Sunday, December 28, 2008

New Year's Resolutions

Even though I was going to just let this silently post while I partied, I have to break radio silence to thank you all for so many wonderful comments sending me off on my blogcation. It is a great Christmas gift for me to hear about how so many different people from all around the world are enjoying the blog, and I'll definitely return to blog more before these warm glowy feelings have worn off.

For now, it's review and renew time for the New Year's Resolutions. Here's what I said at the beginning of the year.

In the year 2008 I was supposed to:

  • Do a hundred consecutive push-ups in good form.
  • Skip a thousand times without missing the rope.
  • Do my job with enthusiasm, skill and care.
  • Reconnect with twelve people I have lost touch with.
  • Stay happy, healthy and whole.

I didn't work diligently towards my New Year's Resolutions this past year, but I seem to have done pretty well anyway. I did manage to skip 1000 turns of the rope just now, but not without lots of misses, one every 50 to 100 turns of the rope, I'd say. I'm in my bare feet and the rope kept getting caught between my toes. My recovery from breaking my back in 2005 turns out to be like losing weight: something that not only has to be done once, but that one has to continue to maintain. I'm not sure what has shifted, but push-ups hurt my back these days, so I have to take a break every ten, but I got up to eighty. I am staying fit and healthy. Sometimes it's just because I'm having fun doing something that happens to be active. Sometimes it's serious thinking about the long-term health of my cardiopulmonary system and muscles and bones. And sometimes it's just because I caught Terminator 2 or Aliens on TV and who doesn't want a hot, hot action heroine bod?

I can't claim to have maintained unflagging enthusiasm for my job throughout the year, and I have made a few moves that betray less than perfect skill or care, but I do hang on to the knowledge of how lucky I am to fly for a living. It's a constant responsibility to keep my knowledge and planning ahead of the airplane and any emergency that might arise.

Here are my resolutions for 2009. Initially there were just two here, lightweights, but that was before I tested my skipping ability. When I sat down to edit this with the skipping rope endorphins racing through my blood, I added the third. I'll probably add a specific physical goal and a career goal after a month or so.

In 2009 I will:

  • 1. Never read the comments on YouTube videos or LOLcat cartoons. No matter how funny or intelligent the images, the comments will be illiterate and inane, and I'll regret the time spent reading them.
  • 2. Eat only the best chocolate I can afford.
  • 3. Whenever I can gain something of merit without risking anything but my pride and my Internet surfing time, I will make my best try to do it.

It's going to be a good year.

A few other aviation bloggers plan to post their New Year's resolutions today. I hope everyone is able to look back with pride at 2008 and wish you all the best fortune in 2009.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Airline Connections

I know I'm on blogcation, but this story will be stale in two weeks, and it's bugging me.

Last week, a pilot flying own airplane for fun with a couple of his friends attempted a touch-and-go landing on a glacier north of Vancouver. As he brought the airplane down to test the landing surface, it caught in the deep snow and flipped over. There were no injuries, the party had plenty of survival equipment, and the pilot and his two passengers were winched off the glacier by a rescue helicopter that same night. This would be a happy little Christmas story, were it not for the name of the pilot's employer.

According to the news report the pilot flies for Pacific Coastal Airlines, the same BC company that has suffered two fatal crashes in four months, attracting continuing media and TSB scrutiny, and turning this from a story about good preparation and competent rescue services to one about PCA screwing up again. My question is, who tipped off the press to the pilot's affiliation?

The media presumably finds out through regular channels that a SAR aircraft has been dispatched and three people rescued. How do you get from there to the fact that the pilot is a PCA pilot? The names of the three have not been released. But say the reporter gets a name, anyway, off the record, or perhaps flies by the site in daylight, reads the registration visible on the wing of the overturned aircraft, and looks up the name of the owner of the airplane. Now he's got a name. Maybe it's identical to the distinctive and unusual name of the man who captained the reporter's last flight. So did the reporter call PCA and ask them to confirm it's him? Did the reporter look the name up in the phone book and get some member of the family to confirm that the man was both the accident pilot and a PCA pilot? This is getting far-fetched. I'm not saying the pilot has an unusual name. It could be Smith -- which happens to be the name of the family that runs PCA.

Pacific Coastal VP Spencer Smith is quoted saying “It’s his airplane and he’s welcome to do whatever the heck he wants to do." That's true in a way. It's not illegal to land on a glacier, and I expect the pilot had flown few enough hours in the month that duty time was not an issue. I'll bet Spencer Smith would like to strangle him. Smith told the media the pilot did not wish to speak to them, so it doesn't appear the media received any information from the pilot. The TSB wouldn't release that sort of information: they just give age and licence type. The fact that the pilot held a commercial licence wouldn't be much of a tip off, because a lot of Canadians who have never worked commercially hold commercial licences.

The pilot's friends and co-workers would hear about this pretty quickly, and thus every working pilot on the west coast. But every working pilot on the west coast probably knows who the guy is sleeping with and what bar he was in when he almost got arrested that time in Calgary. But these things don't turn up in the newspapers. The pilot was probably smart enough to tell his employer to give the employer an opportunity to do damage control, but that doesn't add up to the media knowing It seems more likely that someone told the reporter this juicy piece of gossip. I'm sure it was shared at many a table this week, along with the gravy and mashed potatoes, but that's not the same as putting it out where it is going to reflect poorly on the company. It's not like the guy went out and got a DUI. It's more like he tried to turn around in a parking lot and skidded across the ice into a lamppost. Wrong place, wrong time, tough luck.

I know I have reporters reading this blog, and I don't mean to insult them by insinuating that they couldn't find out a thing like where a guy worked. I admit that it does make this story more interesting to know the connection, and the fact that Smith commented on it for the record very legitimately connects the two parts. It just seems that there's an even more interesting part missing if I don't know just how the connection was made.

So New Year's resolutions on the 28th and then I really do take a blogging break.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Annual Blogcation

I usually take a break from blogging about this time of year, so, as I mentioned last week, I'll be doing that again. Not many of you have been reading the last couple of weeks anyway. I'm shutting it down for a little longer this time, maybe as long as a month. And this time if I suddenly get a spate of unexpected interviews I won't interrupt my hiatus to blab about it. Probably.

I delivered a Christmas present to a friend in November, because I wasn't going to see her before January, and I was taken aback for a moment when she opened it then and there. Why wouldn't she wait until Christmas? Later I remembered that she is Jewish, so never grew up following that tradition. I spent a moment asking myself if I had committed a faux pas by giving her a Christmas present, but only for a moment. Of course I hadn't. If someone gave me a present or a happy greeting to celebrate Kwanzaa or the winter solstice or the end of Ramadan or the continued absence of the flying spaghetti monster, I'd be honoured. So on that note, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all my wonderful readers, whatever you do or do not celebrate. Have a good time, even if you're working Christmas and New Year's. As I originally wrote this I thought I would be, but I've just found out I'll be home for both. Even better when it comes as a surprise. Thank you for all your comments and e-mails this year, I'm delighted by the diversity and knowledge of my readers.

I was going to post my New Year's Resolutions today, too, but the Secret Cabal of the Aviation Blogosphere has decreed December 28th to be the day of the New Year's Resolution, so you'll get a bonus post then.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Girl Pilots

The client we are working with now charters different companies for their work. Sometimes we work side by side with the competition, and sometimes the clients come from one job with them onto a job with us. The companies we compete with seem to have pilots who are pretty much exclusively young males under twenty-five. Most are probably working their first multi-engine jobs. (Yes, after ten years in the industry, Aviatrix still has what is effectively an entry-level job. At least I have one). It a pretty good gig, and I expect if someone is that young they haven't had to work as hard as I have to get here. Maybe that shows in how hard they work once they're here. I don't really know what the problem was, but this customer was teasing them by calling them "girl pilots," because apparently they weren't willing to work very hard.

So far all the pilots we have sent to work with this customer have been female. I think they may have asked us if we have any men. (We do, but not under twenty-five). The customer admits to me that "girl pilots" was not the right appellation for the guys, because they now realize that this particular set of girl pilots come when we're called, ready to work, and will work to the last minute of our duty days. "You guys are better, so I guess they're baby pilots," he ventures.

I suspect that "girl pilots" was considered an appropriate epithet, the customer's expectation was that girls weren't going to work hard and do a good job. I don't want to contribute anything to the momentum of the pendulum that determines which gender it's okay to demean in any given decade, because I know damn well it swings both ways, but I'm pleased to have helped changed the expectation of at least one group of men.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Final Nexus

I finally got home and got an appointment to be interviewed for the final stage in the Nexus Pass application. I went to the site listed on the website, only to find out that the website was wrong. They sent me to the correct site, and I arrived within seconds of the scheduled appointment time, where they looked for my name on a list, checked it off and sent me to sit and wait. The seats were the kind that bother my back, so I picked up a pamphlet, disobeyed instructions and stood around to wait.

It was kind of funny watching the guys in the office. American customs officers all carry guns, and it looks kind of silly when people are typing at computers, answering phones, rolling around on swivel hairs and reloading their staplers with Glocks strapped to their thighs.

I was called up to the desk after not too long, to be interviewed by a very young American customs officer. It was pretty informal. We didn't go into a separate room or anything, I just stood at the desk while he sat in a tall swivel chair on the other side. He had some very standard questions to ask, mostly the same questions that were on the online application and was genuinely interested in the answers. I ended up telling him how he might go about getting a pilot licence, but recommending against flying as a career. Customs officer doesn't look like a bad career. Maybe he was specially trained to be relaxed and natural so as to get truthful answers out of me, but I think he was simply enjoying talking to people as part of his job.

After a while another guy, with a Canadian uniform, came back from a break and sat next to my interviewer. "Oh hey," said my interviewer to him, "You can jump in and ask any questions you have any time." He then explained to me, "This is a joint interview. He's the Canadian." The Canadian told his colleague he trusted him and mostly just spectated amused.

One of the questions was "Have you ever been fingerprinted before?"

"No," I said. "Well, only at Disneyworld."


"Yeah, they scan your fingerprint on the way in and link a hash of the data to your pass, so you can't share it with anyone."

My interrogator was boggled. "Have you been to Disneyworld?" he asked the Canadian. He had. "Did you get fingerprinted?" He hadn't, but allowed that a lot might have changed there since 1983. "Heh," said my interviewer. "In 1983 I wasn't even born yet. My parents weren't even married, still working in the fields."

This must be the most human customs officer I've ever met. Did he miss the class on acting superior and aloof? The last name on his badge was Singh. Hundreds of East Indian immigrants come to the US and Canada to work as agricultural labourers. His parents were probably scrutinized and questioned by someone just like him, who might still work here. This kid was a genuine American immigrant success story. For over two hundred years people have been coming from everywhere in the world to the United States and becoming part of the nation. I think that's very cool. I wrote this before another dark-skinned immigrant's kid became the President-elect of the United States. Canada is like that, too, with our last two heads of state (Michaëlle Jean and Adrienne Clarkson) being non-white first generation immigrants. I think people should be evaluated on their own merit, not on where they come from.

On one basis or another, Officer Singh approved my application. He and the Canadian signed it, took my fingerprints electronically, took my picture and gave me lots of brochures to read about how not to screw up in the Nexus programme. I had to go to another office for the retina pictures, but they weren't scary at all, no different than having my picture taken normally.

Now I can zip back and forth across the border for work more easily.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Injury or Death

I made someone stop and turn around so I could get a photo of this sign. I suppose there might be people who grew up on flat land with one storey underground buildings and never watched TV (or only watched Road Runner cartoons?), read books or were otherwise exposed to this concept, but wow. Does our gene pool need humans who don't equate falling over cliffs with serious injury or death?

And here's something else on the theme of injury, death and ignorance that made me laugh out loud.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Quantum of Solace

Naturally I had to see the latest James Bond movie, despite the poor reviews it has had, and so naturally I have to blog about it, or at least about the parts with airplanes in them. This entry doesn't contain plot spoilers, mainly because the movie doesn't have much of a plot. It was mainly a series of locations and stunts. I do reveal how one of the action sequences ends, and you might be able to infer from the post whether or not the bad guy gets his come-uppance in the end.

James Bond continues to live the high life, and the producers continue their association with Virgin Atlantic, leaving Bond to enjoy a cocktail in the fancy upper deck bar of a VA B747, en route to Bolivia. According to VA, you can actually get the Vesper cocktail on board, or if your first class travel plans don't involve VA, the link includes the recipe so you can mix your own. The scene is shot in a Virgin Atlantic cabin crew trainer near Gatwick. VA doesn't fly to Bolivia, but they did fly a charter to Panama for the film.

Every pilot who has ever flown outside the United States will cringe as Bond butchers the callsign of a British registered Challenger jet, reading off the registration as "Golf Zero Charlie Sierra Delta" when it's clearly a British registered jet, and contains only letters. It has to be "Golf Oscar." It's a mistake that American air traffic controllers make, but Bond is supposed to be a British secret agent, and qualified pilot. There's a slight possibility that the gaffe is an intentional shoutout to sponsor Coke Zero, but I doubt it because the Challenger in question is a real airplane, really operated by Ocean Sky, as it as in the movie, so the callsign is genuine, not scripted. The properties list must have simply called for "a business jet" however, because while Bond departs Haiti in a Challenger, he taxies to the ramp in Austria in a Lear. I guess he did one of his mid-flight air-to-air transfer stunts but it was left on the cutting room floor.

I can't complain about airplanes in this movie though, as the best scene in the movie was a good long segment of aerial combat with Bond in a DC-3 versus the bad guy in a Marchetti. The DC-3 mainly gets shot up, trying to evade its pursuer with some low canyon flying, which was real. Here's a clip showing the DC-3 owner and pilot, Skip Evans, including some shots of them filming the stunt. Yikes. I wouldn't fly like that in any airplane I know, and there he is doing it in a DC-3. That's why the chief pilot reams you out for 'pulling a stunt' when you do something stupid. I'm not criticizing: stunt flying is a whole different standard.

During the chase, smoke starts pouring out of one of the engines and then Bond moves a cockpit lever forward. The smoke increases, blinding the pursuer, and our heroes gain some headway. There's a momentary shot of an aircraft placard reading "feathering pump not fused." Bear in mind that I only saw the movie once, and that there's a known deficiency of the human memory to sequence events that happened in quick succession. At the time I was watching I either didn't notice the smoke before the lever movement, or didn't mark it as unusual --it's a DC-3 after all: I was in the yard of a large DC-3 operator watching flames coming out of an engine during start up, and no one who worked there thought it a noteworthy event. It initially looked like Bond moved a lever forward and smoke poured out of the engine. It had looked like a propeller lever, but I speculated that it was a mixture lever and he was enriching the mixture so much the engine smoked. It wasn't a mixture lever though, so then I'm wondering maybe it was both props, just before increasing throttle, but they cut away before they showed that part?

The "feathering pump" placard had me wondering what that had to do with anything. I found an online DC-3 manual and the Propeller section confirms that the electrical feathering pump indeed has no circuit protection. It is an electric oil pump that uses high oil pressure against a piston in the propeller hub to drive the propeller blades to the feathered position. When the piston reaches the stop, oil pressure continues to increase. At 600 psi the pump trips offline.

More details than most people want on such things, from a Dutch accident report:

The system is powered by an electrically driven gear type oil pump controlled from the cockpit by momentarily pressing the feathering button in the overhead panel. An electrical solenoid will keep the feathering button in the depressed position. This action will activate the feathering pump, which is mounted on the front side of the fire wall. The pump takes oil from a separate part of the engine oil tank and feeds it under high pressure, while hydraulically disconnecting the governor by shifting its high pressure transfer valve, to the propeller blade angle changing mechanism in the propeller dome. This high pressure oil acts on the aft side of the propeller piston forcing the piston to its maximum stop. This movement of the piston turns the blades, via a bevel geared cam and bevel gear segments on the blades, from the actual blade angle through the coarse blade angle range to a blade angle of 88°, which is the feathered position in which the blades are streamlined in the flight direction. When the piston is at this maximum forward position the feathering oil pressure will rise. At about 600 psi a pressure cut-out switch in the feathering oil line, mounted on the governor will automatically switch off the electric power to the solenoid of the feathering button, releasing this button and interrupting electrical power to the feathering pump. Feathering takes approximately four seconds.

In all likelihood, any cockpit lever movements were just an actor moving things to be dramatic, and the placard was just in the shot because it was in the cockpit and required for FAA certification and I wasn't supposed to take anything from any of it. Here's a clip from the scene, but it doesn't show the levers being moved. [The movie was embedded in this blog, but it was redirecting people who didn't have the right plug-ins, so I took it out.]

Here is a clip showing the

At the end of the sequence, Bond pulls the DC-3 up into a vertical climb and then he and the female lead escape out the back using a single parachute, which opens less than ten metres from the ground, but they are both okay. Mercifully the now-unmanned airplane crashes off camera. I didn't want to watch a DC-3 airframe destroyed for the purpose of a movie, even if it was just a junkyard hulk.

From a James Bond movie I don't expect any more than I got in the way of plot. It had a twist, but it didn't make any difference. For me the movie suffered from too much punching and smashing and not enough smarts and witty banter. An added DVD feature for movies could be the optional display of countdown timers during action sequences: Plot Resumes in 3:38, so that those of us who are only interested in who wins the punching know we have time to go to the refrigerator. To be fair, there could be a similar countdown on talky exposition scenes: Action Resumes in 2:59, so the guys would know when it was safe to go for a beer without missing anything they like.

My favourite line came from M, right after what I'll call the unexpected end to their torture session. I won't spoil it, because it may have been the most unexpected moment in the film. I thought the make-up job for one character's supposed burn scar was poor. Until the character history was revealed, I thought it was a coverup for a tattoo on the actress. There was a nice visual and thematic Goldfinger reference, and they did a good job of following that theme through the movie, right to the final revenge.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

On Javelin Jets and Tree Climbing

I'm going to let someone else blog for me today. This is a long article from an aviation journalist about why people buy jets, why pilots like flying and why he likes climbing trees instead.

Update: My original misspelling suggested a coffee-powered jet. Mmmmm. But fixed, now.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Segmented Weights

When I blogged about how to calculate the loaded weight of an airplane, lots of folks pitched in with other related issues, like how much a planeload of passengers really weigh. At my current job, I work with the same people for weeks at a time, and if I'm going to pick up someone new, the people I'm with can tell me, often with mirthful laughter, how much I should allow for the weight of their colleagues. So I always use actual weights or my own best estimates based on looking at people and lifting cargo.

I linked already to the recently revised Canadian standard weights for males, females, children and infants, and reader Christopher linked to a Transport Canada document proposing new changes to weight and balance practices for small airplanes.

The report describes the limitations of applying standard weights to small aircraft weight and balance calculations.

Companies will naturally try to maximize the load to optimize the service and remain competitive with other companies. This means that, on any given day, many flights operate at close to maximum gross weight on paper when, in fact, some of these flights are operating above maximum gross weight.

Statistical probability dictates that the smaller the sample size, the more the average of the sample will deviate from the average of the larger universe. Because of this, the use of standard average passenger weights when transporting 9 or less passengers does not provide an acceptable level of confidence for ensuring compliance with aircraft weight limitations.

The TC document points out that the law requires the operator to ensure not that the airplane is within limits on paper, but that No person shall operate an aircraft unless, during every phase of the flight, the load restrictions, weight and centre of gravity of the aircraft conform to the limitations specified in the aircraft flight manual. It suggests two solutions, using actual passenger weights and something called segmented weights.

The situation it describes is absolutely true. Pilots do the weight and balance according to standard passenger weights and not according to the size of the actual passengers. When you fly a charter in an eight-passenger airplane, you're generally flying a group of related people. People in a family share eating habits and genetics, so if one is heavy, you typically have a group of eight heavy people. The northern diet is heavy on pop and potato chips, and thus the northern resident is heavier than the average Canadian.

Using actual passenger weights is already an option, and some operators already use it. Northern passengers put up with all kinds of indignities, and I didn't see anything to indicate that the culture of thinness was ingrained to the point that people would be grievously offended by a weigh in before boarding. One problem is that the passengers don't usually show up in time for the pilot to do the calculations between when they arrive and when they board. A smart pilot precalculates the weight and balance for the whole day, before she sees a single passenger. So what is this segmented weights, thing? I've never heard of it before. It looks like statistics. I have some mathematics training including one pathetically easy statistics course, so I should be able to figure this out.

It's like I'm returning to the original purpose of the blog: learning things!

This concept involves adding a portion of the standard deviation to an average weight in order to increase the confidence that the actual weight of a passenger and carry-on baggage will not exceed the resultant, increased weight value called segmented weight.

For a large sample, like two hundred people on a large jet, chances are good that the pounds carried on board by people who weigh more than population average will be balanced by pounds not carried on by people who weigh under that average. But as the number of people boarding decreases, so does the probability that their average will be significantly different than the population average. So as the number of people boarding decreases, you need to add a fudge factor to hedge against the possibility of having a load of biggies throw off your W&B. As the seating capacity goes down, the fudge factor per passenger goes up.

People with more statistics training than I have have worked out a table and state that if I use the row appropriate to the seating capacity of my airplane and the column appropriate to the male/female ratio, I will have a "95-percent confidence level and a 1-percent tolerable error." That apparently means "good enough for the government." This all assumes that the current standard passenger weights do accurately reflect the overall average weight of that portion of the public who travel on airplanes, weighted by their frequency of travel.

The chart has a bit of a problem for someone doing row-by-row seating. Lets say I have an eight passenger airplane, full in the summer, with two guys in the back, a man and a woman in the next row, two women in the next and two guys up front. That's five guys and three women, a 62/38 M/F split, so I guess I'll use the 60/40 column. Therefore according to the Canadian summer chart, I count my eight people at 215 each, for a total passenger weight of 1720 lbs. That works fine for the weight, but how am I supposed to do the row-by-row balance? My best guess is that I should use the figure of 192 lbs for the women and 231 lbs for the men, because those are the figures I'd use per passenger if the load were all female or all male respectively. That would give me a total of 1731 lbs in the final W&B. So can I put on that extra eleven pounds of fuel or not?

Okay, maybe it's because I rounded the 62% to 60%. If the load were half men and half women, the average would be 211, for a total weight of 1688. Four women at 192 lbs plus four men at 231 lbs adds up to 1692. That's only four pounds off, but what is the pilot supposed to do with those four extra pounds in the paperwork? You have to do the math row by row, because you may have to swap men and women back to front to get the CofG to work out.

I don't think these new weights will change the amount of weight on a typical charter flight. If the pilot would have flown with the load under the old rules but it comes out as overweight using the new rules, the pilot will either take fuel out of the paperwork, but not out of the plane; or they'll officially use "actual weights" and pilots can be really bad carnival weight guessers.

Meanwhile examining the tables closely tells me some interesting things. We're told that Transport Canada allowed eight pounds for summer clothing in determining passenger weights from the health survey weights, but they advise pilots to add ten pounds to volunteered weights. That means that Transport Canada assumes the average Canadian passenger lies about his or her weight by taking off two pounds.

Comparing the FAA and Transport Canada tables, we see heavier passenger weights in the former table in each category. I thought the difference might be carry-on rules but they actually mask a greater difference, because the American table includes only six pounds per person for carry-on baggage while the Canadian table includes thirteen pounds of carry-on bags per passenger. Both tables are recently updated. It's not a clothing difference either, because I'm comparing summer weight to summer weight. Canadians add six pounds for winter and Americans add five. Conclusion: Americans weigh more than Canadians, but Canadians have heavier parkas and boots.

Also: airplane missing in the Bermuda Triangle.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

High Crash Location

Moose kill more people than bears in northern Canada.

Sometimes along the side of the highway they'll post a silhouette of a moose about to cross the road. I'm not sure if they are intended as a reminder to be vigilant, or as a kind of reward for the vigilant driver who keeps scanning the shoulders for a wildlife ambush. Sort of the way they plant real drugs in suitcases to give drug-sniffing dogs a payoff from time to time and keep them from getting bored.

Monday, December 15, 2008

New Licence

As you may remember, I renewed my flight instructor rating this summer in order to allow Lite Flyer to log our ferry time as a student pilot. The examiner signed the back of my licence and filled in the rating renewal information there. That allowed the old licence to serve as a new licence for 90 days, or receipt of the new licence, whichever came first.

It's been more than 90 days, but when I got home and went through all my mail, none was the characteristic brown envelope containing a blue paper from Transport Canada. I called my local Transport Canada office to ask about its whereabouts. The clerk looked up my record and said that no licence had been issued, but admitted that they were well behind. She transferred me to another office where I spoke to someone who looked through her pile of paperwork and declared that nothing for me was there. No paperwork had been received for my licence renewal. I called the examiner, who fortunately remembered me, and vowed that he had submitted the paperwork. He made some phone calls himself and then called me back. Apparently there was an office reorganization that week and a number of people just didn't get their licences.

He thanked me for following up and promised that it would be reprinted and mailed ASAP, then offered to fax me a temporary licence immediately. I didn't need it urgently, so I said I'd wait for the mailed one. It arrived the next day. Wow. I didn't know our postal service could be that good.

Inside the envelope was my new licence (I still haven't got used to seeing lower case letters on a Transport Canada document) and an application for for a new one. A new one? Transport Canada has finally moved on the issue of photo identification on licences, and they want commercial and airline transport licence holders to apply for them now. I have to go and get a passport photo taken. It says that all ATPLs and CPLs in the old format will be replaced by March 31, 2009. Considering they are just getting the application form to me now, I'm not really confident their timeline is going to work, but I'll apply now. My actual passport expires soon too so I can get all the photos done at once.

Also, an Air Canada Jazz Dash-8 slid off the end of the runway in North Bay, Ontario. The article says it overshot the runway in fog, but it's not clear whether they mean that it touched down late, or that it touched down normally but had insufficient braking action. No one was hurt and the landing gear didn't collapse, either.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


I watched Flightpath with Jodie Foster recently. I watch pretty much anything with airplanes in it, even if it's not really an airplane movie, as this wasn't. It was instead a version of the ancient "Mother has lost her child and no one else will believe her" plot. The oldest version I know of that story is the changeling myth, not coincidentally the namesake of a current movie, same theme, starring Angelina Jolie. I haven't seen the latter.

The airplane in Flightpath is the fictional "E474" a A380-like airplane. Its engines were designed by Fosters character, who nevertheless knows every closet, access panel and electrical relay in the whole aircraft. More interesting than the movie was the director's commentary. The crew of the movie apparently went around to aircraft manufacturers and airplane scrapyards looking at layouts and hatches and access panels on all different aircraft. At one point a staffer was in a copyshop, photocopying an aircraft manual for use as a prop and the copyshop called the police, who called the FBI, who called Homeland Security, who showed up to find out if they were terrorists. The anti-terror sentiment was so strong that in the end they deliberately disregarded the research thy did on where the hatches actually were and went with the common airplane movie device where the protagonist can escape from the airplane washroom into a gigantic loft where they can short out all the airplane systems and plunge the aircraft into darkness by crossing a couple of wires.

Another part I liked was the comment that the studio had "pretty much one cockpit that was used in every movie for the last ten years. It was destroyed on Cast Away when they drove it into the water tank and shorted everything out." I'm going to be watching old movies with an eye for that now. I like to compare scenes from different movies. Maybe someday I'll get software that allows me to splice them together to make a visual commentary on similarities.

I suspect I blogged about the same thing last time I watched this movie, but I couldn't find the entry. And hey, I rewatched it so you can reread it.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

If the Seat Fits

The Sup reme Court ruling that Air Canada, Jazz and WestJet must provide an extra airline seat free of charge to persons requiring an attendant or who do not fit in a single seat has engendered a lot of discussion, even in other countries. Most public comment I have seen agrees with the concession for an attendant, but has been incredulous or mocking over accommodating the obese. The latter part of the decision is unique.

In a way I have no opinion on this. (So why am I blogging about it, eh?) I can see plenty of arguments both ways and don't pretend to know more about the laws of the land than the judges who rendered this decision. I see some odd issues in application though. Will there be a box to check on the online booking form if you need to be accommodated in this way? If you're not big enough to require two seats, what happens if you say you are? Is Air Canada going to look at you and say, "I'm sorry sir, but you're not fat enough to have an extra seat without paying for it"? Are non-obese people going to claim that they are being discriminated against because they can't get extra hip and shoulder room for free? I don't think anyone in the "almost" category is crazy enough to gain twenty pounds in order to make the grade for an extra seat, but I just don't know, do I?

The reason I'm blogging on this issue at all is to pass on a comment made on the Airline Biz Blog by someone identified as Jenny. She says:

To say that you should not accommodate a disabled obese person because they got that way themselves is ignorant. Would you then not accommodate someone with cancer if they got cancer from smoking? Would you not make concessions for a quadriplegic because they took known risks in a dangerous sport and got injured? What if they were paralyzed while driving drunk? Where do you draw the line? Many disabilities are the result of poor judgement. Disabled is disabled.

This MSN article outlines four options the airlines could take to determine eligibility for an extra seat under the policy. They include from self-declaration (but the author seems confused about the benefit, because suggests that skinny people would declare to be obese in order to save money), a doctor's note, body mass index, and actual measurement by the airlines. They've had those baggage-sizing devices for years; I'm sure I'm not the only one who has joked about putting a butt-sizing device next to it. On January 10th it might be reality.

But please don't eat too much over the holidays. I don't think the extra seat is worth it.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Tailwind (Part II)

A while ago I posted a picture of my airspeed indicator and my GPS and asked you to calculate my tailwind. It's slightly harder than it looks, and you were missing a couple of pieces of information required for the complete calculation.

The airspeed indicator is showing 149 kts and the GPS 223 kts, so if you assume that the former is how fast the airplane is moving through the air and the latter is how fast the airplane is moving over the ground, it would seem completely reasonable to subtract them to determine how fast the air is moving over the ground. And that's how you arrived at your first collective guess of 74 kts.

The problem with that argument is that the airspeed indicator is calibrated to show true airspeed only at sea level and standard conditions. At higher altitudes or significantly non-standard temperatures, it needs to be adjusted to get the true airspeed, i.e. the speed the airplane would be going over the ground in zero wind. The true air speed increases with respect to the indicated airspeed by about two percent per thousand feet above sea level. I see from the GPS that I'm flying at about 9500' asl, so an in-the-head calculation has the true airspeed about 19% higher than the indicated, or 178 kts. That would suggest a tailwind of 223 minus 178, which equals 45 kts.

That is pretty rough, and assumes standard conditions. To get more precise than the two percent rule-of-thumb, you'd need to know the calibrated airspeed, the outside air temperature and the pressure altitude.

I didn't give you--and indeed didn't record--the outside air temperature but I think I had mentioned temperatures around freezing: raining some days and snowing others, and that a warm front was approaching, so you wouldn't be wrong to guess that after the arrival of that warm air mass there might be surface temperatures below standard but above freezing, around 5 to 10 degrees C. The temperature can be expected to drop off about 2 degrees per thousand feet of altitude, so at 9500' it might have been -5 to -10, and I recall -10 being about what I saw on the OAT gauge.

You know I was VFR on this trip: I think I mentioned the holes in the dashboard where some of my IFR instruments ought to be, and you see that the bearing is southeast. Therefore, according to what in Canada are still known as the cruising altitude orders I should have been at an indicated odd thousand foot altitude plus 500'. The GPS shows me at 9359', so that confirms that I was flying at an indicated 9500'. The difference between GPS altitude and indicated wouldn't be 2000' at these temperatures over prairie. (In very cold temperatures with mountain wave effect the GPS altitude could be 3000' lower than indicated). The difference between indicated altitude and pressure altitude depends on the altimeter setting, but I already sent my operational flight plan from that leg into company for filing, so I don't have the recorded altimeter setting to calculate from. We'll assume standard pressure, so that pressure altitude would be the same as indicated. It wasn't far off.

Calibrated airspeed corrects indicated airspeed for position error, but in cruise this difference is negligible, so I'll stick with 149 kts as the CAS.

I then use an E6B flight computer to crunch the numbers. I don't have one with me as I type, so I used a simulator from the web. Punch in 149 kts, -10C, and 9500' and I get 168 kts TAS. And 223 minus 168 equals 55 kts.

There's actually a calculator built right into this particular airspeed indicator, as someone pointed out, but the photograph is not clear enough to show it. (The reader who zoomed in and read the TAS there anyway may have seen it correctly, but I hadn't set that calculator, so its indications were meaningless). If I had used it, I would have set the pressure altitude opposite the outside air temperature at the top, then the needle that shows 149 kts on the main scale would also be pointing to a value on the white, outer scale, which would be the true airspeed. I'll try to get a better photograph of it sometime.

This is the reverse of the calculation one does to determine how long it will take to reach destination given a particular wind. But most of us cheat and use computer programs that do that for us now.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Getting Behind

When I get home from work I pick up all my mail and dump everything that isn't screaming urgent onto my desk, Then I dump all the receipts, and other paperwork leftover from the shift on my desk. And remember I'm at work for a month or more. After a while that looming pile of paper gets really scary. Today I tackled it.

I won't just pick everything up one at a time and deal with it, because I need to have all the bills to make sure I don't pay one twice, and I don't want to spend time on non-urgent things on top when there are urgent things at the bottom I should deal with. But I know the risk of sorting things into neat piles and to-do lists: the very act of doing that gives me such a sense of accomplishment that I take a break and then I don't get anything done but the sorting. So I tried a new sorting algorithm.

I sorted everything into piles:
  • To Do (Mandatory) - Things that will cost me serious amounts of money, or my licence, if I don't do them.
  • To Do (Ought To) - Things I don't have to do but I will feel guilty if I don't
  • To Do (Would Be Nice) - Things that would be nice if I did, or fun to do, but can be ignored, guilt and consequence free
  • Reuse/Recycle - Paper I can make to-do lists on, envelopes I can keep per diem expense receipts in, and paper that can go in the blue box.

Employment expenses for 2008 taxes, booking an aviation medical and packing for work (yes, I have to do my laundry and repack as soon as I get home) go in the Mandatory pile. Christmas shopping, answering personal letters and getting a new phone plan go in the Ought To pile. Blogging is in the Would Be Nice pile.

Lucky for you, I caught up before I ran out of posts. But I'm going to take a break soon, anyway.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Iconic Changes

I saw a "do not put in garbage" icon on the back of a TV remote today and noticed that it depicted a tub with wheels at one side so it can be tipped up and rolled, not the Oscar-the-Grouch style ridged metal can that I expected. I guess that's what garbage cans look like today. The only one on my street that doesn't look that way turns out to be in use as a planter. not a garbage can.

That startled me. Usually icons depict what something looked like one generation of technology earlier. The "telephone" icon depicted a dial long after pushbuttons were ubiquitous. The airplane silhouette signposting a small airport has the rounded wings and stabilizer of a 1940 Piper Cub and the jet pointing the way to the international airport is probably a B747. The children on the pentagonal blue school crossing signs look like refugees from the 1950s. What would the children look like if they redesigned that sign today? I hadn't realized that the wheelie bin had already become so ubiquitous as to define garbage in an icon.

There's an easy reason why the wheeled bins are so popular in real life, and that's that a big tub of garbage is really heavy. In the old days you kept your garbage cans just inside your property line, by the street. You took out individual bags of garbage and carried them through the garden and/or garage to dump them in the bin, and then on garbage day you dragged the heavy bin to the curb. There was a reason that taking out the garbage was traditionally Dad's job, and that was that Dad had the best chance of deadlifting a hundred pounds of cabbage and pizza boxes. Nowadays anyone can roll the bin all the way from the kitchen to the curb. Progress!

The same sort of thing has happened in aviation. Most jobs no longer require the pilot to roll and load fuel drums, and even when they do, there is usually technology like forklifts available, so as long as the pilot can lift 50 lb suitcases into the baggage compartment, she doesn't need to be superhuman.

Mind you, the woman who won't take out the trash in this cartoon is a supervillain, so that argument shouldn't apply to her. She's just lazy. Or evil. Now I'm wondering if the reader who drew the line at mocking Indiana Jones will interpret this post as feminist. He probably gets people calling him "chauvinist" when he's doing nothing more than describing the world from his point of view. Vive la difference, right?

Also, please ignore the political content of this CNN piece and look at the northern community depicted. It's very familiar to me. A hundred and fifty people, mostly if not all native in extreme isolation in a cold northern location. They look like they're doing okay, though. The camera shows houses with siding and real windows, kids in school who look pretty healthy, and can name a neighbouring country; sober adults with opinions, someone doing something with trash other than leaving it where it lies. I'm sorry to say that I've been in communities lacking this much. I suppose their very isolation is protecting them from drugs and alcohol.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Google Brain Transplants

My news aggregator caught this story because it features an airline, and while it isn't really airline news, I want to blog about it.

The synopsis is that a surgical team managed to grow a new windpipe for a patient who was dying of tuberculosis, using a donor windpipe from a deceased person, and stem cells from the patient's own bone marrow. They chemically stripped the cells from the donor windpipe, then convinced the stem cells to become cartilage and regrow a new windpipe using the template provided by what was left of the old one. (Biology-type people, please tell me what is left when you remove cells from a biological part. Dirt? I was under the impression that a human being was entirely composed of cells).

Stem cell research mainly makes it into the news when it's involved in the ethical question of using foetal tissue for research. It's bandied around by politicians as a theoretical, so I'm embarrassed by how taken by surprise I am by the present practical application of this research. The smiling 30-year-old woman in the linked article is breathing today because someone grew her a body part in a laboratory. Why has this not been on the front page of my newspaper? This is huge. I'm sure I have doctors and biologists among my readers. Is this not a medical advance as great as any in the history of medicine?

Airplanes come into this because the windpipe was grown in Bristol, England while the patient was in Barcelona, Spain and the whole thing could only survive for a few hours outside of the laboratory or patient. The airline refused permission to take the human tissue onto the airplane. (More than 100 mL of fluid, I presume). There must be a policy for transport of donor organs that could be tapped, and I have to fault the medical staff for not prearranging transport before taking the windpipe out of the laboratory, but they did solve the problem.

Someone knew someone who had a PPL and they managed to scare up a private airplane and pilot and get everything to the right place in time to do the surgery.

Oh and speaking of advances in medicine, I saw the most recent X-Files movie and damn, that was painful watching Scully the brain surgeon do her medical research by typing "stem cell therapy" into Google the day before the operation.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Changing Weather

Recently when I pulled up the TAFs on my computer I had a surprise. Тhe format of the coded aviation forecast was a little different.

TAF CYUL 020238Z 0203/0224 21010KT P6SM BKN025 BKN040 TEMPO 0205/0209 6SM -SHRA BKN020
BECMG 0208/0209 22017KT
FM020900 22017KT P6SM BKN025 BKN040 TEMPO 0209/0212 3SM -SHSNRA
FM021200 24020G35KT P6SM OVC015 TEMPO 0212/0218 3SM -SHSN SCT015 BKN030
FM021800 25020G30KT P6SM BKN030

I'm used to subtle changes from region to region. Even though there is a nationwide standard, itself a subset of the international standard, individual stations and centres develop quirks based on the preference of the old guy that the newbies copy. For example, many places in Canada have variable direction winds, but there's only one place I can think of that frequently uses the codes to show the amount of variation. But this TAF change is a big difference, not a little quirk. I suspected a nationwide change.

Previously that would have been coded like this:

TAF CYUL 020238Z 020324 21010KT P6SM BKN025 BKN040 TEMPO 0509 6SM -SHRA BKN020
BECMG 0809 22017KT
FM0900 22017KT P6SM BKN025 BKN040 TEMPO 0912 3SM -SHSNRA
FM1200 24020G35KT P6SM OVC015 TEMPO 1218 3SM -SHSN SCT015 BKN030
FM1800 25020G30KT P6SM BKN030

Those who don't know how to read TAFs are probably laughing at me calling it a big difference. But there's a meaning to standard and that is that one guy doesn't get to use a slash when someone else isn't. I checked other regions to see if the change was everywhere. And it is. Here's Winnipeg.

TAF AMD CYWG 020428Z 0204/0224 19020G30KT P6SM BKN050 OVC070 TEMPO 0204/0207 1SM -SNPL VV006
FM020700 20020G30KT P6SM SCT070 TEMPO 0207/0212 P6SM -SN BKN040
FM021200 28020KT P6SM OVC030 TEMPO 0212/0224 3SM -SHSN OVC015
BECMG 0216/0218 32025G35KT

I could see the difference of course: the old validity block 020324, meaning valid beginning the 2nd day of the month at 0300z up until the 2nd of the month at 2400Z was being made more explicit with the day of the month specified for both the beginning and ending time: 0203/0224. Up until now pilots have been considered smart enough to figure out that a validity of 022206 meant that the first time was in on the 2nd day and the second time on the following day. It's kind of like if you're told "we're having a party on the 2nd of March, from 8 pm to at least 2 am, so drop in any time." You know not to turn up at 2 am on the 2nd of March. Clearly the 2 am being referenced is very early on the 3rd.

But why were they changing it? If anyone believed that people were having accidents because they couldn't tell what day the TAF was for, either they or the accident-prone people were probably attending 2 am parties before making decisions. And if they were going to change that for clarity, then why not make other obscure parts of the TAF clearer? And how do you offset the risk to people who are used to the old codes and make errors because things are being rearranged on them?

I checked the amendments in the latest AIM issue and sure enough it tells me:

Effective November 5, 2008, the format of the Canadian TAF will be modified in accordance with Amendment 74 to ICAO Annex 3, to extend the validity period to a maximum of 30-hr. To accommodate this extended validity period, a two-digit date will be added to all times in the TAF.

So TAFs might someday cover thirty hours instead of the twelve or twenty-four they cover now. That makes sense. Curiously, Vancouver seems to already have a longer TAF. The last two issued have begun:

TAF CYVR 020240Z 0203/0306
TAF CYVR 020538Z 0206/0312

That's twenty-seven and thirty hours, respectively. I suppose that's for flight planning in long flights from Australia and New Zealand. Recent accidents for Qantas and Air New Zealand have nothing to do with trans-Pacific weather, but the latter is shocking enough to be worth mentioning even on such a poor segue. The NZ articles contain some of the most ridiculous aviation speculation ever written, but some basic facts are there, and a picture. I'll probably do a post on it when more information is available.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Homeward Bound

My replacement pilot is here and my flight home is booked, so there is no impediment to my leaving. I even have breakfast with my co-worker, because he's not working today. There is a large area of freezing rain forecast, here and to the south. Oh oh. I hope I'm still leaving. Freezing rain is a reason to cancel or delay airline flights, and I have connections to make between non-partnered carriers, who don't know I'm coming. I'll have to collect my luggage, check in, and recheck my luggage. I hope I get there, but I don't want to go if the weather is unsafe. I hope the pilots at this little northern airline have the balls to cancel a flight in unfavourable weather.

The hotel van takes me to the airport. I check in at the desk in the little terminal and put my bag on the scale. As the agent goes to lift my bag off the scale I intervene to show her that the top handle is broken, so it has to be lifted from the side. I hear her conveying this information to the baggage handler. I bought that suitcase in Florida. It was cheap, but I was operating on the theory that cheap or expensive, this lifestyle was going to trash my suitcase, so I might as well not spend a lot of money on it. That and the mall by the hotel didn't have any stores above the level of Wal-Mart or Ross. The suitcase hasn't completely self-destructed yet. I'll get a new one soon. The CSA gives me my boarding pass and I go further into the terminal to wait.

It's a little bigger and swankier than the terminal at my old base in Weasel. For example the floor is level and the toilets have doors. But it's not big city. There are no news stands or TVs. There might have been a vending machine. The best part is a partly-completed thousand-piece jigsaw laid out on a table. I love this sort of thing about small airport terminals. I'm sure there some official reason why you couldn't have a jigsaw puzzle table in a departure lounge at l'Aéroport international Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau. Transmission of disease? Choking hazard? The airport authority cannot be responsible for deciding whether the jigsaw should be of kittens chasing string or of balloons floating over the countryside? A jigsaw puzzle has no linguistic or age barriers and it doesn't matter if you come in or leave on the middle of it. One person an work on it or several, with any level of cooperation. And it stimulates your brain, instead of deadening it like TV.

I'm the only one working on this jigsaw puzzle now. I'm looking for an orangish brown piece with really big square corners and a little teeny slightly left of centre tab, when someone comes up and asks about my checked baggage. It's the baggage handler. "I fixed your suitcase," he says proudly. He explains at length that he saw that it was broken and so he looked at the handle, and there was a metal part and he put a bolt through that, and so on. I thank him and he segues off into another story about how he fixed someone else's luggage. This seems to be his hobby. He's single-handedly making up for all the bags that all the other baggage handlers in the world have broken. I'm sure this violates some regulation, as does what I suspect he may have consumed before work. Or maybe he's always this garrulous. I thank him again and go back to the puzzle.

After I get lots of orangish-brown pieces connected, the flight is called. There's no security. I'm in the north. I just pick up my carry on and board the airplane. I've interviewed with this carrier. As look at the airplane I wonder what I was thinking. I don't want to work here. I feel sorry for the pilots. I watch them and hope I don't appear as transparently self-important as I go about my duties. I catch myself looking at the pilots' faces to see if I know them from somewhere. They're younger than me, so I probably don't. I don't want to fly this airplane. I want to fly better ones, skipping this stage. That's not really the way it works, Aviatrix.

They play a recorded preflight safety briefing. I listen to the recording, stow my carry-on and read the evacuation procedures like I mean it. As they start the engines I realize I've made a rookie mistake. There was no assigned seating and I just sat in the first available seat. Experienced passengers move to the back of a turboprop like this, away from the noise. I have earplugs in my flight bag, so I use those.

During the flight I'm watching to see if we're icing. We're not. We're flying between layers. The FO is reading a sheaf of something that doesn't look like approach plates or a checklist. Company memos, probably, or maybe his cheat sheet notes. (When you're new you make yourself a cheatsheat of runway numbers, nav aids, frequencies and other things that you'd have to look up in a variety of places. Tip: laminate your cheatsheet so it looks like a regular checklist). The heater in this airplane works well. Bleed air is a wonderful thing.

My first connection connects and I entrust my safety to another set of strangers. For some reason today I'm more conscious than usual that all pilots are people like me. We make stupid mistakes, get lazy, tired, or sick. And we all want to get home safely. Which I do.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Two Settings

The weather associated with the warm front has passed and a cold front is expected tomorrow. The customer calls me in the afternoon to go and do some flying. While I am preparing the airplane for takeoff, my replacement arrives at the airport. He appears around the hangar from the airside. I assume he disembarked through the terminal and then reaccessed the airside at the FBO, as opposed to hopping off the airliner and strolling down the apron. Procedures at this airport aren't that lax.

It's good to see him. I arrange to meet him again the next morning for a handover briefing. The best time will be at 6 am before he has to meet with the customers. It will mean only four or five hours sleep for me, as I expect to land around midnight and not be in bed for an hour or so after that, but tomorrow is not a duty day for me and I can try and sleep on the airline, and then go home and sleep for real. Any alternative would either delay this flight or delay his duty rest tonight. He's been on airplanes all day to get here.

There's only a little bit of light left in the sky by the time I take off. I probably didn't log it as a night takeoff, but I probably didn't log it as a night landing, either. I always forget. I probably have hundreds of hours of night flying logged as day flying in my logbook. It will get a lot colder as the night goes on, and there may be some mist, too. During the day you barely need the heater while the outside air temperature is above -10C because the bodies inside keep it pretty warm and the sun seems to come in the windows better than it goes out. Flying greenhouse. I have the heater turned on now, but on low. The outside air temperature is -4C, just below freezing. I don't have a thermometer showing inside, but I'm comfortable sitting in a sweater.

It gets a bit darker and a bit colder and after an hour or so I'm asked for some more heat in the back. "Coming right up!" I move the temperature selector placebo lever to the right. Not all the way to the right, because if you turn this heater to full there's a chance that the overtemp detector will cut in and pop the circuit breaker before the heater cycles off on its own. That might not sound so bad, except that the CB for the heater is not accessible from the cockpit, nor from anywhere inside the airplane. You can't reset it until after landing. It's meant to be a failsafe against cold pilots desperate for heat if the heater really is malfunctioning. Too bad they couldn't have done it with a self-resetting thermocouple of some sort, but seeing as the heater is a drum in the nose, just forward of my feet that is literally burning gasoline, overcaution is a good thing. Another name for these heaters is "nose bombs."

About fifteen minutes later it's still too cold in the back. I tweak the lever over further, and turn the heater switch off and on again. Perhaps the heater cycled off and didn't restart for some reason. The weird thing is that there's two heaters, one in the front and one in the back, so can they both have died? When I have passengers I've been running the back one from takeoff in the cold, and then turning on the front one when I get cold or when they ask for more heat, but I now suspect that the back one hasn't really been working. I can't test it on the ground, because you're not allowed to run it on the ground: there is insufficient cooling.

It's still getting colder in the back. Damnit! I let them know that I am sorry, that I am doing all I can to heat it up, and that I am personally willing to continue. Paranoia (pilots call it "safety concerns") drives me to dress for every flight as if I am going to have to spend the night in the wilderness. So it's not unsafe for me to fly without a heater, and my airplane is sufficiently old-fashioned enough that freezing temperatures don't affect the essential flight instruments. If the flight is to be discontinued, it is their call.

And they call it. Their computers aren't tolerating the still-dropping temperatures so I head back to land. I don't know what is wrong with the heater, but I don't try to troubleshoot in the dark.

I clean up the cockpit and make sure I've left all the charts and airplane specific equipment. I pack everything that is my equipment into my flightbag and neaten up the seatbelts and so on, so it will look nice for my co-worker in the morning.

He's still up, so I head by his room and debrief there. I fill him in on the customer expectations, the FBO hours, the telephone number that is supposed to summon deicing, and the restaurants to avoid. I give him the logbooks and other paperwork. And I tell him apologetically about the heater situation I have left for him. "With luck, it's just a circuit breaker," I suggest hopefully. He asks if the heater was on high. I shake my head. He knows how it works too, so neither of us is very confident that a circuit breaker will fix the problem. "There's a good chance, though," I confess, "that when you turn it on it will just work. I seem to have psychological influence over airplanes. And I really wanted to go home more than I wanted to fly tonight." He doesn't even laugh. He's seen enough capricious airplane behaviour not to blink at it.

I really have seen such behaviour but there are more rational explanations than a pilot's subconscious mind having the power to suppress electrical circuits and bend metal. Things go wrong with airplanes all the time. It's the nature of the beast. This is just a matter of when and where we notice them and recall them. Firstly, a pilot who really would rather not fly today is more likely to notice and respond correctly to an indication that something is not right. A pilot who really wants to get the hell out of an Indian reservation in the middle of nowhere is very unlikely to notice a broken MP gauge before takeoff. So the defect will go unnoticed there and will instead show up when the pilot is home at the maintenance base, or somewhere else the pilot doesn't mind being stuck. And secondly, when the defect is noticed, if it's something that delays the pilot but has no other particular impact, it's not long remembered. There are many causes of delay and thy happen all the time. But when the defect spares the pilot from having to make a flight she didn't really want to do anyway, it takes on more import, and is longer remembered. I imagine that there is some correlation between pilot morale and "ramp rash" too. Pilots like to be in control, so claiming psychokinetic responsibility for things we have no control over is right up our alley.

In the morning the heater does start up flawlessly. It wasn't the power of my subconscious mind, however. When we consult the mechanic about it he asks what was the outside air temperature, what was the humidity like, and what was the heater setting. That the answers are respectively "just below freezing," "some visible moisture," and "low" solves the mystery. Set to low, the heater runs for a while then shuts off and lets the temperature drop. With the outside temperature -4C and not -20C the airplane cools slowly, so the off cycle lasts for several minutes. During cooling the pitot tube-like air intake is collecting moisture, which freezes and blocks the intake. And then the heater cannot restart.

So not only does out heater have the traditional two settings "too hot" and "off," but those two settings are too hot and leave it on for the whole flight or else versus off for the rest of the flight. You can't win. But at least I can go home.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Not Ready for Prime Time

It's time to get out of here and go home for a break. There's only one airline that flies here, the one whose pilots held me up last week because they couldn't get their clearance right. I think I didn't blog about that, so I'll just passive-aggressively mention it now. I won't hold it against them. I can't, if I want to get out of here. They are to be the first page of my ticket home.

I go to their website to find and book a flight. The dropdown lists for the TO and FROM boxes for the departure and destination cities are amusing. Instead of reading something like "Toronto (YYZ)", numerous entries read "CITYNAMES: YOP (YOP)", yes with the word CITYNAMES in there, like it failed a database lookup.

Fortunately I know the local identifiers pretty well. I feel like I've been everywhere this month, so I navigate the drop down, but when I ask for YYE-YYC it returns with NOT AVAILABLE in red. I try YYE-YEG and YYE-YVR, with the same result. It doesn't make it clear whether the flight is cancelled, full, or not operating on this weekday. I try Prince George and Grande Prairie and everywhere else I can think of that might have connecting airline service to "out of here." I can't find a route map on the website. I interviewed with this airline once, so I studied the route map once, but I only remember: convoluted. They operate some flights for Air Canada Jazz and as a result aren't allowed to compete on the same routes.

I pick up the phone and call reservations. They are busy the first time, but I get throught he second time and ask for a flight out of Fort Nelson. "Where do you want to go?" she asks. "Out," I say. "Anywhere but here." And this being the north, she understands. She finds me a flight to Fort St. John (YXJ), which only qualifies as better than here because it's served by Air Canada Jazz. The 193 mile, 50 minute flight is $214.20 with all taxes. Everything else is full already. I guess I'm not the only one who wants out.

On to Air Canada, whose site takes my information then goes away for a long time to think about it, but eventually sells me a ticket out of Fort St. John. It costs $750 for a one way ticket, but it's getting me home and I'm being reimbursed, so that is okay by me. Onto the credit card it goes. Now if my co-worker arrives on schedule tomorrow, I can go home the next day.

Oh and they seem to have a lack of policies:

For a moment I thought that was an extreme version of the "click here to accept this policy" box, wanting the prospective passenger to type out the policy in the box, but then I realized they just forgot to replace boilerplate. Who doesn't check these things? Doesn't every store owner walk by the front door now and again to make sure it is inviting to customers?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Who is in Montréal?

Aviatrix is in Brossard, just across Pont Champlain from l'Île de Montréal. I think I will be free tonight and on Saturday to meet anyone that's around.

Fun With the Constitution

As the entire planet knows, the USA recently had an election. A few of you also know that Canada had an election too. The US race will result in a change of governing party, but the handover won't occur until January when the president-elect will become the first US president with recent African ancestry. (I say "recent" because current science suggests that all our ancestors were Africans. It's just that some walked out long before recorded history, some were abducted, and some voluntarily emigrated). Meanwhile the Canadian election resulted in no change of Prime Minister, but now the party in power has only a minority of seats in the House. This blog entry discusses the current constitutional wrangling with respect to the Canadian government, which is a bit of a joke, and then a joke relating to the US constitution and their recent "historic election."

Canada first: When the ruling party in Canada is defeated in the House of Commons on a money bill or in a specific non-confidence vote, the Prime Minister has to go cap-in-hand to the Governor-General (the Queen's representative in Canada and our titular head of state) and ask for a decision. She can ask another party to form the government, call an election, or give everyone a timeout (prorogue). The PM can recommend a decision, and the GG usually abides by his recommendation, but she doesn't have to.

Last week a coalition of two parties, aided by a written agreement with a third stated its intention to vote against an important bill. The coalition has informed the Governor-General that they are prepared to form the government but the vote has been delayed because the GG granted the PM a prorogue. Meanwhile the ruling party, the Conservatives is casting disparagement on the opposing Liberals and NDP because they are allying with the separatist Bloc Quebecois. The Conservatives have a secret tape recording of advance planning of the coup. How do they have it? A member of the Conservative party was accidentally invited to a conference call on the subject, on account of having the same last name and a similar e-mail address to a Liberal MP. Meanwhile the Liberals have found an even older document proving that the Conservatives planned to do exactly the same thing if they were in the same position. Pundits are calling it a constitutional crisis, but it makes me laugh.

Politicians everywhere try to make their opponents look bad, and that's the theme of the US joke, a way that the Republicans could really tick off the Democrats. If George Bush were to resign before the inauguration, VP Dick Cheney would become president. Now that would annoy a lot of people, but here's the funny part. If Dick Cheney were to make Condolezza Rice his VP, and then resign himself, the Republicans could lay claim to the first African-American President of the United States.

By the way, the United States will be the third and last country on the continent to have a head of state who can trace ancestory to Africa. Mexico had the first in 1829 and Canada's Governor-General Michaëlle Jean is a first generation Haïtian immigrant.

I know I can trust you guys to comment on this blog entry without disparaging any of the candidates or the people who voted for them.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Rain at the End of the Rainbow

We're supposed to go to Rainbow Lake today, but the customer doesn't want to go if we can't get back. Rainbow Lake, despite the lovely name, is a less hospitable place to spend ones free time than Moose Jaw. Before I understood the customer's priority I said cheerfully that it wouldn't kill me to spend the night in Rainbow Lake, and was rewarded with a look of uncertainty. Perhaps vampires roam the streets of Rainbow Lake after nightfall. Popular culture would imply that vampires were a little trendier than that, though. The single eating/drinking establishment there is described to me as having tables made out of cable spools, with cigarette-burned tablecloths stapled to them. I accept their priorities and study the weather forecast.

There is a front moving in from the west that will drop ceilings, visibility and eventually snow. It is forecast to reach Fort Nelson just as I'm scheduled to be returning there, but should remain within VFR limits for a couple of hours afterwards. The progress of the front has not been out of line with the forecast, but that sort of thing is difficult to gauge across the BC mountain ranges. I use my piloty skills and experience to say yes, we can go to Rainbow Lake and return before the weather cuts off our return.

Rainbow Lake, despite the fact that its airport identifier resembles a Russian obscenity, has quite a nice airport. The runway is paved, wide, fairly level, and has a large apron. The trip out there is uneventful and the weather stays good at Zama Lake too.

I use the phone in the fuel shed to all flight services for a weather update while I wait for the on call fueller. The front is still moving pretty much as forecast, so the weather I'm copying down as the briefer reads it over the phone is pretty much what I was expecting. The current weather is better than the earlier forecast and the forecast is almost symbol for symbol identical to the earlier one, but then the briefer continues "... and from 22Z to 24Z a 40 percent probability of freezing rain." It's 2145Z now.

"What?" I say, even though I heard him perfectly. I really should have expected it. The approaching warm air mass is a little warmer than expected, so that instead of snow it might produce rain as it overlaps the cold air mass that is present now. But when rain falls through cold air it turns cold, and can be chilled below zero celsius without turning to ice. That is freezing rain, and when you fly into it, it builds up on the airframe, causing severe icing. I do not want to be flying in freezing rain. I ask the briefer a few more questions to get a picture of speed and direction and options.

"Is there anything else I can do for you?" he asks.

"Make it not be freezing rain?" I suggest, but he can't help me there.

I have the fueler put on enough fuel to get me back here if I have to return, but not ful tanks, to save time and weight. We load quickly and I think there's less than a minute on my watch between engine start and take-off. I'm flying west, conscious that I'm peering intently into the sky ahead as if I could see ahead a hundred miles and forty minutes to know what I will encounter.

The ceiling comes down a bit as I approach destination, but there is no precipitation and then I hear a radio call from a pilot doing a practice hold at Fort Nelson, in the same aircraft type as I am flying. No pilot would be out in one of these in freezing rain if he had a choice, and a training flight is clearly a choice, so I can relax a little. The FSS gives me traffic information that allows me to merge efficiently with other incoming aircraft.

The rain is just starting as I am putting the covers on the wings. They are going to be needed tonight. I'm happy that I came through for my customer with an accurate prediction of our ability to do the work, and I'm happy not to be in Rainbow Lake tonight.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Endless Supply of North Winds

Next morning there is no respite on the winds, but the snow has swept through and left Alberta clear. It's threatening to drop the visibility here now, but that's something I can work around. We get a cab back to the airport in early morning darkness. There is no one at the FBO, but they have fuelled the airplane as requested, tied it down and chocked it against the wind. Loaded to the gills, it's still jumping around like a kite. I put my passenger on board and close the door while I do the walkaround with a flashlight, checking especially to make sure that nothing has has blown into the engine cowlings or other important apertures during the night. I untie the ropes, but leave the chocks behind the wheels so it doesn't go anywhere while I'm starting the engines. It's that windy.

The saving grace is that the wind is now blowing straight down the runway, so that all its force will go to shortening my take-off roll and none to trying to push me sideways off the runway. The only challenge is getting to the runway. I taxi very slowly, turning my ailerons at each turn so as to spoil the lift on the into-wind wing. It's a skill I learned as I first learned to taxi in a light little two-place airplane. I don't always do it in this airplane, but today it is needed. I wonder if there is a size of airplane at which you can just leave the ailerons neutral through taxi in any conditions. I wonder if Airbus 380 pilots turn their ailerons for wind anyway, because that's what you do.

I position at the very end of the runway, because that's what you do, complete my pre-takeoff checks and set power. It's an amusingly short take-off roll. I estimate I had seventy percent of rotation speed before I even released the brakes, and there's very little rolling resistance to acceleration at low groundspeed. I climb, but not too high, because this wind is forecast to be even stronger at higher altitudes. My initial heading is due west, because the area of the worst turbulence and of low visibility and snow is approaching from the north. I've chosen a point based on forecasts at which I should be able to head northwest and be clear of the weather.

It works like a dream. I give thanks aloud for modern weather forecasting technology. The passenger is unimpressed and I resolve to shut up about that sort of thing in future. Progress is unbelievably slow. I file a PIREP reporting minimal turbulence and sixty-five knots on the nose. Just as forecast. I watch the scenery go by very slowly. I file another PIREP because I know there will be a lot of people looking at weather reports and forecasts today, wondering if they should venture out.

The frequency on which one files a PIREP up here is 126.7, the same frequency as one makes air-to-air position reports for the benefit of other traffic. Another pilot on frequency recognizes my voice and checks to confirm that it's me. It turns out to be the fueller from one of the places I've stopped recently. He's working on his commercial pilot licence and is on his way back home after a cross-country trip. He too was grounded yesterday. He's headed in the same direction as I am. I shudder to think what his ground speed might be. He's in a C172. He might get to his destination faster by driving. I respect him for being up here at all, with obviously limited experience.

Total flight time for the two legs of the trip, not including time spent on the ground at my planned fuel stop, was six hours, thirty minutes. And I took a more direct route than the 4h 07 southeastbound flight. I once had a student ask, "so where does all that wind COME FROM? Isn't the north going to run out of air?" There's actually a circulation, such that there is a polar high, constantly subsiding and being resupplied by air that circles aloft at the subpolar low.