Monday, February 28, 2011

The Entire Internet Applied for This Job

Still no word from the company I'm contracted to about work this year. I apply for another one that looks promising.

The job ad asks me to e-mail a resume and cover letter, but does not provide an e-mail. Neither does the company website, and it doesn't show anyone's e-mail, just a contact form, so I can't guess based on the corporate format. Clearly they only want resourceful pilots. No problem. I'm resourceful. The Chief Pilot has an distinctive name. Maybe he'll participate in some online forum somewhere. I paste his name into the Google search box and before I do anything else Google autocomplete offers the word email to round out the search term. It looks like there are a lot of resourceful pilots out there. Wow. How many people have to search for something before Google offers it up as the first choice?

The likeliest google result leads me to the same job posting on another site. The instructions there are slightly different. I want to follow directions. I like following directions. But the contact person isn't the same in this ad as the other. This one has the e-mail though, so I'll use that. I readdress the cover letter so it matches the e-mail. Why not just chuck them a resumé and be done with it? You can bet there are companies that will throw your resume away if they asked for e-mail and you sent them a fax.

And I must have got the e-mail correct, because within a couple of hours he e-mailed me back to say that my resume was in his "A" pile. That is unusual courtesy in this industry and bodes well.

I laughed hard at one company I didn't apply to, whose glossy website touts "VIP Charters" with stock photos of shiny jets, while their hastily assembled job ad asks for part time captains with 1000 hours total time, 500 hours multi and 100 hours on type, bring your own PPC or don't bother applying. The type, by the way is an unpressurized piston twin, nothing like the ones in the photo.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Five Freaking Kilograms

A pilot licence is not valid without an accompanying medical certificate. The medical 'certificate' is now a rubber stamp initialled by the doctor in the same booklet as the licence sticker, but the terminology of 'certificate' and 'accompanying' persists, just like 'dialing' and 'hanging up' a telephone. When I'm working I usually get the medical renewed in the month before it expires, or occasionally I have to get it done the month before that, if I'm going to be working in the states right through the last month of validity. I thought of not renewing my medical when I wasn't sure when I'd be working, just to save a few dollars, but one doesn't want to be applying for jobs with an invalid medical, risking being called for an interview the next day and not being able to get a renewal in time. And I'm kind of wary about running around with no medical. It seems as though I might be scrutinized more closely renewing a lapsed medical than a current one.

A pilot's medical certification expires at midnight on the first of the month, and I have a nine a.m. appointment on the second. For nine hours I'm not certified to fly airplanes. I can cope. Maybe I should have stretched it for another month. But I didn't. I woke up, dug my licence out of my flight bag, looked up my flight time in the last ninety days (zero!) and in the last twelve months in my logbook, drank three glasses of water, and went to the doctor's office.

On arrival there's a form to fill out. These guys print out the usually persistent information from last year's form and just ask me to make any corrections. I also fill in the flight hours, check "no" to the question about aviation accidents since my last medical, and answer the question about consulting a physician since my last medical. Let's see, there was the eye infection, a routine cervical cancer screening test, and all the vaccinations for going to Cambodia. I can't remember anything else. I always feel like I'm going to be arrested later for forgetting that I sought medical attention for some long healed malady. Maybe I should keep a special file. I fill in everything I remember and hand the form back.

Now I'm given a paper cup. (That's what drinking all that the water was for). Unlike Sulako's experience, I'm not subjected to the sight of other people's urine samples. I can't find the link. He must have taken the photo down. It was pretty traumatic. I just leave mine on the toilet tank as instructed, wash my hands and proceed to exam room one.

I know the drill, so I take off my shoes jump on the scale and start sliding the weights to my weight. Except that the pointer on the balance is still hard against the upper stop. I slide the weight forward a kilogram. Another. Another. Another. Another. I have gained five freaking kilograms since my last medical. I start looking for what can be wrong with the scale. The tech comes in and I'm trying to inspect my own butt to figure out where I'm putting five unnecessary kilograms. I continue to rant about it right through the eye test. Stand here, cover your right eye, read the lowest comfortable line on the chart. Repeat with other eye. Repeat with glasses on. The chart is badly lit and I have to go a few lines up with my glasses off, but I can read the bottom line easily with my glasses. I take the glasses off again and read the small text on a piece of card she hands me. I think it's something from Dickens. I always wonder how many people memorize eye charts to keep their licence. She also has me go through a few pages of the Ishahara colour blindness test.

Next is the ECG. Clothes off except for underpants, wear a little paper vest and lie on the table. Technician sticks gel stickers all over me, from clavicle to ankle, and then hooks up electronic leads to them all. She looks at a machine for a few minutes and then unhooks me and peels off the stickers. They don't stick tightly enough to hurt.

I weigh myself again with the clothes off, but it only brings me by 1.5 kilograms (how do my clothes weigh that much?), and besides I am always weighed in my streetclothes. The doctor wants to examine me in the next room. The scale there is in pounds, but when I do the conversion it is giving the same result. I really have gained five kilograms. I continue to rant about this while he asks me questions that presumably test my mental health. I think a woman ranting about her weight is considered normal, so I pass, but hmm, I put on some winter weight last year too. This is not a good habit. There will be no sugar, alcohol or snack foods until I am back where I'm supposed to be.

The doctor has me follow a bright light with my eyes, stare straight ahead while he moves a pen around to test my peripheral vision, and then shines a light in my ears, one after the other. Usually I try to bring home a picture of some cool piece of apparatus, or a new medical fact from these things, but I'm too traumautized by the weight gain. Five kilograms is half a shopping bag full of butter. Where is it?! Maybe I need my eyes checked again. According to this chart I have BMI of 21, putting me in the normal weight range for my height, but there has to be something wrong with that. It thinks I could gain twelve more kilograms and still be a healthy weight. I'd have rolls of fat hanging off me at that. I don't weigh that much with my flight bag.

The doctor uses his stethoscope to listen to the noises my heart, and lungs make, from the back and front, and then probes my throat and abdomen for abnormalities. I am sufficiently normal to pass his inspection, so he stamps and signs my licence and then I pay at the front. Including the ECG it's just under $200.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Wheelmarks in the Snow

Over at Sulako's Blog I started to comment on a post last year, but my comment got too long, so I decided to haul it back here to my own soapbox. Sulako was discussing an accident report in which an airplane he had once flown was written off. It's a weird feeling every time that happens: learning that the airplane that once carried you safely will never fly again. It's a little bit like hearing that an actor or author whom you didn't know personally, but whose work you admired, has died. If you live in a small community where you know who owns your old car, I guess you might find out if it was wrecked, but with airplanes accident reports are public and the identifiers don't usually change, so you can recognize your old ride at once.

In the post Sulako asks what you would have done if you had an hours-old report that the runway was snow covered, but snow removal was in progress. The accident crew proceeded to the aerodrome and lost control on landing, in unexpectedly deep snow.

I would have done the same. Unless weather forecasts indicated that it was still snowing at YYW and that I could expect a new accumulation by nightfall, the information the crew received made it sound as though the runway would be clear for their arrival. I would have thought that "in progress" meant that the crew was out there now ploughing, or at least starting up the plough, not that they were seriously thinking about maybe doing it tomorrow. If something happened to the plough while it was working, I would expect an urgent NOTAM to be issued, and passed to me as I updated my weather en route.

I feel for that crew. Beginning to flare over an all white surface, you really can't tell if it's "an unexpected amount of snow," a thin layer of ice, or some kind of twilight zone nothingness that will devour your airplane entirely. And as you touch down you can't really see the runway at all, just strive to keep straight from other cues. You know it should be under your wheels is all.

I've usually found airports tended better than I would expect, for example the time I called an operator to find out what the CFS called "limited winter maintenance" meant at his aerodrome. He said, "that means I don't clear the runway between midnight and five a.m. unless there's a medevac." I had been expecting something like the runway not being cleared to the full width or length, not cleared until snow was no longer forecast or only cleared in daylight. I've encountered some of those.

Ironically, the first time I learned of an airplane from my logbook being written off, it was also a landing accident in deep snow. In this case the airport in question was listed as "no winter maintenance," and the tendency of the rental pilots to obey laws was proven to be low, as their aircraft was also loaded over gross with bales of marijuana. Apparently while the accident pilot was awaiting trial, he had the temerity to go back to the same company and ask to rent another airplane!

Friday, February 25, 2011


The thing about looking for a job is that you have to convince people of your value, right when your self esteem may be at its lowest. I agonize over self-assessment and skills evaluation. I never measure up to what I want for myself, and awareness of the fact that people are incompetent to assess themselves doesn't help at all. The worse I am the lower my ability to actually determine if I'm any good. It holds all the potential for a spiral of despair.

I have a friend who is looking for a job at the same time. We ended up in one of those romantic comedy type moments where it turned out we each thought the other had it all together and wished that we could be that way. She has more IFR command experience than I do. We both have atypical employment histories, in different ways. We're both female, which of itself is another characteristic separating us from the stereotypical candidate. Most employers these days should be able to picture a pilot who isn't a twenty-something white male aviation college grad in their uniform. It's just something else for us to stress about. We're trying to be job search buddies.

I applied to a really low-paying job, just because it was in an area, an aircraft and a type of operation where I'd like to work. I confessed my sin to my buddy and she admitted that she almost applied too. It made me feel better, and I told her authoritatively not to apply. Why do pilots do this to ourselves. We are worth more. I hope.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

How I Operationalize Strategy Execution

Sometimes I think that I should stop trying to get people to pay me to fly airplanes and instead get a normal job, the sort where you go to an office at eight o' clock in the morning and drink coffee. While you are doing your job, if you get tired and you inadvertently push forward on the thing in front of you without noticing, your chair rolls back slightly. If you briefly get 5200 mixed up with 2500 then your spreadsheet looks funny, as opposed to in my job where I go to work at some arbitrary time possibly between 3 a.m. and 8 p.m. and if I do one of those things I could crash into a mountain and die. I could make the same amount of money as I do as a pilot with a real job, and at this point in my career there isn't much hope of making a lot more. And real jobs have benefits and vacation pay. What do people do at real jobs?

Someone I know e-mailed me about an all day meeting about strategy execution. After I made all the obvious jokes about blindfolds and firing squads and the guillotine he e-mailed me back with the information that his meeting came with a personal workbook, and that two of the pages in the workbook were labelled, "how I operationalize strategy execution." Now I'm not going to pretend that "late descent clearance forced me to intercept the glideslope from above while holding the localizer with a ten degree crab" isn't jargon, or that it's desirable but it means something. I can explain it to you. I can practice it, even. I can lower the gear to help me out. It will mean the same thing tomorrow (but I hope to avoid it tomorrow). There's a goal, a really understandable goal (put the airplane on the runway without hitting anything else on the way) behind it. Does operationalize strategy execution mean anything? Will it mean the same thing next week? It's frightening. Is that what real jobs are about now?

Also, Happy Thinking Day. Remember to be prepared for runaway horses.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Pilots with Ethics

Two Libyan pilots defected to Malta rather than bomb their own countrymen in Libya. Even if your country is a mostly desolate patch of sand that has been brutally mismanaged for decades, your country is your country and your people are your people. These pilots probably are proud of their country and don't think of their fellow citizens in the same harsh terms as their dictator. I like to think they had sufficient strength of character and love of their fellow humans to disobey orders and go elsewhere. It's possible that they are simply smart enough to see the writing on the wall and know that their privileged position in a once rigid society is threatened and that this was as good an opportunity and an excuse to get out as they were going to find. Nevertheless, even if its for a selfish reason, their avoiding doing a bad thing is laudable.

I'm curious about the so-called French passengers, too.

Monday, February 21, 2011

An Elk

I forgot to show you this guy, hanging out on the airport road last summer. He was there all day, just enjoying the foliage that grows up where the trees have been cleared for roadmaking and mostly ignoring the traffic. We had to whistle and talk to him to get him to put his head up for the photo.

I was going to explain my theory about the brontosaurus here, but I don't want to suggest that I've reached the skinny end of my aviation career. I think my aviation career is rather more like a snake in that respect, but I'll do my best to sort it out. Those of you who know Monty Python can explain this in the comments to those of you who don't.

The telephone interview went okay. Now to see if they call me back with a groundschool date.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Trying It Out

Sometimes for my keeping-my-hand-in sim sessions I fly approaches that I know to be tough, or ones that I happen to have plates for, and sometimes I just fly what's in the news. After reading about and discussing the AA runway excursion at Jackson Hole, I decided to sim it.

I set up at and departed from an airport to the west of Jackson Hole. I wasn't playing with a B757, just a King Air, thus setting myself a much easier task than the one the accident crew faced. Also to my knowledge flight sim doesn't have an option to set the CRFI -- that stands for Canadian Runway Friction Index. What's it called in other countries? I set the weather up to match reported conditions at Jackson Hole at the time of the accident: 400' ceiling, light snow, zero Celsius and visibility of 1 mile, with wind 240 at 10 knots. And I sought out the approach plates. I found the ILS or LOC Y RWY 19, printed it off, dug out some LO charts and started playing the game.

My plan for the approach is that on station passage at JAC I turn left to intercept the I-JAC localizer outbound and descend to 14,600', (that's the 14,100' permitted outside QUIRT on the procedure turn, corrected for temperature). I have to get down to 9900' (e.g. FAF 9700' with temperature correction) fairly swiftly after the course reversal in order not to be intercepting the localizer from above, so I check to see how far out I can go on the procedure turn. The plate says "Remain within 10 NM." It doesn't say 10 nm of what. A Canadian plate would give the fix there. It can't be of JAC, because QUIRT is 17.3 DME from JAC, so maybe the rule on US plates is from the depicted FAF at FAPMO. I've decides to try it with that. The published DH is 7063, or 612' above the threshhold. That's unusual, it's usually only 200', but this is a mountainous area so perhaps it doesn't have a good enough missed to allow descent that low. The cold weather correction adds thirty-five feet for a DH of 7100 for me. I can't possibly make the field that way with a 400' ceiling, so AA must have their own approach. That's not uncommon. The missed is easy, climb pretty much straight out tracking a radial for 26 miles.

So go. The JAC VOR doesn't identify on the published frequency. It exists in the game database on a separate frequency, so I switch to that. Twenty-five miles back from the JAC VOR I started descent to 15,000', as depicted for my sector in the MSA (minimum safe altitude) circle. I didn't calculate the correction for that, but by the time I was close to 15,000' I knew I'd be almost outbound anyway. I put the JAC VOR up on NAV2 and the ILS on NAV1, so I was ready to track. The ILS frequency works. The AA crew would have had contact with ATC and vectors, of course, but if my flight sim game has an ATC feature sophisticated enough to give vectors, I don't use it.

I started the course reversal at QUIRT and barely kept it within the 10 nm, chopping throttles and diving as soon as I had intercepted inbound, but the glideslope was already alive below me. I messily dived for it, then realized that I could see the field, ten miles away, with no cloud layer below. This happens a lot in MSFS: somehow the weather I set goes away. I have to miss anyway, because I'm way too high.

I ask a US pilot friend about the vague "within 10 nm" instruction and he produces a company Jeppesen (much better, but more expensive) chart for the same approach, on which it is explicit that the 10 nm is measured from QUIRT. He doesn't remember what the trick is to know what fix to use on the NOAA plates that I have. I then find another version of the approach, this one the ILS or LOC Z RWY 19. I don't know what that Y and Z are, or why the depicted ILS should be different on a plate where the LOC approach is different. It may just be that the approach has been improved since 2009. Maybe they blasted some rock so you can now follow a normal ILS.

I go back to the sim, make another attempt to set the weather, set the rate of change slider for the weather to zero and restart from a saved position approaching JAC VOR descending through 17,000'. This time I go out past QUIRT, do my course reversal damnit the glideslope is still below me. It's not too far down so I dive for it, then do the whole thing again with more aggressive descent through the procedure turn and I intercept the glideslope and localizer together in descent. Practice session done. It's as much practice of working out the details of the approach as it is of the actual handling.

I don't believe the US regs require me to make cold weather corrections, so perhaps the coldest seasonal temperatures are already incorporated in the plate. It's kind of bizarre that an instrument rating in one country qualifies me to fly IFR in any country despite the fact that small regional differences can confuse or even kill.

This isn't intended as any kind of reproduction of the incident, just a sim scenario inspired by it. Tomorrow I may fly out of Cairo, taking my inspiration from that news headline.

Meanwhile I have some more information on the AA overrun that inspired this sim session. On the 757, the aircraft determines if it is flying or on the ground based on the indications from tilt sensors on the main landing gear. My friend says, "Since the "air" input is only 1/2 second, my assumption is that it's not a bounce (I doubt both tilt sensors could show air for only 1/2 second during any kind of bounce). If anything, it was a very smooth landing that momentarily triggered no-tilt, then back to tilt, before showing on the ground, or a momentary malfunction of the air/ground sensing." He confirms that 132 knots is a normal touchdown speed for the 757 for a moderately heavy airplane, which would have applied here, due to a full passenger load and alternate fuel.

He also pointed out an error in my original blog entry. The thrust reversers are not armed during the approach, they are selected manually after landing (the spoilers are armed). I was getting mixed up with the autobrakes.

Meanwhile, I have an HR telephone interview in a couple of days.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Amelia Earhart: The Turbulent Life of an American Icon

When a publisher's representative asked me if I was interested in reviewing a new biography of Amelia Earhart I rolled my eyes and gritted my teeth a little. She gets so much press, and I'm constantly expected to revere her as a role model, despite the fact that her self-aggrandizing, poorly planned stunt flying eventually got her killed. My own mother refuses to understand that do not find it endearing when she calls me "Amelia." I look a little warily even at the record setting flights by Louis Bleriot and Charles Lindbergh but forgive them as necessary proof-of-concept achievements in the evolution of aviation. I grant no such dispensation to Ms. Earhart. There were a few words in the publisher's blurb, words like "reckless" and "lacked basic navigation skills" that told me this wasn't going to be an "Our Hero, Amelia" book so I asked to take a look.

The biography is Amelia Earhart: The Turbulent Life of an American Icon by Kathleen C. Winters and is published by Palgrave Macmillan. It's a well-researched, fair account of documented aspects of Amelia Earhart's life. It neither glorifies nor vilifies Earhart. Winters gives background information on the time, bases for comparison, footnoted facts, and quotations from people who worked with Earhart, and for the most part leaves the reader to identify patterns, speculate, and draw conclusions.

Winters was herself a record-setting glider pilot, but I don't know how much powered flight experience she had. In one passage she describes airframe icing as a familiar hazard to Earhart, referring to an earlier incident of carburettor icing. The two are completely different hazards, and it seems odd to link them. It's possible that Earhart's description of the first situation as "water in the engine" was more accurate, as carburettor icing both chokes the air intake as it forms and causes sputtering and a temporary further loss of power as it melts. I would have liked more information on contemporary knowledge of aviation hazards and techniques, especially more details on the instrumentation, navigation techniques and ground-based navigation facilities of the time, but Winter's choice to concentrate on the woman rather than the flights is not a flaw in her work.

Winters is careful to document her sources, not to restate the legend, and not to take people's word for what they said or wrote. For example Earhart wrote in a letter that the cost to learn to fly would be about $1000, and Winters researched contemporary flight training to determine that $250 to $500 was more typical. Earhart kept poor records, so Winters crosschecked her training claims with flights recorded in her flight instructors' logbooks.

Winters tells Earhart's story in an easy-to-follow linear fashion, and the balance of documentary evidence to narrative is good for this type of work, but it's not riveting, I suppose exactly because she is telling the whole story and not simply summarizing Earhart's dropping out of multiple schools and endeavours, and trying all manner of ways to raise the money she needed to keep flying.

I would recommend this title for both fans and detractors of Earhart, and for those interested in either aviation history or the history of the feminist movement. It is not excessively technical, and certainly requires no previous aviation knowledge. It has few details that would interest people primarily interested in Earhart's disappearance, unless they care to look at the evidence that she was poor on details like checking the fuel level during her preflight inspection, did not know Morse code nor how to operate the direction finding radio navigation equipment, was a poor navigator, did not plan ahead for how she would coordinate with ships to find the destination she never reached, and probably jettisoned some of her survival gear to save weight.

I did find some things to admire about Earhart. For example she tried to organize students to oust an incompetent teacher who held a position through nepotism, and worked to disband secret societies at her school. She really did work to parlay her achievements into not only money for herself, but for real opportunities for women.

"Women will gain economic justice by proving themselves in all lines of endeavour, not by having laws passed for them."

I think my favourite parts of the book are those where her path intersects with other aviatrices of her era: Jean Batten, Laura Ingalls, Edna Gardner Whyte, Louise Thaden, Blanche Noyes, Jackie Cochran, Mary Heath, Mary Bailey and other women whose aviation achievements are largely forgotten. I hate that Earhart, through the skill of her husband and publicist George Palmer Putnam, and because of her disappearance, is the one remembered. It's not so much that she is remembered is that it leaves people with the idea that she was the only aviatrix of her time. There were hundreds, and many of them lived long productive lives.

Ms. Winters wrote a previous biography on Anne Lindbergh and I would look forward to more from her on the history of women in aviation, but unfortunately she died of a brain hemorrhage shortly before the book was published. Oh and Kathleen Winters was born in the same city where Amelia Earhart first became interested in aviation--Toronto!

Monday, February 14, 2011


So I'm doing the walkaround on a Boeing 737, but because I'm asleep and this is occurring during a dream, it's a little weird. It's cold outside, but not snowing and the ramp is not slippery. I walk from the front airstairs, clockwise around by the left main gear, by the left engine pod, around the left wingtip (red light) and look at the ailerons and flaps from the rear. I look at the skin along the rear of the fuselage and then somehow I'm inside the airplane, looking at a bulkhead between the rearmost row of seats and a rear galley or perhaps storage area. I'm concentrating on the bulkhead. Instead of being fabric-upholstered like a lot of these things are these days, it has uv-weakened yellowing plastic panelling, like a Cessna 172 in a rental fleet. It's cracked and mended with tape and cotton batting and bulging. I think there also may have been eels swimming in it briefly, but that wasn't anything the dream wanted me to focus on.

I'm a new FO and I have one of those captains who doesn't want to be bothered educating a new hire. He just wants an FO who will do all the mundane tasks for him and will shut up and stay out of the way. For him I am sure that "go do the walkaround" means "go get out of my hair for a few minutes" not "please return with a list of observations about the serviceability of this aircraft, most of which are probably a trivial waste of my time but any one of which could cost me my life or career if I fail to perceive its urgency from your necessarily timid report." Nevertheless we summon maintenance and they determine that the bulkhead is filled with bubble-wrapped machine guns and little plastic horses.

Anyone know if that's covered by the MEL?

They say a dream only lasts a second or so, that it's just a few random neuron firings, and that your subconscious mind fills in all the details that were missing, just the way you can see a few streaks of shadow and light and perceive a face, so that as you awaken you have a "memory" of the events of the dream, even though they didn't happen. This is complicated by the fact that I lay in bed and tried to work with my conscious mind the bits that my subconscious hadn't been too clever about, so all I can tell you is that none of this happened to me in real life.

Easing back into aviation, starting with my dreams. And life is, all things considered, good.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Gravel Kit

While I was a student pilot I had a friend and mentor who was an instructor at a big school in California. I gave him an outdated Canada Flight Supplement, the fat then-green [now blue] book that lists all Canadian airports along with their frequencies, runways, nav aids, services, and other information for pilots. He had already given me an equivalent book for California, the A/FD, and I wanted to show him how the information was presented differently in the Canadian equivalent. I thought ours was better, as it includes pictures, and fewer cryptic abbreviations for information required in flight. The FAA seems to agree with me about the pictures, because they've since added them to the American publication.

I've told you this bit and some other parts before, but it's a good introduction to the rest of the post. My friend flipped open the CFS and looked at the first entry that met his eye. "Huh? Why does it say they have Jet-A fuel for sale at an airport with a gravel runway? Why would someone land a jet on a gravel runway?"

Even then I knew enough about my country's geography to have the answer. "Because that's their destination, and it's the only runway for hundreds of kilometres, and it's too far from anywhere to serve easily with piston aircraft." Paving is difficult in remote locations. Gravel is easily relevelled when the ground heaves with the freeze and thaw. It's not as slippery as pavement when covered with ice, and once the snow is packed deep, it doesn't matter what kind of surface is underneath. Pavement is nice to land on, but it won't keep you from sliding off the end on a snowy day.

You need particular techniques and equipment to cope with northern conditions. A lot of it is simply being diligent in applying the techniques you already know. Land under control, at the lowest speed that is safe to maintain on approach, at the beginning of the runway, and with no sideways momentum. Sturdy landing gear and runway friction will forgive a multitude of sins, but if you're going even a little bit sideways at touchdown and there's limited friction, you'll keep going sideways until you meet some resistance, maybe a snowbank at the side of the runway.

Gravel that is not covered in snow actually allows for some very soft landings, maybe because it crunches slightly out of your way, spreading the deceleration from any remaining vertical speed over a longer time than wheels hitting pavement. I flew on gravel for so long I can remember the "whoa, lines!" feeling when I went down south and landed on a paved runway with paint markings. At startup, taxi, and takeoff on gravel you have to be careful not to damage the airplane with flying gravel. Many gravel airports have little paved pads you can park between, positioning your engines over them so that when you start up or apply taxi power, the propellers won't kick up gravel. With jets, the danger is the nosewheel launching gravel that subsequently gets ingested into the engines. Here, and this is the whole point of this post, I have some pictures of the B737-200 gravel kit, a modification that physically deflects gravel from being kicked up by the nosewheel and then pneumatically protects the engine intakes.

This excellent website on the B737 lists nine other modifications that go with the gravel kit, such as extra shields on cabling and a retractable anti-collision light. The page notes that in 1975 dollars, landing on gravel costs about $15 extra in maintenance costs, per landing.

Above is the deflector on the front wheel. It looks as if it is resting on the ground, but there is actually a nine centimetre gap between the plate and the ground. Below you can see the vortex dissipators, spines that shoot out compressed air in front of the engines.

When retracted, the deflector serves acts as a gear door. There are more pictures and information at the website linked above.

Gravel kits are available for various aircraft. Here's one that caused a landing problem for a Challenger CL-600, when another problem combined with the gravel kit to jam the nosegear inside the airplane. No one was hurt, but there you go: there's no such thing as safety, just decisions you make to try to be safer than you would otherwise.

There's a piece of ATC dialogue I'm trying to find, where a pilot at an urban Canadian airport is following a northern airplane on the taxiway, and calls ATC to report that the aircraft ahead has a problem with their gear doors. It is, of course, just the gravel kit, with no problem at all.

Extra fact: The reader who sent me the above pictures is someone I met three different ways, once through this website, once through another website, and once through a shared sport. I never connected them, but fortunately she did.

Unrelated story: an unusually detailed report on a passenger aircraft fatal accident in Cork, Ireland.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

My Next Ride?

A friend's Facebook feed turned up this spectacular innovation in bizjet luxury. Amidst the ensuing discussion of its practicality, given the usual ambiance of an airport parking area equipped with ground power, and the tendency of a running APU or to disturb the tranquility of an afternoon on the sundeck, someone--who I hope was being silly--helpfully pointed out that the deck was "only for use while the aircraft was not in flight." I really want to see the aircraft flight manual now. I'll bet they were required to stress that point. They usually assume some common sense, not like general consumption products, but I've seen a much older aircraft manual exhorting pilots not to carry children in the baggage compartment, and I really suspect this one has a published limitation on sundeck deployment.

Maybe they have batteries, or a solar array sufficient to run the stereo, keep the drinks cold and power the blender.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Two Movies Set in Cambodia

I watched The Killing Fields, a 1984 movie about the Khmer Rouge years in Cambodia. It had been recommended to me for context before we went there, but I resisted. I don't usually watch movies with "kill" in the title. Heck, I didn't even see "To Kill a Mockingbird." I hoped it wouldn't be too gory, but seeing as I had it all in my head anyway, I decided to get it over with. I expected it to be a personal story, setting the scene and then following an individual from the Phnom Peng evacuation, to the rice fields, to arrest and interrogation, and finally to the titular fields. It was pretty much that, the requisite landmine exploding almost comically close the the moment I said "we haven't had any landmines yet," but rather than seeing more than I could bear, I was disappointed that there was not enough.

The film opened with a brief historical narration over a scene of a child on the back of a water buffalo in rural Cambodian scenery, but then cut to a group of rude Western journalists. While the experience of a foreign journalist in Cambodia in 1975 is interesting, it's limited to a few dozen people and doesn't have repercussions on the state of the country today the way the experience of millions of Cambodians does. I knew it was a framing device, to give the lives of these unknown people an American context, and, through the mobility of the foreigners, to tell the story with a wider perspective. It turns out to be a true story, too, about the relationship between an American journalist Sidney and his translator Pran, but it was still irritating. I didn't find any of the journalists to be sympathetic characters, and to me every scene of reporters typing, developing film, or arguing over access to the telex machines was a waste of film minutes that could have been spent on the Cambodians. When it becomes clear that Pran will be handed over to the Khmer Rouge, the camera even focuses on Sidney's reaction, not Pran's.

The film was made in 1983 to 1984, still not a stable time in Cambodian history, so it was filmed in neighbouring Thailand. Many of the actors are Thai, and Haing Ngor who plays the lead Cambodian was half ethnic Chinese. He wasn't a professional actor, and was originally hired as a technical expert. He had similar experiences to the man he portrayed, and his actual story is even better than the one he won the Academy Award for. They tried to hire Khmer people for the roles, but all trained Cambodian actors had been killed by the Khmer Rouge.

Of the suffering in the camps, Ngor kept telling the director, "No, it was worse! It was worse!" and the director had to shake his head and tell him that it was just a movie. Movie standards for violence were much more restrictive back then. The most violence they did show was doubly distanced from the viewer, by having us see Sidney back in New York watching it on TV, and by the standard cinematic technique of replacing the sound effects with classical music. Suffering was implied, but they didn't make me feel it. Perhaps it was a pacing issue. By contrast, the scene in Lost where Richard is chained up in the grounded slave ship is silly fiction, but they take the time to tell the story. Perhaps what we saw was still pretty edgy for 1984. In filming The Killing Fields, they borrowed a woman's rice paddy to dress as a killing field and she walked out into it in the morning, only to see the set dressed with simulated decomposing corpses. "She had to be given a day's rest," says the director's commentary.

I watched it with a friend, then we switched gears by making it a double-header with Tomb Raider, an Indiana Jones movie clone starring Angelina Jolie's boobs. The connection is that it is partially set and filmed on location in Cambodia. Sadly, real life fighting has broken out recently on the Cambodia-Thailand border in the vicinity of some Khmer ruins, a new flare-up in a territorial dispute that has been running for over a hundred years, between two countries that have been fighting on and off for over a thousand years.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

One Is the Loneliest Number

During a career preparation talk at flight school, an administrator asked my class what we though the greatest single threat to our career progress was. I had a ready answer, "the advent of the single-crew airliner cockpit." I remember getting the most supercilious glare possible from the instructor before being told the correct answer was "recession." I don't think she was thinking long term. Recessions come and go, was my opinion. But once the airlines' pilot complement halves, it's game over.

She said that would never happen, but while it isn't as inevitable as death, taxes, and the next recession, it's not an impossibility. It would require a lot of advances in automation, and telemetry, and security, but such things have considerably reduced the number of people in airplane cockpits over the years. It's a bigger jump from two to one, but I don't think it could never happen. It would make flying a lot less fun and somewhat less safe, but probably more cost effective for the airlines. At first. Then after twenty years or so of the system operating, accidents would spike. As much as I rant about both people in the pointy end being pilots, and the first officer/co-pilot not being a trainee, there is a bit of an apprenticeship going on. The new hire FO doesn't know as much about flying an A320 as the captain does (and sometimes the new hire direct-entry captain doesn't know as much as the experienced FO) but together they have the experience to get the job done. The pilot with the experience appropriate to a situation will take over if they suspect the conditions may be beyond the other's abilities. The newer pilot learns from the other and gains experience without it having to be paid in blood or bent metal. By having to be the person who knows what is going on, even if you don't, you learn more. Kind of like being a parent. Having a single-crew cockpit with a ground-based telemetric backup wouldn't provide the same apprenticeship-type situation. And that might not be so cost effective in the end.

Ryanair carries most international passengers of any airline in the world. Most of these are short hop European flight. They have cheap tickets, and the cheesiest nickle-and-diming fee structure imaginable. For example, they charge you money, I think it's five euros, as an online check-in fee. But you have to check in online. There is no airport check in available. Your base fare might be only twenty euros, but they charge extra for everything. The obvious jokes about "insert two euros to start the flow of oxygen, then place the mask over your nose and mouth, securing behind your head with the optional (one euro) elastic strap," have all been made. The company even makes the jokes.

It's a little scary because you can't tell when they're serious. The Irish accent is hard to take seriously -- sorry, Irish people, some kind of cultural thing. They're semi-serious about eliminating the copilot, according to this Salon article.

I'm not in a position to replay the YouTube clip out loud right now, so you'll have to tell my why my notes for this post say "strip poker." And if it doesn't make sense, I'll have to make something up about Ryanair getting passengers to play strip poker for available seats, in order to facilitate security screening.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Back to the Fairground

The subject of the e-mail informing us that it would be best for everyone to try and find other work was "Merry Christmas." To be precise it was "Re: Merry Christmas." One of the pilots started an e-mail thread in order to wish his coworkers happy holidays and to make sure we had his new address, and it was on that continuing thread that the chief pilot regretted to inform us that we might not being going back to work. I guess I wasn't sheltered from all the repercussions of those problems they were discussing. In aviation there are never enough lifeboats. It's one big log flume ride. There's a bit of wait and see going on now.

Experience has taught me that (a) it could be worse, (b) it's important to get the chief pilot's permanent contact information and (c) I have the best chance of getting a job through someone I know. Hey, that contact list I've been building, purely out of the desire to keep track of my friends? I guess I'd better use it. Anyone need a pilot?

I haul my browser over to the AvCanada job forum to see what's on offer. I'm qualified for positions in three recent ads. Three different provinces. I have contacts at two of them. I've worked in two of them before. The most appealing is the one in the province where I've never been based. When in doubt, go for the job that will get you a new licence plate for your collection?

I was going to go grocery shopping tomorrow morning, but instead I'll be making phone calls and sending out résumés. It's not a bad climate in which to do so. And may this cartoon exemplify the confidence (although not the disquieting arrogance) with which I shall do so.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Place Instructions in Appropriate Orifice

Once I get home I collect my accumulated mail. There's an envelope from Transport Canada containing what would once have been my new licence, but is now a sticker for updating my licence booklet. The sticker is the shape and size of a credit card, and is identical to the licence information already printed on the second page of my booklet, except that it has an updated expiry date for my instrument rating, and a little Transport Canada airplane and maple leaf logo stamp on it. The sticker comes with instructions.

Label Insertion Instructions
To insert the label correctly please follow the instructions below:
Step 1: Open booklet to the appropriate page
Step 2: Determine a new position for the label (next open space on the applicable page).

For label on the left hand page:
Step 3: Peel off label from the label carrier.
Step 4: Carefully place the right short edge of the label within the alignment marks at the spine side of the booklet.
Step 5: Keep left side of the label away from the page.
Step 6: Smooth the label onto the page from the spine out toward the left edge of the page.
For label on the right hand page:
Step 3: Peel off label from the label carrier.
Step 4: Carefully place the left short edge of the label within the alignment marks at the spine side of the booklet.
Step 5: Keep right side of the label away from the page.
Step 6: Smooth the label onto the page from the spine out toward the right edge of the page.

That's right, there are detailed instructions on how to apply a sticker to a piece of paper without wrinkling it, a skill I think most Canadians my age mastered around grade two. The difference is that the licence is not scratch and sniff and has no bunnies on it. The thing that the instructions are vague about is where the appropriate place might be.

I open to the page that matches the sticker in content. Looks appropriate to me. Without the instructions, I might have placed the sticker over top of the original information that it replaces, but thanks to the instructions I put it in the next available spot, underneath. Then, after it has adhered to the page, I realize that I probably should have stuck it over top of the place where the examiner signed me off for the renewal. Yeah, it even says "Place next licence/permit label here" in faint writing. The place I put it is probably reserved for if I get another aviation licence: for a helicopter, balloon, glider or ornithopter. There are actually only four spaces in that area, but I suppose if you manage to collect all those licences, you can spill one over into the area for renewals. There are sixteen spots for renewals, but according to page one the whole booklet expires in 2014--I guess they figure my picture will be out of date by then--so I think I won't run out of spaces before then.

If I had a scratch 'n' sniff bunny sticker I would put it in my licence booklet. Except, what does a bunny smell like?

On the topic of bunnies, I think I'll keep this in my flight bag to help bring me or another crewmember down if we feel like throttling someone.