Skip to content


When a light drone is the right drone

Many years ago, I had a big, spendy drone—the DJI Phantom 2 Vision +. This was a monster of a drone, measuring over a foot along the diagonal between the motors, and probably just under a foot in height—this image gives a good sense of the size of the thing:

It was also heavy, weighing in at 2.7 pounds (1.2 kilograms), and it used a 5200mAh battery to provide a claimed 20ish minutes of flight time, though 15 was more typically what I saw. The camera was mounted on a precision gimbal, providing incredibly smooth video—1080p at 30fps (stills were 14mp), which was very good for the time.

While I liked the big drone, for a part-time hobbyist drone user like me, it was also a pain: I needed a big case to transport the Phantom and its spare parts and batteries and charger, it took a while to set up (install propellers, configure controller, make wifi connections, etc.), and I never mastered flying it low-and-slow (perhaps due to the amount of wind its powerful rotors generated). It was also really loud.

Because of the hassle involved with using the drone, I didn't use it as often as I wanted to. So I eventually sold it, and left the world of drones behind for a few years. But lately, I'd been getting the itch again, and after doing some research, bought something much different…

[continue reading…]

787 takeoffs and landings

This one's only for the aviation geeks, and it goes along with my writeup on the 787. I recorded the takeoffs and landings in both Calgary and London during my 787 trip; if you enjoy such things, here they are (in glorious 4K). Watch for the cameo by the retired Concorde, around the 6:15 mark.

I'm not sure when it will happen, but I'm definitely looking forward to my next flight on a 787!

From the passenger seat: Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner

The Many Tricks company is somewhat unique, as we're a two-person multi-national organization: I'm based in Portland, Oregon, and Peter Maurer, my business partner, lives in Germany. We've met in person a few times—a couple of times at WWDC in San Francisco, and once in Portland (just after we relaunched the company in 2010).

So this time, it was my turn to travel, and in April of 2016, I set out for Germany for a couple weeks. Being something of an aviation freak, though, I couldn't book just any flight to Germany: I wanted to fly on Boeing's newest jet, the 787.

I started with the Airport Spotting site's 787 routes page, which tries to list all 787 flights. I then searched for flights that would get me close to my destination, on my schedule, and meeting my budget.

With those key variables taken into account, and certain flights being sold out, there was literally only one choice that met my needs: An Air Canada flight out of Calgary to London. From there, I'd transfer to another airline for the trip to Basel, Switzerland. (Basel is the closest major airport to Freiburg, Germany, where Peter lives.)

Calgary might appear somewhat out of the way for flying from Portland to London, but it's really not—it's pretty close to being right on the great circle route between the two cities:

And as it's not possible to fly direct from Portland to Europe (at least, not on a 787!), I'd be flying somewhere else first anyway, so why not Calgary?

Things were complicated a bit by the difficulty of getting to Calgary—I had to fly through Seattle first (welcome to the hub-and-spoke system). So my travel day was going to be Portland > Seattle > Calgary > London > Basel > Freiburg. Total travel time from my door to Peter's door would be about 22 hours, which makes for a very long travel day.

On the upside, however, I had this amazing scenery during the flight from Seattle to Calgary…

But this post isn't about the journey—my first with Air Canada, and I have to say I was quite impressed with the service and amenties—it's about the 17 hours (round trip) that I've now spent in the 787…

[continue reading…]

The odd story of the single-country multi-country airport

I have traveled through a fair number of airports in my lifetime, but the EuroAirport is the strangest one I've ever been in. (I was there because it's the closest major airport to Freiburg, Germany, where I was working with Peter, my Many Tricks business partner).

The EuroAirport isn't strange due to layout or location or weird weather or anything. It's strange because the airport itself is split between two countries, even though it doesn't straddle a country border—it's 100% within the territory of France, but a portion of the airport "lies in" Switzerland.

This oddness is a result of the airport's development history: Basel, Switzerland wanted an airport, but lacked the space. France had the space near the town of Mulhouse, but lacked the money.

The two countries agreed to a joint development effort, starting just after World War II. The end result is an airport in France, paid for by Switzerland, and with portions of the airport physically being in Switzerland, despite the airport's location completely within France.

You can actually see this in Apple Maps, as seen in the above-right screenshot. Search on EuroAirport and you can see there's a set of country borders drawn on the airport itself; the outlined region belongs to Switzerland, even though the entirety of the airport lies in France. (Not shown is that the road leading from the airport to Basel is also Swiss property.)

[continue reading…]

The (semi) hidden world of Dulles’ Z gates

I spent the last three-ish weeks on the east coast, visiting family along with various tourist sites. We flew in and out of Dulles International Airport, via a direct flight (oh wow, they still exist!) from/to Portland.

If you've never been through Dulles, it's an interesting airport—though a bit less interesting now than in the past.

In the past, you entered the main terminal, cleared security, and then boarded a bus (a two-headed elevating bus, similar to what's seen in the image at right, often with tails on top to help them be seen from the control tower) to one of the outlying buildings holding the actual gates.

Now most terminals are served by a train system, or via a walkway. But Concourse D is still accessed via the bus, and that's where we were set to fly out. It was just me and my kids for the flight home; my wife had returned a week earlier. We arrived at the main terminal about 90 minutes before departure. After clearing security, we were headed for the bus to Concourse D when I happened to check a departure sign…and discovered that our flight was delayed for 50 minutes. Ugh.

The Concourse D building at Dulles isn't one of the nicest places to wait, especially with kids (it can be noisy and hard to find space to relax). But I didn't really want to head back through security either. Standing there near the entrance to the shuttle busses, I spotted a sign for "Z gates," which I'd never heard of before. So we headed down that way, just to see if we could find somewhere quiet to pass the time before boarding the shuttle bus.

What we found was a wonderful, nearly deserted oasis of peace and quiet right in the heart of Dulles.

[continue reading…]

Demonstrating iMovie’s stabilization feature

On our flight home from Denver last week, our 10-year-old daughter had the window seat. So I asked her to record the takeoff (using a Canon pocket cam with 1920x1080 video). I gave her no tips (she'd never tried this before), other than to minimize any reflections off the window and to try to keep the camera steady.

The results weren't bad, given her lack of experience at such things, but they weren't really usable. So as with my early-morning Portland take-off, I fed the raw video to iMovie's stabilization routine. The end result is nothing short of amazing, with some caveats as noted after the video:

(Also available on my YouTube channel.)

At first glance, the changes are nothing short of extraordinary. The raw video is almost unwatchable in spots, due to the extreme camera movement. The stabilized video, while jumpy in those same spots, is infinitely more watchable. There are some tradeoffs, of course, to get this stability.
[continue reading…]

Aviation geekery: Rainy early morning PDX departure

Earlier this fall, the FAA decided to allow use of electronics below 10,000 feet on flights. As an aviation geek, this was great news; not because I could now use my iPod or whatever all the time, but because I could use my camera to record takeoffs and landings.

In particular, I think takeoffs are amazing events, wherein a huge multi-ton semi-controllable beast of a machine on the ground transforms itself into a powerful and graceful master of the skies, seemingly weighing nothing and covering vast distances at over 500 miles an hour. But I wax off-topic…

I don't fly all that often any more, and yesterday was my first flight since the rule changes went into effect. It was also a very early departure (5:40am takeoff), so it was pitch black outside. Plus it was overcast and a bit rainy.

Nonetheless, I couldn't let the opportunity pass me by, so I recorded the takeoff and initial climb out of Portland. There's even a bit of commentary, for the sake of my daughter sitting next to me.

(For the best visual experience, click the gear icon to choose 1080p, and then zoom to full screen.)

Despite the darkness and rain (or perhaps because of it), I find the resulting video to be mesmerizing…but that's mostly because I am an aviation geek, and love this stuff. If you'd like the technical details behind the video, keep reading.

[continue reading…]

A visit to an amazing aviation museum

evergreenlogoIf you're an aviation enthusiast (as I am), and you're ever in Oregon, you owe yourself a trip to the Evergreen Air and Space Museum.

Despite living here for nearly 20 years, I'd never been until last week. The kids had a day off school, and we had some tickets we'd bought during a fundraiser for OMSI, so we went and made a day of it.

The museum has a large collection (100+) of aircraft, all in impeccable shape. In addition, there's quite a collection of space memorabilia, including a full-size Titan rocket. The star attraction, though, is the Spruce Goose, Howard Hughes' massive flying boat. There's also a waterpark whose key feature is four water slides that drop out of the side of an actual 747, which sits on top of the water park's building. Our passes included cockpit access to the Spruce Goose as well as a tour of the cockpit of the 747 sitting on top of the waterpark.

As you might expect of an aviation enthusiast, I snapped a ton of pictures. The more bearable of my efforts can be seen in this album (set to open in a new window). You can navigate with the on-screen buttons, the arrow keys, or by clicking directly on each image; you can also resize your browser window, and the image sizes will adjust.

If you enjoy all things aviation, you should put the Evergreen Air and Space Museum on your list; it's definitely worth the time and effort it takes to get there.

Trip report: Destin, Florida

Last week, we took the kids to a family reunion in Destin, Florida. For those who've never been (as I hadn't prior to last week), here are some observations from my experiences.

  • Highway 98, the main arterial road that runs up and down the peninsula, is seemingly always crowded. This is especially true on Saturday and Sunday. We sent some folks on a grocery run to a Sam's Club when we arrived on Saturday. It was 16 miles away, and it took them nearly an hour to get there. The rental office was five miles from the bridge where we crossed to the peninsula, and it took nearly 20 minutes to cover that distance.
  • The sand (at least on Crystal Beach, which is where we stayed) is simply astonishing. Pure white and very soft, with nary a hard shell to poke you in the foot.
  • The water temp near the surface was 80F+, and very pleasant. Waves are generally small, but large enough for the kids to enjoy some boogie boarding. We went scuba diving one day (though Destin isn't the greatest of dive destinations), doing two relatively short dives (as they were somewhat deep). One decent picture at right.
    The water temp was about 73F to 77F at 60 to 85 feet; we wore 3mm wet suits, which kept us warm enough for the two dives.

[continue reading…]

Indoor flying fun

For quite a while, I've wanted an electric radio controlled (R/C) helicopter--one of the small ones you can fly around inside the house. Over the last couple years, I've tried cheap versions (complete waste of money; they fly like crud), and the expensive versions seemed too, well, expensive for what would be nothing more than a silly time waster.

Then, just before Christmas, E-Flite released the new Blade mCX, a smaller, lighter, and easier-to-fly version of their Blade CX2. The CX2 was one of the expensive models I'd passed on earlier. The mCX, however, comes in $50 cheaper than the CX2, and came close enough to my self-imposed $100 limit that I bought myself one for Christmas :). (Click the image at left [and any image in this writeup] for a larger view.)

After only a few minutes with the mCX, I was hooked. This machine is unlike any other R/C helicopter I've ever tried to fly. Within a couple minutes of my first power-up, I had it hovering in place, and could maneuver it relatively well. Even for me, a complete novice to R/C flying, this machine is incredibly easy to fly. R/C purists probably dislike it, though--relying on dual counter-rotating rotor blades and a gyro, the mCX isn't a "real" R/C helicopter in any sense. But for my desires, it's (nearly) perfect.

The mCX weighs one ounce (with battery), and has a rotor span of just 7.5 inches. Everything about this machine is tiny, including the motors (the round items in the image at left) and the battery (visible at the bottom of the image; it's got a red dot on it). The front of the machine is the brains, though--a circuit board there holds the gyro, motor control units, fully proportional servos, and radio receiver. Amazing that it all weighs but an ounce.

Combine that with very sensitive flight controls, and you can fly the mCX almost anywhere--I've flown it above the garage's workbench, for instance. The throttle is amazingly precise, making it easy to fly at whatever altitude you desire. As a brief example, here's a video of me flying around in the den, trying to keep the mCX within view of the fixed video camera:

Read on for more about this amazing little machine...
[continue reading…]