Monday, July 9, 2012

How to kill 10 hours @ Frankfurt Airport...

Booking these flights a couple of months ago, it seemed like a fine idea to go with an extra-long layover in Frankfurt to get the cheaper fares & a chance to fly home on an A380...  Yet - somehow, when the alarm went off at some ungodly hour this morning, it just seemed awfully silly.  Not much point questioning one's sanity at that stage though, so off we went.  JB flying home to Austin via London, Darragh only leaving Hours later for Cape Town via London & me spending an approximate eternity in Frankfurt before plodding on to Joburg &, Eventually, Cape Town.  I should just point out, for the sake of absolute clarity, that it should Never take as long to get home to SA from Europe as it does from the US - ok?!  Good - we just all need to know that.

Anyway...  If you're Absolutely determined to be an idiot about such things, here's what you should do: Go To Frankfurt & loiter, with intent, in that airport!  & for starters, you should camp out in front of one of the big arrivals/departures boards & wait for an update - it's a thing of beauty to see & hear all the little numbers/ letters clattering around!  No - Really, you Have to do it :)

Then, try asking Lufthansa whether it's possible to get a business-class upgrade so as to gain access to the upper deck of your A380.  Of course the answer's a polite but firm Not Really, NO (not even for 50k frequent flyer miles!) - but in doing so you get to spend at least half an hour in a very peaceful, quiet waiting area, anxiously eyeing the big screen & intermittently checking the large number printed on the slip of paper you're clutching.  But - before that, you should track down the counter that looks like this:

& make sure you book yourself on one of the airport tours they offer.  What a fantastic idea to offer airport tours!  It's just Awesome: you've got this captive audience anyway (about 55 million passengers travel through the place in a year), why not overwhelm them with what an incredible facility it is?!  If you make it through the security checks (where, for a while anyway, this story looked set to come to a premature end), you suddenly find yourself on a bus driving underneath the gargantuan tail of an A380!

& getting to gawk at big aeries in every direction :D

You also cruise past the fuel depots that house nearly 200 million litres of fuel.  That sounds like a lot, but when you think a 747-400 can carry 225 thousand litres & an A380-800 takes 310 thousand litres, that doesn't last too long.  Also, keep in mind that they typically have about 470 thousand aircraft movements per year & their busiest day ever (10 June 2010) included 1429 take-offs & landings!


Frankfurt's also a major cargo airport, handling more than 2 million metric tons of freight per year.

Along the way we got to see one of the A380 hiding places - this building can stow 3 of them at a time.

Seriously cool to be so close to the runway with planes taking off!

The tour guide was beside himself when we came across this one...  A current generation plane painted up in the original (>50 year old) Lufthansa livery - the only one of its kind.  Fun to see :)

Just another day driving around in airport traffic!

Then time for an Air China Jumbo take-off...

Alright - yes, I know, this stuff makes me silly - but it's a Crause thing, I can't help it!

Even a 737 taking off right next to you rates rather highly...

Then later - after a good lunch & an even better weiss beer, it was time to pop out to the observation deck & see what was happening.  Perfect timing as an A380 Superjumbo was just lumbering out :D

After a great side-on view, it turned away to show off the bizarre wing profile...

Then a nice slow rotation before lining up for take-off.

Just love the little toy plane in the foreground for scale ;)  & it's completely ridiculous how quiet this monster is - it makes distinctly less noise than Any of the other planes on take-off!  It's also vastly more fuel efficient than the others, despite its staggering size.

Pity the planes actually take off pretty far from the observation deck - if only I'd had my 300 mm lens with me for the occasion.  But it really did take to the air with what seemed like minimal effort - wow :D

& then it was time for a regular Jumbo to do its thing!  Beautiful & elegant in a very different sort of way...

Same routine as the A380 - like models parading down a ramp & then giving us a nice turn. 

But Way better :)

Aeries Everywhere - you gotta love it!!

Then the dreaded "golden retriever with 2 tennis balls" scenario - what to do when you've got a Jumbo taking off to your right & a Superjumbo coming in to land from the left?!?

Aw Dad - I miss you & So wish you could see this :(:::

Somehow they manage to make landing these things look like a simple matter.

Then slowly taxi in & leave all other planes feeling mosquitoesque.

Probably just as well they don't have to parallel-park these, but I guess if you fly something like that for a living, you can do just about anything.  Just ask Jetman, Yves Rossy, who shuttles A380s around when he's not diving off the skid of a helicopter with his jet-powered wing strapped to his back!

Now for the face-on view that the Lufthansa one didn't offer earlier.

A closer look at the amazing wing shape.

& the 15 m tall tail...

Sadly the observation deck closes at 6 PM so then it was back into the airport where I ran into some kind of protest action.  Not sure what it was about - probably to do with airport-related noise-pollution?  Surely not from the A380s though!

It's a really cool building - here's the Sky Train station at Terminal 2.

This escalator ride had a slightly surreal feel about it.

& this travelator was even more spaceshippy!

The airport's railway station was worth a look too - these Germans do such cool stuff with glass panels...

Strolled around The Squaire a bit too, the absolutely enormous, hugely swish new building that's full of offices, hotels, restaurants, shops & plenty of air & glass. 

Sadly, by then my bags were getting lethally heavy & I was running out of steam so not much exploring in here...  Another day, maybe.

More fun with the glass panels at the train station before heading back over to the airport.

Well - at least it's not Another aeroplane shot, right?!

Ah!  Yes, we love that tail - such a welcome sight anywhere in the world, but especially when you've had a long day & mostly just want to go home. 

Weird to not being flying on SAA, but recall that this whole mission's been about getting to go on an A380.  SAA doesn't have those so Lufthansa it is! 

Here's the Johannesburg - parked at the gate, getting ready to absorb its 500+ passengers for the night!

Ridiculous as it sounds, I was so blasted from the long day schlepping myself + bags around the airport - I was paranoid that I'd fall asleep while waiting to take off!  Fortunately caught myself & didn't miss the coolest part.  There really isn't much fuss, or noise, involved in heaving the 560 tons into the air, but you certainly do get the sense that something spectacular's happening!  The landing was comparably amazing in that regard - it all just seemed completely effortless.  A truly unforgettable experience & I'm by no means cured of this fascination yet!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Groeten uit Amsterdam!!

It's that time again when >2000 geeky engineery, astronomerish types get together somewhere cool in the world to exchange war stories about the telescope & instrumentation game...  The SPIE Astronomical Telescopes & Instrumentation meeting for 2012 -  in Amsterdam this time!

What a great city & too bad we spent way too much time at the conference...  Only had 2 days for sightseeing & the rain that'd so politely held off all week arrived with a vengeance today!  Well, so we learn.  But we did have a superb day out yesterday when the weather was Perfect.  

Shameless tourists, we marched out of (the thoroughly impressive!) Centraal Station, & hopped on one of the boats that was loading up for a cruise on the canals.

Cliche as it sounds, a canal cruise really is a neat way to get a good look around the place, even if not the best for taking photos (too much perspex, & we managed to hitch a ride with a particularly uptight pilot).

The higglety-pigglety old buildings along the water are delightfully quirky - note how none of the windows really line up anymore!

Ah - Quick!  A clear shot of the Sint Nicolaaskerk through a gap in someone else's window...  & I didn't even have to stand up & risk the wrath of the captain ;)

Some interesting modern buildings about too - this one was reflecting light from a colourful neighbour.

Back on dry land, this old gem was just parked on the pavement - apparently there to be enjoyed by kids of all ages (there were a few smaller ones inside).

We spent the rest of the day strolling around on the western side of the city, enjoying the charming canal scenes...

& all the funky little buildings.

Occasionally  stopping for refreshments - mostly in the form of beer, but we also made a point of tracking down the iconic chips & mayonnaise snack option.  Wow, that Do be Gooood!!

Thanks to Tim for referring us to a wonderful pub on the main canal (Herengracht), called Arendsnest. 

It's famous for offering 30 local beers on tap!

Then a bit more exploring along the canals...

Parking space is at a major premium so you do whatever you can to fit in wherever possible!

But for the most part, bicycles are the answer when it comes to private transport.  Can't imagine how they do it though - if you ever forgot where exactly you parked, your bike'd be lost forever midst the thousands!


Hugely encouraging to see that common sense & mutual responsibility still seem to be enough to prevent boats crashing into each other or losing people overboard - in spite of the canal traffic!  Besides, it'd be embarrassing to spill one's drink while negotiating a tight corner or ducking under a low bridge.

After all this people-watching from a bridge over the Prinsengracht, it was time for another beer or 2...

All the while the canal scene drifts by - some parties more festive than others.

Since this is the out-&-about-in-Amsterdam part of the blog, I'll skip ahead to the thoroughly amazing Rijksmuseum which we visited this afternoon.  Much renovation in progress there, but it was fantastic to get to see a number of Rembrandt's treasures (including the incredible Night Watch), a few Vermeers & various other quite amazing pieces.

By museum closing time it'd stopped raining (although we were still pretty well soaked from hours earlier!) so at least I got a pic of the spectacular building.

Ok - so that was our touristy experience of Amsterdam, but most of the non-conference time was actually spent chilling out in our swish apartment on Maasstraat.  


This time round the regular SPIE trio, previously spotted in Marseille & San Diego, gained a second Texas-based engineer type named John - of the Good variety.


We tirelessly soaked up epic quantities of fine wine (mostly of South African origin: viva the Neil Ellis & Brampton cabs!), great cheeses, tons of cashew nuts & countless other delights.

When we could eat, drink & laugh no more, we would resort to marveling the fantastic lighting in the place.

Then  Darragh would typically break into some or other Irish folk song & swiftly drag JB along down that slippery slope.  At which point, JG would know to make a dash for his rented bicycle & put as much distance as possible between himself & the window with the 2 making all the noise.

This morning the scene took an unprecedented twist as the duo performed a more classical serenade - out on the street in the rain - to mark my completion of yet another lap around the Sun.  Thank You chaps!  That was indeed quite Soooper, just a smashingly charming, unforgettable gesture, really... :)

Now just to be clear: there was, of course, this conference thing going on during the past week, so here are some photos to prove it.  Our poster about the conclusion of the SALT IQ saga was up on Monday &, conveniently, Charl (who featured in 3 of the photos on the poster) was available to provide autographs for All the devoted IQ groupies ;)

Whenever the sparkle went out of the poster sessions (usually shortly after cashing in our one-free-drink coupon for the night & polishing off all the snacks), the hardcore engineers would get back to scribbling solutions to all the world's telecope problems on the remaining paper napkins.

Not to bore everyone too much with shop talk, I'll mention just one personal highlight of the actual conference: hearing of the progress being made with the incredibly exciting LSST project.  This facility really will change the way we look at & think about the Universe...  & of course the photographer in me has Quite a moment contemplating a camera that will have a front element 1.6 m in diameter & a 3.2 gigapixel detector array (using 189 individual 4k x 4k CCDs to tile the 64 cm diameter focal plane), all to be read out in just 2 seconds!  That'll make for about 15 Tb of raw data per night & 12 Pb per year, with the survey to run for 10 years.  Yes, right - OK then!!

On the ELT (Extremely Large Telescope) side of things, the Europeans are now down to planning a miniscule 39 m primary mirror...  At least it does still have a pretty nifty looking enclosure design, beautifully rendered in a 1:220 model they had on display.  To put that in perspective, look out for the two very well camouflaged people standing to the left of the building.

Having spent all their money on the zippy E-ELT model, ESO didn't have much else to offer at their stand.  Well, not Really - this was after closing time on the last day of the exhibition, but we couldn't resist the scene!

So that was all Quite Excellent, now for SPIE 2014 in Montreal :)  & we just miiiight entice the organisers to bring the 2016 meeting to Cape Town - that would be brilliant...