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Flight Operations and Steam Punk Hats

A few days ago, I decided to have a clear up of my home office. Not an especially huge task, as the office isn’t especially huge. Being a writer and pilot, my office has been filled over the years with books. Lots of books. There are many technical ones related to the science of aviation; books on meteorology, aerodynamics, instructional techniques, instrument flight, and aircraft systems. I also have books on human factors, crew resource management, psychology, and airline economics.

Books. Books. More Books.

The shelves are further filled with books on aviation warfare, history, and fiction covering a wide variety of subjects from science fiction to comedy.

The tops of the overcrowded bookcases are laden with aviation related objects that have sentimental attachment for me, such as the very large model of an American Airlines 767, presented to me when I was Special Services Manager for the Company at Stansted airport.

Tools of the Trade…

There is the large-scale model of Concorde, which I bought when the Queen of the Skies was retired in October 2003. The vintage Sailplane barograph, the steam-punk top hat.

Steampunk top hat? 

Well. That’s it. Bang goes my credibility. The Duke in Wyrd Sisters.

Yes, you did read that correctly. I’ve been involved in amateur dramatics for virtually all of my adult life, taking many roles from an Ugly Sister in the pantomime Cinderella, to Billy Liar, and more recently the Duke in Wyrd Sisters, Terry Pratchett’s adaption of Macbeth.  The play was further adapted by our Producer, and all costumes were steam punk, hence, the steam punk top hat.

I digress.

Amongst the variegated items of aviation clutter, I came across a small figurine, a dumpy little effigy of a schoolmaster, complete with a mortar board and cane.

Any comments that it resembles me will be deleted!

I smiled, as I was instantly catapulted back about 25 years, back to the time in which I was lecturing in Aviation Studies at East Surrey College, in Redhill, UK.

The little figurine had been shyly presented to me by a member of my class, on the final lecture prior to the end of course exams – in this case the City and Guilds technical examinations in Flight Operations and Despatch, which included modules on fuel planning, flight planning, aircraft performance and load and balance.

The students in my class that year were an eclectic bunch. Two cabin attendants, Jo and Abby, three check in agents, one aircraft engineer, a ticketing agent, a flight operations agent from a ground handling agent, all in their early thirties.

Then there was Bill.

Bill must have been in his late fifties, and collected baggage trolleys at Gatwick airport, a job that he had done for years.

Due to the relatively intense and practical nature of the course, student numbers were limited to ten, so prior to the course, I would go through the student application forms and weed out those that didn’t have the academic qualifications or vocational experience to do the course. I made a point of having a private chat with every student, to discover their motivations, aspirations, and prior experience. Almost every one of them were doing it for promotional or career advancement.

Except Bill.

Bill quietly explained to me that he woke up one morning, and realised that he had done nothing with his life, was in a dead-end job, and at his age had no hope of doing anything better. He loved aeroplanes, and when he saw the course advertised, he applied.

He looked me in the eye, and said “I know I’m probably not good enough to get through the course, Mister Charlwood, but I would like to give it a go, if you would be willing to accept me onto the course.”

When I reviewed the applications earlier, I had read his submission, and his simple request to “give it a go”.

I had already decided that I would enrol him into my class, and would review his progress at the end of the first term.

“OK Bill,” I smiled, “Let’s see how you get on. You’re in!”

He gave me a weak smile, and thanked me profusely.

So, there we were, a few weeks later, on the first session of the 32-week course. and the room was filled with the happy buzz of expectant chatter. I looked round the class. Nine. I only had nine students. Everyone was present except Bill.

I was filled with disappointment. He had seemed so keen, but had obviously got cold feet, and decided not to attend.

I was just commencing the introduction to the course, when the door opened, and Bill appeared.

“I am so sorry I’m Late Mr. Charlwood, I got held up leaving work”

“Not a problem, Bill, take a seat, you’ve missed nothing so far. And it’s Mark, not Mr. Charlwood”

He quietly made his way to the back seats, sitting as far away as possible from the other members of the class, and pulled a notebook from a battered rucksack.

I continued with my introduction, and it wasn’t long before we were exploring the fundamentals of Flight Operations, and the basics of the multitude of things that must be done correctly and efficiently in order for just one aeroplane to take flight.

Over the weeks, I came to know and respect my class, and to enjoy their company. They came to enjoy my bad jokes and my irreverent approach to academia.

Judy, the flight operations agent was a real live wire, and having a lot of practical knowledge had already started the course with an advantage. Curious, and with a blunt approach and a sharp sense of humour, she was already showing a good understanding, but sometimes had trouble combining academic requirements with the practical exercises.

Airline flight planning and despatch was conducted predominantly with computers and there was little requirement for manually planning a flight, and I think she found learning the secrets of what the computer did in the background a bit challenging.

On the other hand, she would often ask deep questions related to why her company’s flight planning and despatch system did not precisely follow the ICAO rules or CAA requirements. This sometimes led to me doing significant amounts of digging and the calling in of numerous favours from friends and contacts across the airline.

My course required that students could completely plan a flight without the use of a computer, so I was teaching the manual way of doing everything, and this did cause a few problems for all of the class from time to time.

The weeks flew past, and everyone was making good progress, and seemed to be enjoying themselves (as I was) and nobody had dropped out. I hadn’t had to flunk anyone either, so a win-win all round. I considered this a good sign.

On the final lecture of the first term, I had set a mock exam, which was very similar to the final exam. Everyone trooped in, and there was a glum atmosphere. None of the usual light-hearted banter.

I placed a paper on each student’s desk, and gave them their instructions. I had given them an hour to complete the paper, and then they could go a grab a coffee from the cafeteria, and I would quickly mark the papers, and give them their marks and a feedback session in the second hour. I would also give them some reading to do over the half term break, and brief them on the subjects to be covered in the next term.

The room fell totally silent, and I reclined my chair, and propped my feet up on the up-turned waste bin, observing the bent heads, listening to the scratching of pencils on paper.

Jo was chewing the end of her pencil as a dog would gnaw on a bone, and Abby was writing rapidly, silently dictating her words as she wrote. Everyone was concentrating and I wondered how they would get on. One of the guys from check-in was gazing at the ceiling with rapt attention, and the other was staring out of the window. Bill was head down, writing. The aircraft engineer had phoned in sick, and the reservations agent was on a late shift. These guys could do the paper at home, and send it back to me for marking.

It was no surprise to me that Judy finished first, with fifteen minutes to go. She dropped her paper on my desk, blew me a kiss, and made her way silently from the room.

“Fifteen minutes left” I announced, and picked up her paper to review it.

I swiftly marked it. 85%. Not a bad mark, but silly mistakes. Failing to read the question is a common problem. Also, maybe a bit of rushing involved? Inaccuracies in interpreting a meteorological forecast may seem minor at college, but in real-world operations, lack of attention to detail in such things could lead to a flight encountering dangerous conditions.

At my five-minute call, the rest of the class quietly placed their completed papers on my desk, and left the room.

All except Bill, who was still head down, writing.

“Times Up” I called softly, and Bill handed me his paper, and he too silently left the room.

Opening my thermos, I poured myself a large coffee, and steadily marked the papers. I was pleased, as everyone had hit at least 80%.

Except Bill.

Bill had scored 100% in his first test.

Fifteen minutes later, the class filed back in, this time chatting animatedly, flushed with post-test relief.

I leaned back in my chair, and informed them that they could all congratulate themselves, as everyone had achieved far more than the required 75%, and read them their marks.

I think that Judy was a little shocked that she had been beaten into second place – but not as shocked as Bill was, when he realised that he was the top of the class.

The UK CAA Specimen Performance Tables. Modern instruments of torture.

At the end of the class, I wished them all well, and told them to go away and enjoy the half term – a fortnight of not having to listen to me drone on about the black arts of meteorology or the selection of cruising flight levels. I warned them that the next term would be equally challenging, as we would be happily delving into the joys of fuel planning.

I was touched that each one of them came by my desk, and thanked me.


Except Bill.


He was still slowly packing his books into his rucksack. I strolled over to his desk.

I grinned, and said “So, Bill, it looks like you have done very well this term. I trust that I will see you in a fortnight?”

“Mr. Charlwood” He began.

“It’s Mark”

“You will always be Mr. Charlwood to me” he said quietly. “I can’t believe that I am still here. I never dreamt that I could do this. It’s been so fascinating. I will be back”

He diffidently proffered his hand, which I shook warmly.

Over the following terms, every individual confronted their own impenetrable problems. Abby had a blind spot about load and balance, Jo finally understood the difference between track and heading, and Judy had really struggled with calculating some aspects of aircraft performance.

An ICAO Drop sheet for calculating aircraft weight and balance – a DC-10 in this case.

Over the years, I have always tried to create an environment where students feel encouraged to challenge, question and share their own experiences. Within the first two classes, the ice had been broken and the students had become a group of friends, who would happily ask questions, and get involved.

Except Bill.

Bill had developed slowly over the course. Initially, he rarely put his hand up, either to ask a question, or to answer one. By the middle of the third term he was a regular contributor to the course, and showed that he had good understanding of the topics.

In the last four weeks before the exam, I had conducted revision sessions, with some mock exams, and I was happy to see that all of the class had a reasonably good chance of passing the exam, and most would get at least 80% and be awarded a pass with credit.

Except Bill.

Bill’s marks were excellent.  He had made virtually a clean sweep in my mock exams with an average mark of 96% – enough for a Distinction.

So, provided that none of them had a serious problem, I calculated that my class would get 2 Distinctions, 6 Credits and 2 Passes. Not a bad score.

I gave the class their marks, together with some individual feedback on how they could improve, and told them that the next time I would see them would be on the day of the exam.

We then mutually decided that a trip to the Flying Scud would be in order, and the end of term celebration was a happy occasion.

Exam day finally arrived, a bright, sunny June morning, so wishing them good luck, I watched them troop into the exam room, and then wandered out to sit on the bench outside to catch up on my book, and enjoy a coffee.

One by one they came out, each one looking relieved. I asked every one of them how they felt they did, and did they feel that they were adequately prepared. I felt very relieved when they all said yes to my last question!

8 weeks later, I dropped by the college in order to open the securely sealed envelope containing their marks. I would have the pleasure of calling each one of them before sending the slips out.

It seemed that my prediction was wrong. 8 Credits and 2 Distinctions!

After making the phone calls, I smiled to myself.

I had got my students through a pretty tough course; sometimes gritting my teeth in frustration as they stumbled through the science of meteorology, or the witchcraft known as scheduled performance. The look on a confused face when understanding was finally achieved.

I was proud of all of my class. They had all done very well, and would make good progress in their chosen careers.

Except for Bill.

I regarded Bill as my true success story. He was the hero of my class, as he came onto the course with virtually no hope, and had already consigned himself to the scrap heap. I still have the hand-written letter that he sent me, thanking me for getting him through the course, and telling me that I had inspired him!

If only he knew.

It was Bill that presented me with that little figurine of a portly, moustachioed teacher – nothing like me I assure you. I heard from Bill a few years later, and he had got himself a job in Flight Operations and had reinvented himself completely.

Oh, and in the two years that I worked with him, I never did manage to break him of the habit of calling me Mister Charlwood.

So, now, I had better get back to the original task of tidying the office, which I interrupted to write this.

Now, where did I put that duster?

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Coronavirus – The Catalyst for Global Change?

Unless you have been living on the Cook Islands for the last few months, you will have heard of Corona Virus, now known as COVID 19.

The virus is officially a global pandemic, and is now rampaging across every continent, leaving a trail of dead.

Here in the United Kingdom, we are in a state of national emergency, and state-sanctioned lockdown is in effect, with only absolutley essential journeys authorised. All retail shops except those selling essential supplies such as food, maedicines and perhaps bizzarely, alcohol are closed.

The London Underground has shut stations across its network, and passengers figures are plummeting.

Stations shut as a result of Coronavirus

Working at home has been the norm for many workers. As a result, the economy is in freefall, with the retail and hospitality sectors being worst hit. Clubs, pubs, cinemas, churches, sports centres, museums and public buildings are now all closed for the immediate future.

The aviation and maritime sectors have been quick to feel the impact of travel restrictions, and many airports are struggling as flights have become virtually non-existent, passenger traffic stagnated, and many airlines now trying to mitigate their losses by flying freight.

Flight Radar 24 – Screenshot showing flights in South East England. This was taken mid morning on the 13th April 2020. This airspace would normally be teeming with traffic, given that this is a Public Holiday in the UK.

Whilst the global shutdown is severely damaging both our manufacturing and financial economies, we are reaping some form of benefit; pollution levels have dropped across the planet, and air quality is improving.

Imagery from the Copernicus Programme’s Sentinel 5P satellite. The left hand image shows Nitrous Oxide pollution over France and Italy. Darker Red is higher levels of pollution. The right hand image shows how the levels and extent have reduced throughout the month of March 2020

It’s not just transport that contributes to atmospheric pollution – industrial and manufacturing activities have fallen across the UK and Europe as countries shutdown their economies to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

This shows that it is possible to stop climate change, but the societal costs are far too high to make this acceptable.

I do believe that when the virus is contained or burnt out, we will emerge from lockdown and social distancing as a changed society.

So, what may happen?

Many firms that up until recently were resistant to their employees working remotely will have seen that some of their “trust issues” have been proved to be unfounded and that staff have been as productive, if not more productive that when working at the office.

Bearing in mind the cost of office space, many companies may find the savings realised by using smaller premises make remote working desirable.

After a major pandemic such as this one, people may be far more cautious about personal hygeine, and become much more concerned to see that public areas are properly sanitised. This could have an effect on the practice of hot desking at work.

The travelling public will probably also need to see evidence that public transport is cleaned and sanitised far more regulalrly and effectively than currently.

The lack of public trust in the health security of public transport could trigger more car use, as people seek to protect themselves with more regularised self isolating. Even car sharing could become less popular as people choose not ot sit in close proximity with another individual on their commute.

Who can really say?

If thousands more people take up remote working, there may well be more economic pain ahead for public transport operators.

Railway and air journeys that used to be undertaken for business meetings may well now be conducted using video conferencing using internet platforms such as Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams.

Will our current level of communications network provision be sufficient to accommodate this?

Individuals that were reluctant to order shopping on-line, or use home delivery services prior to COVID 19 have now been using them out of necessity, and many of these people will now be sold on the advantages, leading to further decline of England’s high streets.

Individuals that were previously regular patrons of theatre and cinema will have become adept at streaming movies and watching “live” performances from the comfort of their own homes, using YouTube, Netflix or Amazon Prime.

The question is – will they return to the cinemas and thatres with quite the same degree of regularity as they did before?

It seems that the mainstream media have been focusing on the leisure and retail industries and whilst they do report on the struggle for our manufacturing industries, they do not highlight the underlying problems.

In the UK there is evidence that our contingency planning for a “Hard Brexit” triggered our government to closely examine our logisitcal supply chains with the involvement of the retail and distirbution industries, and this has surely helped ensure that truly essential items remained on the supermarket shelves, despite the media-induced panic buying.

The other aspect to this is the lack of resilience that our manufacturers have against supply chain failures.

Whilst numerous products are proudly made here in the UK, few are totally built here. Huge numbers of manufacturers import sub-assemblies, parts and components from overseas which are used to build their product.

The world’s biggest exporter, China, is, to all intents and purposes, the birthplace of COVID19, and also its primary exporter. The subsequent lockdown of the Chinese economy led to an abundance of British manufacturers struggling to obtain the raw materials, parts, components and sub-components needed to build and sell their own products..

This may result in a baseline realignment of our logisitical networks, and maybe re-initiate inward investment.

Who knows, we may see a slow transformation back into a manufacturing economy again.

This is a bit of a mixed bag then; at more localised levels the possible resulting drop in bus and train usage could lead to more cars on the road, each contributing to climate change. On the other hand, more people at home reduces traffic of any kind on the roads.

There are so many possible futures that could result from the aftermath of CV19, which only action at government level can establish.

This could be a great opportunity for each state to re-evaluate its’s strategies for handling pandemics, and may trigger new systems to increase the robustness of manufacturing bases.

Who knows, it may even give us the required impetus to design an improved model for society that will offer progress on controlling our nemesis of irreversible climate change.

Go Well…

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this is why you need a good technical author…

Writing a procedure is simple is it?

Technical authorship isn’t all about writing the prose that is needed in a document.

Regardless of the type of document being produced, a good technical author will work alongside the client to ensure that they fully understand the exact process or policy before even putting pen to paper, or more correctly, finger to keyboard.

This may involve the writer in accurately observing a process, and then encapsulating the required steps in a simply-worded procedure.

In some cases, it may be quite challenging to articulate a process, particularly if it is a particularly complex operation, but that is where a skilled writer can help.

Your technical author must be highly observant, inquisitive, and have the ability to write a document in the language of the intended reader.

The instruction manual for a domestic internet CCTV must be written in an uncomplicated fashion, bearing in mind that the user will not necessarily have any technical ability.

I have read some astonishingly awful documents supplied with various pieces of equipment that I have bought in the past. Some could be excused, as they were supporting items made in China and the far east, and the English used was so woefully inadequate that simple procedures were full of ambiguities.

However, some were for UK manufactured items, where it seems that a well built and nicely designed item was compromised by asking Betty in the sales department and Dominic in engineering to write the instruction manual.

A qualified technical and commercial writer can work with you to ensure that your process for making Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches is right first time!

Go Well…

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radio failure, hot texas desert and bubblegum

The Texas skies were cerulean blue, and the sun was already blazing in the sky, despite it being only 0830. I was sitting in Dobbs Restaurant in the airport terminal at Fort Worth (Meacham) Airport.

Fort Worth Meacham – Also a Nuclear Bunker!

Breakfast was two cheesy hot dogs, with a side of fries and limitless coffees – all served by Jolene. Yes, I really have known a Jolene, but this lady did not have flaming locks of auburn hair, but a well kept blonde bob cut. Always cheerful, she mothered her “boys” as she referred to us student pilots – whether we were 30 or 70!

I nodded a good morning to Ralph, the helicopter instructor, and was rewarded with a grin.

Ralph was not overly talkative. His tanned face, silver crew cut and the numerous scars on his arms and throat bore mute testament to his previous career in the US military.

He brought his coffee and waffles to the next table, and sat down.

“Morning Ralph” I said, “How’s things?”

“I’m here” was his reply.

Situation normal then.

I had lost ten dollars to Ralph the previous Friday during his regular “Helo Challenge”

Each Friday at about three in the afternoon, Ralph would place four standard road cones on a 30-metre square area of the ramp. He would then invite anyone present to take the challenge. His challenge was that you had to hold the helicopter within the four cones for 60 seconds. He even made it “easy” by controlling the power and height. All the challenger had to do was use one control.

If you won the challenge, he would give a one hour lesson in the helicopter for free.

If you lost, then he kept the ten dollars, and you enjoyed yourself.

Easy right?

So last Friday, I was finished with lessons by noon, and so I had a leisurely lunch at Dobbs, and then sought out Ralph so that I could do the challenge.

A small crowd of students and instructors had gathered to watch, leaning on the chain-link fence. We slowly walked out to the Bell 47 helicopter – Ralph in his old olive drab flight suit, and me in tee shirt and shorts.

The truly iconic Bell 47 helicopter. Flying it is like being a one-armed soot juggler.

Climbing aboard, he explained the controls to me. I was to look after the cyclic. This is the main control column, and is used to steer the helicopter in its lateral sense. Basically, push forward to go forwards, push left to turn left, and pull back to go in reverse.

The collective control and throttle were located between the seats. Pulling the lever up, and twisting the throttle causes the power to increase, and the helicopter to climb.

Ralph would control the rudder pedals – so all I had to do as the helicopter climbed was keep it in between the four cones.

Having been briefed, I knew that I could nail this.

The power came on, and the cabin shook slightly as the surly bonds with earth were cut, and the helicopter rose majestically to about twenty feet.

Looking across at me, he grinned.

“Okay Son”, he said, “You Have it”

“I have it” I responded.

I gripped the cyclic and felt his hold relax. We started drifting left, so I eased the control right.

The infernal machine then leapt to the right like a cricket, and I almost went outside the boundary. I immediately moved the control to the left, and we lurched sickeningly to port, at a rapid rate.

I felt, rather than saw Ralph pull up on the collective, adding power as he did so. The helicopter darted upwards to a safe height.

“Easy son”, he murmured, “Treat her like a woman – Y’all gotta be gentle…”

I continued to wrestle with the machine, but in due course, we skittered out of the defined area, and I had lost the challenge.

“Ah have control,” he said, and he swiftly recentred us in the area. Just for good measure, he made that damn aircraft pirouette, dip and bow.

After we landed, we walked back to Dobbs, and I slapped a ten-dollar bill into his hand.

Folding it swiftly, he tucked it into a breast pocket of his flying suit.

He gave me a penetrating look, jammed a cigar in his mouth and lit up. “Thanks, Son. Now Y’all go and have a nice day”

I had then proceeded to have a very enjoyable weekend with my room-mate, Tomas.

Tomas was Portuguese, and had rented a condo locally, and had bought a car. He was in the middle of a full airline transport pilot course, and he would be living in the US for another few months.

He had advertised for an English roommate as he wanted to practice English as the English speak it, and we hit it off immediately falling into a happy and relaxed friendship.

Having been here for a while, Tomas knew the best places for good beers and good food, and we hit the local bars in downtown Fort Worth, around the Stockyards.

Our late evening visit to Billy Bob’s and my slightly inebriated (well – fully inebriated) state resulted in me being thrown off the indoor bucking bronco and consuming a great number of beers.

Filthy McNasty’s was also a bar we frequented when we visited the Stockyards and is it was at these venues where I probably developed my love of country music.

However, the weekend was now history, and I was looking forward to getting some air under my arse again, so here I was…

I finished eating and concentrated on the task at hand. On the table in front of me was a sectional chart of the Dallas Fort Worth area, upon which was my planned route. This was the biggie. I had completed my qualifying cross country a few days before, and this was a consolidation flight.

Fort Worth-Meacham Airfield – Just west of Dallas, and right next to Carswell Air Force Base, Home of B-52 Bombers.

There on the chart was the simple black pencil line describing my route to Midland Odessa Airport in West Texas, routing via Mineral Wells, Stephens County, Abilene and Big Spring. About 250 nautical miles, and about two and a half hours flying time.

A fairly simple straight line flight? Maybe…

Maybe not.

A considerable portion of the flight would be flying over the Texas badlands – desert with no real navigational features. The landscape littered by “nodding donkey” oil rigs, and tumbleweed.

A bit of a hostile environment for a student pilot with a total of only 30.8 hours in his logbook.

My first flying logbook. I am now working on filling up my seventh…

It was June 19th 1991, and I had been here for 26 days, fulfilling my life ambition of learning to fly.

After almost a month of living in the USA, I was now virtually a native and could shop in the local mall without adult supervision, and order beers without help in the local saloons.

Shiner Bock – the local brew of choice.

Now, not many people would consider taking a six-week break in Texas, as there are not a lot of attractions to pull in the average tourist. Lots of research had revealed that this was a very cost-effective place to learn to fly.

The Dollar – Pound Exchange rate was two to one, and aircraft rental was insanely cheap. Combined with the consistently good weather in Texas during the spring and early summer, I could probably come home with a pilot licence.

I was making good solid progress and my instructor had built steadily on my previous gliding experience, and as a result, I had soloed in just 8 hours.

My first solo was a bit of an event in itself. Fort Worth Alliance Field has two parallel runways, each 3353 metres long, and 46 metres wide. I had flown there under supervision that morning and did a reasonable join, flew a standard circuit, and landed without either bending the aeroplane or compressing my spine.

Bill appeared happy with my performance, as he asked me to park the aircraft but not shut it down.

I did as he said, and as soon as we had come to a stop, he was out of the cockpit like a jackrabbit, yelling to me that I should do three circuits, land, take off and then come and pick him up.

I didn’t have time to be nervous; With a dry mouth and only slightly trembling hands and sweaty palms, I taxied back to the holding point.

Air Traffic laconically cleared me to “Take the Active” and I swung out, over the numbers and the piano keys, and gently came to a stop on the centreline.

The runway disappeared into the heat shimmer, and my heart was pounding in my chest.

“Cessna 714 Hotel November, Clear Take Off, Runway 34 Right, wind is 320 at 5 knots”

“714 Hotel November rolling” I croaked, pushing the throttle fully forward.

The little Cessna 150 leapt forwards – alarmingly quickly without Bill’s six foot two frame in it.

I eased back on the yoke, and the ground fell rapidly away, and I settled the aircraft into a gentle climb. Why was my mouth so goddam dry?

I turned gently into the pattern, The view was simply marvellous without Bills not unsubstantial bulk in the way.

The crazy thing was that as I was levelling off and turning into the circuit, I could still see the runway stretching away in front of me. Looking down, I could see an American Airlines 767 taxing out to the other runway – a weird omen, as I was to start working for the mighty American from Heathrow once I returned from Texas to the UK.

I duly completed my three circuits, and Bill appeared to be happy with my airmanship. My cheeks were aching, and it took me a second to realise that I had been smiling solidly for a whole half hour!

Not many student pilots get to share the pattern with heavy commercial jets, and the local area was packed with B-52 bombers operating out of Carswell Air Force base, so a good learning environment.

On my return to Meacham Field, I underwent the obligatory ceremony following my announcement that I had soloed. Instructors, fellow students, and the salesgirl form the Longhorn Pilot Shop all helped to cut the back out of my tee-shirt, and write the date and my name on it whereupon it was pinned to the ceiling with countless others.

So here I was about to launch off on another epic voyage of discovery.

My aircraft was booked for 1100, so I kicked back for a while with some of the other students and watched the shool aircraft plod dutifully around the circuit.

Eventually, the time came, and I wandered to the operations desk to book out my aeroplane.

By a strange quirk of fate, the aeroplane allocated to me was N714HH, the identical sister to the aeroplane in which I soloed. Good Omen!

Or so I thought…

Cessna N714HH – An Honest Airplane that Looked After me on my FIrst Solo.

I signed for the aircraft and walked out to do my preflight. Bill had already checked and authorised my flight plan and was happy that my calculations and headings and my fuel planning were all correct, so it was just a simple matter of flying the route.

Swiftly completing the external inspection, I jumped aboard and rapidly conducted the pre-start checklist. The engine started at the first turn of the key, and I called Meacham ground for taxi permission.

It wasn’t long until I was sitting on the end of Meacham’s Runway 34, its 2287 metres of concrete baking in the sunshine.

Cleared for take-off, I opened the throttle and a few seconds later I was climbing out with a gentle left turn to pick up the westerly heading that would take me to Mineral Wells, and then onwards to Abilene.

The aircraft bucked about in the low air turbulence, but once I climbed above 3000 feet things settled down a bit, and I began to enjoy the flight.

Just over twenty minutes later, Mineral Wells appeared out of the scrub, and I checked off the waypoint on my flight log.

An hour and six minutes later, I landed safely at Abilene and taxied up to the parking. I needed a pee and to check the fuel levels.

After servicing the aircraft and attending to my bladder overfull warning light, I called Air Traffic and requested permission to taxi. The response from the tower was very scratchy and almost inaudible. I had to repeat my request and readback several times before I was happy that I was authorised to move.

I should have recognised the early indications that all was not well. Nowadays, with the benefit of hundreds of hours of flying experience behind me, I would have checked and resolved the problem before getting airborne.

Not back then with so few hours.

So, I happily launched into the bright blue yonder, climbing up to a comfortable altitude. The sky was bright blue, and hurt my eyes, despite wearing my green aviator sunglasses. The desert scrub below was a myriad of browns and ochres, with washed-out looking vegetation.

The radio was quiet, but not unexpectedly so, as this was a bit of a remote area. Basically, there was no one out here to talk to.

Eventually, I could see Midland Air Park just ahead, so I selected their VHF radio frequency and gave them a call.

“Midland this is Cessna November Seven One Four Hotel Hotel inbound to you with information Golf, request altimeter and airfield traffic”

Static filled my headphones, but I gave them two minutes, then tried again, repeating the call.

Again, no answer. I began to have misgivings. I would have to land without a radio.

My God! I had read about this, but never done it.

I dialled 7600 into my transponder so that ground radar would know I had no radio and then flew cautiously into the pattern. I made blind calls but received no response.

I scanned the sky for other aircraft, but the circuit pattern was empty. Peering down at the ground, I could see no aircraft moving around, I decided that it was safe, so I continued with my approach, and landed safely.

I taxied up to the deserted Terminal, and shut the engine down,

Climbing out, I could see the place was deserted. Being a Wednesday afternoon, I could understand the lack of aircraft.

I wandered around and eventually spotted a guy in overalls working on a car outside a semi-derelict hangar.

I explained that I had a problem with my radio, but he was unable to help; there were no engineers around, and he was only there to work on his car.

I considered my predicament. I had tried repeatedly to get the radio to work. I had re-set the circuit breakers, and checked the security of the antenna. Nothing seemed to solve the problem.

The trouble was that without obtaining a radio clearance, I would be unable to enter the controlled airspace surrounding Abilene. This meant that my pre-planned and direct routing back to Meacham would not be available.

Under FAA regulations, as a student pilot, my instructor has to authorise each solo flight.

I called Bill at Meacham from the payphone in the pilot lounge. I explained what had happened, and he told me to plan a new flight and submit it to him over the fax.

I had already replanned, and I would follow the Santa Fe Railroad Northeast as far as Sweetwater, and then dog leg further North to avoid Abilene’s airspace. I would then continue east via Mineral Wells, and recover back to Meacham Field.

It was late afternoon as I departed Midland Air Park, and from 3,000 feet I soon spotted the railroad track, and dutifully followed it, watching the lengthening shadows as they crawled across the landscape below.

I slowly passed a freight train, which seemed to be a mile long. It took me a good few minutes to overtake it.

I was getting mentally tired by now, and the gloom was now chasing me. I had not undergone any training for flying at night, and whilst it was crystal clear, I had read that perception during landing can be distorted considerably.

I was now starting to wish fervently that I was on the ground, as it was now dusk.

I could see Mineral Wells coming up, and I made the decision that I was not prepared to fly onwards to Meacham, a further 35 miles away. The decision made, I felt much better, and re-focused on the task at hand, to land without breaking the aeroplane.

I made my landing safely, still making the required blind radio calls.

I shut down and using the payphone, I called Bill to let him know where I was. He agreed with my decision to divert, and arranged for another instructor to fly out to pick me up.

About 40 minutes later, I saw the lights of an approaching aircraft, which landed and swiftly taxied over to where I was parked.

Teri, one of the instructors got out, and came over to me, as the other aircraft backtracked and took off heading east.

“What’s the problem dude?” She asked me.

I explained the scratchy radio at Abilene and the actions that I had taken to resolve the issue.

She thoughtfully chewed her gum, then blew an expert bubble, which expanded to an obscene size and then popped.

Leaning into the cockpit, she turned the master switch on and switched the radio master on. Sure enough, there was nothing but static.

Reaching under the instrument panel, she pulled both of jack plugs connecting my headset and microphone out, and then pushed them back into the sockets.

The Cessna 150 instrument panel.

Trying the radio again resulted in clear sounds.

I felt hugely foolish.

“I’m sorry to have dragged you out here – I could have done that”

“Uh-huh” she replied. “At least you can log another 30 minutes dual night flying – look on the bright side”

I flew us back in near silence, still feeling that I had been a bit of an idiot.

Teri obviously sensed this, as she slapped my right thigh, saying “Dude, Y’alls instructor should have suggested this, as it’s happened before!”

The lights of Meacham were now sliding under the nose towards us. Happily, I didn’t make too bad a landing for my first one at night. Maybe a little harder than I would have liked, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Fort Worth Meacham at night.

So, What did I learn?

I learnt that when a problem occurs, you should check every part of the system, and not assume that pulling circuit breakers, or recycling equipment on and off will be sufficient to resolve the problem.

I also learnt that more experienced people may not always offer the correct advice, as they too may make assumptions that checks that are obvious to them may not be so obvious to anyone else, and therefore won’t have necessarily have been conducted.

Lastly, I learnt that pink bubblegum bubbles that burst can stick long blonde hair very effectively to Dave Clark headsets.

Go Well…

Categories
Comedy English Culture Humour local economy Nostalgia Satire Short Story Society Technology Uncategorized Work

Thumbs up for typewriters? well, maybe not…

This is another modified extract from my forthcoming book, “A Salesman’s Story (Or Don’t Spend the Commission)

In the early 1980s, the cutting edge of office printing machines was an electric typewriter, and I sold many different models, from a simple “sit up and beg” typewriter, right up through the range to the latest electronic machines that offered a single line LED display, a 4,000 character memory and a Daisywheel printer.

Even in the early 1980s, standard electric typewriters still had a market, particularly with solicitors, as the weight of paper used for legal documents presented a problem to the electronic machines, mainly due to the hammer not striking the character hard enough against the paper to place a successful image on the underlying copies.

Now, I should explain here, that the Eagle 800 was built like a tank, and normally printed via fabric ribbons, which were bi-colour, with one half of the ribbon being impregnated with red ink, and the other half with black.

When powered up, a motor would run, which would spin a powered rubber roller. If a key were pressed, the associated type hammer (bearing a cast image of the appropriate character) would press against the spinning roller, and be flung upwards at great speed.  

A simple mechanical link would lift the ribbon carrier to coincide with the type hammer striking the platen, upon which the paper sheet was clamped. The type hammer would then fall back to its rest position.

Now, some of the keys were fitted with a repeat function. For example, the letter “X” key could be held down, and the letter x would be repeatedly typed onto the page, enabling lines of incorrect text to be obliterated from the page.

So, now you know the basics…

As salesmen, we not only had to know the basics, but also had to know every feature, advantage and benefit that each machine in the range was able to offer. To ensure that I had the necessary tools in my sales kit, I was sent to the manufacturers premises in Leicester to attend a product course.

Our instructor, a portly little chap called Richard Scratcher, was explaining the features, advantages and benefits of the Eagle 800 machine.  He was extolling its virtues as a very tough and well-built piece of equipment.

The Triumph Adler/Imperial Model 800 – A true Workhorse of the 1980s office

“Now, I’m going to show you a very powerful sales technique, guaranteed to help you get the sale”. We all gathered close as he fumbled in his trouser pockets, finally producing a penny coin. He held it aloft like some kind of Devine talisman. 

“To show how tough the mechanism is, simply hold the penny against the ribbon guide, and hold down the repeat “X” key, thusly”. So saying and with a very flamboyant flourish, he proffered the penny into the top aperture whilst holding the aforementioned key.

With a noise like a juvenile machine gun, the X type-hammer blurred against the ribbon guide, the carriage advancing at high speed with each impact, stuttering from right to left with a mechanical clatter.  

The demonstration complete, the silence was deafening. He passed the coin amongst us; I was surprised. It was deformed, and deeply embossed with a capital X. 

The theatrical impact of this would be impressive, and I determined to use this approach when I next went to demo an Eagle 800.  

I didn’t have long to wait, and it was two weeks later that I received a call from Mr Rayne of Babbage de Chelwode solicitors in Crowborough. I had met Mr Rayne before when I sold a dictation system to the practice. 

He was a curious individual, a cross between John Lennon, with his long, lank, greasy hair, and Marty Feldman, with his bulging eyes lurking behind large, round glasses. 

He also had a bad habit of suddenly stopping speaking in mid-sentence, and after a variable amount of time would suddenly recommence.  It was like his brain worked slower than his mouth, which had to stop until it had received the next packet of data. It was most disconcerting.

Anyhow, he was looking to upgrade a manual typewriter and had received my letter offering good prices on the Eagle 800.  

So here I was, sitting across the desk from him, in the wonderful old Jacobean room that served as his office.

“Now, you see, we have legal engrossment paper here, Judi………………”

I waited.   And waited.  He was still staring at me through his glasses, like a scene from a Wild West poker game. 

I leaned forwards.  “Judy?” I ventured, hoping to re-activate his speech system.

“Yes.  Judy.  You know. Judicial paper for wills and stuff. It’s thick and that’s why we need a manual typewriter as it needs to cut a carbon copy underneath”

I nodded, explaining that there was no typing job the 800 couldn’t do, said with a confidence that was belying my uncertainty.

Paper is graded on its strength in terms of the weight it will bear, expressed in grams per square metre. To assess the standard weight of paper, a square metre of it is clamped into a frame, and weight is applied to it until it bursts or tears. 

General-purpose paper is anywhere between 70gsm and 90gsm.  Luxury and specialist paper is over 100gsm, with legal paper at the top end of the spectrum at 120gsm.

Naturally, a copy would be needed, so the carbon paper would be beneath the Judicial paper and the copy paper beneath that. My guess was that the total paper weight would be almost 200gsm.

I seriously wondered whether the Eagle electric 800 would be man enough.

I really shouldn’t have worried.

I had set the machine up in his secretary’s office, which was gloriously untidy, with files everywhere, flowing as if a waterfall from her desk, over the carpet. 

Now was my moment!

I walked over to the machine and pulled a penny piece from my pocket.  I could see they were both regarding me in confused silence.

“To demonstrate the power of the 800, I would like you to watch this”

With a flourish, I placed the penny inside the machine, locating it against the ribbon guide.  Whilst looking them in the eyes, I confidently pressed the “X” key and was rewarded with the high-speed clatter of the type hammer reverberating against the coin.

I lifted my finger from the key and passed the coin across to Mr Rayne.  He took the proffered penny, and held it up, examining its distorted shape and the deep impression cut into it by the machine.

“Wow!” He exclaimed. “Take a look at that Mary”, passing it to her.

She looked at it – a bit dubiously, I thought.

“So, now let’s have a crack at your heaviest legal paper.  By the way, if it does what you want it to do, will you be in a position to place an order today?”

“Oh, I think so….we really need to……………………”

Mary and I both watched him in silent anticipation, waiting for him to finish

“……..bring ourselves up to date”

I inwardly smirked.  The 800 was superseded a couple of years ago by the golf ball typewriter, and the golfball was now being superseded by the daisy wheel.  Up to date indeed!

I watched as Mary pulled the bail bar forwards, and wound the unwieldy paper onto the carriage.  

She started pecking away at the keys, suddenly exclaiming “Oh…it’s not working”

I smiled as I reached forwards, switching the machine on “You now have the luxury of electric power. You don’t need to hammer these keys as heavily as on your previous machine”

The machine was quietly humming, and she hesitantly started typing, speeding up as she became used to the feel of the keyboard.  At the end of the line, I saw her left hand reaching for the carriage return lever, which would have been used on a manual typewriter to push the carriage back to the right-hand stop, and advance the roller by one line.

“It’s a common event” I laughed, showing her the key marked RETURN. She pressed it, and the carriage smoothly moved.  “Oh My,” she remarked.

Now she was up to speed, and we allowed her to type a few paragraphs.

She pulled the document from the carriage, and we all inspected the output. The print was crisp, dark black, and perfectly aligned.  The carbon copy was just as good.

I dramatically passed the carbon copy to Mr Rayne, and he was suitably impressed.

Twenty minutes later, I was happily sitting in my car in the car park, filling out the rest of the rental agreement. Tapping away at my calculator I worked out that a thirty-minute meeting had netted me a cool £60* commission.  Snapping my case shut, I started the car, wound down the window a crack, and stoked up a Bensons. I idly watched the tendrils of smoke being slowly and gracefully sucked out. 

Twirling the key in the ignition, I decided to head back to the office.

I swung into the office car park in what I considered to be my exuberant fashion.  The Managing Director referred to it as “You arsehole” fashion.  I know this, as he indicated his feelings by bellowing into the car park from his office like a fairground barker, calling into question both my driving ability and my parentage.  

I smiled, and waved cheerily up at him, which, judging by the further incoherent ratings, merely proved to enrage him further. I strode briskly into the office, charging up the stairwell two at a time, running into the Sales department, and plonked myself down at my desk. I bashed away at the calculator, which confirmed that so far, I was having a very good month, and would hit target without breaking a sweat.

I checked my diary for the next day and saw that I had a fairly relaxed day, starting with a local farmer, a simple drop off on the industrial estate, and then a visit to an author to sell a binding machine.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny, as I made my way to the rambling old farm in Turners Hill.

This was going to be a simple drop off, and a demonstration of how to set the machine up. I knew that he was pretty switched on, and would pick it up in no time. I was confident that this would be a mere formality prior to me raising an invoice for £400!

Setting up the Cash Register

My assessment proved to be accurate, and I was finished with him by eleven o’clock. I drove sedately down passed the fruit farms and into the industrial estate, cutting through the side roads of Three Bridges.  

Parking up at Worldwide Injection Moulding’s Goods Inwards, I hefted their new typewriter – still in its box – into the bay, and got the warehouse foreman to sign for it, and then I was off again, heading back south and cross country for the pretty village of Horsted Keynes.

The Author was an elderly American chap, called Cyrus J Whittaker. He was the archetypal hippie, with his long grey hair pulled back in a ponytail, secured with a bandana, and wearing a battered old straw hat which I think was actually an integral part of his head –  I had never seen him without it.

He was always friendly, and frequently offered me some of his homegrown pot. Today was no different, and on this occasion, I decided to accept his offer. He passed me his tobacco tin, some papers, and a plastic bag full of leaves.  I duly rolled a respectable reefer, and we both lit up.  

I ambled back to the car, and pulled out the thermal binding system, which I was to demonstrate.

Simple to use – even when you’re stoned

Once the machine was plugged into the mains, and up to temperature, I showed him how quickly he could bind a book. The folders all had pre-glued spines, and the required pages were simply laid into the spine in the correct order, and the whole book placed spine down into the mouth of the machine.

A simple timer would indicate when the process was complete, and the thermal glue had melted and stuck the pages securely to the book. 

In his chemically-induced pliant state of mind, he readily agreed to sign the paperwork, which I happily secreted away into my briefcase – just in case he had second thoughts.

It was well gone one o’clock when I walked slightly unsteadily back to my car. I drove very carefully over to the next village and parked up at the Coach and Horses.  I was a little disappointed, as none of my friends were about, so I ordered Ham Egg and Chips, and a pint of Harveys.  

Nice place for a pub lunch…

As usual, the food was excellent, but the combined effects of one large organically grown reefer, and a pint of Harvey’s Best made me very sleepy. I knew that I would have to sleep this one off, so I drove a mile or so up the road to Ghylls Lap car park on the Ashdown Forest, rolled back the seat, and took a restorative doze for a couple of hours.

I woke up refreshed and decided to finish off the promised deliveries.  I would need to get a hustle on…

I finally arrived at Babbage de Chelwode’s at a quarter to five, so it would be a quick dash. Happy Jack the town’s parking warden would be on his way back to the Town Hall to sign off duty, so unless I was very unlucky, I could park on the double yellows for the duration of my call.

I switched the hazard lights on, and trotted up the steps, and into the cool reception area.

I was swiftly shown in, and Mr Rayne stood to greet me. I walked forward, extending my hand to shake hands, but he recoiled away. I soon saw why.  He held his hand aloft, the thumb was thickly bandaged.

“Ohh – that looks nasty” I exclaimed “What did you do?”

He looked at me very sheepishly. “Well, I had a colleague from Bennisters here yesterday……”

He stopped.  I waited. He was still looking at me, and I nudged him “Yes….”

“Well, I decided to show him how tough my typewriter was, so I tried your trick with the penny”

“Yes…” I said, encouragingly.

“Well, it must have slipped, and I engraved a letter X through my thumbnail, and about a third of my way through my thumb”

I visualized this, and immediately had to suppress the desire to laugh out loud.

“Oh dear” I sympathised “That must be really painful”  

He grunted his agreement, and I carried on “Does he want a machine as well?

“He didn’t say – as I had to go to the Village Hospital to get the bleeding to stop”.

Flipping my notebook open, I swiftly jotted down that Bennsiters could be in the market for a new machine.

“So” I said, snapping my notebook shut, “I’ll be getting on then. I hope that the machine continues to perform well. I will get the engineers to pop over sometime within the next week or two just to check the adjustments.”

He continued to gaze at me through his glasses, not saying anything, so I picked up my case, and quietly left him alone, contemplating his butchered thumb.

£259.00 in 2020*

Categories
Cash Civil liberties Crime Econonomy English Culture Financial Local Authorities local economy Politics Science Security Society Technology

Discount For Cash? Not for much Longer!

The barmaid passed the pint of Forward Pass[1] over the bar to me, smiling.

Locally made, and perfect for glugging during the Six Nations!

“Thanks” I grinned, holding my smartphone out.

Grabbing the electronic card reader, she held it to my phone, which dutifully chirped, signifying that the £3.60 had been transferred from my current account into the club’s coffers.

Sooo easy to spend your money like this!

Taking my pint to a quiet table, I sat down, musing about the transaction.

Only two years ago, my club would only accept a card payment if the transaction value was over ten pounds. This was to cover the 2.0% transaction fee levied by the card processing company.

Not being a heavy drinker, I rarely spent over ten pounds during a post-work visit to the club, except on Friday nights, when I would meet with the “Last of the Summer Wine” crew and I would stand my round.

So, on Fridays, I would always hit the ATM at the Co-Op on the way home and withdraw enough cash to cover me for the weekend, and for coffees and snacks at work for the following week.

Two things have caused a seismic shift in how we pay for things.

In 2014 Apple introduced Apple Pay, enabling contactless payment transactions to be made using Apple smartphones. Initially, like a lot of people, I was suspicious of this as a means of payment.

Quick and Easy – Apple Pay from my Smartphone…

However, six years of advances in security including the use of thumbprints and facial recognition technology has meant that I now feel much more comfortable with using my phone to pay for items.

Some retail outlets such as Tesco’s limit the maximum contactless transaction value to £30.00, but in many places, including department stores and garages it is still possible to pay using a smartphone or a debit card.

The other thing that initiated a quantum shift in payment methods is that the UKGovernment banned debit and credit card surcharges on January 13th 2018.

All of a sudden, retailers were no longer able to charge for the use of a debit card or credit card payment, so almost overnight the need to carry cash became far less urgent.

So, is cash being phased out as a means for paying for goods and services?

Cash has been with us for over 30,000 years, before written history – and evidence of accounting using tally sticks goes back to the later stages of the stone age.

The Ancient Roman author and scholar Pliny the Elder (AD23- AD79) writes of the best woods to use for tally sticks.

Cash is a meaningful and tangible token of worth, and is universally accepted within a society as having a standard value – as opposed to barter, where individuals trade specialist skills in exchange for goods and services.

Because of the universal acceptance of cash, both coins and notes, it is used as an instant way of paying for goods and services. It is also largely untraceable, so whilst two individuals may conclude a transaction there is no record of payment being made or received.

One of the advantages of anonymising transactions, is that it makes the use of cash attractive for the conduct of criminal activities, and in the past ransoms have been demanded to be settled in unmarked used bank notes.

Even otherwise honest members of society may unwittingly commit crimes by defrauding the government of income tax.

Tradesmen who would never steal from, or swindle their customers may routinely offer a discount for cash – meaning that such transactions never go through their books, and are therefore free of income tax or VAT.

This benefits the tradesman, as the cash received may be used for personal spending, and the buyer saves overall on the cost of the item or work.

There is, however, an indirect advantage to this, which is that the cash earned is frequently injected into the local community, either in the local shops, or pubs and clubs.

Call me a cynic, but the rapid introduction of digital banking is positively welcomed by governments globally. as all transactions will be traceable and identifiable.

Only a year ago, the BBC reported that the use of cash is in decline, and will only account for 10% – 15% of all transactions by 2026.

Obviously, there are also advantages to a business becoming cashless. Retail premises such as pubs, clubs and restaurants may save money from not having to buy expensive sales terminals and then enjoying lower insurance premiums as a result of having no cash on the premises.

Intangible expenses such as employee time wasted in cashing up, and paying in money at the bank’s premises are immediately removed. The inadvertent acceptance of counterfeit money is also eradicated.

Cashing up at the end of a shift – a thing of the past?

Losing cash forever, would, in my ‘umble opinion, be a bad thing, as the elderly, the poor and the disadvantaged would be unfairly penalised if their way of paying their way were denied to them.

The merciless march of automation and the ruthlessness of the digital economy may well change our society for ever.

Brave New World?

You decide.

Go Well…


[1] Triple F Brewery, Alton, Hampshire, UK

Categories
Climate change Ecological Environment HEALTH internet Mobile Communications Science Technology Uncategorized Work

Mobile Communications – The Big Question Part 2

What to believe?

Whilst researching for my previous article covering the climate change impact of mobile communications, I came across further research which claims that mobile communications enables an overall reduction in Mega tonnes of CO2 equivalents per year (mtCO2e/yr).

Very odd.

My previous article presented facts that appeared to prove that the ever-increasing use of smartphones and mobile technology communications was responsible for contributing millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

It would be useful to define mobile communications at this point. It covers quite a wide range of systems including mobile telephone networks, public Wi-Fi networks, Wide Area Networks, and Satellite networks.

To be fair, most of the carbon footprint was directly related to the extraction of materials and the subsequent production of the technology itself. The remaining contribution was as a result of the use of the equipment and the supporting infrastructure, such as powering data processing centres and the associated communications networks.

The research appeared to take no account of the societal changes caused by the use of such disrupting technology, and the reduction in the carbon footprint of mobile communications.

The counter arguments presented in this article are as convincing and fact-based as the arguments that mobile communications are climate change’s bad guys.

According to a report commissioned by The Carbon Trust, the use of mobile communications actually leads to an abatement of the carbon emissions generated by the use of that technology – approximately five times as much carbon emissions are abated as the emissions generated.

That’s quite a factor.

Use of mobile communications in the EU and the USA is currently enabling a reduction of about 180 million tonnes of CO2 equivalence per year – an amount greater than the annual carbon emissions generated by the Netherlands.

Part of the UK Mobile Communications Network

So how does this pay-off happen?

A significant percentage of the total reduction in COe – about 70%, is generated by what is known as Machine to Machine (M2M) systems.

Mobile communications have enabled our infrastructure to become “smart”.  

“Smart” buildings are fitted with several types of systems, such as those that monitor occupancy levels and turn lighting on or off as needed, and control heating, ventilation and temperatures according to programmed levels. Sensors fitted throughout the building communicate wirelessly to the controller to enable precise control of energy use and therefore costs.

In some cases, several buildings may be communicating with a server-controller located remotely, and if this is the case, it is likely that the internet or the cellular communications system may be the data carrier.

This type of technology is not limited to just commercial premises.

Flick through some of the glossier housing magazines, and you will find references to “smart homes”

Smart homes are designed and built to encompass the latest control systems. Many household systems may be configured and controlled using nothing more than a standard smart phone using simple software.

Owners of a smart home may be able to control heating, unlock or lock doors, operate lighting, close or open curtains, respond to the doorbell, play music, or switch the TV on or off.

A Typical Smart Home kit, with Heat Control, Lighting, Doorbell and Power Sockets

Some systems will have algorithms that learn the users tastes and preferences and will detect when the house has become un-occupied, and will back off the heating, and control lighting as needed.

This is often accomplished by the detection of system-recognised mobile phones. When the mobile phone(s) leaves the home for more than the programmed time period, the system decides that the house is now un-occupied.

When the homeowner leaves work and gets within a predefined distance or time from home, the phone will autonomously communicate with the house, and the system can put the heat on, close the curtains, put the lights on, and be playing music on the owners’ arrival.

So, whilst data is being exchanged (at an environmental cost) the more intelligent use of power and energy compensates for this. In the world of commerce and business the savings may be truly on an industrial scale.

Local Authorities also benefit from M2M communications and are able to control street lighting and municipal lighting based on pedestrian or vehicular activity. Street lights may be able to communicate with each other and be able to adjust to lower light levels when there is no detected activity. This not only conserves energy, but also prevents light pollution from degrading the night time landscape.

Smart Street Light, fitted with LEDs and clearly showing communications antennae. And Three Pigeons

Some towns have introduced smart refuse bins, which communicate their fill state to the local authority waste processing system. This enables real-time assessment of refuse collection requirements and enables collections to be scheduled only when needed. This has the net effect of making the collection of household waste much more efficient, saves money, and reduces the number of truck journeys made.

A Smart Refuse Bin, capable of sending it’s status to the Waste Collection System

Furthermore, intelligent use of M2M enabled traffic signals can change sequencing according to traffic levels and ease delays, in turn reducing the emissions levels from vehicle exhausts. In the future, as vehicles become internet enabled, they will be able to communicate directly with both the infrastructure and each other, leading to more efficient use of the road system, lowering fuel requirements and hopefully reducing accidents.

Traffic Signal capable of interacting with other signals at other junctions to improve traffic flows.

Mobile Communications has really come of age with faster, secure networks that have enabled a huge number of individuals to work at home.

According to the Office of National Statistics (UK) in January 2014 there were about 4.2 million people working remotely – an impressive 14% of the UK’s workforce. That’s a good few cars and their associated emissions taken off the road.

With growth in the self-employed “gig economy” the number of people working from anywhere (WFA) is bound to have expanded, which is good for the environment, and better for both the employer and the employee[1]

Working From Anywhere – All that’s needed is a Tablet or a Laptop and an internet connection
Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

Using mobile communications, it is possible to attend meetings remotely, using systems such as Skype, which are sophisticated enough to enable delegates to share their computer screens with other team members working at the office or from home.

Mobile comms also cuts down on wasted paper, saving trees. Simple smartphone-based apps enable an employee to submit their expenses remotely, simply taking photos of receipts, and submitting them electronically.  This reduces postage costs, as well as saving paper and time.

The rapid acceptance of smartphones and their associated technologies, has also stimulated behavioural changes in people’s personal lives.

Today, an average person may unwittingly reduce their carbon footprint by using video calling to talk to friends and family. In many cases this saves a time consuming drive to each other’s homes.  It’s not quite the same as visiting, but enables better use of time, and again, takes another polluting journey off the road network.

Mobile comms also impacts on the provision of healthcare.

Individuals with serious and chronic health problems will often require frequent visits to hospitals and clinics in order to monitor their conditions, or to discuss their symptoms with a healthcare professional.

Personal Health Monitor linked to a Smartphone

Smart phones and wearable technologies such as smart watches and fitness trackers are already beginning to enable a far more consistent capture of healthcare data. Suitable software programme can then transmit this over the mobile networks to the individual’s doctor.

Wearable Technology is getting evermore sophisticated…

Whilst this may not have a huge impact at current levels, as this become more accepted in the medical community, it will save journeys to hospitals, for both patients and visitors. It also enables patients to be potentially cared for at home rather than in hospital, which reduces consumption further.

Even agriculture and forestry benefits from the use of mobile communications.

Arable farmers may make use of smartphone and laptop-based systems to monitor crop conditions and target which areas of fields may require dressing with fertiliser. Natural fertiliser is an animal by-product which subsequently releases methane into the atmosphere.

Smartphone App to pre- plan an Aerial Survey conducted by a Drone linked to the Smartphone itself!

Applying less fertiliser and targeting it where it’s needed is far more effective and eco-friendly than just applying a regular amount onto a crop that may not need it. This also saves runoff from fields polluting the water table – so a double benefit!

Animal farmers are already using smart apps that monitor the health of pregnant cattle, and herds may be monitored by GPS trackers – all enabled by mobile communications. This allows farmers to reduce veterinary call-outs, and simplify herding journeys, saving both time, money and the environment.

Moo Monitor – A mobile based animal health monitor.

Having researched the information from both sides, my personal jury is still out on this subject. It has to be borne in mind that the report produced by the Carbon Trust was supported and funded by EE, BT, Telefonica (Who own O2 in the UK, and provide mobile comms globally) and Vodafone.

I am, however, a firm supporter of reducing traffic wherever and however possible, and working remotely using mobile comms is an obvious way to do this.

Go Well…


[1] A key takeaway from our research is that if a work setting is ripe for remote work – that is, the job is fairly independent and the employee knows how to do their job well – implementing WFA (working from anywhere) can benefit both the company and the employee” The Harvard Business Review

Categories
Climate change Ecological English Culture Environment internet Science Society Technology Uncategorized Work

Mobile Communications – the Big Question

If like me, you have embraced new technology, you will, in all probability have a smartphone. It is likely that you will also own either a tablet computer or a laptop. Some of you may also have a smartwatch as well.

The smartphone has invaded all our lives, and research suggests that there are more than 79 million active mobile phone subscriptions. A recent report shows that Smartphones have penetrated 71% of the UK market – about 57 million units, all of which are sophisticated handsets capable of streaming video, internet surfing, emailing, and even making telephone calls and humble texting.

Business has been quick to see the potential in such technology, with banks and financial institutions offering account access via self-contained mobile applications – “Apps” in common parlance.

With a smartphone and the correct apps, it is possible to buy railway tickets, check bus times, take photos or video film, and plan a route to walk, cycle or ride.

Smartphones are also able to monitor health, run a diary, shop online and remotely control domestic systems such as heating, lighting and manage solar power generation systems.

Not bad for a device that’s smaller than a reporter’s notebook![1]

Mobile communications are not just limited to cellular telephones, but also incorporates laptops and tablets, and as any customer of a high street coffee shop will attest to, enables work to be conducted just about anywhere where there is an internet connection.

Work isn’t just limited to processing documents. I have been unlucky enough to be seated next to a very loud woman who was conducting a Skype meeting with her team from the normal genteel environment of Costa Coffee in Haslemere. Not only is this rude and inconsiderate, but she was also revealing an awful lot about her company and its confidential details.

I digress…

For the price of a coffee, it is possible to hook into a reasonably stable Wi-Fi connection and work for an hour or two, writing and responding to emails, conducting research, and creating reports and presentations.

No commuting either – so its got to be ecologically sound to either work from home, or from the local coffee shop.

So, you would think.

It’s not quite as simple as that though, but to be fair, it never is.

Have you ever thought about the invisible carbon footprint generated by mobile communications?

Let’s forget, for a moment, the environmental costs of producing a smartphone in the first place. Concentrate purely on the actual business of communicating.

In order for your simple SMS text message to be sent, the message must be digitised and transmitted over the cellular telephone network. Your phone sends these messages using microwave frequencies to the nearest cellular base station. These are easily recognisable as they normally have several antennae mounted upon a mast.

At the base of the mast, is a small building that contains all of the necessary electronics systems to enable the mobile elements of the network to interface with the Public Switched Telephone Network.

The message then has to be processed by one or more data centres and forwarded back out into the network for onward transmission over the cellular network to its intended recipient.

All of this infrastructure consumes power and has to be resilient enough to provide secure, continuous and reliable service 24 hours a day, 365 days per year.

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Photo Credit E S Wales – Cellular Base Station

The same system supports mobile voice calls.

So – you want to read your emails in the coffee shop?  Surf the web?

Emails require multiple data servers, and more computer communications centres, all of which consume massive amounts of power.

Maybe as you glug back your vente white americano you want to order that item on Amazon, or eBay?

More data servers, more computer communications centres, but now with the addition of financial data processing centres, with yet more power-hungry servers.

Here are some sobering facts.

Data Centres and Communications networks together with other parts of the infrastructure were responsible for in the region of 215 megatonnes of CO2e/yr back in 2007. By the end of 2020, this will have risen to about 764 megatonnes of CO2e/yr, with data centres accounting for about 33% of the total contribution.

The entire carbon footprint of Canada in 2016 was about 730 MtCO2e/yr! 

According to research conducted by McMaster University,[2] the relative contribution to climate change from information and computer technologies (ICT) is predicted to grow from 3.5% (2007) to about 14% by 2040.

Quite shocking when compared with global transport’s contribution of 23%! (World Health Organisation figures)

Relative emissions generated as a result of smartphone use has risen from 4% in 2010 to an expected 11% by this year.

Absolute emissions (which include the production footprint; manufacturing energy, mining energy for extracting rare metals and gold and end-user activities) from these much loved ‘phones will, therefore, jump from 17 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent per year (Mt-CO2e/yr) to 125 Mt-CO2e/yr in the same period! That’s a massive 730% growth.

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I am Guilty too – My Smartphone and Coffee Mug. Image Mark Charlwood © 2020

Take out the production emissions, and we are looking at 12.5 megatonnes of CO2 per year just to use our smartphones.

Our Mobile operators (In the UK, EE, O2, Vodafone, Three) have an unintended impact on emissions. Many of their mobile ‘phone plans encourage their customers to upgrade to a new phone every couple of years.

I resisted this in the past and kept my old iPhone 6 for almost five years before I decided to change phones. I would have kept it longer, but the 16GB memory was full, and the software was in danger of becoming unsupported by Apple.

Encouraging and incentivising customers to change phones when their previous handset was more than adequate, is a good model for enhancing a corporation’s profit, but the negative impact on our environment is unsupportable.

There is only a limited number of ways that we, as a society can stop this.

At a societal level, state intervention and corporate governance must ensure that all data centres are upgraded so they may be powered solely by renewable sources of energy.

As individuals, we must all take a bit more responsibility.

It’s all very well for climate change protestors to exhort us all to ditch our cars, and to stop using plastics.

Equally important is not buying a new product unless the old one is either worn out, damaged beyond economic repair or no longer supported by the manufacturer or network requirements.

Upgrading to a new phone every time one comes out is nothing but technological vanity.

Remember too, if you must upgrade, then recycle your old phone.

Shockingly, less than 1% of all smartphones are being recycled.

Despite this, for the time being, Life’s Good.

[1] iPhone XR dimensions 150.9mm x 75.7mm x 8.3mm 174gm

[2] Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 & recommendations, L. Belkhir & Elmiligi

Categories
Civil liberties Crime English Culture Politics privacy Science Security Society Technology Uncategorized

Let Your Body do the Talking?

The morning outside is gloomy and damp, and I am enjoying my morning cuppa.

I have just finished setting up my new bank account.

Having been with my previous bank for 36 years, I thought that it was time for a change, especially as my old bank had consistently ripped me off over decades. Some of my money has been returned with a successful PPI claim, and now I am £175.00 better off, having switched my personal current account (Thanks Martin Lewis’s Money Saving Expert!) and have kicked the holder of the sign of the black horse out of my life. Now I just have one more account to move…

Happy Days.

So, there I was, on the phone setting up my new account, when the automated system requested whether I would like to set up voice recognition to ease access to my account.

I accepted, as I know that my voiceprint is as unique to me as my fingerprints, or my facial biometric data.

It then struck me how much of my unique personal data is in the hands and care of a commercial organisation.

This got me thinking.

I have an E-Passport, which contains all of my facial biometric data. I access some of my personal electronic devices with my thumb print, or, in the case of my new phone, through facial recognition and a pin number.

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This in itself is a little spooky, but at least the choice is mine to make.

I accept that Her Majesty’s Government will assume a full duty of care if they release my data, but with commercial organisations, maybe based overseas that may be more difficult to assume.

Since the development of Facial Recognition in the mid 1969s, it has become much more prevalent, and is found all over the world, including Great Britain.

China is now using facial recognition to constantly monitor its citizens, and the collected and identifiable data is being used to prosecute individuals for even minor misdemeanours such as Jay walking[1]. This allows “behavioural scoring” and may be used to grade and rank citizens on their perceived support of the government.

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Luckily, or not, depending on your persuasion, facial recognition does have a weakness. It requires capturing a clear image of a face before the system’s algorithms can plot the data, and compare it with images held in its database.

This weakness is being exploited. In Japan, a university has designed a pair of anti-facial-recognition glasses[2], which, when worn, emit a sea of Infra-Red light over the wearer’s face. This disrupts image capture, and results in the camera only “seeing” a blurred image.

There is also a mask available which is designed with multi-faceted angles and patterns that disrupt the received image, again, leading to blurred images.

If you thought that the potential for a dystopian disaster ended with facial recognition technology, there is more over the horizon.

As artificial intelligence develops, we may see an integration of facial recognition with emotion recognition technology, laying wide open an interpretation of our deepest innermost workings.

Currently Emotional Recognition technology is in its infancy, and there is as yet little evidence that shows a reliable and consistent interpretation of the emotional state of an individual, but this will change as AI develops further.

So – if we cover our faces, or wear IR spectacles, we will be able to fool the cameras, and go about our daily business without the state, or, other more sinister organisations tracking our every move and emotion.

Sadly, the answer is no.

Please welcome Gait Recognition Technology!

Gait recognition is another unique human characteristic. The way we walk, hold our body, and our profile and posture are as individual as a fingerprint – and it doesn’t need to capture a facial image.

Anyone like to guess where this technology is being developed?

Whoever muttered “China”, take an extra 10 points.

Yes, a Chinese start-up called Watrix has already developed a system that can identify an individual from up to 50m (165 feet) away, regardless of whether they are facing the camera.

According to the company, the system can’t even be fooled by an individual adopting a limp, walking with splayed feet, or deliberately hunching or distorting their body as they walk.

This is made possible because the system analyses multiple features from all over an individual’s body.

Currently, due to system limitations, real-time gait analysis and confirmation of an individual’s identity is not possible.

Gait analysis requires video footage of the target, which allows the analytical software to process and store the individual’s way of walking.

Currently, video footage has to be uploaded into the system, and then analysed, a process that takes about 10 minutes to assess 60 minutes of video.

In due course, the processing requirements will improve to the point that real-time identification is possible.

According to Watrix, the system has a 94.1% accuracy rating, which is quite acceptable for commercial use.

No doubt this will also improve.

Meanwhile, governments in many societies are realising the dangers of uncontrolled use of personal data.

The EU has recently banned the use of facial recognition for three to five years to enable an assessment of the impacts of this technology and possible risk management measures that could be identified and developed[3]

In the USA, larger cities, and even states are banning the use of Facial Recognition.

San Francisco banned it in May 2019, and later in 2019, Oakland followed suit, as did Somerville in Massachusetts, with Portland Oregon likely to follow suit.

But despite the EU-wide moratorium on the use of this technology, (and the fact that we are still, until 31st January a member of the EU) the Metropolitan Police have gone ahead with a project to use Facial Recognition.

It appears that under the EU/UK’s data protection law, GDPR, it forbids facial recognition by private companies “in a surveillance context without member states actively legislating an exemption into the law using their powers to derogate.”

It’s interesting to see that the system being used by London’s Met Police is subcontracted out to NEC, which, as far as I am aware is not only a private company, but also a foreign one.

Obviously, there are pros and cons to having some form of surveillance, and some sacrifices have to be made to ensure the safety and security of the public, but is this a bridge to far?

Only you can decide…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.met.police.uk/live-facial-recognition-trial/

https://sciencebusiness.net/news/eu-makes-move-ban-use-facial-recognition-systems

 

[1] The Atlantic – Editorial Article

[2] The Daily Mail – Anti Facial Recognition Glasses Article

[3] Science Business – EU to ban Facial Recognition

Categories
Climate change Ecological Environment Motorcycling Motoring Politics Science Society Technology Transport Travel Uncategorized

Tyres – The Invisible Ecological Menace

We have all heard almost to the point of frustration about climate change, pollution and how bad cars powered by fossil fuels are.

We are all exhorted to consider using an electric vehicle, or a hybrid so as to cut our carbon footprint, and stop climate change.

Obviously, all of this is deserving of support, and climate change is a very real threat, as is the increase in health problems as a result of the toxic gases in vehicle exhausts.

However, there is a sinister, yet little-publicised threat which may prove to be even more injurious to health and the marine environment, even if it has little impact on greenhouse gases and climate change.

Tyres.

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Yes, you did read correctly. Tyres are in the top ten of nasty pollutants that contaminate the world with micro-particles.

Tyres. Those innocuous black things attached to the wheel rims of your car, van, motorcycle, truck or bus.

We all know that tyres wear out – as we all have to buy them now and again, if we are to stay safe and legal.

So, what happens to the worn bits of tyre?  Well, they are eroded by the road surface and are released as micro-fibres, particulates that are fine enough to form as a dust on the road surface.

Subsequently, rain water washes these microfibres into the drains and sewage systems, where they ultimately make their way into the maritime environment – yes, rivers, lakes, reservoirs and oceans.

Screenshot 2020-01-20 at 18.10.01

Much publicity is generated around single use plastics in the oceans, but little publicity is around related to this almost invisible pollution.

Some of the particles are small enough and light enough to be dragged up off the road surface by the aerodynamic wake of passing vehicles, and may be suspended for periods of time, allowing them to be blown by the wind over quite large distances.

It is estimated that annually 68,000 tonnes of microplastics are generated by tyre tread erosion in the UK alone, with 7,000 to 19,000 tonnes entering the surface water system[1]. Research is currently being undertaken in the UK to deepen our understanding of the migration of tyre generated microparticles into the maritime environment.[2]

It may not be common knowledge but tyres are not constructed from pure natural rubber, but consist of 60-70% synthetic rubber – made with our old friends, the hydrocarbons, so the emitted micro-particles are not readily biodegradable.

Unfortunately, the qualities that makes tyres suitable, such as good grip, good braking qualities, and good car handling qualities rely on the tyre gripping the road surface through friction.

Friction between the road surface and the tyre tread actually causes the erosion of the rubber, and leads to the problem. The interaction also erodes the road surface, and any road marking paint on it too – but that’s another story!

Tyre particles vary in size and composition, so it would challenge even Agatha Christie’s Poirot to identify and track how these particles behave, and where they go once they have been shed.

Such particles will be dispersed widely around roads and byways, drifted by winds and the effects of vehicle aerodynamics, washed into various drains, culverts and waterways by rain.

Once in the water system the particles will exhibit different levels of buoyancy, and some will float onwards into estuaries and ultimately into oceans, and others will sink to the bottom and become part of the estuary sediment.

It is estimated that up to 10% of tyre wear particulate matter is released as airborne particles, which will settle over land masses, thus polluting them too.

What can we, the driving public do to minimise the effects of this?

Firstly, we can modify our driving behaviour to reduce the loads that our tyres are under.

We can make efforts to accelerate and decelerate gently and progressively, we can make sure the tyres are correctly inflated and remove un-necessary loads from the vehicle. This would help.

We could operate a smaller vehicle with a smaller engine and a lower mass.

This is a pipe dream, and we all know it. Unless governments intervene to legally force the use of smaller vehicles, we won’t trade our “Executive Urban Assault Vehicles” to sit in a minicar capable of reaching only 60 miles an hour with a following wind!

On my daily commute to work, I pass Farnborough Airport. This is the home to many ecologically-unfriendly executive private jet aircraft. The main A road that passes adjacent to it has recently had a new 50 mph speed limit imposed upon it, reduced from its previous 70 mph limit.

Screenshot 2020-01-20 at 17.52.54

It seems that the local council are keen to reduce emissions in the local area!

Regardless of this, vehicles still charge past me doing well excess of the new limit, and the police don’t seem to be enforcing the new limit.

Maybe we should drive less distances?  Maybe we should alter our fundamental mind set to become more locally focused, and adopty a new philosophy of not commuting longer distances?

I don’t think human nature is going to fix this particular problem.

It appears that the main thrust of the ecological argument is to initiate a societal shift from driving hydro-carbon powered vehicles to electrically powered cars.

However, this only addresses a part of the problem. Even if there is a global adoption of battery driven vehicles, the problems associated with the pneumatic tyre remain.

Until we have mastered an alternative to the conventional tyre we are still in trouble.

The auto industry faces a parallel challenge. What do we use as an alternative to the conventional vehicle tyre?

Answers on a postcard please…

 

[1] Friends of the Earth Report “Reducing Household Contributions to Marine Plastic Pollution 11/2018

[2] UK Government Funding for Research into Tyre Tread Erosion and Pollution