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.