Thursday, August 18, 2011

Pipeline Around the World

We're flying a pipeline today. The pipeline has already been built, so presumably the owners know where it is, but they want pictures of it, and we get paid to take pictures, so we fuel up and go. The flight is a little unusual in that we're training a new camera operator, so there are three people on board. But the more the merrier, as far as I'm concerned.

Linguistic aside I wrote the previous sentence and then tabbed over to my notes file to see what in particular I had to say about the pipeline flight. By pure coincidence, while I scrolled past the random thoughts at the beginning of the file, looking for the flight-by-flight notes, my eyes found something I wrote months ago about the expression I had just used. The grammar of the more the merrier isn't explainable through modern English grammar. The adverbial use of the is a relic of Old English þy, which was originally the instrumentive case of the neuter demonstrative þæt. So it literally meant something like "in what degree more, in that degree merrier." I think it's cool that I randomly use expressions of such ancient lineage and my language happily accommodates them. The people who have little fits about "hopefully" or "could care less" really don't have a leg to stand on. English has forever been about what people say, not what makes any kind of logical sense.

But merrily and numerously we taxi out for takeoff and persuade the controller to give us a departure clearance. There's a double delay and I wonder if I've managed to file the flight along some airway that is not authorized for use on Tuesdays, but the controllers are just puzzling out where to fling a CVFR flight. The first controller seemed to understand that I was CVFR, but there was a controller handoff between my calling for clearance them receiving it from centre and the new controller gave me an IFR departure. I don't really care. IFR or VFR I'm going to take off, switch to the next frequency, and follow their vectors and altitude restrictions until I'm in my photo blocks, so I accept the departure and follow it after I'm given a take-off clearance. The next controller gives me a vector that is close enough to direct my entry point that it doesn't matter, and I'm cheerfully following it when he calls back.

"Are you IFR or controlled VFR?" he asks.

"I'm on a controlled VFR flight plan."

"Have you been IFR at any point today?"

"I accepted a published IFR departure."

I think he asked me if I considered myself IFR right now. I tried to give him a professional and aviation-speak version of, "Seeing as I'm pointed in the direction I want to go, climbing towards the altitude I want, I really don't care." If we didn't have the op spec for extended single-pilot IFR duty days it might matter, but as it is it makes literally no difference to me. The only functional difference between VFR and IFR in cruise on a nice day is whether I have to read back clearances or not. And in busy airspace where most traffic is IFR, I often read back VFR clearances to fit in with the crowd. Technically under IFR the controller not me is responsible for my terrain and traffic, but it's not like I'm really abdicating those responsibilities, especially as I can see the terrain.

It shouldn't make that much difference to the controller, either. Under CVFR he's responsible for separating me from other traffic. That's the whole purpose of CVFR: to allow VFR traffic in airspace where IFR separation is required. But I don't mind. I wish I knew the words to make this controller happy. He tells me I'm CVFR and I'm happy with that. He hnds me off to another frequency.

The pipeline goes into the foothills, so that's where we're working. Usually I get a clearance for such and such photo blocks, for such an such a block altitude and then I just work, without a peep out of the controllers. But this lady won't give me a block altitude. I have to ask for every altitude change and heading change, and as often as not it's denied. There's traffic at that altitude, I can't have it. We end up skipping some lines for cloud and other lines because we just can't get by the controller. The thing about filing photo blocks is that theoretically they are supposed to give you the whole block, yours, exclusively. It never really works that way, and I wouldn't really want it to, but this controller doesn't get what is going on.

If I want to fly direct Calgary at 11,000' and there's traffic preventing me from doing so, I can continue towards Calgary at 9000' until the traffic is by me, then accept the climb to 11,000' and I have been inconvenienced only a tiny bit. If my direct Calgary course is 150 degrees and I'm restricted to south for five minutes, I've still been making progress towards Calgary and not a lot of time has been wasted in the five minutes before the controller says, "cleared direct Calgary." But if I want to fly along a line that starts exactly here and goes to exactly there on a track of 150.27 degrees (yes, my heading is displayed in front of me to two decimal places. I remember thinking +/-5 degrees on the commercial flight test was rigourous) at 11,000', it is completely useless to me to be cleared along it at 9000'. And if I need to turn NOW to get onto the line, a five minute heading restriction is worse than useless, because it will have carried me five minutes away from the start of the line and I have to turn around and go back.

In order to improve efficiency I start calling her a few dots before the end of a line, multitasking with my radio call and my dot tracking to try and get the next turn or next altitude approved before I hit the last dot and am ready to turn. It's a little overloading, as I'm focusing almost all my attention on those little dots and don't have a lot of attention over for the designations of photo blocks. The conversation is supposed to go like this:

Me: "In one mile Dotsmasher One requests left turn to zero eight five at one four thousand seven hundred."

Her: "Dotsmasher One cleared left turn zero eight five degrees at one four thousand seven hundred."

Me: "Left zero eight five degrees at one four thousand seven hundred, Dotsmasher One."

Her: "Readback correct."

Yeah, what is usually me flying around doing what I need to has turned into a four line conversation. And what is really going on includes both operators telling me what I need next and me reading back what they have said if it isn't clear or I think I have forgotten. So sometimes when I ask the controller for an altitude and she approves it I just say "Dotsmasher One." She corrects me snippily when I miss or muss a readback and the second time I apologize with, "Sorry, I'm just not feeling as though I'm IFR today." I'm turning and swooping and visually negotiating hills. There's a pause as she talks to other traffic then she calls me back just to deride me for that comment. "It doesn't matter," she says, "whether you are VFR or IFR you must always read back assigned altitudes and headings." I just bite my tongue on that one. It's a nice sunny day and she's stuck in a box with a screen while I get to fly in the mountains. I do my best to read everything back and am glad when our progress is sufficient that I am passed on to the next controller.

I give him a request based on the town I know we are working our way towards, then I realize I'm overhead it. Despite the cranky clearances we've been making good progress. The new controller finally gives us a block of airspace and leaves us alone. We keep flying along the pipeline, watching the scenery go by. There are some clouds on the horizon, but we hope we can complete the job before they cast shadows on our work. The senior operator says he wants someone to build a pipeline around the world so we can fly it, segment by segment, all the way around the world. I'd like to do that too, but I tell him he'd have to give me a bit more notice of where he wanted to land so I could arrange customs clearance. We're almost finished when clouds arrive and we're done for the day. We spiral down out of the sky towards the nearest airport for fuel.

The FSS there has a single in the circuit but no other traffic, and I let him know how many minutes I'll be in descent before arriving. I descend over a nearby navaid, then head for the airport when I can arrive at circuit altitude at a reasonable speed and descent rate. He points me out as arriving traffic, calling me a Piper Cherokee. I'm not usually too picky about what controllers call me, as long as they call me cleared to land, but I correct that one. If you're looking for a single and a twin turns up on final you may think you have a conflict.

Airports mostly look the same once you're on the ground, even if they are quite large, because you can't really see that far. We taxi to the self-serve fuel pumps and I shut down and fill out the logbook for the flight. The operator discovers that he has forgotten the company credit card, and his personal credit card doesn't work. Can I possibly ...?

I have an insane credit limit from all those years of ferrying airplanes around North America, so I toss them my credit card as I head to the terminal to find a washroom. I open the door to the terminal and see that there are airline counters and uniformed security inside. I have my pilot licence with me, but I need to make sure I can get back out again. I wave down one of the security guys and make sure he'll let me out. He tells me the code to get back out the door, and says it's written on the outside. Oops, didn't see it. I use the washroom, pick up the payphone to file an ordinary VFR flight plan home, and go back out the door. The code is written on the outside in teeny, tiny letters I didn't see. The senior operator is coming in as I go out. I tell him the code and he says, "I know." He's been here before.

It's funny these little airports. They're all the same to me. There's nothing in the CFS to indicate which ones have which level of security. It's not a function of runway length or altitude or type of air traffic service or of any other published datum. You land and look for somwhere to dump the contents of your bladder, and at some that means watering the grass at the edge of the taxiway while at others it means running the gauntlet of CATSA and throngs of passengers at the x-ray machines. It's disorienting, and without local knowledge you have to be on your toes to walk in the correct door, know the correct codes, have the correct documents and get back to your airplane.

In the meantime a small airliner has landed, but it doesn't need the fuel pumps. We all get back in the airplane and take off before the airliner needs out. We fly home. It takes a quarter the time to get back as it did to get here, because we're not circling around to get on the right lines, and we're talking only to traffic on 126.7 until it's time to talk to the airport controllers.

I land and taxi in, and the boss is waiting with a cheque for the exact amount of the fuel. The operator called ahead with the amount. Fastest expense reimbursement ever.


Cedarglen said...

I Think the boss (and camera operator) like you. It works.

Anonymous said...

The reason the controller may care if you are IFR or CVFR is the difference between separation standards. You need more between IFR and IFR than IFR and CVFR. 1000' and 3 miles and 500' and 1.5 miles (in US class Bravo). It makes a big difference in busy airspace

Paul B said...

I thought our expenses system was pretty good (done online... once "the boss" has OK'd the expenses, the expenses company pays me direct into my account, even before they have the receipts from me... I have 30 days to do that bit.

But cheque in hand on arrival, now THAT is good!

Yup, they DO like you!

Anonymous said...

Minor Typo:

. I'd liek to do that too, but I tell him he'd have to give me a bit more notice of where he wanted to land so I could arrange

You mean "like" ?

Love your blog.

Aviatrix said...

Fixed. Thanks. I can't believe the standard for typos on this blog is generally high enough that that was worth correcting, but you give me the opportunity to imagine it is.