Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Death Rates

I'm IFR in the flight levels on a clear VMC day. The IFR part means I'm following a set of rules and procedures ("Instrument Flight Rules") designed for pilots of aircraft in weather conditions that don't allow them to navigate by looking out the window. The flight levels part means I'm flying above about 18,000'. In Canada the "transition altitude," between altitudes designated by the local air pressure and those altitudes designated by a universal standard pressure setting, is 18,000'. One never flies at 18,000', but instead sets the altimeter to 29.92 and flies at flight level 180. I don't know how our transition level was determined. Our highest mountain is about 19,000', so it wasn't set relative to that. VMC is "Visual Meteorological Conditions," that is weather that permits navigation just by looking out the window.

So why am I IFR in VMC? Because in Canada everyone operating in the flight levels is required to do so under an IFR clearance. It's a safety regulation. I have to fly only as directed and cleared by ATC, in order to ensure separation from all other aircraft. And I'm up this high because this is where I need to work. There's only half as much air pressure up here as at sea level, which means only half as much oxygen per breath, so I'm wearing a mask that provides me with supplemental oxygen. The masks do a great job of that. Testing my blood oxygen level always shows me at 98 or 99% saturation, the same level I get sitting on my chesterfield at home. (The tester looks at my blood by shining a light through my fingernail: it doesn't take a blood sample). Only problem is that in providing a tight seal around my face and being secured to my head underneath my headset, the mask give me no opportunity to eat or drink during the flight. Air before food.

The mask also interferes with the seal between my headset earpieces and my ears, so it's a little noisier with the mask on. Even noisier when my noise cancelling cuts out because my headset batteries died. I'm not sure if the noise cancelling "works harder" to keep up, or if it has the same battery consumption regardless of the ambient noise, and this is just coincidence. I use rechargeable batteries, which when they are new last about fifty hours in the airplane before they die, but after many cycles have shorter lives. I have numbered all my rechargeables and track how long each set (the headset takes two AAs) lasts before it dies. When they can't go a full flight, they get retired to a plastic baggie in my kitchen. Eventually they will go to recycling, when I figure out where to recycle rechargeables. They last pretty well: there are only six batteries in the retirement baggie and I've been using rechargeables in my headset and flashlights for at least eight years.

I change batteries and then notice I'm off my heading. The autopilot has disconnected. I must have hit the button. I reset it and then turn to a new heading, but something doesn't look right. The GPS says I'm going where I want to be, but the heading indicator is way off. I reset it to the compass, and it follows for a while, but soon loses interest again. The heading indicator is powered by two engine driven vacuum pumps, one of which I reported close to needing replacement a few days ago. The suction gauge shows slightly less of a vacuum than ideal, but in the green range and no less than it has for a few weeks. The other part of the instrument shows both vacuum pumps on line. The attitude indicator, powered by the same system, still appears to be working. Legally I'm required to inform ATC of the failure of a heading indicator. I do so, and they seem confused. No, it isn't affecting my operation at all. I'm using an electronic guidance system, and I will be landing at an airport that I'll be able to see sixty kilometres away. I don't need it for the flight. Maybe people don't routinely comply with that regulation anymore.

Before I land, the stupid thing comes back to life. Charming. I'm far from base, but I call maintenance so they can order one, or pull one out of another plane or something for when I come back. They don't have any troubleshooting tips for a zombie heading indicator. It's working now, but it's not reliable, so I snag it. That is, I write in the journey log that it is not operating correctly. This will limit our operations to day VFR (the looking out the window counterpart of IFR) only, which is a huge pain in the neck, because it prevents me from continuing the work above FL180, even though its effect on safety is negligible. I have had transient problems with equipment that never recur, but usually they hint at trouble and then throw a full failure if ignored. I think I've only seen simple heading indicators (as opposed to the more expensive and complex HSI) fail twice before in about 7000 hours of flying. And one was a simple fix, turned out that there was an installation error that had made a screw come loose. I wonder if the suction line is leaking or blocked or something. Nothing I can do about it, anyway.


Mike said...

I love it when people get confused if you follow a rule that no-one else bothers with. In my part of the UK failed electrical items are supposed to be returned to a retailer for recycling rather than going out with the normal household recycling. I recently took a failed bluetooth headset back to a phone shop on the basis that it contained a lithium battery that needed safe recycling. The confusion of the staff that I wasn't complaining but just wanting to give them the item for recycling still makes me smile.

D.B. said...

In the US, the FL delineation was defined by the highest mountains in the lower 48 states - plus a margin for error and safety. I suspect that the CAA simply adopted the FAA rules for simplicity and ease of cross-border ops. It does appear that there are very few rules differences between the two countries, although how you use FSS seems quite different, and of course having to pay fees for ATC services. I hope that stays different......

Greybeard said...

MEA's and MDA's seem awfully trivial when folks are being shot while simply doing their jobs.
I've not commented here in a LONG time, for reasons you and I both understand. But know this...
I'm praying for your country today, AND MINE.
God be with us.
I hope you are well.

Aviatrix said...

Wasn't even his job, really. He was a reservist (someone who serves on weekends and holidays, when they're not at their regular job). The whole thing is even more senseless than most killings. If his/their (one witness reported seeing another similarly attired gunman carjack a vehicle and leave the scene) goal was to hit a symbolic target, then they did that, with ridiculous cowardice, shooting a ceremonial guard at a war memorial. I wonder if a soldier even carries a loaded weapon for such a duty. But if their goal was to run into Parliament and assassinate government members, why sound an early alert by making an unrelated hit beforehand? It doesn't work as a distraction if you run from the scene of one murder towards your second target. Maybe the two of them quarrelled over the mission and compromised by trying both.

Plus, who knew the sergeant-at-arms had a weapon with more range and firepower than the big mace? I guess if anyone in the House is going to be packing, the guy with "at-arms" in his title is a good bet.

People will criticize the security, but we're not a locked up nation. They put on a bus to transport the MPs away from the hill, because I think a decent number of them walk to work.

Sarah said...

The blog entry was probably written well before the shooting at the capital. Anyway, I don't read this to read reaction to news of the day. Lots of other places and blogs for that.

I relish tidbits like this - the routine of a flying life. Or what ever you choose to write about. Which reminds me.. hope you're thinking about 50k words in November.

Greybeard said...

Of course you're right, Sarah.
Ignore my comment.