Thursday, June 09, 2011

Trial by Fire

My telephone rings at 4:20 a.m. It's the camera operator and mission logistician, if that's a word. He's still agonizing over the decision about where to attempt to work today. He wants to make hay while the sun shines, but in the most efficient way. He wishes we could wait until the next GFA comes out. This is where I relay the information I realized last night, "We can. It's an hour earlier in Vancouver. We can go back to sleep for another hour." I did my napkin math in local instead of UTC and totally forgot about the time change. He likes that plan, and I go right back to not being a giraffe. Not being a giraffe means sleeping comfortably.

An hour later the weather picture is clearer and he wants to go to the coast. I get a quickie phone briefing that reveals the weather has cleared overnight except for low lying fog, en route. I plan to Abbotsford, a big airport outside of the busy mess of Vancouver airspace. We get the same cab, with a different driver and go back to the airport. There's someone, presumably a pilot, asleep in the terminal. He has a sleeping bag and a pillow and a whole set up going on there. I hope guiltily that the cab driver did come back for my helicopter guy, and wonder who this guy is. Fire suppression pilots are paid well enough that a cab and a hotel shouldn't be an issue, and most of the transient aircraft seemed to be associated with the fire. The sleeping pilot's cellphone is ringing, or maybe it's his alarm, but he doesn't even budge. I'm not going to wake him up. If he needs sleep that badly, whatever it is can wait.

We ready the airplane, including wiping accumulated rain and dew from the outside of the front window, and working out how to turn on the defrost for the inside of the window. More condensation forms on the outside after I start up so I have to taxi cautiously, looking out the side. Another reason to have a windshield wiper. We backtrack to the appropriate end of the runway, turn around and ensure we're lined up and roll. The airspeed soon clears the window and I can climb and turn on course. The provincial boundary is along the great divide, the peaks of the Rocky Mountains and marked on my GPS so I call off the crossing and announce that we're now on BC time. There are several ranges of mountains to cross, so I don't descend yet, in fact climb a little, because there's more cloud and I'd rather not be dodging it when I can't see which clouds are crunchy in the middle. I'm trying to lean the mixture, but I seem to have a one hot cylinder. I'm trying to keep exhaust gas temperatures around 1425 degrees, but while the analogue EGT and CHT gauges show everything normal, the digital gauge shows that #2 on the left engine is spewing out gases at 1900 degrees. I enrich the mixture on that engine to get the temperature down to the range that would be green on the EGT, even though that leaves the other cylinders cold. I explain that the analogue EGT, which is the one that he can see, takes its reading from the outlet of one cylinder, the normally hottest, while the digital one has pickups per cylinder. "What would happen if you didn't have that one?" he asks.

"I wouldn't know about the problem and I'd lean the others to 1425, not knowing that I was cooking the other one to death, until it fried, and we had a rough running engine. The engine would run on the remaining cylinders, it just wouldn't sound pretty. And in fact we're below our single engine service ceiling, so we could fly on one engine right now. But given that we've paid for the extra information about this cylinder, we can use it to avoid destroying it." I'm trying to strike a balance between, "It's important that I not destroy this cylinder" and "We won't die if something happens to it." I'm concerned, but my concern is about loss of production, and my looking bad for taking a perfectly good airplane into the field and destroying it.

"How does it get that way?"

"If it's abused once, it gets pitted walls and that leads to poor combustion. Could be a bad valve ... I don't know. It's kind of freaky how placidly painted-on the the analogue gauges appear compared to the frenetically spiking #2 cylinder. How many times has this drama been played out in my engine without my knowledge?

"Could it be the gauge?"

"Yep. But it not being the gauge would be consistent with the rough running we've been getting when I lean it the same as the right engine." It's been the gauge for me before when there was other corroborating evidence. You can always find evidence.

I'm over the highest of the maintains and can start to descend. My chart tells me that I'm coming up on Vancouver's airspace. (Oh yeah, we're going to Vancouver now, not Abbotsford. It's sort of a rule that the destination has to change midflght here, apparently). I talk flight services out of a code for Vancouver, get the ATIS, and then call Vancouver centre on a gradual descent through 11,300'. She acknowledges, then asks me again for my altitude. "Descending through one one thousand." She calls me again radar identified and asks again for the altitude. "One zero thousand eight hundred."

"What altitude are you descending to?" she asks.

I resist replying, "Sea level," but I don't really know what she is asking. "Descending for landing at YVR." I already told her that. "Do you wish to issue an altitude restriction?" Kind of a non-standard call, but what the heck does she want?

She solves her problem by handing me off to Vancouver terminal, which gets the whole descending for landing thing more clearly, and does give me an altitude restriction of 3500', then 2500'. They fly me over the airport and then out for a right downwind for runway 08R and a 180 to land back on that runway. I exit read back a crossing clearance in the taxi instruction and find my way to parking on the apron. Company has already lined up someone to look at the overtemp indication.

Fortunately, while the EGT got pretty high, there, the fire of this blog entry title was not mine, but Slave Lake's. At the end of the day I learn that much of the town of Slave Lake has been destroyed by fire. In an astonishingly short time it went from no fires nearby, to a few forest fires in the vicinity -- a not uncommon situation anywhere in the north in the summer -- to full on evacuation as subdivisions and main street businesses blazed. Forest fires are burning all summer all over the north, but the area is so sparsely populated that there is not much property damage. In Slave it just so happened that two fires converged on a community. There wasn't even an intermediate step of a voluntary evacuation. Fortunately it has good highways and it's a prosperous and friendly community so pretty much everyone had a truck or a ride from someone. I'm glad in a way that I got to walk its streets one last time, and I'm extremely glad to hear that there were no deaths or injuries. It means that I don't need to worry individually about the fate of the waitress who was going camping, the fueller who happily came out early and stayed late for our crews, the non-smoking hotel receptionist who saved our time by admitting that the smoking rooms (all they had left) definitely smelled like smoke to her, or the non-multitasking hotel receptionist who slowly checked us in at the Super-8. It's bizarre that all those businesses and homes have gone up in smoke. I find later that the crew of the airplane that had been in Edmonton for camera repairs did spend the night there, and had to be evacuated with their hotel staff, because the airport was shut down and the fuel reserved for fire-fighting. I realized that the pictures we had taken that day were the last pictures of Slave Lake as it was; someone else realized that too and allowed our crew back up to take some "after" pictures and then return south and escape the evacuation zone with their airplane.

Here's a video that shows a lot of the destruction: you'll see homes, the city hall, a main street Ford dealership and the new mall completely gutted. A lot of the scenes that show fire behind a screen of trees is not forest fire at all, but the actual town blazing up that brightly, behind a windbreak. There are a lot of videos of the fire, but this one best encapsulates the fire, the aftermath and the feeling of losing ones community that way.

The second video shows just how thoroughly the destroyed houses have been destroyed, and has some information on the cleanup. The RCMP are going through the remains of the homes, looking for objects of value, before people return, to prevent looting and injury, and reunite people with whatever can be saved. It's tragic how little is left, and sweet that the authorities recognize the value the little things may have. I think Slave Lake will rebuild and rebound.

I've noticed some comments about "who started it?" There is no wasn't an arson fire or a cooking accident. It didn't start in town, but in the forest, probably from lightning strikes, the cause of most Alberta forest fires. It was a natural phenomenon that didn't stop just because it wasn't in its natural habitat anymore.


Frank Lee MeiDere said...

That flying narrative was compelling, and I want to nominate a new COTW:

"What altitude are you descending to?" she asks.

I resist replying, "Sea level."

As for Slave Lake, that video of photos is a great piece of work. Who edited that? Where did the photos come from?

My brother-in-law works at the oil sands, and he was brought in, along with a bunch of other oil guys, to help fight the fires. Got a bit hairy at one point when the fire jumped the highway and blocked their exit route.

I can't even imagine the devastating sense of loss they all must feel. I can only hope that the communal nature of the experience helps to mitigate some of its horror.

Kieran said...

The flying narrative was great as usual, but so was the fire narrative - you tell it better than a lot of people paid to tell it.

DataPilot said...

First of all, my sympathy is with all the people who lost their homes and livelihoods in the Slave Lake fire. The sheer volume of natural disasters this year -- fires, floods, tornadoes -- is overwhelming. I'm just grateful that I've been spared thus far.

I live in the US Pacific Northwest, so I've seen more than a few wildfires. (Nothing that compared to the damage wreaked by the Slave Lake fire, however.) Some of my very first flights as a paid commercial pilot were fire spotting jobs. It's hot, smoky, dangerous flying, with lots of "wheels in the treetops" moments. You couldn't pay me enough to do it now.

Early on, I learned that avgas is a precious commodity for fighting wilfires, and it's invariably in short supply. That huge quantities of gasoline are needed to fight fires is sort of counterintuitive - until you see the tankers being flown. A number of them are ancient bucket-o-bolts ex-military planes, with big radial engines that can burn almost any form of gasoline produced.

I remember being called out to one particularly explosive wildfire complex in central Oregon. When I got there with a Cessna 182, ready to spot fires, I was told there was no fuel. The owner of the local FBO yelled at me to pick up a phone, start calling and see if I could find some avgas. He said I could fly if I could get him a load of 100 or 100LL (although even 80 would have worked for some of the planes.)

I did eventually get to fly.

Sarah said...

Wow, that's terrible. So glad no one was hurt. What a shock it would be to lose everything you own but the clothes on your back... it's one way to get to '100 things' but probably not the best way.

I wish we had engine monitors on the little club airplanes. It's exactly things like the case you found that I worry about. I'm a worrier about engines; I expect them to stop running at any moment though they never have yet.

Funny about Vancouver center altitudes. I guess they don't get much VFR traffic.

Ted: "We're gonna have to come in pretty low on this approach. ... It's just something you have to do ... when you land.