April 15, 2007

Being Watched

I'm standing in a crowded rush hour BART train, idly reading newspapers and magazines over people's shoulders to pass the time on my way into the City. There's a guy in front of me reading some sort of golfing magazine, which I'd normally skip (my knowledge of — and interest in — golf is so poor that I still refer to the things golfers hit the ball with as "golf bats", which hardly surprises most people who know me…). Anyway, the thing that catches my eye in the golf mag is the shiny full-page ad for a fanatically-complicated (and very expensive-looking) watch, with ad copy in large point size promising that it's the watch "aviators" (and aviatrices?!) rely on (yes, the ad was so effective I still have no idea what brand the watch was…).

So what is it with fancy watches, "aviators", and gullible golfers? None of the pilots I know have fancy watches or rely on watches for much beyond ensuring they get to the damn gate or ramp on time (or not). My own flying watch is a simple Swatch — no funny knobs, sub-dials, little windows, or super-duper chronographic precision, just three boring analog hands that have worked flawlessly for years now. If I ever actually needed to-the-second timing, it'll do the job — but I've yet to ever need that in ways I can't get from my little yoke timer or one of the builtin timers on the panel or the GPSs. When I did my private pilot checkride all those years ago, I carefully put out my then-current simple Swatch next to my flight bag for the checkride, then realised with horror when I got into the plane that I'd actually (subconsciously?) brought along my Cat In The Hat watch instead. Oh dear — this is a watch that has a Cat In The Hat on the watch glass itself that obscures at least a third of the watch face, and has no detailed time markings on it. I thought with a sinking heart that I was going to fail, especially with the designated examiner (DE) being "Scary" Larry Peters, a very upright ex-military guy…. So when it came time to check groundspeed and do the time-to-next-checkpoint calculation in the air somewhere over the Diablo Valley, and Mr Peters catches sight of my Cat In The Hat watch, I think it's all over. But he looks on impassively as I do the calculations and timing for the next few minutes, interpolating around the Hat as needed, and somehow I get the right answers, and the sight of Mr Peters opening the door mid-air and jumping out in disgust is averted. Later, on the ground after (just) passing me, he makes a sharp comment about my choice of watch, but that was it (Mr Peters was actually a pretty reasonable DE, but much more inscrutable than Rich Bachelder, who was voluble and easy-to-read by comparison).

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Anyway, yes, I have been flying, but no, I haven't had time to blog much in real life lately (it's one of the penalties of being the Chief Software Poobah for a certain San Francisco media firm…). So this entry's just a little collection of flying-related things from the past few months….

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Yesterday I had to renew my USPS post office box in downtown Berkeley. I've had the same PO box for at least fifteen years now, but this is the first time in all that time I've actually had to come in and show some ID (I think it's really supposed to happen every few years, but you know Berkeley…). Two bits of government ID, in fact, so I give the USPS clerk my California driving license, and then — voila! — my shiny plastic new-style US pilot's license (OK, certificate). The clerk just glances at the CADL, notes the number down, then looks at the pilot's license. She looks up at me and asks me what it is. I say it's a US government-issued pilot license. She looks dubious. She asks who issued it. I say the FAA. She says she's never heard of the FAA, and she'll have to take it back to her supervisor. She asks the other clerks behind the counter whether the FAA is a government organisation, and for a minute or two a surreal conversation goes on behind the counter over whether or not the FAA exists and / or is a real government department authorised to issue IDs acceptable to the USPS. They all seem to think that pilot licenses are issued by the airlines. She goes back to speak to her supervisor, and returns a couple of minutes later with the news that the FAA is, indeed, a federal government organisation, and that, indeed, for the purposes of renewing my PO box, a US pilot's license is, indeed, an acceptable second form of government ID. Whew! At last my plastic pilot's license is useful for something…. (I want to stress that all the way through this the clerks were all both friendly and inquisitive in an interested and genial sort of way — no one was rude or obstructive, they'd just never really heard of the FAA nor ever seen a real pilot's license before…).

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The other day I picked up "San Francisco Bay Area Aviation", a little book in Arcadia Publishing's excellent local history and images series. It's a treasure — pictures of everything from ancient string-and-wax biplanes at Emeryville airport (who knew Emeryville once had an airport of sorts? Well, I did, but that's because I'm an Emeryville kind of guy), through Connies at Oakland airport, to the massive blimp hangars at Moffett under construction. The really interesting thing, though, for me, was the way it confirms for a general readership what most of us who fly in the area already know, that San Francisco itself plays second string in this sort of story to the really important airports and air bases in the area, Oakland probably being by far the most important. OK, I know to the rest of the world that it's all "San Francisco", but to an Oaktowner like me, it's nice to know that someone out there knows the difference….


Aviatrix said...

Wow, when you consider that the FAA is mentioned in ever other story on terrorism, that's an awfully huge capacity to ignore what's going on around you.

Aviatrix said...

Not YOU you, of course. I mean for the USPS employees to ignore what is going on around them.

My pilot licence is always rejected as ID, too, and I knuckle under and produce a credit card, even though the latter is far easier to obtain.

Hamish said...

Yeah, you'd think that even the average USPS counter clerk would have heard of the FAA, but apparently not. At one point I pointed out that even to have the lowly license (uh, certificate) that I was waving at them I'd been through two pretty solid FBI background checks. They weren't impressed :-).

And a credit card wouldn't work in this case — it had to be genuwine govmint ID. Never mind that they didn't know the FAA is government…