Sunday, February 28, 2010

Go Hockey Men!

Sorry, no blog today. I'm busy watching the Olympics. For the hockey men, I predict Gold: USA, Silver: Canada, Bronze: Slovakia.

I'm just watching the hockey women accept their medals. I hope Canada's men win the gold, but I also hope they will be as gracious as the Americans women in defeat if they don't. And the Finnish women made me love them, all proud to have a medal, regardless of colour, and making little personal gestures at the people they hoped were watching the TV coverage. Probably on the men's teams neither the gold nor silver medalists will cry. I think I see tears on both sides for the gals.

The medals themselves are ugly, though. They look crumpled.

Update: I'm very happy to be completely wrong on my medal prediction. What a fantastic hockey tournament. GO CANADA! U - S - A! HYVÄ SUOMI!

Friday, February 26, 2010

General Aviation Woes

General aviation hassles. This time it's not security regulations, airspace restrictions, or exorbitant airport fees. It's just small town council that doesn't want to invest in public facilities. It's nothing that hasn't happened to small airports across Canada, and even one so large that it was a designated alternate landing strip for the NASA space shuttle, but this one includes a personal angle from a Cockpit Conversation reader.

Julian, whose story this is, passed the Transport Canada instructor ride in December and went out and applied everywhere, in person for the nearby schools and by e-mail for places further afield, like Kawartha Lakes Flight Center in Lindsay, Ontario. Julian describes the thrill of that first don't-know-what-to-expect aviation job interview.

A few weeks later, I got a reply and I had my first interview! I wasn't sure how to dress though because so many schools are so laid back in their attire, but I thought I'd dress to the nines anyway. When I got there I was way over dressed. The interview went well and we went for a little .5 flight. Then he said you got the job if you want it. I said, "There is only one thing: I have a volunteer job from the 12-28 at the Olympics in Vancouver."

They were really supportive and said something like, "This is a once in a lifetime opportunity!" And it really is. So they let me have the time off whenever I wanted to leave. Cool.

So in January, Julian moved to Lindsay, a farm town of 17,000 people an hour's drive north east of Toronto (assuming you're not trying to leave Toronto in rush hour traffic). The school itself has four two-seater Cessna 152s two four-seater Cessna 172s and a twin-engine Piper Seneca. The school owners were upfront about winters being slow with little flying. The first week he did a bunch of rental checkouts and logged six hours of flying. He was so delighted to be flying at all, that he kept up his spirits through a few days of unflyable weather and then as much flying as he could handle for the rest of that week.

The first fine weather weekend brought Julian his most amazing sight ever: little Lindsey was swarmed by more airplanes than he had ever seen fly into an uncontrolled airport. Even a C130 did a low and over. People would fly in and go to the restaurant or come and talk to them at the school. His students were keen and doing well, with one scheduled to solo the weekend before Julian left for the Olympics.

The school had an instructor meeting, about an approaching Transport Canada inspection. These are regular occurrences at aviation businesses of all kinds. Julian had questions which were discussed and answered. The owner came and told him that he had flown more than all the other instructors despite not having any students to start. The other four instructors have second jobs and instruct only part time, but Julian is putting everything he has into it, and it's paying off. As the only instructor there with an instrument rating he also has some multi-engine instrument flying to look forward to, a lucky coup for an instructor so early in his career. But every opportunity in aviation seems to have a stumbling block laid across its threshold. It's not just my stories that read this way.

Julian came into school early the morning after a snowfall to prepare for for an eight a.m. flight. As he looked out over the ramp to see how much deicing he would need to do, he noticed pink ribbons on the props of the Seneca. "Geeze TC is here already," he thought. He walked into the office and there learned that the City of Kawartha Lakes had put locks around all the propellers and were seizing the aircraft for unpaid bills.

You never know whose story to believe as a peon in this industry, but the school's story is that yes, they do owe for rent and fuel but not anywhere near the value of the property seized, that the city has gone about everything illegally, as they should have only seized something of equal value not seven aircraft and the school's only means of producing revenue. I can tell you that December and January are the worst revenue months for a flying school, and as this was the beginning of February with a quasistationary high was parked over the area, giving clear skies and perfect training conditions. Julian alone would have flown over twenty-five hours that week, bringing in revenue for the city, but the airplanes stayed parked.

The locks were supposed to come off Friday, but they didn't. They were supposed to come off Monday. But they didn't. As far as Julian knew while he was on the bus up Whistler mountain they were still on. The school is suing the city for damages. Word is that the city is trying to close the airport so they can put in a new subdivision across the street on the approach for runway 31. There is not a shortage of usable land in the area.

Julian managed to have a blast at Whistler, meeting athletes, celebrities and other young people. He said it was kind of a mood kill for someone spending money and enjoying the mountain scenery when he could and should be trying to find work. But it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. He still has a good attitude, as he wrote me offering an Olympic postcard (which I told him to send to Elizabeth) and I had to talk the tale of woe out of him.

It's a typical 'getting started in the industry' story, unfortunately it's typical right down to the setback just as the solos are approaching. (Solos are important for a new instructor, as he needs to teach three students to solo and three to licence before he can upgrade his instructor rating). I was going to make this into an ad for Julian's services as a Class 4 instructor, but the school reopened and he'll be able to go back to work.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

One-Way Lungs

Once upon a time at a job interview I was asked "What is the difference between a turbine engine and a piston engine?" This was before I understood that a question like that really means, "Demonstrate to the interview panel that you are a pilot who knows how things work on the airplanes she has flown, by describing the components of these two types of engines." I accepted it instead as the more interesting challenge of identifying the fundamental contrast between the two basic means of powering an airplane.

I was very pleased with my answer, as after only a moment of thought collection I stated that a piston engine represents a batch process, whereas a turbine engine is a continuous one. Concise and correct. Much of the work of chemical engineering is scaling chemical processes proven in a test tube (or perhaps--except in Texas--an Erlenmeyer flask), into much more efficient large scale continuous ones.

Fortunately, for the sake of the interview, I expanded on my thesis to explain that in a piston engine vapourized fuel is mixed with air and drawn into a cylinder where it is burned, produced power and is exhausted over and over again in discrete parcels, each power stroke contributing to the turning of the crankshaft as well as of the propeller, while in a turbine engine the fuel and air are continuously mixed and expelled. I think they were a little surprised by the initial angle of my answer, but satisfied that I knew my stuff. Later on, another interviewee said that his answer was that a piston engine is most efficient at low altitudes, while a turbine engine is most efficient at higher altitudes. I of course knew that, but such an operational difference hadn't occurred to me, even though it was equally true and relevant.

It was with that context that I learned how bird lungs work differently than humans. Somewhere between elementary school science class and basic first aid, you probably learned that when humans breathe air through our trachea, and so on into our lungs, it passes through tiny tubes called bronchioles which dead-end in clusters of tiny aveolar sacs. We inhale, filling the sacs with a mixture of mostly nitrogen and oxygen. Some of the oxygen diffuses through the walls of the aveoli into the capillaries surrounding them, in exchange for waste carbon dioxide. We exhale, expelling most but not all of the air, which now contains nitrogen unaffected by the process, somewhat depleted oxygen, and some carbon dioxide. Blood flows continuously through the capillaries, but during at least half the breathing cycle, the air in the aveoli is already partly depleted of oxygen. So it's not the most efficient process if you're interested in extracting all available oxygen, but it works pretty well for us, and our fellow mammals.

Birds, however, do it differently. They still breathe in though their mouths and noses into their trachea, but instead of bronchioles that end in aveolar cul-de-sacs that have to be filled and emptied, birds have parabronchi, tiny tubes which are surrounded by capillaries and have an intake at one end and an exhaust at the other. They're not called "intake" and "exhaust" because this is biology not engine design but you get the idea. Birds still breathe in and out in individual breaths, so to keep the air flow through the parabronchi continuous, birds have air sacs in addition to their lungs. While the bird is breathing in, outside air is going into the posterior air sacs and through the bird's lungs, the air going through the bird's lungs exits into the anterior air sacs. While the bird breathes out, air flows from the posterior air sacs through the lungs and out of the lungs and the anterior air sacs to the trachea. In other words, through use of temporary storage facilities, the bird is drawing fresh air through its lungs at the same time as it is exhaling stale air, and is expelling stale air from its lungs at the same time as it is drawing breath.

The bird method is more efficient at lower concentrations of oxygen, such as that found at the altitudes used by large migratory birds (see the figures at the end), or that of the Triassic era.

This is the coolest thing I learned all week. Look at the bird respiration link for more bizarre bird breathing stuff, like the fact that that air sacs are integrated into their bones, or that some birds have looping tracheas, way longer than they need to be.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Spectre of a Nemesis

My PPC renewal is due in a few months, but others in the company are due earlier and the chief pilot wants train everyone up at once and then all go together to somewhere we can book an examiner and do the ride. ("Ride" is short for checkride, a flight test to allow me to maintain my qualifications). There aren't that many pilot examiners in Canada, and I've been in the industry a while, so it happens that I know this guy. So do you. He was the one beside me for my worst ride ever.

He's been haunting me for a while. I was supposed to go back to him for a line check a few weeks after the initial ride, but I was bumped from my flight to the testing location, so I was given a different examiner. I was supposed to fly with him two years ago, but the airplane broke down and I again flew with a different examiner. Each time I have to face this showdown it gets easier, so I don't think I'm stressed more than for a usual ride this time.

Why should I be freaked out? He flew with me once five years ago: even if he hated me as much as it seemed, he's probably not even going to remember me. In the intervening time, I've gained more experience while the test hasn't gotten any harder. I haven't stopped being a girl: rumour is that the he thinks women should be in the kitchen not the cockpit. I could bring cookies to prove I still knew how to operate a kitchen. Maybe I can pass for a male. (I'm trying to remember if my sex is on my pilot licence). Or maybe I should just shut up and fly the airplane.

I think it will go fine.

That's not for a month or so while yet, and I don't know what airport it will be at, but I can review my notes from that ride and make sure I don't make the same mistakes again.

Happy Thinking Day, to those who know what that is.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

He Already Has a Clipboard

A friend of mine watching videos (like the one below) at Know Your Meme was entranced not so much by the pseudo-scientific approach to pop culture, but by the fact that all the "Internet Scientists" in the videos had lab coats with their names on. "Oh!" he said, with a longing normally reserved for Lamborghinis and private islands full of bikini-clad bodyguards, "I wish I could have a lab coat with my name on it."

How could one not indulge someone on such a simple desire? Lab coats, I knew, are cheap and how hard is it to get anything customized these days? "I am going to get you a belated Christmas present." In minutes I had selected a website selling lab coats. "What colour would you like your name to be in? What font? Any other text?" He was bug eyed with joy at the prospect of having his very own lab coat. Bizarre. I thought we'd all come to terms with the fact that if it exists, you can buy it on the Internet. And lab coats are fully legal without a licence in Canada.

So of course I was doubly amused when the extremely Internet-savvy comic artist Randall Munroe through his comic xkcd expressed the same glee at the availability of lab coats for purchase. It's true that the lab coat is a universal badge of geeky authority, but hey, you can buy laminating badge-making machines on the Internet, too.

The Canadian shipping charges were insane, so I specified that the order be shipped to a receiver in a US border town. They e-mail you when the package has arrived and then charge your $3 to collect it. I know someone who lives near the border on the Canadian side, so arranged a trip to visit her, and then on my way home drove across the border to collect the goods.

At the border the US Customs official closed his booth just before I got to it, in order to go and talk to someone in another booth. I had become distracted reading my passport or something and didn't notice immediately when he returned to wave me forward, so I started off the conversation on a bad note. But this should be routine.

"Where are you going?"

"Just to <border town>."

"Purpose of your visit?"

"Just picking up a package."

'What sort of package?"

"I think it's a lab coat."

"A lab coat?" Suspicion hackles raised on his neck. "What is it for?"

I should have just said, "It's a gift for my friend, who is a scientist." True, and the customs guy didn't have to know he works in a branch of science that doesn't use labcoats. But I'm stunned by his need to know what a lab coat is for, cursed with the need to answer the question that I know he is asking, "To wear," I manage. I mean what else would you do with it? "It keeps stuff off your clothes."

He offered me an out, "For your job?" I could have said yes, but there's a really good chance that the screen of information my passport has pulled up on my identifies me as a pilot, so I continue trying to explain why my friend wants a lab coat.

"Because it's a ... lab coat. It's cool and science-y. Like on TV." Is he contemplating the possibility that he's about to bust up an international methamphetamine ring? Do terrorists wear personalized lab coats while building bombs in cheap hotel rooms?

He looks at the computer screen again to see if I'm a known threat, and I guess I'm not, as he finally waves me on with "Have a nice day."

I pick up the package and open it to get the invoice and to make sure the order is correct. As I cross back into Canada, I prepare to again justify my purchase.

"Where do you live?"


"Purpose of your visit?"

"Picking up a parcel." The wrapping is evident on the passenger seat.

"What did you get?"

"A lab coat. It cost twenty-four bucks."

I brandish the receipt but he doesn't look at it. Lab coats are not suspicious objects in Canada. He was waving me through to Canada and looking at the next driver in line before I'd even finished speaking. I wasn't even asked to go inside to pay duty on my purchase. I guess it isn't worth it for them for three dollars.

So I conclude that there are three types of people with respect to lab coats: those who consider them a useful but mundane piece of apparel, those who consider them to be a cool badge of scientific authority, and those who are suspicious of anyone who would want one.

Looks like this has become the unofficial blog week for exterior markings of authority and worth.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Professionalism is two things. Firstly it is always doing your utmost to ensure a safe, legal, efficient flight that meets the needs and expectations of your customers. In the case of passengers that includes maintaining their physical and emotional comfort. And much of that is achieved through the second part of professionalism, always maintaining the appearance of someone who will fulfill the first part.

The first part is achieved by following checklists, learning everything you can about your airplane, insisting that things are done right even when it is inconvenient, keeping current with and obeying all the regulations and policies, always flying with the precision that would be demanded of you in the most extreme emergency, identifying your weaknesses and working to strengthen them, and reporting for duty sober, fed, rested and fit. The second part is achieved with a recent haircut, white shirt, straight tie, and whatever other accoutrement your company has decided the passengers need to see to be convinced that you can fly; treating your customers and coworkers with respect; not being identifiable in any way as a commercial pilot when you celebrate your friend's birthday with half a dozen martinis, and not going out for Hallowe'en dressed as the World Trade Centre with half an airplane stuck to the side of your head.

I find it interesting that these two separate requirements are covered by the same name, and treated as one. You could call it being professional versus maintaining a professional appearance, but part of being professional is maintaining a professional appearance. Some people are better at one than the other. Some people fly safely, stay sharp and work well with everyone except management, because they find the second part to be utter bullshit. I don't think one can maintain the façade of the professional appearance for long without having something underneath it. But then I've never been a good liar.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Someone is Terrified of This

Continuing the topic of being proactive about telling aircraft passengers what to expect, a South African airline called Kulula Air has painted labels and explanations on the exterior of the aircraft. They've even answered one of my pet peeves by labelling the right cockpit occupant "co-captain - the other pilot on the pa system" to alleviate the fears of all those who believe that "co-pilot" is some sort of apprenticeship for someone who can't fly the airplane yet but nevertheless is the passengers' only hope should anything happen to the captain. I wonder if the "sun roof" label was originally concocted for the older B737 models with the eyebrow window, a feature finally discontinued about fifty years after pilots stopped needing an upward-facing window to take sightings with their sextants.

Despite the humour and the bright friendliness of this paint scheme, I wouldn't have voted for it, for a passenger airline. I think it will subconsciously frighten some people. A student of mine was once greatly discomfited by seeing a training aircraft from which the rear bulkhead had been removed. I showed it to the student so that she could see the cables that ran back to the tail, conveying her control movements to the rudder, elevator and trim. The simplicity of it startled her. She wanted there to be unseen magic holding the airplane aloft, not ordinary cables. I think a lot of airline passengers don't want to be reminded that their safety depends on the sum of a lot of nameable parts and people. They want the smooth shiny paint (and passengers will base their assessment of your aircraft safety entirely on the quality of the paint) to assure them that everything inside is there. It's the same reason you put pilots in white shirts and ties, and jackets with lots of stripes on them.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Left Out of the Love

In a combined effort with other aviation bloggers, I promised a post that ties in with the holiday some people will be celebrating today. Not the New Year's celebration, but the other holiday. The one with hearts instead of dragons.

There's a wide societal expectation that your romantic life will follow a certain pattern. You'll date a few people who turn out to be inappropriate, or just not long term prospects for you. You then get more serious and fall in love with Mr. or Miss. Right. There's a proposal, an acceptance, engagement, wedding plans and then happily ever after. It's considered polite conversation with near strangers to ask if they are married. And if you don't seem to be on that path, there are confused questions.

Friends try to set you up. And you think you want that, so you accept and thank them, then never call the number, or call but accept flimsy excuses, and fail to follow up if they don't call back. You go through bursts where you rededicate yourself to believing that this really is something you want. You carefully craft a personal ad. You are thrilled but also terrified when you get a response from someone who seems right. You're not sure if you're dreading the date itself--because there have been some terrible ones, and they can be so humiliating--or the inevitable rejection. You gloss over the reason for your previous break ups, trying to make yourself look as good as possible without lying. You try to make the best impression you can, which might mean not presenting your real self. You check your e-mail and your phone for messages, hoping to hear back. Sometimes they schedule another date. You try to be the person they want, and argue to yourself that it is your real self, just the best sides of it, but deep down you wonder if 'maybe there's someone out there who wants me for me, all of me.'

You plan self-improvement of some kind, to make yourself more appealing, but find yourself shirking or dreading sessions because they are a reminder of being unwanted, and is the expense worth the marginal improvement? You catch yourself avoiding friends who are in relationships, because their casual references remind you of what you're supposed to have. You cut yourself off from the people who could help you get what you think you want.

Maybe you're with someone, but it's not very serious. There are no long term prospects and your friends keep asking if you're still with that loser. Maybe you're freelancing, good friends with a enough people whom you can rely on for a booty call or a fling when you're that way inclined. Maybe you've discovered that your life is pretty comfortable with your feet on the ground, avoiding any romantic entanglements. How does one tell whether passing doubts or dissatisfaction is because you aren't with the partner you want, or you aren't with the partner society has taught you and continues to assume is Right? Have you 'settled' or is this what you want? Even when you're totally comfortable right now, external and internal expectations whisper messages of guilt and failure and concern for your future if you haven't succumbed to traditional marriage before you lose your marketability.

This post does not carry the non-aviation tag, because it's really about aviation. The airline job is the mythical Mr. Right for the commercial pilot. Personnel ads and résumés are just like personal ads. Interviews are as awkward and potentially humiliating as first dates. Contract flying is exciting and varied, but does sometimes leave you without a date when there are bills to be paid. You can end up with the wrong one, in a dangerous relationship, but not have the resources to leave, or the self-esteem to know you can do better. The metaphor follows all the way through, including tearful breakups and those confusing relationships where you're not really sure who dumped whom and you're tempted to go over and beg them to take you back. Calling your ex to get your stuff back and talking to your replacement, who has been told lies about you. Yep, it's all there. The only upside is that you probably won't get dumped if your current employer discovers you are actively looking for the next one. You probably won't get promoted either, though. And many who think they have achieved happily ever after discover that the one they have committed thirty years to has gambled away the pension money.

If you're flying helicopters instead of fixed wing, things get more complicated, especially as many people don't become helicopter pilots until years of believing their destiny is in fixed wing. Friends and family who don't know helicopters don't have a clue what they do anyway or what your prospects might be, because there isn't a widely respected stereotype of a successful rotary wing pilot. You might not live in an area where a stable airline job is an option at all on a helicopter. There's a certain freedom there, because expectations are different, but the same angst over career progress. You're forced to define your own success.

Whichever side of the airport you're working, long to be working, or have decided you really don't need the headaches from, I wish you a happy and prosperous Year of the Tiger. Gung Hay Fat Choy.

Friday, February 12, 2010


While looking for something else on Google I came across this question from a nervous private pilot student expressing concern that his Cessna 172 training airplane was "flimsy."

Flimsy? It's certainly not sexy, and it's definitely tiny and low performance compared to a triple seven, but I don't consider it more fragile. You can stall a C172 onto the runway from high enough to hurt your butt without bending the gear or wrinkling the fuselage. You can fly it through a tree, buckling a wing strut and half tearing and twisting a significant portion of the horizontal stabilizer, yet still fly it home. You can land it on the nose so hard that the fuselage does buckle, the ends of the propellers turned back like hooks, and the poor thing will still fly a circuit and return for a safe landing. An insurance adjuster once told me that in all the claims he has investigated, the only ones where there were deaths were where the pilot had stalled or spun the airplane. The ones who flew it through trees survived. The airplane will tolerate errors of about 30 percent in approach or climbout speeds, and you can fully deflect the rudder at cruise speed without damage.

I believe the aluminum skin of the triple seven is thicker than that of the C172, but not by a lot. All aircraft are built as lightly as their designers dare to maintain the necessary strength, but honestly if I had to choose between "flimsy" and "robust" for the C172, I'd choose the latter.

The student got some good responses and some not-so-good ones, as other misinformed students chime in. I like this description of a landing approach in which a student feels he nearly died: "the instructor flew very low over some trees in a fierce wind, dropping the aircraft onto one side and heading for the ground." It's a pretty good description of a correctly executed crosswind landing. The crosswind technique in a Cessna 172 requires you to bank the airplane into the wind and apply opposite rudder in a way that makes the airplane feel off balance. And of course if you want to land, heading for the ground is an excellent plan. You might be surprised at how many students are nervous about descending low enough to actually land at the airport. Getting them to put the nose down and leave it there until the flare is sometimes a bit of a battle.

Of course I wasn't present as the maligned instructor performed that particular landing, but it's likely that his only error was in not briefing the student on what to expect in a crosswind landing situation. The first lesson is too early to treat a crosswind landing as a full-on demonstration, but any student, or even a passenger, deserves a simple heads up such as, "We will be landing tilted into the wind. This is normal. I'll put the left wheel down after we're on the runway." It turns what can be a scary situation into one where the passengers are impressed by your control because you put the wheels exactly where you said you would.

For anyone operating small aircraft, the whole thread should be a lesson in what students or passengers see and feel that frightens them if the instructor doesn't explain. I had a passenger in a C172 endure fifteen minutes of silent terror through not identifying a banging sound as rain until I happened to say "isn't it cool the way the rain streams off the windshield without any windshield wipers?" If you fly airplanes, and there is something in your work environment that looks bad and that you can't comfortably explain, find out the explanation and/or get it fixed, even if your flight instructor didn't.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Even Han Solo and Chewie ...

I'm watching the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and his guest is Atul Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto. I've blogged about him before, and I use checklists for everything but getting out of bed, but I'm still amazed by three things.

One is the difference that checklists make. The hospital that first implemented a checklist system just to stop infections estimated that checklists saved 1500 lives a year. That's staggering. I wonder how many aircraft accidents checklists avert.

Another is the amount of time it has taken this simple safety device to move from one industry to another. Boeing introduced checklists in 1935 after their test pilots forgot to remove a gust lock and crashed a prototype B-17. It makes me wonder what safety or efficiency techniques I could find in other industries and steal to improve mine.

And finally I am surprised by the reticence of people to adopt the system. I shouldn't be, because I've seen myself the machismo that denies the benefits of acknowledging anyone else's expertise. But as Mr. Gawande pointed out, most people have seen their entire lives that people in high profile macho jobs like astronaut work from checklists. Even Han Solo and Chewie used checklists on the Millennium Falcon.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010


That's me: lost in watching TV and not blogging. Aren't television series box sets awesome? I started with Firefly, and that was so much fun I picked up the next box.

A few years ago I bought a boxed set of the first season of Lost in preparation for an assignment where there would be no TV or Internet and the possibility of significant waiting. At the time I played a few episodes, but once the fun of mocking the disconnected running engine had passed, I never really got into it. I was playing the show on the little screen on my computer, and trying to do paperwork, on the same computer at the same time. So I'd have people screaming and running in one quarter of a tiny screen, and an Excel spreadsheet over half, and then suddenly there's a polar bear and I'm left going "What?" I've since learned that the polar bear imparts a serious case of "What?" regardless of how closely you were watching. And now I'm hooked.

My theories so far are:
1. The island has some weird reanimation property (c.f. the doctor's father) and for some reason someone was shipping polar bear hides from Australia to the United States. Polar bears have only Appendix II protection under CITES, so could have been transported with more legality than, say, the bottle rockets that our survivors improbably possess. That would explain the polar bears looking like really bad taxidermy on worn pelts. The director seemed really pleased with the result, so I can only guess that he hadn't seen a real polar bear, ever. The others would be a horde of zombies reanimated from those who haven't survived passage to the island.
2. There's a portal on the island that allows people and things to pass through, but be forever stranded. This explains how we get from Nigeria to the South Pacific in a light twin, and get a pirate ship on top of a hill. The island should have a lot more rats and alien weeds though.
3. It's like the planet in the Star Trek episode Shore Leave where things people think about become manifest. Walt was reading Hurley's comic book, with the ferocious polar bear, so the polar bear arrived. But in that case, where are all of Sawyer's bunnies from Watership Down?

Anyway, you're unlikely to get much blogging out of me until I've found out what happens in the next seven(?) seasons. And no spoilers!. Fingers in ears chanting "La la la la la!"

Monday, February 08, 2010

My Flight Sim Setup

Some of you asked about my flight simulator set up, so here's a geek post on the details. The computer is a Toshiba laptop with dual Pentiums at 2.16 GHz and 2 GB of RAM running Vista. I only have the one computer, with my data back ups being a stack of CD-ROMs and my access back up an iPod touch.

When I'm at home I have a CH Pro yoke and pedals which plug into the computer USB ports. I fasten the yoke to the keyboard drawer on the desk, and then jam cardboard into the tracks of the keyboard drawer, so it doesn't roll in and out when I try to make pitch changes. It still does a bit, so I try to control pitch more with trim and power, which doesn't work to well either, so then I use the autopilot. When I start up the simulator I sometimes find that the controls are unresponsive, but I've learned to unplug and replug the USB connectors and that usually fixes the problem.

When I'm on the road, I just have a little butterfly-shaped controller. It's made by Logitech; I think it might be called Wingman. It's about the same size as my hand, including fingers. I have to replace it fairly often, as the action gets damaged in my luggage, even though I pad it with clothes. It has two thumb yokes and lots of buttons and is covered all over with DYMO labels because I never remember what I've assigned to what. When I use my road controller I mostly just fly the autopilot. It's an exercise in sussing out the plates and planning descents and turns to be efficient and legal.

On screen my default aircraft is some fairly generic twin with a six pack panel. I think it's a Beechcraft. There's a King Air style autosynch display on the panel. NAV1 is the HSI and NAV2 is an integrated receiver with a big fat yellowish needle for the ADF and a double striped green needle for the VOR. Instead of having the usual standard head presentation of zero to ten degrees deflection and a TO/FROM indicator, it acts like an ADF. That means if I'm tracking to a waypoint in order to intercept an ILS, it's like ADF tracking, which is okay, because I like ADF tracking. The engine instruments are mostly hidden by the avionics display. I can see just enough of the left ones to know what power setting I have selected.

The only keyboard controls I use are G for Gear and B for Baro--i.e. to reset the altimeter to the current setting. My kudos to anyone who can actually manage a flight entirely from the keyboard.

My system description makes me laugh, because my first hard drive was 40 MB. I remember a friend who returned to Canada after a few years travelling and used my computer to update his resume and re-enter the job market. He asked, "Do you have the Word disks?" When he left the country, the typical computer only had enough memory for its own operating system, so you ran Word right off the disks, then saved your document to another disk. And by disk I mean a 5 1/4" square of thin flexible plastic inside which was the disc-shaped magnetic media. The disk was sealed inside the sleeve and you put the whole thing into a slot in the computer.

Any questions?

Saturday, February 06, 2010

American Hospitality

Here's the loose end I mentioned earlier. As you may recall, I was almost en route to West Virginia last month, but diverted home at the last moment. To facilitate that trip, I had ordered charts from an American distributor and asked them to ship them to the American FBO on the field where I planned to clear customs. I know from the e-mail confirmations that the charts were shipped, but where are they now? Well that's part of the fun of being an itinerant pilot.

I called the FBO to see if they still had the charts. That took two tries, as my first try at the question didn't make sense to the friendly woman who answered the telephone. Perhaps there was an accent issue, too. Once she understood the question she easily found the parcel for me and then I explained that the trip was postponed, was it any trouble for them to continue to hold them. Absolutely none, she managed to convey the impression that my having called her and given her the opportunity to hold onto our property for an unspecified period was the highlight of her day. Americans have the best customer service.

So there the charts wait, until we go to West Virginia or they expire.

Sim of the day: NDB RWY 05 and a missed at CYVV.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Simple is Good

Every once in a while I will describe a system, such as the oil pressure line running directly to a dashboard gauge, and someone will be aghast that "that's all it is?" Yes. And the less 'middle management' that an airplane designer can get away with, the better.

Some of the simplest aircraft systems are more direct than that. I've flown an airplane where the wing tanks drained to a nose tank and the level in the nose tank was indicated by a wire that poked out of the cowling. The wire was on a cork inside the nose tank, so when it started to sink, that meant the wing tanks were empty and only the nose fuel remained. Simple, direct. I suppose the cork could get stuck. That's what your watch is for. Some airplanes run a sight gauge from the wing tanks to the side of the cockpit so you literally see the fuel level. And most ultralights go one simpler and simply use a transparent or translucent fuel tank so the fuel level can be seen directly. You can't do that in an Airbus, but I'll bet Robert Piché would have liked to be able to see the fuel in his tanks rather than having to make decisions based on electronic diagnostic systems and lengthy checklists.

Another example: my engine combustion air intake is just the opening in the front of the cowling, and if that intake becomes blocked, the pressure drop inside will pull open alternate air doors. When closed, those doors are held by magnets. See the picture? Simple, directly reacting to the problem with no need for any intermediary, power source or interpretation. Those doors can also be opened by mechanical cockpit controls. The same system could have been designed with electric sensors, but why bother?

Some parts of my airplane are operated by electric motors. That includes the wing flaps, which change the shape of the wing airfoils for takeoff and landing, the cowl flaps, which control cooling air to the engines, the elevator trim, which allows me to hold an attitude without effort, and the starters, which turn over the engines until combustion in the cylinders is sufficient to sustain rotation as I start each engine. That's about it for electric motors. I've seen all those fail.

I can land or continue flight with inoperative flaps, although I need more runway for the landing and more fuel and time for the same journey. There are a lot of safeguards built into the flap controls to prevent asymmetric flap extension from flipping the airplane over. I would need a huge lever to operate those flaps without a motor. Manual flaps are great. You can move them at any speed you like and get tactile feedback of your airspeed.

I shouldn't be starting up if the cowl flaps are stuck closed, but I'm unlikely to notice if they are stuck open. I'll lose a few knots in cruise and see lower engine temperatures, but the indicator is also electric and may not indicate correctly if there is a fault. I've flown airplanes with manual cowl flaps. It's probably easier to route an electric wire than a set of push pull cables from the engine to the cockpit and I know I'd need bulky cowl flap levers rather than little toggle switches in order to open the cowl flaps against the pressure of the airflow. I think it's a shame that the indicators are electric, though.

Electric starters introduce more parts that can break, and weaker starting power in the cold, when you really need more. But I really appreciate having starter motors and not having to hand prop these engines.

The electric trim is conveneient, because the control is right on the yoke, but there is a back up manual elevator trim wheel on the centre console, just as there is on a B737, because that's an important control and designers don't pretend that switches and electric motors don't break. There are a lot more electrical components in my airplane, but I think I've covered the motors here.

Modern airplane design calls on the airplane to have a computer brain that knows and controls everything that is going on. This precludes some of the simplest systems, but also prevents a lot of stupid pilot errors that an airplane with no brain cannot object to. Ideally the pilot is smart enough and the airplane well enough designed that the two can work together to get the job done. Just don't knock simple.

This post brought to you by Gore to Wiarton again, this time with strong winds and weather at minima.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Another Nightmare

When I'm in a hotel I take care to plug any chargers into visible outlets, and put a post-it note on the desk reminding me they are there, so I don't abandon chargers and batteries all over North America. Last night I couldn't find a place to plug in my camera battery, so I plugged it into the power bar under my own desk.

"Now remember!" warned the voice that looks after these things. "It's under the desk don't forget!" But I didn't make a post-it note because it's my own home.

And then in the middle of the night I woke up thinking "Oh, no! I left my charger and my camera battery under the desk!" I'd had a dream that I was checking into another hotel. Gah. Now you know what my life is about: moving from place to place and hoping I haven't lost anything. I've done pretty well. I think I've lost one piece of clothing and a plastic water bottle in three years of hotel-to-hotel operations. Do other pilots dream of hotels this much?

Savage chickens has a strip about waking up from a dream.

Further to things forgotten, I was going to include in this entry a wrapping up of loose ends from my last assignment, but instead I think I'll make it a challenge to see if anyone remembers a loose end that needs wrapping, and answer that one in a few days.

In honour of the date, today's sim was an IFR flight CYZE-R23-W-CYVV : that is, a short flight from Gore Bay to Wiarton, Ontario, home of Canada's most famous groundhog. I did not see my shadow at any point in the flight, so that must mean winter is almost over. Or that I have realistic scenery turned off.

Sim notes: I tried out the Flight Planner in MSFS, but it didn't recognize NDB airways, so routed me via the Sault Se Marie VOR and V300. I "filed" from CYZE to the YZE beacon, but never went there. As CYZE has no published departure, I took off from runway 11 then at 400' turned to 154 and climbed to 2800 on that heading, in accordance with the published missed approach procedure for runway 11. That's a good way to enter the system from such an airport. In this specific case I can see that that heading leads out over the shore. Then at 2800' on that heading I was, as I had briefed myself, within five degrees of track for R23, so I simply intercepted the airway towards Wiarton and continued the climb to 5000'. I descended to cross the W beacon at 3000' for a racetrack procedure turn into runway 05 at Wiarton. The approach has a tiny turn at the beacon: tracking 058 degrees to, and 056 from. I wonder why.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Simulator Oddities

Oops, forgot to mark this ready after my sim yesterday.

First, an apology for all the toy flight simulator entries on here lately, and a warning that they will continue. I don't want to turn this into a video gaming blog, but as some of my former blogging time is now being taken up with practicing my professional skills, we should have predicted that some of my blogging thoughts would be turned in that direction, too. I know there are flight sim enthusiasts who read this blog and they can probably help me through my glitches.

I confess to using MSFS 2002. I own Version X but haven't taken it out of the box because my computer isn't optimized for games, so it might not be able to keep up. Remember that I am not interested in scenery graphics, audio ATC, or custom cockpits, just briefing departures and approaches and flying them to minima. In my experience it's really easy to spend more time trying to get a flight sim game to work properly than actually using it. If it's verified that all my little issues are fixed in X, I might upgrade.

Oddity #1 is that the game has only a single command for "raise gear" and "lower gear." I can't do the equivalent of reach out and put my hand on the gear lever without retracting it if it's already down. I have to place the avionics box over the on-screen gear lights, so I can't glance at them to confirm gear position. Gear down is such a separate command from gear up, and so crucial. It should never have been a single command toggle and I hope it's fixed by now.

Oddity #2 is the DME function. (For the non-pilots, DME is possibly the lamest three letter abbreviation in aviation: Distance Measuring Equipment. It's a device on the ground that talks to your onboard receiver and then tells it how many miles away from it you are.) Let's say I start up at CYHZ and tune the IHZ localizer (109.1) on NAV1 and the YHZ VOR (115.1) on NAV2. Both nav aids have a DME source, which is automatically tuned when I select the VHF frequency. The little toggle switch to select which one is displayed is not well depicted, so it's difficult to see by looking whether it is set to NAV1 or NAV2. Fortunately I know where I am, on the button of runway 14, so the one that indicates a distance of 5.2 nm is the VOR. I want to prove DUTSA, 5.2 DME straight off the departure end of 14, so I flip the switch and it shows 0.1 nm. That must be the localizer. I don't take this for granted, though, I click the audio panel button to identify it.

Morse code beeps _ . _ _ / .... / _ _.. . Wait that's something H Z but I is two dots. The something didnt' sound like two dots. I check the plate. Yup. Supposed to be two dots. I listen again and now the identifier is clearly IHZ. I must have heard wrong. take off and fly to DUTSA, then hang a left and track to the VOR, already identified before takeoff. I flip the DME source over to NAV2 also, but don't bother identifying it, because it's for information only. I'll prove station passage with the needle flip. I track outbound on the 297 radial to intercept the localizer outbound, and then put the DME source back to the localizer and ident it. The first time the identifier plays, it's clearly YHZ, then it switches to IHZ. Then it switches back. Experimentation shows that regardless of the position of the DME source selection switch, when the audio DME toggle is selected on, the idents of the two DME sources available play in alternation. I haven't confirmed that at any other airport. Maybe it's just a Halifax glitch.

If anyone cares to fire up Version X to check if this is fixed, could you also see if the Split Crow NDB (364) is in the database now? I couldn't receive it at all, removing the possibility of doing the interesting LOC/NDB approach there.

This post brought to you by another simulated ILS/DME into Halifax in the wind and fog, slightly left of the localizer all the way down, with a conservative correction that brought me onto the centreline just as the approach lights became visible.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Responsibility Never Sleeps

As long-time readers know, I have kept my flight instructor rating current so as to have an additional source of income when I'm not off in the wild beyond. So here I am, the week before Christmas, back in a Cessna 150. I'm in the right seat, flying night circuits from a little strip next to a lake. The snow isn't very deep so the ice glistens through in strips where the wind has bared it. There's enough moonlight and other ambient light reflecting off the snow that I can see the shapes of the evergreen trees below us as we climb out from the touch and go. It's odd yet familiar to fly again in the tiny single engine airplane with the toylike controls. I'm not handling the controls, just supervising as the student practises night take-offs and landings.

I experience a moment of "how did I get here?" disconnection. Did I fall asleep? Instructors do a lot, but it's never happened to me. I make sleep a priority, and now more than ever I'm aware of the need to be alert at night with only one engine holding us above the trees. The windshield is fogged up and I reach to wipe it with my coat sleeve--the little Cessna defogger only clears a patch on the left pilot's side--but then I realize that it's not fog obscuring my view, the window has iced over on the outside. A warning flag goes up in my head. Ice? I still can't see forward. As I scan the instruments to ensure the airplane is maintaining altitude on downwind I wonder why the windscreen would ice in cold, clear weather. If there's ice on the window, where else is there ice? "Is the pitot heat on?" I ask.

Or rather start to ask. Before I've finished the question I'm facing a completely different direction and there are branches. Tree branches. The airplane is in a tree. The windshield remains opaque. I still don't have a complete picture of what has happened. Is the engine on? Another blank in memory. We must have secured it. I'm not sure how we got down, have no memory of anything we might have said to one another. There is no fire. I have a mental snapshot image of the end of a building, the peaked eaves of the roof damaged. We must have hit the tree, bent the tree to hit the building and then stayed in the tree as it bounced back. No memory of it. I can see a large clay pot knocked off a ledge of the building and broken in half, but not an image of the airplane.

For some reason the student is still holding the CFS as we walk, apparently unhurt, to where we know there is a payphone. I'm rehearsing in my head telling the aircraft owner what we've done to the plane. "Everyone's okay, but ..." My career, my confidence, my reputation, my ability to be insured as a pilot, my dreams ...

The student dials the payphone, then I take the handset away. "I'm pilot in command," I say. That's a little rude. A flight instructor did that to me years ago after I eagerly followed protocol on the ground after a radio failure. In my hand the phone is ringing and ringing, no answer. I look at the CFS in the student's hand in order to see the protocol, the correct order of everything to be reported in the event of an aviation accident. For some reason this is important to me at this moment. I want to get the last thing in my career right. Then I see from the page that he has looked up a number for the Transportation Safety Bureau, but it's a daytime number. I hang up in order to redial the Nav Canada twenty-four hour number at 1-888-WX-BRIEF but I never do.

The next thing I know I'm lying down. There's no pain. It's like I'm ... oh ... like I just woke up. I just did. I'm in my own bed. The whole thing was a dream. It probably took three seconds and my subconscious just filled in all the details so it seemed to make sense.

Now I admit that that was a freaking cruel way to tell a story to readers who I know feel for me in my ups and downs, but I hope you gasped in horror. I wanted to tell the story so you would feel what it was like. I didn't even have the dreams tag on the blog entry to tip me off that this wasn't really happening. I guess I should have remembered that I don't have any flight students right now, and don't live near a little airstrip next to a frozen lake, and that real life does not just start into the middle of the story, but I have the excuse that I was not paying really close attention on account of being fast asleep.

As nightmares go, it doesn't rival Kafka. No one was hurt. I'm sitting at my desk now laughing as I realize that I am relating a nightmare that was largely about paperwork. The bad part is that I didn't feel any better about it once I had woken up. As I lay awake in my bed, I knew with one hundred percent certainty that nothing had really happened. No real airplane or building had been damaged. No one was even scratched. There was no paperwork to be done. But it didn't matter. I still felt responsible. I was so overwhelmed with guilt to have been so inattentive as to have had an accident. I was pilot in command. I should have realized that there was a risk of pitot icing, should have known all the obstacle heights, should not have fallen asleep. I'm literally lying awake, unable to sleep, beating myself up for an unforgivable lapse in responsible behaviour which occurred while I was in my own bed asleep. I try to tell myself that it wasn't my fault, but that's no excuse. When you are pilot in command, it is always your fault.

As I lie there thinking it over, I gradually realize where the parts of the dream come from. Sitting in a stationary vehicle with the windshield iced over and the engine running is the story of Canada in the winter. You start the car up, turn on the heater and defroster and then wait a bit to loosen the ice a little before you start scraping. Just as first place someone lived fills the role of "house" in a dream, the first airplane I flew became "airplane." And suddenly I realize that in my life the "responsibility" is represented by airplanes.

What do the top of an evergreen tree and the edge of the roof of a house have in common? It's where you put Christmas lights. This is not a dream about airplanes. It's a plain old holiday stress dream about distributing gifts appropriately, doing my year-end paperwork, filing all those utility bills that I haven't even opened, because they are supposed to autopay through my bank account. So I'm not an irresponsible pilot. I'm someone who can't be bothered to do her Christmas shopping and write cheques to charity. That's much better. The relief is so great it takes away all the Christmas stress too.

I fall back asleep and dream I am staying in a hotel room that has a glass elevator and overlooks a hockey rink in which Steven Spielberg is directing a gangster movie. A gangster movie musical. A huge cast of flapper girls and zoot suited guys toting those old-fashioned guns with magazines the size of a medium pizza are high-stepping in unison towards the blue line while making dramatic arm movements. Life is back to normal.

This blog post brought to you courtesy of the NDB RWY 23T into Alert, NWT. The MSFS flight analysis looks bizarre because it maps it onto a grid with 15" squares and at that latitude the graticules are tall, tall rectangles.