Saturday, March 29, 2014

Dinosaur Confusion

On the way back to Alberta we're crossing the northern Rockies again. I mention something to my crewmate that I forgot to point out the first time: Dawson Creek is a co-located waterdrome and land aerodrome. "You'll see it as we go by," I promise him. "It looks like the fin on a diplodocus."

"What?" he says.

I try to explain. "The land runway is just an ordinary straight strip of pavement, and the water runway is a parallel ditch, but in order to enable pilots to taxi off the water runway there are also a series of channels in the lagoon for parking."

"And that's a diplodocus?" He thinks it's some strange aviation term.

I say, "Oh no, a diplodocus is a dinosaur. They probably don't exist anymore. I mean, I know dinosaurs don't exist anymore in general, but I expect they've changed the name. It has a big fin, like a sail."

He Googles diplodocus on his phone. Yeah, you can totally get sufficient cell coverage in the mountains of northern BC to google random dinosaurs on your cellphone. And no, it's not illegal to use a cellphone in our airplane. It's illegal to use an electronic device when the pilot-in-command has ordered otherwise. And I haven't. He tells me that the diplodocus doesn't have a fin. He's right. It's just legs and neck and tail.

I admit, "I must have got my dinosaurs mixed up." I had a green plastic one when I was a kid. Later I google "dinosaur back fin sail" and google immediately shows me my dinosaur. It's a dimetrodon.

And you have to admit the lagoons at Dawson Creek look just like its fin.

View Larger Map

By the way, it's Google's fault I don't post so much anymore. I have a quick bookmark that takes me straight to the page that allows me to compose a blog entry, and when I have something to say, I click that button and write at least a draft, before I forget what I was going on about. But over the past few years Google has bought Blogger and other things that I have passwords to, associated variously with my work identity, my personal identity or the identities associated with hobbies, including blogging. So now chances are that when I punch that button, I am already participating in the Google universe in another identity, so instead of bringing up a blank post for me to edit, it tries to get me to join Google Plus under whatever identity I'm currently using. I think pressuring me to join Google Plus is Google's default action when it can't serve me the page I've asked for. The really irritating part is that the page is does serve me doesn't even have the option to log out. So I just roll my eyes and close the tab, and the thought goes away.

And on the subject of logging in, I have disabled anonymous commenting, because the volume of comment spam is now so great that I rarely have an opportunity to read your real comments. Blogger does a pretty good job of filtering out and not posting the spam, but it comes to me for moderation and I have to delete it daily by the screenful. I imagine Google has forced you to be just as ubiquitously logged in, so I hope this won't be a problem for you.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Fitting In

I'm working out of an airport where traffic has outstripped construction and the construction that is trying to catch up has made the taxiways and frequencies even more congested. When I get a word in edgewise with ground I'm cleared to taxi, but then have to pull over for a do-si-do at the compass rose so an opposite direction caravan can get by. Wait a few minutes stacked up behind traffic for departure, then cleared for the immediate, with a northbound turn as soon as able so they can keep pumping out faster traffic.


On the way home, I'm sequenced, allowed to descend towards the runway, and then told to keep it in close behind the departing jet. The controller's goal and hence mine is to put me on the pavement as soon as the jet is safely out of the way. I don't want to land into jet blast, the disturbance to the air made by the jet engines as the aircraft accelerates along the pavement, but I don't have to worry about his wake turbulence, because the vortices made by the wings of a flying aircraft don't start until rotation, and I will be stopped and turned off the runway before the point at which the jet gets airborne and the vortices start. I hear another aircraft behind being told to bring back the speed, follow the ... ATC gets my type wrong, but he's to be forgiven. I know it's me, and from the point of view of the B737 pilot behind me, we're much the same.

Someone on frequency asks the controller if they have software that advises them of traffic conflicts or just use their own cleverness. The controller assures them it's just cleverness and the next few calls to tower include praise for the controllers' cleverness. They have to undergo some pretty comprehensive aptitude tests for that job, and then a lot of training and supervised practice, so the cleverness is innate and trained.

I keep it close behind the jet, and plan to keep my speed up to the intersection where they usually ask me to exit. The fading jet blast affects the flare giving me a sudden headwind that dies, I bubble up and then touch down harder than I planned to before I can bring up the power to compensate. I've lost all my speed, because of that, but just as well because ATC asks me to exit on a sooner taxiway than I'd planned. I can refuse that if I consider it unsafe, but a bit of braking and I do it. The 737 must have landed behind me, and by the time I get my taxi clearance and turn onto the parallel taxiway there's a CRJ taking off.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Reporters, Don't Look Here

A very smart friend of mine who shares my passion for Die Hard movies and airplanes is an aviation journalist who knows people and does actual research, not just some smuck with a blog and a flying job. She, and experience, remind me that some reporters will mistake me for a credible source of information. That's amusing and frightening, given that our image of the world around us is shaped by people who make such decisions on their sources. I read some websites, added a bit of technical knowledge, some links and random speculation, plus I stole a picture. This is water cooler conversation stuff. If you are a journalist looking for serious expert comment, check out Benét's blog.

If you want more half-informed, sleep-deprived speculation, I've got that for you right here. The following is something I expected the Internet to provide for me, and I must say I'm quite disappointed in its failure to deliver. Next thing I'm going to have to get my own cat.

Saturday, March 15, 2014


II might as well post this now, because I won't have a chance to update it if the mystery of Malaysian Airlines 370 is solved in the next few days. I don't have any special insights about the disappearance of an entire Boeing 777, but as a pilot I have to wonder about it.

First off, despite what movies like Airport '77 depict, an airplane that crashes into the sea doesn't slip whole and undetected under the waves. With considerable skill, or even questionable skill and some luck, it could alight on the surface of the water without substantial damage. Handled as if it were being landed on land, an airplane can skim over the surface of the water the way a skipped pebble or a snowmobile does. (Unlike the snowmobile, an airplane doesn't immediately sink, because the fuselage is full of air, and buoyant). No sane person would deliberately ditch an aircraft without a substantial emergency, because if something goes slightly wrong, the picture is substantially different. The video below is of a hijacked Ethiopian Airlines aircraft that was out of fuel. The captain was trying to ditch it while fighting with the hijackers. Even that fuselage stayed afloat for a reasonable amount of time, and many of the deaths were not due to crash injuries, but because passengers inflated their life vests before exiting the aircraft, impeding evacuation.

There's a post being shared on Facebook that purports to show the aircraft recovered, but you can tell from the still that it's actually a Lion Air landing accident from last year. Don't click that one because it's probably a virus.

When an airplane comes into contact with it, water is really quite a bit like ground. Do it in landing configuration, descending towards the water at a shallow, about three degree angle, then touching down wings level, slightly nose up and it is quite survivable. Do it at high speed, or inverted, or any other way that doesn't involve control at a low descent rate, and the result is catastrophic. Swiss Air 111 hit the water 20 degree nosedive, and at a bank turn angle of 110 degrees, and disintegrated into millions of pieces. Only one of the passengers was visually identifiable. Alaska Airlines 261 was a similar story. Many of the millions of pieces that make up an airliner and its contents float, so the debris is visible on the surface and drifts ashore. Jet fuel is oily, and floats on water leaving a visible slick. Also both those crews were in contact with air traffic control during the sequence that led to the crash.

When an aircraft suddenly disappears from radar and stops transmitting, one good guess is that it broke up in midair. But when that happens the pieces are in the water in roughly the area where the radar track stopped, and the last week has seen ships, helicopters satellites and and airplanes tasked to search that area with no results. Plus substantial other evidence exists that the airplane did not explode, crash, alight or otherwise make contact with the water in the area they've been looking for it. SATCOM, an automated system on board the aircraft, and one a very diligent Boeing pilot of my acquaintance says he doesn't know how to turn off, continued sending transmissions. It's a passive system that pings about once an hour, sending what's basically a "ready to transmit" signal but no data links were opened, because the companies involved had not subscribed to that level of service from the satellite operator.

Here's what I have gleaned of the timeline. Times are Malaysian local.

  • 12:41 a.m. Take off
  • 1:07 a.m. The ACARS data transmission system stopped communicating. ACARS is a two-way data transmission system in the cockpit. The pilots can use it to request weather data and the airline will use it to send them connecting flight information, and even to update the flight management system. It automatically transmits some data on phase of flight and things like fuel status and engine performance, so the airline can detect a need for maintenance before it is urgent. It can also be used for communication with ATC, but as far as I know is generally only used with ground controllers to get the complex initial clearance for a flight. It might be used in flight for a complex rerouting, but I don't know. Check the comments to see if one of my more knowledgeable readers does. The ACARS system can be turned off from the cockpit.
  • 1:21 a.m. The crew is 'handed-off' by Malaysian ATC. That is they are told to contact the next controller on a specific frequency. They reply normally to this call, implying that they will comply, but do not call the Vietnam ATC.
  • 1:21 a.m. The transponder is turned off. The transponder is a simple device that works in concert with ATC radar. Before take-off ATC assigns the airplane a four digit code, which the pilot sets on the transponder. When it receives a ping from radar, it sends back a signal encoded with the aircraft altitude and the four digit code. that the pilot has set on the device. The ATC computers match the code with the aircraft type and destination in its flight plan, plus calculate and display a speed based on consecutive returns. If an aircraft does not have a working transponder, ATC may still see the aircraft on radar, but it is a "primary target." The transponder can be turned off from the cockpit. Transponders malfunction pretty frequently, and an aircraft like the B777 probably has two, for backup and to facilitate changing codes without an interruption in radar track.
  • 1:22 a.m. Vietnam ATC expect a check in from the airplane but instead the radar track shows an almost 180 degree turn.
  • 1:38 a.m. Civilian radar lose primary target. Without the positive identification of the transponder reply, controllers only know that their radar is hitting something there. Based on the speed and location, they can sometimes deduce that the target is a train, ship, or flock of birds, and they can be pretty confident that a blip going the speed of an airliner, in the location where an airliner transponder just stopped transmitting, is that airliner. Primary and secondary surveillance radars may have different coverage, so an airplane that could normally be tracked by its transponder signal may not be visible as a primary target.
  • 2:15 a.m Malaysian military radar detects an unknown aircraft, possibly MH370, on a track that suggests it made another turn.
  • 2:30 am Another possible military radar contact with the missing jet. I'm not sure if it shows the jet on the same track or not.
  • 8:11 a.m. Final SATCOM ping received from the aircraft.

The aircraft had about eight hours of fuel on board at the speed it was going, and more if they reduced the power settings. I don't know the radar structure of the airspace they were in to say where they could get to without the aircraft being detected by an agency that would recognize and report its significance.

I don't know what it all means. I have a friend who is livid at the apparent lack of cooperation among the various military agencies who almost certainly have more information on the track of the missing airplane, but don't want to divulge their capabilities to one another. He also suggests that if the SATCOM signals were received by multiple satellites their source location could be triangulated. He also implied that a team of children with expertise at Where's Waldo should be put on the case, but I think the former suggestion was the more serious one.

Here is a link that answers some basic questions I didn't think people would ask, but people have some odd questions about airplanes. Someone asked me if this could be a case of pilot incapacitation, with the autopilot or random chance making those turns. I'd say no. The autopilot wouldn't be programmed to make those turns, and if the autopilot wasn't on, I would expect significant altitude changes. It's an odd incapacitation that would cause you to turn off two separate systems, one fourteen minutes before a normal call to ATC.

This one gives a pretty good explanation of tracking technology, and addresses the question of "how can we apply technology so this can't happen, and why haven't we done so already?"

Because I don't like to think of airplanes crashing if it's not necessary, I imagine that the pilots have stolen the aircraft, kidnapping the passengers. Although probably worse. It sounds like some cellphones were still switched on and even logged into social media accounts. Given the attachment some people have for their phones, it seems unlikely that that many people could be taken alive without anyone managing to get a message of some sort away. Despite my recent rewatching of the television Series LOST, I don't believe that the airplane has been spirited away to a mysterious island guarded by a smoke monster.

The facts that there will be wreckage if an airplane crashes, and that they haven't found wreckage, don't mean that the airplane didn't crash. It's a really BIG ocean, and it takes a long time to search. I liked this picture of Malaysian SAR crews. Of course it's probably posed, but I'm always attracted to shots that depict a group of people engrossed in something, not looking at the camera. It suggests expertise, focus, teamwork, and an important task. I also like the simplicity of the way the women's hijabs work with their flight suits.

I'll give the final word to The Onion, a satirical publication that doesn't know the phrase "too soon."

Update: They've pulled some location information out of the satellite data, but don't have enough satellites receiving the signal to resolve the position ambiguity.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Roger That

There are a number of contexts in aviation where it's very important to verify that another person has heard and understood you, but it's often not a good time or place to have an extended conversation about the information that has been conveyed. When given a clearance on an IFR flight plan, the pilot reads back the entire clearance. It may be in slightly different words, but the words won't change much because they still have to comply with aviation terminology. The controller listens to the repeated clearance, called the readback and acknowledges or corrects it. If there is an error, the pilot has to read back the corrected portion until it is all worthy of the response, "readback correct."

When the flight is VFR, the pilot need only acknowledge the clearance, usually by repeating her callsign. So the controller says, "Alpha Bravo Charlie cleared direct SPOTT," and the pilot says "Alpha Brav Charlie." The message, "I hear and obey o great air traffic controller" is implied. There are exceptions both ways: sometimes in very busy airspace, like Oshkosh airshow arrivals, the controllers just talk and pilots acknowledge by obeying. Sometimes VFR pilots working in complex airspace where the bulk of the traffic is IFR will read back instructions. It's okay to do so any time the pilot wants to double check that what they heard is what the controller said.

Between pilots in the cockpit one may give the other information, information as simple as "Edmonton's on zulu, it's on the clipboard." That means that non-flying pilot listened to the recorded terminal information message on a dedicated frequency broadcast by the tower at Edmonton International Airport (insert sadness here as I miss the late Edmonton City Centre), wrote down the reported airport conditions, including the fact that the identifying letter for the latest recording is "Z" and presumably put the clipboard where the flying pilot could see it. The flying pilot will probably say "Check." Ah, half the time if the cockpit and radio are quiet she'll probably say "thanks" but the meaning is the same, roughly, "I acknowledge that, and I'll deal with it when I need to." It isn't really a favour one pilot does for the other, just both working as a team.

"Approach flaps"

"Flap 15 selected and transiting ... approach flap set."


The word "roger" also means the same thing. It's an aviator's way of saying "Gotcha" or "Cool" or "OK." Another old word with a similar meaning is "Wilco", short for "will comply".

Here's what prompted this post. My dentist e-mails me with an instruction. She knows I'm a pilot, because somewhere in the regulations it says I'm supposed to let medical professionals who treat me know that, but the instruction has nothing whatsoever to do with aviation. I don't have to give her any information, just let her know I received the e-mail. I type "check" because it's really the first thing that springs to mind when I want to be perfectly clear about having received an instruction. That reminds me of a story though.

A student pilot was flying in a busy circuit and before she got a word in on the radio to report that she was on the downwind leg (ready for sequencing instructions) the controller pre-empted her call by saying, "Check you're downwind, number three" meaning, "I see you're on downwind, follow the two airplanes ahead of you." The student wasn't familiar with that use of check so interpreted it as a command "check your downwind," that is "do something to your downwind." The student was sure that she was flying in the right place at the right speed so didn't change anything, just asked her instructor about it afterwards. I'm the instructor in that story, and I didn't want my dentist to think I was telling her to check something, so I backspaced over it and started to type "wilco." But that's even more jargon-y. Roger? I ended up with "Sure thing!" Overthinking it perhaps but I offended a medical professional once with a terse automatic aviation-style reply, and I don't want to do that again.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Mountain High

I'm filling out an expense report, for reimbursement. The largest item is a product I bought from a company named "Mountain High", in Oregon. I'm going to place it in the hands of a yoga instructor, who will inhale through it. And I thought it was weird expensing cases of beer to pay for northern maintenance.

Mind you, this is an oxygen mask, not actually a joint. And you'd be surprised by the things people who fly airplanes are certified at besides piloting.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

International Women's Day

So, as most of the Internet knows, this happened. I wasn't going to grace it with a response, but just the way the Vancouver Canucks took up the white towel as a symbol, instead of a flag of surrender, WestJet has made the inked paper napkin a positive symbol of women in aviation, and that's not as interesting without context.

And then there's this photo of a pilot posing with the mirror shades and the massive watch looks almost as if she's redoubled her efforts to fulfill those stereotypes, to make up for the ones she misses.

I know there are people thinking, "Give it a rest, women are equal now." I hear you, and I actually thought that, coming out of university. But the attitudes like napkin-writing David's are ingrained so deeply in society that being treated as, or assumed to be incompetent becomes part of the background noise. Here's to the day when no one has to second guess whether they are believed, doubted, accepted, rejected, paid or otherwise valued based on anything other than themselves.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Bag Lady

We've been working somewhere south of Grande Prairie, Alberta. Big flat land, a few hours work and then company tells us where the next job is. We're supposed to fly across the Rocky Mountains from Alberta to British Columbia. There is a lot of disorganized mid level cloud, with sufficient vertical development forecast above our service ceiling that it's not appropriate to take this airplane over the cloud. There will be a high concentration of supercooled water droplets lurking in the clouds, water that has remained liquid despite being cooled below the freezing point. All it needed in order to freeze is a good jolt, like being smacked into the wing or propeller of my airplane, where it could form a deadly coating. So going through the clouds is out. Under the clouds, however, is not out of the question. There is a chance that clouds or intense rainshowers with downdrafts could block the passes, but there are actually quite a few ways through. There are also ridiculous west winds.

I set a westward course and study the charts, as I go, plotting out half a dozen possible routes, with contingency plans and turnback options. I note the GPS coordinates of the key points on each route from the map and enter them in the GPS, helping me to ensure I don't miss a turn. In the mountains it's so easy not to see the point at which you should have taken a different valley, or to think that what is actually a tiny blind canyon is the turn you needed to take. I brief my tech guy, a non-pilot crew member on the plan and adjust course slightly to head for the first planned option, near Grande Cache.

I haven't even properly entered the first valley there, when we encounter moderate turbulence, and I can see that clouds already make it challenging getting through here. I turn around, a no-brainer. Not only are the clouds an issue, but the turbulence which is uncomfortable and tiring for the people may be damaging for our electronic payload. Instead of trying the next option I planned, I abandon everything and head northwest, paralleling the mountain range. I've decided we need more fuel before we continue with what is going to be a long slow trip west with more false starts. I could get to Grande Prairie quite quickly, but with these winds I feel that it will be forever getting back, so I announce we're going to Dawson Creek for fuel. It's a fair ways north and the flight follower even asks why I am going there. I'm tell him it's to avoid coming back against the wind, but really that doesn't add up. I don't know one hundred percent why I chose that fuel stop. The mountains do get lower that way.

We fuelled up, checked the weather with some more sources and successfully made the slow, westward into-wind trek. Turbulence is nil to light and we only have to make a few turns and altitude changes to evade the clouds. While I'm en route flight services broadcasts an urgent SIGMET for severe turbulence. It covers pretty much everywhere I might have crossed south of my eventual route. A SIGMET is an update announcing severe weather that wasn't in the original forecast. I pretend that I used my elite pilot skills to deduce that the west winds would interact with the many folds of the mountains to create turbulence there and not here. But did I? How did I do that? Absent that knowledge, it was a weird decision. Was it luck? Was it some instinct that I acted on without fully communicating to myself?

They say a pilot starts out with two bags: one of luck, which starts out full, and one of experience, which starts out empty. The trick is to fill the experience bag before you run out of luck. But for this trip, I honestly don't know which bag I used.