Friday, September 27, 2013

Summer is Over

It's still sunny some places. I still have my cap on for shade not warmth when I step out of the airplane on the ramp, but the mornings are starting to get cold. I ran my finger through the morning dew on the wing yesterday morning, to make sure the sheen was not ice. They can look exactly the same, but only one flows harmlessly off the wing without dangerously affecting its aerodynamics. The sky is starting to pink up when we land about suppertime and it's still dark when we get up for flight planning. Winter is just around the corner.

Last week I scared my fellow crewmember on approach. It was a VFR arrival, already cleared straight in, but straight from where I was cleared would have been either through a hill or dive-bombing over it, so I was coming around the side of the hill, so as to enter the zone on final. I could see a structure on the hill, something standing out from the green trees. Towers tend to be on the ridge at the top, but this was on the side of the slope. Was it a banner? A piece of heavy equipment? An old wreck? As I got closer I realized what it was, "Whoa!" I said, in surprise: not something you want to hear your pilot say all of a sudden. I apologized. The thing that had caught my attention was a tree, an ordinary deciduous tree, bright yellow in fall leaves. We weren't even that far north,. Ten days later and a couple of degrees of latitude further north the deciduous trees are yellow and orange everywhere I look. In a week or two they will be bare.

Comes the seasons of block heaters, engine tents, toques and boots. This morning already I wore work gloves during the walk around, and not just because I was wiping hydraulic fluid seepage off the left main. (Maintenance knows about it. Replacement seal on order.) Someone asked me once which I preferred: winter or summer flying. Sure there's density altitude, sweltering taxiway queues, bugs to clean off the windshield, bugs eating you alive, and sunburn on the ramp, but does anyone not accept those things gladly to escape icy runways, frozen water bottles, de-icing, scraping snow out of the hangar door tracks and frozen condensation making things not work everywhere?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Automatic Rough Running

I'm re-reading Vol de nuit by Antoine de Saint Exupéry. It's available here for free. I know it has been translated into English, but perhaps the copyright hasn't expired on the translations yet, because I didn't find it online in translation. It's one of those novel like Fate is the Hunter that pilots like to read because the author identifies situations and feelings we didn't even know were there to express. Non-pilots can read them and get a glimpse what a pilot thinks and feels. Both are about what now is history, so they allow me to look into the past and imagine life without SIGMETs, without reliable weather forecasting or reporting at all.

The passage that made me want to share was this. It's a conversation between a pilot and a manager, about the pilot's experience when his instrument lights failed. He has already admitted to being afraid.

Je me sentais au fond d'un grand trou dont il était difficile de remonter. Alors mon moteur s'est mis à vibrer...

— Non.
— Non ?
— Non. Nous l'avons examiné depuis. Il est parfait. Mais on croit toujours qu'un moteur vibre quand on a peur.

My translation: (if someone has a copy in English, a professional translation is probably better).

"I felt like I was at the bottom of a big hole that was difficult to get out of. Then my engine started vibrating..."



"No. We examined it afterwards. It was perfect. But one always believes that an engine is vibrating when one is afraid."

It's so true. The name in English for the phenomenon is "automatic rough". You get automatic rough running as you get overhead a large body of water, impenetrable mountains, or simply go further from your home airport than you've ever been.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Landing Advice

I received e-mail from a student pilot today, and it put a big smile on my face. He said:

Wow ! what fantastic advice !!!
You must be one great teacher… !

I didn't even remember giving him advice. Probably a quick e-mail answer dashed off while waiting for a fuel truck. He had asked me in asterisk-studded angst ***Why can't I get the hang of landings?*** What did I tell him?

Don't worry about the landings. Almost everyone feels they aren't getting it at first, but eventually it clicks.

1. Work on the approach just as hard as the landing. Make sure you get to the beginning of the runway at the right speed and altitude, and properly TRIMMED. If you're not trimmed, speed control is difficult, so it is difficult to be consistent, and then the flare becomes more difficult. Remember to use POWER for altitude, PITCH for speed and RUDDER for direction.

2. Pay particular attention to where your flight instructor tells you to LOOK, and look in the same place while your instructor is landing as when you land, so you get the whole picture.

3. When you think the airplane is just about to land, pull back a tiny bit more. Pilots don't land airplanes, airplanes land themselves. Your job is to keep it from crashing until it runs out of speed and has to land. The slower the airplane is going, the more you have to pull to get the same change in pitch.

Remember that you are in slow flight during the flare, and your goal is to stall the airplane right over the runway. That's why your instructor had you practice aircraft control in slow flight and in the stall.

Be patient with yourself and with the airplane. Eventually you will get it.

The student can land now. It seems that trimming properly for the approach did the trick. But I felt that I should warn him that there are ups and downs in landing, so I added.

You will have landing slumps, where all if a sudden although your landings are safe, they just aren't all that great any more. The best solution to that is to buy new socks. It's your socks' fault, I swear.

There is some possibility that the first advice I gave him is more accurate than the second. But it's always nice to have new socks.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Not Stranded at Animal Waterbody

Those of you who haven't followed this blog for years may not know that almost every town in Canada is named after an animal, a body of water or both. If you think it isn't, chances are that it is, just in another language. Also members of the Royal Family and European explorers count as animals. Place names in this blog are often not named after the same animals and bodies of water as they are in real life. Our story begins in

I preflighted an airplane that was parked at Antelope airport this morning. It was clean and had all the right parts attached the right way around, but had mysterious scratches on the inside of the pilot's side window. I think there may have been a seat removal incident. (Getting seats in an out of an airplane is sometimes a topological challenge). The side windows I use more for finding the runway than finding traffic, so the scratches aren't a tragic impediment.

I confirmed the fuel load and then filed two IFR flight plans: one from Beaver Bridge to Civet Creet and one from Civet Creek to Duck Ditch. Then I loaded the airplane and flew it on a VFR itinerary (meaning with no flight plan at all, just my company keeping track of where I am) from Antelope to Beaver. I then departed Beaver on the filed IFR flight plan, but before I reached Civet, asked Centre to pull up my subsequent flight plan from Civet to Duck and asked to now intercept that pla, without actually landing at Civet. They were okay with that, so we did it. About three hours after that, we were discussing the relative merits of landing at Elk, Fox and Gopher. The fuel at Elk was by callout only, and this was a holiday weekend. I've never been to Fox, but the CFS makes it seem like a reasonable place, and with no hours given on the fuel service, it must be self-serve. Fuel is self-serve at Gopher, too, but the airport is really remote and kind of an awkward set up. If we go there and something is wrong we won't have the fuel to go anywhere else, and we'll be stuck there until the long weekend is over.

You'll notice that Elk, Fox, and Gopher weren't on the menu this morning. I definitely didn't check NOTAMs for Gopher. I don't like Gopher much. They have dingy hotels and restaurants. But the airport is fine, if you aren't in a hurry for your fuel. I try to call Flight Services. I'm in the flight levels, something like 20,000' and I can't reach Flight Services on any of the surrounding frequencies, in two different FIRs. Usually the flight follower also acts as ground support, but it's a long weekend, and someone is out on compassionate leave, so the flight follower today is the company president, holding a cell phone that we can send satellite texts to, but don't want to disturb just to ask for a NOTAM.

Finally I ask the Centre controller if he can see if there are any NOTAMs for Gopher, for me. He says doesn't have access, and I understand. But a few minutes later he comes back and tells me no NOTAMs for Gopher. I thank him, explaining that we're considering landing there and I really didn't want to spend the rest of the weekend there if there wasn't fuel. He says, "No kidding!" in such a heartfelt way that I suspect he had personal experience with the place. I advise the controller that in five minutes are going to start a descent out of high level airspace, cancel IFR and land at Gopher. Could we please get an appropriate altimeter setting? The field has none, but he finds one not too far away and there is a huge ridge of high pressure, so they should be about the same. He asks me to report through 18,000'.

Through 18,000' I call, but there's no reply. I try again on the back up frequency he gave me--it's common in remote areas for controllers to give you a "if I lose you on this frequency, try me on ___," instruction. I hear another aircraft make a call on this frequency, but when I call to ask for a relay they don't respond. I'm not going back up to make a call that I was told to make below. I suspected this might happen. That's why I told him what I was going to do before starting my descent. I continue down, trusting the controller will figure it out. The CFS says that there is an abandoned aerodrome a mile east from my destination, so I look carefully, trying to spot the old one so I know I've correctly identified the new one. I can only see one, and the one I see doesn't appear to have any pavement markings. I'm about to circle west, but then I see two airplanes and a functional windsock at this one. The pavement markings are very faded, but present.

Once I land I make a quick phone call to let the IFR controllers know I'm down and that I tried to call when they told me to. They seem unconcerned. The fuel pump works, and we use it. Our next leg is VFR and we just advise the flight follower, no flight plan.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Diversity in Coveralls

I'm still working on my Human Factors course. In typical training film style the cast features maintenance personnel of varying age, sex and ethnicity, acting out little scenarios. I keep wondering if they are starving actors or actual AMTs. The module tells me that assertive statements are honest, open, and direct and "deal with facts (rather than your opinion)."

Assertive body language requires:
- maintaining eye contact
- talking in a strong steady tone of voice with a normal volume
- standing comfortably (relaxed) but firmly
- standing close enough for your presence to be felt but not so close as to be aggressive
- gesturing with your hands (keep your hands out of your pockets)
- using facial expressions which support your statement
Assertive body language will help you stand up for your rights!

Okay, I can be assertive: state the facts, not too submissive, not too aggressive, untainted by my opinion. But then the same page advises me to include statements like "I feel", "I want, "I think." Wait what? Prefacing a fact with "I feel," "I want," or "I think" is a way to reduce the directness and assertiveness of a statement, and turn it into an opinion. Are they trying to tell me that That tire needs to be changed is less assertive and direct than I feel that tire needs to be changed? Did I write that down wrong? I'm told to use assertive statements like: "I felt embarrassed when you criticized me in front of the others." I don't know that there isn't a scenario in which the reply to that is not somewhere between "Man up!" and "Good, so don't screw up again." Maybe, "Would you like a hankie?" Or what about the suggestion to be assertive and telling your supervisor that you need a variety of tasks in order to avoid boredom? Anyone try that?

They don't show those suggestions as a video dialogue. Instead the actors show the right way and wrong way to approach tasks. Guess which this one is:

AMT #1: "I haven't had a chance to do the APU combustion chamber and external inspection. Can I forget about it?"

AMT #2: "Yeah, takes two hours to do it all, and I've never seen a problem with one."

That's very comparable to pilots skipping checklist items. "It's never been a problem," is a ridiculous reason not to check something, but it totally happens.

There's a strange mix of useful and loopy suggestions, leaving me wondering if I'm too cynical to realize that the loopy ones have their uses, or too naive to realize they are all loopy. I'm not even sure whether Most of the pressure generally comes from you. You create the pressure by accepting unreasonable timelines. is sage or the loopy result of someone who doesn't understand that the timelines predate problems. The pilot finds a problem thirty minutes before the airplane is ready to depart. The customer is waiting. At what point does the AMT accept any of this? Clearly Scotty of the USS Enterprise managed pressure by multiplying his repair time estimates by three, but you notice the Enterprise never had a problem that required a part to be shipped from Vulcan during that planet's High Holy Week. They never had to remove the defective part, send it across the neutral zone to be overhauled and then wait for it to be shipped back. That's the beauty of replicators.

Or maybe when Captain Kirk is yelling over the intercom, Scotty is mentally asking himself ...

What is the reality of the problem? (e.g., Can I safely complete the job in the time allotted?
- What is the worst thing that could happen to me?
- Am I overreacting to the situation?
- Can I change the situation so that something positive can come out of it?
- If I can't, what is the best way to deal with the problem?

Has this happened to me before?
- If so, what did I do? What can I do better?
- If not, then what is a rational plan to solve it?

The warp core goes critical and/or we are tortured by Klingons is usually the worst thing on the Enterprise, but sometimes I think it may be destruction of the universe and another parallel one. Or maybe it's missing a birthday party.

Nancy was pleased that she would have the help of two experienced AMTs for the detailed inspection. This will let her finish the job on time so that she can be at her son's birthday party. She had to work through the last two parties. Nancy's supervisor walked over and said, "Sorry but Jason had to go to Tuktoyaktuk to work on an engine failure and Melissa has to solve a pressurization problem on the plane that just came in. You're going to be on your own for this one. This is a good opportunity for you to prove yourself and keep your job".

Should Nancy prove herself or disappoint her son again?

I'm not even sure what that's supposed to be about. I don't get to go to birthday parties. I think it might be written in my job description, "does not attend birthday parties." Being required to work unscheduled overtime seems to be a sucky thing about working in maintenance, because you could just put down your tools and go home. The pilot doesn't really have that option, so I don't have a broad basis for sympathy. Aviation in general is not compatible with being there for other people's life events. I kind of suspect that Nancy's kid will have a better year in general if she keeps her job than if she loses it over a birthday party. I suppose we're supposed to counsel Nancy to have a hissy fit, excuse me to be assertive and demand additional resources for the inspection, but that's not going to make them appear. The program tells me to Click on "Continue" to see a suggestion.

According to the module, Nancy should "Stop", "Look", "Think", and "Act". The action would be to talk to her boss about how her overtime work affects her family life and how this stress is affecting her job performance. Okay, so she's had a nice talk with her supervisor. Now does she perform the inspection or go home and blow up balloons? The lack of resources advice in the training module consistently fails to address issues that arise when there just aren't resources. There isn't a hangar available. It's going down to -30 tonight and it will be -32 tomorrow night, and soon there won't be day at all until spring. There's no good strategy. So don't pretend like there is.

Oh, now I totally want to see a human factors training course where all the examples are drawn from Star Trek.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Four Bad Omens for a Human Factors Course

There are a lot of accidents cause by pilots flying in poor weather. Decades ago Canadian aviation authorities tried to rectify this by increasing meteorological knowledge requirements and offering more opportunities for ongoing learning, and I think also improved weather information products. In the process, someone realized that pilots knew what kind of weather was forecast, knew the implications for their flight, and went flying in it anyway. It wasn't about what the pilots knew or how good the forecasts were. It was about the decisions they made with that information.

So we have Human Factors training, about the human, not mechanical or meteorological, factors in the accident chain. The theory is that if we understand why and how humans make stupid decisions and arm ourselves with some strategies to avoid such decisions, that we will make safer decisions. It's mandatory recurrent training. I recently had to ground a pilot I supervise because company records didn't show human factors training to be complete.

Last time mine was up for renewal, the safety coordinator and ops manager had signed us up for an online course. That's not an uncommon nor even a totally unwelcome form of information delivery these days. The NASA icing course is fantastic. Also free. This one wasn't, but after the first few minutes my expectations were not high.

Omen #1: The course can only be accessed though Internet Explorer.

Omen #2: When I open the course in IE, the server barfs a full page of java error messages because it can't handle the fact that I have a three letter language code set in the browser for my first choice language.

I reset the browser to en-ca and then again to plain old en and the server will finally talk to me. It asks me, "Do you think you could ever make a mistake leading to a potential aviation accident like that shown in the photograph?"

While the photograph is loading I think, "yes" because I know I make mistakes. The text is saying something similar. And then I look at the picture. It's a helicopter. So I amend my thought to, "No, I probably wouldn't try to fly a helicopter, but if I did, it would look like that shortly."

Omen #3: The next words are "However, this program will help you, an Aircraft Maintenance Technician (AMT), avoid the error you don't intend to make by raising your awareness of how those errors are made."

Um ... I'm not an AMT. Have I got the wrong course here? It's all registered to my name. Good abbreviation though. A way to refer to AMEs and apprentices in one go without having to know their paperwork status.

Omen #4 The words "to facilitate your learning you should view the "Human Factors in Aircraft Maintenance" video. The video can be obtained from Transport Canada."

Wait, they are doing web delivery of a course that requires me to go to a branch office of Transport Canada and borrow a video cassette? Okay TC has probably got it on DVD now, but geez, are they going to deliver the content or a pointer to it?

Every slide is illustrated by accident porn: the crumpled strewn remains of an aircraft. It probably sounds really macabre but in aviation we do think about these things all the time. I learned to fly in an airplane that had the words "serious injury or death" placarded in at least two different places on the dashboard in front of me. You pretty much have to present a pilot (or aircraft maintainer) with a crumpled ball of snot and aluminum to make us sit up and pay attention.

Sometimes the text doesn't change when I advance to the next slide and sometimes only part of it changes, so I have to play "spot the difference" to get the content. The core of the content is a menu of "dirty dozen" human susceptibilities. I've seen these before on maintenance breakroom posters. It's the AMT (see, I'm using my newly acquired knowledge) equivalent of the Five Dangerous Attitudes that the pilot-oriented courses teach. The student can work through the dirty dozen in any order, but even though the course encourages you not to try to do it all at once, there is no bookmark, done flag or other indication of which ones you've completed.

There are videos embedded in some slides. Possibly they are embedded in all the ones where nothing seemed to happen when I clicked next, so I clicked next again. If so, the course allowed me to go on without viewing the video. It tells me to "Click on "Continue" to see a suggestion." There's no continue button and I can't go on because the next is greyed out. I pressed the button for French, because that wasn't greyed out, and the program crashed. I log back in and look at some more, then it crashes again on refresh.

There's irony in that I'm doing this training while somewhat fatigued from last night's overnight flight and distracted by constantly checking the weather for tonight's, two of the dirty dozen right there. I'll go get a nap and tell you more about it later.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Finding Things in the Dark

I'm on another VFR night flight, but there's no fog this time and lots of bright lights around for most of the flight. I'm on the destination arrival frequency for a while before I descend to land. I hear there's a last minute rush of traffic at twenty to midnight, and then peace on the frequency. There's probably a curfew for jets here. I know I'm allowed to land here twenty-four hours a day.

Eventually approach transfers me to tower. The final approach here will be over darkness, no houses or roads, so I'm briefing myself on precautions against black hole effect, but that doesn't turn out to be my problem. While I'm on right downwind, tower asks me to keep my base in close. That means I won't have as long a final to get set up, but I can descend more rapidly than usual to meet ATC needs, so I turn base at a distance out that is safe for me and still keeping it in close. As I drop the right wing into the turn to base leg I lose sight of the runway lights. There's cloud between me and the runway. I try to get my bearings by looking further around, spotting clues beyond the perimeter of the airport to help me align, but I really need to see this runway in order to descend for it, and to turn final in the right place. I can see the constellation Orion above me out the left, as clearly as if it were outlined with little arrows in a planetarium, but the constellation defined by two parallel lines of lights about a mile away eludes me.

I confess to tower about not having the runway in sight anymore and am given vectors, plus clearance to land long. The vector brings me out where I can see the runway lights and I plummet onto the welcoming strip of three parallel bright lines. My approach briefing to myself didn't include the fact that this runway has centreline lighting, not that I would have found it any more easily had I been looking for three parallel lines instead of two. Someone is cleared into position behind me as I roll out, my nosewheel juddering slightly as it rolls over the inset centreline lights. They're ever so slightly off centre, but so am I. I think the other crew silent apologies for their delay, and they probably laugh at the ditzy aviatrix who can't find a runway on a fine night. I probably snuck behind the only cloud in the sky.