Sunday, November 29, 2009

Convincing Congress

"An investigation is pending" is the sort of thing heard in news reports of things like the Hudson River midair crash of August, 2009. Well believe it or not, sometimes those investigations actually do occur!

Proof lies in these images.

I was asked to illustrate two examples of Class B (bravo) airspace. One was to be a standard Class B airspace, like that above Cleveland (above), while the other was to be the maze of Class B airspace that blankets the New York City area (below).

The purpose of the images was to present members of the U.S. Congress with a visual representation of what pilots must "see" and navigate in those areas. The issue at hand was whether further restrictions proposed for the New York area might possibly further aggravate an already confusing and difficult situation.

Upon getting the assignment, I wrestled with different ways to present the airspace. Airspace being a "3D" sort of thing, you'd think 3D graphics would be the perfect way to represent it. But in fact, showing an airspace in 3D does little more than reaffirm what pilots-in-training know well: Airspace navigation can be complex! If you think it looks confusing in these images, imagine trying to navigate it when it's entirely invisible in the sky around you, and represented on navigational charts only in two dimensions.

The green arrows in the images depict paths that are free for general aviation (GA) pilots to use at any altitude without permission. Orange arrows show areas that are free at certain altitudes only. Red indicates where GA pilots may not go without ATC clearance. (For the record, GA pilots can (and do) reverse Class B airspace (the "blue" areas) all the time--we just need ATC clearance to do so.)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

This is what Eric does at Pixar!

Eric works as a shading artist for Pixar. I've been around him numerous times when others have asked him to explain what "shading artist" actually means. Poor Eric struggles to describe what shading is, to onlookers who typically smile for politeness' sake, but really have no idea what he means.

How do you describe the shading on Wall*e when the way Wall*e looks shaded is the only way most people have ever seen him? It's sort of like trying to describe someone's beauty by "undescribing" that person's appearance.

Eric sometimes turns to me for support, asking me to step in with an explanation of my own. I try, but shading is really something much easier explained and understood from pictures, so I thought I'd take a crack at it from that angle.

No more talking about shading, dancing about architecture, "undescribing" beauty, etc.

On the left is a 3D model of a Cessna 172 wheel. (Airplane tires don't have treads like car tires, in case anyone wonders where the tread went.) In 3D-speak, we'd call this a model or mesh, or even just geometry. It's the structure of an object, with no other characteristics applied. (A single light was thrown in, because without a light, the "scene" would be all black.)

Even in this "clay" like state, one can easily tell the model is a wheel, because it's (more or less) geometrically correct.

But it still doesn't "feel" like a wheel.

What I mean by "feel" is this: When you look at most things, your brain enables you to imagine the way those things would feel to the touch, based on your previous experiences with the physical world. You see a piece of satin, and you can imagine how it feels. Or, you see a piece of solid steel, and you imagine it's cold and heavy. You can also avoid losing a finger, because you can mentally "feel" sharpness without having to bleed from it.

In 3D production, we add visual hints to geometry in order to help the viewer "feel" the objects with their eyes. If you can properly feel a 3D object, that object becomes more believable.

We call these hints shading.

On the right, is the same 3D object after shading. If the black portion seems like a dusty old rubber tire, and the white portion seems like dirty, oily metal, with just a touch of rust, I've done my job. If you can imagine what it would feel like to run your finger around the indented sections that form the border of the hub, all the better.

So, now, when you see a Pixar animated feature (or even one from a lesser studio), you'll know that underneath all the color, reflection, gloss, texture and grit, is a gray, featureless blob. And this is exactly how Remi, Wall*e, Nemo or any other character, car, room or cottage appears when it lands on the desk of a shading artist for the very first time.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Aircraft Lighting

Aircraft lighting was a tough subject to tackle. On the one hand, you want the lights to stand out; but, on the other hand, lights stand out best in total darkness, which makes for a pretty dull image. Making things tougher, unless there's visible moisture in the air, there will be no rays of light, and no glow. I did my best to mix all those considerations for this image. I tried to "force" just enough atmosphere into the scene to show a little light glow, but not enough so that clouds were needed to make it seem more real. And I tried to put it all at a nice dusk time of day so we can still see some of the airplane.

I've flown at this time of the day quite a bit. For me, and I hope for other pilots too, this image invokes memories of how smooth the air can be as the sun sets, and how gorgeous the views can be. This image also reminds me, however, of how I always forget to take off my sunglasses after sunset, which gives the early evening a disturbingly dark flavor. If it was me flying this place, I would definitely still have those sunglasses on at this point.

Oh yeah, the tail number is a special little shout out to a Canadian pilot buddy of mine. He likes to tease me about how long it took me to get my license, and I like to tease him about being Canadian. He'll be visiting this Summer, and it will be the first time we get to fly together. I fully expect to fluster the hell out of him as I catapult him into the complex airspace known as the San Francisco Bay Area. I can't wait to see his maple leaf ass sweat as he tries to negotiate the skies I've called home since I was that loser student pilot who took too long to get his license. ;)

Friday, February 27, 2009


The concept for this image, published in the March, 2009 edition of AOPA PILOT magazine, sort of popped into my head the moment I got the assignment. The idea was to highlight t-routes, which are special airways instrument rated pilots can fly when they have GPS on board.

The final composition was done in 3D, but very little of it is actually 3D. In fact, the "parts list" for the shot is:
  • 1 huge sphere for the main chart (big white map),
  • 6 blue tubes,
  • 3 green boxes, and
  • 2 VOR symbols (the black objects).
I added the sky after the render was complete. I was going for the effect of evening on the left, and space on the right, with a gradually evaporating atmosphere inbetween. The satellites were from a previous project I did for AOPA.

As typically as 3D projects tend to go, what should have been easy work, became quite time consuming. The problem was getting the composition of the shot just right, given the requirements of the shot. In other words, the placement of the tubes and green boxes isn't random. The chart, which is a real aviation navigation chart, defines those positions. So, the trick was getting an angle that looked nice, and still showed everything.

In the end, only one part of the chart become fiction. But I'll leave that for the instrument-rated pilots from the San Francisco Bay Area to figure out!

Friday, February 13, 2009

I was on Flight 3407 too

I have no photo for this post, because no photo would do this justice.

Yesterday, I took my biennial flight review--something required of all pilots in the US. It's less a test, and more a discussion of safety, coupled a demonstration of the pilot's most rudimentary skills. On the ground, you discuss airspace, weather minimums, legally required equipment--that sort of thing. In the air, you demonstrate radio communications, navigation; practice maneuvers, like stalls and steep turns; and go through the motions of an emergency landing.

The emergency landing test happens when the examiner pulls the power on your engine at a time most inconvenient. To ensure you resist the temptation to put it back in, she holds her hand on the throttle. The pilot must establish himself in a configuration that will ensure he remains aloft for as long as possible, while at the same time, he must determine where to land the airplane.

We were over an area just north of the San Pablo Bay (San Francisco), which was pretty sparsely populated. There were wide open fields all around me, so choosing a landing spot was more about choice than it was desperation. But each time I run an emergency procedures scenario, I think about the real thing. I wonder if a suitable landing spot will be so easy to find when the engine really does quit, and I wonder if my training will be enough to get me there.

One time, I did have an engine emergency; but it occurred right smack dab in the center of Oakland International, just after take off. So, again, my decision was an easy one: "Uh, I think I'll land on the big, massive runway still below me." I told the tower my intentions, and the controller asked, "Do you think you'll require services?" which was his G-rated way of asking if I planned on crashing.

"No," I said. If I couldn't make this landing, I didn't deserve emergency services.

All pilots go through this stuff. We train and train and, for the vast majority of us, emergency procedures are never more than exercises.

Soon after I got home from my flight review, I heard about Flight 3407. It stopped me dead in my tracks.

In air crash news reports, you hear about the airplane model's safety record, you hear about weather conditions, you hear about fatalities, and you hear all sorts of speculation about what might have happened. You even hear the life profiles of the deceased passengers for whom the news media can conjure up the most emotional stories--this one was a mother of newborn twins; that one was on his way to feed the hungry somewhere; the other was connected to some celebrity somehow.

But you never hear someone talk about what was going through the minds of the flight crew. What were Captain Marvin Renslow and First Officer Rebecca Shaw thinking moments before their flight and lives ended? Did they hear their CFI's voices in their heads reminding them to keep the wings level, or to watch their airspeed? Did they have flashbacks to their earliest pilot training and remember when emergency procedures were always conducted over big, flat green fields with a flight instructor by your side?

No matter what kind of airplane a pilot flies, the personal experience is largely the same: You feel a sense of responsibility, not only for the airplane and for yourself, but for those flying with you, and those below you on the ground.

When emergencies end in "miracles," as did the now famous Hudson River landing, we get to hear what the pilot was thinking. We get to hear, in his or her own words, what went wrong and what went right. When we contrast that with the outcome of an emergency like that of Flight 3407, it's easy to wonder if those pilots just weren't as good. Perhaps "Sully" could have landed this airplane; perhaps Continental's pilots aren't as good as those of USAir; perhaps Congress needs to look into something--I'm not sure what, but something.

But you know? Each airborne emergency is a battle between the pilot, the circumstances and fate. Sometimes things turn out, and sometimes not.

Yesterday, when my power was pulled, I was confident. I thought fast, and I had my airplane set up for what I'm certain would have been a "Sully" landing in a luscious grass field.

And why don't aviation examiners pull stunts like that over congested areas?

If a simulated emergency turns real, CFIs want to make sure the pilot's fight against circumstances and fate is stacked in his favor; because airplanes don't land well on houses, no matter who is flying.

Every time I hear of an airplane crash, I feel partially to blame, because... I don't know why. But I start wondering what "I" could have done differently. And I think that's what links all pilots--we never stop second guessing how we could have made a bad experience better, or salvaged a disaster--even if it's not our own.

Hats off to Sully. And hats off to Renslow and Shaw--for jobs equally well done.