Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Leica Q Review - A Red Dot Renaissance?

Just for fun, I'll start at the end - this is a great camera, and I only wish it were mine.  Yes, the basic rangefinder design still has some interesting shortcomings, but successive generations of Germanic engineering evolution have yielded a truly satisfying, 21st century digital camera, capable of delivering outstanding image quality.  Any operational shortcomings can mostly be rectified by firmware updates, and it's a suitably good-looking, modern device, thereby ensuring that owners should feel happy with what they've bought for years to come.  And that's key because, being a fixed lens digital, "what you see is all you get"; buying into the Q means no ability to swap lenses, and of course no chance to change sensors (though with 24 MP, full-frame sensor on tap, there'd really be little point in doing so).  Also on the plus side, it is "mainstream Leica" enough to offer the chance of strong residuals, and the entry price is lower than anything comparable in what some would call the "true" Leica catalogue of M- and S-badged products.

St. Nectan's Waterfall, Nr. Tintagel

But there is one question that needs asking: is this indeed the first model in a new family of "Leica Ms for the masses", or a one-off exercise aimed at testing out some new EVF, sensor, and software-corrected lens technology?  Time will tell, of course, and for many that's all beyond the point: it's a real Leica; it's lineage is clear; and the appeal is obvious.  So now it only remains to dig-in and see if $4,000 + buys you everything you'd expect from a camera bearing that iconic logo.

Grimspound, Dartmoor

Firstly - and perhaps obviously - this is in no way a professional review.  I rented the camera from LensRentals to give me something different to use on a visit to the UK.  This was not a photographic trip, but rather a holiday with family and friends.  Therefore, taking a Canon 1D body, tripod, multiple lenses and a backpack, would have been both a pain to travel with and mean that I'd be slowing everyone down, interfering with what was supposed to be their vacation, too.  Now, I have not owned a Leica before, though I did have a rangefinder for a while some forty-plus years ago, but am experienced enough to the point where I knew in advance what I was letting myself in for: less flexibility than a DSLR perhaps, but in return a whole deal smaller, lighter and more nimble of a travel camera, and with the promise of world-class optics to boot.

Cornwall Churchyard

Secondly, I don't tend to shoot much in the way of street photography, nor do I own anything quite wide enough to equate to the Q's 28 mm lens on a full-frame sensor.  Therefore, this would be both a test of the camera and of my ability to find something interesting to do with it.  In addition, I was also taken with the idea that a fixed, wide-angle view would force me to move around more vs. standing still and zooming in order to get the frame I wanted, a bad habit that I ferry confess I do tend to slip into far too often.

Summer Blooms

Lastly, most of what I do is black-and-white.  In fact, what I really wanted to rent was the latest 246 iteration of the Leica Monochrom, a camera I really applaud Leica for both producing in the first place, and then for sticking with and updating.  Alas, when factoring in the rental price of both the body and a couple of lenses, the costs went far beyond what I could justify for a two week trip.  Maybe next time.


So that's the set-up.  I'd be shooting with something optimized for the wide-view/close-up style of picture making, with optics known for their excellent color-rendition and accuracy, in a small, light (if somewhat idiosyncratic) body style.  Let the fun begin!

Plum Tree

My initial impression will come as no surprise to existing Leica owners, but this is a well built, solid-feeling camera, that's a pleasure to behold and to, well, hold.  The controls feel well-weighted, with a reassuringly precise feel to the aperture ring, lens focussing action, and shutter release.  The only gripes I had over two weeks of use was that it was a little easy to go past f1.7 and end up in "A" mode, and in switching on and off I sometimes found the camera on "Continuous" instead of "Single-shot" mode.  Over time I'm sure this finger trouble would smooth out and muscle memory would help alleviate the glitches, but I did catch myself out a couple of times.

The electronic viewfinder is very well implemented, with a clear, bright view on offer of the outside world, and I found it easy to read the information provided with or without glasses (though the diopter adjustment wheel was a bit fiddly to turn, especially if you try to do it while looking through the EVF in order to find the clearest setting!)  Having had a brief opportunity to try the Sony A7, I'd applaud Leica for going one step further in this area, producing an EVF that just gets out of the way; if it weren't for the all the additional information available, you'd have to work hard to realize that this is not an optical system.  And while on displays, ditto for the rear screen.  This (touch) screen is great for working through the menus, and is bright enough for reviewing pictures or using live view in all but the strongest sunshine, though given that we were in the UK in summer then this probably wasn't the sternest of tests ....

Books - Lanhydrock House

So far, so good.  However, all is not perfect in the packaging department.  When trying to shoot in vertical format using the viewfinder, the overall handling now feels a bit clumsy.  Partly, this is due to the fact that the viewfinder is at the far left of the body, so it's hard to find a comfortable and supportive place for the left hand to go to. And partly it's because the shutter release button now finds itself a bit of a reach away, and if you use the separate button on the back for focussing, which I do, then this, too, is now tricky to work in consort with taking the shot.  Oh, and if you are using the rear-screen for live view and then turn the camera vertical to change the orientation to portrait, odds-are that your left palm will obscure the sensor that normally recognizes when you bring the camera to your eye and it will turn the screen off, leaving you momentarily perplexed as to what on earth might be going on - "why did everything just go blank?"

St. Dunstans In The East

Overall though, this is an easy and intuitive camera to use.  Set everything to "A" and just start shooting, and then flavor to taste as you get more comfortable with how it all comes together.  I ended up setting it for auto ISO, auto shutter speed, and aperture priority, adjusting exposure via exposure correction as required.  This is very easy to do, allowing you to quickly and easily dial-back any over-exposure warnings showing up in the view-finder or on the screen.  However, there is a disadvantage to this approach - the warnings shown in the EVF or on the rear screen disappear as soon as you use the exposure compensation wheel, meaning that you have to keep going over to metering mode to see how far you've pulled things back relative to what's previously been shown as clipped.  (For a great summary of this and other firmware-fixable issues, Ming Thein has posted an excellent review from a professional's standpoint, and one that's from an experienced Leica user to boot.)  The only other thing that bugged me, but may well be down to a setting somewhere I never found, was that when using the EVF I'd get a review image projected there showing me how the picture I just shot came out.  The time this was there for before live view came back could be adjusted, but not to be short enough for my tastes.  Too often, when things were happening quickly, I just wanted the live view to be there continuously; having to part-press the shutter again to dismiss the image I just shot was an unnecessary distraction.

Harbour Entrance

One final - but critical - area that can make or break how successful you can be using any given camera, is focussing.  I have to say that I think Leica has nailed autofocus extremely well in the Q.  Except for a couple of occasions when I had to go manual, automatic focussing via the central spot in the viewfinder worked beautifully.  Personally, I like to separate focus control from the exposure control and so set the Q to assign focus to a small button on the rear, leaving exposure lock for the half-pressed shutter release.  In an ideal world I'd like the rear focus button to be a bit bigger, but it was OK and I'm sure with more user-time under my belt then I'd get used to both the size and the location.  But even with just a few days use, following my usual focus-compose-shoot approach was soon as automatic with the Leica as it has always been with my Canon 1D.

Egyptian Victoriana

Alas, I didn't have much chance to work with manual focus, but here it's clear that the Q also excels.  The focus ring was smooth and responsive, and the coupling of focussing with the ability to magnify what's shown in the EVF was very well done.

One additional feature, which was both very well implemented and produced great photographic results, was the ability to switch quickly and easily into macro mode.  Just by turning a ring set behind the distance scale (and how wonderful it is to find one of those on a camera again!) you now have an immediate ability to focus down to just over 6 inches.  Combine that with a sharp f1.7 lens, and it really does open up a whole range of creative possibilities that can only otherwise be achieved with a lot of additional messing and fussing on a DSLR.  This feature alone could make the Q a game-changer, and it has been implemented extremely well by Leica with that macro-setting ring also swapping over the distance markings on the focussing ring to match.  Lovely.

Church Sculpture

Mechanics aside, let's now begin to look at answers to the real questions at hand: can the Q produce results that set it apart from the competition and that justify it's lofty price tag?  Briefly, yes to both, absolutely no problem.  Colour, clarity, and contrast are all outstanding, and are there for the taking from f1.7 through to f16.  I'm sure there are sites out there detailing how and where this lens is at its sharpest or has the highest resolving power, but I just don't care.  Get those DNG images into Lightroom and you'll find that they have that certain "something".  Call it a three-dimensional feel, call it micro contrast, call it what you will, the net result is that, with a little bit of practice, this camera will produce outstanding results.  I kept stabilization off, largely because it's a 28mm lens so it should be unnecessary in most situations, and tried instead to pay attention to holding it steady, getting the right aperture and exposure, and exploring the real changes in composition 28mm gives you in return for a small change in position or perspective.  In return, I was rewarded with razor sharp, colorful images regardless of settings used.  At f1.7, the out of focus areas are dreamily-smooth, and so long as you have focussed and composed correctly then the razor thin focal plane will deliver fabulous results.  At f16, you have all the DoF you will ever need, and can use it with impunity thanks to essentially noise-free operation up to ISO 800, with very usable results up to ISO 2000.

The Shard

Embankment Sign

Because the Q is so light, compact, and is such a joy to use, you find yourself taking it along when otherwise you'd think twice about carrying a larger camera.  That alone means you get better results, if for no other reason than you now have more pictures in the catalogue to work with.  A small camera bag (included in the LensRentals shipment) meant I could carry the Q, a tiny table top tripod, a bottle of water, and a packet of Polo mints (it is the UK remember) all together, and still have room for other small things as shopping opportunities arose!

Post-trip, Lightroom seemed to do a very credible job indeed of rendering the DNG files, showing that everyone is better off when the camera companies focus on what they are best at and leave Adobe and others to deliver world-class processing of raw files.  Lens correction is automatically applied, and it turns out that this is an integral part of the Leica Q package.  I opened up one of the files using AccuRaw (a black and white converter) and was quite surprised to see the degree of correction that Lightroom is automatically applying.  Vignetting in particular was very evident in AccuRaw, to the point where you'd have to question the viability of this design without built-in software assistance, though surely that's the point.  Looking ahead, software-corrected lenses will, I believe, become increasingly important across all market segments, not just cell phones, and here Leica is simply pointing the way of the future.

I did find a glitch or two in how color temperature values were being reported, but again I'm sure this will be improved in future Lightroom releases.

Another feature I found to be of some use, though I'm still not sure I'd use it in the long run, was the option to have an electronic level in the viewfinder.  Even so, when looking at the files in Lightroom, I still found myself making minor corrections to some via image rotation, which makes we wonder if the distraction of having something else in your field of view when trying to compose a scene, get the exposure right, check the settings, etc. is the right trade-off after all.

Low Tide

When processing an image you can either use the Adode Standard profile (though only one vs. the range of profiles offered for other cameras) or the one that's embedded in the image, with each giving subtly different renditions.  The Adobe setting looks the flatter of the two, at least to my eyes, with the embedded profile offering a bit more pop to the colours; again, I'd expect future Lightroom releases to offer more in this area as future updates roll-around.  However, the DNG files already hold up very well to Adobe's current implementation of the Q's Raw processing needs, and it's worth noting that converting to black-and-white produces some excellent results, to the point that it almost weans me off my day-dreaming of winning the lottery and buying the type 246 Monochrom.  Almost.

But now let's cut to the chase: the pictures.  What do the photographs look like - how do they make you feel?  I don't mean 100% crops of the 1x1, pixel-level reviews, but rather real images either viewed on-screen or in print.  I've of course included a few examples here, but I have to say that these JPGs just don't do the Leica justice.  The resulting pictures, especially when viewed in Lightroom on a Retina-equipped Macbook, have more depth and detail than anything else I have seen.  The colours seem natural and yet with a nice level of "pop" to them, and feel well balanced right across the spectrum (though just one caveat ... I'm a bit colour blind, so don't take my word on this as gospel!)  Shadow detail looks very good and stands up well to being aggressively lifted in Lightroom if required.  Though I've not yet had the chance to print much of anything and hence that assessment is largely from a pixel/screen standpoint, I don't imagine it will be much different on paper.

City View

Black and white conversion yields great results, even using just Lightroom's standard filters, and I have no doubt that, with a bit more work on nailing the processing workflow, that this will prove to be an outstanding B&W camera.  Kudos here to Leica for having the wisdom to bin the AA filter, because I think it really allows the processing software to take maximum advantage of the built-in sharpness and colour accuracy of the Leica glass.

Kitchen Range - Lanhydrock House

Wish list?  I'd like a mini-histogram available in the viewfinder to really help get the exposure setting right, and I'd like to have more features that could be assigned to the user-configurable button on the back of the camera, most notably the exposure-bracketing setting.  I'd also love to be able to work primarily with the viewfinder, but to then have the option of just pressing the "menu" button to allow access to the rear display when needed for function setting or live viewing.  Hitting that button and seeing the menu options appearing in the viewfinder, rather than on the rear screen, is still a bit weird for my tastes!  Right now, your only available options are basically to use the viewfinder, or to use the screen and the viewfinder together, with the auto-detect function turning the rear-screen off when you bring the camera up to your eye.

Another nit, easily fixed in firmware, is to offer the option to just record DNG: right now, you still have to have a JPG file recorded onto the memory alongside the DNG file, thereby at the very least wasting space on the memory card (something that is at a bit of a premium, as the typical DNG file consumes north of 40 Mb).  No idea why, but I suppose it made sense to someone at Leica to force this dual-format requirement. Oh, and the lens cap kept falling off the lens hood, something I frankly didn't expect to find on a camera costing north of $4,000.


In many ways, it's tempting to compare this camera to the Porsche 911.  Both derive from a specific and rather particular design choice, and both have been re-worked numerous times in pursuit of achieving a perfectly balanced product.  However, perhaps that's the wrong yardstick in this case.  Although I think the constant development of Leica rangefinders in general mirrors the way Porsche has evolved the idiosyncratic "engine slung behind the wheels" configuration of the 911, to the point where the negatives of that design have been engineered-away, something else it at play here.  The Leica Q might better be compared to a Porsche Boxster - a broader-market model, aimed one step below the flagship range, but one that leverages all of the heritage, design and engineering excellence embodied by it's elder sibling. And therein lies the equivalent challenge Leica have set for themselves.  Will the Q build a unique following, or simply eat into the digital M range sales?  As raised earlier, is this camera aimed at those who want a Leica M but can't afford it, or are they trying to win new buyers from the ranks of those who just want a high-end point-and-shoot, have money to spend, and are willing to pay the premium for a Leica badge?  Time will tell if this is the start of the re-invention of the M range, or just another evolutionary dead-end as Leica continue to search for a growth strategy moving forwards.  Meanwhile, the Leica Q is a hell of a camera, and one that Leica can be proud of.  It embodies both their heritage and their new-found drive to reach into the future, an accomplishment which, as Porsche can tell you, is no mean feat!  It's very nature meant I got some shots I wouldn't normally have been able to achieve, and I found it a joy to use.  28mm is indeed a challenging focal length, but if you decide to work with it, rather than spending time wishing you had another focal length available, then you will really come to appreciate what it can do for your photography.

Verdict: highly recommended.  Those lucky enough to own one will, I am sure, be thrilled with what it does and how it does it.  Like with the Porsche Boxster or the Cayman, so with the Leica Q.  Those are fantastic driver's cars, and keenly priced considering what's in the package.  Enjoy them for what they are and don't get hung-up on not having the 911 badge in your garage.  Similarly, a Leica Q might not have the cachet of the M-series, but it's a brilliant camera that stands tall purely on its own merits.  Buy one and bank the savings over an M, or save that bit extra and buy one over the other cameras out there chasing the same market.  You won't regret it.

Greenhouse Memorial

Giant Leaf - Lost Gardens of Heligan

Monday, August 6, 2012

Flying Across America - Part VI

At last, civilization!  Or at least, what seems to be so when the basic criteria you apply is "has a taxi service".

We'd called ahead in our never ending quest for overnight hanger space and so the airport manager had kindly agreed to leave one side of the hanger open for us, but only with the strictest instructions about not blocking-in the air ambulance!

While waiting for the taxi to arrive to take us to a nearby hotel (we were only 5 miles outside of Blythe) I heard some odd engine notes in the background and went to see what was happening.

A Pair Of Ospreys Landing Near Blythe, CA

It turned out that a flight of three Ospreys set up an approach and landing into the desert just north of the airstrip.  I've seen them on the ground as s static display, but never before when operational.  I know that the development process for these aircraft was immensely challenging, but they really are an impressive site, especially as they transition from one flight mode to the other.

Taxi; hotel; Sizzler; bed.  Another of those exciting on-the-road kind of nights, then!  Honestly, by that stage, and remembering we'd just flown 8.7 hours for five legs, all in desert heat, all I cared about was air-conditioning and sleep.

07:00 and the sole taxi (same car, same driver) was back at the hotel, and we were soon back at Blythe airport.  With luck and a final push, today should see us back at home base.

For the first leg, we aimed to do Blythe (BLH) to Barstow-Daggett (DAG).  Working through it the night before, our best option this time was to follow an old railway line north west through the desert before picking up another road, this time Route 40, to take us straight to Barstow.  With the early morning light filtering through some mid-level clouds, the desert & surrounding mountains looked beautiful as we flew across open territory.

The other joy about this sort of "off the beaten track" flying is that you come across really unexpected things, such as the small, inactive volcano and lava field we found here. Still, you can't also help pondering how long you'd have to wait for help in some of these areas if forced to set down.  (Note to self: get personal ELT beacon for next trip if aircraft doesn't have one installed!)

We made it to DAG in 2.1 hours, stopping again for fuel, weather briefing and water before tackling the next leg to Bakersfield (L45).  This would mean crossing over the lower-end of the Sierras and so we spent some time talking over the options.  However, it was already clear that one choice - the Tehachapi Pass - was off limits as the briefers warned us that a TFR was in effect due to fire-fighting operations.  Plan B was to head south towards I5 and the Grapevine, where we could either follow a VFR flyway (if it was easy to spot from ground references) or just go back to following the Interstate (also good as I had already checked the maximum altitude of the Grapevine before leaving home.)

Approaching The Grapevine (The Quarry Is A VFR Landmark)

Once again, Mother Nature was exceedingly kind to us.  Not only was visibility excellent. but the winds were light and so we crossed the Sierra ridge-line with barely a ripple.  Bakersfield was not far off, fuel looked good, and for the first time we caught sight of the Pacific.

We landed at L45 after 1.9 hours, found the self-serve 100LL and then - even better - we found the airport had a cafe (and a very nice one to boot!), albeit at the other end of the airfield.  I have to say though, it felt slightly decadent firing 2SA up again just to taxi from the fuel pumps to the cafe, where we were delighted to find helipad markings on the apron out front; just 'cos, that's where we therefore parked!

Reviewing the charts, and based on the performance we'd measured to date, we had a shot at doing the remaining part of the trip in one shot - L45 to WVI.  It would be tight fuel-wise, but do-able.  And of course, since we were now on home turf, we had a good idea of places to get fuel along the way if needed.  Therefore, that became the plan of record: head west; cross over the hills between I5 and Paso Robles; head north-west up 101 via King City, and from there it's a straight shot into the Monterey area and home.

Now, however, things changed a little.  We picked up a 20 knot headwind and hence our speed dropped and fuel consumption rose.  We got as far as Salinas (SNS) just as the auxiliary tank showed empty, a situation that ought to have left us with fuel for around 50 minutes flying.  Bearing in mind a) we didn't have that much experience of 2SA's fuel gauge accuracy, b) we still had those pesky headwinds, c) by law we had to land with a minimum of 20 minutes fuel remaining, and d) as Wendy rightly pointed out, we now ran the risk of catching "get home-itis", we decided to set down in Salinas for a splash-and-dash at the helipad; we'd been after flying for 2.7 hours by this point.

Moss Landing

Final leg - SNS to WVI. Adding in the final 0.4 hours for SNS-WVI gave us a grand total of 36.0 hours for the entire trip.  After covering some 2,400 nm in 4.5 days, we were finally home!

A huge shout-out to Wendy, without who I would't have even thought about doing it.  Kudos, too, to N622SA.  She never missed a beat, and settled-in to her new home very quickly, starting to earn her keep the very next day.

An epic journey was now over, and so many thanks to all concerned for both giving me the opportunity to make it, and for helping us to do so safely.  Yes, it was a tiring and, as my shoulder will attest, sometimes painful flight, but I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Flying Across America - Part V

Dawn Roll-Out. Van Horn, Texas

Another early start; another morning not quite sure how we'd get back to the airfield.  Fortunately, the hotel manager very kindly proved the thesis that, thanks to evolutionary imperatives and human social development we are all by nature altruistic, by agreeing to be woken up early just to get us back there!  Note to self: must be a lot of opportunities for setting up local private taxi services over the web, especially in smaller towns where more formal arrangements just don't exist.  Hmm, actually, that's not a bad idea at all ...

(Just as an aside, we asked what brought an enterprising young man like himself to such a - shall we say, "remote" - part of Texas?  He explained that there was a plan to open a natural gas well, i.e. a fracking project, about 100 miles north and that, as this was the nearest town, some very good times lay ahead for the hotels & other businesses in Van Horn.  Fair enough, and we both wished him every success.)

A long day was ahead of us.  Since the weather remained so weirdly storm-free, we decided to press-on to see if we could make it into California. As the crow flies, that would be something like 520 nm; alas, we would have to take a slightly more meandering route in order to a) avoid major peaks, and b) avoid a major incident by accidentally crossing over the border into Mexico.  In addition, for the last day or so I had been suffering from increasing pain emanating just behind the right shoulder blade.  It was just a by-product of holding the controls for hours-and-hours a day and only flared up after about the first hour of flying, but I can't say I was looking forward to it returning on what was now day four of the trip.  (However, I'm not the only one to feel like this on a long R22 trip, as was very well explained by Philip Greenspun : "When folks ask me for a short summary of my trip from Los Angeles to Boston in a brand-new R22, I say "For the first day, I was worried that I was going to die. On the fifth and sixth days, I was worried that I wasn't going to die." Sitting bolt upright, a bit tense on the controls, hour after hour, is not very comfortable.")

Back to following the same road once again, but now, as we started to climb, desert was giving way to desert-plus-hills, which at least improved the view!  This first leg would take us through El Paso and the controller kindly allowed us to continue to follow the Interstate and hence to get a good view of downtown and, immediately over I10, of Mexico!

Downtown El Paso

After 1.9 flying hours we landed in Las Cruces, NM (LRU) just in time to see two military helicopters taking off from the apron there.  (Fort Bliss is a major army base sitting just east of El Paso, and of course border control activities must drive a lot of additional helicopter operations as well.)  Wendy reminded me that big-rotors = big-downwash, so we jinked around a little in order to steer clear of the big-boys' toys!  More fuel, more weather briefings and then back to it: next stop, Lordsburg, NM (LRU).  We planned for a shorter legs here in order to recognise both the increasing density altitudes we were seeing (maxing out at 6,800') and fewer alternate airports on the map.

From Lordsburg (1.2 hours from LRU) we headed next for Benson Municipal (E95), a leg that got us out of New Mexico into Arizona, and a further 1.3 hours clocked-up on the Hobbs.

At Benson we were able to pick up another quart of 100W Plus oil, something that wasn't always available at every stop but which we kept an eye out for as we were using just under a quart a day.  We also saw an old Douglas R4D-8 aircraft, standing out  a bit from the usual clutch of Cessnas, Mooneys etc. you'd expect to find parked-up on airports such as this.

Seems that someone bought it at a drug-auction after it was seized by the US authorities, with the idea of re-fitting it for commercial operations; apparently, that was quite a few years ago now, so no one I talked-to was sure if she would ever fly again.

Next up, a longer flight to Phoenix Goodyear (GYR) where we'd take stock to see if a "one more leg and we're in CA" push made sense.

Phoenix Bound

To reach GYR in such a way that we could continue following the Interstate meant we'd be getting too close to class Bravo airspace around Phoenix Sky Harbor, the main airport there.  Therefore, we planned to leave I10 about 15 miles south of PHX and fly northwest straight to GYR.  This would entail figuring out between the charts and what we could see out the windows, which was the big ridge we'd need to fly around the south of in order to make this work.  Well, we ended up going a bit too far up I10 and having the controller point out that we couldn't fly any closer to PHX, and so would we mind making an immediate left turn? Ooops.  No big deal though, we'd been with flight following and PHX approach control all the way-in from something like 50 miles out, and therefore they had us on their radar screens the whole time, despite us flying a lot lower than pretty much everything else they were tracking. On the plus side, however, we got a great view of Sky Harbor airport!

Getting into GYR after that was fine, at least it was once we'd figured out where they'd hidden the helipad and dealt with the strong, gusty winds that had blown up.  After taking a break, taking stock and taking some more rest time, we elected to press on and to go for crossing-off one more state on our list.  GYR to E95 had been a fairly stressful 2.2 hours but thanks to gaining a timezone and starting early, we were doing OK timewise.  California, here we come!

The Sierra Nevada Mountains Hove Into View

At last, we could finally allow ourselves the luxury of thinking we could actually get this whole trip done in under 5 days. By running five legs across three states, day four saw us flying 8.7 hours over what was at least a 12 hour day.  We were therefore really happy to see the Colorado River, marking as it does the Arizona-California border, slip by under 2SA, and even happier a few miles later to be landing at Blythe airport.  A very long day, but one that set us up for making it home in time for tea on day 5!

Flying Across America - Part IV

Here's where 622SA got to spend the night. $50 got her rather deluxe accommodations as I think you'll agree, but, in the words of Bob Dylan, it was indeed the "shelter from the storm" which we needed to find (though never actually needed anywhere along the whole route). Anyway, the entire crew got a decent nights rest and we were back at it by 07:30.

Today would be the day we'd try and get through Texas, though realising it's going to be a long, hot and largely dull journey, characterised nicely by the mantra "follow that road", in this case, I20.

Sometimes, "Follow That Road" Gets A Bit Tricky To Implement

First stop was Abilene Regional (ABI), a 2.4 hour leg, and from there to Big Spring (BPG), a quicker 1.5 hour hop that we cut a bit short in order to get down to the ground for fuel (we could have flown longer) and a rest-room break (oh no we couldn't!)  Along the way - at least for the first part of the day - there was stuff to see and green to be found .... which is of course why I turned this picture of windmills north of I20 into B&W.

In addition to being a very welcome sight (as explained above), Big Spring was a great little airport; very nice terminal, good facilities and an interesting history.  Turns out it was an ex-army airfield, first opened in 1942 to train bombardiers in high altitude, precision bombing.  It closed in 1945 but then got a second lease on life in 1952 when the Korean war required additional training facilities to come on line to supply increasing numbers of fighter pilots. A couple of Fifties-era aircraft remain on the apron and it looks like there is a fairly decent aviation museum on the airfield somewhere too.

Even Airplanes Have A Pecking Order

Rested and re-hydrated, it was time to move on. However, the heat was starting to build and the wind was getting stronger too.  One - the wind - is easier to live with than the other.  The six legs from ABI onwards all saw density altitude readings over 5,000 feet, with the highest reported as being 6,800'. Therefore, take-offs and landings had to be executed with more care and finesse than ever as, especially at full-up gross weight, we now didn't have much of a power reserve to play with.

Now we were firmly in trucking country, over-flying multiple logistics depots along the side of I20.

Next up was Pecos Municipal (PEQ, 1.6 hours from BPG) where the temperature gauge read 43 Celsius on landing ... and only a little bit of that was down to heat from the tarmac and engine; suffice to say, it was damnably-hot out there.  Someone came out to meet us in a golf cart and, once we parked-up and shut down, brought across a fuel tanker.  We asked for an amount of fuel we though the aircraft would take and that would get us comfortably to the next stop but without carrying the extra weight of completely topping-off the tanks.  Just as we were collecting our things to head inside to plan the next leg, we suddenly saw a cascade of 100LL running down the back of the aircraft - you know, the bit with the hot engine, still-pinging exhausts and all .... Turns out, the chap manning the fuel truck didn't realise that we had twin tanks, and that to get the quantity of fuel requested would mean filling both sides, not just one.  (The tanks cross-feed, but that doesn't happen fast enough to automatically compensate for the rate of fuel flow from a pressurised delivery system.)  Fortunately, nothing caught fire and so we avoided the spectacle of seeing what a Robinson R22 would look like fully-engulfed in flames. ("Depressing" would be what I'd expect the answer to be.)  Lesson learned, and so from then on we made sure that, where fuel was served, vs. being a self-service stop, when I was the one with that particular job, those with the big nozzle in their hands understood how things worked in an R22!

One final push would see us reach Culberson County airport, Van Horn, where we'd call it quits for the day.  Actually, things worked out well in that regard because the next leg would see us start to climb in altitude and hence would be better tackled earlier the next day, when things were cooler.  It also meant that tomorrow we'd pick-up in Texas, and our first set-down of the day would be in New Mexico - the Lone Star State would finally be behind us!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Flying Across America - Part III

Another day, another few states to check off.

While things were still relatively cool, we elected for an early start.  We'd fuelled-up the night before so once we'd snagged a lift the few miles back to the airport from the hotel, done our pre-flights and repacked our chattels, time for the off once again. The goal for today was to get into Texas, preferably as far as Dallas but otherwise over the border somewhere.  Planned route was Weedon Field, Eufaula (AL) to Demopolis (AL), from there to Hawkins Field, Jackson (MS), to Shreveport Downtown, (LA) and finally hitting Dallas Executive (TX) where options were very good for hanger space overnight and a decent hotel nearby.

Demopolis must have been about the smallest airport we hit all trip, but had the essentials of a) 100LL fuel, b) a bathroom and c) water (for the pilots).  Of course, at each stop we also got an updated weather briefing and checked the charts so we knew what to expect, where, and when.  And just as importantly, we took the opportunity to un-knot ourselves from holding the controls or generally being stuck in a very small space for hours on end.  (I wanted to do as much of the flying as possible and so Wendy got the short end of the stick by having to handle charts, airport directories and GPS systems - plural.  More of that in a minute.)

Demopolis Airport Terminal!

Somehow or another, we managed both to make good time (a tailwind helped) and avoided any hint of bad weather.  The ground rolled away beneath us and, unlike what we were going to be seeing the next day, remained fairly green, lush and interesting.

Plant For Processing Something, Somewhere In Mississippi

I mentioned the need for more than one GPS?  Turns out the installed unit in the helicopter had two issues: one expected, one not.  As is common, the Garmin unit in the panel had information loaded for the south-eastern part of the USA, hardly surprising given that's where it was based. Even so, it looked like we could get routes through to about mid-Texas, but not much further.  Wendy was already on top of the problem because she'd seen it before and so had borrowed a Garmin 496 to bring with us.  This turned out to be a double bonus because we found that, after the first day or so of use, the panel system's display washed out, rendering it almost invisible.  Golden rule?  You can never have too many backup GPS platforms!  (I had my iPad with me which was the second line of defence.  Trust me - charts are great and remain indispensable, but for basic navigation then nothing beats being able to follow that magenta DTK line!)

Maps Doing One Other Thing GPS Can't: Being A Sunshade!

By now it was becoming a very long day.  Having reached Shreveport, crossing the Mississippi River from Louisiana along the way, we'd already been in the air 6.4 hours, the last leg alone being 2.5 hours long.  But, Texas was calling!  (I think it said "moo", but couldn't be sure.)

One final push saw us complete the Shreveport to Dallas Executive leg in a further 2.1 hours.  Ultimately, the fact that the weather was clear with no convective activity in the area sealed it - there just aren't that many windows to fly a whole day in this part of the country in July without encountering thunderstorms and so we elected to make full use of the daylight and benign skies.  However, the FBO at Dallas Executive was a very welcome sight, as was the Hampton Inn a few miles away!  8.5 hours air-time is quite tiring, but we'd made real progress and were cracking-on a treat.  Time to get some sleep.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Flying Across America - Part II

Because of operational limitations on this aircraft, we had to find a route that would avoid the need to climb over any high mountains.  This is particularly true in the summer when air that is hot, moist and high robs the helicopter of a chunk of even the limited performance it starts off with. In practice, this meant trying to avoid flying at anything more than 6,000 above MSL, and preferably even a little less than that would be good. Consequently, we opted for what's known as the "southern route", a way of crossing the USA that limits the need to cross substantial areas of terrain above 2,000 feet; indeed, the highest we saw was around 4,500 MSL, and even then only on two specific legs.

We finally got underway from MYR around 1:30 pm local time, and with the sort of luck that would follow us along the entire journey we found ourselves with no convective warnings, just a few low level, widely-spaced cumulus clouds for company (see above). Despite the later-than-ideal start, we nevertheless managed to see-off three states on the first day: South Carolina (MYR to 88J), Georgia (ACJ) and Alabama, ending up for the night in Eufaula (EUF).

In order to leave ourselves the appropriate margin mandated for helicopters (20 minutes fuel remaining on landing) we gave ourselves a maximum range of around 2.5 hours in the air, and planned our legs with alternate fuel stops if head winds or weather meant we needed to land short. That basic calculation factored in a high-end fuel consumption of 10 gallons per hour and a maximum R22 capacity of 29 gallons. On day one we did legs of 2.0, 2.2 and 0.9 hours respectively, for a flying time total of 5.1 hours.

Eufaula wasn't very large but had a decent airfield (runway 36 above!) and, something we love to see, an open hanger in which we could leave the aircraft overnight.  Especially this time of year, it's good to avoid any risk of the blades suffering hail damage because that would basically be game over, and rather  expensively so to boot.  However, it turned out that Eufaula did lack one key thing - a taxi service! Fortunately, a very kind gentleman working on his plane at the airfield took us into town that evening, and the hotel manager where we stayed just as kindly brought us back early in the morning.

Day one over and we had covered a decent amount of ground, especially given the shortened day.  Good stuff!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Flying Across America - In A Robinson R22

Earlier this year I completed my private pilot training, and hence now have a licence allowing me to fly helicopters (up to a certain weight, at least).  The aircraft I trained in - the Robinson R22 - is one of the most common training helicopters in the USA today, despite it being a bit, er, challenging to learn in, thanks in large part to its highly sensitive controls, decent amount of power & overall light weight.

The school where I trained, Specialized Aviation, in Watsonville, CA, recently acquired an additional R22 for its fleet, but one that was based in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.  Therefore, volunteers were need to ferry it back to Watsonville, a journey of some 2,400 nautical miles.  "Oh, and BTW, please could we get our hands on it ASAP?"  How could I resist??

Fortunately for Specialized - and for me :-) - my co-pilot, Wendy, was one of their most experienced instructors, with more than 1,000 hours in Robinson helicopters and qualified to teach up IFR standards.  Phew!  Having this kind of back-up capability in the cockpit is a huge plus, turning something that could otherwise be deeply challenging into a more of a fun road-trip, though minus the arguments about what you listen to on the radio of course!

Getting to Myrtle Beach was fairly uneventful, even if Delta made me take a somewhat bizarre route. To get an even half-way decent fare meant me flying to Atlanta, which was fine and itself only about an hour from KMYR, but then I had another leg of 2 hours up to Detroit, followed by 2 hours back from Detroit to Myrtle Beach.

2SA, the aircraft we were collecting, was being bought through Huffman Helicopters, a great operation who really put in a ton of hours bringing this particular ship back up to top-notch standards (they'd bought it back from one of their clients who was trading-up, and the aircraft had been sitting outside for a while so therefore needed quite some TLC in order to get back to being fully airworthy.)

After a test flight and some final fettling, we were ready to start work on the first significant challenge - packing!  We calculated that, with full fuel tanks in this particular R22, we had a max payload, including ourselves, of 317 lbs.  Bearing in mind we had to at least bring along a set of wheels so we could move the thing, spare oil (for the heli) and water (for us), plus all the necessary paperwork, maps, FBO guides, spare GPS, small tool kit, etc. then I hope it's obvious that having two 160 lb pilots wouldn't have been optimal!  Fortunately, (i) neither of us fell into that class, and (ii) there isn't a ton of luggage space in these things anyway so apart from the essentials then we were packing very lightly (see above);fortunately, we weighed in at exactly 317 lbs and I then threw away a duplicate airport guide for the West coast which dropped a further pound off the total - job done!  We were ready for the off! (Parts II through VI follow ...)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Have you noticed how social networking ...

... has made us all less social? Sitting in Starbuck's, I cannot help but notice that every single customer, me included, is staring at a screen. We are all completely absorbed in our own micro-world, the source of which is some sort of screen-centric device, be it a PC, smartphone or tablet. But on the plus side, it is quiet in here!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Iron Lady

I was 21 years old when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, 33 when she resigned. It was clear to all even then that Britain was changing beyond recognition. Thatcher's government accelerated a process of dramatic reinvention the country had been going through since the end of the second world war, largely through a protracted series of battles fought simultaneously on many fronts, from organised labour to European integration and even the Argentine junta on the seas of the South Atlantic.  Thatcher's legacy is clearly visible today and, love her or loathe her (because she pretty much polarised people into one camp or the other) no one can really question  her pivotal role in changing the course Britain was on in the nineteen seventies.  However, it's not clear to me that this film manages to capture any of that, except perhaps in en passant fashion, which is a great shame because that's a story that still needs to be told.

The Thatcher we see here is old, confused and delusional.  Dementia consumes her to the point where she's plagued by the ghost of Dennis, her two-decades-dead husband, continually popping up with that fifties-era "buck up old girl, everything will turn out all right" spirit anyone over 40 will recognise.  Yup, the stuff of Shakespeare, but unfortunately without a script to match.  Instead, her current condition seems to be not much more than a vehicle through which to cover standard bio-pic fare about her upbringing in Grantham as a grocer's daughter, her hard-fought climb through the ranks of the conservative party and culminating with her becoming what no one - even Thatcher herself - thought was possible: Britain's first woman prime minister.  Don't get me wrong, the historical stuff is done well (even if there is quite some licence taken in places) and likely much more interesting to audiences outside of the UK or those who grew up after she was ousted than it was for me. And to be fair, Streep's performance in this film really is extremely good, to the point where most viewers would need to see the two Thatcher's, real and acted, side-by-side in order to tell the difference. However, I was hoping for something more focused, more engaging, more intellectual if you will; something that captured the sweeping change my generation went through with Thatcher as she literally reshaped the socio-political landscape.  What we actually got in this film seemed more a commentary on just how much dementia sucks, and we really don't need a statesman laid low as the focal point in order to understand that problem. (Go and see instead the Iris Murdoch bio-pic, also, interestingly, with Jim Broadbent in the role of long-suffering partner, for a picture of the misery and loss Alzheimer's brings with it.)

Bio-pics can work, but you have to come away with a real understanding of what made the subject tick, what drove them, and perhaps more importantly what they lost or gave up along the way.  The use of her on-going dementia as a framework around which this film is built gets in the way of that.  Her present state blunts a critical examination of the radicalism her premiership was suffused with, implying instead that she was just a tough old bird who had to become more manly than the men around her in order to succeed.

What I'd like to see instead would be a film that explores the end game of her reign as leader of the conservative party, the point where she was no longer seen as an asset by the Tory grandees but rather as a liability.  Now that would indeed be a tragedy worth of WS's finest penmanship!  Politics at its worst - that story's got it all!

(Professionals have of course written much more perceptive reviews of this film than I, and so I urge you to check out at least this one in the Guardian because it really does a much better job of it than I have.  And don't get me wrong, it's a film that's definitely worth seeing, despite the above!)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Apple: So What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

The last post looked at a myriad of things that Apple seems to be doing right, and I have to say that even then it was only a partial list. For example, iCloud is clearly a major new initiative that promises plenty of innovation ahead, and we've all seen published excerpts from the Steve Jobs biography that talk about how he's finally "cracked the code" on Apple TV. Even so, Apple will stumble at some point, it's just inevitable. No technology-based business that I can think of, has ever been able to sustain the sort of tear Apple is on for more than a couple of decades at most, and it's now just over ten years since the iPod first hit the market & fifteen years since Jobs returned via the purchase of NeXT.

So what could possibly go wrong? Well, here are just a few potential maggots I can think of that could invade Apple's core businesses:

Forcing competition into being: as has been argued elsewhere, Apple's five year exclusive deal with AT&T for the first iPhone models basically brought into being the only real competitive threat Apple has in that space today: Android. The very success that Apple saw forced Verizon to respond in kind when AT&T started leaching away customers in their droves; Google's Android was a tailor-made, open-source spoiler, and Verizon gave them a guaranteed market. Between them and the likes of HTC and Samsung, Android rapidly developed into a real competitor, to the point where device shipments for the two platforms are running neck-and-neck. And because Apple is now so broad in its product line offerings, you can see similar alliances popping up elsewhere with perhaps the Microsoft/Nokia pairing being the one most likely to bring new arms to bear in this war. (It's therefore interesting to note that Microsoft is reputedly paying an initial $250 million to get Nokia moving to Windows 7, and that's real money, even in Silicon Valley.)

As Apple looks to conquer new markets, the temptation must be great to do the same sort of thing again. After all, financially it did work extremely well, allowing Apple to focus on getting the iPhone right before moving-on to support other wireless technologies. So you could imagine, for example, an exclusive deal with Sony for iTV or perhaps Ford for the iCar entertainment system, as a way of getting deeply immersed in those spaces before allowing others to join the party. OK, perhaps we are out in the weeds somewhat, but you get the point. The risk with exclusive deals is either that they go sour at a point where divorce is difficult or, when they go well, they cause stronger alliances to emerge elsewhere in order to compete effectively.

Ticking-off the DoJ: so far, Apple has sat resolutely-planted on top of its cash mountain, refusing to spend large on major acquisitions of the sort an Oracle or HP would see as almost routine.  However, as that pile of money fast approaches $100 billion there are some signs emerging that this could change.  But, as the old maps never used to say, "here there be dragons".  Apple is now of a size, and has achieved such dominance in many of its chosen markets, that there will be those who are just itching for an excuse to break it up, and there's nothing like a big, headline-grabbing acquisition to give them exactly what they are looking for by way of an excuse to probe into every dark corner of what is surely one of the world's most secretive companies.  Indeed, my take is that Apple must have already passed on a bunch of opportunities for just this reason and so will be extremely careful if and when a larger play is made, that they think they can manage the vagaries of the process, both in the USA and of course in Europe, where Apple has already had run-ins before.

The patent war goes nuclear: oh boy. The fragile peace that's existed in the arcane world of technology patents, held in place for many a long year by a gentleman's agreement amongst companies not to sue the bejesus out of each other, is rapidly breaking down. The temptation became just too great, the prize too rich. To date, disputes have been settled (either in or out of court), money has changed hands and every one's life has continued much as before; "it's just business", as the Mafioso would say. However, just as with the national nuclear deterrents, it all relies upon the concept of mutually assured destruction. No tech company yet feels strong enough to wage all out war on their foes because to date all the major players have had enough patents in their armoury to mount a pretty devastating counter offensive if they so choose.  Now, though, with all the M&A activity going on specifically in order to round up more patent ammunition (Motorola, anyone?), it's quite possible that someone, somewhere might be able to collect enough of an arsenal to feel safe in pushing the big, red button, unleashing a legal Armageddon from which in practice few could could emerge unscathed.

Market saturation: an obvious one, perhaps, but a real problem nevertheless.  I mean, just how many iPods does anyone need?  (I have three of differing generations but only regularly use one of them, and feel no real compulsion to upgrade the older ones any time soon.)  Ditto iPhones Macbooks, etc.  At some point, the pace of innovation just isn't high enough to keep you reaching for your credit card with every new announcement out of Cupertino.

Competing with partners: perhaps as a by-product of a larger acquisition, or just because, quarter-by-quarter, the machine gets hungrier and hungrier but still needs feeding, Apple may find itself competing with those who today view themselves as partners.  The music industry; all of Apple's extensive supply chain providers; cell phone carriers; Hollywood; all could fall neatly into that category.  Depending upon the size of the perceived threat, the magnitude of the response could be sufficient to trigger some major realignments in the industry.  Suppose, for example, Apple bought Warner Brothers.  Would other labels still license their content to Apple, or would they decide instead to run the risk of losing sales by fracturing the markets, giving rights to the likes of Microsoft, Samsung or someone else, any of whom could be seen as much less of a threat?

Someone out-innovates them: for sure unlikely, at least in the near term, but not impossible.  For example, you can easily argue that Netflix is fast becoming to video downloading what iTunes was to music retailing (and if you wanted an interesting candidate as to where Apple might spend some of it's cash, here's a good place to start your idle speculation from, especially with their recent precipitous drop in stock price!)  Similarly, Apple's position in the enterprise, while growing rapidly now thanks to the iPad, is still relatively weak (though, alas, so too  are many of the other players who are targeting major corporations, and in the case of RIM, seemingly getting weaker with each passing quarter.)  In short, the tech world is still evolving rapidly and even Apple has its limits.  Other pretenders to their crown will come along, and one of them may just be quick enough or savvy enough to cause a major upset.

Again, all of the above is hardly an extensive analysis, and I couldn't do more than guess at this point which, if any, of the threats discussed are the most pressing.  All you can say for certain is that, at some point, Apple will miss. When it does it will be a big shock to the system (and to the markets) and a lot of people will come out of the woodwork saying "I told you so" and acting all smug and righteous.  Regardless of how or when all this plays out, I'll nevertheless do what I can to resist the urge to be one of them because, and despite all of the above, I think we all want them to continue to do what they do best: give us new stuff to play with that's fun, amazing and actually, at times, even useful.  And that really is a very difficult thing to do, to do well, and to do well enough in order to dominate multiple markets.