Showing posts with label preflight. Show all posts
Showing posts with label preflight. Show all posts

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.

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.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Logical Deductions 101

This post might have followed this post had I blogged things in the order of the notes I made for you. See, I still make notes for you. I make them right on my OFP, my operational flight plan, an official document of sorts which my company has to keep on file for years, or at least months, I don't feel like remembering which. It (this post) still follows it (the other post). There are just intervening things. That's what life's like.

In that post, which was mostly about canola, we had to backtrack a runway, and make other traffic wait for us, after landing despite what appeared to be a perfectly serviceable crossing runway that led back to the taxiway. The other runway was closed. Now for the exciting conclusion.

The next day on preflight inspection I find grass clippings on my aircraft. (Disclaimer, they could have been canola clippings). This isn't completely bizarre. In the last month I have found things as diverse as mouse intestines, dime-sized purple blobs, and fluffy weed seeds on my airplane. I suspect a messy owl dining atop my vertical stab, birds that had previously eaten purple berries, and fluffy weeds, respectively. The last one really doesn't require much in the way of logical deductions, but it still needed cleaning off.

I start up and I listen to the ATIS, which tells me that that the other runway is closed now and the previously closed one is open. There wasn't anything wrong with the one I landed on yesterday, and if they were painting or sealing or something they'd be smart enough not to mow, wouldn't they? It turns out the runway is closed for mowing. They need to close the whole runway for mowing?  It's a paved runway. They don't have to mow the runway itself. I'll bet I have landed more than a hundred times at airports with only one runway, while mowing was occurring. Sometimes there's an elaborate procedure whereby the controller advises the people with the tractors to remain clear of the runway. Sometimes they just publish a NOTAM or say on the ATIS that mowing is in progress. And sometimes you're on short final and it's like "SURPRISE! TRACTOR!" crossing the clearway. But we're pilots. We deal with these things. But that's not apparently how you do it when you have two runways.

The airport is busy. Lots of landing and departing traffic and there's a Nav Canada Challenger jet flying dozens of passes from different directions. I hear they are planning a new RNAV approach into here. I did the DME/LOC the other day, testing the autopilot, and it was pretty usable. You come over a wide canyon on the way in, so no obstacles letting the designers give you a low enough MDA that I had my hands very right there, should the autopilot decide at any moment that now would be a good time to dive. It didn't.

Also my coworker has brought five separate pairs of footwear. I have one: I fly, go to dinner and work out in the same shoes. So why does his luggage weigh so much less than mine?

Monday, February 14, 2011


So I'm doing the walkaround on a Boeing 737, but because I'm asleep and this is occurring during a dream, it's a little weird. It's cold outside, but not snowing and the ramp is not slippery. I walk from the front airstairs, clockwise around by the left main gear, by the left engine pod, around the left wingtip (red light) and look at the ailerons and flaps from the rear. I look at the skin along the rear of the fuselage and then somehow I'm inside the airplane, looking at a bulkhead between the rearmost row of seats and a rear galley or perhaps storage area. I'm concentrating on the bulkhead. Instead of being fabric-upholstered like a lot of these things are these days, it has uv-weakened yellowing plastic panelling, like a Cessna 172 in a rental fleet. It's cracked and mended with tape and cotton batting and bulging. I think there also may have been eels swimming in it briefly, but that wasn't anything the dream wanted me to focus on.

I'm a new FO and I have one of those captains who doesn't want to be bothered educating a new hire. He just wants an FO who will do all the mundane tasks for him and will shut up and stay out of the way. For him I am sure that "go do the walkaround" means "go get out of my hair for a few minutes" not "please return with a list of observations about the serviceability of this aircraft, most of which are probably a trivial waste of my time but any one of which could cost me my life or career if I fail to perceive its urgency from your necessarily timid report." Nevertheless we summon maintenance and they determine that the bulkhead is filled with bubble-wrapped machine guns and little plastic horses.

Anyone know if that's covered by the MEL?

They say a dream only lasts a second or so, that it's just a few random neuron firings, and that your subconscious mind fills in all the details that were missing, just the way you can see a few streaks of shadow and light and perceive a face, so that as you awaken you have a "memory" of the events of the dream, even though they didn't happen. This is complicated by the fact that I lay in bed and tried to work with my conscious mind the bits that my subconscious hadn't been too clever about, so all I can tell you is that none of this happened to me in real life.

Easing back into aviation, starting with my dreams. And life is, all things considered, good.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Them's the Brakes

Back home from what was salvageable from my vacation break, I'm now packing to go back to work. I'm always either living out of a suitcase or packing or unpacking one. There's an empty brake pad box in the bottom of my suitcase with writing on the inside. I must have thought it was terribly important to record for posterity. "Walkaround. AME inflating nosewheel, inspecting work done yesterday, brake disk, brake pads, fuel, break in, three airlines arriving one behind the other, us, exit, cooling period, test, happy, depart."

I remember that. The nosewheel tire pressure was low and the AME was inflating it while we did the walkaround. I'm often trying to start a walkaround inspection while my airplane is still being put back together, or even end up putting the airplane back together as part of my walkaround. Gotta love it when you find a part on the wing or lying in the cabin and have to ask, "Does this need to go back somewhere?" I should keep a spare spark plug in my flight bag for the purpose of frightening AMEs.

We use the metallic brake pads, described in the right hand column in the picture. Typically the brake pads are changed as part of a scheduled inspection so an engine run up is required too. In such a case I will run up the engines then do the brake conditioning on the runway and then taxi back and shut down, using the break for leak checking as the cooling period, then checking the brakes again before departure.

It occurs to me that people who can't spell well enough to know the difference between taking a break, braking to a stop and breaking in the brakes may be confused by this post. Spelling is important, folks.

You've probably noticed a lot of typos and mismatched sentences lately. I've been blogging offline due to terrible internet and using Notepad, which has no spellchecking capability so it doesn't catch my frequent letter transpositions, and sometimes scrolling goes amok, so the insertion point for editing is not where it appears to be. Sorry about that. I know spelling is important for good communications.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Out of Calgary

I fly to Calgary International Airport and then jump in a cab, asking the driver if he knows where the Springbank airport is. He says yes, that he did his citizenship exam in Springbank. "Congratulations," I say. He is originally from Kashmir. I ask him why he chose to come to Canada and he says his father worked in the Indian Embassy here and he loves the country. He doesn't think Calgary is too cold, and the scenery is familiar, because you can see the Himalayas from Kashmir.

He's fascinated by the fact that I'm going to fly an airplane, and when we arrive at the maintenance hangar he gets out of the cab and wants to see it. I don't even know where it is, but I point through the fence at some that are larger and smaller than mine, looking for one that is the same type, but then I see mine at the back behind a twin otter and I point it out. I tell him he can go down the road a bit and get a fam flight at a school, and he'll be able to see what it's like to fly. I wonder if he'll be at the controls of an air taxi someday.

I go inside the FBO and introduce myself. The airplane isn't quite ready yet, as I expected, so I get an estimate as to when it will be, and go down the field to get lunch and updated charts at the flying club. Springbank is the Calgary area's training airport, a busy little patch of airspace where students can do hours of touch and go landings without congesting the runways at YYC. They're still all up in Calgary's airspace, and in fact as of a recent NOTAM, Springback Tower controls only its immediate airspace, and Calgary Terminal takes over again all around it. I review the reporting points here so I won't get caught out be being told to fly direct some place I've never heard of. On my new chart, I cross out the Springbank frequency and write in the Calgary one as directed by the NOTAM. I call an 888-number to prerequest a transponder code. The controller can't give it to me now, but my call ensures one will be generated for me, and he says I'll get it from the ground controller.

When the avionics work is complete and the airplane is released to me, I start a preflight inspection. They have installed that new GPS I told you about, replaced the ADF loop antenna, and adjusted the pitch control of the autopilot by tightening the elevator cables. The first thing I do is go on board. The panel is all closed up, circuit breakers reset and so on. I can just see the elevator if I have my head up against the window, so I pull on the yoke to make sure it goes up not down. (It's happened!) It goes up but there's a shuddering noise in the yoke, like there's no lubrication or something. I try the same thing with the right side yoke, and curiously there is no such noise. What the heck? The two should be completely connected and do exactly the same thing. I go back inside to get the technician. He comes out to see and then understands my concern. He explains that the bushing on the copilot yoke is worn and now that he has tightened up the elevator cables (they were loose, explaining the altitude hold problem of the autopilot) there is vibration. He says it's safe to fly, so I defer the yoke sleeve according to the company maintenance control manual and get on with it. I won't in flight routinely pull the yoke that hard or far anyway. I check all the trims, jumping in an out of the plane to see what I can't see from my seat, and I tell the techs that I will continue to destination regardless of whether everything works to spec. I know that the work was being done on a time available basis and that the contract I'm flying to means the time is no longer available. Canada needs more good avionics techs.

I call for fuel and while that is being delivered I determine that all the bits I need are sufficiently attached to the airplane for flight. There's some sun damage to the nosewheel tire, not enough to pose a risk, just an unusual thing for this airplane because it usually works hard enough to wear it out before it rots at all. It's been a slow winter.

The airplane starts easily. When I turn on the avionics master I laugh because a local AM radio station starts blaring through the overhead speaker. The techs have been using the ADF navigation radio for entertainment during the work. I don't mind, but if you're an AME or apprentice who wants make the best impression, I'd recommend you turn down the volume and set the ADF to a different frequency before giving the airplane back to the customer. I flick the ADF speaker switch back to headset and tune the Pidgeon NDB. It identifies extremely faintly, and the needle doesn't point, but it's ten miles away, so it might not work on the ground.

I monitor the ATIS and call the ground controller. He does indeed have my departure squawk code ready for me, and taxi via Charlie. Just before I start rolling forward they amend the taxi instructions to include the few metres I will have to travel on A to get to C. The controller automatically spat out the standard instructions from the flying school apron and then had to revise them to match the fact that I'm not at the flying school. I wonder if I could have got in trouble for being on alfa without an explicit clearance. I don't think so. There is a run up area by the runway, but it's not that big. I'm glad I finish before another twin comes up. I'm cleared to position and then for takeoff, "maintain runway heading, not above 5000'." That sounds pretty good until you remember that Springbank is at 3940' elevation. As soon as I'm radar identified they allow me up to 5500' and give me a vector, then switch me to the Calgary frequency. Calgary gives me another vector, then clears me direct to destination, but they apologize that they can't give me higher until I'm out of their airspace. They point out a couple of helicopters and a regional jet for me and then I'm squawking 1200 and on my own.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Spirit of the North

The job is done, and the client drops the three of us -- two pilots and the AME -- off at the airport before they drive south. Our mission is to get back to Fort Nelson. It's a five hour drive on a treacherous mountain highway for them and should be an hour and a half up and over the pretty mountains for us. There is a lot of steam fog, still mostly over the lake, but seeing as the runway ends at the lake, it's also right off one end of the runway. It's also overcast at 3000' but we can see that it scatters out to the north and satellite images have shown it scattered over the mountains, so we're not worried about that.

It's very cold, -17 degrees, and there's a lot of frost on the airplane. We brush off as much as we can loosen with soft brushes and then use our spray-and-wipe-before-it-refreezes technique on the layer sticking to the wing, but it's still freezing a little, and so are we. We clear about half of one wing and then retreat inside. The weather is supposed to improve, with a high of -3 and this broken layer scattering out. We have all day to get to Fort Nelson, so we see no reason to freeze our butts and fingers. We go inside.

There is a warm pilot's lounge full of broken down but comfortable couches and old National Geographic magazines. It's just adjacent to the CARS office and we can hear the airport workers coming in and out, commenting on the temperature. "It's not supposed to be this cold yet!" they complain. I read an article about a mountain climber who has soled Everest with no oxygen, and that's only a tiny part of his lifetime of accomplishment. Some people are inspirational and some people go so far beyond that that it's discouraging. People mentoring at risk children should remember that. I read out some of Messner's feats to my coworkers and they toss back, "I'll bet he can't fly an airplane." I'll bet he could deice one better than us at minus seventeen though.

It's not going to get appreciably warmer until the broken layer dissipates, and after a couple of hours it becomes evident that that isn't happening. We'll give it a shot. We finish deicing the airplane. Our method actually did work pretty well. It just needs two iterations to get all the frost off without diluting the fluid to the point that it freezes. When the critical surfaces are bare and dry we un-tent the engines, unplug the cords, pack everything away and pile in. I give a quick and slightly adapted passenger briefing to the AME e.g. "you know how to open the emergency exit, 'cause you do that during the inspection," and then climb in the cockpit. As I put my foot into the footwell the toe catches the centre console and tears off a big chunk of plastic facing. Argh. I pick up the broken piece and hand it back to the AME. "Could you add this to the list of things to fix?" More evidence for him that pilots just gratuitously break things.

While I'm busy wrecking the place, the other pilot starts up the engines. Er, the engine. The right one is a little balky, so he switches over and starts the left one first, making more power available to start the right one. It just doesn't go. We check and double check all the usual things: tank selection, firewall shutoff, magnetos selected on. The starter is working admirably for a motor asked to work in these temperatures and the propeller is going around, but it won't catch. Most likely we kicked the engine heater plug loose during our first deicing attempt, or it was never properly set the night before.

After several unsuccessful attempts, my coworker offers me the chance to make a fool of myself. No joy. I try various permutations ask the AME for any suggestions. So we have three of us in this airplane, professionals in the art of making an airplane go, and none of us can make the sucker run. Anyone who has been there can hear us suggesting tactics to one another. We try flooding it and using the flooded start procedure. We try it with the throttle and mixture full open. We try it with the electric boost pump running. A few times it seems to start, and we cheer, but then it dies again. It's like it's not getting enough fuel. I check the firewall shutoff again.

The AME figures it's just too cold for the fuel to vapourize properly, so even though we flood it to the point that there is liquid fuel dripping out on the ground, there isn't enough fuel vapour in the cylinders to make a combustible mixture. We know these things. We know this is a mechanical device, subject to all physical laws, but as humans we've been working with each other and with draught animals much longer than with combustion engines. It's hard not to imbue it with a personality. We coax it gently, apologizing for how cold it was, promise it an oil change and anything else it wants at the end of the trip. We beg it; we swear at it; we wonder if internal combustion engines have a patron saint we can pray to. I consider sacrificing chickens, but what we really need is a flock of warm, non-pooping, non feather-shedding chickens to warm it up with their body heat.

All the while that we are doing this, hangar guy is driving back and forth to and from the lake, hauling floatplanes. So you know, he wasn't lying about needing the hangar space for floatplanes, but if he's hauling these ones into the hangar now that means that last night there was five floatplanes worth of empty space in his hangar. We don't take up as much space as five floatplanes, and we would have paid good money for that space. The airplane is in a hangar elsewhere as I type this, and lets just say we're paying as much per night for its accommodation than we are for mine.

After over half an hour of attempting to start the engine we come up with a new strategy. We're going to shut down and tent up the engines again, this time with an electric space heater inside the nacelle of the right engine. We'll plug everything in and go back and read some more National Geographics while it warms up.

While the other two implement the heater plan, I also go to see if hangar guy has a Herman-Nelson. That's surely a staple in a WWII hangar in the Yukon. He's at his hangar and I greet him and ask. He has to be aware of our predicament, as there's no mistaking an airplane with one engine running and the other prop halfheartedly turning over for several seconds at a time. "Ah yeah," he says. "I think you flooded it."

Oh we most certainly flooded it. I admit it. Sometimes that works. He does have a Herman-Nelson, but it's lunch time now, he explains. And so he drives off to town.

I'm surprised. He's not obligated to help us, I know. But he does operate a business related to helping people with airplanes. This would have been an easy hundred bucks for him. Maybe two. We wanted the damn thing started. There's some cultural thing I'm missing here. Obviously money is not a great motivator for him. If he's happy with the income he has at the work level he has from the customers he has, then he's happy, and I can't really complain about that. And he seems like a nice friendly guy, really. Just not one inclined to accept our business. It must be a northern thing.

I go back to the National Geographic magazines. This time I read an article on the evolution of the eye. It was something that confounded Darwin, but he didn't know of as many creatures as modern biologists do. I also look at cute furry animals from somewhere, and expensively-attired debutantes in Laredo, Texas.

The picture shows the airport. The closer building is the WWII hangar, with a single otter and other smaller aircraft parked outside. The further building is the terminal, with glimpses of the lake beyond. You'll notice, as we did, that the terminal includes a tower. There's no one in the tower: we know the CARS guy has a desk and office on the main floor near the pilot lounge, and there is no tower controller. The tower is left over from the old days when this was a bustling hub on the building of the Alaska-Canada highway.

We ask the airport manager if there is a way to get into it. We have been around inside the terminal several times and there doesn't seem to be a locked door. "Sure," he says. "Mind your heads on the bracing." He opens a trap door in the ceiling and unfolds a metal staircase out of it. "Look out for bats," he warns cheerily and goes back to his office.

We go up the stairs, and up the wooden stairs beyond that until we come to the first landing. This is a three story log building built in the 1940s, so I guess we shouldn't be surprised that it seems to be held together by a lot of bracewires and struts. It's also cold. The floor below is insulated so they aren't losing any heat through the tower. I test my footing with each step as I walk across the floor. Judging by the colour and wear of the carpet, this place was refurbished in the 1970s and still in use for a number of years after that. There's only a few items of broken furniture remaining, but we imagine one of the landings was an office, and another a lounge and coffee room.

The tower cab at the top is mostly empty too. There's an old TV and some giant light bulbs in boxes, but no antique radio equipment. Maybe it is still in use downstairs. There's another ladder up to the roof, presumably for weather observations, and a balcony. We finish our tour and go back down, closing the stairs up behind us. It wasn't something I'd describe as a fascinating slice of history, but it was a fun mini-adventure. I think one of the most fun things is that we were allowed to do it at all. Can you think of anywhere in the US or Canada that isn't north of sixty where you would be allowed to just wander into an abandoned area of a public building? This is completely aside from the fact that it was at an airport, normally the most paranoid public place out there.

That's the spirit of the north. You can get yourself into trouble and you can get yourself out, and no one seems particularly inclined to interfere one way or the other.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Repo Man

Someone sent me this article about a guy who repossesses airplanes whose purchasers fail to make their payments.

It would be fun to fly a variety of different, fairly new, airplanes from a variety of locations, and the article points out that he mitigates his risk by always having a mechanic examine the airplane before he flies it. He doesn't just repossess the aircraft, but also sells them on behalf of the bank.

And when FAILblog (why yes, I am supposed to be updating airline applications) showed me the unfortunate abbreviation on this Women Take Flight hat, I had to find out more about the organization in question. It appears to have been a grant-funded research project involving giving flight instruction to women who had no interest in learning to fly. I think WTF is an appropriate description. I'd say WHY? but the answer is probably "to get research funding and publish a paper."

And this is about me and procrastination, too.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ferry to Maintenance

Company has a hangar available for maintenance, so all I have to do is get there. There's a NOTAM out saying that all taxiways and the apron are closed for resurfacing, but the private hangar has its own apron that can be reached from the runway without my needing to use the closed taxiways.

I walk around the airplane carefully, looking for anything that would make me demand they come to this airport instead, or anything else they should be repairing during the downtime. There's no puddle on the ground from the oil, just what seeped out and flowed over the nacelle during yesterday's flight. It's not very much oil, as can also be verified by the fact that I didn't have to add any to make it up to the correct level on the stick. I wipe the nacelle clean, not out of fastidiousness--it will soon have greasy engineer and apprentice fingerprints all over it--but for their information. By asserting that I left with it clean, I am showing the engineers exactly how much leaked during the flight.

It's still not the shiniest airplane in the skies, but I wouldn't really say it needed painting. The tires are all okay and the gear uplocks and rollers click and roll as they should. All the vortex generators are present and I don't see any rivets shedding their paint. When the paint comes off the head of a rivet, it's a sign of stress along that join. Better to investigate when the paint is coming off than wait until the heads start popping off some of the rivets.

Happy with my preflight inspection, I secure my baggage and fire up the engines. They start nicely, better than they have all month, because every other flight I've done has been of a hot airplane, just returned from a flight with my colleague. Engines don't like to start when they are too hot or too cold. The too cold problem is because the oil is thick and provides resistance to turning. I think the too hot problem may be from the fuel vapourizing too easily and the engine becoming flooded. I'm not positive about that, but the hot start and the flooded start procedures are similar. It always feels like the airplane is complaining that it already worked hard this morning, why does it have to go out again? I regard the engines as a collection of tired horses shaking their heads and trying to bolt towards the barn, as I coax them to start, instead.

I text company to say when I will arrive while I wait for the engines to warm up. The oil temperature gauges and EGTs come up evenly showing temperatures I expect. I test the various systems. The right propeller doesn't respond to the feather check right away. I check the left and it is okay and then go back to the right and now it works properly. Part of the feather check is checking function, and part is just getting the oil to circulate through the hub. I make a note, though, because they supposedly just flushed the propellers at a recent scheduled maintenance, so it should be peppier. Maybe something they supposedly flushed is still oozing around in there. Also the left tach needle seems to be oscillating too, not just the right one. I guess we're going to wring every last bit of use out of this mechanical tach before we go digital.

The wind is calm and for once I'm not waddling out at max gross, so I take off from the nearest end of the runway without backtracking for the extra few feet available before the numbers. There's a gigantic blast shield before the threshold of the runway, so that jets taking off don't blow cars off the road behind them. That blast shield makes the beginning of the runway unusable for landing (unless you want to glide through the barrier) but I can still backtrack and use it for takeoff if I want to. But on this occasion I don't.

Power, gauges green, roll, rotate, climb, gear up, power reduction, turn on course, talk to ATC, level off, set cruise power, consult the checklist to make sure my fingers did all the right things, and adjust my heading as I speed up and require a different wind correction angle.

Now I just monitor everything, looking out the window for traffic, making sure the temperatures and pressures are what they should be, and looking through the "nearest" display on the GPS so that when someone calls on 126.7 out of Goat River for Empress Lake or dropping jumpers over Marvik (or did he say Bartuk?) I have a hope in hell of knowing whether he might be a conflict.

I call flight services on a discrete frequency with a position report, and to get an updated altimeter setting. It's a routine call and I go back to 126.7. About five minutes later flight services hails me on 126.7. Sometimes they do it if they are looking for an airplane and you are in the area where they think it is, so they will ask you to try and raise it. I respond. The specialist just thought I might like to know there was a NOTAM for my destination, that the apron and taxiways are closed. I thank him, and assure him I have the NOTAM, but leave it a mystery to him why I am going to an airport where it appears I cannot exit the runway. Was that cruel?

The destination is ahead and I'll be straight in for the runway. I pick up the ATIS of the nearest controlled airport to update my altimeter again and to confirm what I know about the wind from the ripples on the lakes. I'm going to be a few minutes late. I didn't include the time to complete the run up in my estimated time enroute. Another NOTAM warned of parachute activity here, so I call the ATC frequency that was given for more information, but the controller acts like he's never heard of such a thing. I guess it hasn't been a busy summer for the jumpers.

I land and then turn around on the runway to taxi back to where I can see my PRM standing with an engineer the company often contracts to, on the private apron. The PRM has come out to make sure this airplane gets everything fixed properly this time. The engineer gives me marshalling signals and I shut down in front of them. Oh you're not going to believe this, but the left tach is now dead. It couldn't even make it through the flight.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Advance Planning

The client wants us to work out of a little town in southern Alberta for a day, and calls me to check and see if the airport will be sufficient. I promise to check it out and call him back.

It has two runways, a short turf one and a longer paved one, very common here. If the long runway is suitable for you in no wind, but the crosswind is too great for you to land on the long runway, then the headwind on the cross runway is such that your touchdown speed and runway required are sufficiently reduced that the short turf runway should be fine. The long runway is long enough for us at gross weight at runway elevation and and summer temperatures, but not by much. I'm spoiled, really, with many of the runways I take off from being double what I need.

There is avgas available at the field, so I call the number listed in the CFS and ask if they can supply the quantity we need, and if fuel is available on a Saturday and outside normal business hours. He's quick to assure me that yes, that will be no problem, just call the number I called and someone will be there quickly. I confirm again the quantity and that we can take a load of fuel at 7 am, one in the early afternoon and another at ten or eleven p.m. I call back the client and tell him that the aerodrome is adequate, and I pass on the contact number so he can arrange payment for the fuel.

The next day I hear that we're going to a different small town in Alberta. I ask what happened to the first one. "There was no fuel," one of the client's employees tells me. What? It turns out that between me asking and the client calling to arrange it, the guy actually dipped the tanks and found he had only 300L in his tank. They've found another airport that can supply the fuel and have made arrangements themselves. I'm glad we found out that there was virtually no fuel at the first place before turning up and starting work, but I'm pretty ticked that he didn't at least tell me he wasn't sure, or he had to dip the tanks and call me back. I hope the client didn't think I hadn't checked.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

TLA Fever

Usually I get my weather and NOTAM information from the internet, but sometimes the hotel Internet isn't that good, or the computer is in the throes of rebooting. (Damnit, what is it with Vista that it thinks it's okay to reboot without asking after it has downloaded an update. Recently it did so with an unsaved file full of blog entry notes open on the desktop. It asked me if I wanted to save and I clicked yes, then when I fumbled the filename it rebooted anyway). If I'm not getting along with my computer at any given time I have the option to pick up the phone and call a flight services specialist. It's often faster if the computer isn't already turned on and connected, and the specialist may know better than me the identifiers of all the en route airports that have weather.

Recently I dialed flight services and was momentarily confused by an initial message telling me I had reached Lockheed-Martin Flight Services. I then realized that I had dialed 800-WX-BRIEF (the US number) instead of 866-WX-BRIEF (the Canadian number) and reached the American FSS. From a Canadian hotel. That didn't used to be possible. I'm going to pretend that it was my letter about the problems encountered by Canadians trying to close flight plans that caused the change. I can't find my original blog entry, but it used to be when you tried to dial the US number on a Canadian cellphone, it would be rejected because you were dialing from a Canadian number, but if you tried to call the Canadian number it would be rejected because it was coming through an American exchange.

So I dialed again and got the proper number, pressed 2 for a specialist, and asked for the weather I needed. I listened and wrote down:


Heh, I realize that I have strung seven three-letter abbreviations in a row, just by writing down what I hear. How long can I keep this up?


Ah, blew it with the VC.

Translation, for those who don't speak aviation/Aviatrix shorthand: Cold front moving southward toward Red Deer at 0000 Zulu. Sky condition generally scattered towering cumulus cloud. Winds gusting to thirty knots in the vicinity of the front. Headwinds of 18 kts enroute.

Friday, August 21, 2009

More Vague Pontification on Resetting CBs

As I said yesterday, anytime anything in the airplane emits smoke, fire or a burning/melting smell, it should be immediately turned off and its circuit breaker pulled and left that way until trusted maintenance personnel have examined it. Whether the behaviour led to a popped CB is irrelevant. There's obviously electricity going where it oughtn't.

Prior to the accident that started this discussion a pilot did exactly that. He wrote on the form provided for that purpose "Radar went blank during cruise flight. Recycled – no response ... smell of electrical components burning turned off unit – pulled radar CB – smell went away. Radar inop." That's pretty much what I'd do. Except that the 'radar inop' note might imply that he reset the CB and turned it back on to check. I would just assume that the release of the magic smoke heralded the death of the instrument. (Everyone knows about that, right? During the manufacture of sophisticated electronic equipment, little puffs of magic smoke are captured and held in various components. If at some point in the operation of the device the magic smoke escapes, that portion of the device will no longer work).

Pilots should not attempt to operate clearly non-functioning or malfunctioning equipment. One member of our fleet contains an old fashioned strike finder that doesn't work. It displays random blips of light but nothing useful. It's been placarded U/S for over a year. I fly it with the CB pulled.

The NTSB pointed out that:

Pulling the circuit breaker for the weather radar stopped a symptom (the burning smell) of the problem by removing electrical power from the circuit; however, it did not correct the underlying problem. Airplane electrical system anomalies that result in smoke and/or burning odors are indications of possible fire hazards. Moreover, the heat, smoke, fumes, and restrictions to visibility associated with an in-flight fire can represent a significant hazard to airplane occupants and adversely affect an airplane’s airworthiness.

The maintenance department told the senior of the two accident pilots about the weather radar problem, both by phone and in person, but the NTSB investigators believe that the other pilot probably reset the breaker as part of his preflight. His preflight should also have included reading the squawk sheet, as I believe Americans call the list of aircraft discrepancies. While some people might say that such resetting falls within the bounds of the "reset once" policy, I think it's a different matter entirely. If you find CBs pulled on preflight you should be finding out why. It may be as simple as asking your engineer "Hey Jan, did you pull the CBs for the lights here?" It's usual for engineers to pull breakers while working on systems and not unheard of for them to forget to reset everything.

According to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air traffic control records, about 0832:49, shortly after reaching a cruise altitude of 6,000 feet mean sea level, the ATP contacted air traffic control to declare an emergency, stating, “smoke in the cockpit we need…to land at Sanford.” The air traffic controller cleared the flight to proceed directly to SFB and descend to 2,000 feet. DAB airport surveillance radar data indicated that the airplane subsequently turned toward SFB and began to descend. The last radio transmission from the airplane was received about 0833:15. This transmission terminated midsentence and seemed to include the phrase, “shutoff all radios, elec[trical].”

That's startlingly fast. I too would try to make a quick radio call in busy airspace before making the airplane dark and silent. You don't know how long the two were coping with the problem before the initial radio call, but the accident was only ten minutes into the flight, so obviously not very long.

I agree with the conclusion made by the NTSB about the probable cause. It wasn't about circuit breakers.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable causes of this accident were the actions and decisions by NASCAR’s corporate aviation division’s management and maintenance personnel to allow the accident airplane to be released for flight with a known and unresolved discrepancy, and the accident pilots’ decision to operate the airplane with that known discrepancy, a discrepancy that likely resulted in an in-flight fire.

If you're flying an airplane that is flown by many people without a good means of communication of problems encountered, then you probably don't want to reset something even once. If you fly the same airplane all the time and you trust and communicate with all the others who fly it, maybe you do. If you have a journey log or a snag sheet do read through and see what has gone wrong lately, and what is still wrong that you might not want to accept. Reading this accident report and discussion has not made me uncomfortable with any of the times I have reset breakers. It has made me happier about the times I haven't. If it makes any difference to the people who disagree with our attempt to reset the flap CB a couple of weeks ago, we were on the phone to maintenance at the time and that was the first thing they asked.

Of course it's different for them because they are usually on the ground and can run away. As the report says, "An in-flight fire, especially one located in front of the pilots and directly over their legs, would be very distracting." And I thought the faulty gauge was distracting!

Also, this is very relevant to me. I long to tear out the entire dashboard and start over in so many of the planes I have flown.

Postmanufacture electrical system modifications and installations often result in general aviation maintenance personnel performing critical work among densely packed layers of wiring of different ages and materials

And I can always be wrong. The report says that "the ATP’s instructor stated that the ATP was “highly qualified,” required little or no academic instruction, and showed “exceptional” proficiency during his two simulator sessions. As I read that I thought, "That's what I want people to say about me." And then I had to add, "But not under those circumstances."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

They're Okay!

I'm doing my preflight, except I can't check oil because the dipstick is too hot to touch, and if I used gloves it wouldn't give a very good reading anyway. I ask my coworker instead, and she says the oil should be fine. I watch the fueller and then check the fuel tank caps. One of them is loose, not because he didn't secure and latch it, but as the aggregate result of its being opened and closed a number of times. Not many people realize that that one is an adjustable cap. It's a rubber plug designed to fit a few different sized tanks. When you pull up on the catch, that releases the form inside that makes the rubber seal firm and round against the inside of the filler neck. Spin the catch one way and the closed size of the plug increases. Spin it the other way and it decreases. Turning the catch a little bit is a normal part of operating the catch, so by coincidence it has been loosened over the last fortnight of fuelling. I spin the catch to embiggify the plug, reseat it in the filler neck and snap the cap closed. The mechanism expands. It fits securely now.

The fueller points out that some fuel is leaking from the tank onto the ramp. I check it: it's just thermal expansion forcing some of the fuel out through the vent again. There's also a little puddle of fuel in the well around the closed cap. I don't complain about having my tanks completely full. It's the only way to really know that I have the fuel I expect on board. Gauges don't tell the difference between full and sorta full. If the fuel level in a wide, flat tank measuring one metre by two metres is one centimetre below capacity that's 20 litres short--about 15 minutes of holding fuel for that engine. Yikes! I secure the metal cover over the fuel cap and repeat my inspection for all the fuel tanks. I also check that the total fuel load matches my expectations based on my colleague's flight time. It does, almost to the litre. If too much fuel went in it could be an aircraft problem. If not enough went in, the fueller might have skipped a tank. I've had that happen. I had it happen almost every day at one FBO, but we're at a good one, now.

The fueller says he doesn't know if anyone was hurt yesterday or what kind of airplane it was. He heard that it had just taken off, and turned and the wind caught it. I don't know if he is also a pilot, but it wasn't windy yesterday, and one you're airborne the wind doesn't knock you over. An abrupt change in wind could cause an airplane to lose lift, but windshear seems unlikely, too. The fueller also mentioned that he heard it was a November-registered aircraft, which is relevant mainly because their National Transportation Safety Board investigates accidents involving US aircraft, even elsewhere in the world. Perhaps it will turn up on their site, even if only as a notation that the Canadian TSB is investigating. As I write this I find a news article (with a picture) about the crash. It is being reported as a power loss, and both occupants suffered only minor injuries. It's significant that just 100 metres from the runway the bush around here is so thick that it took a helicopter to find and direct the police and ambulance workers to the site. It's a relief to hear that they are okay. Too bad about the Pacer.

I start up. (Come on cranky engine, I know you're hot, you can do it). I crack the throttle open a bit and then when the engine catches leave the mixture in the idle cutoff position for a moment, and very very slowly enrich it, and not all the way to full rich either, so I don't flood it. The engine RPM comes up, oil pressure, oil temperature and cylinder head pressure all in the green already, so I start the second engine. Avionics on, computer power on, ground fan on. In less than a week we've gone from needing heating to needing cooling.

Ready for taxi, we take runway 21. It's hotter today and climb performance is noticeably affected by the heat. I'm climbing at blue line (Vy and Vyse are the same on this model) and making less than 500 fpm through 3000'. We are full of fuel and equipment. That's the drawback to taking every drop you can.

As I'm leaving the area, the FSS comes on with a SIGMET for a large area of thunderstorms, relative to Germansen Landing. I have heard of it, but don't know where it is on a map of this province, so I call Edmonton Radio and ask for the lat-long coordinates of the area boundary. It's mostly north of where we are working, and currently the closest part of the line is a degree and a half of longitude west of us. That's about 50 miles this far north. Degrees of longitude get smaller and smaller with increasing latitude, but a degree of latitude is always 60 nm. I don't think those thunderstorms will bother us, but there's a lot of vertical build up here. By the time we reach the work area, fifty miles north of the airport, the weather is unsuitable for the work. That was a quick flight.

Back, land, and take my stuff to the hotel, including the cushion from the airplane. It smells like feet.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Refraction Distraction

I walk towards my airplane on the ramp and I can see that it is pissing fuel out of the left wing, a steady stream, not a drip but a spray like it's pressurized. I remember the wide-eyed horror I felt the first time I saw fuel streaming out of a parked airplane. Today my feeling is just, "Hmm, this had better not be something bad." I could write a long blog post on various reasons that fuel has dripped, flowed or sprayed out of my parked airplane. I duck under the wing to look at the source. It's coming out of a vent. The vent is recessed so that incident air doesn't pressurize it, but it still faces forward so the stream spurts out in front of the wing. There's no visible damage. To confirm my first suspicion about the cause, I open the fuel cap for that tank. The tank is completely full and some fuel flows out of the filler neck onto the top of the wing. Suspicion confirmed.

This airplane was fuelled last night while we were wearing sweaters and jackets on a rainy, overcast day. Now I'm wearing a t-shirt, and the angle of the sun over the hangar puts the left wing in bright sunlight. The fuel is expanding inside the wing and being forced out the vent. It's perfectly normal. That's one of the reasons the vent is there. (The other reason is so that as fuel is burned, air can get in to replace the volume so that the fuel will continue to flow).

The fuel stain on the ramp looks nasty, but the rest of the airplane is fine. I set up what gear I have, conscious that the bag in which I normally organize my spare batteries, extra flashlights, snacks, waterbottle, and the like is packed inside my checked luggage. I have enough equipment to be safe and legal, just not everything I usually have.

All is normal on the run up, and I talk to the flight services guy in the tower and then take off. I say good bye to flight services guy but continue to monitor his frequency, and tune 126.7 on the other radio for en route traffic. At eight-thirty in the evening up here the sun angle is like four in the afternoon down at the 49th. It's hot in the cockpit, but I need to run the heater for the comfort of the picky computer equipment in the back. I spend a while moving vent sliders around trying to make it comfortable for me, and cozy for the computers, too. The mission specialist goes off headset for a while in order to take off his fleece.

Not only have I not flown in three months, but they have changed out the type of equipment I am using, so I'm looking at a screen I haven't seen in about a year. I stare at it for a moment, trying to remember where it means I'm supposed to go, and then I go to work. I remember this. I know how to do it. I'm good at this. Somehow my temperament--and bladder--is suited for this type of flying. I settle back into my routine, burning an hour of fuel out of each set of tanks so that nothing is so full it's spilling out the vents, and then systematically work through the various tanks. I plan to land at 2:15 a.m.

There are a couple of pilots in Cessna 172s hopping around beneath me, position reporting between small places I saw on the map. They chat to each other about how fine the weather is tonight and where they are going. As they say their call letters I picture them painted on the side of the airplanes. I remember things better visually then as sounds. One of them is CXD, which trips a switch in my head because they are all letters used in Roman numerals: 110-500, not that that means anything. When there's a break in their conversation I call up CXD and ask them what they're doing, just trying to join the conversation. The answer is a fairly terse "flying from Worsely to Fairview." And then they stopped talking to each other. I guess they forgot they weren't alone up here.

Fifty gallons of avgas later I'm still in the sky and so is the sun. My hat is in my checked bag, so I have to depend on my skinny sunvisors and my sunglasses for protection from that ball of fire. I estimate it is still fifteen degrees above the horizon, maybe a little less. When will it set? When I'm flying I can't put my whole brain over to arithmetic, because I'm looking out the window, manipulating the controls, squinting at my screens, and paying attention to all the little things I don't even realize I'm looking at. So I chunk arithmetic up into easy bits. Three hundred sixty degrees in twenty-four hours, one hundred eighty in twelve, ninety in six, forty-five in three, so fifteen degrees an hour. But I know it will be in the sky for a lot longer than an hour. The sun doesn't go straight down here, it moves diagonally towards the horizon. At my latitude, three weeks before the solstice I suppose I could calculate its angle of descent and use trigonometry to determine when it will reach the horizon. But I just eyeball it and estimate that it will hit the horizon at about eleven. If I were a few degrees further north and it were a few weeks later it wouldn't go down at all. It would just slide around the edge of the horizon before angling back up.

I didn't see the exact moment it ducked behind the horizon, I just turned and saw that it was no longer trying to burn my eyeballs. It was about eleven. It's still light, but the light is more orangeish. I try to picture the refraction process that is making the light orange. I'm pretty sure it's the same reason that the sky is blue. But is it because the red light is refracted more by the atmosphere or less? I think the blue is refracted more, because the blue is on the inside of the rainbow, but I can't quite picture it. Now that I'm on the ground I could look it up, but I'll give you my airborne thought processes. I think that as the sun's rays hit the atmosphere at a low angle the blue is being refracted up away where I can't see it, but the red is refracted less, so it's the last colour I see. There's a moon, too, and its light is whiter. An hour after sunset it's not really dark yet. I can still see clouds in the distance and the shapes of lakes on the ground.

I call flight services for an altimeter setting. It hasn't changed in over four hours. 'Are you coming in to land now?" he asks. No, we have another couple of hours.

The mission specialist is tired and calls it done a little early. We touch down just before two a.m. I chat to the FSS guy on the way in, "when do you get to go home?" It turns out that he worked the day shift and then got called in to do the overnight, so he'll be there until 8:30 a.m. Nasty. I tell him he'll still be there when my flight partner comes on shift in a few hours. He asks her name so he can say hi. I forgot to ask his name.

I'm hungry enough to eat the seven hour old sandwich I bought before departure, and tired enough to go right to sleep.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Muddled Mouth, Standard Head

Next morning the hotel wake-up call works, but the cellphone alarm doesn't. I don't investigate why, just shower and dress. I forgot to check the tag, but I haven't broken my rule to never get on an airplane, any airplane, without toothpaste, deodorant, my cellphone charger and a change of socks and underwear. And I have my computer, of course, and Internet. The weather looks fine, but Westjet has no new news about my luggage.

Off to the airport. The airplane is parked on the Esso ramp. It's been based here for a couple of weeks. The chief pilot and another pilot flew it up from Calgary in May. We walk around the plane, add a couple of litres of oil and determine ourselves ready to go. My co-worker informs me that we're testing in order of height, tallest person first. It takes me a moment to realize that's me. Oh well, someone's got to go first.

I have my headset--that was in my carry-on--but I don't have my kneeboard, my IFR timer or any of the little gadgets that make life easier on a ride. And did I mention having plates so old they didn't have the tower frequency on them? For that reason I didn't even look at them. The ride is mainly VFR handling stuff anyway. It's just as well I'm getting an opportunity to fly the airplane with just my boss and coworkers on board, before I fly with paying customers.

I know it was close to freezing overnight, but the engines start easily. I let everything warm up, pick up the ATIS (VFR with broken layers starting about 4000' agl) and get a taxi clearance via G and F for a runway 25 departure, contact tower holding short. Taxiway E is a huge wide one, so I pull off there and do a runup, plus a completely mangled pretakeoff briefing, on which I received notes after the flight. I have to practice that in the shower or something.

My problem is that I think too much (surprise, surprise) so I think about the words while they are coming out of my mouth instead of just spewing them out, and then they get all tangled up, and I miss some out.

The briefing most companies want is not actually what Transport Canada wants in a takeoff briefing. Specifically, TC wants only what changes from departure to departure to be recited, where most companies have a long memorized script with only a couple of points that may change. Transport says if it is standard to always abort the take-off in the event of a malfunction before V1 (and it should be) there is no need to repeat this fact. But every takeoff briefing I have ever been asked to use includes the statement of what I will do in the event of a failure while on the take-off surface, airborne with sufficient landing area remaining, and after takeoff with insufficient runway remaining. And the actions are pretty much the same whatever you are flying.

Any critical failure before rotation or after rotation with sufficient runway remaining I will reject: power idle, land/stop straight ahead. After rotation with insufficient runway remaining, it will be a single engine go-around: control, max power, gear up, flaps up, maintain Vyse, confirm & secure failed engine, inform ATC and land with the single engine checklist.

I think about this before every takeoff, but I have to say the words out loud more or I'm going to look like an idiot again.

But I get through looking like an idiot, including in a radio call where I get the alphabet in the wrong order, thinking for a moment that I am on F and have to go further east to taxiway E, when it's actually the other way around. I take off, set climb power, use the appropriate checklists, deal with the electrical fire described, perform a 45 degree banked steep turn to the left, all the way around to the original heading. I use a trick that I learned long ago, and that is to first make a couple of "clearing turns" to look out for any traffic. This is a normal safety procedure, but I do mine at slightly over 30 degrees, making the clearing turns a warm up for the correct horizon position and the tendency of the airplane in the bank. Whether it worked or not, I don't know, but my turn is passable. The next assignment is a turn to the right, this time at 30 degrees bank for the first 90 degrees and then at 45 degrees for the remainder of the turn. This I suppose would catch up someone who had memorized the rhythm of the exercise as opposed to having conscious control over airspeed, bank angle and altitude, but as I haven't been flying enough to have anything memorized, I'm just happy not to have to hold 45 degrees all the way around.

Next are stalls. The first assigned configuration is power idle, flap 25: an approach stall. I'm asked to recover at the first indication of a stall, which in this airplane I know will be the stall horn, unless by some coincidence the stall horn has just broken, in which case it will be either a pre-stall buffet or the chief pilot yelling that there's something wrong with the stall horn. The stall horn works. I shove all the levers forward and recover, wings level, but am told that while not losing altitude is good, I did not check the nose forward sufficiently. For any stall recovery demonstration considered perfect by one examiner, you will find another examiner who considers the recovery to have been performed too soon or too late, and one who considers the pitch to break the stall to be too little or too much. The next exercise is a clean stall, at a power setting that simulates hot day performance at climb power, in a climbing left turn. When the stall horn bleats I keep the wings level with the rudder pedals, overemphasize my pitch change and put the mixtures, props and throttles full forward. That one is approved.

I'm asked to turn left towards that pond over there. The chief pilot is twisted around facing backwards talking to the pilot in the seat behind me. They're trying to find a C172 we know is nearby. It's a trick to distract me as one of the throttles is pulled to idle. I don't see the throttle go back, as I too am looking for the C172, but it's the sort of thing you expect on a ride, so I control the yaw, increase power to hold altitude, and confirm the dead engine matches my "dead" foot -- i.e. the foot that isn't pushing hard on the rudder pedal to keep the airplane straight. I ask as I check the magnetoes, fuel selectors and gauges if there is smoke or fire issuing from the victimized engine and am told no. I simulate a shutdown, indicate that I will advise ATC and return for landing at Ft. Mac, and then am given my engine back. The pilot in the back mutters something like "tabarnouche!", caught off guard by the yaw from the suddenly simulated engine failure.

I'm handed an approach plate and brief a mercifully simple approach. I would have liked to fly the DME arc, but am told not to worry about that part and just fly a full procedure VOR approach. The HSI isn't working today, so this is done on a standard head VOR in the bottom right corner of the panel. I use the VFR GPS for situational awareness to help me find the radial that will take me direct to the VOR, and distinguish between being off track and simply coming up on station passage. As I turn to the outbound I spend a moment deciding whether to set it for the inbound and use reverse sensing on the outbound or to set it outbound and then reset it for the inbound. I decide on the later, and then there's a moment when I'm still waiting to intercept the outbound track when I think I may have set it incorrectly. But I haven't and complete the procedure turn to intercept the inbound. I remember to start the timer every time, something I tend to forget on time-based approaches, and am psyched for the missed approach, but am asked to do a touch and go. Just before I reach my MDA the chief pilot calls in sight and I maneuver back over to the right where the runway is. The runway heading is seven degrees different from the radial tracked on that approach, so I don't know if the radial needs recalibration or the VOR just happens to be offset a little. The last moment maneuvering takes the place of flaps as an altitude adjusting tool and I touch down with just approach flaps before taking off again.

The next approach is a vectored ILS, again on the standard head VOR, for a full stop. I overcorrect, weaving down the approach, but manage to be on the localizer, on slope when I call "should be visual" at the DH and the chief pilot says I have the runway in sight. I'm still at approach speed, but apply landing flap and bring it right down to the centreline for what my colleague in the back calls a greaser. Anything that makes the people in the back happy is okay with me.

Post-flight notes praise my handling even after three months off, criticise me for the mangled briefing and pick up other items I can improve, but the scoresheet is a row of only Ss. Other possibilities are SB ("satisfactory with briefing" i.e. you're getting away with the error because you understand it and I chewed you out for it) or U (unsatisfactory). I would have given myself a few SBs on that, but I won't complain for not getting them.

Oh and we're not staying in Fort McMurray now. The customer changed his mind. We check out and go for lunch before flying to where we're really supposed to be. I call WestJet and get put on hold for twenty minutes only to find out that there is no news on the suitcase. I tell them to send it to Grande Prairie when they find it.

And in an ugly segue regarding things that are missing, as I write this an Air France A330 has gone missing en route from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. Much of the trans-Atlantic route is without radar coverage, so radar contact was lost three and a half hours after departure. Forty-five minutes later the airplane (not the pilots) sent an automated signal documenting an electrical fault and a possible pressurization failure. (Any automated message following an electrical fault is suspect). There were no further messages from automation nor crew. The pilots also missed a planned radio call to Brazilian ATC. There were extensive thunderstorms in the area. I expect they will have found confirming wreckage by the time this posts.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Prepreflight Planning

I'm going to a new place; what do I need to know before I get there in order to look like I know what I'm doing? I can plan a flight to a random place named by the client in the time it takes for the fuel order to arrive, or divert in midair and still be okay, but when I'm going to be based out of a place for a while, I can give myself a head start by finding out a few things in advance.

CYMM has a single runway 07/25, with right hand circuits on 07, making all circuits to the south, away from the aprons. The runway is paved, 150' wide, 7000' long and at 1211' elevation. (Yes, Canadians still use the old imperial measurements for such things. It was, I assume, deemed to dangerous to make an overnight switch to a new system of measurement. Or maybe we're afraid that thirty party suppliers of approach plates and electronic navigation products, would (like Microsoft with its British, American but no Canadian spellchecker), deem Canada too small a market to cater to, and thus we'd be deprived of useful products in our measuring system of choice.) It is served by at least three FBOs, with almost every variety of aviation fuel for sale. It's a small airport choked with oilfield traffic. The Google satellite view indicates that almost every building on the field is under construction.

The aerodrome has METARs and its own 24 hour TAF, with other useful weather coming from YZH, YNR, YOD, YPY and maybe YVT. The weather systems move mainly east and southeast here. Northern Alberta is reporting mainly clear this morning. Seven degrees as I type this, but was three two hours ago, probably sub-zero overnight.

The aerodrome has an RCO to the Edmonton FSS, plus there's an FSS on the field (with, according to one report, hot female staffers). There's a VOR and an NDB, but I'll have to get the approaches when I get there as the only Alberta plates I have with me are way out of date.

There are a fair number of small airports in the vicinity. Fort Mac is the only nearby place with services, but there will be at least telephones and emergency shelter on the ground at:

  • Gordon Lake Airport (23 nm E)
  • Muskeg Tower Airport 30 nm NNE
  • Mildred Lake Airport 26 nm N
  • Fort MacKay 34 nm N
  • Horizon 46 nm N
  • Namur Lake 67 W

There are others. The nearest bigger airport is probably CFB Cold Lake, 138 nm south, and Edmonton International is 216 nm south-southwest, so I'm practically in the big city.

As for the town itself, no one picked up the good news/bad news part of my line about going to Fort McMurray for work. It's not known across the country as a centre of civilization, shall we say. It's known as the place that a young man can go straight out of school and make a lot of money. In the daytime the town appears to have been hit by some bizarre plague that has wiped out every able-bodied male over the age of seventeen. They are all in the oilfields, because no one would work in a service industry in this town if they could work where the money is. And young men with lots of money spend it on trucks, boats, women, alcohol and in many cases stronger drugs.

A coworker reported that the young women of Fort Mac had only two questions for him: "Where do you work?" and "How big's your truck?" He drove an F150 so that was the last question they asked him, but apparently the welder (a welding truck is pretty big) was quite a hit.

So I'm prepared for busy airspace and a cultural experience. Who knows, there might even be barbeque.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Elbows and Fists

The first part of the forecast was right. It snowed most of the night. Then it snowed some more in the morning. And some more in the afternoon. It snowed so much that Montréal automobile traffic came almost to a standstill. It took us half an hour to drive the few blocks from the airport to the main street, because the main street was moving so slowly and so solidly, that it was gridlocked and cars from sidestreets couldn't turn on even when the lights were green.

Montréal does know how to deal with snow, however, and the world continued to turn. The police were out cracking down on drivers of what they termed "moving igloos" -- vehicles that had only had the windshields cleared, and were driving around encased in snow and ice. The snowploughs got the roads clear. And the sidewalks. Right after the big dump of snow, I had to walk about twelve blocks from the hotel to another business and back, including crossing a highway, and wondered what a mess that was going to be. It wasn't a mess at all. The sidewalk and all pedestrian crossings were passable and the sidewalks leading to the highway underpass were properly signed and accessible. I have had considerably more trouble making a twelve block journey on foot in Florida. The bike paths were cleared, too, and being used the day after the storm. The city apparently had committed to keeping certain arterial bike routes clear all winter and was keeping their promise. The only points I dock Montreal for car-free accessibility is that you have to pay a new fare to transfer between suburban buses and city transit, because they are separate companies.

It finally did turn to rain early the next morning. Freezing rain. Everything was now not only covered in snow but topped with a shiny layer of clear ice. The promised real rain never came. The temperature dropped and it finished off by snowing another ten or 20 centimetres on top of the ice.

Yeah, snow over ice over snow. A delightful combination. Everyone had had enough snow, so the word came out to proceed to our next job, in the southern US, when able. Our brokers did all the paperwork for us and made an appointment with US Customs across the river in Vermont. Our plan was to check out of the hotel, arriving at the airport just before noon, to get the airplane ready for a three p.m. departure. Weather, time and pilot status permitting we could do a second leg from Vermont to Indiana after clearing customs. I even had a friend in Indiana lined up to visit, and a pocketful of reasons ready to justify why his local airport was a good place to overnight.

Our cab driver was a Haïtian immigrant, very friendly but unfamiliar with the location of our FBO. The province of Québec manages its own immigration, so there's a different mix of immigrants here, more Haïtians, Senegalese, Rwandans and others from French-speaking nations than in English-Canada. It's kind of fun to see how the history of who invaded or colonized whom has repercussions hundreds of years later on who drives your cab and makes your restaurant meals. The cabbie doesn't speak English as well as your average Montréaler, but "left here ... right here ... stop by the Esso" are not difficult feats of communication so we did just fine.

Despite us giving the FBO half a day's head start, the ramp and all the airplanes were still completely covered in snow and ice. They'd run into a bit of a "who deices the deicers?" problem. They had a deicing truck, and a large heated hangar and a front end loader, but everything was covered in thick ice, blanketed in snow, and the temperature was still well below freezing. The standard plan was to tow the deicing truck into the heated hangar to defrost it, then to use it in turn to defrost the airplanes. But the problem was twofold.

Firstly, the loader, i.e. the tow vehicle wouldn't start. Staff weren't certain whether it was the cold or the final step in its decline, but it wasn't going anywhere. The loader was also the snowplough, so that explained the condition of their ramp. The other problem was that even if they had had a functional deicing truck it wouldn't have made much headway against the ice accumulation on the airplanes. Deicing fluid is excellent for melting and removing snow, because snow is very porous. Pour any fluid on top and that fluid seeps right though the snow, saturating it. Even my tropical readers are going to be familiar with this phenomenon, as I understand that the Sno-Cone, under different names, is a worldwide commodity. The deicing fluid is like the flavoured syrup, sinking into the snow, but instead of flavouring it, it lowers the freezing point of the mixture. The deicing fluid is usually applied heated, so really it's triple action: mechanical force of the spray, plus freezing point depression, plus heat to melt it.

When the substance to be removed is actual ice, deicing fluid doesn't live up to its name. Ice is too hard to be removed by a spray, and ice is not porous so the fluid can't saturate it. You have to rely on the transfer of heat from the fluid to the ice. And as the fluid runs right off the ice, that can take a long time and a lot of expensive deicing fluid.

We were on our own, so grabbed brooms and went out to see how bad this was going to be. My coworker had already run down her camera battery taking pictures of our ice-encased airplane. While the bottom layer on most of the wings was snow, the wind had been blowing, so the leading edges and most vertical surfaces were free of snow, directly coated with ice. Ice everywhere. Icicles hung down all along the wingspan. The windows were now double-glazed, along with the entire fuselage. The propeller blades were like popsicle sticks inside huge blobs of ice. Icicles hung everywhere, under the nose like a beard, from the horizontal stabilizer, and under the engines. Imagine if all the rain that fell on and dripped off an airplane in a long rainstorm stuck there instead of completing its fall to the ground and running away.

We started by sweeping off the top layer of snow, down to the ice. The ice layer was about two centimetres thick on the wings. We pounded on it with our fists and elbows to break it up, then peeled off the slices of ice, the size of sofa cushions, and threw them on the ground. Where the ice lay over snow, this worked pretty well. I took a broom and ran it along the lines of icicles, enjoying the musical plinka-plinka-plinka sound of all the icicles breaking off. It's a sound that you either know or you don't. The rhythm is like running the hammer across an endless xylophone, but I don't think there's a musical instrument that can replicate that pitch without being tinny. Perhaps the cold, dense, dry air is part of the required conditions to hear the sound. I had to remind myself that the icicles were formed from water that had fallen on and flowed over my filthy airplane, and as I wouldn't lick the airplane it was not okay to pretend the icicles were popsicles. There are disadvantages to having a neverending childlike outlook on the world.

I banged on the fuselage above and below the windows, as hard as I dared without risking damage to my airplane, and cracked the ice enough that it could be peeled off. It worked. It was just slow and tedious. And cold. We took some warming up hands breaks. The FBO had a tow vehicle going and said that we could get our airplane into the hangar around 3 p.m. The customs facility in Vermont was open until six, so we held onto that hope and continued scraping ice off the machine, so as to shorten the amount of time it would take for the heat in the hangar to produce a bare, dry airplane. Then the hangar availability estimate was revised to 5 p.m. and almost immediately after that to 6 p.m., so we surrendered, cancelled our customs reservation, asking the FBO only that our airplane be ready for the morning, and went back to the hotel.

I felt hokey and small-time that we hadn't been able to do a simple thing like get an airplane ready to fly on a clear bright day. But then I discovered that very few airframes in the city that were on a ramp overnight left Montréal today. My customers had an eight a.m. departure out of Dorval that day, and were wheels up at four p.m. They said they spent an hour and a half in the deicing bay. That's not an hour and a half waiting in line for deicing. That's an hour and a half of having hot deicing fluid pumped onto the airplane. The icicles hanging off the wings of the B757 were proportional to the ones on my airplane, making them as thick as an arm at the root. No way those were going to be knocked off with a broomstick. Any attempt to do so might have damaged the skin of the airplane. I know of an Air Canada executive who checked in for a 7:20 am flight that was cancelled because of the ice. He boarded another flight at 11:05, pushed back at 12:15, finished deicing at 15:15, returned to the ramp for more fuel, and then the flight was cancelled at 16:15.

So our surrender to the elements was simply one of many. Every once in a while mother nature flexes her muscles and reminds us that we aviate at her pleasure.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Beginning the Walkaround

I'm back from a blissful hiatus with no internet or phone and only occasional and limited TV. There's nothing in the buffer and random notes on the laptop about what I'm supposed to be blogging about. When a blog has been sitting idle this long I can't just start it up and go. I'll have to walk around carefully, sweep all the snow off, remove the pitot tube covers, check the tire pressure, and then do a good long run up, and maybe a bit of high speed taxiing before take-off.

I expect to ramp up to normal bloggage over the the next few days.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Endless Supply of North Winds

Next morning there is no respite on the winds, but the snow has swept through and left Alberta clear. It's threatening to drop the visibility here now, but that's something I can work around. We get a cab back to the airport in early morning darkness. There is no one at the FBO, but they have fuelled the airplane as requested, tied it down and chocked it against the wind. Loaded to the gills, it's still jumping around like a kite. I put my passenger on board and close the door while I do the walkaround with a flashlight, checking especially to make sure that nothing has has blown into the engine cowlings or other important apertures during the night. I untie the ropes, but leave the chocks behind the wheels so it doesn't go anywhere while I'm starting the engines. It's that windy.

The saving grace is that the wind is now blowing straight down the runway, so that all its force will go to shortening my take-off roll and none to trying to push me sideways off the runway. The only challenge is getting to the runway. I taxi very slowly, turning my ailerons at each turn so as to spoil the lift on the into-wind wing. It's a skill I learned as I first learned to taxi in a light little two-place airplane. I don't always do it in this airplane, but today it is needed. I wonder if there is a size of airplane at which you can just leave the ailerons neutral through taxi in any conditions. I wonder if Airbus 380 pilots turn their ailerons for wind anyway, because that's what you do.

I position at the very end of the runway, because that's what you do, complete my pre-takeoff checks and set power. It's an amusingly short take-off roll. I estimate I had seventy percent of rotation speed before I even released the brakes, and there's very little rolling resistance to acceleration at low groundspeed. I climb, but not too high, because this wind is forecast to be even stronger at higher altitudes. My initial heading is due west, because the area of the worst turbulence and of low visibility and snow is approaching from the north. I've chosen a point based on forecasts at which I should be able to head northwest and be clear of the weather.

It works like a dream. I give thanks aloud for modern weather forecasting technology. The passenger is unimpressed and I resolve to shut up about that sort of thing in future. Progress is unbelievably slow. I file a PIREP reporting minimal turbulence and sixty-five knots on the nose. Just as forecast. I watch the scenery go by very slowly. I file another PIREP because I know there will be a lot of people looking at weather reports and forecasts today, wondering if they should venture out.

The frequency on which one files a PIREP up here is 126.7, the same frequency as one makes air-to-air position reports for the benefit of other traffic. Another pilot on frequency recognizes my voice and checks to confirm that it's me. It turns out to be the fueller from one of the places I've stopped recently. He's working on his commercial pilot licence and is on his way back home after a cross-country trip. He too was grounded yesterday. He's headed in the same direction as I am. I shudder to think what his ground speed might be. He's in a C172. He might get to his destination faster by driving. I respect him for being up here at all, with obviously limited experience.

Total flight time for the two legs of the trip, not including time spent on the ground at my planned fuel stop, was six hours, thirty minutes. And I took a more direct route than the 4h 07 southeastbound flight. I once had a student ask, "so where does all that wind COME FROM? Isn't the north going to run out of air?" There's actually a circulation, such that there is a polar high, constantly subsiding and being resupplied by air that circles aloft at the subpolar low.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Planning North

I'm going to have a heavier load going north and my preliminary calculations show that with full fuel it would be both over the maximum weight and past the forward limit of the centre of gravity. I'll have to manipulate my fuel load to keep it safe and legal. There's an electronic scale upstairs but it doesn't work, so I borrow a spring scale and go around weighing everything that's going to be on board. It turns out that the seats aren't the standard ones and actually weigh three pounds less each than I thought.

I'm weighing my engine tents and extension cords. It's worth unloading everything and weighing it, to use the exact weights, because five pounds in the nose can make the difference between being in or out of the proper centre of gravity range. I also have a hundred and fifty pounds of lead weights to help get the C of G where I want it.

It might seem odd to add weight in order to be able to make the plane not out of the weight limit, but the shape of the weight and balance envelope is such that the further back the weight is placed, the greater the allowable maximum weight. If I add this weight as far back as possible, it will increase the maximum faster than it adds weight. They're not some special aviation grade lead weights or anything. It's a set of weight plates for a home gym, from Canadian Tire. I don't have to weigh them, as each plate has its weight cast into the metal of the disk. I'd like to add the weight behind the rearmost bulkhead, allowing me to use less ballast in total, but as soon as I do that, it counts as a modification to the aircraft, and not a piece of secured cargo. Maintenance says they will see if they can find a pre-approved STC for the aircraft allowing us to make such a modification at a later date.

The wind is still howling from the north. It's so strong that I couldn't get to destination in one flight even with full fuel, so it's not costing me anything to leave fuel behind. Once I have worked out what everything weighs, and where I'll have to secure it, I calculate my allowable fuel load, subtracting how much I have onboard now in order to figure out how much to order. The gauges aren't really accurate enough for that sort of thing, so I keep records of fuel burn in flight. Finally, I have to convert my need for pounds into a request for litres.

Other planning tasks today include confirming fuel availability at my chosen fuel stop, ensuring there will be an electrical plug-in available at my destination if I arrive after hours, and getting the weather. There's a system moving through Alberta and I'm kept busy tracking the weather, ensuring I won't get caught in a snowstorm with nowhere to land. I change my proposed fuel stop three times as the weather advances.

While I'm working, I hear a woman's voice call out hello from the reception area, and then something that sounds like "I accidentally stole someone's cat." That doesn't make a lot of sense, so I mentally edit that and assume that we're dealing with an accidental hat thief. Easy to pick up the wrong hat, I suppose.

Someone who works at the hangar calls back. "Oh thanks, they told me about that." And then, "Just put her down anywhere." The pronoun doesn't match hats.

I come out to the reception area and there's a woman setting a cat carrier on the floor. "She might be mad. I had to lure her in there with cheese, but she wasn't happy." An indignant grey striped cat deigns to exit the cat carrier.

I have to ask. "How do you accidentally steal a cat?" The woman had been at the airport on a weekend and the cat had approached her for some head scratching and attention. There are no houses at or near the airport. It's kind of in the middle of nowhere. It didn't occur to her that the cat's home would be a hangar in the middle of nowhere. Skinny and tough, it just looked like a cat that was lost or abandoned.

In reality she was a hangar cat, a working cat, whose job it is to keep the hangar free of rats, mice and birds. Left unchecked, that prey is a real problem in a hangar. They chew upholstery, damage electrical wiring, and create fire and disease hazards. I've seen a horizontal stabilizer stuffed with enough sticks to affect the weight and balance, and an engine likewise covered in sticks and fluff by birds that came in through gaps in the cowling. At minimum, no one wants poop all over their hangar.

So this is the hangar cat's job. The guys of course put out water and basic food for the cat, but the bulk of its diet is what it catches, so the cat is spare and quick. Maybe some cat lovers wouldn't approve, but it's not being abused. It's living a pretty natural life and you know it's not a chore for cats to catch birds and mice. Ordinary pet cats do that, even if they're too well fed to consider eating their catch. It's cared for. When the cat didn't show up for work on Monday, one of the guys put up posters. I was a little surprised at that last, actually. After a bit of looking and a bit of waiting, I myself would have assumed that the cat had fallen prey to a coyote or an eagle and just asked around to see who knew of a good mouser with a litter of kittens ready to be weaned. But the cat was fine Heck, it was better than fine. The cat has visibly gained weight in a week and a half. For her, it must have been like a ten day resort vacation.

In the end, after all that planning, I had to cancel the flight. There were just too many weather factors: winds at my personal limits combined with low ceilings, low visibility in snow, and continued possibility of severe turbulence. So I got to see Moose Jaw.