Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Three Things

A reader sent me a link to his nascent blog, with no intention to spread the meme he started with, just to show me his blog, but after I thought about it for a while I came up with my own list, and decided to post it.

The Challenge

  • Post 3 things you've done that you believe nobody else reading has done.
  • If anybody responds with "I've done that," add another thing.
  • Encourage your friends to paste this into their own journal to list the unique things they've done.

My List

  • Escaped after being locked inside a morgue.
  • Been at Cannes for the world premiere of a movie I was in.
  • Hiked up a mountain, over rocks and snow, entirely in my bare feet.

Your list can go in the comments or in your own blog.

Monday, September 29, 2008

OMG! Gurlz!

I still have to catch up on Oshkosh notes: that will probably take me all year, but Lite Flyer has reminded me of something. She reported that when she was airplane shopping, "Most of the exhibitors thought my husband was buying the plane and was the pilot."

I don't usually have this problem with the FBO personnel I meet. I guess they see me through the cockpit window as they marshal me in, I approach them and ask for fuel, and they live in the real world. I can't think I've ever got a "who's this chick? where's the pilot?" vibe from someone at an FBO. But at Oshkosh, I met the homebuilders for whom Women Fly merchandise would make an educational statement.

I and two other pilots, one male and one female, were browsing through the ultralight section of the show. The other female pilot was drawn to the powered parachutes and other not-quite-airplane contraptions, while I was looking at engines and materials and picking peoples brains for my then-upcoming ultralight ferry. If my fuel system is to onsist of tyvek tubing and and zip ties, I want to investigate the various ways they are connected and fastened. So I'm not too shocked when I see the actual airplane and so I won't be learning from scratch when I'm learning the finer points of preflighting it, from the manufacturer.

The ultralight section of the aviation world is a different world. I was expecting libertarianism, because the freedom to build an airplane out of stuff you found in your garage and fly it without government interference probably appeals to the same people who object to government presence in other parts of their lives, but I never equated libertarianism with a grade six boys club. You'd think some of these guys had never even met women before, let along considered selling airplanes to them. I guess these are the guys who were taking apart their motorcycles in high-school while the other boys were learning how not to scare off girls.

The lone male member of our entourage would try to peel back our female cloaks of invisibility so the vendors could see us, but what kind of sales presentations did we get? I wish I'd written down the bizarre comments for accurate reporting. One was roughly, "Hey, look there's women in here!" addressed to others in the booth.

When that one's attention came back to me, as opposed to calling attention to me. He explains, "We don't usually have women in the booth."

I know it didn't help the situation any, but I had to say it. "Maybe, that's because you react this way whenever one comes near."

And then I smiled and oohed and ahhed at his nice new engine. They don't sound like mosquitoes coming in for the kill anymore.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

In the Interest of Security

My friend was flying from Canada to visit a friend in the US for a couple of days and wanted to bring a gift of local wines (don't laugh, Canada does too produce wine) for his host. As wine is now a terrorist threat, he couldn't carry it on the airplane, but as he was only going for a couple of days he only had one small bag, so he checked the whole thing. The bag also contained a palmtop computer with a folding bluetooth keyboard. In hindsight he knows he should have taken the computer out and put it in his shirt pocket, but he didn't.

So the bag goes through security, onto the airplane and back off again. The wine arrives unbroken. But his computer has been turned on and left on. The computer is of course also a wireless communications device. So in the interest of 'security' the TSA has activated a transmitter and left a heat generating device in a container with flammable material. I'm thinking the clothing, when I say flammable: Canadian wines aren't like Scandinavian liquors. Now, the chance of a small computer either interfering with airline navigation or starting a fire in a suitcase is very small, but this was in no way a positive move for anyone's security. They had looked at his e-mail and his media files. Checking, no doubt, to see if any of it read "Dear Osama bin Laden, here are the naked photographs of my eight year old daughter which you requested. Do you have any more of those music downloads to share with me?"

It was a positive move for someone in security, though. That is for the person who got an almost new wireless bluetooth keyboard for nothing. The keyboard was missing from the suitcase. I guess the bag checker thought it was pretty cool. So even if the battery hadn't been run down from running in the suitcase during the flight, he still wouldn't have been able to use his computer.

The most grievous thing about this kind of treatment is that you can't even write them a letter to complain. Well you can, but you might as well word it as "Dear TSA, Please make as much trouble for me as possible at all security checkpoints. Here is my name and address."

Saturday, September 27, 2008

How to Turn Around a B767

From the tiny to the giant. After the time it took to refuel the ultralight at every stop, I was intrigued by this website, optimizing the efficiency of block in to block out of a Boeing 767. It shows how different services are required by a large passenger airplane and how to best arrange the servicing vehicles to access the various orifices on the airplane.

I like the project management bar graphs showing the time required and available for each service. They take into account details like the fact that some last minute baggage may be thrown on while the main baggage conveyor is being put away. There are also very detailed tables showing the airflow rate required from ground carts for pneumatic engine start at different air temperatures and altitudes, and the requirements for ground towing vehicles. The latter is as complex as a take-off performance chase chart, with reference lines and slopes to follow for aircraft weight, traction wheel load, engine thrust resistance (even at idle the engine is resisting a backwards push), and seven different surface conditions, from dry concrete to ice.

You know how hot a car is when you return to it on a hot day. The usual technique is to open all the windows so the really hot air can escape before blasting the air conditioner. The problem with the hot vehicle scales up, but the doors on a Boeing are pretty small and only the front windows open, so the solution doesn't. There are tables here showing how long to expect it to take to cool (or heat) an airplane using ground services.

If makes sense that aircraft designers and airline planners put thought and effort into the efficiency of the turnaround, because the incredible speed of an airplane can easily be wasted waiting for the right things to be loaded and unloaded on the ground.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The NEXUS Step

NEXUS sent me e-mail saying I've been approved for the program and have to schedule an appointment at the airport to be interviewed, fingerprinted and photographed, and have my retinas photographed, too. They have a very simple online booking interface, showing the availability and allowing me to schedule, move and cancel appointments.

Nothing is available this month.
Nothing is available next month.
There are availabilities the following month, but I'm scheduled to be away working for the whole month,
Nothing is available the month after that.
Nothing is available for the two following months.

I kind of suspect that they have only opened the booking system for appointments in the next three months. I could wait and see if more opportunities opened up, but the e-mail states that I must book within 30 days.

I'll looked at some other centres and saw much better availability, so I'll wait until I know my work assignments and try to arrange an appointment there and then. I'm still kind of freaked about subjecting myself to US registration, though. I picture my fingerprints being in the same big database with all the convicted criminals, getting checked against the fingerprints on murder weapons. Also I hate getting my eyes examined at the optometrist, so the retinal photograph is going to be freaky.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Fuel Inerting

While discussing the recent Qantas B747 incident with some very knowledgeable pilots I learned something that bears more research, about oxygen supply and fuel inerting technology. I'll start with some background and an overview of oxygen supply options in aircraft, before I finally get to the cool stuff that I learned.

The simplest way handle the problem of ensuring people on board can breathe is for the airplane to have an unpressurized cabin and non-turbocharged engines and to be operated only at altitudes where the engines and everyone on board has access to adequate oxygen in the outside air. Pretty much everyone who learns to fly does so in an airplane this simple. It works well. The laws of physics and of the government work in concert to forbid climb beyond a safe altitude.

The next method can be retrofitted into any aircraft, and that is to carry an oxygen cylinder and masks. Gaseous oxygen is compressed into the cylinder and the flow regulated by a valve. There are various mask and flowmeter technologies to ensure comfort and efficient use of the oxygen available, and you've read about some of the ones I've used. You can also have a similar oxygen system built in, which just means that the oxygen cylinder is stowed in a custom compartment, as opposed to in the cabin. Individual occupants attach their masks to outlets throughout the cabin. It has the advantage of being integrated with cockpit systems and seeming more sophisticated to the passengers, but the disadvantages that you can't easily take the cylinder somewhere to be filled and that you're married to masks that fit the outlets that were manufactured into your airplane at the time that Galaga was the pinnacle of videogame technology.

Remember that there IS oxygen at any altitude where airplanes fly, and it is present in the same proportions everywhere. You probably already know that air is 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen and 1% other gases. we only actually need the oxygen to breathe, the rest could be replaced with something else harmless. So that proportion of oxygen stays the same as you go up, it's just that the air at altitude is at a lower pressure, so there is less of it in the same volume. One lungful of air at 18,000' has half as many oxygen molecules as the same lungful at sea level. If there were a way to cram more of that thin air into your lungs, you would have access to just as much oxygen as at sea level. And there is: pressurization. Under normal circumstances, most high altitude aircraft pressurize the fuselage to a breathable atmosphere. It's important to realize that this isn't a matter of sealing in ground level air and keeping it from escaping. The air in the airline cabin is constantly being replaced with air from the outside, it's just that it's compressed and cooled on the way in. A significant portion of a turbine engine is dedicated to compressing air, and there's enough left over, called bleed air to power some aircraft systems and pressurize the cabin. The airplane is fitted with outflow valves to prevent overpressurization. You can sometimes hear them making horrible whistling sounds. This explains why a small hole in the fuselage doesn't cause movie-style airliner disasters: there are already holes in the fuselage to let the air out. Adding another one might make the pressurization system work a little harder, but escaping air is replaced.

Sometimes, like on the Qantas flight I mentioned, something happens to create a bigger hole in the fuselage. The pressurization system can no longer keep up with the outflow, and the airplane depressurizes. The checklist in such a case calls pilots to don their own oxygen masks and commence an emergency descent. That means they cause the airplane to descend just as fast as it structurally can. Kind of a fun one to practice! Pressurized aircraft are required to have a supplemental oxygen system in place to allow everyone to breathe during the time it takes to descend from cruise altitude to ten thousand feet, where there is breathable pressure. In an airliner, pilot emergency oxygen is always supplied from oxygen bottles, as their masks are positive pressure, designed not just to increase the partial pressure of oxygen, but to exclude noxious substances like smoke. That's because pilots have to perform useful functions in an emergency, while passengers just have to stay alive. It's fair, really.

This is all extra scary for unknowing passengers because they witness the depressurization event, probably accompanied by a loud noise. The masks drop, which despite all the safety briefings still awaken some human fright instinct based on snakes dropping out of trees. The drop in cabin pressure is such that moisture in the air may condense into mist, which looks like smoke, and then the airplane plummets. Try to keep in mind, if this happens to you, that the plummeting is deliberate and for your own good. The masks really aren't designed to muffle your screams in order to maintain the concentration of the flight crew, (but I'm not saying that might not be a useful auxiliary function) so put them on and breathe normally.

Now, what are you breathing? In a Boeing 747 you're breathing out of an oxygen bottle, just like the pilots, just with a different mask. The airplane literally contains a big bank of oxygen bottles, bristling with valves and lines running all over the cabin to the passenger oxygen masks. As you breathe in wearing one of those masks you get some cabin air and some extra oxygen from the cylinders. Ironically, it was one of those oxygen cylinders, positioned in the nose of the aircraft, that caused the Qantas decompression in the first place.

On any other airliner, you are not breathing out of a bottle, but breathing oxygen custom made for you in response to your pulling the mask towards you, as directed in the passenger briefing. The compartment above your head contains a chemical oxygen generator, based around a compound that contains oxygen, in the same way that H2O contains oxygen, but less stable. It takes a lot of energy to liberate oxygen from water, but just ignite something like sodium peroxide (Na2O2) and it starts to decompose. Na is elemental sodium, O is oxygen, and it takes two oxygen atoms to make oxygen gas (O2). The sodium peroxide breaks down into sodium oxide (Na2O) and releases oxygen gas. Here's the equation.

2 Na2O2 --> 2 Na2O + O2

You don't have to have understood high school chemistry to count that up and see that there are two Na atoms and 4 O atoms on each side of the equation, with nothing left over. Now, that's pretty neat if you can get around the bit I skimmed over and that is that in order to start this reaction, you set the oxygen generating chemical on fire. When you pull the mask briskly towards you, you are pulling a pin to fire an ignitor. You may even smell it burning. But despite the scary sounding implications, they are maintenance free devices. The only incident I know of where chemical oxygen generators caused a fire ValueJet where a number of the devices were being transported in the cargo hold, mistakenly labelled empty. They should have been deactivated for the flight. A real drawback of chemical oxygen generation is that it is a short lived system capable of putting out about 12 minutes of oxygen, just enough to get down to 10,000'. For flight in areas with a lot of high terrain, supplemental gaseous oxygen is required. Boeing offers this as an option on the B737NG and as a retrofit on other aircraft.

It would be nice to have oxygen available that didn't have to be held in either a pressurized container or an unstable chemical compound. And there is. In the air. There exists technology to separate nitrogen from oxygen in the ambient air. While the unpressurized air at 30,000' doesn't contain enough partial pressure of oxygen to sustain consciousness, the same pressure of close to 100% oxygen does. And the cool part is that generation of oxygen in this manner is just a side effect of fuel tank inerting.

See, when an airplane takes off, typically the tanks are full of fuel. In the absence of fuel tank inerting, as the fuel is burned, the resulting space (cool word alert: it's called the ullage) is filled by ambient temperature air and fuel vapour. Given the right conditions, this mixture of fuel vapour and air can ignite, to disastrous consequences. The idea behind fuel inerting is to fill the fuel tank ullage with something inert. Like nitrogen. And now if you didn't already, you see where this all comes together. During the flight, take the air that is already going by anyway, and make almost pure nitrogen, used to fill the unused space in the fuel tanks, and then have close to pure oxygen as a byproduct. I don't know much about the actual system that will be on the B787 Dreamliner, but apparently the whole apparatus weighs about as much as one passenger with luggage, and draws 40 kW of power.

The Boeing 787 will use this system. The B787 will also make a liar out of me for what I said about bleed air, but this post is about the fuel inerting. It's so symmetrically beneficial, it's almost as if putting my laundry in the washing machine somehow created both clean underwear and groceries.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Baseball Ticket Giveaway

I have, through hotel stays for work, earned a $40 credit towards the purchase of Major League Baseball tickets or merchandise. While Canada does have one MLB team, I don't have any interest in attending a game, and the only baseball-related merchandise that appeals to me is hot dogs. So why did I register for this hotel promotion?

I registered so I could give away the tickets to one of my wonderful blog readers, of course. If baseball tickets are something that make you happy, leave a comment persuading me that you are the best representative of my readership to receive the gift code. The credit is applicable only towards merchandise or regular season games, and expires after a year, on 30 September 2009.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Cosmic Top Secret DC-10s

I just ran across an article saying that Canada Post has terminated its contract with Air Canada and taken on transporting the mail itself. According to the above linked article, Canada Post spokeman John Caines said Canada Post has made arrangements with other carriers to deliver US and international mail and it has bought DC-10s to carry mail between major centres.

That didnt sound quite right to me. It's a big deal to start up a new air operation. I can't see Canada Post taking that on. Looking around for more on this, I see bulletin board talk indicating that Kelowna Flightcraft, the carrier with the Purolator contract, is picking up Canada Post work, and ALPA sasys KFC will add two DC-10s this fall. I'm thinking those are the DC-10s in question. I wonder where they are buying them from, maybe Northwest, which is shedding its DC-10s. They're a pretty ancient airplane, but I guess they'll fit in with the B727s. They might even be more fuel efficient than the B727s. Did Canada Post buy these for Purolator? Is the relationship among Canada Post, Purulator and KFC complicated enought that it makes sense for Canada Post to say that they have bought the DC-10s? Or was Caines just misquoted in the article? Blogging is making me lazy. I could try to figure it out, but I'm going to sit back and let someone else tell me who owns and operates what airplane.

Meanwhile, looking at Canada Post tenders I found two interesting lists. One is the list of vehicles that Canada Post may mandate in specific mail delivery contracts:

  • 1/2 T truck
  • Straight truck
  • Cube van
  • Cargo van
  • ATV
  • Boat
  • Ski-doo
  • Other
I think it's funny that there is so much specificity on vans, but that "boat" is so general. And I like the fact that mail in my country is sometimes delivered to communities by canoe, ski-doo and ATVs. Come to think of it, I've offloaded a Canada Post package from my cargo bay to a homebuilt utility trailer in tow behind an ATV driven by a grandmother.

I wonder what security clearance she held. Here's are the possibilities, listed on the tender form for Canada Post.

  • protected A
  • protected B
  • protected C
  • confidential
  • secret
  • top secret
  • NATO confidential
  • NATO secret
  • Cosmic Top Secret
I think Cosmic Top Secret would be a good name for something. A blog, a band, a pet ... probably not a kid.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Looking Down

It's not uncommon for an airline trip from the jobsite to take more hours and more stops than it would if I just flew the company airplane, even though it travels at less than half the speed of an airline jet. Last time I flew across the country my client dropped me off at the GA side of the airport, then drove around the field to turn in his rental car and go through the passenger terminal to get on an airline flight to the same destination. He thought it would be faster, and liked the idea of having a washroom on board. I was checked into the destination hotel hours before he arrived. And then he had to drive back to the airport the next day to get his even more delayed luggage. There are three reasons.

First, I didn't have to go through check-in, baggage check, security or any other part of the airport terminal before flying. I walked out to my airplane, loaded my own bags, confirmed the FBO had put in the fuel I ordered, poked at the airplane a bit to make sure all the parts were properly attached, then got in and started it up. Second, I fly as direct as the weather permits, instead of having to go the wrong way to a hub. And third, I don't have to change airplanes when I stop.

So much of the time saved by travelling at Mach 0.8 in an airliner is eaten up by wandering around airport terminals. If I don't have paperwork to do, I fill in the time buying postcards, eating candy, and taking photographs.

I photograph funny things, interesting people, stupid signs, and other interesting things I might want to blog about later. I realized recently that I had accumulated a collection of airport floor shots. I love it when airport designers make the floor interesting. I suppose there are times when it is bad design, because if it is too interesting, it can slow down people in traffic areas and cause congestion. But it makes me happy every time to see unique airplane-related designs on the floor.

I could tell you where they all are, but that would spoil the fun.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to identify the airports by what is underfoot.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Transport Canada Discovery

In an astonishing departure from computer traditions established in the 1970s, new Transport Canada licences use mixed case to list the qualifications and restrictions on the right side of a pilot licence. It's almost unsettling. A commercial IFR pilot gets a new licence at least every couple of years, so the community of working pilots will have their ALL UPPER CASE licences replaced within a couple of years. But there are thousands of pilots out there who have already earned all the ratings they are going to, and will retain licences declaring them approved to fly ALL SINGLE ENGINE NON HIGH PERFORMANCE LAND AEROPLANES. That is until Transport Canada finally implements the new booklet licences. Now that they've discovered how to unlock the shift key, I'm willing to believe it could happen.

Saturday, September 20, 2008


Zenflyer's comment on mandated placards in view of the passenger reminds me that the official warning on Lite Flyer's dashboard is missing an R.

Reflections on the Voyage

An ultralight airplane is an airplane. Like any airplane, it has capabilities and limitations and, like any airplane, it must be maintained and flown properly. Unlike a certified airplane it may be made out of any kind of parts, with any kind of engine, and maintained by anyone. Unexplained engine failures are far more common than with certified airplanes. I am almost surprised that one did not occur during our trip.

A lot of people would not take a little airplane like this on a 1600 nm international trip. I have experience not with long-distance ultralight flying, but with making long trips in little steps. I am always amused by responses like, "you can't get there by bicycle" or "it's too far to bike" when I ask people for directions to places within their own city. If you push the pedals, the wheels will go around. It works the same way two hundred kilometres from home as it does in your driveway. That was my view on the airplane.

Maybe it would be most sensible to take off and do simple flights in the vicinity of the home aerodrome for the first fifty hours or so of the shakedown of a new airplane. It would definitely be sensible to be very attentive to the break-in period. But the airplane, you see, does not know where it is. The airframe 'knows' that it took off, made some turns, flew level, made some more turns and landed. It can't tell whether it returned to its origin or not.

The engine can not tell that the first leg of our journey did not end where it began. It only knows that it was warmed up, given full power, reduced to climb and then to continuous cruise power for a couple of hours, before being reduced to approach power, and finally to idle and shut down. It 'knows' that this routine was repeated twice a day for a few days. It was always warmed up, never shock cooled, never run at take-off power for an excessive period nor allowed to become too hot during climb. It always had sufficient coolant and the proper level of clean oil. Perhaps it 'noticed' that the outside air temperature dropped steadily over the five day journey, but it never encountered temperatures it wasn't designed for.

The riskiest part of the trip was not the risk of crashing into the American countryside, but the risk of being stranded partway through the trip by a mechanical problem or by weather, with both of us needing to go back to work. A small mechanical problem would have been quite repairable, at the technological level offered by people who repair tractors and bicycles, but had we lost as much as half a day to such a problem, it's likely the hurricane would have caught us and we'd have to beg hangar space to hide in. The advantage there is that the little airplane could be secured in a hangar that was already 'full' of conventional airplanes. It could be tucked underneath and in between where other airplanes wouldn't ever fit.

I would not recommend a trip like this to anyone under time pressure as we were. It would have been a walk in the park had we the time to zigzag for destinations with interesting things to see, prearrange with people on the ground to meet us at the airport for food and fuel, and not done it during hurricane season. A chase vehicle would have been very advantageous, someone who would drop us off at the airport and then start driving and meet us at the destination. The airplane is not a lot faster than a car. Getting mogas took longer than expected. Advance time spent in research in advance on mogas availability would not be wasted. You wouldn't want to do it if you were not comfortable making decisions like "this part of the airplane needs to be cut off with a saw to avoid interference with the rudder cables." You have to be able to call the game when it needs to be called. I should emphasize that we were really lucky. We had no non-trivial mechanical issues. The sum total of our weather delays was five hours, one for convective activity and four for fog on two different mornings. Neither of us got sick or injured. No one ran over our tiny airplane while it was parked on the apron. I wouldn't bet money on flying eleven legs in the airplane I normally fly at work without a mechanical delay. I might bet against it. You must have time in your schedule to recover from delays. But if you do, and if you and your airplane can fly one three and a half hour leg into an unfamiliar airport, then you can do it again and again until you get to where you are going. That is what airplanes do.

I really recommend you don't do it during hurricane season, though.

Friday, September 19, 2008

All The Way Home

The province of Nova Scotia is a gigantic hammerhead-shaped peninsula that attaches to New Brunswick at Moncton, northeast of Maine. A straight line from our present position to the aerodrome that will be this airplane's home cuts across the Bay of Fundy, a stretch of open water treacherous to decent-sized boats, let alone little airplanes. If I'm crossing that, I want to remain in gliding distance of land, or if not land, at least calm shore waters. And this airplane glides like a brick, so that will require decent ceilings. The ceiling is good now, but forecast to come down, so I have planned for the possibility of having to go the long way, following the land as one would have to in a car. We've got this airplane this far, and I don't want any slips on the final leg.

As Lite Flyer climbs away from Fredericton, I put my socks and shoes on over wet muddy feet and then we exchange control and Lite Flyer does the same. Yeah, we took off in our bare feet with mud between our toes. I suggest that standard equipment on board in future might include a towel. We follow the highway towards Moncton. We can't get too close to Moncton, because the class E airspace around it is marked on the chart as requiring Mode C altitude reporting. Ever since we passed Space Coast, back in Florida, our transponder has only been putting out mode A responses. The best route doesn't really go through their airspace, anyway. I call them to let them know that we're out here and they tank me for the call but say we're nowhere near the control zone. We're not, it's the class E transponder airspace we're edging on, but they aren't interested.

So we fly. We cross the Cumberland Basin, where when I look at the water I see it isn't as inhospitable as the best available shore that has often been my "out" in a wheel plane. I admonish Lite Flyer that even if we successfully did a forced approach onto open water it could be a long cold, fingers-crossed wait for the Coast Guard to come and find us. I'm trying to keep my heart in it, not to let the little Rotax lure me into a false sense of security, but it just keeps spinning around without a hiccup.

You can kind of see where continental drift has peeled Nova Scotia off the mainland and there are capes and spits of land that still reach out to the drifted land. We take advantage of them to fly the shortest overwater distance, even when we can see a nice straight line to the destination. I cut corners on the planned route, but don't cut straight across. I feel a little silly, actually, but not as silly as I would had I needed to explain to Transport Canada why I had landed an ultralight deadstick on Minas Basin. So we kind of arc around within range of land or at least of calm water and before we know it we are over land, within 20 miles of our destination. Not tonight's destination, but the destination. We've cut so many corners off the original plan that we are way early on our flight plan, so I call Flight Services. I further tempt fate by just giving our position and closing out the flight plan. All we have to do is find the airport and land on it.

I've been teaching Lite Flyer chart symbols, like the numbers that describe an airport on a chart. I tell her she can remember ELF to keep the numbers straight: the first number is the airport Elevation, the next is the runway Length, and the final number is the contact Frequency. I don't make it sufficiently clear that ELF is a mnemonic and she frowns, looking for the E, because she can see the L for lighting. I try to throw the extra L into the acronym , but she atches me and points out me that ELLF has too many Ls. I have to admit that she's right. In this case she reads off the aerodrome elevation with no problem then asks what the H is for. The US charts we've been using up to now don't use H. I guess all their runways are paved by default. "There's an 'H'?" I ask. "That means a hard-surfaced runway. I thought your airport was grass."

"It is."

"Do you think there's a grass runway and a hard surfaced one?" It would be easy for her not to notice the paved one if they took off from the grass one. But it turns out she's never actually flown out of this airport, just came by to arrange hangar space.

This would of course be a good time to consult the CFS entry for the airport. Before take-off would have been another good time. This point in the blog entry would be a good time to admit that we don't have a CFS on board. I've let the GPS database lure me into complacency. Maybe I'm taking on the maverick ultralight lifestyle. What I really want to know about this airport isn't going to be in the CFS, either. I want to know local knowledge things like where the field is soft and where it's firm. All the little tricks of the field that Lite Flyer will know in a few months.

We call with plans to overfly the field at 1500' agl and check it out before joining a circuit to land. Another ultralight calls taking off on runway 07, at right angles to our path. Change of plans. We turn right and join downwind for that runway. It looks like a pretty good surface, although definitely grass, and I can see the grass has been mowed for two other runways, too. Like a big old military airport. There are trees and wires on the approach and while I urge Lite Flyer to descend I can remember how scary such obstacles were when I had as much time as she, but she does it, and turns in another greaser. "Stick back!" after landing, and we roll out on fairly smooth ground. I spy some dark rocky-looking patches that look kind of incongruous, but it's a well maintained grass runway with level ground under fairly dense grass. Some grass runways are pretty much mud.

I'm prepared to do a one-eighty and taxi back to the hangars we overflew on final, but Lite Flyer takes a right onto another runway. Why not, it's pretty quiet around here. I make an appropriate radio call and enjoy the scenery. If this runway deadends into long grass we can always turn around. We're burning less gas than a motorcycle just taxiing around here. That runway is less travelled, but also well mowed and packed firm. They must use a steamroller or something to keep these runways so flat. This runway meets another, running parallel to the apron, so we turn the corner and follow it towards the mowed taxiway onto the apron. And suddenly I spot the "hard surface." We're still taxiing on grass, but off to the side are traces of pavement. Pavement that is easily fifty years old.

We turn off onto a mowed taxiway and then onto the grass apron, where we just shut down, not really knowing where to go next. Getting out, we discover we're parked in a swamp. Advantage of an amphibian: worst case scenario well just raise the gear and slide out. We're early on the ETA given to family, so Lite Flyer suggests we wash all the mud off the airplane and then take off again to make a staged arrival when family arrives here. There's a helpful local here to lend us a hose but as we wade around the airport it dawns on me. "This mud isn't from the river bank. That all washed off at take-off. This mud is from taxiing here. There's no point washing it off."

And then our staged arrival plans are thwarted when people start to arrive. I think they're just glad to see Lite Flyer in one piece and not too disappointed to have missed the actual landing. It just so happens that Friday night is the weekly get together of the local experimental aircraft club, so we're soon surrounded by not only Lite Flyer's Nova Scotia friends and family, but by a dozen people who are delighted to appreciate the new arrival on the field. We're amused by the old-fashioned division in the clubhouse, where the women sit around a table inside playing cards and the men sit on a screened porch talking airplanes. Lite Flyer and I drink champagne pose for photos with family and then join the men on the porch. We're completely welcome there, so I suppose it would be more accurate to say that the division is between pilots and non-pilots rather than men and women.

There are two days left before I have to report for work on my next job, and Lite Flyer makes sure I see the sights and eat fresh PEI mussels, scallops and Digby clams before I go. Lobster was suggested at one point but exhaustion had the upper hand and we called it a day.

That concludes my side of the story. I know I left lots out and am watching Lite Flyer's blog to find out what the trip was like from her point of view. I may make one more post on What I Learned On My Summer Vacation with reflections on the overall trip, and what I might do differently another time. The remains of Hurricane Gustav reached Halifax the day after we arrived, giving us a grey rainy day for sightseeing, and Tropical Storm Hanna, which chased us all the way up the coast, arrived in Halifax about an hour after I left, pelting the whole region with heavy rain and high winds. The little airplane was safely in a hangar, awaiting a slightly overdue oil change.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

It's Also a Boat

The next phase of our journey is a little different. We're not meeting Lite Flyer's Fredericton family here. We're going to them. I have her mark the location on the chart, because it's not a registered aerodrome.

I don't want to delay airline operations, or have to take off with any wake turbulence concerns, so I check what the CRJ is doing. Jazz has called the premium customers for boarding, but they still have to board the rest of the cabin, brief them, and run checklists. We have time to get out ahead of them. And this way we can make them even greener with envy. We start up and I call the FSS to tell them we're taxiing out to land on the river a mile west of here. Heh. It's funny to land at a non-registered aerodrome inside the confines of a mandatory frequency area. I've done it before, but I think I haven't done a flight from the land aerodrome to the immediately adjacent water like this. It's sort of like getting taxi clearance from the controlled apron to the uncontrolled apron, except that I get to fly there.

I was kind of hoping the flight service specialist would say "you're going to do what?" and I'd get to elaborate, but she takes this proposed destination in stride. We taxi for an intersection departure and stay at 500' as we turn westbound. We retract the gear and leave the flaps down as we start up the river at low power. Now where is this house?

We've gone past the mark on the chart and there are wires and a bridge coming up ahead, plus the FSS is asking me our intentions. I tell them to stand by. Lite Flyer says the house is past the bridge that's ahead and then I get a little short with her because that will bring us into the built up area of the city, where off-airport landings are not permitted, and I'm not about to buzz this bridge. I only realize now, as I write this, that because I was insisting we stay over the river and because she was sitting on the left, she didn't have much of a chance to see the place, even if it wasn't the first time she'd been asked to find it from the air. I get back to the FSS and tell them, "We're remaining low level on the river, west of the aerodrome. I can't believe I'm looking for an address from an airplane."

Lite Flyer insists that the place we're looking for is not in the built up area of the city and then she spots it. On the correct side of the bridge. We turn around and overfly the landing area. It's clear of snags, debris and boats, has very little current and looks to have very light winds. Lite Flyer does this landing too, another beautiful one, but she doesn't pull the power back as we touch down, so the little airplane skips like a stone. The second touchdown is nice too, and with the power pulled back it taxies nicely. I didn't try taxiing during the checkout, just take-off and landing on the water, so it's good to see that it handles well. We come past the beach and wildly waving, camera toting relatives to inspect our potential landing sites. We've been told that lowering the gear and taxiing up a boat ramp is an acceptable beaching technique, but I nix an under-construction boat ramp, as it seems to consist of oddly angled concrete slabs that might hit the hull before the wheels. Lite Flyer says the river bank is free of stones and there's an area that looks appropriate for beaching, so I head towards there. At idle the taxi speed on the water is higher than I want to hit an unknown beach, so I reach over and turn off all the electrical switches then tell Lite Flyer, "mags off." (This airplane has no mixture control, the engine automatically meters fuel, so to cut the engine you just switch the magnetos off. It takes some getting used to, but they're on Lite Flyer's side, so it's her job, and she doesn't know any differently). She doesn't switch them off right away and I now realize why.

Flashback: Like any instructor with a student I've been gradually giving her less instruction and more responsibility at each phase of flight, so I graduated from reciting the checklist to her as a series of instructions, to asking her to do the prestart checklist, to saying "okay, start her up." When I got to the last, she put in the key and motored the starter, with no checklist, no mags, no nothing. That's a pretty normal phase in student pilot progress, actually a good sign of building confidence and a good opportunity to cement checklist use. Of course the airplane wouldn't start. At that time I read her the riot act, using my 'mean' instructor voice that starting the airplane means using the start checklist.

And now I've just told her to shut off the mags, and she was looking for the checklist to do it properly. Damnit Lite Flyer, read my mind. Today I just want the mags off. I think I reached over and did it myself, letting the momentum carry us to the bank. I needn't really have worried as the bank is very soft and silty and the airplane has so little momentum that it stops drifting much sooner than I expected. Perhaps it softly wedged itself on the bottom as soon as the mags went off.

Meanwhile there's a woman on shore saying something like "Don't get out! Don't get out! I've got Daisy Leaner coming!"

Lite Flyer turns to me. "That's my sister. She's called the media." The Daily Gleaner is the local newspaper. Lite Flyer can stay in the airplane for the publicity shots, but I won't let the airplane drift randomly. I pull off my shoes and socks and jump in the river to hold the airplane and wade up the bank, and apparently Lite Flyer can do without her fifteen minutes of fame, as she does the same. We borrow a boat rope to tether the airplane to a big stump, and enlist the aid of family to haul the airplane far enough onto the beach so as to be secure from any waves.

Now I'm a little out of my element and am trying to fade into the background as her family come up to see and congratulate. I'm stressed out again, Maybe because we've got an airplane sitting on a beach, with one more leg to go, and this one includes overwater stretches--over water not suitable for forced landings. I duck out of the gathering to talk to a weather briefer. We'll be good to go tonight, but the weather will be poor tomorrow, so I veto the idea of staying overnight. We do stay for a fabulously delicious lunch with freshly barbecued chicken sandwiches and fruit. I tell Lite Flyer that we have to leave at 3:15, and that means pushing off the beach at 3:15, not starting a prolonged round of goodbyes then. I have actually left some leeway in this time, because I don't expect my admonition to be entirely effective, but Lite Flyer understands about weather and schedules, and she is at the airplane at the appointed time, even though someone who got lost on the way has barely arrived.

A float plane is completely unnavigable and uncontrollable until the engine is started and it is underway, and even then directional control at low speeds is not excellent. We need a good plan to transition from the beach to the water, leaving lots of room for things to go wrong. I recruit someone willing to get his feet wet for an assistance role. We push the airplane down the beach enough that it can be pushed off once we board. I untie the mooring rope and then thread it through the anchor eye on the hull so you have to hold both ends to keep it from running through. I ask our launching assistant to push the airplane back off the beach and then turn it so it's facing sideways to the beach. "Don't let go of the rope until Lite Flyer gives you the thumbs up." Worst case scenario here starts with being set adrift and being unable to start the engine. The current is almost non existent, but it would still be inconvenient, and this will be the first time Lite Flyer has done a beach launch. The flight instruction principle called primacy asks me to do it correctly the first time a student sees it, so she will remember it that way. I hope the lesson she does take from this is the fact that in launching a seaplane, you can't trust bystanders and you have to be prepared for the unexpected.

I try to radio the FSS whose airspace we will be lifting into but I am unsuccessful down here on the water. I'll call them airborne. We get pushed off the beach, but facing butt first, which isn't going to work because we have no reverse. Our launching assistant fixes that and then Lite Flyer runs the prestart checklist. The starter motor has just started turning when I see the painter running free. Inside my head I grit my teeth and ask, "what part of 'don't let go until she says so' do you not understand?" but fortunately the engine starts successfully first time as it has every single time with the sole exception of Maine, where we needed extra primer. We have enough directional control to get away from the boat ramp into the main channel. The plan is to go upriver to get set up and then turn downriver for the takeoff slide. I ask Lite Flyer to read the Water pre-takeoff checklist. "Flaps set 20, Gear up and indicating, Fuel pump on, Approach speed 65 knots ..."

What? That's the prelanding checklist. It's not her fault: the checklists provided by the manufacturer are a little difficult to navigate and keep getting out of order on the keyring. But you can't put on the brakes and sort things out on the water. We want to take off in front of the spectators and we want to get off here, not further down the water where there are birds and boats. I set a bad example and just go. Flaps and gear are set, pump is on, power partway up, temperatures look good, full power. Climb onto the step, then stick neutral to accelerate, and then back slightly to lift off. I call the FSS immediately to make sure we're not going to pop up into someone else's flightpath. She gives us the all clear and we climb, after most likely terrifying the people on the sailboats. Awesome fun.

We're on the very last leg of our trip. If we complete this flight as filed, we're home. If we don't, at least we're in Canada.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Customs Clearance

Next morning in Maine the weather is grand. The cold front that has been bearing down on us overnight has raced through while we slept, leaving nothing in its wake but a bit of scud cloud. The coast, quite literally, is clear for our advance to Canada. The only bad news in the weather is that the tailwind we've enjoyed for the last few days will die down shortly after takeoff.

I have to file a flight plan for the border crossing and we also need to phone Canpass with notification of our customs arrival so I do the former and hand Lite Flyer my passport to do the latter. I also need to get a transponder code for the border crossing but the briefer says he can't assign me one. I have to get it from Boston Center. And he can't give me a number for Boston Center, I'll have to get it in the air. He gives me the frequency. I'm on the phone a long time with flight services, but Lite Flyer is also embroiled in a conversation that involves giving out her credit card information. Eventually we're both done and then I field a call from the manufacturer, checking up on us. He's amazed that we're preparing to take off for the border crossing already. We've made great time. The winds have helped, after that first day, plus we've worked hard. I've been lucky not just with weather and maintenance issues but that I haven't once regretted disregarding one of the cardinal rules of ferry piloting: never bring the owner. Lite Flyer gets up at whatever time I say we have to for weather, eats what's available, has made no unreasonable demands, never required an early stop for a bathroom break, in fact has introduced not one minute delay that I recall, and is great company. This would have been a much less enjoyable trip without her.

We take off into the morning. There is still some low cloud around, which keeps us low at first. We skirt airspace NOTAMed for an airshow: the NOTAM said Blue Angels, but we only saw a Pitts Special, and then climb into what remains of our tailwind. Remains? The information we had that it would only carry us a short way was not correct. If anything, the push increases as we go north. We're going to be in Canada so fast that Lite Flyer mentions she's almost sorry that the trip will be over soon.

"It's not over yet," I warn her, keeping an eye out for landing places. Airplanes have a very keen sense of irony, but this one didn't hear her, fortunately. We skirt Bangor class C airspace and then make a beeline for Fredericton, on a track that will keep us clear of the artillery range to its southeast. The tailwind still won't quit, and it's funny how big a difference that makes in a small airplane. We have a true airspeed of about 65 kts. That makes 200 nm a three hour trip in no wind. Give us 15 kts on the tail and we cut it to two and a half hours. It takes such a slow airplane for a moderate wind to make such a huge difference. I make a couple of unsuccessful attempts to raise US flight services and amend our arrival time, but no one answers. Perhaps we're too low. within striking distance of the international border I switch over to the Boston Center frequency and they do hear us, and give us a code. I seem to recall it was 7373, so I show Lite Flyer to make sure the last two digits aren't both zeroes before making the first digit a 7. We don't want to create an international incident!

As we approach the international border, we're mainly over uninhabited bus and marsh. Boston Centre calls us and clears us en route to squawk VFR. "Don't we need to be on frequency with the discrete code for the border crossing?" I ask. He says no. I tell Lite Flyer, "I guess they don't need to defend this corner of America from terrorists." I can kind of see why. No offense, Northern Maine, but you're like Florida without the beaches or sunshine.

We slide across slowly. The border is very wiggly here so I'm waiting to be absolutely sure we're fully across before celebrating getting this critter to Canada. Lite Flyer calls it first. And appropriately, it almost immediately gets colder. I put on my jacket, a good trick with these sturdy harnesses. I also manage to raise Canadian flight services on 126.7 and report our new eta. I'm looking ahead to where Fredericton must be, waiting to see the airport. I think I see it but I can't be certain. You know, flying to unfamiliar destinations was harder before the ubiquity of the GPS. You had to find the destination by pilotage and dead reckoning.

We tune the mandatory frequency and listen to the flight services specialist at the field herding traffic. (Yup, it's an international port of entry and a provincial capital, but there's no control tower, just an FSS. The specialist tells traffic the winds and who else is in the area, and solicits position reports.) It's busy, and the specialist is working hard. They're using a runway that we're approaching at right angles. Fifteen miles back I have the picture of who is around. I call in and remember to leave the "Charlie" out of my call sign. The specialist of course has no trouble with the four letters and when she replies I give my position, eta and state my intentions to make an overhead join to downwind for the active.

I can see the runway, or at least I have seen enough runways in the past that I see the environs and know that that is the runway, but I'm waiting for Lite Flyer to find it, and trying to explain how she will join the circuit. "Just fly straight over the runway, and then hang a left and you'll be on downwind." She finds it, and then ATC calls back with a wind change. The wind is now favouring a cross runway and the specialist, who is skilled at telling pilots what to do without actually giving instructions, asks us if we would prefer a different runway. We would, even though it means me quickly contradicting myself, "Turn right to parallel that runway." I hasn't been sufficiently clear and she can't read my mind about which runway. "Turn right here, more right, more right." I can't usefully tell her to turn to a particular heading, because there's no heading indicator and the compass and GPS lag too much to be used to roll out. We get it sorted out, and while I think I did a little bit of direction ("fly direct the point of that island") for widening out to follow traffic, she planned the turn to final and made an unassisted landing. It was the best landing of the whole trip and I'm delighted. It's her airplane and she just brought it to Canada. She's less excited about the triumph than I would have expected. I think I'm more delighted than she is at the accomplishment. Maybe she's done lots of great landings before and I haven't seen them. Or maybe she doesn't see her own progress.

We taxi to customs and shut down. Lite Flyer calls 1-888-CANPASS on her cellphone to report our arrival. We're right on time, because the tailwind that made us early is balanced by a takeoff delay. She's on hold so she gets up to stretch her legs. I remind her that crossing to the US that she may not step out of the airplane until asked to by the customs officials, but here she's allowed to go to the payphone, just don't wander away. I stay in my seat.

She appears to be having some difficulty with the phone conversation, saying "no" and repeating information that was included in the pre-departure telephone call. She gets up and wanders around. I watch her on the left side of the airplane, and then I see a customs officer come out of the building with a clipboard, talking on a cellphone. He's on the right side of the airplane. It's a very small airplane, so I'm sure they can see each other if they look, but I don't think they're looking. I wonder if they are talking to each other.

Eventually they hook up and Lite Flyer explains that she is importing the airplane, has already paid the taxes by credit card. The customs officer walks slowly around the aircraft and there's something different about the way he does it. It isn't the "what a cool little airplane!" walk that we've seen over an over again. It's not me looking for anything broken, loose, leaking, frayed or bent. He stops and pays special attention to the plastic sponson. I think it's the "where could you hide drugs in this vehicle?" inspection walk. He asks more questions, looks at my passport and gives it back and then asks if we have any paperwork associated with the purchase. "That's half the weight of the aircraft!" I quip. Lite Flyer unstraps the knapsack full of paperwork and she and the customs officer go inside.

Meanwhile a Jazz CRJ has landed and taxied in. I look at it with a bit of a sigh in my heart, because I interviewed with them and didn't get on, but then I feel the grin on my face and bet myself that the crew of the CRJ don't have as big a grin right now. In fact, I bet they are looking at me. Sure enough, they disembark and they're both looking at me. I grin wider and make a "come on over" gesture. If there's one thing you an say about this airplane, it turns heads. I think I could park this next to any airplane in the world, and the pilots would get out and come and see me.

"Where's the water rudder?" the captain asks when he comes up. I explain that the bottom of the actual rudder is in the water after a water landing, so it doesn't need a separate water rudder. He says that the FSS told him to watch for a King Air as he was taxiing in, but that all he had eyes for was this airplane. He has 3500 hours of float time and jokingly offers to trade airplanes. I would, but I have to admit that it's not mine. I think it doesn't matter what you're flying, you always want to be flying what other people have.

The FO is a woman with grey hair, an almost unknown rarity in Canadian airlines. I think she's the first female airline pilot I've met who was not young and perfect. It's secretly inspirational because there are parts of me that have wondered if I have failed to advance in this industry because I don't have the right hair or qualify for a second career as the other sort of runway model.

The customs officer comes back and tells me that the airplane is cleared and that I'm welcome to go inside and use the washroom if I want. That was considerate of him. Lite Flyer is fielding telephone calls from friends and family. I understand there's a member of her family in Fredericton, so I'm waiting to find out if they are meeting us here at the airport.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Honeymoon Suite

Maine, it turns out, has mosquitoes. They're not the northern Canada swarms where naked skin instantly has a density of at least one mosquito per square centimetre, and they're not very big, but they do manage to land, saw little holes in me, and steal my blood while I'm post-flighting. They're pretty slow, though. I kill lots.

Other than a water bottle behind the seat there's nothing out of order. All the exhaust stack springs are attached with no disruption to their sealing. The propeller is pristine. So pristine that--and this is embarrassing--I notice for the first time that there is plastic film on the nickel edges of the propeller. You know how when you buy a new digital watch or a new cellphone there is a plastic film over the face so it doesn't get scratched in transit? It's just like that. Some people remove the plastic film right away and others insist that the film and the inspection and certification stickers are parts of the product and refuse to remove them. Apparently the manufacturer is one of those. The film adheres closely to the propeller, and as the propeller is up above my head level, my inspection is largely tactile. The change in texture at the film coincides with the change of texture between nickel and composite, so I've managed not to notice it's there until now. Perhaps today there are more wrinkles in it than there were before.

I finish my inspection of the airplane, but the mosquitoes are still busy inspecting me, so I unload our gear and head inside. The FBO is a little flying school with couches and posters and old magazines that aren't about things for people with way too much money. I spot a Montreal chart in the case. It's the one we're missing for tomorrow's flight, and I ask to purchase it. Someone on the couch tells me they're closed, but someone on a different couch says he'll sell me one anyway. It then turns out that I don't have the US cash to buy it, so I have to wait for Lite Flyer. Meanwhile they tell me stories about someone with the exact same type of airplane who flipped it in a lake near here. He was scud running in low cloud and high winds then decided he'd better put down and attempted a downwind landing on the water. He was uninjured.

Lite Flyer will never do that. I don't think she will ever push the weather, and she is very aware of wind direction. On one approach I remember getting the ATIS and the tower clearance and joining a right downwind as directed. She saw what I was doing and said, "shouldn't we join a left downwind?" already aware of standard traffic rules, but not that control tower instructions override standards. I explained and then she said, "we'll be landing with a crosswind." This was back on the first day and I wasn't expecting someone who had never listened to an aviation radio before to hear the ATIS wind, hear the assigned runway and correctly do the math. Turns out that's not what she did. She'd used the much more basic technique of looking out the window and interpreting the effect of wind on water and vegetation. I think she may be better than me at it. I do use such cues to confirm ground reports of wind, but she's clearly had good instruction in the importance and practice of knowing the wind.

Everyone here is concerned about the fact that we are buying Maine auto gas, which contains by law ten per cent ethanol. The manufacturer told us that up to ten per cent was fine, but the folks here contradict that. It's an interesting challenge that Lite Flyer will have with her airplane: sorting out what people say. She should certainly listen to the advice of more experienced pilots, but how to sort knowledge from lore and superstition? With a certified airplane, the manufacturer has the last word and it may be so far as illegal to operate the airplane other than in accordance with the manufacturer's instructions. For this airplane it's a good start, but a manufacturer in Florida will not be the one to go to for advice in operating this engine during a Canadian winter. For now I just thank people for their advice and continue to do what we were advised by the manufacturer. I will tell Lite Flyer before I leave her to her airplane that there may be other safe fuels for this engine, but that she will have to do some research.

And of course people find it necessary to tell us there's a hurricane come. I smile and say yes, it's been chasing us all the way from Florida. I'm still amazed that this thing isn't giving up. It's supposed to hit Halifax on Sunday.

Lite Flyer returns and we fuel the airplane, with the assistance of a pilot who has been in our situation, and is paying it forward. He was ferrying an airplane up the coast but had the usual luck of such endeavours, rather than the phenomenal everything-going-right luck that Lite Flyer and I have had. It's funny to see that she doesn't even realize how lucky we are. This pilot says he was three days in one place for mechanical and two days in another for weather, and that people just helped him out. That's pretty typical of aviation, I'm proud and happy to say. I can't think of a time I've had a problem and been met with a "your tough luck" attitude.

He knows the local hotels and gets us a rate at a nearby one that is on his way home. It is acting as the venue for a geezers' motorcycle convention, so we get the only room available, the luxury double with fireplace. At double the price of a recent excellent hotel, the room does not impress.

I lay out the charts on the floor in order to examine tomorrow's route. This one especially we can't just "wing" as we have to file a flight plan and a customs arrival report for the proper time. Charts have names. We're on the New York chart now, our destination is on the Moncton chart, and I've just bought the one that fits in between, Montreal. But they don't match. New York lines up with the southern edge of Montreal just as I would expect, but there is at least 30 degrees of longitude missing between Montreal and Moncton. I line up the 44th parallel on both charts and then the Montreal chart ends at the 69W meridian, while the Moncton chart barely goes west of the 68W meridian. I'm missing most of the terrain between the 68W and 69W meridians, about the width those two charts are set apart. I look again at the diagram that shows which charts cover which areas. Montreal is supposed to fit right against Moncton. And then I realize what's wrong. The Montreal VNC fits right against Moncton. I have the Montreal sectional, the American chart. They've given it the same name, and apparently there wasn't any American centre on the whole chart worthy of having a chart named after it, so they named it after the large Canadian city. The next chart over, I notice now, is called Halifax in the American version. And it doesn't cover quite the same area as the Canadian Moncton chart. This is actually a flight safety issue worthy of attention by Nav Canada and the American equivalent. Anyone know whom I should write?

It's not an insurmountable obstacle. I just like to have the right charts. I finish my planning without them and go to bed. We do not use the fireplace.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Clunk, Part II

For best results, read Clunk, Part I first.

There continue to be no control difficulties, engine changes, or airframe flutter and I decide against an immediate precautionary landing. Or maybe I just haven't decided to make one yet. Absence of a decision is a decision, after all. There are as many good sites to land ahead as there are in the immediate vicinity, and the larger airport at our intended destination is in a larger town, with more resources, if we need anything. I'm trying to think of the most dire thing that this could be. Parts falling off are going to make a distant and inaudible thud or splash, not a clunk. And the moving parts on this bird are mostly fabric. They simply aren't heavy enough to clunk.

I know that there are some springs securing the rear of the exhaust system to the front of the exhaust system, and that they are a bit of a weak point. While Lite Flyer was up on her test flight at the manufacturer's I had a look at their demo plane, and noticed that it had a one-piece exhaust system. "There are no springs on this one," I said to the wiring expert who was with me.

"Yeah, springs break and go through propellers," he said. "This is the new improved kind."

The springs on this one are all safety wired and have that orange gunk on them that you use to tell if a nut is starting to back off a bolt. They were all intact and wired down before this flight. But maybe under the right conditions a spring can make a heavy clunk. Aviatrix, who knows perfectly well that springs go sproing tries to rationalize. If something had hit the delicate little composite propeller I'd expect an engine vibration. If I really thought it was a spring, I'd be landing already, because if one goes, then there's more strain on the others.

While I'm thinking, I reach in the side pocket by my seat for my water bottle. I heard once that even two per cent dehydration has a measurable effect on cognitive ability. But damn: my water bottle is not there. Did I leave it in the FBO when I refilled it? No I didn't. I reach down behind my seat, down in front of the fuel tank. I find my water bottle. You might recall from an earlier posting that I eschew plastic water bottles and have invested in metal ones. The kind that go clunk when you drop them against a fibreglass-kevlar hull. "Listen to this," I say to Lite Flyer, and I drop the water bottle again.


Mystery solved. In the best possible way. My mouth went dry because while I can reach my hand back there and grab the water bottle, the space my hand goes through isn't big enough to pull the water bottle out through. It's like trying to get a pop out of an old fashioned ice-chest style pop machine where you have to pull it along to the right spot after you put the coins in.

I could tell you about the rest of that flight, but it would be an anti-climax, wouldn't it. And you've probably stopped reading already to berate me for stringing you along. So I'll wrap it up quickly. New Hampshire became Maine under our wings, and other than finally descending to a right-way altitude of 3500', we stayed high because there are a large number of very tall towers in that part of Maine. We tuned up the ASOS for KLEW and it favoured a landing on the small cross runway, but there was a lot of traffic on a crossing runway, which curiously is zero four. I say curiously, because this is still the United States and these are American accents in US-registered airplanes, but they are saying "zero four" not just four. Everyone is doing it. Must be the Canadian influence. I don't believe the US has decided to conform to ICAO runway numbering overnight.

I hear student pilot radio voices and instructor radio voices. Three airplanes are doing continuous circuits and other traffic is departing and arriving, probably from the local practice area. While I could arrange our approach to go under the downwind, it could be tricky to coordinate crossing an active runway with different speed traffic. With it being busy and having students around i want to do the most expected thing. I direct Lite Flyer to fly towards a point that will allow us to join "downwind on the forty-five," the most common US pattern entry. I think she is confused why I am sending her the wrong way, but I don't spend the words explaining, because I am listening to overly verbose student pilot radio calls, and looking out for traffic, trying to make sure I don't cut anyone off. We join, fly a close-in circuit and I take control to sideslip us in and clear the runway. There are a lot of GA aircraft here and I park in an unoccupied space and then go back to the flying school to confirm we're okay there overnight.

We take on the usual division of labour, with me securing and inspecting the airplane while Lite Flyer goes to convince strangers to help her get mogas. She's good at that.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Clunk, Part I

Despite local doubt in our ability to progress, we taxi out at Oneonta. I get Lite Flyer to make the call, and she says something reasonably similar to "backtracking" before we enter the runway and taxi out. I think she had me do that takeoff but I don't remember. I remember watching the trees pass below as we climbed out over them, with my hand guarding the throttle while I waited for a suitable altitude and position to pull the throttle back to climb power. The motto on the airport sign was City of the Hills but there are still landable fields around, and where there aren't, there are lakes. It's very freeing having any calm water be a suitable landing site!

The airplane has two throttle levers, one for my right hand and on on the other side for Lite Flyer's left hand. That's a kind of odd thing, because you can have your hand over the throttle and someone else can move it. Lite Flyer hasn't scared me yet, though, because she makes very gradual throttle movements. She has to watch out when she is levelling off because this airplane has enough power to go through Vne in level flight at climb power. The manufacturer's checklist has "flaps as required" after takeoff and "flaps up" in the cruise checks. I have been "requiring" them up in the after takeoff checks, as it would be very easy to overspeed them at level-off. While I'm on the topic of cockpit controls, I'll make it clear that the airplane has dual sticks. The shared controls include the brakes and the trim. The brakes are operated with two hand levers that would fall under my left wrist if I had an armrest. There is one brake on each main wheel, with a separate lever for each. I push the levers forward to brake, a little counterintuitve at first, especially as the levers sit right where I might expect throttles to. The trim is a stubby lever right between the brake levers. It's probably my least favourite control, but I talked with the manufacturer and he tried it in a number of places and that seemed to be the best of a bad list for airplanes that required full dual controls. If the airplane was to be fitted with only one set of controls he could put the trim on the side and that worked better. The trim lever is quite stiff while the controls are very light, so I find that in this airplane I more often 'trim and test' and trim again than trim to what I feel right away. That may also be the fault of the fact that a very small travel of the trim lever makes a big difference to the trim.

I'm expecting four to five thousand foot ceilings for the latter half of our flight, but the winds will be so much better at 5500' that I ask Lite Flyer to climb that high. Reaching 4500' I hear a change in the engine sound that I couldn't testify actually occurred, but that I don't like. Maybe it's just the batteries running low in my noise cancelling headset. Or it's all in my head like the "automatic rough running" you get over inhospitable terrain. I look at the gauges. The cylinder head temperature and oil temperature are high, just as one would expect in a steady climb. They are no higher than they have been in other climbs, but something tells me I don't like it. I ask her to level off for a moment, and set cruise power, just to let the engine cool off a little. So sue us if we're at a wrong way altitude.

The engine changes sound as she sets cruise power, of course, and now I can't say if I still hear or if I ever heard anything I didn't like. We continue at that altitude for a while and the engine temperatures come back down exactly as one would expect. The engine does absolutely nothing unexpected. I feel rebellious and exposed at the wrong-way altitude--going northeast we should be at 3500' or 5500', not 4500'--but I don't tell her to climb again. There are a few clouds above us and she is uncomfortable flying when her visibility is not 360 degrees. And for that matter I can already see that the forecast lower ceilings are going to occur. But I don't ask her to descend, because the terrain ahead will be higher and altitude is life insurance. Plus I want that tailwind. I just can't believe that we are this far north and could still run afoul of a tropical storm.

Winds are just about perfect here, giving us groundspeeds over 80 kts. We reach the New York-Vermont border perhaps an hour and a half after takeoff. I muse to Lite Flyer, somewhat puzzled, about the scepticism that we would make it this far. "They have airplanes. Do they only fly around in circles and not know how small the states are here?"

The ski hills start at the Vermont border, but I quickly see that I have nothing to fear terrain wise. The ski resorts are on ridges which themselves are neither very high nor very wide, and the terrain between them is flat and cleared. I didn't even detour from the straight line route through the pass as I had planned. There was an area beyond the ski resorts where the terrain became crinkly for a while, but its saving grace was that it was dotted with lakes. With this airplane, lake equals landing site.

We continue over an area marked on the chart for heavy glider use, but we spot no gliders. Vermont turns into New Hampshire, which looks the same but is flatter and has bigger lakes. I am tempted to go down and do a touch and go on one, just for fun. The wind is still at our backs, the GPS tells us we'll be in Maine within both daylight and fuel range, and all is well. And then there is a loud clunk.

Lite Flyer had the controls, but we both heard the clunk. "What was that?" she asks me.

No bullshit from me. "I don't know. Was there any feeling from the controls when it happened?"

Nothing. She heard the sound, but the airplane didn't jerk. The engine gauges haven't budged, and the engine is running smoothly. I take control and gently test the control authority about each axis. There is no binding, no difference from before. I direct Lite Flyer to look out her side as I look out mine, for anything flapping, damaged, bent, odd in any way. Neither of us can see anything. All the flying wires we can see are intact. The wheels are still visible outside the windows. There are no feathers or blood on the visible airframe. The baggage is secure, has not shifted, and is composed of small cloth knapsacks, anyway. There's nothing to go clunk.

And it was definitely a clunk, not a snap, not a whump. I'll leave you in suspense for a while to wonder, as we did what that clunk was. I did find out. And let me tell you, my mouth went dry.

Friday, September 12, 2008

We Love New York

The Maryland flight follower, Washington Center, I think it was, knew that we were just talking to him to stay away from anything related to the supersized restricted airspace. He released us to our own devices when we were clear of the great white blob, and we turned off the radio and returned to squawking VFR.

Lite Flyer spots an approaching aircraft not far above our altitude. I suspect it's descending into an airport on the other side of the river. On that flight path it should cross well in front of us, but I verify that our strobe lights are on and watch it to see if we will have to take evasive maneuvers. This one turns out to be a helicopter, which makes me watch it more closely, because it's now less predictable where it might be going. It crosses in front of us, a big black helicopter with markings I can't read, and it looks like it's going straight for the restricted airspace. Maybe it's a government helicopter on its way back from a 7-11 run to get marshmallows and beer for Camp David.

Lite Flyer is very conscientious about wake turbulence and we never pass near a larger (i.e. any) aircraft without her asking if we should be concerned about its wake turbulence. This one is no exception. Should we be concerned? Not right now. While a helicopter of any size can leave dangerous wake turbulence, the vortices drop below the aircraft and this one is close enough to our altitude that these will have dropped below us by the time we cross its flight path. Heck, at the speed we're going the helicopter will have landed and refuelled by the time we cross its flight path. But I shouldn't disrespect the little airplane. It's getting us there, and I've had an airplane with three times its speed and twice its fuel endurance take longer for a similar trip because of a mechanical delay.

We're over Pennsylvania now, one of the oldest states in the US. It has many historic buildings and bridges but still a surprising abundance of open green space. We're following a river that was probably used to transport goods in this area before there were any roads. It's wide and deep enough to be navigable, but not too fast-flowing or meandering. I can't find the name of the river on the chart, but I see a reporting point with a familiar name. "Look!" I joke, "It's Halifax. We're almost there."

We pass over what looks like a divided highway on the ground that ends abruptly without arriving anywhere. The two ends join up so you could turn around, and there are no construction vehicles or materials around the unfinished end. Curious. I could make up all kinds of stories about that. When I was a child I saw a highway interchange under construction and always hoped we wouldn't ever get onto one of those highway ramps that end in mid-air. Yes, I loved the movie Speed, which features exactly that.

Many old families here made fortunes in shipping and other 18th and 19th century industries. Perhaps some of this undeveloped land is included in their holdings or estates. We don't fly over any really conspicuously wealthy homes, but this isn't LA where the rich have a need to do that.

Pennsylvania gives way to New York. We are still over green rolling hills and fields, but the presence of the East Coast megacity makes itself known through a decrease in visibility. While I'm sure urban New Yorkers escape to this area to breathe easily, they haven't completely escaped the city pollution here. Yes, to those who were asking, we stayed inland to avoid the ridiculous mess of NOTAM-ridden airspace in the Washington. DC area, but avoiding the poor visibility that goes with dense urban areas is a nice bonus. There is a lot of light manufacturing around here, too. I know this not from seeing factories but from recognizing the names on the map from packages. Schenectady and Albany and places I've never been and am not sure where I read the names.

There are a few places in New York that are on our list of Mogas merchants but the only one that was near our route had a telephone number out of service, so we'll fly the most efficient route rather than see if they're still there anyway. I picked an airport about three and a half hours out of Maryland and only realize the problem with my choice as I'm descending for the circuit. I have no idea how to pronounce the airport name. I start with "On-On-Tah Traffic" and give my position, altitude and estimated time of arrival. Turns out there's a helicopter on the way there too, but I didn't listen carefully enough to that pilot's calls to catch the proper pronunciation. I was more interested in his position, altitude and ETA. I think we tried "Wun-On-Tah" and "On-E-On-Ta" and "O-Nah-Tah" and "On-On-Nah-Tah" and possibly "O-Nee-On-Ta." The helicopter was coming from another direction and obviously would be there before us, so we joined a normal circuit and came around to land. Lite Flyer is pretty good at judging the turns to base and final now and set up a nice approach for me to take the landing with a few knots of crosswind. We roll out and turn off at a little apron with the helicopter in front of the pumps at one end and a random jumble of Cessnas and Pipers in front of an FBO at the other. Two different people are giving indistinct marshaling signals in opposite directions, so we shut down haphazardly to go and see what they want. "Do you want fuel?" they ask.

"Yes," we respond, "But we're special needs."

They finish fuelling the helicopter, a black one with a crest on it that I never took the time to read, but the helicopter apparently is registered to the New York state police. The pilots, who were not uniformed police officers, were extremely polite and friendly, and are thoughtful enough to point out to us that the Huey has unusually strong rotor downwash, and to warn us of their impending departure. We pull our airplane back amidst the jumble of parked aircraft and hang on the struts like human tie-downs while someone else holds the rudder for us. The helicopter rotor blades spin up slowly, taking a long time to turn fast enough that I can no longer follow them with my eyes. Then the helicopter lifts and the pilots carefully slide it over to the runway before climbing away. It actually wasn't too bad, but much better than not being warned and having someone blow our tiny airplane into the next state. It was very considerate of them.

The crew at Oneonta are able to accommodate our need to drive for avgas, taking Lite Flyer down to the gas station and then lending her the truck to make the subsequent trip. I'm busy trying to flight plan but I've hit a snag. Lite Flyer has bought a line of connecting charts for the trip, but the connection between the New York chart (which includes part of Maine) and the Moncton chart (which includes Nova Scotia and New Brunswick) occurs offshore, and there is no way to plan a route that passes over land between one and the other. The Montreal chart, which the diagram of the way charts fit together clearly shows, is missing. I target Lite Flyer with passive aggressive criticism for this lapse, when really it's my own fault for not checking that more thoroughly, perhaps when we were at a larger centre last night. We can fake it on the GPS, but I don't want to trust the GPS for every dot of restricted airspace in the vicinity of an international border. I ask around to see if we can mooch a chart. Someone comes up with an expired IFR chart, for which I thank him gratefully. It's actually great for flight planning, because the scale is smaller, so I can see everything we have left to fly at once. It makes the continent look smaller, too.

I clear the ten-year old magazines off the coffee table and lay out my charts to see what is left. The rest of New York looks pretty good, then Vermont has some mountains with ski hills on them, New Hampshire has some lakes and Maine has more. It looks like we can get into Maine tonight, if all continues well. I choose a pass to take through the ski-hill mountains, and an alternate way if that route doesn't offer good forced landing opportunities. I'm hoping to land in KLEW, Lewiston/Auburn, Maine, and choose a couple of fallback airports in case winds or weather start to close in. They have a phone I can use to call Flight Services, and I note that when I choose New York as my state the automated voice asks me Eastern New York or Western New York? Every other large state I have flown in has been split north/south. The cold front I've been watching has slowed down a little bit. It's made it past Lake Michigan and is still heading for us. Amazingly that damned hurricane hasn't given up yet either. It has chased us all the way from Florida. It's supposed to hit Maine tomorrow night. Hasn't it read the textbook about hurricanes and southern latitudes? But who cares. We're not going to be in Maine tomorrow night according to my plans. There are a bunch of NOTAMs for unlit towers, some of them very tall, in the area of tonight's destination. I point them out to Lite Flyer when she's done fuelling, because I know she isn't keen on my "high altitude" flying, the way I keep insisting she climb to heady altitudes like 3500' or even 5500', and that she will probably favour the low and slow approach in her recreational flying. That's fine, but I just want to cement in her head the hazards of towers and wires, along with the fact that they often aren't lit, or even on the chart or aviation databases.

We thank everyone at the field for their various assistances and they ask where we're going. "We're hoping to make Maine tonight," we reply.

They laugh. "You're not going to be in Maine tonight in that thing! You're going to be in New York tonight."

We'll show them.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Executive Officer

At the apron in Hagerstown we were greeted by an FBO employee who marshalls us into place and lays out a red carpet. As we are a two door airplane he had to pick which side to place it, and it was on my side. Whee. He had military short blond hair and 1970s-style cop sunglasses. I guess they're in fashion for pilots, but Lite Flyer and I don't subscribe to that one. He's a little brusque, one of the first things he has to say is that the restricted airspace will expand tomorrow at ten a.m., did we know that. We assure him we'll be out of here early tomorrow morning, as soon as the fog clears. For a moment I'm willing to entertain the idea that he's some kind of security droid, masquerading as an FBO employee in order to keep a close eye on the people coming in and out of this facility, but he manages to disabuse me of this notion pretty quickly through his haste in assuring us how important he is.

He talks about the people and aircraft that may come through here tomorrow as if to imply that he knows far more than he's allowed to tell on the subject. He mentioned more than once that he knew the owners of the facility here, and was working because they needed someone. I was going to say that it wasn't any particular thing he said that really spoiled the impression, just the cumulative effect of everything he chose to say, but there's one signature phrase that stood out.

"I am an executive officer of my own company."

At another point he mentioned the presence of a number of Dash-7s on the field. It's a kind of funny airplane to have a fleet of in the States so I asked, "what do they use them for?" Captain Important makes a zipping motion of fingers on lips. One of his other jobs was as a balloon instructor, which I thought was pretty cool. I tried to engage him in conversation on that, because people are always more interesting when they are talking about their area of expertise, but he kind of skims over it, apparently it doesn't fit in with the aura of importance that he's trying to establish.

At this time he was an important person for us, as he had secured permission to use the company van to take us and a gas can to the gas station for our Mogas needs. The first gas station was closed "for technical reasons," but he found a second one a little further away. It turned out to be a Sheetz, with the food ordering touch screens right by the pumps, but the ordering screens were unserviceable. I snapped a photo of the astonishing list of regulations posted on the pumps. Note that I didn't read the regulations, there were just too many. I mentioned the list to a less important person at the FBO, who laughed and said that Maryland has the most regulations anywhere. "If someone has invented a piece of protective gear anywhere, it's required by law to use it in Maryland. I wonder if the very low flow rate on the gas pump was part of the protective mechanism. When you complain that a pump is slow to fill a five gallon can, you know it's slow.

After the second trip--we only had one five gallon can and needed ten gallons--we both thank him and Lite Flyer puts a folded bill in his hand. I don't know what she gave him, but he softened by an unexpected amount. We put the fuel in the airplane, secured it for the night and made our way to a hotel for the night. It was a fine hotel, probably the best of the trip and there were probably many fine restaurants around, but we were beat and opted for pizza delivery. Lite Flyer had the idea of calling the desk for a pizza recommendation instead of choosing randomly from the yellow pages, and it's just as well she did because twenty minutes later when the pizza company had our room number wrong the desk knew whom to call and ask, "Did you order a pizza with .. uh .. everything on it?" Lite Flyer and I have may be compatible in the cockpit, but our pizza topping preferences are incompatible so she had ordered half hers and half mine, making a strange-looking pizza. It was pretty good though and we ate as much as we needed before sleeping.

Next morning we planned our next leg over breakfast and got a ride to the airport. It looked fine, but flight services was calling our airport of departure IFR. The tower was reporting low visibilities. I couldn't really see the runway from the apron, so I'll have to believe them, and the rest of the briefing included poor visibility elsewhere. Plus, as the briefer put it, "At ten a.m. today, the President gets larger." The restricted area would expand to the full 25 nm. I guess Camp David has its own airport, buried inside that white circle.

A couple of helicopter medevac pilots who had just been going off duty when we were there last night were back on duty for the morning. They are on standby for twelve hours at a time, required to be airborne within five minutes if called. So they are essentially on a tether that keeps them within 200 metres of their aircraft at all times. They admired our little craft, easily the most interesting thing within two hundred metres of theirs, and I bored Lite Flyer by asking them lots of questions about how helicopter IFR approaches work.

Eventually, as it always does if you wait long enough, the fog cleared and we deemed ourselves good to go. I told Lite Flyer to leave the chocks in for the run up. "People are going to think we've forgotten to remove them, and they may come up and try to be helpful, so watch carefully, especially for people who come from behind and have forgotten our propeller is back there. Sure enough, she hasn't even completed the start checklist before I have to open the door to yell, "We know! We're doing a run-up!" at the helpful people who approach.

We take the time to warm everything up properly and check over the systems, then we shut down, remove the chocks, and call for taxi. The controller starts to assign us a runway then most likely takes a second look at us, because she switches us to a different one. It's a shorter runway, but it's also a shorter taxi, and directly into the light morning wind. She asks for a "tight left turn immediately after take-off," which we can see is needed for the airspace, and she can see won't be a problem for an airplane this small.

Lite Flyer does the take-off again but it is much poorer than her previous effort. I'm barking "tail up! tail up!" in between cries of "right rudder!" but she never raises the tail, just leaves it in the three point attitude until it mushes into the air.

Later she says, "I didn't know what you meant by tail down!" so possibly I don't even know what I was saying. Eventual debriefing determines that her earlier brilliant take-off was a fluke. In that instance she accidentally relaxed back stick as she set full power and then realized that she had done so, so pulled back at just the right moment to rotate. Pretty funny, but at least we've got it clear now. She brings it around to parallel the runway north. We tell tower we will follow the freeway until well clear of the restricted airspace, and they give us a flight following frequency too. Thursday is underway.