Saturday, August 31, 2013

Modern Technology - Like Fax Machines and Photocopiers

Nav Canada has awesome controllers and really pretty reliable approach facilities, but chart publication must be where they throw the people who lack the attention to detail or management skill to make it in the real time world of air traffic control. You've heard my rants about trying to buy instrument plates electronically. The most frustrating part of that experience was that no one I talked to, and I went as high as I could get people to talk to me, would even acknowledge that it was a problem that the only way to get current information on how to safely use airports all over the country was to have it mailed to a base where I wouldn't necessarily be when the mailed information arrived. They treated me as though it was bizarre that a PILOT could be in Yellowknife and need information on how to get to Thunder Bay NOW, as opposed to two weeks from now, though a mailing address in Saskatoon. Now electronic downloads of some publications are available, but until very recently, i.e. THIS YEAR, I couldn't order anything online from Nav Canada. I could look at their website to see what they sold, but in order to buy it I had to print out a paper form, calculate the cost and the taxes on each item manually--I felt like it would be out of the spirit of the thing not to do long division with a pencil and paper--and then fax in the form.

Now they have online ordering. Here's a challenge for you. Go to the Nav Canada website and try to put a Thunder Bay VFR enroute chart in your basket. It's what the Americans would call a sectional, but it's known in Canada as a VNC, a visual navigation chart. If you can do it in fewer than eight clicks and two scroll-downs, tell me how you did it. I almost gave up and thought they weren't available through the "NEW" online interface. Yeah, and look again at that online store. This isn't a legacy online sales system. This is the best they could come up with in 2013.

And then you get your chart. At first I was working in a flat bit of the world and didn't really notice, but then I unfolded it to a different section and though, "holy shuttlecraft, I have a counterfeit chart!" It looks as though it has been made on a colour photocopier with some of the colour nozzles blocked. The printing, something I have to read in low light, in turbulence, while doing other tasks, is blurry from poor colour registration. The hypsometric tints aren't crisp. Did someone spill something on this map, or is there a hill here? Nav Canada has this to say.


VFR Chart Hill Shade:

NAV CANADA has developed digital production process for the terrain layers of all VNC and VTA charts. There are limited choices in the technology that can generate digital hill shades. As well the combination of digital terrain and hill shading produces unacceptable chart clutter. As part of our analysis we reviewed VFR chart best practices from around the globe. As a result of the current technology limitations, clutter and best practices the shading will not be incorporated into the VNC and VTA charts series effective immediately.

NAV CANADA will continue to reassess shading technology as improvements occur.

To inject a bit of positive I'll make this a message to the people who did whatever they did to make my charts look so great before the digital production process came along. "Wow, your charts looked great and I could always read them easily, day or night and instantly interpret terrain. Thank you for doing such a good job of that from well before I started flying through 2012."

I'd add that thanks to new digital processing charts now have fewer errors and printing delays, but a significant number of the VFR charts I buy were behind schedule, and everywhere I look there's a NOTAm for a missing peak height or frequency correction. Is this all because kids twenty years ago were told they were all winners no matter what?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fog Roulette

I'm going to conduct a primarily VFR flight with a destination that is forecast to be IFR at time of landing. It's also a destination that has flow control, so I file a "Z" composite flight plan, meaning VFR then IFR, so I essentially have my name on the list for the IFR arrival. The IFR planners don't like something about my plan, so they call me back and ask about it. I explain in more detail what I want to do, and then they tell me what I have to file in order to get that. It's less like what I want to do, but if that's what they want, then I'll file that.

We fly. It's night. It's pretty quiet. In flight I get periodic updates on weather at destination. The airport has an ILS, which puts my minima at 200' and 1/2 mile visibility. It's now 500' overcast and three miles, which will be a nice exercise in doing everything right ending in a comfortable margin below the clouds to transition to landing. And then it's 300' overcast and 3/4 mile. That's still something that anyone who is instrument qualified should be able to do, but leaves much less room for error. And then the next report is 500' overcast and half a mile. I recheck the weather and forecast at my alternate. Still good. My alternate is closer, but I'll try the big airport at minimum advisory visibility. I'm going slower than the big jets, so I'll have more time in that last 300' of descent to distinguish the runway lights through the mist. And if I miss I miss, another good exercise, and head to my alternate.

I'm ready to check in with the approach controller but Centre tells me that they are not permitting Cat I aircraft to attempt approaches at my destination. That means that since I don't have autoland or other special equipment and training to land in lower than half a mile visibility, they aren't even going to let me try. I feel, well for my initial notes on this flight I wrote "blue balls." I'm all set up and mentally prepared for the ILS and then told I can't play. But I understand. They are trying to get heavies on the ground there, have to increase their usual separation and they don't want a light aircraft tying up the facility and then going missed and making them have to hold the heavies out of my way.

I tell Centre I'll land at my alternate. Their ATIS notes they have a fog bank encroaching from the south. Oh, fun. They are still VFR. They have me keep my speed up because there's a fast jet behind me, but I get all the right bits sticking out at the last minute and put it down. Exit, taxi cautiously in dropping visibility. I advise the ground controller that this was a diversion, here overnight but don't know where to park. We were thinking of waiting it out here for a bit and then trying the big airport in the wee hours of the morning, when either the weather might have improved or they weren't so busy, but by the time I've parked in what the ground controller assures me is a good spot I really have to take his word for it, as it's 1/4 mile in fog and 200' here. We call it a night and take a long cab ride to the destination. Where the weather is now four miles and 800'. Argh. I was going to say you can't win with fog, but when you get the airplane on the ground, it's a win.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Moral of the Story

I'm sure many readers of this blog already follow Randall Munroe's xkcd ("A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language,") but not everyone knows about his side projects, like his what-if blog. In it he answers questions of life, the universe and everything, such as "could an airplane fly in the atmospheres of other planets?" His answers tend to be both amusing and comprehensive, plus you don't need any math to understand the pictures illustrating the calculated success of flights on the various bodies of our solar system.

Turns out Titan is our best bet. It would be even easier to fly there, but too cold. Cold, Randall points out is merely a materials science problem. He says, "I've never seen the Icarus story as a lesson about the limitations of humans. I see it as a lesson about the limitations of wax as an adhesive." Yes, Randall, yes. So many stories ask me to accept baffling morals.

I more than once got in trouble in English class for laughing at stories that were supposed to be sad, or just being plain baffled as to why the story ended where it did. Shadow of a Gunman features a young women infatuated with a writer. She asks him to typewrite their names together on a scrap of paper and later protects him during a raid by hiding contraband that he in her room. At the end of the story she has been arrested, then shot dead while attempting to escape custody. A neighbour reports this, saying that the police found a scrap of paper in her breast with her name on it, and someone else's name, all covered in blood. I howled with laughter right there in class and when I explained that I liked the irony that she thought she was protecting him, but really she has condemned him by keeping that paper. The English teacher patiently explained that her blood had obscured the name, so she had protected him, and the teacher refused to accept that the most basic of 1920s police procedure would be able to read typewriter ink despite blood. I believe I challenged her to bleed so profusely on a piece of paper that I could not distinguish typewritten words using merely tools I could prove existed in 1920. I never considered it a bad thing to be kicked out of that English class.

Romeo and Juliette is another one. How is that not a hilarious lesson on the stupidity of overly dramatic teens? Or the story about the woman who sells her hair to buy a watch chain for her lover, who sells his watch to buy a jewelled hair comb for her. A lesson for all on basic communication in a relationship. And her hair will grow back. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer teaches us that it's okay to mock and exclude someone for being different up until the point that that difference is proven to have a material benefit to us, at which point we can do an about-face. An earlier version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears ended with the titular intruder (then a silver-haired old woman) impaled on a church steeple for her crimes, but now I could think I was supposed to believe it's about not giving up until you've found something that's just right, and running away if anyone questions your right to it.

Sometimes the story doesn't support the moral, but if the story itself is well told, then people accept the moral they are fed. How about this TSB accident report. (Hah, yu thought I'd wandered so far off aviation I was never coming back, didn't you?) Normally I love the attention to detail and the simple laying out of discovered facts in an accident report. Nothing is pushed on you. You can see what they found, what occurrences the experts find it consistent with and pretty much draw your own conclusions. While it is quite startling to see the altitude deviations correlated with the pilot talking on the phone and sending text messages, I think this accident was more a convenient place to hang the "no cellphone use during flight" message than it was a demonstration of the dangers thereof. Read it and don't you get the idea that the TSB considers the cellphone use a bigger deal than the fact that the pilot was flying at night for a company not certified to do so, and therefore with no recent night-specific training and quite likely no recent night experience? My company hung the cellphone message on this accident, too: the preliminary report year or so ago was the trigger for my own company's ban on pilot cellphone use during flight. Oh well, I could never get Facebook check-ins to work at 15,000', anyway.

A moral that doesn't match the story isn't necessarily a bad moral, and a story with a mismatched moral isn't necessarily a bad story, I just feel like someone is trying to cheat me when I encounter the combination. Also, the air gets cooler the closer you get to the sun until well after the altitude at which Icarus would have asphyxiated.

Monday, August 19, 2013

I'm Not Even the PRM

As pilot in command of an airplane I have to be assured that all the maintenance is done as both safety and legality require before I take to the skies. When I came on with this company they had a problem with missed maintenance events, so I made them an excel spreadsheet with conditional formatting to colour events close to due in bright alerting colours. Every once in a while a new thing that I should have been tracking but wasn't is unearthed, either because I set up the sheet based on the aircraft manufacturer's intervals and the component manufacturer had a more specific requirement, because the requirements are amended, because I made a false assumption or because I just plain missed something. Today it was determined, I think through researching an STC, that a particular check valve, if it was one of two particular possible models, is due for replacement ten years from the date of manufacture. I pulled off the panel under which the check valve lurked and determined with a flashlight and determined squinting that the part was of one of the specified model numbers, dash four. I don't know if the -4 radically changes the life expectancy of the part. I just relay this information to the AME.

And then I go and do some other things slightly more piloty. Or maybe less. I think it may have involved getting a return authorization for oxygen regulators that were adjusting themselves in flight, leaving two crew members with hypoxia in the first week we used them. We stopped using them after that.

And then back to the check valve. Dash-4 or not it still needs to be replaced ten years after manufacturing, so the AME goes back into the panel, with a flashlight and a mirror, hunting for a date. There's a straight line in the manufacturer's label that has been scratched off. Was that the date. I joke and ask him can't he determine the model year from the colour and styling? We kind of suspect that if this check valve were a Volkswagon Beetle it would have a split windscreen and tiny red tail lights. "I'll order one now," sighs the AME.

And then after I went back to my computer, the ops manager kicked me out for working too long a day.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Standard Approach Profile

To land a tricycle gear airplane on a runway is not very difficult. You just place it in the correct slightly nose up attitude and keep it straight while the main gear settle onto the runway, and then you gently lower the nose. The difficult part is to arrive at the beginning of the runway at a speed such that when you raise the nose the appropriate amount the airplane neither stalls abruptly nor balloons into the air, and to arrive there at an altitude such that the airplane contacts it at just the same moment the wings stop flying. Also the airplane needs to be configured for landing. At minimum, landing configuration should include wheels.

My airplane has a maximum speed at which I can extend the landing gear and three different maximum speeds for extension of different amounts of flaps. In a normal landing I should have the gear and all the flaps down, the final stage of flaps coming perhaps a couple of hundred feet above the runway. In order to have the speed required for that, I aim to be at the speed for the second stage of flaps by 1000' above touchdown, and that's also a good point for me to have the gear down. In order to reach gear speed it helps to have the first stage of flaps extended, usually five miles out, or mid downwind. Until then I can fly any speed I want, so long as I stay below 200 kts in the control zone, or slower if the control zone has its own speed limit. Plus I need to be out of the yellow arc if there is a risk of turbulence. Let's call that by 10,000'. And so on, continuing to work backwards until I'm leaving FL190 and deciding whether to push the nose down for a drag-increasing 2000' fpm descent or leave it gently trimmed for a 400 fpm let down. You learn in initial flight training about the relationship between airspeed and drag: the latter increases with the square of the former, so if I want to arrive at a point in space with less energy, both gravitational potential (i.e. altitude) and kinetic (i.e. airspeed) I need to push my nose down and go faster.

I'm landing today at a larger international airport, but they only have one of their runways open: construction, FOD cleanup or something, so everyone including me is heading for the same runway. I'm asked to maintain 160 knots. Not a problem on the descent, but as I get closer I want to bring the power back on my engines to cool them gradually and I ask the controller if he still needs the speed. He most emphatically does. I have to increase power to hold it. And I'm also above my maximum gear and flap extension speeds.

Remember that the aircraft is designed to fly efficiently through the air. Even if I slam the throttles to idle, which I'm not going to do, because I have to depend on these cylinders not cracking from shock cooling, the airplane will take time and space to slow down. Getting flaps and gear down adds drag, but I have to slow down to be allowed to do that. I'm finally permitted to slow down, so I pull the nose up to slow down until I have approach flap speed. This makes me climb, but they don't mind that. As soon as I add approach flaps that increases drag, and increases the amount of nose down that gives me the same speed, so I can put the nose down while still slowing down and as soon as I have gear down goes the gear, still slowing so I can add more flaps, put the props ahead and on the runway nice and slow, so I can exit at the first available taxiway.

Phew, not how the flight instructor taught it, but still using what I learned (and taught) back in flight school.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Pros and Cons of Weekends

Weekends have their good points and bad points, but I think weekdays are probably better.

Weekends are good because there's less traffic on the way to work, fewer scheduled airline flights to wait for at the hold short line, and on Saturday the restaurants are open later in the evening. But stores and restaurants and sometimes FBOs open later in the morning in a weekend, and in many areas the increase in small airplane training and recreational traffic is significant enough to cause delays. ATC units are more likely to have staffing shortages, resulting in denied routings and altitudes, on the weekend, and if the airplane needs maintenance that previously favourable decease in scheduled airline flights means it's harder to get an AME and the needed parts into the field.

A lot of people seem to be awfully keen on weekends, though, so maybe I'm missing some important aspect of them.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

A Story In Radio Calls

A light has illuminated to tell me that my landing gear is safely stowed in the wings and nose, and the gear handle has returned to neutral. Climb power is set and the airplane is trimmed for about ten knots above best rate of climb speed, a speed approved by the manufacturer and one that experience has taught me will get me to my altitude and destination in an expeditious manner without any of the little temperature and pressure needles hitting their yellow or red extremes. I have made the slight left turn which I advised the local radio operator I would make, and according to the little green circle depicted on the GPS, I am clearing their zone. I press the button on the radio that swaps the active and standby frequencies so that I'm now listening on the Centre frequency, as I confirmed I would when I read back my IFR clearance before departure. I listen before speaking, because on the radio just as in real life, it's poor form to interrupt a conversation or speak at the same time as others.

The controller is advising a pilot of conditions somewhere, by telling him that a particular carrier "got in". That means the weather is poor there, near the minimum required for a safe approach and landing and that there was some doubt as to whether he would or not. It's good where we are, and where we're going. I call up with my current and cleared altitude and get the rest of my clearance. A few thousand feet later I'm asked to squawk ident and say altitude, so I push the IDENT button and tell him the altitude I am now climbing through, and he tells me I am now radar identified. For a while, anyway. Two and a half hours later I'm no longer on radar and I'm asked to state my position and direction of flight. I think the controller actually said, "GPS position," knowing we all have these magic boxes. I twist the middle knob all the way to the last nav page and read it off, rounding to the nearest minute of latitude and longitude. I don't even like to think what a pain that would have been to do the old fashioned way, with charts.

My position must not have been an issue because an airliner is cleared to descend for an approach. The pilot says he will be on the ILS but will be flying the missed approach for the corresponding RNAV approach because the ILS missed is not in his database. That sounds lame, but I know from the NOTAMs that the missed approach has recently been modified, so it's plausible that the onboard database doesn't reflect that and that the pilots aren't allowed to fly procedures that aren't in the database. It's professional to figure out what issues you're going to have with an approach before you're actually experiencing them. The controller accepts the pilot's suggestion and clears him to fly it "in the event of a missed approach."

A few minutes later the pilot is back. They missed. That is, they followed the instrument landing instructions, flew as low as the procedure would allow them, but didn't see the runway, so followed the RNAV instructions for what to do in this case. They ask for a hold, suggesting that it be at a particular NDB, inbound on the 185 track. The controller doesn't understand at first, probably because he isn't in an airplane thousands of feet above and with a straight line to the one that is asking. The pilot repeats the request and the controller clears him to do it, so the pilot repeats back the clearance, the one he asked for in the first place. The 185 track to the NDB is probably a direct entry to the hold for him, so he can cross the beacon and turn outbound to 005 right away, but I automatically look at my heading indicator to see how I would enter that hold were I direct the beacon on my current track. It's in the parallel sector for me, so I would turn left to 005, left direct the beacon, and then right outbound to 005, so I could turn right and track 185 inbound.

The airliner enters the hold. The centre controller checks on them from time to time, asking if they want weather. Nope, they're fine, they are monitoring a continually updating AWOS recording which tells them the visibility and ceiling down there at their destination. They tell the controller that the visibility is now good enough, but that they'd like another hundred feet of ceiling. It sounds so bush. I imagine them sitting there in the cockpit telling 'so there I was' stories about holding over Moosonee, expecting it to clear, but having to decide whether to expend the precious fuel on flying to Timmins, which might itself fog in, or maybe make a run all the way to Rouyn. Meanwhile their automatic airplane probably flies the hold for them.

There's another NDB NOTAMed out of service somewhere, possibly just went down today, as pilots keep asking for an approach that uses it and asked for their intentions vis-a-vis the unserviceable nav aid. Most of them seem to not have heard about it. Someone asks if he can get vectors for the ILS and the controller says no, you have to fly the full procedure, can't see you down there.

The airline crew asks for the approach, and are cleared for the same combo plate conventional ILS approach with an RNAV missed. "Have a good day," says the controller, an oddly non-specific salutation for the situation, and the pilot says he hopes not to talk to the controller again very soon. We don't hear that airplane again, before we ask for our own descent, into somewhere else, so presumably he got in that time.