Private Pilot Mason

Flying Collage.001

I’m very excited to report that I passed my Private Pilot flight test this weekend! I’m not quite a licensed pilot yet—I still have to do a long cross country flight with an instructor, and then the same flight on my own. This mostly involves not getting lost, though, so it’s more about getting it done than anything else. The flight test is definitely the hard part.

I didn’t ace the test, no pilot prodigy here. In fact I “partialled” the exam by failing one of the exercises. In “slow flight” you deliberately fly the plane at its minimum controllable speed, just above the stall. It’s a great exercise because every time you land you’re doing the same thing. You fly slow, add power, and avoid stalling. Except in my exam, and for the first time ever, I stalled it. That’s an automatic fail. It was really odd, it was quite near the beginning of the test, and somehow it took the pressure off. I passed everything else—including making the field in the dreaded engine-failure forced approach—and when we got back my instructor (and everyone else) was really confused. “He stalled it in slow flight?!?”

Fortunately if you mess up on only one or two exercises you can do a partial re-ride and test just those (although if you fly like crap you can fail on things you had previously passed). So I went back up with my instructor for literally 15 minutes, got permission from Calgary Terminal to do the exercise in controlled airspace, landed, and went and did it again with the examiner. Passed!

The final week preparing for this was unfortunately less fun than the other flying. Everyone at home got sick including me, and I was honestly just barely holding it all together until the flight test. Now that it’s over I feel a huge relief, a sense of accomplishment, and no small amount of sadness. This summer has been a dream come true. I’ve been flying nearly every day, working hard but enjoying it immensely, and now it’s over. In reality this is the start of my flying career but it’s also coming up to the end of my sabbatical and back to “real life.” In a lot of ways I’m sad to go back to reality.

I owe a debt to several people for making this happen. Firstly to my wife Michelle for putting up with the kids while I cavorted around in a dinky little plane for the summer. To the kids, for putting up with Daddy spending all his time flying. To ThoughtWorks, whose ten year sabbatical program gave me the time to actually do this. To Sid Pinney for his encouragement and pilot advice. And finally to Carley, a great instructor who demanded high standards and who is one of my new aviation friends. I couldn’t have done it without all of your help. Thank you.


No Comments »

mike on September 30th 2013 in Flying

Going Solo


This is a post I’ve wanted to write for a long time.

As a ten year veteran at ThoughtWorks, I’ve been able to take advantage of a three month sabbatical to really focus on the flying. Trying to learn a new thing is pretty tiring. I’ve spent my days both going flying and studying the ground school, and by the end of the day I’m knackered! The good news is that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel—I’ve finished ground school and practice exams and I “just” need to take the real exam now.

About a week ago I got frustrated with progress. I was practicing landings in the circuit, but wasn’t very consistent. I’d have a session where my first landing of the day was awesome, and then they would be really variable. Took a ride with a senior instructor and he told me the secret—any pilot telling you they “greased it” three times in a row is fibbing—no-one is that consistent, everyone has good landings and bad landings. The key is to make sure they’re all safe. Maybe this was the dose of reality I needed, but my landings have been a lot better since then. Not 100% consistent, but some really good ones in there with those that are the “safe but not perfect” variety.

I’ve been held up for about ten days waiting for my Transport Canada medical paperwork. This is required to have a student pilot permit, which enables you to solo. Very frustrating to be stuck waiting on paperwork, but it finally came through. I went up and did some circuits with my instructor, and to be brutally honest the day started off pretty badly! Took me a long time to get warmed up and comfortable, but eventually I got to do one on my own.


Springbank Air Training College has a tradition of “bucketing” students who successfully solo — the picture above is me getting dunked. It was very nerve wracking to be up in the sky on my own, knowing that I’m the person who has to get this thing back on the ground safely. But I made it, and with a pretty decent landing too. I’d give myself 8/10!

I shot some video of the solo, more for my benefit than anyone else’s. It doesn’t seem that fast when you’re coming in to land and looking forward, but this view makes it look really fast. I guess a landing is around 75 MPH.

This is a big step in my training and things will hopefully progress rapidly from here. I’ve got about a month left before I have to get back to my real job, so fingers crossed the weather holds and I can become a real pilot!

First solo thumbnail

1 Comment »

mike on September 3rd 2013 in Flying

Landed It!


Today was my second day of circuits, and I went up with a camera to record my progress! If you click the picture above you’ll get a ouTube video of my first circuit of the day. I landed it really nicely, was very happy (and surprised!) about it. Whether it was a fluke or not, I don’t know, because the it was the best of the day. I landed a couple of others nicely but then I bounced and ballooned the rest.

Still, my instructor is happy, I’m making progress, so I’m happy too. And I did all the radio calls today and kept up with all the traffic situations, including a helicopter flying 300 feet above the ground right across the circuit (they were cleared to do that and on their way to Calgary International).

No Comments »

mike on August 10th 2013 in Agile

flying circuits


Flying is still going great! I am now out of the simulator and have moved onto “upper air work” (slow flight, stalls, spins, steep turns) as well as forced landings in the practice area near Morley, Alberta. This bit has been really weather dependent, and frankly summer has sucked here in Calgary so it’s been slow going. It’s also amazing how good the weather needs to be—it can look like a really nice day, but if the cloud is a bit too low, you can’t get enough height for these upper air manoeuvres.

This week I went for a lesson with a senior instructor at the college, something they do before letting me into “the circuit” (more on that later). This is an extra check on my progress and an extra pair of eyes to offer suggestions and help. In some ways it’s also a bit of a check on my instructor, so I was nervous about it because I wanted to do a good job for myself as well as my instructor. It all went well and the senior instructor suggested I go straight into the circuit.


The circuit is where the most critical pieces of flying are practiced. It’s a fairly small loop around the airport that includes takeoff, a rectangular traffic pattern around the active runway, and then a landing. You can request a “touch and go” where you land the aircraft and keep it rolling, then take off again immediately. The circuit exercises one of the tough parts (landing) as well as flying close to other traffic. At Springbank we’re under Air Traffic Control the whole time so we’re getting instructions from the tower and making radio calls, getting clearances, etc. A typical circuit takes about six minutes, so it’s fairly intensive practice. It’s also very real—tower is slotting incoming traffic into the circuit pattern, so you don’t always fly the same exact circuit and you have to listen out for instructions and do the right things in response.

The great thing about the circuit is that you can do it in worse conditions than the upper air work. You only need a 1500 foot ceiling and 3-5 miles visibility for the circuit, as opposed to a 3000 foot ceiling and 10 miles visibility for the upper air work. This means I’m likely to get fewer lessons cancelled due to weather, and frankly it feels like a good milestone and that I’m making progress.


Landing is absolutely the most fun (and nerve-wracking) piece of flying so far. On all my previous flights I’ve landed the plane with help from my instructor, but in the circuit I could tell she was helping me much less with the landings because some of them have been really heavy! Oops. I certainly wouldn’t buy a plane that had had someone like me learn in it! That’d be like buying an ex-taxi when shopping for a car—don’t!

I also got to the end of the first page in my pilot logbook and I feel that’s a big milestone. As of today I’m up to about ten hours in the air, and ten on the sim. Dozens more to go!

No Comments »

mike on August 9th 2013 in Flying

Serious Sabbaticating


This week I’ve been continuing with the flying here at Springbank airport as part of my ThoughtWorks sabbatical. I chose Springbank Air Training College after trying various outfits around here, and picked them because frankly I felt safest here. There’s a high level of professionalism amongst the instruction staff and quite a lot of young-looking students. The picture above is yesterday morning’s weather. Not a cloud in the sky, still, calm air, and miles of visibility. Decoding the weather was really easy compared to Monday’s yukky rainclouds and bad visibility.


My instructor and I have spent a bunch of time reviewing theory from the Canada Flight Training manual, and also spent time in the simulator. The school has a Redbird FMX full-motion simulator which is really fun, much cheaper than renting a real aircraft, and still counts towards my total flight time. The biggest benefit is that all the controls match the real aircraft and I can practice the exact control adjustments I’d need in real life. This is more efficient than sitting on the tarmac burning fuel and doing it in a real plane.

I’ll be starting an online ground school this weekend and just got all my pilot gear including flight “computer” (crazy slide rule thing for doing navigation). This is one of those hobbies you can spend infinite money on gear, which I’m trying to avoid. I don’t think it’ll be hard — I’m converting all amounts to “hours in a real plane” and that makes being frugal much easier.

No Comments »

mike on July 17th 2013 in Agile

First Steps to Flying

Calgary Flying Club Intro Flight, July 11th 2013

I’ve always wanted to learn to fly. When I was a kid I watched Sky Pirates, a movie where a bunch of kids battle against diamond smugglers using remote controlled planes. They had awesome stuff like remote controlled dart weapons and stuff, and I was hooked. My Dad got me a real model aeroplane — one of the petrol powered ones for god knows what kind of cost — and I went to the local club a few times for lessons. Sadly when you’re learning you only get to look at a really high up, tiny speck of an airoplane and it wasn’t that fun. My interest waned.

Sometime later I read Roald Dahl’s autobiographical books Boy and Going Solo. This was an amazing tale of an overly tall englishman learning to fly a Spitfire in the second world war, and his adventures in Africa during that time. When I got to uni I was crestfallen to realize the Oxford University Air Squadron only took people with 20/20 eyesight (I wear glasses) and so it looked like I was stymied again.

With my ten year anniversary at ThoughtWorks approaching, I decided I’d try to use my 3-month sabbatical to learn to fly. Today I took the first step, going on a half hour introductory flight with Calgary Flying Club. We flew a Cessna 152, a slightly sportier version of the manufactured-more-than-any-other-plane the Cessna 172.

Taxiing was a new experience. You have to steer with your feet, and I don’t do anything particularly subtle with my feet any more. I learned to drive a manual and in the UK practiced a lot doing things like hill starts without a handbrake, so my clutch control was decent. These days I drive an automatic in Canada and am much less dextrous. Steering via the rudder foot pedals was just, well, difficult.

My instructor let me pull back on the yoke as we took off, and although she was doing most of the work I really felt like I was flying the plane. She said “How’s that feel?” and I replied “Odd!” which I guess wasn’t what she was expecting! Seriously, the minute we got off the ground the thing was bucking all over the place. These planes are not big — they’re like a lawnmower with wings and we seemed to be going all over the place. A totally different experience than riding in a passenger jet that can fly halfway round the world and land itself in dense fog without human intervention. This was flying! I felt a real thrill from the basic, old fashioned ballsiness of what we were doing. Strapped into a tiny plane, hurtling into the sky, for no particular reason other than to have fun.

I flew the plane, pretty much on my own, to Bragg Creek and back. My instructor landed it. I think I’m hooked. I have another intro flight booked tomorrow with a different club. I can’t wait!

No Comments »

mike on July 11th 2013 in Flying

Security Advisory: Multiple Rails Vulnerabilities

Over the holiday period, multiple serious vulnerabilities have been found within the Ruby on Rails framework. These security flaws are significant, with exploit code available in the wild, and affect nearly all applications running Rails. Patches and workarounds are available. At ThoughtWorks, we’ve been contacting our Rails clients (current and previous) in order to let them know about the problems. I think it’s worth getting this info out as widely as possible, so I’m posting here too.

If your Rails application is available outside your corporate firewall, or to the public, I strongly recommend you patch or upgrade your application immediately. If your Rails application is protected by a corporate firewall the risk is somewhat reduced, but I still recommend you patch or upgrade as soon as possible.

The following links have more detail on the Rails vulnerabilities and remediation:

In addition, similar critical vulnerabilities have been found within core Ruby libraries which may be used (directly or indirectly) by non-Rails applications.

You should ensure your maintenance and support teams are aware of the recent vulnerabilities and are responding to them.

ThoughtWorks is a proponent of using Ruby on Rails for fast, efficient development of web applications. As part of being a good citizen in the Ruby world we felt it appropriate to reach out to our customers who have used Rails, to make sure they are aware of the recent vulnerabilities. If you require further assistance in evaluating your situation and how you should patch your applications, please reach out to us and we will help.

No Comments »

mike on January 15th 2013 in Ruby, Security

Data Visualization Showcase

As part of an internal event here at ThoughtWorks, I’ve been putting together various Big Data and Visualization related stuff. Some of it’s worth sharing outside ThoughtWorks, so I’ll post a few things here.

First up is a Visualization Showcase. Look at all this cool stuff you can do with data!

This image is a map of New York City, showing the geo-location of Flickr photographs and of Tweets. The Flickr photos are orange dots, the Tweets are blue dots. You can see that people are likely to photograph and tweet from different locations. Source: IBTimes Picture This – Daily Photo News

The next image is a representation of tweets between Twitter’s first 140 employees. Source: Connections among Twitter employeesJason Stirman (stirman) on Twitter

The next image shows media fear-mongering for various different scares, such as bird flu, SARS, and the Year 2000 Bug. What’s even more interesting are the patterns: there is a twice-yearly peak for scares about violent video games. Once in December (makes sense, lots of new games are coming out) and once in April. Why April? It’s the anniversary of the Columbine Massacre, and we see that event echo throughout the media each year. Source: Mountains Out of Molehills

Do women rule the Internet? The next visualization shows the female, or male, dominance of users on various websites. Source: Chicks Rule?

Are corporate fines for lawbreaking really punishing the corporations? A visualization of fines vs. annual revenue for major lawbreakers. Note that there are an awful lot of Big Pharma fines over the years. Source: Punytive Damages? World’s Biggest Corporate Fines

Stephen Wolfram has been quietly collecting every scrap of information he can about himself. He’s been recording every keystroke, phone call and email for over two decades. The result is an interesting set of personal analytics. Source: Stephen Wolfram Blog : The Personal Analytics of My Life

Videos is a community for sharing and collaborating on visualizations. Their intro video is excellent. Source: intro video

David McAndless’ TED talk on visualization. He contributes regularly to the Guardian Datablog and runs Information Is Beautiful.

David McCandless: Data is Beautiful

Hans Rosling’s visualization of the development of the world since the 1800s, showing how countries have moved from “poor and sick” to “rich and healthy” but that there is still much inequity.

Hans Roslin: 200 Countries, 200 Years in 4 Minutes


No Comments »

mike on October 16th 2012 in Agile

Skype for Group Calls: Experience Report

We’ve been using Skype for regular calls between a group of ThoughtWorks technologists in North America, for about the past year. We’ve had good experiences so I thought I’d write a few notes about it.

First off, the tech itself. A typical call includes both video, audio-only, and PSTN dial-in participants. Here’s what you need:

  • Skype subscription. Allows me to host a group video call for up to 10 participants.
  • Skype online number. Allows someone who only has a phone (no computer, or no net connection) to dial a regular number and get through to me.
  • Decent internet connection and laptop to host the call. My Mac laptop runs about 50% CPU with an 8-participant video call, and uses up to 200KB/sec up and down bandwidth.

For call prep, I do these steps:

  • Find a quiet room. Kinda obvious, but important.
  • Get on a wired internet connection if I can. Wifi has worked fine in the past, but ethernet is better.
  • Plug in my laptop to a power supply.
  • Use headphones or a headset. A full headset is best but even basic earbuds help immensely. You should ask participants to use headphones too.

To actually run each call, I follow these steps:

  • A couple of minutes before the scheduled start time, find one of my contacts who will be using Skype and start a call with them. This ensures that I am the host for the group call.
  • As the call time begins, proactively add people to the call. I do this by checking in my contacts who is online, and using the little + button on my current call to add people.
  • Some folks will call me via Skype before I manage to add them, or call me from their phone. When I get these incoming calls, instead of using the green “answer” button I use the little + icon on the button to add them to the current call.
  • When people are talking, their video or icon will glow. I use this to find people who need to be on mute, and ask them to mute if they have a lot of background noise.

When I originally proposed Skype, I had a lot of concerns. What I really want to do is use a next-gen tool such as Mumble (used for low-latency online gaming) which has great voice quality. The feedback I got was that people would need to dial in frequently, because they were on client site, or without a net connection. This is why I added the online number so people can call in. What ended up happening was that for the vast majority of calls everyone is able to be on regular Skype on their laptop. Every now and then someone dials in using the voice number, and are able to participate as well.

I’ve found Skype to be awesome for this group call. If you can get everyone to use earbuds and mute when they’re not talking, the audio quality is massively better than our voice conferencing tech. We didn’t start off using video, but we’ve found over the last few calls that video adds a lot, and everyone seems to be able to handle it. If we did have a problem I’d ask everyone to turn off their cameras and fall back to voice-only Skype, but it’s been fine so far. We’ve had people in ThoughtWorks offices, at client sites, at home, and even on the road successfully conference in with Skype.

Having said all this good stuff about Skype, it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s not the only game in town. Brad Feld has done some A/B testing and found that Google Hangouts often work much better for him.

I do really think it’s worth trying harder with group communications. Don’t just settle for a crappy PSTN voice call. If the distributed meeting is worth your time, it’s worth using decent tech and demanding basic etiquette from the participants, such as using a headset and finding a quiet room.

No Comments »

mike on March 6th 2012 in Technology

CollabNet Subversion Server for Windows

Since Pragmatic Guide to Subversion went to press, CollabNet has updated their Subversion server. If you want to follow the instructions in the book, use this link to download the previous Subversion server from CollabNet, rather than the link in the book. Make sure you select the “server and client” download for Subversion 1.6. Now follow the instructions in the book.

There’s another excellent server for Windows from the lovely people at VisualSVN. If you’re interested, check out my screencast showing how to use it.


mike on November 27th 2010 in Subversion, Version Control