Friday, November 06, 2009

Spirit of the North

The job is done, and the client drops the three of us -- two pilots and the AME -- off at the airport before they drive south. Our mission is to get back to Fort Nelson. It's a five hour drive on a treacherous mountain highway for them and should be an hour and a half up and over the pretty mountains for us. There is a lot of steam fog, still mostly over the lake, but seeing as the runway ends at the lake, it's also right off one end of the runway. It's also overcast at 3000' but we can see that it scatters out to the north and satellite images have shown it scattered over the mountains, so we're not worried about that.

It's very cold, -17 degrees, and there's a lot of frost on the airplane. We brush off as much as we can loosen with soft brushes and then use our spray-and-wipe-before-it-refreezes technique on the layer sticking to the wing, but it's still freezing a little, and so are we. We clear about half of one wing and then retreat inside. The weather is supposed to improve, with a high of -3 and this broken layer scattering out. We have all day to get to Fort Nelson, so we see no reason to freeze our butts and fingers. We go inside.

There is a warm pilot's lounge full of broken down but comfortable couches and old National Geographic magazines. It's just adjacent to the CARS office and we can hear the airport workers coming in and out, commenting on the temperature. "It's not supposed to be this cold yet!" they complain. I read an article about a mountain climber who has soled Everest with no oxygen, and that's only a tiny part of his lifetime of accomplishment. Some people are inspirational and some people go so far beyond that that it's discouraging. People mentoring at risk children should remember that. I read out some of Messner's feats to my coworkers and they toss back, "I'll bet he can't fly an airplane." I'll bet he could deice one better than us at minus seventeen though.

It's not going to get appreciably warmer until the broken layer dissipates, and after a couple of hours it becomes evident that that isn't happening. We'll give it a shot. We finish deicing the airplane. Our method actually did work pretty well. It just needs two iterations to get all the frost off without diluting the fluid to the point that it freezes. When the critical surfaces are bare and dry we un-tent the engines, unplug the cords, pack everything away and pile in. I give a quick and slightly adapted passenger briefing to the AME e.g. "you know how to open the emergency exit, 'cause you do that during the inspection," and then climb in the cockpit. As I put my foot into the footwell the toe catches the centre console and tears off a big chunk of plastic facing. Argh. I pick up the broken piece and hand it back to the AME. "Could you add this to the list of things to fix?" More evidence for him that pilots just gratuitously break things.

While I'm busy wrecking the place, the other pilot starts up the engines. Er, the engine. The right one is a little balky, so he switches over and starts the left one first, making more power available to start the right one. It just doesn't go. We check and double check all the usual things: tank selection, firewall shutoff, magnetos selected on. The starter is working admirably for a motor asked to work in these temperatures and the propeller is going around, but it won't catch. Most likely we kicked the engine heater plug loose during our first deicing attempt, or it was never properly set the night before.

After several unsuccessful attempts, my coworker offers me the chance to make a fool of myself. No joy. I try various permutations ask the AME for any suggestions. So we have three of us in this airplane, professionals in the art of making an airplane go, and none of us can make the sucker run. Anyone who has been there can hear us suggesting tactics to one another. We try flooding it and using the flooded start procedure. We try it with the throttle and mixture full open. We try it with the electric boost pump running. A few times it seems to start, and we cheer, but then it dies again. It's like it's not getting enough fuel. I check the firewall shutoff again.

The AME figures it's just too cold for the fuel to vapourize properly, so even though we flood it to the point that there is liquid fuel dripping out on the ground, there isn't enough fuel vapour in the cylinders to make a combustible mixture. We know these things. We know this is a mechanical device, subject to all physical laws, but as humans we've been working with each other and with draught animals much longer than with combustion engines. It's hard not to imbue it with a personality. We coax it gently, apologizing for how cold it was, promise it an oil change and anything else it wants at the end of the trip. We beg it; we swear at it; we wonder if internal combustion engines have a patron saint we can pray to. I consider sacrificing chickens, but what we really need is a flock of warm, non-pooping, non feather-shedding chickens to warm it up with their body heat.

All the while that we are doing this, hangar guy is driving back and forth to and from the lake, hauling floatplanes. So you know, he wasn't lying about needing the hangar space for floatplanes, but if he's hauling these ones into the hangar now that means that last night there was five floatplanes worth of empty space in his hangar. We don't take up as much space as five floatplanes, and we would have paid good money for that space. The airplane is in a hangar elsewhere as I type this, and lets just say we're paying as much per night for its accommodation than we are for mine.

After over half an hour of attempting to start the engine we come up with a new strategy. We're going to shut down and tent up the engines again, this time with an electric space heater inside the nacelle of the right engine. We'll plug everything in and go back and read some more National Geographics while it warms up.

While the other two implement the heater plan, I also go to see if hangar guy has a Herman-Nelson. That's surely a staple in a WWII hangar in the Yukon. He's at his hangar and I greet him and ask. He has to be aware of our predicament, as there's no mistaking an airplane with one engine running and the other prop halfheartedly turning over for several seconds at a time. "Ah yeah," he says. "I think you flooded it."

Oh we most certainly flooded it. I admit it. Sometimes that works. He does have a Herman-Nelson, but it's lunch time now, he explains. And so he drives off to town.

I'm surprised. He's not obligated to help us, I know. But he does operate a business related to helping people with airplanes. This would have been an easy hundred bucks for him. Maybe two. We wanted the damn thing started. There's some cultural thing I'm missing here. Obviously money is not a great motivator for him. If he's happy with the income he has at the work level he has from the customers he has, then he's happy, and I can't really complain about that. And he seems like a nice friendly guy, really. Just not one inclined to accept our business. It must be a northern thing.

I go back to the National Geographic magazines. This time I read an article on the evolution of the eye. It was something that confounded Darwin, but he didn't know of as many creatures as modern biologists do. I also look at cute furry animals from somewhere, and expensively-attired debutantes in Laredo, Texas.

The picture shows the airport. The closer building is the WWII hangar, with a single otter and other smaller aircraft parked outside. The further building is the terminal, with glimpses of the lake beyond. You'll notice, as we did, that the terminal includes a tower. There's no one in the tower: we know the CARS guy has a desk and office on the main floor near the pilot lounge, and there is no tower controller. The tower is left over from the old days when this was a bustling hub on the building of the Alaska-Canada highway.

We ask the airport manager if there is a way to get into it. We have been around inside the terminal several times and there doesn't seem to be a locked door. "Sure," he says. "Mind your heads on the bracing." He opens a trap door in the ceiling and unfolds a metal staircase out of it. "Look out for bats," he warns cheerily and goes back to his office.

We go up the stairs, and up the wooden stairs beyond that until we come to the first landing. This is a three story log building built in the 1940s, so I guess we shouldn't be surprised that it seems to be held together by a lot of bracewires and struts. It's also cold. The floor below is insulated so they aren't losing any heat through the tower. I test my footing with each step as I walk across the floor. Judging by the colour and wear of the carpet, this place was refurbished in the 1970s and still in use for a number of years after that. There's only a few items of broken furniture remaining, but we imagine one of the landings was an office, and another a lounge and coffee room.

The tower cab at the top is mostly empty too. There's an old TV and some giant light bulbs in boxes, but no antique radio equipment. Maybe it is still in use downstairs. There's another ladder up to the roof, presumably for weather observations, and a balcony. We finish our tour and go back down, closing the stairs up behind us. It wasn't something I'd describe as a fascinating slice of history, but it was a fun mini-adventure. I think one of the most fun things is that we were allowed to do it at all. Can you think of anywhere in the US or Canada that isn't north of sixty where you would be allowed to just wander into an abandoned area of a public building? This is completely aside from the fact that it was at an airport, normally the most paranoid public place out there.

That's the spirit of the north. You can get yourself into trouble and you can get yourself out, and no one seems particularly inclined to interfere one way or the other.


Aviatrix said...

Sorry this post is late. It had the wrong time on it.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear about the latest predicament. You sure seem to take it with admirable aplomb.

Just curious about the visibly dripping fuel from the intentional flooding. My flight school here in the SF Bay Area (temps rarely at freezing) was adamant that we should try to avoid any start procedure that resulted in dripping fuel. The thought of course was that us hapless burger-chasers would burn the plane to the ground from the resulting fuel fire after start.

Is there some un-published northern procedure for dealing with dripping liquid fuel such that post-start fire isn't an issue, or is this just a better way to heat adjacent planes' engines ;-)?

Keep up the great blog!


david said...

For people who don't fly in winter conditions, it might be interesting to mention that even at -3 degC, the sun would have melted (err .. sublimated) the frost off the wings of Aviatrix's plane if the clouds had ever cleared. It's one of those counter-intuitive things you wouldn't guess until you've tried it.

In the same way, the sun will often cause light rime ice to sublimate off the wings once you climb above the clouds, even if the temp is well below zero. Go figure.

Aviatrix said...

It's not entirely intentional flooding, in that the goal wasn't so much to make a puddle on the ground as it was to get enough liquid fuel in the cylinders that the tiny portion of it that vapourizes in this temperature is sufficient to create a combustible mixture with the dense cold air. Once it starts leaking out on the ground, you're not changing the situation by adding any more.

It works sometimes and most pilots have seen it work, but few have seen a manifold fire, so frustrated by the lack of a start and emboldened by the presence of the guy who'd have to fix it if we broke it, we tried it. I'm not claiming it to be superior airmanship.

Whether it's lighting a stove, starting an engine, or lighting a campfire, anyone who has worked with recalcitrant fire knows that you'll start trying ANYTHING that might get it to burn, and can empathize fully with Tom Hanks character in Cast Away as he dances victoriously on the beach after starting a fire.

If fuel is dripping out of your carb onto the ramp in Oakland, California, you'd probably be better off going inside and reading National Geographic for a bit while it dries out than trying to start.

Anonymous said...

One night Reinhold Messner (who had previously climbed the Mt Everest without oxygen and all of other 8000ers as well) came home to his castle (he used to live in a small ancient castle) slightly drunk and figured out he had forgotten his keys. As an outstanding climber, he decided to just climb up and over the wall. During this attempt, he fell down and severly injured himself...

gmc said...

I've heard mechanics and others say that the plugs have become "frosted..." during attempted starts like that. I guess it means that due to a weak spark and temperature changes in the cylinder, humidity has frozen on the plugs causing them to ground out.

The only solution after that is heat, or a very long wait, or sometimes even taking out the plugs and drying them.

I have no idea of the validity to all this but I have seen the plug removal method applied to a car at a local garage.

Ah, the joys of winter.

Cirrocumulus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cirrocumulus said...

I think you'd find hangar guy just doesn't understand changing his plans. He knows what he'll be having for lunch: the same as every Friday. Maybe the same every day. Floatplane spaces are passed down in families. People like him because he's dependable, and when he goes fishing he often gives his catch away because his wife already has dinner planned.