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NOAA's Image of the Day

“You’re Almost There!”

We were out hiking yesterday in the Lake Tahoe area. The weather was spectacular for any time of year, much less for early November: ~70ºF (~20ºC), sunny with some high, thin clouds, very gentle breeze. (In many ways, I’d rather have had rain and stayed indoors—because we desperately need the water!—but, since I can’t control the weather, I enjoyed what we got.) The hike, to Five Lakes, was listed in the guidebook as 2.4 miles each way with about 960′ of climbing. I guess they came close: it was more like 3 miles each way and over 1,000′ of climbing, but if you stopped the measurements at the first of the five lakes in Five Lake, perhaps it would have been 2.4 and 960—but it seems like no one stops there. Still, a truly lovely hike.

Part of the Palatte

Part of the Palatte

The color shades along the trail covered a rich, broad palette. Not only where there many shades of green from the trees and bushes, blues from the sky, and even yellows from the changing leaves, but the rock ran the gamut from gray to tan to purple to nearly black to red.

As we neared the crest of the climb, some fellow hikers, on their return leg, said, “You’re almost there!” They, like many, were giving us useful information and providing encouragement.

Almost there. On a beautiful day and a wonderful hike. Almost there.

I wasn’t almost there. I had been there since nearly the beginning of the hike. The lakes, though the nominal destination of our hike, were not the purpose of our hike.

The hike itself was the purpose.

One of the Five Lakes

One of the Five Lakes

I first understood this about ten years ago, when backpacking in the Emigrant Wilderness for a week with our Scouts. Each day, the Scouts were in a hurry: they wanted to get there—wherever “there” was. On all the days except the last, “there” was another campsite, different from our other campsites, but still a campsite. We adults, though, weren’t in a hurry: we were there. We were, by the third day, there to be there, not to get there. That realization changed my entire perspective on hiking and backpacking.

The journey is the reward.

NASA Ames Research Center Open House

See my thoughts on the recent open house, celebrating NASA Ames Research Center’s 75 anniversary, at

Eulogy for Dad

Knoxville, Tennessee, December 29, 1929—
Manlius, New York, June 21, 2014
Delivered in Syracuse, New York, June 23, 2014

Dad taught me to respect.

The way Dad treated—and Mom treats—others was and is a lesson in respect. The way Dad treated Mom, my sister, Sue, and me was a lesson in respect. Dad and Mom didn’t try to teach me to respect by telling me: they did it by showing me, by living it every day. The way Dad treated others was all the lesson anyone who could observe and absorb would ever need. Dad taught respect of more than people, too: the way Dad treated machines and tools taught me to respect and to appreciate fine machines, to care for them.

Dad taught me to give.

Dad was not an outdoorsman, despite his father’s love of hiking in the Smoky Mountains in Dad’s home state of Tennessee. Nonetheless, Dad volunteered as a Scout leader, joining Troop 21 on a number of memorable hikes, camping trips, and backpacking trips. More than his making monetary donations, what he did with his time taught me about giving. Mom’s the one who’s know for being active in the community here, but Dad was active in his own community, the antique car hobby, a community that stretched around the country and beyond. Everyone, everywhere in that hobby came to know Stan Marcum as the expert on ’33 Chryslers. Everyone, everywhere in the hobby could ask Dad for help, for advice, for ideas, and he helped, advised, and brainstormed with them, often finding parts through the Internet that no one else could find, frequently scrounging or adapting something from his vast collection of spares and scrap and making what he found or fashioned available to the person looking for that part.

Dad taught me to conserve.

Dad was a consummate barnyard mechanic. He learned his craft at the University of Tennessee Agricultural Experiment Station—the research farm—where he worked as a teenager. My Grandpa Sherm’s colleague Mr. Stanley ran that farm and, according to Dad, taught him how to fix just about anything with whatever you had. This was during the War, and on a farm, and, well, you just made do. Dad was a packrat, saving old printers and computers for their wire, assorted metal and plastic rods, and sheet metal, saving worn-out shoes for their leather—just in case he needed a make-shift gasket—saving the rubber o-rings from old oil filters—because you just don’t know when you might need that part or piece. More than this, though, Dad taught me to conserve money—not to be stingy, but to save and invest—and also to care for our planet through conservation.

Dad taught me to decide for myself.

Whenever I had an important decision to make while I was growing up, Dad—and Mom—let me make it myself. Certainly, they cared about the decisions I made, and they had their opinions, and they offered advice—when I sought it. They were not dictatorial, didn’t try to influence me unduly. They let me learn how to make decisions.

Dad taught me to live.

Dad was his own man, doing things his own way, giving life everything he had, getting from life all it had to offer that he wanted. His focus was very sharp, narrow, limited, but within that focus, he grabbed it all, and gave it his all.

Dad taught me to love, simply through the way he loved Mom, Sue, my wife, Barbara, my children, Joshua and Rayden, and me.

Family Bunny Ears

Family Bunny Ears

The Grand Tour: Leg Eight, KTRK-KPAO, the Final Leg

Bad Elf Track

KTRK-KPAO Bad Elf Track

Donner Lake

Donner Lake, Looking West

It was supposed to be a pretty straightforward flight. I’ve flown KTRK-KPAO many times before. Depart runway 28 (now 29), follow the noise abatement departure (slight jog right to clear a residential area, then straight ahead to the railroad tracks, turn left to roughly parallel the tracks and then climb on course), climb to about 10,500′, an head out toward SUNOL.

Weather forecasts looked pretty good: warm, clear, gusty winds. The “warm” resulted in a density altitude of about 8,500′ (airport elevation is 5,900′): no problem for a turbo-charged engine to develop horsepower there, but the wings would know they’re up a lot higher than sea level.

Runway 11-29 is 7,000′ long. The cross runway, 2-20, is 4,650′ long. The Mooney 252 book says that a no-wind takeoff would need about 2,200′ of runway (compared to about 1,600′ at sea level under those conditions). With the winds running out of the southwest, not strong but certainly there and a bit gusty, I was planning on using runway 20. At departure, winds were from 200º at 11 knots, gusting to 16 knots. The wind would reduce the nominal runway requirement by a couple of hundred feet. (If I was concerned about runway length, I could have used 29 with the direct crosswind.)

When departing from runway 20, the airport folks request pilots make a left 270º departure, instead of a simple right turn. The left 270 (three successive 90º left turns) lets you climb over the airport and avoid some noise sensitive areas to the south of the field. That’s what I did.

It was difficult to juggle the engine temperature (cylinder head temps) and climb rate. I wanted a steeper climb, but the engine wanted more air flowing, and that meant more airspeed, and that meant a more shallow climb. If I had been concerned about safety, I wouldn’t have worried about the CHTs, but I wasn’t, so I could juggle things a bit. As I completed the 270 and climbed out over runway 29, I started thinking about changing my usual departure and continuing to climb along the railroad tracks and highway (I-80), allowing me to use a shallower climb and keep the engine a little happier. I-80, you see, goes over the low spot in the ridge, Donner Pass, at just under 7,100′, and the road climbs more gradually than most of the other terrain.


Central Valley Reservoir

Sacramento Delta

Sacramento Delta

Crossing the ridge, I could see it was pretty hazy in the central valley. This was expected, and is typical in the summer. The altimeter setting dropped as I continued into the valley, also typical because of the omnipresent summer thermal low pressure. The flight was smooth, though, and soon I was descending, passing Livermore and Sunol Reservoir, and heading for Leslie Salt, an easily identified landmark in the Fremont-Newark area.

The final little bit for the flight: an enjoyably challenging right base entry for runway 31 KPAO. It’s not so much that this saves me the time of flying to the Dumbarton train bridge, it’s the challenge of executing a good approach and landing with none of the usual visual cues during a downwind-base-final or straight-in approach. Winds were just about right down the runway, a little variability left-and-right, and with the lovely squeak-squeak-plunk, I was down.

Done. The Grand Tour was over.

For the aviation numbers geeks among us:

  • 36.9 hours logged (engine start to engine stop each flight), all during the day
  • 5.7 hours IMC
  • 3 instrument approaches (plus one contact approach!)
  • 14 landings, 1 go-around
  • 441 gallons of fuel
  • 5,395 nm via great circle routes
  • Actual distance flown approximately 5,550 nm

What had worked well? The route and fuel planning, the weather strategies, and the airplane. I didn’t need any of the camping gear I had, but it was always a comfort to know I had it. What didn’t work so well? One of the headsets had an instability at altitude (starts around 17,000′), and I’m working on getting that fixed—this was the first high altitude flight for that headset.

I was very pleased that what my instructors and mentors had taught me over the past 30-some years stood me in good stead for this flight. Though I had made similar flights across the country before, this was the longest, because of the routing through Texas and out to New England.

Reflecting on the trip, the thing that stands out most was the natural beauty of this country. Some complain that the desert southwest is bleak and boring, that the midwest is monotonous, the the area between the Rockies and the Sierra is best crossed at night to avoid looking at the tedium. I disagree. Each part of the country has its appeal. Sometimes, that appeal, the variations, the changes can be subtle. Sometimes, they’re spectacular. They’re there, though, for the observing.

ὣς φάτ᾽ Ἀθηναίη, ὁ δ᾽ ἐπείθετο, χαῖρε δὲ θυμῷ.
ὅρκια δ᾽ αὖ κατόπισθε μετ᾽ ἀμφοτέροισιν ἔθηκεν
Παλλὰς Ἀθηναίη, κούρη Διὸς αἰγιόχοιο,
Μέντορι εἰδομένη ἠμὲν δέμας ἠδὲ καὶ αὐδήν.

So spoke Athena, and he obeyed, and was glad at heart.
Then for all time to come a solemn covenant betwixt the twain
was made by Pallas Athena, daughter of Zeus, who bears the aegis,
in the likeness of Mentor both in form and in voice.

The Grand Tour: Legs Seven, KBDU-KTVL-KTRK

Clouds and Peaks

Clouds and Snow-capped Peaks, Colorado Rockies

Okay, IFR fans, here’s one for you (but, non-aviators and VFR-only pilots, you’ll still find content typical of my other Grand Tour leg posts). Two simple words: contact approach. I don’t mean the request to make a radio call, either. Read on.

Looking West on the Ramp, KBDU

Looking West on the Ramp, KBDU

The Sky, the Clouds, the Rockies

The Sky, the Clouds, the Rockies

The winds aloft forecast was favorable for an easy non-stop to KTRK, where I would meet my wife (who’s there for the weekend), spend the night, and then continue home. The en route weather was reasonably benign: an inactive convective SIGMET promised the possibility of isolated to widely scattered thunderstorms over central and western Colorado starting mid-morning. There were only two issues to address, really, during flight planning: departure weather and an airshow at KTRK.

What? An airshow? How does this affect things? The Truckee Airshow includes both static displays and flight displays: aerobatic flight displays. There were two TFRs (temporary flight restrictions) that would be active around my arrival window, one to 12,000′ and the other to 16,000′, closing the airspace for my arrival until 4pm. Normally, this would be no problem: with a four hour flight time, a post-lunch departure would handle things nicely.

Rocky Beauty

The Natural Beauty of the Rockies Seems Endless

Mother Nature had other ideas, though. The Boulder weather and the Colorado en route weather for later in the day wasn’t looking nearly as inviting as that for the middle of the morning. The new plan: launch mid-morning after breakfast and divert to KTVL, South Lake Tahoe airport, if the TFRs were, in fact, active (sometimes, parts of an airshow are cancelled and the TFR rendered inactive), waiting at KTVL until KTRK reopened.

Rocky Lakes

Clouds and Lakes over the Rockies

The weather at KBDU was marginal VFR: good visibility, but about a 1500 overcast ceiling (see the picture, above, from the ramp looking west). As I climbed out to the east immediately after takeoff on runway 8, I saw that the ceiling was rising. A WACO biplane called on the KBDU common frequency (no tower there) advising he was transition the area east of the field, south-to-north; I easily spotted him, and let him know (along with the glider-on-tow slight north of the field heading west), and he confirmed that he saw me. As I climbed and turned north per ATC’s instructions, I had a nice view of the WACO to my left, only a couple hundred yards away. I saw that the overcast layer ended only a few miles east of KBDU. ATC turned me back to the south for the climb to clear the Rockies, then west and on course (to Kremmling [RLG] VOR). The climb was uneventful over the ridge.

In fact, there was really only one notably eventful thing on the flight, besides the beauty of the Rockies and the contact approach. About a dozen miles west of Kremmling, in cruise at FL200, I entered the top of a benign cumulus cloud—at least, it looked benign. My windshield quickly picked up a spattering of ice, and I saw a little rime ice on the inboard part of the wing. I watched for fifteen seconds or so, and saw that the ice accretion continued. The rate was not alarming, but I didn’t just want to keep flying along. With an outside air temperature of -6ºC, I figured that a 2,000 foot climb should take care of the ice, dropping the ambient temperature enough that more ice would be unlikely. Indeed, that climb took care of things, and I soon left the cloud behind. After a scant several minutes, the ice had sublimated.

Path to divert around R-6402A and R-6405

Path to divert around R-6402A and R-6405

PIREP near Delta, Utah

PIREP near Delta, Utah

I made a couple of en route PIREPs (pilot reports) to Salt Lake Flight Watch, so other pilots would know about the flight conditions out in the middle of nowhere. Around Eureka, Nevada I checked with Reno Flight Service Station about the status of that KTRK TFR: yes, it was active as scheduled, and would remain so until 4pm. (The other jog to the south in the route that Flight Aware shows was to skirt some military restricted airspace. The 388th Fighter Wing, based at Hill AFB near Ogden, Utah trains out there, and their airspace runs from 100′ AGL to FL580!)

ATC immediately approved the diversion from KTRK to KTVL, clearing me direct KTVL.





The weather at KTVL was gorgeous: clear, miles and miles of visibility, and pleasant temperatures with light winds from the north-northwest. I asked ATC for the visual approach, and was told to expect that.

For those unfamiliar with it, a visual approach is used in IFR flying (flying by instrument flight rules, regardless of the actual weather) to simplify and expedite arrivals when the weather is good. Once a pilot reports the airport in sight and ATC issues a clearance for the visual approach, the pilot can fly almost as if on visual flight rules: he or she can just fly to the airport, providing his her own navigation, and responsible for his or her own terrain clearance. While on an instrument approach, the pilot must keep the airport (or the preceding aircraft, when told to follow someone) in sight at all times until landing.

I descended from FL200 to 16,000′, then to 13,000′, and could easily see Lake Tahoe (hard to miss on a clear day when I could see forever!). The ridge on which Heavenly Valley ski resort sits was between KTVL and me, so I could not actually see the airport, and ATC could not clear me for the visual approach, and I couldn’t go any lower (because of the terrain in the area, while flying IFR I had to stay fairly high: the ridges top 10,000′ around there). At this rate, I wasn’t going to be cleared for the visual until I was almost on top of KTVL, since that ridge is only about 5 miles from the airport—and I didn’t relish losing 6,000′ in 5 miles (though, indeed, I would have just flown around for a little longer, probably heading up toward Lake Tahoe to lose altitude). I was starting to think about canceling IFR so I could start down (and head around the ridge). Then, I remembered what might be the least used tool in an IFR pilot’s kit: the contact approach.

A contact approach is similar to a visual approach in that the pilot is responsible for navigation, terrain clearance, and weather avoidance. Two important differences between visual and contact approaches:

  1. A contact approach only requires that the pilot has and can maintain visual contact with the ground (not necessarily with the airport).
  2. While ATC can provide a visual approach clearance of its own volition (in addition to after a pilot requests it), a pilot has to request a contact approach: ATC may not issue a contact approach clearance without the pilot having requested it.
KTVL-KTRK Bad Elf Track

KTVL-KTRK Bad Elf Track

(There are a few other subtleties to the contact approach that I’ll skip.)

I couldn’t see the airport. I could see the ground. I knew I could stay clear of clouds and terrain. So, for the first time in my decades-long instrument flying career, I said, “2FR request contact approach.” And, for the first time in my 30-ish year IFR career, I heard, “Mooney 2FR, cleared contact approach.”

I started down, flew north around the ridge, and came in for an easy, smooth landing. After relaxing for a couple of hours, I treated myself to a low-level tour of the west shore of Lake Tahoe.

Emerald Bay

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe

Tahoe west shore

West Shore, Lake Tahoe

Sailing on the Lake

Looking East over Lake Tahoe Sailboats

Truckee Airport from over Highway 267

Truckee Airport from over Highway 267

The Grand Tour: Leg Six, 4D8-KBDU

Into the Rockies today, though just barely, staying on the front range and traversing a big chunk of the Midwest. I’d been watching the weather map, and once again thunderstorms were in the forecast, supported by moisture and frontal activity (stationary front and cold front). The good news was that they and I stayed clear of each other.

A straight shot from Milford to Boulder clips the corner of some military airspace (a “military operations area,” or MOA), about 10 miles after departing Milford. The area’s floor it at 8,000′, and I planned to fly at 12,000′, so I’d be in that MOA—though only for about five minutes. Still, if it was active, I didn’t want to chance interrupting the Iowa Air Guard’s training, especially since I could clear the MOA with but a three mile diversion.

Departure brought a new experience for me: using a “ground communications outlet,” or GCO, to contact air traffic control to get my IFR clearance. Four clicks on the mic over the specified frequency connects the local radio transceiver to ATC (six clicks yields Flight Service) over a phone line. Almost as easy as a direct radio connection, and much simpler than calling ATC on the phone for the clearance.

Lake Okoboji

Lake Okoboji

The Missouri River ("The Big Muddy") at Yangton, Nebraska

The Missouri River (“The Big Muddy”) at Yankton, Nebraska

There was one other benefit of skirting the MOA to its north: weather. There was some interesting weather a little south of the direct course, and that slight diversion would keep me even more clear of it.

The first nice view of the day came very shortly after departure: Lake Okoboji, where I had been visiting family and tending to things.


PIREP over Yankton


PIREP over Sidney

It wasn’t too long before the second of the Midwest’s mighty rivers came into view. I’d crossed the Mississippi the day I arrived at Okoboji, and now it was time for the Missouri. Near Yankton, Nebraska I got a nice shot. I made a pilot report (PIREP) a bit further on to let other flyers know what the conditions really were: 13,000′ overcast, 10ºC, winds from 245º at 40 knots (!), continuous light turbulence. A little over an hour later, over Sidney, I made my second PIREP of the flight: scattered-to-broken clouds at 14,000′ (I was flying at 12,000′), 12ºC, winds from 220º at 16 knots (so much nicer!), no turbulence. Screenshots from ForeFlight show both of these reports (in the second screenshot, the small brown box with white chevrons in the upper left corner shows the location of my Yankton PIREP.)

Triangle and Near-Rectangle of Trees in Nebraska

Triangle and Near-Rectangle of Trees in Nebraska

Are those Letters of Trees?

Are those Letters of Trees?

Nebraskans do interesting things with how they plant their trees, at least if what I saw on this flight is any evidence of that. First, I saw groves planted in shapes: rectangles, triangles, etc. Not solid shapes: outlines. It got more interesting, too: in the picture at right, follow the road from the wingtip away from the foreground. (You’ll probably have to click on the picture to get a larger image.) To the right of a thin, white line (a building), just across the road from the building (to the picture’s right), you’ll see a lush, green pentagon. At the bottom-right of the pentagon, look for a box of dark green. Inside the box—which is made of trees—you’ll see some odd lines and shapes.

Casey in Trees, North Central Nebraska

Yup: writing. Someone named Casey is semi-immortalized in this grove of trees. I wondered with this was a memorial, a self-tribute by an ambitious resident, an expression of love to a husband, wife, or child, or something yet different, perhaps crying to all who could look that Family Casey’s farm was here.

Interesting Cloud Layers, Northern Nebraska

Interesting Cloud Layers, Northern Nebraska

Continuing southwest on an otherwise uneventful flight, the clouds started to build. Clouds below, clouds above: a pretty place to be flying. Some people say large parts of this country are boring, but I disagree. Look carefully, see what there is, observe the subtleties—especially of things we don’t normally see—and few places are boring. Most, in fact, have at least strains of beauty.

The ground began to rise slowly, and it was time for me to do the opposite: descend. I had about 6,000′ to lose, so I didn’t have to start down until much later than I often do (especially on those eastbound legs early in The Grand Tour, when I would start down perhaps 120 miles from destination, instead of the 35 miles or so in this case). Heading toward and approaching Boulder, I got some nice views of the Boulder plains and the front range of the Rockies, capped with snow and topped with clouds.

Not time to relax yet, though: Boulder is a very active sailplane training airport. Those small craft with slim fuselage and slender wings are hard to see, so I watched carefully for traffic, and listened likewise on the radio. Yes, there was sailplane and towplane activity around Boulder, but it’s easy to avoid those if you a) know they’re there, and b) know what they’re likely to do. KBDU has two runways: 8-26 and 8G-26G, with the latter being a turf runway reserved for gliders.

The Rockies, from Boulder

The Rockies, from Boulder