Shopping for Airplane Accessories

by Philip Greenspun

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Most of the stuff that you really need for flying you'll just buy from your flight school. But collected below is some shopping wisdom that I've accumulated.

Headsets

Our scenic flight over the glaciers on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand. Unless you're only going to fly really quiet low-powered planes like the Diamond Katana, you'll want to buy a a noise-cancelling headset. If your airplane is really loud you'll probably want to wear foam earplugs and a noise cancelling headset as well. This kind of usage can be tough on cheaply built headsets because you have to crank up the radio volume really loud to cut through the 25 dB of attenuation from the earplugs.

Typically noise-cancelling headsets require filling your airplane with spare batteries and fussing with power packs and batteries before and after every flight. You can hire an avionics shop to uglify your panel by adding special power connectors but these are non-standard and you won't be able to switch among headest brands. Sennheiser came up with a solution to this problem: tip power. Airplanes can be ordered wired from the factory with 14V or 28V power at the tip of the microphone jack. This precludes the use of a hand microphone with push-to-talk switch but all modern airplanes have separate hand-mic inputs anyway. Plug in your Sennheiser HMEC 302 and you have noise-cancelling without extra cables, plugs, or battery packs. My Diamond Star, like all Canadian-built DA40s, came wired from the factory and the HMEC 302 worked like a charm with it (the headset has an on/off switch so that you can experiment in flight with and without noise-cancelling). Sadly other headset companies have yet to follow Sennheiser's lead but presumably they will eventually. Aside from Diamond aircraft, if you're ordering a Cessna Citation you can get tip power as a factory option. If you have an old airplane an avionics shop ought to be able to wire up tip power in less than one hour once they have obtained access to the backs of the headset jacks.

Here is my personal experience with headsets:

My favorite source for headests is Joe at The Pilot Shop at Norwood Airport, (781) 762-7465 or 1-800-607-4568.

Don't be too tempted by bargain headsets. Remember that noise is fatiguing and that headset failure means you are no longer talking to Air Traffic Control.

Earplugs

EAR Classic earplugs are my favorite. Sporty's sells a 200-pair dispenser box for $87.50 (Oct 2004) or you can get the same box of 200 from Gempler's for $28.75.

Charts

Low-cost Canadian charts: Aero Training Products, www.aerotraining.com, (604) 278-0432.

Folding Bicycles

If your goal is to become a big fat-ass, general aviation can be a useful stepping stone toward your goal. What better way to bulk up than flying to a distant airport, borrowing a crew car from the FBO to drive to the best nearby restaurant, then flying back home (this process will invariably take the entire day)?

If on the other hand you'd like to stay slim enough to get off the tarmac without investing in a Cessna Caravan, consider this alternative: fly to a distant airport, pull bicycles out of back seat, ride around the local bike paths and streets, stuff face at cafe, ride back to the airport, fold bicycles back up, fly back home. With most general aviation airplanes you'll need a folding bike. Here's a survey of the traditional market:

What did I choose? The Giant Halfway! This design was invented for European railway commuters and introduced to the US market in 2002. With its 20" tires and clever folding mechanism, the Halfway folds nearly down as compactly as the very smallest folding bikes (two fit nicely in the back seat of a Diamond DA40). At $600 the Halfway is at the bottom end of the cost range, but the performace of the Halfway is superb, comparable to a $400 full-size "city bike". The riding position is comfortable even for 6'2" men, the seat is plush, and the designers covered all the little details (luggage rack, tie-down bungee, kickstand, carrying bag). The Halfways have proven comfortable for 3- and 4-hour rides. Don't expect to dust your friends, however, because the Halfway's highest gear is fairly low. It is easy to get up almost any hill in the Halfway but doing more than 15 mph on a flat road is tough. The Halfway can be ridden on gravel roads but the 20" tires make it substantially less stable than a full-size cross or mountain bike. At 30 lbs, a Halfway is actually a bit heavier than a normal road bike so make sure that your airplane can handle the load.

Be forewarned that nearly everyone who sees the Halfway will ask you about it. "What is it?" "How much does it cost?" "How does it work?" People of all ages are just delighted by the Halfway in ways that are hard to explain. If you bring a new design million dollar airplane into a town and a Giant Halfway you'll get a lot more folks curious about the Halfway than the airplane.

More: navigate into the "folding bicycles" section at www.giant-bicycles.com; read Tim Pestridge's review of the Halfway.

Flight Bag

You'll be hauling a whole bunch of stuff out to the airport every time you fly: headset, logbook, section chart, kneeboard, pens, fuel tester, E6B slide rule, POH (owner's manual for your particular model of airplane), textbook(s). The purpose-designed flight bags are excellent for hauling this stuff around, particularly because you want an easy-to-access yet heavily padded pocket for your fancy headset.

Some sources for flight bags:

Note: Cencal seems to make a fairly wide range of products but they have a nasty reputation for spamming USENET groups with commercial solicitations.

Dog Harness

Dogs can enjoy flying in quieter airplanes. Test your airplane first to make sure that the noise level is not damaging to a dog's ears. You can use a sound level meter on the "slow, A-weighting" setting to make sure that the noise level is below 90 dBA where the dog sits and ideally closer to 85 dBA. One secret to lower sound levels is putting the dog farther back in the airplane, away from the prop wash striking the windows, and lower where his head is shielded from sound by the seat backs. After that you can reduce power, prop speed, and airspeed to bring the noise levels down by 3-6 dBA from the levels at high-speed cruise. If the dog will accept treats while flying he is probably reasonably happy.

To ensure that the dog does not try to push his way into the front seats and manipulate the flight controls, a harness is a good idea. The harness will also help the dog survive a crash if you're in a modern airplane such as a Diamond or Cirrus with a "safety cockpit". Visit www.canineauto.com to buy a harness that has worked well for some of us Boston pilots and that has been clipped successfully to the seat belts in both a Diamond Star DA40 and a Cirrus SR20.

The Pilot's Wristwatch

Q: What do you get when you cross an ape with a pilot?
A: An ape with a big watch.
When flying VFR you want to keep track of the following times and time intervals: If you rent an airplane, it will very likely come with a clock, usually digital, on the instrument panel. This clock may not be set correctly or it might be broken or you might not be quite sure how to operate it. Most airplanes also have GPS systems. If you're agile, careful, and lucky enough to enter the right key and knob combinations, these can display GMT or local time but it is probably best to reserve that screen real estate for displaying the nearest airports or a moving map. The Hobbes timer on the panel will let you know the total number of minutes that you've been in the air if you remember the reading when you took off and assuming that you can easily read the timer from the left seat.

Even if all the panel instruments were working perfectly, you might not be in the airplane when you are planning a flight or filing your flight plan with the flight service center (ATC). So it is worth wearing a wristwatch.

The worst kinds of watches are those made specifically for pilots. These have lots of dials and buttons and hands, all crammed into a tiny circle. Compare this to the simple straightforward instruments on the panel. You don't want complexity and a requirement for high-precision finger manipulation when flying in turbulence.

Rolex designed the first reasonable watch for a pilot: the GMT Master II. This shows local time with a standard 12-hour hand and minute hand. GMT is indicated with a separate 24-hour hand. If you fly yourself into another time zone, there is a rotating bezel that can be used to read local time in that zone from the 24-hour hand. Thus with three simple hands the watch shows time in up to three different zones. All of this is controlled and set from the winding stem.

Why not rush out and buy a GMT Master II? For one thing, it has been pronounced hideously ugly by a female style maven friend of mine. The black face and black/red bezel looked to her like "a Dick Tracy watch". The ugliness problem is fixed, according to Miss Style Critic, by buying the Rolex Explorer II instead, which can be ordered with a stainless steel case and white face. The bezel on the Explorer II does not rotate and therefore you're left with local time and GMT, which is pretty much all that an aviator needs.

Why not rush out and buy a Rolex Explorer II? It is a mechanical watch and therefore it does not keep very accurate time by modern standards. Worse still, a Rolex is unlikely to fail catastrophically. It looks like it is still working but in fact it is running slow. Do you want a watch that tells you that you've been in the air for two hours (75 minutes of fuel left) when in fact you've been in the air for three hours (15 minutes of fuel left)? The consensus among friends who own Rolexes is that the watch requires service once or twice in the first two years of ownership. Each service takes several weeks. So if you have a Rolex you also need a backup watch. If you want the watch to be as accurate as it can be, every few years you need to send it out for cleaning (another few weeks of wearing your backup watch). Rolex USA doesn't do a terrible job of cleaning and calibrating, but they try to do everything on an assembly line with a minimum of skilled personnel. The former president of the American Watchmaker's Institute, Jack Kurdzionak (www.thewatchmaker.com), will fix/clean/calibrate a Rolex, almost always quicker better and cheaper than Rolex USA. This is where I take my Explorer II.

Because a Rolex costs nearly $4000, wearing one is a good way to attract pickpockets and thieves in bad neighborhoods and dangerous countries. If you've got a $10,000 camera system in your shoulder bag, do you really want to advertise your wealth on your wrist? No problem. Just take that Rolex off and leave it in the hotel safe. When you pick it up two days later... the watch will have stopped from lack of winding. Now you get to wind it forward a couple of days so that the date reads correctly.

The bottom line on owning a Rolex is that is another possession that needs babysitting, periodic adjustment, and periodic professional service. This makes a Rolex, or any other mechanical watch, a lot like those other engines of human misery: home ownership, car ownership, computer ownership, and airplane ownership. If you're not sufficiently discouraged, www.preownedrolex.com is a good source for the Rolex Explorer II.

What's the alternative? A Seiko copy of the Rolex GMT II. Seiko's version has a less conspicuous design, including a white face and stainless case option that is much like the Rolex Explorer II. Seiko's version has a perpetual calendar. The watch knows which months have 28, 29, 30, and 31 days, right through the year 2100. The Seiko is accurate to within 20 seconds per year. I have one from the 2002 series: SLT005P (white face; sized for a man), SLT009 (black face; sized for a man), SUZ001P (white face; sized for a woman). These were never available in the U.S., but were obtainable from the following sources:

The Seiko required one battery replacement after 5 years and otherwise sits in a file cabinet keeping perfect time, ready for any trip to a poor country.

Torgoen makes a moderately extensive line of Zulu Time watches. These incorporate accurate quartz movements. Luminox makes an "executive traveler" series that would seem to be less readable during the day, but more readable at night.

If you want something more understated, any analog-digital dual time-zone watch will work nicely. Set the analog hands to local time. Set the little inset digital display to display 24-hour GMT. Timex or Casio can fix you right up for $25-50 and it is probably easier to read GMT from one of these watches than from a $4000 Rolex.


Text and photos (if any) Copyright 2002 Philip Greenspun.
philg@mit.edu

Reader's Comments

How eerie! My mother bought me that same exact Seiko model (black face) for my birthday last year when she was in Japan, more because of the form than the function (I think it looks great, even in the black.) I keep the 24 hour hand on Japan time but maybe it'd be cooler to set it to GMT? Another guy at work (Japanese expatriate) has the same watch so it must have something of a reputation.

-- Gen Kanai, January 23, 2002
I bought a mechanical ORIS watch while working in Boston about eight years ago. It's never off more than eight minutes in a month, and I've never had it serviced.

-- Carl Phillips, February 1, 2002
There is only one correct way to set GMT Master-like watches. Or at least, there is only one obvious setting for which it was designed; you are free to set your watch using any system you like, of course. This setting is detailed in the owner's manual that comes with the Seiko, and is as follows: Details for the GMT Master are given here.

-- Jin Choi, February 16, 2002
I have Citizen NaviHawk, which is designed for pilots. While it has analog hands, it is a digital watch. The hands are rotated on servo motors, which is what makes it so much fun to play with. Truly a geek toy. In addition to the large analog hands, there is a smaller set of hands for UTC. Then there is a digital display which can show the date, time and timezone, chronograph, three independent alarms, or timer. You can change timezones on the digital display at the push of a button. The really neat feature is that you can flip-flop timezones between the digital and analog displays by pushing two buttons at once. The analog hands will then magically rotate to display the new timezone. It's very fun to watch this.

Since the rotating bezel is not needed for timezones, Citizen decided to make it into a circular slide rule, including special markers for converting nautical miles to regular miles to kilometers, and converting liters, gallons, imperial gallons, fuel lbs, and oil lbs. You can use it to solve any arithmetic involving ratios, especially rate equations. At the turn of the bezel, you can determine that it will take just over 18 minutes to travel 3.5 nautical miles at 11.5 knots. (I'm a sailor, not a pilot).

The unfortunate thing is that a couple of times a year, the watch resets itself. I've never figured out why, but it keeps happening, usually at about six month intervals. When this occurs, the analog hands remain in their position, although the digital clock resets to midnight. This is good because the watch always resumes, and the analog hands continue to show the correct time, but the digital and analog become out of sync by an odd number of minutes. Correcting this is cumbersome.

On the whole, I think I would warn pilots against this watch, despite it's cool features, because of reliability. Murphy's Law would have the watch reset itself at precisely the wrong moment. But for non-pilots, its a fun toy.

-- Ben Ballard, February 18, 2002

Concealing the fact that you wear a Rolex or any other expensive mechanical watch is a lot easier than concealing an expensive and big Nikon F5 or even expensive and small Leica M6; just keep it under your shirt cuff. Or wear a shirt with an elastic cuff. Don't flash it in front of the chicks at the pilot's bar to impress them. As for failure, catastropic or otherwise, I worry more about a battery powered quartz watch. I've had them die while I was on vacation overseas, then you have to waste time buying another one. Or carry a spare. My mechanical watches are much more reliable. My personal experience with good mechanical watches (Omega, Panerai) is that they drift by at most 2-3 seconds per day. Sure, they should be serviced every 5 years or so, just like a professionally used camera.

-- Jay J. Pulli, March 20, 2002
"My mechanical watches are much more reliable. My personal experience with good mechanical watches (Omega, Panerai) is that they drift by at most 2-3 seconds per day."

I wouldn't call drifting 2-3 seconds per day 'reliable'. I guess it depends on your definition of the word.

In terms of general accuracy, quartz watches (ie. battery-powered) are much more accurate than any mechanical watch. Mechanical watch enthusiasts often compare the movements, the finishing, the level of adjustment, types of certifications, performance under different circumstances and other esoteric measures of mechanical timepieces.

Quartz watch enthusiasts compare... mostly accuracy measures. If accuracy is important to you, a quartz watch is the way to go.

If you want a really cool watch, check out the Omega Speedmaster Professional X-33 (with Quartz movement). "Designed in close collaboration with astronauts and professional pilots." from the Omega website

-- Tristan Tom, April 24, 2002

As a recently-minted private pilot, I have also searched far for an appropriate watch. Thanks much for the Seiko GMT tip! I found two reputable online dealers in Singapore, Sky Watches [horrid web design but excellent prices and service] and chronograph.com [easier to navigate and slightly higher prices], which sell a huge selection of discounted Seiko watches. I'd like to point out that Seiko actually makes about 10 models with the 24-hour hand, only one of which is distributed in the US. On both sites, the 24-hour watches are listed under the Seiko Perpetual Calendar group. My favorite, and the one I bought from Sky Watches, is the SLT047. It lacks the rotating bezel (which is only really necessary for showing a third time zone), but has a clean, high-contrast face, locking crown, antiglare sapphire crystal, and a lovely stainless steel case, all for about US$250. You can also buy it in a titanium version.

Thanks, Philip, for sharing your flying experiences. I too am seriously enjoying both my photography and aviation avocations.



-- C. Nolan Huizenga, April 24, 2002
Why all this talk about watches?

Let's see. One of my best friends is a military fighter pilot who, on the side, owns two highly sophisticated private planes. His watch is a Timex Ironman. His timer is a second Ironman with a broken band. Another friend of mine is an ATP who flies a P-51 for fun. Uses a cheap Casio. I have an ironman and keep a $5 timer in my flight bag.

That's all anyone needs. This talk of Rolexes and needing to have a watch that displays GMT is silly. You've got a watch on your wrist, you've probably got a clock on the dash and you've got a timer. If you're a gearhead, that's great -- but at least admit that you're a gearhead. This stuff is not necessary.

-- george day, May 2, 2002

Incidentally -- and now a positve comment from me -- the Lightspeed 25xl headset is an excellent choice. Runs around $500 or so (what I paid, anyway), batteries seem to last forever and it's quite comfy and effective.

-- george day, May 2, 2002
A Swiss-certified watch is certified accurate to within 4 seconds per day. Most quartz watches are accurate to within 15 seconds per month. Mechanical watches are pretty cool things to look at and can be very expensive.

But if you really want to keep accurate time, carry a quartz watch. Worried that the watch will die (which is pretty rare, a decent battery will last at least 4 years)? Carry a spare Timex watch on your other hand, it's only $50 or so. Really paranoid about time? Carry a stopwatch around your neck, that's three watches that would have to fail in order for you to lose track of time. Need to know GMT? Carry a Palm with a time zone program. Or simply memorize what the conversion factor is (e.g., +5 for the East Coast, non-DST).

-- Gus M, August 19, 2002

Much as I enjoy reading your comments and opinions, I really think you've lost it on the "watch" issue. If what you need to do is tell the time, the best thing to do is buy a $50 Casio. My G-Shock has worked flawlessly for 20 years, despite all kinds of abuse.

People don't buy a Rolex to tell the time - they buy it because it's a thing of beauty - both its obvious physical beauty, and its intrinsic beauty as a masterpiece of craftsmanship, the work of micro-mechanical expertise.

-- Jeremy Henderson, September 24, 2002

Mr. Greenspun,

Skip the Rolex, Breitling, and so forth. Get an E6B. A metal E6B.

Enjoy the sky.

Paul

-- William Fiefer, November 3, 2002

As a wrist watch collector ( and a private pilot ) I most humble contest those who say that a mechanical watch does not fill the bill for us - pilots! A very high quality mechanical watch ( with C.O.S.C. certificate ), can deliver a "knowing daily rate", capable of targeting the time within 2 to 3 seconds a month for those who indeed need such an acccurate time ?! Who need such ? Pilots or astronauts ? For those seeking for accuracy I recommend thermo compensated quartz watches such as Piquot Meridien wrist marine chronometer or one of those radio controled ( several brands ). Good fligths. Vanildo Maldi

-- Vanildo Maldi, January 4, 2003
My experience is that the accuracy of a number of mechanical (i.e., automatic) watch movements is very vulnerable to shock , arm motions, consistency of wearing,etc. Try this experiment: (a) set your automatic watch to the precise time using a shortwave radio or other precise time source (use the digital clock on a personal computer if need be). (b) do 10 minutes of some activity that involves physical motion of the arm wearing the watch ; e.g,. shadow boxing. (c) check your automatic watch against your precise time source about 6 hours later. I've seen an automatic using a common ETA movement gain 30 seconds from just a minute of arm motion. What's hilarious, in my opinion, is that these fragile automatic movements are dressed up in rugged, tank-like , oversized cases.

Even better test: Run a jackhammer for 10 minutes and compare the accuracy maintained by an automatic with the accuracy maintained by a $50 G-Shock from Walmart.

I think a lot of the accuracy claims for automatics come from office workers who don't do much physical activity, baby the automatic, place them in precise positions at night, keep them on rotating winders,etc.

-- Donald Williams, May 28, 2003

For a pilot's wrist watch, the most useful is the Suunto Altimeter watch. Loose your altimeter and you have one that stay's within 100 feet of indicated, (the diff is because the watch in inside your cabin vs. outside and there is a pressure differental). This of course is only if you have a non-pressurized airplane.

For headsets, I have owned Dave Clarks and recently the Lightspeed 20 3G ANR. Both are fine sets but not nearly as good as the DRE 6000's with the Oregon Aero kit. These are the quietest and most comfortable headset I have ever tried. I read a review on Aviation Consumer which rated them higher than all except the Bose for ANR but equal for comfort and decided to try them since my Lightspeeds where like nut crackers. They are super but add the Oregon Aero kit and you have unmatched comfort and a very quiet set. There is a new DRE headset out called the 6500 which is even further improved. They are little known but have quite a cult following and I can see why. Give them a try - you won't be dissapointed.

-- Chris Oliver, September 5, 2004

Folks, Regarding pilot watches, here's a better perspective than what PhilG has.

I am a newly minted pilot, and drifted across this during the quest for good recommendations for watches. I've been visiting Phil's site for many years now, but only now did I start finding his aviation section more interesting!

Check some of the classic posts http://www.watchuseek.com/pilotwatch/

There is a very nice set of postings that tracks classic 'aviation' watches!

-- Ano Nymous, October 16, 2004

You say Dahon is "poor function." I bought one for commuting. (If I am too tired, or drunk, or busy to ride home, I fold it up and throw it in a taxi) I find my Dahon Mu XL surprisingly good... The hub gear system is bombproof, the ride is stable and comfortable, and the fit-and-finish comparable to the average Trek MTB or whatever. My experience is that Dahon is quite a nice bike.

-- Michael Slater, July 4, 2007
Two years ago I bought for my wife and myself a "Riese and Mueller Birdy" folding bike which I regard as the best product on the market. In contrast to most of the other foldable products R&M bikes come with a full suspension which makes the ride much easier considering the small wheels those bikes normally feature. We tested the bikes extensively in Eastern Germany on "soviet-style" roads made up of deteriorating concrete blocks and they survived without problems.

I don't know whether the Birdy is available outside of Europe, but it's definitely worthwile to check out R&M's website (which I attach as URL).

And yes, the bike is not cheap...

-- Gerhard Wagner, July 8, 2007

On folding bikes... I gave up on my low-end Dahon. Too heavy, and still pretty big when folded. Tried Bromptons, but couldn't really justify the price of the high-spec one I wanted. And then I discovered Mezzo. Approx half the price of a decent Brompton, light as a feather, asymmetrically folds to a very small package, and handles like a dream. Also curiously fast. When you fold/unfold a Mezzo, you can see that they did an awful lot of 3D CAD work in the design of this machine. Everyone should have one. See www.mezzobikes.com

-- Dave Cliff, July 23, 2007
I guess the watch thing was bound to be a hot issue. I can only make the following recommendations:

1. The Seiko GMT is uglier than any Rolex, and I am a Seiko fan.

2. Try the Rolex GMT with black bezel. With the fixed bezel of the Explorer II, you lose the ability to time parking meters, etc. It sounds trite, but the bi-directional bezel is really useful, and a lot easier than monkeying with little buttons and modes on a G-shock. Invicta makes a great Explorer II homage for about $100.

3. If you also scuba dive, Omega has a Seamaster GMT that does everything a Rolex Submariner and GMT-Master can do, with a more rugged movement. Oh, and it's half the price.

4. Watches with slide rules on the bezel look cheesey, but they are quite useful in a pinch (if you lose your e6b or it's out in the airplane and your wrist is in ops).

5. Check out the Wenger Commando GMT. It features one of the most accurate quartz movements ever, with GMT functionality.

-- David Christian, August 29, 2007

OK guys, watches are like cars; There's not one that is "better" than the other. It all depends on the individual's needs and tastes. I will say one thing, and this is from an "old timer", not one of you young tech-guys of modern times: I was employed by Pan Am for 18 years and then spent my last 7 in AAL. IN those times airlines were not as cheap as today, and Pan Am used to issue us Captains a Rolex GMT Master. My GMT Master served me well, and I still wear it. It's almost 38 years old and still looks great! It does not have the precision of a digital watch, but then, who needs to be that precise? These modern-day "nuclear" watches are just an excuse for us jocks to show off our toys. Much like buying a Hummer to be seen driving around town or taking the wife to Publix.

-- Royce M, November 23, 2008
Do NOT try the Lightspeed Mach 1 in-the-ear headset. It's an extremely flawed headset. The earplugs don't seal very well, the ear clip on the mic-boom side is very insecure and doesn't hold the boom very securely, and the boom doesn't stay bent. The microphone is pathetic, and if you've got a vent open and there's any breeze in the cabin, the mic will pick it up. The wires are thin, like the ones on an ipod headset, and it gets tangled very easily. I bought one for my own use, but since I bought my avcomm the Lightspeed is only used by my passengers now.

Before I bought my own headset, I used whatever cheap headset the airport had available, mostly Avcomms. I bought an Avcomm AC454 for $175 dollars. I fly light sport aircraft, which aren't very loud, so PNR is just fine. The ear seals and head pad are comfortable, the size and mechanical pressures are comfortable, and I like the old fashioned wire mic boom better than the bendy straw type. I tend to use my headset with both the intercom and the headset volume set just above half, and I'm not worried about blowing out the speakers.

My personal requirements on watches are: Durable, waterproof enough to bathe with, Hour, Zulu hour, minute, second, backlight. An E6-B bezel would be nice. I tend to wear generic $7 watches from wal-mart, and if I do get a better pilot watch, I'll keep a cheap watch in my flight bag.

-- Adam Bowers, August 8, 2009

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