Thursday, February 9, 2012

Under The Radar

A recent batch of home improvement projects has kept me on the ground far more than I would like, but in moving all of the books out of the bedroom then back into the bedroom a few forgotten gems (in other words, books I bought and forgot about) worked their way to the surface like the way winter forces rocks to the surface of a Vermont hayfield.

This book was among them. I don't remember where I bought it, but it looks like a remainder, which is odd because it is still available on Amazon. Trust an academic to buy books on the cheap.

Buderi writes about the development of radar, an important topic for aviation. My own appreciation of its difficulties has grown over the years, and the more I study it the more I realize there is to learn. That makes it a good topic! And, although I am not an electrical engineer, I actually do play one on T.V.

(This requires a little explanation. First, for those not in the US, long ago there was a television advertisement for an over-the-counter medication, whose name is long forgotten, featuring an actor who played a doctor in some television drama proclaiming "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on T.V...." The phrase "...but I play one on T.V." has become a meme. Second, I teach a course called Advanced Engineering Mathematics which a lot of EE students take, and the lectures are televised to our other campus. So, I play an EE on TV...)

Buderi doesn't go into a lot of engineering detail, so the wannabe engineer in me will have to continue to learn the technical details elsewhere.

An odd coincidence in the Buderi book is the prominence of the former Building 20 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which was built to house the Radiation Laboratory, where much of the US work on radar development was done. (Buildings at MIT are generally numbered; the iconic building (left) at the North end of the Mass, Ave. bridge is simply "Building 7".)
An article by Jonah Lehrer in the January 30, 2012 issue of The New Yorker also discusses the development of Building 20 in the context of architectures that favor creative interactions.

This brings to mind two flying stories.

First: when I was flying 414s and King Airs, the airplanes were equipped with weather radar. My training consisted of "Leave the gain on auto and adjust the tilt so the outer third of the display shows ground clutter." No more than that.

But as a curious type I read up on airborne radar, especially the Air Force's navigation manual, which taught bombardiers how to use radar to find targets. I fooled around with putting the set into "map" mode, and developed a plan to find my home airport if on some dark IFR night the radar set was the only piece of working avionics. This was fairly straightforward, because the airport is next to a lake, and it was easy to pick out the lake on the display, unless it was really windy. Then there would be radar returns from the waves.

One day I was alone in a King Air going from Salt Lake City to San Jose. Even at FL260 the route is narrow, surrounded by military airspace on both sides. You can fly J154 or J154, no other options being available.

I was tired and maybe a little groggy from the usual oh-dark-thirty wakeup and bad coffee. I started to have a little trouble staying awake, and there were no passengers or copilot to talk to. I remembered many years ago riding in the jumpseat of a United 757 and hearing the First Officer wondering aloud how come the radar picked up other nearby airplanes. She knew those smudges were other airplanes because they were right under the TCAS symbols.

"King Air blah-blah, traffic, 12 o'clock opposite direction is a 737, 1000 above." This is just a courtesy, since it's Class A airspace. But it put me into action. I turned up the radar gain to its max, reduced the range to 10 miles, and tilted the antenna up just a skootch. I watched. A blob appeared! The next sweep it got closer! And even closer the next sweep!

And there was a 737, flying 1,000' above me!

I spent the trip "painting targets." Even King Air drivers like to play Top Gun. "Mav! The bogey's at 11 o'clock, 6 miles, time to do some of that pilot stuff!" I had no trouble staying awake. Maybe I was violating some limitation of the radar set, but then there was that lack of training.

(For the record, I never would have done this with passengers on board.)

Second is a little less satisfying. I already wrote about it here, so this time I'll quote my NASA ASRS report.

"My planned flight with a student was cancelled due to weather, and he wanted to look inside one of the King Airs in the hangar. The hangar was closed and there were three aircraft packed in fairly tightly. I put him in the left seat of an EFIS King Air that I used to fly, although I am not current in it. I guided him in powering up the Avionics bus and EFIS, but heard a strange noise from the front of the aircraft that sounded like a fan or motor. I commented on it, but could not determine the source of the noise until the MFD powered up. I immediately saw on the MFD that the weather radar was ON, and turned it to the standby position. The sound I heard had been the radar antenna scanning. Luckily, there were no personnel in the hangar, and although we radiated directly at the fuel tank of an airplane in front of us, it was far enough away that there was no danger. But that was just luck.

"Turning the weather radar to standby is part of the after-landing checklist due to the radiation danger to personnel and equipment, and when I flew the aircraft I was extremely careful about this hazard, checklist or no. Frankly, it would never occur to me to check that the radar was in standby before start; that was as sure as that the wings were attached. Whoever flew the aircraft last had neglected this important item, and I was not aware of his omission until I had radiated indoors."



At February 12, 2012 at 7:51 PM , Blogger africanbushpilot said...

I am going to have to try paint some aircraft on the weather radar sometime it sounds facinating (with TCAS off of course.


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