Friday, October 03, 2008

Mountains. Lots of Them.

I just picked the worst time ever not to have my camera charged on a flight. I had come straight from camping at Oshkosh, (yes, that's how far behind I am on blogging) where I had little opportunity to plug in electronics, and then my company flew me out to Campbell River, British Columbia to pick up an airplane and take it across the mountains.

The main terminal at Vancouver International Airport is pretty much like an airport terminal in other cities: heavy on the ethnic artwork and with some interesting architecture and confusingly multilevel departure and arrival vehicle areas. Like every other airport in the world, it's also under constant construction. But then there's another part of the airport, that you'd swear was up north or in a small town somewhere. It's called the South Terminal.

You take a shuttle from the main terminal to the south terminal and there you find a small town airport terminal. I think there was even free parking. There is a float plane base across the road, just like in Weasel Inlet. Inside there is a small concourse, a cafe and one, maybe two gates. Passengers mill around with their fishing gear, waiting for charters. The check-in desk stamped my ticket "security required," implying that some departures did not require security. I think I did see a group of people going out the side door for a charter, bypassing the security routine.

When my flight was called, the FO introduced herself and walked us out across the tarmac to the turboprop. We boarded, she gave the passenger briefing and then she slipped into the--no door--cockpit with the captain and they flew us up to Campbell River. I was watching carefully out the window to get a preview of the weather I was in for. Some low cloud, but not low or thick enough to affect VFR flight.

It was a quick turn at Campbell River, with the local agents saying hi to the crew as the only passenger for this stop (me) disembarked, my luggage unloaded from the cargo hold in the time it took me to walk down the steps. I thanked everyone and went into the terminal, as security requires, before coming back out onto the apron through a different gate. I was amused that the airside gate immediately next to the terminal was a fancy electronic one, but the other side of the flight services station it was the old mechanical kind where you can press one and two together and then five, or whatever the code was. The previous pilot had given it to me along with directions on where the airplane was parked and where the keys were hidden. This is so small town, isn't it?

I walked back down the ground side of the airport to the Pilot Information Kiosk, an infuriatingly slow internet connection to the Nav Canada flight planning website. There I looked at GFAs at about 300 baud, checked some TAFs, METARs and NOTAMs, got the upper winds and called it a preflight briefing. Everything looked good until the final range of mountains, where there might be thunderstorms. And of course there are afternoon thunderstorms on the prairies, too. I don't mind skirting thunderstorms in the prairies, but they aren't something to mess around with in the mountains. I told boss there might be an overnight en route to wait for storms and he okayed that. The airplane I was meeting was on the ground waiting for a new antenna to be installed and the part wouldn't be delivered until Tuesday, anyway. And then I taxied out for takeoff.

Pretty much immediately I was flying above the most amazing jagged mountains. There is snow, which I suppose is mostly glaciers but, being summer, lots of rocks show through, and some of those rocks are jaw-dropping. I flew right by a vertically upthrust black cylinder on top of a cone of rock. I knew exactly what I was looking at but could hardly believe it. The black part was the glassy hardened lava that hadn't quite made it out of the top of the mountain during a long ago volcanic eruption. The sides of the former mountain that originally contained it had mostly eroded away, leaving just the plug, atop what was left of the mountain. The glaciers around it made it look even blacker, and it seemed perfectly flat on top, like you could land a fair-sized helicopter on top with just enough room to walk around it. I wonder if anyone ever has. It would feel so amazing. It was phenomenal just to fly by. I'm looking at the inside of a volano, so old that an entire mountain has eroded away around it.

Elsewhere the mountains appear to be tilted layers of very sharp rock, upthrust into the teens of thousands of feet. It's hard to believe that rocks can taper into such knife-edged jagged ridges without breaking off in the wind. I kept imagining what it would be like to walk along one of those ridges like a tightrope. It would be terrifying. If you slipped you would fall off, just plummet, as surely as if you stepped off the side of a skyscraper. But it would be amazing. I want to do it.

The landscape is cut by rivers snuggled up to glaciers, so raw that you can see geology happening. It's like being inside a giant geology textbook. The mountains get higher and sharper, and then gradually round off. There is an intermediate phase in the interior of British Columbia where the land is high and hilly, but not really mountainous, and then the mountains start again, ever higher, all the way to Calgary. Just before Calgary they disappear quite abruptly, such that I was flying over complete wilderness, surrounded by ten thousand foot plus peaks while I was looking up an appropriate waypoint with which to report my position to Calgary Terminal, only about twenty-five nautical miles from the centre of the control zone, which is on a flat plain.

The Calgary controller was a little snippy about my not having a discrete transponder code. I later checked the procedures section of the CFS and sure enough VFR traffic just transiting is supposed to call ahead on an 888 number and get a code. I confess that I do not read the CFS entries for every en route airport across the country. I asked him if there was a frequency I should call to belatedly acquire such code and he said he'd assign me one. I suppose the snippiness is required so I'll remember next time. Because it works: next time I will.

From there I had an excellent tailwind across the prairies, mostly flat and featureless, with the exception of Diefenbaker Lake. I landed in Regina, which by contrast to Calgary has no terminal controller at all, and they assigned me a transponder code with no complaints at all.

And yeah, no pictures. I'm very sorry about that. Also my C-key is acting up. I think I got them all, but if any of this doesn't make sense, "reonsider if it ould be more omprehinsible with the insertion of a ouple of Cs."


Eric K. said...

Although I am sure the pictures would be beautiful, in a way I am glad you didn't have any. Your descriptions of the scenery are phenomenal, and I could vividly imagine what you were seeing just by reading what you wrote. Thanks!

A Squared said... a way I am glad you didn't have any. Your descriptions of the scenery are phenomenal, and I could vividly imagine what you were seeing just by reading what you wrote.

Yes she does have a knack for describing things like that.

The Calgary controller was a little snippy about my not having a discrete transponder code. I later checked the procedures section of the CFS and sure enough VFR traffic just transiting is supposed to call ahead on an 888 number and get a code.

Hmmm, seems like ; "Calgary approach, Weedwhacker KIXZ, 25 NW, VFR at 3500' transitioning southeast" "Weedwhacker XZ, Squawk 0133" "0133, Roger" "Weedwhacker XZ, Radar Identified".... would be a lot simpler than dreaming up a non-standard scheme which involves telephoning a number prior, having someone to answer that phone, publishing the procedure where it may be overlooked, and giving snippy corrections over the radio to those who happen to not notice the nonstandard, unnecessary procedure. The vast majority of approach facilities on this continent seem to manage with the former rather then the latter. Maybe I'm missing something, maybe the goal isn't keeping things simple straigtforward and efficient, maybe the goal is creating the opportunity to get snippy with "FLAPS" (F'in Light Airplane Pilots, which I'm told is a common term for GA pilots with ATC)

nec Timide said...

A squared,

You are so right. What I understand though, is that the system takes the controllers' attention away from the Radar so long to get the code that, with a lot of VFR traffic, it can be a safety issue. There are a number of centers in Canada that have the same procedure. I haven't run into any snippy controllers. NAV Canada quality control say they want to know when this happens, if you have time after the flight, remember, etc. Quite often if the area is busy the phone call goes unanswered. There are three such areas within easy cruise flight of my home.

An easy way around this to get flight following in a quiet sector some distance back so you have a code and are in the system. That doesn't always work either though.

Or file IFR if you are able.

Anonymous said...

It has been at least two years here in Victoria that the call for a code has been in effect I and still hear the controllers on the scanner asking if the pilot had called. I thought I have heard them say you get a code assigned with a VFR flight plan or by calling a FSS on the radio.

chris said...

I laughed when I read "a flat plain", thinking, hey, a plane. Not the kind that flies. (Yes, I'm a dork.)

nec Timide said...


We can have a code assigned by filing VFR as well, but they (London or Quebec RDO) don't give us the code. It is also hit and miss if the specialists doesn't know that a trip from A to B will take you through zone C a code doesn't get assigned.

From what I've been told the main thing though is that your flight is in the system so the controller in the busy airspace only has to call it up, rather than create the entry.

I think I'll pop over to Controller Corner and see if Mike can shed some light from the other side of the radio on this.

Anonymous said...

Welcome to my backyard... Gorgeous, isn't it? If you're referring to the black tusk, I don't think it's flat enough to land a helicopter up top, though you could definitely do hover-entries/exits. Nearby there is mountain called table mountain because it is extraordinarily flat on the top, and somewhat square, and looks predictably like a table. Back in the bad old days of aviation (and before there were landing restrictions in Garibaldi Park) there was a notorious helicopter pilot/instructor who used to go up there. On some days though the helicopter couldn't get enough lift to hover stably at that altitude, so to leave again he had to park the helicopter on the edge of the table, and hop it off. A rapid dive quickly built enough airspeed to safely fly away, and this was a major learning experience for all his students.

Anonymous said...

"I kept imagining what it would be like to walk along one of those ridges like a tightrope."

I'm too cowardly, I walk along the side holding the ridge like a handrail. But all you need is a mountain guide, a good pair of boots and a quiet day.