Sunday, July 26, 2009

Grass Growing Through the Cracks

So I'm in an airplane, looking out the window at grass growing through the cracks in the pavement, as we taxi by. But where is this taxiway? It's paved, so you know I'm not too far from civilization. It's not Whitehorse, or anything named after an animal or body of water. It doesn't have Grande or Fort in the name, and it doesn't contain any Qs or Ks. Could Aviatrix be in the civilized part of the world?

You betcha. I'm sitting in the back of an Air Canada jet on taxiway D at YYZ. I'm going on vacation. No blogging until a) I get back and b) I feel like it.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

My New Computer Came With Cool Games

What, you expected a blog post today after I discovered that?

?

Blogging motivation is low anyway. I'm considering changing formats. We'll see.

Also, I'm not going to EAA Airventure in Oshkosh for 2009, but the person who helped me get there last year is addicted and going back. She is looking for a ride from the airport in Appleton, and for interesting people to meet up with. Please contact her at the temporary e-mail robert_hc172@yahoo.com if you'll be there. She happens to be working in the former Weasel River (long-time readers will remember) so deserves all the fun she can get.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Mobile Device

My morning e-mail included the usual notice from Air Canada urging me to check in online, or on my mobile device. Hey, I have a mobile device now. I think I'll give this a try.

The Internet in the Whitehorse hotel is excruciatingly slow, but I manage to click on the "or check in with your mobile device" link in the e-mail. The page starts to load. Oddly, it seems to be loading the regular Air Canada website, not a page optimized for the mobile, but I give it time. I go and brush my teeth and then return to see, yes it is the regular Air Canada website. It is not the check-in page, but a page of instructions on how to check in online, including a section on how to check in with a mobile. All I have to do is go to mobile.aircanada.com, it tells me. I click on those words. Uh I try to click on those words. Although the URL of the website is given multiple times on the page, in a contrasting colour, in no case is it a link.

What were they thinking? All I can come up with is that they were concerned that non-mobile users would attempt to check in using that link and then would be confused when it didn't work. Instead they have decided to inconvenience people who are actively and accurately trying to check in with a mobile device. I can't quite believe they made that decision. I enter the URL in the Safari navigation bar. And it returns an error message. It says Uniquement les dispositifs WML sont autorises a utiliser cette application. Hmm. I was not at that moment familiar with the abbreviation WML, so I assumed it was a French term I didn't know for mobile web-enabled device. I've since learned that it is the same abbreviation in French or English and represents a mobile version of HTML. (Technically of XML, but more people are going to know what HTML is). Either way the error message is telling me that that my device was not qualified to access this site.

I honestly don't know if it is or not. It's a mobile device. It can receive e-mail. But does it use WML? Google found me this unanswered forum question from someone who had the same problem with the same airline almost a year ago. Which is odd, because the feature has a "NEW!" flag on it.

But one way or the other, I want to check in. I know now it would be faster to do it at the gate, but this is technology! Let me make it work! So I go back to the original e-mail and try the "web check-in" option. After more tedious loading I'm back to the Air Canada site, and a page giving me instructions on how to check in on the web, with a link to "check in now." Again, why did it not give me that link in the e-mail, with options to get instructions? I guess because someone who needs instructions on filling out an online form isn't savvy enough to choose to ask for instructions. I mean, it's a form: how hard can it be?

I click "check in now" and get the message "Safari can't open the page because the address is invalid." I don't believe this, so I reclick the link, and this time it works. I'm going to pretend the first time was a hallucination. I have to enter my name, my airport of origin, and my destination. And now the form requires my Aeroplan number or booking reference number. Firetruck! If I go back to the e-mail I'll have to go through this all over again. And did I enter my Aeroplan number when I booked this? I would ordinarily, but I booked it on my colleague's computer without logging in properly, because I rely on my computer or the memory stick to remember things like frequent flyer passwords for me. Fortunately it successfully looks up the booking based on my Aeroplan number. I must have manually entered it. I click continue.

"Please wait while we prepare your request."

It gives me a seat assignment, asks for my number of checked bags, and has me confirm that I am checking no bicycles, firearms, surfboards or antlers. And then it asks if I would like to receive the boarding pass via mobile e-mail. I say yes, enter the e-mail address they already have, and click continue.

It tells me I'm done. I know better. You're not done until you get the boarding pass. I check my e-mail. It has arrived. Load, load, load ... there's a simple one-line e-mail with my flight numbers and itinerary. And then "click the link below to receive your electronic boarding passes. You could also be asked to display this message to airport security." So I leave that message on the screen and open the link below in a new window. Each boarding pass is a little magic eye picture with my seat number on it. I practice a couple of times displaying the boarding pass and the e-mail. I turn off the device and turn it back on again to make sure it's still there, still working. Okay, I can do this.

When I check my bag at the counter, the CSA asks if I have printed a boarding pass. I say no, but I have it on my iPod, and start to show her. She doesn't need to see it. She prints out my bag claim stickers and gives them to me stuck to a piece of paper that is blank on one side and has Warsaw Convention baggage liability rules printed on the other. She sticks the tags to the side with the writing on, not the blank side. Why? Because had I not claimed to have a boarding pass on my iPod, there would have been a boarding pass printed on that side. So the savings accrued to Air Canada so far amount to the ink on the boarding pass.

And now for security. I turn on the iPod and have my magic eye picture all ready to display. I get my big computer out of its bag, put it, my carry-on and my jacket on the x-ray belt and show the iPod to the checker who asks for my boarding pass. Ta-da! I hold up the iPod. The screener takes it and turns it sideways to look at. The gravity feature in the device rotates the display, cutting off the image. "This is a boarding pass?" she asks dubiously.

"That's what Air Canada told me."

She shows the device to another security person. He says, "you have to look at the e-mail. Just make sure it has the right date and airport." No problem. I take the device back and switch screens to the e-mail. There's free wireless in this airport -- I was using it earlier to look at web pages in a different window. So when I switch to the e-mail it tries to reload the page. And it fails. It has the e-mail, but it's an HTML e-mail and the picture has to download from Air Canada's server and it won't. So now I don't have the e-mail and I can't get to it either. I go back out of security and mess with it for fifteen minutes, trying to get it to display. Finally I go back to the Air Canada counter where they print me a paper boarding pass. Security likes that one much better.

I continue to fiddle with the iPod in the departure area until I get the e-mail to display again. As a final gesture of embracing new technology I attempt to board the aircraft by showing my magic eye picture. "We don't have the scanner, do you have the e-mail?" At least she knows what it is. I show the e-mail. It works this time, and she lets me on. I absolutely could have faked that e-mail with less trouble than it took to obtain and display it. It would have got me through security and onto the tarmac, ready to wreak havoc with ... okay maybe Air North isn't a big terrorist target, but I'd have been there!

I did get home. But it's clear that my expectations, Air Canada, Apple, Safari and horrible hotel internet combined into a not-so-good customer experience. I'll try mobile check in again sometime when I have some more iPod-specific software, like a better e-mail program and something to do screen captures. But I think when the fun of complaining about it wears off, I'll go back to the method that takes less time and doesn't require me to hold and hand off a small valuable item in a busy area while burdened with luggage. It's easier to have the iPod stored safely and wave around a piece of easily replaceable paper.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

I Love Paper

After seeing as much as I could of Whitehorse, I took the hotel shuttle to the airport where I chatted with a Toronto geologist who was originally from the Caribbean and an outfitter who was originally from Calgary but now lived further north than Whitehorse and had come south to here for business. There's a lot of Canada I don't think about from day to day.

As a result of my experiences in the airport, I made the following list.

Ten Things You Can Do Easily with a Paper Air Canada Boarding Pass
(but not with the iPod)

  1. Hold it in your teeth
  2. Use it as a bookmark
  3. Fold it inside your wallet
  4. Abandon it in the seat pocket in front of you before changing planes
  5. Roll your luggage over it
  6. Watch security personnel drop it on the floor
  7. Get a new one for free if it is lost or mutilated
  8. Walk through the security scanner carrying it
  9. Staple it to your expense report
  10. Get admitted to the secure area at Whitehorse airport

Details on that tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Technology Is Whatever Works

The next morning I got a better daylight look at such attractions as the three-story log skyscraper (it appeared from the rows of electric meters and mailboxes, and the vehicles parked around it to be a regular cheap apartment building that just happened to be a three story tower made out of logs) and other places around town. It's like living in an old stone building in another town. The way I calculate it, Whitehorse is a young town that grew explosively at first and then shrunk a little, such that the original buildings were still in use, or at least still existing in the 1960s. And that was a time when there was enough money and sentiment around to try and preserve them. So the old telegraph office and the old railway station are still there on the waterfront, log buildings, both. The original log church is still there and at least as functional as the 1960s replacement next door.

I bought a few souvenirs and talked to some locals, most of whom had come for a short time earlier but never gone home. The tourism centre was huge, a bustling nexus of information on all the places in the territory that a person can go, and all the adventures you can have. There was a hook-up noticeboard for people looking for rides and hiking companions. I smiled the technologies proposed by the note writers to contact them. They ranged from telephone numbers and e-mail addresses down to "leave a note on the green Ford 150 with Nunavut plates." I hope everyone found their rides, companions and lost possessions.

Another notice that caught my attention was this one on import restrictions to Alaska. Apparently you can take anything you like across the border as long as it isn't goat or lamb meat or Florida oranges. So does that mean mutton is okay? I'm familiar with fruit transport restrictions, but into Alaska? It's not like Alaska has a thriving citrus fruit industry, or is Alaska even more unexpectedly amazing than Whitehorse? And South African oranges are okay?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Whitehorse is Awesome

I was expecting Whitehorse to be a one horse town. After all, it's not called "Whitehorses." But before we'd completed the cab ride into town we saw that this place was at least a kilohorse town. It has multilane paved roads with signs and traffic signals. We see some chain stores like Home Depot and Costco on the way in and then my co-worker cries, "There's a Starbucks!"

"There are two Starbucks," responds the cab driver, but don't think the corporate interests have taken over the town. It consists mainly of interesting wooden buildings two or three stories high. We later learn that the building code maximizes construction at four stories, so there are no skyscrapers, just medium density along astonishingly well-kept streets.

We checked into the hotel. It's obviously done up for the tourists, with moose and mounties and that sort of kitsch. You can fly direct to Whitehorse from Germany, and Whitehorse has taken pains to be the Canada the Germans expect. The elevator door is made up to look like the entrance to an old- time bank vault. Upstairs some of the corridors are very narrow, so although the hotel is in excellent repair, I think parts of it are actually quite old. We met up with our relief shift and all went out to eat in a building with an antique airline advertisement painted on the side. Menu choices included caribou stew, Musk ox stroganoff and grilled arctic char (a sort of fish). I had the musk ox, as I'd only tasted musk ox in jerky before. It was delicious, and very generous portions, too. The meals came with good salads, focaccia bread, and vegetables, all for $24, a good price for a meal of that quality and quantity anywhere in Canada. We all stuffed ourselves.

We walked around town some more. It's eminently walkable, plus dozens of people were on bikes and there were bike racks everywhere. There were a lot of stores selling things to tourists, but they tended more towards interesting well-crafted items specific to the place and not just plastic tourist junk. There were also a few very nice consignment clothing stores. Not thrift stores. That gave me pause. For stores like that to exist, there have to be women who live here who don't just wear parkas and sweaters in the winter and shorts in the summer. There have to be women here who make enough money to buy nice clothes and there have to be events and business calling for such clothes, and they have to live here long enough that the clothes go out of fashion and are replaced. I guess that was my first clue that people don't just pass through here, they come to stay.

That evening there was a midnight music festival and I went to that. I wasn't terribly impressed with the bands, but I got in free by asking the gate security people nicely, so I shouldn't dis their show. I just wanted to hang out. Wow, Whitehorse is diverse. Most northern towns just have native folk, lots of white men and a few white women. Whitehorse is every bit as diverse as Toronto, but more integrated. Caribbean accents were not what I was expecting at a midnight sun party.

When that wound down, I walked around taking pictures, giggling at myself that it was light enough to take outdoor pictures of historic buildings at 12:30 a.m. One of the rows of buildings I photographed turned out to be a trompe d'oeil mural in an alley. You know your town is clean when the tourists are photographing the dumpsters.

Despite the primping for the tourists, Whitehorse is genuine. It really is the beginning of any wilderness adventure you could want: dogsledding, horseback riding, the Chilkoot trail, river rafting, and mountain climbing all here. And it's not just any old trail or river: you'd be following the gold rush routes. That's why it's here. And ever since the gold rush people have come for one reason and stayed on. I really wished I didn't already have a ticket home. At least it's not until tomorrow afternoon so I have another half day to look around.

Monday, July 20, 2009

West to Whitehorse

The next day I pick up the weather by telephone and am a little late meeting the others in the lobby, as I got one of those briefers who insists on telling you about every unlighted tower all the way from origin to destination, even though it's a daytime flight. I guess if widespread darkness were cast upon the land due to a volcanic eruption, and we therefore diverted to Takla, and decided to do this at 300' agl, I'd be very grateful to know about that 305' unlighted tower eight miles SSE of the aerodrome. But as it is I'm happy to have the weather, which involves the remains of a cold front until about Watson Lake and should be good thereafter.

There is a small fuel stain on the ramp. It's a known time-to-time problem caused by a valve connecting one of the auxiliary tanks to another tank, which is full. It appears that the valve sometimes doesn't seat properly, so the fuel drains from the aux tank to the main tank and then leaks out the main tank vent. The engineer makes a sound of frustration. He wanted to fix it but as he says, "for two days in the hangar it didn't leak!" It's not a safety problem for us and it doesn't cause us to lose fuel in flight, because the rate of accidental transfer is far less than the fuel burn from the destination tank. The fuel level in the aux tank doesn't even appear any lower than it did before maintenance.

Everything is still normal on the runup, so I taxi out and take off. I can feel the airplane being at max weight. At the proper speed I rotate to the correct take-off attitude, and the airplane rolls along on just the mains for a moment before it rises off the runway.

We took off from runway 26 and my heading to Whitehorse is 269, so I make that slight turn on course and continue the climb straight ahead. The magnetic deviation is huge here, 22 degrees east, meaning that in order to fly northwest with respect to the globe, we fly due west by the compass. I keep poking at the GPS to catch the moment when we have crossed the 60th parallel to the Yukon, but the clouds draw in beneath us so I can't see the eskers. I let the non-flying pilot take photographs for me.

The highest mountains along our route peak around 6000', but there is still snow along all the mountain ridges. We pass Watson Lake and then the clouds thin out as promised.

Whitehorse has a tower and an FSS, but no ATIS. By listening on frequency we learn that arriving aircraft pick up weather and traffic avoidance from the FSS until they are close enough to contact tower, and then are sequenced. There's a little runway 19 and a parallel set of 13/31 L & R. The wind is from 190 at 15 gusting twenty. We are initially sequenced to join left downwind for 13 right, but despite having looked it over, I screw up the arrival. There's a mountain where downwind should be, so the local procedures are to fly a very tight downwind inside the mountain and then teardrop out or fly extra long to turn back for the runway. I understand the arrival diagram as being over the lake and river, but try to leave myself some room for a proper circuit and arrive in the zone on the wrong side of the mountain, so I have to cross over it before descent to circuit altitude. They have a Jazz CRJ ready to taxi, so out of wariness of my unpredictability, they sidestep me to 13 left where I can be as slow as I like without interfering with the jet departure.

I get myself on the correct side of the mountain, turn final and land. The crosswind is, as usual, not an issue in this airplane. It would be much more exciting to land a little single in a 15 kt crosswind. I roll out and they give me the backtrack, hold short 19. There is no painted hold short line, but I stop well short of the crossing runway and watch as an amphib Cessna lands in front of us.

Now I'm cleared to taxi up 19, hold short 13R. The Jazz is ready to go now. I make the left turn and come to a stop for the yellow line, then realize that the yellow line I have stopped at is a dashed line with a solid line behind it: the hold short line for traffic waiting to cross 13L, the runway I've just come off. The hold short line with a solid line and a dashed line behind it, for 13R, is still ahead of me. I start rolling again, then see that the Jazz is rolling now, so stop where I am. The pilot doesn't need to see an airplane moving on an intersecting runway during his take-off roll.

When the Jazz jet is gone I'm cleared across the last runway and to call ground, who direct me to transient parking near the tower. When I turn on the phone to call the flight follower I get a text from the pilot who will be replacing me, with his hotel room number. I text him back and then we haul our personal gear out and lock the airplane. While we are waiting for our cab we meet the family who was in the C185. They're travelling around all over BC and the Yukon. I'll have to come back and see some of these places someday.

Oh and you can't talk about YXY without mentioning the wind direction indicator: outside the airport there's an entire DC-3 on a pylon, free to rotate with the wind.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Weighing In

While our engineer finishes up the premature inspection, I go out to the airplane to weigh and load customer equipment. Frustratingly, I don't have a working computer so I can't quickly enter everything in the spreadsheet to see if the easiest way to load the equipment will result in a properly loaded airplane.

My parameters require that everything fit on board, that certain items be in the heated cabin with us, that the especially heavy or difficult-to-secure items be in confined cargo lockers, that the centre of gravity be within prescribed limits and that the total weight be under the legal ramp weight.

We go together to do the post maintenance run up. The engines start beautifully: a combination of his having tuned something and of me not starting them when they are still too hot to touch after the morning flight. In the run-up area he specifies the power settings he wants to see, but also lets me do the tests I do, so we're both satisfied with all the readings. Once upon a time it used to make me nervous doing a runup for a maintenance engineer. I was afraid they were going to tell me I was doing something wrong or say "so that's why this keeps breaking!" but now I'm happy to do the run up. Besides, if the engineer spots something I could do better, I'd like to know.

I still have to finish loading, but he has paperwork to do and says he is as happy doing it here as he would be at the hotel. I ask the engineer if he has the weight and balance spreadsheet on his computer, and he doesn't, but the hangar has wireless and he is kind enough to get my colleague to e-mail it. He enters in the numbers I give him for what I have packed and what is yet to come. We're just barely overweight and just forward of the limits, but then he adjusts the fuel on board number to reflect what he has burned during his work, and I move the station position of one of the yet-to-be-loaded bags further aft, and we're in limits. We print out the sheet so we have it in case of a ramp inspection and then I help him pack up his tools.

We go over to the terminal to try to get a flight home for him, but there's nothing available until tomorrow. Someone suggests he ride with us to Whitehorse because it's much easier to get a flight from there. He laughs, knowing how full the airplane is. He books the first flight out tomorrow, which has him stay here until we have departed safely for Whitehorse.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

She Can Talk, Too!

This is a really old article from 2003, and I started to write it up as "a few years old but sounds like it's from fifty years ago," a commentary on how far ahead women in the west are of their third world counterparts. And then I read on and realized that the Kiowa helicopter pilot Adrineh Shahijanian it describes is in the American military. it was an American soldier who looked at her in uniform, then turned to a man sitting next to her and asked if women flew Kiowas.

When I bookmarked this I honestly thought the story was about some remote country in central Asia where the women are just crawling out from behind their veils. I know there are quite a lot of women in air combat roles in the US. And women were ferrying American combat aircraft before some of today's soldiers' parents were born. I guess some corners of the military are fifty years behind the general population when it comes to women. I'm so lucky to be in an environment where I don't encounter this. Or perhaps simply a mindset where I don't see it.

The "pee in the field" directive is an interesting one, because here is an area where, yeah, men are better equipped than women. But only if they are both wearing flight suits styled for men. If it were me who had to pee in fields on a regular basis, I'd extend the flight suit opening far enough south (with a velcro closure) that I didn't have to do the Kabuki dance to pee. If circumstances require me to participate in literal pissing competitions, I'm up for it.

You've got to love the part where the soldier asks the man who is with the woman about her capabilities, as if following some cultural law where he can't address a woman directly himself. This sort of thing alone would be hilarious, except that you know that for every man who asks if women can fly helicopters, there are a lot who just assume we can't, or can't do it well enough to be worth hiring. I try and think of it as their loss, and the gain of employers who don't think that way.

Also, Canadian Centennial of Flight celebration. John Lovelace is the Wings Over Canada guy, so he knows how to organize air travel, but hee hee, I want to know what happens to sleepy YQR ATC when 123 little airplanes pull into Regina for the night.

''I closed comments not to stifle debate, but because I laughed so hard at "People who suffer that attitude always seem to have lots of spare aggression, so it seems silly to treat women soldiers that way and NOT let them blow things up!" that I wanted it to remain the last word.''

Friday, July 17, 2009

Changing Horses in Midstream

While I flew the final flight for this job yesterday, my most excellent colleague was multitasking: sunbathing while fielding telephone calls and text messages from company. Field personnel have looked at the facilities we're supposed to use and while the runway is a usable 5000' gravel strip in reasonable repair, the accommodations are ATCO trailers that don't even have doors. This is deemed unacceptable even for pilots, so they've chosen another more remote and seemingly even more poorly maintained strip. The FAA description uses phrases like "GRASS & WEEDS GROWING ON RY SFC WITH RUTS UP TO 4 IN. RY SOFT WHEN WET," and "RAMP AREA SFC ROUGH; STANDING WATER & SOFT WHEN WET." A flurry of overlapping e-mails discuss this and in the end it is determined that some sort of global warming research organization has taken over the aerodrome and not only upgraded the runway but established wireless internet.

We know that the plans will probably change again a few times, but we seemed to be at least up-to-date on the changes, and they were about to book flights, which tends to cement things a little. An engineer even texted to ask that we book him a hotel room.

My co-worker called him back. "No problem. In which city, province, territory or state?"

He'd apparently been told to book a flight here, where he was to do the maintenance, and then when that's done we're to fly the airplane to Whitehorse and go home from there. Whitehorse, Deadhorse, what's the difference, right?

Later I am invited to a local pilot's house party, where someone mentions the recent haphazard flight services. The locals say that the specialist has just come back from a visit with an out of town boyfriend, and then worked a double shift. We spend a few minutes speculating on whether she is exhausted, hungover or distraught from a break up with her boyfriend. In aviation this is known as human factors. In a small town it is called gossip.

In appreciation of local hospitality, and to give anyone local who stumbles across this blog a smile, I'll identify the pilot house as one with an elaborately decorated Tiki Bar complete with a stunning tropical poster that stretched across two walls. That must be an extremely welcome sight when the door leads out into twenty below and snowbound darkness. Good folks. Good town. Moving on to Whitehorse next. There's no guarantee that when we get there they won't change their minds again and send us to Alaska anyway.

This on-again off-again where-will-we-go-next? stuff is a staple (almost typed "stable" there, in keeping with the horse theme) of my working life. I don't usually chronicle it in such detail because it makes for confusing storytelling and I usually already have the charts so I can mostly ignore the deliberations until they are final. The other variation is when they tell us we'll be working out of one base for a month and we do things like buy a fridge full of groceries, just before they change their minds and tell us we're leaving tomorrow.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

On Again

A new day, a new decision. We'll fly to Fairbanks, clear customs, and then take commercial flights home while maintenance does a phase check and the replacement crew flies in. Someone must have factored in the airfares and that shifted the math. Airfares are relatively cheap in and out of Fairbanks, as they are for most big-city American destinations. We won't get to see the remote Alaskan spot we had hoped to visit, but the novelty would probably have run out before the work, and we will get to cross northwest into Alaska.

After I get that news, I go flying. If all goes well, this will be our last flight returning to this base -- although my Alaska charts still haven't arrived. Apparently this place has some sort of repellent force that prevents newspapers, courier deliveries, mail and airline passengers from arriving on time.

The last three METARs report cloud bases at 5900', 5800', and 5700', which is odd because I asked the specialist earlier and he said they didn't have a ceilometer. All cloud heights are estimates. How would they, in the absence of nearby mountains, determine a hundred foot difference just by estimation? On other days the bases have been given to the nearest thousand feet. I ask about it.

The answer is that today, because the clouds are all cumulus, they are reporting the bases not by visual estimation, but according to a formula. I understand. I know that formula. I didn't know anyone used it for anything other than written pilot examinations. Here's how it works: cumulus clouds are formed when rising air is cooled to its dewpoint by expansion. Rising air cools through adiabatic expansion at a rate of 3 degrees Celsius per thousand feet. The dewpoint decreases by about 0.5 degrees per thousand feet. Therefore the temperature approaches the dewpoint at a rate of 2.5 degrees per thousand feet. The reported surface temperature is 21 degrees and the surface dewpoint is 5.2 degrees. So at the surface the temperature is 21 - 5.2 = 15.8 degrees above the dewpoint. The temperature will reach the dewpoint 15.8/2.5 = 6.3 thousand feet above the aerodrome. (This doesn't match the earlier report because they have given me current temperature and dewpoint values and the temperature-dewpoint spread has evidently increased by a degree since they did their last calculation. Drop the temperature to 20 and do the same math and you get 5900'). METAR altitudes are given above aerodrome elevation, which is 1250', so I can expect bases to be at about 7500' above sea level, as displayed on my altimeter.

Another pilot hearing this conversation calls in to report bases at 7500'. Science! It works. Also don't you love Canada? We have formulae that combine degrees C with Imperial feet and we think it's just fine that way.

In Canada either a flight plan or a flight itinerary must be filed for a VFR flight of more than 25 nm. A flight plan is filed with Nav Canada but a flight itinerary can be filed with anyone responsible enough to report you missing. Commercial operations like mine generally file with company and when we inform ATC of this we say we are "on a company note." That shortcuts ATC asking if we want them to open our flight plan. In imitation of this practice, a small aircraft pilot taxiing out calls the FSS and says he is "VFR to Helmut on a note." He then decides that this needs more explanation, as the FSS knows he is a private owner and not a company, so he adds, "My wife."

Another pilot calls up "Looking for the airways to Ft. St. John." That's a non-standard way to ask for an IFR clearance, but seeing as the FSS probably has his clearance sitting there and is is waiting for him to call to ask for it, he could probably have said anything he liked and still received it. If you don't ask for it, they offer it, as when the tower says to a airline pilot after he makes a taxi call. "Grab your pen."

Then it's my turn. The wind is straight down runway 26 at 10 knots, so it's an easy taxi and take-off. As the airplane waddles up to altitude in the hot weather I call to report airborne, and my turn. The FSS does a shift change. It's a woman with an unfamiliar voice, and she comments to someone on air that she's just back after two weeks. I guess she's out of practice, because she keeps getting confused, forgetting which airplane is where, scrambling our types and needing constant position reports. I am ready with a position report whenever she calls me for one and make sure I am keeping track myself of where the other aircraft are.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Or Maybe Not

The reported weather across the north slope of Alaska has been solid IFR all week. I'm remembering when we were sent to work in Florida in thunderstorm and hurricane season, and southern California in fire season. "Did someone research when this place has a good season we could work there?" I idly ask my chief pilot.

"This is the good season," is the reply.

Company is working out how to schedule maintenance when we are in northern Alaska. Flurries of e-mail, (including attachements I can't open on either the iPod or the crippled business centre computer) go back and forth. Plan A is for us to fly to the job site, work until just before maintenance is due, then ferry south to Fairbanks and have company maintenance personnel fly into the large airport to do the work. Plan B is to do scheduled maintenance twenty hours early, before we leave here, and then try to do the ferry north, the work, and the ferry back to Canada, all within fifty hours plus an extension. That requires everything to go right: no diversions, no aborted flights, and no unscheduled maintenance requirements. This is highly unlikely. Airplanes are never that cooperative. Doing the maintenance twenty hours early essentially costs the company the profit that they could have earned on those twenty hours of flight. A ferry, at maximum three hours each way, costs the company the profit they would have earned on that six hours of flight, plus the fuel and wear and tear on the airplane. Those aren't the only costs to consider.

It is also at least twice as expensive to fly maintenance personnel to our current location as it would be to have them to fly to Fairbanks. Accommodations are probably about the same. Not doing what makes the customer happiest may cost future contracts. It's complex.

Management decides on option B. In fact they will add a multiplier to the expense of airfare out of here, by doing a crew change before the trip, and swapping pilots during the maintenance. I've flown home commercially from this airport once before and it was the most expensive one-way fare I've ever purchased. Recall that I've flown one-way two or from seven out of ten provinces from coast to coast, plus many states, including California and Florida. I don't care personally about the expense of the flight, but I was looking forward to flying to Alaska. We both were. And I'll bet you wanted to hear about such an adventure too.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Personal Value Judgement

Our destination in Alaska is in the vicinity of a town called Deadhorse. To my amazement Deadhorse is a proper town, not just an Indian reserve. There's even a road all the way up, and it's paved in a lot of places. Tourists go there. It isn't decided yet whether we will stay in Deadhorse or at the customer site at a private strip, or at some other mosquito-infested hellhole.

I e-mail a pilot friend who lives in Alaska, to warn him of my possible arrival and see if we can coordinate some sort of meeting on my way through southern Alaska. It turns out he has worked out of Deadhorse, and he sends me more information than fits on my tiny iPod screen about the airport, the town, the weather and the available diversion aerodromes.

"What's there to do in Deadhorse?" I asked.

"Eat," he said, then added a number of tourist quasi-attractions, like trying to get to the beach (should be almost completely ice-free this time of year) despite the fact that the shore is chock-a-block with oil companies hunkering behind paranoid security.

I had already noticed that northern Alaska had two sorts of June weather: when it's not IFR in 300' ceilings and rain, it's IFR in fog. My friend claims that there a third sort of weather, in which it's actually possible to fly VFR, but that it was frequently and rapily replaced with one of the other sort, hence the need to be familiar with all the possible options.

Deadhorse has a long, paved runway. Most of the other options in the area don't, so my friend has the skinny for me on which would give me access to telephones, lodgings, roads and other luxury amenities, should I happen to land there. One he describes as "... abandoned and not maintained ... it would make a better place to crash than out on the tundra someplace." Then he reconsiders that last and points out that whether it would be better to try to land there versus being "quietly and inconspicuously dead in some out of sight place is a personal value judgment that I can't make for you."

I write back and tell him that the last-mentioned abandoned and not maintained strip is the one our customer wants us to use.

He offers his condolences and amends, "If you're going to be based out of there, you can disregard all my previous suggestions for entertainment. The new list is: Swat mosquitoes, watch the river go by, swat more mosquitoes."

This strip does have a road near it, and we have some support crew going up there this week so we'll ask for photographs of the runway, and get them to walk or drive it to report on the surface condition.

Also I discover that the quasi-on state of my dead computer does not supply power to the USB ports, so not only can I not buy software for my iPod, I can't recharge it, either. I'm guessing that there is a low tech solution to the latter problem. I go downstairs to the hotel desk.

"May I please look in the box of chargers and cords left behind by previous guests?"

Every hotel has one of these. I learned about it when a coworker who checked out a day early phoned back to get us to ask at the desk to see if they had found his phone charger. If you need a telephone wall charger, just go to your nearest hotel and ask. As the woman at the Super-8 put it, "If you see anything you can use, just take it: it's better than it going to landfill." This box is well organized: each item is coiled up and held with a rubber band. The first one I saw was a single tangled mass of cordage. A first inspection of the box shows no Apple-white cords, so there isn't an Apple-specific iPod wall charger in here, but I'm expecting there to exist a transformer that I plug into the standard 110V North American wall socket and that has two or three USB outlets on the back. I know there's a 12V to USB converter for the car, so there has to be a 110V to USB converter for people who have more USB-powered gadgets than USB ports on their computers. But there is nothing in here that I can plug a USB cord into. By far the favourite piece of electronics to abandon here is the Motorola phone charger.

I put everything back neatly in the box and ask where in town I might buy a computer cable. There is one, on one of the back streets, between a gym and a store that sells second hand Harlequin romances and maternity clothes. Here's the sign on the door of the computer place:

Closed Sunday for Warcraft

Fortunately it's not Sunday, so I go on in. They don't immediately recognize my description of a 110V-to-USB converter but eventually come back with a device marketed as "Charge your iPod at home!" The existence of the device makes me realize the existence of a demographic who only have Internet access at work, and have iTunes installed on their work computer, then worry about running down the battery over the weekend. It comes with a cable and is $34 dollars. There's a cheaper similar device that has no cord, just the one USB port, so I get that instead.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Becoming a Pod Person

I never realized how much I used my computer until it died on me. It's my entertainment, my connection to company, my connection to home and friends, my weight and balance worksheet, my flight planning tool, the way I check on the progress of that charts order (still not here), the way I look up regulations, and where a lot of my data is stored.

I have the essentials printed out on a sheet that I keep meaning to laminate, but instead just print out again every time it gets tattered. I have more data, including encrypted passwords for more sites than I can remember, in a memory stick. I take the memory stick down to the hotel "business centre" and pop it in a USB slot to get what I need. It's a nifty little thing that will put the password I need in the clipboard so I can paste it, and then clear the buffer. That way I need never type my password when anyone, including a potential keyboard stroke counter, is watching. But this business centre computer has been so thoroughly sanitized that I cannot run the executable necessary to get at my data. It won't run from the E: drive and it can't be copied onto the hotel computer.

Fortunately my company e-mail is web-based, and I remember that password, so I can communicate that way. I don't want to sit in the business centre and blog, though, and besides the blog entries I intended to post this week are all in partially-written note form on the hard drive of the dead computer. I don't want to have to reconstruct them.

I do have one more Internet-capable device, that I'd almost forgotten. An iPod Touch. I know, how do you forget you have a cool pocket-sized computer? It is mine, a gift, but I passed it to someone else to use while I was at work, because I had my iPod shuffle and my laptop and didn't see a need for what was essentially a second computer and a second iPod. And I don't like things to go to waste. I have only just reclaimed it, and not really used it yet except as a photo album.

I turned it on and it easily connected to the hotel Internet. Some websites automatically detected that it was a mobile and provided a mobile interface that was easy to use. Others were virtually impossible to use, as their navigation conflicted with the touch interface. The on-screen keyboard wasn't quite as hard to use as I would have expected for something that small, and it does make fairly intelligent autocompletion and autocorrection suggestions. Except when I had some grease on my hands from the airplane and then it would crazily autocorrect to strings like "triiiiiyyyuyiiiiing tyyyyyo". Washing my hands and cleaning the screen helped there.

I knew that most of my problems could be solved with software, and I was willing to pay for some, so I googled things like "iPod touch spreadsheet" and tried to download what I found. The sites told me that I needed to upgrade to the latest version of iTunes. "Simply connect your device to your computer," it told me. I guess thinking of this as a kind of miniature emergency back up computer is not the right model. I guess it really is just a mobile Sudoku, YouTube and photograph display tablet.

And the one time I didn't bring my camera on a flight we're overflying both the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. The change in terrain is subtle but in the corner of the Yukon where I am there are eskers on the ground, long ridgy things, very recognizable, somehow formed during glaciation. These were very clear and would have been easy to photograph, although I can't upload any pictures until I get my computer back.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Yesterday's News

In order to have something other than the drink menu to read during dinner, I often buy a newspaper at the gas station before I go to a restaurant. Here's it's the Vancouver Sun, published down south and distributed to the whole province. There are only two copies left. And they are of yesterday's paper. That's normal in the north. If there were a large population up here then the paper might be sent electronically and local print run made for distribution here, but there aren't enough people here to warrant that. They print the paper in Vancouver and I initially assumed that they threw a few bundles on a truck going north. It's the "Final Edition" that I buy, so it's not like they rushed the first print run onto a truck. Maybe they gathered up what they hadn't sold by the end of the day yesterday and put it on an overnight truck. We're not considered too important up here.

Today there was no flying so I went to dinner a little earlier. But the store had no papers. "Could you please tell me where else in town I can get a paper?" I asked.

"The airplane doesn't get in until 7:30," she says. "So we'll get them later."

Oh, I'm surprised, they actually fly them in. "I mean Saturday's paper," I clarify. It's Sunday today. That's what she meant, too. It's on it's way here now.

Okay this is just weird. If they are going to fly the paper up, why not load the edition that was printed the same day the airplane leaves Vancouver. It is a morning paper down there. How is it that they put yesterday's paper on the airplane?

Later I go to another store and ask if they have the paper, and see if I can get more information about why the paper isn't even current when it's loaded. They don't have it either. "Sometimes they have too much baggage and they take the papers off," says the vendor. "Then we get them the next day." I had a feeling she could have easily added, "Or the day after."

Okay that I understand. That is the northern experience of waiting for cargo that gets bumped at every station on the way. I think we're the last stop for the airline that comes here. I've heard that even blood products for the hospital take a day to get here. But why do they ship yesterday's paper? Is it like the groceries stores pawning off spoiled produce on their northern pilot customers because they know that by the time the food gets there the customer won't know it didn't rot on the way?

It doesn't really matter that it's yesterday's news. By the time this posts it will be last week's news, or two weeks ago, but the same things will be going on. In international news, Americans, North Koreans, Iranians, Afghanis are all up to something. In Canada the RCMP will be investigating something and some other body will be investigating the RCMP, and politicians will be calling each other names. There's a romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock. And there will be local news from the city. I feel really disconnected reading the things that are important to the southern city, but obviously have no bearing here. For example the government has cancelled a summer camp subsidy program for low income families, and they're interviewing the parents of tearful kids about that. Not that kids don't learn important lessons at summer camp, but I met an ambitious 20 year old up here, who had never been out of Fort Nelson. The place has six streets and nothing for hundreds of kilometres but bugs and trees and bears. I bet her life could use some enrichment. Vancouver has hundreds of parks and museums and festivals, including a lot of things that are free to take your kids to. True, kids these days in Vancouver probably aren't allowed to go more than six streets from home. But. Ah, weird contrast.

I still have yesterday's paper from here. Which is the day before yesterday's paper going by the date, so I do the crosswords from it. And once again I manage to do an entire crossword between asking for the bill and getting it. I'm not that much of a crossword whiz. The service is just that slow.

And my computer is confirmed dead. When I push the power button the "on" light illuminates, the fan starts to run, the hard drive and CD ROM drive lights flash once, then after a few seconds the light stays on but it goes completely quiet. And I checked right away this time: there's no Buns of Steel CD in the drive.

Continuing the theme of 'yesterday's news,' yesterday someone sent me this link to an article on flight delays at JFK caused by turtles. I think they were copulating on the runway, bu the article is too delicate to make that entirely clear.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Counting Calories

The customers want to take a commercial flight to Alaska while we transport their uncheckable oversized gear instead. We went out to the airplane to check if the most awkward piece of customer equipment would fit in the airplane. With some rearranging of what we already have, the conclusion was yes. It's amazing how asymmetric an airplane can be and still look symmetrical. The wing lockers are not the same size or shape.

The other odd thing, as I mentioned before, is going north to the United States. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around that. As I packed for this trip, I looked at my passport and thought to myself that it was unlikely I would need it. I knew we would be concentrating on the northern areas during the few weeks of the year that they aren't covered in snow, but of course I brought it anyway and now I'm headed north across a border. I keep having to remind myself that all the things that apply going south, apply to this border crossing, too. In Canada the US is referred to as "Our Southern Neighbours." It's just odd going north into their country, and not have it be one of the technically north bits like between the Great Lakes in the Detroit-Windsor area or the Angle near Kenora. The customers promise to get us a list of all the equipment and serial numbers for our customs broker. Our route will pretty much follow the Alaska highway to Fairbanks, where we'll clear customs and from there up the Dalton Highway to the coast. I was really surprised to learn that there was a road all the way to the coast.

I went to buy the rest of the Alaska emergency supplies. The rules didn't specify that we needed a fishing rod, just fishing tackle, and I'm sure one could improvise a fishing rod from the wreckage or catch fish on handlines, but I'm thinking we could have some fun and "test" our survival gear. A collapsible fishing rod is $30 but a kid's rod is only $15. I have a choice of Pirates of the Caribbean, Barbie, or Disney Princesses. I chose the one that came with a bonus tackle box.

Bughoods are cheap and available, no problem. The guy at the hunting store tried to sell me a better, electric device for repelling mosquitoes. He touts it as able to create a five metre radius zone devoid of mosquitoes. An area effect spell, in D&D terms. He didn't use D&D terminology, though. Not a lot of hunting store proprietors do, I imagine. It would probably be great, sitting on the ramp in northern Alaska in a mosquito-free zone. But I stick to the shopping list.

I'm also looking for survival food. What I want is a little pile of bland-to-yucky, shelf stable, high calorie, survival food bars. Something that won't be destroyed by immersion, won't tempt someone to eat out of boredom, and that requires no preparation, so you can eat it while sitting in the remains of your mangled aircraft with a broken leg, cowering under your bughood and wrapped in your emergency blanket. The hunting store has lightweight foil-packaged meals, but you have to boil them in a pot with water, and I want no-preparation food.

This store is out of signalling devices, so I try another. Most people probably fulfill this requirement with special shells, but lacking a rifle or shotgun, I have to find a self-contained device. Eventually I find a pen-type device that comes with both signal flares and bear bangers. Seems to fill the bill. It's almost fifty dollars, but it has to be both safe, and fire pyrotechnics, so one has to pay for that. This store also just has boil-in-bag hunting food, for people who plan to eat it. Emergency food should, you see, be barely palatable, so you only eat what you have to.

Plan B is to just buy reasonably long-life items like granola bars. Not as calorie-dense, but they'll have to do. Now that I reread the requirement for "food sufficient to sustain life" for one week, I kind of go "huh?" A pack of tic-tacs should meet that. You don't starve to death in a week. You just get really hungry. But on the shopping trip I had "a weeks worth of food per person" in my head, and hadn't read carefully enough to see that all I had to do was sustain life. So what's a week's food? I fixed on the number two thousand calories a day. I think that's what the RDA on food packaging is based on. So with two people on board, I needed 28,000 calories (or kcal, or however you want to count them). The word calorie is kind of like pesos: you have to know which multiplier you are dealing with. According to the side panel nutritional information, a box of granola bars is about 1000 calories. I pick up seven of those. So, 21,000 calories to go. How about some sardines? I pick up a can and read the label. It's only a hundred and ten calories. So I'd need eighteen cans for a day's worth of calories. What? I know for a fact that I can bicycle for fourteen hours fuelled by only eight cans of sardines. Maybe these are low-calorie sardines. There are some of those little cheese snack things with cracker sticks. They are also marked as 110 calories each. What? I could eat eighteen of those before dinner and still eat dinner. I think I don't understand calories. I throw in a couple of bags of raisins, some beef jerky. Still 19,000 calories to go. I eye the candy aisle. I mean, wow, I'm starting to understand why so many people fulfill much of their daily caloric requirements through junk food.

I fill the quota mainly with different sorts of energy bars. I'm imagining how mad or grateful people would be if they really were stranded in the woods for a week eating what I had purchased. So maybe I will throw in a bit of candy, too.

Back at the hotel, I mention the 2000 calorie per day figure that I used and get responses ranging from "maybe for YOU; I'd need at least 3000!" down to "I'd think 300 would be enough." I probably went overboard, but the food will get eaten in the end. I buy a mouse-resistant plastic container to seal it all in, and stash it in the airplane with the axe, tarps, water purification and other emergency supplies. Also my computer, which I left running, seems to have shut itself down. Curious. At the time I thought perhaps it downloaded an automatic update and got confused trying to reboot itself. I hit the on-button: the light came on and the fan started up, so I went for supper. Damn that constant need for calories.

Ironically, I return to the hotel in time to catch the second half of an episode of Survivorman. I've never seen it before but another blogger recommended it. The star of the one-man-show is pretending to have survived a small airplane crash in the Temiscaming winter, with a broken arm. After four days he admits he's not doing that well, and has just abandoned the fake broken arm to take a partly frozen rabbit out of a snare. As he prepares the rabbit, the footage is edited to reduce the gore on TV, which is too bad because I've never dressed a rabbit. I know some wild animals have musk glands that you should remove properly before cooking, and I don't know what they look like. I also remember that you can get sick from a diet of only rabbits. He does mention the latter and explains that you can protect yourself from protein poisoning by eating the bone marrow, eyeballs and organs.

His next move goes against the normal advice for air crashes. He builds a toboggan out of the wreckage and starts to walk back to civilization, towing his gear on the toboggan. I think that's part of the premise of the show, that he always has to prove his ability to escape from the situation. Air crash wisdom is that one should stay with the airplane because it is an easier target for searchers, may have been observed on radar (okay, probably not in Temiscaming), may be sending an ELT signal, and perhaps provides shelter. And you need fewer calories to stay in one place than to struggle through the snow.

Friday, July 10, 2009

"My god they're throwing guitars out there"

This is everywhere today, but it's still great. My fellow Canadian, musician Dave Carroll, was sitting in an airplane at O'Hare when he heard those words from another passenger. But I don't need to tell the story, as the music video does it very effectively.

Apparently United now says they get it, and wants to use the video for in house training on how to handle a customer complaint. I'd say the price for that would be at least $1200, plus production costs. See Shiny Objects for more information and links to stories about the saga.

I started writing this with Dave Carroll's website open, but when I went to click a link it 403ed, and then after a few minutes started redirecting to his myspace page so I assume the singer's personal site has been overwhelmed. The band is Sons of Maxwell, and that site is still up and you can buy their music there.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Screwing Up

I mentioned we had an airplane in maintenance. They replaced a fuel pump that was starting to sound like the Beach Boys. (It's possible that just my copy of that song sounds like a bad fuel pump, because before being converted to the iTunes format, mine was purchased on cassette tape, copied to a mix tape on a borrowed boom box with two tape decks, then later after much use the mix taps was ripped to CD with the assistance of a different tape recorder. All that is legal in Canada. I suppose I'm supposed to remove all non-iTunes-purchased music before going south. Or--whoa--north! Do the June 1st security rules apply on a gravel strip with no roads or fences?) With the replacement pump installed and the rest of the inspection done, we pilots helped button up the airplane

I've no objection to working, and I know how to put cowling screws in, but I'm always a little leery when it's me closing up, because it's going to be me who is responsible for checking the work afterwards and if I miss something now, I'm likely to miss it later. It's especially important to make sure all the cowling pins have engaged properly. I note every screw that doesn't quite fit and ask the engineer to check it. I also decline an electric screwdriver. Honestly what would you have to be thinking to arm a pilot with an electric screw destroyer?

There was a problem with the airplane after maintenance. It was related to the maintenance, but unrelated to the pilots' ability to apply cowling screws. My coworker handled it flawlessly, so I'll leave it at that. It's fixed now. Another day in the life.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Alaska Bound

So, Alaska. Cool. And of course when my company goes to Alaska they aren't talking about Anchorage or Fairbanks. The destination is on the north coast. It's still not certain we're going, but I start to do some research.

First of all, I remember there being a rule requiring a firearm be carried on board all aircraft in the state of Alaska. I don't normally carry a weapon more threatening than a Swiss army knife, so this might have to be rectified. It's certainly a more interesting avenue of preliminary investigation than the names of the charts I'll need.

I start with the local Yellow Pages. Firearms ... see guns. There are three entries, all in Whitehorse, Yukon. "Local" is a relative term for northern telephone books. This one seems to cover every Canadian community from here to the arctic sea. We could buy a gun in Whitehorse on the way up, but it would be better to have one already. I try Sporting Goods. Two places are listed locally. The first number is out of service but the second one answers and says, "no problem, what you need, right or left handed?" I tell him I was just checking on availability, that I'll get back to him when I know our requirements. A hunting rifle would be the coolest thing ever to go on my expense account.

I mention the gun thing to my co-worker. She looks at me like I'm insane and says that was discontinued ages ago. So I don't keep up on the individual state laws of places I've never been. The way she looked at me made it sound like it hasn't been a requirement since 1963, so I do a bit of research to see just how stupid I am. It was discontinued in 2001. That was after I finished my pilot training, so I'm not completely stupid. Hmm, I wonder what high profile event of that year made them decide not to require foreigners to carry guns on airside? It probably didn't actually decrease the carriage of weapons by Americans in Alaskan airplanes, but probably by foreigners who would have to figure their way around import regulations.

The law that once required guns still requires some things that aren't in my airplane. Alaska Statute 2.35.110 says:

1. The minimum equipment to be carried during summer months is as follows: (for all single engine and for multiengine aircraft licensed to carry 15 passengers or less)
(A) rations for each occupant sufficient to sustain life for one week;
(B) one axe or hatchet;
(C) one first aid kit;
(D) an assortment of tackle such as hooks, flies, lines, and sinkers;
(E) one knife;
(F) fire starter;
(G) one mosquito headnet for each occupant;
(H) two small signaling devices such as colored smoke bombs, railroad fuses, or Very pistol shells, in sealed metal containers;

We have B, C and F on board already. Everyone has a leatherman or some sort of knife, and the rest can be obtained locally. Yeah, at least I can go buy fishing gear for work.

Meanwhile the trip is a go. My coworker is trying to order charts. "What's the green book called?" she asks me.

"It's the A/FD," I say, and as this is over the phone the fact that I don't know if that's spelled A/FD or AF/D doesn't matter. It stands for Airport Facilities Directory. Or I suppose Airport/Facilities Directory.

"They don't have it," she says. "I have to know the name of which one I want and they say there isn't one for Alaska." Weird. I know it's not in the Northwest book. But there has to be one for Alaska. She's talking to a Canadian company. I suggest she try Sporty's, a US chart supplier. She's not familiar with them -- she's worked in the arctic more than I have, and I've worked in the US more than she has. Neither of us has worked in the US arctic. She turns the charts task over to me.

I go online to Sporty's and click the link for sectional maps. There's a list of all the ones available, but nothing for Alaska. I click the reference map, and Alaska is on there. Very strange. After a while I notice a separate section for "Alaskan Charts." I wonder if this is the sort of being singled out and forgotten that Alaskans have to put up with all the time. Do they perpetually 'not count' because you have to drive through Canada to get there? I've heard of Hawaiians being denied rental cars in the continental US because the agent insisted that they have a U.S. driver's licence. (Mind you, a New Mexico resident at the telling of that story had had the same experience, so the geographic knowledge of rental car employees is not necessarily a benchmark for national policy.

I eventually find the A/FD for Alaska and discover why the Canadian dealer couldn't find it based on a request for "the green book, the AFD for Alaska." First it's not green, it's orange. And Secondly it's not called the A/FD, but rather the chart supplement, with a note that it includes the A/FD. Now a seller with a clue would have figured out what the customer wanted, but its true that there was neither a green book nor a book called A/FD for the Alaska region. I put an Alaska Chart Supplement in the shopping cart.

Now for the sectionals. I notice that all the charts are obsolete, just like those for the far northern Canadian areas. At least theirs are in print. A lot of the Canadian WACs are out of date, out of print and no planned reprinting date. You hold onto your old ones as the only source of knowledge. It's funny to see that the US has abandoned its north, too. Even the A/FD Chart Supplement expired on the 7th of February. Oh wait, strike all that. American dates go M/D/Y, with the day in the middle. They are all current. Wow. Someone updates the northern Alaska charts every six months. That's more of what I expect from the US.

I order them all and hope there is no problem with customs.

Meanwhile more company mail has arrived in the inbox. We're going to a private strip in the middle of nowhere. I'm CCed on e-mail to the customer where my boss asks, "Get us some info on the strip such as elevation, runway heading, accurate GPS coordinates. Any controlling agency frequencies if they have one (whether it’s a Unicom or MF) Basically a frequency the pilots can communicate on with other pilots operating in and out of the strip."

I'm thinking Alaska is going to be more like northern Canada than it is like Nunavut, but I imagine it will have a flavour all its own. We're in for an adventure.

Here's a non-standard maintenance incident that didn't come from the North. The person who forwarded this to me commented that the engineer in question probably didn't use parts salvaged from a crashed B747 at the side of the runway. I'm just imagining the incredulity from the crew. I'm sure he wasn't the first passenger ever, when faced with an eight hour delay, to say "I can fix it." His engineers licence was probably shown to the flight attendant, who passed it to the captain, who faxed it to company.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Notes and Screeching

Another maintenance cycle has turned. I flew a shorter than usual flight today in order to land before the next phase check was overdue. An airplane is not any riskier to fly when it's ready to go into maintenance than it was 25 hours earlier. It tends to leak or burn a bit more oil and there may be a few other things that rattle, but on average I am certain that the last flight before scheduled maintenance is safer than the first flight after such maintenance. That's not even counting the fact that I'll be landing with extra fuel because of the shortened duration.

Then a propos of nothing, just flying along, there's a really horrible noise. I turn off my iPod to listen more closely, and it goes away. It turns out that the base line, played through the left earbud in stereo, from The Beach Boys Surfing Safari sounds exactly like a cavitating fuel pump. A fuel pump cavitates when there isn't enough fuel in the tank for it to pump, or when it's so turbulent that the line unports. It's not a good sound to have in ones left ear during flight. I'm removing that song from my in-flight playlist.

After landing I help tear the panels off the airplane for the inspection and then we go over to a house belonging to one of the engineers. He mentioned that he has a parrot, which I asked to see. I'm disappointed that it isn't a big colourful African parrot like a red or blue macaw. I didn't know that the category of parrot was broader than just those birds. His is a cockatiel cockatoo. It looks like a giant lovebird, white with a hint of pink and yellow. He has it because someone asked him to look after it for a year while he went to Africa. It's been nine years now and he's never come back.

The bird doesn't seem to talk or imitate sounds like the birds I think of when you say "parrot." It just screeches. but it's friendly and lets me pet it. It stepped onto my hand, when I offered it. It's fun to pet a bird. They are simultaneously the descendants of the dinosaurs, and man's inspiration for flight. This one sits on my hand, gripping with his scaly feet, and lets me preen him. When I was a kid I used to find bird feathers on the ground and carefully align all the barbules together, marvelling at how the invisibly tiny hooks held them together, converting scraggly disarray into one continuous smooth vane. I always wished I could do that with my hair.

The bird seemed to like it a lot when I bobbed my hand up and down, exaggerating the movements of my hand by stretching and crouching, like someone pumping on a swing to go faster. Then it walked up my arm (yes my bare arm, and yes with claws, but fortunately even a big bird is a lot lighter than a cat) to my shoulder where it sat for a while before launching into the air and flying over to the owner's shoulder. I washed my hands and arms thoroughly when I got home. I hope parrots don't carry salmonella or something. The scratches completely vanished after only a few hours, so it looks like he didn't break enough layers of skin to leave a welt.

Meanwhile the latest news is that we're going to Alaska next, "but don't buy charts yet."

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Dead End

As everyone who lives in a hotel knows, one of your first duties upon dropping your suitcases in the room is to determine your emergency exit route. Unless I'm actually carrying my seventy pounds of luggage with me at the time, I typically get from floor to floor in a hotel using the stairs anyway, so I want to know where they are even if there isn't a fire.

Not too long ago I was staying near the middle of the upstairs floor in a two-storey hotel. It had a staircase at each end and an elevator in the middle. I noticed an EXIT sign in the middle of the upstairs corridor. It's the red, ceiling mounted kind, not the ankle-level green ones you get in California, and it's pointing to the elevator foyer. Had I missed a staircase? The foyer contained the elevators, a pop machine, an electrical room door, an unmarked, locked door a little narrower than standard--probably a closet--and a window. The window did not have any opening hardware on it and did not have a fire axe next to it or a fire escape leading from it down to the pool patio below.

I asked a member of the hotel staff about it, and they confirmed that the only way out of the building through the foyer was the elevators. They did realize the inappropriateness of the fire exit sign, so I think it will be fixed, but how does a fire inspector not catch that?

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Big Bike, Little Bike

All right, I'm back online. Chronicles of my life as a pod person, and the subsequent battles with Microsoft Vista will follow in their proper sequence.

In the hotel parking lot, I noticed a flatbed trailer containing an unusual vehicle. I'd call it a bicycle, but a bicycle has two wheels and this has instead four really big wheels. It also has about thirty bicycle seats, thirty sets of pedals, and thirty sets of handlebars all arranged in three columns on a frame with the approximate footprint of a schoolbus. And not the short bus, either. It's would be a really, really, big bicycle, if the word "bicycle" didn't imply two wheels. I noted that it was cool, and assumed that it was headed up to some 4th of July celebration in Alaska. (Happy 4th, by the way, to my U.S.A. readers). Everything else on this highway is headed to Alaska.

The next day I crossed the parking lot on my way back from supper just in time to see the big bike pulling out of the parking lot. Not the big bike on the trailer pulled by the truck: but the big bike being ridden by about thirty people all pedalling like crazy. It was fast!

"Hey!" I asked of people at a table with banners on it. "Who rides on the bike?"

"Teams," she said. "Corporate groups, other organizations. Other people too."

That didn't quite answer my question, so I cut to the heart of the matter, "Can I ride on it?"

And the answer is yes -- for a donation --. The whole escapade is a fundraiser for the Heart & Stroke Foundation. I know someone who has had a heart attack and someone else who has had a stroke in the last few weeks, so in their names I ponied up the cash and joined in the fun. "What team are you on?" they wanted to know. A team captain was within earshot worrying that many of the people from her organization who said they would come hadn't turned up, so I said I was on her team, and they were happy to have the ringer. The fire rescue squad was supposed to be there too, but their captain had told them the wrong date, so the whole bike was ladies, with the middle row of seats unoccupied. Those of us who were there got on and were issued silly noisemakers and then we cranked up the onboard tunes and rode off. The seats were big wide fat-bottomed girl seats, so I had to sit forward on the forward point of the seat in order to pedal properly. The drive train was quite complicated. I think the woman in front of me wasn't putting power into the same chain as I was, but the woman two ahead was. She kept putting her feet up and stopping pedalling, possibly because I was pedalling more furiously than she wanted to keep up with. Hey, if I'm going to ride the big bike, I'm going to ride the hell out of it. Even with only two-thirds of the seats filled and not everyone as enthusiastic about pedalling as I was, we got going pretty quickly. We were riding along the Alaska Highway south service road.

We rode past the laundromat-sex shop-buffalo meat sales outlet and up the hill past the grocery store. It wasn't a very steep hill, but it was a heavy bicycle. We all waved and cheered and shook our noisemakers at everyone we saw. And of course because it's a small town, everyone who isn't a ringer like me knows everyone else they see in the pickup trucks or walking on the sidewalk as we go by. We ride past the hunting store, past the Northern Store (which the locals still call The Bay) and past one of the two Chinese restaurants. When we get to the street opposite the community centre, the one that had been constructed incorrectly and had the roof fall in last year right after a kids hockey tournament, we turned right, crossed the Alaska highway and turned right again down the north service road. Now this was a downhill road, not so steep you notice walking, but enough that when you get a mammoth steel-framed "bicycle" loaded with twenty women, some of whom are still pedalling like they paid to do this, it goes pretty fast. There are stop signs at some of the sidestreets, but our driver is just looking up at anyone coming and I guess staring them down, because we barrel on through. "Hang on everyone," he says. "We're going around the corner pretty fast."

The corner is a cross street with a Yield sign to merge with or cross the Alaska Highway. There's one of those bannered Wide Load trucks coming. And we peel around the corner at about 40 km/h screaming like we're on a roller coaster, across the highway and back into the hotel parking lot. Best fifteen minutes on a bicycle I ever spent, and I've bicycled a lot of places, including down the slope of a volcano, across national borders and mountain ranges, and through some spectacular national parks.

Also, some of the participants were from a hospital team, so I checked if they could clear up my mystery. I wasn't too specific, mentioning only that there was a "particular type of garbage" on the street above the hospital. They immediately recognized the reference, but didn't have a clear answer for me. They said it was right down the street from the high school, where free condoms were available. The hospital gives out free condoms, too, but they said they weren't the same kind. They were not aware of orgies occurring on the street behind the hospital.

Back on the subject of bicycles, the people at Montague sent me an e-mail recently about their Paratrooper bike. It's a full-sized bicycle that uses standard bicycle components and is rugged enough to be dropped out of an airplane on a parachute and for a big soldier to ride around in the desert carrying an additional 35 kilograms of gear. And it folds up to barely bigger than airline checked luggage. The unfolding process is apparently a 30-second, no-tools operation. The price is about $500, too, which is a reasonable price for a rugged bike that doesn't fold.

In the picture on the website you see it folded on the seat of a car and it looks smaller than my much- travelled suitcase. But then you realize that the "car" it is in is one of those giant military jeep things, and the soldier is probably a gigantic guy too. Air Canada and United Airlines both restrict standard checked luggage using a weird formula where they add the three dimensions.

Max size for checked luggage: Width + Length + Height = 62"

Paratrooper bike dimensions: L36" + H28" + W12" = 76"

That's too bad, by a mere fourteen inches. I wonder if I removed the pedals, seat and handlebars if that would squeeze it down enough. Possibly. But you don't want to be so close to the borderline that you risk getting slapped with a $175 oversized baggage fee. Also you'd have to put it in an opaque bag, so that the airline doesn't automatically charge the bicycle fee. After all, if you can drop it out of an airplane, you can entrust it to baggage handlers, right? You can do a bit more disassembly and get everything inside regulation suitcases, and then of course not tell them anything is a bicycle, to avoid the $100 bicycle surcharge.

I only have one checked bag now. It is tempting to travel with a second one, and have a bicycle with me. My wandering radius would expand from ten or so kilometres to thirty or forty. I'm thinking about it. Does it mean I'd have to sell one of my existing and beloved bicycles?

Friday, July 03, 2009

I can has scrollbar?

My computer won't boot and it's just too hard to exit HTML on an iPod, so expect one-line posts until I can return to civilization and computer repair service.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Northern Ambitions

I ate at a fried chicken place, but I didn't have chicken. I'd been told the perogies were the dish to have here. Boiled, fried in butter, then loaded with sour cream and big chunks of real chopped bacon they may have been, but not too often if you have to keep a current medical. Someone who I think is the cook/owner takes my order at the counter, and then I sit and wait for it. The only other customers are a young man drinking a pop at a window table, and two Mennonite couples. The men take off their traditional black felted hats and the women of course leave on their white caps. They're an unusual sight this far north. Most of the headgear here is trucker caps. A young waitress admires the men's hats and ask where they got them, wondering if she'll see something like that when she goes to London.

London, Ontario is quite near where they are from, but it turns out she is going to London, England. She explains that she is a member of the local Slavey First Nation and has obtained a study grant from the band to study cuisine abroad. She wants to be a chef. She has learned cooking from her mother, and taken courses at the local college. She dreams of being a chef. Not just any chef but a top world chef. The only thing is ... she's never been out of this town.

"Oh wow!" I say, in anticipation of the culture shock this young lady is about to experience. She's worried, She sees so many movies and TV shows about cities and thinks she'll be mugged or kidnapped or shot. These aren't my fears for her. I try to reassure her about the things she is worried about, but underneath I'm hoping she can cope with the sensory assault of London, with the impersonal unfriendliness of the big city. "People won't seem as friendly at first. They don't talk to strangers. But you'll get to know people and they'll like you."

She has already demonstrated a head start on defeating peer pressure and being true to herself. At age nineteen members of her band receive $20,000 in 'heritage money' and she is proud that unlike many of her peers, she still has most of hers, didn't spend it all on alcohol and vehicles. She goes back to the kidnapping fears. I try to point out that she already knows how to look after herself. "This can be a tough town, I bet, with all the people here. You know which people to avoid and how not to get into trouble here. You can do it in the big city."

She tells me that really she knows everyone in town here, but the real way people get into trouble here is sleeping with other people's husbands and wives. There's no way people aren't going to find out eventually, but the worst part about it she says with unembarrassed candour, is that you never know who your relations are. She gestures to the young man with the Pepsi. "I thought for a while that my boyfriend and I were related, but it's okay, we're not." Still, it turns out, she's hoping to find special someone abroad. I guess it wouldn't hurt this little gene pool to have some fresh blood, but there doesn't seem to be anything lacking in her. I look at her with admiration. What is it that makes fifty teenagers happy to get drunk and crash their new trucks, and this one look to the stars?

I really want her to make it. And if she doesn't, I hope she will be happy being a good chef somewhere, and has a good time in London. I can't tell you what name to watch for in whatever source lists the world's foremost chefs, because her boss came out and yelled at her to stop chatting with customers and get some work done.

Back at the airport, another young person just starting out is fuelling my airplane. He asks if mine is a good job. He himself has two jobs right now. He works at the FBO and he goes on contracts as a remote area medic, working at rig sites to stabilize accident victims and coordinates medivacs. He's clearly proud of his skills there. I ask him what his ambitions are and he admits they are in music, folk and blues. He's realistic about the liklihood of making it in the music industry. I ask if he has any demo tracks I can download, but he says no.

I watch carefully as he fuels and put the caps back on myself. Some fuel is spilled into the well around the cap, but I know the caps are secure, so that in flight when I see blue lines streaming back over the nacelles I don't have to wonder or hope. I'll know that it's just the spillage. I might have already described that, but it's true every time. You never want to be assuming that the cap is tight and the streaks are just the bit that sloshed out during fuelling.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Tour of theTown

Happy Canada Day. Having told you were I am this week, I might as well show you around Fort Nelson. It's raison d'ĂȘtre is its position on the Alaska Highway, 400 km north of Ft. St. John, and its being an base camp for oil and gas exploration. The full time population is probably close to half and half native/non-native. The transient population is a combination of young white males driving pick up trucks, and retirement age white couples driving motorhomes with American licence plates.

The highway runs right through the middle of town, paved, with a paved service road each side. There's are a couple of traffic lights with pedestrian crossings down by the plaza where city hall is, but in front of the hotel to cross over to the restaurant there's just a sign indicating a pedestrian crossing. Drivers are pretty watchful, usually stopping to let me go across. It's a hard road to drive. We've met two couples so far who are stuck here because of problems with their vehicles. One had so much rock damage to the windshield from the highway that they have to wait for a windshield replacement to be delivered from down south. Another couple were coming out of a gas station and were hit by a crazy local driving on the wrong side of the road. Both are injured and their vehicle damaged.

There are about six cross streets, two converge half way to the airport and the others I think just peter out at the top of the hill as they run out of trailers parked beside them. There's a hospital, halfway up the hill, and for some weird reason the street behind the hospital is littered with condoms. Who goes to "park" behind a hospital? The other side of that street is a normal residential street like any other in town, so it's not like it affords any privacy. There are plenty of more cloistered areas to park within a few blocks. There's even a the "Community Forest" a once-logged area on the northwest of town with marked walking trails through the regrowth. Maybe the hospital gives out free condoms and people just can't wait? Who knows. Another mystery.

There are two grocery stores, a post office, an RCMP station and some mini strip malls, but few chain stores like a Subway (sandwich place) and a Northern Store, with dreary lighting and merchandise, but very friendly service. The little stores are mostly independent, many of them with hand-lettered signs. They contain a mixture of what you need living up here and what people can sell to the Americans passing through to Alaska, like snacks, small toys, car games, and magnetic ribbons. Businesses tend to be pretty versatile. One store is a combination Rock Shop (i.e. cigarette lighters and t-shirts with heavy metal band logos on them) and used bookstore (mostly Harlequin romances and blockbuster spy novels). There's a guy with a trailer full of freezers selling various kinds of fish, including "N.L. COD." The intended audience knows what that is. Check out the products and services offered by the store pictured. There are quite a few places like that. "And you also sell WHAT?"

Although a lot more of Canada is "North" than of the US, I think far more Americans go to see their north over the course of their lives. Firstly it's a dream or a goal for a lot of people. They know where to go: Alaska! You can drive up one road and see the highlights. A Canadian who wanted to see the "North" wouldn't know where to start. And the Americans have a road. The Canadian arctic requires aircraft and a big budget. Check out this amazing national park. be sure to click on the "How to Get There" link. There's no roads, no boats, no trails. It's a $15,000 charter flight. Each way. And that's from Resolute Bay. It's probably another $2000 to get to Resolute Bay from somewhere in the south. That's not something that you can load up the kids and dogs and go do one summer instead of Disneyland. It also requires advanced camping and wilderness skills. Of course a Canadian could always go to Iqaluit or Churchill, or take a tour, and many do, but it's a specialty thing, not a cultural icon. Canadians don't make a tourist pilgrimage to explore as far north as they can drive, because they just get to smaller and smaller places with poorer and poorer services until the road ends at some place most people haven't even heard of. Or maybe they end up some place in the oilfields that isn't exactly a tourist destination.

Or they could get this place. The next place along the highway as big or bigger than this is Whitehorse. That's worth seeing, and a worthy destination. After a few more small places you're into Alaska. Best of luck to everyone driving up there. I bet there's a lot of stories of people who didn't make it all the way.