Friday, January 30, 2015

Frozen North

In the cab to the hotel one night last fall, the cab driver was oddly non-responsive to comments. He seemed alert and sober, and friendly, just didn't seem to get much of what we said. It wasn't until we got to the hotel and encountered the same thing that it dawned on me what the issue was. We're far enough north that English isn't the language people speak in their homes or with their friends. You must think I'm a dolt not to realize that I was talking to someone for whom English was not a first language, but he spoke English with an accent and manner that I'm perfectly used to. It has persisted in monolingual English communities further south, and because of that I though of it as a northern native accent, and not as an indication that he wasn't comfortable in English. It's a fascinating phenomenon, what remains of a language after a population stops speaking it, and how long those remnants can persist. (I suspect I'm touching politics that aren't my own when I say that there is an accent and manner of speaking typical of Americans who are descended from people who spoke west African languages, even though they haven't spoken anything but English for generations). I'm glad that despite the horrific ways people who looked like me tried to assimilate these people's ancestors, that they still have their language and a community in which to speak it.

It's summer, so it's warm on the ground, warm enough for me, anyway. Twenty-five Celsius (that's the only name of an SI unit that gets capitalized in English when it is spelled out in full-- oh SI, why must you be so?) is as warm a day as I ever need. But as we go up, the temperature goes down, by two or three degrees per thousand feet, such that it is twenty below at altitude. It's a short flight so after a couple of hours I'm doing my top of descent checklist, including "fuel on fullest tank." I reach for the left selector to bring it aft to the inboards, where I usually keep my reserve fuel. It's already on the inboard tank. So I pull it forward to the outboard. The airplane is approved to approach and land on inboard or outboard tanks. I do the same for the right tank. The engines begin to sputter. I switch back to the inboard tanks, because returning to the previous configuration is what you do when you're a pilot and something bad has happened right after you made a change. The engines run much better on the inboard tanks. But why? The outboard tanks are full. They were filled at the same time with the same grade from the same truck as the inboard tanks. And how much of a problem is this. I can probably reach my destination with the fuel remaining in the inboard tanks. I had better be able to, because there is nothing closer, in any direction, (nor anything further for maybe a couple of hundred miles). It's kind of flat out here, but I haven't made the transition from considering what embarrassing way this flight could end to what dangerous way it could.

And then I realize what the problem is. It's a design issue with this airplane. It's not in the pilot operating handbook. It wasn't in the training. I know of this problem because about six months ago I parked this distinctive airplane next to a sleek jet and the captain who stepped out of the jet had flown airplanes like mine in Tibet. He had fond memories and reminisced a little in the sixty seconds that we were walking in the same direction at the same time. He led his recollections with "great airplane," but then I nodded and laughed as he ran through some of its weaknesses. One of his comments was unfamiliar and I thought then that he might be referring to a different model. The manufacturer did make changes over a few generations. The old pilot had said something about only being able to switch from outboard to inboard tanks, and of course I knew that I could switch between the tanks in any order. But the back of my brain had filed what he said, and given current context the meaning becomes clear. The tank selector mechanism has frozen in some way so that although I can move the selector lever, the tank being accessed doesn't change. If this is right, the outboard fuel might be accessible after I'm through the freezing level. But I don't want to waste my gravitational potential energy by diving at high speed to a lower altitude. Drag increases with the square of the airspeed. I descend to below the freezing level on a normal profile, checking periodically to see if the fuel will flow from an outboard tank. A few minutes after the outside air temperature flickers above zero, the fuel flows normally from both tanks. And there's an item to add to the training file.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Where Is That?

An "ordinary" flight plan, filed by a pilot whose goal is to get from point A to point B, has a fairly simple format: a point of origin, a route, and a destination. The origin and destination are typically airports. (Those of you who start or end your flights in places other than airports know what it's like to be not filing an "ordinary" flight plan). A route may be along airways, direct between points, or a combination of the two. They're fairly similar. On an ICAO flight plan, to go direct between points you can just write the identifiers of the two points side by side and it's assumed your route between them is direct. On a Canadian flight plan you can also put a D between them, typically written with a horizontal arrow across the middle of the letter. If part of the route will be on an airway, you specify the point at which you will enter the airway, and then name the airway, finishing with the point at which you will exit the airway. Specifying the points is the subject of this post.

If point A and B are airports, they are easy to specify, as every airport has a four-character code. I say character and not letter because while the bigger ones have four-letter codes, smaller airports may have digits included. Many airports I know the codes for by heart, while others I have to look up in the CFS. Other points along a flight plan might be NDBs, identified by two-letter codes, VORs, identified by three-letter codes, or intersections, identified by five-letter codes. And then of course there is me, going to random places that are not at any of these easily filed waypoints.

I can specify my location by giving a latitude and longitude, there's even an official format for such a waypoint: 5025N09823W, although I usually leave a space after the N. I hope that doesn't irritate anyone. Another way to give a location is "fifty nautical miles northwest of" some other point. You code it as the point, the bearing, and the distance. I once filed such a waypoint: EC330050, and the flight planner called me back to ask me what it meant. It was an obscure little NDB that no one ever filed to, so combined with the bearing and distance information, he just didn't clue into what it was.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Regional Rivalries

In the course of our operations we operate both VFR and IFR, often switching between the two regimes, sometimes more than once, in the course of a single flight. VFR stands for Visual Flight Rules, and the rules are simple. As long as my company knows where I am, I don't need to file any flight plan, follow any specific route or maintain a particular altitude or speed. Under VFR I am not allowed above 18,000' in most places, and I need to plan a landing with thirty minutes of fuel remaining, and I need at all times to be able to navigate and maintain control of the airplane by looking out the window at visual features, e.g. rocks, lakes, roads, cities and the horizon. If I can't see where I'm going, I must file IFR.

IFR stands for Instrument Flight Rules. It requires an advance flight plan showing a precise routing, a clearance before departure, and permission to make any changes in altitude or heading. In any area, I'm not allowed below the minimum IFR altitude, even if I can see that it's perfectly safe. If I fly IFR at all during a day, I am limited to eight hours of any flying during that day, which may limit reaching an objective. I must fly IFR if the weather conditions anywhere along the route do not allow me to fly visually, or if I wish to fly above about 17,000'.

So you can see that if my company wanted me to leave an area of poor weather, do some low level flying in an area of good weather, and then land somewhere else covered in low clouds, I would need to be IFR then VFR then IFR. But if the task was to fly low over a city for thirty minutes and then climb up to flight level 220 (about 22,000') for three hours and then then land at a tiny airport in the mountains with no instrument approaches, I would be VFR then IFR then VFR. Such a plan is called a composite flight plan. This shouldn't be that complicated, except that the people in the IFR and VFR systems hate one another. As best as I can tell, the controllers that handle the stereotypical high speed, prestigious IFR traffic are contemptuous of the people in the system that handles the slower, lower, quirkier VFR traffic, and the VFR folks in turn resent the IFR controllers. They aren't really set up as two different systems. The Flight Service Specialists who track VFR flights also pass clearances to IFR traffic, but they get it from the people who will be managing the IFR flight after departure. Those same controllers handle many VFR flights, but in many cases they release us as soon as we are clear of controlled airspace, lacking radar coverage or time to pay attention to flights they have no legal obligation to provide coverage for.

Let's say I file an IFR flight plan out of Frog Valley, proposed to last two hours and terminate under VFR in Weasel Swamp. I can file this flight plan with either the predominately VFR FSS or with directly with the IFR data people. If I do the former, the FSS will simply forward the IFR portion to IFR data, where the planners will map it out to ensure that it doesn't interfere with other traffic or violate any rules or procedures. If I file with data they will lob the VFR portion off to the FSS. So imagine I depart on that flight, but after an hour company calls and tells me to fly to Ptarmigan Inlet. I tell the controller that we aren't going to Weasel after all, please amend our destination to Ptarmigan, estimated time enroute, three hours from now. I request descent out of controlled airspace, turn en route for Ptarmigan Inlet and then an hour out call up Flight Services to update destination weather. At least half the time I will encounter a controller who is on the edge of frantic, considering me an hour overdue into Weasel. The IFR controllers forget to propagate the change in destination and ETA through the system, even when I explicitly confirm with them that they will. Simultaneously changing flight rules, destination and ETA is an extremely common occurrence for our operation. I tried for a while explicitly telling the IFR data controller NOT to propagate the VFR portoin of the plan, that company flight following would handle it, but they didn't always comply with my request, so I still had to check, and I discovered that the FSS was annoyed at being circumvented. I now always close the flight plan with both the IFR controller and Flight Services, but often terrain, altitude or remote location prevents me from reaching an FSS right away. I've learned, however, that when I call late, telling the annoyed flight service specialist that I did amend the plan, but the IFR controller forgot to pass on the change immediately soothes the wrath. In fact, just about any error occurring in the course of a composite flight plan can safely be blamed on the part of the system you are not currently speaking to. A similar lack of communication, but not the outright hatred, applies across provincial and territorial borders, even on a flight plan that is not composite. A controller from one flight information region (FIR) was unfamiliar with the abbreviation PTD (proposed time of departure) that designated the content of a blank on a standard form from an adjacent FIR, and to work the edges of our national, integrated air traffic control system, it pays to have an intimate knowledge of regional and departmental preferences.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Your Clearance Cancelled Time is Cancelled

I overheard this post title on switching to a frequency. No one has ever said that to me and I'm not certain which of two possible but contradictory meanings it might have. If I received it, I would ask a clarifying question, but the pilot who received it did not.

Before departing on an IFR flight, a pilot first files a flight plan, specifying for the air traffic control system exactly which route she intends to follow, with what timing. The flight plan may be filed online, by phone, or sometimes by radio. I usually file mine by phone, because I can do that while using my eyes and the non-phone-holding hand for other things, and can say what I'm doing in words rather than having to code it for the online form. I would only file by radio if I discovered while airborne a need to convert to an IFR flight, and I was out of cell tower range so I couldn't use my awesome Bluetooth headset-iPhone combo. (I didn't want Bluetooth at the time I bought the headset, but I needed a new headset RIGHT AWAY and that was all they had in stock. If you ever have reasons to talk to someone on the phone with your engine(s) running, get the Bluetooth. The days of holding the phone against your ear and yelling, "I can't hear you: I'm in the plane" are over).

The IFR flight plan is supposed to be filed minimum thirty minutes before departure, but the controllers are generally so awesome that the plan is coded and available in the system in minutes. When my company says, "Can we go to Fort Dead Royalty now?" and the flight requires an IFR clearance, I say "sure," file the flight plan for thirty minutes hence, and then board, start, run up and call for clearance. My actual take off time will usually be fifteen to twenty minutes after filing, and I'm calling for clearance as few as five minutes after filing, but it's almost always ready as soon as I need it.

The clearance I get may be identical to the one I filed, or it may be altered to comply with local procedures I didn't know about, specific runways that are active, or I may be cleared not to my destination airport but to an intermediate point, requireing me to get a new clearance before I leave that point. (Yes, I would have to stop and hold, flying in a little oval, if I hadn't received the clearance by then, but it's almost always given to me before I need it). If the airport I will be departing is a controlled airport, then when I am ready to take off, the tower controller will talk on the phone to the IFR departure/en route controllers and get an IFR release, allowing them to clear me for take off. But if the airport is uncontrolled: unstaffed or staffed only by a Flight Service Specialist, the initial IFR clearance will include a clearance cancelled time. The controller giving me the clearance is going to ensure there is a space in the system for me, but if I'm not airborne by the clearance cancelled time, I'm not allowed to go, because my space will have passed by. My departure clearance will have been cancelled. Sometimes there is also a clearance valid time, meaning that I can depart any time between the clearance valid and clearance cancelled time.

So if I were given a clearance cancelled time, and then my clearance cancelled time were cancelled, my first guess is that that means the traffic that was going to be a problem after the clearance cancelled time is no longer considered to be interfering with me--perhaps it has changed course or altitude--and that I can delay as long as I like before take off. My second guess is that "your clearance cancelled time is cancelled" is synonymous with "your clearance is cancelled." I'm ninety-five per cent sure that the first meaning is correct, but because there is a chance that I'm wrong, I'd ask. Beats getting run over by a Boeing 737.

Friday, January 09, 2015

The World Is For Me

I imagine a spectrum in which each person's feeling of entitlement shows up as a different colour. On average, people feel entitled to somewhat more than the world can provide for them, leading to the phenomenon of the tragedy of the commons, a general dissatisfaction with one's lot, or the assumption that rules are for other people, and that whatever works best for me is the thing to do. So at one end of the spectrum we have Mother Teresa who sees that the world has problems, and that there is something she can do about some of them, so dedicates her life to helping people. At the other end we have extreme psychopaths who will kill someone for entertainment. Some people dump unwanted items and garbage in vacant lots or on the highway. Some people separate all their unwanted items into things that can be used again by others, various types of recyclables, and garbage, and then make the effort to get them all to the right places. Some people organize others in their community and go out to clean up garbage that has been dumped in vacant lots. I'm not saying that Mother Teresa never littered or that if you throw your trash in my backyard you're probably a psycho killer, but these are examples on the spectrum of how much a person feels entitled to inconvenience others.

I once expressed reluctance to be the first person to park in a curb lane after morning rush hour had ended, when it became legal. I said something like, "I hate to be that person who takes that lane out of service for everyone else." My friend thought that was bizarre. She said she loved to be the first person to park on a block, because it was so easy. Someone's going to be the first person to park there, so why not her? The effect one's actions will have on others affects different people's actions by different amounts. Intelligence and experience factor into it a little, but I have observed young children and those with intellectual disabilities make decisions for the good of the many. I'm not talking about decisions driven by ignorance or malice, just those made by assigning different weights to "this inconveniences me" and "this inconveniences someone I don't know." People's behaviour can be artificially bumped along these scales by laws and social norms. I want six cookies, I don't care if anyone else gets one, but I share them equally because it would be more inconvenient to me to have all these people annoyed at me and consider me rude, than it would for me to forego five of the cookies I want. It is a lot of bother to find a legal parking spot in rush hour, but my friend does so, because if she parks in the curb lane before nine am she'll be ticketed and towed, and that would be a lot more inconvenient than driving a few more blocks and walking back.

This spectrum of empathy and entitlement speaks to whether you crowd around the boarding lane at the gate before your row is called, recline your airline seat, put one of your carry-ons under the seat in front of you, and otherwise share the limited space on board a passenger airplane. And then there's this guy. I suppose it is possible that he was really as clueless as he claims, that he didn't figure out that others were queuing in the aisle because that's how one gets off an airplane. But I think he saw a special little door just for him, the way solo drivers in the HOV lanes "didn't see" the signs or the diamonds painted on the tarmac, just the opportunity for them to get where they are going more quickly. The bright side is that he showed that the emergency exits are obvious enough to use that a passenger who wasn't paying attention had no problem operating one. I wonder if he brought his carry on with him.

Secretly, don't we all want to go down the airplane slide? How much would you pay for a chance to do that? How much extra to be the one who pops the door and sets off the slide? At the $16,000 to reset, quoted in the article, I don't think it's a missed revenue stream for the airlines, especially as passengers often sustain minor injuries, such as broken ankles, during real evacuations, but wheeee! slide!

The aircraft I fly doesn't have an escape slide, but I require all crew members to practice opening and egressing through an emergency exit at annual training. It causes a little wear and tear on the aircraft and the crew members, but I flew so many airplanes myself without ever having actually operated their exits, that I wanted it done. It's hard to describe exactly how it opens until you do it, and this way we know for sure that they work.

Oh! Don't tell anyone, but I'm going to see if I can get a toy inflatable slide for this year's training.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Beavers, Thunderstorms, Motel Rooms

No one kicks in the door of my sketchy motel room overnight. Company is not sending another crew member today. I'm to stay here and wait for the weather to change. I make a private bet with our office manager that company will sit me here for three nights and then tell me to leave the airplane here and go home. I pay for another night in the motel, and go out for a run. The best place to run in this town is along the river. There's a path there. Most prairie towns have a river, and a similar trail. This one is deluxe, paved and signposted, with pretty little bridges going across to the other side now and again. One of the signs announces the presence of moose and bear and advises me to take appropriate caution. I am less worried about bears and moose than with my sketchy motel. Were the path not populated by numerous joggers, walkers, and cyclists or were it early spring, when cranky, hungry bears emerge from their dens, I might be more concerned. As it is, the greatest threat to my well-being here is probably either rollerbladers with poor directional control, or those long invisible leashes that connect dog walkers to their dogs. I'll pit them one against the other and run to safety.

As I continue on the path, I see signs of beaver: the stumps of obviously beaver-felled trees and the piles of chips the beavers leave behind. I googled "attacked by beaver" while writing this and discovered that a number of people have suffered quite serious beaver bites, but they all seem to have been swimming or boating, not jogging, and they are far less numerous than the results of an "attacked in motel room" search. As far as I can tell, no beaver has ever broken into a motel room to attack a traveller. I am not attacked by a beaver on the jogging path. I don't even see one, but I do see a deer. It does not attack either. It's fat and happy, grazing in a meadow next to the jogging path. It's not so tame as to realize that joggers don't veer off the path, but it doesn't go far. It's in almost exactly the same spot when I come by again on my way back.

The rodeo grounds are several kilometres out of town and there's no public transit, so I don't check it out. The motel has abyssimal internet too, so I can't watch movies or even read text webpages with any reliability. I buy art supplies and make postcards, including the thunderstorm one I mentioned earlier. There's another thunderstorm here in the afternoon, typical prairie weather. I like the METAR that reports +TSRARA: the + means heavy, the TS means thunderstorm, the RA means rain, and presumably the second RA means even more rain. It's not usual to code the same group twice. I can only assume it's an error, but it's funny and true.

The next day they again tell me to stay another night, but just when I think I'm about to collect on the bet, they send the missing crew member out to join me. He arrives after I've gone to bed. He too spends a night in the sketchy motel, and then we depart for somewhere there isn't a rodeo.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Qausuittuq

At the end of the year I usually check on the progress of my New Year's resolutions, and then make new ones. I did make eight resolutions for 2014, but they were all personal, not aviation, and I'm not telling you exactly what they were, so this will be dull, or at least cryptic:

1. Achieved: A+
2. Social - 71% achieved (51% before the middle of April and 10% after the beginning of November): B-
3. Academic - never set measurable goals, even though that was part of the resolution, achieved maybe 20% anyway: F
4. Fun - 58% (25% before the end of March and 25% during December): C-
5. Ha ha ha ... I don't think that one lasted to the end of New Year's Day: Withdrawn
6. Physical - Achieved by the beginning of March. Now EXACTLY back where I started. I still think that's still a pass, because I did achieve it: C
7. Speed - Negative progress: F
8. Martial arts - Did really well until April 6th, then lost momentum, and had to work through both the events I was supposed to be training for - 40%: F

The general theme is that I kept them well until work got busy and then life became entirely sleep, eat, plan, fly, laundry. I think I just have to not make resolutions that involve doing anything not on that list on a recurring basis through the year. For next year I am going to set month-by-month goals that allow for no progress to be made during peak months, and encourage me to pick things up again as my time increases at the end of the season, without feeling defeated.

Qausuittuq means "place where the sun does not rise" but it's on this post because the place that bears that traditional name is usually called Resolute.