Sunday, January 31, 2010

When Line Pilots Get Bored

I'm back at home and it's almost Christmas. In a burst of holiday spirit I drive into the city for shopping. This includes a stop at a Canadian Tire -- Canadian Tire ought to have its own blog category by now -- for a timer to turn the Christmas lights on and off at appropriate times of the night. Nothing like fire and forget seasonal cheer.

Driving in the city includes parking in the city, but Canadian Tire has a parking lot where they will validate parking, so it's free. That's a good deal and the not-terribly-spacious parking lot is full of people taking advantage of said deal. To facilitate traffic flow, there is a guy in a reflective vest directing drivers to open parking spots. He is a remarkably competent marshaller giving clear, unambiguous signals, and avoiding the aviation signals "your engine is on fire" or "start engines" that always make me giggle when I see them from policemen or others directing traffic. (Check out the link if you haven't seen the marshalling signals page in a while., They've improved the artwork and descriptions).

He has also spotted my aviation-themed licence plate frame and I confess to being an aviatrix. He's not familiar with the word, so I translate it as an old-fashioned word for pilot, the female equivalent of aviator. He muses that none of his female FOs has ever called herself that. Wait, what did he just say? No wonder he's so good at aircraft marshalling signals. He's an Air Canada captain. I'd love to chat to him longer, but he has a job to do. I'm left wondering how many ex-wives you have to have, or how bored you have to get, to get out of a B767 in order to direct cars at Canadian Tire. Whatever the reason, he was good at what he was doing and did it with a smile that made everyone's day better.

No, my licence plate frame does not say "I'd Rather Be Flying" or "Pilots Make Smoother Approaches." But speaking of approaches, today's was the full procedure ILS/DME RWY 14 into Halifax, under the weather conditions encountered by Air Canada Flight 646 the night they crashed in a go around. They had an eighth of a mile visibility so I dialed my landing visibility up to the advisory value of half a mile, so as to have a chance of landing. I went missed twice, one because it was unstable on the glideslope--pitch control again--over a mile back, and one pretty much exactly what the captain in AC646 saw: descending from minima with the runway in sight but not well enough aligned with the centreline to flare to land safely. That low level shear is very nasty. Then one good one with the autopilot, just to prove it could be done and another one hand flown to success, because no way am I going to let an autopilot outfly me.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ess Eye Dee?

I'm being a good pilot and reviewing my regulations by reading the online AIM. I'm in the Rules of the Air section, for some reason this is abbreviated RAC. Back when the AIM (Airman's Information Manual) was called the AIP (Airman's Information Publication) I'd refer to something being in "Eh-Eye-Pee-Rack six point one." I don't recall anyone snickering at me for it, so I guess I was saying it right. Today in AIM-RAC 6.1 I notice a passage:

When the clearance is received on the ground, before departing a controlled aerodrome, and an SID is included in the clearance, the pilot only needs to acknowledge receipt of the clearance by repeating the aircraft call sign and the transponder Code that was assigned.

It's a measure designed to reduce congestion on clearance delivery at busy airports. The airport has a Standard Instrument Departure procedure published and available to study while you're waiting for taxi, so when you are assigned your clearance and transponder code, instead of parroting it all back, you just repeat the transponder code (different for everyone) and your callsign so they know the right airplane received it. It's not something I have reason to do often. I might indeed forget and read back the SID, were I IFR out of an airport big enough to have one. But that's not what caught my attention.

No, I'm distracted by an SID. That implies that the person who drafted that pronounces it "Ess Eye Dee." Who does that? I've heard people call PIC time "pick time" (I say Pea Eye See). I used to talk about monitoring the Eh Tea Eye Ess (why yes, I did learn to fly out of a book) but was quickly mocked for that. Doesn't everyone talk about SIDs and STARs as if they were people named Sidney and astronomical bodies? Did a non-pilot edit that paragraph? Did they just put that in there so that the double take would forever cement the rule in my brain?

Sarah, thanks for keeping me honest. Feel good, not bad about holding me to my resolution. Last night I clicked on the icon to fire up the simulator game, then realized I had to leave right away to be on time for a seminar on peak performance, including avoiding procrastination. I think attending a seminar on not procrastinating is probably the best procrastination technique I have ever used.

I left the computer on overnight, so MSFS was ready to play this morning. (The rest of this blog entry is a description of the sim, so if you're not interested in an account of someone else's video games you can safely skip the rest without missing any real life). I took off from runway 15 at Fredericton, made a left turn direct the NDB, then tracked 221 from the beacon to intercept the outbound for the full procedure VOR RWY 09. The first time out my outbound ADF intercept was execreble, so I looped back to the beacon and did it again properly. I intercepted the VOR track just west of RESOL and tracked for 1:30 outbound before the procedure turn right. Inbound I kept the HSI centred on the inbound VOR track, but I came out not aligned with the runway, a common problem in this game, because the date on whatever plates I have found to use rarely matches the date on the game database. I tweaked the inbound track and flew the missed back to the beacon. On the second approach my altitude was wacky through the turn, because the pitch axis kept sticking on my controller. I'd drop a couple of inches of manifold pressure then not monitor the result closely enough to realize that I had lost ten knots instead of starting a descent. I coaxed the controller into giving me more downgoingness and this time the runway was right in front, but my speed was a little high. Third times the charm and it's fun how I feel my situational awareness expand through repetition. On speed, anticipating each step down, enjoying watching the ADF bearing swing to match the DME (the step down points for this approach are given as bearings from the Fredericton beacon so as not to require a DME, but they give the DME readings as back up). Maybe a little bit fast levelling off at the MDA, probably because the gear coming down doesn't slow me as much in the game plane as the real one. I land and then click flight analysis so I can admire my nice straight tracking and textbook procedure turns. Tomorrow I'll shake up that ego with some howling winds.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Haven't Done My Sim Yet

Seeing as Sarah busted me yesterday for breaking my New Year's resolution, today's blog post is postponed until I fulfill it. Also my hands are too cold to type properly, because I just got in from a run.

Update: Done now. The post will appear at 00Z tonight on schedule.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cold and Macho

We meet at 6:30 for breakfast according to our strategy. The rental car can be returned at 7:00, and we've left ourselves a few hours leeway for contingencies so we can still get the airplane put away at destination (that's prearranged) and then get to the terminal and through southern airport security in time for our flights.

My boss texts as I'm gathering up my gear in my room. "Is it going to be too cold to fly?" There's a big bubble of arctic air over half the country. It's -32 here, actually a few degrees colder at destination, but as long as it's forecast to be over -35, we're okay. He doesn't want engines started below that. It takes too long for the oil to reach the moving parts at such low temperatures, and just turning over an engine could damage it.

It's always nice to have a "too cold to work" temperature that allows you to stay in bed, but usually the weather conspires to hover just above that temperature, always freezing your fingers but never allowing them to remain tucked in bed. Still, it's nice to know that it's there. I worked for a company once that had a too-hot-to-wear-a-tie uniform rule. I think the number was in the high 20s. Anything above that on the OAT and you could work in an open collar. Today I'm working in compression socks, two more pairs of heavy socks, leggings, long underwear, work pants, t-shirt, long sleeved shirt, sweater, and I think a sweatshirt over that, then my lined coat -- although not my wonderful parka. I thought we'd be going south before now. Plus a wool toque, a scarf, wool gloves and fleece-lined leather work mittens on top of that.

We unload everything on the apron next to the airplane and then I volunteer to load and secure it while he returns the car. We've done so little work this rotation, that I feel as if I have done less than my share. I had hoped to have everything ready to go when my co-worker returned, what with having to wait for paperwork and a cab and all, but I'm still securing gear when he's back already. The car rental place was all ready for the return and gave him a ride to the airport.

We untarp the airplane together. Everything is in good order, because we've been out shovelling and checking on it. There are a few patches of frozen-on ice where the tarps didn't cover properly, so I use some of the deicing fluid. I have a moment of "oh-no" when I realize that there is some old dilute fluid in the sprayer, but fortunately it hasn't frozen, and I manage to pour it out. Must remember to ... what? Rinse and dry? In the past I've kept deicing equipment in a heated hangar so I haven't encountered the problem of a frozen sprayer. Something to remember if I'm ever doing hot water deicing (works when the temperature is and will stay above freezing) and then stowing the sprayer in the plane. Everything takes more time and space to do in the cold. Anything that has to be folded or coiled actually takes up more space, because they won't bend. And the same goes for your hands. In heavy mitts they don't bend the way you are used to and if you take off the mitts and just work in gloves, pretty soon your fingers still won't bend, at least not without any strength.

My coworker is PIC so he straps into the left seat and I remove the cord from the engine block heater just before he starts. Fires up right away. We exchange delighted thumbs up and I pull the cord from the second engine. The cords are too cold to coil properly, so while he does post start checks I end up stuffing a tangled mess of electrical cords in the back of the airplane. I'm afraid I would break the plastic insulation--or even the wires inside--if I forced them to coil lightly to fit where they usually go.

I secure the rear door and then come up to the right seat. The right oil pressure is still indicating low, but the CHTs and oil temperatures are matched between the two engines. We turn on the heater and take off some of our layers of clothing as we wait for the oil to come up. It's moving--the gauge isn't dead--but really really slowly. After half an hour it still isn't registering enough for take-off. I know that as a student pilot you were taught to shut down an engine if it wasn't registering oil pressure in 30 seconds, maybe a minute if it was really cold, so why have we let it run for this long? We are almost certain we know what is going on in there.

The engine is out on the wing, a couple of metres away from me. It was kept warm enough electrically overnight to start and have oil circulating, which is why we see normal cylinder head and oil temperatures. The oil pressure gauge is on the panel in front of me. The oil pressure gauge works in the absolutely simplest way such a thing could work, and that is by having the actual oil pressure force oil through a line to the gauge. Simple is good. But now think about that line. It comes out of the engine, along the leading edge of the wing, into the fuselage and up to the instrument panel. Much of that path is unheated. We suspect that a little bit of moisture has condensed in that line and frozen solid, blocking the line. The oil coming out of the engine is warm, but cools quickly inside the narrow tube, so is not warm enough to melt the ice. If we thought there was any way that the actual oil pressure in our engine was as low as on that gauge, we wouldn't be running the engine.

Still, we're not going to take off with oil pressure in the red. We text the PRM about our predicament. He asks a bunch of questions, suggesting we do things we've already done, and adds one more. I get out and check the oil filter through the cowling vents. My coworker shuts the engine down so I can do this. I verify that the oil filter looks normal: in place, not swollen or leaking or anything. And the engine, bless its greasy soul, restarts perfectly. There wasn't really much risk of it not, as it was so warm and lubricated, but anytime you shut something down you risk not being able to restart it.

After a few more texts (we text because it's too difficult to talk on the phone in a running airplane) are exchanged the PRM concludes "I don't see that you're going to have any problems."

We text back, "We don't either. We just don't want to go without an ok from the PRM."

Understanding dawns. Now he understands we're not texting for help, we're texting to cover our butts. Butts duly covered, we fly. By the time we're in position on the runway the oil pressure is only a needle width below the green anyway, a situation one of my training manuals even accepts.

We launch and turn on course in good weather. There isn't often a lot of weather in temperatures this low. Almost all the moisture is already frozen. There's no energy to form the weather.

This airplane has two heaters, one that mainly keeps the back warm, and which runs off a heat exchanger with the exhaust gases and one that mainly warms the front, and which burns gasoline. We, obviously are in the front, but we're expecting that with the engines blasting at climb power, we'll start feeling more heat, as we won't be losing our front heat to the back of the plane. But we're feeling colder. We adjust a few knobs and hold our hand in various places before we accept the fact that the combustion heater has shut down. It is designed to run on the ground, but because of reduced airflow it is possible for the plenum to overheat and trip the circuit breaker. A reasonable precaution for a device that is literally on fire inside the fuselage. These heaters are affectionately known as "nose bombs." To prevent cold pilots from resetting the circuit breaker when there is a real problem, the circuit breaker is accessible only from the outside of the airplane.

We both know this. "This two hour flight just got a lot longer." Is that because we turned around, landed back at origin and reset the breaker? No. Is that because we landed halfway at a well-attended airport that was literally under our intended flight path and reset the breaker? No. You know from the post title. It was because two hours seems a lot longer when you are sitting still in subfreezing temperatures. We toughed it out to destination with only the rear heater, definitely not enough to keep us comfortable.

We took turns taking control while the other person reached back for and donned the outer jackets and sweaters set aside earlier. We swapped "what's the coldest you've ever been?" tales. And we laughed at ourselves. The two of us have only had one flight together where we were neither too hot nor too cold: that was the flight with the exploding moon. With passengers, obviously we would have stopped. Without airline tickets booked, perhaps we would have stopped. But whenever you stop you risk not being able to go again. You've seen on this blog how easy it is to be grounded by a stupid thing. And we know how much it costs an hour to run this thing. T land and take off again would add time and money to the cost of the trip. We can take a little discomfort in the name of efficiency. We did have cold weather gear and one heater working. (Notice that the working heater was the simple one: "run outside air past hot exhaust and duct heated air to cabin. Simple is good. We also have simple avionics without those LCD computer screens that seize up at minus five, so we don't need to worry about our radio controls freezing. I guess "liquid" crystal displays require a certain temperature to remain so.

A temperature inversion meant it was even colder on the ground than in flight, and to get there we needed to reduce engine power, drastically reducing the output of our one working heater. Brrrr. But we did it. We reached our destination, found the hangar, and got a ride to the terminal from someone who told us, "you look cold." True that.

funny graphs and charts
see more Funny Graphs

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Done Like Dinner

The customers have emerged from their conference call and the verdict is that they are done with us. They pack up and drive away, before any more snow arrives and they get stuck up here. It's now up to the boss to decide where to send us, before the same thing happens to us.

I make sure I'm packed and ready to go and try to eat up all the perishable food in the hotel refrigerator. I abandon so much food in a year, it's sad. I try to buy just what I'm going to eat in meals I know I'll have in the hotel, but sometimes things aren't available in a small enough size, or the estimate of how long I'll be in a place is way off and I'm called to move right after I've stocked up. And sometimes I just forget I have food in the fridge. I think I left fudge behind once.

I kill some time doing stupid things. Damn YouTube for giving me the opportunity to watch mindless shows that I managed to miss the first time. (But if you haven't seen Susan Boyle from the British Idol show Britain's Got Talent you must. This is from at least a year ago, so all the cool people have already seen it, I'm sure, but it's the uncool people who have to see it. She is the stereotype of frumpy, and the only members of the audience and judging staff who aren't openly laughing at her are squirming with embarrassment for her. And then she sings. She has the last laugh.

I also review some instrument plates and regulations, just to keep myself current and not forget everything I've learned, especially if I'm going to watch brain-rotting television. It would be terrible if I crossed over the NDB on final approach and could remember a pithy remark Simon made to a contestant (he's so mean -- I had an interview like that once. I wish I'd said "Who do you think you are? Simon Cowell?") but didn't remember to start my timer for the missed approach. Now I'm going to be flying and every time I catch an error there will be Simon Cowell's voice asking me "have you ever been in an aeroplane before?" (And the nice judge next to him saying perkily, "I think you have a really nice attitude.")

It's only an hour before dark when the boss calls with the verdict. He doesn't want us to go to West Virginia right away. Just fly south to where we can park the airplane and get an airline ticket home. It's an early Christmas -- yes, I'm over a month behind on my blogging. No more work for the month means a smaller paycheque, but I don't mind going home anyway. If we flew tonight, by the time we got the plane there, secured for a few weeks, then got ourselves and baggage to the terminal it would probably be too late to get a flight home tonight anyway, so we'll fly out tomorrow a.m. and then home on the airlines the same day. We risk the potential for jinxing and both book tickets.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

When Check Pilots Get Bored

Some weird aviation stories have been coming out of India lately. Six years ago if you had a commercial licence and the right to work in India, you had a jet job. Airlines were expanding so quickly that just maybe not everyone got the training or screening they might have in other times.

The first story I see is of a check pilot surreptitiously disabling the aircraft in which he was riding, in order to see what the pilot would do. The check pilot is an observer, a passenger in the aircraft. He shouldn't be so much as turning on a light switch, let alone pulling important circuit breakers, literally behind the pilot's back.

So the first officer is flying the airplane when all of a sudden the autopilot cuts out--I assume Boeing is clever enough to have designed the autopilot such that the disconnect warble is on a different circuit breaker and is still audible, but that I don't know for sure. At the same time, the flight director disappears, so the pilots has to control the airplane himself and decide where it should go. The pilots do notice the problem and the commander takes control, but with an excessive sink rate. The aircraft was recovered and landed without damage.

Oddly to me, the analysis in the newspaper piece appears to claim that the lacl of an EGPWS put the airplane in this situation. I've watched numerous people land 737s by hand, and the only time I heard the GPWS alert was when the runway was in a steep valley and the airplane had to pass over a cliff to remain on the approach path. The pilots didn't react to the warning except to silence it, because they were in control of the airplane and were expecting that warning on that approach. Perhaps in the Jet Airways case a functional EGPWS would have pointed out the problem with the approach a little sooner, but according to the article they were on the ILS. Surely the fly up indication on the integrated HSI would have been given that information.

It's true that ICAO standards call for such aircraft to have a functioning EGPWS, and that they probably would have prevented some accidents, but when the ILS is working properly, staying on slope will cover that territory for you.

I suppose stupid check pilot stunts follow from flight instructor practices in much simpler aircraft. An instructor, in visual conditions, might turn off the master, pull the mixture or shut off the fuel to one engine, or remove a light bulb from a gear position indicator. It's good to verify that a student's reaction is the same as that rehearsed when the failure is simulated or simply described. I remember an instructor of mine who shut off the fuel to one engine in cruise while I was learning. When the engine faltered I ran a quick cause check, and discovered the fuel valve position. I immediately corrected it, and the engine restarted--I'm not sure it had entirely stopped--so I returned to normal flight. The flight instructor was going "but ... no... wait ..."

"What?" I asked, wondering what I had missed. "The fuel valve was switched off." It honestly didn't occur to me until that moment that I was supposed to leave it off and feather the propeller as if I didn't know what had caused it. (I've done that sort of thing more than once. If an instructor fakes a failure by a means other than briefed, I treat the fake, not the failure).

I've also been with an instructor in an airplane with electrically operated landing gear who routinely pulled the circuit breaker after the gear was confirmed down, to guard against accidental retraction. I didn't really like it, but I can see the argument for it. I know of a case in that same type where there was a n accident because a student raised the gear on the runway. And I know of another where there was a problem getting the gear down because the gear CB had been routinely pulled and wouldn't stay set. Circuit breakers are not switches.

Here's a digest article describing other Indian airline mishaps lately. I hope it is just a combination of statistical anomaly and sudden focus of the national news media on everything aviation related, rather than a real symptom of problems. Right after I wrote my next sentence as "the same goes for the number of times American Airlines has been in the news lately," I read Captain Dave's blog on the Jamaica runway overrun. There's so much that can go wrong in that moment in the dark, there is not room for stupid pilot tricks. As Dave says, Fate is out hunting you. No need to go looking for it.

Monday, January 25, 2010

But the End of the Assignment

There's more work to be done here but it snowed again and the temperature keeps dropping, so the customers can't pretend that the snow is going to melt. They need less than ten centimetres of snow on the ground to do their work, so the word came this morning from their head office to shut it down here.

They still have us contracted and don't want to let us go yet, so they pack up and leave but ask us to stay here while they decide what to do with us next. Meanwhile my boss is getting prepared to send us elsewhere. It's Saturday and he boss asks me to buy charts for a trip to West Virgina, possibly leaving as early as Tuesday. There's no way in hell that any shipper will get charts to me here by then, so I check if I'll be able to pick them up en route. I call the FBO where we will clear customs, should the West Virginia trip materialize, and ask if they sell what I need. They don't, but agree to receive a shipment on our behalf. See, I have the charts to get that far already, and we'll have to stop and buy gas there, anyway, might as well pick up the charts too. That way I can order the charts from a US supplier, guaranteeing stock, and the charts don't have to cross the border and they don't have to go into the neverland of northern Canadian shipping. (Honestly I sent a friend a t-shirt in November and in early January I got an excited thank you e-mail from her. It had just arrived. She doesn't even live in the sticks. It's a fair-sized city in Northern Ontario).

I call Sporty's to order the charts and he's happy to ship to a c/o address at an FBO but I have to twist the guy's arm to get him to ship the current charts now, because they expire very soon and normal policy is to wait and ship the new ones. "But I need this week's charts, because I'm going this week." He finally agrees, cheerily telling me that he will ship the updated ones at the end of the week. "But I won't be there at the end of the week. I'm only going to be there on one day." I don't think I can stop him from shipping the follow up ones, but perhaps if we actually get to West Virginia I can divert them to wherever we actually end up. Wouldn't be the first time.

I tire of sitting in the least comfortable hotel chair ever, apparently designed for someone whose curved spine somehow connected to their legs without having an intervening butt. So I put on practically all my clothes, one on top the other like Heidi, and go for a walk to the post office. It's twenty-nine degrees below freezing. As soon as I step outside I feel my nostril hairs freeze inside my nose. It's quite dry here, so I'm not getting frost on my face or eyelashes as I walk along. My eyes tear--that is tears come out, not that they rip--from the cold. As I walk along I reject the idea that my tears would freeze. They are salt water, after all, and I know that the Fahrenheit temperature scale is based on the freezing point of a saturated saline solution, 32 degrees below the pure water freezing point. (It was a good idea, really, because it's easier to get a saturated saline solution than pure water). And it's only minus twenty-nine. You'll immediately spot the error here, but that was my thought process. I only thought about it for an instant. I guess part of my brain was frozen.

It's only when I take the sunglasses off, just before entering a store, and see slush on them that I recalculate and realize that while a saturated salt water solution freezes thirty-two little Fahrenheit degrees below the freezing point of pure water, that point was passed many big Celsius degrees ago and it is indeed cold enough to freeze tears. It's not cold, or maybe just not windy enough to freeze my lashes together, though. I mail my postcards, wander around town a bit more and then go back to the hotel. The customers are having a conference call tomorrow to decide where to send us.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Not the End of the World

Did I get to the part where we fly the airplane yet? Seriously, did I? We did fly the airplane this rotation. Twice, even. And if you think the blog took a long time getting there, try real life.

Just as hotel keys get deprogrammed when you're wearing the least clothing, the client is ready to fly when you are the maximum number of minutes from being conveniently ready. If you really want to fly, do laundry at a laundromat. You'll be required to go to work right now as soon as the clothes are all wet and soapy. (And then sent to another base for a week while your clothes rot). In this case I wasn't doing laundry. I believe I'd already tried that trick. I was out for a walk about as far from the hotel as I could get and still be in civilization. My coworker came to pick me up. We stopped fro my flight bag and then off to the airport to get things going.

We took the tarps off the airplane, the flimsy polyethylene sheets so stiffened by the cold that they handled like stiff canvas. Fuel tanks were still full, so no leaks, and the oil levels were good. I jumped inside and closed the door, then flicked on the master and all the lights while my coworker gave me a thumbs up on all the exterior lights being operational. Everything else looked good inside, and the clients were arriving, so I went back outside and finished up unplugging cords and putting away tarps.

As soon as the engine heaters are unplugged, the engines start to cool, and you've seen what happens when we try to start cold engines, so we board right away. "I'll start up while you brief," I say as I jump in the left seat. Technically these guys are crewmembers not passengers so they don't need a briefing every time they board. I keep it to once per rotation, so they are at least apprised of any configuration changes and seasonal issues. Today, for example, there are parkas up the back behind the electronics rack, the first aid kit and fire extinguisher in the cockpit, and extra winter survival gear in the nose.

My coworker is an experienced pilot but he hasn't flown passengers commercially. He laughs as he climbs in the right seat, "I haven't given a passenger briefing since my commercial flight test." Both engines start easily and everything warms up okay. I fuss with the checklists, conscious that I haven't flown yet this month. The left throttle is really twitchy, you hardly move it at all for a big change, and the right propeller lever has very little resistance. It's sort of the opposite of the left propeller lever being sticky. It's exactly a friction setting issue, because everything else is correct, but perhaps there's something crooked in there making the tension uneven. These aren't no-go items, just things to say "hmm" about and pass on to maintenance in case they presage something more momentous.

I call taxiing and backtrack for take off. With checks complete, brakes released, airplane rolling straight, gauges green, keep it straight, airspeed alive, rotate. Positive rate, beautiful cold weather performance, insufficient runway remaining, gear up. Engines turning, tweak the propeller lever that is nudging rpms into the red, keep straight, set climb power and make a slow left turn on course.

There is forecast to be mist tomorrow morning, so we're alert to the possibility of it forming early. There is some present, but we conclude that it is not a threat, and that we will be able to see if it starts to spread to where we do care, even after dark.

The point of there being two pilots here today is so that my new coworker can find his way around this cockpit at night. So as the sun goes down I show him where all the lighting controls are and hand over control. He flies the airplane as you would expect a professional pilot to do, with no trouble at all. He gets an opportunity to observe how hard it is to tell you're rolling as you do a flat turn with no lights on the horizon, but there's only one dark quadrant in this area. There are a lot of farms in the area and some towns, plus whatever it is the military have going on over there, so lots of light.

What do the military have going on over there? There's a weird glow from the direction of the restricted area. We turn around and go the other way for a while, but when we turn back it's more pronounced. There's something on fire. We hope it's just an unoccupied farm building, but it's a little freaky. We don't think the military are hiding dangerous superweapons around here, but maybe that just means they are really good at hiding their dangerous superweapons. And then after another pass we figure it out.

It's the moon rising on the horizon, and its light is interacting with cloud and mist. The shape and variable opacity of the cloud made a a very convincing exploding secret missile base.

Plus, someone just forwarded me this:

STL approach: "United XXX best forward speed to the marker, you're number one."

United XXX (male): "Roger, balls to the wall."

STL approach: "American XXXX, you're number two behind a 737, follow him, cleared visual, best forward speed."

American XXXX (female): "Well I can't do 'balls to the wall' but I can go 'wide open'."

-Radio silence-

Unknown Pilot (male): "Is American hiring?"

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Uncanny Valley of Fiction?

This silly piece of fiction about Airline Pilots Behaving Badly showed up in a Google alert. I read it without context, at first thinking its author was trying to pass it off as a real cockpit experience. I started into it with squinty-eyes and a frown that my profession was represented this badly, and then with a different frown as I tried to find a decade when the details would have made any sense.

It doesn't take many details to realize that it is pure, and not very well-researched fiction. A drinks cart doesn't fit in a cockpit, and pilot seats do not adjust that way. The more inaccurate it became, the more I forgave it, until I got to the last line and burst out laughing, allowing me to retroactively enjoy the whole thing.

Funny that. It seems that if something is completely inaccurate, I can relax and enjoy it, but if it's close enough that it could be supposed to be real, then it's uncomfortable. The principle known as Uncanny Valley in animation applies to fiction as well? Or is that just me?

Oops, I just started blogging and I haven't done my sim yet. That's chronic, by the way. Whenever I feel like blogging I realize I haven't done my sim yet, so do I sim? No, I don't feel like simming when I feel like blogging. So instead I surf the Internet. When I feel like simming I sim, but when I'm done simming it's too late to blog, so I don't. I'm now only two days ahead of the proper date when it comes to writing up blog posts. But I'm practically current on the entire Cheezeburger Network. I'll have to come up with a new rule.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Hotel Hallway Guarantee

I get up and do my 5BX exercises, still really simple to do in half the allotted time, but they say not to skip any levels. Then I have paperwork to do.

Naturally I left some of the information I need for my weekly report in the plane yesterday, so I had to go back out to the airport and get it. I meant to get it while shovelling off the airplane, but didn't. I swear I should have a checklist for getting out of bed in the morning.

  • 1. Consciousness -- ENGAGED
  • 2. Left leg -- OUT OF COVERS
  • 3. Left foot -- ON FLOOR
  • Repeat steps 2-3 on RIGHT.
  • ... and so on.

It would have to be Transport Canada approved, of course, which might in the end require me to have an extra leg. By the time it went through the approval process I'd be retired, anyway. Nah, TC isn't really that bad. It's just traditional to pretend they are.

Documents retrieved, it's now paperwork time. I should do this every night, but then it's actually quicker to get the forms out once and do it rapidly all at once. Date, client name, aircraft ident, aircraft type, airport of operations, province of operations, forestry department work order number, hotel name, hotel city, hotel cost, hourly billing, pilot names, pilot base, contact numbers ... I swear I don't even know what all the blanks are for. I don't have to fill all of them out every time; I just have to remember which ones I have to fill out. Occasionally I try to get ahead, but that guarantees that whatever I fill out in advance will be wrong. We'll move to another airport, yank the plane and send in a new one, or send me to a different client. My name will end up legally changed or they'll redo the calendar and skip February. And then I scan the pages and all the receipts, PDFize the result and e-mail them to the boss.

This is much easier than the old days when I had to photocopy and fax all the receipts, often requiring me to either convince hotel staff to copy them or to let me behind the desk to copy them myself. Nowadays the only copying I have to do is a logbook page, because I can't shove the whole logbook in a miniscanner. Usually it's no problem having the front desk make a copy. This time the desk clerk wants 25 cents for the copy. I manage not to roll my eyes, and go back to my room for the quarter. I don't even retaliate by asking for a receipt.

Paperwork complete, I do pilot in hotel room things. Write postcards, read blogs, write e-mail, watch TV, work out some more. All kind of at once. I've completely lost the ability to do one thing at a time. (For example, I'm currently cooking, watching TV, writing this blog entry and reading webcomics. That's right, I'm switching back and forth. I have to switch between this window and the one with my notes in it anyway, so what's another step on the way?)

After the workout I decide I need something out of the vending machine, so I grab my hotel key and my change pouch and walk two rooms down the hall to the vending machine. There is nothing in the machine that I want. I should have figured that in the first place. But you see this is just the set up for the one thing that is guaranteed to happen when you leave a hotel room in your underwear. Okay, it's not underwear exactly: it's a pink Nike workout bra and shorts, but they are shorts that emphasize freedom of movement, not coverage. And everyone who has ever lived in a hotel knows what happens when I put my key in the hotel lock. The red light goes on. The lock does not open.

So now I have to go down two flights of stairs to the lobby and wait at the reception desk while new arrivals are assigned rooms and the clerk reprograms my key.

Yeah, sorry, my day was less exciting than yours. It's also close to minus thirty out there at the end of the day. I guess this is a 'love your office job' post.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Maybe It's In CAR Subpart 666

I wish I had a navigational record of how mealtime conversation got there, but there it was. Somehow it became sufficiently relevant to the conversation that a member of our party chose to mention, in all seriousness, that there is a law forbidding two devout Christians from flying together as as commander and first officer of an aircraft, in order to avoid having an aircraft be completely unmanned in the event of the Rapture.

Now, I consider myself to have a pretty thorough knowledge of Canadian Air Law. I hold an airline transport licence and have worked in Canadian aviation under part 702, 703 and 704. I have written the dispatch examinations twice and I hold the qualifications required to run a flying school, plus I have taught commercial air law courses. I get a lot of things wrong in my memory, and laws do change without a lot of fanfare, so I don't pretend to know everything. I have at some point read, if not memorized, almost all of the Canadian Air Regulations and something like that would have stood out in my memory more strongly than the Star Trek-ready requirement to obtain permission of the pilot in command before entering an aircraft in flight. There are some sections of the standards down in the 500s that I've never read, as I've never been a PRM, but anything on crew composition would be in part seven. And now I'm citing air law sections now just to avoid having to say what a bizarre law that would be.

I think I managed to remain neutral as I said, "I'm pretty sure that isn't in Canadian law. There is no dispatch requirement for tracking the religion or virtue of crewmembers." I'm pretty sure it isn't in US air law either, as I'm sure one or more of my irreverent American correspondents would have enjoyed watching my virtual eyes pop, right over the Internet after they sent me the link.

I cannot recall ever seeing a religion-related aviation regulation or company policy anywhere, but I'm sure a few exist. I'd be surprised if Air Canada doesn't have uniform policy exceptions for turbans, kippahs and headscarves. I think one British airline bans all religious symbols while in uniform: I remember a kerfuffle about a CSA who was forbidden to wear a small crucifix necklace to work. I would imagine something has been worked out so that when both members of a crew are Islamic they can take turns observing scheduled prayers. It shouldn't be too hard to punch in Mecca on the FMS to get a bearing. But those are practical day-to-day issues, not preparation for the end times.

"Perhaps," I suggested, "It's company policy somewhere."

It's contradictory, though. A company would not find a reason to concoct such a rule unless it was run by very devout Christians. But a company run by Christians who spent any amount of time worrying about unmanned post-Rapture vehicles would not want to--and in any case would not in Canada or the US be allowed to--discriminate against Christian prospective employees. Yet the only ways to implement such a policy would be either to track the Rapture-eligibility of all pilots and schedule promotions and vacations such that a sufficient pool of sinners was on hand at all times for both the left and right seat; or simply to restrict pilot hiring to sinners only.

And then you get to the issue of why would the company care? Any passengers or bystanders on the ground who were not also swept up in the Rapture would be damned to hell in any case, what difference would being killed in a plane crash make? My experience may be non-representative, but I lived and worked with some very kind, compassionate and intelligent Christians who in prayer affirming their allegiance to Jesus Christ finished with "and anyone who believes otherwise can go to hell," so I can't see them being sufficiently concerned with the manner of death of the non-chosen as to make regulations ensuring it wasn't airplane-related.

Somehow everyone avoided the obvious reason as to why such a law wasn't an issue, so I'll leave it as a straight line for you commenters.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Not Enraptured by the Weather

I wake up and look at the graphical weather forecast and see that the weather gods have pulled a switcheroo. The high we've been tracking has pushed south and the weather we're getting instead is a low pressure system bringing lots of snow. The first flakes are visible already in the lights outside the hotel window.

We eat breakfast and plan our day: nothing until afternoon, then go out at three or so, before it gets dark, and brush the snow off the airplane. Of course when the time comes that's a two step problem. Step one: brush snow off car so that car can be driven to airport. Step two: brush snow off airplane. The accumulation on the airplane is not great, and although it's a thick layer, it's very light snow. It's about -25°C so the snow is not at all wet and clumpy. Kind of the opposite of last year in MontrĂ©al with all the freezing rain. It's a good thing we came out, though, because one of the cords has come unplugged and a couple of tarps have loosened. The problem is that bungie cords completely lose elasticity in these temperatures. I'm not sure if it's just the temperature or if it's frozen moisture in the material of the cord, but the cords now have no tendency at all to retract from their stretched lengths.

We go to Canadian Tire and get some more bungie cords, then come back and do a more thorough job on the tarps. Finally there's Tim Horton's for coffee and doughnuts. Do you get a more Canadian Day than that? Snow shovelling, Canadian Tire & Tim Horton's?

The title of this post made more sense when it was combined with tomorrow's post, but I've run out of time to write both halves.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sky Mom

I received e-mail last week from Danielle Gibeault, a Wisconsin-based flight instructor looking for some blog love. I get a lot of requests to be listed on this blog, and although I read many interesting blogs, I only blogroll the ones that are much like mine or what I aspire to be. So I put on my mean face and looked over My Sky Mom.

Hard to keep a mean face while reading it. She's a nurturing and enthusiastic flight instructor, but does she meet the criteria I want?

  • ... commercial pilot? check (even though under the bizarre-to-me US rules she is not necessarily exercising the privileges of a commercial pilot licence while she is conducting flight instruction)
  • ... girl type person? check
  • ... primarily aviation blog? check
  • ... frequently updated? check
  • ... interesting to me? hey the current posts cover weather, chemtrail nutjobs and air law: check
  • ... Canadian? nah, but she's won enough points from the above to make the cut.

He blog is written in a question and answer style, but the questions she chooses to answer and her style of answering allows her to throw in any random thing she wants to blog about, too. I mostly see questions from non-pilots curious about the world of aviation, from new students looking for help keeping the airplane right side up but her credentials (the US system gives flight instructors a set of letters for every separate thing they are allowed to teach) suggest that she knows off the top of her head how a DME knows how far away you are and how many aircraft it can handle at once.

I'll answer random questions about aviation on my blog, too, but as I blog a couple of weeks ahead of posting the entries, but as much as two months behind the events chronicled, it may take a while to work in a question. If you're a non-American with a flight training question, be aware that the rules are quite different around the world. As a rough guess, if your country had closer ties to the UK or Europe than the US in the 1930s, your regulations are probably more like the Canadian and British ones than like the ones Danielle is talking about. But it's still good stuff, and I know there are a lot of people in the US who read this blog.

Lest you think Danielle's nom-de-blog indicates that she a matronly type, she's posted a photo so you can see she's got those sexy French looks, too. Go rock her website traffic counter.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Five Basic Exercises

I think it was a reader here who pointed me at 5BX, a set of exercises developed in the 1950s to keep Royal Canadian Air Force pilots fit even when they were confined to barracks in remote locations with inhospitable climates. I'm always looking for new exercises to do in my hotel room, and I like the cachet of something developed especially for Canadian pilots. Blogger Angus Watson has more information:

In the late 1950s a man named Bill Orban created a worldwide fitness phenomenon. He had been asked to build a workout programme for members of the Royal Canadian Air Force, for whom space and kit was limited. His solution was 5BX, or Five Basic Exercises, which required just 11 minutes of exercise every day (12 minutes for the female programme, XBX). If followed correctly, Orban claimed, 5BX could help anyone attain a decent fitness level in six to 10 months, then maintain it.

Though it was designed for pilots, 5BX found far wider favour, particularly among office workers. The 5BX handbook, Physical Fitness, sold 23 million copies in 13 languages. Today it is out of print, but a loyal band still swears by the 5BX ethos.

Bill Orban seems to have been someone truly interested in helping people achieve and maintain fitness, not just some guy told to do something about all those fat pilots. He dedicated his life to the idea, testing everything on real people and as he got older paying attention to the fitness needs of the elderly and disabled as well.

The 5BX programme has fallen into recent disfavour because the hands behind head situps and bouncing toe touches risk back injury, so I'm doing my toe touches very slowly and will substitute more modern abdominal exercises like stomach crunches and bicycles for the advanced situps.

I've been doing the 5BX program since before Christmas. You are told to start at the beginning and work systematically through, doing each level several times and not skipping any, thus so far it's very easy, but does actually does feel like a bit of a workout. I'm reminded of that complicated machine you see in TV ads and inflight magazines that claims you can do a workout in four minutes a day. The machine costs something ludicrous like $12,000, so if you're going to believe a ludicrous claim like that, you might as well believe the one that is free on the internet. Sometimes I do a mile run instead of the in-place running, and when I do that I usually do a fast half mile at the beginning, do my normal run workout and then another fast half mile at the end. It's still no challenge to make the targets at these easy levels.

You'll notice the above quote mentions a women's programme, the XBX with ten exercises. I initially started doing the 5BX just because it was easier to print off: five charts as opposed to a 51-page PDF booklet. Women have very few muscles that men lack, and I doubted Orban or the Air Force was sufficiently interested in the tone of those specialty muscles to develop five sorts of Kegels, so the men's programme suited me fine. I did come back to look at the women's programme though.

The XBX booklet's age highlights the social changes that have taken place in fifty years. It starts with an assurance that "The XBX is designed to firm your muscles-- not to convert you into a muscled woman." Muscled woman? Hello! Does anyone today look at a muscled female athlete like Serena Williams and not think "I want me some of that" in one sense or another? But I wasn't expecting to bulk up doing floor exercises. These are, with some modifications, the five men's exercises plus five more, concentrating mainly on flexibility.

Some of the modifications make a lot of sense. For example while the first level of the men's program calls for what I call "girl pushups" -- pushups from the knees instead of from the feet -- the first level of the women's asks you to start in the girl pushup position, but raise your body by any means possible, the illustration suggesting that you push your butt back over your feet to straighten your arms. As women typically have less upper body strength and the starting level is supposed to be something anyone can do, then that makes sense. But the ambition set for the women is very low. The top level of running in place given for the women is below the one I have already reached in the easiest chart of the men's program.

Does the program reflect lower physical expectations society had of women in the 1950s, and women just accepted them? Or have women changed that much in fifty years while men have stayed the same? Studying the charts I see that while the highest level of expectation for men is at age 18-15, followed by age 25-29, the peak of expectation for women is in girlhood, 15-17 years of age. WTF? Was the woman of 1960 so continually gravid that her physical capabilities declined as soon as she matured?

My intention is to do continue the 5BX plus the extra exercises in the women's program until I stabilize at my maximum level and then add in new and different exercises. Nothing wrong with continuing to try to level up on the 5BX, but doing the same few exercises without change isn't good. There's supposed to be a tougher program called PX90 or something similar, but al I can find online for it requires equipment or expensive videos.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Cheapest Airplane Fix Ever

Last week I blogged about a mystery item handed over to me at crew change and challenged you to tell me why my chief pilot purchased these. If I have opportunity to, I will edit this paragraph to mock or commend you on your most excellent guesses. If not, you know I'm busy this week.


The greatest hint to what they were for was not in the photo, but in the title of the blog post "The Future's So Bright ..." Those well-versed in eighties music will be able to complete the line "... I gotta wear shades" suggesting that the gag glasses had been sunglasses. It was the lenses that were of use, not the frames themselves.

You'll remember me complaining about the undimmable digital rpm display on my new high-tech tachs. From the install up until now it was either endless summer in the north, or working low altitudes in mountainous areas, so I had suffered no personal pain from the overbright avionics. The manual includes installation instructions, which recommend it be configured for a permanent backlight. This at least suggests that it could be otherwise configured, and a reader dug out the specification for a part required, which information I have passed on to maintenance. I'd planned to request it more vigourously once I started into the winter night work.

The night work came for this crew and the light from the tachometers was as obnoxious as I had predicted. They couldn't find a source of sunscreen film in the small town, but there was a dollar store and the lenses from the gag glasses filled the bill. They cut them up to create little shields for the displays. The numbers are clearly visible in daylight yet not retina-piercing at night.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Another Down Day

The weather is still not cooperating, but the high is moving very slowly towards us. Closer is good, and slow is good, I reason, because the slower it comes the slower it will leave. We'll use our new deicing fluid to get two flights done tomorrow and perhaps two flights the next day. I'll probably have to do both flights tomorrow, just to make sure my co-worker is good on night operations. I put the Do Not Disturb sign on the door and go to bed to save up some extra sleep.

Anyone who has slept shifts in a hotel knows what is coming next. Ring ring! It's the front desk calling to tell me they didn't clean the room because the sign was on the door, is there anything that I need?" I think I was to the point and said, "Only not to have people phone me and wake me up when I have the Do Not Disturb sign on the door." Not that that does any good, because there will be a different person on the desk next time. If I were spectacularly rude and raised a huge fuss there might be a post-it at the front desk reminding people not to phone room 307 because she's a shift worker. But even if spectacular rudeness were in my nature, if I did that I would probably find that my key had become deprogrammed twice a day or the families with screaming babies were always assigned rooms adjacent to mine. My friends higher up in the industry say that even when you're checking in in uniform at a high-end hotel that hosts air crews all the time, they don't connect the dots that the guy who checked in at three am doesn't need a cheery phone call at nine the next morning.

Once I've slept my fill I make a phone call, ordering flowers for someone with a birthday I can't be home for. Rather than using Interflora I just Google up a florist in the appropriate town and place a phone order. The connection isn't good and I'm struggling to have my name heard over the phone. I've spelled it a couple of times the conventional way and once in the radio alphabet, really slowly, because I know people who don't use it every day have a hard time disconnecting the words from their meanings to hear and process the first letters. The floral assistant wants to spell it back to me. She tries, "Is that P as in ... something that begins with P?" She literally said that. Apparently she can't summon a single word beginning with P to serve as an example.

We need a florist alphabet: Azalea, Buttercup, Crocus, Daffodil, Elm, Foxglove, Gladiolus, Hyacinth, Iris, Juniper, Kudzu, Lily, Magnolia, Nasturtium, Oleander, Poppy, Queen Anne's Lace, Rhododendron, Snapdragon, Thistle, Umbrella plant, Violet, Wisteria, Xeriscape, Yucca, Zinnia. I should try that next time and see if I have more success. With my luck I'd get a florist who knew I'd made up the Umbrella plant. In this case the owner of the store calls back later in the day and confirms my information on a better phone line.

The flowers did arrive in the end.

This hotel has minimal exercise faclities: a few poorly functional home-quality exercise machines. I watch a lot of Stargate and do pushups in my room until it's time to get ready to meet for dinner.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Running Targets

A couple of months ago I ran a 10 km race and although my finishing time was close to what I had predicted, it was nothing like what I used to be able to do. "Eh," I deceived myself. "I'm not training like I did back then. I could have pushed a bit harder. Just need to build up my conditioning." Yeah right. A few weeks later, I ran four hundred metres (a quarter mile), at what for me was flat out lung-bleedingly fast. And then I looked at the stopwatch and did some math. To be fair to me, there was a slight uphill grade, but were I able to sustain that near-sprint pace for ten kilometres (6 1/4 miles) I would finish five minutes behind the thirteen years ago me. I was never awed by my speed back then. If I placed well, I thought I was lucky that the fast people were having an off day, or at another race. And I remember even back then looking at the international 10k race winners' times and realizing that I couldn't run one kilometre at their average 10k pace. And I bet even now that there are people with no particular health problems who can't run a single block at my current 10k pace. Isn't it amazing to have so much variation in one species?

Why am I being so coy about my speed? It's not that I'm ashamed or secretive about my abilities, but that there is so much variation. I recently discovered that a friend had done a 10k and the time she was proud of was a third again longer than the time I was calling slow. So I'll just let us own travel at our own speeds and be proud of our own progress.

I've already taken thirteen seconds off that quarter mile, and have to go out with a GPS to find out what distances I'm running otherwise. I should also check out a library book on some kind of proper training regime, in case alternating running as fast as I can over short distances and as well as I can over long distances while hoping the two converge doesn't represent the latest in athletic science.

And today's simulated approach featured an arrival from the east to follow the 26 DME arc for the NDB/DME RWY 13R into Whitehorse. It's tricky because there's a 15 degree turn at the beacon just 3.3 nm from the threshold so you have to make the turn and track outbound to the missed approach point. I gave myself clear night skies and saw the runway ahead of me as soon as I made the turn. I'll have to do it again with poor weather to practice my outbound ADF tracking.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Postcard Project

I like to send postcards when I travel -- if you're a postcard aficionado give me an address and likely you'll eventually get a card from somewhere people rarely go on vacation -- but neither the quality nor quantity of my postcard output comes anywhere near Elizabeth McClung's Postcard Project. I mentioned her just before my break, recommending you send her a postcard. I was still thinking of her when I saw a poster in town for a scrapbooking store that was going out of business. So I found the place and bought a big pile of stickers to send to Elizabeth for her project. I found that she was right: the world of stickers shows people of all ages and colours but it's hard to find a sticker of someone in a wheelchair. Sticker-designing people may not acknowledge it, so I will. Attention people who use wheelchairs, whether you live in one every day or just borrow one to ease a temporary infirmity: you exist; you are not a blight on the landscape; you are part of my society. Roll on!

Elizabeth and I have been corresponding ever since, so I've got to know her better. She's just like her blog. At first I insisted that I didn't need a postcard from the project; I felt it was intended for people who needed that pick-me-up as something to treasure or a symbol of connection with the outside world. She has recipients who have stepped back from the brink of suicide because her cards tell them someone cares. I'm usually more of a sender than a receiver of postcards, the girl who is always on the move. But it didn't seem quite fair to send things to someone who has her postal address published on the Internet and not give my address in exchange, so eventually I relented. And wow, look what I got!

Sorry about the awkward angle. I haven't figured out how to take straight on, well-lit photos without a flash reflection marring the image. As you can see, it features a marvelous antique amphibian airplane, a warm exotic locale to contrast with a cold Canadian winter, a shapely woman clad mostly in flowers, sophisticated passengers, a vintage car, and warm words. It's also a beautiful texture. I think it's the same high-quality paper they use for cigarette packages, but a slightly thicker card. This isn't the sort of postcard that you get on a little stand outside the drugstore. It's a treasure. I haven't decided yet whether to add this to the collection of things that travel with me--adding to the weight of my suitcase and risking loss in some hotel room--or whether I'll keep it at home, always waiting for me to return. Maybe it will do a bit of both.

I present it to you not just to show off, but because Elizabeth mentioned that she has a lot of recipients who like airplane postcards, and that airplane, motorcycle and horse postcards are always in greater demand than supply. I thought that amongst my readership there might be some who have some airplane-related postcards or stickers that you could send her way. If not, what she needs more than postcards are postage stamps, both US and Canadian, and basic things to try to make herself alive, as the medical establishment has pretty much given up on her. If you can't read the address on the postcard above, it's

Beth McClung
PO Box 2560
Port Angeles, WA 98362
(Yes, I have her permission to post that).

Update: I notice on her wishlist that the medication that was on her wishlist has been purchased. Thank you readers for doing that. Even if you don't see anything on her list that looks medical, remember that she is a very intelligent person cooped up with pain and boredom, and that the manga and DVDs on the list are her desperately appreciated painkillers.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What to Do

It's another poor day for our work, but there's a high approaching and we're holding out help for good weather tomorrow. Today looks like a good shopping and looking around town day. We're in a hotel on the main street and only a couple of kilometres from the centre of town. I wonder what's here.

You can tell you're in a fun times kind of town when you go to the web to find out what the town offers and you find three three trucking companies, all listed under the category Attractions touristiques. Trucking isn't my idea of a good time, so we go out to look at the town the old fashioned way. There's a pharmacy, a couple of gas stations, a stationery store, the dollar store, a little department store and a couple of banks. The drugstore has a logo showing it to be part of a national chain, but the chain logo is less prominent than the name of the local druggist, and the only other chains in town are 7-11 and the grocery store. Stores are named and sales advertised in French or English, I supposed according to the whim of the proprietor. Everyone seems to speak both languages comfortably and conversations around me slide back and forth. It's a stereotype of Canada: a remote town with a mixed resource and agricultural base, comfortably intermingled French and English and native and non-native populations, and winter coming on any day now. You just know there's going to be a moose and a beaver around the next bend.

I bought some postcards and some groceries and headed back to the hotel.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The True North Cold and Frosty

The handover crew reported that the worst problem here has been heavy frost. There's no point trying to get going in the morning before nine because the frost reforms as fast as it can be taken off, and then even if the weather holds, the frost is so heavy that if they land at four to refuel, the airplane is unflyable by the time the tanks are full. Before he leaves, one of the other pilots drives to another airport served by a scheduled carrier and buys five gallons of Type I deicing fluid for $25 a gallon, and that's already partly diluted. It has about a 45 minute holdover time in these conditions, and we use it without further dilution, it can be safely applied down to the mid-thirties. If it's warm enough for dilution we'll mix a themos full of hot water from the hotel coffee maker with a half garden sprayer full of fluid and that will be good to -18, if I recall correctly. It's all written down where I can consult it.

The plan will be to detarp, deice, run up and depart then when we land for fuel to be ready to deice again. It will be worth it for getting the second flight in on a day. The fluid looks like the orange syrup you got to make orange drink, if you ever had a McDonald's birthday party back in the 1980s. We can now carry this on board if we have room for it, and we're expecting to be in one place long enough to actually use the stuff this year. It also has a long shelf life, so if we shut down and go to Florida we can store it somewhere until we return to Canada in the spring.

Deicing is a huge deal in Canada. I can't imagine how many resources go into manufacturing, testing, obtaining, storing and applying deicers, but when the 140-page government Guidelines document has sections on hijacking and bomb threats I have to wonder if someone didn't go overboard on it. Are they talking about people hijacking the deicing truck, or having a company or airport policy that hijacked aircraft go to the head of the deicing queue?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Crashing Well

The weather the next day is crummy so no one has to get up super early nor stay up extra late. We all eat breakfast together in the hotel lobby while the television shows images of random airplanes to illustrate a story on a float plane crash. We four pilots are sitting together trying to guess what kind of airplane actually was involved in the accident, and what happened. Our guesses are "Beaver" and "shit happens," possibly engine failure under extenuating circumstances. (I still don't know the result of the investigation, but the accident aircraft turned out to be a Beaver that is in both my logbook and Harrison Ford's).

Floatplanes are unforgiving. Without looking at any statistics we feel that the Beaver is a safe aircraft. It works in a harsh environment, so you're going to see a lot of accidents where people tried to get it off grossly overweight on lakes that were too small and rivers that were too tightly curved. But it isn't a falling out the sky kind of airplane. The engines are tough, too. We've heard stories of them coming in for routine maintenance and being discovered to be not firing on all cylinders.

Conversation moves to the crashability of various aircraft. The aircraft we are operating here has excellent crash characteristics. They do, they crash well. You pretty much have to stall them or fly them into something, or lose structural integrity before they do crash, and people still walk away. One pilot is talking about wanting the boss to get a Caravan ("the 80s van or the airplane?" we tease) in order to build turbine time. They don't crash well, someone points out, and we all laugh because they don't.

It's at about this point that I realize our customers have joined in the happy conversation about our aircraft's superior crashability. This is a totally normal pilot conversation, as normal as segueing from the Riders' sad sad Grey Cup debacle to other great chokes in sports history, but how did we get into this with our customers? They don't see anything wrong with it, though, thank goodness.

If I were an airline pilot I know I couldn't even MENTION the televised crash coverage during a hotel breakfast. Can you imagine sitting in the breakfast room with members of the public while news of an airplane crash came on the TV, and you're in your uniform with your crew. You can't react in any way that appears callous, unnerved, joking ... there's no safe way to react. I think I'd eat in my room.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Future's So Bright ...

With the handover briefing comes the handover of the stuff. It fills a big Tupperware tub and I loathe the thing. The tub has the bloat of my suitcase, as various pilots add things that they think should be useful and never get taken out. There's a videogame joystick in there, WTF?

Usually I go to one of the outgoing pilots' rooms and pick up the tub, and at the same collect the aircraft keys and logbook. This is a good time for me to remember to give them the keys to the rental car, and yes I warned them about the vibration. "You could have exchanged it!" Yes, I know.

In the box, there is a cheap printer of the sort that costs less than a replacement ink cartridge and which I make a point of not using even if it might be useful, just to demonstrate my contempt for it. I must have used it once or twice because whenever I get home and try to print, half my applications are trying to print to it. It's a Canon iP2600. It is lightweight and it works. I just don't like having to carry it around. It probably weighs less than the package of printer paper it shares the box with.

We used to have to photocopy and fax everything, but now we have a mini-scanner with software that packs it all up into PDFs for us. It's an excellent product with good support. The box contains the mini-scanner, it its little drawstring bag, plus its cable. There's also a few packages of receipts in here and this rotation an unexpected thing.


I forgot to put anything in the picture for scale, so I have to tell you that this is not a normal pair of glasses, but a giant pair of joke glasses, the kind with the frames wider than a person's face. You can see in the photo that the temples are bent, that's bent in towards the head so that they can actually go behind the ears. These were purchased for a valid operational reason, one which I understood and agreed with as soon as it was explained to me, and which I have previously blogged an intention to do. Can anyone guess their purpose?

Answer next week.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Handover Briefing

The handover briefing includes socializing about progress on people's renos and relationships interspersed with details of the work, airplane quirks, new policies, customer disposition, unwritten policies of the local ATC unit and all the contact information for deicers, fuellers and other contacts we've made over the month.

There's a new project manager. He's very gracious, and the chief pilot suggests that we might have to push him to let him know he can ask us to to work in conditions he doesn't know are safe and leave us to say no if it isn't. There is no hangar space at all and a small ramp that is occasionally filled with unmarked B1900s that appear out of nowhere -- usually without regard for circuit procedures -- disgorge and/or take on passengers and vanish again into the sky. They've seen some larger aircraft too, maneuvering very carefully on the small ramp and following the MF procedures to the letter. The chief pilot has concluded that there's a middle size of aircraft whose pilots think they are too important to follow the rules set out for the C172s but are not yet responsible enough to obey the rules that are actually set out for everyone. There is electrical power for our block heaters, and an extremely low-flow self-serve avgas pump that cuts off and must be restarted every $500, but despite numerous attempts we haven't managed to contact airport personnel.

There are two sorts of military airspace we will be working around on this project. They give us the frequencies and the information they've obtained on them. One is active only Monday to Friday 8 am to 4 pm, like defending your country were some sort of office job. The other is 24/7, no overflights and don't go taking any pictures, either. Who knew that Canada had secret military bases. I was extra good and didn't even look out the window on that side, so I can't tell you what was there. Just kidding. I looked, but it was dark.

The airplane is just out of an inspection and has been behaving well. There might be work in Medicine Hat when we are snowed out of here, which will probably be soon. Also, my coworker hasn't flown this type of mission at night, and doesn't have much actual IFR experience, so I'll go with him on one just so he doesn't have to suffer the dark night disorientation alone the first time.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Back to Work

Even a pilot can only do so much sitting around and reading funny websites before she has to go back to work. I have checklists for packing to make sure I don't get to the job and not have a water bottle, warm socks or my camera battery charger. The list takes into account that during any given rotation I might be going to the Yukon or to Florida, to a big city or to a camp in the middle of nowhere. I have to be ready to work with appropriate clothing, supplies, entertainment and the like. I think I have the suitcase of Dorian Gray: I weigh the same as I did in high school, but my suitcase seems to get heavier every year. It's because every rotation in the field I discover one more gadget I can't live without, or decide that I should have eleven changes of socks instead of ten, so as to go one more day without doing laundry. Now before going to the airport I weigh the suitcase, and evict some of the toys that have snuck in. It helps that I now have the company manuals on the hard drive.

I would like to pre-pack my flight bag, that is the bag that will be in the cockpit with me when I am the pilot, and just have it inside the big suitcase ready to go, but I don't want to check my electronics, so they all go in my carry-on with my laptop. Sometimes when the big suitcase weighs in over the fifty pound limit I just open it up and pull out the flight bag to carry as my "personal item" (it's a leather messenger bag). So I also have to pack the forbidden carry-on items outside the flight bag. So many things that I want in the cockpit are forbidden in the cabin.

Recently I checked in and the bag went on the scale at something like 51.2 lbs. "Do you want me to take out one point two pounds?" I asked immediately.

"Normally I would make you do it, but because you were so willing to, it's okay," she said. Amusingly, nearby check-in agents chimed in to back her up.

"She does! You're so lucky!" It must be a routine to make me feel well-treated. I think I already told that story. Whether you work in an office or in the sky, your life is a routine, the routine is just a different shape and size.

The flight is quite turbulent, but nothing to be alarmed about so long as you and everyone around you has their seatbelts securely fastened. Not too long ago several passengers were injured in turbulence because while they took the suggestion that their seatbelts be fastened while they were seated, they buckled them so loosely around their laps that the buckle part was able to fly up and catch on the arm of the seat, undoing the belt in turbulence. For best results, do up your seatbelt snugly under normal circumstances and when the turbulence starts or the announcement is made, cinch it tight. It should be somewhat less uncomfortable than breaking your neck on the ceiling. We arrive, and so has my baggage, so I proceed to step two.

This month's work site is not served by commercial carriers, so once again I rent a car to travel to the site from the airport. The car is less new than the typical rental car. Maybe I shouldn't have told the agent I wanted it for a crew change. She knows that probably means hard driving on rough roads. There's a bit of a vibration in the steering column, but it goes in a straight line. I drive into town to pick up my coworker. (He's here already because he came out early to visit friends).

We go to a Tim Horton's to supply for the journey. He says he ate recently and is saving his snacks for later, so offers to drive. I warn him about the steering and accept. As I write this up, I realize that our decision not to return the car for a better one was a continuing theme for the month. I'll have to watch for that in out future CRM together.

The local tourist information place was closed for the winter or the weekend or something, but we had Google map printouts and road signs to guide us, and decided that would be enough. It's not like there will be so much traffic and so many interchanges that we won't have opportunity to plot our route safely. It's not snowing and there is no snow on the roads yet, either. After forty-five minutes or so, my co-worker hands me his watch, trying to escape the flagellation from the vibration. I didn't ask him whether he would have preferred me to be late than suffer this car. We'll be there soon.

And despite the amount that all the detail in this account resembled foreshadowing, we were there in less time than we expected, and with no incident. Except after we unloaded, I went out to the car to get my sunglasses and park the car, but then forgot to get my sunglasses and had to go out to the car again, much to the amusement of the others. The crew we were replacing met us at the hotel lobby and it was a joyous reunion. We all went out for supper and debriefing. In a different car.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Road Signs

As you might guess from my enjoyment of describing my adventures, I love words. And the astute blog observer has probably noticed that I love signs. So you might believe that instead of blogging on a given day, you might find me laughing my head off at funny road signs. But I sent that to someone and he sent me back more funny road signs. Do not visit these sites if you are susceptible to laughter-induced injuries.


Just so as to have a scrap of originality in this post, I looked through my collection for a funny sign of my own that I hadn't posted. I didn't find one, but there's a sign in that picture and a flying car. As testimony to my extreme professionalism I will tell you that my heart ached to go to the museum and find out about that winged car, but I was on minimum rest, with my schedule allowing me only time to check in, sleep for the required period and check out again, so my curiosity was not satisfied, but the law and safety requirements were.

Also, I am keeping my New Year's resolution. I flew an arrival from the southeast giving me a teardrop entry into a shuttle descent for the the Rwy 11 ILS/DME at Port Hardy, British Columbia. I had to go missed on the first approach because I suck at making fine throttle adjustments on MSFS and I F2/F3ed my way into a destabilized approach.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Just One of the Guys


An image for you from North Carolina. It looks like the building was designed to standard building codes, but as there was very rarely a female in the building, the guys were using whichever washroom was available, so someone made it official. The washroom door locks and inside is a toilet and a washbasin with shaving cream and other toiletries indicating that people practically live in this building. I have no problem with using a unisex head. I'm often surprised to find that a maintenance hangar or other mostly male province has a ladies room.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Oxygen for Dogs

Humans piloting non-pressurized aircraft are required to use supplemental oxygen for flight above ten thousand feet or so. The exact altitude depends on duration of flight and national regulations. Generally we have the choice between two basic styles of supplemental oxygen supply, the nasal cannula (i.e. feel like you have a drinking straw up each nostril) and the mask type (i.e. feel like an extra on Gray's Anatomy). In Canada oxygen must be available to passengers above 10,000' and they are required to supplement oxygen above 13,000'. There are no laws regarding provision of oxygen to dogs.

But now if you want to treat your dog like a passenger, or make it look like at home on Futurama, you can equip it with a dog oxygen mask. 'cause the last thing you want is euphoric basset hound, a cyanotic chow or a chihuahua making poor decisions.

I already knew about dog ear defenders, (and that page has a further link to dog vomit sacks) but the doggie oxygen is new. What's next? Is my dog going to want his own chart holder?

Monday, January 04, 2010

Secret Security Measures

Oh look, I forgot to do a blog entry for tonight. I thought I had them all done for the week. Those of you who read the comments on The Wings Stayed On! know that I was just ruminating over whether to blog about the US federal crackdown on someone using bloggers to leak the TSA security directives enacted immediately after the Christmas Day underwear bomber incident on NW253. I guess that settles it: this will be today's entry, then.

Within hours of the discovery of a man who tried to blow up an a airplane using explosives concealed in his underpants, the TSA provided airlines with a new set of security rules to add to all the existing ones. That's a pretty quick reaction on the second most major holiday on the American calendar. I don't know the exact method of dissemination but getting this thing in the hands of everyone who had to know about it was probably some combination of fax, e-mail and hand delivery. The complete text is here in an entry by Steven Frischling on his blog Flying with Fish.

Almost all the rules in the document are things that passengers had to submit to or were not allowed to do. To summarize, all passengers (with the exception of heads of state) and their carry-ons must be re-scrutinized at the boarding gate with a physical pat-down; for the last hour of international flight to a US destination passengers must remain in their seats with nothing on their lap and no access to carry-on baggage; passengers may have no external communication nor real time information about the flight path. There are no secret codes in the security directive, and nothing that you wouldn't learn from taking a flight while subject to the regulations. Just those rules.

Obviously all flight attendants, pilots, boarding area staff and their supervisors would have to know this information. That includes such staff members of foreign carriers operating into the US. The document, as is standard for such documents, requires acknowledgment by the airline and prohibits further dissemination of "this document or information contained herein." So the TSA have made it technically illegal for the airline to specify to passengers what they are required to do or not do. The airlines callously ignored this, and if you travelled across the border over Christmas you know that most of the elements of that document were repeatedly yelled, broadcast, or posted for your attention before and during your flight.

The reason the complete text appears on Flying with Fish (and another blog, Elliott) is that someone along that chain of distribution leaked the document to a number of bloggers. Those two posted it.

Aviation security was not compromised. The entire procedure as experienced by the passengers had been tweeted, texted, blogged, relayed by old fashioned word of mouth and even published in mainstream media before the blogs went live with it. Maybe the bit about no locational PAs would take a while to deduce. Perhaps no one had yet noticed the exception for the heads of state. But nothing in it is or should be secret. It should have been posted on the TSA website for passengers to read before embarkation.

Both bloggers who posted the text of the document were subpoenaed by the feds. Both subpoenas have since been dropped. Fish had his MacBook damaged in the process (perhaps it was dropped too?) but he has faith that the feds will do the right thing and replace it, so that episode is over. I don't know whether it is because they found the leak, realized that there was nothing harmful in it, or decided there was no point in trying to stop information being passed on when it was so widely disseminated to foreign nationals in the first place.

The concept of secret rules that must be obeyed without being communicated does explain why people over the last eight years have suddenly found themselves being arrested for queuing for the restroom and other "what was I doing wrong? where is this written down?" offenses. It's illegal for you to do it and it's illegal for the airlines to tell you it's illegal. I don't like that.

I can see the screening policy and things like secondary screening criteria being guarded; I don't mind rules giving airline personnel some leeway for interpretation and enforcement, but the actual RULES should be public and known. I want to live in a society where the rules are publicly available and subject to public debate. If there's a secret rule out there saying that my government can make secret rules, then I want a new government.

Update:

Today, the Transportation Security Administration issued new security directives to all United States and international air carriers with inbound flights to the U.S. effective January 4, 2010.

The new directive includes long-term, sustainable security measures developed in consultation with law enforcement officials and our domestic and international partners.

Once again the changes are secret, distributed only to the airlines, so you won't know what you are doing wrong until they tell you.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Hercules Extras

There were so many things I learned about the Hercules C-130 and only so much room for asides during sim sessions that this topic has been held over for another blog entry. If you have any questions about the airplane that I can't answer, we can draw on John and knowledgeable readers to find out.

I feel a little guilty about setting a poor example, in that from beginning to end we had almost no plan for the sim session. The time, time of day and the like kept changing with no guarantee I would be able to actually fly it, so we never sat down to make a flight plan. An alternate titles for that blog entry was How Not to Fly an Unfamiliar Airplane. It worked out pretty well, but I wish I had done fewer turns and stalls so I had time for another circuit.

Wikipedia hosts this image of a C-130J HUD but it doesn't look exactly what I saw. I assume the display is somewhat user-customizable, as implied by this fascinating article about testing of the concept of using automation to reduce the number of crew members on board a Hercules. These testers didn't like the HUD as presented in their simulation, but it was simply superimposed over the scenery on the same screen, so not the same at all. I noticed, however, that the same technology was used at the instructor station in the sim I was in, for the instructor's view of what the pilots are seeing. I didn't realize until this experience how useful a HUD would be. Boss, if you're secretly reading my blog, you now know what I want for Christmas.

Looking for information to use to prepare myself for the sim, I found this document. It gives truly excellent advice, most of which is obvious to me now, but which I wish I had had prior to training for my first type rating. Unfortunately it is a companion to the computerized study materials on the C-130J and contains only generic advice, not the aircraft-specific information I sought. John couldn't give me the study CD, although it was probably copyright and not military classification that forbade the external release of the data.

Advice on pre-departure briefings is eye-opening, because of all the various hazards the crew might have to look at, especially flying in parts of the world with poor availability of weather forecasting. And this study question reminds me that there's a type of briefing I never get from Nav Canada when I call:

Before leaving home station on missions departing the CONUS, crews will receive a (an) ____________ briefing that will emphasize terrorist, enemy, and friendly political and military development in the area in which they will be flying.

I have the image of a METAR style symbology with teletype-style abbreviations representing the likelihood of various types of enemy action throughout the day, ending in, "and a thirty per cent probability of small children asking for chocolate and chewing gum in the streets during daylight hours."

Amusingly, one earlier commenter implied that one has to be an American citizen to fly a Hercules. Not true at all. While it is American designed and built, the aircraft is operated by so many countries, including my own, that the list itself has its own Wikipedia article and I don't care to count its members. One of the best summaries I saw of all the missions it can perform was in a magazine article on the use of the C-130 in Australia.

I have more information on those turns, including detailed pre-paradrop checklists and a description of approaching an aerodrome in IMC while staying inside the secured perimeter. I'm sure there are a lot of tricks this thing can do that aren't documented anywhere. It's a versatile airplane that has performed all kinds of missions, all over the world for over fifty years. But I bet it's a bitch and a half to deice in the winter, and good luck finding hangar space for it where I'm going next.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Roadkill Capital

Okay, because I was too lazy to get this all written back in December, I'm now picking up my story after the sim session in North Carolina. This is continued from blog entries made before my holiday break.

The next morning, John and I had been planning to meet up and go over to the local museum or something, but some colonel called him and he was swamped by work, so I was on my own. I could have gone to the museum, but I kept remembering the density of billboards along the highway out of Raleigh, suggesting that advertisers expected a large number of drivers to be sitting there with the opportunity to look around and read the scenery. My departure airport is on the other side of Raleigh, a large city, and I imagine there will be thousands of people trying to escape it at my early evening check-in time. I chicken out and skip the sightseeing so as to drive through the city before the end of the business day.

I do get a bit of sightseeing in anyway, as at least this time it's daylight for my drive and I can see some of the state. It has trees and farms and cotton fields. If you're from the US south, cotton fields probably are to you as wheat fields are to me: a generic farm-type crop. I can think of the early pioneers clearing trees and breaking their ploughs on prairie soil to plant carefully hoarded seeds from last year's crop. Or I can think of modern tractors with air conditioners and MP3 players trundling along sowing genetically modified herbicide-resistant triticale seed in precise GPS-determined lines. Any flight I go on, anywhere south of Prince Albert between Lethbridge and Kenora I'm going to see a wheat field. But I've never seen a Q-tip bush before. Honestly, that's what they look like: knee-high, fairly knarled bushes with big poufy globules of cotton on them. I think they're actually closer to fist-sized than Q-tip sized, and they are already pure white. I don't think the raw cotton even needs bleaching. I'm assuming that by late November the harvest is over and that I'm looking at the leftovers after the harvesting machines have been by.

My only mental association with cotton fields and cotton harvesting is in knowing that cotton was an important crop of the pre-revolutionary south, when slave labour was used for the harvest. If I condense foreign countries' history into famous snippets: if the French Revolution is Robespierre, guillotines, and Marie Antoinette and the Russian Revolution is Lenin, peasants with pitchforks, and red banners, then my images for the American Revolution are black slaves picking cotton, muskets, and horrific field amputations. This isn't meant to be a political statement of any kind, just a reflection of which history classes or History Channel specials I didn't sleep though. I shouldn't be surprised that people in North Carolina still grow cotton -- it's still a comfy thing to have ones undergarments made of -- and so I have looked up some modern cotton-growing facts online in order to reduce the percentage of things I know about cotton that are directly linked to slavery.

I started by Googling cotton harvester so I could learn a new image of how the cotton gets off the plants into the baskets. It turns out that I'm not the only one fixated on the colonial image of the cotton farm, as the Wikipedia article cautions me not to call it a cotton picker, because that's a racial slur. And it turns out that the delayed invention of a mechanical cotton picking machine is actually an academic puzzle. I tried to pull off the highway and photograph a cotton field, but I ended up at a swine farm quarantine blockade. This is why it takes me so long to write a blog entry. Or get to Raleigh.

I can testify that North Carolina is inhabited not only by the wide range of aquatic creatures featured at the Aquarium, but by many individuals of diverse land-dwelling species. I know this because hundreds of them are laid out in flattened display on the roads of the state. I honestly have never seen such high density of flat animals per kilometre of highway. I guess lots of woodland, lots of roads and lots of cars combine to make this the flat wildlife capital of the nation.

So I suppose that's a good way to start off the New Year: antagonize an entire state by reducing them to cotton, pig farms, roadkill and traffic jams. Don't worry, though, karma has already retaliated for my maligning your fine state. While I reached RDU without encountering a traffic jam, returned the rental car and got on the airplane, the sailing was not so smooth back at home. My car battery was dead. Not completely dead, but it seems that my car has a computer that looks at the battery charge and won't even let me try to turn over the engine when it's that low. In the airplane I'd at least be allowed to watch the propeller blades feebly flick around. In the car the dashboard lights came on, but turning the key just made a clicking noise. I had to pay $18 to extortionists for the use of a jumpstarter battery cart. That's almost as much as I'd pay for a diesel-powered battery cart for a plane, and that would include a guy in a parka to hook it up for me and then disengage it after I got the engines running.