The weather is good in BC, so I'm checking NOTAMs for a whole list of airports all over the province. It doesn't matter which ones I check, I'll be told to fly to somewhere I didn't check, and once airborne I'll be asked to land somewhere entirely different. I check the major northern Alberta ones like Whitecourt (no issues), Fort Mac (surrounded by forest fires), Slave Lake (surprisingly normal considering what they've gone through), Peace River (unlighted obstructions), Edmonton City Centre (all the approaches are messed up), Calgary (closed taxiways) and Lloydminster (more unlighted obstructions). I'm mostly interested in showstoppers like fuel unavailability or closed runways. The obstructions are typically 300' agl and more than a mile away. Unless it's right on final approach, it's not going to be in my path, and to be honest if something went so wrong that I was at 300' agl and not just under a mile back stabilized on final, I wouldn't have room in my brain to remember where the I end up having to update my NOTAMs after I have put away my computer in the morning, so I call a briefer with my embarrassingly long list of possible landing spots. McBride, Nakusp, Vernon, Squamish, Prince George, Fort St. John, Vancouver, everywhere we might go. The briefer tells me it will take a while because it's difficult to know where the NOTAMs are filed for small aerodromes. "They aren't just listed under the airports?" I ask. Nope. It all depends on what was done in the 1940s. Vernon, for example, was a military training base or something, so although it has no air traffic services, it has its own NOTAM file. Larger aerodromes elsewhere in the province are kept in other aerodrome files. The briefer tracks it all down for me.
We head out across the mountains, VFR this time, because we want to take pictures on the way and passing through cloud gets water on the camera, and might leave streaks on the glass that would show up in the pictures. Around Whitecourt there is a lot of cloud and it's raining, so I try to dodge it all, going way south and even a bit east in an attempt to avoid getting wet. Then I make an attempt to outclimb billowing cumulus. I know where this is going, as every altitude I climb too just shows more tops. They probably can't grow faster than I can climb they way they could when I was in Florida in an ultralight, but it's still silly trying to outclimb them. I go back down below the clouds and work on outlasting them. I know the low ones don't extend that far to the west.
I'll be going through a mountain pass below the clouds and this is something that GPSes with their straight pink (the guys call them "magenta") lines aren't as good at as old-fashioned technology. I have my chart out, folded so I can see Grande Cache and the mountains beyond, just as I see Grande Cache below and just ahead. I have a pencil, and I have an accurate watch. I identify my location on the chart and I mark the time I am there, resetting the directional gyro to the compass and paying close attention to which valley I go down. I can cheat big time because the GPS gives me both terrain and exact lat-long position, but this is the way to do it, so you don't lose track of where you are in identical-looking valleys with very different things at their ends, and so that if you take a wrong turn or encounter adverse weather, you know where you were when things were good and how to get back. And it gives me an excuse to look ahead and anticipate where I will see lakes and rivers around the corners.
We cross the Great Divide, which forms the Alberta-BC border here, and marks the time zone boundary as well as the high point of the mountain range. Our destination was originally Prince George but I've gone far enough south in the avoidance manoeuvre that the valley I've chosen will bring me out just south of McBride. I adjust the range on the GPS to show the operator this. He is surprised to learn that there is an airport at McBride. To him it's just a place that we will take pictures. "Can we land there?" he wants to know.
"Pass me that book."
That book is the manual for the airplane, because when it's not a flight test at an airport with a runway twice as long as I need, I do do my calculations. Not landing distance, but take-off, because "Can we land?" really means, "Can we land and then take off again?" and take-off distance is greater. I look up the airport elevation and then follow the line for the next highest elevation, at the hottest temperature it could possibly be down there, rounding up on the weight and assuming no wind, and there is still plenty of runway available to get out of there. "Yes, we can land."
We do, and the operator double-checks the camera glass, plus we both reset our bladders before taking off and taking pictures. We continue up the valley to Prince George, where we climb up to ten thousand feet or so and take some more pictures. We continue in this fashion, a giant, province-wide game of connect-the-dots that doesn't even draw anything, but wow is it scenic. Fuel is down to a little over an hour remaining as we approach Revelstoke, but I bypass it for one more set of photos. Part of my job is to plan fuel for efficient flight, and that means not always having the happy empty bladder and full fuel tanks that one would if it were a pleasure flight. There's opposite direction traffic at Nakusp, where we're taking pictures of a ski resort next to a lake, or maybe a lake next to a ski resort. We let him go by and then descend for the second set of photos, and then it's off to Vernon to land.
Approaching Vernon, I tune their frequency and hear a skydiving airplane preparing to drop. Argh, that wasn't in the NOTAMs. Closer scrutiny of the chart shows the airport to be in a marked advisory area for continuous daytime parachute activity, so it doesn't need a NOTAM. I advise that I will hold outside the area until the jumpers are on the ground. I'm irritated with myself for not noting this earlier, and it must have come out in my voice as the operator asks me if I'm mad at the drop plane pilot. I'm not. The drop plane pilot is pretty lackadaisical about his meatbombs, assuring me that there's no conflict. I ask how long the drop will take and something about the way he starts the sentence makes me think he's going to say "it depends on whether they remember to open their chutes or not." He doesn't though, just describes the seconds of freefall followed by where they open their chutes. I follow his advice and join a downwind without crossing the field. It's a little close to the runway, because of terrain, so I fly an ugly teardrop through final and back again, then over a big group of trees to the runway. The operator says pilots always come in high here because of the trees.
I backtrack to the apron and shut down behind another airplane at the fuel pumps, then we haul ours up to the pumps and fuel. We're pumping a lot of litres in, and quite a line forms behind us as the pilots who normally take maybe thirty to fifty litres at a time wait for us to fill all the tanks with an order of magnitude more fuel. No one is in too much of a hurry, though. They help us shove the airplane off the pump so the next people can fuel. There's a washroom but no payphone in the terminal, an increasing and annoying trend these days. Cellphones die. Payphones connect. I do succeed in filing a flight plan, pretty much guessing at how long our remaining work will take and where we'll end up, then jump in the airplane and fire it up.
We taxi out and take off straight away, climbing straight out over the lake to avoid the parachutes, and then up a valley to get to altitude before the hills do in this heat. Some photos of a secret lake, and then set course for an Indian reserve. Although we're dodging jagged mountain peaks with no sign of any civilization in sight, the chart tells me that I'm approaching Vancouver's inverted wedding cake airspace and lists a frequency to call Vancouver Centre before I enter Class C. Theoretically there's a number there, written against the violent colours and squiggles of the hypsometric tints and contour lines. I think I need bifocal sunglasses. I call the controller for clearance into the airspace and to advise her of a few photo lines that we'll be flying within the area controlled by Vancouver terminal. She has trouble understanding me at first. It's amazing she receives me at all. Do they have repeating antennae out here in the barren mountains? Wouldn't they just blow down, get covered in snow, or be destroyed by rutting moose and itchy bears? She clears me into the class C, but advises me that there are too many photo aircraft in the area and the mission will not be approved. Grr. Damn damn damn. The sun angle will be too low soon, so we can't wait long. I would have got preapproval this morning before coming but it was hard to predict when we would be here and truth-be-told I had some of today's assignment mixed up with the work we did last time we were here, so I didn't realize those Vancouver area dots were new work and not completed work. Communication: important.
The first valley we're in is below the reaches of Vancouver's airspace, so they can't tell us what we can and can't do. I have to fly up a valley towards mountains while on line, which is a little nerve-wracking because it's difficult to look at terrain and photo dots at the same time. I have to assure myself that there is no risk of CFIT on the line, but I still want to look out the window. We have to take a couple of runs at some lines because it takes a bit of a run-in to get on line and from one direction there isn't room to do that. There's a lot of snow up here still and at least one photo is just an overexposed white blob from the glare of the snow.
The next area has very few lines, and is partly in and partly out of terminal airspace. I get on the first line heading towards the airspace boundary, and then call up terminal for clearance in. Nothing about photo lines, just where I am, my altitude, and where I'm going. No problem. I'm coming down a valley and at an altitude where this is a pretty normal request. The line is complete. I look at the chart and where we need to be next. Now I'm taking advantage of the poor communication I've observed between layers of control in the Vancouver airport. I'm betting this guy has no idea I'm a photo flight that was denied.
"Request to overfly Bowen Island west to east at six thousand."
The operator is laughing at me, because he sees what I'm doing, and it's working. No pressure though. I can't screw up my casual "overflight" of the island. I have to be right on line, but it's not anywhere any airplane might not be. Finishing that line of photos I ask to continue to the river ahead, and that's approved, too. Sneaky, but done before the sun angle or fuel level got too low or my duty day ended. And then I land. As I roll out I see that it was almost to the minute right on the flight plan, which greatly amuses me, considering where I pulled those numbers from. I have an experienced ... hat.
We barely needed the heater, but it seems to work.
On the subject of pulling things out of body parts, we have the latest thing to be paranoid about: surgically implanted explosives. Perhaps I am glad I'm not going through the secure side of airports much these days. I wonder what proportion of the travelling public has had surgery recently enough to raise TSA suspicions. If the explosive device were disguised in a breast implant as they suggest, the incision could be hidden under the breast where it would take a very thorough search to find it, especially if one covered the mark with that make up putty and made it look like an old implant incision.