Sunday, March 31, 2013

Not Me and Not In Front of Me

This gives me the chills, not for the usual "please don't let me forget to put the gear down" reason evoked by seeing someone else land on the belly. I imagine myself flight planned into Iqaluit of origin because having this happen ahead of me is one of the scenarios that goes through my head a lot. If I'm flying into Iqaluit I am probably carrying as much reserve fuel as I can, because there aren't a lot of places to stop n the north. It's like crossing an ocean. There's often a point of no return where I have to continue to my destination, because there's not enough fuel on board to return to Kangiqsualujjuaq. It's not a good position to be in. The weather could go bad. If there's any question of weather I wouldn't be continuing, but what if something happened right out of the blue, like a gear up landing on the only runway?

Maybe this guy (the registered owner has a man's name) knew he had a problem and held off until dusk, to burn extra fuel and wait long enough to let en route aircraft land before he shut the runway down. The type, it's a Twin Commanche has a reputation for landing gear issues. I don't know how deserved the reputation is. Airplanes do get reputations as unshakably as high school girls do, and sometimes for more trivial reasons. So maybe there was nothing wrong with the airplane. Maybe he just forgot to put the gear down. It could happen, long trip, unfamiliar airport, unfamiliar procedures. The airplane is registered to a private owner with a mailing address in Florida, so I'm assuming he doesn't fly into YFB every day.

Maybe I've been fighting a bigger headwind than I anticipated and I'm down to thirty minutes of fuel as I call up the FSS still ten minutes out. They advise me that traffic is a Twin Commanche planning left base for runway three five, no conflict and I continue inbound, to follow. Maybe I'm joining the circuit and I spot him on final, down below me and I don't see that the gear isn't down. I see him touch down and then I focus on completing my prelanding checklist and rolling out on final myself. And there I am on final with twenty minutes of fuel on board and I'm advised by either the landing pilot or the FSS that he will not be clearing the runway any time soon.

I'd spend precious fuel in the overshoot and then what? I'd already know I had nowhere else to go, so I'd throttle right back and configure for best endurance. CYFB has 9000' of runway, so it doesn't really matter where in that length the PA-30 is sitting, there's room for me. I would advise the FSS of my fuel situation and that I would be landing on the available runway. And then I would do it, checking the gear at least twelve times between downwind and touchdown.

If I had enough fuel to hold, I might have stayed circling and watched crews jack up the airplane and get the wheels down. Just because they got them to extend on jacks doesn't mean that it was the pilot's fault they weren't down the first time. The US NTSB will probably publish a report on this, based on Canadian TSB action. I haven't found any more information about the Twin Comanche: it only happened tonight, but here's a great pic of the airport from a couple of months ago.

I landed today, not in Iqaluit behind a Citation that did have its wheels down. I stayed above the glideslope all the way down, because when I centred the needles there was some wake turbulence. Not enough to be dangerous: they were five miles ahead of me, but with clear weather why not be a little high and have smoother air? I had to brake a little more aggressively than usual to make the taxiway, but I think it was worth it.

Edit: A follow up story says it was a gear collapse after landing, and that they only closed 4000' of the runway, leaving the rest open to people like me, and that the incident affected no flights.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Red Eyes Can Signify Dehydration

I was told once in a human factors course that dehydration by as little as two percent has a measurable effect on a person's decision-making ability. The course was generally dull and redundant--I remember entertaining myself by devising and sharing "Buzzword Bingo" cards--but that factoid struck a chord. I don't have a reference to the study that determined that effect, but it's referred to here, and there's more advanced information on pilot dehydration here.

I carry a 750 mL water bottle with me in the cockpit, sometimes bringing an extra litre in the summer, so I never have to ration myself on water--but then I run up against the problem that not all the water my body processes is lost in sweat or water vapour in respiration. European researchers say that the need to urinate enhances the ability to make decisions but another study says the extreme need to urinate reduces cognition and working memory as much as a 0.05% blood alcohol level.

Flying requires decision making and working memory. I heard a pilot today advise ATC that they were landing "with one secured." If I decide to shut down one engine in flight and am thus landing with the power of only one, it would probably be a good decision to delay putting the gear down until I was sure I would not need to overshoot. But despite all the things I might be thinking during that approach, I would need the working memory to remember that I haven't extended the gear yet. And I'd really rather not be landing with my legs crossed.

There are a lot of resources available through Transport Canada and other aviation agencies around the world to help us pilots improve our ability to make safe decisions. We can get information on accidents others have suffered or avoided, information on weather, deicing, aerodynamics, communication, psychology, physiology and ... I don't have time to read it all. I like to think I have the general idea, however.

There's one thing I'm out of touch on, though. How can you call yourself a professional pilot and take people's life into your hands while impaired on recreational drugs? I'm disgusted. Yellowknife is not a big place, and Tindi hires through the ramp, so he wasn't new in town. There were undoubtedly people who knew what Matthew Bromley's job was, when he was flying and what he was smoking. They are irresponsible too.

I still think this anti pot-smoking poster is hilarious, but I want my fellow pilots to be responsible. Their behaviour reflects on me.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Blog Fodder

It's time to land so I tune the ATIS, and then tell Centre its identifying letter, the code proving I have listened to the recorded information. I know from it that the wind is as strong as when I left, still straight down the runway. The ATIS gave me an altimeter setting, too, but Centre gives me a new one, and tower may give me a different one again. I dutifully dial in each, so that when I level off at each stepdown altitude I'll be safely above or below whatever traffic I've been stopped there to avoid.

Straight down the runway as it is, the high wind makes my job landing the airplane easier, not harder. It's not a problem today that ATC leaves me high in the sky staring four white PAPI lights in the eyes less than three miles back. I don't need to chop the power more than normal nor slow to final approach speed in order to extend full flaps. I can use normal approach power and speed, and half flaps, giving me my usual descent rate, but because my approach speed is a fixed airspeed, and my descent rate is in feet per minute, the headwind decreases my groundspeed but not my descent rate. Measured in feet per nautical mile, however, the descent rate is greater than usual, so crossing the fence I see two red and two white, and then all four red by the time my focus narrows to exclude them, in the flare. Yes, four red is "too low" but they lead me to a touchdown point at the end of an IFR approach, well into the runway. I want to get down and get off at the first available taxiway.

I do, and tune ground. They're talking to another airplane, so I wait, doing my after-landing checks, for the conversation to finish. The controller is telling a pilot, "We sent a truck out and found that FOD you reported. It was a diaper. That's a first."

The pilot chuckles and makes some remark, but I regret that he didn't--and neither did I--ask, "Clean or dirty." Or maybe we don't want to know. I can imagine an experienced parent doing a quick at-seat diaper change after the seat belt signs came on at top of descent. They're considerate enough not to leave the the dirty diaper at the seat, nor to hand it to a flight attendant on exit. (I imagine aircraft groomers and FAs will tell me that plenty of people do one or the other), but once outside the aircraft, masked by people trundling rollerbags and crowded around the gate check cart, mom or dad gently sets the offending package on the tarmac, collects the stroller, and hauls family and baggage indoors to baggage claim. Or maybe a clean diaper slipped out of a diaper bag as parent juggled luggage and offspring en route to the terminal.

Later on the departure frequency I hear a controller telling a US airliner, "They just finished the runway check and nothing was found." I wonder if they saw a diaper or were afraid something had fallen off their aircraft.

Monday, March 18, 2013

I Had One of Those But the Wheels Fell Off

I've had people accuse me of not liking the Dash-8 but the accusation is false. They can look a little ungainly because of their high wing and long gear legs, but why would I disrespect a versatile Canadian-made turboprop? I love Dash-8s. I'd love to be flying one right now. You manufacture over a thousand of any kind of airplane and have all kinds of people fly it in all weather all over the world, and the wheels are going to come off of a few. Sometimes literally.

For me this story started with me failing to immediately recognize that this Air Canada Facebook post was a spoof, on a humour/satire site. I could understand pilots making light of a situation in which everything ended well but usually that kind of black humour doesn't extend to the social media and marketing people. It appears that a couple of months ago a Q400 departed North Bay, landed at Toronto's Pearson International Airport, and then as it was taxiing in the right front nosewheel departed the aircraft. Reporters quote the Air Canada Jazz spokesperson as saying that the right wheel "loosened," but it must have rolled away quite noticeably, seeing as the airport scrambled emergency vehicles. All the landing gear wheels on that airplane are in pairs, two wheels on each of the three gear legs, so the airplane didn't collapse or become uncontrollable.

While looking for more information on that particular incident, I found a slightly similar report wherein a Q400 had a right inboard axle failure while taxiing out in Frankfurt. The wheel stayed attached and the flight was completed successfully, with no one realizing the issue until ATC reported sparks from the wheel area on landing. This sort of thing does happen. Airplanes hold together through all kinds of malfunctions and from the inside we can't see what they are or or not doing. I would say that every week I hear ATC or another pilot report seeing something they thought was anomalous about another airplane. Often it's nothing, like the crew who mistook a B737 gravel kit for a gear door malfunction, but pilots usually appreciate the lookout.

This one is a British Q400 in which ... oh the British are the funniest:

A number of passengers seated on the right side of the aircraft noticed sparks emanating from the right inboard wheel area during the takeoff roll and saw the right inboard wheel fall from the aircraft as the landing gear retracted. They did not inform the cabin crew at this point.

Now I know about the stiff upper lip thing, and I appreciate that people don't want to look stupid by appearing alarmed at something that is normal, but a wheel fell off the airplane! How dense or properly British do you need to not report this as an abnormal situation? Intoxicated passengers with a grade-four education and living in a part of the world where people continue to drive trucks after one of the wheels falls off were not shy about informing me of much lesser aircraft anomalies.

Finally we have a video of the wheel falling off a Q400 during landing in Buffalo. You can stop watching after the scene cut. The rest is unrelated incidents.

I had a wheel almost depart from an airplane I was flying once, a long time ago when I logged my flights in a little ten-line-per-page logbook and paid for fuel myself. I'm sure some of you have seen this story from me before, but others haven't, and maybe you can be amused if my recollections have changed. The small single-engine airplane had had maintenance affecting the nosewheel before I borrowed it, and I will take responsibility for probably missing an improperly secured cotter pin on my initial preflight. I flew an hour or so to visit someone and then the airplane sat in the snow there for a few days. Most of my preflight time before flying home went into digging it out of the snow and making sure the control surfaces were clean, so it's possible the pin was actually missing by that time and I still missed it. It was a very windy day and the runway and taxiway surfaces were rough, so I didn't notice anything wrong on the taxi out. At the end of a bumpy flight home I landed carefully in a strong crosswind. I remember being very proud of my gentle touchdown, and that taxiing back to parking in a strong crosswind was dicey. I pulled around tail to the parking spot, shut down and got out to push it back by hand. And then I saw that the nosewheel was not straight in the forks but tilted sideways, just wedged in there by something between friction and magic. Part of the axle was sticking out the side. So yeah. The wheels can come off. I'm not taking a position on the relative contribution made by design, maintenance, and pilots.

The blog title is wrong though: I never have flown the Dash-8 and while I've flown its baby cousin the DHC6, our fleet wasn't equipped with wheels at all, so even if there are landing gear similarities, I can't relate. More knowledgeable readers are welcome to correct or enhance anything here.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Here's My Transponder

I do my flight planning in the morning and drop off the documents for the hotel desk to fax. The Flight Information Region department that takes our flight plans doesn't accept electronic submissions yet. Hotel breakfast is a surprisingly good omelet. It's hard to get those things cooked properly in mass production. It doesn't have as much onion or as tasty a cheese as I would have put in it, but the eggs are cooked right and it isn't too greasy. Breakfast has to last me a long time, so I'm happy when it's good. There's multigrain toast, and honey too. We have to come back to this hotel. My coworker introduces me to "Call Me Maybe" mashups while we eat. This was last summer, but yeah, I'm still a little behind the times on Internet memes. I haven't even seen anyone do the Harlem Shake yet. Knowing that it's this year's Gangnam Style seems to be enough for me.

We check out, and I pick up my faxed flight plan, checking the fax number and number of pages on the transmission record. It won't be the hotel receptionist's problem if it didn't go through correctly. We're halfway to the airport in the cab before I realize that I didn't hand in my cardkey. Does anyone collect these things? I'll send them to you. I sometimes hang onto them for the next time we go back, but some places we'll never go back. I just hate throwing away plastic.

Preflight complete, I'm starting up on the apron. Oil pressure up, power to auxiliary systems, avionics on, get the ATIS, turn to ground. The controller calls me before I call him, asking me to turn my transponder to standby. Oops. I left it on. I'm spoiled by this transponder. It turns on automatically as I take off, so I don't have to select the altitude setting as I enter the runway, but because I haven't turned it on, I don't get that, "haven't turned it off" feeling. It's on the after landing checklist, of course, but I made a deliberate decision to leave it on, because I did my after landing checklist on the runway before taxiing off via runways. I always leave it on until I'm clear of all runways in the hopes that if something went terribly wrong, an aircraft about to land on top of me would receive a TCAS alert. I missed it in the final shutdown checks because it's electronic, so after the avionics master goes off, there's no dial position to show that it isn't selected off.

The controller says it was giving spurious readings now. Uh-oh. A malfunctioning transponder can ground us. He says it's probably just an artifact of start-up, that it read normally on the ILS yesterday, Heh, it's the same controller, and he remembers the dizzy chick who insisted on flying the ILS in VMC. At least I kept it on the glideslope, if he was watching me. He gives me my IFR clearance and I depart, the transponder apparently behaving now.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Getting With The Times

In response to a request to make text links more readable, I took the plunge and clicked the "update blog template" button, the one I've been ignoring for years. My apologies for not seeing the low contrast issue earlier. For me all the links were always visited, and stood out vividly. I never got to see the pallor of the unvisited links.

As you may be able to see, beyond adding a background (ten Internet points to anyone who knows where it is), I haven't done anything other than click that Update Template link, so all the customization this blog once had is now lost. That's why I delayed so long. Let me know if there is any part of the old sidebar you're going to miss, and especially if the colours and layout are now more pleasing or at least more functional. What did you like more or less about the old one?

Edit: It would help if I put some links in it for you to see, wouldn't it? Here's an old article on fancy paint jobs. Here's an accident involving a pilot with multiple fake licences and no evidence of a real one.

Here's to a good--is it the weekend yet? Checks. Nope. Here's to a good rest of the week to everyone.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Putting the Needles on the Lines

I'm thinking of a day I've spent up in the flight levels, technically IFR, because we have to be IFR to fly this high, but my IFR flight plan is so unlike the ones that Air Canada flies that I have to file it with a separate department. I departed IFR from an airport somewhere down there. I think it had an FSS. This flight is not about the origin or destination. It really is about the journey. I'd have to look at the OFP on my lapboard to remember my point of departure, but I'm busy now, so I don't. I like being IFR. There is a greater certainty to what is expected of the pilot, and more security against conflicts with unknown traffic. It's not impossible that there's a rogue Mooney or guy in a lawnchair up here, but it's a lot less likely than in class G airspace, rocketing down some mountain valley at 5500'. ATC has given us a block of airspace to call our own and mostly leaves us alone. Occasionally they vector someone near enough to us that they let us know.

I watch our groundspeed to determine the wind direction and try to get a three-dimensional picture of the weather systems affecting our flight. The wind will back on descent, that is blow from a direction counterclockwise around the compass compared to up here, and it should decrease with decreased altitude as well. The wind affects my turns and will affect my time to get home, where 'home' is an as-yet-unknown hotel in an as-yet-unknown town where we will land. ATC doesn't let me put "TBA" in the destination blank on the flight plan, but I might as well for all the relevance what I did put has to where I'll eventually let rubber touch runway. We have honestly selected a place to land based on a desire for Vietnamese food, although usually our landing criteria are a little more operational than that.

The needles on the analogue fuel gauges are now close enough to the E-markers that I can't see the difference between this and empty, but the fuel flow meter tells me I have how many gallons I have remaining in these tanks. It's about twelve minutes worth, assuming that the fuel is equally distributed between the two tanks, but of course it isn't, because the engines aren't exactly equal and I have leaned each for best economy at this power setting, a fuel flow that changes with altitude and temperature, and probably phase of the moon. Engines are like the economy: a purely manmade thing that we are often at the mercy of. My goal is to switch tanks before there is any decrease in fuel flow caused by fuel starvation, but without leaving anything in the lowest tank. If I wait too long I'll know right away. Pilots call it "blowing a tank." The airplane seems to surge forward on one side, but really it's the airplane lagging on the side where the starved engine has just stopped providing thrust. If I get it exactly right I'll know when I watch the numbers on the fuel truck as they put in slightly more than the placarded useable fuel for this tank. They can get slightly more because "useable fuel" counts only fuel that is available to the engine at all reasonable flight attitudes, and in straight and level flight I can burn some of the fuel that is unusable in climb. When I finally decide that's all the fuel I'm going to get, I put on the electric fuel pumps and move the fuel selector to a set of tanks that are full, fuel except for the tiny amount that I burned in the run-up to make sure there was no malfunction blocking the tank or limiting the movement of the fuel selector. If I couldn't access the fuel in the other tanks I'd have a few minutes of normal flight now before the engines died, and then fifteen or twenty minutes of quiet gliding to find and land at an airport or perhaps a highway.

On this occasion the tank switch works and then we are unexpectedly done work early, so head in to the nearest airport while fuel is no concern. Typically I cancel IFR through 12,500' and complete a VFR approach and landing, but this is a somewhat busy airport with an ILS and there is a lot of traffic, so I hang onto the IFR. I like the extra airspace protection and given the extra fuel I can waste a bit of time. I want to practice flying an ILS. It's a severe clear day and I can hear the controllers being bemused by my request, but they don't try to talk me out of it. I think my request may be a bit annoying for the controllers, but they have more than one runway to play with and I'm sure they'd rather my do this practice now, than have to go missed on a crappy day because my skills weren't up to the task. They vector me around for a long gate. ("Gate" is how far out from the airport you get to intercept the beam that leads you to the runway). In poor weather I get vectored for a really short gate, because I'm slow and light and they want to keep me away from wake turbulence, so this is useful. I get to track the localizer and then descend, tightening up my skills at holding the right glideslope all the way to cleared to land. The needles weren't as close to their respective centreline as that fuel gauge was to the E earlier. That's why we practise.

Taxi off, park and call for fuel. I forgot to record the numbers on how much went into each tank, because I landed with a couple of hours left, so fuel wasn't high on my list of concerns at the end of the flight. Probably only a couple of litres from the shiny dry metal at the bottom of the left outboard. Last flight of the day: secure the aircraft and head to the hotel.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Stompin' Tom

I'm not much of a music aficionado, approaching songs the way a blind person does a Playboy magazine: for the words alone. (Yes, there is, or at least was once a Braille edition of Playboy). I like interesting lyrics that tell a story and make me laugh. And I enjoy listening to songs about the places I'm flying over and landing in. No one has ever written songs to make me laugh about the places I fly like Stompin' Tom Connors. He died yesterday, after a lifetime of singing, travelling and performing in small towns. I doubt I have to introduce any Canadians to him, but foreign readers don't be surprised if he's not as familiar as Shania Twain, Justin Bieber and Celine Dion. He's the musician we kept. He remained in Canada writing Canadian songs for his whole career, and he's a legend here. His death is at the top of the CBC news site, and pretty much every other news outlet, and was immediately commented on by the Prime Minister and the National Hockey League. Here's Jian Ghomeshi's tribute to him. He dedicated the first hour of his show on CBC One this morning to the man. Where Stompin' Tom is concerned, Canadian stereotypes are dialed up to full volume. This song, Sudbury Saturday Night is one of my favourites.

For those Sudbury is a northern town, not so northern in latitude, but northern in attitude. It's on the north shore of Lake Huron, a little bit south of the northernmost reaches of Michigan, but it's hours of bleak driving from anywhere else. Its principle employer used to be the nickel mining company Inco, since bought out by a Brazilian multinational. There's a giant nickel beside the highway (Canadians love our giant roadside things, and don't forget that a Canadian nickel has a beaver on one side, our Queen on the other and is now our lowest denomination coin--we officially stopped producing one cent coins last week). I've never been anywhere in the US that was like Sudbury. Maybe there's a mining town three hours drive from anywhere along a bleak snowbound highway with moose jumping out at you. Listen to the song and maybe you'll recognize it.

I found this version of him singing The Cremation of Sam McGee. Stompin' Tom's stories will be retold for as long as the story poems of Robert Service, and I hope his last words inspire more Canadian songwriters to sing about our land and people and institutions.
P.S. I'm not disregarding the request to make links more visible. It's just going to take a bit of work because I've never upgraded my Blogger template and it will probably break if I use the new tools, so I'm hesitant to go there.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Russia: The New Frontier

I know that Russia is a very old frontier, probably somewhat explored well before most of North and South America were populated for the first time, and by some of the same people, judging by the similarities of the circumpolar languages, but now it appears to be the cutting edge of lawless innovation. A hundred years ago the vast majority of the population were uneducated peasants. Not stupid or incapable: they operated farms and other pre-technological businesses in a harsh climate in isolated areas where they made what they need out of what they had. They "electrified" and technologized that country in a few decades, but didn't lose the can-do spirit that got the crops in and and the cows home no matter what the weather. Today much of the population has benefited from free and fairly high-quality education under the communists, along with a national pride in science and engineering, and they continued to need innovation and guile to survive their own government. Котоматрица, the Russian equivalent of I Can Haz Cheeseburger? reveals little examples of how the Russians live in a more rugged, less processed society. Food that happens to be in the background of the pictures will be potatoes rather than french fries, fish in a bucket or a chicken waiting to be plucked rather than supermarket meat on a foam slab and there's less of a sanitized safety infrastructure.

Now this can be very bad. But it's also an environment in which innovation occurs. And stuff like this.

I was thinking that the seat of innovation and adventure would move to somewhere in Africa for a while, and I know there are some batshit crazy things done in Africa, with and without airplanes, but while chaos is conducive to invention, there may not be enough money or education in Africa to fuel the next wave of crazy cool stuff. It's not that what is probably a twenty-year old ultralight is innovation in itself. It's just that there doesn't seem to be a lot of attitude stopping it from going further. Not like the time I built a sea-going vessel out of driftwood and old bicycle tires, and some old lady called the coastguard on me. Apparently she thought I was too young to be out there. I was over thirty. I just act young.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Human Beings Are Awesome

I'm further south today, in more civilized climes. We're coordinating with a second crew that operates at different altitudes, a different range of speeds, and has set up the job with totally different parameters. They are from a sister company, but they must be that distant sister who moved out before we really knew what was going on, so we have different SOPs, and oh yes a different language in the cockpit. Coordination takes a career's worth of communication skills, and I'm not sure we all like each other at the end of the day.

After five hours aloft I'm descending out of the flight levels like a bat out of hell. There are no fuel endurance issues, no speed limits and no turbulence, so I'm pitched down at cruise power driving the airspeed indicator into the yellow arc. The yellow speed range denotes caution. It's okay to be here, as long as I don't make abrupt control movements or otherwise stress the airframe. I'm outside controlled airspace and plummeting towards a controlled airport where there will be food, avgas, washrooms, an oxygen fill and taxicabs that take us to hotels. Forty miles out I pick up the ATIS. Or maybe it was an AWOS. The difference is that the content of the ATIS is determined by human beings while AWeOS is created by bored robots. The bored robots at this airport tell me the density altitude and give the winds as "variable." They always say the winds are variable here. I think they are programmed to so that the tower controller can make up whatever wind makes the runway he asks me to land on seem reasonable. I swear I am not kidding when I tell you that once I was coming in here and successively given clearance to all six runways. (To be fair, I called up a long way out and there was a thunderstorm passing right through the airport at the time). I'm given no more than two different runways on this occasion, and land without event on the second one.

There were taxicabs, and I believe sangria.

A lot of the time things like this do the opposite of inspire me, because I feel I have so much but haven't achieved in proportion, but Jessica just looks so darned cheerful. It must be intensely frustrating sometimes to be constantly celebrated for what you don't have instead of what you do. "Shut up about my arms already! I'm going to Ethiopia to help children!" I can achieve the tiniest slice of empathy from the times that people can't get over the fact that I'm a woman and I fly airplanes. I wonder if anyone ever treats Jessica as if her lack of a penis is a greater handicap than her lack of arms. As a Tae Kwon Do black belt I'll bet she considers kicking them in the balls, but I suspect she has better social skills than to follow the thought through.

I'd feel a little voyeuristic watching her do everyday things so naturally, but she's raising money to make a documentary in order to help handicapped kids in less privileged countries. If you'd like more information or to contribute, here's the project page.