Friday, February 29, 2008

Take-off Decisions in Large Multi-Engine Airplanes

The topic of thinking in advance about what could go wrong, brings me back to my progression of posts about engine failures at take off. In a single-engine aircraft, you have to stop or land, and your choice is where. In a light twin, you have to abort the take-off if the airplane is on the ground, and in flight at low speed you may or may not be able to get the gear up and maintain the speed and altitude to turn back to land on the runway. A pilot must have thought about the options in advance and then maintain airspeed and control in order to have the best chance of at least collecting insurance on what's left of the airplane. This pre-planning becomes formalized for large multi-engined airplanes.

In transport category aircraft, the speeds involved are sufficient that trying to stop with insufficient runway remaining could be as dangerous as trying to fly without sufficient airspeed. To quote Maverick from Top Gun "You don't have time to think. If you think, you're dead." So transport category airplanes are certified and flown in a way that reduces the amount of thinking the pilots have to do at such a critical moment. To begin with, transport category airplanes are required to have enough power to accelerate to take-off speed and fly with one engine failed. And according to the rules for operating them, at any stage of the take-off there is always enough runway to either continue the take-off or to stop on the remaining runway. The speed that determines that go/no-go point is called V1 (vee-one) and is determined and discussed in advance of every take-off.

A number of factors determine how much runway an airplane needs to take off. These include aircraft weight, thrust, headwind component, and runway conditions. Similar factors affect the amount of runway required to stop, with braking force replacing thrust. The faster an airplane is going, the more dangerous it is to try and stop it, but it's also very dangerous to continue full power off the end of a runway that is not long enough for take-off. It's not the sort of thing you want to be trying to figure out at 250 km/h right after one of your engines has made a very loud noise. The calculations are done using tables, graphs or a computer, and the result is V1, the speed at which the runway required to stop is equal to the runway required to continue. During the take=off run, the non-flying pilot calls out "vee-one" when that speed is reached, and typically the flying pilot takes her hand off the throttles to emphasize that the airplane is committed to flight.

Vee-one isn't necessarily the highest speed at which it is still possible to stop on the runway, but above V1 it's safer to keep going. So V1 is the highest speed at which it is safer to stop than continue, and pilots are supposed to continue if an engine failure is recognized after the vee-one call.

None of this takes into account the possibility that something beyond an engine failure has happened. If the airplane is on fire, or the tail has fallen off, it's clearly better to attempt to stop on the runway, and continue to whatever is beyond the end of the runway, than it is to take a non-airworthy plane into the sky. Here's an account of a captain who decided to abort after V1. They had experienced an engine failure, but the captain believed it to be a bomb, and aborted the take-off, overrunning the pavement. I'm not sure if this particular report mentions it, but I remember one report about this accident mentioned that the captain had once witnessed a takeoff by an airplane that had been damaged too much to fly and had broken up during the go-around. He vowed he would never do that.

There's quite a bit more to say about this, but I'm going to leave it for another entry, because I expect some interesting comments that I'll want to respond to or expand on.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Particular Bit of Paper

Keeping track of bits of paper lends little glamour to aviation, but it's part of your job as a pilot and carries significant penalties if not properly done. It's true that the airplane flies just as well with and without paper, but a discrepancy in paperwork can point the way to a safety issue in the airplane itself. And I have a story, which I believe is true, told to me by someone who works in a charter company flight department. Identifying information has been changed to keep everyone out of more trouble than they're already in. It's a story about how a lack of paperwork tried to kill people.

It starts with e-mail between the flight department and the company's assigned Transport Canada inspector. The company was working on an amended Operations Manual (amending manuals is a never-ending process, and all changes must be approved by Transport), so the e-mail was in relation to that

Please look at Appendix "B" amendment #3, shouldn't this be Appendix "C"?

Because, you know, the airplane is going to crash and burn if the pages in the manual aren't numbered correctly. The savvy ops manager leaves a few easily rectified errors of this type in the manual, so that Transport can spot them, and then, feeling useful, approve the corrected version. But the e-mail continued.

I received a notice today that you have removed VBP from your operating certificate, did you sell the aircraft?

It was the second part that chilled my informant's blood. The inspector received a notice that the company removed VBP? That's not a good sign, as VBP was parked at an airport overseas, ready to fly back to Canada early that afternoon. A telephone call to the inspector confirmed that according to Transport Canada licencing, the airplane in question was no longer registered to the company. What? Airplane identity theft?

The airplane I'm calling VBP was not owned by the company, but leased. That's not in itself a problem; leasing is a perfectly acceptable tool in fleet management. In order for an airplane owned by another party to appear on a Canadian operating certificate, there needs to be paperwork. In this case the lessor and the lessee had signed a lease agreement granting use of the airplane for one year. Problem was that that paperwork had been signed and dated fourteen months earlier. A replacement lease agreement was actually signed in the month after the expiry of the first one, but due to a change in personnel in the company, and the rate at which paper accumulates in aviation, the new agreement didn't get sent to Transport. It didn't get sent anywhere, was just quietly buried like an archeological treasure, on someone's desk.

When Transport didn't receive proof of a renewal of the agreement, they cancelled VBP's registry. And fortunately the person responsible had a strong heart, for he survived the shock of discovery.

This is where it pays to have established a reputation for doing ones best to comply with the regulations. The person into whose desk strata the document had been fossilized made the confessional call to the head of the appropriate Transport Canada department.

"How do I reinstate this aircraft."

"Well, is VBJ on the ground?"

"Yes"

"Then it's really easy - just get the aircraft copy of the C of R and fill out the form on the back of it, then fax it in to me."

"Umm, the thing about that is the airplane is on the ground, but it's in another country."

"Oh"....long pause...."Well I guess we'll have to do it the hard way."

Transport faxed some forms to fill out, and then they had to go online in order to pay $60 for a temporary Certificate of Registration and $110 for a permanent one, and print out the receipts. Next step was to fax in those receipts, along with the completed forms, and wait and hope every t was crossed and i dotted.

Meanwhile the crew of VBP were far away, innocently preparing to depart for Canada. A call from company advised the captain to pick up a fax from the FBO before he left. He said sure and went back to preparing for the flight.

VBP was scheduled to depart at 1 pm, and at 12:47 pm the temporary C of R rolled out of the company fax machine in Canada. They turned around and faxed it to the overseas FBO, where the missing paperwork tried a second time to claim the life of a pilot.

Despite the $3-per-minute charge, the overseas pilot called the home office using his personal cellphone. "What the hell? Why do I have a new C of R?"

"Long story. Just be glad you have it."

"What do you guys do in the office all day? Think of ways to give me a heart attack?"

"Yes. Yes we do."

That's the real reason they give us an ECG every second medical. They need to make sure our hearts can withstand this kind of shock.

Monday, February 25, 2008

I Sit Back and Think of England

The following blog comment, made this morning by Steve at the Pub, reveals passenger-think so stunningly bizarre that it deserves a whole blog entry.

Occasionally when asked by passengers what I thought about when flying (rotor wing), I stated (accurately) that am always running through in my mind where and how I would land if the engine quit. (This scenario updated mentally every few seconds).

The (puzzling but all too common) response: "Hmmpff, we CERTAINLY aren't flying with you then!"

I've said several times on this blog that as pilots it's our job to think about what could go wrong, and that that becomes a permanent mindset. I've described, for example, being laughed at for noting a feature of an SUV that could pose a hazard during an emergency evacuation. In a single-engine aircraft I am doing exactly what Steve does, surveying the countryside for an appropriate place to land if the engine failed. Once upon a time I had a job where I flew a small single-engine airplane at fairly low altitude over the same area every day. On my day off I took my car and I drove around the area to inspect the emergency landing sites I had chosen from the air, looking for wires and ditches and other hazards that I might not have noticed from above. I paced them off to see how long they were, and whether there were good things to crash into in the overrun. I learned their names so that I would be able to broadcast "Landing on the sports field of Sir John A. Macdonald school" as opposed to "Landing on some school field down here." I never had to use any of my chosen sites, but I was prepared.

I can understand why passengers would be taken aback to learn that the pilot is thinking about such a thing. They were thinking about how funny cows look from on top, or about how a lot more people have swimming pools than they expected. I can see them being frightened by the reminder that the engine could quit. I can see them being surprised that the pilot would have enough control to choose a landing site. But to have them reject the pilot for that? It makes no sense.

I wonder what answer they were expecting. "I admire the majesty of the scenery"? Surely not, "It takes all my concentration to remember what all these dials and levers do." Perhaps, "I think about my giant pilot paycheques," or "I daydream about going down to the pub for a few and then shagging my girlfriend," or "It depends how close to lunchtime it is." I mean honestly, if the safety-oriented answer isn't the safe one, what is? I suppose a more reassuring wording could be, "I'm always concentrating on what I can do to enhance the safety of the flight," but that's so insipid it doesn't sound believable, even though it's a variety of the truth.

If the safe answer is not a safe answer, then there's no safe answer. It makes you want to lock the passengers behind the cockpit door and not tell them anything that isn't on the list of approved PAs.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Pilot and Copilot

Public comment on the B777 that landed short of the runway at Heathrow has made me realized how little the general public understands of pilot duties during a flight. People are aware that there are two people up front, but are often quite vague on what they do.

Both of the people sitting in control seats in an airliner are fully qualified pilots. They have taken the same training and passed the same tests on the systems, handling and emergency procedures. Either pilot is capable of flying the airplane without assistance from the other. The main difference between the tests they take is the seat they sit in: left or right.

The pilot who is in charge of the flight is called the captain, and sits on the left. She is responsible for the decisions made by the pilot in the right seat, The second pilot might be called the "co-pilot" or the "first officer," often abbreviated FO (eff-OH). The same pilot might work as captain on one type of airplane and FO on another, for the same company. At some company all pilots are qualified as captains (i.e. they have taken their tests from the left seat) and just take turns sitting in the left seat and being the pilot-in-command.

For each "leg" (from take-off to landing) one of the pilots is designated the flying pilot and the other is the non-flying pilot. In a typical operation, pilots alternate in these duties from leg to leg. The typical division of labour is that the flying pilot handles the controls and the non flying pilot tunes frequencies, programs the flight computer, talks on the radio and does other 'support' tasks for the person flying. That means that if the first officer is flying he or she gives commands to the captain, like "set take-off power" "gear up" or "could you adjust the sunvisors so I don't go blind up here."

All the main controls are accessible from or duplicated on both sides of the cockpit, but there are a few exceptions. If a circuit breaker needs to be pulled, it's often on the captain's side, so the captain transfers control of the airplane to the first officer in order to find the circuit breaker. And often steering on the ground is controllable only from the left side, so after the first officer has landed, the captain takes control and taxies the airplane to parking.

The two pilots work together as a team and practice communication just as much as piloting skills. Control may be passed back and forth during a flight for various reasons, like someone eating lunch or getting up to go to the washroom. If there is a particular challenge during the flight, control may be passed to the pilot who is best at it, or the one who wants to practice it.

That is fairly uncommon though, so if you hear of an incident where, as in Heathrow, the first officer was handling the airplane, that probably just means that the pilot in the right seat was the one who happened to be flying at the time the incident occurred.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Bits of Paper

I mentioned going over aircraft documents before flight in the new-to-me airplane. I want to say more about that. There are a number of documents that must be on board in order to fly. It's part of preparation for flight. Canadians often remember these with an acronym mnemonic like ARROWILL (there are lots of variations).

C of A: Certificate of Airworthiness. This is a bit of paper about 8" by 5" that usually dates back to the manufacture of the airplane or its importation into Canada. It certifies that if everything else is done right (maintenance, loading, operating specification, annual airworthiness reports) that the airplane is considered airworthy in Canada. I expect to see an original document, but have flown before with a certified fax.

C of R: Certificate of Registration. This bit of paper shows who operates the aircraft and for what purpose (i.e. commercial or private use) it is registered. It is usually a multi part form, so that when you sell the airplane or move, you fill out parts of the form to send in and keep other parts to use as a temporary C of R while the changes are being processed. I've flown airplanes where the C of R on board was an official fax or letter from Transport Canada acting as an effective temporary C of R. This is common with short term leases, and I've caught one of these a week before it expired, giving my company time to get on it and get me a new one.

Radio Licence: Because I make radio transmissions from the airplane, in Canada I meet the legal definition of a radio station. I carry a Restricted Radio Operator Certificate, restricted to aviation, that is. I can't go running an AM talk show in my spare time with it. Once upon a time the airplane itself required a radio station licence, but those are no longer required for flight in Canada or the U.S. The government body responsible recognized one day that airplanes were regulated up the wazoo already, and that it there was no utility in giving them a bit of paper regarding it. If I had a mission to fly in St. Pierre (a French possession off the coast of Canada) or Mexico, or further south, I might need to apply to Industry Canada for a radio station licence for my airplane. I'd have to look into those countries' regulations.

POH: Pilot's Operating Handbook, i.e. owner's manual. There has to be paperwork on board telling me how to operate all the systems and installed equipment. When the new fuel tanks were installed, a supplement was added to my manual. No one ever dares remove anything from a POH, so when you're dealing with an old airplane you may have to go through four different autopilot supplements until you finally find the one that is currently installed in your airplane--and placarded inoperative. You've seen me mention from time to time that I pull out the POH to check something. That's why it's there. I trust my knowledge, but I verify with the manual. So for obvious reasons it has to be the correct manual. If your airplane is so old that there never was a manual, it can pass a ramp check with a handwritten list of speeds and a letter from an aircraft association. I've seen it done. I've also ferried an airplane where the POH was about six mimeographed sheets, and most of it was with respect to systems that were no longer installed. I remember I determined the approach speed by noting what speed it took off at and multiplying by one and a third. I love it when book learning is useful in the real world.

Weight & Balance: This isn't the form I fill out before every flight to show that the aircraft is not over weight or out of C of G. Not all operators are legally required to do that before every flight, only to ensure the airplane is loaded within limits. The W&B form that must be on every flight is one showing the empty weight and C of G and listing the maximum weight. If components are changed on my airplane I always ask if this requires a W&B amendment. I have caught errors in this document before. I remember one where the airplane had been modified to carry more weight, but the W&B didn't match. It's okay to have the W&B faxed, so long as it's legible.

Insurance: Got to have proof of insurance on board. It might have the pilots names on it. It might say "all pilots approved by XYZ company and with N hours experience in complex multi-engine aircraft." I once found one that said (in a Canadian aircraft), "all pilots with an FAA licence." Problem was that I didn't have an FAA licence at the time. It turned out in the end that it was okay to fly because the Canadian airplane was insured with an American company that had defined an "FAA licence" to include a Canadian licence, but I refused to fly the airplane until it had been demonstrated to my satisfaction that I was insured to do so. I think the insurance companies can also define "up" as "down."

Licence: My pilot licence. I have to have mine on board for every flight, along with the medical certificate. The medical used to be called the "licence validation certificate."

Logbook: This is not my pilot logbook, which never needs to be on the airplane, but the airplane's journey logbook. American airplanes don't have these. (It's not the same as the technical logs: Canadians have tech logs in addition to the journey logbook, but a Canadian technical logbook is never allowed to go for a flight in the airplane it pertains to). There's a wrinkle here that allows the journey log to be left behind if there is no intention to land at a different airport. This allows this often bulky document to be left on the ground by aerobatic performers. The journey log is usually a letter-sized bound book with numbered pages. You can buy them in hardcover or softcover versions. (Hint: buy the hardcover. It's not a beach novel. You want it to last). Some companies use custom-printed numbered forms inside some kind of binder, so they have carbon copies for the various departments and crewmembers.

The basic documents for an American airplane are much smaller than the the Canadian ones, about the size of an index card, and I've seen American-manufactured aircraft with a little plastic pouch built into the interior, by the pilot's knee to keep the documents. On Canadian-owned airplanes the pouch is usually half torn off from people trying to keep pens in it. Canadians typically keep the documents in a ring binder or a pouch of some sort. Sometimes they are in an envelope glued in the back of the journey log.

Soon I have a story for you about an oops regarding bits of paper.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Checklists: Not Just for Pilots Anymore

The air regulations require checklists, and pilots can fail flight tests for improper checklist use, even if they actually completed all the required items, but it doesn't mean every pilot uses one every time. Some operators inadvertently encourage this through providing overly long, poorly formatted and difficult to use checklists.

In my career I have watched macho captains deliberately skip checklist items, or even entire checklists. I have been bullied for using the checklist, and told not to come back tomorrow unless I had the checklist memorized. I know someone who failed a PPC check on an accusation of improper checklist use. (It turned out the examiner was using the wrong checklist, so that occurrence magically disappeared from the candidate's record).

Despite pilot machismo, or passenger apprehension that following a checklist means you don't know what you're doing, checklists are a cheap, simple way to improve safety in a complex environment. A reader sent me this fascinating article on checklist use in the medical profession. The idea was initially met with skepticism, and derided as time wasting, but the lifesaving results were dramatic enough to win converts.

It made me cry, and gave me a new dedication to my own checklists.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Laziness & Helpfulness

My e-mail says...

I just bought a cheap mapping GPS and am programming in some local airports. What's the best online free source of coordinates for US airports?

I don't know. I always use aviation GPSes with commercial databases. But I can be lazy with this blog entry and help him out all in a few paragraphs. Because I'm sure one of you knows. He says he has to do manual data entry, so he's not looking for any particular format. Sounds pretty primitive!

My correspondent assures me that the GPS is just a toy for him and that his primary navigation will be based on current legal publications.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Happy Louis Riel Day

It's a statutory holiday today in much of Canada, under various pretenses, and I believe our southern neighbours are celebrating the birthday of one or more of their presidents. No one is actually celebrating the day's honoree; we all know it's just an excuse for a holiday during the long cold stretch between New Year's and Good Friday. But I was going to write about Louis Riel (that's "loo-ee ree-el" -- even monolingual anglophones do not say "loo-iss"), anyway.

He's certainly a controversial hero. Riel was born in 1844 in what would later become Manitoba. He studied to be both a priest and a lawyer, but never completed either. His fellow M├ętis looked to him as a leader, and when political events foisted an anti-French governor on the colony, Riel led an armed takeover of a government fort, then escaped capture, fled to the United States, was elected three times to parliament (in absentia), returned to lead a rebellion, surrendered, was arrested, tried and hanged for treason.

He's been hailed as a messiah, reviled as a terrorist, and formally recognized by the federal and provincial governments for his contribution to the development of the Canadian Confederation. Some people say he had gone mad before leading the second rebellion. Two parliamentary bills have been introduced to reverse his conviction for high treason and recognize him as a Father of Confederation, but neither bill passed.

I don't know as much about him as I think ought to. I'll have to get a biography better than what I can find with Google and Wikipedia. Can anyone recommend a good biography of the man? Something that is readable, but that cites primary sources. It's probably going to be something out of print, because everything I see on Chapters.ca now is kind of meta, or addressing one aspect.

As long as Canada exists, its citizens will want to read about Louis Riel because his life summarizes in a unique way the tensions of being Canadian: English versus French, native versus white, east versus west, Canadian versus American.
--Thomas Flanagan

Friday, February 15, 2008

Rare But Useful Aircraft Component

I have a photo that isn't a very big mystery. I'm sure many people will recognize it right away, but it made me laugh with surprise when I saw the object I have photographed, and I think that some people might not know what it is. And before you see the picture, it's a little bit like a riddle.

Almost every airplane I have ever flown has come from the factory with one of these equipped. I am usually glad that it did, and would be inconvenienced daily if it had not, because I use the functionality. I sometimes wish that airplanes came standard with two. But this is the first time I have ever seen one still installed on an airplane I have flown. What is in the picture?

So see if you can guess what it is without the picture, and post your answer below. If you need to see it, click here for the picture, answer what you think it is there. If it's really obvious what it is, and you don't want to spoil the fun for others, just tell us you know what it is, and keep the others guessing.

Don't read any of the comments before you have formulated your guess, or it might spoil the game for you.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Justice One

Here's a story that didn't get posted from a while ago. One day at a busy US airport we had landed and were waiting for clearance to cross a runway on our way to parking. We're heading for the FBO for fuel and food.

Another aircraft on frequency is on another taxiway, but requesting clearance to the same FBO. Its callsign is not an "N-number" -- a string of numbers with maybe a letter or two at the end -- like most American call signs. It's Justice One. That's not an airline designation that I recognize, and airline flight numbers are usually at least two digits. Maybe it's military. That kind of fits the pattern. They're typically things like "Snake One" or "Liberty Six." There's a whole list of them here. Military aircraft are also often recognizable by the voice of a teenager having way too much fun going really fast. "Or maybe it's a prison ship," I said, mostly joking. Con Air has a great final scene but it's not exactly realism in cinema.

And then we saw it pull onto the ramp. A military aircraft would have had camouflage paint and military markings. A Department of Justice transport for members of the Supreme Court or the like would be a sleek little bizjet. This white-tailed Boeing was the aviation equivalent of the plain brown wrapper. It is a prison ship. Any doubts about that were resolved by the reception committee. It didn't include a red carpet.

Before they cracked open the airplane, the ramp filled up with vans and buses and police cars that disgorged uniformed men with automatic weapons. We found it incongruous to see armed guards escorting prison transport on the same ramp with the limos and the VIP jets and us. It also seemed strange to have such a large airplane dedicated to prison transport. In Canada I know that escorted prisoners may be moved on regular airline flights, and I've seen dedicated prison transport flights in Navajos and Pilatuses, but nothing bigger than that. I'd heard that the US had the largest prison population in the world, but this drove me to look up numbers. Wikipedia says the US has over two million people in jail. For comparison, this CBC article says there was an average of 35,110 adults in jail on any given day in Canada in 2005-2006. So assuming those numbers are correct, while you could move 0.1% of Canada's prison population in a single DHC8-100, you would need three Airbus A380s to carry the same percentage of the US prison population. That's a lot of bad guys.

One of my co-workers told me he actually saw a group of prisoners chained together on the highway, picking up litter like in an old prison movie.

As fascinating as my brush with this arm of the law was, Hamish's run in with a DoJ prisoner transport aircraft was a lot more literal. After reading his account of coming close to being run over by a convict-filled MD-80 I was teasing him with the ensuing scene if they was an accident and they had to evacuate the airliner. It would have been like The Fugitive but without Harrison Ford or Tommy Lee Jones. Except, I acknowledged after a moment, that an MD-80 wouldn't take much damage from hitting a Cessna 172 on the ground. Hamish picked up the story ...

"What was that noise?"
"I dunno... probably just the new embedded hold short lights. Oh look, there's that weirdo Piaggio parked next to Execjet again! Now where the hell did that 172 in the runup area go?"

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Time Machine

It turns out that my next assignment is to go and do a Pilot Proficiency Check, back in Canada on a different airplane. Rather than flying this one all the way north, I'm to fly to an airport that has airline service and just park it for a while. I smile when I see where that parking lot will be.

I've been to this destination before, almost ten years ago now, in a tiny single engine airplane. I remember turning right off the runway onto the apron and the tower controller welcoming me in. He told me there was no need to switch to the ground frequency, as it was just him, and he was just leaving. He asked me where I wanted to go and I said, "I just need some fuel and a place to park for the night." He cheerfully gave me detailed taxi directions that boiled down to "slight left turn, they're right in front of you." There I was given literal red carpet treatment at a friendly little FBO. They'd never remember me of course, but it would be fun to be back.

So now I'm in a bigger airplane, with a lot more hours in my logbooks, going to the same place. I call up the approach controller as soon as terrain permits radio contact, and I am immediately vectored north and then south to be sequenced behind a regional jet descending from above me. I don't turn in to follow as soon as I'm cleared to, and stay a little above the normal glideslope to avoid wake turbulence, but still feel a couple of bumps on short final. The jet seems to linger on the runway, but is clear on the taxiway before I touch down. There's a slight tailwind in addition to my deliberately high approach. I don't stomp on the brakes to make the first available exit but turn off quickly at the next one. I came from the north before, and now I'm coming from the south, so I know it's a left turn to exit the runway, but, wait ...

I don't recognize this place. Am I even at the right airport? The taxiway diagram shows the tower and the terminal, and they're there, but the terminal the jet is taxiing towards is the wrong shape. And what are all these other buildings? The airport I was supposed to be going to was in more or less wasteland. You hear about people landing at the wrong airport from time to time, but damn, did I do that? The ground controller clears me to taxi in and call Unicom. I can see one FBO from here, and it has the right name. It turns out that there are three FBOs sharing the unicom frequency, so there is a moment of them stepping on one other as they respond to my call, but they all offer the services I need and I just pick one. I'm still shaking my head in bewilderment as I get out of the airplane. I've arrived at the right airport, according to the chart; the only way to get to the airport I remember is to go back in time.

A man marshals me in to parking. (I'm carefully not calling him a kid, because that would make me feel even older). I remember the first time I was here I was nervous about rolling towards a marshaller standing in front of my airplane, because the propeller was on the front. Now it's just the radome that will poke this guy in the head if my brakes fail. I like this better. I finish my paperwork, take my gear and lock up the airplane. Inside I give the FBO contact information and ask them to keep the my key in their safe. That's in case it is a different pilot who does the pick-up. They will let me park there and keep an eye on the airplane including sweeping the snow off if it starts to pile up, for five dollars a day. That's a better rate--and better service--than I get on airport parking with my car, most places. I also plan to bring them some Tim Horton's doughnuts when I come back.

They drive me through a construction zone to the new terminal, and I look at the flight schedule I found earlier on Expedia. I haven't booked a flight in advance because I didn't know when I needed to leave until I got here. United has the next flight out, so I get in line at that counter. I tell the agent my destination and show her the Expedia itinerary with the various flights I have to take to get there. She seems confused by it. I tell her it's okay if she can't sell me the ticket I need for the connecting flight on a Canadian carrier, I just have to get to my destination.

"So you want a reservation?" she asks.

"Uh, well sure. I want to buy a ticket to go on your airplane." Is it called a reservation if it's not in advance? I dunno.

She says she can sell me the ticket right to destination, including the Canadian flight. It won't be for the same price as shown on Expedia, though. I accept this, and in fact she comes out with a price that is two dollars cheaper than the Expedia quote. I suppose Expedia builds in a service charge. But then she tells me she has to charge me a separate $20 service charge.

What's the service charge for? It's for selling me an airline ticket. I have to sign a separate receipt, marked Special Service Charge. Apparently when this major airline sells you a ticket valid for transportation on one of their airplanes, that's a special service. I understood when meals, pillows, upgrades, drinks, and lounge access are special services, but if selling me an air ticket is a special service, what's their core business? It's so hilarious I can't even manage to be annoyed.

It turns out that the airport has free wireless, so theoretically I could have said "just a moment" and wandered off to buy the ticket online, and saved $18. Next time.

The airplane for the Canadian airline I was connecting to arrived late. I saw the old crew get off before we boarded, and the FO was a woman. Even looked a little like me. That's the job I didn't get. Sigh.

An all-male flight crew took over the airplane and delivered me safely and competently to my Canadian destination. They didn't even lose my baggage. Not that I'd expect them to, it's just that I need to introduce this link which shows the durability of cats, the fallabity of TSA baggage scanners and the compassion of strangers. I'm trying to imagine my initial reaction if I had been the person who mistakenly opened that suitcase.