Tag Archives: flying

Road to the PPL: all the way to my first solo!

It has been a while since my last update (here) on my PPL training, since fist I could not fly for months because of the lockdown (you know, Covid-19 and everything…), then after two flights in June (just enough to get back in the rhythm) the Sonaca 200 fleet was grounded for inspection, so I could actually only restart intensive flying in August. But since then I have flown once every week, which means 7 flights in the past 7 weeks, most of them pretty long (up to two hours) and intensive (with a lot of exercises, and even a progress test). This culminated in my fist solo flight (of 24 minutes, flying two circuits at Maubeuge, including a touch and go and a full stop landing) this Monday, which is obviously a huge milestone in the training program. Now I have 22 hours and 18 minutes of flight time, and a bit more than 60 landings.

Just before my first solo I also did the online test for the Sonaca 200 (successfully passed with a 96% result – thanks to the test being not too difficult, open book – although with a time limit of 90 minutes for the 90 questions -, and me studying way too much for it), and I finally got my badge to the airport (the GA area) too after a personal security briefing held only for me (since I don’t speak French and they very rarely give the briefing in English – as illustrated by the clear lack of demand for it), so now it will be easier for me to get in and prepare the plane for a flight without having to wait for my instructor to come and get me (which was not very practical when the instructor had a flight before my training, or it was the first flight of the day). Thanks to my videos (which have became a very useful post-flight briefing tool for me), I was asked to give an interview to Sonaca (the manufacturer of our planes) after my first solo, which was of course a nice experience.

Now there will be a few more flights with mostly touch and go training, always including some solo time, then we will start navigational flights! Below I will give a short summary of the past flights, and embed the videos I have made of them.

Flight 7: After three months of no flying due to Covid-19, I was finally back at EBCI (Charleroi) for the next flight of my PPL training. This time I managed to record the radio audio too, so the video is longer than usual (note: since then that became pretty standard…), because I left in parts which are interesting only for the dialogue, and not for the flying – since this is also an important (and interesting) part of the training. I also left parts in where I make mistakes, because this is how you learn during the training. Unfortunately something was not OK with the external power, so the GoPro was using its own battery, and after that ran out of juice the recording died after ~1 hour, so I don’t have footage of the (very good) approach and the (pretty bad) landing back to EBCI… (Actually the issue was that I started recording with the quick capture mode, and using that the GoPro never uses external power. So reminder: always properly turn the camera on, and start recording with the record button.) Besides a general repetition of flying skills, we covered mainly steep turns (45 degree and 60 degree) during this training.

Flight 8: For this flight we took off from EBCI and headed to Cerfontaine (EBCF) for some touch and go practice. This was my second touch and go session (after visiting Namur before Covid-19 closed the airspace), and my first experience with a grass runway. On the way there we did some slow flight (not in the video, we have seen enough of that for now), and after the first few touch and goes we did two engine failure simulations, when we set the power to idle at 2400 feet, right overhead the airfield, and then glided down to land without touching the throttle. The first one of this was a demonstration, but the second one I did on my own. Unfortunately the GoPro decided to not use the external power again (I only realised after this flight that the quick capture mode was to blame), so this was not captured anymore (nor the landing back at Charleroi)… It is a shame because this was a really nice exercise and the landing was also good. Just after leaving the control zone of EBCI we were ear-witnesses of OO-NCA suffering an engine failure right after take-off and making an emergency landing on the remaining runway. Both pilots and the aircraft made it back to the ground without suffering any injuries or damage. For this reason I decided to have the whole situation presented in this video, mainly because it illustrates that 1) we do the take-off briefings for a reason (to memorise what we need to do in the very exact situation), and 2) how ATC and other aircraft nearby react in an emergency situation. As safety is a top priority in the flight school, the Sonaca 200 fleet was grounded while the engine problems were investigated.

Flight 9 arrived after more than a month of not flying (again – now due to the Sonaca 200 fleet being grounded). It was supposed to be a progress test, but the clouds were way too low for that (we would not have been able to climb high enough for safe stall demonstration). As Plan B we decided to stay at EBCI (Charleroi) for local touch and go training (also known as: to fly circuit patterns). Needless to say I was happy about the change of plans (I just knew that the progress test would have been rather boring, and touch and go training at a relatively busy international airport is just orders of magnitudes more exciting). It was also the inaugural flight of my new Bose A20 headset: I am very satisfied with the change from the original David Clark one, the voice clarity is incomparable (which I was definitely hoping for given the price difference). You might notice that I am flying without glasses now, but don’t worry, I am wearing my lenses – I always have so much trouble combining the glasses with wearing a mask in the cockpit…

It was a very straightforward training, we did multiple left hand patterns with touch and go landings in between, and one actual go around (so not as a training but as a real life situation). Like everyone else I also find it difficult to share bad landings and footage of me not flying perfectly, but I learn the best from re-watching my mistakes, so I decided to show almost the whole training today (only very small amount of idle time is cut out to make it less unbearably long). During the first landing I had a hard time feeling the feedback from the plane, so for the second one I just followed through the movements of the instructor. You can see it in this video, that this was extremely useful, and from there on the approaches and landings got better and better (with the penultimate landing being the best of the series). I think the video shows well how continuous input from an instructor helps improving one’s flying technique.

For the duration of the first circuit I have overlaid some explanatory drawings and text about what is happening and where we are in the circuit for those who are completely new to aviation.

Flight 10 was a progress test flight, we made a general repetition of all the manoeuvres, including stall recovery in all the possible configurations, steep turns, recovery from unusual attitudes, etc. It was a long and busy flight, much less boring than I expected it to be, and I passed the test without issues. Unfortunately I have no footage of this flight, because I accidentally put the GoPro in photo mode :D Since then, I always just make sure that the GoPro is rolling properly before putting the suction mount to the top of the canopy (because during the flight I am not dealing with the camera at all, it is a start and leave setup, so it does not take even a second of my focus away from flying during the training – with the external battery and a big memory card, there is no need to start/stop the recording to save battery power or storage space).

Flight 11: We took off from Charleroi (EBCI), and flew to France to practice circuits (with touch and go landings) at LFQJ. I should have asked my instructor in advance what his plans were, because in France you have to do the radio calls in the pattern (of an uncontrolled airport) in French, and I was totally not prepared to do that. You see, my French is – how to put it mildly – pretty merde… [Pardon my French.] So this stressed me quite a lot during the training flight, probably contributing to small mistakes here and there. It was also a long training, so by the end I could feel that I got tired. We did a few normal approaches, then also two flapless ones (one demonstration), before heading back to EBCI. The air was again quite turbulent here and there before the arriving thunderstorms, but nothing too bad.

Overall my circuits and approaches were pretty good, only the transition did not work out as it should: I was not smooth enough with reducing the power and raising the nose (which I was not raising enough either), and my yaw perception was also a bit off this time. Note: the approach speed was at one point misquoted. This can happen in a long and busy training, but for clarification, here are the standard approach speeds of a Sonaca 200 based on the SOP: 60 knots on final in normal configuration, 65 knots on final in flapless configuration. This is in calm conditions, without strong gusts.

Flight 12: This time the weather was not really on our side, so instead of a series of touch and goes at LFQJ, we had to make a full stop landing and wait a half hour while a rain front passed over the airfield, so I only made 3 landings this time (including a really nice one). Due to the weather conditions, this flight was also a bit of an introduction to weather avoidance, and low visibility / instrument flying (on the way back, inside the CTR of EBCI). We also made an engine failure exercise, and I made radio calls in French (so-so) again, this time feeling much less stressed, since the previous flight already prepared me for that. All-in-all, this was a very good training again, with a lot of things learned. After this training I would always remember to not round out a flapless landing as if I was doing a normal one…

Flight 13: This time the weather in the morning was not looking good at all: my instructor even proposed to cancel our training… Luckily I have a long history with numerical weather forecasts, and immediately had a look at my favourite high resolution weather model to see if things would improve in a few hours, then replied to him that based on what I could see, the conditions would most likely be perfectly fine by the time we were scheduled to be in the air. I managed to convince him, and just as forecast, we had perfect VFR conditions throughout the flight, with just the right amount of wind to make it a bot more challenging.

We had a great touch and go session of more than 1.5 hours (this was my longest flight until then) in a surprisingly busy airspace; we had to orbit / fly a short circuit / make a loop to the South quite a few times to give way to arriving / departing commercial traffic. I made 10 approaches (8 touch and go landings – including one in flapless configuration -, a planned go around exercise, and a full stop landing at the end). Often we were aiming behind the blocks (see notes in the video) to avoid wake turbulence. My landings improved a lot, paying more and more attention to rudder work (to de-crab during round out), keeping the aircraft better under control after the main wheels touched down (since the job is not done at that point just yet), and by the end of the training I had a much better feel of the speed and glide slope corrections on base and on final.

Flight 14: with two hours of flight (engine) time, again a record long training – but thanks to my editorial work, not even close to the longest video. Since there is a clear interest in radio communications based on my YouTube view count, I left most of that in, so we can see how different scenarios look like from the beginning to the end (exiting and entering a controlled airspace, calls in uncontrolled airspace, and checking in with Brussels Info for flight information services).

First we flew to LFQJ to do some pattern work: we did 6 touch and go landings, the first three in relatively strong and variable crosswinds, which calmed down considerably for the second half of the circuits. These first landings were definitely difficult cross wind training. I also had a relatively hard landing, concentrating too much on correcting for the wind, and not paying enough attention to still doing the round-out properly. It happens, and as always, I show the bad landing too, there is a lot to learn from it. After the pattern work we headed back to Belgium to do some spin avoidance training (stall recovery from incipient spin phase) high over the lakes, before flying back to EBCI for a full stop landing.

It was the fist time that I fuelled the aircraft, and it was also the first time that I flew with a kneeboard. Besides keeping my French cheat sheet on it, I also used it to note down the information from the ATIS while flying. As my flying skills improve, my workload can also increase. Except for checking in with Brussels Information, I did all the radio communications too.

Since my instructor actually tol me that if the weather had been calmer, he could have let me do my first solo, I used the next weekend to study for and pass the theory exam of the Sonaca 200, which is required by my flight school before going solo.

Flight 15 was my 7th flight in seven weeks, this time with a different instructor. Since I passed the online Sonaca 200 test of the flight school two days earlier, I was technically ready to go solo. I also added some French expressions to my cheat sheet to cover calls that were not needed during touch and goes, but which I would need should I be allowed solo (mostly ground movements, and full stop landing). I was a bit afraid, that flying with an instructor that I had not flown with for months would lower the chances of me flying solo, but I did not stress about it, even though I felt ready and I really wanted to go solo :)

After take off (perfect flows and checklists, trying to show the instructor how my progress was) and leaving the CTR, we did a new exercise: compass turns (he briefed me about this on the ground before departure already). Afterwards we flew to Maubeuge (LFQJ), and integrated to the right hand circuit for RWY 05. The previous times I always flew the other way around (RWY 23), so this was a bit new. Our first approach ended in a nicely called go-around, because somebody cut in front of us and did not vacate the runway in time, then I did three very nice and smooth landings (some of the credit is due to the very smooth atmosphere, with barely any wind that day), the third after a short circuit. This (already the first two) was enough for my instructor to decide to let me go on my first solo!

He got out, took a handheld radio with him, and I was on my own. I had to do two circuits, a touch and go and a full stop landing, before picking him up again for the flight back to Charleroi. The solo was a great experience, I was not nervous, but I was not fully at ease in the first minutes while getting into the rhythm on the ground, but after take-off everything went very smooth and I was very calm and concentrated. I made one bigger mistake only, deciding to take off using maximum continuous power instead of full power, but I was fully aware of this decision, and I knew that given the available runway length (1300 meters, or 1250 meters from the start of my take-off run), I would have no issues taking off with the slightly reduced take-off power. Still, this was a stupid mistake. (I have read so much about the time limit on full power per flight, and that we always use MCP during touch and goes, that I got confused in the heat of the moment, and I was convinced right there on the spot that this was the correct thing to do. Of course it was not, a take-off is always with full power. Both in the AFM and in the SOP.) But I will always remember it from now on.

I could have left all the mistakes out, but I decided to leave 100% of my solo flight in (with the quiet parts sped up considerably), and analyse every single moment of it, to point out even the smaller mistakes for you, so we can learn from it together. I hope some people will find this educational, because it sure is pretty hard for me to just put all my mistakes into the spotlight :) In any case, I am proud of my first solo flight, the patterns were perfect (except for a bit of ballooning here and there), the approaches and landings were by the book, and in general my flying, communication (except the French pronunciation, and mixing up some words when I am talking to myself :D), and situational awareness is very good. I just need to make sure that I don’t forget doing a proper flow before the call at the beginning of downwind.

After the solo we flew back directly to EBCI, and I ended the day with a nice flapless landing, before having a small interview with Sonaca about my flying :)

The next flights will be probably similar, always one or two new exercise leading towards navigational flying, then some solo flying to build solo time (there is a minimum of 10 solo hours needed by the end of the PPL training). I am very much looking forward to the next flights!

Road to the PPL: Up into the sky and back down to Earth

During February and March I had four more flight training sessions at EBCI (Charleroi), bringing up my total flight time to 7 hours and 36 minutes (after 6 flights). (This sounds so little like this, it’s basically the amount of time I have to work on a single day, wow. No offence to my work, but I remember these hours slightly more vividly.) It happens that I flew with all the four different Sonaca 200 planes my flight school has, including the brand new OO-NCD (or for my non aviation inclined readers, this is pronounced as Oscar Oscar November Charlie Delta, which had only 22 hours of air time when I sat in it; unfortunately I can not report the presence of a new-plane-smell anymore). I also flew with three different instructors, which definitely helps in getting feedback from people with slightly different approaches (and yes, I have my favourites already, but in general I am very happy with everyone I have flown with so far).

There is way too much stuff in my flight bag already, so I am not carrying my Fujifilm X-T3 with me anymore (even though I would love to take better pictures here and there, but there is simply not enough space or time for it), but I have installed a GoPro camera in the cockpit for these flights. For Flight 3, I had my old GoPro 4 Silver as a test, to see how useful or interesting having a recording of my training is, but then I bought a new GoPro 8, which – thanks to the amazing image stabilisation features – provides a perfectly vibration-free result (in 4K – I don’t even own a 4K screen, but this is 2020, people). By Flight 6 I also had the tech to record the radio communication too, but I messed up the settings so instead of having the recording of me talking to the air traffic controllers of an international airport or listening to the great comments of my flight instructor, I got one and a half hour of video without sound. Anyway, I think I know where I made the mistake, and it should be all good the next time (whenever it will be – thanks Obama Covid-19!).

I have posted the most interesting parts of the flights online (edited in DaVinci Resolve 16) on my YouTube “Channel”, with timestamps and more detailed comments in the descriptions, so I will not go over everything here, just have a summary of what I learned (click to the videos for more). Flight 3 started with my first unassisted take-off, then we did climbing and descending turns.

During Flight 4 we did high-power low-speed climbing turns and low-power descending turns (to feel the different rudder input necessary for a balanced flight in these situations), then we experienced slow flight (flying at and around the speed associated with minimum drag). I had my first transmissions on the radio (talking to Ground and Tower until the take-off point as a start). [You can compare the quality of the first two videos, amazing how stable the new GoPro is, right?]

Flight 5 was mainly power-off stalls in various flap configurations (first clean, then take-off, and landing). At the end I finally got to make a full approach and landing on my own, it was great. Now I did all the radio communication except for the phase between returning to the CTR (the control zone of Charleroi) and landing.

Flight 6 was the best training so far. We headed over to EBNM (Namur) for my first circuits and touch-and-gos (meaning that a landing is immediately followed by a take-off, without stopping). EBNM has a 690 meter long and 25 m wide asphalt runway, which felt very different to the huge runway at EBCI (2405 m x 45 m), but it was a very good exercise. I did 7 landings and 2 (planned) go-arounds, so 9 circuits (or patterns), before heading back to EBCI where I had my 8th landing of the day. Here and there the wind was a bit gusty, and there was a light, but variable crosswind too, so some approaches were more challenging than others.

I did all the radio communication until the start of the touch-and-gos, but from then on I had enough to do with flying and navigating (so my instructor took over the radio there, until we were back on the ground at EBCI). This is completely normal at this point during the training. It was an extremely rewarding training with a very steep learning curve, and I managed some very good landings in the second half of it. By now I am also familiar with all the visual reference points that lie to the South of the runway (since we have never went to the North so far). It was also the most tiring flight of my training so far, not only because it was very long (almost two hours), but also because it was very active, there was barely any straight and level flying, there was always something to do. I loved it. (On a side note, EBNM was the first airport I modelled in detail for X-Plane 11, so it was great to finally visit it in real life too!)

Unfortunately Covid-19 screwed up everything, so no flying in the foreseeable future :( Normally I would have had my security briefing at Charleroi today to get a badge to the airport, and I had training flights booked for every week until the first Sunday of April… Time to proceed with studying the theory and flying in the simulator I guess.

Road to the PPL: The first flights of my training

Last month I had the first two flights of my PPL training at Charleroi (EBCI). I was supposed to have a third one too, but that was unfortunately cancelled due to Belgium being under a think layer of fog for almost a week… Currently I have three more flights booked for February, but of course winter weather can often be unsuitable for VFR (flying by visual flight rules), so having just two of these go through would probably be a big success already. I hope during the summer it will be easier to book lessons (with longer days, better instructor availability, and better weather chances).

Before the first flight I still had to buy some basic equipment, such as a headset, checklists, a VFR map of Belgium, and a kneeboard (and later I still got a nicer headset case, a fuel tester, a plotter, an E6-B flight computer, and a Leatherman multitool to complete my flight bag). And of course as a data-geek I also got a flight-planner/tracker app for my iPhone (SkyDemon) so I have a log of all my future flights at the same place.

Even though the first flight itself was more of a familiarisation flight (procedures, checklists, all the pre-flight paperwork, primary and secondary effects of the controls, important visual navigation points around Charleroi, straight and level flight, use of the trim), I went very well prepared (I studied all the relevant theory modules), so we did some basic manoeuvres too (a few turns, nothing special), and I had no problem maintaining course and altitude. Of course the landing, take-off, and radio communication was done by my instructor, as a demonstration.

I fly a Sonaca 200, a low-wing cantilever monoplane made from aluminium alloy (in Belgium). It has an enclosed cabin with two side-by-side seats, it is powered by a 115 hp Rotax 914 engine (a turbo-charged, four-stroke, four-cylinder, horizontally opposed aircraft engine with air-cooled cylinders and water-cooled cylinder heads), and has a fixed tricycle landing gear. It has a propeller made out of three composite blades and a cruise speed of 213 km/h. Air Academy New CAG has currently three of them (with one more coming soon), OO-NCA, OO-NCB, and OO-NCC. They have an analogue instrument panel except for the digital engine monitoring system (EMS) display. All in all a very basic, but reliable, safe, and comfortable general aviation (training) plane.

After the first flight I have made a Google Sheet for the weight and balance calculations, so I just need to pick the aircraft, fill in the fuel, passenger and luggage weights, and I get all the values (plus load limit checks) that need to be filled into the pre-flight documents. (In the example below input fields are marked with a blue background, there is a red warning that the take-off mass and moment combination would be outside of the safety limits – in this case the centre of gravity would be just a bit too forward and moving the luggage to the rear bag area would solve the issue -, and a green confirmation that the baggage is within the limits.) Nice and convenient. I also added each aircraft to the database of SkyDemon, with not only weight and balance, but proper flight performance data too, so I could also use that for the weight and balance calculations and flight planning in the future (when we get to the point of cross-country and navigation flights).

The second flight (see log on the map below) was much more proactive, I did the full pre-flight checklist (including external checks), taxiing (movement on the ground), and even the take-off by myself. Then I did again some straight and level flying out of the control zone, followed by climbing and descending (attitude-power-trim and power-attitude-trim procedure) sandwiched between various turn exercises. The landing was still 50% demonstration, but my instructor said that next time I would have full control, since I am doing so well :)

I wanted to install a GoPro for the third flight, but winter got in the way, so this will have to wait, but soon I will give some insight to the cockpit too. Looking forward to my next flights!

The past months

It is again the usual situation: I have not written anything here during the past months, but as always, this does not mean that I was not busy with various things basically all the time. So let’s have a short summary – in chronological order.

During November and December I played Uncharted 4 on the PS4, which looked very pretty, but progressed a bit slow for my liking, and the puzzles got quite repetitive after some time. For Christmas I got myself a new helmet (Giro Synthe MIPS) as a present, since my old one was getting way too old. Looks great, feels good. Then we spent two days between the holidays in Holland, visiting ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Nijmegen.


The first day we had sunny weather and Den Bosch was a nice city to walk around, while the next day Nijmegen was grey and cold, but at least we met up with Steven for dinner (and for lunch we also found a great place with delicious healthy sandwiches and drinks). On the next morning I also got the scrape-all-the-ice-off-your-windshield experience for the first time… Although we celebrated New Year’s Eve at home, the night before we went to the Spaans Dak for a fancy dinner, which was nice.


January was even colder than December. After cycling through the freezing fog in -5°C on the last day of the year (my coldest ride ever), I also biked through snow and freezing rain with my MTB during the first days of 2017 (this ride covered me in a layer of ice, and cost me a bit of skin around my left knee), and this kind of weather stayed for the following weeks too. This made January my coldest month on the bike (so far?) with an average ride temperature of 0.6°C (over 875 km in 34.5 hours).


I also got new glasses (my eyes did not get much worse, but my old lenses were so scratched from the years of cleaning that I really needed new ones), so now I have a slightly different look. Being a good citizen, I even went for a Belgian brand (Louis) for the frame. After all these expenses, I decided it was time to save some money, so instead of buying energy bars, I decided to make them myself. I used more or less the recipe from the Global Cycling Network, with some extra ingredients (and twice the amount to fill my baking tin), and the result was delicious. Since then I made a batch (almost 1.5 kg) every month. I also got a brighter front light (Lezyne Power Drive 1100XL) to be able to bike in the dark, therefore I had a few rides well past sunset for the first time ever. At the end of January I sold my MTB because I barely used it, especially since I got the cross bike. So now I have only two bikes again…

I started February with a small meeting in Bern at the International Space Science Institute, discussing the challenges in modelling massive stars. Unluckily around the same time I caught a quite bad cold, and I only recovered a week after coming home from Switzerland. (I felt so weak that I had to turn back from a group ride after 5 kilometres, which was pretty depressing after already not being on the bike for quite some time…). A week later (almost fully recovered by then) I went to the velodrome in Ghent with Willem (and the Belgian Rapha Cycling Club), which was a really fun two hours on the track with 40+ km/h. (Photo: Bert Van Lent – and I am on the far right.)


I wish there was a velodrome in Leuven, it would make my winter cycling training so much easier (and more fun). I had to buy a pair of new wheels for my road bike, because the originals were getting dangerously worn (partly due to the rainy and foggy descents in the Pyrenees last summer where we probably eroded a half millimetre from our rims in two days), and this time I did not go for the usual Mavic choice (although I am mostly happy with those wheels too), but I ordered a wheel-set from a smaller British company: HUNT. I choose their Race Aero wheels (1420g, 28 mm deep, and 22 mm wide rims, £379), and I am fully satisfied with them so far. They are hand built, light, aero, and HUNT offers a 60 day ride and return period, so I can only recommend giving them a try. Should I need a new pair of wheels, I find it likely that I would buy from HUNT again. Thanks to the wider rim, I also switched to a slightly wider tire (moving from 23 mm to 25 mm), and I can definitely feel the difference in ride quality (smoothness) and while cornering. The first ride with the new wheels took me to the French-Belgian border to do a reconnaissance of one of the routes that I had previously prepared for the Squadra Tornado training weekend. That week was great in terms of cycling overall (425 km in 15.5 hours), I even managed one ride in shorts (with knee and arm warmers, but still). Just before the end of the month I also completed the first century of the year too.


In March I started a big project that I always wanted to do; making my own sky atlas. The final push came when I was redoing a few figures about all the observations that had been made with the Mercator telescope since its inauguration (some of which I also compiled into a video), because I realised that I was already using a lot of the tools that would be needed to create a star atlas. Since this is a huge topic I want to write a separate blog entry about it (in the near future), but let me just say that I lost plenty of sleep time since the beginning of March to this project (but it has been always fun and I learned a lot while doing so). I was also a member of a PhD jury for the first time in my life, and I got to wear a fancy gown on the public defence of the candidate. I really liked that :)


For the second half of the month we finally got a spell of nice spring weather, so I returned to the South for the second reconnaissance ride, which was the nicest ride of the season so far (in Belgium). Unluckily the weather for the Tornado outing itself turned out to be pretty rainy, and I also had to drive to Antwerp in the middle of the weekend for an evening, therefore I only made it to the ride on Friday, so at the end I was really happy that I did the recon rides of the two other days earlier. On the PS4 I started playing Horizon Zero Dawn, which seems fun for now (although slightly repetitive). Towards the end of the month I bought a new cycling GPS, the Wahoo ELEMNT Bolt, which is much better than all the Garmins I had before, so I am very happy with the switch.


Unluckily it turns out that my unit has some kind of a hardware issue that only appears around an altitude of 2000 metres (and manifests in huge spikes or a complete loss in elevation data), so when I did my first bike ride from the Observatory on La Palma I had to face some nasty surprises. Of course – being a data scientist nerd – I was not happy about that, but luckily the Wahoo support was very helpful (maybe partly because I provided a detailed, ~5000 character-long description of the issue), and a replacement unit is already on its way as we speak (and as long as I am not crossing the ~2000 metre line I have no issues, so I don’t have to go back to one of my Garmin units in the meantime). Speaking of La Palma: I had an observing run at the Mercator telescope starting on the 4th of April (and lasting 9 nights, bringing my totals there up to 128 nights), then I took a week of holidays on the island just to bike around. The last time I travelled with my bike was in 2013, and most likely this is the last year that I have the opportunity to go to the Canary Islands for work, so I though I had to do it once again. During the nights I spent most of my time working on the sky atlas (drawing the outlines of ~300 dark and bright nebulae by hand) in the control room, and I did a 1.5-2 hour ride from the Observatory before every night (except for a very cold Monday). I have never biked this much up on the mountain. The previous years during the observing runs I only rode the bike between the telescope and the place where we stay during the day, which only added up to 10.5 km (when I rode up to the telescope twice) a day. Now I have a licence so I always drove the car to the telescope which saved a lot of time and energy, therefore I could go for longer rides between starting the instrument calibrations (right after getting out of bed on the afternoon) and having dinner (right before the beginning of the worknight). The weather was also quite nice at 2000 metres. It was almost always sunny, and during the first days it was even so hot that I could just bike in shorts, but a week into my stay I made good use of all the knee/arm warmers and the wind jacket I had with me too…


Normally I would take a taxi down to the hotel in Santa Cruz, but this time I made some arrangements so that I could just bike down, and a taxi would follow me with my bags :) That was quite cool (except for the part where a dog almost jumped at me while I was going down with 60 km/h), and I got an extremely helpful driver (via some local connections) who helped me with my bags a lot. I had six full days to bike, and I managed to bike on each day (which was a first again), although I had to cut a ride much shorter than planned, because I could not sleep anything the night before (thanks to my messed up internal clock). All in all I am happy with what I managed, especially the three longer rides. On the first day I biked around the Southern tip of the island before doing two 2nd category climbs, then after two days of fighting with insomnia I rode around the whole island (a really epic ride of 155 km with 3385 m of elevation gain), while on the last day of my holidays I biked up to the top of the island for the fifth time in my life, but for the first time without stopping.


This climb – leading up to the highest paved point (the Roque de los Muchachos at 2426 metres ASL) of the Canary Islands – is a monster. It is 41.5 km long, it starts at a few metres above sea level and climbs at an average gradient of 6%, but since there is a short downhill/flat section after reaching 2300 metres for the first time, the actual average gradient for the uphill parts is 7% (both for the first ~33 km and the last 3.5 km). Long story short, simply going up and down involves 2750 metres of elevation gain… This specific ride will stay in my memory not only because I finally managed to get up there without stopping, but also because the temperature went from 23°C at sea level to 10°C in the cloud layer (staying between 800 and 1800 metres, but while climbing that was not too cold, even though I was wearing only in shorts), then back up to comfortable (quite warm) levels thanks to the strong sunshine above the clouds.


This was all good until I had to go downhill though the cloud layer, because by that time the clouds became even thicker, so the visibility dropped to ~25 metres, and the temperature to 8°C. This means that I had to descend for a half hour through this layer (and due to the low visibility I had to go relatively slow, so it took me much longer than usual to get down), and I only had an extra gilet with me against the wind, but no jacket or arm warmers against the cold (since although I checked out what the weather situation was at the telescopes before leaving, I did not think about the possibility of having colder temperatures in the cloud layer at lower altitudes – quite stupid of me now that I think of it). With windchill values between 6°C and 2°C that was not a pleasant half hour, and I was shaking slightly by the time I emerged from the cloud layer, but I survived, so it is OK :D In total I biked 783 km in 34.5 hours on La Palma (with an elevation gain of 18140 metres, which explains the horrible average speed).

That afternoon (after warming up in the shower) I even managed to walk down to the new beach which finally opened after years of political games over permits and who knows what else, but now it is open, and it is a great addition to the city (providing not only access to the sea, but also a nice, new view over the colourful houses of the historical seafront with the mountains in the background). Speaking of things other than biking, just after cycling down from the observatory after my observing run, I got to watch two easter processions across the city, and they were both quite an interesting sight. My favourite italian place is luckily still open, so I ate there basically every night (except for one evening when I was so tired/lazy that I just stayed in my room and made spaghetti while watching Netflix). Although I am not a frequent coffee-drinker, I had to check out a place that I had read about in the Guardian a few months ago (El Cafe de Don Manuel). It turnes out that the article was not lying, it is a cosy, calm spot inside a beautiful renovated courtyard with only a few tables, and besides the good coffee, they serve delicious cakes too (one afternoon I simply could not resist taking a second piece, it was so good).


Flying home I got to sit on Business Class for the first time in my life (since for some reason when I booked my tickets to La Palma, this was the cheapest combination for these dates). It was a nice change to have legspace (and incredible amounts of it, especially from Madrid to Brussels) and proper meals, so I did not have to live on sandwiches and chocolates all day long. Of course if you think about it the price difference between business and economy tickets is basically more than what a (three) Michelin starred dinner costs (for two), so I would rather go for that and sit 5 hours without food and legspace if it was about my own hard-earned money. Ridiculous… (And then we are still not talking about First Class tickets on overseas trips.)

It was a bit of a shock to come back to the 7°C and rain, but hopefully from May the weather will finally turn a bit warmer. Besides work, I am also trying to put together a nice non-scientific CV for the corporate world, since soon I will start looking for a new job outside of academia, which will definitely bring some changes into my life.

Chile, here I am!

After a short TGV ride from Brussels to Paris on 1st class (and almost getting chased down by the French border control after not wanting to stop for their undercover agent at the train station – yeah, sorry, but anyone can wave in front of you with a fake ID…), and a flight of 14 hours and 35 minutes (I had the same flight duration from Abu Dhabi to Sydney last year), I arrived to Santiago de Chile. I came to South America for the first time in my life, and I will be observing at the Swiss 1.2 metre Leonhard Euler Telescope at the La Silla Observatory (ESO).


The flight was really long, and with much more turbulence above the equator upon entering the airspace over Brazil than what I am comfortable with. Anyway, these Boeing 777s are luckily pretty flexible. Among others, I watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which I found a really nice feel-good movie, with a great soundtrack. Unluckily I did not manage to sleep much, partly because the Air France economy class is simply crap, but mainly because while other people fell asleep almost immediately after take off, I wanted to sleep only after shifting to Chilean time, which coincided with others waking up and turning their reading lights on… Anyway, I got picked up at the airport by a taxi arranged by ESO (which by-the-way stands for European Southern Observatory), and after a short drive, ended up in the ESO Guest House in Santiago. It was quite an experience driving past dirt an poverty around the outskirts of the city, then the modern financial district, and ending up in the very green area of the guest house. The building itself is a colonial hacienda, with an inner garden, a nicely furnished living room, and very friendly staff. More importantly, with great food! I have not done much on the afternoon and the evening besides posting the two previous blog posts, simply because by nine I was so tired, that I had to go to bed. I did not take more than 5 seconds to fall asleep.


The next morning I finally made it to the shower, then after a quick breakfast my taxi came and I took the plane to La Serena. With its 1h 15m flight time, it was nothing compared to the more than two hours I spent afterwards in the ESO transport driving up to the Observatory of La Silla. But at least I finally saw the blue sky (the weather in Santiago was pretty rainy and windy), and the Andes. The roads here are generally not the best, but the last section towards the observatory before the gate of the ESO was simply missing (only gravel), while after the ESO gate, there were more potholes than road around them. It was really bad, not only compared to the smooth roads of Mallorca… I was seriously worried about my photo equipment.





Then upon arrival, I was immediately taken to my room. End that was it. No reception, no check in like on La Palma, nothing. I was still in time for lunch, where I ran into the current observer and a few other young astronomers (and by young I mean more or less my age) too. Since I had nothing better to do, I joined them for a small excursion to the nearby (dried out) oasis and a small copper mine.











As you can see, this is a pretty dry place, a rocky desert. But a very colourful one! Now I am at the telescope, but the sky is cloudy, so we are not working tonight. Also, my run only starts on Monday, so I still have some time to walk around, and take some pictures of the Southern sky, if it clears up. Many more posts to come!