Wednesday, December 28, 2005

WestJet Wing

According to a not-very-informative wire story WestJet B737 whacked a wing on the runway while landing at Halifax this evening. No one was hurt.

I was watching a landing once when a company plane hit a wingtip on landing. The fairing ripped off the wingtip and the airplane righted itself. No one was hurt, but all the passengers looked kind of gray as they walked off. I don't remember how many thousands of dollars it cost to inspect and repair, how many days the airplane was offline, nor whether flights had to be cancelled because of it. I remember the captain shaking his head and trying to find some point in the chain of decisions that everyone makes every flight where he could have taken a different path.

"I should have taken control earlier." [The FO was flying.]

"I should have gone around."

"I should have written up the airplane for the spool up delay on the left engine." [Turbine engines throttled back to idle never respond immediately to throttle movement, but on this one the left engine had become slower than the right engine. We solve this problem at takeoff by getting both to spool up from idle before setting take-off power.]

I know that feeling. If anything, anything goes wrong on a flight, you seek back through the decisions you made, trying to find where you could have avoided it, or at least to confirm that every decision you did make was the right one at the time. And then you wish you'd had more information. You make the conservative decision and you're wrong, you cost the company a lot of money. You make a different decision and you're wrong, you can hurt people as well as costing money. That makes it sound like a no-brainer, but there are rarely just two choices, and if you always took the most conservative path you would never go flying.

It's a horrible sick feeling to realize that you should have made a different decision, either way. And I'm talking about comparatively tiny things. We pilots are supposed to be infallable, right? Poor WestJet guys.

Monday, December 26, 2005


I like to talk to the people who maintain our airplanes to learn more about the aircraft and to see their side of the story. And I'm trying, chip-by-chip, to break down the wall that exists between the two sides of the operation.

Some maintenance people seem to think all pilots are ignoramuses who have no idea how their aircraft work, and simply spend their day breaking airplanes. And I can understand that viewpoint. The people who disassemble and reassemble a system are going to know it better than the people who just pull the levers. And no matter how thoroughly they fix the airplanes, whenever they let the pilots fly them, the airplanes eventually come back broken.

When I do a test flight with an AME on board watching, sometimes I feel like they're going to say, "well no wonder it keeps breaking, if you're going to fly it like that." So far they haven't, though. And for some repairs, the airplane can't be officially released from maintenance without my signature under a rubber stamp confirming that I have flown it and that the aircraft conforms to the standard of the type. Meaning that no significant parts came off in my hands during the test flight.

This is where the pilots who think maintenance are stupid get their side of the story. Pilots tell maintenance that the gear won't stay up, or that the ammeter spikes for no apparent reason and then the mechanics sign it off and send it back online. The problem recurs, and the pilots think the mechanics are incompetent. Sometimes it takes a few iterations to identify the root cause.

And some things are hard to understand. An apprentice was telling me how the steering works on an Airbus. He described a linkage and then said, "Everything inside is PFM."

Aviation is rife with acronyms and terms, and Airbus has been keen on reinventing existing terminology, so I wasn't too surprised not to recognize the term. "PFM?" I asked.

He explained. "Everything inside is pure magic." I so walked in to that one.

And I know a pilot that got back at an arrogant AME by asking him about the flux capacitor. The AME was happy to tell the pilot it was located in the wing. He was, of course, thinking of the flux gate compass, but the pilot got a good laugh out of hearing the mechanic bluff on about the crucial component of a fictitious time machine.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Santa Enters Canadian Airspace

According to NORAD, Santa Claus has just arrived in Newfoundland and will be making his way across the country over the next few hours. I thought NORAD reported on Santa's progress simply because NORAD tracks all airspace incursions, but according to the history on the noradsanta site, there's another reason. Apparently, in 1955 a store misprinted a telephone number for kids to "call Santa" and Colonel Shoup, then commander-in-chief of NORAD predecessor CONAD received and accepted the calls, reporting on Santa's progress for the children of the nation.

I haven't noticed any Santa-related NOTAMs, PIREPs or other Canadian aviation data, but I'll check again in the morning. Good night!

Monday, December 19, 2005

Paying Attention?

Typically when clearing an IFR airplane to take off, a tower controller asks the pilot to contact the next air traffic controller when reaching a particular altitude, or just "airborne" (right after take off). Sometimes that instruction is given after takeoff, but it's easier and safer to talk to us before we have advanced the throttles to take-off power. If the departure airport is uncontrolled, we'll check in with the first available IFR controller, as soon as we are clear of aerodrome traffic we may need to talk to, and reception altitude permits.

We have an expression "aviate, navigate, communicate" that reminds us that flying the airplane and being where we're supposed to be is more important than talking on the radio, so that altitude may come and go, and we may be aviating or navigating instead of making that call. The system allows for a fair amount of ambiguity here, as we may take off, change to the next frequency, and find it congested with other traffic checking in and receiving instructions. We have an assigned departure route, and in fact a whole route to destination to fly without ATC assistance, but we are expected to call promptly when able. The other night we heard a controller looking for an aircraft that had taken off but not checked in with him yet.

"Northflight 27 on frequency?"

The "on frequency?" question is a pretty common call. You might switch to a busy frequency and not have had a chance to get a word in edgewise before the controller wants to alert you to traffic or give you a descent, so the controller elbows a path through the crowd of calls for your response. On this occasion, though, the frequency was quiet. It was night, and an efficient controller was just trying to get every blip on his screen going in the proper direction.

There was no response to that call, so the controller tried again a short time later.

"Northflight 27, Sumspot Departure."

Still no response. "Sumspot" isn't the name of the agency any more than "Northflight" was the actual carrier, but you get the idea. The call that finally made us laugh was:

"Northflight 27, are you paying attention yet?"

Northflight wasn't. I suppose a controller has to watch how cute he is with these wake-up calls, because if Northflight 27 had departed from Fleabush runway 17 and then turned left instead of right and come to an untimely end smeared against a hill, the controller's cute remarks would be part of the accident investigation. I find it chilling to read the transcript of the Egypt Air 990 communications as ATC does their job, trying to re-establish communications with an aircraft they don't yet know has been destroyed.

In this case, the pilot of Northflight 27 innocently checked in a minute later and was given instructions with no hint of the amusement the controller had provided for the frequency, at his expense.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Sign Language

Sam's rant involving poorly trained ground crews who didn't recognize the hand signal for "connect ground power" reminded me of all the times I've wished people on the ground or in other cockpits spoke sign language. I have learned some sign language in order to communicate a deaf relative, and it is infinitely frustrating when all the tools I need to transmit a message are literally at my fingertips, but the recipient doesn't have the information required to decode the message.

So I have to resort to more primitive forms of sign language. Pilots, imagine you were in the run-up area or in a traffic jam on the taxiways and another pilot, stuck her hands out of the cockpit displaying in sequence:

The splayed fingers of one hand, plus the thumb and finger of the other

The splayed fingers of one hand, plus just the thumb of the other

The fingertips of one hand all curled to touch the thumbtip, leaving a round gap through the middle of her fist

The third gesture repeated

If she repeated this sequence a few times, would you have any idea what she was indicating?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

ALSF-2 Category II and III High intensity

ALSF-2 is big airport approach lighting. It has white centre bars starting 2400' from the runway. It has sequenced flashing lights. It has red bars flanking the centre, and extra little white bars five hundred feet from the threshold. It would probably have naked dancing girls, too, if it weren't for the problem of fitting them into the forest of lighting fixtures. That and the pilot distraction factor.

Further back from the runway, the lights are on towers, up to about ten feet or so tall. Sometimes the towers are sticking out of the water when the approach is over the shore. In a smaller airplane the lights are so bright you can get to thinking that you are going to hit the towers, but you don't, and the specifications have allowed for that, requiring the towers to be frangible. That means that they're supposed to break off easily if you hit them. Don't tell your local vandals.

Now I'm completely dazzled by all the different sorts of lights. There are only two things left. One is the code RR, which represents the lowest of low tech runway lighting: retroreflective markers. Yes, you're allowed to land on a runway that is delineated only by reflectors.

The other sort of lighting that I've always skimmed over with a mental "whatever" turns out to be heliport lighting. If it starts with F it's floodlighting: high mount (FH), low mount (FL) or portable (FP). If it starts with R it might be yellow take-off and landing area lights (RY), white arrival and departure hover area lights (RW) or take-off and landing area floodlighting (RF). DR represents a line of five yellow or white lights leading into the landing area. One of the good things about not being licenced to fly a helicopter, is that no one ever expects me to land a helicopter in an unfamiliar area in the dark. I think I would hate that.

That's all the lighting types I know about. If anyone knows the history of what happened to lighting types AB, AG, or AH, I'd be happy to hear about it.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Women's Pilot Shirts

Someone recently e-mailed me to ask for a source of women's pilot shirts, but she didn't get my reply because, according to the bounce I received, "The message was rejected because it contains prohibited virus or spam content." So I'll have to post it here.

Pilot uniform shirts are generally pretty well designed. They have epaulettes on the shoulders to hold our insignia. They have big pockets in the front, large enough to hold a Canadian passport and licence wallet on one side, and an oversized pair of aviator Ray Bans on the other side. There's also a little separator thingy on the left pocket, that holds a pen effectively. Or a tire pressure gauge, but then there's no room for your pen.

Men's shirt sizes are based on neck size. Women, in case you live in a monestary and have never seen one, tend to be smaller than men, and even big women tend to have smaller necks than men. If you're a small woman, you have to special order shirts to get a small enough neck size, and some manufacturers don't cater to pencil-necked pilots, so you're out of luck. The smallest men's size available is usually a little loose around the neck on me, but no one, especially me, has ever complained about the gap between my tie and my throat, so I get away with it.

I have experimented with buying women's shirts. The first one I ordered was the Van Heusen Aviator did have a neck that fit me, but it had a little cute collar that looked dumb with my tie. It also had itty bitty front pockets. Completely useless front pockets. No room for sunglasses. I don't even think there was space for a pen. Another shirt, I gave away, so can't look up the type. It was too short from neck to tails, so it came untucked while sitting in or crawling underneath aircraft. Also the manufacturer believed that women have very short arms. And all women's shirts button the wrong way. I suppose it's the right way for women's shirts, but it's the wrong way for the shirts I'm used to.

I wear men's shirts.

If you are a short-armed, short-waisted woman who doesn't keep her sunglasses in her breast pocket, try Tally Ho (service was slow, but they sent me the stuff eventually and apologized for being slow). If anyone else has shirt vendor suggestions, please brave the captcha and leave a comment.

And if your ISP has paranoid restrictions on incoming e-mail, whitelist a person who is using a free web e-mail account, if you want to receive a reply.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Licence Wallets

Every Canadian pilot must be accompanied by three official pieces of paper. There's the medical certificate: printed on a kind of drab beige piece of paper, pre-embossed with lines showing where you fold it into four, to make it wallet-sized. There's the licence itself: the same size and grade of paper as the medical, but blue in colour. All the airplanes and types of flying that a pilot is qualified to do are printed on the front of the licence. And there's the radio operator's certificate, a really cheap bit of white paper that declares our competence to operate an aeronautical radio station.

Most pilots keep these important documents together in a licence wallet, like the thing that cops and FBI agents keep their shields in, to flip open authoritatively. Most licence wallets are black, made of plastic or leather. They are often embossed with the words PILOT LICENCE or COMMERCIAL PILOT LICENCE (I never noticed anyone vain enough to upgrade to one that said AIRLINE TRANSPORT PILOT LICENCE, after getting the ATPL), and inside they have pockets with clear plastic windows so you can see the licence and medical without taking them out of the wallet.

This is actually kind of stupid, for two reasons. One is that the licence and medical are, as mentioned above, both folded into four, along the embossed lines, so in order to actually see that my medical has been renewed, or that I am licenced to fly multi-engine seaplanes, you have to pull the pieces of paper out of the wallet anyway. And it's stupid because, like most plastic-against-printer-ink combinations, the toner from the printing on the documents transfers to the inside of the plastic windows, leaving my licence number permamently legible on the window where I keep my licence, even when the licence has been removed.

As you could guess, other important bits of paper accumulate inside the licence wallet, too. A PPC card, dangerous goods handling certificate, elementary work certification: all the personal documents that any particular operation requires its pilots to hold. And then we add a few personal touches.

Recently, an impromptu "what's in your licence wallet?" session revealed photos of kids, a photo of a former colleague killed on the job, an inspirational poem, a safety maxim, and a spare car key. We laughed at the variety of things we carried around with us, and that prompted me to write this entry.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


The names of the lighting systems get longer as the lights get more complicated. I realize now that the reason I didn't know the differences among these types is that they are very similar. MALSR and SSALR consist of a 1000' centre row of sequenced flashing lights leading in to a wider and 1400' long array of non-flashing white bars. There's a good diagram of the MALSR layout here, on a manufacturer's website.

MALSR apparently stands for "Medium Intensity Approach Lighting System with Runway Alignment Indicator Lights". I guess they realized that MIALSRAIL wasn't credible as a cool aviation abbrevitation. There's also the "Simplified Short Approach Lighting System with Runway Alignment Indicator Lights" or SSALR, which has a pretty much identical layout, but is apparently more intense. Which is odd, because all of these have adjustible intensities.

MALSF, Medium Intensity Approach Light System with Sequenced Flashing Lights, sounds as if it describes MALSR, but has a slightly different layout, in that the initial string of sequenced flashing lights alternate with steady bars. It's also shorter, coving only 1400' all together, so basically the sequenced flashing lights are incorporated into the 1400' of wider bars, instead of leading up to it. I suppose these can be used in places where the MALSR or SSALR can't be, because of terrain or space considerations. I have a link to a manufacturer's diagram of the MALSF, but it's a pdf.

One more sort of lighting to contend with, before I go back to amusing stories about parts falling off my airplane while I am flying it.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Prestige & Responsibility

It came to pass that I needed a toilet plunger, for what I suppose is the usual disgusting reason for needing a toilet plunger. I didn't have one, so before leaving for work I made a couple of unsuccessful toilet-plunger-less attempts to clear the blockage, and then I abandonned the task and went to work, because I'm a responsible person who is on time for work, no matter what is wrong with my toilet.

During the moments at work when I wasn't being responsible for an airplane, my mind every so often returned to that other less pretigious responsibility, lurking in my bathroom. The hardware stores would be closed by the time I got home, but there was one not too far from the airport in a small town along the way. I arrived at that hardware store at 5:28 pm and the sign on the door said they were open to 5:30. But the door was locked, and a much larger sign on the door said "CLOSED."

The proprietor heard the door rattle and opened it to confirm that the store was closed. "Everything's closed. The till's closed. What do you need?"

"A toilet plunger," I confessed, conveying a bit of the pathos that accompanies the situation that calls for one. "Is there anywhere else I could get one?"

He recognized me. "You're the pilot aren't you? You made a big impression on my daughter. Come on in, because every pilot needs a toilet plunger." A handful of loonies later, I had a new possession.

I think that's the first time the prestige of being a pilot won me any favours. And yes, the toilet works fine now.

And this utterly unrelated seagull picture is cuuuute.

Monday, December 05, 2005


The AO lighting code is easy to remember, because it stands for ODALS, which in turn stands for "you know, that flashy light thing." Or in official language "omni-directional approach lighting system."

ODALS consists of a sequence of five flashing lights, 300 feet apart, leading in towards the runway. They flash in sequence, leading the eye towards the runway, then the two runway identification lights at the threshold flash together. The effect is like the flashing squiggly arrow on a neon sign luring you into a strip club or a lousy restaurant.

As I understand it, the difference between ODALS and SF is that ODALS is the very specific seven light system in the 1500' before the runway, while SF can refer to any sequenced flashing light system.

I love the way it looks out the window in the snow when it's so white that you can't tell if you're in cloud, in staring into falling snow, or parked inside a snowdrift. And then you see the little flashing lights and the runway magically appears in front of you.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Staying Alive

I was wondering last night what makes the difference between someone who wastes her life pursuing a dream that she never realizes is beyond her reach, and someone who achieves what she wants because she believes in herself and never gives up.

If it were a movie, I could tell because the first one would be in some Eastern European language, with subtitles. The Hollywood movie would always have a happy ending. I can't read the DVD jewel case on my own life, but take away the sets, wardrobe and pacing isses, and it comes down to how far the heroine gets before she dies.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

AE & AF - More Centre Row Lighting

AE lighting is at least 2400' of light bars leading up to the threshold, beginning with white bars, and then with the closest thousand feet being red bars, and then green bars that divide into a V right before the threshold. Fort McMurray has this kind of lighting on runway 25, so I'll remember Fort McMurrAE to remember the code. Unfortunately I don't have a picture of the approach to runway 25 at Fort McMurray at night, so this mnemonic won't work for you.

I have found a picture of type AF lighting, here. As you can see, there are bars running across the white lead in lights every five hundred feet (I'm not certain about the 500'). According to the notes here, at military airports, like Cold Lake, the green threshold lighting wraps around the end of the threshold but I'm tired from looking for pictures of Fort McMurray so I'm not going to find a picture of Cold Lake. AF lighting may or may not include SF lighting in the first 2000'.

The picture of AF lighting also shows PAPI lights, probably P3 for eye-to-wheel height up to 45'. That's the set of four lights you see either side of the runway, partway along the runway. Each light shines red through lower angles and white through higher angles such that if you are on the proper approach slope, you will see two white lights and two red lights, where if you are low you see more red lights and if you are high you see more white lights. In the winter, ice can form on the PAPI lights and act as a lens that refracts the light through the wrong angle, giving erroneous indications. To combat this problem, in the winter the airports are supposed to leave the PAPI lights on all the time to keep them warm, instead of hooking them to the ARCAL, but electricity is expensive, so you can't count on that.