Saturday, October 10, 2015

Runner's High

This story starts about five years ago when I first realized that combining my fondness for running, maps, and cool watches in one technological device was possible and affordable, even if it did barely fit on my wrist. I bought a Garmin Forerunner 305. It's essentially a stopwatch integrated with a GPS, heart rate monitor, and computer, so I can know where I am, how fast I'm going, and how hard my body is working to achieve it, all at once. And then I can upload the resulting data to my laptop and stare at it in tables and graphs and maps to come to conclusions like "I get really tired when I run up mountains" and "I should run faster." I used to come to such conclusions without the technology, but now I have data to back it up. It's ludicrous how much more fun it is to go running when you get statistics at the end. I don't remember how I ever went running without a box on my wrist telling me if I was doing it right or not.

I took my GPS watch in my flight bag everywhere I went, so that if I had time to go running at the end of the day, I'd have the motivation of knowing how far and fast I was going, and also so I could activate the "Return to Start" feature. Return to Start gives turn-by-turn directions to get me back to the hotel, regardless of how identical the suburban streets, wooded trails, or gravel road turn-offs appear to be. I don't know that I would be still wandering around a highway truck stop somewhere without it, but there's more oxygen deprivation in my brain after fifteen kilometres of pushing my pace than after five hours of sucking supplemental oxygen through my nose at 17,000'. It's nice not to have to worry which forks I took in the trail network of an unfamiliar town.

I have my data all in Garmin's Training Center software: years of runs from Alaska to Florida and many where I have to zoom out on the little map several times before I figure out which little town with limited map information is traced by the record of my exertions. I like to review this data and use the Training Center "Compare" feature to virtually race the years-ago Aviatrix. (I'm pretty sure I can still take her). But while I've become sleeker, faster and more resilient with the years, the watch hasn't fared as well. It became harder to charge, and reluctant to connect to the computer to give up its data. The beeping sounds stopped working, and then it started shutting off in mid-workout. It's well out of warrantee, and the model is discontinued, so I had to choose a replacement. I could probably export the data in a standard format. Garmin is so prevalent in the GPS field that any manufacturer that couldn't convert or use their formats might be a little silly. But my first choice was just to stick with Garmin.

Their website is a mess of poor feature explanations. It doesn't suggest an upgrade path from the 305 to another product. I didn't find an overview on what the focus of the Forerunner, vivo-, or fēnix lines is, nor could I see any coherent logic to the Forerunner model numbers and suffixes.

I thought I'd had an e-mail conversation about this back when the Forerunner was still available and one could send it in to a Garmin-approved dealer for a flat-rate "repair" (obviously a replacement with a reconditioned model, but it was worth the $75 for me back then). Mining my e-mail archive for "GPS watch" found me all my old blog posts that mention "GPS" and "watch". The insane detail I included allowed me to relive some interesting flights and revisit all manner of places. No wonder people who weren't on the flights to begin with enjoyed reading them. This has somewhat inspired me to find a way to keep blogging about them. Perhaps I'll talk to the owner about the blog.

I tore myself away from my former adventures to google up second hand explanations and information on features and backwards compatibility of Garmin products. There are SO many models. Finally I decided to artificially limit my choices by going to a store and making my selection from only what they had. I took my flaky old Forerunner with me, and on the bus ride there, noticed that the crack between the layers of the case was quite wide. With no prying or wiggling, I lifted the face of the watch right off the back, revealing its electronic innards. Well no wonder it wasn't staying on, charging and connecting. I was lucky it hadn't fallen apart during a run. I feared I had killed it by carrying it with me everywhere, including into the flight levels in an unpressurized airplane.

The higher you go in the atmosphere, the less air there is on top of you, thus the less pressure you feel, so that instead of being all squished together to sea level pressure, the molecules are all spread out. One breath takes in less oxygen, unless I supplement it from a tank, which I do, through the aforementioned nose tubes. Anything with air sealed into it that I bring up from ground level retains the same pressure inside that it had on the ground. As it ascends, the differential between the inside pressure and the outside pressure increases, producing a force acting to expand the sealed container. The tank full of breathing oxygen is cylindrical, and its strong walls and robust valves are inspected weekly to ensure that as the pressure outside the tank decreases, the tank will not rupture, bulge or leak from the added force. Potato chips are deliberately packaged with trapped air, to protect the chips, and their bags will bulge out drum-tight, and sometimes burst, as we ascend. The gases in our intestines and ear canals expand and escape through the usual routes. I was afraid that the air sealed into my GPS watch damaged it. But then I realized that the Forerunner 305 isn't waterproof, and my Timex wristwatch, which works perfectly, is. (I'd tell you what model Timex, but it's so old that all the words have worn away, and the chunks of decorative plastic stuff have fallen off, leaving a bare case with buttons on it). A little more research showed me that plenty of people had their Forerunners come apart, sometimes falling off bike mounts and/or being run over by cars.

I got to the store and interrogated the clerk about the selection. I was almost ready to buy a Garmin Forerunner 225. It has the heart rate monitor integrated in the watch itself, with no need for a chest strap. It has a built-in accelerometer to give pace and distance information on indoor treadmill runs. "What about winter?" I asked. "Can I use it with a chest strap in the winter, when I wear the watch on the outside of long-sleeved garments?" To answer this question, the clerk went not to the Garmin website, but straight to the blog of DC Rainmaker, an obsessive sports technology reviewer. I'd encountered one of his reviews while googling for compatibility information earlier, and not noticed that everything I could ever want to know about pretty much any sports watch is on this guy's blog. The Forerunner 225 will pair with a chest strap, for people who mount it on bicycle handlebars, as well as winter runners, but it was missing a couple other features that I wanted. Indeed none of the watches they carried had the Back to Start feature, so I went home without buying any of them, and went back to DC Rainmaker's site.

Ray Maker (get it?) conveys the excitement of taking a new electronic toy out of the shipping box, gazing at its packaging, and then breaking the shrinkwrap. He includes photographs detailing the plastic bags and twist ties containing all the sub-components of the products. He does more running, biking, and swimming to test one device for a review than some buyers will log in the lifetime of their device. Every review is ridiculously detailed. Some people would say too detailed. So a little like many of my blog entries, if I did way more research. It parallels the way I'd like to blog if I had the diligence to drill down to the technological and legal root of everything I said, rather than speculating and drawing on knowledge already in my head. It made me cheer a little when I found a typo now and again, on his site, because it just goes to show that typo-free is not a requirement for an insanely awesome blog. He also displays a lot of integrity: he borrows and returns all reviewed gear despite the fact that his reviews are clearly enough work to deserve a lot of freebies. If you run or bike and like gear, you almost certainly already know his site, but if you don't you're in for a treat. If you never do anything more energetic than opening the refrigerator, but just like tech, especially GPS, you'll probably still want to read his site. The comparison tool there allowed me to quickly determine that the correct watch for my needs is the Forerunner 310XT. It wasn't at the store nor prominent on Garmin's website because it is ALSO being discontinued. I decided to get one now, through a site DC Rainmaker partners with, to compensate him for the work he does. I had some trouble with that site, so posted a comment on his blog, and as I was already thinking of blogging about the experience, I signed the comment "Aviatrix."

It turns out that DC Rainmaker is a long-time reader of Cockpit Conversation. It made me feel like a member of an elite when he asked if I was that Aviatrix. As I told him, some days I’m convinced that there are far fewer people on the Internet than is generally thought. Maybe it’s just you, me, the awesome people who comment on our blogs, and a lot of Chinese spambots.

Meanwhile I ordered a Forerunner 310XT somewhere else, bound my Forerunner 305 together with rubber bands, found it worked perfectly, glued it together with silicone sealant (as recommended by several people on the Internet), and am currently in high level discussions with my printer on why it should print the return mailing label for the 310XT. When the 305 gasps out its final beep I'll do this again, probably with a whole new set of features. I might get one of the "lifestyle" watches that track your every move, including sleeping.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

You Won't Believe What This KLM Flight Attendant Said

I hate those headlines, but I was feeling uninspired.

There's a human factors exercise known as the "Five Hazardous Attitudes," where pilots evaluate their tendency towards different safety ways of neglecting the safest route. It occurred to me today that airline passengers suffer from exactly the same tendencies. They are anti-authority: disregarding crew instructions just because they don't want to be told what to do. They are impulsive: too busy to pay attention or to do it right. They don't want to think about it so pretend they are invulnerable or can handle it on their own. And very often they are resigned and don't take any responsibility for their own safety.

A friend was irritated by a flight attendant asking her to pay attention to a passenger briefing and commented, "Surely these people don't actually believe that anyone is getting out alive if that thing goes down in Irish Sea?!" Last time I was at my annual medical I was complimented on my low blood pressure and as the doctor explained how the machine worked he commented that at other times, my blood pressure might be higher. I think this is one of those times. Aviatrix rant activated.

People get out. Smart, lucky people who have paid attention in the safety briefing and remembered how many rows to the nearest and alternate exit in each direction. I am a professional pilot and I pay attention to the safety briefing when I am a passenger.

An A340 jet went off the end of the runway into a ravine, in Toronto during a thunderstorm. Half the exits were unusable, and 90 seconds later the aircraft burst into flames and burned to a shell. EVERYONE GOT OUT. With few, minor, injuries.

An A320 ditched in the river in New York. One dipshit passenger who hadn't paid attention to the emergency briefing opened a door that was not to be used in the case of a water landing. That passenger jeopardized the lives of others, and most of the passengers forgot to take their seat cushions with them to use as a flotation device, but EVERYONE GOT OUT. Mainly minor injuries, the worst may have been to a flight attendant who was trapped in the rear because of the stupid passenger.

A B767 that had been hijacked ditched in the Indian Ocean, out of fuel, and while the captain was struggling with hijackers. FIFTY PEOPLE SURVIVED. Many of those who did not survive died because they didn't pay enough attention to the emergency briefing to remember not to inflate their life jackets before leaving the aircraft.

You put down what you are doing, you take off your headset and you pay attention to that announcement as if your life and the lives of those around you depend on it. Because they do. Decades of research have gone into manufacturing the aircraft and safety equipment and training the crew to give you the safest flight possible. The least you can do is pay attention for ninety seconds.

In non-rant mode, I have to admit that Doreen Welsh wasn't really trapped, and that her difficulty evacuating was because of an injury sustained in the crash, but a passenger opening the wrong door and flooding the aft of the aircraft didn't help her or anyone else get out. The point of this blog post, however, is what another friend posted in response, talking about her preflight behaviour. I'm just going to leave it here, because I have no coherent response.

I noted to the flight attendant that I didn't have a flotation device beneath my seat. She said, very quietly, but very aggressively (since she had been quick to already tell me it was nothing to do with her, since it was the flight engineers that do those checks), that we wouldn't be delaying take off to sort this out, since there was no chance we would get out alive anyway. I also never heard back from the letter I wrote to KLM.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

I See Fourteen Lights

There might be fog or mist present when I depart tomorrow from an uncontrolled aerodrome. The minimum allowable visibility for my departure is half a statute mile, so I need to be able to determine how far I can see along the runway, without a tower, a flight service specialist or an electronic runway visual range (RVR) measurement. I'll have to count runway lights.

I haven't done this in a while--you don't get fog much in the summer--so I had to double check some numbers. I found then in A Quick Reference: Airfield Standards from the US FAA. (Nice little reference. I intend to read it through in its entirety sometime, maybe while waiting for fog). It confirms for me that the lights along the runway edge are spaced 200' apart. There are six thousand feet in a nautical mile, but for some reason ground visibility is measured in statute miles, which contain only 5280 feet apiece. (I had to look that number up, too). That means that I need to be able to see half of that, or 2640' feet along the runway to meet the half-mile minimum visibility. And at this point I realize "well duh: if there is an RVR then a half mile is RVR 2600." So I'm on track. This means that if I pull onto the runway even with one set of runway lights (they are aligned with each other on each edge of the runway) I need to be able to count 2600 divided by 200, or thirteen more pairs of them, stretching away into the foggy gloom, in order to be legal. I'm happy to ignore the extra 40' because RVR values do, and because I'm looking along the hypotenuse of the triangle whose base is on the runway edge, and surely I'll pick up another forty feet there.

Whom am I kidding? This is Cockpit Conversation. We don't make assumptions about trigonometry here, we do trigonometry. The base of the triangle runs from my position at the first runway edge light, to the fourteenth runway light, and is 2600' long. Assume I'm in the middle of a runway, standard width 200', making the height of the triangle 100'. The measurement of the hypotenuse is therefore sqrt((2600 x 2600)+(100 x 100)) = 2602. So no, actually, there is almost no difference between the distance from the first runway light to the fourteenth, and the distance from my eye to the fourteenth light. That's a very skinny triangle. My assumption is wrong. So if I wanted to be a nerd, I could park thirty-eight feet back from the first pair of runway lights. But generally I want to go flying.

In order to save Americans time telling me that the RVR for half a mile is 2400, I'll confirm that in Canada and the other countries I checked researching this post, the RVR for half a mile is 2600. I don't know why Americans use 2400, and neither do the people in this thread on the subject. I especially like the way that the person who initially answers the question there doesn't notice that RVR 2400 for a half mile doesn't add up, until the student points it out. Another thing I expect American commenters to want to tell me today is that "if you have to count runway lights on short final, you should go missed." That's becase their landings are legally restricted by visibility. But Canadian landings are governed only by decision height or MDA. If the runway is visible at DH/MDA, a landing is authorized for us. Our plates have an "advisory visibility" which we can use to calculate whether we expect to be visual at minimums, but its value does not affect our legality to put the airplane on the runway. Once we are past the FAF, the RVR does not restrict us. We do have something called an approach ban which can stop us from legally attempting an approach in terrible visibility, but that's a whole 'nother topic.

Saturday, September 19, 2015


I finally updated my personal logbook, sitting down with a small stack of journey logs, a calculator and a sunset/sunrise time database, to make entries for about two and a half years worth of flights. I've never got that far behind before. I don't advise it. There's a muscle in my middle finger that hurts like I've been flipping people off all day. It's oddly nostalgic being reminded of events of that day as I copy the flight details into my logbook.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Why I Love My Director of Maintenance

I'm afraid I have to be much vaguer than I would like to be, due to the company rule forbidding operational information on social media, but I want to share the DoM's awesomeness.

The first part of the story is probably familiar to all pilots and aircraft repair personnel. We had a long text conversation about a possible snag. (Snag is Canadian-speak (I think Commonwealth-wide) for a reportable aircraft defect--Americans call them squawks). I had noticed a small discrepancy between the way I expect the airplane to behave and the way it is behaving. It has done this on a couple of flights. It's subtle, and not a mode that I use for long on a typical flight, so it probably went a while before I noticed it at all. At first I had blamed my technique or inattention for the effect, so didn't perceive it as a reportable defect. But then I got verification from someone else who didn't know what I was expecting him to observe. It's a tiny effect, but if it is a system that breaks a little bit before it breaks altogether, it could be a really big deal.

My director of maintenance patiently texted back explanations of how the system works. The texts themselves were themselves neither condescending nor dismissive, but by assembling the pieces one could read the message "that's not how it works." I respect his knowledge, and I know that the mental model I have built from the description and diagram of the system in the aircraft manual is far from the way it works to the people who actually put wrenches on it. I can understand that what I think is happening isn't readily explained by the construction of the system. It's a difficult system to inspect, but there's a fairly straightforward shop test that can be done that might confirm the observation--but again it might not, because it's possible that the aircraft has to be in flight for the effect to occur. I suggest that that test be done, and promise to try and think of another explanation for my observation.

And then a single text message says it all:

I doubt you are wrong. It's probably fucked up. I will fix it for you.

Trust, directness, and action. Is there anything else one could require from someone who maintains her aircraft?

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Delicious Donair

Tower passed me to the centre frequency just in time for me to hear, "We have the delicious donair in sight."

I could see the question marks over my non-pilot co-worker's head before she asked, "Is that a restaurant?"

While I have been asked to report overhead a McDonald's before, that was by a small tower where the controllers knew me, not on a Centre frequency. I gave her my best guess as to what had transpired, and I'll tell you what that was in a moment, after a diversionary paragraph or two on other recent ATC exchanges, in case you want to formulate your own guess before you see mine.

This one also takes place on Centre frequency, but I've been on the frequency a long time, and it's quiet. An airline pilot gives his call sign and asks, "Are you still there?" The Centre controller answers in the affirmative and the pilot explains, "It was getting lonely." That may sound like a frivolous exchange, but it's actually a slightly quirky way of making an often necessary call. It's not uncommon to get out of range of your assigned frequency before you're assigned another. Sometimes the controller is just about to swap you but there's a flurry of activity or a handover briefing and you glide out of range before they can. Aircraft at the same nominal altitude are at different actual altitudes above terrain from day to day, depending on the temperature, so the point at which terrain cuts off a signal for an aircraft at FL180 is not identical from one day to another. Your radio can die, you can accidentally switch frequency, or the controller can think they have you on one frequency when you're really on another. My approach is usually to ask for the latest altimeter setting. That confirms that I'm still in range and gives me useful information, too.

Just today a United flight made a plaintive little call for anyone on frequency to respond. They had lost contact with Centre, and asked me if I could find them a frequency. I wonder if they thought Canada was terribly primitive not to have kept track of them. I relayed their predicament to the controller. I have been in the room where those Centre controllers are, and would have half expected the controller to just lean back in her wheely chair and call out, "Who's looking for United 1126?" But nope, she asked me for the aircraft's position and then, based on that, advised me which frequency to relay back to them.

So back to the donair. My best guess was that the controller had asked them to report the Dornier [probably the Do-228, a boxy turboprop] in sight, and that the pilot decided to call it a Donair [meat sliced from a vertical rotisserie, usually served in flatbread]. If we're really lucky, someone who was on frequency for the whole exchange is a reader and we can find out the truth.

Friday, August 28, 2015

That Horrible Moment When ...

... you land at some little GA airport in the afternoon, because it happened to have a runway long enough, and it was equidistant from the various places you thought you might be asked to go the next day, and then you get a phone call at o-dark-hundred, and during flight planning you ask yourself, "Does the aerodrome have lighting?"

It did. But with fall just around the corner, I'd better start checking that.