Not Choosing a Flight School

By | Aviation | No Comments

Here in Southwestern British Columbia, aspiring pilots have many training options for the private pilot license (PPL). Spend a little time on the AvCanada forums and you’re bound to come away with more questions than answers. Transport Canada has a good document on How to Select a Flying School that I recommend, but I think the flaw is that it culminates in the choosing of a school.

Don’t choose. You’re not marrying the school.

Instead, be open to change. You’re about to splash out hard earned dollars on training. If you’re not happy with the school, the instructor, the aircraft, or whatever… then move on. You can talk about your concerns with the school (generally a good idea) or simply vote with your feet. But if you’re not happy, grab your Pilot Training Record (PTR) and find somewhere else.

So, what should you be thinking about? The Transport Canada document is good but here are a few of the things I think you should be considering in your PPL journey and how I came to my decision between schools at Squamish (CYSE), Boundary Bay (CZBB), Pitt Meadows (CYPK), and Langley (CYNJ).

  1. Instructors: Without question, instructors are the most important part of the equation. No other factor makes up for them. They need to be competent, obviously. But here’s the rub. You are a know-nothing student! You can’t tell the difference between a good one and a bad one. I liked my first instructor but I honestly didn’t know if he was good or bad. I don’t think there’s a way for a new PPL student to tell. What I did benefit from was flying with different instructors early in my training and that gave me more confidence in their abilities. If I were to do it again, I would take a familiarization flight and get a PTR started at a school and then try another couple of instructors at different schools and then pick one to start diving a bit deeper with. All the hours are loggable toward your training and I think you’ll have a much better feel for their quality after flying with them.
    Remember, more stripes are better!

    Remember, more stripes are better!

  2. School Philosophy: Many of the local flight schools make their money by pumping large numbers of pre-professional students through their licenses so they can immediately sit in the right seat of a 737 and turn on the autopilot shortly after take-off. There’s nothing wrong with that (although I kind of fear those pilots) but you should consider whether the school’s philosophy fits your goals. For me, I’m flying for fun and adventure, and will likely spend 99% of my aviation activities as a single pilot in small aircraft without significant automation. A school that focuses on stick and rudder skills and generally not turning myself into a smoking hole in the ground is the priority for me.
  3. Airport Proximity to Practice Areas: Where are the practice areas in relation to your chosen training airport? Early on in your flight training you will be focused on “airwork” activities. This generally involves flying to the designated practice area, performing maneuvers and then returning. If it takes 0.4 hrs to travel there and back (12 min each way), you’re spending $80 (at an example dual rate of $200) for transit time where someone at a smaller uncontrolled field might only be spending $20. A good instructor will try to ensure that the time is not totally unproductive, of course, but those are real dollars out of your pocket.
    What is 19 nautical miles going to cost you?

    What is 19 nautical miles going to cost you?

  4. Airport Proximity to You: This one is kind of obvious. A closer airport is better for a lot of reasons. Less time in the car is great. And the weather will deteriorate on you cancelling a lesson even though it looked good when you left the house. But I would encourage you to look a bit more broadly. The closest airport to me, Boundary Bay, is a 30min drive. But it involves a major pinch point tunnel so it can easily turn into a 90min drive with traffic. Pitt Meadows and Langley are 40min in good traffic but also suffer from heavy rush hour traffic. Squamish is further afield at 50min but is significantly more consistent of a drive.
  5. Tailwheels: PPL training in a tailwheel aircraft at a similar price to a C172 would be a major plus, although I don’t know of any such place that does that in this region. My current school has a tailwheel airplane, but it’s quite expensive compared to a C172 so I’ve stuck with the Cessna.

Here’s some things I think are less important:

  1. Technologically Advanced Aircraft (aka fancy glass panel avionics): The PPL is focused on visual flying, and that means using that really big plexiglass window-like instrument in front of you. I appreciate the cool-factor of a glass panel but I just don’t think it’ll make a difference in your flying skills. You can learn a fancy panel later. I have also read it is more difficult to transition from glass to round gauges than the other way around, but I don’t know about that one. It seems like the re-learning curve would be similar to me.
    DiamondDA62Panel

    A pretty cool panel for sure, but you can learn it later when you’ve got the money for one of these beautiful beasts.

  2. Weather: It kind of is what it is. Somehow you’ll make it work even with fickle Vancouver springs and falls. I have managed to fly out of Squamish when Pitt Meadows and Boundary Bay are grounded with fog. And I have been grounded by rainstorms trapped up Howe Sound when Vancouver was severe clear. If your priority is getting things done fast, the way to do it is to train full-time during the summer and bang it off. For everyone else, just deal with the weather you’ve got.
  3. Uncontrolled vs. Controlled Airports: I was disproportionately worried about this before my PPL and now I think it’s mostly a non-issue, with a bit of an edge to uncontrolled airports. My original thinking was that I lived in Vancouver, the closest airports to me are controlled, and therefore I should learn where I have to talk to controllers from the beginning. But that mic button is awfully and oddly intimidating and so I think the edge goes to uncontrolled fields because a) you can learn to talk on the radio without worrying so much about being admonished by a controller (don’t worry, your instructor make up for it) and b) the fields often have less traffic and that gives you more flexibility for non-standard maneuvers. And while it’s technically possible to get your PPL without ever talking to a controller, my instructors ensured that both transiting controlled airspace and landing at a controlled field was part of the curriculum. You’ll learn how to talk to them.
  4. Cost: Whoa, cost isn’t important? Well, it is but I believe this mostly takes care of itself if you find the good instructors and a school that fits you. Flight training is a competitive industry and you’ll discover that rates at different schools are pretty close to each other (do check for any “hidden” costs). What’s going to save you money is effective instruction and generally not messing about.

Regardless of school, the most important thing is to get out flying. It’s awesome and my only regret is that I didn’t start sooner.

Optimizing Spotfire Over a Distributed Network

By | Analytics, Spotfire | No Comments

I’ve been working on a project to create an analytical tool using Spotfire. My IT colleagues did a nice job creating a data model for me, and we worked through the bugs on loading the data into SQL Server. So the next step was to create the visualizations in Spotfire.

To my dismay I discovered load times of 30+ minutes for my 11 million row (and growing) dataset. That’s a decent size data set but it isn’t big by Big Data standards. Spotfire should eat that stuff up. Running an identical query closer to the metal in SQL Server Management Studio ran in about 4 minutes. Something was wrong. Here’s what I learned:

  • My support team suggested Data-On-Demand. This reduced load time but because I need around 3-4 million rows minimum I was still looking at 20 minute load times. Not good enough.
  • Next I tried switching from an in-memory Information Link to a in-database Data Connection. In the Spotfire Windows client this worked great, but there are catches. First, you lose Spotfire features. This seems fine until you try that one bloody thing that always worked for you and you can no longer do it. Annoying. The second and bigger catch was that I need my app to work in the Spotfire WebPlayer and the in-database links did not play nicely with our security system. We eventually found a solution to make this happen but if you work in an environment with certain security standards, what seems simple may not be.
  • While waiting for IT to investigate how to make in-database connections work with WebPlayer, I tried to optimize my Information Links. There isn’t a ton of configuration in the Information Link itself, but I discovered that my database and Spotfire server were in different cities and that led me to explore the configuration of the underlying DBConnection. I’m no DBA, so I used the Google and concluded that Fetch Size might be a critical parameter for me. I decided to experiment to see what would happen.
Fetch Size  Rows Retrieved  Time Elapsed

0 (let database decide)

3,780,604

32:05

10,000 (Spotfire default)

3,780,604

11:39

100,000

3,780,604

2:59

1,000,000

3,780,604

2:02

2,000,000

3,780,604

1:55

3,000,000

3,780,604

1:54

1,000,000

11,986,073

5:45

2,000,000

11,986,073

5:52

3,000,000

11,986,073

5:51

11,000,000

11,986,073

5:47

A pretty amazing difference. It’s not clear to me how effective this is if your Spotfire server and database are co-located but it seems to make a big difference when you have some distance between sites. I settled on a Fetch Size of 1,000,000 vs. the 10,000 default value.

  • Finally, after reading an article from Bear on Spotfire I thought I could reduce the amount of data I transmitted across the wire. Instead of one Information Link that joined together four tables into one big wide table, I decided that I could make it work with three separate Information Links sending me tall/skinny tables and then manipulating client-side instead of on the server. With this I was able to cut load times in half again, which meant that for a typical 3-4 MM row load, load times were approximately 1 minute.

The joys of business technology.

The Falsehood of the Minimum Credit Card Payment

By | Personal Finance | No Comments

Over Christmas, my Dad was looking at his credit card statement and noticed that if he multiplied the Estimated Time to Pay Using Minimum Payment by the minimum payment he would actually have paid less than the balance. I thought he was being a bit cranky but I looked at my credit card and sure enough:

Balance: $5123 Estimated Time to Pay: 40 years, 9 months Minimum Payment: $10

Let’s do the math shall we?

489 months × $10 = $4890

So I can pay the minimum payment for the next 41 years and actually pay less than I owe? Sweet!

Of course, that’s a dream. It’s a much uglier situation. A 20% interest rate means that the interest per month is around $85/month. That’s more than the minimum payment, which means that the balance grows and the interest will grow with it. Which means that the card will never ever get paid off at the minimum payments. And I assure you that a risk control system will ratchet down the screws on an unsuspecting customer just at the wrong time.

I don’t have a problem with the product per se. If you’re going to use credit, then you need to take a bit of personal responsibility with it. But a flat out lie? We already have woeful financial literacy in this country – it isn’t right that a financial institution can deliberately mislead a customer.

I posted a query to the “TD Helps” website to ask about the arithmetic and Alex D. from TD Canada Trust replied to my note within 15 minutes (kudos for the blazingly fast response):

The purpose of the “Estimated Time To Pay” calculation is to explain to our customers why it’s important to make more than the minimum payment on the TD Credit Card. I agree that the estimate could indeed be more accurate, however whether a customer is led to believe that it will take 40 years and 9 months or 50 years and 8 months, the message is clear that more than the minimum monthly payment should be made in order to get ahead of the interest costs. I will follow up with your TD Credit Card department and determine how they calculate this estimate and update this thread when I have more information.

I’m still waiting for that follow-up more than a month later. But it’s still an unsatisfactory response in my opinion. The arithmetic is simple and there’s no justification to lie to the Canadian consumer.

Argentina Vacation — Part Two

By | Travel | No Comments

Iguazu Falls

The trip to Iguazu was easy. Cab ride to the airport, a dingy LAN Airlines check-in area at the domestic and much more convenient Aeroparque airport, sit in a gleamingly-new departure lounge, short flight, and arrive to a jungle sea of green.

We stayed at the Sheraton, the only hotel in the park proper, figuring we could maximize our time exploring. The location is undeniably nice but the hotel itself is pretty meh. They’ve got you cornered and they’re full so there’s not much attempt to impress. But whatever, we’re not here for the hotel.

We didn’t have much intel to go on as the concierge gave us a map and had little else to offer in way of advice (see above lack of attempt to impress) and our guidebook was short on details but we walked the lower and upper loop paths on day one, and then took the little tourist train out to the Devil’s Throat viewpoint and did the truck ride/naturalist tour/boat ride on day two. I think we guessed at a pretty good sequence but there’s really no wrong way to do it.

2015-11_Iguazu_Rainbow

Typical poor view of the falls

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Argentina Vacation — Part One

By | Travel | No Comments

This is a bit of a note to self on our 2015 trip to Argentina.

The Trip Down

As always, a trip on a US airline (American in this case) is a good reminder that while whinging about Air Canada is good sport, it is actually one of the world’s most okay-ish airlines. When you really want to see people who hate their jobs, the US airlines take the cake. Despite this, I was pleased to fly in the new Boeing Dreamliner and the trip down was uneventful, which is to say, pretty good. Arrived 30 minutes early too.

Airports are an interesting first impression to a country and Buenos Aires’ Ezeiza is no exception. A modern affair right into the customs hall where we had a solid hour to ponder a government propaganda reel on flat screens. Once at the immigration desk, everybody gets their picture and a thumbprint taken. No questions asked. There are few things more frustrating than a slow queue for no apparent reason but no matter, we get through immigration and the bags still haven’t arrived. The airport instantly changes into a more third world affair, cramped and a layer of grit everywhere. We collect the bags and join a large queue that leads to the customs and X-ray hall. Upon rounding the corner there is a large empty corral obviously meant to tame a queue from filling the baggage hall and having everyone trip over each other. Best of intentions I guess. A scan of our bags is quick and we grab a cab. We struggle to communicate with the driver (our Spanish sucks) but he is friendly and tries to give us restaurant advice as we near our hotel.

Buenos Aires Part One

We bookended the trip with two days in Buenos Aires up front and four days on the end. So a quick intro now and we will have a bit more time to explore on our return.

Rose Garden

The Rose Garden at Tres de Febrero Park

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The Solo

By | Aviation | No Comments

I did my first solo flight June 7, 2015. What can I say, I am not the quickest at this blogging thing. But they say everyone remembers their first solo flight and I wanted to document it.

The Transport Canada Flight Training Manual says the first solo is a “landmark in your flying career … but do not exaggerate its importance”. In hindsight, that’s an accurate statement. I was very much anticipating and pressuring myself about the solo, particularly since my training was delayed a bit. But now that it’s done, it feels like the heavy lifting is yet to come. Yes, I can go up in the airplane by myself on a calm-ish wind day but proficiency still seems a long ways off.

The solo started with some dual time to warm up. I did five laps around the circuit with my instructor Akshay, and on the fifth he said that if I didn’t crash the plane on this one, he’d send me up on my own. I remarked that his standards seemed a bit low.

But sure enough, he got out of the plane.

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Last Bastion of the Fax Machine: The Canadian Medical System (Also: An Aviation Medical in Seven Months)

By | Aviation, Technology | No Comments

If you read about the process of learning to fly, you’re bound to come across advice to get your aviation medical examination early. I thought I was doing it right; I scheduled my medical as soon as I decided to pursue the license and as a healthy, athletically active person I thought it would be simple. Little did I know.

I don’t feel like publishing my medical history on the Internet—that just seems weird to me—but I’m happy to report that I now hold a Transport Canada medical and am fit to fly airplanes. To get it took approximately seven months, most of it waiting for the medically competent, taxpayer funded, but glacially paced Canadian medical system. Waiting for an appointment with a specialist; waiting to get an appointment for tests; waiting for doctors to interpret results; and waiting for administrative staff to fax documents.

Wait, faxing? Permit me a bit of a rant here.

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For the Long Run

By | Business | No Comments

A couple of good articles by Jason Kottke “Asking ‘who’s the customer?'” and a follow on from John Gruber “On the Long-Term Viability of Apple’s Customer-First Strategy” that are worth reading. They both have interesting comments regarding the Church of Maximizing Shareholder Value and how that undermines serving customers well.

Jason Kottke seems to characterise the “big investment banks, mutual funds, and hedge funds who buy their stock” as something completely removed from customers. But he doesn’t go quite enough with his logic. Those entities have their own customers, be they individual retail customers buying mutual funds or institutional customers like pension funds that are paying out to their customers, like the average retired teacher, civil servant, or factory worker (if the pensions are properly funded that is, but that’s another story…). So it goes full circle and perversely this customer pressures the mutual fund (by voting with their money) or institutional investor to perform, and they in turn push on companies to maximize shareholder value by making changes that aren’t necessarily in the interest of  the person who started the whole thing.

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Rebranding the Fuel Surcharge

By | Pricing | No Comments

I was shopping for a flight to London Heathrow in December and noticed that with the rapid drop in crude and fuel prices last Fall, Air Canada quietly rebranded their Fuel Surcharge to “Carrier Surcharge”.

From Air Canada’s site under International (emphasis mine):

Carrier Surcharges: Carrier surcharges are included in the Air Transportation Charges and are collected by airlines to partially offset certain volatile, unpredictable or fluctuating operating costs and fees, and certain fare Premiums linked to peak travel periods. These carrier surcharges can be used to offset some (among others) of the following costs: fuel, navigational charges, or select peak travel dates to/from certain destinations.

It’s not just about fuel anymore, you see? It’s about managing “fare Premiums linked to peak travel periods”! Which sounds a lot like increasing our prices when demand is high. Didn’t that used to happen by changing fares?

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Learning to Fly — This is Going to Require Some Work

By | Aviation | No Comments

[This post was written back in October and I’m just getting around to posting it]

Three flying lessons in and two things are clear: it is very fun and it is challenging. I am not sure how many people get into airplanes and are “naturals” but I don’t feel like I’m among them them!  Clearly, developing this skill is going to require some work. And it doesn’t appear to have any shortcuts.

Each lesson has the same structure: A fifteen minute ground briefing in the classroom where we review some aeronautical principles and how we are going to demonstrate them in the air. I inspect the aircraft and run through various checklists with Nico observing. The 45–60 minute air lesson itself. And then a quick ground debriefing of what went by in a blur. It goes by fast.

Say what you will about the cost of flight training (and my credit card bill will say plenty) but there is something great about a one-to-one learning environment. When my instructor asks a question in the briefing or in the air, there is no hiding place. You better at least take a stab at it. I have probably been doing a better job pre-reading materials than in any degree courses but it is still challenging to recall a fact on the spot with the instructor waiting. And of course, sometimes I’m just wildly wrong. I have a patient teacher in Nico so far. The whole thing forces you to learn concepts quickly and then get in the airplane and use them. It’s great fun.