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Friday, July 24, 2009

Day 35: Los Angeles, CA and the Malibu Colony

Day 35: July 4th, Los Angeles, CA and the Malibu Colony. The day began at the Benjamin house where James showed off his Lemonade stand. A true entrepreneur, he would operate his stand in front of the house, serving fresh squeezed lemonade to passers by. This would fund his addiction to Legos. He was very proud of the fact that he was able to buy certain Lego specialties using his own money, earned at the Lemonade stand. I think that this provides him an excellent connection between work and reward and should be encouraged among today's youth. James is extremely creative with Legos and he not only builds the prepackaged designs but comes up with his own designs which are very functional, symmetrical, and innovative. I think his dream job would be to build Lego monstrosities at LegoLand.

For breakfast, I managed to meet up with a good friend from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). We went to school together, were roommates for a time, and were active amateur radio operators. Greg and I also engaged in an adventure or two. On one trip, we took my 1990 Volkswagon Golf and drove from NY to West Virginia for spring break. We were counting on warmer weather, but that wasn't quite south enough I guess. We camped out, rode our mountain bikes, and operated ham radio from the car and campsite. I remember knocking on a farmer's door asking permission to camp on his property. We woke up to snow on our tent, a rude awakening for college students seeking a real spring break. In another interesting episode, we traveled to the Shawangunk preserve, a rock climbing paradise near New Paltz, NY. Greg taught me how to climb there, and we stayed at his dad's cabin in the woods. Once again, we brought a shortwave ham radio rig along to make some contacts, but unfortunately, we neither had a microphone nor morse code key. In true McGuyver form, we fashioned a morse code key out of two butter knives, tapping the knives together to transmit. We made several contacts. One of our contacts sent us a QSL card, which confirms the communication. On it, he wrote "Thanks for the buttery QSO (contact)" in the notes section. Greg now works for the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Pasadena and designs Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) arrays. Yep, a rocket scientist.

Today, I would also be treated to a real Hollywood fourth of July. I was staying with friends Larry & Diana Benjamin, and Diana has a friend that owns an exclusive Malibu beach house. The house is located in the Malibu Colony, a strip of very private Malibu beach that features homes owned by stars such as Sting, Tom Hanks, Howie Mandell, Bill Murray, Linda Ronstadt, Jeff Bridges and many others. Oftentimes, you see these stars just strolling along the beach. Beach access is through private homes only, so it is a very exclusive spot. While I'm not one that necessarily becomes star struck, it was very entertaining to share the beach with the colony residents. I witnessed beach parties, the likes of which I had never seen before. Jim Carey threw a huge beach party bash, but I never did see the man himself.

Larry, Diana, James, and I pulled up to the Colony and found a parking spot a block or so away from the party we were attending. As we walked along the row of beach houses, I noted that the portion that faced the street were rather unassuming. In fact, some of them were just small ante-houses in which the larger beach house was further inside. The other interesting detail I noticed was that many of the homes had private valet services parking cars for party goers. It was difficult not to miss the Valet Girls (obviously a play on Valley Girls), an all-girl valet service that was servicing one of the homes. The reason for valet parking is that there is limited parking along the road, and I'm sure many of these party-goers are used to the royal treatment. Luckily, we came early enough to find a spot for ourselves.

Our hosts owned a lovely Malibu beach house situated a few doors down from Sting's house (which rents out at $25,000 / month) and the house that hosted Jim Carey and Jenny McCarthy's fourth of July party. There was a large turnout at our beach house to witness the fourth of July festivities. I met a diverse mixture of people that included a recording artist and a scientist who manages an instrument aboard one of the Mars Rovers! Of course, I was more impressed with the scientist and marveled "How cool is that, you work on a different planet!" He expressed interest in my little trip around the country and thought that was impressive, but it is hard to top a title like "AstroGeologist"!! There was a lot of food and drink to be had and many people to meet.

Larry and Diana weren't sure how I would interact with this diverse group of people, but their questions were answered when they stumbled upon me surrounded by a crowd as I wowed them with magic tricks. I had them eating out of my hands, kids and adults alike. The most amazing photo I've seen of me presenting a card trick was taken by Larry. As the deck falls, the top card is supposed to be flipped over by the motion of air and should sit on top of the deck face up. Larry caught this perfectly as the card began turning mid-flight. After performing these tricks, one of the party-goers asked for the deck and performed a few amazing tricks of his own. We ended up becoming a tag-team magic show and drew quite a crowd. He taught me several of his tricks which ended up being some very subtle slights of hand that were advanced beyond what I was doing. Unfortunately, I couldn't master them in the short time he had to demonstrate them to me, and I don't remember them now.

A tradition for this particular party was to dig a huge pit and to present the challenge of trying to jump across the abyss. The pit is dug down deep enough to hit the water level, which ended up being about 7 feet. It took most of the afternoon to complete in shifts. Larry, Diana, and I each put some time in to shoveling out sand to complete the pit. Once the pit was complete, the vaulting competition began in earnest. A line was formed in which kids and adults both had a long running start and made their best attempt to leap across the crevasse. The pit was wide enough that nobody made it across, although some of the stronger jumpers came close, landing on the far edge. The smaller kids didn't have a chance, but they would jump and literally vanish into the pit below. It was a little bit unnerving, but the soft sand below provided adequate cushion. There was a long line of jumpers waiting to jump the "pit" until dark, some from the neighboring homes. There was an overly-tattooed rock-star who jumped, but I have no idea who he was.

Next came the fashion show, another tradition. The girls put on their finest and strut along the beach. The paparazzi start shooting off photographs, wondering who these famous girls are. We shoot our own photographs and the girls are in their glory. There were all sorts of poses: girls holding their hats, girls whispering to each other, just the girls of Malibu beach. It was just like a scene from the TV show "The O.C.".

Larry and I walked the full length of the beach to marvel at some of the homes and the parties being hosted there. We discretely took some pictures, and I found it amusing when a little boy ran past us and said "No Pictures!" Clearly, he was the progeny of one of Malibu's famous denizens and was trained to run from the paparazzi. We had no idea who he was and didn't really care. We were easily able to identify Sting's house based on its southwestern adobe architecture. While we didn't run into any stars along the way, we marveled at some of the magnificent architecture built right along the beach. Also, some of the outdoor parties were obscenely opulent, featuring beachside seating on outdoor couches enclosed by flowing sheets. DJ's could be seen mixing dance tunes, waiters catering gourmet food right at the beach, and security guards were subtly keeping out the riff-raff. One of these parties was hosted by Jim Carey and Jenny McCarthy. Jenny was sporting her new black bathing suit, and Jim, ever the comedian, later emerged wearing her bathing suit, much to the amusement of the paparazzi. I almost built up the courage to start entertaining guests at Jim's party with card tricks, but it never happened.

As the sun set over Malibu beach, we lit a fire on the beach and awaited the fireworks. I had seen the fireworks barge move into position earlier. It was almost directly across from the house and not very far away. This was to be an impressive Hollywood show, with a beautiful full moon as a backdrop. I snapped this photograph of our fire and our host kneeling down in his red, white, and blue shirt. Moments later, a video camera recorded the same scene and it ended up being shown on CNN as part of a montage revealing the fourth of July festivities at the Malibu Colony. In that video, you can clearly see our fire and our host in his red white and blue shirt (Check out the scene beginning at 0:36).

Finally, the fireworks began and we experienced a spectacular show. The show was accented by the full moon which hung in the distance as an eerie backdrop. When the show ended, we packed our things and began to say our goodbyes. It was a long and enjoyable day, and I'm sure Larry and Diana's son James was exhausted from launching himself into the pit all day. We left the house and started our way towards the car. As we did so, we passed many of the homes on the road and could see that there was a flurry of activity by the valets. We passed the Jim Carey party house and a valet pulled up to the house shouting "Black Porsche .. Black Porsche" .. Since nobody spoke up, I said "Right here!" Unfortunately, they weren't buying it. What a delightful time with the Benjamin's and a truly unique LA experience.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Day 34: Leaving Las Vegas for San Diego and LA

Day 34: July 3rd, Las Vegas, San Diego, and LA. Today would present some flying challenges, but not of the type I have been experiencing throughout the trip: weather, mountains, and density altitude. Today, I would have my first mechanical problem that would prevent me from flying. On the day before, I had brought my compass to an avionics shop for servicing. The glass had been cracked for quite some time; however, the fluid never leaked. With the extreme temperatures I had been experiencing on this portion of the trip, the compass fluid began seeping out through the crack and dripping in the cockpit. This presents two problems. With the compass fluid low, it is tough to get an accurate compass heading. Also, the fluid itself has a particularly nasty odor which is quite distracting in flight and unhealthy I'm sure. I removed the compass and had the mechanic in Vegas overhaul it. I then reinstalled the compass in the airplane, but needed to calibrate it. On the airport is a large compass rose painted on the tarmac. By taxiing the airplane onto the rose and pointing it north, you can compare your actual northerly heading to what the compass is reading at the time. Next, you try E, W, S, and other headings such as 150 degrees, 330 degrees, etc. The compass may never be 100% accurate, but in order for the airplane to be airworthy, you must write down on the compass card what the compass actually reads when the airplane is heading north, south, east, west, etc. There are also two adjustment screws that you can use to calibrate the compass, but with two degrees of freedom, it is difficult to calibrate the compass perfectly. I spent over 1/2 hr on the previous day just taxiing around trying to optimize this calibration. The problem with this is that the airplane is being operated at near idle for an extended period of time. This can cause plug fouling, particular for the spark plugs located on the lower side of the cylinders.

Unaware that I had fouled some plugs, I got into the airplane, bid Jim farewell, received my IFR clearance, and taxied to the active runway. During the engine runup, I noticed that the left magneto was running very rough. I've dealt with plug fouling before and know that if you run the engine at high RPMs while leaning aggressively, you can normally burn off or clear up whatever has built up on the plug electrodes that are causing it not to fire properly. I spent some time attempting to clear the plug, but was unsuccessful. Failing this magneto check meant a certain no-go! I called ground, asked them to cancel my IFR clearance and requested to taxi back to the ramp. Jim and his friend were waiting for me as I pulled in. They called their local on-field mechanic and had me taxi over to Jim's hangar. Unfortunately, I didn't have a plug socket, something I had meant to obtain prior to the trip. Plug issues are fairly common and it is nice to have the ability to swap in a spare plug in the field. I looked through Jim's tools, but many of his tools from Albany hadn't arrived yet, so I still did not have the proper plug socket. I began asking some of the folks in neighboring hangars while we waited for the mechanic. I was able to borrow a socket and began the process of removing the spark plugs that ran from the left magneto. The mechanic soon arrived and we removed all the plugs so that he could bring them back to his shop and clean them properly. He noted that my plugs should be replaced since the formerly round center electrode was oval, indicating quite a bit of wear. Upon returning, he told me that one of the plugs wouldn't fire properly at all and he gave me a replacement. We put all of the plugs back in and the airplane was running smoothly again. The tower held my IFR clearance and I was able to continue on to the west coast. I bid a fond farewell to Las Vegas and got one last look at the Las Vegas strip before heading into the mountains on my way to the west coast. Farewell Sin City!

My first stop today was Montgomery Field in San Diego. Here, I was to have lunch with an old friend from St. John's Prep School, the high school I attended in Danvers, MA. Martin Furey and I had known each other in high school and worked on the school newspaper together. I knew that he had attended Williams College as an undergraduate in Williamstown, MA, a town where I would later spend much time myself. After that, I had lost track of him. We hadn't really seen each other or spoken since graduation day in 1984, so a full 25 years had passed since we last met. Nevertheless, Martin picked me up at Mongomery Field and we headed out for lunch at Island Prime C Level, which provides spectacular views of downtown San Diego over the bay. I enjoyed a Lobster & Fontina BLT with a side of sherried lobster bisque. I should have expected no less from the self-proclaimed campus epicure!

After enjoying a wonderful lunch by the bay and despite my being late, Martin indulged me with a trip through Balboa Park, which provides a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere for people to gather and enjoy museums, street performers, and people watching. He told me that this was the site of the highest density of museums you will find in the United States. It is touted as the nation's largest urban cultural park. There are 13 museums here, ranging from art, photography, automotive, Japanese friendship garden, model railroad, and of course my favorite, an air and space museum, complete with a SR-71 Blackbird parked out front, the second I've seen on this trip. Even if museums are not your thing, the sheer beauty of the architecture and the freshness of the happy folks strolling the park will tickle your fancy. In addition, the park features one of the largest outdoor pipe organs in the world at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Martin says that he has come to enjoy several of the free organ concerts featured on Sundays from 2pm - 3pm.

I really enjoyed my visit with Martin in San Diego and got to experience some of the best the city has to offer in such a short period of time. I thank Martin for taking extra time out of his work day to give me a tour of Balboa Park. Anyone visiting San Diego must stop here and experience this wonderful place. From here, Martin returned me to the airport where I activated my flight plan to Los Angeles. Breakfast in Las Vegas, lunch in San Diego, and dinner in LA. Wow, life is good.
So, I departed San Diego and headed north towards Los Angeles. I would land at one of my favorite airports, Van Nuys (KVNY). This airport is the subject of the amazing Brian Terwilliger documentary, One Six Right, named after its primary runway. I was cleared to land on 16R, the very runway romanticized in Brian's movie. I met Brian at Oshkosh after viewing it on the largest digital projection system and screen. I mentioned my friend Larry and he remembered Larry right away, as Larry worked on some of the audio for the One Six Right DVD. It was my friend Larry Benjamin who was there waiting for me as I taxied into Pentastar Aviation. I can tell you, having flown across the entire country, there is nothing better than seeing a good friend awaiting your arrival after many hours of cross-country flying. In the photo to the left, you can see Larry's perspective as he photographed me taxiing in. I buttoned up the airplane and Pentastar parked me on their ramp next to some business jets. I was amazed that I was parking my airplane in LA and there was no ramp or parking fee! Van Nuys truly welcomes and caters to general aviation pilots like myself. No fees and yet they offered us complimentary beverages at the FBO.

We returned to the Benjamin house where I met up with Larry's lovely wife Diana and his son James. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner outside on the patio and I entertained everyone with card tricks, as usual. James couldn't believe that the card he picked magically ended up INSIDE the fish tank, facing out at him. How did that card get through the glass? It was delightful to be in LA with one of my best friends and his family. We would enjoy several days together before I moved on to Thousand Oaks, not far from LA, to be with my friend Ron.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Day 31 - 33: Viva Las Vegas

Day 31 - 33: June 30th - July 2nd, Las Vegas, NV. For the next few days, I would experience the two cities of Las Vegas: the strip and the rest of town. It is interesting to note that Las Vegas is not just a casino town, and I got to see the other Vegas, the city that the local residents experience. Jim Holden was my host in Vegas and he was able to share the local experience with me. When I arrived in town, he was just moving into a new house and was settling in. I was, in fact, the very first guest in his new house. Jim's daughter also lives in town and I was lucky enough to arrive when Jim's wife Carole was also in town. Jim and Carole operate a real estate appraisal company and maintain offices in Albany, NY and Las Vegas. Up until a year ago, Jim maintained his residence in Albany, but the ever-changing real estate market brought Jim to Las Vegas about a year ago, as his business was booming there and diminishing in Albany. Jim is a fellow pilot and had maintained a hangar in Albany. We would frequently fly with the Albany pilot group for breakfast on Sunday's, sometimes flying in formation. While we understand that the economic changes demand changes, the Albany pilot group misses Jim and wishes he'd return. Just recently, he let his Albany cell phone number of 25 years expire. Now in his new house with his Las Vegas phone numbers only, we realize that he is there to stay.

Jim, his wife Carole, and his daughter Michelle and I went to dinner at the clubhouse. They live on a golf course. Many of the homes here are in gated communities or have deed covenants that prevent the rif-raff from disturbing the neighborhood peace. It is a great place to live.

Carole had to return to Albany the next day, so I offered to drive her to the airport. Since I was near the strip, I decided to stop in and try my luck at the casinos. I stopped in at Mandalay Bay and was able to easily find parking for Jim's big red pickup in their parking garage. My first stop was the craps table. I'm not exactly sure what I'm doing, but I seem to be able to win at craps most times. As a mathematician, I know that there really is no way to actually win in Las Vegas. Statistically, the odds are tilted slightly in favor for the casinos. That is why they are there and can afford such opulence. Craps actually has the best odds for the player, and perhaps that's why I gravitate towards it. The house has only a 0.60% edge over the player, meaning for every 497 winners, there are 503 losers. Keno is the worst game in the casino, with a 25% house edge. They make big money on this game. Anyway, I made $80 at the craps table in 5 minutes. I love Las Vegas!

From there, it was on to the Luxor, which is the large pyramid-shaped casino with an Egyptian theme. The beam of light emanating from the top is comprised of 45 xenon bulbs and is the brightest beam of non-coherent light on the planet. It has been noted by astronauts aboard that space station and shuttle.

I was able to purchase some Criss Angel tickets for his 7:30pm show at a reasonable price. It was quite an interesting show. It was more Cirque Du Soleil and less magic. I enjoyed watching his TV show Mind Freak, but I was left wanting more magic and mentalism. In any case, it was done up in true larger than life Vegas style, and I did enjoy it. The stage alone was quite elaborate, customized for Criss's show. At one point during the show, he was performing an illusion in which he created doves out of thin air. All of a sudden about thirty doves flew off the stage in a swarm and headed to a roost just above and behind my seat. One poor dove didn't make it, and ended up hitting something and fell down by the feet of an audience member just in front of me. The dove seemed fine. I was very entertained and rather impressed with the grand scale of the stage devices used, but this is Vegas, so anything goes and money is no object.

My next stop was the New York, New York casino which features a pretty impressive roller coaster ride. It is amazing how they recreated the NYC skyline, complete with the Statue of Liberty! I've been to the casino before, but had never ridden the roller coaster. After my daredevil experiences at Epcot, I figured I was up for the challenge. Before you board the roller coaster, they warn you about a variety of medical conditions, including anxiety, which I had plenty of waiting in line. Anyway, I boarded the roller coaster car, which looks like a NY City cab car, and braced myself for what was to follow. The coaster slowly climbed up the track and I was launched into a 5 minute long continuous scream! This coaster has a full loop and portions of the track that twist a full 360 degrees, turning you upside down. I really enjoyed it and rediscovered my inner daredevil. Maybe skydiving is next on the list.

I had scheduled to depart Las Vegas on July 1, but the weather did not look promising, so I stuck around for another day and had a chance to meet the North Las Vegas pilot group for dim sum. The group meets regularly for dim sum and also holds barbecues on the airport grounds. It's too bad I didn't get a chance to fly with the group, but it was nice to meet everyone.

Jim, Michelle, and I later dined at a Las Vegas favorite, the buffet! There are casinos located far from the strip that tourists never see. These are for the locals. In this case, there is a casino called Alliante Station located close to Jim's house.

I spent the night planning for the next flight: San Diego. Using FltPlan.com, I filed an IFR flight plan from the North Las Vegas airport to Montgomery field, which is just to the north of San Diego. As usual, I had everything planned very carefully and was able to properly time wakeup, takeoff, and meetup with my contact in San Diego for lunch. I had also planned to continue directly on to LA for dinner. My aircraft had other ideas, however. I would have mechanical issues to deal with in the morning. Little did I know, I had set the stage for these problems the day before.