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Thursday, May 17, 2012

A Thai Adventure

"The Girl, the Sold Watch, and Everything"

--A Thailand Adventure

went our little scooter, put-putting at full hamster motor speed to haul our two “Farong” (Westerner) tushies up the  winding Thailand hillside.
Eyes squinted in determination and tongue chewed in concentration, I fishtailed up the wrong (left) side of the twisting, 2-lane, rice noodle road.  Blasting their horns in warning, overcrowded buses, Tuk Tuks and scooters whizzed by, from both ways —  in Thailand, traffic lanes, lights and laws are only a friendly suggestion.
The Girl...
My travel buddy Lisa did an admirable job of not squealing in terror . . . too often.  But if her nails had not been gnawed to the nubs, my sides would have been shredded into fish gills.
“800 baht!” the street vendor’s voice still rang in my ears, in concert with the whine of the hamster motor and horn shrieks.  “It’s good watch, Boss!  For you, good price!”
That line.  “For you, good price!”  Do they hammer that line into every street hawker the world ‘round?  Of course, it invites haggle, and after 3 weeks I had once again mastered the Art of the Deal, rather than the standard American reply of, “Duh, okay!”
The Sold Watch...
My previous watch died, appropriately, on Day One of our trip.  I happily ditched the watch, and my obsession with time thereof, for the rest of our Thai sojourn.  But now, with airline time tables looming a scant few days away for my 30-hour, 10-time zone trek home, I began to once again hanker for a reliable, if not too flashy, time piece.
As a pilot, I’m picky about my watch.   But I’ve never bought into the silly,  thousand dollar wonders marketed as “You’re not a real pilot unless you have a Breitling like good ol’ Captain John Travolta here.”  More bells, dials, whistles, and aerodynamic gleaming alloy than his Boeing 727.  Guaranteed to send the airport X-ray scanner into convulsions.  All status symbol and flash.  But does it actually tell time?
...and, well, you know...
Me, I go for practical.  Dual time — one digital, one analog — to keep me upright while zigzagging the time zones; day and date prominently displayed; an alarm and, well, ok, a stopwatch if you must.   Not too big, not too flashy.  $32.99 at Walmart.
Our travel mates, Brian and Beth, lean that other way, though.  To wit, Lisa and I politely tagged along as they scoured the Phuket Island vendors in the city of Patong for the ultimate deal on Rolex knock-offs . . . or Folex, as we came to mockingly call 'em.
For you, Boss, NOT good price!
Eyes darting furtively about, the winning vendor smuggled us into his super secret back room and plied Brian with only the “best of the best.”  A veteran of Thai travels, Brian talked him down from 6000 to 2700 baht — $90 for two pieces of the finest, flashiest junk the 3rd World had to offer.
From 800 baht, I’d talked my vendor down to 350.  $12.  Not bad for a novice Farong, but still more than a local, or even Brian, would pay.  I didn’t mind.  One-third the price of Walmart.  Good price, Boss!

Profession: Pilot.  Career: Traveler!

So why was our Little Engine That Barely Could struggling to haul our Farong derrieres up over the hill and back to the mayhem of Patong?
Because, two hours later, the big and little hands still displayed 10:20 a.m. — the exact time of my smokin’ watch deal.   Unless we were trapped in a black hole, my $12 wonder watch had stopped working.
Or, to be more precise, had never worked to begin with.  The analog hands, that is.  The digital LED portion reported, correctly, the current local time as 12:32.
Much to my dismay, I knew, we were most certainly not trapped in a time warp.
Team Aloha! —Lisa, Cap'n, Brian & Beth
So, reluctantly ripping ourselves away from our beach chairs and Chang beers (80 baht, good price!), Lisa and I zigzagged our way back to the point of sale.
Knowing that my street vendor may suddenly close for lunch if he spied me approaching with a return, I surreptitiously slipped up to the stall pretending to be a new customer.  I was immediately greeted with another, “For you, good price, Boss!”

Smiling, I held up the defunct watch.  “No good, Boss!” I replied.
Deer in headlights look.  With surprisingly minimal hassle, I got a new, if different, watch — Thai street dealers never seem to have the same two time pieces, but rather a mishmash of random stock.
“Instruction manual?” I asked.  Digging through a stack of manuals, the boy thrust a random booklet into my hand.   At least the thing had the same manufacturer name as was printed on the face of the watch.
Little monks, biiiig Buddha!

Back over the hill we put-putted, my new wonder piece gleaming on my left wrist.
Did I mention April is Thailand’s hottest, muggiest month?  Think Atlanta summer plus ten degrees temp and humidity.  Drenched in sweat, we jumped into the pristine water for a few minutes' respite before settling back in our beach chairs and ordering up a coupla new, nearly cold, Changs.
Still skeptical about the new watch, I checked the analog dials.  Still happily tic-tocking away!  That’s when I noticed the digital part.  Foggy with seawater, with the LED display all smeared!
Nothing short of a $12 watch could rip me away from this slice of heaven!

Deer in headlights.  Unsure, the young vendor nervously glanced at his boss.  “Here,” the stall owner said, thrusting a new time piece into my hand.  “Here is better watch!  You go now and no come back!”
“No worries, mate!” I replied, knowing that, functional or no, I was not hauling our kiesters back over the mountain and away from our beachside Changs for yet another $12 piece of dysfunctional junk.  
Thai Food Fiiiiight!!!
Back on our little patch of sand-strewn paradise, dripping wet with cool seawater and clasping new semi-chilled beers, the pilot in me ran through a mental, “3rd World Time Piece FunctionalityChecklist:
Analog hands tick-ticking test — Check!
Post-swim digital LED test — Check!
Nightlight luminosity test — Check!
Day, Date, Year reasonably correct test — Check!
3rd World Time Piece Checklist” — Complete!
Tuk tuk?  No, Tusk Tusk!
I am proud to report that, after an entire week, multiple time zone crossings, now half a world away and back in the office at 35,000’ enroute to STL, my new timepiece keeps on tickin'!  As the setting sun reflects off the clouds below, my Thai wonder still precisely reads the time as 10:20 am.

P.S. — Both Brian and Beth had to return their $90 wonders at least once as well.  To date, both have been eerily silent on reporting current functionality!
P.P.S. — Oh, ya, and Thailand has lots of cool places to see, eat, ride elephants, snorkel, hike, rock climb, party and stuff.   Lotsa giant gold Buddha’s, cool temples and the like.  But you can figure that out by reading your Lonely Planet guide book.  Cheers!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Busted Aviation Myths #2: Otto is My Copilot

Otto is my Copilot

“That’s a pretty hi tech autopilot ya got there!  I mean, those things practically fly themselves, right?!”

Uh, only if you call the cruise control in your car the Designated Driver.

Otto's 2D 1st Cousin
Autopilots are extremely sophisticated.  They can fly from here to TOM (Timbuktu) with uncanny precision, nailing every waypoint within seconds of the programmed time, inches of the programmed altitude, and even land in zero/zero visibility.
Just like a robot vacuum cleaner, which you can program to traverse every inch of your carpet. But don't dare move the furniture!
The real McCoy: the A320 FCU
(Flight Control Unit)
Photo courtesy of b.heidema's photostream at

Same with Otto.  For all its bells and whistles, the most sophisticated autopilot in the world doesn't know when to push back from the gate.  Or start the engines.  Order more fuel when the weather's looking iffy.  Or even how to miss another plane, building or thunderstorm.
Can your cruise control decide when to stop for a yellow light?
The autopilot is a computer.  A tool.  It does what you tell it to do, nothing more.
It processes, but it doesn't think.

Corollary Myth: 
Oh, and that whole Myth about highly automated cockpits degrading the pilots' ability to fly?
Again, another Q:  does your car's cruise control degrade your driving skills?
Thought not.

Captain Arrogant D'bag--er, Alec Baldwin!

(reader-submitted): "While I think Alec Baldwin was an arrogant d’bag for rudely disobeying a flight attendant’s orders to shut his phone off*, I kinda agree that, c’mon, it’s not gonna bring down the plane, right?!"

MYTH BUST (sorta):

No, your single iPhone, Kindle or PSP will (probably) not affect your flight.  But just think about 100 passengers all playing Words With Friends on their phones inflight.  And while you may be operating your Razor in “Airplane mode,” the guy next to you may have forgotten to shut his off.
Modern aircraft have sensitive electronic systems located throughout the plane, including (but not limited to) GPS, inertial guidance, VOR/DME/ILS, and other navigation and communication devices.   While there certainly is some shielding from electronic interference, there simply has not been enough testing of each plane under every condition.  Therefore, to err on the side of safety, the FAA has issued a blanket restriction on electronic devices during critical phases of flight (ie, below 10,000 feet.)

Take heart, though: if you don’t like today’s rule, just like the weather, it’s guaranteed to change!  As for the inflight phones and other electronic entertainment systems on your aircraft, they have been tested for that particular aircraft.
And please, be civil and obey the flight attendants' wishes in these matters.  Their job is to enforce the rules, not make them!  And if they were to let you slide, they themselves could be fined!

Personally, I have been flying during the final game of the World Series and noticed significant nav anomalies, as passengers secretly listened to their AM radios.  I had to make several PA’s and finally threatened to divert and arrest the perps to get the interference to stop!  (As a compromise, ATC relayed scores to us, which we passed onto the pax!)
Sorta Busted!

Girl, don't touch that dial!

(reader-submitted): "I've been wondering, can a guy really sneak up through the landing gear and into the cabin like they always do in Hollywood movies?" - Bon
Grrr, Hollywood make Cap'n very angry!   No, no, no, no, NO!  You simply can't do half the shenanigans Hollywood whips up to bedazzle and anesthetize with their opiate of the masses!  (Sorry, but when it comes to Cap'n's "willing suspension of disbelief," during airplane scenes, Hollywood's on a very short leash!)

If one were moronic enough to crawl up into the gear well of a departing airplane (and it's certainly been done several times**,) if the gear don't crush you when it's retracted, the prolonged cruise in subzero temps at umpteen thousand feet (read: NO OXYGEN) will!

"Owl Be Back!  After knifing my way through the cabin floor, crawling down the still-extended landing gear, and gently dropping to a convenient swamp only a few yards below the plane while it's taking off..."
What's more, the cabin of a modern airliner, as mentioned in our last myth-busting blog, is a near-hermetically sealed pressurized metal tube.  Once L1 is locked (front left boarding door), nothing short of Chuck Norris - whom we all know can do any damn thing he pleases - can get in our out.  Not even the Governator!***

*See Alec Baldwin Booted from American Airlines flight.

**Interesting Stowaway factoids: 

  • In 1928, 19 year-old Clarance Terhune became the first successful stowaway to cross the ocean when he snuck aboard the Graf Zepplin airship.
  • Our most recent landing gear stowaway tragedy that made headlines happened in Massachusetts in  November, 2010.
  • Miracles do happen: one guy, one time, actually survived!  (Cap'n still can't figure this one out!!)

***See more Hollywood airplane myths busted at

"The Girl, the Sold Watch, and Everything"
A Thailand Adventure!