I was looking for another photo and came across a few I had forgotten about. In 2002 the Collings Foundation flew several WWII aircraft into Tucson International Airport and provided tours.

B-17 Nine-O-Nine
B-17 Nine-O-Nine

Each year the foundation took a few aircraft and toured the country, allowing visitors to tour the aircraft and for a more substantial donation provide sightseeing flights. For those who simply toured the aircraft on the ground they allowed something special, allowing guests to climb through the aircraft and see the inside.

As the airport was just a few minutes from work I had to take advantage of this opportunity. Deb met me for lunch and we headed over together to see the aircraft.

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Learning to Fly

Learning to fly the Mavic Air has been a pleasure, and actually much easier than I feared.

Droning Over the Badlands
Flying a Mavic Air over the badlands of recent Hualālai lava flows
The purchase of a drone was a bit of leap, one I had been considering for quite some time. When you realize where I will be over the next month the time was now.

Our annual boating trip into the wilds of Alaska and British Columbia offers stunning photographic opportunities for a drone. Not that the island of Hawaii does not offer a great place to learn.

Now or never! So I put down the money and bought the aircraft.

With drone in hand I need to learn to fly it. I need practice to achieve the level of competency I feel is required. I have had a month to practice, a month I have made good use of. Regularly flying and logging quite a few discharged batteries each week.

I am taking learning to fly seriously.

To watch a thousand dollar drone disappear into the sky takes a leap of faith. Faith in the technology and faith in your own skill to pilot the drone back to the launch site. Any number of times I have piloted it far enough away that the drone itself is lost to view, even though I have a clear view of where it is. It is always reassuring to hear the buzzing grow louder and have this little aircraft reappear as it returns.

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The Mavic Air

OK, so I bought a drone.

Flying the DJI Mavic Air in the saddle at the base of Mauna Kea
Flying the DJI Mavic Air in the saddle at the base of Mauna Kea
I have been flying the aircraft for over a month now, logging hours of flight time, and discharging plenty of batteries. I have practiced launch and recovery, navigation, hand catching the drone, and taken some great photos.

Describing the Mavic Air is simple… Impressive.

This is not a review, I am making no effort to list through all of the features and faults of the aircraft. What follows is more my impressions of the drone, a few things I have encountered while learning to use it.

The issue here is that I am completely new to flying a drone, the Mavic Air my first real drone, not considering the cheap $20 toy quadcopter I played with a bit to learn. I have had to learn everything from scratch. It also means I come at this little aircraft with fresh eyes having nothing to compare it with.

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Testing TBAD

TBAD is our Transponder Based Aircraft Detector, used to avoid illuminating an aircraft with the AO laser. A specially designed receiver that uses an antenna at the front of each telescope to detect the TCAS anti-collision transponder that is carried by all commercial and most civil aircraft.

Keck 2 Lasing
The Keck 2 AO laser works the northern sky
The odds of our painting an aircraft with the laser is astonishingly small. There is very little air traffic over the summit, those aircraft taking off and landing on the island have descended to well below 14,000ft before approaching. It is also a very large sky in which an aircraft is a very small target. Even if we managed, somehow, to paint the aircraft, the effects would be minor to unnoticed. Essentially the same as shining a bright light on the bottom of the plane. I have stood in the high power beam, strong sunlight feels much warmer.

Still, we are mandated to avoid the situation and to put in place measures to avoid such an occurrence. Before TBAD this involved hiring guys to sit outside and watch the skies for aircraft. I have done this, it can be pretty on a clear night with calm weather. It can be brutal on a cold and windy night. Even when taking precautions such as rotating two spotters every hour or two there is always the question of human fallibility under adverse conditions. Using an automated system like TBAD is far preferable.

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Testing TBAD with UAVSAR

So we have a system that will detect aircraft and shutter the laser.

First Target of the Night
The Keck 2 laser acquires the first target of the night with the glow of sunset behind
It works… We think.

In theory TBAD will detect the TCAS transponder on an aircraft, turning off our AO Laser to avoid illuminating the aircraft. This work via means of a directional antenna mounted to the front of the telescope that is able to detect the 1090MHz TCAS transmissions from the aircraft. The system has been operational for the better part of a year, mounted to the Keck 2 telescope. It operates all the time, whether or not we are using the laser.

The problem is that there is very little air traffic over the summit, it is even more rare that a plane goes directly in front of the telescope while we are observing. It is these test cases we need to prove the system, an aircraft passing through where the laser would be. Though the first year of running the system we logged a total of one detection that would have resulted in a laser shutter event. We need more test cases if we are to prove to the FAA that the system works as designed.

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