I wake up in the middle of night for no particular reason. Probably a noise in the strange hotel room. I take this opportunity to check the GFA. It looks bad, not bad for normal pilots, but bad for high altitude photo flights. I also check NOTAMs for the areas we want to work. There's an easy thirty minutes worth of firefighting areas, temporary military operations areas and airways changes to transcribe. Does anyone amend their charts with all the changeover point amendments and MEA gaps? Gah, why do I set myself up to let company do this to me with so little preparation time before reporting?
One of the issues is a NOTAMed expansion of military airspace. Wait a sec. It's June. It's the time of year for Operation Maple Flag. Why am I always caught operating in northeastern Alberta during Maple Flag? It's an international air force games week hosted by Canada, because we have these vast swathes of airspace hardly anyone is using, and because it's always "mess up Aviatrix with the crazy NOTAMs" week around here. The NOTAMs actually aren't that bad, and then a little Googling reveals why. Maple Flag is cancelled this year because our forces are stretched thin overseas. It's not unprecedented. It was cancelled in 1990 when we were overextended in Bosnia, too. Man, Bosnia was a long time ago. I hope we did some good there and that people's lives are better as a result.
I go back to sleep and then I'm woken at 6 a.m. to be told we're not flying today. Joy. I get up anyway and try to get ahead on the work. My flight planning software is hung again. "Windows is checking for a solution to the problem." Has anyone ever had Windows find a solution to the problem? A guilty note to two different people who have sent me flight planning software to beta test: I really do need better software and I really did intend to use it, but even though the front end load of installing it and learning to use it would probably be amortized by a few sessions of waiting for this one to finish crashing or having to hand code a waypoint for an airport it's never heard of (how can it not know where Moose Jaw is?), I stick with the devil I know. A personality flaw perhaps.
I'm supposed to plan a flight in the "Christian Lake" area, but as far as I can tell, Christian Lake is a moody-looking male model. You can Google him if you like that sort of thing. It must go by a different name locally.
I call back the armed forces unit that controls the airspace I want to go play in. I get transferred and am soon talking to the gentleman who actually wrote the notation I'm reading on the chart, and as he discusses it I realize that I misread it. I'm so used to seeing things that say XXXXZ-YYYYZ MON-SAT that I didn't notice that this one says 1400Z MON-0100Z SAT, O/T by NOTAM. In other words rather than being active days Monday through Saturday, it's active day and night from Monday morning to Friday evening. Friday evening is Saturday morning in UTC. So we're good on Saturday and Sunday. But what about weekdays, if we need it?
During the week, the officer tells me, that airspace is occupied by "25 year olds with fighter jets". He says, "You couldn't pay me to fly there on a weekday." He is kind, friendly and polite, but also forceful, authoritative and knowledgeable. Again I admire the training that puts him there. Apparently it also equips a man to be a sharp dresser, in the absense of a savvy sister or a gay best friend.
I tell him I was told specifically that we had permission to operate in the restricted area, does he have any idea how that might be registered. I can pretty much see him shake his head over the telephone. "I wish I could give you permission to do that, but it's not safe." I convey this back to company, explaining that it's not that I don't trust them or the client to have obtained permission, but clearly this gentleman is the one in charge and he says it's neither safe nor authorized, so I'm not going. Tomorrow is the weekend, however, so we can stand down from that confrontation until the work needs to be done on a weekday. We decide to relocate to the nearest airport to the work, so we can get it done more efficiently tomorrow.
We get a taxi back to the airport and the operator asks about the drunk driver going off the road, just to give another person the opportunity to describe the excitement, and to hear how much the story varies from person to person. The described spot is the same, but this time the marks on the embankment are from hauling the car out, and the car went over into the ditch from the other side, where there is concrete.
The airplane needs some more oil. I'm down to my last couple of quarts, and I will need more before the weekend. I looked for a case to put on board before we left home, but we were out, and it was too early in the morning to buy one. The CFS says "All" grades of aviation oil are available here, but the fueller says they don't sell oil. There are a couple of airports along our route of flight that also list oil, so I ask the operator--he's a licenced pilot and has a company cellphone--to call and confirm. I don't know why I didn't just borrow his phone. It's almost comical watching him learn what I know about the telephone numbers listed for "airport operator" in the CFS: many of them connect to city hall, leaving you talking to a receptionist who has no idea about the airport. You have to ask for a number for an airport manager, and often there isn't really one. City mowing crews go out there once a week and mow the grass; city paving crews go out there in the spring and seal the pavement cracks in the apron; someone in purchasing goes out to check the levels in the fuel tanks and order more fuel when required and no one knows what to do about the smashed taxiway lights. We must have called five airports, many of which required two or three calls to get someone who could give a definitive answer and none of them could supply us with the oil. Finally I picked one with flight training and lots of general aviation. A detour, but I was sure we could get oil there. "Do you want me to call?" I offer belatedly. He prefers to do it, to finally get some closure on this asking for oil thing. And he gets a definite and friendly yes.
I file a quick flight plan, because the stopover airport is in Edmonton's terminal area and I don't want to have to go through the trouble of figuring out how to get a VFR code another way. I pull numbers out of my hat for how long it will take, and blast off for oil. I get excellent service from Edmonton terminal as always. They are busy and have to cope with traffic ranging from gliders to students to international flights, but they rarely play the "too busy" card and generally help with efficient flights. Terminal competently gives me altitudes I need for a comfortable descent and then hands me off to tower. Tower has a slower airplane in the circuit, but they just move him over to right hand circuits and clear me to a left downwind. I land and then ground asks me what I'm looking for. I name the FBO and indicate unfamiliarity and they give me perfect directions.
There's a taxiway leading into their apron area so I clear the main taxiway, enter and turn around. I must emphasize do this when operating in congested areas: don't go in without a plan to get out, and execute your plan before the environment changes or you can get stuck. We jump out and explain we're the ones looking for oil, only to find that the guy who could sell us the oil has just left. "Left as in left for lunch or as in left for the weekend?" I ask. The fellow isn't sure, but he has the grade of oil we want and he'll hapily sell it to us. We don't have cash, so he takes an IOU. Yeah, aviation is great. People are really like that. Company would have sent him a cheque the same day, except that when the camera operator goes to give the details to the person who writes the cheque, he discovers that the guy with the oil didn't put his name or company on it, just the address. We call back on Monday and get the name, so don't worry, he didn't get stiffed.
We call back ground ready to go, and they give us a different runway, just to keep us out of the way of the students in the circuit. They don't even give us a transponder code, just a take off clearance, so I guess it's not mandatory here anyway, so away we go. Once we're airborne and tower is just about to hand us off to terminal they remember the code. Punch it in (I love love love digital transponders, they save only a few seconds each time, but they are heads down seconds in busy airspace that I can really use for something else), radar identified and over to terminal who give me everything I ask for, even though I change my mind after discovering the first requested altitude is hella bumpy. The operator says he doesn't mind, but let him have one non-miserable flight.
We touch down at destination three minutes after the filed time. Why do I bother doing flight planning properly when I can make up numbers this good without? It's because I've done so much flight planning that I know what the numbers should be, somehow without even knowing how I'm doing it. I love this. I suppose whatever your job is you know things that you can't see a way you could have known, but you know it because you're experienced.
I have been to this airport before, but when I land I feel disoriented, like the apron is on the wrong side. I have no memory of this fuel pump. I look at the CFS and the apron is on the wrong side. Oh crap. Are there two airports at this town and I'm at the wrong one? Exact right time to exact wrong place? No, the larger forestry apron is just more prominent on the CFS diagram and I can hardly see it from here. I didn't fuel last time I was at this airport. And look, there's a familiar terminal behind that jet. It just looks different because there was snow on the ground last time I was here. We call the number in the CFS and the fueller comes out of a building and sells us gas, giving us a heads up that there's no fuel available tomorrow. Good To Know.
I park and then go inside the terminal, grinning as I wait for the operator's reaction. It's ordinary on the outside, but gorgeous on the inside, with comfy chairs, a big screen TV, decorations, like a fancy clubhouse. There are also two other pilots inside, also appreciating his reaction. They are on a hold, having flown some people up for the day to play golf. Round of golf, dinner and drinks and back home. How the other half, or rather other one percent, lives, eh?
Meanwhile we may be joyriding. The forecast is significantly different that when we left, and tomorrow may not be good here either. The operator texts company to see if they want us to go home instead of staying here, so we sit and talk to the pilots D. and C. while we wait for a response. They also didn't know about the one-way airway by Vancouver. D. says he knows of one one-way route, but only because it's where he trained. IFR routing should not be a code based on local knowledge. There should be a definitive list of these things somewhere. We all watch a vampire movie, or maybe a vampire subplot on a daytime TV show, we're not paying too much attention, and then share a cab into town.
The plan was to drop our bags off at a hotel then continue to a restaurant, but our hotel is very slow. One of them is dealing with other customers and the other on the phone. We wait. There's one more person ahead of us, who is slowly dealt with. They have free cookies, so I grab a couple and run them out to our buddies in the cab, telling them it's okay to bail on us if they want, but they aren't in a hurry. We wait. The clerk then comes to us but can't deal with two rooms on one credit card. She turns out to be new and in training, and the trainer goes over what she should do, ever-so-slowly. They will not cut us a break. "Can we just leave our bags here, and pick them up later when the room is ready?" Can they give us the keys and finish the paperwork while we run our bags upstairs? No. No keys until paperwork complete. When I get my room card I bolt upstairs only to discover when I get there that the key doesn't work. Bet she did it on purpose to punish me for being an impatient bitch. Oh well.
The restaurant is okay and we all have a good chat and dinner. They leave first and then when we're done we can't get a cab. Not a single one answers. So we walk about four kilometres back to the hotel. Whatever. Maybe we'll get to take some pictures tomorrow.
Many of you will enjoy following this blog, written by a pilot training under the British system, and shortly to be a Dash-8 FO. He blogs about the kind of day-by-day detail that I do, and gives you a good idea what it's like learning to fly and progressing onward from there. He'll be flying bigger airplanes than I've ever flown by the time he has less time than I had before I was paid to fly anything bigger than a C172. I explained to him that I hate him, but it's not his fault.