Monday, October 08, 2007

A Winged Dinner Date

Jodie and I went on a date last night. We had a few things to celebrate -- her first week in a new job, her upcoming birthday, etc. There are several airport restaurants around the area that I've been meaning to visit: there's one at the airport in Lancaster, PA, and the crabcakes at Kentmorr on Kent Island in the Chesapeake Bay are legendary. A little while ago I saw a comment online that the restaurant at the airport near Cumberland, Maryland (actually in West Virginia), was also good. Jodie and I had been looking for the right time for me to take her flying, and the promise of dinner at the other end of the flight was exactly the incentive I needed to get her in the plane.

Our departure was delayed by stuff we were doing during the day, so we didn't take off until about 6pm. Sunset was about 6:45, so we had a beautiful flight to Cumberland in the late-day sunshine. Jodie was nervous. I did my best to reassure her, and plugged my iPod into her headset so she could listen to her favorite music. I took her over Sugarloaf Mountain, where she and I have hiked a dozen times, then we followed the Potomac River up to Harper's Ferry before heading on a direct line for Cumberland.

It was very gratifying to hear Jodie "ooh" and "aah" over the different things we saw. I've been talking for two years about how beautiful it is in a small plane, so I was very happy to finally be sharing it with her. I think it was about the time we were over Sugarloaf that she asked, "So, could we fly down to Knoxville for Christmas?" I tried to act nonchalant, but I was grinning all over myself at the idea.....

For a lot of the trip, Jodie was listening to the music, nodding her head and tapping her fingers and mouthing lyrics.... When I made radio calls, though, she could hear them over the music. After one of my radio calls, Jodie looked over and said, "You sound just like a pilot!" There I was, grinning all over myself again.

The air was smooth and there was almost no wind. I started a gentle descent several miles out from Cumberland and flew over the last ridge to join the traffic pattern. The day was fading, but there was plenty of light to see the little town as we circled for a landing. My landing was great, and we taxied, parked, then walked over to the restaurant for a home-style meal.

It was fully dark when we left to head home. The day had been hazy, and I could only pick out one bright star overhead. There was no moon. Cumberland sits in a valley and is pretty well surrounded by mountain ridges. As we took off, I could not see the ridges very well, so I circled over the lights of Cumberland until we were well above the surrounding ridges, then headed us on our way.

There's a stretch of rural country between Cumberland and Gaithersburg where there are NO lights on the ground, and it was DARK. There was no visible horizon ahead, which was a little unnerving. I was flying Three Zero Yankee Romeo (N30YR), which is a newer Cessna Skyhawk with a single-axis autopilot. I dialed in our heading and turned on the autopilot, letting the autopilot keep us flying straight while I divided my attention between the various instruments and the blackness outside the window. I was grateful for the instrument training I've received to date, and made a mental note to get back to finish my instrument rating. For the first time, I also experienced how an autopilot can significantly reduce the workload on a pilot. If I ever buy an airplane, it will have to have at least a single-axis autopilot.

Before long the lights of Martinsburg appeared, then Frederick to our left and Dulles to our right. I descended under the shelf of the Dulles airspace and approached Gaithersburg , then circled to join the pattern and land. I let the plane touch down just a little early and we bounced slightly. I said something about a "bad landing," and Jodie said, "Is that as bad as it gets? If so, then I've got NO problem!"

That made me realize how high our standards for landings are as pilots. If another pilot had been in the plane, I would have been embarrassed, but it didn't seem like anything unusual to Jodie. Compared to most airline landings, I guess it wasn't....

I think Jodie had a good time despite her nervousness, which she said started to dissipate immediately after takeoff. I had a GREAT time. It was almost exactly two years ago that I took my first flight lesson, and I got my license almost seven months ago. I've been waiting and dreaming of flying somewhere with Jodie for a long time. It was every bit as fun as I expected it would be, and I can't wait for the next time.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Overnight to Chapel Hill

I achieved another milestone in my Flying Life -- an overnight cross-country trip. My brother is somewhere around year nine of the longest-ever medical school career. He lives in Massachusetts, but one of his rotations recently had him in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Chapel Hill is far from Massachusetts, but it's only about 225 nautical miles by plane from my home airport in the Washington, DC, area. I found 36 hours with no work commitments and beautiful weather, so I took 35R and headed down to see him.

I was a bit nervous setting out on this trip. Earlier in the day, I'd been paying attention to the winds both at my departure airport and in Chapel Hill. It was a beautiful day, but the winds were strong and gusting at right angles to the runway in Chapel Hill. Not only would the ride down have been bumpy, but I might not have been able to safely land the airplane upon arrival. So I waited. And waited. The winds were forecast to die down around dinnertime, and they did. Jodie drove me to the airport and I launched around 6:30 p.m. It was one of the most beautiful flights I've had. There were a few bumps during the first half hour, but as I got further south the bumps faded completely and there was just a beautiful sky.



Because of my late start, night fell during my flight. I enjoy flying at night, so I wasn't worried at all. The Chapel Hill airport had runway lights, and the large Raleigh-Durham airport was nearby with multiple large runways if I ever had any trouble.

The sunset over the Smoky Mountains was gorgeous off my right wing.



I was so in awe of how beautiful and peaceful it was, I made a little video clip. If you're looking for excitement, don't bother watching this -- it's just a post-sunset glow from a little airplane. If you like boring but beautiful, then go ahead....


I arrived in Chapel Hill a bit after 8:00, having seen the airport beacon from 15 miles away, flashing green and white. The cities of Raleigh and Durham were off to my left as I approached the airport. I clicked the microphone to turn on the runway lights, then announced my intentions over the radio. As I like to do when arriving at a "new" airport, I was going to fly right over the airport to get a look at things, then maneuver to enter the traffic pattern.

I flew right over the green-white flashing beacon. But I didn't see any runway lights. I thought I could make out the shape of an airplane on the ground near the beacon, but where was the runway? I circled back and around.... No runway. I triggered the lights and circled again. I checked both GPS maps in the plane -- yes, I was right over the airport, as also confirmed by the flashing beacon on the ground, so where..... Then I saw the runway over my right shoulder. I circled around, but it wasn't there! Then I caught another glimpse of it as I circled. I turned so that I would be parallel to what I had seen, and now I could just barely make it out, but at least I now knew where it was and was roughly in the traffic pattern.

I was a little high, so I veered slightly away from the runway to give me a little space on my base leg. When I turned onto base, though, the runway was completely invisible again. Only when I was on final and perfectly lined up with the runway could I see the runway lights again.

In my experience, most airports have the runways in relatively wide-open areas, and the lights are visible from a long way away. I think that my problem with Chapel Hill was due to three factors. First, there were tall trees parallel to the runway, which screened the runway lights unless you were looking directly down the runway. Second, the runway lights appeared to be almost bi-directional, so you could see them clearly if you were approaching the runway from one end or the other, but not if you were directly overhead or approaching from the sides. Third, I think the lights were just plain dim, not very bright, and in the midst of a lot of lights on the ground from the nearby Tri-Cities area. Of course, I was also new to the airport, so I didn't have a pattern to look for (other than the shape of a runway near a beacon) and didn't know what to expect. The experience was a bit unnerving, and this might be the last time I fly to an airport for the first time at night.

As I taxied back on the runway to the tie-down area, my brother came walking out. He helped me secure the airplane, then we piled in his car and headed to downtown Chapel Hill for dinner.

After a good dinner and a night's sorta-sleep (a sleeping pad on a hard floor), my brother and I decided to fly somewhere.... We looked at the charts I had with me and just picked a place: Burlington, North Carolina, about 20 nautical miles West-Northwest of Chapel Hill.

My brother David and his wife, Jessica, were my first family passengers, as I wrote before, so Dave had been in a plane with me and knew what to expect. I remembered that he had been a little nervous during the first takeoff roll, so I gave him the headset with my iPod attached. I lined the plane up with the centerline of the runway and asked him if he was ready. He said he was, so I pushed "play" on my iPod and the song "Danger Zone" from the Top Gun soundtrack blasted into my brother's headset as we accelerated down the runway and took off. That was worth a few giggles.

The bottom track in the GPS trail above is our flight out to Burlington. We could see the airport from a ways away, and I joined a left cross-wind leg for a landing. We parked the plane and strolled into the FBO. The guy behind the counter greeted us with a smile, and I asked him if there was someplace nearby where we could get a bite to eat. He pretty much tossed me the keys to a crew car -- a car that the FBO keeps handy for airplane crews that need to get somewhere -- and gave us directions to the center of Burlington.

It was a Sunday morning, though, and the entire four square blocks of Burlington was closed. We couldn't find a single place to eat that was open, and headed back out of town. Then we lucked out: we saw a very pretty city park with some carnival rides. We parked and got out to explore. There was a town festival going on, and vendors were serving up all sorts of food. We settled for hot dogs and lemonade that we enjoyed while listening to a local country band, then we headed back to the airport, stopping to put some gas in the crew car as a way of showing some appreciation.

I had used the GPS to get us to Burlington. David was talking about how cool it would be to get his pilot's license, so I pulled out the chart and showed him how we would use landmarks to navigate back to Chapel Hill by pilotage. It was easy -- we just had to follow I-40, then follow the turn South at a fork as we approached the Raleigh-Durham area. I also offered to show him a short/soft field takeoff. That's a technique where you hold the nose wheel off the ground and get the plane to lift off as soon as possible, even before it reaches flying speed. Then you continue to accelerate close to the ground, then pull up to climb at a relatively steep angle. It's fun to do, and he enjoyed it. The flight back was uneventful, except for a bit of convective turbulence that had us bouncing around a little. There was one jolt in particular where the plane went down and we would have hit our heads on the ceiling but for our seatbelts.


We landed back at Chapel Hill and I saw someone hand-propping an old Piper Cub. I taxied the plane around to the ramp and saw a few more Piper Cubs sitting out. There were a few people sitting on lawn chairs in open hangars, a few other planes out and around, and while I re-packed the plane for my departure, we watched someone take off for a trip around the pattern in yet another Cub. It was the largest concentration of flying Cubs that I've seen anywhere except Oshkosh.

David drove me the 5 minutes back to his place to do my flight planning on his computer, as the computer in the FBO was broken. I filed both VFR and DC-ADIZ flight plans, and checked the weather, which appeared perfect. I started the plane as David walked back toward his car. There's a speaker by the FBO that broadcasts calls over the local radio frequency, so as I took off and climbed out, I called over the radio. "Boy, this l'il Cessna really climbs without my lug of a brother in it." A voice came back to tell me that my brother had left and didn't hear the call. I mentally shrugged and turned the plane North. I flew relatively slow for a while due to the turbulence. As it became late afternoon, the air smoothed out and I sped up a bit. I stopped briefly for fuel in Culpepper, Virginia, then took off for the last leg home.

Culpepper is Southwest of Dulles International Airport and the Class B airspace that surrounds Dulles. Gaithersburg is on the other, Northeast side of Dulles. I typically cannot fly in Class B airspace without special permission, because of the airliners that are departing and arriving, so I planned to circle all the way around to the Northwest of Dulles, then East by Southeast to get back to Gaithersburg. Leaving Culpepper, I contacted air traffic control to activate my DC-ADIZ flight plan. The controller said, "You're going to Gaithersburg?" I confirmed that this was the case. He said, "Let's see if we can get you up the East side. Stand by."

Before long, I was following ATC instructions and flying directly through the Class B airspace over Dulles International Airport. Unfortunately, I had left my camera in David's car, so all I had was my cell phone.

As I approached the airport, air traffic control told me to look for traffic at my 3 o'clock, an Airbus at my altitude. I looked to my right and yes, there was an airbus at my altitude, descending for a landing at Dulles. That was very cool, looking at the business end of an airliner! I flew right over the arrival end of Runways 1L and 1R just as the sun was setting over the mountains to the west.

An airliner lined up on Runway 1R and started its takeoff roll as I passed overhead. When I was past the airport, ATC cleared me to fly direct to Gaithersburg. I did, overflying the airport, then joining the pattern for a landing in calm winds on Runway 14. Jodie was waiting to welcome me home.

All in all it was a very successful flight and a ton of fun. I finally began to understand the allure of a faster airplane, as 110 mph suddenly seemed very slow. "They" say that you learn something on every flight, and I certainly learned a few things on this flight. First, I learned that I don't like arriving at small airports for the first time after dark. I also learned that maybe I can ask air traffic control for clearance through the Class B airspace around Dulles. I also learned that flying is a great way to cover longer distances for short visits -- it opens up an entire extended range of day trips, with the added bonus of beautiful scenery along the way.
I'm not sure where I'll go next, maybe Massachusetts or Knoxville.... We'll see.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Family Flying 5 - Wes

My littlest brother, Wes. Considering the ways in which my other brother and I "contributed" to Wesley's childhood, it's remarkable that he's turned out as cool as he is. Surely he would not be such a good guy if David and I hadn't "helped" him build so much character, right? I consider him one of my greatest works. Which also means that I get some credit for the incredible little boy he and my wonderful sister-in-law are raising (and the second one that just arrived). Right?

Wesley had waited patiently while I flew with my Nana, mom, and dad. Now that it was his turn, everyone else was tired of waiting and decided to head to a restaurant. And it was getting dark. I enjoy flying at night. The air is often still, smooth, and clearer than during the day, and it can feel like the plane is just suspended above the lights. Wes and I took off to fly the "beach tour" that I had done with my Nana and mom, and we got to enjoy the silhouette of the White Mountains to the west, against the remnants of a beautiful sunset.

It grew completely dark as we headed down the beach and, since nobody was waiting at the airport for us to return, I continued past Ogunquit down to York. The Nubble Light lighthouse in York is a favorite place for Wes and Brandie. Since long before Emerson was born, Wes and Brandie have loved going to The Bagel Basket in York, then walking along the beach by the lighthouse. They've continued doing this with Emerson, and even now with Owen. The lighthouse no longer casts its light, as I presume sailors can use GPS just like pilots do, and no longer need to be warned of rocks. There is a little red, blinking light on the top of the lighthouse, though, and I flew a circle around it (1,000 feet above) while we looked down on the dim outlines we could make out.

I flew back to Sanford and decided to land on Runway 25. Although the wind was relatively calm, and Runway 14 is the preferred runway, Runway 25 is large and has approach lighting -- the "Christmas Tree" that can be seen for miles. Since Wes didn't get to see anything while it was light out, I figured I'd give him the experience of the big runway and all the lights. I triggered the lights as we approached the airport. I showed him how I could turn them down or up, then I set them to high for maximum effect. We landed and taxied back, he helped me push the plane into the hangar and lock it up, and we headed to a restaurant to meet my family.

I felt bad about Wes not getting to see much because of the late hour, so I offered to fly him again the next morning. We got a late start, though, and the wind had started to pick up by the time we took off. Wes asked me to explain everything I was doing. I love talking about what I'm doing and why, and I was happy that he was interested.

We headed West this time, over toward my parents' cottage on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. It's an hour's drive, but only about 25 nautical miles. There were quite a few bumps. I climbed to 4,500 feet in search of smoother air and slowed the plane down to soften the bumps, but it only got a little better. There was also a strong headwind, around 25-30 knots, which slowed our progress.

As I approached the area where my parents' cottage is located, I looked at the small mountain ridge just to the West. With the 25-knot wind coming over that ridge, I was hesitant to descend to 1,000 feet above the ground, below the ridge. There was a gap in the hills to the South, which could provide a safe exit without climbing, but I did not want to be caught in the horizontal rotors and downdrafts that can be caused by wind coming over a ridge, so I stayed higher, at least 500 feet above the ridgeline. It was plenty bumpy even at that altitude.

Wesley snapped a photo of the area where the cottage is located and we headed back toward Sanford. Even with our airspeed dialed back to soften the turbulence, our groundspeed was around 135 knots. I listened to the automated weather reporting at Sanford as we approached the airport. The wind was from 250 degrees at 11 knots, gusting to 19 knots. I explained to Wes that the wind was right down Runway 25, which was good, but that I would keep our approach speed a little higher to compensate for the gusts. It was really quite bumpy in the traffic pattern, and the wind gusts kept me busy with the yoke -- as I turned onto our base leg, a gust tipped the plane to about 60 degrees. Fortunately, I was keeping our airspeed higher than I normally would, to give me better control authority, and I quickly corrected without losing any significant amount of altitude. The approach was a little tense, though, and Wes later did a very funny impression of me with my right hand "white-knuckled on the throttle," and my left hand on the yoke in seizure-like motion.

We crossed the fence at 70 knots and I held the plane in the roundout for a while before flaring. Surprisingly, the touchdown was baby soft. I was "white-knuckled on the throttle," prepared for the gusts to balloon or drop us, but neither happened and there was hardly a bump as the wheels touched down. Nevertheless, as we taxied back to the FBO there was plenty of humor about airing out the cockpit, cleaning the seats, etc. Other family members had arrived after breakfast, waiting for possible rides, but I wasn't about to take them up. It was not unsafe to fly in that wind, but operations close to the ground were a little squirrelly. I would go do pattern work in that weather just for the practice, but it wouldn't have been fun for them or me to go out just for a fun, scenic flight.

I forgot to have Wes sign my logbook, but maybe he'll drop a comment here. I loved flying with him, both times, and look forward to more of it. His son's interest in flying is infectious, I think, and may have infected Wes. I suspect that, given the opportunity, he'll end up a pilot himself.

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

Adventures with Millie

Millie is my dog, and we've had some adventures together over the years. I picked her up as a 10-week old puppy from the shelter in Lynn, Massachusetts. She was a "flying puppy." That is, she was from a shelter in New Mexico, where they had more puppies than homes available, so she was put on a plane to Massachusetts where there are more homes than puppies. We had lots of adventures together when I was a bachelor, hiking and camping trips, long road trips, and so on. When Jodie came into the picture, it was love at first sight -- Millie just couldn't get enough of Jodie, and vice versa. So now we're a happy family, but I like to think that Millie and I still have a special connection from our long history. Last night we struck out for a little bonding through flying, and we had another adventure.....

It's been a goal of mine to fly with Millie. Rich got a puppy shortly before I finished my training, and it slept in the backseat while we did stalls and steep turns and short-field landings. I've been looking for the right time to take Millie in the plane, and last night was our chance. I reserved a plane for the whole weekend, thinking I might fly to Massachusetts and Maine to see family. The weather here was beautiful, but the weather in New England was not manageable for a pilot without an instrument rating, so I wasn't sure what to do with my reserved plane. Then I decided that I would use it last night to maintain my night currency. In order to remain "current" and be able to carry passengers at night, pilots have to do three takeoffs and landings at night at least every ninety days. It's a minimal requirement, but looking back, I'd only done one within the last ninety days, so I decided to take care of that. Also, when I go for my instrument rating, I'll need 40 or 50 hours of cross-country flying time, so I thought I'd fly to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, then go do some landings in Westminster, Maryland, then return to Gaithersburg. It's more than 50 miles to Carlisle, so the flight would qualify as a cross-country, I'd get at least three landings at night, so I'd be current, and I'd take Millie with me to see how she does.

We took off about 9:00, just after sunset, in Three Zero Yankee Romeo, a newer Cessna Skyhawk owned by one of my clubs, and headed North. I was busy flying and talking on the radio with Air Traffic Control for the first 20 minutes or so, but once I had some breathing room, I looked in the backseat to check on Millie. She was sitting up straight, her eyes were wide, and she looked very nervous. I tried to talk to her, but she didn't seem to hear me over the airplane noise, so I turned my attention back to navigating -- this plane has an autopilot and I'm still playing with it to figure it out.

The sky to the west was beautiful. The sun had already set and most of the sky was dark with stars already showing, but the silhouette of the mountains forty miles away was in crisp contrast to the bright pinks and oranges of the Western edge of the sky. I went to take a picture, but the battery in my camera was dead. The visibility was excellent, with little to no haze, which is a rarity in this part of the country. As the light faded from the horizon, I checked on Millie again. She had relaxed, and was lying down. Good, I thought.

We crossed over a low ridge into the valley where the Carlisle airport is and I headed down to pattern altitude. It was very dark, there was no moon, and I clicked the microphone seven times to turn on the runway lights. Nothing happened. I tried again, but nothing happened. I tried a dozen more times, but still nothing. I flew over the runway, just 800 feet off the ground. I could make out airplanes tied down, and I saw the runway, but just barely. It was too dark to land without runway lights and they weren't working.... I chided myself for missing the notice that I knew must have been published, considered what to do, and decided to head to an airport in York, Pennsylvania.

York is just under 50 miles from Gaithersburg, so I wouldn't have a landing far enough away for the flight to qualify as a cross-country, but I could still regain my night currency. Millie and I climbed over the ridge from Carlisle and headed to York. As we were flying away, I heard a helicopter on the radio heading to Carlisle, and I wondered if a helicopter needs runway lights to land. When I was 4-5 miles from York, I tried to turn on the runway lights. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. Then I heard another plane click the transmitter seven times, and the York lights came on. Since the lights were on, I didn't think anything more about it and just landed.

We'd been flying for over an hour, so I parked the plane and let Millie out. She sniffed around the dark and empty airport, then when I said, "Ready to go?" she headed for the plane. I opened the door and she jumped into the back seat. Millie's always liked to go places. I started the plane, waited for another plane to land, then took off.

I headed South toward Westminster, and triggered the runway lights when I was about 6 miles away. There are a lot of lights on the ground around Westminster, and I couldn't pick out the airport. I thought I just wasn't seeing it, so I decided to fly right over the airport. I've been to Westminster a dozen times at night and never had a problem, so..... I flew right over where the airport should have been -- there was just a black hole in the middle of the surrounding city and street lights. I circled back, triggering the lights again and again. Nothing. I checked the GPS -- yes, I should be flying right over the airport. I circled back again.... Nothing. Was the GPS working? Am I just in the wrong place? I could dimly make out large buildings that looked like hangars, but they could have been warehouses and there were NO lights.

Then it all made sense. I pulled my handheld aviation radio out of my bag and turned it on. I bought this radio for safety purposes. It has rechargeable batteries, and when it sits for long periods the battery will go dead. Other times I'll just not bother to bring it. But this night I had it charged for my flight to Massachusetts, and I had it with me. I clicked the transmit button seven times as I headed back to the airport and . . . the runway lit up like a Christmas tree.

I landed, and the landing was funny.... I had noticed that although the airport was reporting very light winds on the ground, there was a significant wind aloft. I didn't think about it too much and landed according to the wind on the ground. My glide was off and I landed a ways down the runway. I'm just out of practice, I thought.

I taxied back and took off to head home. The visibility was incredible. I could see the lights of Washington from 40 miles away. My indicated airspeed was about 118 knots, but my groundspeed was 135 knots according to the GPS. (That's about 155 miles per hour!) The automated weather reporting system at Gaithersburg was reporting calm winds, so I planned to land on Runway 14, the preferred runway in calm wind conditions.

As we approached the Gaithersburg airport, I tried to turn on the runway lights with the plane again. Nothing. From 8 miles out, I tried using my handheld radio. Nothing. When I got to about 4 miles, my handheld worked -- the signal it puts out is weaker than the airplane's signal -- and I could see "home."

I headed in for a landing, but the plane just wasn't going down like it usually does. Halfway down the runway, and still fifty feet in the air, I pushed in the power and climbed up to circle around and try again. Once again I was long! I wondered, how did I ever get my license when I can't even land?!?! Although I was long, I managed to get the plane on the runway with room remaining. As I taxied back to park the plane, I thought about it, and.... Wind shear! I had seen that there were strong winds aloft, about 20 knots, and I knew that the wind was calm on the ground, but I just hadn't put it together. That's why I landed long at Westminster and both times at Gaithersburg. I won't make that mistake again.

I shut down the engine and opened my door. I planned to get out, then slide my seat forward to let Millie out, but the second the door was open she squeezed past the seat and jumped out. She'd been asleep as we cruised back to Gatherisburg, so I think that aborting the first landing and going around made her nervous. Whatever the reason, she was READY to get out of the airplane. Anyway, it was almost midnight, so I secured the plane and jumped in the Jeep with Millie.

So that was our adventure. A malfunctioning "PTT" switch on the plane that wouldn't let me turn on runway lights, a steep wind gradient that made landing difficult, and Millie's first flight, all in one night. I've ordered her some "Mutt Muffs" for ear protection, now that I know she tolerates flying alright. I'm looking forward to going somewhere with her soon.....

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