Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Trial by Rain

Morning comes as early as ever and I'm checked out and ready to go in the breakfast room. We are going back to Slave Lake to try to get that work done today before the clouds roll in. Asked me what I want 'to go' for lunch, I specify a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat. I get a funny look for having the dietary preferences of an eight year old, but it won't go bad in the sun, and I can eat it with one hand while flying.

I fax off a request for "photo blocks," clearance into airspace about 12,500' where we must work under IFR or "controlled VFR," and by the time I call to get my transit code for Calgary airspace, they have an approval for me. We launch and soon reach the work area. It takes the controller two tries to get me to do a full readback on the CVFR clearance. Oh, I get it, CVFR is VFR in normally IFR airspace, so I have to do IFR-style readbacks. This can mess a girl up. I'm on oxygen up at 16,000' flying in really straight lines overhead Slave Lake and environs. This s so much easier at altitude. I even get the autopilot to fly one line, to make sure I know how it works, but the operator says he wants it hand-flown. I think the autopilot could be a very good tool to reduce my fatigue and thus increase overall quality, but I've never had one of those jobs where "you push the button and you take the money," as a reader once explained it to me. I get to fly the airplane.

The pattern we are flying is centred on the town of Slave Lake, and I still have the ADF tuned to the Slave Lake NDB -- I haven't used it since I left -- so every time I turn around it points back to town. It's a fine, clear day here and there is no smoke, mist or other obscuring phenomena interfering with good photos. From the air you see the somewhat peanut-shaped body of water that is Lesser Slave Lake, and the town of Slave Lake right at its eastern tip. We're too high to be usefully monitoring the Slave Lake mandatory frequency, but I listen to 126.7 most of the time just to hear who is coming and going across the north. It's a normal day of medevacs, helicopters and other working aviators. We finish all the north-south lines on either side of the Athabaska River and move onto the east-west ones. These were the ones assigned to the other airplane, but they are still in Edmonton getting the camera fixed, so we'll get a head start on their work. We fly until I have fifty minutes of fuel remaining and then head down for landing.

It's funny doing aerial work this high, right above the airport of landing. It's right there but it's going to take me 15-20 minutes to get there, even at a higher rate of descent than I would use for passengers. I check with him that he's used to rapid descents and he is. The wind direction favours runway 10, landing over the lake, so I'm going to make a big descending spiral along the north shore of the lake and back onto final. I start down at about 1500 fpm. I feel my sinuses squeak a little from the air pressure equalization, and there's a little pressure in my temples, but I wiggle my jaw and let the air leak through my head. Pilot Eustachian tubes must be more flexible than the general public's. At the same time I'm trying to reduce power in stages so as not to shock cool them. Passing about 7000' there is a mighty whack of turbulence which I realize is from the southeast winds whipping over the cliffs along the north shore of the lake and being forced up. It was quite a brutal hit. I'm just turning over the shore, but there will be more turbulence everywhere below. And now my camera operator says some terrifying words. "Oh my NECK!"

I've never had someone hurt on board my aircraft. Although I wasn't doing anything unreasonable, and we knew to expect turbulence descending into high winds, was there something I could have done to alleviate this? "Did you hit your head?" I ask. He says, no, it wasn't the turbulence that did it, his neck just started hurting, a spasm like when you wake up and have slept the wrong way. There's nothing I can do but fly well and put the airplane on the ground, so I do, land, short backtrack and roll off at the taxiway. His neck pain has gone away as quickly as it came. As I'm rolling to the pumps I'm mentally running along the streets of Slave Lake looking for a chiropractor or massage clinic. I hope he's not being macho about this, and the feeling of thinking someone has been hurt in the airplane you were flying is like having a pet or child left in your care be sick. Even if it had nothing to do with you, you feel responsible and want to fix it. But he's moving around normally, talking on the telephone, so perhaps it was just a transient ouch, coincident with the turbulence.

Now there's another issue, a perfectly ordinary one, a fuel transfer. There's a big tractor-trailer fuel truck parked in front of the pumps. I narrate what the operator probably already knows, as it's a common enough occurrence. "This can take thirty minutes or more before the pumps are available to us. I'll find out more as soon as I can." I park where I am physically next in line for the pumps, but the truck can still get out, stick chocks around the nosewheel and go do the pee, flight following, close with flight services, file new flight plan routine. They say fifteen minutes for fuel. I eat half of my peanut butter sandwich and then start just the left engine to pull around for the pumps. As soon as I start to apply power to taxi forward I know exactly what I have done. Damnit! Shut down, jump out, remove chocks, restart cranky hot left engine and this time do pull up to the pumps, close enough for the hose to reach but at an angle that will allow me to scootch out without hitting the small helicopter that is also waiting now.

I shut down there and while they are fuelling, chat to the helicopter folks. "You see my stupid?" They didn't, and say they would have come over and pulled the chock for me had they seen. They are doing photo work too. Very low level work with a special camera that hinges down off one of the skids. When my airplane is fuelled I check the caps, and start that left engine again to pull off the pumps, getting a thumbs up from the helicopter guys to indicate that I have correctly judged my wingtip clearance as I pull past. I shut down again and add some oil before the operator comes back aboard and we blast off to do some more work.

There's a split now in the fuel flow. It's a digital fuel flow meter, visible to the operator in the back. I acknowledge that I'm running the left engine richer but while the temperature gauges wouldn't be against it, that engine is noticeably rougher if I lean any more. I feel frustrated that my engine handling, on what is after all a familair engine, is not up to scratch, but I'd rather burn more fuel than an engine. We get a few long east-west lines done, and then a cloud shield that has been slowly moving from the west all day reaches the western end of our lines. We don't do partial lines, so that ends the work here and the operator wants to go land southwest of here, to have the best chance of staging for our next day's work. "Whitecourt," he says. I call the controller and request clearance out of controlled airspace for landing at Whitecourt. She thought we were landing at Slave Lake. So did I. It's a keep you on your toes sort of operation. She gives me a descent and I pick up Whitecourt weather on the way. It's 6000' broken, raining, with 6 sm vis. That's to be expected, given that we're flying towards the system that just put us out of work here.

The operator doesn't like that. Can we go somewhere else? Sure. I suggest Edmonton. We can see from the shape of the cloud that Edmonton doesn't have the rain yet. He wants to go further west than Edmonton, something southwest of Whitecourt? I'm running a map of Alberta in my head and there's not a lot out there. All I can think of is Grande Cache, which I point out that they built because there wasn't anything there , and we don't want to be stuck in the mountains if the weather is bad and they want to go back east tomorrow. Whitecourt it is. I've never been there, but he has.

The controller clears me down to 6000', which seems odd to me, because we should be in uncontrolled airspace out here by now, but whatever, it's nice to have someone looking out for us. Through 7000' it gets ridiculous bumpy again, so we tell her we're staying up until we get closer. She clears me for an approach into Whitecourt, at which point I realize that she thinks we're IFR. I would have liked to accept the IFR approach, into an unfamiliar airport in worsening weather, but I'm not sure that's legal given that we're actually on a CVFR flight plan. I let her know that, having another of what is going to be a very common confused controller conversation on the topic, and then am released VFR into Whitecourt. There's a NOTAM I don't have, rats, I didn't explicitly ask for it with the the weather and should have. There's a forest fire area inside their control zone. I end up having to stay high over the NOTAMed area than doing a left 270 to intercept final, and then I go to turn on the windshield wipers and darnit, this airplane doesn't have any. I bitch about that, as the operator helps me find the airport. He says "We only fly on nice days!" Point taken. This is crummy weather, but it's perfectly safe VFR visibility and this is the worst he normally flies in. I land and taxi to the pumps.

The weather really is miserable here, it actually got colder as we descended westbound into the front, the wind hasn't let up and it's raining big time. I huddle in the airplane and make my postflight calls from the cockpit. The briefer who takes the call is in Edmonton, so as I close my flight plan I add, "The weather is nasty and it's heading your way." She doesn't hear that and asks me to repeat, so I admit it was just irrelevant pilot whining. I whine some more to a helicopter pilot who is part of the forest fire fighting efforts nearby. Once I'm fuelled--gotta love fuel service, it's actually been a while since I fuelled my own airplane in nasty weather--I taxi to parking and put everything away for the night. Walking back across the apron I'm hailed by the pilot, putting blade covers on his helicopter. He asks me if I've called a taxi yet. I haven't. "Call two please, I need one in about half an hour."

In the terminal there are no taxi company numbers or cards by the payphone, but there's a phone book, one of the northern kind that has twenty or so different small communities all in one book. I leaf through the cab section finding "Sparky's" with a Whitecourt phone number. He can be there in ten minutes, and then can go back for the other guy. I don't think it's a two-cab town.

In fact it's not a fully one-cab town. The vehicle arrives has a spiderweb-cracked windshield, no seatbelts and an inoperative right side sliding door. It's the sketchiest cab I've ever been in, and recall that I've been to Cambodia. The driver looks like one of the Yukon prospectors who didn't strike gold. He appears sober, so we ride into town and send him back for helicopter guy, whose name I forgot to ask, so I give the company name from the side of the helicopter.

We're at the Super-8, across the street from Boston Pizza. Ahh good times, old times. You know, you can be nostalgic for anything. I'll bet there are Cambodians my age who manage to have moments of nostalgia for the days that they woke up at five a.m. to try and grow rice under conditions that rice doesn't grow. I alert the operator that I am going to order my "high-maintenance pizza" and he wants to know what that is. "Are you sure you want to hear it twice?" He does. It's a small Rustic Italian, whole wheat crust, double sauce, no cheese, add pineapple, and extra sauce on the side for dipping, please. He rolls his eyes, but the waitress accepts it cheerfully.

It's seven p.m. and we're discussing the next day's plans. He'd like to be over the mountains and working in the Vancouver area at 9:30 a.m. I do napkin math. So take off at nine from an airport near there, maybe Abbotsford, at nine, so have to land Abbotsford at 8:30, assuming unfavourable winds leave here at 5:30, so get to the airport at 5:00 a.m. so allowing for taxi and hotel stupidity, a 4:00 a.m. wake-up call, which means I have to be in bed by eight, the restaurant isn't too busy, so we should be done in time for that. Yup I can do it.

"You can go to bed at eight, just like that?"

"That's my job." I could go to sleep right now, but I'm going to eat my pizza first. You may have noticed that I missed a step in my math. Neither of us did, at that point.

I say I'll have my leftover half peanut butter sandwich for breakfast, and he suggests that I can have leftovers too. That's before he watches me inhale the pizza. I was going to have a dessert too, but have to get to bed for eight.

It's absolutely pouring now. I'm glad I through that big coat in the plane with me. It seemed pretty silly on a 20+ degree day leaving home, but now it's perfect. This is the company coat (logo covered over with a generic patch) that I snared on my first day at Victory Airways, electing to take one size too big rather than wait an uncertain period for someone to get me one the right size. Pilot decision-making at its finest. The hood keeps me dry.

I go straight to bed and encourage sleep by running gently through the alphabet picturing an animal for each letter of the alphabet as it curls up and goes to sleep. Somewhere around giraffe I realize the error in my napkin-based planning, but I will fix it in the morning. I never got past giraffe. Think about it for a while before you scroll down for the horrifying truth. In what position would a giraffe sleep? Standing up? There's no way the head would balance up there. Standing with the head drooping down and lying on the ground? Lying on its side with the head and neck stretched way out where another animal might step on it? Curled up like a cat? I somehow always had sleeping gorillas, gerbils, goats and geckos. This is the first time I've had to contemplate nap time for the poor giraffe.

Sleep is very very important to me, and I won't compromise my duty rest for anything. I know how quickly a sleep debt can build up and how severely it can impact my behaviour. I'll forever wonder if the giraffe would like to get much more sleep, but just can't get comfortable. More on sleep postures and sleep behaviour here.


Christopher said...

One hour time zone change?

JeppsOnFire said...

Ahh Super 8. The 'Whitecourt Waffles'. Avoid the rooms on the corner by the Mcdonalds if you can - nothing says annoying like muffled drive-thru orders when you're trying to sleep..

Anonymous said...

Ahh, I love it that you are flying and blogging again. Probably almost as much as you do...

Anoynmous said...

Wind. Rain. I hope the next entry doesn't complete the pattern.

DataPilot said...

Wind. Rain. I hope the next entry doesn't complete the pattern.

I'm starting to worry about where this story goes next. And I'm not even Canadian.

5400AirportRdSouth said...

Welcome Back!

A few months ago I was on the short-list to be the guy who fueled you in Slave Lake. The way things worked out, both for the town and my new job, I'm glad it didn't turn out that way ( other than missing the chance to meet a pilot-blogging legend ). Perhaps if your journey brings you even further north, I might get to catch a glimpse of that trademark hair some day. This time I'll be holding a yoke instead of a hose!