Saturday, February 28, 2009

At One with the Sky

Someone asked recently for a full-sized version of the cloud picture I'm using lately for my profile picture. I'll tell you the story behind it. I was searching for photos of airplanes I had flown, because I wasn't sure I had the registration right on one and wanted to double check it without calling the company. I happened upon not the airplane I was looking for, but another one, and the date was very memorable, so although the pilot is not really visible in the picture, I knew it was me.

I e-mailed the photographer, Chris Coates, and he was kind enough to send full-sized versions of not only that picture, but of all the pictures he had taken that day. He said the light wasn't quite right so they weren't all up to the website's very high standards. The last one was a picture of the sky that I disappeared into. When I first saw it I thought of it as a very gloomy sky, then I realized it was sunlight showing through darkness. i really like it because I think of it as a picture of me at one with the sky.

After the recent request, I e-mailed the photographer to make sure it was okay to share his work on the blog and he e-mailed back:

My friend, you can do whatever you please with that cloud photo. Post it wherever you'd like. I appreciate you asking me if that was OK, it was kind of you but not necessary. I don't own the sky, it belongs to everyone!

I think that statement makes the picture even better. You can see more of Chris's photographs at

Friday, February 27, 2009

New Passport

Because I travel across an international border by air, I require a passport. And there's a funny rule about passports. Countries sometimes require your passport to be valid for six months in order to admit you. And I don't mean that some countries do and some countries don't. I mean that the same country, i.e. the United States will sometimes admit you with a passport that is close to expiry, and sometimes not.

Some people say, "so why don't they just add six months to the expiry date, or subtract them, or something, so the date on the passport really matches when you can use it." The thing is that you can get back to your country, I assume, with one day left on your passport, but you can't get out. The country that is taking you doesn't want to risk you getting stuck there because you stayed past the expiry date on your passport and now your real country won't let you in.

That sounds kind of unlikely to me. "I'm sorry, you were a Canadian yesterday, but now you're not, so you can't come back." Canadian citizenship doesn't expire. You can't even renounce it. The government does not recognize renunciation of citizenship if you, say, burn your passport in a public act of protest or become a citizen of a country that requires you to swear revokation of all other citizenships. You're a Canadian for life. So I suspect that if I were to turn up at a port of entry with an expired pasport, so long as it looked like me and hadn't been reported lost or stolen, that they would let me in. They might make a few phonecalls to verify my identity and possibly fine me. But I don't think they would leave me to wander statelessly forever in the airport.

But I'm not going to test that theory out. My last entry into the US was on a passport that had only four months left on it. It's time to renew. I would have done it earlier, but I needed it. To get a new Canadian passport I have to surrender the old one. And wait. I looked into doing it online.

They call it epass Canada. It claims to not support my browser. I look into that. They officially support Firefox 1.0.6, so I'm betting it will work fine in 3.0.5. There's the usual online service stuff: Choose a userID not already in use. Provide the answers to some terrible user security questions, such as "the name of an important person to you" and "an important date." In the end, after all that, it's not so much an online application as an online form. I have to print it out and bring or mail it in the normal way. Mail will take too long. It won't be done before I have to go back to work.

Taking it in and waiting six weeks for normal processing will take too long, too. But for an extra eighty dollars I can get the renewal process accelerated to two business days, so I opt for that. I get my photo taken and notarized by a photography store. You're not allowed to take your own photo anymore. It has to be a commercial photographer. I stand in two different lines, and pay my extra fee, which was reduced thanks to some calculation by the agent. I overhear a guy who has lost his medical card and had his driving licence taken away ask how he can get a passport. They seemed to have a procedure for him. There's a uniformed guy in a corridor who appears to have been hired expressly for the purpose of telling people nicely that they're in the wrong place. See, there's a preline and then there's the real line. Despite the labyrinth of frustrating procedures, everyone, including the guy who does nothing all day but tell people they're in the wrong place, is very friendly and polite. If you know someone who works on the front line providing passports to Canadians, please tell them "good job!" If you know someone involved in the back office bureaucracy providing passports to Canadians, tell them "Good job on staff training! Now please do something about the procedures!"

Application process done, I leave. When I come back in two days the passport is all ready for me. My photo looks distinctly green, not just my hair, but my skin. Everyone is, for some reason. There's even a piece of paper that comes with the passport explaining that that's normal. I suggest, as I'm signing on the little square where you have to sign but you're not allowed to go outside the lines, that it's too bad you can't apply for a new passport but keep the old one, then just come in to make the exchange once the new one is ready. THe reply is that "It's against the law to have more than one valid passport at a time." Sure, I understand that. But I'm not asking to have more than one at a time. I just want them to get mine ready for me before I have to surrender the one I'm using. This won't get fixed, because Canadian government officials, who would have to be affected in order for them to believe this was a problem, probably get their passports express updated as an internal service.

But I have a new passport. And my photo is really very green. I'm good for another four and a half years, as long as I don't run it through the laundry.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Anyone at DFW?

It looks like I'm going to in the vicinity of the Dallas Fort Worth airport for half a day around the 1st of March. Do I have any readers around who would like to meet for dinner? Send me contact information and then I can coordinate with you when I find out the exact date and timing.

I have no comment or inside information on the recent Turkish Airlines 737-800 crash on approach into Amsterdam, but I think this is an excellent picture. You have the airplane, the engine, the residential street, and the varied actions of the responders. I like the expressiveness of one emergency worker with her arm up, pointing. There are more pictures here and presumably the story, too, if you read Dutch. There has really been some remarkable photojournalism of recent air accidents, and I don't think it's ghoulish for journalists to get in there and get the images and information for us, as long as they don't interfere with rescue efforts.

Update: Here's an English language link to currently know accident details.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Unauthorized Landing?

Interesting story. Pilot lands on roof of shopping mall and someone is injured, while regulatory authority says he shouldn't have landed there. But I'm sure it's not the whole story.

Who wouldn't like to have a helicopter and just be able to fly everywhere and land on the roof, avoiding the traffic, the usual parking problems and the hoi polloi? The Jetsons flew everywhere, why shouldn't you?

As this story takes place in Ireland, their air law applies, so I can't comment specifically on the regulations regarding landing on the roofs of shopping malls. If the story took place exactly the way the pilot said it did, then he knew the shopping mall owner, had general permission from him, and called ahead to make sure he still had permission on that particular day. That's a tough call. I know I've landed on private strips. I call the corporation or group that operates the airport and keep asking to be transferred to someone with authority to grant me landing permission until someone steps up. I thank them, write down their name and go land. I have no way of knowing whether the person was on a power trip or really had that authority. I never considered that it could turn into a run in with Transport Canada or the FAA. Perhaps in future I will ask for faxed permission. Even then, what if it's a fax from a bored guy in the mail room? Who does have the authority? Do you have permission to let someone park in the employee parking lot where you work? Does a security guard have authority to overturn your granting of permission? Does he or she run in front of vehicles to wave them off while parking?

The pilot's account has the attendant only coming onto the roof after landing, while the attendant says he was "ignored" when he tried to wave the helicopter away. There's an easy way to rectify the two accounts. On the first pass, while the attendant was inside, the pilot verified that the landing are was clear, and then approached for landing. While the pilot was maneuvering to land, the attendant, inexperienced in the marshalling of aircraft, came onto the roof and waved at the helicopter from a position where he was not visible to the pilot. He fled the roof, and the pilot only saw him after landing. It was still the pilot's responsibility to ensure that the area was clear, but when people you don't know are present run into your blind spot during final approach you have done all you can.

The pilot's story gets a little fishy when he says he lost his logbook. It does happen, but nice coincidence. And what about the 'subsequent accident?' He also should have (assuming Irish law resembles Canadian in this respect) reported an injury caused by rotor downwash, but I can imagine the conversation.

"Hey! You can't land here!"

"I have permission from the owner."

"No, you can't land here, I told you, and you made the door slam and hurt my hand."

I'm thinking that if the attendant was so unlucky as to catch his hand in a slamming door such that fingers were partially severed or skin was cut through to tendons and bone the conversation would have been more along the lines of "Oh my God, call 999!" Without blood and/or severed appendages is "You hurt my hand" along the lines of "ouch that hurt" or "I require medical attention"? From someone who is angry at you in the first place, you wouldn't be out of line to assume that the hurt is more along the lines of aggrieved than medically afflicted.

On the other hand the pilot may be a complete asshole who saw the guy, deliberately angled rotor wash to scare him off and ignored his cries for help as he sashayed off to get his new keys cut. I have no way of knowing which scenario applies. In any event if he has the cash to go to the mall in his own helicopter, he probably bought the appropriate legal counsel to fly out of this situation, licence intact.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Not All Icing is Deadly

This has not even the tiniest thing to do with aviation, is a blatant abuse of my captive audience, and won't even offer the entertainment value of affronted Texans, but I want to show you my cake.

I like cake. Well, everybody likes cake, right? It's pretty and tasty, offers the opportunity to share, and often denotes a happy occasion. I've been reading the Cake Wrecks blog for a while now. It's written by Jen, a crazy geek with a sense of humour I share, and it features hilarious commentary on the most sidesplittingly horrendous cakes that professional bakers can create. Once a week, Jen gives my laughing muscles a break and features beautiful cakes. Some of them are so smooth and perfect I wondered how anyone could make icing like that, and then by reading the comments I discovered it was called fondant and a little googling found me a recipe and some instructions.

Instead of spreading fondant icing on with a knife, you roll it out like pie crust and then pick it up in a sheet and drape it over the cake. It has enough body that you can make ripples and folds with it. You can also cut it with a cookie cutter or a knife to make ribbons and patterns, or shape it into little figures like play-dough. I tried it out.

This is my first effort. It has lots of flaws. You can see that it isn't smooth and perfect. I didn't spend very long smoothing the icing into perfection before I put it on the cake, because I just wanted to try it out. I left a crinkle in the edge because I liked the way the fold looked, and wanted to see if it would crack or anything. The next one I make will have airplanes.

Monday, February 23, 2009

OAG Flights2Go

A couple of months ago I received an offer from OAG, the company that puts out the Official Airline Guide, to try their online Flights2Go product for free. I am familiar with the print product from a previous life, so I know it is the source of information on what airline goes where when, and hey, free stuff, right? I accepted the free trial.

The online product is a minimalist interface, nothing to install, no javascript, no pictures, just click the URL and get four lines of text:

  • 1. Flight Schedules
  • 2. Flight Status
  • 3. Inbound Flight Status
  • 4. Airline Info
The minimalism is a good thing. There's no wait to load it, and it's clearly accessible through even the most primitive internet devices. I use it on my laptop, but they advertise it for web-enabled phones, too.

The flight schedules rejected my first request because I entered four letter airport codes, and it only wanted the last three letters. (If someone who maintains a weather, airline, flight planning or other aviation site wants to make me really happy, they could allow both three and four letter variants of airport codes). You can also just type in the name of the city. If I type "New York" I get a choice of Newark, Laguardia or JFK. Type in "Portland" however, and I get a dropdown offering the choice of "Portland," "Portland," or "Portland," with no disambiguation. I can't get it to accept "Portland, ME" or "Portland, Maine," and when I correctly guess which of the three Portlands is the one in Maine (the second) the only confirmation I get is that the offered flights depart from PWM. If I didn't know the airport code, I'd be stuck.

The results of a search are also in a very condensed format showing the airline abbreviation, the flight number, departure and arrival airports and times, the time enroute, aircraft type, and days of the week that flight is available, ordered by departure time. Each result is itself a link to details, spelling out the abbreviations and showing each leg of a flight with connections. On the result below, you have to click the 2 to see details of the YYZ-YAM leg on the second screen. Which you can't, because the one below is just a screenshot.

The database includes a lot of airlines, including one of the tiny ones I have worked for, but misses some not so tiny ones based in Saskatchewan and Newfoundland. I think every airline that codeshares with Air Canada is on the list. I didn't check every one, but the ones I did check are, and the ones I noticed absent don't. It also doesn't seem to be able to chain flights from different airlines that don't code share between each other. For example, it can find me a flight from Thompson, Manitoba to Winnipeg on Calm Air, and it can find me a flight from Winnipeg to Thunder Bay on Bearskin Airlines, but if I ask it for service from Thompson to Thunder Bay it returns "no records available". It's not simply rejecting itineraries that don't connect well, because when I ask for Toronto to Winnipeg it offers me a 24 hour 49 minute odyssey connecting through Thunder Bay. It also offers flights connecting through Ottawa (in the wrong direction) and Chicago (in a foreign country requiring passports). But those aren't OAG's fault. Those, I believe, are connecting itineraries legitimately offered by the airlines themselves.

Navigating through the screens is simple, but once you click on a possible choice and look at the details of the routing, you have to use the back key to get back to the results list, which may be quite a few screens. I found a few cases where it shows same flight twice: the same flight number, same airline same times, same date.

I used it to try and help an acquaintance who was looking for information on flights from LAX to HNL (Hawaii for Christmas, mmm) and found a whole bunch of flights that he didn't know about. I was all excited that I was being helpful but when I looked them up, the flights I had found were all routings like LAX-SLC-HNL or LAX-SFO-HNL. While this would be useful if you were desperate for any flight, it wouldn't work out well for him, because he was travelling on a non-rev pass and couldn't risk being stranded in Salt Lake City.

When I was stranded myself by fog I was able to search the database myself for possible alternate routings to my destination and thus ask for the flight I wanted by number. For a control freak it's nice to have that power. I know someone who booked two flights on an "open jaw" itinerary (outbound to one city and homeward from another) through a travel agent who didn't know you could book two one way tickets! Needless to say he didn't get the best possible deal.

It should be mentioned that this product shows you the schedules only, not the prices. Showing prices would violate the Pauli exclusion principle of airfares, that forbids customers from knowing how much their flight costs and what other flights are available both at the same time. (Or, as has been pointed out to me, perhaps that's more the territory of Heisenberg). Maybe that's not really a fundamental law of the universe, but OAG has wisely decided not to risk it. Nah, it's just that if there's an airplane going from Toronto to Philadelphia, all the seats are going on that route. The same consistency does not apply to airfares.

I use the OAG product in conjunction with Expedia when I am booking flights, but in December was down so I checked on OAG to see which airline sites to go to. (I know there are other portals apart from Expedia, it's just the one I have bookmarked for both US and Canadian origins). With OAG I found a direct flight to Canada that bypassed the snowed-in US hubs and Christmas delays endured by my coworkers. "You're flying direct?" they asked, while pondering whether they were ever going to escape from their snowbound hubs.

It can also look up flight status and give you toll free numbers for all the airlines it lists. It's definitely a reference for the stranded or last-minute traveller who really wants to see what flights there are as opposed to which ones the airlines claim they have seats on. They don't always match.

I won't pay to subscribe to this service for myself, because I mainly fly between small centres and, checking my recent itineraries, it wouldn't have found me the combinations of airlines I needed to get where I was going. I don't think I'd get my money's worth. I do see this product as of great benefit to people for whom a reasonable schedule is more important than a rock bottom price, and who fly among major centres served by airlines that are not named after local wildlife. Its forte is to show you how to get from A to B with the most precise timing possible, where A and B are both served by the same airline. If your flight is cancelled or full, having this product to see all the flights that are available could really help you optimize the time spent running from airport counter to airport counter to beg for seats, and if it saved you just one overnight in a strange city, it would pay for itself. In my experience, frequent travellers do know their airport codes and would have no trouble using this product.

If anyone has a search they'd like me to try in the database, just ask. I'll report back.

On the topic of airlines and airfares, this amusing website for a fictitious airline appears to be advertising for Air New Zealand.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb

Boing Boing lists a news story in which a band sticker on a bicycle shut down an airport. The name of the band is "This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb," and apparently it isn't the first time its appearance on an innocently parked bicycle has caused a bomb scare.

Everyone can appreciate that security at an airport has to be taken seriously, but it seems a little odd to base the alert level on the label. If a bicycle being a pipe bomb is a credible threat, restrict bicycle parking to a secure bunker. A bicycle sticker reading, "This bike is not a pipe bomb," wouldn't calm anyone down any. If I knew that there was one bike on the whole rack that was a pipe bomb, I'd expect it to be the one with the only stickers being the manufacturer's name and local registration. The words "pipe bomb" precipitate the security response. Not the credibility of the threat. It has been illegal for as long as I remember to make jokes or false statements about carrying dangerous items while at airport security, but this shouldn't be extended into making any statements about security or dangerous items while at airport security.

A car bombs makes a bigger bang than a bike bomb. I'd love to see a bumper sticker for cars reading "This could be a car bomb," but you know that instead of being taken as either a silly joke or a reminder to maintain constant vigilance, it would get you in trouble. They can be perfectly truthful statements, but if your t-shirt says "Some terrorists look like me" and there's a sticker on your computer saying "No explosive residue," you should probably be wearing underwear that says, "I knew I'd get strip searched today."

I'd buy that underwear, though.

And I'd need some new underwear were I forced to use this bicycle lane.

And finally, despite the really corny gaggle of geese, this animation of the US Airways landing in the Hudson River is very well done.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

It Started With Telemarketers

Canada recently instituted a nationwide do-not-call list for telemarketers. Apparently the US Congress recommended such a thing fifteen years ago, but the final decision was to have individual telemarketers maintain their own do-not-call lists. That is fairly stupid, because there are so many companies that you'd never get on all the lists before one company folded and reemerged as another, quite possibly using its old do-not-call list as its new list of hot prospects.

Canada's new do-not-call list is equally stupid. There's a website you can go to in order to register your number(s) as do-not-call and any Canadian telemarketing company or foreign company making calls on behalf of a Canadian corporation is supposed to check their list against the registered do not call numbers and not call them. They can be fined $1500 for calling me anyway, so it sounds like something with teeth, but it disregards the fact the telemarketing is a scummy industry, and it's implemented in a stupid way.

Instead of being required to submit their call lists to be checked and pruned against a master list, the companies are required to buy the master list. That's right, telemarketing companies can buy a list of every Canadian who has asked not to be called by telemarketers. And the way the system works, the larger the company, the more they have to pay for the list. So of course what has happened is that little tiny companies open for the sole purpose of buying the list for cheap, and then selling it offshore where they can call me with impunity.

I got a call today, one of those machines calling. It told me that a friend had entered my name at the Bay or Zellers and that I had won a trip to Costa Rica. Now the Bay and Zellers are Canadian companies, and my friends are smart enough not to enter me in dubious contests, so I knew this was not above board. I pressed 1 to talk to a customer service representative. He had an impenetrable accent, so I couldn't understand his name, nor the name of the company calling when I asked for it. I think he may have made it deliberately unintelligible because when I asked him to spell it, he said for more information he would have to transfer me. Transferring is good, because the higher up the chain of command you get, the more of a nuisance you are able to be. In order to transfer me he wanted to know my name. I told him I wasn't giving him my name because he called me and therefore the onus was on him. He said he had to have my name to transfer me, so I told him sarcastically it was Jane Smith. He either didn't or chose not to recognize that as a default generic name and accepted it, but then wanted to know if I had more than $5000 in credit card debt. I told him I didn't give out that kind of information, just to transfer me please. He tried a few more times to get me to tell him. I told him the answer was Mu. He insisted on a yes or a no, and when I made it clear I wasn't giving it out, he hung up on me.

Scumbucket telemarketing company. This sort of thing is bad for my blood pressure or something, I'm sure. The *69 call told me that the call was from 616-980-2643 which is in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Their service provider is named Lucre but the company name is ex-directory. Michigan has do-not-call laws protecting Michigan consumers, but what can I do about it? Global telecommunications is such that every single country in the world would have to be signatory to a global death-to-telemarketers pact before do-not-call registries are of any use whatsoever. I can't screen my calls by number, because I get calls from all over and who knows when some pilot friend is calling from a hotel or an FBO in Grand Rapids telling me they are coming north and can I meet for lunch? And screening by always letting the machine pick up also causes you to miss important calls from people who want to talk to you now or not at all. I could solve this with technology, but it's not just about telemarketing.

While I was still fuming about this, a story came on the radio about a chemical plant in Canada that had been sold to someone in Edmonton who just walked away from the responsibility of the plant when the economy took a nosedive. No payroll no forwarding address no nothing. Because I live in a modern, responsible country, the government stepped in with an emergency order asking the workers to stay at work and make sure that the plant didn't just explode, or pump hazardous chemicals into the environment or become the incubation ground for a new Batman villain, or whatever happens to untended chemical plants. I'm not sure anyone knows. The government then tried to track down the owner of the company and apparently the trail ends in Slovenia.

That's the way the world is these days. I'm horrified to think of what is happening in countries with lesser ability to step in and deal with this kind of situation. A Canadian company could just walk away from responsibility in Zaïre and who is going to be able to do anything or even know? Someone knows, and with today's global communication I'm sure I could find dozens of such cases documented by concerned individuals, but how is anyone to distinguish real should-be-crimes from made-up stuff posted on the loony websites of whacko sky-is-falling nutjobs? And even if the whole world knows, who can prosecute or hold to account a numbered Uzbekistani company with investors listing addresses in Slovenia, Paraguay and Delaware? For countries that have environmental regulations, it would be possible to require, as part of the initial environmental permitting process for new facilities, the posting of a bond sufficient to safely close down production and clean up the area in the event of abandonment or catastrophe, but that would be a large amount, and the savvy investor would just build the facility in a jurisdiction with a more short-sighted desperation for jobs.

Anything that happens in the world affects the whole world these days. The working conditions and pay at your job may be cantilevered by unions and government regulations, but ultimately in the global economy it is dependent on what the most desperate person will accept. And that person can be anywhere in the world. We can't just fix our own countries. We have to fix the whole world to get this to work. How do you fix the whole world? Historically, the spread of law has followed conquering armies. I don't think conquering the world for freedom from telemarketers is the way to go here. More optimistically, manufacturing and environmental standards also spread by economic pressure. The kids who grew up in the Cold War had it good. They knew they'd be wiped out by the Bomb. Me, I can't figure out which worldwide disaster to be concerned about.

The telemarketing part had a happy ending. I called the Bay's customer service and they efficiently transferred me to a customer service rep who knew about the usurpation of the company's name and assured me that their loss prevention department was working with the relevant authorities to stop the telemarketers, who apparently were also fraudsters. I assume they are going to nuke them from orbit, so if you live in Grand Rapids, you should probably go out of town for the weekend. And if you comment on this blog entry, do take into account that the official Posterperson for Readers of Aviatrix's Blog is employed in the telemarketing business, so any comments demonizing all telemarketers will not be taken well.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Texas In My Rear View Mirror

In which Aviatrix shuts up and goes home.

In wrap up I'll note that over the last couple of weeks everyone here in Texas has been very nice. They're friendly and helpful and don't seem to mind saying things twice when I don't understand the accent or vocabulary. They're also more travelled than typical in the US. Many people I talked to here have been to one part of Canada or another. (The topic of overseas travel never came up, so that's the only metric I have). A commenter on my first Texas blog entry mentioned something about aggressive driving, but I haven't experienced that. There's the usual amount of not signaling lane changes, less than California I think. But the streets are wide, with lots of lanes, huge wide shoulders and dedicated left turn pockets everywhere, so an unexpected lane change isn't a pressing emergency. No one tailgated or honked at me for driving the speed limit. It would seem that everyone here has been driving since they were sixteen, so they're certainly not lacking in practice.

In total, over two weeks of walking around town or driving back and forth to the airport, I saw six people using human-powered transportation: five walking and one on a battered-looking bicycle. The first two walkers I saw were young black men, dressed in a way that I thought only existed in movies, with oversized, falling-off jeans and blinged out with multiple enormous faux gold necklaces. They were walking towards me, coming the other way, along the grass at the side of a road. I was a little bit surprised to finally see someone else walking and said hello, but they were way too cool to deign to acknowledge my greeting. The commonality of us all being human beings aware of the purpose of feet wasn't enough for them, I guess. Or maybe I was looking stunned by their garb. Sorry about that, guys. I am exceptionally square. I just wouldn't have the panache to pull off a fashion statement of that magnitude. I rarely wear accessories that don't serve an immediate practical purpose. Maybe you were equally dumbfounded by my cartoon airplane t-shirt tucked into Marks Work Wearhouse trousers, with the waistband fitting well above my navel.

The other three walking people were caucasian, wearing exercise clothing, and strolling purposefully along a lovely treed path that went from the vicinity of the Wal-Mart all the way downtown, and perhaps further. It followed a pipeline right-of-way and I found it on the way back from downtown. I smiled hello at a man going the other way, and then walked with and chatted to a couple going my way. When we got to the end of the path, there was a parking lot, and their car was there. They had driven to this path in order to walk on it and were now driving home. In fact they offered to drive me to my hotel, even though it was only two blocks away.

My conclusion is that for white people here, walking is acceptable, but only as a recreational activity, not a means of transportation. I'm not quite sure about the other two guys. Perhaps their car had broken down. Or danced away. Although I've seen a lot of overweight folks, it's not everyone. I haven't seen the scarily obese people that TIME magazine keeps doing exposés on, so locals are getting some exercise somewhere.

The Texas work is not complete, so we'll be back, but the customer decides to take a break for a couple of weeks, so we leave the airplane in a hangar and all drive to into the big city to get cheap commercial flights to our various homes all over the continent. We cross our fingers that the connections work and we don't get stuck somewhere with inadequate snowploughs.

I don't get to see clearly what it looks like on the way in by car, the way I would arriving by air, but I can see from the road map and from driving there that it is an enormous gigantic airport, bigger than two "normal" international airports put together. It's so big they call it an "Intercontinental" airport. I find my gate, but shortly after I get there they announce a gate change. It's a full airplane, but there's a delay as they have to remove the baggage of someone who didn't show. Poor sucker probably didn't hear the gate change. I always hope someone like that is just inattentive and not deaf or non-English speaking, because it would be a really rotten reason to not make it to where you are going.

I do not get stranded anywhere en route, and sleep most of the way. I do sleep when other people are flying. I wake up in time to watch as we slip under scattered cloud on approach to the snow-covered Canadian city nearest my home.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

ATIS Identifiers

In a recent comment reader ZuluDelta wrote:

I have noticed that the occasional aircraft reports that it is "with Juliet" or "Oscar, Tango, Papa, India, Uniform, Kilo" One checked in "with Whiskey"! Perhaps in some future blog, you could elaborate on what these secret codes are.

I almost think that with a name like ZuluDelta, this person might be kidding, but I always err on the side of treating a question as serious. Plus this is an easy one to answer, so it allows me to fill in a day on the blog without incurring the wrath of Texans by saying something inadvertently critical about one of their freeway ramps.

When an airport has a control tower, whether it's in Texas or not, there is almost always a published frequency that broadcasts a continuously repeating recorded message called the Automated Terminal Information Something. I think it's "Service," and I'm deliberately not looking it up to demonstrate how I don't care. We call it "the ATIS," pronounced Eh-Tiss. It might sound something like this:

This is Somewhere Airport Information Charlie, recorded at one nine three zero zulu. Wind three two zero at one four gusting two zero. Sky clear. Visibility fifteen miles. Altimeter three zero one four. IFR approach is a visual approach runway two zero. Active runways two zero and three five. Note One: Echo three taxiway is restricted to aircraft wingspan under 50 feet. Note Two: construction equipment operating west of runway 01/35. Vehicles will remain 400' from runway at all times. Inform Somewhere Tower on initial contact you have information Charlie.

The recording is often made by a human, just one of the controllers in the tower who checks the current conditions, presses a button on the machine and talks into the recorder. You can hear the regular hubbub of tower activity in the background, and there are stories about things audible on the ATIS that shouldn't be. Sometimes the conditions are coded in machine readable form and the ATIS is provided by a mechanical voice.

Either way, the ATIS is updated as required to keep up with changes in the information, usually at least once an hour. Every time it is changed, the information letter is incremented. So the first one in the morning is Alfa, then Bravo, then Charlie and so on through the radio alphabet. That way you need only listen long enough to hear the letter, called the identifier, to know if you have the latest information.

You tune the ATIS frequency and come in somewhere in the middle of that, drumming your pen impatiently on your kneeboard as they waddle through all the taxiway closure stuff when all you want to know is which approach plate to get out. You copy down the information and then call up the controller and "prove" that you have done your homework by specifying which ATIS information you have. If you don't say, or if you say but they weren't paying attention, they will ask you to "Confirm you have Quebec." If they've changed it between your picking it up and your calling them, sometimes they say "Information Romeo is now current. Inform when you have Romeo" and make you go listen again before they will talk to you.

Pilots and controllers get mileage out of making fun of the names of the letters. I've heard ATIS recordings that advertise "Information Echo-co-co-o" and I'm sure the story about the passenger named Mike or Charlie who asks "why did he ask if I was with you?" Here's a PilotsofAmerica forum thread on silly ATIS messages.

Here's an MP3 of an ATIS recording from Ferihegy airport (I think it's in the Czech Republic in Hungary). Here's live ATIS from Bankstown, Australia, if their tower is open when you click it. This last one contains profanity, and it may or may not have ever been actually broadcast but it perfectly demonstrates the mechanical ATIS voice. And it's very funny if you don't mind hearing a few words that shouldn't be said on the radio.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Alternative Transportation

I think I may have already posted this photograph, but it's a response to a commenter who wanted to ensure that people didn't think all of the US was inhospitable to pedestrians. This sign clearly indicates a city where multiple types of non-car locomotion are encouraged with dedicated lanes and routes. I have never seen an on-street skateboard facility anywhere else. I know it was in the U.S. and I'm pretty sure it was in Portland, Oregon.

In answer to a comment a few days ago asking about what happens to bicycles if they are abandoned when the owner moves or dies, they have a department responsible for collecting abandoned or badly parked bicycles. They register them and make them available to be reclaimed, resold, donated or destroyed as appropriate.

I tried to rent a bicycle in Texas today. A bicycle does not appear to be a vehicle one can rent here. Just out of interest, do you live in a town where a person can rent a bicycle? And while I'm at it, did your parents buy you a car? Did you buy your child(ren) a car? Did most people in the class have parent-provided cars? I get e-mails all the time from teenagers who want to learn to fly and don't know where they could get the money. They seem earnest enough that if they were sitting on a car they'd sell it and spend the money on flight training.

You can rent bikes in all the cities where I've lived, and if you ask nicely at a bike shop, you can sometimes get a loaner bike to ride while yours is in for repairs. My first bicycle was parent-provided, but when I wanted a better one, with gears and caliper brakes, I had to save up to pay half.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Back in the Sky

In which Aviatrix has no fear.

After equipment delays and weather delays and walking all around town looking for Mexican restaurants that only existed on Google, or were hidden in otherwise abandoned shopping malls, I finally got to fly in the area. The FBO gives us cookies and hot chocolate and candy, and tows our airplane out of the hangar.

One of the taxiways is closed so we have to cross over the runway and taxi up the other side. This is explained apologetically on the ATIS and again by the controller. Heck, in Canada they would have only built the one taxiway and you'd have to do that all the time. And the taxiway would be half the width and there wouldn't be a tower.

There's a moment's wait at the threshold, I can't remember why, and then we're cleared for takeoff. Vrooom! I miss it when I don't get to fly for a while. The airplane climbs easily and ATC gives me plenty of time to get stabilized and complete after take-off checks before they call me with a frequency change.

ATC is so laid back that after a while I suspect they have forgotten about me. Even though I can keep up with changes in the altimeter setting just by listening to the numbers given other aircraft, I make occasional calls requesting the current altimeter setting, just to remind them that I'm out here.

The mission specialist in the back is training another person on new equipment. They are using my intercom system, so I listen in and find out what they are doing back there. It would probably make more sense if I could see their screens.

I can see some nice lakes down there. They're just outside of town. I wonder why the town isn't built more on the lakes. In my experience, towns usually follow shorelines, because that's a source of water, transportation, and cooling on hot days. I guess this community has grown around a train station or something. Or maybe they are nasty smelly lakes and they only look nice from the sky.

It's hot again today. The temperature has bounced between freezing and t-shirt weather, literally 0 to 20 overnight. The locals say it's normal, and that it will get cold again soon.

At the end of the flight I hand the airplane over to my comrade and she will fly the afternoon shift.

Monday, February 16, 2009

More Blogging Pilots

Here are a few more airline pilot blogs for you all. (Or "y'all" as they say down here, even ATC. "Are y'all on an IFR approach?" I've heard).

The first blog I had to show you was by "Flyboy" a pilot from Brunei, just to show that being a pilot is pretty similar all over the world. It was this story about a rejected take-off that caught my attention. It's exciting, well-written and is what the pilots of the Continental B737 were trying to do in Denver in December. You have to have the attitude that any take-off can turn into this, and be prepared for it every second of the roll. But if you clicked that link you'll see that it's now by invitation only, and I didn't save the e-mail address. If any of my readers is on the invite list for this one, perhaps you could ask Flyboy if I can be on the list, or at least have a copy of that one entry to share with my readers.

The only quote I kept from Log Book is this one, what he thinks of being a pilot.

The life of an airline pilot may seem glamorous to many but it has its downside. The longhaul flights he flies are filled with fatigue, monotony and days away from his family. If married, it is best he lives with a woman who is resigned to the life of a one parent family who copes with blocked drains and recalcitrant airconditioning. But the pros outweigh the cons most of the time what with discounted tickets for family and friends, generous annual leave and a paycheck that pays the household bills, the children's school fees and more importantly the golf club membership subscription.

The second blog, My Life as an Airline Pilot is from an American pilot, flying for American Eagle. If I could get a green card I could get an airline job like that (and if I had little pink fairie wings I could fly around without an airplane, so that's enough of that). The joke at the end of this entry could be considered crude, but it made me laugh.

Next up is All Things Aviation by John White. I'd call it a retrospective curmudgeon blog, with commentary on current aviation news but John also flies a c152 taildragger, and made me laugh with this tidbit I didn't know: "Captain Sullenberger was honored by being given a lifetime membership in the Seaplane Pilots Association." He apparently didn't have a seaplane rating, but they trained him up for one, for free.

And one more of a sort I don't usually cover, but I know lots of you enjoyed my ferry flight in the Aventura, so here's Tinworm, a student pilot with an even smaller airplane, documnted in Tinworm Wings.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Texas Health Care

In which Aviatrix is frightened by the medical care industry and the Monsanto Corporation.

I'm waiting for the customers to need me to work, so I'm watching a lot of TV. I know House is available on cable in Canada, but it seems to be on every channel here, so I'm watching it, and I'm growing to like it. And then there are the ads.

Most of them are for prescription drugs or healthcare. Numerous ads are for cancer care centres, knee and hip surgery, and other sorts of medical care. The medical centres look on TV like holiday resorts. I know someone who is self-employed in Canada and has cancer. She is too ill to work so, being self-employed, has no money coming in. Her friends got together and had a fundraiser for her, to keep the rent paid and the groceries bought. I'm glad she doesn't have to pay for medical care. Hers is not as fancy as the resorts on TV in Texas, but I think she is getting good care. It's unsettling seeing the ads, because I take health care for granted. It's like seeing starving children in ads for NGOs doing overseas aid. Something you don't like to think about. I suppose people who live here are inured to the constant medical advertising, and to the fact that they could be wiped out financially by an illness that they recover from physically. A healthy strong young person can recover from terrifyingly traumatic injuries and go back to work, but how do they manage when they recover with usable limbs but crippling debt? Medical costs in the US make buying a car for your teenager look like a petty cash expenditure.

"Levitra does not protect against HIV/AIDS," warns another ad. Who the heck would think boner pills prevented sexually transmitted diseases? I can't fathom the logic.

I buy some cheese at the grocery store. It says on the side that it is "Made with milk from cows not treated with the growth hormone rBST." I'm glad of that. Bovine growth hormone isn't approved for use in Canada, so it seems scary and foreign. I'm only exposed to it down here. Right under that declaration is another one. "The FDA has stated that there is no significant difference between milk from rBST-treated and untreated cows. The difference is that my government thinks the increase in production is not worth the risk, while the US government requires even those producers who don't use the hormone to assure the consumer that the government thinks it's okay. Probably only the cows suffer from it, but absent all other evidence, which government am I going to believe, the one that pays for health care or the one for whom private health care constitutes part of the GDP?

There was freezing rain forecast this afternoon, but it didn't happen.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Did You Find Colgan?

I was online late at night when all my little mail and message icons started blinking. Nothing in aviation travels as fast as bad news. A Dash-8 operating under the call sign Colgan 3407 for Continental Airlines ceased communications with the Buffalo, NY approach controller and was subsequently found to have crashed into homes on the ground about five miles short of the runway. News stations are currently reporting 49 fatalities: all 45 passengers and four crew members, plus one person on the ground.

There is no way of knowing what happened at this point and I'm not going to speculate. You can see why it's not a good idea to speculate if you watch what came out on the news and talk websites as people who didn't know what as going on rushed to get news out. The reports ranged from the airplane being a Saab 340 to a "large jetliner," and the persons on board from "a crew of three" up to "two hundred passengers." I've heard that the pilots reported mechanical problems and that the pilots reported icing, but none of that shows up in the conversation between the accident aircraft and the approach controllers.

See, Buffalo approach is available on live streaming ATC, so audio is available now for the radio traffic before and after the accident. In Canada it is illegal to report what is heard on the radio, but I'm using an American blog service to report American ATC transmissions, so I think I'm in the clear. Here's what I hear between the Approach controller and the Pilot. There is a Delta pilot in the conversation, too. (I've left everyone else out).

P: buffalo approach colgan thirty four zero seven twelve for eleven thousand with romeo

A: colgan forty four zero seven buffalo approach good evening buffalo altimeter's two niner eight zero plan an ils approach runway two three

P: two niner eight zero and ils two three colgan thirty four zero seven

A: colgan thirty four zero seven, proceed direct TRAVA

P: ???

A: colgan thirty four zero seven descend and maintain six thousand

P: zero seven

A: colgan thirty four zero seven descend and maintain five thousand

P: five thousand thirty four zero seven

A: colgan thirty four zero seven descend and maintain four thousand

P: ?

A: colgan thirty four seven descend and maintain two thousand three hundred

P: ?zero seven

A: colgan thirty four zero seven turn left heading three three zero

P: left heading three three zero colgan thirty four zero seven

A: colgan thirty four zero seven turn left heading three one zero

P: left heading three one zero colgan thirty four zero seven

A: colgan thirty four zero seven three miles from KLUMP turn left heading two six zero maintain two thousand three hundred until established localizer cleared ils approach runway two three

P: left two sixty two thousand three hundred until established and cleared ils two three colgan thirty four zero seven

A: colgan thirty four zero seven contact tower one two zero point five have a good night

P: thirty four zero seven

A: colgan thirty four seven approach

A: delta nineteen ninety eight just going to take you through the localizer for sequencing

D: delta nineteen ninety eight thanks

A: colgan thirty four zero seven, buffalo

A: colgan thirty four seven, approach

A: Delta nineteen ninety eight look off your right side about five miles for a dash eight should be twenty three hundred do you see anything there

D: negative delta nineteen ninety eight we're just in the bottoms and nothing on the TCAS

A: colgan thirty four zero seven, buffalo

This transcription stuff is harder than it looks. I don't know why I can't hear the pilot's responses in each case. Perhaps some are blocked, or it's an artifact of receiver position, or of the recording technology.

I'm pretty sure the controller does call the flight by the wrong callsign initially. That's so normal. Almost every callsign gets bungled by someone every flight. The controller gets it right on subsequent calls so either it was just a slip of the tongue or he matched it up with the strip right afterward. Communications are perfectly normal until ATC tells the pilot to switch to tower. she acknowledges the call, but presumably never calls tower, as approach calls back, looking for her.

I suspect the Delta 1998 told to fly through the localizer would have been following her, and was broken off while they figured out what happened. They ask him if he can see the Dash-8 and he can't. Later the controller asks "Do you have VFR conditions there?" but the pilot is then inside clouds.

Another ATC voice comes on calling the missing flight again, with the words "How do you hear?" the words you usually hear right before someone gets chewed out for not paying attention.

ATC sends the Delta to a hold, that is to wait, and makes a broadcast "Ok for all aircraft this frequency we did have a Dash-8 over the marker that, that didn't make the airport. It appears to be about five miles away from the airport. For Delta 1998 I'm going to bring you in sir on the approach. If you could just give me a PIREP when you get to twenty three hundred and if you have any problem with the localizer or anything let me know however we're showing it all in the green here."

They don't know what went wrong, so they're being careful in case there is some problem with the localizer, the part of the instrument landing system that provides lateral guidance. Another pilot intended to do a practice autoland and was told to not do that. The controller wants the pilot not the automation landing the plane.

Another pilot asks ATC if they know about the situation on the ground. Probably he has seen the fire. It is normal to report sights like to ATC. I've reported an upside-down boat, and a forest fire, for example. ATC asks other aircraft in the area for icing reports and some is reported. One departing pilot asks for an unrestricted climb to get through the ice.

After a while a pilot asks "Did you find Colgan?"

The controller responds "Unfortunately he went down over the marker."

It's pretty normal for an airplane to be referred to as "he" even though the voice coming from it is female. Some people are assuming that the woman on the radio was the first officer, but I've seen women as young as she sounds with four stripes on their shoulders at regional hubs, so that may or may not be a valid assumption. It has dawned on the reporter that the lack of stress in the pilot's voice does not mean that the pilots have no concerns, because he's heard how calm Captain Sullenberger sounded on that tape. But crew are required to report abnormalities with the airplane to ATC, and these folks don't.

And I only noticed today's date after publishing. It is the zulu date of the crash.

Update: The names of the crew have been released: Capt. Marvin Renslow and first officer Rebecca Shaw, so it was the F/O on the radio. Plus there was a jumpseater on board, bringing the death toll to an even fifty.

Walker, Texas Ranger?

In which Aviatrix is frightened by an ATM and the car culture.

This town, despite being fairly compact for an American city, seems to be inhabited by people who do not walk. I mentioned a couple of days ago that kids don't walk to and from school. I present as further evidence a bank with a sign "24h ATM".

I walked up to the bank, but the front door was locked, and there was a sign giving the opening hours of the lobby. And those weren't twenty-four hours. I followed the walk around the corner, looking for an exterior wall-mounted ATM, but the walk dead-ended at a dumpster. There was no sidewalk on the other side of the building, but I tried going that way anyway, and found a drive-up ATM. I pushed the buttons and got my money, feeling a little insecure as an SUV pulled up in line behind me, and then I went back across the parking lot to the hotel. I looked again at the sign, and it definitely did not say drive-through. Apparently ATMs here are drive-through by default. And have no sidewalks.

Two blocks the other way was a Wal-Mart. My coworker made that sidewalkless trip for groceries and reported someone in a pickup truck turning around in a parking lot in order to come back and ask, "Are you okay? Did your car break down? Can I give you a lift?"

It was 16 degrees celsius. Not raining. Pretty much perfect walking weather. After three days I have seen no pedestrians or cyclists here. There were people riding bikes in Montreal at twenty below. You could tell they were their winter bikes, not their good bikes, but they were riding.

Now I told you I was irrationally scared of Texas. This is the sort of thing that makes me scared. It makes me wonder if this is a bad neighbourhood. But all the families are rich enough that their kids have cars. So people aren't going to be mugging me for my shoes. Are there poisonous snakes? I don't think so. Not on the street anyway. I intellectually know that no, there's no danger: people here just don't walk. It's in the culture. But the creepiness of seeing no one walking triggers my 'something wrong here' reflex. It's like when all the water goes away at the beach and you know it's time to run for higher ground before the tsunami crashes in.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Simple Procedure

I came across this on an online bulletin board recently.

All a terrorist has to do is get his commercial pilots license - get hired by an airline - use his 'right' to flying with a gun - get on board - shoot the co-pilot, lock the cockpit door and crash the plane"

I'm not interested in hijacking, and I've already accomplished step one, so thanks to this helpful poster I now see that there's a single trivial step remaining to achieve my goals. Why didn't I think of that?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Dancing Car

In which Aviatrix is frightened by shock absorbers and by a medium pizza

The next day I explore my new environment. The hotel is on a busy boulevard with a high school just down the block and across the street. There's also a restaurant over there, so I'm crossing the road to see if it is anything I want for dinner. There's no sidewalk, but there's a pedestrian light. The traffic in the lane in front of me stops and while I'm waiting for the opposite left turning traffic to stop so I can cross, one of the cars does something very strange.

It's an orange car, not the old 1970s kind of orange, but a new metallic orange. It's the first car in line at the light and I suddenly notice movement, but it hasn't moved forward or backwards. I'm not immediately sure what movement I have seen, but then it moves again. The back right corner of the car suddenly lowers.

Now when I land an airplane, if I land it gently and it isn't heavily loaded, often the main gear oleos will not compress all the way. The airplane will be slightly jacked up. But when I taxi around a corner, one oleo may suddenly compress, making the airplane lopsided until something similar makes the other one compress, too. I had this in mind as I considered what I saw in the car.

As it stopped at the light, presumably it was abrupt, and its weight shifted forward, uncompressing the rear shock absorbers, making the rear end look lifted. Then perhaps a passenger in the back moved around, compressing first one and then the other rear shock absorber.

Good theory, but it didn't hold up. As I stared at the car, the front end popped up. Then the rear. Then it went down on one side. And down on the other side. The car was dancing. I'm staring open-mouthed at this thing. I'm sure everyone in the car was busting a gut laughing at me. But it was insane. Who would want deliberate control over the shock absorbers? Does it have a use other than astonishing Canadian yokels? It wasn't high enough to work like this comic. What do the controls look like inside the car?

I was so busy staring at the car that I didn't make it all the way across the road at the light, and had to wait on the central divider for another cycle of the traffic lights. A lot of cars were coming out of the high school, and while I was watching them I noticed that they were almost all newer cars, made in the last five years and almost all contained a single teenaged occupant. I did see one schoolbus, too. It wasn't until later that I realized that I had just watched school get out and saw not one single student leave on foot or by bicycle. It's only about 3 km from the centre of town, and there are residential areas within a kilometre. I don't know if this is a discovery about how rich the kids are in town, how lazy they are, or how behind the times I am. Maybe all the kids in Canada drive to school now, too. I do know lots of university students who walk or bike to school, but perhaps my friends are poorer or more active than the norm. It's also possible that the local kids who walk or bike used a multi-use path I didn't know about, in order to avoid the busy street.

The restaurant turned out to be an all-you-can-eat fast food buffet. That's not good value for money for me, and I wasn't feeling anthropological enough to want to watch the people who would go to a place like that, so I crossed back to the hotel and surrendered to pizza. In Texas, it turns out, you just can't get away with eating a little bit. The small pizza cost considerably more than the medium, so I ordered a medium. The guy at the counter couldn't explain the price discrepancy, but did recognize it as illogical.

I'm suspecting that no one in town walks anywhere. More evidence supporting that theory in a later blog entry.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Last Reason for Roman Numerals

That would be Super Bowl XLIII. It's like the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final, for American football. I have to admit I've never watched an American football game before. But indications are that the Super Bowl isn't so much about the football as about the marketing and the hype. And seeing as I'm in the USA, the commercials would be the "real" $5-million Super Bowl commercials. (In Canada they are replaced by ordinary commercials, marketing to Canadians). Plus it won't hurt to know enough about the game to have something to talk to my customers about. Guys apparently have to watch a certain amount of football in order to maintain testicular size, and my customers are all guys.

I only saw a few commercials. I stop watching by habit when the commercials came on, and kept forgetting that I was supposed to be checking them out. What did I learn? Some beer makes it summer wherever you drink it. Some beer is more watery (they call it drinkability) than other beer. Other beer (or possibly the same beer) has nice talking horses. Trucks with aluminum transmissions can drive uphill through fiery tunnels (actual demonstration). Drive recklessly enough and maybe the mouth will fall off the woman who is nagging you to slow down. (I'm hoping that one wasn't a beer or a car commercial). If roadies flew aircraft the runway lights would explode during take-off. (I think that one was an ad for a telephone or an internet provider). Pepsi is now teaching the world to sing. I was completely baffled what one ad was for, and then visited the site. Headsnap! It's a "discreet dating service for married people." A domain reseller (which coincidentally my employer uses) will enhance your assets, or possibly cause women to flash their tits at you. There will be a special edition of The Office on later. Thank you for watching and congratulations to the winning team.

I didn't perceive a level far above regular commercials. The money is in the audience not the production. I suppose the boob flashing was a wink to the halftime "wardrobe malfunction" of a few years ago. I'm guessing the broadcasting standards haven't changed in XLIII years? Considering the audience, a topless halftime show ought to be a hit. I guess it's too early in the evening to show skin on network TV. But if they can digitally put markings and advertisements on the field, they can digitally put bikinis on the performers. I can't see anyone in the target audience being really offended, and I bet more people would watch.

It's too bad the athletes have to be so heavily padded so you can't see the shape of their bodies. I understand it's to prevent injury on the field, but how about if they take off their helmets and shirts at the end of the game. All that time in the weight room just for hitting each other and running around? C'mon, show some muscles. I think I like sports where everyone wears spandex better. Yes, that's right, she watches one football game and she's going to tell you how it should be done.

Except I tuned in to watch a cultural event, and a football game broke out. You don't need to know anything about a game to realize that when there's two minutes left and the score is really close, and the ball is right on the edge of where the team that is behind needs to put it to get ahead, it's exciting. The yellow team guy threw the ball and another yellow team guy caught it, and the red team guys jumped on him. And then they did it again but this time the yellow team guy ran a longer way and caught the ball before the red team guys jumped on him. (But not nearly as far as the guy who earlier ran all the way from one end of the field to the other without getting knocked down). Next they threw the ball to a yellow team guy who was in the goal area, but he missed it, but being American football they got a fourth try, and this time the guy caught it. He then got knocked out of bounds, but apparently that was alright. The red team guys got a try at throwing the ball then, but there were only about 30 seconds left and someone caught it wrong or something and they did not get any more goals so the yellow team won. It was very exciting, I assure you.

A behind-the-scenes quirk that amuses me, but that veteran Super Bowl watchers probably know, goes back to the theme of people without shirts on. In anticipation of one of the teams winning, the marketing people print up gazillions of shirts and other merchandise proclaiming each team the champions. As soon as they find out which team is the loser, they deliver all the correct merchandise to where it can be sold to fans, and then send all the stuff with the wrong team declared the champion off to destitute people in refugee camps and disaster zones, where they care even less than I do who won the game, but presumably can clothe a family of five with a couple of 3XL football shirts, a baseball cap and a foam #1 finger. I'm not certain the foam fingers go to the third world, but the hats and ball caps do.

Go team! And they're getting bigger already, I can tell. See?

For television coverage of a different event, you can see the 60 Minutes interview with Captain Sullenberger and his crew online.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Texas Scares Me

I'm irrationally scared of Texas. You'll see some criticism in the next few posts. Please forgive me, or educate me, or at least be literate and interesting while flaming me. If you're a die-hard Texan you might just want to skip a few posts. I start out trying to treat Texas fairly, but it just comes out mean. I'm not sure what it is. Texas has a reputation, I guess, as a larger than life, shoot first ask questions later kind of state.

It's enormous, so there's no one Texas. The bit I'm in is flat and cold--we've come all this way and yet the temperature is hovering around freezing. It even snowed in Dallas this week.

We were told we're in the Best Western hotel, and the GPS database in the plane said that was 3 miles from the airport, but the customer who picks us up is clearly driving further than that.

"What hotel are we in?" we ask.

"Best Western. It's nice, but it's way the other side of town."

It turns out that the old Best Western was torn down last year after the new one we're in was completed. There's a sign still up for the Grand Opening Special Rates. The assistant at the customer's company who booked the accommodation must have been working off the same outdated information we were.

On the ride to the hotel a public service ad comes on the radio, addressing pregnant teenagers and scaring them with details of what a difficult task it is to raise a child on your own. We look at one another with raised eyebrows, having never heard abortion advertised, but then the ad wraps up urging the teenagers to give their babies up for adoption rather than keeping them. We realize that abortion isn't even on the table here. The young woman at the hotel check-in desk is pregnant and the others' expressions tell me that I'm not the only one reminded of the ad.

We go for dinner at the Texas Roadhouse chain next to the hotel. Something you have to love about the southern US: food is cheap. We have a tasty steak dinner with side dishes and non-alcoholic beverages and excellent although informal service, for ten dollars. I think I pay that much for a box of Chicken McNuggets and a milkshake at home.

We transported some of the customer's equipment and they shipped some by courier. It turns out we're more reliable today, as some of their equipment is missing, so we'll have the weekend off to wait for it to be delivered.

Something else scary I found today is this news article about a pilot suing three flight attendants who refused to accept his decision not to deice. Notice that the Calgary ground crew also filed a report on the aircraft when they observed ice and offered deicing but were turned down. Some US Airways pilots are more heroic than others, it would seem. Great CRM, dude. If I were him I would bring my own coffee to work.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Cross-Country Lunacy

I'm always a little dazzled by the size and efficiency of American FBOs. There is a sufficient number of rich people who travel by private aircraft in the US to support an industry of impeccable high end service. If you're wealthy enough to charter or buy a jet to go straight to where you want to go, then you have high expectations. And as I mentioned there are many choices of where to land, so if one place is a little grungy, or doesn't have highly attractive and attentive staff, complimentary espresso and scented hand lotion, then you can go somewhere else. I pay for our fuel, double-checking the quantity and grade, and then pull up my flight planning program.

My coworker comes over and I show her our tailwinds. "We can go right to Texas with no intermediate stop, if you're feeling fine for the long day." It's within our duty day, and she's happy with it. I call the flight follower and the customer who will pick us up at destination, and we're off.

The airspace here isn't busy and we're cleared south as soon as we're radar identified. There's a place on the map called Le Roy and I accidentally call it "Le-Wah" as if it were a French name. My coworker cracks up and corrects "LEE-Roy! We're in the States." I declare my new hobby to be pronouncing American place names as if they were French. I wave to day-twah, eel-ee-nwah and sharl-vwah, which leaves me wondering, how do Americans pronounce Charlevoix? Tcharl-voyks? Anyone know?

The sky darkens as we approach Cincinnati on the GPS. We've left ATC flight following, so my copilot is looking up whether we have to call them at our altitude "Cincinnati International KY," she says. "What's the K-Y for?"

"Like the jelly," I deadpan. "The airport is sponsored by Johnson & Johnson." I have no idea. She doesn't kick me, so I push my luck. "Maybe it's in Kentucky?" I suggest, then lapse into my badly sung version of "Living in the air in Cincinnati ... WKRP!" As God is my witness I thought turkeys could fly. It turns out that Cincinnati is in Kentucky. This surprises both of us. We think of Cincinnati as a northern city, but Kentucky as a southern state. The things you learn looking at the GPS.

Our pass through the airspace of a rapid succession of states. We're passing the area where many states narrow towards the Mississippi and the shape is such that our track keeps cutting their borders. We have cheesy jokes to make about all of them, but fortunately we don't remember more than one line from any associated song.

I like flying long distances, letting state after state pass beneath my wings. The sun has gone down and we're seeing the lights of all these cities, with slightly different coloured streetlights and different patterns of streets. But my coworker is bored. I teach her the CFS game. I know I blogged about it before but I can't find the entry to link it, so here are the rules. Take a newish copy of the CFS (spine unbroken) and open it at random. If there is an airport on that page that you have been to as a pilot, score zero. If there is no airport you have used, turn pages until you find one, and score one point for each page you turn. Once each person has found an airport they have used, you open it at random again. You play to a predetermined score or until it's time for the top of descent checklist. Lowest score wins. I was leading beautifully until we got to a letter, I can't remember which one it was, but there were a lot of airports starting with that letter and they were all in parts of the country I hadn't been, or had flown over without landing. I think I scored about 35 points before I finally found an airport I'd been to, and I remember it was some totally obscure Indian reserve somewhere. My coworker is laughing at me because I've been there, but have never landed at any of the civilized southern places dominated by that initial. Hey, as long as she was entertained.

Approaching destination we pick up the ATIS and it's information Hotel. "Yes, we're staying at the Best Western!" quips my co-worker, referencing an old, old pilot joke. I think she would have said it on air, too, except that the air traffic controller knows that joke too, thus is too smart to say, "Confirm you have Hotel." Instead she says "Do you have ATIS information Hotel?" She gives us a vector for a wide base, following a Citation on a close in base. It's a good way for ATC to deal with slow and fast traffic together, but it's tricky for me turning final when I know there is an airplane between me and the runway that is on base. There's no way I will get down final fast enough to cut him off, but I'm turning towards an airplane I can't see, while he's on a track in my direction.

We land and taxi to the FBO where we have arranged hangarage, but tonight is their company party, so the lone individual on duty is the one who doesn't know anything. We park outside and let them sort it out when a manager gets in tomorrow morning. Or tomorrow afternoon, depending on how good the party was.

Yeah, I know: we park outside in Montréal and inside in Texas. You fear the unknown, and the boss is more concerned about hailstorms and tornadoes than icestorms. There's a full moon out; maybe that's why we're so goofy tonight.

Oh and Callsign Echo? You're still on the hook for that word you mentioned. Spit it out.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

US Airways 1549 Audio

The audio and transcripts of radio and phone communications by air traffic controllers while the US Airways flight was ditching in the Hudson River last month have been released. I'm going to talk about them today and finish the trip to Texas tomorrow. To hear communications between the pilots and the departure controller, listen to the first one, the New York Tracon.

It's not too hard to understand, once you get past the New York accents. There are very few transmissions from US1549. Talking on the radio is low priority and low priority tasks drop out during an emergency. This explains both how little is said and how little urgency is in the pilot's voice as he relays the information. It's not just that he's calm, he's concentrating on something else. It's like a guy answering his girlfriend's questions while he's watching sports on TV.

"Unable" is the normal radio response to any request that can't be met. A pilot is unable to accept a runway because it's too short, or unable to turn to a particular heading because there are clouds there, and she's VFR. Or in this case unable to accept any of the offered landing runways because the airplane can't glide that far. The controller is working hard to make this work for these guys. You'll hear a telephone-like beep as the controller picks up a direct line to talk to another controllers to arrange landing priority for the emergency aircraft. The pilot initially wants to return to LaGuardia, then realizes he can't make that and warns the departure controller once that "we may end up in the Hudson." He considers Teterboro, but 22 seconds later he knows that's not going to work. "We can't do it," he says, "We're gonna be in the Hudson."

Realize that the air traffic controllers can't see the airplane. They have a radar trace down to maybe a few hundred feet, but the altitude and position on that updates in jumps, so what they see is not completely up to date. Once the airplane descends below radar they know nothing about it.

The controllers know the airplane has gone down, and probably assume the worst. An interesting transcript to read is the cab coordinator, who is trying to stay on top of all this. You only hear his communication with remote positions, not him talking to his controllers. He can't see what's going on out there either, but he's using all his resources, calling for a controller to get him a police helicopter on frequency. Eventually what I believe is a sightseeing tour helicopter is diverted to determine what is going on. And finally the coordinator gets the good news that there are "lots of survivors."

This New York Times article by Matthew Wald interprets the audio well.

To know more about what was going on the the airplane during all this, we'll need to wait for the cockpit voice recorder transcript to be released.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Au Revoir Montréal

Next morning we arrived at the airport at a civilized hour of the morning, our airplane bare and dry and the Montréal weather still cold and clear. Our broker has rebooked our customs appointment, we hope.

"I'll do weather and flight plan while you verify customs," we agreed.

The pilot information kiosk in the FBO is a piece of Nav Canada equipment, essentially a box containing a computer and the slowest modem known to man. It's supposed to connect automatically to Nav Canada's weather servers and provide all the weather products available to the modern pilot. I think it got as far as inquiring whether I would prefer English or French before it got hung up on its own innards. I beat on it for a while and then resorted to the telephone, first reporting the PIK here inoperative, in case someone might care to repair it, and then requesting the weather for our very short flight.

It's not so great. While it's lovely here, we're looking at low cloud and freezing fog for the destination. We might be able to squeeze in under the weather, but then we'd be trapped in the valley in Vermont, unable to proceed southeast through higher terrain. It's supposed to improve, but the briefer doesn't say that with optimism in his voice. We decide to wait for the new forecast and then see.

I load and preflight the airplane while it's still in the hangar. The floor is flooded, from all the melted ice and snow on the airplanes, but the airplane is dry, so it's ready to go. The new forecast, however isn't any better. We don't like to go to unfamiliar airports for customs, because we're a little out of the ordinary. Each station has its own culture and we can get unlucky and run into someone who doesn't accept our classification or doesn't like the way we do our paperwork, and end up stuck for a day, waiting for the broker to fax proof of something or other. But Vermont isn't going to work.

My coworker starts casting around for another place to clear customs, but there's a stationary front sitting over the northeast US, making things ugly everywhere. It looks like we can skirt it by cutting across Lake Ontario, then along the south shore of Lake Erie, to get into Cleveland. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, here we come. When we call the airport in Vermont to say we're not coming, the border guys laugh at us. They know how bad the weather is and were expecting the call. We then call our customs broker to set Cleveland up with the paperwork we need, while we go for lunch.

Lunch is nearby at a cafeteria over the flying school. While we're eating I can here a group at a nearby table working on a weight and balance calculation. It seems to be a couple of male pilots helping a female student pilot with the form. Her voice carries clearly, but I don't hear the others' voices. I guess it depends on which way she is looking. She is an anglophone, not from this province, but I hear her say a couple of times that she'd really does intend to learn French. I'm not deliberately eavesdropping, so my awareness of the conversation fades in an out. Then I hear her pronouncing French words with a heavy English accent. She is in her early twenties and speaks fluent English with a fairly neutral North American accent but it doesn't seem like she has ever taken French in school. Perhaps she is American or Bahamian or something.

"Suis sont nous ... oh what? ... soi sont neuve ..." I look over, a bit puzzled. She's evidently reading something that has been written down for her. After a few starts and quiet corrections, she's saying a recognizable "soixante-neuf." Something from the weight and balance problem, perhaps? I can only hope.

She gets up to use the washroom, still repeating her new word and I turn a raised eyebrow look at the males at the table. They see me, and have the good grace to look sheepish. I think they realize that they'd better fess up or be busted by me, because shortly after she returns to the table I hear a shriek of outrage from her, and laughter all round.

I see her later on the stairs, and confess that I was wondering why they were so eagerly teaching her to say "sixty-nine." She rolls her eyes. The guys of course hadn't told her at first what they were coaching her to say, and had in the end only translated it by miming the sexual meaning, perhaps not realizing that the translation has exactly the same connotation in English. She had a good sense of humour about it.

We call back the customs broker and determine that our arrival is booked in Akron. Akron, Cleveland: it's all the same to us. I confirm that the other pilot is on the customs paperwork as PIC and I file to Akron.

Although she's PIC, she doesn't enjoy flying cross country, so I get the left seat and leave her with the radios. All good for me. There's a little bit of fog and cloud around as we fly south, but nothing to interfere with safe VFR flight.

The Canada-US border takes a funny zig-zag course through the lakes, so as we continue south we cross into the US and then briefly we're back in Ontario overhead its namesake lake. That's now four out of five of the Great Lakes I have flown across the middle of. One more to go. There's something really exciting about flying across big stretches of open water for me. If I ever get a job flying ETOPS across oceans, I'm sure the excitement will wear off, but flying across an ocean will be very exciting for a while.

During the flight, my coworker is trying to plan the next leg. "Anywhere in particular you want to stop?" she asks. Other than the fact that I've never been to Arkansas, there is nothing pulling me to anywhere in particular. You see, in the US there are hundreds, possibly thousand of runways that can accommodate our airplane. Almost all of them have fuel and a town with a chain hotel. And one Hampton Inn or Super-8 is pretty much interchangeable with any other one, so it really really doesn't matter where we stop, as long as it's on the way. That's why my plan to visit a friend in Indiana was in no way abuse of company resources.

"I'm partial to the 'funny names' method of choosing a nightstop," I opine. "All else being equal, stay at the place with the silliest name." She is familiar with that technique and goes through the map and the airport info book, looking at possible stops. We discuss the relative silliness of our options. I should have written down some of the names. It's going to depend a bit on weather, so we don't make a final decision.

We can see the bad weather to the southeast for the whole trip, but we remain in the clear right through our descent into Akron. We're right on time and we don't even have to taxi to a customs area: the customs official comes to us at the FBO. He's friendly and quick. I hand him both sets of passports at the rear door and he looks at them quickly, verifies that the number printed on the customs sticker on our door matches the one on the paperwork and he's done with us. Woo! Akron goes on the 'good place to clear customs' list.

I'll break the blog entry here as we order fuel and go inside for flight planning and washrooms. The day continues next post.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Elbows and Fists

The first part of the forecast was right. It snowed most of the night. Then it snowed some more in the morning. And some more in the afternoon. It snowed so much that Montréal automobile traffic came almost to a standstill. It took us half an hour to drive the few blocks from the airport to the main street, because the main street was moving so slowly and so solidly, that it was gridlocked and cars from sidestreets couldn't turn on even when the lights were green.

Montréal does know how to deal with snow, however, and the world continued to turn. The police were out cracking down on drivers of what they termed "moving igloos" -- vehicles that had only had the windshields cleared, and were driving around encased in snow and ice. The snowploughs got the roads clear. And the sidewalks. Right after the big dump of snow, I had to walk about twelve blocks from the hotel to another business and back, including crossing a highway, and wondered what a mess that was going to be. It wasn't a mess at all. The sidewalk and all pedestrian crossings were passable and the sidewalks leading to the highway underpass were properly signed and accessible. I have had considerably more trouble making a twelve block journey on foot in Florida. The bike paths were cleared, too, and being used the day after the storm. The city apparently had committed to keeping certain arterial bike routes clear all winter and was keeping their promise. The only points I dock Montreal for car-free accessibility is that you have to pay a new fare to transfer between suburban buses and city transit, because they are separate companies.

It finally did turn to rain early the next morning. Freezing rain. Everything was now not only covered in snow but topped with a shiny layer of clear ice. The promised real rain never came. The temperature dropped and it finished off by snowing another ten or 20 centimetres on top of the ice.

Yeah, snow over ice over snow. A delightful combination. Everyone had had enough snow, so the word came out to proceed to our next job, in the southern US, when able. Our brokers did all the paperwork for us and made an appointment with US Customs across the river in Vermont. Our plan was to check out of the hotel, arriving at the airport just before noon, to get the airplane ready for a three p.m. departure. Weather, time and pilot status permitting we could do a second leg from Vermont to Indiana after clearing customs. I even had a friend in Indiana lined up to visit, and a pocketful of reasons ready to justify why his local airport was a good place to overnight.

Our cab driver was a Haïtian immigrant, very friendly but unfamiliar with the location of our FBO. The province of Québec manages its own immigration, so there's a different mix of immigrants here, more Haïtians, Senegalese, Rwandans and others from French-speaking nations than in English-Canada. It's kind of fun to see how the history of who invaded or colonized whom has repercussions hundreds of years later on who drives your cab and makes your restaurant meals. The cabbie doesn't speak English as well as your average Montréaler, but "left here ... right here ... stop by the Esso" are not difficult feats of communication so we did just fine.

Despite us giving the FBO half a day's head start, the ramp and all the airplanes were still completely covered in snow and ice. They'd run into a bit of a "who deices the deicers?" problem. They had a deicing truck, and a large heated hangar and a front end loader, but everything was covered in thick ice, blanketed in snow, and the temperature was still well below freezing. The standard plan was to tow the deicing truck into the heated hangar to defrost it, then to use it in turn to defrost the airplanes. But the problem was twofold.

Firstly, the loader, i.e. the tow vehicle wouldn't start. Staff weren't certain whether it was the cold or the final step in its decline, but it wasn't going anywhere. The loader was also the snowplough, so that explained the condition of their ramp. The other problem was that even if they had had a functional deicing truck it wouldn't have made much headway against the ice accumulation on the airplanes. Deicing fluid is excellent for melting and removing snow, because snow is very porous. Pour any fluid on top and that fluid seeps right though the snow, saturating it. Even my tropical readers are going to be familiar with this phenomenon, as I understand that the Sno-Cone, under different names, is a worldwide commodity. The deicing fluid is like the flavoured syrup, sinking into the snow, but instead of flavouring it, it lowers the freezing point of the mixture. The deicing fluid is usually applied heated, so really it's triple action: mechanical force of the spray, plus freezing point depression, plus heat to melt it.

When the substance to be removed is actual ice, deicing fluid doesn't live up to its name. Ice is too hard to be removed by a spray, and ice is not porous so the fluid can't saturate it. You have to rely on the transfer of heat from the fluid to the ice. And as the fluid runs right off the ice, that can take a long time and a lot of expensive deicing fluid.

We were on our own, so grabbed brooms and went out to see how bad this was going to be. My coworker had already run down her camera battery taking pictures of our ice-encased airplane. While the bottom layer on most of the wings was snow, the wind had been blowing, so the leading edges and most vertical surfaces were free of snow, directly coated with ice. Ice everywhere. Icicles hung down all along the wingspan. The windows were now double-glazed, along with the entire fuselage. The propeller blades were like popsicle sticks inside huge blobs of ice. Icicles hung everywhere, under the nose like a beard, from the horizontal stabilizer, and under the engines. Imagine if all the rain that fell on and dripped off an airplane in a long rainstorm stuck there instead of completing its fall to the ground and running away.

We started by sweeping off the top layer of snow, down to the ice. The ice layer was about two centimetres thick on the wings. We pounded on it with our fists and elbows to break it up, then peeled off the slices of ice, the size of sofa cushions, and threw them on the ground. Where the ice lay over snow, this worked pretty well. I took a broom and ran it along the lines of icicles, enjoying the musical plinka-plinka-plinka sound of all the icicles breaking off. It's a sound that you either know or you don't. The rhythm is like running the hammer across an endless xylophone, but I don't think there's a musical instrument that can replicate that pitch without being tinny. Perhaps the cold, dense, dry air is part of the required conditions to hear the sound. I had to remind myself that the icicles were formed from water that had fallen on and flowed over my filthy airplane, and as I wouldn't lick the airplane it was not okay to pretend the icicles were popsicles. There are disadvantages to having a neverending childlike outlook on the world.

I banged on the fuselage above and below the windows, as hard as I dared without risking damage to my airplane, and cracked the ice enough that it could be peeled off. It worked. It was just slow and tedious. And cold. We took some warming up hands breaks. The FBO had a tow vehicle going and said that we could get our airplane into the hangar around 3 p.m. The customs facility in Vermont was open until six, so we held onto that hope and continued scraping ice off the machine, so as to shorten the amount of time it would take for the heat in the hangar to produce a bare, dry airplane. Then the hangar availability estimate was revised to 5 p.m. and almost immediately after that to 6 p.m., so we surrendered, cancelled our customs reservation, asking the FBO only that our airplane be ready for the morning, and went back to the hotel.

I felt hokey and small-time that we hadn't been able to do a simple thing like get an airplane ready to fly on a clear bright day. But then I discovered that very few airframes in the city that were on a ramp overnight left Montréal today. My customers had an eight a.m. departure out of Dorval that day, and were wheels up at four p.m. They said they spent an hour and a half in the deicing bay. That's not an hour and a half waiting in line for deicing. That's an hour and a half of having hot deicing fluid pumped onto the airplane. The icicles hanging off the wings of the B757 were proportional to the ones on my airplane, making them as thick as an arm at the root. No way those were going to be knocked off with a broomstick. Any attempt to do so might have damaged the skin of the airplane. I know of an Air Canada executive who checked in for a 7:20 am flight that was cancelled because of the ice. He boarded another flight at 11:05, pushed back at 12:15, finished deicing at 15:15, returned to the ramp for more fuel, and then the flight was cancelled at 16:15.

So our surrender to the elements was simply one of many. Every once in a while mother nature flexes her muscles and reminds us that we aviate at her pleasure.