Saturday, May 31, 2008

Paper Tickets

Depending on where or for how many years you have travelled by airline, you may or may not have seen a paper airline ticket. I'm not talking about a boarding pass, or the e-mail you print out from your computer, but the ticket itself. It's more like a coupon book, with one perforated tear-out page for each leg of your flight, each inscribed in red carbon with destinations, flight numbers and other industry codes. There's a picture in this article. In the old days, boarding passes were little pouches and when you checked in the agent put the appropriate coupon, along with the Warsaw Pact disclaimer and advertising junk inside the pouch. As you boarded the airplane, another agent took the coupon out and left you with the boarding pass. At the end of your trip you would have a collection of boarding passes and the final page in your coupon book, which was marked NOT VALID FOR CARRIAGE or some such. It was your receipt.

I'm saying all this in the past tense because most airlines use electronic tickets now, issuing boarding passes by matching your ID with a record of your having paid for the flight. And IATA, the International Air Transport Association, set the 31st of May this year as the deadline for elimination of paper tickets all together.

I've seen a few glitches with electronic boarding passes that says we'll have bits of paper with us for a while as we board the plane, but that's another post.

While preparing to bid farewell to the last paper airline ticket, someone I know asked who issued the first paper airline ticket, and what did it look like. I haven't managed to find a picture of one, and I bet they are vanishingly rare if there are any remaining, but I would be astonished if the first paper ticket were not issued by the first airline. It was called DELAG, and began operations in 1909, with domestic service at first, and then began transatlantic service in 1928. If you're struggling to reconcile those dates with what you know of airplanes, you haven't considered that the first airline didn't operate airplanes. DELAG carried up to 70 passengers at a time in zeppelins. I am certain that if a turn of that century German corporation accepted a fare for a journey that they would issue you a ticket. And they would inspect it carefully as you boarded.

The first airplane-based airline seems to have been the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line. It may not have had tickets at first, because it carried only one passenger at a time, but it seems to have had all the hallmarks of a modern airline. Established with the aid of a government subsidy, the airline was subject to mechanical delays, levied a surcharge for excess baggage, and had to overcome government bureaucracy to get off the ground.

Regarding the baggage charges, passengers were allowed a maximum weight of 200 pounds gross, including hand baggage. "Excess weight [was] charged at $5 per hundred pounds, minimum charge 25 cents." The more I read that, the more I suspect that that two hundred pounds is including the passenger's body weight. Or perhaps people travelled with huge steamer trunks.

My favourite part of the story is that establishment of an airline required the government to issue the country's first ever airline pilot's licence. According to Edward C. Hoffman, president of the Florida Aviation Historical Society, that license has the word "Steamboat" crossed out and "Aeroplane" typed in.

That is government participating in the pioneering spirit of aviation. It always comes back to paperwork.

Friday, May 30, 2008

No Aviation Heroes?

Many airports have a historical "Something Field" name in addition to their official "Something County Regional Airport" name, with the field being named after a local aviation here, sometimes simply the original farmer who first built an airplane or allowed visiting pilots to land in his hayfield. Almost every airport has an Airport Road and I've seen many airport vicinity streets named after Cessna, Piper and de Havilland. There are lots of little roads around airports and you can pick up a bit of local history by seeing who the town chooses to honour. And then there's the place I landed last night. I didn't tell you where it was, so you could use their naming scheme to deduce it. The following is a list of names of roads found in the vicinity of one international airport.

  • Airport Way
  • Air Cargo Drive
  • Terminal Drive
  • Airport Lane
  • Old Airport Road
  • Airport 2nd St
  • Airport Ave B
  • Airport Ct
  • Air Tower Drive

Don't they have anyone they want to honour? Does anyone want to have a go at identifying the airport?

As I type this, I'm listening to what appears to be a war movie on the hotel TV. Something about a squadron escorting an airplane carrying an atom bomb. It's not clear whether it's the Enola Gay, or some alternate history. The words that just got my attention were, "She's stalled! She can pull up, she will pull up, she's too good of a pilot not to."

I have no idea how or what aircraft this pilot stalled, but pulling up is not the way a good pilot recovers from a stall.

I wonder what the movie was. It appeared to be about an all-female military squadron of pilots and mechanics, stationed on a tropical jungle island, wrestling with the ethical issues of providing assistance to the guy with the bomb.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Passing Wind

I've taken off from the Canadian prairies and am heading south. My take-off was six minutes after filed, which will affect my arrival time at customs. They told me on the phone, rather fiercely, that I had a fifteen minute window. More than seven minutes early or more than seven minutes late and I'm in trouble. Customs officers have families the man on the phone said, and they want to spend time with them, not waiting for me. I'm not worried about the six minutes though, because, knowing I could always slow down if I needed to, I told them I'd be a little longer than I though I would. I can always slow down a little as I approach, or just taxi really slowly, if there are no delays. And maybe I'll luck out and get a customs officer with a new baby at home, who is glad of the opportunity to escape the associated smells and sounds.

I'm VFR today, flying at only a few thousand feet above flat terrain, and radar coverage is sparse in this part of the world, so ATC decide they don't want to talk to me anymore. Theoretically I'm supposed to have ATC contact during the border crossing, so I call up an American ATC unit. They don't want to talk to me either, but I have at least fulfilled the letter of the law as the brown flat bits beneath switch from Canadian to American.

Once I'm established on the faintly red, white and blue striped side of the border, probably in a red state, I'm navigating to just miss the corner of a Military Operations Area. It's marked on the chart, and outlined on the GPS, but that's not what I'm navigating by. This part of this state is basically flat, but every once in a while there's a mountainous part. And this particular mountain exactly coincides with the MOA, almost as though the mountains themselves were some sort of secret military project. Maybe they aren't mountains at all, but an illusion of mountains, created by the people with the black helicopters to hide their secret base. At my out-of-the-wind altitude, I choose to go around the peaks of the mountains, rather than testing their solidity and defenses.

Other than that slight deviation, my trip is a couple of hours of straight travel. The engines gauges all sit happily at their expected values and the engines sound fine on either side of me. There are a lot of bugs on the windshield, though. I guess it's that time of year on the prairies again.

As I approach my destination, and I pick up the ATIS to find out the current conditions, the GPS says my arrival time will be to-the-minute as planned, I've made up the six minutes. Okay, maybe I cheated a tiny bit with power, not just the winds.

Speaking of winds, there is a bit of a crosswind at destination. I think it was 22 knots about 15 degrees off the runway. This airplane is pretty solid in a crosswind. That's not even enough to be fun. I call the tower and am sequenced for landing, almost straight in from my direction of travel. The aircraft in front of me are being passed the winds. (As I type this, a Beavis and Butthead voice in my head says "passed wind, heh heh," but giving someone information by radio is called "passing" and information about wind strength and direction is "winds" so what else can I say?) The winds are increasing and diverging from the runway by the minute. When I am on two-mile final, the wind is 42 knots, I remember that figure, but not the angle. It was over thirty, so more than twenty knots of direct crosswind. There is another runway I can ask for, which by this time is more aligned with the runway, and I'm thinking I will probably overshoot and land on it, but crosswinds are such fun. It won't take any more time now to try and then turn for another runway than it would be to ask for the other runway right away, so I continue, somewhat sideways, for this one. On short final I start to straighten the airplane out. This is where I could discover I don't have enough rudder to land the airplane in this direction. I have been approaching with the wings level and the nose pointed into the wind to keep my direction of travel aligned with the runway centreline. Now I'm rolling my into wind wing down at the same time as I press down the away-from-wind rudder pedal. I have to decrease my bank momentarily to get the nose aligned with the runway, but then I put the bank back in and everything holds.

I don't really have enough rudder left over to cope with any sudden gusts, but so far the wind has been very steady. I keep asking myself, "Should I reject this?" I need to leave room for something unanticipated to go wrong. I'm also carrying enough power that I can keep the airplane airborne in ground effect, and I'm ready to go around. But the wind is from the right, and I expect it to continue to decrease and also back, become more from the left as I descend the last bit to the runway. I overfly the beginning of the runway. I'm straight and on the centreline. I reduce the power and put the airplane down, first the into wind wheel and then the other. Yah, triumph!

Using power that way isn't really the right way to land. By the textbook I should have done a firm, solid landing with no float, so as to get the airplane firmly on the ground before a gust could carry me sideways. I took advantage of the fact that I had much more runway than I needed, so I didn't have to make my decision right at the runway. There's also no problem making the away-from-wind turn to exit the runway onto the taxiway. I expected it would be harder because the airplane would act as a weather vane and try to point towards the wind. I think the surface wind must be less than they are calling it.

I taxi to customs, right down at the end of the runway. There's a little building behind a black helicopter with "Homeland Security" stencilled along it in serious letters. As I shut down the engines a customs officer comes around the nose towards my boarding door. I set the parking brake and come back to open the door. The wind tears it out of my hands and it slams open. Fortunately the customs officer wasn't standing in a position that made me liable for decapitating a federal officer. I'm sure there's a serious penalty for that. I stick my head outside and wow yes, I believe it's 42 knots now. Easily. The officer yells over the wind for me to bring my passport, licence and aircraft documents inside. He'll meet me there. He flees.

I collect my documents, borrow and set chocks and come inside, probably looking like a troll doll from the wind. The customs clearance is painless. He inspects my licence, my passport, the airplane registration, my proof of purchase of a customs decal and consults the computer a bit then tells me I'm all done. He's much friendlier than the guy on the phone. Maybe he doesn't actually have a family. I ask him if there's one FBO on the field that is more appropriate for my size airplane than another. Sometimes one FBO caters mainly to jets, or one has parking gauged to small singles. He isn't supposed to give recommendations, but manages to let me know which one everyone goes to.

When I get back to the plane I see that the wind has blown the chocks right out from under the wheels! The chocks are two wedge-shaped blocks of wood connected by a rope. That's normal for wheel chocks, so you can pick them up both at once, and hang them on a hook. The wind in this case caught the rope like a flag and that was enough force to pull the chocks out. Fortunately the brakes held. I restart the airplane and get taxi clearance to the FBO, past the Homeland Security helicopter. I don't know helicopters, so I can't tell you what sort it was, but it was big. I wouldn't be surprised if it could seat ten well-armed people. It definitely cost a lot of money. I was going to take a picture of the helicopter for you, but you know, Homeland Security.

I taxi up to the FBO and more troll-haired people marshall me into parking and scurry to tie down the airplane. I laugh, climbing out of the airplane, about how strong the wind is, and how it came up just as I was landing. "We saw you land," they tell me, "you did a good job." I suppose I would sit and watch and laugh pilots trying to land in that, too. Maybe take some video.

I stayed at a hotel the FBO called for me, and ate next door in a truck stop diner. And the food was excellent. I seem to have discovered a pattern lately of unexpectedly good food in diners and airport restaurants in the northern states. Either the baseline standard for restaurant cuisine is higher here, or good restaurants just have lousy decor.

Also there's an e-mail from a company I've applied to, inviting me for an interview for a jet job. I can't come because their week of interviews occurs while I am out of the country, but I tell them to keep me in mind for future opportunities. Perhaps my unwillingness to screw over my current employer will reflect well on me.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

On The Road Again

Waiting in the departure lounge for a flight, I hear the CSA radio to ask someone to bring her a bottle of hand sanitizer. A while later someone calls back and say they only have a large 500 mL bottle, and they can't bring it through security. My ears perk up when the CSA says, "tell them what it's for, maybe they'll make an exception."

What, I wonder, is so unsanitary on this airplane that it justifies violating the security rules? My curiosity is further piqued when they ask all passengers holding boarding passes for rows one through three to come forward to the podium. I'm not in rows one through three but you know, perhaps I need to move to a seat in the waiting area closer to the desk. The ... uh ... electricity might be better for blogging there.

So yeah, I eavesdrop. It turns out that there's a kid on board with a severe peanut allergy. He's about ten, wearing a little plastic mask, like an oxygen mask, and sitting beside a mother who looks fierce and hardened from years of hawklike anti-peanut watchfulness. The passengers in the first three rows are asked to surrender any peanut-related possessions, and to sanitize their hands. (They solved the security impasse by finding a 100 mL hand sanitizer bottle). A general announcement warns the rest of us to keep any peanuts stowed until after the flight.

This severe peanut allergy thing is odd. There is evidence for it being genetic and environmental (yea I know, lousy citation. There's too much concerned parent stuff on the web to find the science without a lot of sifting). If there's a genetic part, I wonder when and where the mutation occurred, how many people carry genes for it, and if it has any advantages, that have caused it to be retained or if it was just a useless genetic twist for those who had no contact with peanuts. It appears that the peanut has been around for a few thousand years in South America, but came to the US only a couple of hundred years ago. Peanut butter is now extremely popular in the US and Canada. Peanut boy's safety allowed for, we board the airplane.

This is Calgary. It was snowing at home, and there were frozen ponds and a few snow patches visible from the air, but the rampees are all wearing shorts and t-shirts. It must be spring here. Then I remember that this is Calgary and rampees wearing t-shirts and shorts only means that it is above -10 or so. Calgary WestJet rampees have a peculiar masochistic pride. It is spring here now, about +14 today. They had a foot of snow on the weekend, but that's Calgary for you.

On departure we bank such that I can see the city. I suddenly realize that Calgary is a tiny city. I've thought of it all my life as a big city, a series of connected glass- and steel-bound canyons, a maze of quadrantally numbered streets and improbably non-linear "trails," dwarfed only by the Rocky Mountains just to the west. But from my airplane window I look again and see that the glistening office towers cover only a few blocks on the south of the river, with the city flattening quickly into suburban houses and malls, and then fading to farmland in the blink of an eye. Most of the cities I have written about in the last year are bigger.

But that doesn't make them better. Calgary is beautiful.

Also, Blogger now allows postdated entries, so I can queue up a week's worth of entries and have them all autopost on the right days. It doesn't write new entries for me, though, so there may still be dry spells in my blogging.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

No, I Don't Have a Parachute

I have a blog to recommend to you today. It's called Where the Hell Is Phil and is the hilarious and illuminating adventures of a young man working as flight attendant for a national US airline. He's exploring his country, discovering the depth of human stupidity and making me laugh like a crazy woman.

Phil is from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and while his history includes evidence that he has both worked as an actor and received military training, he hadn't travelled much beyond Baton Rouge before this job. Read the blog from the beginning, to witness him making the happy discovery that Wal-Mart is a chain, and gradually realizing that everywhere in America has ducks. I wonder how often my own naïvité has been this amusing.

He has a talent for noticing the ridiculous, not that the ridiculous doesn't regularly present itself to flight attendants, nor that he doesn't participate. Some samples ...

On his way to Utah: "Sat next to a teenage girl with a live turtle, and she kept holding it up to the window so it could see."

On the first aid segment of his FA training: "I had done first aid before in the Army, and it's very brief there. Things along the lines of, 'if severed limb is present, transport with but out of sight of victim'."

"I think it's really cool to work on a thing that has a 'galley,' because it makes it sound like your office is a pirate ship. Having said that, the galley is a nightmare. Imagine your kitchen. Now imagine it crammed inside the back seat of a Chevy Nova."

On his duty of closing the aircraft and cockpit doors: "I don't think there's another way to mess up closing a door, but if there is, I feel confident I'll find it."

"I was already having what I call a Bad Physics Day."

"And so now it's official: four out of four pilots recommend Asahi as a painful method of suicide."

A passenger once asked him a question that assumed the flight crew had parachutes. I wish to echo Phil's statement that we don't have parachutes. I have never had a job where I wore a parachute. The only commercial pilots that wear parachutes are those who drop parajumpers, and those who perform aerobatics routines.

It's not really feasible for me to jump out of my airplane during flight. Most airplanes are not suitable for jumping out of. There have been very few air accidents ever where parachutes would have done much to improve survivability. But the passenger belief that pilots all have them gave me a revelation.

Suddenly there is sense in the popular accounts of heroic pilots fighting with the controls to land the airplane in a field instead of hitting an elementary school. The public isn't praising the pilot for choosing between slamming into a brick building or skidding across a soccer field. They're praising him for piloting the airplane all the way to the ground when he could have just leapt out, parachuting to safety while the airplane hit the elementary school.

My very favourite entry is this one on pilot's kids. If you've ever enlisted friends or family to help you study for a new type, you must read this. Oh and when Phil moved to Utah he decided to go snowboarding. Just bought a snowboard and headed for the hills. No lessons, just strapped on the board and tried hard not kill himself. This is the pioneering spirit that brought us aviation in the first place. I bet Phil would accept a Flugtag invitation.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Le Grand Saut

About the time Blogger autoposts this timestamped entry, and if the surface winds are low, a man named Michel Fournier is riding a balloon-lifted capsule, preparing to jump out 130,000 feet above southwestern Saskatchewan. He has a parachute, but he doesn't plan to open it until he has fallen to five thousand feet above the North Battleford farmland. He is attempting to break the records for the longest freefall descent and the fastest human-only travel, and more importantly to prove that high altitude ejection is viable for spacecraft encountering re-entry difficulties.

Fournier refers to it as "un projet ancien francais," as the European space agency was working on such an ejection system for their shuttle, and Fournier was scheduled to make a test jump in the late 1980s. But the jump was cancelled with the European shuttle program, and the French government refused him permission to try the jump on his own, with other sponsors. The Canadian government said yes, selecting the area around North Battleford as having few lakes in which an unconscious jumper might drown, and pretty much nothing to hit. I've flown there, and while it's not the most desolate piece of country I've ever seen, I have to agree that there is not a lot to hit.

There's no NOTAM out yet for either a high-altitude skyjumper or balloon. I suppose that would defeat their stated plan to keep the planned landing location secret to prevent anyone interfering with the recovery operation.

Here is the English version of Fournier's own website on the project. Presumably that will be updated to announce if he goes on Monday. There are articles about the jump in the New York Times and at France24.

This is Fournier's third attempt, so I guess the adage about "try, try, again" does apply to parachutists, after all.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Colourful Paint

One area where both aviators and drivers can have fun with customization is in their paint schemes. Most of the airplanes I have ever flown have had boring paint jobs, or paint inspired by the fashionable colours of the 1960s and 1970s. Turquoise and orange, anyone? All the turquoise and orange cars have long since gone to scrap, but there are a few airplanes still flying around in that cheerful colour scheme. I took these pictures of custom painted cars in Santa Barbara.

The first one is a bus with a van welded on top of it. It has a bike rack on the front, and a trailer on the back, also railings on top and of course all your standard hippy bumper stickers calling for freeing, banning, impeaching and hugging of various things. It had a generator running. I think that's it on the back.

The second one is a VW bus from, if I remember correctly, Wyoming, painted in a Dr. Seuss theme. You can see Red Fish, Blue Fish, the Lorax, the Grinch and I think some original creations made to rhyme with parts of the car.

If you were born in Canada or the US in the last sixty years, chances are that you grew up with these characters. Do people in other countries have them too? I learned to read with the Cat in the Hat, but I didn't like him. He was too irresponsible. I was always mad at those kids for letting him in in the first place.

You also get a bonus picture of the shadow of my elbow, for those of you trying to assemble a complete Aviatrix from parts.

It takes a lot of creativity to decorate a three dimensional object and have t work out just right. One underappreciated place this happens is in airline paint schemes, called liveries. Some marketing agency decides they are going to have light gray airplanes with a red stripe and an animal rampant on the vertical stabilizer, and then they have to work out how to make the stripe look straight and even, and the animal look the same on four different kinds of airplane, with bulges and different shaped tails and APUs sticking out. And of course there are the special paint jobs, like the Alaskan Salmon, Shamu the Whale, Wunala Dreaming, Maryland One, Pokémon and many more.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Little Respect

One of the most common complaints about security is the rudeness of the screeners. I typed out a whole lot of theorizing on customer service in the US and Canada, southern USA hospitality, the British class system, French culture, the effect of competition on corporate attitudes towards customer service, and the public face of police services. But in the end I deleted it most of it. Simply put, the public expects smiles, please, thank you, and deference. The screeners expect orderly, respectful compliance. Both groups are very disappointed by what actually happens.

Security screeners are stuck with the dual and daunting task of preventing potentially dangerous objects from going onboard aircraft, and acting as the public face of the inconvenience of airports. I imagine that many of them try to face each new customer with cheer, or at least guarded neutrality, but after five hours of scowling, whining, eye-rolling passengers, they're probably doing well not to actually swear back at you. The public are incredibly rude to the screeners. The screeners are rude back. The whole process becomes self-perpetuating pit of nastiness.

My strategy: be nice. If I have to, I pretend that the screeners are behaving as reasonable human beings, and respond accordingly to my fantasies. The aim is for an Academy Award level performance, not sarcastic pseudoniceness. The first step in being nice is to follow the rules. I mean really, the rules don't hurt me. It's a nuisance to get my laptop, my boarding pass, my baggie, my shoes and my parka all organized on the belt, but that nuisance is not the fault of the screener.

I smile and say hello to any screener who looks at me. I say excuse me, and please, if I have a question. I say thank you if they give me an instruction or a bin. If they thank me, I tell them they're welcome. If I discover that I've accidentally packed something I shouldn't have, I apologize, and admit to knowing better. Everyone knows that throwing a tantrum will not result in being able to keep the prohibited item. And I know I feel better after an encounter if I think I've behaved in a civilized manner. It's a game. I score points if the screener is nice back to me.

A little bit of niceness goes a long way, in both directions. Some of the poor screeners are so starved for love that their gratitude shows. Some of them are so hardened in their ways you'd think I swore at them. It's like those studies showing that people are happier when they give money away as opposed to spending it on themselves. Is it my being polite that makes me happy, or someone else's being polite to me?

On a recent trip, I decided to try WestJet's e-Boarding Pass. I followed the instructions on their site and they e-mailed me a boarding pass. Not a boarding pass to be printed out, but a paperless one. At security, I displayed it as instructed on my computer screen. The screener looked at it, looked confused, and called another screener. They told me it was not adequate. It didn't qualify as a boarding pass because it didn't have a barcode.

I went back to the check in area and used a kiosk to get a paper boarding pass. I returned to the screening area and got the same screener. She was openly grateful for my easy acceptance of the original decision. I won't tell you what I got away with because of it.

I wonder if I put a big tinfoil happy face inside the bottom of my carry on, if it would show up as a happy face on the x-ray machine. Maybe I'll try it next trip.

The picture is of a bilingually labelled, CATSA-issue one-litre plastic bag. These are available free in most Canadian airports, from a table in front of security. I've also seen bags for sale in US airports. They should also have a vending machine for little mailing boxes, and postage, so you could mail things you weren't allowed to carry. I think a lot of US airports don't have mailboxes, though, so that would be a barrier.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Everpresent Security

So of course to go to work I have to get on a commercial flight. And to get on a commercial flight I have to go through security. Ahh, security. Everyone besides people who intend to blow up the airplane has an immediate keen interest in people who intend to blow up the airplane not being equipped to do so, but no one looks forward to undergoing security screening.

I'd like to give the TSA some credit today for addressing the public animosity in a blog, Evolution of Security. They publish information, stories, refutations and explanations. When the blog first went online it was inundated with comments and complaints. And I give the official bloggers more credit for acknowledging the problems and responding to the comments.

As I see it, security screening areas are unhappy places because:

  • Passengers don't know the rules or refuse to follow them.
  • The rules appear illogical, vary from place to place, and are inconsistently applied.
  • Submitting to the screening process is irritating, time consuming and can be humiliating.
  • Passengers are abusive towards screeners.
  • Screeners do not treat passengers with respect.

People in airports are already under stress, because of time pressure, carrying heavy objects and important valuables in the presence of many strangers, the nature of the business that calls for them to travel, and for many a fear of getting on airplanes in the first place. Present these people with one more piece of stress, or simply an available human target, and many of them explode into defiance.

The vast majority of air travellers today are familiar with the basic rules: no weapons or explosives, liquids in one baggie, no jokes about threats, possessions all go through the X-Ray machine while the passenger walks through the scanner. In fact general hatred of security screening by frequent travellers probably has the effect of propagating this knowledge through the non-travelling population. And for the very ignorant, there are large signs and often people reiterating the rules as you approach security.

Passengers have to take responsibility for complying with the rules. Unfortunately many don't, and instead blame the screener for the confiscation of their precious sunblock. The way I see it, if I decide to take the risk of trying to carry my sunblock onboard in a 110 mL container, or if I am too lazy or forgetful to put it in my checked baggage, then I can hardly complain if the rule is enforced. If I were to say, "what? how can my sunblock be a threat to the airplane?" I'd be claiming to be an idiot.

This "how can you do this to elderly/innocent/handicapped/military personnel?" argument is a common one, but one that shows an innocence of the entire security mentality. To do good security you actually must believe that everyone is a threat. Bruce Schneier writes about the security mindset.

If the TSA were to assume everyone was a harmless and innocent passenger, they'd let everyone through with no questions or screening, and while that would be quicker, it wouldn't be screening. So instead they assume everyone wants to blow up the airplane, and it is their job to determine how you plan to do that, despite your innocent appearance. That is, there's nothing to stop you from having an artificial hip AND a gun. If grey-haired ladies with a limp were discovered to get a free pass, then anyone who wanted to defeat security would have a grey-haired lady limp it through the scanner for them.

They are aware that the scanning is irritating and not all that effective and are trying to make it more efficient and effective, with devices like the "naked" scanner. I'm not all that concerned about it, and I freaked out when they took my fingerprint at Disney World. I think that Americans are more body-shy than people of many other nations. Certainly more than Europeans. Canadians vary a lot coast to coast in this respect, with the Southern Ontarians being the biggest prudes.

The inconvenience of the security procedure will decrease as the facilities begin to be designed around having to take off your shoes and unpack your toothpaste and laptop. The inconsistency will always be with us, but a little respect in both directions helps with that. I'll come back to respect tomorrow.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

How Not to Nightstop

This pretty much stands on its own.

An airline pilot was found hiding behind a shed wearing only flip-flops and a wristwatch as a nighttime romp in the woods with a flight attendant ended with both under arrest, police said. Jeffrey Paul Bradford, 24, and Adrianna Grace Connor, 24, both employees of Pinnacle Airlines Inc., were at a diner on the outskirts of Harrisburg on Sunday night before they apparently decided to walk into the woods, police said. "They told the officer they wanted to go do it in the woods, essentially," said Lower Swatara Township police Sgt. Richard Brandt. "That's the best answer they had." The two somehow became separated, and people who live in the neighborhood summoned police around 9:30 p.m., saying they had seen a naked man and an intoxicated woman. A helicopter with heat-seeking equipment was called in, and Bradford was discovered hiding behind a shed shortly before midnight. Bradford, of Pittsburgh, was charged with indecent exposure, public drunkenness and other offenses. Connor, of Belleville, Mich., was charged with theft from a motor vehicle, public drunkenness and other offenses; police said she took a flashlight from a neighbor's vehicle. A spokesman for the Memphis, Tenn., airline said the two were suspended while the company investigates. The office of District Justice Michael John Smith, where Bradford and Connor were arraigned, said they were not represented by lawyers. Telephone listings for them could not be located by The Associated Press.

The testosterone-to-common-sense ratio of Pinnacle pilots remains high, I see. A pilot from another airline tells me that it sounds like a typical night in Harrisburg, but that he'll never live it down that he (a) left his wristwatch on, and (b) needed a heat-seeking helicopter to find his date.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Flugtag Invitation

I believe I've blogged in the past about the insanity that is Flugtag. It's a shameless corporate event dreamed up to publicize Red Bull energy drink, I guess playing off their slogan, Red Bull Gives You Wings. Flugtag is an event where people "fly" homemade "gliders." The scare quotes are because I would expect that a person would have to drink something considerably stronger than Red Bull before they would believe that most of these so-called aircraft would have a glide ratio better than that of a brick.

Check out the video on the official site. Even if you don't usually bother to make your computer pay these things, this one has to be seen to be believed. Various gliders, among them a B747, a dolphin, an eagle, and a submarine are pushed off a ramp and with few exceptions experience complete structural failure within seconds. It looks like a hell of a good time. I received an email last week from an intern, promoting the event, asking me not, as I expected, to publicize it, but to actually enter.

I told the intern I wasn't that crazy, but maybe I lied. There's something inspiring about watching so many improbable aircraft launching off that ramp and then PLUMMETING into the water. It almost makes me want to get a team together. I wish I'd had more than a couple of weeks notice before the deadline. I suppose the idea of giving a short application deadline is to require you to charge up on Red Bull and just go for it.

Maybe next year. It would certainly be fun. What would you like to launch in? A unicorn? A replica Avro Arrow? A Silver Dart? A giant badminton birdie? A flying saucer? A birthday cake? The emphasis is clearly on the bizarre craft, and not the nominal distance-to-glide competition. From the entry form we see the entire aircraft, including pilot, must weigh in at or under 200 kg, with a maximum wingspan of nine metres. It must be entirely human powered with no stored energy, so this opens the possibility of a Gossamer Condor type entry, except we have the added challenge that all components must float. I wonder if this is a new addition, because I see bicycle parts in the videoclip. You can find more clips by searching for Flugtag on YouTube.

It would be a truly glorious moment. Who is in the Ottawa area and wants to help design, build and fly an insanely stupid glider? I don't know if I'm serious, but I'm pretty sure most of the actual competitors aren't serious, so I don't know if that matters.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

On the Button

Next morning the weather in the Toronto area and across the lakes is already fine. No fog. I call Canadian customs with my arrival report. It always irritates me that it's called an arrival "report" when it's really a forecast. I can't report my arrival until I've actually arrived. But they call it a report, so I have to. You have to call everything by exactly the right words with customs people, or you get into trouble. I also file an ICAO flight plan for the border crossing, another legal requirement. The briefer asks me if I want customs advisory service, which is odd, because it doesn't exist anymore. But as you can see from that document, the procedures between the two countries are complex enough and disparate enough that I won't hold it against this Wisconsin briefer.

The airplane is fuelled and in proper shape. I make sure I have my passport and airplane documents easily accessible from my seat in the cockpit, advise my flight follower (unlike South Dakota, Wisconsin has text messaging), and depart.

Wisconsin ends at the shore of Lake Michigan, but my journey continues. I fly across Green Bay. The bay alone is as big as many respectable lakes, but it's just a sliver on the chart. Michigan is a gigantic north-south lake, wide enough east-west that I can't see the other side. I just see lake. It's very cool. Flying over Wyoming is boring, but this seemingly endless expanse of water is hypnotically fascinating. The mist over the lake becomes a mirage of shore and eventually resolves into actual land.

On the other side of Lake Michigan is the state of Michigan. It looks cold. I'm starting to hear other Canadian aircraft idents on frequency, and the air traffic controller handles the alphabet soup of our call signs as fluently as the alphanumeric of the American planes. I'm almost home. One more lake to cross, and that's Lake Huron. It is even bigger than Lake Michigan, and I'm cutting right across it, too. I know you're wondering why I am posting these pictures of nothing but blue, but I love them. Someday perhaps I'll get to fly across an ocean and I'll be tired of this, maybe I'll long for Wyoming, but right now I'm loving it. The international border runs down the middle of the lake, but air traffic control boundaries are not exactly on the border. I'm handed off to a Canadian controller and have to consciously suppress saying "Charlie" at the beginning of the call sign. It's comforting to hear the controller's accent. It sounds like Canada.

I reach shore just north of Goderich, which reminds me of Sulako. It's where he met the love of his life, according to the story he is telling. (And I've met her, so he can't be making it all up). The land beneath me is flat and rural, but I know I am approaching a major metropolitan area and a lot of busy airspace. I tidy up the cockpit a little and switch from the 1:1,000,000 scale WAC chart I've been using to the 1:500,000 scale VNC, and fold the 1:250,000 scale terminal area chart so I can see it clearly. I have to get the American expectations out of my head and fly like I'm in Canada. Canadian flight following isn't as seamless as the US style, and I may need to get my own clearance, and make more decisions on my way in here than I've grown accustomed to. I make sure I have enough paper to write down any long clearances and keep a sharp eye out for other traffic. I do approach math in my head and decide where to start my descent. I'm landing at Buttonville, a crazy little GA airport, not Pearson International. The client's supplier happens to be near Buttonville, and they've arranged parking for me here. I know most of the traffic will be little singles, so I plan to enter the circuit--I've been the States so long that I almost typed "pattern" there--at my approach speed of 120 knots, still above the cruise speed of training aircraft, but easier for me to manoeuvre, easier ATC to fit me in, and safer because it gives me more opportunity to see and avoid any errant students.

I tell ATC I'm beginning my descent and they assign me a heading, "not below 3000', and pass me off to Buttonville tower. They ask me to report three miles back, at the greenhouses. The ATIS says they're using runway 15 and 21, and I'm pretty well set up for right base for 15, but when I call, a little late because I had to wait for another exchange to finish, they clear me to a right downwind on 21. As I manoeuvre for that, the controller calls back and asks uncertainly if I need "a lot of room" to land? He says runway 15 is available. He is probably realizing that it would have made sense to put me there to begin with, but I'd have to circle around to land on it now. I'm light and have lots of flaps so I tell him 21 is fine, I'll just need to teardrop out to align with it. I touchdown on 21 and get taxi clearance to customs. The taxiways are narrower than at the US airports I've been working at. I hold short of 15 for someone else who did get to use it, then follow instructions to customs parking. It's a busy apron. There's a restaurant patio on part of it and lots of people and airplanes. Someone marshalls me to park and after I shut down I tell him I need customs. He hands me a cellphone, predialled and ringing with the CANPASS number. When they answer, I give my name and aircraft ident and they ask if there is an officer there. "I don't know."

"Do you see them?"

"I see a lot of people in uniform. No one has approached the aircraft." I'm sorry, dude, I don't recognize the customs officer uniform twenty metres away through a double door.

There is no customs officer here, which is normal for crossing into Canada. You can clear customs over the phone with no physical inspection. In this case they aren't happy with my customs paperwork, for some reason. I give the ramp guy back his phone and switch over to my own, which has all the numbers I need programmed into it. I have to call the custom broker's office, convince their answering service to make an emergency call-out, convince the guy who takes that call to call the guy who is actually responsible, and then go through several iterations of being referred to customs officers' supervisors. I end up inside the terminal, sitting next to an electrical outlet to charge my cellphone. It's controlled chaos in there.

A child is having a tantrum in the gift shop. Your traditional incoherent screaming while clutching the toy he wants in one hand and hitting out with the other hand. One parent favours the tactic of abandoning everything, including the original mission, and leaving the building. The other parent is trying to negotiate with the child.

On the other side of me, know-it-all flight instructors are telling their students lies in the tones of superiority that can only be gained by having logged four hundred hours in the same airplanes in the same airspace and never having been far enough away to encounter any challenge to their worldviews.

I bite my tongue and refrain from offering my opinions to the parents, students or flight instructors. It's challenging, but I add it to the game of seek-the-weekend-customs-authorization and make it all an exercise in accepting the world.

Ramp workers want to tow my airplane. I have to keep telling them that I am still waiting for a customs clearance, so my airplane may not be towed. One of the officers says I have to go to Pearson to clear a commercial airplane on a weekend. I specifically asked a professional customs broker if there were any hours restrictions for my arrival here, and he said no. More back and forth with my getting people in Calgary to call these guys, and them calling each other. After an hour or so I get bumped to a customs employee with enough authority to make a decision, and his decision is that everything is in order, I'm free to go. I ask him what I should do or say next time to make this easier. Did I use the wrong words? Was the paperwork not clear? He says no, it's just that some people didn't understand the nature of my operation. He reads me my customs authorization number and I copy it into the journey logbook as proof of this conversation.

I restart and call for taxi. Buttonville is a typical training airport. There are Cessna and Piper singles lined up, maybe seven or eight in a row to take off. The runway starts right near the customs area. I have to wait for a lull in this flow of trainers before I can taxi across to my parking.

Chocked and secure at the prearranged parking, I finish all my paperwork, unload my bags, lock up, and call my boss. He tells me to go home. So I do.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Badlands to Bad Vis

Leaving Rapid City, I overfly the famous South Dakota Badlands. This reminds me that I want to set up a cross country iPod load that has all the songs that mention parts of the country come on at appropriate times. Right now I want Rocky Raccoon and The Legend of Billy the Kid. The Badlands don't actually look much different from any other part of the state, or Wyoming for that matter, but I try to appreciate them anyway.

Civilization becomes denser as both the land and the chart altitudes become greener, with the land sloping gradually down towards the Great Lakes. I've planned a fuel stop in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, because it's on the way, before I hit the rapidly-changing weather of the lakes, big enough to have a good FBO, but not big enough to have ATC delays. I overfly Minneapolis-St. Paul. Hey, Minnesota! I always forget about Minnesota. I don't know anything about the place, except that it's cold there, they are famous for lakes, they have a lot of Norwegians, and the team they sent to a Snow Sculpture contest in Quebec City were skilled, friendly, and exceptionally good sports. I didn't think they were as heavily bestowed with lakes as Saskatchewan or Manitoba, but they have more than South Dakota, so I won't take away their licence plates.

Approximately 0.7 per cent of Minnesota's reputed lakes

The problem with selecting Eau Claire as a destination is that I didn't know how to pronounce it. I mean, I know how to pronounce it, but I would have though I knew how to pronounce St. Louis and Baton Rouge, too. You never know the local pronunciation of a French-looking placename in the US. For all I know they call it "OAKler." I cheat and tell the controllers I'm landing in Kilo Echo Alfa Uniform. It turns out they pronounce it Oh Clayr, pretty much the way I expected. It's a big airport with a proper terminal, and scheduled service, but there's a little experimental airplane in the pattern when I arrive. ATC asks me to report five miles back. I pick a landmark half a thumbwidth back on WAC chart and report over that. I join downwind and land as cleared.

The guy at the FBO is very friendly and takes my fuel order. I tell him no hurry, I'm going to get a meal. The woman inside the FBO directs me to the terminal and tells me it's good food there, and cheap. Neither of these are attributes I expect of airport food, but I'm not going to be fussy today. I order a burger and it turns out to be really good. It's a real burger patty that someone made, right there for me, not a frozen pre-shaped one. Because I'm in the United States I was asked how I would like my burger cooked. I'm prepared for this, but it still seems strange. where I grew up, government regulations require restaurants to only serve hamburger meat well done, to prevent E.coli infections. I decide to trust my government on this one and order the burger well done, even though I would go for medium rare if it were a steak. And I believe the burger and drink came to less that five dollars.

While I eat, I call to my customs broker. he knows I'm heading north. I need to ensure all the paperwork is in order for my arrival. He says it has been done, all I have to do is file a customs arrival report, and it's okay if I arrive today or tomorrow, my choice.

Back at the FBO I look at the weather into Toronto. There's a low pressure system there and they have very low visibilities and ceilings in drizzle. Arriving special VFR--the altimeter is out of certification for IFR on this airplane--at night, in minimum visibility and ceiling is not really the best idea. If I have to divert, then customs officers need to come somewhere else. It's a recipe for trouble. So I don't go.

This is why I have so few "so there I was" stories. They all begin and end with, "so I didn't go." Boring reading for you, maybe, but you get more blog entries in the end. I get my overnight stuff from the plane, make sure the brakes aren't set, and the nosegear is unlinked so it can be towed if necessary, and ask the woman at the FBO to recommend a hotel. She makes a call and asks if $53 is okay. Sounds like a pretty scary hotel, but I'll be out of here in ten hours, so I accept. It turns out to be a perfectly fine Ramada. Hotels are cheap in Wisconsin.

The last TAFs of the evening call for fog in the Toronto area until midmorning. Uh-oh.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

High Altitude Snot

This blog should probably not be read over lunch.

The only thing lofty about this blog entry is the altitude I'm discussing. I was trying to find a bodily functions post I remember, by Sulako to prove that I wasn't digging into new ground, here, but as I was searching his blog I got distracted by gems like "How many ramp workers could I run through the props at a busy airport before a sniper takes me out?" and so I just laughed instead of searching. This post really is about snot, that stuff your nose creates out of ... what? I'm not sure that science can create something comparable in a test tube, without resorting to chemicals too toxic for nasal insertion. But for some reason while I'm flying (or even an airline passenger) at altitude, my snot malfunctions.

The air is drier at altitude, which probably creates the issue. I assume snot evolved as some kind of barrier to inhaling dust and viruses, or as a nasal moisturizer or something, as opposed to being an auxiliary food source for small children. But when I'm flying it seems to create small torture devices inside my nose. It dries out, but somehow dries out into little crusty pointed shapes that poke at the inside of my nose, or perhaps they are pulling on my nose hairs. This is exacerbated if I'm at sufficient altitude to need supplementary oxygen, and am thus wearing a nasal cannula, basically a tube attached to two drinking straws and stuffed partway up my nose, so as to dribble oxygen into my brain and leave me capable of thinking about more complex things than "I have to pee," "I have to pick my nose," and "Is this South Dakota or Wisconsin?"

Given oxygen, I can move on to thoughts like, "I could blog about this," and "maybe I can use nose moisturizer." The nose moisturizer isn't such a bad idea, really. I could protect the inside of my nose with Vaseline. That would at least prevent snot from pulling on my nose hairs and might prevent the inside of my nostrils from getting dry and bleeding. The only obstacle is that lining my nostrils with Vaseline is pretty much reverse nose picking: taking goopy stuff and putting it inside my nose with my finger. It works okay, though, as long as you don't use so much that you can't inhale through your nose.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Rush Even Less

I realized after I made the early morning pick up arrangement that I had been going east, so that made my pick up an hour earlier by body time, but it still gave me legal rest, so I'm glad I did it.

During the van ride up to Mount Rushmore, in beautiful sunrise light, I saw that it wasn't really tourist season yet. Many museums, campgrounds, horseback riding outfitters, and souvenir stands along the road were still closed for the season. There will be a lot to do here in a couple of months, and it's a nice, relaxing place to visit. You could seriously bring a family here for a week and have a good, albeit somewhat clichéd, vacation. Just don't come in the first week of August, during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Apparently every motel, hotel, campground and condo is full for a hundred miles around.

Today the road itself was pretty much empty. I know what I'm coming to see. It's the faces of four dudes carved in the side of a mountain. I catch my first glimpse as we go around a corner, but it's no surprise. It's a much lampooned monument, kind of a piece of American kitch, but it seems worth a trip. I'm emphasizing the "well whatever" aspect of my decision to visit this tourist attraction, because it contrasts with how I really felt after visiting it.

It was definitely worth the trip. I think anyone would like to come and see this. It is, to begin with a national park. Not as big, rugged or pristine as Yosemite, but still a park. Arriving from the parking area, or in my case the van drop-off point, you walk along a straight avenue of state flags, smooth paving stones under your feet and columns at the side proclaiming the dates of entry into the union of the various states. There's a kind of portico as you enter a terraced viewing area, and from there you can see the faces clearly. They are very white. Park employees clean and seal the rock regularly to prevent erosion by ice and plant roots.

If you come here, you have to arrive like this, by seven-thirty in the morning. It's quiet. Trees, mountains, fresh air, and only the sounds of a few birds and little sticks falling from trees. No one around is around but these four memorialized presidents. You can walk down the stairs from the viewing area and reach a boardwalk. They don't let you walk on the rocks themselves at the base of the mountain. I guess that goes to show how many visitors they get. I'm amused by the very precise warning about the length and difficulty of the trail. It's a boardwalk, less than half a mile long, described as "strenuous." I envision the people who aren't here with me today, elderly or unaccustomed to walking, who have made it down the avenue to the viewing area but are incapable of making it around the boardwalk. Nevertheless they have made a pilgrimage of sorts to this national monument. Maybe they venture out and discover they can navigate such a strenuous trail. Maybe such literal small steps will lead them to venture into more rugged parks. There's something inspiring about this place. The day before yesterday I was looking at giant Sequoias in Yosemite and now I'm looking at giant presidents at Mt Rushmore. How many people get to do this in such quick succession, ever?

Even if it's not part of your culture (I had to identify Jefferson by process of elimination (Washington is the big-nosed one with the square hair, Roosevelt wears glasses, and Lincoln is the skinny, bearded one), it's worth the trip. These were visionary men who are honoured here, and whether you are happy with the state of the nation now or not, their legacy shaped it. But it's not just a patriotic monument. It's an engineering marvel built with 1930s technology. That is, mostly by hand. It's a work of art. It's a human interest story of someone who spearheaded a ridiculous project, a monument that was supposed to draw visitors to the middle of nowhere, in an era before most people owned cars, and before the freeway network was built. He must have been a little bit mad. He did envision his work outlasting his civilization, and standing like the Sphinx or Ozymandias for future generations to wonder at.

As I finished my circuit of the boardwalk (yes, I managed the strenuous trek), park employees (in Smokey-the-bear style ranger hats!) were arriving, and at eight o'clock the buildings opened giving me access to a museum of information on the project, a bookstore and a gigantic gift shop. (They sold souvenirs from every state, so theoretically you could come here and "do" the whole nation. I thought that was pretty funny.) And it's still a fine park. Deer grazed beside the parking lot and along the road with utter unconcern for anything but the spring grass.

I would go back to see it again. I probably will. Also I owe a beer to the maintenance supervisor at the West Jet FBO. If you stop there, please buy him a beer and tell him it's on behalf of the stupid Canadian chick in the pink sweatshirt, the one who needed help starting her own airplane.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Rush Less

I'm supposed to go to Toronto next. I find this out while sitting in the hotel lobby, so I fire up the laptop but while it's booting use the USA Today method to determine this will take me twelve hours. I'll make two stops, because I want the transborder leg to be short. That leaves less to go wrong on a leg that has legal implications if I don't land where I said I would.

"Don't do it all in one day," my boss says. They don't want me arriving in Toronto too soon, perhaps because it's cheaper to have me stay in a hotel somewhere in middle America than it is to put me up in the big smoke. I acknowledge that and pick some place I've never heard of for my overnight. "You can go somewhere more interesting than that!" I'm told. And finally I get it. Go have some fun. Is this not the best job in the world?

I look again at the cities on the USA Today map that could be my stopping points. Pierre, I recall, is the capital city of South Dakota. And South Dakota, according to some factoid lodged in my head, is where one finds Mount Rushmore, that mountain with the likenesses of four US presidents carved into it. That might be fun to see. I Google it and discover that it's in Rapid City, South Dakota. Rapid City it is. It has the amusing bonus of the airport identifier KRAP.

I know that I must be making many a hobby pilot cringe, or seethe or something. Here I am being paid to do what many of my private pilot readers only dream about doing. I'm flying right across the country, in no great rush. I can choose where I stop, take in the sights, have some good food, and the amazing part is that I get to do it again next month, so I can afford to choose where to stop on a whim, instead of after detailed consideration, to get the most out of what for someone else might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I'm never sure whether acknowledging good fortune like this is rubbing it in, or just showing that I don't take what I have for granted. This is every bit as fun as working on my commercial licence, all those years and hours ago. And now someone else pays the gas and hotel bills.

I check the NOTAMs and weather, sort out the oxygen, stow everything that should be stowed, and launch over the mountains. I didn't take a lot of pictures on this leg. I think it was turbulent most of the way. There are a lots of mountains on this trip. Also lots of Wyoming. And Wyoming has a lot of mountains, so those aren't mutually exclusive. I like to look out the window at the lakes and mountains and roads and then match them up on the VFR chart with their names. I see Provo, Utah, although I'm not sure I was ever overhead the state of Utah. sometimes I think civic groups should get out there and paint the borders in bright colours.

It's actually difficult to see from aviation charts which state you are overflying, because although they mark the borders, it's quite subdued, with the names of the states each side in small type by the border. You have to unfold the chart and hunt around for the nearest border, and sometimes I've missed a border, or a state has an odd shape so I'm not where I think I am. I know where I am on the map it's just that the map doesn't make a big deal of what state any particular point is in. It's like right now you know where you are, but not necessarily your local magnetic variation, or the class of airspace above you.

One of my GPS units shows names of states, at the right level of zoom, so when I get really curious I'll use that. With time, the mountains subside into hills and daylight fades into night. I descend into Rapid City overhead a floodlit parking area that I suspect is the famous mountain itself, but I can't see the faces from where I am, and I don't want Team America to shoot me down, so I don't try to look. I find the airport, land, roll out and park for the night at an FBO called West Jet. The apron has some construction and I had to curcle around an area of cones to get to the marshall on the ramp.

After landing I turn on my telephone and compose a text message to my flight follower about my safe arrival. Nothing as verbose as a blog entry. It's more like "Text Messaging--Compose Message--Insert Template--Landed--Send." But on this occasion the cellphone makes an unfamiliar bonging noise and reports that my text message was Not Sent. Ah, well when buying the phone I looked at cell phone coverage maps, and there was always a bit up in the top middle with no coverage. I guess this is it. But I look again at the telephone and I have four and a half bars. I telephone the flight follower instead, explaining, "They don't have text messaging in South Dakota." This doesn't sound quite right. I mean, there are teenagers in South Dakota, right?

I'll have to solve this some other time. I already have a hotel booked, and they have a shuttle, but it's not their shuttle exactly, it's just a shuttle service they pay for, for their guests. I arrange with the driver to pick me up at the hotel at 06:45, next morning not to go to the airport, but to go and see the presidents carved in the mountain.

The nice restaurants are already closed for the evening, so I eat dinner at a 'family' restaurant, that looks a bit like a Denny's. I see as I come in that they have crayons for the kids, in little wooden holders, so I ask for one of those, and write messages on postcards in crayon while I enjoy excellent service and an unexpectedly tasty meal.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Unapproved Navigational Aids

Lately I've been using the free version of Voyager navigational planning software, from Seattle Avionics. It's impressive. You tell it the parameters of your airplane, although unless you fly some strange rare airplane, or it is customized like crazy, you'll probably find it already in the list, and you can edit list entries to match your aircraft.

You tell it your point of origin and destination, whether you're flying IFR or VFR and what altitude you'd like to fly. It will suggest corrections for wrong-way altitudes and plot a route for you. Meanwhile, if you have an internet connection, it downloads TFRs and weather so it can show you the conditions you're going to encounter. The profile view shows control zones and forecast ceilings, and my favourite part is that it interpolates all the available upper wind data and calculates a trip time. It's a breeze to try different altitudes (I think the pay version does this for you) and see where I get the least headwind component over the trip, and the times it comes up with have been to-the-minute accurate.

It does far more than this, but I use company software for weight and balance, and file my flight plans by telephone, because I have to check NOTAMs anyway. Software like this feels like cheating. I imagine flight students do use things like this to cheat on their homework assignments. (I say they are cheating because they aren't allowed to use software on the exam, and if they've always used it in practice, they're likely to make errors on the exam).

If I'm using it just to give an estimate to a customer I don't bother entering an altitude, so it just uses the one from the previous flight. This generates lovely precise warnings like Extreme danger! Crash into terrain expected at 475.4 nm (2:56) into flight. I'll also use it to see how many hours it will take to get from Florida to Washington State, for example, and just enter the endpoints, in which case it gravely warns me Insufficient fuel! Fuel will be exhausted before the destination is reached! It will still crank out the numbers though, which is all I want, to see how many fuel stops and how much time-before-maintenance I'm going to need.

Seriously, the most difficult part of flight planning with this software is deciding where to stop for fuel, and I understand that the pay version will even do that for me. As it is, I just guess a likely airport en route and designate it a "stop-and-go" waypoint, with refuelling, and the flight plan is adjusted for me. My weakness is that the outlines of the states are shown, but not the names, so I look at a vaguely rectangular shape in the middle of the country and wonder "Is that Oklahoma or Nebraska?" Remember please, before condemning me for my geographical ignorance that this is not my native country. I can draw a fairly accurate map of Canada showing all the provinces and territories and name and site their capital cities. I'm just a little vague on whether I'm overflying Wyoming or Colorado at any given moment. I always think Wyoming should have more cows, actually. I read a romance novel once set on a Wyoming ranch. I never see any cows, nor romantically entangled cowboys in Wyoming.

Of course, SOFTWARE AND HARDWARE IS NOT INTENDED FOR USE IN THE OPERATION OF NUCLEAR FACILITIES, AIRCRAFT NAVIGATION OR COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS, AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL SYSTEMS, LIFE SUPPORT MACHINES OR OTHER EQUIPMENT IN WHICH THE FAILURE OF THE APPLICATION SOFTWARE COULD LEAD TO DEATH, PERSONAL INJURY, OR SEVERE PHYSICAL OR ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE. It's worth noting that the large full-colour weather map on the back of every USA Today newspaper bears no such warning, depicts major fronts, and shows the names of enough cites that I can identify the states. USA Today is actually remarkably useful for navigational planning. For example when your customer asks in the middle of breakfast, "So how long would it take to get to Virginia from here?" Just flip over the free hotel newspaper and use your spread thumb and finger to measure the distance and compare it to the distance of a recent trip for which you remember the time. This makes you sound really knowledgeable if you're talking to the customer by phone, and makes you look like a complete crackpot if the customer is at breakfast with you. Plus the ink doesn't come off on your hands. Seriously, they use some kind of special ink. It used to be the main point on which they advertised the newspaper.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"Air Force One Dropped Me Off"

So it seems a drunk guy managed to wander onto the runway in Dallas. That's quite a trick, getting onto airside, crossing the apron, and heading either down the taxiway or across the rough all the way to the runway. Those expanses of pavement are bigger than they look.

It sounds like someone who released him from a drunk tank may be at fault for leaving him on airside, as opposed to him actually getting through an airside door. But stranger things have happened.

Personally, I would have gone with "little green men" over "Air Force One."

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Wilds of Yosemite

We're wrapping up the job in the Fresno area, and the project manager gives the flight crews a day off and the use of a vehicle, so we drive to Yosemite National Park. It was right there in the airplane but our vehicle is land-based, so we have a couple of hours drive up to the park. For some reason I never think of mountains when I think of California, but this park is on top of a mountain.

We keep driving until we reach the park gate, where there is a $20 per-carload admission fee. I notice that the fee is $10 per cyclist, and can't help wondering why they charge four people on bicycles twice as much as four people in a car. I wonder what they would charge a carload of people with four bikes in a rack on the back. Were I ever to cycle up this mountain to this park, accompanied by more than one other cyclist, once I had recovered from the effort, I would ask the park ranger to please pretend we had a car, as much to make the point as to save the money.

This happened the first week of April, and the continuing road was closed due to snow. We parked just beyond the park gates, and walked up Mariposa Grove Road, over the snow drifts. It was maybe three or four kilometres up the road to the trailhead. We were impressed by the volume of snow that was packed on the road. It clearly snows a lot here. In California. It's not all Baywatch. Walking up the road I was thinking to myself, "and if I have to pee, I can just go behind a tree!" I've spent so many hours this week strapped in the cockpit that being able to pee any time I like is a notable luxury. I'm laughing at myself for this, when another crewmember mentions exactly the same thing. I remember when I added "and you don't need to go to the bathroom" to my list that defines when life is good. (The rest of the list is: food in your belly, not too hot or too cold, not in pain, contact with people who appreciate you, and a safe place to sleep).

Before we got to the end of the access road we started seeing the giant sequoia trees. They're not the same as giant redwoods; California has more than one kind of giant tree.

From the parking area at the top of the road there was a trail continuing through the snow among the trees. It was meticulously signed with the short distances to the various trees indicated in tenths of a mile. I get the idea there a lot of people who visit this park can't walk very far at all. It's very accommodating for the park to set it out so clearly so people with no experience reading maps or walking in the woods can choose something at their level of ability. I wouldn't recommend that someone for whom 0.3 miles is more achievable than 0.5 miles come here in this season. The snow on the trails makes it interesting, and in other places there are giant puddles that we variously skirt, leap, ford and wade right through, depending on our shoes and leg length. And obviously anyone daunted by a mile walk hasn't walked up the snowbound road. In fact, so far, no one has. We were the only ones we saw on the way in. (The closed road was only closed to cars, and we saw a number of people coming the other way on our way out, so I guess we're just early risers).

The really old trees had fences around them to protect them from people walking on the ground near them and damaging their roots. I thought that concept was a little fantastic, but we kept our distance. We could walk up to some of the younger trees. The bark was very thick and quite soft. I think I could have punched it full strength with my knuckles and not hurt myself, because of the sponginess. Most of the giant trees had fire scars on their bark. One of the reasons for their longevity is resistance to fire. In fact, the park service used to protect the trees from fire, but then researchers discovered that they needed fire in order to reproduce, so now they set controlled fires.

This is a somewhat superficial post, "We went to the park; we saw big trees," because the third part,"we learned interesting things about big trees" was abruptly cut off. We'd just reached the Grizzly Tree, apparently the oldest one in the forest, when someone's cellphone decided that now was the time to deliver supernatural reception. We're in a forest in a national park and there's cellphone coverage. Bah. It was a message from company. There had been a miscalculation and we were needed back at the airport. That's the way it goes in aviation.

So we all walked back down the snowy trails, back along the road, and drove down out of the mountain. We just got a tiny taste of the park. Yosemite is a huge park, mostly wilderness, with lots of opportunity to camp and hike, and actually take responsibility for yourself. The brochure said that people drown every year from swimming upstream of waterfalls. I'm not glad to know people drown, but I'm glad to know there is a wild place here where people can come and experience the real world, hazards and all. I was afraid that California had been turned entirely into a foam-padded theme park where people were completely protected from themselves.

As we drive back out of the park, everyone's cellphone comes alive with text messages. They are glad to have us reply that we are on our way because they didn't expect to be able to reach us in the park. We could have pretended they didn't, but we're responsible. We don't go swimming upstream of waterfalls, either.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Wind Direction Indicators

We walk out to where our airplanes are parked side by side and the gear door on the 'repaired' airplane is open again. Ack. My co-worker will investigate, as she's the one scheduled to command it today. We keep swapping planes, which is making the expense records a mess.

My mission takes me to an airfield where there isn't much to see at all, just a narrow runway and a cracked apron, but there is an interesting wind direction indicator. Usually an aerodrome is equipped with a windsock, like the one on the right side of the picture. The sock is on a swivel so as the wind blows it makes the sock stream out , pulling it around so the opening faces the wind. The wind fills the sock so that the pointy end indicates where the wind is going and the open end where it is coming from. Takeoffs and landings should be made towards the pointy end.

At night, if an aerodrome is to be used at night, the windsock is supposed to be lighted. The bulb is somehow wired inside the sock. I'm not sure how they do this without getting the wire twisted to death as the sock turns, but the result is that the wide end of the sock is illuminated, but, especially depending on the angle from which you are viewing it, it can be tricky to determine the wind direction at night.

The giant yellow thing in the picture is also a wind direction indicator, called a wind-T. You can see it's built a little bit like an airplane, with a big vertical tail at the end opposite the "wings" of the T. When the wind blows, the T weathervanes around so that the wings are facing towards the wind. The blue lights on the T make it easy to see. There must be some kind of electrical swivel connection to make the lights keep working.

If you like, you can use this picture and previous information to to figure out where this wind-T is located. I have another picture taken at this aerodrome that I can show you once you've worked it out.

When I return to base, I'm told we need another oleo for the airplane. "But didn't you just get one?" It turns out that there's a very short range of allowable adjustment: get it too long and the door will droop after shutdown. Make it too short and the oleo will cut its own seal and cause a leak. Three different mechanics--i.e. the one who worked on the airplane before I got it, the one who adjusted it too short at the most recent scheduled maintenance and the one here who got it first too long and then too short--have been trapped by this irritating design. We'll get another oleo and try again.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Leaving Hotel California

California is a rich state, and a left-leaning state. A lot of public money is spent looking after people, protecting them from the ills of the world. We saw this during the fires, in earthquake preparedness, in excellent highways and in the crazy labels on pretty much every business alerting me to the presence of carcinogens within. The hotels have an interesting feature which I'm sure is part of the California building code.

To begin with, emergency exit signs are green, not red as they are where I'm from. That makes sense, because in case of fire, you don't want people crawling towards the red glow. Many US exit signs are green, and I think I may have seen some in Canada, too, but certainly not all. But the part that caught my attention today was that the exit signs are on the floor.

This makes sense too, because in case of fire you're supposed to be crawling along with a wet towel over your face, down by the floor, because that's where the remaining oxygen is supposed to be. So you crawl towards the green glow of the eye-level exit sign. Not like the Florida hotel in which the stairwell door opposite mine had the word "exit" spelled out in masking tape on it, even though the unmarked glass door right next to it led directly outside.

In other news, the replacement oleo we sought yesterday was easily obtained and installed, and we're back in the sky without trailing hydraulic fluid. We didn't even fall back on plan B, to get an oleo from a screen door. (That last is of course a joke, but we joked about it a lot. Sometimes you want to just take something to a hardware store, not say the word "airplane," and find a replacement).

I was in a car accessories store looking for an oil funnel when I saw the item pictured above. After a a few minutes of longing to buy them, just to see the expression on my chief pilot's face when the airplane turned up at home with little chrome skulls with ruby eyes on all the tire valve caps, I realized the fundamental difference between regulations for cars and airplane maintenance.

With a car, you can install or use any part, accessory, fluid or substance that is not expressly forbidden by law. You might void the manufacturer's guarantee if you put the residue from your deep fat fryer in your crankcase, but you are perfectly within your rights to do so. You can put a skull or an 8-ball on your stick shift. You can replace all the standard switches with switches upholstered in fur. You can string lights around your tire rims, or glue plastic army guys and severed Barbie heads all over the hood. It's your car.

With an airplane it is absolutely the opposite. You may specifically not install anything that is not a certified aircraft part, and you may not remove anything that is supposed to be there. Technically I could probably get in trouble from Transport Canada for pimping my ride with a sheepskin seatcover that I bought at the Auto-Mart. I must use and record the type of aviation grade motor oil in my engines. I need government approval for any modification to the airplane: a hole, an extra battery, a different kind of seat. Most modifications aren't worth doing, because of the cost of the approvals.

Thursday, May 08, 2008


One of the problems I asked to be looked at during the maintenance stop was that the right gear door was occasionally dropping down after shutdown, instead of staying closed over the opening into which the wheels would retract after takeoff. The mechanic looked at it, made a little adjustment to the oleo, and said it shouldn't happen again.

It did. Only worse. I did one day of work, back on the jobsite after maintenance, then the next morning when I came to preflight the aircraft I found the door not only open, but leaking hydraulic fluid, the lifeblood of the landing gear extension system, onto the ramp. It was a pretty steady flow, one big drop per second, and appeared to be coming from the oleo controlling that door.

First order of business was to stop my airplane from bleeding all over the ramp. I took my pocket knife to an empty one-quart oil container and cut out one of the side panels, making it into a small, flat one-quart bucket. The airfield was all neat and tidy, so I had to scrounge in a decorative garden arrangement (yes, there was a decorative garden arrangement on the apron, these California airports are fancy!) for the all-purpose northern airplane accessory: a fist sized rock. I put the rock in my improvised drip tray, to keep it from blowing away. Now I needed a spill kit for the puddle already on the apron, and someone who could apply first aid and a blood transfusion to replace what was lost. (My hydraulic fluid is red, inviting all these blood metaphors).

There was a helicopter operation on the field, and I knew that their mechanics were in early, so I walked over to see if a simple hydraulic leak was something they'd be able to cross the streams to help with. They said no, but recommended another outfit, and while I was in their hangar I got to ogle a very shiny R44. I saw a curious chart, visible through the plastic window, so I asked them about it. It seems that Vne, the "never exceed" speed on a helicopter is a function of temperature, and very much so. I don't know why, so rather than googling it and coming up with a half-baked explanation, I'll let one of my helicopter flying readers explain it. I'm guessing it has to do with air density and those long flexible airfoils called rotors.

The other maintenance unit was locked and unresponsive on the call-out number, so I cancelled the flight. I swapped places with the other pilot, because she was pushing monthly duty time limits and I wasn't, so I flew the other, functional, airplane while she sought out someone who could fix the broken one.

After work my improvised bucket was getting full, so we bought a bigger bucket at the dollar store. And, as always happens at the dollar store, because everything is only a dollar, we bought a bucket for the other airplane, and some extra brightly coloured spray bottles too. I guess my distant ancestors who eagerly sought out brightly coloured things got more tasty ripe fruit to eat than their competitors who didn't care one way or the other, and thus passed down to me an attraction to colourful objects. I blame as much as possible on prehistoric genetic selection. And as I look at my shiny new bucket, I can't help thinking about the lolrus, subject of grammatically dubious captioned photos about the search for a lost blue bucket.