Monday, June 29, 2009

New Use for a Transponder

The transponder is a box full of circuitry in the airplane, connected to an antenna. There are fancy transponders that transmit all kinds of parameters, but your standard Mode C transponder transmits only the pressure altitude (it's gets the number from the encoding altimeter) and the four digit code that is entered on the transponder. You enter it either by turning a knob for each digit (the old kind) or by punching the four numbers on a keypad (the new kind).

The four digit code is assigned by the ATC unit, usually just the next sequential one in the block that that unit controls. So the pilot puts 1254 on his box and the controller enters the details about that airplane on her computer. Now when the controller looks at her screen, the blip to which she has assigned 1254 is identified by call sign, destination, groundspeed and altitude.

There are a number of default transponder codes, for pilots to use when they haven't been assigned anything else, and there are a few codes that signify a special message. When the controller's radar computer detects an airplane squawking (that's the proper verb) one of those codes it sets off an alarm, and the controller knows that an airplane has a problem even if the pilots can't transmit that information. For example, 7600 signifies a communications failure and 7700 signifies an emergency. Sometimes controllers and pilots will use the transponder as a means of communication. E.g. "Aircraft north of PLACE squawking 7600, if you receive this transmission squawk 2522." It's common for an aircraft to have a radio problem that renders it able to receive but not transmit.

This is background to a story a reader told me about an exhausting sim session during which the instructor piled on emergency after emergency. The pilot had, if I recall correctly, just taken off from an airport in poor weather conditions and been handed an engine failure and a communications failure. After handling the engine failure according to the checklist, the pilot now needs to return for landing. If he had only the communication failure, there is an established procedure to follow, squawking 7600, following any published airport-specific comm failure procedures, and proceeding en route with altitudes and approaches according to established rules. But with one engine out, he's hardly going to continue to destination. If it were an engine failure alone, he would report that and tell the tower he was coming back for landing on runway 22. But with both, he's a little bit screwed. Just a little bit, though, because he came up with a clever plan.

He set the transponder to:

7600 - just long enough for the tower to recognize the comm failure

Then to 7700 - so they could see it was also an emergency. At this point the controller is probably picking up a phone and or calling across the room to colleagues, about the situation, but not knowing what the emergency is, has no idea what the airplane is about to do. So far that's what any pilot would do in this situation.

Then the pilot changed the code again, to 0022. In the telling of the story I recognized it immediately as informing ATC that he would be returning for landing on runway 22.

In the simulator, the instructor understood it too, saw that the pilot had this extreme situation under control, and thus said, "we're done." And the pilot got to keep his job for another six months.

I thought it was clever enough to add to my bag of tricks and to share with you.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Flare to Land ... Squat to Pee

As I mentioned, some time ago I won a silly contest. Where the prize was a Go Girl, a device designed to allow women to pee standing up.

It's smaller than I expected. So just like what it emulates, really. The whole thing is packed in a tube just a little fatter than the English Smarties tube. (Much fatter than the unrelated American Smarties roll). I need a more international basis of comparison. To tell the truth, it's pretty close to the typical flaccid size of what it's emulating.

I open up the tube and and it contains a rolled up plastic bag with a sticker on it. I peel the sticker of and a silicone thing pops up into shape. It's a funnel with a specialized shape and a this-way-up arrow. There are also instructions, for those who need instructions on peeing into a tube.

So I try it out. Following the instructions, just in case. I have no problem relaxing my bladder while standing up facing the toilet, but some people might have trouble. I understand that for some people they can't let it go unless they perceive they are in the 'right place.' I used to do long distance racing where the right place was without checking your speed during the race. I think it was mainly the guys, however who couldn't just let it run down their leg indistinguishable from the sweat. So it works for me. The pee comes out the correct end, and nowhere else. It pretty much all runs out, and then you've got to do the same little shake the guys do. With the same that's-why-you-put-the-seat-up results. Then you have to wipe both yourself and it. Weirdest part: having to put the seat down after using the toilet.

The makers suggest that some people will want to throw it away as a single-use item. I rinsed it out in the sink. In a public restroom, you'd want to take a paper towel into the stall with you to wipe it. You could wash it easily, and probably pretty discreetly while you wash your hands. I'm not sure how I'd manage in a port-a-potty, or other environment where, the manufacturer suggests, you'd want to use it because you didn't want to sit down. I don't really see it useful for that, because in any situation where it would be more appealing to use this than to sit, it would be more convenient to squat than to do this. My kind have been squatting to pee ever since we learned to walk upright and I find it a pretty effective way to go. I was hoping I could use this to pee while flying but it kind of requires standing. Maybe it could be hooked into a receptacle of some sort, but I'm not yet ready to simulate that with experimental apparatus.

Both flaring to land and squatting to pee are risk management techniques. They make the operation slightly less efficient than it could otherwise be, but leave a lot more room for error. I've got to admit, that if you can get it just right, flying an airplane right onto the runway without flaring makes for a very fine landing. You have to know exactly where your wheels are. And if you do it wrong, it has a fantastic potential to make a mess. As anyone who has cleaned a bathroom knows, the penis analogy remains sound here.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Flaps That Make It Rise

Recently someone forwarded this article to a mailing list I read. In excerpt:

Jumbo jet packed with British tourists seconds from disaster after it fails to rise on take-off

By Daily Mail Reporter Last updated at 2:21 AM on 01st June 2009

Hundreds of passengers narrowly avoided disaster when their plane nearly crashed after taking off.

The British Airways plane shook violently and did not rise more than 30ft above the ground as it set off from Johannesburg to London.

The pilot has been praised for his quick actions in keeping the Boeing 747 in the air, saving the lives of the 256 passengers on board. Miraculous escape: The British Airways Boeing 747 is thought to have gone into landing mode so that the flaps that make it rise did not work.

Travelling at 200mph, he dumped enough fuel for the aircraft to eventually gain height, before returning it to the airport.

It is believed that a technical fault caused the plane to go into landing mode so that the flaps that normally make it rise did not work.

An investigation is under way as to how the jet came so close to crashing.

A BA spokesman said: 'As a precaution BA56 Johannesburg to Heathrow flight on Monday May 11 returned to the airport shortly after take-off due to a suspected technical problem.

'The Boeing 747 aircraft with 256 passengers on board landed safely and the customers disembarked as normal into the airport.

'We are cooperating fully with the South African aviation safety authority's investigation into the flight.'

Referring to the pilot's quick actions, he added: 'Our crews are trained extensively to deal with all eventualities.'

So "the flaps that make it rise" weren't working. Before reading part on, what would you think this term referred to?

It could be the actual flaps, and there are certainly accidents that result when flaps are mistakenly not extended, but flaps are normally used for landing, so 'going into landing mode' doesn't make sense. If the airplane did get off the ground with no flaps and into level flight, I'd expect it to have accelerated rapidly. They say 200 mph. That's slow, but is it in the slow flight regime for a B747? I don't know. I also don't know which orifice they pulled the 200 mph number out of.

I considered that "the flaps that make it rise" were the two sides of the elevator. It does flap like the flukes of a whale, and certainly when it is raised, the airplane normally pitches up. But operation of the elevator is not suppressed during landing.

I thought also of things like spoilers or leading edge devices: anything tab-shaped that protrudes from the airplane could be a flap. But nothing matched well enough to seem like more than a wild guess.

Fortunately a member of the mailing list found an NTSB report on the flight. Without the identifying details of type, airline and airport I wouldn't even have matched the tabloid story to the report.

On May 11, 2009 at 18:37 UTC, a British Airways Boeing 747, powered by Rolls-Royce RB211-524H2-T engines, experienced a No. 3 thrust reverser unlock light illumination during the takeoff roll from the Tambo International Airport (FAJS - formerly known as Johannesburg International Airport) while the airplane was traveling at 124 knots. The No. 2 engine thrust reverser unlock light came on at 163 knots and just prior to rotation the slats retracted. The airplane rotated and climbed at a 200 foot per minute rate. The flight crew dumped fuel and did an air turn back to FAJS where a safe and uneventful landing was made.

So the flaps that made this particular airplane rise appear to have been the slats, which the NTSB report must be using as a generic term for leading edge lift devices. The B747 uses Krueger flaps instead of slats to modify the wing for takeoff. The Krueger flaps fold out from under the leading edge of the wing, creating a barrier to air incident there. This makes the airflow behave as though the leading edge of the wing were thicker and rounder, just like the wing on an airplane designed to go slowly, thus giving the wing more lift at low speeds.

Mind you, if forced to condense that into six words I'm not sure I'd come up with anything much more meaningful than "the flaps that make it rise." Anyone?

I'm scheduling this to post a week or so after I'm writing it, because everyone is talking about Air France 447 at the moment. Although when you see this, I doubt the voices will have resolved the divided opinions:

  • a thunderstorm alone could have done this to a perfectly good airplane
  • there must be a flaw in the aircraft for a thunderstorm to do this
  • the pilots or the software must have reacted badly to exacerbate the situation
  • It was terrorists/a meteor/aliens that did it

People I respect and who are more knowledgeable than I inhabit each of the first three camps, so I'm not putting up my tent anywhere. My traffic is way up from people finding this blog by searching on terms like "coffin corner" and "stall recovery." That means that instead of just talking to the people I hang out with, my regular readers, I'm also addressing a lot of spectators who don't "know" me. I do think it's possible we'll never have a satisfactory answer to what happened on that flight.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Phases on Stun

There's been a change to our maintenance control manual. Previously we would have a minor, half-day inspection (called a 50 hour inspection), fifty hours of flying, a major four day inspection (called a hundred hour inspection), fifty more hours of flying and then repeat from the beginning. Now we still have an inspection every fifty hours, but our maintenance is now ''phase based''. All inspections take two days. On one inspection they look at the left engine, empennage and wings really thoroughly. Then on the next one it's the right engine, fuselage and landing gear. I don't have the MCM with me, so I may not have that exact. The point is that they distribute the work of the old 100 hour check across two inspections. The work of the old 50-hour is still done at every inspection. different inspections are called Events. There are four events. The AME who explained it to me said that Events #1 & #3 are the same, as are Events #2 & 4. It's not clear to me yet why they need different numbers.

We're having a company mechanic fly up to do an Event #3 while the weather is bad. Of course the "takes two days" part assumes they don't find anything serious that requires parts.

And a couple of blogs to tell you about. I was going to work them cleverly into relevant posts, but I haven't got anything appropriate scheduled, and I don't want to forget about them.

Decision Height is updated infrequently by a senior pilot at a major airline. It includes more opinion and more of the downside to being an airline pilot than Dave's FL390 (which most of my readers are familiar with).

The other is Report on Conditions, a title generic enough to be misleading, as this is a firefighting blog. I had no idea how varied the work was. As blogger Captain Schmoe describes it, he concentrates on the human side of the job, both through empathy for the people he deals with and in discussing the decisions firefighters have to make.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

NOTAMs of the Day

This is more of a technical how-the-system-works post, than a funny post about me spilling things on myself while flying. But I did knock the leftover remains of my rootbeer float off the desk while editing it.

When I pulled up my flight planning information today, I decided that some of the NOTAMs from the the Edmonton FIR (Flight Information Region) were interesting enough to talk about. Others were boring unlighted tower and closed heliport NOTAMs. I had to read them, but I deleted them for you.

TIL 0906300400

According to that, until the end of the month (which often means "indefinitely," as they renew and revise it each month) some northern relay transmitters are out of service so Edmonton won't be able to talk to you north of 70N and west of those intersections. Oh and they have to make sure they pass the blame to Anchorage, so you don't blame them. A polar bear ate the power supply or something. No kidding, it's possible. We've had bears nibble on our equipment. Presumably when they get a shock from it that's when they get mad and destroy it.

CZEG PAL 265.6 AT CALGARY U/S TIL 0907020900

That means that a UHF frequency out of service at Calgary. I don't thing they can blame that on the Americans.

2. FL310 IS STRUCTURED AND AVBL AS WESTBOUND CRUISING FLT LEVEL BTN 1300/2300 DLY (DST:1200/2200 UTC), WITHIN AN AREA BOUNDED BY A LINE BEGINNING AT 623600N 8500W TO 760131N 8500W TO 701520N 12000W TO 6540N 12000W TO 6400N 11700W TO 591133N 992227W TO 621625N 9000W TO THE POINT OF BEGINNING.
TIL APRX 0907312359

There are default altitudes of flight for traffic going in different directions, just as there are default lanes in the road, but NOTAMs can change that. In this case they are putting extra westbound lanes in to accommodate the rush hour traffic coming in from Europe. You might notice that the extra flight levels are available for westbound traffic between 1300 and 2300 daily, that's Zulu time of course, so you might be taken aback by the (DST:1200/2200 UTC). UTC doesn't have daylight savings time. But the world does, and the westbound tracks are to accommodate the world's needs. Right now the NOTAM only goes to the end of July, but the NOTAM could have started or could extend into the winter. This wording makes sure that it always refers to the hours of 4 a.m. to 2 p.m. Alaska time. That's when the flights that will be landing in North America during reasonable hours are coming through the north.




There were a whole raft of NOTAMS similar to these. I didn't pull them all out. V21, J528 and V325 are airways, defined by a series of VORs and other waypoints. The MEA is the minimum enroute altitude to receive the nav aids properly, determined by a combination of terrain (reception is line of sight) and distance (the signals attenuate with an inverse square law). So how are a number of VORs temporarily worse until the end of July? I don't know what's going on here.

I noticed that the FSS here doesn't use HJ/HN but has reverted to the old SR/SS for "from sunrise to sunset" as in "ALL ACFT TO REMAIN CLR SR/SS DLY". But come to think about it, SR/SS and HN/HJ should be the same thing. Especially here, la nuit ends well before the sunrise and le jour begins well after the sunset. They're allowed to use either abbreviation.

Oh and if this is an unreadable mess, I apologize. I did put line breaks in it, but Blogger has been ignoring the br tag sometimes lately.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

High Above the Mud and Bugs

For some reason I decide that today I will have lunch at the A&W. It's a fast food chain famous for its root beer. Or famous for advertising its root beer, one or the other. I cross the service road, the Alaska Highway and the other service road without getting run over, and go into the place. It's full of firefighters. Not the kind with the shiny red trucks, forest fire fighters. They're on their way up to Fort Liard. Yes, to look at (and smell) them, definitely on the way up. There are two talking near the counter. "Are you in line?" I ask, because it really isn't clear.

"Yes," says one while the other says, "No," so I'm behind one of them in line. He turns out to be ordering for a large crew, so I have a while to wait. He is super fit and has that stereotypical high-testosterone square face and jutting jaw. What is it that makes this a "strong" face? It's not just terminology; other members of his crew are just as physically strong and fit, but there's a dominance, something probably programmed in my genes to perceive the lantern-jawed man as the strongest. Maybe the chin is a spot where nature cuts corners if there's some deficiency during gestation. Perhaps there is some genetic condition that is accompanied by a receding chin and females of my species have evolved to disfavour all chinless ones in order to avoid the few that herald a problem. Someone should do a study. My chin doesn't stick out past my nose and I can carry my share of mastadon meat, but standards for beauty and value to the tribe are different for females. There are no women on this crew. Forest fire fighting is such hard physical labour that maybe three percent of the population have the strength and endurance to do it. That eliminates maybe 97% of men and at least 99% of women. And the few women who could do it chose to be professional athletes, or didn't want to wreck their nails.

I'm not familiar with the menu here. There's no mastadon burger, but there's a "Swiss Veggie Deluxe." I wonder if that's a meatless burger. I ask, when I get to the front of the line, but the server doesn't understand "meatless". I try a couple of different wordings, but get blanker and blanker looks. A manager overhears and intercedes, "We don't have that right now." My second choice is the chicken burger. Turns out there are two kinds. I have to ask the difference. So now I'm being one of those problem people you don't want to behind at the fast food place. Just order already, lady. The server doesn't seem to understand my "what's the difference?" question. The guy behind me knows, however and I order the grilled one. And a root beer float, because the picture looks good, and it's what A&W is famous for.

The firefighters are piling back into a convoy of SUVs as I recross the highway with my takeout. Chicken was edible, kind of salty. Float was basically a root beer with one puck of ice cream dumped in the top, floating there. It may have been "frozen dessert product." Not so good. I eat enough to sustain me and go to the airport.

I take another look at the pilot information kiosk to see if my thumb and forefinger theory for operating it will pan out. I take off my sunglasses, this time, inside the darkened room. What do you know, there's a stripe down the right edge of the touchpad, with arrows, labelled scroll. I check it out. The scroll function still doesn't work and I go back to the up and down arrows on the keyboard.

I take off with a ten knot direct crosswind from the shorter runway, because I don't feel like back taxiing the longest runway. It's one of those things like airline pilots taking less fuel than the airplane can hold in order to take more baggage. Yes, one would be safer, but the other is more operationally efficient. If you went with the safest option at every turn, you'd never fly at all. This runway is longer, better surfaced and lower altitude as the ones I learned to fly this type of airplane on, where it was often ten degrees warmer and there wasn't a choice of runways in a crosswind. If it gets any hotter I'll make the backtrack, though.

Call clear of the zone; position report on 126.7; turn on the tunes. Darn. Not working. I guess I forgot to recharge the iPod thingy. I find that if I have the music playing, it entertains me just enough that my mind doesn't wander, but I don't get so immersed ni the music that I am not sharp for what the airplane is doing. If I don't have the tunes, I start actually thinking, and no one wants that. Job interviewers quickly detect a pilot who thinks, and cross her off the list, I'm sure.

So I conentrate on the airplane. Two things about a fast food burger. One is that it's really salty. I'm drinking lots of water and hoping I don't end up having to ration it. And the other is that it must pack a hell of a lot of calories. I've been flying for four hours now and I'm not hungry. I'm pulling snacks out of my flight bag because I'm bored and hey, jelly beans are entertainment. I don't want a big hit of insulin right now either, so I ration myself on the sugar-based entertainment. Must be a lot of fat in that chicken burger, too, because I can't raise my interest in almonds sufficiently to eat more than a couple.

There's a nice lake down there. Very round. GPS says it's Maxhamish Lake. We wonder if there are fish. There don't seem to be any buildings or roads. (The link says the lake is a provincial park, with fishing and camping allowed, and confirms no road access. The concept of a "park" in Canada is maybe a little different than in the rest of the world. it's not necessarily on a road with signs and toilets and a park ranger. We seem to just pick a place that's nice and say, "okay that's a park." If you can get there, good for you. If not, well some fish and beavers are happy).

Back to the airport to land. The FSS guys says "Roger" to everything, because he has to say something, and he has nothing to add to my plan to join downwind, or my calls on downwind, final and clear of the runway. I raise the wing flaps, open the cowl flaps, turn off the electric boost pumps and put my hand on the transponder for two clicks counterclockwise, from ALT through ON to SBY. I taxi by the FSS and can see the specialist in there, so I raise a hand and wave, even though he probably isn't looking, and probably couldn't see me inside the airplane anyway.

As I shut down I notice that the transponder is still on. That's odd. What did I turn off instead? It's not until I'm doing a post shutdown flow check that I notice the transponder set to 1400. Ah-ha. My hand was on the transponder, just on the wrong knob. I set it back to 1200 and everything else is fine.

As we pull into the hotel parking lot, there are three guys with baseball gloves playing catch. "Car!" I call through the open window, for the benefit of the one who has his back turned. He moves out the way and we pull into a parking space. "Game on!" I call back.

"Like Wayne's Word, eh," says my coworker. I say yes, even though I wasn't thinking of the movie. The guys don't go back to their ball game, so I chat with them. They work cleaning tanks. I tell them what I do, where I was today. It turns out that they were there too, have been up at Maxhamish. "I didn't know there was a lake," one of them says. Another one knows about the lake, "Yeah, there are fish," he says. But there's no road. he thinks people haul gear in during wintertime on snowmachines, and cache it.

They talk about the bugs and the mud. Neither of which I have to contend with. I have a good job, don't I? I don't make as much money as the firefighters or the tank cleaners, but I don't have to fight fires and I don't have to work in the mud and the bugs.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Shortest Night

I spent a while arranging these and captioning them last night, but when I pulled up the blog entry to add something to it, I found that between lousy hotel Internet and Blogger misbehaving, the PHOTOS were gone from the entry. So I've re-added them quickly. Times are in the filenames.

I took a series of photographs for you, of the 'night' sky on the evening of the June 21st. That day at noon the sun was directly overhead the Tropic of Cancer, and we're 36 degrees north of there. That means its zenith was 54 degrees above the horizon, and from our perspective today the sun described a big loop, arcing diagonally across the sky, westward and downward to the southwest horizon, setting at 22:25 local time, and then sneaking back along, just below the southern horizon, towards the east, reaching a nadir of seven degrees below the horizon and then rising again from the southeast at 3:58 local. Officially night began at 23:50 and ended at 02:34 If that's symmetrical, then the darkest point of the night should be about 01:15.

Curiously, the Sunrise/Sunset times link on the Nav Canada site was broken when I tried it, so I had to call a briefer instead. I admitted that it was for my blog. No shame.

There are no tricks with the camera: no long exposures or filters. It's just an ordinary camera. I tried to keep the automatic light meter from fixating on the lights along the highway, so it would expose the sky correctly. The camera started thinking that it was dark around 11:30, but the sky was still quite light. And this is a cloudy night. You can see how light it is where the clouds aren't.

Flip that around to December and the sun struggles seven degrees into the sky at high noon, only to set two hours later. And after it sets there it is very very dark.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Out of Comm Range

I had a problem with Blogger not automatically posting postdated entries this week, and had to force a couple posts manually. If you see me stop posting for a while, it's because I'm working somewhere without Internet and either Blogspot is not doing its job, or I underestimated how long I would be gone and my buffer ran out.

Likewise if you see a whole flood of posts at one, I haven't turned into Phil. It means that Blogger fixed its autopost problem while I was out of range.

Either way, I'll be back in about a fortnight with more posts.

Update: the autopost seems to be working now, so you now only have to worry about me not posting far enough ahead of myself to keep up with intermittent Internet.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fancy Footwork

The routine continues. Wake, turn on phone, shower, wash hair, get dressed, check e-mail, check weather, tidy room, do OFP, do customer billing paperwork, fill waterbottle, replenish flight bag snacks, check e-mail again, eat, check e-mail & weather again, meet customer and go to airport.

There are thunderstorms building north of the airport, which is where we want to be, so I go into the PIK booth to check the 19Z weather that came out during the drive to the airport. There's another pilot seated at the terminal.

"Hi," I greet him, and ask, "Where are you going?"

"Whitehorse," he says.

"Ah, I'm going north too, so I'll just follow along."

"Why don't you drive," he suggests. He's unfamiliar with the Nav Canada terminal. Truth be told, while I know the website it reaches intimately, I'm not too fluent in Pilot Information Kiosk use either. The interface uses a touchpad mouse, just like my own laptop, but instead of tapping anywhere on the touchpad to select, there's a specific ENTER circle you have to tap inside. So move the cursor by sliding your finger around on the touchpad, then pick up the finger to tap on the circle. I haven't figured out how to use scroll bars with this interface. Maybe click with my thumb on the enter circle while sliding with my finger on the rest of the touchpad. I just used the arrow keys on the keyboard for scrolling.

I started with the GFA, which goes right up to Whitehorse, showing a big low there, and forecast as low as 1500' agl with generally 6000-8000' agl bases on TCU topped at 22,000'. Not a lot of change in that forecast on the subsequent GFA charts. On the the TAF/METAR page. There are thunderstorms forecast right at this airport, starting in a few hours. The traveller (or I suppose he's a "traveler") decides to wait another day before continuing north. I don't check upper winds and NOTAM because I already looked them up at the hotel. We won't be crossing mountains so I tell my customer that it is safe to go, as long as we plan to return early, so that if there is a storm cell right over the airport, I'm not trying to wait it out with minimum fuel. Also we'll talk to our respective colleagues when they land.

The airplane taxies up, completes the post-mission work with the engines running and then they shut down and the door opens. I can call a no-go decision for safety, but a no go for operational reasons is up to the customer. I repeat that I consider it safe, even though I suspect he's hunting for a pilot-driven excuse not to work today. He cancels the flight.

The other pilot sweet talks the guys into sharing one truck back to the hotel and lending us one of theirs so we can go sightseeing. There's a trapper's store seven miles (I use miles because addresses up here are based on the old mileposts from when the Americans built the Alaska Highway) south. As soon as you walk in you smell smoke-cured leather. There are full pelts for sale from all the local species, crafts made out of silly things like shellacked moose-droppings, silverwork, outdoor supplies, old-fashioned leg-hold traps (as rustic decorations: hunters use more humane traps now), and some just for display items like a pair of beaded leather mukluks. There were some amazing elbow-length gauntlets with thick leather palms and various sort of fur on the back. I was in awe of them mainly because I know it gets cold enough to need them, and that the craftspeople who made most of these things are descended from people who lived up here before there were any warm hotels to go back to. I end up buying a pair of moose leather moccasins beaded with a bear claw pattern and trimmed in beaver fur. They cost about the same as a pair of boots or of fancy party shoes, but they are a lot prettier than the former and a lot sturdier and warmer than the latter. How will anyone know I go to exotic places if I don't bring home some souvenirs?

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Choose Your Own Misadventure, Part II

A reader sent me this Air Taxi Pilot Decision-Making Simulator. I hate it. I hate it because it's true and accurate and needed. It's hauntingly, terribly familiar. I've been there on almost every branch of every decision tree. For the branches I haven't explored to the end, I have attended the funerals of friends who did. It's even set up so that you can do the wrong thing and still live. Just like real life it means you can get away with something and think you made the right decision, reinforcing that behaviour for next time.

Work your way through the scenarios and then consider what your life is like when this kind of thing is is what you do every day, but the end of the day doesn't bring a neat lecture on lessons learned and the ability to know that you chose the best possible route. All you know at the end of the day is that you survived the decisions you made. You are still being questioned for every decision by your copilot, chief pilot, passengers, room mates and yourself. You don't know if the airplane is misbehaving, if you're incompetent, if every company is like this and this is what the rest of your career will be like, or if you're at the worst company in the world.

I showed it to one pilot who thought it was ridiculous, that the decisions were simple to make and that they were just playing mind games. But it's well-researched and based on a lot of pilots who got caught out in such situations. The scenarios are drawn from real experiences and accident reports, and there are a hundred more they could add. I've always been more likely to ask those questions before departure, but there's a price for that, too. Within your cadre of pilots, asking questions may be perceived as weaker than simply fumbling on in ignorance, even when the people you asked the question of don't know the answer either.

Some people think that flying airplanes is hard, but it really isn't. You learn how in a few hours from watching someone and reading the manual. The hard part is never being complacent, and always deciding what to do when the airplane isn't following the manual.

It's not like that for me these days, but before you have the experience and knowledge it can be. I admire the way aviation safety research has gone beyond understanding why airplanes have accidents and delved into why pilots have accidents, even when they have and understand the information on how not to.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Keep It Short and Mention Underwear

In which Aviatrix tries to pry enough excitement for a proper blog entry out of her day.

The unexpected highlight of the day is a piercing fire alarm, complete with strobe lights, to give an un-ignorable warning to deaf as well as hearing hotel guests. I get dressed (lazy pilot still in her skivvies at noon), pick up my purse, containing my pilot licence and wallet, and walk down the stairs with my hands clamped over my ears. I come out in the hotel lobby where the clerks are trying to silence the alarm while holding their hands over their ears. "It's not real," one of them hastens to assure me. It doesn't matter, the noise and light show is. The alarm ceases shortly after I get outside, but I take the opportunity to go across the street for lunch.

I'm scheduled to fly at one-thirty, and I do, but it's a short flight, only 0.9 air time, through a gauntlet of storm clouds, and then I'm released for the day. I chock the aircraft and put the electrical cords away in the nose, confident that we won't need to plug the engines in any more overnight. That's probably guaranteed to make it snow.

Laundry (I didn't do it yesterday when I was supposed to) takes up a couple of hours and the rest of the day goes wherever it is that days go when you're in a northern hotel with a computer and a TV. They have satellite or cable or something so I'm not constrained to just CBC and the Aboriginal People's Television Network. I end up watching a movie on atpn anyway. Or maybe I hit the wrong channel. The schedule channel said it was showing an episode of "Making da Vinci," which I hadn't heard of, but it sounded like a Mythbusters/Junkyard Wars sort of show where they try to build the things in Leonardo da Vinci's drawings. What came on was the last half hour of an American movie about soldiers liberating Kuwait while cracking wise, chewing gum and kicking ass all over Iraq in the first Gulf War. They commandeer Sadaam Hussein's fleet of limousines, enlist the help of locals, and teach them how to fight for what they believe in. Or something. They liberated a whole bunch of women who had been prisoners in Sadaam's stronghold, and gave each of them a gold bar from his cache. Iraqi people (or perhaps they were Kuwaiti) are depicted as extremely strong in this movie, because despite their implied deprivation as prisoners, the women were each able to lift a sizable gold brick with a single outstretched arm, and conceal it carefully in a scarf for the trek to the border. One of the extras at least put on a tight "ugh this is heavy" face as she accepted her gold brick.

The cushion smells like artificial springtime now. I leave it and the aircraft keys at the desk for the am pilot, because I forgot to give it to her before her bedtime, and she'll be gone before I wake up.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

I Liked the New Star Trek Movie

This is my idea of a movie review. When Aviatrix reviews a movie you are fortunate indeed if you get away without a scene-by-scene retelling containing more notes than the original shooting script, and only a few long asides on social relevance. There are always spoilers, so don't read this if you want to see the movie without knowing all about it.

I would pretend that I saved this review until most of you had a chance to see the movie, but really I saw it while I was still on time off and just haven't had time to fit this post in with all the excitement. Movies can keep.

I almost didn't see this one at all. I figured the only correct way to make a movie like that right was to watch every episode of the original series, making detailed notes of every mention and reference to the past history of each character, ship and world. I didn't trust the moviemakers to do this. Even if they did, there would be probably so many continuity errors contained in those very notes that it would be impossible to make anything align with the established past history, let alone an interesting movie. If it couldn't be done right, it shouldn't be done at all, at least not for me to watch, so I resisted. But everyone, including fans, kept saying it was good, so I relented and went.

There was a trailer for a movie that looked like it might actually be interesting, but it was as if two trailers had been intercut: one that had a story and another that consisted mainly of epilepsy-inducing special effects. Perhaps that was a metaphor for the Transformers. Perhaps I'm putting way too much thought into a movie about a cartoon about toys. The next trailer was for essentially the same movie, except in this case the plastic star was G.I. Joe. I hope there's a scene in the movie where he gets it on with Barbie. if you're going to cinematically recreate thousands of 1970s toyboxes you can't just stop the cameras when he puts down the plastic machine gun for the night.

The movie starts off in a battle, on a starship that is not Enterprise. It's your typical Star Trek stuff with the ship going to investigate an anomaly or a distress call, and encountering something that is unlike anything they have ever encountered before. The readings are off the scale; the shields are falling; the ship cannot take it anymore. The captain leaves the ship to negotiate a surrender, and places a young Kirk in command on the bridge. That seemed a little abrupt. Kirk orders an evacuation, during which we discover that his wife is on board, in labour. While everyone evacuates, Kirk sets a direct course for the opposing ship and his son is born seconds before he dies in the ensuing collision. I guess he turned off his transponder to prevent the alien TCAS from providing a resolution advisory.

Just before he dies, Kirk senior has an exchange with his wife about the baby's name. She suggests naming it Tiberius after his father and he rejects that as ridiculous, and says to go with her father's name. That was when I realized that we were looking at the birth of James T. Kirk. That's not a canon origin, but I was willing to grant them poetic licence for it. Even though I think there are canon references to Kirk doing things with his father while growing up, his mother could remarry, and it was appropriately epic, so I was willing to go along with it. They got it right that he grew up in Iowa ("I'm from Iowa. I only work in outer space,") so they weren't completely abandoning the established continuity.

The young Jim Kirk steals and destroys an expensive sports car, almost killing himself in the process. He first meets his mentor, someone who knew his father, after being beaten up in a bar brawl. He's is an uncontrolled reckless maniac, and after a moment's reflection I realize that that is exactly appropriate. The grown up Jim Kirk is an only barely controlled reckless maniac with an approach to dangerous situations that you don't get without long experience with same. You don't win interplanetary bar brawls without having lost a few in your youth. The young Kirk would have had to be like that. In fact as I think about it more, the young Kirk should have been depicted as less of a James Dean loner and more of a gang leader. One of his strongest skills is leading a group of people into and back out of trouble. Where do you get leadership skills ripping around on a motorcycle being cooler than everyone else?

His mentor feels that Starfleet has lost but needs to regain the reckless edge that Kirk senior had, and knows that Kirk junior has it, so advises him to report to the local space shuttle station for transport to Starfleet Academy. Kirk seems to disregard the idea, but after cruising by the under-construction Enterprise (apparently also from Iowa before being shipped to outer space) on his motorcycle he changes his mind and reports for training, tossing his bike keys to the first person who admires it at the dock.

We see a bit of his maverick interactions with his stunned classmates on the transport ship: they have uniforms, he's still in the t-shirt bloodied from the bar brawl. They have probably applied and interviewed and written essays and aptitude tests to get in. He's just turned up because someone who knew his daddy pulled strings. Mercifully, the producers know I didn't want to see much more of this and his academy integration passes with a "Three Years Later" title. Of course three years later he's getting hot and heavy on a bed with a curvaceous woman, and why didn't I see that coming. If Kirk didn't try to shag every female within sensor range it would be a clear violation of his prime directive. The next surprise, which we also should have seen coming, is when the woman in question calls for the lights to come up. She's a green-skinned gal. Very nicely done. She hears her roommate coming and asks Kirk to hide because her roommate is getting ticked off at all the men she keeps inviting over. Kirk's reaction to "all the men" is great, and the roommate turns out to be Uhura, who has already spurned Kirk's advances and is none too pleased to see him there.

Uhura is depicted in the series as actually African, not African-American, with a native language of Swahili, in a Starfleet where her race is a minority. We see green-skinned people rarely enough that we have to realize that the Orion in San Francisco is a member of a very small minority, too. The roommate pairing reminds me of a pilot friend who has just accepted a dispatch job in a community just south of the 60th parallel. She knows that her assigned roommate is a woman who immigrated from Nigeria: they have already met at a training course. My friend doesn't have green skin, but she isn't white either and is from another culture. I'm not sure if they are the only women at their base, in which case it only makes sense, but it's not uncommon for the "different" to be teamed together. I think it will be good for my friend to live with someone who shares her outsider status. I doubt that the writers had Starfleet put the sexy colourful babes together out of either racism or empathy, but just did that because you can't make a Star Trek movie without Kirk getting naked with a green-skinned alien, and if the roommate is going to walk in, you just make it the funniest possible roommate, and they did.

They picked up on a lot of things that were just hinted at in the original series dialogue: McCoy's marital history and dislike of space travel, Uhura's coolness to Jim and her connection to Spock. I'm willing to believe someone did watch the whole series with a notebook. They even have Kirk cheat at the Kobayashi Maru as it was established he did in an earlier movie. He gets in trouble for that, but just as his punishment is about to be handed out, an overused "the fleet is overextended, but no one else can go, so we'll have to take the graduating class" scenario breaks out. I let them get away with it in Top Gun, so I roll my eyes and let them get away with it here. Kirk is told he is under academic suspension pending the outcome of his interrupted hearing, so has no ship assignment, but McCoy uses medical trickery to get him on board, where we meet more of the original crew.

Sulu forgets to release the parking brake before leaving spacedock. Poor guy can never get a break. Chekov still has a Polish accent. The actor and director knew that the "nuclear wessels" schtick wasn't in keeping with a Russian accent, but decided to keep it for continuity. Perhaps by the 23rd century there has been a great consonant shift in Russian, leaving the V-sound unfashionable and completely replaced with the W. They didn't however, follow the retro continuity of the exterior appearance of the ship. The shape of the nacelles on NCC-1701 are wrong.

Kirk lounges in the captain's chair on the bridge in just the way his Shatner-portrayed older self does--and then is yelled at to get out of the chair. The Enterprise promptly encounters an alien distress call near Vulcan, which our young Kirk is uniquely situated to recognize as a trick. It duplicates what happened to his father, plus he has some information most of the others don't, overheard when Uhura was speaking to her roommates about something they heard from the Klingons while in the radio lab. The audience didn't pay much attention to the dialogue at that point, as Uhura was taking off her clothes, but here's where Kirk's experience comes in, because he synthesizes the data to realize what is happening. When the communications officer admits an inability to distinguish between spoken Romulan and Vulcan, Uhura is plausibly installed at that station, on account of being conversant in more than one dialect of Romulan. Kirk, however, is given a completely implausible field promotion to First Officer. Or maybe that's just me jealous of countries where new grads are dropped in the right seats of heavy airliners. McCoy also gets a field promotion when the ship's doctor is killed in the inevitable Romulan attack.

I was disappointed when the Romulan bad guy appears on screen, because part of the plot of one of the original series episodes was that while the Federation has communicated with Romulans, no one knows what they look like, and it was a moment of stunning revelation when they turned out to look just like Spock. Later series wrecked this by giving the Romulans funky foreheads, and I have to give this production credit for nodding to both sorts of Romulans: the bad guys have elaborate forehead tattoos that make them look like the Next Generation foreheaded Romulans without it being a racial characteristic.

Kirk, Sulu and another guy (did he have a red shirt?) parachute onto a drilling platform in space. Of course the redshirt dies and the other two save each other's lives a couple of times, then Chekov gets to save them both with his video-game honed transporter skills. I think the implication is that Chekov is very very good at Russian-invented Tetris. Or they just wanted to give him something heroic to do.

Christopher Pike, the original Enterprise captain from the original series is present. They place him in danger, but I watch smugly because I know he has to live to maintain continuity. And then they kill Amanda Grayson (Spock's mother) and implode the entire planet of Vulcan. The timing of the next part is perfect, giving just enough time to think, "they can't do that" before the nature of the enemy weapon is revealed, making me realize this is a time travel story. So this is going to get fixed somehow, I reason. And then they did one better.

I don't remember the exact details of how Kirk ended up in an escape pod on the surface of a frozen ice planet, but he ignored the computer's warning that the environment is unsuitable and tries to walk to a nearby outpost. He's pursued into a cave by a monster than looks like one of the Transformers from the trailer, and there he is saved by none other than Spock. Not the young Spock whom he doesn't get along with at all, but the old Spock who has been Kirk's friend and first officer for many many years. At first I thought that Kirk had time-travelled into the original series episode where a planet's sun is about to go nova and the entire population escaped into the planet's past, with Spock ending up in the ice age where he ate red meat because he was in tune with his ancestors of that time. It seemed a pretty wacky episode to mine for plot, but before I remembered how they got out of that one in the original series, Old Spock explains what is really going on.

When the vengeance-seeking, time-travelling Romulan killed Kirk's father in the opening sequence of the film, he created a parallel universe. The death of Kirk's father, the destruction of Vulcan, the face-to-face meeting with a Romulan and hey, even the nacelles being wrong can all be attributed to them being in a parallel universe.

Needless to say, Kirk saves the day and life goes on. Everyone got to say their signature lines, except that Uhura never said "Hailing frequencies open." One question remains: isn't navigation in Earth's solar system going to be a little tricky what with that new black hole they made just by Saturn? Also Kirk gets a medal instead of getting in trouble and they make him captain of the Enterprise. That's just a little stupid. I'm willing to buy making someone with enormous potential a first officer right off, but there are parts of being captain that you don't learn in three years of the academy nor by crashing expensive sports cars in the desert. They should have assigned him a position on a good ship with a good captain, both recognizable from the original series. I guess one problem is that most of the captains on the original series were horribly ineffective, in order to make Kirk's guns-blazing leadership style look good.

So yeah, I liked the movie, and I think if you like funny action movies that someone already told you about, you should go and see it, whether or not you like Star Trek itself. Plus there are a few bits I didn't tell you about (like Scotty!) and probably lots of bits I got wrong.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

They're Okay!

I'm doing my preflight, except I can't check oil because the dipstick is too hot to touch, and if I used gloves it wouldn't give a very good reading anyway. I ask my coworker instead, and she says the oil should be fine. I watch the fueller and then check the fuel tank caps. One of them is loose, not because he didn't secure and latch it, but as the aggregate result of its being opened and closed a number of times. Not many people realize that that one is an adjustable cap. It's a rubber plug designed to fit a few different sized tanks. When you pull up on the catch, that releases the form inside that makes the rubber seal firm and round against the inside of the filler neck. Spin the catch one way and the closed size of the plug increases. Spin it the other way and it decreases. Turning the catch a little bit is a normal part of operating the catch, so by coincidence it has been loosened over the last fortnight of fuelling. I spin the catch to embiggify the plug, reseat it in the filler neck and snap the cap closed. The mechanism expands. It fits securely now.

The fueller points out that some fuel is leaking from the tank onto the ramp. I check it: it's just thermal expansion forcing some of the fuel out through the vent again. There's also a little puddle of fuel in the well around the closed cap. I don't complain about having my tanks completely full. It's the only way to really know that I have the fuel I expect on board. Gauges don't tell the difference between full and sorta full. If the fuel level in a wide, flat tank measuring one metre by two metres is one centimetre below capacity that's 20 litres short--about 15 minutes of holding fuel for that engine. Yikes! I secure the metal cover over the fuel cap and repeat my inspection for all the fuel tanks. I also check that the total fuel load matches my expectations based on my colleague's flight time. It does, almost to the litre. If too much fuel went in it could be an aircraft problem. If not enough went in, the fueller might have skipped a tank. I've had that happen. I had it happen almost every day at one FBO, but we're at a good one, now.

The fueller says he doesn't know if anyone was hurt yesterday or what kind of airplane it was. He heard that it had just taken off, and turned and the wind caught it. I don't know if he is also a pilot, but it wasn't windy yesterday, and one you're airborne the wind doesn't knock you over. An abrupt change in wind could cause an airplane to lose lift, but windshear seems unlikely, too. The fueller also mentioned that he heard it was a November-registered aircraft, which is relevant mainly because their National Transportation Safety Board investigates accidents involving US aircraft, even elsewhere in the world. Perhaps it will turn up on their site, even if only as a notation that the Canadian TSB is investigating. As I write this I find a news article (with a picture) about the crash. It is being reported as a power loss, and both occupants suffered only minor injuries. It's significant that just 100 metres from the runway the bush around here is so thick that it took a helicopter to find and direct the police and ambulance workers to the site. It's a relief to hear that they are okay. Too bad about the Pacer.

I start up. (Come on cranky engine, I know you're hot, you can do it). I crack the throttle open a bit and then when the engine catches leave the mixture in the idle cutoff position for a moment, and very very slowly enrich it, and not all the way to full rich either, so I don't flood it. The engine RPM comes up, oil pressure, oil temperature and cylinder head pressure all in the green already, so I start the second engine. Avionics on, computer power on, ground fan on. In less than a week we've gone from needing heating to needing cooling.

Ready for taxi, we take runway 21. It's hotter today and climb performance is noticeably affected by the heat. I'm climbing at blue line (Vy and Vyse are the same on this model) and making less than 500 fpm through 3000'. We are full of fuel and equipment. That's the drawback to taking every drop you can.

As I'm leaving the area, the FSS comes on with a SIGMET for a large area of thunderstorms, relative to Germansen Landing. I have heard of it, but don't know where it is on a map of this province, so I call Edmonton Radio and ask for the lat-long coordinates of the area boundary. It's mostly north of where we are working, and currently the closest part of the line is a degree and a half of longitude west of us. That's about 50 miles this far north. Degrees of longitude get smaller and smaller with increasing latitude, but a degree of latitude is always 60 nm. I don't think those thunderstorms will bother us, but there's a lot of vertical build up here. By the time we reach the work area, fifty miles north of the airport, the weather is unsuitable for the work. That was a quick flight.

Back, land, and take my stuff to the hotel, including the cushion from the airplane. It smells like feet.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Gone Down

So I'm back overflying the same wilderness I've been looking at all week. Trees. Muskeg. A big round lake. Dirt roads. The area is so crisscrossed with oil and logging roads that I'm not sure how the bears manage to propagate so effectively, but the ground crew assure me that there are plenty of bears. Just black bears seen so far, though, not grizzlies. I haven't seen any, but then I'm smart enough not to walk out of town.

Once again I'm monitoring the nearest FSS frequency on one radio and 126.7 on the other for en route traffic. I'm fifty miles from the aerodrome (their control zone radius is five) and I'm not on the way to anywhere that normal people go at my altitude, so the radios are on in the background just kind of for entertainment. I'm also listening to the Arrogant Worms on the iPod nano. A helicopter calls the aerodrome. There's a helicopter maintenance base there so the darn things are taking off, flying a circuit and landing all the time. It still makes me smile when they call final for something that isn't a runway. Like "the gas pumps" or "apron III". The helicopter asked for something I didn't pay attention to, and then the FSS guy replied.

I hear the words and do and do an aural doubletake. I ask my mission specialist, "Did he just say an aircraft 'has gone down'?"

"That's what I heard."

As explained in an earlier discussion, "down" to a pilot is a neutral term. If I get a text that a flight is down, I expect that the airplane is taxiing up to the fuel pumps. I record my down time each time my wheels touch pavement. "Call me as soon as you're down," my boss might ask before departure. But "gone down," that's not neutral. That's bad. Or, at minimum, very interesting.

For a hundred kilometres around, pilots are turning up their radios and turning off their iPods. What went down? Where? How bad is it? Someone calls inbound for landing and is told that runway 03 is temporarily closed. If the accident occurred on the runway, maybe it's just a gear collapse. But the term for that would be something like "disabled aircraft" not "gone down." An airplane could have taken off and then stalled/crashed back on the remaining runway. I keep listening.

Someone says he can see the aircraft. It's a helicopter pilot. He says there's a passenger on the belly. That means the airplane is inverted. I wonder if it's in the river. He says there's another passenger lying on the ground. So it's not in the river. Also lying on ground is bad, but much better than strapped in burning airplane. Obviously the airplane is not on fire, or the passenger would find a more convenient place to stand. I hear the words "light aircraft" from someone.

Light aircraft contact the ground inverted in two ways that immediately come to mind: stall-spin and landing mishap. The presence of two people who got out of the airplane strongly suggests that it was not a stall-spin. It's more likely to have been an inflight loss of engine power, followed by a forced landing on inappropriate terrain. (That's not a criticism of the pilot: the terrain he or she picked was probably the most appropriate within gliding range, but there is a strong shortage of appropriate places to land around here). A classic forced landing accident in a Cessna trainer involves a correctly executed forced approach, touching down slowly and under control, then a wheel digs in or catches and the airplane flips upside down. Typically belted occupants receive minor or no injuries and the airplane is substantially damaged. I've no idea if that's what happened here. I've gone through a number of hypotheses in a few minutes.

The helicopter pilot says he will remain hovering over the site so they can find it. The tower passes someone else a NOTAM on a closed runway with vehicle traffic. It seems that the airplane has gone down just off the end of a runway. The RCMP are driving out to the end of the runway to start the search. The helicopter pilot is talking to the RCMP on another VHF frequency, so I tune up that one, too. I can't hear the cops on the ground, but I can hear the helicopter pilot telling them which way to go. The person on the ground is sitting up now.

The RCMP reach the site by walking towards the helicopter and listening to the pilot's guidance, then the helicopter goes to land. About half an hour later you can still hear the ELT in the background of every call the FSS makes. One pilot points this out. We're so conditioned to report hearing the "whoop, whoop, whoop" of an emergency locator transmitter if we hear one that the pilot hasn't thought it through. If the ELT is audible only when the FSS transmits, than the ELT signal must be coming over the FSS transmission, and therefore be audible to the FSS. Presumably the radio in the FSS that is tuned to 121.5 is on speaker, so that everyone in the room can hear it. The FSS guy simply says "we're already aware of that."

Hours later when I land one of the taxiways is still NOTAMed closed, but when an ultralight wants to take off the FSS says they are lifting the restriction now, and approves the intersection departure. I don't see anyone around to ask to make sure that everyone was okay.

Monday, June 15, 2009

In My Ears

It's almost summer on the calendar, and I think it's safe to say that summer has arrived here. The temperature no longer drops below freezing overnight, and the bugs have arrived. They aren't so bad in the heat of the day--which gets up well into the twenties--but land in the evening and as I'm putting the plane to bed they descend in a whining swarm. When I was a kid, the worst part of mosquitoes was the itching bites. I remember crying over them. But now, although I can feel a few on each forearm as I type, I think I'd rather spontaneously develop itchy welts than have to have to hear them whining in my ears and feel them piercing my skin with their possibly contaminated little proboscises every time I go outside.

My coworker landed at one and while the customer drover her back to the hotel, I prepped the airplane for the next flight. The fueller here is excellent: he's parked in front of the airplane as soon as the propellers have spun down to ask the requested fuel load, and if we land after they have left and ask to be fuelled by a time in the morning, the airplane is always full of fuel when we get there. Also they gave me a very cool pen. The windows were juicy with bugs, so I cleaned them off, just using a soft fibre wipey cloth and soap and water in a spray bottle. There are two spray bottles in the cleaning kit, the other one is filled with Varsol to remove grease from the paint. I know this so I not only check the label carefully, but test spray the one labelled "Soap & H2O" to verify its contents. On my hand. It's properly labelled but I laugh at myself. I guess my hand won't turn permanently discoloured if I accidentally get varsol on it. But literally imposing my flesh between my airplane and harm is somewhat overdedicated.

After start, the FSS (that's their office, in the picture that looks like a tower) tells me that the wind is 080 at ten, preferred runway 08. There's also an aircraft coming in for 03. I say I'll taxi for 08. That's a little awkward as I have to backtrack 03 a short way to get to it. The FSS guy suggests I go to the other end and backtrack 08 instead. That works, and I call "entering 08 at bravo for the backtrack, will hold short of 03." That's for the FSS and the incoming pilot so they know they don't have to worry about a runway incursion. The airplane isn't down as I reach the hold short line, so I just turn around and line up there, leaving 500' of runway behind me. Runway behind me one of the most useless things in aviation. There's still enough for my takeoff in these conditions, but it focuses me on my procedures. Climb performance is slow. It's fun to climb out over the river valley after rotation. It wouldn't be quite so fun if I lost an engine at rotation, but I get the gear up right away and both engines keep turning today.

Further north, on a westbound track, it starts to get hazy. There are large areas of forest fires north and west of here; they even closed portions of the Alaska highway for a few days. I told you it was summer in the north. There are forest fire NOTAMs out but not near enough to where we're working to affect our operations. My eyes are stinging. I think it's mostly sunblock coming off my face, but it's probably exacerbated by smoke particles. Ow ow ow ow. I'm flying with one eye open now, and barely holding the airplane on the precise line I'm supposed to follow. "What's going on up there?" asks the mission specialist.

"You don't want to know," I reply. Finally I grab my waterbottle. It's not the nozzle type, so it's hard to use as an eyewash. It just has a wide mouth so I can drink a lot quickly, so I pour a lot quickly over my face, down my shirt, onto my lap. That cleans out the eyes okay. And I bring lots of water so I won't have to ration. Icky wet seat, though.

I'm monitoring the nearest aerodrome frequency, it's an FSS, and the normal enroute frequency of 126.7. An American voice calls Fort Nelson radio with a position report in a small airplane with a November registration. He is on a flight plan from Watson Lake to Fort St. John. He might be on his way back from a one-in-a-lifetime trip to Alaska. Or maybe he goes back and forth several times a year. I don't think so, because there's a careful precision to the call that suggests to me that he's savouring something that is important to him. I smile for him. He's flown across some amazing but hostile territory and now he's in foreign airspace coping with our rules and regulations. After his position report he asks for the "St. John" weather. Funny. Is it normal to drop the "Fort" from placenames in the US? Do you fly into "Worth"? I know that many Canadian placenames used to have Fort and no longer do. Most of the remaining Forts have non-fort counterparts. Fort Nelson is an Alaska Highway town full of oil and gas guys driving pick up trucks and living in trailers or basic box houses. Nelson is a hippy enclave with cute painted houses and an economy fuelled by marijuana grow ops. Fort St. John is just like Fort Nelson, except 400 km south along a highway inhabited by nothing but moose. St. John is a small city on the east coast. (and, just to keep things interesting, so is St. John's, but in a different province). Ft. McMurray doesn't, and I guess you hear just "McMurray" sometimes, but more often "Fort Mac."

The FSS guy knows that He wants the Ft. St. John weather and not the St. John weather and gives it to him, reminding him that if he wants further services of that type he should call Edmonton radio on 123.55. The pilot reads back that frequency, but seeing as he got all the way to Alaska and back without figuring it out, he probably still doesn't know why he was told that. He knows that you can get weather and flight planning information from an FSS. He called an FSS. So why did the guy send him to another frequency? What he doesn't know, and isn't clear from the publications, is that there are two kinds of FSS duties. The FSS at a field that doesn't havea tower, is a quasi tower. They take position reports and help to maintain safety of landing, departing and transiting aircraft. But if you want weather, or to file a flight plan, you call another frequency and get the central FSS for the whole region, where the person has all the resources, and isn't trying to keep track of B1900 and an ultralight competing for the same runway. It's very common to hear American pilots using on-airport FSS frequencies, or 126.7 for long weather or flight planning related calls. The FSS folks are so nice about it that I suspect the pilots think the new frequency they are given is just the next one along their route of flight, like US flight following.

It makes me wonder what errors I make in the US that mark me, as much as my callsign, as not from around here. What do US pilots cringe at again and again from Charlie callsigns or Canadian-based airlines?

Of course the pilot I heard could be from Alaska, and on his first international flight, but why would you leave Alaska in June, just as the weather is finally getting good?

When I land there's a text from my co-worker apologizing for not cleaning the bugs. I know the feeling: you're on approach thinking "I really have to clean this windshield" but as soon as you're down you have other priorities. When would she have had a chance to do it, anyway? I was there when she taxied in.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cavalry Charge

Did you hear about the A330 that encountered severe turbulence, pitot icing, unreliable airspeed indications, and a cascade of system warnings while crossing the Atlantic towards France? The pilots did a great job getting that airplane to Paris in one piece.

No, I haven't entered an alternate reality where Air France 447 reached its destination. I'm reading a company memo from Hugh Houang, the Air Caraïbes flight safety officer, describing technical difficulties they had with that airline's A330-200 aircraft in August and September last year, and the inadequacy of the Airbus checklists for dealing with them. The memo is in French, but someone who speaks Airbus will probably be able to read it with minimal trouble. Airbus system and warning names are all in English. Below is a highlights summary, with my own commentary in parentheses.

It first documents the flight of F-OFDF, en route from Fort de France, Martinique to Paris, France:

  • 22:11 - They encountered adverse conditions. Prescribed weather deviation procedures didn't help flight conditions, so they returned to FL350 at 22:14.
  • 22:22 - They reduced speed and power settings, and disconnected the autothrust in accordance with the SEVERE TURBULENCE checklist.
  • 22:22 - In seconds, the air temperature rose from -14 to -5, indicating the temperature of the ice, as opposed to of the outside air, a sign of severe pitot icing. The displayed calibrated airspeed dropped from 270 kts to 85 kts (yikes! that's too slow for me!); the flight directors and autopilot disconnected and there were a cascade of warnings and alarms, my favourite of which was CAVALRY CHARGE. (An Airbus speaker explained that this apparent Napoleonic reference is the name of the distinctive audio signal associated with autopilot disconnect). The stall warning sounded, as did the CRICKET (another type of annunciator) and the master warning came on. (I'm skipping many of the alarms listed. Suffice to say, this cockpit looked and sounded like a pinball machine).
  • 22:23 Over the next two minutes the temperature dropped again, the airspeed came back up and the altitude jumped up to 34500'. They soon recovered their flight directors and autopilot.

For 86 seconds the crew had no reliable airspeed, mach or altitude indications. (This may seem like a very short time, but 178 seconds was the average time a pilot with that information but without the training on how to use it took to destroy a simulated small airplane. And those test subjects weren't in severe turbulence. All the training in the world doesn't help a crew keep the airplane under control if they don't have the data). The crew concentrated on flying the airplane, using GPS data, and trying to complete the Unreliable Speed Indication checklist. They were helped by the fact that they had already completed the Severe Turbulence checklist, but there was not time during the incident to complete its recommendations. The manual strongly suggests to the pilot flying that the stall alarms are inappropriate. (The picture given by the message RESPECT STALL WARNING AND DISREGARD "RISK OF UNDUE STALL WARNING" STATUS MESSAGE IF DISPLAYED ON ECAM is of someone flying an airplane where the stall warnings are saying that the airplane is stalling, the ECAM screen is telling the pilot to disregard the stall warnings, and the manual is telling the pilot to disregard the ECAM and heed the stall warnings, but the pilot doesn't believe that the airplane is stalling. It's like having your chief pilot, training manager and captain all on the flight deck, telling you do different things).

The next part of the memo then analyzes the event and the warnings in terms of the Airbus protections offered by ALTERNATE LAW, NORMAL LAW, and DIRECT LAW, detailing what was and lost or changed in response to the various alarms, such as the F/CTL ADR DISAGREE. He points out that the checklists contradict each other when the unreliable speed indication checklist says, RELY ON THE STALL WARNING THAT COULD BE TRIGGERED IN ALTERNATE OR DIRECT LAW. IT IS NOT AFFECTED BY UNRELIABLE SPEEDS, BECAUSE IT IS BASED ON ANGLE OF ATTACK, while the icing checklist warns UNDUE STALL WARNINGS MAY MAINLY OCCUR IN THE CASE OF AN AOA DISCREPANCY. (AoA is angle of attack, measured by vanes outside the aircraft, which in severe icing can also be unreliable).

(With the autothrust selected off and the crew confidence that they were not in a stall, no stall recovery inputs were made. Which is good, because the result of stall recovery inputs when you are not in a stall could be an overspeed, and in alternate law, if I understand M. Houang correctly, the high speed protection warnings are reduced).

In response to the two incidents (the second one is not described, but the partial aircraft ident "PTP" is given), Air Caraïbes quickly replaced the pitot tubes on its fleet with a different kind, with drainage designed especially for the heavy precipitation and severe icing encountered.

In October, Air Caraïbes officials met with Airbus representatives, who understood that the stall warning messages were contradictory and that the checklists were difficult to complete rapidly. They said they'd think about modifying the checklists.

And then M. Houang says he hopes the memo has answered everyone's questions, and wishes everyone good flights.

I expect a lot more Airbus pitot tubes to be replaced now, whether or not the similar events preceding the loss of AF447 is determined to stem from the same cause.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

When Is a Tower Not a Tower?

I've been getting some questions in comments lately about airport control towers. This post is about air traffic services at Canadian airports, from a pilot's perspective. The controllers and specialists themselves might describe it differently.

First off, the ultimate authority regarding runway selection, wake turbulence separation, altitude of flight and everything else about the flight rests with me, the pilot. I am required to follow any air traffic control instructions which I accept, but if an air traffic controller clears me to do something illegal, and I do it, I still get in trouble for it. If a controller instructs me to do something dangerous and I do it, I still die. Next, any pilot is capable of navigating from any airport to any airport without the assistance of air traffic control. Any pilot, from the student pilot on his first solo, right up to crew of an Air Canada jet coming across the Pacific from Japan, knows how to safely finish a flight with no radio at all. Many flights are conducted every day in Canada in aircraft that are not radio-equipped. Air traffic services greatly increase the safety and efficiency of air travel, in much the same way that traffic lights increase the safety and efficiency of the highways.

Look up any Canadian aerodrome in the Canada Flight Supplement (CFS) and you will find at least one of the following. (You could find more than one if for example the control tower closed at night leaving either an FSS or a MF).

  • a tower
  • a flight services station (FSS)
  • a mandatory frequency (MF)
  • an aerodrome traffic frequency (ATF)
  • the aerodrome is not listed at all

If there is a tower frequency listed in the CFS, there is probably also an ATIS and ground frequency and could be more frequencies for clearance delivery, outer tower, different areas of the ground, and so on. Call any of these frequencies and you are speaking to someone sitting in a physical tower overlooking the airport. They may not have a clear view of the whole thing. They may be 1/8 SM in fog and see nothing out the window. It could be one person operating both the tower and ground frequencies. (I think in that case there would someone else in the break room getting a coffee, and that at a Nav Canada tower no one works a solo shift, but I could be wrong).

If there is a tower, as there are at about forty Canadian airports, then a pilot starting up at that airport will request permission to taxi up to the edge of the runway and then report ready and wait for clearance to enter the runway and take off.

Fort McMurray Ground, GABC on the east apron, request taxi for VFR to Grande Prairie, six thousand five hundred.

GABC, McMurray Ground. Taxi runway 25 via alfa, call tower holding short of 25.

I acknowledge that, trundle up taxiway A to the line marking the edge of the runway and finish my checks before calling...

McMurray Tower, GABC ready 25 on alfa

GABC, cleared takeoff 25

I acknowledge that, and take off, if everything looks safe to me.

I left out some other things we would probably tell each other, but the basics are there. I ask for what I want, they give me instructions and clearances.

About fifty Canadian airports have an FSS but no tower. There may actually exist a raised structure with a good view of the field, and the flight services specialist may indeed sit inside it and look out at the airplanes going by, but when we say there is or is not a tower, we are referring to a tower frequency and the requirement to obtain clearances for movement. The reason I said "about forty" and "about fifty" is that towers and FSSes open and close according to need, so a tower that was occupied by air traffic controllers last year houses an FSS this year. Some FSSes don't have towers, just regular buildings, or even portables. If I want to go somewhere at a field with an FSS but no tower (even if the FSS guys are in a tall skinny building that used to be called a tower) I call the FSS and tell the specialist what I am about to do. An FSS is addressed with the call sign "Radio."

Grande Prairie Radio, GABC on the east apron, taxiing for VFR to Fort McMurray, five thousand five hundred.

GABC, Grande Prairie Radio. Active runway is 12. Traffic is a King Air landing 12 in two minutes.

I see the King Air touch down and go past the intersection. Everything looks safe, so I call..

ABC rolling 25.

Again I left out the FSS giving me the wind and altimeter setting. The difference is that the tower tells me what to do, and I decide if it's safe, while the FSS gives me information and I make a decision based on that. The line blurs of course, because the tower may offer me a choice and the FSS may give me a recommendation, but in the end I ask the tower but I tell the FSS. If I'm departing IFR into controlled airspace, the FSS gives me my IFR clearance.

At all the other airport, some of which may have tower like structures that used to house an FSS or control tower, but are now unoccupied, or used to store paint and frangible taxiway lights, I make calls to traffic. I make calls just like the ones I made to the FSS, but now I talk to "traffic" instead of "radio". There may or may not be anyone else listening to the traffic frequency. If there is, they will tell me if i pose a conflict. If the airport has an MF, then I have to have a radio, listen on the frequency and make appropriate calls. If the published frequency is just an ATF then if I have a radio I should make the MF-style calls, but aircraft using that aerodrome are not obliged to have or use a radio. And if the aerodrome is just a lake somewhere or someone's hayfield then I don't have to make calls, but I can, using the the standard aerodrome frequency of 123.2. In any of these cases there may be someone on the frequency who will give me information. The people who run the fuel truck may reply, e.g. giving me the wind direction and telling me that there's a NORDO ultralight doing left hand circuits on 34.

Whichever kind of airport you depart from, you can enter airspace controlled by terminal or centre controllers. They usually work in darkened rooms, sometimes in the same facility as a tower, so they can share infrastructure like maintenance and backup power. If I have an emergency I can report it to any ATC or FSS I am speaking to, and they will help me coordinate with other facilities to get vectors, firetrucks, whatever I need. Canada has excellent air traffic services, and they are hiring.

And for the pilot geeks: User Friendly. My cockpit overhead light isn't working, but I didn't ground the airplane, because it's light out enough all the time that I dont' need it.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Inflight Meals

The days are starting to blend together as I fly, sleep and eat. I don't have access to a vehicle and I don't want to be twenty minutes walk across town when the customer calls, so most of my meals are either from the Boston Pizza in the hotel parking lot or consist of what I can prepare with a fridge and a microwave in my room. To tell the truth, I'm typically eating two meals a day: one around noon, at Boston Pizza (the Thai chicken wrap is pretty good, and they have lots of pastas), and one consisting of airborne snacks, spread out over the seven hour flight.

It's all focused, hands on flying. There is very little time during a flight that I am not concentrating on maintaining precise parameters. For example, if I am two degrees off my proper heading for ten seconds, someone will be yelling at me, because two degrees off for twenty seconds will necessitate doing the work over again. At first I could barely breathe while working but of course over seven hours I now eat, drink, take my sunglasses on and off, skip the songs I don't feel like listening to on the iPod nano, check my blood oxygen, adjust the heater, take snapshots for the blog, switch fuel tanks, monitor engine parameters, make radio calls, look for traffic, try to rearrange the cushions to make my seat more comfortable, write notes on things I have to get maintenance to fix, open the air vents, and speculate on the weather. Crossword puzzles I reserve for when I'm a passenger.

My favourite onboard snack is apples. They don't need peeling or unwrapping, don't squish, last well without refrigeration, quench my thirst without filling my bladder and I can hold one in my teeth or balance it on my lap if I need hands or tongue for work mid-snack. Dried fruit is tasty, but you need to drink water anyway to digest it, so that's two operations instead of one. My other inflight meal staple is Arrowroot biscuits. They're in the cookie aisle of the grocery store in Canada and in the baby food section in the US (I learned the last after a week or so of disappointed failure to find them, fearing they were a Canadian product that was not exported to the States). It turns out that cookies that are well-formulated for babies are well-formulated for pilots, too. They contain very little sugar or salt, so that I don't need to drink a lot of water to digest them They are mushy rather than crumbly in my mouth, and they are small and thin, so I can put a whole one in my mouth and enjoy it slowly without choking on crumbs.

I always have energy bars in my flight bag, because they last a long time and give me a lot of calories for a little weight and convenient package. I prefer the Luna bars, Lemon flavour. I like chocolate a lot, but I don't eat chocolate flavoured energy bars. I never have a desire for them. I also liked the old Power Bars in the green wrappers. I think they were nominally apple cinnamon. Power Bars never taste like anything, but the green ones were kind of crunchy and i liked the texture. The Luna bars are crunchy like that, too. Kind of the texture of a rice krispie treat that is just loaded with marshmallows, but not sticky or sweet. I'm not sure why. I guess when my body asks for food and I give it chocolate it is a little confused.

Sometimes I do bring chocolate or candy. Once when I couldn't find Arrowroots I had gluten-free animal crackers, which was fun, especially when I said "ooh, a hippopotamus" and had the mission specialist thinking I'd seem one out the window. In Arizona. I also might have grapes, beef jerky, nuts, or a banana. Bananas are a pain because they get squished so easily and the peel is messy.

Judging from the cockpit debris, other company pilots eat Froot Loops cereal, pistachio nuts, and Smarties (the Canadian kind that are like M&Ms, not the American kind in a twisted roll). I've heard a story of a pilot who used to set the autopilot and make himself a huge bucket of Caesar salad (apparently it used to be called Aviator's Salad, so there you go). He'd eat that followed by a whole roast chicken, and I can't remember what his starch component supposedly was. I imagine the story has grown a little with the telling.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Pretending to Fly

Reader Mark Richards asked me recently about the flight simulator game that I use to practice my instrument procedures with, and I know Sir Lukenwolf is following hopping around the north in a flight simulator, too. Mine is Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002. I know any real sim enthusiast probably has much newer software, but I expect that sim hobbyists hold in fairly high priority the realism of the simulated scenery and audio. I surmise this because I've owned several versions of MSFS and each update has much more detailed scenery than the last. The amount of required processor power also increases with the version, which is why I don't own a more recent version.

Almost every airport I've ever used is in the database. That's improved over the years, too. Unfortunately a lot of Canadian nav aids are missing from my version, but you can download patches (thank you, fanatical Canadian simmers) to add them in. You can also download aircraft to fly, and customized panels, but I just find an airplane that will fly at the normal approach speed I use, and use it, even though the power settings might be different. I don't really need to practice the manipulation of the controls so much as I need to practice the focus and pacing and remembering of all the details of the procedures.

Probably eighty percent of what I use MSFS for could be accomplished with pencil, paper and a FlightSafety poster of the aircraft layout, if I'd just sit down and spend the time concentrating. The simplest advantage of the game is that it's a video game, so holds a person's attention better, because there's the payoff of 'really' intercepting the glideslope. It also has the advantage of showing you your track, so if you got confused in strong winds and ended up outside of protected airspace, you can look at the log afterward and see the point at which you turned at the wrong time and your hockey stick procedure turn became a tennis racket.

Mouse on screen is such an awkward interface for tuning instruments that I just use the keyboard, often pausing the game in order to do so, and at the same time reaching my actual arm to where the real control is in the cockpit. Usually that doesn't really matter, because the instrument adjustment details vary from airplane to airplane anyway. I often trim by turning on the autopilot and then turning it off again, or just fly by telling the autopilot where to go, as I would on a single-pilot IFR ride. I have the throttle and flaps and brakes all programmed into the game controller, which is labelled all over with DYMO tape, but I go for the keyboard if it's not working out. The biggest interface peeve I have is when the same keyboard command does an action and reverses that action, whereas in the airplane the commands are different. The biggest example is the gear. The G-key, or whichever joystick button I map to it, both raises and lowers the gear. That means that if I hit the G, or touch the G-mapped yoke control, a second time, in what to me is a simulation of placing my hand on the gear lever to confirm it is selected down, or if I accidentally double touch the G at first extension, I have the gear up instead of down. I don't know why they did it that way. Why not have a separate command for gear up and gear down?

Another drawback is that because it's not real, you're free to do stupid things, self-vectoring yourself through IMC for an ILS approach instead of doing a procedure turn, continuing a botched approach if the VOR is at full deflection instead of doing the missed, or flying an approach you made up yourself. There's the risk that practicing these things and having them work out will transfer psychologically to the real airplane, making me think I can be an idiot in the air, too. The game is hilariously forgiving about things like landing crooked and runway excursions, and no effort has gone into placing dread in your soul when you crash.

A typical session for me is to start up at or near an airport I'm expecting to work at soon. I set the weather to the lowest minima for the approaches, brief and fly an instrument departure, intercept an airway, fly a hold, then return to the airport for an NDB approach. The weather will be too low, so I'll miss, and then come back for the approach that uses the minima that should get me in if I fly it right. If it's a tricky approach with a dogleg at the beacon, or a circling, I will probably do it first with the scenery turned on, just to see how it works, but then I'll close the scenery window and just do it by the instruments. It's fun to have the weather turned on and watch the raindrops on the windshield. That's fun in real life, too. Some of the scenery is actually good enough to be fun to watch, even though it's only a game. Unfortunately, of an hour I spend with the simulator, ten or fifteen minutes always ends up spent mucking about with the software, just because there are so many options to play with and cool things to look at.

I once paid money for a Twin Otter add on but I found it frustratingly unusable. The designer had tried to make the controls look as much as possible like the actual airplane, which required me to load different pages and wait in order to do something simple like toggle bleed air, which in real life you can do without looking, just by raising your hand. Overdoing the reality detracts from the experience. But you've got to love the "squeak squeak!" tire sound when you touch down on the water in a float plane. I'm sure they've fixed that by now, but it was funny in the first version with float planes.

Once I was flying a simulated winter flight way up north between something like Alert and Cambridge Bay, and I was really startled to see the northern lights. They were done well, not overdone, and it might have taken an hour of night arctic flying for them to appear. I'm still not entirely sure I wasn't making it up. Perhaps someone will confirm that there really are northern lights in the game.

As for the question Mark asked about Microsoft ending support for the product, I don't see it really relevant to me. My CD-ROMs of the product won't stop working. If it doesn't run on future versions of the Microsoft OS, I can probably find some clever hack to work around that, like I use for Commander Keen. I don't know its value for money because it was given to me by a friend who is a Microsoft employee. He would give me a more current one, but this one is good enough for what I do.