Thursday, December 27, 2012

Looking Ahead into the Murk

I said some of this in a comment on my previous post, but I know lots of people don't read comments, so I'll say it again, and add some more so that those who do read comments aren't getting ripped off. 

In the days before Blogger allowed me to pre-schedule posts I had to be at a computer at the moment a blog entry posted. Finally Blogger added the much-requested feature of post-dating, allowing me to designate the date and time a post would appear. This allowed me to write lots of posts when I had lots of time and have them appear when I was too busy to post. It also allowed me to respond to a reader's concern that  if I stopped posting without notice, they wouldn't know what had happened to me. I knew that if that happened it would be because either I wasn't all right, I had lost access to the account, or I had become absorbed by something else. I wrote a post that was intended to cover any of those possibilities, and postdated it by six months or so. Every time I've noticed it getting close to posting, I've changed the date on it to further into the future. Until I got really really absorbed in something.

That happened about a year and a half ago, when you probably saw my blogging slow down, and then my job changed to include some desk duties at the same time that another of my hobbies expanded to take up the time I used to spend blogging. I think about blogging fairly often, but when I'm on the road I'm usually straight from the airport to dinner to hotel bed, to flight planning over breakfast and back to the plane. I may wait there for a couple of hours, but have you ever tried to write a blog entry on an iPhone?
I  really appreciate the support readers have given me, and I've had a lot of fun writing my stories and meeting great people over the years. I haven't deleted the blog because I probably will continue to write blog entries. I still think in blogese sometimes.  I know some of you, and probably my favourites of you, do understand that telling the world about my life is logically less important than taking care of my own friends and family, keeping strong and fit, and regrouting my bathroom. Blogging is definitely more fun than regrouting the bathroom, but regrouting the bathroom is m ore fun than dealing with the ceiling falling in, right?
Meanwhile I will share two strategies for coping with elderly relatives who ask the same questions or tell you the same story over and over again all day.

Technique #1: Groundhog Day

This strategy is named after the movie of the same name, in which the main character was forced to relive the same day over and over again. After working through denial and anger--the way you probably want to respond the fifth time in an hour the same relative offers you a food they used to know you didn't eat--Bill Murray's character sets out to make his endlessly repeated February 2nd the best day ever. He puts himself in the right place to catch a child falling out of a tree, says just the right things to make everyone happy, and so on. Each time you repeat the explanation that Aunt Bea is absent from the gathering because she has the flu, the explanation should improve. Eventually you look and feel brilliant, and if you're really good you may hit on an explanation that holds.

Technique #2: Take Two

Some explanations don't improve on repetition. I still don't want a glass of wine. The correct answer is still "no thank you."  It's not, despite how much I want it to be, "No godamnit. and if you ask me again I will put that wine bottle somewhere you don't want it either." In this situation you are in a movie. Your role is the loving relative, and the director has asked you to play the scene again. Your co-star might not get his or her lines correct, so you may need to ad lib to match them, but nothing in your performance must let on that you are on take seventeen of the same scene. You could try reading the line a little differently. Do the best job you can. Get it perfect and the imaginary director may let you move on to the next scene. Or maybe they want to try the same thing with different lighting.

I watched a memory reboot cycle a few days ago between A, an elderly person, and B, a person with celiac disease. The latter can't eat wheat, so has brought his own rice crackers, which happened to be wasabi flavoured.

A: Would you like some crackers? [offering a basket of mixed wheat and rice crackers, which the celiac can't eat, from, because the wheat contaminates the other food on contact]
B: No thank you. I can't eat those.
A: [sees B eating a cracker from his own supply] Are you allowed to eat those?
B: Yes.
A: May I have one?
B: Yes, they're wasabi-flavoured, so you might find them too hot.
A: [tries one] Ow, this is hot.

Ten minutes passes. Dialogue repeats, almost to the word. As it started again for the third time, the celiac hid the wasabi crackers and ended the cycle. It was especially disturbing because I couldn't pass it off as not paying attention or not really understanding that someone couldn't eat a cracker. It was failure to learn from one's own recent sensory experience of pain. I was going to say that even earthworms can do that, but it turns out that after 500 tries at a maze with pain at one fork and a reward at the other, earthworms show only a statistical tendency to choose the better option. But chihuahuas can probably get it in two. And on a deeper level I know that I'm not immortal. As I review aspects of the systems of the airplane I fly all year, I learn facts that I know I must have studied last year, but have forgotten about. I've read over the new aerodrome operating visibility rules for arrivals and departures at controlled and uncontrolled airports at least five times, but I still can't bet on remembering what is first and second priority for determining visibility at an uncontrolled aerodrome. Will the interval slowly shorten and the required repetitions increase until I can't remember for ten minutes what I've studied ten times?

Much of the my problem with the low visibility operations rules is that it isn't really clear why the options for determining visibility are presented the way they are. I usually learn things by understanding them, or at least by imposing some structure on them. Does the brain lose the ability to hold structures over time? Is there someway to strengthen its structure so it can continue to support the things I need to learn and remember? Current theory says that maintaining the brain is similar to maintaining the body's structure: use it or lose it. Keep exercising, stress it, allow it to rest, and keep mixing up the challenges.

Let me see if I can put some structure on the low visibility rules. At an aerodrome with a tower, low visibility operations for departures and arrivals have the same rules: operating visibility is determined "by the following hierarchy" : 1. RVR (an automated beam measurement), 2. ground visibility given in the METAR (a human observation, possibly but not necessarily taken by the controller), and 3. pilot visibility. According to this, the controller's visibility doesn't enter into the formula. The METAR could be 45 minutes old, and the controller able to report better visibility, but according to the rule as written there, the pilot can't move. Then look at the case when there is no RVR and no METAR. That's a little unusual, but I can think of one aerodrome with a control tower that has no RVR equipment and never has a METAR, so we do get down to what the pilot thinks sometimes. Again we skip what the controller thinks. The ATIS says we're zero-zero in fog and I can see fine, I taxi out. But if I'm at another airport twenty miles away and they have a 0/0 METAR, five miles vis on the ATIS and I can see all the way to the horizon, I can't move. Perhaps I can remember the hierarchy through its stupidity.

For an airport without an operating control tower, the arrivals hierarchy is exactly the same, but for departures, METAR and RVR swap places. I'll have to make up a reason. 

Oh yeah, and then under it all there's a note: "Tower observed visibility does not take precedence over reported ground visibility. Where ground visibility is reported, tower observed visibility is considered advisory only. However where ground visibility is not reported, tower reported visibility replaces ground visibility and needs to be considered in determination of the aerodrome operating visibility." 

See what they did there? They made a rule and then undermined it with a note.  Why didn't they just say 1. RVR 2. METAR 3. tower reported visibility 4. pilot visibility?  In reality everything is as murky as peering into blowing snow in the dark. The human taking the ground visibility observation for the METAR is going to be influenced by  her knowledge of the current RVR reading, the visibilities pilots are reporting, and the number of airplanes sitting on the apron with no gate to go to. There's another page and a half of this stuff in the CAP GEN, most of which boils down to "pilots should not taxi around when they can't see far enough ahead to operate safely."

I don't know what's in front of me right now, but have a good year behind me and wish you all a good one ahead. When I get the bathroom regrouted I might even blog about some of it.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Screaming Busy

If this gets posted, I have stopped blogging for long enough to forget this was here. Likely I've run out of prewritten blog entries. I've probably lost interest, internet access, or my password. Or maybe I got a life. Expect the comments section on this entry to contain a note from someone who knows I'm okay, and then a note from me telling you to stop e-mailing me already, because if I'm too busy to blog I'm probably not reading my blog e-mail either.

Busy. Will blog or officially end blog later.

Or if no one turns up to claim I'm okay, then perhaps I'm not, but you are absolutely forbidden to post, quote, read or even refer to the poem High Flight in my memory. I hate it and anyone disregarding this notice will be cut from my will, banned or evicted from my funeral, forbidden to comment on my blog, and haunted by malevolent spirits. Not even mine. Malevolent douchebag spirits whom I'll designate.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Double Generator Failure

I found this in my drafts folder, I guess I was saving it for a busy day. I've been punting it a month into the future every month. Obviously I'm busy today, because it published.

I had a double generator failure once. I'll spoil any suspense now by saying it was not a big deal. The designers of this airplane knew that electricity was fickle, newfangled stuff and not to be trusted, so no essential system for VFR flight was electrical. We were VFR and it was a beautiful clear day after the invention of cellphones. The master was on, no visible circuit breakers were popped, and there was no smoke or fire smell. The reset for the generators was under the dashboard. With multiple people on board we could have reset them it in flight, but not knowing why they had popped, we elected to leave them off.
Our destination was a reasonable-sized controlled airport, not at an especially busy time, so we just pulled out a cellphone and called them to tell them we were coming. They cleared us to land, I can't remember whether it was by a steady green light on final or they just gave the clearance over the telephone. Possibly both. They seemed far more stressed about the event than I was. I never consider a communications failure to be a showstopper, especially when I manage to make contact another way. And why on earth had they dispatched firetrucks to follow us down the runway?

It was kind of fun mind you, and the firefighters were friendly. I think they like driving their trucks around, especially when thy don't have to pull anyone's charred remains out of a burning airplane, so they were happy when we thanked them and assured them that there was no problem.

At the time, it was the only twin I knew the systems on, so I didn't realize that some aircraft have electrically activated landing gear. ATC was worried that I might not be able to lower the wheels. The only electrical component of this one is the indication system, and extension can be verified by the thumps from the mains plus visual identification of the nose gear in the mirror on the nacelle. The air traffic controllers knew that in general a systems failure on an airplane could be a bad thing, and must have thought I was being cool and not admitting I could have a gear problem. Communication by cellphone in an operating aircraft is not simple. ATC they have this great button up there in the tower for letting the firetrucks out, so why not? So long as we didn't make the local news.

I can't even remember the reason for the failure. We had it checked out at a local shop and were certified good to go for the next leg of our adventure. I think I was reprimanded by the aircraft owner for saying "electrical failure" instead of just "comm failure." He was a need-to-know kind of guy and I'm more of an anything-that-might-be-relevant gal.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

[Prelude to] How Men Pack

I've been on the road a while. My computer no longer connects to the internet reliably, my single pair of shoes is getting kind of stinky, I'm down to my last pair of clean underwear, and we're almost out of onboard snacks.

For once we land before businesses close for the day. Google finds me a laundromat within walking distance, and while my clothes are going round and round, I find a mall. Shoe deodorizer isn't a product I've ever purchased. At home I do have five pairs of shoes and my shoes get to air out between uses.  But some advertisement or other has lodged in my subconscious and convinced me that what I want now is a can of magic shoe deodorizer. I buy a spray can of the stuff, and after swapping my laundry into the dryer and then hauling it back to the hotel, I try the product. I think it's essentially prettily-scented baking soda and a propellant, but I can't smell my shoes from across the room now.

I pack the bottle in a plastic bag before putting it in my luggage, just in case it explodes.

That reminds me. I picked up a couple of clues regarding the differential luggage weight between me and my coworker.  But that's going to wait until next time, because that was the third time I have opened this same blog entry, written less than one sentence and been called to work. I started writing it on September 12th. I'm now back from work and have other priority tasks, most of which won't be completed by the time I get called out again.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Logical Deductions 101

This post might have followed this post had I blogged things in the order of the notes I made for you. See, I still make notes for you. I make them right on my OFP, my operational flight plan, an official document of sorts which my company has to keep on file for years, or at least months, I don't feel like remembering which. It (this post) still follows it (the other post). There are just intervening things. That's what life's like.

In that post, which was mostly about canola, we had to backtrack a runway, and make other traffic wait for us, after landing despite what appeared to be a perfectly serviceable crossing runway that led back to the taxiway. The other runway was closed. Now for the exciting conclusion.

The next day on preflight inspection I find grass clippings on my aircraft. (Disclaimer, they could have been canola clippings). This isn't completely bizarre. In the last month I have found things as diverse as mouse intestines, dime-sized purple blobs, and fluffy weed seeds on my airplane. I suspect a messy owl dining atop my vertical stab, birds that had previously eaten purple berries, and fluffy weeds, respectively. The last one really doesn't require much in the way of logical deductions, but it still needed cleaning off.

I start up and I listen to the ATIS, which tells me that that the other runway is closed now and the previously closed one is open. There wasn't anything wrong with the one I landed on yesterday, and if they were painting or sealing or something they'd be smart enough not to mow, wouldn't they? It turns out the runway is closed for mowing. They need to close the whole runway for mowing?  It's a paved runway. They don't have to mow the runway itself. I'll bet I have landed more than a hundred times at airports with only one runway, while mowing was occurring. Sometimes there's an elaborate procedure whereby the controller advises the people with the tractors to remain clear of the runway. Sometimes they just publish a NOTAM or say on the ATIS that mowing is in progress. And sometimes you're on short final and it's like "SURPRISE! TRACTOR!" crossing the clearway. But we're pilots. We deal with these things. But that's not apparently how you do it when you have two runways.

The airport is busy. Lots of landing and departing traffic and there's a Nav Canada Challenger jet flying dozens of passes from different directions. I hear they are planning a new RNAV approach into here. I did the DME/LOC the other day, testing the autopilot, and it was pretty usable. You come over a wide canyon on the way in, so no obstacles letting the designers give you a low enough MDA that I had my hands very right there, should the autopilot decide at any moment that now would be a good time to dive. It didn't.

Also my coworker has brought five separate pairs of footwear. I have one: I fly, go to dinner and work out in the same shoes. So why does his luggage weigh so much less than mine?

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Alaska. Tired.

I took a short cut through Alaska today. I was going to blog about it, but my brain is tired.

Pointy mountains. Fog. Helpful Flight Services personnel. Oxygen. Shiny rivers. Small settlements. Clouds. Radio frequencies. Hat. Granola bar with coconut flakes. Stick that together with more words and you have an Aviatrix blog entry.

Friday, August 24, 2012


As I shut down the airplane I turn off the avionics, bring the power back to idle and then on each engine momentarily turn both magnetos off, then back on again as soon as I have verified that the engine would die without them. That means that when the off position is selected for the magnetos, turning a propeller by hand just to move it out of the way cannot produce a spark and start the engine. Then I return the power to 1000 rpm and shut down the engine by pulling the mixture levers all the way back, cutting off the fuel supply to the engine.

Considering the number of things I have to do right to start the engine when I want it to start, it seems a little ridiculous imagining the slight movement of a propeller during ground handling, with the fuel cut off, causing the engine to start. I wonder if this is a safety precaution that made sense long ago and is no longer relevant, but that we've never stopped following. Has anyone ever heard of a ground-handling propeller strike accident that occurred because of a live magneto, when the mixtures were in idle cut-off and the mags selected off? I have met a few American pilots and mechanics who have never heard of the check, so perhaps it lingers longer in the British Empire.

On this particular occasion I not only put the airplane in the hangar, but then climbed back on board and stowed all the oxygen masks and cables, took everything out of the seat back pockets, removed snacks and garbage and chart collections and generally cleared the way for maintenance to take out the seats and rip out the floor panels for a major inspection. That also means a few days off for me. The exact number will be determined by what they find on the inspection. I go home and put my phone on the charger. For a few days I am set free from the requirement to have it always with me.

The next day I happen to be sitting near the charger and it rings, with my boss' name on the display. I answer and recognize the boss' bad news voice. I wonder what horrible thing they have found with the airplane, and if there is some way I have caused it through poor airmanship, or missed finding it on my preflight inspections. But, it's nothing to do with the airplane. One of my coworkers has been critically injured in an accident. Nothing to do with work, just out with friends. It puts everything else into context. Life is so fragile.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Another Russian Visitor

We're working out of an airport with an implausibly long runway for its location and amount of traffic. I think it's a case of a local airport authority attempting to manifest, "If you build it, they will come," a line from a movie that came out before some working commercial pilots were born. (I never saw it, but I understand it's about a guy who builds a baseball diamond in a cornfield and then the ghosts of his favourite old time players come and use it). Maybe ghostly B747s come by in the middle of the night, but a day or so ago a real live Antonov-124 showed up.

A fleet of double-long fuel trucks arrived from the big city to haul enough fuel for it. They loaded it full of helicopters I'm told and it taxied out. It was sitting on a taxiway by the threshold as I landed, so we stuck around to watch it take off. I used up my camera battery taking video of it slowly taxiing into position, and then doing run ups in position, so this pic is from someone else's camera phone. I kept expecting it to do something. "I guess they have a lot of checklists to run," I suggested to one of my fellow spectators.

"Yeah, and it takes a long time, because they're all in Russian."

Everyone with a licence to be on the apron was watching from the airside, and the road paralleling the runway was lined with the cars of local spectators. It wasn't until started rolling, with what seemed to be impossibly low acceleration, that we realized we should have started a pool on when it would rotate. It used most of the runway, but finally the nosewheel came up and the whole aircraft followed. And then we laughed. It wasn't climbing very fast, and it was so big that it was still clearly visible as it climbed away, so it appeared to just hang there in the sky at the end of the runway. We made jokes about the controllers being able to go for coffee before it reached the handoff altitude.

It left a fair bit of smoke behind it, too.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

From Russia with the Munchies

My alarm clock is a company-provided smartphone, and most of the time I just go to sleep with it by my bed, because when it rings or a text message comes in, I have to be at the airport in an hour. Or in the lobby in twenty minutes if I'm on the road. I'll get a heads up at the end of the day what the earliest I may be called is. Sometimes  it's early. We took off at 4:42 a.m. local time a few days ago. So if I ever give you my cellphone number, remember that it is for that one time use, on the occasion that have arranged to meet you for. It is not for you to call me or message me in the future just to say hi, or even if your cat is on fire. If you do, I will wake up, set your other cat on fire and go back to sleep. If you don't have two cats, then fireproof your dog. I feel strongly about my sleep.

When my phone does ring, on this specific occasion with the sound of the alarm clock, because we had arranged a (fairly civilized, as you can see by the time on the phone) meet time in advance the night before, I woke up and checked the graphical area forecast for the weather I could expect. I zoom in on the screen to see what it says.

Can you see that? It says ADDNLY SRN BC LCL FU ALF FM FIRES IN SIBERIA. That's GFA-speak for, "Additionally, in southern British Columbia there will be some areas where there is smoke aloft, from fires in Siberia." The fires in Siberia part is written out in full because, well there just isn't a code for that. There are forest fires in Siberia, over the top of the world, and it's making it dark here. Trees on fire. We joke during the flight that it's Siberian pot fields on fire, as an excuse for our errors and our increasing hunger. All day it's the topic of conversation with ATC and other flight crews. Siberia? The poor visibility affects our work, and we spend the next week trying to escape the smoke. The visibility gets down to less than two statute miles in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan. It just shows how environmental impacts in one country affect the rest of the world.

Apparently there isn't a blogspot code for "wrap the fricking text around the pictures, damnit," either because I can't make it work. So, sorry about the ugly gaps.

P.S. Nope, no flashbacks.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Over the Airwaves

I know I haven't updated in a while, but I'm very busy working, among other things. Here's today's flight.

Breakfast and paperwork all on top of one another in the hotel, to file two flight plans covering nine hours of flying over the day. They are somewhat specialized plans, so have to be faxed in to the IFR data centre at least an hour before take-off, so they can process them. We can do a turn in thirty minutes--we measure that touchdown to wheels up, so we taxi clear of the runway, cool the turbos, fuel, pee, refill water bottles, clean the windshield, restart, taxi out and roll again all in less than half an hour, our record is twenty-seven minutes, so the second plan has to be filed before we land the first flight.

Airport shuttle, fuel in the morning, to get cool fuel and fuller fuel tanks, then start up and call for clearance. I'm at an airport served by a Flight Service Station, so I call them, identifying my aircraft by callsign, type and position on the field plus the fact that I'm "looking for IFR to Moose Eddy." He gives me active runway, winds and altimeter setting, and then says nothing else. I call back and ask if I get my clearance from Centre, but he doesn't reply. I take this as a sign he's on the phone to Centre and figure he'll come back with my clearance in a bit. He does. It's a long one, with a crossing restriction and a "not valid if not airborne by" time, details usually absent from northern clearances. I read it back and punch in the transponder code.

I go on with my checklists. Airplane is running great lately. Apparently the magnetos are due for overhaul in under 25 hours, they're on extension already, but they all seem to be running well. The engines start well, run smoothly and the magneto drops are well within the acceptable range. We had a problem with the right engine fuel injectors a while ago: they kept clogging, so we replaced the fuel servo (turned out it had some corrosion that could have been a source of the clogging matter) and also upgraded the injectors. I believe we replaced the left fuel servo too. When everything checks out and the engine temperatures are nice and warm I taxi out and take off, with three minutes to spare on my clearance valid time. Given that my clearance valid time was my filed departure time, they didn't give me a big margin.

The FSS guy says to contact Centre through 5000', which is my crossing restriction altitude, cross 20 DME on course not above 5000'. The trick here is to get in touch with Centre and then they'll lift the restriction, so I climb quickly to 5000' and sure enough the crossing restriction is lifted and I'm cleared to my requested altitude en route. The controller says, "Contact me reaching," and then stops. I pause, waiting to see if he'll add reaching what, but he doesn't, so I read it back as "reaching one three thousand." I heard someone else get a similar fill-in-the-blank clearance here a few days ago. Must be the local dialect. It's amusing how something as aggressively standardized as ATC develops dialects. It demonstrates how easily Latin disintegrated into all the separate Romance languages as soon as it no longer had an army to back it up.

A good tailwind gets us where we're going in an hour, but conditions are not conducive to the work we're here to do, so we turn around and go home. I tell ATC why, referring to "the required quality" of our data. There's another company out doing the same work and my words may have shamed them, as I hear them quit ting too, shortly after we turn tail. We have a headwind going home, so it takes an hour and a half to get back even though our speed is aided by a 15,000' descent (don't worry, no underground stuff: we climbed higher than that initial clearance as we approached the work area). I pass the time listening to my iPod. But not music: Italian lessons. Oh yes, that earlier reference to European linguistic diversity was apropos of something. The differences from Spanish and French are so cool. Verb endings... how the hell to verb endings evolve in a language? It makes me understand how people can deny species evolution. The ability of time and tiny changes to effect big changes is hard to wrap ones mind around. I'm learning Italian because I'm going to Italy, and I you know I can't survive long without the ability to talk to people. Se parleresti italiano, scrivimi! Se potresti Skype posso cercare parlare.

My boss is planning to do a PPC in this airplane this month, so I test the autopilot on the VOR/DME approach. It works okay, but the descent rate it selects is proportionate to the altitude change, so when I ask it to go from 6500' to the 25 nm safe distance it plunges so rapidly that it sets off the terrain warning. It takes its time aligning properly with the runway, and level eight miles final at the no procedure turn altitude the GPS is going crazy with "terrain" and "too low" (I don't even remember seeing that last one before). I take control from the autopilot when I want to put approach flaps down, because the manual says not to operate it with any flaps extended. That seems kinda dumb: what's the point of having an autopilot that can capture a glideslope if it can't do it with flaps? I wouldn't want to have to reconfigure this airplane from clean to landing configuration at decision height. A previous autopilot I used required me to disengage it while extending flaps, which made more sense. (Hand flying makes it easier to immediately recognize asymmetric or runaway flap conditions).

Land and roll out. On the backtrack the FSS guy asks me if I was IFR for the last part. Wha? I specifically told him I had cancelled IFR and that I was going to fly a simulated approach to test the autopilot. I didn't have to tell him that, but I apparently I care enough about what controllers think about me that I wanted him to not consider me an idiot if the autopilot wandered off somewhere and I waited to see if it would figure it out. There was quite a strong crosswind. I can track a radial better than it can. Yes! I'm superior to a thirty-something year old machine! We take our joy where we can.

I taxi clear of the runway and call off with no acknowledgement.  A helicopter pilot starting up on the ground makes two attempts to raise the FSS guy and then calls me to check his radio. I tell him FSS guy is probably on the phone. FSS guy comes back and apologizes, "There was a kerfuffle at Squirrel Inlet."  He's looking after traffic at a different airport as well. The helicopter guy hopes everyone is alright and the FSS guy says yes, just a lot of traffic at once.

And then we shut down and got a cab. Too early to check into the hotel, so I'm blogging in the lobby.

Oh and don't worry, I remembered to cancel the second flight plan.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Confusing Flight Services

This isn't a complaint about flight service specialists being confusing or providing confusing services. Canadian FSS are exceedingly awesome. It's a story about how I confuse flight services. I'll start at the confusing part. Airports, callsigns and aircarft type changed to confuse you.
"Beaver River Radio, this is Aviatrix"

[obligatory pause long enough to make me reach for the CFS to check that I have the correct frequency. Turns out that answering me on the radio isn't the only duty a flight services specialist performs]

"Aviatrix, Beaver River Radio"

"Beaver River, Aviatrix is a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker Airplane overhead Skunk Lake on a VFR flight plan from Home Base to Skunk Lake. Request to amend my flight plan: new destination Home Base, eta 1915."

[pause, this one not obligatory]

"Aviatrix, confirm you are overhead Skunk Lake on a flight plan to Skunk Lake and you want to amend your destination to Home Base?"

See we left home base with work to do at Skunk, Chicken, Elk, and Slime Mould, but the Chicken work was really easy and the Slime Mould work was cancelled en route, leaving us with enough gas to go home once we were done with Skunk. I wonder if that FSS guy called the folks on the ground at Skunk to see why an aircraft on a flight plan to there would elect to go home rather than land, when they were already overhead. Probably not. I'm sure they figured it out.

We touched down at Home Base three minutes late at 1918. Someone hit a bird on takeoff not long before we arrived, so they sent us to go hold for a bit while the guys in pick up trucks cleaned up the little feathered corpse. I hope it was just feathers, with no aircraft parts mixed in. It was all over by the time we got to the runway.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Geeking on Canola

Flying, flying. This is a flying blog, right?  Nope, it's a blog about what I think about while and as a result of flying. Now I'm thinking it's kinda hazy, but at least I can see the ground because it's so brightly coloured in green and yellow. The green is I don't know, grass or corn or something, and the yellow I know is canola fields. Funny stuff canola. It started out as rapeseed, an industrial crop grown to produce lubricating oil. I decided to do a bit of research and not just tell you what I know off the top of my head about canola, so now we both get to learn stuff. Canadian rapeseed production expanded during World War II, and then they looked for more ways to use it. Health Canada wouldn't approve it as food crop because it was too high in erucic acid and glucosinolates. 

So, wonders Aviatrix, what's erucic acid and why is it bad?  Wikipedia says it's a straight chain of twenty-two carbon atoms with the COOH you'd expect of an organic acid tacked on one end. It's  "monounsaturated" which means it's two hydrogen atoms short of being fully hydrogenated. Which is bad for me again, saturated or unsaturated oils? New diversion ... oh this is complicated, no wonder I didn't remember. Unsaturated fats, that is the ones with double bonds that leave room for more hydrogens, are "good" because they lower bad cholesterol, but apparently they are "even better" if they are monounsaturated, having only one double bond and thus room for only two more hydrogens, because otherwise they might lower good cholesterol, too. The "bad" fats are the saturated ones, all full up with hydrogens, and having no double bonds, because they are solid at room temperature and clog your arteries.
(It's vaguely implied that the solidity is what clogs your arteries, but surely they don't escape the digestive process and make it through the alveolae into the blood with the hydrocarbon chain intact? Maybe I should have taken more biology. If what I eat is really racing around in my blood intact, maybe I should eat fewer Girl Scout cookies. They have kinda scary ingredients.) Finally, we have the "really bad" fats, the trans fats. I think there was even a Family Guy episode about how bad trans fats are. They are produced by hydrogenation, but wait a moment. I know what trans means in a chemical context. It means that the two hydrogens either side of a double bond are on opposite sides of the chain. So trans fats have to be unsaturated. So the "really bad" fats are necessarily members of the "good" or "even better" camps? The depiction of erucic acid structure on Wikipedia shows a cis structure (the opposite of trans). So we're safe.

But wait, why was erucic acid bad for me again? It's present in kale, mustard, brussels sprouts and broccoli, all of which are supposed to be good for me. It tastes bad. It might be bad for rats, because they can't metabolize fats well at all. There's some evidence it causes heart problems, and other evidence it cures them, as well as curing some weird rare disease. I give up on erucic acid.

Maybe the glucosinolates are really the evil part. Glucosinolates occur in almost all plants and react with a plant enzyme to protect the plant from insect attacks. Like everything else that does anything, a little is good, apparently protecting against cancer but a lot is bad, suppressing thyroid function and changing animal behaviour. So okay, too much is bad.

Anyway both compounds are bitter-tasting so they bred them out and then rebranded the result as canola. According to the canola marketing association website they did this, to differentiate the superior low-erucic acid and low-glucosinolate varieties and their products from the older rapeseed varieties, but yeah, right. I'm sure the person doing family grocery shopping in 1978 was far lass likely to balk at an association with glucosinolates than at the word rape. The can is for Canada and ola for oil, or oil low acid, but I've heard the homophony with love, peace and health food granola wasn't entirely coincidental.

Now most of the crop is GM and Roundup Ready and hey look it's pretty and yellow. So, uh, now I have more to think about when I see the bright yellow fields of canola sliding away beneath my wings.

My descent checklist is also colour-coded yellow. Fuel selectors on fullest tanks, anti-ice not required, altimeter set, oxygen off through 10,000', radios set, there's no ATIS so call flight services for the aerodrome advisory.  Hmm, here one normally taxies off via the cross runway, but today the cross runway is closed, so everyone has to backtrack to the apron. It's a busy airport, so we all have to space ourselves out and hustle back to the beginning of the runway to give the following aircraft their turn.

I can't see anything wrong with the cross runway. It turns out they're just mowing the grass beside it. Sometimes there are crops grown on the infield at the airport, but I'm pretty sure this is just ordinary grass. Definitely not canola.

Friday, July 27, 2012

This Might Be The Story of My Life

I'm VFR approaching a busy airport with published VFR arrivals. The controller tells me to "expect direct H (other airport) then direct another landmark." Other airport is approximately a 90 degree turn away from my destination, but okay, I'm expecting that now. I put it in the GPS, even.

And at this point I need a clearance into the airspace ahead of me, but I haven't been given one. I ask, "Did you want me to fly direct airport H now?"

I think he said, "Yes, please," which is even less standard radio language than using the past tense to form a polite question. So I turned direct airport H and descended as instructed.

Another controller than told me to expect the SomethingOrOther Arrival, which I'd already looked up. That arrival requires me to fly direct Landmark A, then on reaching it turn direct Landmark B, and at B tune the next frequency and fly direct Landmark C. It allows the controllers to create a conga line of arriving aircraft without clogging the frequency with explicit instructions to each. But when I'm told to expect something, shouldn't I wait to be given it?

In this case I don't wait. I turn direct Landmark A, with the feeling that I'm going to get yelled at, but I don't, and when told to call the next frequency, I tell them I'm direct Landmark A at altitude. That controller clears me the SomethingOrOther Arrival. Which I was expecting.

But I mean really, shouldn't there be a difference between "Fly direct A, expect direct B" and "Expect direct A then direct B"? Is this a new rule I missed? An old rule I never knew? Am I supposed to automatically behave as though I have already received what I expect? Is that why I have a blog instead of a career?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Aliens Replaced

I picked up an airplane from maintenance. It was there for a 100 hour inspection (that's an inspection performed after the airplane has been flown for a hundred hours, not an inspection that takes a hundred hours). It usually takes two to three days, and can go to more, depending on what they find on the inspection and how much work those those items take to repair, or whether they have to order parts. I'm not sure how many hours get billed to it. I suppose if it's three guys working on it for a few days, and especially if we work them hard enough that overtime comes into the picture, it might sometimes be that kind of hundred hour, too.

Thankfully dealing with airplane maintenance bills is not my job. My job includes inspecting the airplane after it's been inspected and put back together again to ensure that nothing is obviously wrong, in advance of actually needing to fly the airplane. You'd be surprised what you can find. I've reached through the front cowling and discovered a spark plug set in its engine port and not tightened at all. I've opened the access door to check the oil and discovered an electronic testing device sitting on top of the engine. I've found inspection ports left open, lots of missing cowling screws, disconnected cowl flaps, and stuff that was on the work order but that just didn't get done. This reflects years of experience with many different maintainers at many different companies, not a reflection on my current or any particular company.

On this occasion, a hydraulic puddle appears under the airplane after I let down the flaps. It's happened before. I think they're just overenthusiastic about filling the reservoir. Everything else checks out. I also inspect the paperwork to make sure that we have the required documented proof that the inspection has been done. I see that a hydraulic fitting was adjusted, but that was to correct a small leak in the vicinity of the left main, and my puddle came out of the vent line.

The best part of reviewing the documents is AME spelling. It's can get downright cryptic if the AME is from Québec, and not working in his (usually his) native tongue. Today the person doing the paperwork is a native speaker of English, but was likely tired and in a hurry. The left propeller lever has been "realiened." I didn't even know that it had aliens in it in the first place, let alone that the aliens were required for smooth functioning and that they apparently need periodic replacement.

Okay, now I'm making fun, of course. To all AMEs, let me assure you that it is far more important to me that you know how to apply proper techniques to fix the parts of my airplane than that you can spell them. As long as I can tell what component has had what done to it, and that it worked, I'm quite happy with the paperwork you produce for me. Let me take my little bit of joy from appreciating the creative ways you spell things therein. I love that everyone uses printed stickers these days so I never have to read your handwriting, as I did ten years ago. And seriously, who would guess that aligned had a g in it?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Unknown Intentions

I'm flying into a big airport where I haven't been in a while. I'm given a choice of two arrivals. I don't know which will be quicker, but involves flying direct a VFR waypoint that is over a completely featureless area. The IFR fixes are all part of the database, but the VFR ones aren't, even though I'm VFR as often as not. The chart suggests no way to identify it visually, and I do not have time and head down opportunity to look it up and program into the GPS, so I request the other one.

My descent and approach checklist wants the heater off now, but I have the option of leaving it on until any time up to two minutes before shutdown on the ground. The item will recur on later checklists so I just skip it and move onto the next items. "Seat belt on?" I query, reminding myself to check my shoulder belt. I usually leave the shoulder belt on the whole flight unless it starts interfering with the headset, oxygen mask, guidance screen cable, or any of the other lines that define my Borglike existence in the cockpit.

The controllers are busy getting people in and out of here. There's a transient aircraft that appears to be sightseeing, but the pilot hasn't made his request very clear. The controller points him out to traffic by position and "unknown intentions." The pilot doesn't take the hint and the controller has to ask him specifically what he is doing. There is so much to this game of talking on the radio that is subtle and clever. When a new airplane enters the picture, you'll hear a controller pause just long enough to give an alert pilot time to report traffic in sight, or call looking, and spare the controller the obligation of describing the traffic all over again when the pilot who should be looking for it heard them call in. There are rumours about electronic controllers, but robots simply couldn't do what the humans do. The human element helps with sanity as well as safety.

An Air Canada Jazz jet is given a climb clearance and the pilot refuses it. He's flying on a ferry permit with a damaged windshield and is restricted to a maximum altitude of ten thousand feet. There's a story there. Stories everywhere. I'm cleared to land at the big airport and the controller tells me on final which taxiway to exit at. They aren't lettered neatly in order, so he helpfully adds that it's the second left. I remember to turn the heater off on final. I land full flaps and slow down for the second left, but he wants me to go to the next one. Ohhh, at the big airport the first taxiway doesn't count, because who would exit there? Only someone who is used to runways that only have one exit/entrance. I feel so bush as I add a bit of power to expedite to what I still think is the third left.

Tomorrow is an 8:30 take off, so 8:15 engine start, better make it 8:10 with how busy this place will be. Backing up with cab and flight planning and walkaround that means hotel breakfast at 6:50, so I set my alarm for 6:30. Good night.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Now It's Really Broken

The airplane with the broken off wingnut goes into maintenance and comes back out of maintenance still with no wingnut. Damnit. I didn't physically write the defect in the journey log because it was perfectly serviceable. I wasn't going to ground myself in Fort Swamp over a wingnut. I've flown airplanes that required tools to open the fuel caps as standard. But I'm a little teeny bit annoyed. I did tell the PRM the problem and this little tiny thing, the need to pull out a screwdriver to open a fuel cap is going to cost us a tiny bit of time and time and pose a tiny safety risk on every flight. The time is the time it takes for me to get a screwdriver out and put it away again afterwards every time I want to fuel or verify fuel. It's the time I take opening it for a fueller when I could be running to the washroom or filing a flight plan. The safety is the risk that I don't check the fuel level in that tank because it's a pain to get a screwdriver, or that the screwdriver gets dropped somewhere where it ends up in a tire or an aileron. Or just that the time I spend getting the screwdriver, or opening or closing the cap could have been spent spotting something else that was wrong somewhere on the aircraft.

So I e-mail the PRM and request that it please go on the workorder next time, and I go about my business. Today my business is fuelling this airplane to go to work. I open all the fuel caps, including the one without a wingnut and as I open the flap on the broken one, the screw comes all the way through onto the wing. Hmm. It is supposed to remain attached inside the flap. I look closely and inside the flap, next to the real, sealing fuel cap are a couple of bits. One is the tiny rod that is supposed to hold the fastener in place after I give it a half turn. And the other is the bottom end of the fastener, the bit with the bottom of the hole that the tiny rod runs through.

Now it's really broken. Fortunately I'm at home base now, but of course it's lunchtime. It's a rule in aviation. If the airplane doesn't break on a long weekend and/or away from base, it breaks on the engineers' lunchbreak. Lunchbreak and coffee break is sort of an alien concept to pilots. We get breaks, sometimes, between the first engine start of the day and walking away from the airplane parked and chocked after the last shutdown, but they aren't dictated by the clock. They're dictated by a late fuel truck or company telling me to wait. And I wait for lunchbreak to be over before presenting my broken fastener. They tell me no problem, but when I come out to see the repair, it still doesn't have a wingnut. And this time I can't use my Swiss army knife, because it requires a Phillips screwdriver.

They promise me a proper one at the next scheduled maintenance. I'll believe it when I see it. The coin in the photo is a toonie (or twoonie), the Canadian two-dollar coin. It's just there for scale. For the non-Canadians, it's 28 mm across.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Back in the Sky

It's another day, another part of the sky, this time with two functional mixture cables. We're finishing off a job we've been working on for almost a week, and the mission specialist tells me the next area he wants me to work. "How long will the job take?" I ask. He says, an hour, maybe an hour and a half. "I can get there and back, or I can get there and do the job, but I can't get there, do the job and get back to where we're supposed to be tonight." And there's no fuel at the airport where the job is.

There is, however, an aerodrome almost exactly en route that has fuel. I've been there before, years before. They have a crooked PAPI because there's a ridge preventing the final approach from being straight in. So you fly at the threshold at an angle, then straighten out and land at the last moment. The wind is a little too strong for company policy to approve me to land the other way, but someone else is. I announce joining downwind for the crooked approach. There's another airplane also waiting to use the into-wind runway. He's orbiting on the base leg waiting for the wrong-way airplane to land. It all works out with the airplane landing the wrong way, and exiting the runway, then the guy on base turning to the crooked final and exiting just before I reach the dogleg and land.

We taxi slowly off and then stop with the brakes on. Meanwhile the other aircraft has taxied straight to fuel. I watch them finish on one side and pass the hose across. We remain in position for a few minutes, not to cool the turbochargers (although that happens too) but for a mission requirement. They finish fuelling the other tank and are starting to recoil the hose. We taxi slowly up behind them, and then get the hint, pushing the airplane out of the way so we can park at the pumps. The fueller is laughing that there's been no one for hours and now two at once. While we pay for fuel he points out that the other crew seems to know us. We go back outside, and what do you know, we do know them. I met the pilot the day before I slammed into a Canada goose on takeoff. (Oh the adventures you miss when I'm not blogging). We tell them where we're off to and they say it's beautiful, we're really going to like it.

"It's not like we get to land and go to the beach!" I point out. (Yeah, there's a beach. Rocks and trees, too. So we're probably in Canada. Yet it's not named after an animal or a body of water. I looked it up: it's named after the guy who taught the guy who discovered it how to make maps. I wonder if he taught his students how to name places after people.) We take off. I'm about to make a right turn direct, when the controller asks me to make a left two-seventy for noise abatement. Okay, sure, whatever. I didn't see any houses there.

It is beautiful en route. My co-worker gets a text from the boss. If we can't get the work done, we're to land and wait for an hour and then take off and try again. So I've been ordered to fly to the most scenic spot within fuel range and go to the beach for an hour. My greatest problem is that I didn't bring sunblock. Sometimes I try not to brag about my job. Other times I don't bother. Also there are wild berries to eat. So much better than granola bars.

There's a little terminal here, unexpectedly nice for the middle of nowhere. A charter company rep is explaining to some city folk that there is no security here, they can just go out to the airplane. The city folk look confused, maybe a little afraid, as though the airplane will not fly correctly if they don't have their luggage examined first. When the tourists have left the charter company guy tells me that there are no federal employees here at all. They mowed the grass a little while ago and used a helicopter to clear it off the runway. That's right. If you think your neighbour's leaf blower is too ostentatious, try using a helicopter. Presumably the helicopter was taxiing out anyway and they asked them if they could please do a low pass to get the grass off the runway. Presumably.

In our crew of two, my job is to make decisions related to the airplane and the other person makes decisions related to data collection. Obviously these overlap sometimes and, as in my decision to land for fuel, safety trumps all. Normally he (the company doesn't currently have any females in that role) sends most of the communication to company, with my role in that reduced to, "did you tell the flight follower we were up?" and "did you already tell them we're landed?" He is the one who suffers the barrage of contradictory instructions on where to go next and what to make a priority. Except now his phone has run out of battery. I text that fact to company and now I get a slice of his life as the texts suggesting what we do now pile in to my phone. I have an hour and fifteen minutes of holding fuel, that is fuel that is not required to do the mission, get back, or be in reserve. So we take off as soon as we've had enough sun and berries. As it works out we don't need to hold at all. We complete the mission and head back, with me texting an ETE (estimated time enroute) from the driver's seat. After I sent it, I saw that the text wasn't being sent right away, because we were in a poor coverage area. I realized I should have made it an ETA (estimated time of arrival) so that it didn't matter what time it left my phone, it would still be accurate. But as it turned out there was an ATC delay for exactly as long as it took the text to send, so I was exactly on time, as far as the flight follower could tell.

And that's the end of another good day.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Maintenance Day

I left you in a cab on a way to a hotel. I asked the desk clerk if there was some place I could get a good vegetarian meal in town. (I'm not, but that's what I was in the mood for). He asked if sushi was vegetarian, so I didn't hold out high hopes for his next recommendation, but it turned out to be a restaurant that handed me a separate vegetarian menu when I asked. The fare on that menu was mainly "vegetarian meats," you know soy 'chicken' and the like. What I was really in the mood for was a hearty meal in the style of a culture that doesn't find it necessary to base a meal around meat, fake or otherwise, and I convinced them to do me a vegetarian version of a prawn curry dish from the regular menu. It was delicious, and they did artful things with asparagus in lieu of the prawns.

The mechanic told me last night that they start work around here at seven a.m. I left the aircraft keys with him, but planned to be in at seven anyway ... and you know what. I've been trying to tell you things day by day but it's just not working. It's just before six now and my alarm that tells me to get up and check out of the hotel is going off in a few minutes, so I'll cut to the highlights and stop trying to do all-day entries. I just don't have the time anymore.

The cable broke as the mechanic moved the controls to see the problem I was describing, so there was no question on how to proceed. It took all morning to figure out how to and remove the cable. It involved removing the foam sealant from the nosewheel gear door bay and removing almost every cowling on the airplane. I downloaded a maintenance manual and went through it. The only reference I could find to engine control cable installation was with reference to installing the wings, leading me to suspect that if the manufacturer thought about replacing those cables at all, they intended the wing to be taken off for the job. At one point the mechanic was removing a small bolt, blind using two pairs of long pliers. The old cable was out just before noon, which is when I picked up the new one from the express courier office.

It was installed, with no less trouble than the removal. On departure the next morning we had to make a quick return to have the transponder reconnected and later discovered the OAT gauge was similarly inoperative. They had to take that airplane to bits to get that cable in. And there's my alarm. Time to file a flight plan. And screw blogger for killing all my paragraph breaks lately.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Mixtureless Travel

The ferry permit allows me to fly an aircraft without a valid certificate of airworthiness. As soon as I wrote in the logbook about the problem with the mixture, I voided the C of A. There's companies where you would not be well-regarded for doing that, and I always second guess myself if I over-reacted when I ground an airplane, but seeing as you're always supposed to be on the safe side of uncertain, and seeing the number of times something has been truly wrong when I have made the decision, this is my job. Every job has a not-as-fun part, and mine is every once in a while telling the boss that the airplane can't legally be flown.

A lot of people would have just said, "Hey, I can't really fly this properly, I'll just take it somewhere I can get it fixed," and a lot of companies would have expected that. There are probably plenty of people reading this thinking, "What a prig she is, putting her company to that trouble when she was willing to fly it the way it was, after talking to maintenance." Some are probably thinking, "Damn she's brave to snag something away from home like that." But I had given our maintenance unit plenty of opportunity to fix the problem when the plane was home and it had reached a point where it was my job to say no. And then to fly it while broken but legal.

I don't notice the power difference on takeoff. Perhaps all the fiddling has loosened it up and given it more travel. (Heh, I really wanted to put a silent t in "loosten" to make it match "fasten" even though I know perfectly well that fasten comes from fast, as in "make fast). Also I'm down the weight of a crewmember, his luggage, some fuel and that data unit. I can barely lift it. Maybe it's twenty kilograms. I don't have my detailed weight and balance with me to check. All the temps are in limits and the power is adequate to the job. I turn enroute and climb to a suitable altitude.

Hey pilots, remember set heading points? I haven't used one in years. All praise the thin pink line! (Non-pilots: when you're travelling visually from airport A to airport B, you can't take up a course directly from A to B, because you don't know while you're planning what runway you will take off from, exactly how the air traffic controllers will direct you, and what traffic you may have to avoid before you can turn on course. So you choose a point sufficiently far from the airport that you'll be out of the departure procedures by then, but sufficiently close that you won't get lost on the way there, and you calculate the exact heading from there to your destination. After takeoff you fly to your set heading point and turn on course. Except that thanks to the wonders of GPS, we don't have to do this anymore. Just take off, hit the direct-to button and follow the pink line on the display). That wasn't apropos of anything. I just remember turning on course without having to worry about where I was.

It's kind of scuddy--low clouds close to terrain--so I continue climb over them. There are a number of layers and eventually I want to go high enough that I have to call for clearance into class B airspace. It's like when you go out for a drink after work with a friend, and then you run into some more people you haven't seen in ages, so you have to have a drink with them, and then you might as well stay for dinner, and then you want dessert, but they know this place ... and before you know it you're out until three a.m. To tell the truth, that doesn't happen to me, but the other metaphor that came to mind was when you start to pick up something you dropped on the kitchen floor, but once you do that you see something else that needs cleaning and you end up having to move the refrigerator. I haven't ever cleaned behind my refrigerator. Who knows what's back there. If it gets too dirty, I'll just move. I hadn't really intended to go this high, but one thing led to another and here I am. It's cool. I have a clearance.

I level off. You piston pilots know that means that I close the cowl flaps, lower the nose to a cruise attitude, wait a bit for the airplane to speed up, slowly bring back the throttles to cruise power, adjust the propellers for the right "gear" for the power setting, and finally lean the mixture for efficient use of fuel. By habit I lean one at a time. That's because if I accidentally pulled both all the way back it would cut off fuel to both engines at once and that would be exciting. So I pull the left one, the good one back, seeing the fuel flow drop to the expected value as the EGT rises. And then I pull the right one, the bad one, back. I have to pull harder, so I have my hand kind of braced, so I can't pull it too far at once. It comes back. And so does the fuel flow. Nice.

The clouds are getting a little thicker beneath. It's still scattered. Or at least I'm calling it that, because in Canada the layers below need to be scattered or better for me to be VFR. But whatever the cloud coverage, they are too numerous for a smooth descent into destination, which is what ATC is offering me. I think they're already a little testy about my unfiled request for CVFR, and now they want to get rid of me. There's a big hole to my left, so I announce that I am descending in that direction to continue VFR below. And I do that, reducing power somewhat for the descent and then slowly enriching the mixture as the oxygen level in the air increases above what the turbochargers were providing when I first leaned the mixture.

Which is odd now that I stop to think about it, because I have great turbochargers. I can set a climb power manifold pressure with the throttles and it just sits there on the dot from 2000' up to FL190 without me having to touch anything. So why do I have to enrich the mixtures on the descent? I do. If I don't pay attention the EGT needles will creep up towards the red.

The turbochargers are compressing the ambient air such that the engine gets the same amount of oxygen it would at sea level. But on the way down I have to pull back the throttles to keep the manifold pressure the same, and I have to push the mixture up. The difference is that on the way up I have about ten inches more MP than on the way down. (Pilots have the weirdest units for power.)

I follow the valley under the clouds. The problem with being under the clouds is that its raining. Okay, this isn't a big big problem, but flying is more fun when you can see where you're going. It's really pouring. I fly to the VOR and then into the next valley where I can call ATC and announce inbound. They give me a VFR arrival to fly, and as I'm getting that sorted out they decide I don't have to fly that arrival after all, and should fly straight in, so I pull back the power more and dive into final, zooming to get gear and flaps sorted out, then land.

I taxi to the maintenance hangar and try to figure out where to park. It's kind of crowded outside and there are do-not-park-here lines in the places that don't have airplanes. I know they're going to work on it first thing, so I do the best I can and pull both mixture levers to idle. Both engines shut down. The cable is still in one piece.

And then it turns out that there's a guy there waiting for me at the AMO, even though it's after hours. He just wanted to make sure I got in safely. He says he'd offer me a ride, but he's on his bike. So I take a cab. That's right, I strung you along on a ferry in an unairworthy aircraft, with the mixture cable supposedly on the verge of breaking, and then nothing happened. But when I left I didn't know it wasn't going to break either, so it's only fair.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Mixture Equation

Company is scrambling to fix the problem, both the problem that the mixture cable is mostly stuck, and the problem that we and the intensely valuable data we collect are stranded here. The non-pilot member of the crew books a commercial passenger flight home. I share a taxi with him over to the terminal, where he checks his overnight bag and does a really good job of nonchalantly pretending that the fifteen-plus kilogram unit containing our hard drives is a featherweight carry-on. He doesn't want to be separated from it or his computer.

We share a meal in a restaurant at the terminal and then he heads to his gate. He says he's taken the units through airport security many times without difficulty, and this proves no exception. It does have official looking stickers on it designating it data storage unit eleven or something, but it's not as if terrorists aren't going to try and make their lead-lined doomsday devices look like harmless technology.

I walk back to the airplane. As I'm walking along the service road, I'm slowly overtaking another pedestrian. I say hi as I pass and he comments that they could at least have sidewalks. It's true. Despite the fact that last time I was here the rental car lots weren't even paved (they are now), it's an airport large enough to have commercial service, a restaurant in the terminal, and rental car lots, but they can't manage to provide sidewalks? I tell him my airplane situation. He sympathizes. We've all been there, and then he goes off to fly his and I go off to keep mine company while company decides what is to be done with it.

I actually have terrific field support. I need a flight plan sent in, a hotel room booked, anything that can be done long distance, and it happens. I tell the PRM, "Hey at least I broke an airplane on a Monday morning." I usually seem to break them on the Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend. Later I discover that it IS a holiday Monday in the United States, severely limiting our options for getting parts shipped. Nevertheless company manages to find a supplier for the cable. It's cheap, only $250 plus shipping so they order two and ship one here and one to a different city. That may sound strange, but I'll get to the strategy later. Oh and someone asked last time for more info on the cable. It's essentially a heavy duty bicycle cable. Instead of a single cable inside a plastic sheath it's a multi-strand cable running inside a metal sheath.

Right now they are looking at the best options to find or send someone who can repair the problem. Or to get the airplane to someone who can. They're thinking of getting a ferry permit, that's permission to operate an officially non-airworthy airplane for a limited purpose, usually to get it to somewhere that it will be repaired or scrapped. A company engineer texts me a picture of the innards of a throttle quadrant and asks me to take one like it on my phone. It is inconclusive at best. I don't know how he can assess the soundness to fly based on that. It's not fair to ask the no-moonlighting guy to sign off on that, because if something happens and the airplane doesn't arrive, he gets looked at, and he doesn't know, me, the company or the airplane. Company asks me if I'm willing to ferry the airplane if maintenance and Transport Canada okays it. The runway here is long enough to do a reduced power takeoff empty, and there's lots of room to climb. I ask what happens if the cable breaks in flight, does it go full rich or stick where it is, or will it roll back to idle cut-off? Maintenance has to get back to me on that. The conclusion is that it will fail in place. I won't be able to enrich the mixture, but seeing as the "mixture" cable controls available fuel and the throttle controls the air, I can control the actual ratio with the throttle. It just means that I'll be limited to a maximum power of whatever throttle setting is appropriate to the max fuel flow I'm stuck with. It would mean that I would have to slowly decrease the throttle setting in descent when I otherwise would slowly increase the mixture, until I was ready to slow down.

Company tells me the wording to write in the journey log, underneath where I have written that the mixture is stuck. It's something like, "Unable to rectify. Aircraft is operated in accordance with ferry permit number ____." Transport Canada accepts the maintenance sign off and issues a ferry permit. I scrutinize my faxed copy carefully for the restrictions. I'm okay to fly over built up areas, good. I'm cleared home with any necessary technical stops enroute. No passengers. I read it over several times but I can't find the ferry permit number. I call company. They agree there isn't one. I sign it off as "in accordance with ferry permit issued at _____ dated ____."

I think this will be my first cross-country solo in this airplane. All the other solo flights have been local test flights, or recurrency. I check carefully the items that my co-worker usually manages, and then I call for clearance and taxi out.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Lack of Mixture Travel

The right mixture lever has been stiff to move out of idle cut-off for weeks now. If I were writing in my old style of bombarding you with every trivial detail of my every day you would have heard it mentioned with every engine start. It seems to be better during the flight, and then worse again the next day. I complained about it to maintenance and they said there was nothing wrong with it. I complained about it to maintenance and they said they lubricated it.

It didn't really seem like the sort of issue that would be solved with lubrication, and it wasn't. Sure it was a lot better after they started, but so was it a lot better at the end of a flight. But at the beginning, wow. I wouldn't push an airplane part that hard for fear of breaking it, if you hadn't been led to do it, bit by bit, a little harder each day. My Person Responsible for Maintenance gets daily updates on this issue. (And every other issue. A contributing factor to my blogging hiatus was a PRM who actually appreciated daily reports that look kinda like an Aviatrix blog entry). One day it took three tried to start the right engine, not through any fault of the engine, but as I got a start I wasn't able to push the mixture lever far enough forward to sustain fuel flow before it died. It was STIFF. Third time lucky and we ran up and took off.

Barely off the runway and the right EGT needle flew right through the red bar into the territory beyond numbering, while the right engine fuel flow was about six gallons per hour lower than usual. I can see that split on both my analogue and digital fuel flow gauges. (Yeah, we use funky units like knots and gallons per hour: this is what my instruments read in. I guess I should be happy it's not furlongs and firkins per fortnight. You don't really have to know what a gallon is, just that less of them are going through the engine than usual). If gas is what's burning in the engines, why would less gas give more heat? Gas delivered to the cylinders in excess of the stoimetric necessity serves to cool them, so while not required for the chemical equation, those six millilitres more per second are definitely included in the manufacturer's equation for aircraft serviceability.

There are no obstacles ahead, so I lower the nose (which speeds us up and increases cooling) and start pulling power off the right engine until the temperature come down. It's a little below our normal cruise power. We've just come off a northern airport with no ATC and no one who would service our airplane. I call centre--or possibly they were calling me--to cancel the IFR, with no explanation, and turn south VFR. South to where people with parts and tools can make my airplane work right. South to where our cellphones work. Text messages fly. We have to choose between two likely airports. At one of them company hasn't been able to contact the purported maintenance outfit. At the other company has, but they have said they don't have the time to do it. Wherever we land, that's where we are until it's fixed, because it's not reasonable to do another takeoff if it's going to drive engine instruments through their limits like that.

We pick an airport and land. I finish the paperwork, including writing the snag in the logbook so I can't have an attack of stupidity and decide that it wasn't so bad after all. The other crew member goes to find someone to work on the airplane. He finds no one who can spare even the time to come and look at the problem. I say oh well, I'll just check that it's okay to park here, and wander into the nearest hangar doing the hello thing. Every time I do that I'm cognizant that I'm kind of trespassing, wandering around between someone else's expensive and secured aircraft, but usually the only way to find someone in a hangar is to wander in and follow the sound of the radio or the pneumatic tools until you see someone. I've never once had the reaction be fury or distrust. In this case the folks I find look and sound suspiciously like maintenance engineers.

"Hi, I came to ask you if it's okay to park outside against the fence, but you look like you could answer a more important question. Do you know anything about piston twins?"

The world of aviation maintenance is divided into camps based on the kind of engine (turbine vs. piston) and wing (fixed vs. rotary). This guy turns out to be qualified on just about everything, and has some time to spare. I bring him back to the plane. My co-worker (and boss) laments, "I go all over the airport looking for an engineer to look at our airplane and you find one in two minutes without trying?"

He pulls an engine cowling and pokes at the throttle quadrant a bit. We need the mixture cable replaced. I can't see what he sees, even with a flashlight, but I am unsurprised. He can't help us, though, because his contract forbids moonlighting. He's still been a help.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


I'm on a quick turn and after the mandatory break to pee, refill water bottles and file a new flight plan I'm back at the ramp to check on the airplane. My fuel caps are recessed into the top of the wings, with flaps that cover them, flush with the wing. The flaps are opened by giving a half-turn to a wingnut. One of the wingnuts is now missing. I track down the fueller. "Did the wingnut break off the fuel cap?" I ask.

He says it was like that when he found it. It seems very odd to me that a part that was affixed well enough for me to have opened and closed the cap to check it just five hours earlier became loose enough to bounce off in flight of its own accord. Sure there's airflow over it, but really? There's no point in arguing. Fortunately when the wingnut broke off it left a screwhead underneath and the cap is still perfectly usable to anyone with a tool. I have a tool.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Big Day

All evening last night my coworker was assuring me that today would be a big day. It became a joke, so that every five minutes one of us would ask the other, "Do you think tomorrow will be a big day?" so that the other can reply, "Yes, it's going to be a big day tomorrow."

The day starts with waiting for a cab. The cab is late. Late cabs steal my sleep, at either end of the day. When it finally arrives I walk around to put my bags in the trunk. I see the fish symbol and recoil from it like I fear it will burn my flesh. Fish Cab has come for us again. It has become more pungent overnight not less. The driver says, "Don't ask me to close the windows, because I won't." We make it to the airport, preflight quickly, and head out for our big day.

I've filed an IFR flight plan that includes the fix LETRM. Such five-letter fixes are ubiquitous, each unique in the world, easy to enter into a GPS receiver, but not always easy to say. If you're unfamiliar with an area and told to fly direct something that sounds like "wild" you can't guess if it's going to be WILED or WYLDE or WHYLD or WAILD or something else. You're supposed to know the fixes on your own flight plan or any approach you're given, and ATC is usually considerate enough to spell out fixes for pilots they don't recognize as locals. I'm not sure if this will sound like "LEH-trim" or "LEHterm" or "le trème". Probably not the last as it isn't a French-speaking area. The controller says it before I have to. It's the first one.

We're working in military airspace again, the one by LETRM, so those of you with the home version of this game can guess that's Cold Lake. This military airspace is a patchwork of different restricted areas, each restricted at different times and altitudes. I've called ahead to the base, and checked NOTAMs to ensure that I am allowed in the space I need. I'm on my way to the target and the controller calls me to check that I will remain ten miles outside CYR 204. Uhh, I planned to remain outside, but ten miles? That might not work. The controller is a hero for me and negotiates with Cold Lake terminal then comes back to me with a restriction to remain 65 DME from the Cold Lake VORTAC--that means a little less than sixty-five miles horizontally from a variable phase VHF transmitter located on the Cold Lake aerodrome. It's less than sixty-five, because DME measures slant range. Those of you who like trigonometry as much as I do can figure out exactly how far horizontally, when I tell you I was at FL180 and the Cold Lake aerodrome is at 1775' above sea level. Hmm, I might need to give you the air temperature, too. So don't worry about it. I just read the little numbers off the DME and keep them above sixty-five. I think I got down to sixty-seven.

Then we went north and did some more work, and then I started down for landing. I misjudged the descent, so ended up level in the lower bumpy altitudes fighting a strong headwind for a while. You can't win: you stay high too long with the tailwind and you can't get down to the airport or you descend and the tailwind switches around and you're too slow too far out. I'm so often directly above an airport I'm supposed to land at. I land, order fuel, fax (yeah, high tech, huh?) in a new flight plan, pee and then start engines to take off again.

More of the same, oxygen, water, granola bars, switch fuel tanks and descend for landing back where we started. Taxi to the pumps, fuel, taxi to parking, shut down again and ... you knew it as coming, didn't you? Back into Fish Cab for the ride to the hotel. It's now more like "overwhelming scent of Febreeze and more air fresheners than you thought you could cram in one car, but with a definite undertone of fish" cab.

We go out for dinner and the restaurant has a steak and lobster tail special, which we each gleefully order and consume. It was a big day.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Fish Cab

Centre releases me "for an approach" at an uncontrolled airport with no FSS on the field. I always feel like I'm playing around in Microsoft Flight Simulator when this happens. Ooh, what approach shall I fly? How shall I transition to it? Why does this feel like it shouldn't be legal? We're actually visual, but I don't do a lot of instrument approaches, so I need to fly them when I don't have to now and then to stay safe and legal for the rare times I need them.

There's an NDB approach to one end and a GNSS (Canadian for GPS) to the other. The wind is pretty much straight across the field, so I can pick either one. I'd pick the NDB, because NDB tracking is fun, especially on a windy day like this, but I got my NOTAMs like a good little pilot this morning and I recall that the NDB was NOTAMed unserviceable. The GNSS it is. I'm too high when I turn on, and remain too high and too fast for any kind of controlled approach until about two hundred feet and then do that thing I learned to do when I frequented an airport with a lot of military traffic where the controllers frequently asked me to maintain an approach speed higher than my gear speed: I plummet towards the runway until about two hundred feet agl, then pull up my nose to bleed speed. I climb, but when I lower my nose again I'm going 120 kts, with the gear and two notches of flaps deployed, ready to land. The boss says he's impressed. I feel guilty. It's a silly trick, and not a substitute for a well-planned descent, but for operational reasons were overhead the airport at 16,500' when we began our descent, and I really have to pee. The regs say I need six approaches to minima: doesn't say anything about them needing to be GOOD approaches. I promise to to better ones later.

The airplane is very easy to handle in a crosswind and crosswind landings are usually a non-event, with only the tiniest delay between contact for the into wind and out of wind wheels, even on those days where ATC volunteers two separate wind checks on final.

This airport is has a little chain hanging from posts near the parking lot to keep you from driving your car onto the apron, but no more significant airport security. That kind of town. We call a cab. It shows, eventually, according to the local definition of "right away." As the driver unlocks the trunk for us, I see a Christian fish symbol on the car. I don't have a problem with religious symbols on my cabs. In Vancouver they all seem to have Sikh symbols on them. But this fish turns out to have a greater significance. A strong fishy odour emanates from the back of the cab. I guess the last customers were up here fishing. The back seat has the same redolence. Apparently a passenger left behind a very small box of bait fish and it took a few days after the smell started for them to find it down the back of the trunk. Most of their fares don't use the trunk. The cab driver is telling this story as if the smell is in the past tense, but it's still very much present. Her nose must be just inured to it.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Greater on the Way Back

We're heading back across the mountains now, down at 9,500' because it's a beautiful smooth day and why suck bottled oxygen through my nose when I can breathe fresh, mountain air below ten thousand? It looks like this outside. Everywhere. The photo doesn't capture the shiny sparkles on the mountain peaks. I put on the autopilot and used both hands to take pictures as we went between these peaks. This isn't the Great Divide yet, still in British Columbia, but Vancouver Centre was trying to get a hold of us to transfer us to the next sector. They waited a little too long, or perhaps the altimeter setting was a little higher than usual, putting us a little closer to the rocks and further from line of sight to their antennae. They called me. I responded, but they couldn't hear me.

I so didn't care. I looked out the left side. I looked out the right side. I looked ahead (more spectacular peaks, but in all the pictures I took the morning sun highlighted the tiny scratches in the windshield so strongly that it stole the camera focus and that's all you see, with the peaks a mere background blur. Centre called another airplane (that company I went through groundschool for but ended up not working for) and asked them to relay a massage. It's not uncommon. The controller tells a pilot of an airplane at a higher altitude the callsign of and the message for the pilot they can't reach, and that pilot relays. You can also do it the other way around, as a pilot if you need to contact a controller but you are too low. When you hear another airplane making calls to that agency, you wait until their conversation is over and then ask them to pass your message. It's kind of fun. I accept the message, a frequency change from the relaying pilot, but don't take my eyes from the window to tune it until I'm through those peaks. It's not like Edmonton would have been able to receive my transmission at that altitude either.

Mountains: they are cold and cruel and can kill you quick, but oh so beautiful. In a few miles I called Edmonton Centre and then the knife-edged peaks gave way to the flat of the prairie. It happens startlingly quickly.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Not So Great Divide

Rotate, retract gear, climb power set, after take-off checks complete and a right turn back towards the terminal airspace. I've kept the same transponder code and they're fine with that, clearing me back into their airspace for a second job. It's pretty much the same altitude and the same bumpiness, but it should only take about forty-five minutes. It takes less, but company wants us to land five hundred nautical miles away across hostile terrain, where the bumps are coming from. Ah heck, you know where the hostile terrain that breeds turbulence is in my country. We're being sent across the continental divide to Vancouver.

Seatbelts cinched tight and ask for the clearance. We're cleared straight to ten five, and told to fly a vector for traffic at first, then cleared direct. Ironically the vector is direct Vancouver, but the GFAs have told us that heading south to hug the US border will be the way to stay clear of the worst of the turbulence and cumulonimbus clouds. So I turn southward, and then a little more directly south, waiting until the way forward doesn't look quite so dark with building clouds. I zip up the top of my flight bag after the first time a jolt of turbulence hits hard enough to fling contents all the way out and onto the floor. The flight bag--a knapsack--is already seatbelted to the passenger seat. All my charts flew out of the map pocket, too. Tighten seatbelts further.

I don't really want to do this for the next ... well it would still be over two hours direct with these winds --headwinds of course--but with the indirect route it will be three hours. I consider landing in Cranbrook for the night, so I call flight services for PIREPs and SIGMETs. There's no SIGMET for the turbulence along my route and they haven't had any pilot reports. I give them mine. It sounds as though the worst of the bumps may be behind us, so I decide we'll continue. I still set direct Cranbrook as a waypoint, because it's a good route to intercept the southern track I want to follow.

Approaching Cranbrook, it occurs to me that IFR traffic approaching this airport could be descending out of the clouds through my altitude. I'm in uncontrolled airspace but I call up Cranbrook radio and sure enough there's a Saab 340 on the way in. I give a position report and Cranbrook has me on radar. Impressive coverage here. The Saab is in descent and once they are through my altitude and I am past the airfield I switch back to the en route frequency. I do the same thing approaching Castlegar, and this time it's a Jazz, can't remember if it's a CRJ or a Dash 8 departing visually, with a left turn over the dam. They will be too fast for us to catch, even as they climb, so no conflict. Top of the next hour I update my weather again. Penticton is all thunderstorms, and I can soon see that ahead, so I look at US airspace across the border. It's a row of giant military operations areas. I know I can sometimes get clearance into them, but I hold off on asking until I see whether the Penticton area is passable within Canada. It is. I fly between Oliver and Osoyoos clear of the storms.

I eat some snacks to keep my brain and body working, but my innards don't feel too great. Then I realize that having a seatbelt cinched to the maximum for two hours is not doing my intestines any favours. I loosen the lap belt and yay for renewed gastric motility. How do those people who wear super tight pants and belts all day digest their food properly?

I try to go through a valley but it's choked with cloud and I end up climbing through one of them, picking up ice as I turn away from the rocks. This is not how you're supposed to do it and I imagine that ice-filled windscreen is the last sight a lot of pilots have seen around here. It wasn't quite how I planned it, but the shadows of rock and snow and cloud are deceiving around here. The ice all slides off as I descend into a wider and less cloudy valley and follow the river to the farmlands around Vancouver. Vancouver Tower clears us straight in, and to land, about ten miles out.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


We're in the sky over a major Canadian city and my dispatcher has had to pull favours and whine to get us here. We sent subcontractors to do this job, because we're very busy, but they were denied entry to the airspace. Apparently we're the A Team, because ATC let us in. Company has given us a list of other work to do for when the controllers have had enough and kick us out of their airspace, but meanwhile the controller has cleared us in and given us a pretty free rein, as long as we remain west of his runway in use. Accordingly, I'm on my best behaviour, staying super alert to what the controller is doing and giving him the information he needs in the clearest most concise words I can find. He has been amazing, routing traffic under over and around me so that I can do my job, and even keeping track of where we were working when he has to divert us.

It's turbulent, continuous chop from both convective heating and mechanical turbulence. I think I'd be feeling sick if I weren't flying the airplane. As a pilot I want to help my co-worker feel better, but all the normal advice and techniques one would use to mitigate airsickness don't apply here. It's his job to have his head down concentrating on computer screens, and it's mine to make frequent quick turns and altitude changes. He does his job and I do mine and we continue that for five hours, finishing the high priority job and then thanking the controller profusely before we switch en route to land at a satellite airport outside their airspace.

I'm usually kind of slow getting out of the cockpit after a flight, but today I jump out and get water for my co-worker and start fuelling the airplane. I'm compensating for not being able to help during the flight.

I get in to taxi to parking, and he gets in too. "Coming for a ride?" Yeah, a long ride. Company has texted him instructions for further work we are assigned to do. He gets right back in the airplane and we taxi out. There's a Cessna in the circuit, and only one taxiway with a backtrack, so we wait for him to land and taxi clear. Someone else has called meanwhile with an intention to cross midfield and join the circuit, so we enter as soon as the Cessna is clear to make the backtrack and take off before the other airplane arrives. And then the arriving pilot almost instantly calls base. That was unexpectedly quick. I guess he changed his mind about crossing midfield. He changes it back when he realizes I'm on the runway, and I'm rolling while he's on final.

More on this flight later, I think.