Monday, October 19, 2009

Making Peace

I shower, getting water all over the bathroom, and get dressed. The weather doesn't look excellent, but it's good enough to get out of here. I finish packing and go to breakfast. To my amusement, it is eight forty-two. My coworkers are in the hotel "business centre" looking at weather online. "Get a late checkout," they advise. The weather is worse further northwest, with 700' ceilings and visibility as low as 2 statute miles in drizzle at en route airports. And no one knows what in the 200 mile stretches between airports with reported weather. We can't go IFR because we have some instrument issues.

Conditions here will deteriorate throughout the day, but the weather en route to Watson Lake should improve to 1500' to 2000' ceilings at least as far as Peace River. That gets us that much closer to our destination, and allows the weather here to be impassable tomorrow without affecting us. We agree to try for Peace River, maybe even Fort Nelson. I eat my breakfast, goof off for a couple of hours and then we all go to lunch. (Finally I got the pyrogies I've been craving since Vegreville, and yes, I know by now that I drove right past the world's largest pyrogy. Someone send me a picture and then I can photoshop myself into it and be done).

We call a cab and cram everything, including the printer which I loathe, into the truck and our laps and the driver takes us out to the airport. We direct her into the parking lot and then through the gap in the fence onto the apron. "I can't drive on the runway!" she protests. We assure her that it's not the runway, and that she's allowed. She parks next to the airplane, facilitating our unloading all that gear and then loading it into the airplane. It's raining now, but the ceiling is high enough and we back track and then take off to the west.

We pass Slave Lake, but there is no traffic there. It's the in-between season: too late for fire flights but too soon for heavy oil work. The trees below are a lovely mix of green conifers and yellow deciduous. The clouds are sometimes low enough that we skim through for a moment, but we're at a comfortable height above terrain, mindful of towers. Then we skim through a wisp that turns out not to be a wisp, and of course is the reason you're supposed to remain clear of them in the first place.

The pilot flying does a big 180 turn and flies back until we're back in the clear and then heads south for a while, looking for a way around. For a while there it looked like we were spending the night in Slave Lake, but then we found a way through. I called Edmonton radio via Slave Lake for updated Peace River, Fort Nelson and Watson Lake weather and after a brief discussion changed the GPS destination to Fort Nelson. Watson Lake weather was still nasty and there are mountains between here and there.

It gets sunny enough that I want to put on my sunglasses. I resist for a while, but then I really want them, so I apologize if it causes a jinx, but put them on. Immediately the weather deteriorates. We make a couple of attempts to get around a rainstorm that added poor visibility to the low ceilings. Not a good mix. Ceilings at Fort Nelson were 2000', and that's agl, so as Fort Nelson is 1250' asl, that meant clouds bases at 3250' asl, which was pretty much what we had. Our problem wasn't that we had a patch of low clouds, but that we had a patch of high terrain. We just have to get off this plateau.

I look at the terrain mode on the GPS (after pressing enter to confirm that I know that terrain avoidance is my own responsibility and that Garmin is no way accountable for my use of the data they provide). They provide three coloured contours: red for known obstacles less than 100' below you, yellow for known obstacles less than 1000' below you and black for everything more than 1000' below. We're on a yellow plateau, with our destination ahead in the black. Looking at the shape of our plateau, I see a finger of black extending quite a long way into it, not far to the south. Thinking three-dimensionally, the yellow lining up with that black finger will be lower than the yellow around it: it's a valley. You can see the same thing on the contours of the regular GPS map screen or on the paper chart which is also open on my lap, but it's somehow clearer on the very crude three-colour contour map than it is on the more detailed ones. The pilot flying navigates towards the supposed valley, and it is there. We're flying quite low, and the clouds ahead are quite low, but every time I draw breath to say it's not going to work, it works. There are some lower patches of clouds, but the terrain keeps dropping faster than the clouds. We cheer when we come out on lower ground with a clear distant view below the clouds.

As we approach Fort Nelson, the weather over the mountains even looks good. On approach into Fort Nelson a November-registered aircraft calls Fort Nelson radio on 126.7 to file a flight plan. There's an undercurrent of impatience in the specialist's voice as she explains that 126.7 is the air advisory frequency and is not appropriate to file a flight plan. The pilot can call flight services at "1-866-weather brief" from the telephone at the kiosk or he can contact Edmonton radio airborne on another frequency, which she gives him. We land in Fort Nelson for fuel and a pee break. During shutdown checks the pilot calls back and says the phone number won't work. I bet he tried the number on his cell instead of the kiosk. The Nav Canada number is only available from Canadian phones, and of course he'll be carrying a US cellphone. I wonder how shocked he will be by the roaming charges when he gets home and sees his phone bill.

We go in and use the kiosk ourselves, to see the weather ahead. Both the GFAs and the satellite views show clouds to the north of our route but not the south. We are confident that we can get over the mountains to Watson Lake, and if the clouds move in despite the forecast, we can drop into the Liard River valley and follow it to Watson Lake. We'll do that as soon as fuelling is complete, but tomorrow on the blog.

17 comments:

J said...

As far as flying through clouds...

You mentioned being careful of terrain and towers, but what about traffic?

Aviatrix said...

Traffic is a concern as well. We all yack at each other on 126.7 to keep track of where we all are.

david said...

You flight description terrified me, but only because (like most pilots) I've trapped myself in similar situations before, praying that things will be better just a bit ahead while my safety margin shrinks and shrinks: prayer belongs in the church, not the cockpit :)

As for 866-WXBRIEF, it's supposed to be available from phones all through North America, including the Caribbean. I frequently call it from US hotel phones with no problem.

Aviatrix said...

We were confident we could turn around for Slave Lake, and did a couple of times, but seeing as we were turning anyway, we kept making side forays to get around areas that were blocked. It wasn't constant almost-impassable weather, just a few places.

Anonymous said...

1-866 wx brief works in canada to reach NAV CANADA; 1-800 wx brief if the number to reach USA FSS

Aviatrix said...

We know the numbers. Why do you think dude couldn't reach flight services on his phone?

SwL_Wildcat said...

Good story Aviatrix! Loved it. Sounds like 50% of my flights in Alberta. I should post a couple...

Sarah said...

We know the numbers. Why do you think dude couldn't reach flight services on his phone?

Heh. I detect a hint of impatience with Aviatrix' tone.

Great post, the reality of Canadian VFR. I have to agree with david, above though - the idea of flying into IMC ( presumably with potential icing and inop instruments of some sort ) gives me a cold chill.

But I wasn't there, and I'm sure the trip was safe and no where near as exciting as it read to me. I look forward to pt. 2.

Aviatrix said...

Heh, showed, did it Sarah? I guess Anonymous though s/he was the only one involved the the discussion who knew the numbers, and would therefore help us out.

I confirmed that 800-WXBRIEF works from Canadian phones, when I accidentally dialed it last month. Can anyone confirm David's information that 866-WXBRIEF works from a US cellphone used inside Canada? Neither direction used to work, and I contacted both the FAA and Transport Canada about it. I like to think I made a difference, although I'm sure I'm one of hundreds who pointed it out, and that nothing was done until some government minister was affected.

david said...

To be fair, I've never called 866-WXBRIEF from a US cellphone, only from US landlines (first time was 2003 from NYC). I also often call direct to the (also toll-free) individual FICs, so that I get an FIC that's actually in the area I'm flying to, rather than simply a randomly-assigned one.

Aviatrix said...

I'd test it myself, but my US cellphone doesn't work at all in Canada.

dude said...

Sorry, I missed the importance of "USA cellphone". 1866 541 4102 gets me Edmonton FSS from anywhere in Canada and USA; might even work with USA cellphones. I thought the confusion was 1-800 vs 1-866. But you ruled that out.

peace,
dude

Aviatrix said...

Touché!

You'd have fully redeemed yourself just for coming back, but between the pseudonym and the closing salutation, you win the thread.

I guess we'll never know why he couldn't get through. Perhaps his cell provider didn't have local coverage. Presumably he got what he needed, because a flight of two N-registered airplanes was starting up as we passed by to the pilot information kiosk.

SwL_Wildcat said...

At least your story turned out better than these Yahoos.

Aviatrix said...

Yow, yeah, that's not what our flight looked like. I hate that image of the airplane trundling forward though solid IMC with no action from anyone. We don't fly that close to the ground in good visibility. The hotel in Slave Lake is exactly like the one in Fort Nelson, so why?

Sarah said...

@swl_wildcat, that's one scary video. According to the comments ( I know, youtube comments rot your brain ) the only licensed pilot was in the lefthand seat. The guy with the camera - claimed - to have curled up in a fetal position convinced they were going to die. It made an impression on them. Good. They're very lucky.

It reminds me of the only worse video I've seen, which came off a camcorder which spend a season in the hills with the wreckage and remains. A Citabria ( L19? ) was trying to climb faster than the terrain and could not, eventually spinning in. Last words on the tape: "Hold on".

Tyler said...

The video Sarah is refering to
(I think) can be found at http://www.alexisparkinn.com/general_aviation_videos.htm, scroll down to "Cessna L-19 Mountain Crash." It's amazing that the wreckage, video and remains stayed out in the woods for 3 years before being discovered, and that the video was so well re-constructed.