled with eating salad at lunchtime.  So it was that I coasted into the month of January and for the first week was able to stick to my plan. 

However, the festive season brings forth its temptations, and I had “enjoyed” a few Christmas binges with various corporate departments, friends and eaten shed-loads of inappropriate foods. That, coupled with gorging on one of my Mother’s gargantuan Christmas lunches, a lot of work was needed if I was to get my weight down to the sub 90Kg mark!

Hastily scribbling the figures, I worked out my BMI, and was aghast to realise that it was sitting at 31.5! 

Running the calculation in reverse, I would have to be a shade over six feet to put my weight back into proportion with my height.

It appeared that my target weight would ultimately be 79kg. I wasn’t sure about this. Being so lean may make me look ill, so I decided that I would make 81 kg my target weight.

I mulled this over. There was no way that I could lose almost two stones in three months. As I considered it, I could almost feel my blood pressure ratchet up another notch or two. I decided that I would have to do this in stages.

I would continue with an expanded “self-help” programme before going to see my GP. I know he is a very busy man… and I am also a craven coward, so I embarked upon a tough regime based on a simple formula. 

I would have to eat and drink less, and exercise more. This is an anathema to me, as I love food, and hate most forms of exercise. I exclude playing chess in front of an open window, as this has the benefit of a complete mental workout in the fresh air!

So, on January 2nd I started my revised plan.

I decided that as I liked cycling, I would continue to use my mountain bike for the commute to work – but now on a more regular basis. The first few rides had been quite difficult  – an eight-mile slog to be in work for 0630 in winter conditions are less than fully motivating. 

I stuck with it though, and I am now able to complete the ride in just over 40 minutes. 

Having mastered the psychological barriers to doing anything that actually involves a modicum of physical effort, I decided that I would go one step further – literally. I decided that I would try commuting to work by foot.

This was definitely not one of my better ideas.

The first day I did this was a beautiful, crisp January morning. It was still dark when I left the house at 0515, but with a yellowing moon sneaking along just above the horizon, it was quite pleasant. I cracked along at a reasonable pace and managed to cover the 8 miles in just over two hours, ready for a 0730 start. I felt quite exhilarated as I walked into the office, still damp from the shower, still puffing from the effort.

Exhilarated wasn’t quite how I would summarise my feelings when I left the office at 1530, for the walk home. It took forever, (well, two hours and twenty-five minutes to be exact!) and by the time I got home, my left foot was on fire, and my lower back felt like it had been run over by a 747 freighter. 

The blisters took about a week to heal, during which time I cycled very gently back and forth. 

The scales testified to the efficiency of this programme, and I had got my weight down to about 88kg

However, I came to realise that my faithful Marin Alpine Trail full suspension mountain bike was not the ideal machine to cycle to work on – knobbly tyres, and lower gearing made it better suited to the wilds of the South Downs National Park, not the A30 Great South West Road.

I decided to buy a newer bike on the Government’s Cycle to Work Scheme, so I ended up with a flagship state of the art hybrid, with built in lighting, and better wheels and tyres. It was also considerably lighter, and shaved about seven minutes off my commute.

The Cube Delhi Hybrid Commuter. A lovely cycle…

I had now completed stages one and two; my New Year resolution was to moderate my alcohol consumption by two thirds, until my birthday in May. I now enjoy a couple of pints a day at the weekend.

Stage three would be to bring my blood pressure down, which was currently averaging at about 159/100, against the ideal of  140/90.

By mid January, I decided that I had now lost enough weight to show the doctor that I was doing my best to manage my health, so I made an appointment, and sat down in his surgery.

I explained that I was worried about my blood pressure, and told him of my forthcoming medical at Gatwick. I also advised him of my white coat hypertension. I also showed him my blood pressure diary, and after studying it for a few minutes, he scurried to the other side of the office, then advanced rapidly towards me with a tape measure in his hand.

I shrank back in alarm – had my doctor suddenly been overwhelmed with the urge to do a quick bit of DIY whilst I was sitting in the consulting room? Was he about to measure me up for my coffin?

My fears were misguided, and he proceeded to measure the circumference of my upper arm. He squinted at the measure, and pronounced that I was a 34cm – so needed a large cuff.  

He went on to explain that most home blood pressure monitors (or sphygmonometers) come with a standard sized cuff, and that I was on the borderline of needing the next size up. He expanded on this, saying that using a cuff that was too small could result in erroneously high readings. 

My blood pressure fell dramatically – not by diet, but by using a larger cuff. I now have a six foot cuff on order…

He checked my pressure with the larger cuff, and the result was much lower than I was expecting – a mere 132/110!

After a discussion about my weight loss programme, and other factors, we agreed on a further course of action – I would be fitted with an Ambulatory Blood Pressure Monitor for a 24 hour period.

Having been told this, I rang my Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) or Flight Surgeon and explained the situation to him in full. He seemed quite relaxed about it, and told me not to worry, and come and see him for the dreaded class two medical in three weeks time.

The only thing they don’t ask is inside leg measurement…

So, I duly drove down to Gatwick, leaving myself plenty of time for my imbecilic-driver induced hypertension to reduce to less stratospheric levels, and went in for the medical.

I have known Dr Maddison for several years, and after conducting my medical, together with the mandated 12 lead Electro-Cardio Gram (ECG) he issued me my class two but requested a copy of the results of my Ambulatory 24-hour monitoring test. He seemed quite satisfied that I was taking control, and that the meds that I had been prescribed wouldn’t cause me to auger into a shopping mall or nuclear power station, so I was good to go.

A Normal ECG readout – just what a pilot needs!

To supplement my new exercise regime, I substituted breakfast every day for a nice, healthy smoothie.

My favourite, if it can be called that, is made with cherries, chocolate protein powder, almond milk, almond paste, peaches and seeds. Once whizzed up in the Nutri-Bullet, it looks like pond sludge but tastes quite reasonable.

Looks like I’ve murdered Kermit, but it does taste OK…

It does bulk me out, so I can last easily until lunch time before I need feeding..

Now, people imagine that being a flight instructor is a somewhat sedentary occupation, like an office worker. Let me put you straight folks.

The simulator in which I conduct my training is the furthest from the offices and is a 500-metre walk to the far end of the hangar building. I normally conduct two simulator sessions per day – two kilometres walking! The journey also involves climbing and descending four flight of stairs.

The other aspect of my free workout at work, is that of coffee.

Whilst there are vending machines near my work area they are of the ingredients-in-a-cup design, and quite frankly a pair of old socks stewed in used bathwater would probably taste better.

Convenient as a last resort…

So, when the need for caffeine hits, I walk to the nest building, 200 metres away, to use the staff canteen.

The exercise benefit here, is that it sits on the ninth floor. Rather than take one of the three lifts servicing this building, I use the emergency stairs, and climb 9 stories. I unwind the spring by walking back down.

I make this trip three times a day; first coffee a standard filter coffee in a thermos jug at about 0700. Then, elevenses. Normally the excuse that Brits wheel out whenever they fancy a cuppa and either a biscuit or a slice of cake. As soon as eleven o’clock approaches, desks empty, phone calls terminated and a mini exodus heads for the canteen.

I usually opt for a “posh coffee” – either a speciality coffee from the bean-to-cup machine, or if I am feeling particularly profligate, I have a medium white Americano from the Starbucks implant in the canteen.

Lastly, I normally come here again at lunch time to be sociable – another 8 flights climbed!

24 flights climbed a day.

So, here we are, with enforced inactivity as a result of COVID 19. The results of the new laws on self-isolation and social distancing make it very difficult to remain fit.

I am legally entitled to take exercise once a day out of the house, but I am not allowed to drive to a venue to exercise. So, I walk a mile or so or cycle around the military ranges not far from my home.

My exercise area is also used as a military exercise area. Except they use tanks…

I do have activities that stop me from becoming too bored – a multitude of Honey-dos. So far, I have managed to clear my woodshed so that I can start chain-sawing wood for next winter; I have pressure cleaned the terrace, and swapped the winter tyres on the car for the standard summer ones.

I have just been furloughed, so I now have some extra time to get ahead of the chores curve and maintain physical activity.

So in the next couple of days, I will finish pressure cleaning the paths in the garden, mow the grass, and tackle the small jungle that I have called a compost heap. I must get the strimmer (Weed-Whacker/Brush Cutter) out of retirement.

I will also dig over my vegetable plots. Maybe lay out a small nature reserve, and plant it with wild flowers, and old logs as a habitat for insects and hedgehogs.

Wash the windows. Thats a pane…

The list goes on…

However, a few minutes ago, a good friend of mine WhatsApp’ed me to invite me for a virtual beer, and it would be rude to refuse.

So, I am relaxing before the call – watching two pigeons attempting to eat from a bird feeder designed to support finches and tits. It a bit like watching a C-130J Hercules attempting to land on a strip designed for Tiger Moths.

In between trying to stuff their avian faces, they are also both harassing a female pigeon (at least – I hope it is female!) for favours. She appears to be totally underwhelmed by their advances, so when they are not eating they are waddling round the garden after her.

It seems so sickeningly familiar…

So – I am hoping that I may continue to carry on being active in spite of the strictures of COVID 19.

Maybe even shed a few more kilos?

Go Well…