Friday, October 08, 2010

It's Orange

My airplane, the real airplane this time, not a simulation, arrived at 9:45 a.m. and was wheels up on the next flight at 10:45 exactly. It's not orange, and neither is the mystery plane, but I'll get there. A coworker flew my plane in from the southern shop that did the engine change. We met him at the airplane, helped unload his gear and he briefed me on its various idiosyncrasies. There were no specific engine break-in instructions for me, as the first few hours had been done in test flights and ground runs. My walk around revealed a tire near the end of its tread life, three matching burrs on the three blades of the left propeller and a dirty windscreen. The arriving pilot assured me that a replacement tire was on its way and that the propeller had been clean when he left. We agreed not to park on that gravelly section of the ramp. Also the copilot DG was missing from the panel. It had not been working properly, but don't worry, there's a spare one in a box waiting to be installed. I cleaned the windshield and started up.

It took me a couple of tries to start the left engine, probably a combination of it being already hot from the flight and from the rigging being different, so the ideal throttle position isn't as it was. But I fix my technique for the right and engine, and they both sound great.

I raise the gear when I'm out of runway and climb up over the clearway. It's been trimmed since last time I was here. It was getting scraggly. I notice a black insect with yellow stripes buzzing against the inside of the windscreen. It's not a wasp or a bee. Maybe it's something that doesn't even sting and just has the stripes to scare predators into thinking it will sting. I expect it to stop flying and huddle in a corner of the dashboard, the rapid pressure drop from the climb activating its instinct to shelter from a storm.

I call clear of the zone but remain on frequency to monitor incoming traffic. It's very quiet for a while. The first call I hear is made by an older male voice with a slight northern European accent, maybe Dutch or German. The aircraft is a Cessna 172. Usually an old guy in a C172 is a recreational pilot, probably in his own plane. If you're flying a C172 for work, it's probably early in your career. But I must be wrong in this case, because he says he's on a company flight plan. He then contradicts that by asking for a touch and go. Hmm, is he a student and the "company" is the school? Is he out of currency and needs one more landing before he can pick up his passengers? I'm going to continue with the older guy in his own airplane, but add that he has his own company, too. Maybe he runs a lodge or something. Later he tells the FSS that he's taxiing to the terminal for his passengers. And then they're off, tooling around the north in a single engine airplane. Ça c'est fini.

Just as he is leaving, the airspace gets busy. The FSS is juggling position reports for an inbound Bonanza, a couple of helicopters and me. Everyone reports in and then ATC tells everyone individually where everyone else is with relation to each other. It's not fully necessary, because we aren't even inside the five mile zone and we are listening to each other, but I guess it's their job. And it's an impressive job of spacial visualization considering that they don't have any radar. A pilot calls up in a "Pitts 300S" and the controller asks him what that is. At first I think "How can he not know that? It's a famous aerobatic aircraft!" and then I realize that he didn't say Pitts Special or Extra 300S but Pitts 300S. He tells the controller it's a homebuilt. Ha ha, clever name. Perhaps I'll build a homemade "Comcorde" or "FR-71". Pitts 300S guy gives his ETA as "Four minutes forty-five seconds." Someone has an airplane with ambitions of grandeur and a brand new GPS.

The stripey insect hasn't read the manual on the dangers posed by a rapid drop in air pressure and is still buzzing around. The black and yellow one gives up on the windscreen and flies into the back where the mission specialist complains about it. I admit, "Yeah, there's a mosquito in here too." He asks me to please keep my pets in the cockpit.

I've got critters everywhere. I mash something especially juicy on the outside of the window, then happen to fly through a little rainstorm and get rid of it. That was convenient. That giant smear would have bugged me for hours.

There's a Dash 8 arriving now. (It's probably that same "secured" one I saw in Dawson Creek). I'm crossing their runway approach path and position report so they know it. They have me on TCAS and then they cancel IFR and go by behind me, straight in for landing.

An A-Star calls up "5.4 miles" out and ATC relays his position to another pilot, who makes passive aggressive remarks about how it "would be nice" if the other traffic gave more than 0.4 miles warning of his approach to the airspace. The controller pretends not to notice his attitude.

The controller calls us again, saying that possible traffic is a Rawlins coming from Peace River. Now I don't know what something is. I ask her to say again type. She clarifies. "It's a homebuilt. It's orange." They are expected to be receive only, unable to make radio transmissions and are expected soon. The Dash-8 calls taxiing and the FSS fills him in on the homebuilt. "Expected now, actually."

The Dash-8 calls for its IFR clearance, while sitting in position on the runway. That would be ridiculous at a busy airport in the south, but it's pretty common here for an airliner to sit on the runway waiting to copy their instructions for the whle flight. I let the FSS know that I'm about to pass through the extended centreline of the runway, ten miles back, but they get their clearance and take off anyway. Once again they "have me on TCAS" but I've lost them all together. Then I spot them zooming away to the southeast, lower than I expected. Rather than waiting five seconds they just stayed lower than normal and zoomed underneath me.

The missing orange homebuilt still isn't here. The FSS passes it as 'possible traffic' to everyone. It was due sixteen minutes ago. I hope this isn't going to turn into a search. At least orange is easy to spot. Finally he calls, "39 miles out, be there in thirty minutes." I guess he does have a radio after all, but it's terrible. The FSS can barely understand him. Eventually he arrives, landing on the long runway in the least convenient direction, requiring a long backtrack. But I guess if you fly at sixty knots you land slowly enough that tolerating a five knot tailwind is not a good idea. He frustrates someone by taxiing slowly back down the long runway.

After all this excitement, I'm setting up to land. While orbiting overhead the aerodrome I hear a call "...Tutor jets, flight of two, planning overhead the VOR for the 03 ILS approach." Ha ha! I know what colour they are. There's only one operator that flies Tutor jets. It's our national military aerobatic team. Where there are two there are likely to be all eleven.

I call final and "Snowbird eleven" asks the controller if I am a full stop or a touch and go to remain in the circuit. The controller says full stop and I append, "after six and a half hours, I just want to get it on the ground." The Snowbird pilot says he wishes he had that kind of fuel range. It doesn't matter what you're flying: you're always jealous of someone. I'm in the flare now, so I don't banter, but the controller answers for me. "You're not likely to get much sympathy here, considering what you're flying."

I call clear of the landing surface, "taxiing to parking to watch the airshow."

I was just making a smart remark but there is an airshow. Snowbird 10 and 11 do a low level formation pass and then break and come around to land, followed by three groups of three Snowbirds, doing the same thing, fast and loud and low. "That was awesome" says the controller. "I wish there were more people than just me and that pilot around to see it."

I have parked, not very elegantly, in my usual spot opposite the fuel shack. The engines are still running for the equipment in the back. The jets taxi in and park, one by one in a perfectly straight line next to me. It makes me laugh so hard to be part of this lineup. Of all the days to park crooked.

They climb out of the cockpits, wanting the same thing I want after a mission: the washroom. We direct them, then they come back and we exchange airplane stats. They've just come from Anchorage via Whitehorse and some place in between that they can't remember the name of, in the middle of the Alaskan mountains. They only fly one-hour legs. They can't fly Anchorage to Whitehorse in one leg the way I can. Mind you, they can still do it faster, even with the fuel stop. One of the pilots shows me how to extend the access steps from the outside of his airplane, and invites me to climb up on them and look in his cockpit. Hmm, a single hour in there is probably worth six and a half in mine. And they've had two people in each airplane the whole way, with overnight bags stuffed in the canopy behind the headrests. I'm not sure they can even stretch. And the equipment, wow. As you folks have probably figured out already, this is the mystery panel. Here's a diagram of what they are. These instruments have been serving the Canadian military long enough to retire with a full pension. One of the aviation technicians is there and I ask him how many of these airplanes there are. He says "eleven," but I explain no, not the team, I mean all together. I forget the number, but it was small. They don't have a large pool of parts planes. They have to keep these birds flying with what they have. This is an elite team making commitments all over North America every year and they are flying metal older than mine with not a lot of upgraded components. I'm not quite sure how I asked it, some combination of words and facial expression, to convey, "How do you keep them in the air?" without denigrating a national icon. The technician understands and answers with a wry smile, "It's a labour of love."

The publicist brings me a poster, but I opt not to go after the team for autographs. Their job involves a lot of PR, but they're on a break now. I would have liked to chat to one of the women, though just because we'd have a little more in common. There are so many different aircraft and missions out there but there's enough in common: chatting on the same frequencies, landing at little en route airports we forget the name of and having stray Cheerios rolling around under seats. I giggle at the idea of Cheerios loose in the cockpit of a Tutor jet, but that's what was in the snack bag. The comments are now open to any aircraft maintainers who would like to whine about stupid pilots and their snacks. I know they get everywhere, and I'm sorry, but we all eat Cheerios like we were toddlers.

My favourite snack guess is perogies, just because I like the logistical challenge of actually having them. They would have to be warm, because who wants cold perogies, but they couldn't be too hot, because you have to be able to pop them in your mouth without burning yourself. I guess you cook them, cool them a bit in a colander, then take them on board in a squat thermos, or tupperware wrapped in tinfoil and towels. Kind of awkward, but I have heard stories of a pilot who would bring onboard an entire roast chicken and ingredients to mix for a full Caesar salad.

The jet jockeys let me cut in line to get some fuel before they finish, because they aren't all leaving right away. I hear them leaving later and look out my hotel window as they take off in flights of three, beat up the town, and then zoom off all in formation. They'll be doing airshows in Daytona on the 9th-10th, Atlanta on the 16th-17th and then back in Moose Jaw for their 40th anniversary celebration on the 22nd-23rd.


Rick Grant said...

It's been decades (+ decades) since I trained in the CT-114 Tutor but I recognized the panel straight off.

The Tutor was the closest thing to a flying sports car I've ever handled. What a beauty.

It's astounding to think that some of the Tutors left for the Snowbirds are approaching 50 years old; they still had that new plane smell when I got to them.

Rick Grant

Joël Morin said...

The Snowbirds pilots are quite awesome. I've had the pleasure of working out various special displays with them.
Here are a couple of shots of the short show they did at this year's Calgary Stampede and of the safety pilot/commentators [Snowbirds 10 & 11]

jwenting said...

Guess I was closest with my T-37, together with the guy thinking it was a Jet Provost.

Both are quite similar to the Tutor overall :)

Didn't know the Snowbirds still fly them, usually aerobatics teams either are disbanded or receive new equipment when the type they use gets retired.

According to Wikipedia there are some 30 Tutors worldwide in flying condition (all but a handful with Forces Canada), plus a few that are kept as spares for the Snowbirds (I guess at AMARC, though Wikipedia doesn't say so).

Dan inALB said...

I only saw the snowbirds once, in Glens Falls, NY. It was the event where 2 of the planes touched wingtips. Even though I had a scanner and was listening in, those of us on the ground never knew what happened - just that show ended abruptly.

Fortunately it was a minor oops. I'd love to be able to see them again some day.

dpierce said...

I might've just peered at that same Tutor panel about 10 mins ago. :) It was a great show.

Aviatrix said...

Then you must be in ... Atlanta!

dpierce said...

Indeed! Sunny Dobbins AFB. (Word verification is "luft". How appropriate.)