Monday, July 11, 2011


There seems to be a rule that the amount of time you are forced to stay in a place is inversely proportional to the quality of the hotel, and it rained hard overnight, so I was dreading this morning's weather, but the day dawns flyable. With the authority my company notifies us is newly vested in me, I file an IFR photo flight plan by faxing it into the appropriate number. I call Edmonton IFR data back to make sure the plan went through and everything is filed according to their standards. I am planning a VFR departure, and don't anticipate being able to make radio contact on the ground, so I ask them what frequency I should contact them on airborne. The specialist says, "Just do what you normally do."

"I've never been here in my life. There is no normal." I can look up a frequency and use that, but when I do that it's rarely the frequency they actually want me on, so why not give it to me on the phone now and spare some space on the radios. No one seems to know what to do with an aircraft that is going to pop up here wanting IFR. They had better get on that if they want the UFOs to feel welcome around here. Not everyone has intimate local knowledge.

There are puddles on the apron and the operator doesn't want anything splashed on the camera, so we drag the airplane over to the taxiway and do the run-up there. There's no one around to block. Run-up complete, I taxi out, take off, and when I'm clear of the aerodrome area I call ATC on the frequency I did finally manage to talk them out of. They give me clearance up to 16,000', and I have a ways to go, so I make it a leisurely cruise climb, cowl flaps a little bit open, and a medium power setting. As we approach the photo area they clear me higher until we're cleared all the way to our working altitude: "flight level 190 blocking 210" which means that instead of being assigned one altitude which we have to maintain, like everyone else, we have been given a block of altitudes, everything between 19,000' and 21,000' (as indicated with the altimeter set to 29.92"). This gives us freedom to fly at an altitude like 19,100' on one line and 20,300' on the next. Its cool. Actually, it's cold. The OAT is around -23C, and with each passing hour the inside of the airplane gets colder.

I'm wearing a t-shirt, work pants, a hooded sweatshirt, a winter coat, leather gloves and a baseball cap, plus of course my twelve hundred dollar electric earmuffs. My ears aren't cold. I just have running shoes on, because luggage space is limited so I just brought one pair of shoes for both working out and working. My toes are cold. My toes are probably the coldest part. I'm sitting pretty still, just thumbs and forefingers on the yoke, making the slight movements necessary to maintain my course from dot to dot.

I'm level just under FL210. The extra few hundred feet has dropped the outside air temperature to -27C. The air traffic controller asks me if I'm planning on making any turns soon. I can't read the tiny print at the edge of the poorly designed screen telling me the distance remaining on my line , but the operator is practiced at feeding me the answer to such questions. He answers and I relay the answer to ATC. "Next turn in eighteen miles." The controller tells me I may see a Bombardier jet passing. I don't, because I see almost nothing but my dots, but a few moments later there's a call from a Jazz pilot.

"Edmonton, what was that we just passed?"

The controller tells him. There's a pause, just long enough for two guys in the front of a jet to look at each other incredulously and laugh.

"What's it doing up here?" asks the Jazz pilot.

"Taking pictures," says the controller matter-of-factly. The effect on the Jazz pilots of seeing us up here must be like passing a kid on a Big Wheel tricycle on the Autobahn.

Laughing at that keeps us warm for a while. The last few lines we have to fly take us towards an area of cloud. It's more difficult to judge distance to cloud up here, I find. I guess the cues I've learned subconsciously are different, or perhaps it's because I'm so far from the ground that I can't judge them well. I thought there was no way we would get a couple of them, but the operator tells me to keep flying, and we finish both lines before reaching cloud. The next one is over cloud, though, and cloud is encroaching everywhere else, so I request descent for landing.

I bank away from the cloud and with my clearance reduce the power an inch and trim nose down for a good rate of descent. The operator reports fuel coming out of the left outboard tank. There's not all that much fuel left onboard the airplane at this point, so no reason for it to be coming out an overflow. I checked all the caps and they were all secure, with no fuel slopped in the area between the sealed cap and the streamlining flap, but I hypothesize thinks about air pressure changes burping some fuel out of a cap vent early in the flight and now that I'm banking the fuel between the cap and flap is leaking out. He says it's more than that, that he can see it as clearly blue and spraying behind us off the trailing edge of the wing. I can't see it. There's really nothing I can do about it now anyway. I continue my descent through 12,500'. Centre hands me off to the FSS and I cancel IFR with them, then continue my descent, shuttling above the aerodrome. I feel like a student pilot who doesn't do the math properly to plan a cruise descent, but at my altitude I was too close to the aerodrome to land without circling overhead, even at the highest safe descent rate.

I'm passing what would be close to procedure turn altitude when suddenly all the cockpit instruments fog over. The cold-soaked airplane has descended into warm moist air and the moisture condenses on the instrument faces like the 'sweat' you see on a cold beer on a hot day. That is something to remember should I ever be descending in IMC in such conditions. How is this not commonly a safety hazard? I guess non-pressurized aircraft rarely descend from ambient temperatures of -27 to +5 in under ten minutes, and I wouldn't have been rocking the 2000 fpm descent rate in IMC. I look out the window and land the airplane.

On the ground we shut down at the fuel pumps and I extricate myself from my headset, breathing tube, seatbelt, clipboard and yoke, then climb out of the airplane. I do a little "my toes are cold!" dance to warm them up again and tiptoe out to that outboard tank. The outer flap is secure. It's dry underneath, and the inner plug is absolutely secure, perhaps tighter than necessary. There is no damage anywhere to the wing, tank vent or any visible confirmation that fuel was streaming out. I record the exact quantity of fuel taken on board for each tank as it is fuelled and discover a 2L discrepancy between sides, with the leaking side taking less fuel, meaning it was slightly fuller to begin with. Over five hours a couple of liters difference is negligible anyway. Shrug. I'll keep an eye on it. Another theory is that the rubber seal shrank in the cold and fuel leaked into the inter cap area that way. The airplane's published service ceiling is 30,000', so you'd think it could handle summer temperatures at 21,000'. Hmm. I haven't come across a minimum operating temperature. There's a project for me, that will take precedence over writing more on this blog entry.

My feet are warm now.


Ed said...

The problem of fogging up like that is very well known to wave flying glider pilots. It's particularly annoying when the canopy mists up completely when you've made a quick descent to try and land before it gets dark. At that point the primary purpose of the little DV (direct vision) window in the side of the canopy becomes apparent.

gmc said...

If you had a more powerful cabin heater, would that keep the instruments warm enough to avoid this condensation problem?

I've seen lots of condensation that gathers on the inside of the aircraft skin, behind the plastic wall coverings, come pouring into the cockpit on descent.

If you were planning a steady diet of this kind of flying, you'd probably want to invest in some of the motorcycle/snowmobile electrically heated booties and gloves! ;-)

Devil in the Drain said...

Warmth: I have never used this or a similar product, nor do I work for the company. But maybe what you want is a Cordless LITHIUM-ION Heated Jacket.

Plus, it uses the standard rechargeable batteries for Milwaukee Electric tools, so if you want a cordless drill to carry in your aircraft. . . .

Sarah said...

Devil in the Drain, but I'd not be real happy with a lithium-ion battery in the cockpit, let alone one right next to my tender skin.

Unless theres a way to plug the jacket directly into a 12v power supply... that would be toasty!

Anoynmous said...

A common rule of thumb in Boy Scouts: if your feet are cold, put on a hat. A t-shirt stuffed in the top of a sweatshirt hood worked well for me on occasion.