Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Safety Dance

I always pee before departure. It's part of the ritual. The "safety pee" I call it. I get back from the restroom (or from behind a tree, depending on the sophistication of the available facilities) and then do one more circumnavigation of the airplane before boarding. That last walk is where I spot unsecured baggage doors, FOD, items placed on the airplane, or the remainder of interrupted tasks. This isn't what I mean by my preflight walkaround: that is more thorough. It's just a last look before I board.

Yesterday I completed the safety pee, walked around the airplane, got in the cockpit, flew for 5.7 hours, drank water when I was thirsty, landed, unloaded, fuelled, taxied from the fuel pumps to parking, and then went to pee, because I felt like I needed to a little. Today I took off after the same preflight ritual and only an hour and fifteen minutes later had to pee so badly I was doing the pee-pee dance right there in the cockpit. I wasn't going to make it to the destination, only forty minutes away. When it comes to technology that makes my life better, folks, the pee bag rivals the wheel. I have landed airplanes without wheels, but landing is so much harder with my legs crossed. So I succumb to the biological need and fill a pee bag to the 600 mL mark. Yeah, my pee bags are calibrated. I have no earthly idea why. Maybe some people like to keep track. Or brag. Am I bragging? Six hundred millilitres isn't bragworthy. I can pee much more than that. I can hold much more than that. Why did my body desperately have to void that 600 mL then and there, when on another day it would happily tanker 900 mL to destination?

So I peed in the bag, flew to destination, landed, threw out the full pee bag, drank more water, and then flew another 5.8 hours without even thinking about my bladder. Body, what are you doing in there? Millions of years of evolution and for most of them our ancestors could pee wherever they were. I did a bunch of reading once on the various nerves and systems that allow us to pee and signal to us that we need to, but it didn't answer the question of why frequency and timing of urgency is so poorly correlated to water intake and recency of voiding.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Alcohol-Based Oxygen Generation

As I descend into the aerodrome environment I position report on the general traffic frequency of 126.7 and then switch to the mandatory frequency for the airfield and make another call. I'm thirty miles out, descending through, I don't know, nine thousand or something. A helicopter pilot calls short final. Not for the runway. Not even for the aerodrome. He's on final for Bear Mountain. Can you be on left base for Bear Mountain? I never know what helicopters are doing, but the pilots tend to be professional and know what they are doing, and they also grasp that we dimwitted fixed wing folk are bedazzled by their whirling wing.

We land, on a runway, not a mountain. We persuade the people there to put fuel in our airplane in exchange for their being able to take an imprint of a piece of plastic our employer gave us. Seems fair. We also need oxygen, but that is not a service the FBO offers. A local operator has oxygen though, and the fueller knows one of the maintenance guys there, so he makes an introduction. They have the oxygen. They have the time. We have the fittings for our non-standard tank. But they aren't set up for selling oxygen. Eventually the service is negotiated in exchange for the northern currency: a case of beer. Honestly if the stuff wasn't so heavy and perishable we'd just carry a couple of cases around at all times. Any favour can be had for beer in the north.

We leave, with our oxygen, and hear that helicopter on final for a different mountain.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

By the Numbers

I'm descending out of the flight levels on a sunny day. The airspace I'm descending through is green on the IFR chart, meaning that it's uncontrolled even above FL180, so I have been working with only a company flight itinerary, no IFR flight plan, just me and the company flight follower.The sky is littered with little puffy clouds, based around ten thousand feet, but the scenery is clearly visible below. I can see a ridge of trees, a long lake with a river at each end, a little settlement, and a runway parallel to the lake. It's just as the CFS and sectional say it should be.

I advise traffic of my presence and intentions on 126.7 and on the aerodrome frequency, but there doesn't seem to be anyone around. Through ten thousand feet, oxygen selected off. My oxygen mask is on underneath my headset so I can't take it off without taking off my headset, and that will also knock my glasses off, so for now I'll just plummet, breathing now the ambient air that sucks into the mask. Altitude falling, temperature rising, runway coming into view. I glance again at the diagram I've scribbled on my kneeboard to remember the runway numbers and the location of the exit taxiway. I advise traffic I'll be downwind for my chosen runway, and I join the circuit, a thousand feet above runway elevation, parallelling the runway just far enough away to see it by my wingtip. Flap speed, approach flap set. Abeam the touchdown point, gear speed, gear selected down. Three green lights, turn base, continue descent and increase flap to one half. Turn final, roll out. I can see the runway straight ahead, a sawmill underneath and the lake beside me. I call final to the traffic that isn't there to hear me, and add the last increment of flaps, letting the speed bleed back to blueline and then below as I ease over the threshold and ...

What? The runway number is not the one in the publication. It's not the opposite end either, nor is it freshly painted. I haven't been here in many years, so don't remember the airport layout, but there's no way I'm not at the right airport. I let the main wheels clump onto the runway and then lower the nose for the rollout. I have to backtrack to exit, so I have opportunity to see again. No, this is definitely not the runway number that appears in the book.

After shutdown I look at the CFS again. Yup, I have the right airport. I recheck the date on the CFS, even though I know when all my pubs expire and this set is fine. Yup, the CFS is current. I pull up NOTAMs on my phone, looking for the one I must have missed. Nothing for this airport at all.

I call Flight Services and ask if the NOTAM has been accidentally deleted or misfiled or something. They tell me I must have out of date publications. I assure them I wouldn't call them if I hadn't checked that, and that despite being a pilot I do know all my numbers, and the ones painted on the runway are not the ones in the book. The most disturbing thing about the whole conversation is how little the flight services specialist seems to care. This is a big deal. This is a major identifying characteristic of the airport. A friend said that if he came down an ILS and the numbers at the bottom didn't match the numbers on the chart, he would put in the power and go around. If the official publication is wrong about the numbers, how do I know I can trust what it says about runway length, elevation or anything else? The numbers aren't even newly painted. Am I the first pilot to care enough to report this, or has it been ignored so long?

Yes, every once in a while they have to change runway numbers. This happens either because the shift of magnetic north is sufficient that the runway is no longer aligned within a fair tolerance with the heading its number designates, or because the airport is building more runways and what was once plain old runway 14 is now runway 14L. But this sort of thing should be accompanied by NOTAMs, probably beginning with runway 14/32 closed for maintenance followed by amend publication: runway number 15-33 vice 14-32 and finishing off with a new cycle of publications that all show the correct new runway number. It should be a pretty standard process.

I depart the next day, this time calling the runway by the number painted on the pavement, and climb through ten thousand feet before I can get a hold of centre. I really feel like I'm in the land beyond civilization. I leave it behind and end the day at a little airport in another province. And it also has the wrong runway numbers! Is someone trying to drive me insane? I report this one too, and either they care more about such things in this province or the ranting lady tone in my voice warns the specialist to humour me, because he seems to appreciate more than the previous one that this is something that Should Not Happen. I'd never seen that in my whole career, and then I get two on consecutive days.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Dashed Yellow Line

In flight school (or if you're both older and diligent about new weather products, when the GFA replaced the FA) you learned that a yellow dashed line on the GFA surrounds an area of reduced visibility in fog or mist. In the north you learn that it might also denote reduced visibility in smoke. While I have encountered reduced visibility in smoke in an urban area due to a mattress factory fire, this usually means forest fire smoke. It's actually a natural state for great swathes of the boreal forest to be on fire at any one time, but because the trees are so valuable in Canada, and because forest fires can threaten towns and cities, we have a vast industry dedicated to detecting, tracking and extinguishing fires. That all takes time, so even with so many resources committed to putting them out there are still a lot of fires. For example here's a map showing the fires burning in Ontario today. The further north you go, the smaller and less valuable the trees get, and the less politically important the settlements are, so the more likely the decision makers are to let the fire just burn. I guess it costs less to evacuate a few hundred people than to fight the fire. So there can be a lot of smoke.

Fog and smoke are very different. Fog sticks around usually for no more than a few hours and while it may render the airports it blankets completely unusable, fog is usually only a few hundred feet thick, so the airspace above it is perfectly usable. Smoke doesn't stop you taking off. Usually visibilities are quite good on the ground and decrease as you climb. Smoke can produce IFR visibilities up to the flight levels and can persist for weeks.

It's sort of cool to see the yellow dashed lines swirling across the map from one GFA to another. In this case its a small burn area, producing lots of smoke and just the wrong winds bringing it to where we wanted to work. We find somewhere else to go, and I check NOTAMs. The runway is reported "90% bare and dry" and it's May. The ten percent is presumably old snow piled up at the sides. Better than April where I got completely snowed in for two days. When it finally stopped snowing I had to get the airport snowplough operator to dig a path so I could get the airplane out. They don't give you dashed yellow lines for low visibility in snow. Precipitation gets green lines. Freezing precipitation gets red lines. Moisture or particles parked in the air and refusing to precipitate get yellow lines. Clouds get brown curlicues. GFAs are very colourful.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Two Odours, A Taste and A Mess

I'm trying to take notes on my days and then turn them into blog entries later. Sometimes the notes are a little too cryptic.

Pulp mill smell. Tour buses. Fragrant weeds. Milkshake. Starter gasket leak.

Clearly I landed in one of the two hundred seven Canadian towns that is within smelling distance of a pulp mill, was obstructed, amused or otherwise influenced by the presence of tour buses, smelled some weeds, drank a noteworthy milkshake and ended the day with oil dribbled all down the front of my engine nacelle.

I remember the oil leak. Seeing oil coming out of the engine that far forward made me suspect a propeller governor, and that's a biggie. But careful examination showed that the oil was not coming from the propeller hub. There was oil pooled inside the cowling, but not very much. I photographed and then cleaned up the evidence, and sent the photos to maintenance. (Oh my god modern technology is so wonderful. The first time I had a maintenance problem at a remote site, I drew a picture of the affected components. Yes, I took an actual piece of paper and a pen and looked at what was wrong and reproduced it with technology barely above Neanderthal (I had a ballpoint pen, not a fire-blackened stick) and then faxed it to the PRM, and I thought that was a pretty savvy use of modern technology. You can't do things like that with a telex machine, after all). Maintenance in the pre-digression instance agreed that a minor oil leak from something other than the propeller at the front of the engine was not a grounding item and I flew it until we reached a town where expertise, parts and availability of maintenance personnel all came together to fix it. We already had an appointment there for troubleshooting on a fuel control unit that my own company maintenance couldn't get to behave quite right.

The maintenance engineer in question was experienced, but at his first day on the job at a new company. That meant he didn't have a dozen things he was supposed to be doing, nor people who knew what he was best at to interrupt him for his help. It also meant that he was keen to show his skills, and supervised by people who wanted to make sure he was doing it right. I think it worked out quite well for all of us. I endured several hours of airport appreciation time--perhaps this is where the milkshake or the weeds came into play--and they gave me a T-shirt along with a functional, properly fuel-controlled and non-leaking airplane, at the end of the day.

The rest, I don't remember. I clearly wanted to tell you about it, but there have been too many towns, odours, weeds, vehicles and beverages to distinguish any in particular.

Thursday, July 11, 2013


The days start early in the summer. Our flight planning is done in the space between the completion of eight hours of sleep and the engine start time required to be in the right place at the right time. If we're lucky, hotel breakfast is also available during that period. The real reason my charts need replacing every 56 days has more to do with the effects of toast and orange juice than of airspace changes. Ironically the further the place we need to be is from the place sleep and flight planning occur, the less time in which I have to do flight planning. I look at the GFAs and scan as many NOTAMs as I can for runway closures and fuel unavailability. The weather is generally good, I don't see any problems that will stop us from reaching our destination, or slow us down enough to affect planning.

We have some work to do, but the main goal of the day's flight is to get the airplane back to base for a scheduled inspection, so when the work is done I push a couple of buttons on the magic GPS box--I love that box so much. I can't imagine how much time I would have had to spend flight planning every morning if I had to get from A to B for innumerable values of A and B not necessarily known in advance of take off, without GPS. We don't have enough fuel to get all the way to base, but I have a good picture in my head of the airports along the route, and I can check my intuition by adding my choice as a GPS waypoint to see how far it is and how straight a line it makes. Not requiring a detour is a good property for an en route fuel stop, but I also need to consider the quality of the apron so we won't contaminate or damage our equipment and the ease of fuelling. Better to go a few minutes out of the way for an airport with an easy drive-up fuel pump with a high flow rate than to land at one that is right on the way but requires waiting for a slow response to a callout.

The visibility is dropping straight ahead. It's not obvious at first, because there isn't anything I'm looking for many miles straight ahead, but the next sign is that the cloud layer above gets a little darker. The unmissable sign is when the clouds ahead are illuminated by lightning. I'm flying towards an active thunderstorm. I deviate towards a lighter area of the sky and try to turn back behind the storm that blocked me, but there's another one too close behind it. I call flight services and pick up SIGMET M1, reporting this line of previously unforecast thunderstorms and forecasting them to remain. I love that radar and other modern technologies allow weather forecasters to sit in another province and see the factors that lead to thunderstorms forming, but that these ones still managed to sneak in without being on the GFA. There are enough of them that I have to bypass two airports and proceed to my third choice airport for landing.

I land behind and park next to a small single-engine airplane and chat to the pilot about the weather. It's a smart-looking composite airplane but I don't ask him what it is, because I know it's something I should recognize, and am just blanking on the type. I go in and update the weather at the FBO computer, and then plot an alternate route to destination. The flight services specialist asks me as I line up for take off if I have the SIGMET. "Affimative, we have M2," I say. I sound so like I know what I'm doing. I must know somewhat, as I get home without incident and taxi to our ramp.

I shut down, and complete the post shutdown checklist items, which includes making a journey log entry. The ops manager keeps the journey log in the back of the airplane, but it's always behind the seat when I fly. I like to fill it out before I get out of the airplane. For me it's the best way to make sure it gets done. Meanwhile our maintenance personnel have opened the hangar door, hooked the airplane up to the tug and towed me inside before I even get my seatbelt off. They do this to me a lot. I'm never really fast at getting out of an airplane after a flight.

And I figured it out. It was a Diamond Katana. I'm slow at airplane identification as well as egress.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Hotel Pet Peeves

There are commercial pilots who don't spend a generous proportion of their nights in hotels. But given that you're in charge of a machine that goes places, and that you are legally required to sleep, there's a good chance that if you're a pilot, you know about these.

I'll start with lamps. When you're at home you know where the light switches are, even if you still haven't completely memorized which switch in the group of three gets the kitchen and which one gets the porch or something else. When you're in a hotel, you can't be expected to know this, so hotels generally have the switches right on the lamps. I don't think they do this to avoid customer confusion over which light switch does what. I think they do it because it's cheaper to put standing lamps in a room and plug them in than it is to install ceiling lights and wire switches. And perhaps because they realize that if they make it a royal pain in the neck to go around and turn on the lights, fewer guests will do it, and they will save on their electrical bills.

So the switches are on the lamps. The thing with a lamp is that it is always either on or off. If it's off, it is dark, so you have to find its switch in the dark. If it's on, it's bright, so you have to find its switch by staring at a bright orb, or groping with your fingers near a hot surface. Lamp controls can be on the lamp base, anywhere on the cord, the collar where the bulb attaches, or somewhere nearby. You might have to press it, pull it, turn it, slide it, or flick it. Or you may just have to reach inside the fixture and retighten the bulb, because the last user gave up before finding the switch. Or stole the lightbulb. Many of the switches on hotel lamps are perfectly logical ways of turning a light on and off. It's just that by definition you have to operate them in unsatisfactory lighting conditions. I hate the little knobs you have to turn inside the fixture next to the bulbs. Sometimes they only turn one way, and I only figure that out after trying to push them. I can't imagine what they're like for the arachnophobic. (I quite like spiders myself. The other day I accidentally vacuumed one up and felt so badly I turned off the vacuum and left it there for a week so the spider could find its way out if it was okay. I'm pleased to report it's back at work building webs. Or at least this spider looks a lot like the first one).

Then there are design decisions made in bathrooms. I guess they aren't decisions. No one would decide. "I think a user of this bathroom should either have to squeeze under the towel rack in order to close the door, or have to straddle the door while sitting on the toilet in order to not have the door bang her in the knees." Or "it would be fun if you have to decide how much toilet paper you will need before sitting down, so let's put the toilet paper dispenser somewhere you can't reach it from the toilet." I stayed recently in a hotel with a beautifully renovated bathroom that had no place for amenities in the shower whatsoever. Being tall, I managed to balance a bar of soap on top of the shower head, but shampoo, conditioner, nowhere to put them. I think that was also the hotel that had a fancy little console in the desk with 110V AC, USB chargers and an iPod dock--but the telephone was next to the bed with a cord too short to reach the desk.

I should stop whining. My apologies to pilots who spend their official rest in ATCO trailers or primitive bivouacs, and who would kill for a lamp, shower or flush toilet. And I hope everyone in flooded areas--this week it's Calgary, but it maybe somewhere else when this posts--soon has a dry place to sleep, and gets to turn their lamps on.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Levels of Incompetence

I land at a busy northern airport. It's a resource town, so lots of money, lots of workers and lots of airplanes getting them in here. The ground controller says "taxi in" when I tell him my destination on the field and as I approach it I realize there's an opposite direction jet on the same taxiway. While I'm thinking "Uhhh ..." I realize that it's under tow, so that makes it a motor vehicle not an airplane, giving me the right-of-way. At least I think that's how it works. It's also being pushed backwards away from me. It's opposite facing but in actuality same direction. So not really a conflict. I turn my attention to the FBO.

Sometimes a pilot just turns off the taxiway and parks in front of the FBO, alerting personnel after shutdown to the fact that she would like to buy fuel. Sometimes as I manoeuvre for a likely spot I see someone in an orange vest running and gesticulating with the "place yourself opposite me" gesture. I always taxi slowly on an apron, so I indicate I have seen them, give them time to set themselves up and park as directed unless there is an obstruction or pavement condition that prevents me. I am always very aware that the fueller is a soft squishy human being who in a moment of inattention could run into one of my propellers.

Today there is a small army of people in orange vests, and one is marshalling me. "Place yourself opposite me," then "move nose this way" then a signal I can't remember ever receiving before, "proceed to next marshaller." A chain of vested human beings marshals me one to the next around another aircraft until we are finally given the crossed arms signal to stop there. we're laughing at how many there are. I've never been directed from one to another before and I just went through a chain of five. There are easily twelve on the ramp. I'll tell you quickly than none of them ends up anywhere near the propeller. The title of the post refers to pilot incompetence, especially mine, not any rampee error.

I think their numbers are attributable to a combination of a shift change and training, so every new guy is shadowing an experienced rampee and there are two shifts here at once during the whatever hour this is rush. One of them takes my fuel order and I go inside. There's a bucket under the sink in the women's washroom because the sink u-bend leaks. Internet works. The GFAs forecast everything to be lovely and clear until bedtime. I get NOTAMs and fuel and start up again.

"We are very late," I hear a Jazz pilot explain as she reports an increased mach number to ATC.

A controller calls a foreign airplane, "November eight thousand and echo." Presumably that's N8000E, but I could make a case for N800E. Either way the pilot knows who he is, just as I do when American controllers say "zero" instead of "oscar" for an O in my call sign, or otherwise mangle what to them is alphabet soup. It's quite odd for folks both side of the border to cope with call signs that don't match the standard pattern.

I call for my clearance and accidentally call the controller by the wrong airport name. She's about as offended as if I'd called her by the wrong name in bed, and it doesn't get any better when I discover that I filed my actual flight plan as if I were departing from same wrong aerodrome. It's things like this that make me wonder if I've reached my Peter Principle position of incompetence as opposed to my delusion that I've settled just below it. We sort that out and while I guess I'm not getting another date with that controller, I have a clearance.

I feel slightly better about my incompetence as I hear two airliners in a row asking for clearance direct airports that are not their destinations, each gently corrected by the handling controllers, with reference to their filed flight plans. Chances are high that dispatchers, not the pilots filed the flight plans, so the pilots may know where they took off from, but aren't clear on where they are going.

Another N-registered airplane, not eight thousand and echo, gets a rerouting, from ATC. He copies down one fix and says, "I need another letter, that's just two." It's an NDB, it only has two letters in its identifier. In the south, especially in the US, NDB airways are uncommon. They're always defined by VORs. Up here NDBs are more common. Canada and Australia are I think the only countries that do much with NDB airways. Hands up if you had Cambridge Bay in the navigation section of your Canadian commercial written exam.

An airline pilot is told by ATC that the ILS at his destination is NOTAMed out. You can tell from his response that this is unexpected news. I wonder if it went down since his departure, or his company dispatch fell down in informing him. Or he didn't read his briefing package because it was such a nice day. A bit later I hear him say, "It's overcast. We're going to head for the NDB." We're working not far from there. The overcast is high. He'll break out soon.

Just one of those days, I guess.