Monday, April 28, 2008

Crossword Puzzle Pilots

This ad had me in hysterics, because not only am I a pilot, but I like to do crossword puzzles.

It also brings me to a story. Many years ago, before I first decided to become a pilot, I had an office job. And every day before work I would do the New York Times crossword puzzle in my local paper. As the week goes on the puzzles get harder, so on a Thursday or Friday I would usually have some left to do at my coffee break, or lunch. Other people discovered that I did the crossword puzzle and I became the office crossword puzzle finisher. People would call me to get the answers to their crossword puzzles, or sometimes just drop off the crossword for me to fill in the last few pesky words for them.

When I started training to be a pilot I saw how much I had to learn, and how much work ahead I had to do to get the jobs I wanted. I realized that crossword puzzle time and brainpower would be better spent reading From the Ground Up, the Canadian pilot groundschool textbook, or learning the procedures for my airplane. I couldn't bear to throw the crossword puzzles away, though, so I cut them out of the paper each day, and saved them in a file. I thought, "there's probably a lot of waiting around in flying. I'll save these until I'm an airline pilot and then I can do them while I'm waiting for fuel, or catering, or whatever one waits for." The file went into a drawer with other files, the files went into a box, and the box went into storage. In a recent tax-related file clearout, I found the file.

I'm still not an airline pilot, but for one, there's a chance I never will be. I'm just not on the right track, and am loving my job so much that I'm not sure I want to quit it for a less interesting "airline track" job. And doing crossword puzzles would be a silly anti-social thing to do in a multi-person crew environment. And of course any time you're not with your crewmates, you want to eat, sleep, pee or do laundry. There just isn't a right time to do crossword puzzles.

I decided that as a gesture of control over my own fate, to keep my puzzling brain in shape, and because I really like crossword puzzles, I would sit down and do them. and so in a burst of pre-taxes (Canadian taxes aren't due until the end of April) procrastination, I did. It was pretty funny trying to remember the clues relating to long-ago "current" events. But I finished them all and threw them in the recycling.

I've also done my income taxes. (Actually gathered up all the required information and bits of paper and taken them to a professional to do. Unless your taxes are astonishingly simple, the professional can save you more money than she charges in fees, and you don't have to pore over the forms and worry about being sent to jail if you do it wrong). I have even written the required cheque to the Canadian Customs and Revenue agency. The accountant looked at my cheque with great admiration, saying it was the neatest one he'd ever seen. "It looks like a stamp!"

I looked back at it. Apparently filling out the journey log at the end of every day of flying, day in and day out, produces a transferrable skill. I write clear legible numbers. I'm always aware that I'm producing a legal document. And it's taken seriously. I know someone who had to undergo Transport Canada censure and companywide re-education because he had corrected a simple logbook error by scratching it out and initialling the change, instead of signing his full name with the correction.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Replace "Research Paper" with "Blogging"

I'm not dead in a ditch. See here. Also I got a heart rate monitor with a program for the computer for planning my workouts. I never knew knowing how fast my heart was beating could be such fun.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Bomb Squad May Have My Bag

When I bought new luggage last August to support my constant travel, I tried two different strategies. I bought a big cheap suitcase, on the theory that my suitcases were all going to be destroyed by the airlines and myself anyway, so why pay more. And I paid a bit more for a name-brand rollaboard, to test the theory that paying for a three year warranty would be cheaper than replacing a cheaper suitcase every time it wore out.

It's not a fair head-to-head comparison for the two products (which is why I'm not naming them), because the rollaboard has been on more sidetrips, but the name-brand rollaboard was the first to disintegrate. I went to the manufacturer's website for warranty repair information, and after pawing about in the less accessible corners of the site map, found the address and telephone number of a certified repair shop, and brought the damaged suitcase there.

The warranty in question only covered "manufacturing defects," so the company had the capacity to weasel out of the repairs. The repair shop person looked at my bag and agreed that it had fallen apart at the zipper seam, but had to consult with the manufacturer to determine whether this was an actual defect, or whether this was to be expected of a seven month old bag.

Questioning revealed that the repairs, if not covered by the warranty, would cost more than the bag had. (I didn't buy the really expensive kind, and repairs are expensive). The results still wouldn't be guaranteed, and of course another seam could give out the same way a week later. I don't like to throw things away when they can be reused, but I also don't like to spend too much money on things. I don't plan to pay for repairs if they cost more than the bag. I asked if the bag turns out to be not covered by warranty, were there any options for recycling it?

Yes, I discovered. Anything that could be reused was taken off, and then the remains of the bag--and this is the best part--were given to the dog squad to train luggage-sniffing dogs, and for the bomb squad to practice blowing up unattended bags. Is that cool or what? The remains of bags that don't enjoy that fate can be stripped of all metal, and then the plastic/nylon stuff can be ground up and put back into the plastic recycling stream.

I was only in town for a few days between jobs so I left contact information, warned that I might not be back for a month, and okayed giving the suitcase to the dogs if the manufacturer wouldn't repair it. I still don't know the outcome of that, because they decided they had to ship the bag to the manufacturer for them to decide whether or not its demise was a manufacturing defect. I guess it beats those warranties that cover you "for the life of the product." The repair shop did have some suitcases that were guaranteed, against all damage, for the life of the original purchaser or gift recipient. Tempting. And only five times the price of the original rollaboard. That's about the cost of a three year supply of the cheaper ones.

But luggage or no, the giant wheel of Aviatrix fortune has been spun again and the pointer stopped at ... California. Wow, at this rate I'll be eligible to vote there.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

P-I-C Responsibility

This has been kicking around in my drafts folder for a while and an entry on a new-to-me blog gives me reason to finish it. If there is more than one pilot assigned to a flight, one of them is designated pilot-in-command. As pilot-in-command you are given latitude to make decisions. That's what it's about. There is air law to follow, plus you are given a number of manuals and data to help you make those decisions, but most of them, even the laws, give considerable latitude for a pilot to do what is safe in a particular case.

It's not so much that you are required to follow every manual. It's that you are required to not screw up. You can find justification for almost any action in the manual, but so can the company find condemnation. I can honestly never think of an occasion where a colleague got in trouble for violating a rule when no harm (i.e. regulatory action, aircraft damage, complaint, or harm to public image) was done. Right up until it isn't done well, pilots get praised for their ability to land in stiff crosswinds. That's getting the job done.

That's why the captain is paid significantly more than the FO. The captain is the one who approves or vetoes such a decision, whether she is the one at the controls or not. As PIC you know that if you go off the end of the runway, chew up the props, run out of fuel, damage something with jet blast, blow a tire, ding a wingtip, incur a noise complaint, arrive late, divert, or annoy a customer, questions will be asked. If there's an accident, the relevant authorities will go over everything you did with reference to the laws, the SOPs, the AFM, the FDR, the CVR, the instructions given by ATC, the weather, the NOTAMs, the charts and every other recording and piece of paper they can find. And if they find a recommendation or a policy or a memo that you were not following to the letter, you are screwed.

If something beyond your control goes spectacularly wrong, like the gear lever has been moved to the down position, but one of the wheels won't lock down, you're not blamed specifically for that, although you might be accused of not spotting some damage on the preflight inspection.

I can't remember where I grabbed this exchange from. A movie? A TV show?

"You think you have all the answers."

"I'm the captain. That's my job."

Often I think the first officer's job is even harder, and this story (told on someone else's blog) illustrates that well. Of course Sulako beat me to the punch, but I still wanted to link to it. The story was originally on her personal blog and the traffic from here was more than she wanted, so I've taken out the link. See her medevac stories here. Ensuring a safe flight is the responsibility of both pilots, but the no-go decision is harder for the FO. If the FO wants to go, but the captain says "we're not continuing, the ice is too bad," the FO can say, "oh, I didn't think it was that bad," or even "you're a chicken," (with a smile) but has no reason to argue. The FO might be a bit embarrassed and vow to be more diligent at checking the weather next time. But no one really loses face.

Now let it be the captain who wants to go when the FO says the conditions are not suitable. The FO may have to fight for her life to alter that decision. Had there been passengers and injury or death involved in this flight, as there have been in so many before and after it, Dagny would probably have been exonerated. She repeatedly and strenuously objected to the captain's decisions, and finally did override them. But many first officers who have been placed in that position have no descendants. I hope Dagny gets to tell this story to her kids, to teach them to stand up for what they believe in.

Oh and a straw poll: I say "Pee Eye See" but I've heard people refer to "pick-time" in their logbooks. If you are a pilot, please tell me how you pronounce PIC.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Yellowknife Legislature

I have one more non-aviation blog entry to make about Yellowknife. It's such a cool city, and I don't mean that just in the "a half hour walk at -30 give you an awesome ice beard" kind of way. (But that is true. I was there for about a week and most days it was -10, maybe down to -17, not really that cold, because of how dry it was, but one day it dipped to -29. That was cold enough that the moisture in my breath instantly froze white on all the tiny hairs on my face. I looked like an extra from Titanic. Usually it's just guys that get the ice beard, but the temperature, dewpoint and speed I was walking made the perfect storm of supercooled moisture).

I walked up to the Legislature building, out on one of the lakes. Apparently they deliberately built it where the office towers of town were not visible, so that the members of the legislature who are from little communities with no big buildings, just wilderness, could look out on the lake and feel at home.

It's a new building, not built in the time of solid brick and granite and copper roofs like most provincial legislatures. The architects used the shapes of the igloo and the teepee, the traditional homes of the Inuit and Dene people, and a lot of effort went into similar symbolism and tradition with materials and construction details. All the other provinces sent gifts of artwork or fine furniture for the building. It's like Yellowknife is the much younger sibling of the provinces, and they all gave her stuff to help her as she finally moved out on her own.

This is taken in a meeting room upstairs. There was a lot of beautiful artwork in the room, but what I chose to take a picture of here was the ice on the skylight windows. That's all this is: light shining through ice.

Here's a picture of the main council chambers. Note that there is not a government and an opposition like in most of the rest of Canada. Government in the NWT is by consensus. The skin is that of a polar bear that was threatening one of the communities. The member of the legislative assembly for that community shot the bear, and gave it to the council.

I wish every community's problems could be so easily slain, and then laid out on the floor in front of the seats of power. I don't think a rug made from the skins of pimps and drug pushers would be as attractive, though, and it takes more than a good rifle to slay inadequate housing and medical care. And unfortunately even the bears are not such a simple problem. The real problem is not the bears themself but that climate change threatens their food supplies, so that polar bears are ranging further south than ever before, trying to make a living on land instead of ice. A polar-grizzly cross was discovered a couple of years ago, and three starving p olar bears were shot just recently in Deline, well south of their usual range.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Jay Jay the Jet Plane

When you keyword search the TV Guide on "airplanes" you get some weird selections. I will subject you to my latest. Jay Jay the Jet Plane (caution: web page plays voices) is a television programme intended for very young children. Like any kids' show it features bright colours, forcibly cheerful overacting, and simple morals. This one features anthropomorphic aircraft (no pilots, just self-aware airplanes) and little "science and nature moments."

The airplanes look very weird at first, as each has a human face grafted onto the front such that the nose is the radome. The single-engine prop planes even have their propellers right on their noses. The facial features move as the airplanes speak, and even twist a little from side to side. They're almost all conventional fixed gear airplanes, which I suppose is to make their faces turn up as they sit around in the hangar and chat. There's also a little helicopter, a retractable prop twin, and a few others that come to visit from time to time.

My first point of fascination is trying to identify what inspired the features on the various airplanes. The designers obviously had some pictures to work from, but didn't necessarily know what the features they were drawing were. For example, Savanna is a delta wing supersonic jet. She has one engine, mounted in the vertical stabilizer like on a DC10. And she has a little engine-like pod just over where her left ear would be, if she had ears. At first I thought it was an oddly situated APU, and then I noticed that all the airplanes have some sort of vent in that position. (In the cast pictures page sometimes it appears to be over the right side, but they're always on the left in the show: the website designers appear to have flipped the pictures left to right in some places). On the old biplane, and the pink twin jet it's clearly a venturi.

Once the weirdness of the airplanes wears off, you can get to the drinking game. It only needs two rules: drink every time they violate a new air law, or violate the laws of physics during a "science moment."

For example, one of the jet planes, Tracy, decides to go and practice fast flying, to see if she can make a sonic boom. She explicitly selects for this purpose to overfly a national park. The fast flying goes well, until she encounters a tailwind which pushes her supersonic, at which point she tumbles from the sky and ends up stuck on her back like a turtle. No one knows where she's gone, but when they realize no one has seen her in a while, and she doesn't answer the radio, they split up and go to look for her. The supersonic jet is the one who spots her, so elects to make a low pass over the park, such that her sonic boom flips Tracy right side up. Tracy flies home and the mechanic polishes her up good as new.

Are you drunk yet?

Sunday, April 06, 2008

You Must Carry Pineapples

Some time ago Air Canada announced that they would no longer accept pets as checked baggage. They weren't cost-effective to carry. They require special handling, cannot tolerate long delays, pose potential for messes, can die from things like cold, stress, heat, or asphyxiation and that brings a lot of negative publicity. Air Canada said, essentially, "We're not accepting pets as checked baggage any more. If you must transport a live animal, do it through our live animal cargo service."

Of course this made many pet owners unhappy, because it costs more in both money and inconvenience to have the pet shipped as cargo, and it probably won't be on the same airplane as the traveller. But if you really want to a) go by Air Canada and b) take your dog, that's the way it works. But apparently it isn't.

The Canadian Transportation Agency has just ruled that Air Canada must begin carrying pets again. I don't get it. If Air Canada declared it was going to stop carrying electric wheelchairs, guide dogs for the blind, or persons of Cree descent, then a regulatory authority should step in. But if Air Canada wants to stop carrying pineapples or charge extra for pink suitcases, aren't they their customers to annoy?

The Canadian charter of rights and freedoms does not provide protection against financial penalty and inconvenience for people who think it would be nice to take their cat to Europe. Service animals were specifically excepted from the ban, so I just don't understand how Air Canada can be forced to accept the risk of carrying a type of baggage that is so easily damaged. They should make smart pet owners continue to send pets via cargo by instituting a high special handling fee, and try to make checking in pets even more inconvenient than checking in regular luggage. Plus they can specify a very broad season for non-carriage due to weather, perhaps if seasonal temperatures at origin, destination or IFR alternate are below freezing, pets are not accepted in checked luggage.

As far as I can tell, Air Canada banned pets in checked luggage because they were not cost effective, considering the volume of normal checked luggage, and because the adverse publicity from pets dying en route is very bad. Why should Fido get more resources than my underwear and t-shirts, for the same price? Why would pet owners so devoted to their pet that they couldn't bear to be on a separate flight from it as they move across the country want to check it in as luggage with an airline that has said it can't look after it?

Go ahead and tell me that all cats are not interchangeable and it makes sense to take yours with you from Halifax to Vancouver, and not just get a new one when you get there. (I understand that cat people feel that way, even if the new one is a good colour match.) But also tell me why Air Canada should be forced to accept your cat as checked baggage.

Edit: In other, very similar news, Westjet has just announced that they will no longer carry unaccompanied minor children. They'll offer a half-priced fare to an adult escort, however. It's the same thing: the airline can't economically offer tge level of safety the service requires, so they aren't going to do it.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Arctic Winter Games

In the far north, before airplanes and telephones and television and treadmills, people developed some simple games that could be played inside an igloo, using what they had on hand. They were games of strength and skill that kept them sane and could also promote skills used in the hunt.

Given that now northern people have satellite TV and pilates classes, the traditional games almost died out. But they promote fitness without needing any expensive equipment, and at the same time foster community spirit and preserve cultural heritage, so they have been preserved as the Arctic Sports and Dene Sports at the Arctic Winter Games. The AWG is basically an Olympiad for northern peoples, from Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia, Finland, and Russia. Not everyone has the same traditional games, and the emphasis is much more on sportsmanship than winning, so the competitors help each other out. There are also familiar southern events like indoor soccer, gymnastics, table tennis, hockey and badminton. You see the theme in those: all sports that can be played indoors. There was also biathlon and dog mushing.

The first event I saw was the stick pull. I'm sure the name can be laden with all kinds of lewd innuendo in Dene, too, but the stick in question is about 30 cm long, thicker in the middle and tapers towards both ends. Competitors stand shoulder to shoulder, facing in opposite directions. An official slathers the stick in lard (I suppose it was once seal fat, but this was clearly a tub of Crisco), and then the competitors both grasp the stick, their thumbs facing. On the official's signal each pulls back. Arms must be straight, no jerking or twisting, just pull the stick straight back such that your competitor's hand slides off the other end and you alone are left holding it.

The girl in the blue sweatshirt and faded jeans was an eventual medalist in the event. I can't remember if she took gold or silver. The first picture shows the start, and the second picture is during the competition as both girls try to pull the stick back. Each match-up is best-of-three, with the competitors switching hands for the second contest. If a third round is required, a flip of a coin would determine the competitor who picked which hand to use.

The third picture is of the men's events, and gives a clearer view of the stick.

I also have pictures of the one arm reach. In this event competitors must balance their whole weight on one arm, while reaching a suspended target with the other. It is not immediately obvious from the pictures below, but only the competitor's hand is on the ground, his knees and feet, while they may look like they are on the floor, are actually being held up. You see here the suspended target, a little mini stuffed seal. (I tried so hard to buy one like that, but couldn't find one for sale anywhere). The limitations of my pocket camera and photography skills show here. In a school gym, no flash allowed, I wasn't able to capture the motion of his hand except as a blur as he reached up to touch the seal. The people in chairs behind him are officials, and they were quick to call fouls if the competitor did not keep his balance and form during the reach.

The competitor below is named David Taylor. He won the event easily, playfully doing things like poking or tickling the seal in the early rounds, but you would never say that he humiliated his competitors because he was such a good sport. he was literally coaching the others in between attempts, to the extend that if someone missed the seal, they would turn and look at David, waiting for his analysis and suggestion.

I also love the fact that the other competitors just naturally lay in a circle to watch. You can almost see a giant igloo enclosing them.

I don't have a good photograph of the final event, the knuckle hop. I think I was too busy watching in horror to take a photograph. Competitors start in the position of someone who has just done a push-up: arms extended, body straight from head to feet and weight resting on the hands and feet only, except that their hand are in fists, so they rest their weight on the knuckles. They then bend their arms, like someone starting the down phase of a push-up and push off, hopping forward, and yes, landing on their knuckles. This is repeated, as a means of locomotion, until the competitor collapses from exertion. Each competitor starts when he is ready and goes as far as he can, one at a time. Instructions from the officials to the competitors were, "when you are finished, stay where you are until the officials can mark your place, then go straight to the medical table." There were several nurses working the medical table to clean and bandage damaged knuckles. I heard one spectator say, "this would appear to be a sport where performance could be improved through consumption of large amounts of alcohol." I certainly have never seen sober people inflict so much pain on themselves in the name of competition.

The games were inspiring, both in the "gee, I want one of those little seals to see if I can do that" way, and because it showcased healthy, positive youth, making me proud of them all.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Ice Roads

Two years ago I had to explain to people what an ice road was, and they always remained a little incredulous that a thoroughfare constructed out of the frozen surface of a body of water was suitable for large transport trucks. Then there was a series on the Discovery channel about ice roads, and now I have to wonder if some southern Americans don't think that all roads in Canada are made on ice. The reality TV show about truckers driving on ice roads was very popular, but locals say that they didn't like the way the occupation was depicted as an extreme risk-taking activity, and might not consent to another season.

The ice road is wider than it strictly needs to be for the traffic it gets, but we speculated that clearing that width of insulating snow from the ice ensures a better base of deep ice to support the road. Of course no salt or sand is used on the road, and there are no painted lines. Vehicle handling was no different than good winter conditions on any road, with the benefit that there are no hills or sharp corners.

I like this sign because it graphically explains exactly what an ice road is. I'm still not sure you would really understand it if you didn't know, though. Try showing the picture to someone and see if they say it's a bridge or a ferry.

If you like northern scenery, and don't regularly read Dave's blog, you should have a look at his norther n lights pictures. He regularly bids Alaska night trips, and selects some beautful photos for us to see.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Black and White

I don't know if digital cameras come in black and white, but they might as well, considering these images. I told you I was in Yellowknife for a week but I haven't had time to tell you about it yet.

A snowflake on a black parka. Where I grew up it was so wet that the snow usually fell in moist clumps, making snowflakes like these something I saw only in cartoons. I thought the sixfold geometry existed only at the microscale. I still smile when I see big snowflakes like this for real.

I took this picture lying on my back inside an igloo. You are looking up through the ventilation hole at the top, and light comes through the not-very-thoroughly packed spaces between the snow blocks.

It is hard to digitally capture the depth you can see looking down through the clear lake ice of an ice road. In three dimensions, the imperfections in the ice show how deep it is, because you can see the fissure lines reaching away into the darkness below.

Ptarmigan are white in the winter and dark in the summer. It seems that they don't like to fly much. This one kept sinking neck-deep into the snow and still walking.