Monday, June 06, 2011

Trial By Wind

Morning dawns in Slave Lake. It's a beautiful day, by most standards, but there are clouds present at an altitude that would prevent our doing the photo job to specifications. The decision is taken to work today on another assignment, in the Calgary area. My job is to get there expeditiously, and negotiate with the Calgary terminal controllers to allow this. The "Calgary job" is one that everyone has been dreading, because it's a low altitude job with unusually demanding tolerances. I was assured that I wouldn't be dropped into Calgary until I had some experience with the system. There's another crew here, working on the Slave Lake job, but they have had some camera problems and are going to Edmonton for consultation with the camera service guy. So I'm going to cut my teeth on the "Calgary Job."

I call Calgary terminal, requesting a VFR entry code for their airspace and describing the work we hope to do in terms of their reporting points. I have the mission map, the CFS and the Calgary VTA chart all spread out, trying to describe what I want to do in the vocabulary of the Calgary controllers. They are not impressed, but grudgingly give us a squawk code and launch clearance for the mission. I call head office to back me up by faxing them maps, because we're checked out and in the airplane, so don't have the ability to do it ourselves.

We make slow progress south, with a strong headwind. Edmonton clears me through their airspace unblinkingly. I can't remember if I used the Calgary code for that transit or was still squawking VFR. As we continue south, the camera operator sets me up with some practice lines. I have to stay right on the line, wings level, pitch level, holding altitude without sudden movements. It's a narrower, more sensitive line than the one I tried in the training session. At first it's really difficult and I talk to myself, calming myself down, "C'mon Aviatrix, you're a pilot, you know how to fly in a straight line." And suddenly I reply to myself, "Yes, I do, and it's not like this!" I adjust the screen, sit up straighter and look out the window more. That's how a pilot flies in a straight line in VMC. It makes an immediate difference, especially as we're flying due south along the section lines. ("Section" is an old-fashioned measurement of land, about 260 hectares, and when Alberta was first homesteaded the farms were carved out in rectangular sections, with roads and irrigation channels and other obvious landmarks running along the boundaries). I can look out the window and align with a visible line that runs right to the horizon. So I can do this. Let's go.

Approaching their airspace, I talk to Calgary, and they clear me for lines one and two. They are east-west lines, but not aligned with section lines, so I visually line up on a mountain peak. It's turbulent and between the little pitching and rolling motions and my over-correcting responses, the line is not skillfully enough flown to be a keeper. So I fly line one again, trying to get it right. I still see the pitch and roll indicator flash red again and again. I fly line two. And I need to fly line two again, but ATC tells me to hold west of the approach. What important installation are we taking pictures of? Can I tell you? Yes. We're taking super-high resolution high tech stereoscopic pictures of golf courses. If you don't think of airports and the space around them three dimensionally, you might not realize where the golf courses fit in relative to the airports in a city. See, the no-trespassing control that an airport has over the area surrounding its runways does not stop at the airport fence. Nothing is permitted to be built protruding into the approach surfaces, invisible ramps leading straight to each runway. Look around the ends of the runways in your city and if it's not water or farmland you'll see parks and golf courses. This means that if you're photographing golf courses, you are by definition in the runway approach or departure path.

They tell us it will be at least fifteen minutes before they can allow me to refly line two. I start asking about other lines, and get clearance to fly some to the east, in the approach to a crossing runway, not currently in use. I have all but one of those lines complete, my skills improving, but still pretty marginal, when they say I need to pull off them. I ask to go back to line two, at which point they decide I can do my one last line here. No pressure or anything. I can't mess this one up. Turn, align, stay straight, stay straight, stay level, correct for turbulence, last photo, breathe. I did it. Back to line two.

Line two is easier. Practice makes ... barely acceptable. But it's done. Now off to the west side. They aren't running approaches or departures through here right now, or my altitude and distance combination makes it easier for them to work around me. I do hear Air Canada being held above and below me, for me to get this work done. We're making things harder for Calgary controllers, no question. Thanks guys.

As well as being flown at lower than usual altitudes for this type of survey, this work must be done at much slower than normal airspeeds. I have the airplane in slow flight with the flaps down, and this complicates control. In normal flight, if the airplane is a little bit low, you can raise the nose slightly and you will lose a little bit of airspeed, and gain a little bit of altitude. You get the airspeed back when you return the nose to the former position. This is the way a pilot usually manages slight deviations from altitude. In slow flight, or the region of reverse control, if you raise the nose you will lose airspeed and altitude, because raising the nose reduces the speed, and it actually requires more power to maintain altitude at a lower airspeed. If I lower the nose, I can both descend and speed up, but I will possibly exit slow flight, meaning that with the same power settings I will be going considerably faster. There are two different speeds I could be going with any given power setting, a slow flight one and a normal flight one. The camera operator is extremely experienced and gives me directives to raise the nose to keep the airplane level and he thinks that if I'm a little bit low I should raise it a little bit more in order to sneak up a few feet. It's complicated trying to explain that today I need to add more power to go slower, and it makes the already backwards display even more confusing.

Additionally, the speed I am assigned to fly is a ground speed, which means that southbound I can fly quite comfortably in range, but northbound I'm whipping over the ground and flirting with Vmc to try and attain the parameters. "Turn harder" he says as I try to pick up the next line. But this is as steep a bank as is safe in this configuration. I'm glad I have the knowledge and experience I have, because it's barely enough here. We whip through the northbound lines, having to refly some of them southbound. The increasing quality of my work from improvement through practice is starting to be affected by fatigue, increased turbulence and a shift change to a more cautious air traffic controller. We have perhaps half an hour work time remaining before we have to land for fuel, but the operator calls it and says we'll land for a break.

"Springbank?" I ask. That's the training airport adjacent to Calgary, we're pretty near it.

"High River," he wants. I tell Calgary where we are going and they give me their local winds at the field, something gusting thirty. Overflying High River we see the sock straight out, straight across the field. "We can go somewhere else," he advises.

"This is okay," I say, bearing in mind that it isn't an aircraft I have a lot of recent experience in. "I'll be able to tell on final if it's too strong." I get blown through final and realign, then enter a slip to show myself that I have sufficient rudder authority to hold a straight line to the runway. The touchdown isn't the prettiest, but I'm not even going to blame it on the wind. I'm still getting in touch with where my wheels are. This is what, the third landing I've made in this airplane. Or the second. I can't remember who landed on the training flight.

We taxi in and the price of avgas is almost as low as car gas. "That's why I like this airport." My fuel consumption has been higher than the previous pilot's. I'm leaning properly, and he can even hear the left engine complain if I lean more aggressively. The first flight it was because I was using a higher power setting, but this flight I used a lower one in cruise at the cost of airspeed. I blame the slow flight configuration for the consumption. You have to run a little richer to compensate for poor cooling at low airspeeds and high nose attitudes.

We refuel, and I borrow a phone to check with Calgary to make sure our code is still valid for the return. We eat some snacks, and go right back at it.

We depart the opposite direction as we landed: I'm not kidding about the wind being straight across the runway, and go back to the lines. The break has made a difference, as do little things like my not having to divide my concentration between fuel remaining and the straight line. I was willing to work right to minimum reserves, but I had to keep in my head what I needed on top of that for the approach and landing. If you turned a pilot's brain into a pie chart, the biggest slice would always be thinking "fuel." It still bashes us around a lot, always seeming to sneak in the big whacks of turbulence just as the camera is about to take a picture.

The southern lines are complete and we now have one more line at a higher altitude, 7,100', right across the middle of the city. I request that one and the controller clears me direct the city. I explain that I need to hold my heading in order to intercept my photo line, and he accepts that and clears me to 7,500'. "Callsign request seven thousand one hundred," I explain, on the way up."

"Seven thousand one hundred will be below you," he quips. "I'm not going to shut down the whole airport for you." I get the okay for that altitude from the camera operator and we fly the line at 7500'. There will be some sort of post processing to compensate.

I offer to ask to fly line two again, because it really wasn't very good, but he says it's fine and we're done. Back to High River, and this time I get a compliment on my crosswind landing. It still wasn't my very best, but at least it was competent. I've been thrown into this without a net and I don't like that that last sentence is starting to feel like my motto.

I call the flight follower to tell her we're down and she promises that this truly difficult job was not given to me as a hazing prank. I laugh and decide to pretend that it was, because it makes it more fun. The locals direct me to park on the oil stain at the back of the apron. I park facing into the wind, borrow bigger chocks, and secure the controls with a seatbelt, before I leave the airplane.

Even though we weren't on a flight plan, I've been briefed to call flight services to close out, because sometimes generating a VFR code for VFR terminal work results in a flight plan being opened. The FBO guy is out securing his own aircraft, so I reach over the counter and borrow the phone again, calling the FSS. I get the FSS in Québec for some reason, and tell the briefer that I'm actually landed in Alberta but I've been connected to him. It turns out that it's a VOIP phone, so it went to Québec, same thing that happens on a satellite phone. We sort that out and I say, "Well in that case, 'Je suis aterrisée à High River, Alberta et je voudrais fermer mon plan de vol, s'il vous plait'." He seems to both understand and appreciate the effort, though in retrospect, aterriser probably isn't an être verb, and I think I spelled it wrong.

We discover in the evening that the wind was so strong it made the news, which is saying a lot because Calgary gets a lot of high winds. Also the client for the work was in town, so he will see the conditions under which we worked to get the job done.

So I spent five hours today flying a somewhat unfamiliar multi-engine aircraft in slow flight in turbulence, at 10 mph above Vmc, at 2000' agl, in busy terminal airspace. And I loved it. I am back, people. And I am a pilot.


Arf said...

Lovely! Congrats on getting back to somewhere that you want to be. I enjoyed that post a great deal. Thanks.

Louise said...

Woo. Welcome back.

Dafydd said...

Hwyl Fawr !

pat said...


I can feel your joy and excitement to be flying again.
It really looks like a tricky job!

BTW, in French you'd translate "I landed at this airport" by "J'ai atterri à cet aéroport".

D.B. said...

Congratulations on flying again!

And, I am enjoying the French Aviation terminology lessons. Back when I could still feel confident about speaking in French, I wasn't yet a pilot. So it is all new to me!

Sarah said...

Yay! So good to hear you're back at work again, rising to the challenges and enjoying it all.

It sounds like a tough first assignment - high workload flying the airplane, watching for traffic, talking to ATC and your crew... seems like a two pilot crew would make things a lot easier. But that's why they pay you the big bucks.

Interesting about golf courses around airports. I'd noticed that happens a lot, but hadn't put 2+2 together. I've noted that cemeteries are common airport neighbors, probably for the same low-profile reasons. And they have an even higher noise tolerance threshold...

"... directed to park on the oil stains" LOL. Of course!

Amanda said...

It's wonderful to read about your new flying adventures! Welcome back!

Aviatrix said...

Pat: Of course. I forgot about the different conjugations of verbs with lots of sses in them.

Anonymous said...

Great site when struggling with French verbs

Devil in the Drain said...

Welcome back to the air!