Thursday, August 19, 2010

You Want To Do What?

The source of charts that was recommended close to the hotel appears to be primarily a doctor's office that does pilot medicals. They used to sells charts, hence the "Pilot Shop" neon sign visible from the parking lot, but no longer do, so the chart purchase will wait until tomorrow.

Alaska is so far west that every time zone gets up earlier. I've been working mornings, so I wake up early and by our eight a.m. planning meeting I have finished my laundry and gone for a run. After the meeting, the two pilots drive over to Merrill Field. It's a municipal airport, but it stuns us. You know what a mall parking lot looks like when it's busy? Well imagine that, except with airplanes instead of SUVs and hatchbacks. There are hundreds of airplanes here, mostly utilitarian single engine personal transport, all parked in rows on numerous aprons. A large enough proportion are tailwheel that it makes the tricycle gear airplanes looks kind of ... unconventional. The only place I've ever seen this many airplanes in one place is at the Oshkosh fly-in (welcome back those of you who went this year, and thanks for the e-mails and pictures), and my colleague has never been to Oshkosh. He has never seen this many airplanes in one place,anywhere. If you're not an aviation aficionado (although I suppose there aren't many in that category reading this blog), you may not have seen this many airplanes, ever, cumulatively. We're definitely not bothered by the fact that addresses at the airport aren't very useful and we just have to drive around looking for the store.

The recommended store isn't open yet this Saturday morning, so we try a flying school. They are open and have some charts, but are out of the "Alaska Supplement." Curiously, in Canada, the book that tells you details about airports is called the Canada Flight Supplement. In the contiguous American states such books are called airport facilities directories, and they're green. But in Alaska that document is called a supplement again. It's the same format as the AF/D, except that it's orange. I spent a while at first trying to buy an A/FD or a "green book" for Alaska, before I discovered the secret. We chat with the flight instructor about flying here, looking for local information.

When the other chart store opens we go there, and wow, they have every chart. I think they have every sectional and WAC for the whole US and they have Canadian charts that we can't get at home. And they're cheap. We start buying everything we could conceivably use in the next month. We know we're going out to west next, so buy sectionals in that direction. The last WAC doesn't have too much of the mainland on it and we open it up, wondering if it's worth getting. It has part of Russia on it. "Cool, we have to get it!"

There's one chart that isn't available there, so we go down the street to a charter company that may have them. The outfit looks like a cartoon about a dodgy Alaska charter company and I can't entirely tell whether this is something they put on for the tourists, or if that's really the way they are. A sign says "Use This Door" on the least likely looking door. It goes into a small hangar in which the shelves are filled with old baby car seats. There's no one there. We try the other door, and it goes to an office with a scheduling whiteboard, where someone sells us charts. I suppose the door to be used is the one through which arriving passengers reach the boarding area, and they don't want all the passengers in the dispatch office. And I guess the baby seats are for babies on the airplanes.

We did a few more errands, like activating US cellphone plans, buying souvenirs and replacing a computer cooling fan, then went back to the hotel where I started negotiations.

I first laid out the local terminal area chart, the contracted flight grid, and an Anchorage street map, in order to determine multiple ways to describe the area we needed to overfly, and to familiarize myself with the airspace we will be disrupting, and with any landmarks that the local controllers might use in discussing the proposed flight. I look in the flight supplement for a starter phone number.

It's a starter phone number because I know that I will reach someone who then has to transfer me to someone else, who will give me another person to call, who will be on vacation for two weeks, and so on. It's part of the job. I call the starter number. Anchorage is actually very well organized in the ATC department. The person who answers listens, appears to understand and transfers me and this happens once more before I am given a new number to call. I tell each successive person who has referred me, until I'm talking to an Anchorage tower cab shift supervisor.

I identify myself and the aircraft, describe what we need and our constraints, emphasizing our flexibility and willingness to work with their schedule anytime throughout the twenty-four hour day. We're hoping to start tomorrow morning. The shift supervisor listens, asks a few questions and says that shouldn't be a problem. I can hardly believe it. I thought there would be tantrums. I'm sort of disappointed. He needs me to send him a map. I e-mail it, and call back to discuss it, but he didn't get the attachment. I try again, cc:ing the e-mail to my other account so I can look at it myself. It looks perfectly fine to me, but he still hasn't received it. Perhaps the FAA firewall has eaten it. He asks me to fax it. The map the client has provided shows red and black lines on a green Google Earth background. There is no way on God's green, black and red Earth that this will fax legibly. I offer to drive over and deliver it in person, but that is more complicated than it might appear. An FAA ATC facility has very tight security, and this one, like most is too understaffed to spare someone to come out of the secure area to receive a hand-delivered map. Instead, I redraw it freehand on the back of an old operational flight plan, showing the control zone boundaries, shoreline, and major roads, then take it to the hotel front desk and have them fax it. The shift supervisor says he is off tomorrow so to call and confirm with the next shift.

At this point I made like a normal person and went for a late lunch downtown with my coworker at an excellent brewpub we found by Googling "Food Anchorage." We only went the once, because when we tried to go back it was always too busy to get a table.

Back at the hotel I call PANC tower again and ask for the shift supervisor. The new one is on duty, she has received the map, and she is not happy about our proposal. Ten years ago I had to brace myself to ask an air traffic controller if I could cut across the ILS approach path at a major airport. Today it's just part of the fun getting one to approve my spending five hours flying a fine grid that covers the entire airport at 1700' agl, with turns in all approach and departure paths, and the airspace of numerous surrounding airports, possibly including one military one. I acknowledge sympathetically that this will be very inconvenient for her. But I don't take her problem away. I present our areas of flexibility: we're prepared to work any time through the twenty-four hour day. We can move off our line or altitude immediately at any point (but we will have to come back to the same point, and that will take more time). We can fly the lines in any order. We can't compromise on altitude.

I wait for her response. We know we're asking for a lot, and we've budgeted time for the work, but the weather is going to be good this weekend, and in Alaska good weather is never a given. We can't fly this mission in the rain.

She doesn't say, "What makes you think you can do this?" but she must be thinking it. She asks what the work is for. I don't know exactly what it's for; I almost never do. But I know whom it's for. I tell her. It's my trump card. She's not stupid. She knows we have to do this, and she realizes that the sooner we get it done, the sooner we'll be out of her hair.

"We don't really have quiet times here." I know. They are a major courier hub and have passengers arriving from all over the world, as well as smaller aircraft from all over Alaska and plenty of local traffic. She offers us two a.m. to four thirty a.m. tomorrow morning. Rapid duty day math tells me that if we go to bed immediately we can reset our duty days and be back at work at two. I tell her that we plan a take-off at two-thirty a.m., that we'll make another phone call before take-off, and thank you.

Then I call the rest of the team to let them know we're a go, and jump into bed. It's hard, but as a pilot you kind of have to have an "off" switch, in order to be properly rested. I'm anticipating a week of choppy sleep and weird duty days as we try to schedule this work.


amulbunny's random thoughts said...

She doesn't say, "What makes you think you can do this?" but she must be thinking it. She asks what the work is for. I don't know exactly what it's for; I almost never do. But I know whom it's for.

ooooh does that mean you're going to have a black helicopter tailing you?

A Squared said...

I can't entirely tell whether this is something they put on for the tourists, or if that's really the way they are.

There is no affectation, it is exactly what it is.

Anonymous said...

Blake said...

You actually use the WACs eh? Must be a rare breed as Nav Canada is going to stop producing them next month.

Check out AIC 17/10 for more info.

Peter said...

What DO they DO? I've been trying to piece the details together for months and figure out who your client is, and what they're up to, but I'm just as clueless as when I started.

D.B. said...

Clues so far:

1) You must fly low, and at a precise altitude
2) The locations vary wildly, happen at short notice, mostly in the West, and include the USA (TX, Alberta and BC, Alaska - all oil/gas producing regions)
3) the equipment in the airplane is finicky, and you cannot bank more than 10 to 15 degrees, even in the traffic pattern
4) the client's name inspires instant co-operation from PANC ATC
5) You have to fly precise ground tracks, even over a busy international airport

Can I buy a vowel?

Aviatrix said...

amulbunny: I didn't see the black helicopter, and ATC never passed one as traffic, but then I don't have a rear view mirror.

Anonymous: Someone sent me that, but without telling me that Jeppesen had done it themselves. Does it come with a Jeppesen chart subscription?

Blake: We know. We hoard them. Many have been out of print for years. They are ideal for cross country flights. Just enough detail without having to change or refold charts too often.

Blake & Anonymous: Please linkify your URLs, ladies and gentlemen. Instructions are right on the comment form.

Peter: Confusing, isn't it? Just when you think you've found a pattern, I do something that makes no sense.

D.B.: I love that list. It underscores Peter's puzzlement. And I love it when ATC says "What are you doing up there?"

Anonymous said...

God, I know what you mean about the off switch when it comes to sleep! A good example is my recent trip to work in Australia (I work in oil-well drilling). I got a call to leave home "tomorrow", flew from 6am local to 9pm Pacific. Then flew non-stop to Sydney, transferred to Brisbane, and took commuter to Singleton, NSM. I remember the amazed look on a Swedish ladie's face (on the SF to Sydney portion) when I arranged with my only seat-mate on a rear row of the 747-400 to sleep on the floor (I'm short and he was 6 feet tall). When I woke up, there were people all around me sleeping between the seat rows. I couldn't help but laugh when the Swedish lady thanked me for "showing her the way". Of course, she went on vacation. I had to go directly to work!

airphoria said...

There simply must be a better way to deal with your chart problem, I just don't know what it is yet.

Food downtown: Humpy's on 6th ave. (although it's getting a bit tourist-y for my taste). The Downtown Diner (on 4th?) is good for breakfast.

Walking/running/biking the Coastal Trail is always a great way to kill time if you need to.

D.B. said...

I've got it! ALIENS!!!!!

They're aquatic, and you can't bank too much or the water spills out of their tank in the back into the guts of the electronic machinery. They are mapping our oil delivery pipelines, so that they can turn them off after the takeover. Thanks to the Gulf oil spill they have moved up the invasion date, as they now know we can't be trusted with this planet.

Aviatrix said...

That's an excellent theory, D.B., and I won't say that it's wrong, but bear in mind that water containment would call for perfectly coordinated flight, banking in proportion to the amount of yaw, like a bicycle racer. Ever seen the video of Bob Hoover flying a loop while pouring a glass of water without spilling?

A Squared said...

Hoover's trick was pouring while rollong the airplane, which when you think about it, it quite a bit more impressive. You really have to screw up an inside loop pretty badly to have the acceleration vector straight through airframe "down". Not so with a roll.

A Squared said...

That would make a lot more sense if it read: " have the acceleration vector other than straight through airframe "down"."

D.B. said...

I did think of that Aviatrix, but perhaps they couldn't get Bob Hoover? :)

A Squared said...

.....perhaps they couldn't get Bob Hoover?

Maybe Bob Hoover was their *second* choice.

Bob said...

With all the talk of aliens the green hair colour is making much more sense....