Sunday, October 30, 2005

My Life on Reality TV

I remember twice today having cockpit conversations that made me look at the transmit light on the radio stack, and mentally reassure myself that we didn't have a live mike and we don't have CVRs in our operation. It's funny how you'll talk about things you oughtn't talk about, just because you're in a little box with everyone else sealed out.

And then I caught myself picking my nose in front of a security camera while entering an access code. Sorry security monitoring people. In real life women accidentally pick their noses in fromt of security cameras far more often than we dance naked.

Aren't you glad that there isn't a daily highlights and bloopers segment from your life shown on TV every night?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Emergency Vehicles

This isn't about airplanes, but it's about following rules, ceding the right of way to emergency traffic, and not being a complete idiot. There must be some connection.

I was driving in the United States a while ago, on a road with several lanes of traffic. I heard emergency sirens and could see the flashing lights well behind me, so I braked, signalled right and tried to pull over. The stream of traffic to my right continued unabated, oblivious to the fact that they were preventing me from getting out of the way of an emergency vehicle. Ambulances and firetrucks were threading their way through traffic like idiots in Camaros. No one else appeared to be making any attempt to pull off to the side and stop. I was utterly bewildered. I honked at the unyielding drivers, but short of ramming someone, I wasn't getting out of my lane. I incredulously asked my passengers, resident in the US, "don't you have to give way to emergency vehicles here?"

"Yeah," they said, "theoretically."

Am I that naive? Since then, back in Canada, I've been paying attention. And when the sirens wail, everyone pulls over and stops. No one enters an intersection, even if the light is green, so that the cars on the red light side that are blocking the firetrucks can pull forward to let them through. After the emergency vehicles pass, you're on your own trying to get back into the lane you wanted, but no one stops you getting out of the way of an ambulance or firetruck.

Is the place I live an aberration? Was I in a particularly obnoxious US city? Do you stop for sirens? You should. It's the law, and you don't know for whom the siren wails. It could be someone you know who has a serious emergency and can't afford a single second delay for the paramedics to arrive.

This has been a public service rant, and an excuse for me to type my favourite word, firetruck.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Dancing Seagulls

Dancing seagulls

A student pilot in Vancouver, British Columbia captured this image of two seagulls appearing to dance on the balcony of his apartment. His blog, happylife, is worth reading just for the photographs, but his insightful observations on Canadian life also make me smile. Only a foreigner really notices what we're like, and Mochi has a very keen sense of observation, plus is unashamed of absolute honesty about what he sees.

And I have to like someone who likes seagulls. Sometimes I feel like the only person who likes seagulls, especially among pilots. Yes, they're a hazard, and yes they earn the nickname "shithawks" every day. But I'm glad someone else can appreciate their intelligence and flying skills. I remember when I was a student pilot someone telling a story that began with "The wind was so bad that even the seagulls weren't flying ..." That made me realize that not much stops them. What is the maximum demonstrated crosswind capability of a seagull, anyway? Greater than their stalling speed, for sure.

Also, as this entry demonstrates, despite my every attempt to return to my own voice, his syntax is weirdly infectious.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Simulated Injuries?

The downtime on the airplane I mentioned the other day resulted in an administrative assignment that put a simulator manual in my hand. Just as the simulator would be set up to resemble the cockpit of a real airplane, the manual was set up to resemble the flight manual for a real airplane, including flap and gear speed limitations, positive and negative G-limits, prohibitions on aerobatic flight, and power setting limitations. I was amused by the following disclaimer:

These limitations are simulated for training purposes only. They may be exceeded without risk or damage to the flight simulator, however they may not be exceeded in the aircraft without risking injury or damage.

"But I flew the simulator through several outside loops with the gear extended, and nothing happened at all when I pulled out and did a whip stall at a hundred and ninety knots. I don't see why you're so upset about me doing it in the actual aircraft!"

Lawyers, eh?

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Letters Behind My Name

Just as I was opening Firefox to make this blog entry, I received the junk mail quoted below.

Have you ever thought that the only thing stopping you from a a great job and better pay was a few letters behind your name?

The advertiser offers me the opportunity to receive verifiable genuine degrees in two weeks with no study required. I don't need that. It's the letters already behind my name that are stopping me now.

I have verified with another employer that while he thinks I'm wonderful, I'm not getting a job there because I'm bright, educated, female, and have a goodly accumulation of flight hours. If I'm good enough for Air Canada, I'm not acceptable anywhere else. It's a bit like the discrimination suffered by an over-fifty who has been laid off. Nothign wrong with me, per se, just that I'm not the best choice for an employer protecting an investment.

The twist is, that people who really should know these things are continuing to tell me that Air Canada will take me from where I am right now. "Look, Aviatrix. Air Canada doesn't give a toss for 2000 hours flying a King Air around. They want smart, professional people with no bad habits whom they can train exactly to their standards. You fit." They are describing the fantasy world inhabited by deluded student pilots. It's not believable. I should probably take everything but high school off my resume. Then I can wear too much makeup and carry a pack of cigarettes (Air Canada won't hire smokers) to meet my next prospective employer.

But what if these people are right? I'll just pretend they are for a while.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Say Again?

In Canada it is illegal to disclose the contents of station to station radio transmissions. In effect, this means that when I tell you about the guy in the Luscombe trying to sell a used boat to the ground controller over the radio, or the tower controller telling an pilot arriving to no traffic and calm winds to "pick a runway, any runway" that I am technically in violation of a law whose name and number I don't know.

No one seems to mind, although I suppose it might be enforced if a newspaper reporter monitored transmissions from an aircraft in distress and used them to file a story that was not otherwise available. It's not illegal to listen to the transmissions: plenty of people without aeronautical radio licences buy scanners and listen to the voices of pilots and controllers. It's interesting to hear different accents and different styles, and part of my job is to build a mental picture of where everyone is based on their position reports and the clearances they have received.

"Alfa Bravo Charlie you are cleared to land runway 07. Hold short runway 18."

"Alfa Bravo Charlie cleared to land 07, hold short 18."

"Foxtrot Golf Hotel continue number one runway 18, expect clearance short final."

"Foxtrot Golf Hotel"

"Romeo Sierra Tango cleared takeoff runway 18, traffic landing 07 will hold short, no delay, traffic on final."

"Romeo Sierra Tango rolling 18"

I can see the picture, with traffic operating on intersecting runways, and the controller fitting them in between one another in different directions, like the RCMP musical ride. It's fun to be on top of it, and know who is going to get the next call, what you are waiting for before you get your clearance, and it's a matter of safety to know where everyone is. If the pilot of RST above hears ABC call an overshoot, he should realize that could be relevant to him. If FGH hears RST reject the takeoff, then FGT knows he's going around.

All this is interesting enough that some people listen to it for fun. Sites like this one, hosted at Futura Studios have live radio feeds so you can listen to the chatter from various parts of the world. At Dallas Fort Worth you'll hear the word "bridge" in clearances a lot. It's not special jargon: DFW actually has taxiways that cross bridges over the highways coming into the airport. It will help your listening if you get an airport diagram and a local terminal chart.

Enough of my readers thank me or ask me for funny ATC stories that I thought I'd post this link so you can listen to live ATC and discover some gems of your own. Just not from Canada. I remember when I was a student pilot there was a radio feed available from a Canadian tower, for a while, but it was shut down.

In an additional note, Eric, Director of Futura Studios Digital Design Studios, noticed some flaws in the airplane image I use on this site and in my profile. He sent me some great corrected images, and they should now be the ones you see at top left and in the sidebar. What do you think?

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Kids These Days

There's no question that the industry is picking up right now. My company hired a whole bunch of people into their first commercial job recently. In a manner of speaking I supervise some of them. That manner being that I can get in trouble if they screw up, I can tell them not to do things, but don't have any real authority to order them to do things. They got these jobs without any trouble, and it shows.

We had an airplane break down in one of those places you can tell from the name you don't want to be. Ever noticed that when a Canadian placename starts in Fort or ends in River, it is in the boonies? When a place becomes civilized, it loses the Fort or the River and stands on its own. The dispatcher had made the phone calls and schedule adjustments to determine that we couldn't get a mechanic into Fort River until the morning, but could get the people out tonight, we just needed a pilot. I was there, but the trip conflicted with my schedule, so she started looking for someone else.

The next pilot in the door was greeted with "where are you going now?" When he responded "home" the dispatcher cheerfully made a game show 'wrong answer' buzzer sound and informed him that his next destination was in fact Fort River. And he said no. He wasn't dutied out; he wasn't fatigued; he just wanted to go home and see his girlfriend. He's worked for the company for about three months. Two of the new hires turned down the trip like it was some kind of joke. I wanted to throttle them. I wanted to bloody their snotty little noses.

The third pilot in the door started the same day as I did, one seniority number above me. This is beginning to sound like an episode of Wings, but the dispatcher greeted him with "You've just won an all expenses paid trip to ..." and everyone else chimed in with "Fort River!" He has a work ethic, or maybe his girlfriend was away, because he just checked the weather and went.

And then another new hire refused to come back in to sign a journey log, and tried to get the dispatcher to forge it. How do I list this difference in attitude that distinguishes me from the other idiots the employers I want to work for are considering hiring? Anyone can say he is responsible and committed. You can't prove it on paper. You have to prove it at the end of the day.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Our Replacements

I was discussing GPS with a colleague who is preparing for the exams to upgrade his commercial licence to an airline transport licence. I mentioned that they like to ask us to recall the frequencies on which GPS operates: 1575.42 and 1227.60. He asked why there were two frequencies, and I started to explain about standard and precise positioning service, and then realized that my explanation was out of date. "You know, I'm not sure how many frequencies there are any more. Every time I read about GPS it gets more advanced, and I don't honestly know what level of technology is experimental, cutting edge, or actually installed in our airplanes. It's not like I'm ever going to be in a position to either tune the frequency, or build a GPS unit out of stone knives and bearskins. I know how to turn on the box and get it to tell me the right direction to fly."

"And," he concluded, "this is how we will be replaced."

For all we can argue that a cockpit must have a skilled pilot or two in it, automation is increasingly able to do most of our job. Automation is far better than people at monitoring a situation that rarely goes wrong, over a long period of time, and then, hours later, doing a task that requires alertness and precision. I told the pilot that he wouldn't be out of work. He'd sit on the ground monitoring five or ten flights for any abnormalities. If the landing gear failed to retract or an elevator trim jackscrew appreared to be misbehaving, the normal flights would be transferred to another operator and he would focus all his attention on the affected flight, landing it by telemetry. Yep, there are situations where only a real live pilot in the cockpit could save the day, but there are also plenty of situations whe real live pilots have messed up where automation wouldn't have.

He got into the speculation. (Anything is better than studying for an exam). "And they'd all have TCAS, but instead of saying 'Climb, Climb,' they'd just climb. The airplanes in communication with each other."

"And with automated ATC."

"And mostly I'd just watch them. And pat the dog that was there to bite me."

We concluded that for every Sioux City there are a dozen Everglades, Silk Airs, or Little Rocks, and that that would be the new price of air travel. And then we went back to work.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

But It Could Have Been Me

Sorry for the long gap in posts. Someone asked me about my silence and I admitted that every time I went to blog I looked at the last entry and didn't feel like blogging anymore. Why does this death bother me more than the last aviation funeral I attended?

Partly it's my ability to identify with Nancy Allan more than with a male pilot that is affecting me. If you aren't a white male in the prime of your life, you may have discovered the importance of role models: the more similar someone is to you, the more you realize that you could achieve what they have achieved. Or that what happened to them could happen to you. Before her death in Winnipeg last week, Nancy logged about the same number of flying hours as I have. Some of her background is similar to mine. Someone even e-mailed me asking me to assure them it wasn't me.

Sometimes when someone dies, we use a little of the Right Stuff tactic. You think to yourself, "the company he flew for had poor maintenance," or "I've seen him do a skimpy walkaround," or "they had some pretty dangerous operational procedures." You come up with just the right balance so that you aren't mentally slagging the other pilot, but you maintain a reason why it can't happen to you. Not here. Morningstar is an excellent company. The Caravan is known to be not-so-good in ice, but it's certified and there was no reason I wouldn't have done the same scheduled take-off if it had been mine. The airplane she regularly flew was out getting painted. Yeah, she was covering for someone else who was on vacation: wasn't even supposed to be in that horrible Winnipeg weather.

I can explain that anyone could be killed crossing the street, but you see, pilots and elementary school teachers and computer programmers and legal secretaries all cross the street. I told a friend once in all seriousness that "it's not that that many pilots are killed at work, it's just that we all know one another and there's such a network of communication, and when we die at work it makes the news, so it seems like more." He nodded sagely, and managed to pretend that it was probable that Canadian office workers die in gruesome filing cabinet and stapler-related accidents every month, but that the media just doesn't report it, because it's not glamourous like an airplane crash.

So I have to resort back to knowing that we all die in the end, thus I might as well do what I like doing in the meantime.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

It Wasn't Me

This morning the radio reported the crash of a FedEx cargo flight, a Cessna 208. The initial radio report had far fewer details, and simply led with the fact that the "female pilot" was killed. I won't jump on a feminist soapbox to claim that inclusion of her sex in the report equates to condemnation of her abilities. I don't believe that. It may add sensation to the story, but that's the job of the news media. I can't blame them for trying to sell radio advertising, any more than they can blame me for cancelling flights when the fuel pump doesn't work. I don't think there's anything wrong with including someone's age, race, sex, hair colour, or fashion statements in an article about them. It makes it more interesting. But no one should learn of the death of a friend or relative in between jokes and stock prices on the radio morning show. In this community, by naming the company, the route, the type of aircraft and specifying that the pilot was female, you pretty much identify her, at almost any company.

It sounds as though she encountered in-flight icing and picked up more than the aircraft could endure before she could get back on the ground. I hope the TSB figures out what happened.

Aircraft Snag

Every aircraft logbook page has a space to report snags (problems), and each snag has to be numbered to correspond to maintenance rectifications and deferrals. Sometimes there are little jokes hidden within.

At the end of a particularly hot week, an airplane might turn up at the maintenance hangar, logbook annotated with:

Air conditioning u/s

If the head of maintenance is in the right mood, some poor apprentice may be sent to diagnose the unserviceable air conditioner. The game is to see how long it takes him to figure out that the aircraft never had air conditioning installed.

Cosmetic problems in the cockpit don't get rectified quickly. It's amusing to see how many executive transports sport brand new leather interiors in the passenger cabin, while the pilot seats are ratty cloth partially recovered in ratty sheepskin. Its not worth writing up a snag for a coffee stain. Unless the right opportunity presents itself.

1. Left engine stopped producing power immediately after take-off.
2. Aircraft landed over max certified landing weight.
3. Brown stains on pilot seat.

It's all about context.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Sting

Two Transport Canada officials came by one day, and planted themselves in a public area in our lounge, with a good view of the ramp. No one likes to see Transport swoop into the company unexpectedly, and it was amusing to see pilots swerve away from them, and find another direction to walk in.

"What are they doing here?" I asked a colleague.

"They're going to do an enforcement action on Air Raccoon," he replied.

"How do you know?"

"I heard them discussing it next door."

There they were, clearly keyed up with anticipation of triumph, grinning and sidling up to each other, as the Raccoon-marked airplane taxied in and parked. ID badges carefully adjusted, windbreakers zipped up and clipboards at the ready, they strolled out through the security doors to the tarmac, towards the offending aircraft. The mood evoked drawn guns and the bulk of bulletproof vests. We all craned our necks around the corner and hummed the theme song from COPS. Apparently the aircraft had been loaded so obviously over its gross weight that someone had reported it. I'm not sure what the fine or penalty was.

As I write this, I realize that it's really rather nice that aviation enforcement doesn't actually involve armed takedowns. Two badges and two stern looks almost certainly brought that pilot to the professional equivalent of being handcuffed face down on the pavement. Whatcha going to do when they come for you?