Monday, June 30, 2008

Abridgement Too FAR

In Canada, flying activities are governed by the Canadian Aviation Regulations, generally called the CARs, pronounced just like the things people use to drive around on the ground in. As a pilot for a Canadian operation, in the United States I'm subject to the CARs and also the FARs, the Fed eral Aviation Regulations governing air operations in the United States. And for ten years I've rhymed the names for the two sets of regs.

Recently I received e-mail from an American B777 pilot in which he mentioned being asked for his interpretation of "an FAR." He's a native speaker of English, and not someone I'd expect to make an error in his choice of indefinite article. From this evidence, the way he pronounces FAR clearly begins with a vowel. I know which one, and e-mail him to confirm. Yep. Americans pronounce FAR "Eff-Ay-Arr" spelled out, not pronounced as if it were a word. And officially, it seems, they are "the FAR" not "the FARs." Even more officially, when referred to by number, an FAR transforms into a CFR. I'm not quite sure how that happens.

I've heard Canadians say "air regs" or "the Canadian Air Regs" but never "the See-Ay-Arrs." And it's not that Americans are averse to pronouncing their aviation abbreviations. About the same time it finally dawned on me that there's another abbreviation I've been pronouncing incorrectly all this time: MOA. What I would formerly have called "an MOA" but now know to be "a MOA" is a Military Operations Area: a chunk of airspace where people are flying really pointy airplanes really fast, or firing rockets, or conducting other activities that are either hazardous to general aviation, or hazardous to national security for others to know about. I have often called up Flight Services to ask about the status of "the Whatchamacallit MOA" without being corrected. But then "Em-Oh-Ay" versus moa to rhyme with boa is not such a big difference. Maybe they thought I was a hesitant Canadian, asking about the "um...moa, eh?" At any rate, no one at the FSS was bothered by my pronunciation.

Hey you guys do say "the Eff-Ess-Ess" and not the "Ffsssss," right? I thought I was joking when I started to type that, but an American referring to a Flight Standards District Office by its abbreviation sounds like he is saying Fizz-Dough, so maybe it's worth asking.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Instant Internet

I go places on short notice. When I'm at home, I get an e-mail or a phone call saying, "Go to such and such a place," and I put my computer in my already packed bag and I go. It takes me maybe 20 minutes to get to the airport. Minimum check in time for an international flight is 60 minutes, so if there's a flight leaving two hours from now it's reasonable to want to book it. And I may be sitting in an FBO, five minutes walk from the terminal when I get the instruction to leave the airplane here and fly to some other place. So I may want to book a flight that leaves within the hour. But it's tricky.

When you try to book a flight on Expedia within two hours of departure, as soon as you click on "book this flight" it puts up a splashpage saying that due to the amount of time you have spent making the selection, it is necessary to reselect the flight to confirm availability. It then cycles back to the search results page. This is an infinite loop, no matter how fast you select the flight.

So you go to an airline site, having figured out from Expedia who flies to where you're going, and written down the flight numbers. It always amuses me the date that some airlines assume you are travelling. Air Canada makes no assumptions, just gives you a calendar to click. United, I believe, assumes you're booking two weeks in advance. But convince it you want to fly today, now, and it may not even display the flight that you know is going out in two hours. So you have to just jump in the cab and go to the passenger terminal and ask them to sell you the ticket. And I suppose this is reasonable to them, to prevent problems with people booking flights they can't get to. But when you consider how much they will eventually charge me to get that last minute flight, you'd think they'd make it a little easier to do.

Once I have checked in and found my gate, I then pull out my cellphone and cancel all the appointments I have for the next week or so. "Hi, it's Aviatrix. Sorry I'm not going to be able to make lunch tomorrow. I have to go to Florida." This sort of thing never elicits much sympathy, so sometimes I just say, "I've been called in to work." I love my job because it teaches me to live each day to the fullest. For tomorrow I may be in Texas.

Today I discovered a new way that my last-minute lifestyle messes up systems designed for normal people: online hotel bookings. I thought that would be easy, but sitting on a bench next to an airport baggage carousel, waiting for my luggage to tumble down the chute, I went online to Holiday Inn (I'm going to earn free baseball tickets for staying there eight nights this month, and I couldn't care less about baseball, so some lucky Cockpit Conversation reader is going to win the tickets in a contest to be thought of later, but I digress). I suppose I should have booked the hotel from the departure lounge back in Canada, as soon as I knew where I was going, but I wasn't sure if I would be continuing on with the airplane the same night, and besides that terminal didn't have free wireless. So it was at destination that I went online to the Holiday Inn site, found the nearest hotel to the airport and attempted to book a room for the night. "Your check-in date has passed," it tells me. "Please select new dates." It wasn't even midnight yet. I called the hotel directly and yes they had a room, and yes I could check in. How weird is that? I wonder what the cut off time is for the online check-in.

I tried another hotel chain and got the same kind of error message. I wish they would at least have reasonable messages. "We're sorry, it's too late in the evening to make this booking online [because we have moronic software], please call the hotel directly," might work well. And it should be documented, so I know the limits of the system.

I'm also smart enough not to admit to people at customs that I have no clue where I'm going. "I'm just going to go find this airplane, you see, and then go where my customer tells me." Not so smart. I confidently tell them the name of a city and of a large chain hotel, and everyone is happy. As long as I do eventually get a hotel.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Musk Oxen and Monetary Instruments

Heading south again. Another border crossing. This one Canada to US, on the airlines. Another customs declaration card to fill out. Airline, flight number, US Address. I put "Holiday Inn" and the name of the city. There are probably six Holiday Inns here, and I might end up in the Ramada, but that will do. Am I carrying more than $10,000 in monetary instruments? No. I wonder if you get a dirty look for answering "yes" to that question when you're importing an expensive violin. Am I carrying any fruits or meats? Yes, I have SunRype fruit bars and several packages of musk ox jerky in my flight bag. Have I visited a farm, ranch or pasture recently? Well, actually, yes to that one, too. I went with my friend and her toddler to a hobby farm. Have I been touching livestock? Well, yes, that's what you do at a petting zoo. That and trying to keep the child from abusing the rabbits badly enough to get bitten.

Apparently there's a move on to close petting zoos and hobby farms as unsanitary or dangerous or something. What? That's what it's all about. Every kid has to spend some time wallowing in animal feces and poking goats with his soother in order to grow up big and strong, and knowledgeable about where eggs come from. A hundred years ago most of the population of Canada grew up on farms and now they aren't safe to take your kids to for an afternoon visit? Silly.

I get a friendly customs agent. What is the purpose of my trip? I'm flying down to the United States to get a Canadian airplane and fly it back to Canada in the service of a Canadian company working for a Canadian customer. All these Canadas keep me legit to enter the country to work without a green card. He asks about the YESes on my customs card. I don't know what they do with the information. I suppose if I had said I was on my cousin's farm this morning helping her to dispose of the diseased carcasses of her mad cows they might turn me away. Or maybe ask me to wash with hand sanitizer. But petting zoo, which I admit to sheepishly (har har), isn't a problem. He wants to confirm how to spell Musk Ox, but not because it's contraband either, rather because apparently I'm his first musk ox jerky carrier, and he keeps track of the weird things people import. Perhaps he has a blog somewhere, himself.

He asks a few more questions. They aren't really standard from crossing to crossing in the order or the exact questions. They're just looking for inconsistencies or nervousness I guess. I think every time I cross the border that goes in my file, and as I keep doing the same thing over and over again I build up credibility. Or suspicion. He scribbles something illegible on my customs card and I proceed to the exit where another agent takes my card, looks at the scribbles and lets me out. Welcome to America.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Optimally Inefficient Check-In

I have a friend who doesn't want me to get a job with Air Canada, because then, for solidarity's sake, he says he'd have to stop complaining about them. I don't work for Air Canada now, so I'm going to take a moment to complain.

This did not seem to be a one-time experience caused by some one-in-a-thousand malfunction: this was the normal everyday experience with checked bags at a major Canadian airport. It wasn't even a Friday or a Monday. What were they thinking when they set it up? What are they thinking when they watch the mayhem that develops?

The check-in area is arranged so that when I come in the door I am between the first class check-in counters and the ticket purchase counters. If I had no checked bags I could walk straight ahead between both and gone to the gate area, because I've already got my boarding pass online. If I were flying first class, I could have checked in right there and continued. But I am flying Tango, Air Canada's lowest fare tier, and I have a bag to check.

Around to my left is a row of about eight check-in kiosks. It's a good thing I've checked in online, because the area where the kiosks are is completely roped off, except for one gap at the front, through which a long queue has formed, wrapping all the way around the kiosks towards the ticket purchase counter. One of the check-in kiosks is in use. The rest are empty.

The online check-in page directed me to go straight to the "Air Canada Web bag drop-off counter." That's listed in bold on the boarding pass, so I search for that sign. I can't see it anywhere. I go up to where the queue passes through the gape in the stanchioned tape and read the sign there. It says something like Bag Check-In. There is an Air Canada employee there so I ask him where the "web bag drop-off" is, and he says this is it. I go to the back of the line. Pretty soon someone comes along and asks to be let through, "I don't have any bags to check! I just need to get to the check-in kiosk!" She clearly doesn't have any bags to check, and we're lining up for the bag drop, so people let her through. Then comes the next guy, "Let me through! I'm late for my flight!" We let him through, too, but less charitably. He should have though of that when he decided what time to leave the house. And then comes another woman.

"Let me through," she says, "I just have to drop off my bags."

"So does everyone else," we say.

"I already checked in," she protests.

"So did everyone else," the crowd choruses wearily.

Variations on this these are of course repeated with every new person. Air Canada couldn't do much better if they wanted to deliberately provoke fights in the queue. There is no one from the airline patrolling the line here. The guy over by the sign doesn't seem to be doing anything service-related. Maybe he's there to make sure the tape barrier doesn't fall down.

The line proceeds into the inexplicably roped off kiosk area and then to the bag tagging stations beyond the check-in kiosks. There are several lanes, so once inside the ropes, people split up into whichever lane they think will give them the best chance. Each line reaches back past the kiosks, so that the people actually trying to use the check-in kiosks have to run the gauntlet. There's no point in having checked in online, because the bag drop is such a huge bottleneck, checking in at the airport at least gives you something to do while waiting to drop your bag.

When you get to the bag tagging station they are nice to you, verify your ticket, and put a routing sticker on the bag. I'm not sure what is self-serve about that. They don't weigh the bag. Next, you have to go all the way to the left to join the queue to actually drop off your bag. This queue is perpendicular to the bag tag lanes, so everyone comes out of the bag tag lane and attempts to jump the queue, until they are told where the end of the line is. As the line inches forward, you pass the special baggage (skis, rifles, musical instruments, strollers) drop, such that people coming out of bag tag with special baggage have to cut through the bag drop queue. They can't easily go all the way around the end of it, because the regular bag drop queue kind of blocks the entrance to the special bag drop area.

Eventually I near the head of the bag drop queue. The area is clogged with abandoned baggage carts, because there is nowhere to put them, and no easy way to leave the area while pushing one. We now notice that people coming through the bag tag lanes on the far right have started a separate tail for the same queue, so there is pretty much no escape after dropping your bag.

Each passenger places his bag on the belt, and it is conveyed towards a scanner. Just before going into the scanning machine it hits a scale. A screen lights up and tells the weight of the bag in kilograms, in green if it is within limits, and in red if it is overweight. There are a lot of red alert bags. At this point the owner of the bag, who would have already been out of earshot if it weren't for the fact that the line is difficult to escape, gets to start his or her argument with the Air Canada employee supervising the belt, over why he thinks 37 kg is okay. The bag now needs to be hauled backwards through the line to the counter where customers are supposed to pay their excess baggage fees. But by this point customers are so hostile, and the actual logistics of getting the bag off the belt and the customer to the counter so daunting, that I'm pretty sure the bags were just getting HEAVY/LOURD stickers and continuing without the extra payment being made.

I overheard the guy with the HEAVY stickers saying that he was running out of stickers. I placed my bag on the belt and watched to see the weight. I knew it wasn't overweight, but I wanted to see. No weight displayed on the screen. I think their solution to running out of HEAVY tags was to disable the weight display function of the belt.

The best thing I can say for the system is that it gave me an insight into Canada's medical system: Canadians don't horribly object to standing in line, but we're outraged by anyone budging in front of us without a fair reason.

Comments overheard:

  • "Air Canada motto: we're not happy until you're not happy"
  • "Maybe they hired an inefficiency expert to design this."
  • "Perhaps it's a service, designed to make the security screening seem pleasant."
  • Ah the joys of air travel

    Thursday, June 19, 2008

    Eight Hours

    Doing company annual paperwork sends me back to reading the CARs and the ops manual to answer all those questions again. I have read the below rules dozens of times, can pretty much recite them by heart, but today I suddenly saw a possible new interpretation of paragraph (f).

    700.15 (1) Subject to subsection (2), no air operator shall assign a flight crew member for flight time, and no flight crew member shall accept such an assignment, if the flight crew member's total flight time in all flights conducted by the flight crew member will, as a result, exceed

    (a) 1,200 hours in any 365 consecutive days;

    (b) 300 hours in any 90 consecutive days;

    (c) 120 hours in any 30 consecutive days or, in the case of a flight crew member on call, 100 hours in any 30 consecutive days;

    (d) where the flight is conducted under Subpart 4 or 5 using an aircraft other than a helicopter, 40 hours in any 7 consecutive days;

    (e) where the flight is conducted under Subpart 2 or 3, or is conducted using a helicopter, 60 hours in any 7 consecutive days; or

    (f) where the flight crew member conducts single-pilot IFR flights, 8 hours in any 24 consecutive hours.

    Now Canadian pilots all know this, and generally know their company exceptions well, too, so I'm not even sure why I re-read it. I could have told you that I wasn't allowed to fly more than eight hours in a day if I was doing single-pilot IFR. I'd usually say it, "I'm not allowed to fly single pilot IFR if I fly more than eight hours in a day." I've actually flown eight hours of SPIFR, cancelled IFR, and flown out the balance of my 14 hour duty day VFR. I thought of it as the same kind of thing as doing part 702 work at the end of the week when you already have forty hours of 704 work done: dutied out for one kind of flying but okay for the other. And then when you're dutied out for 702 you can go do flight instruction, because there is no limit on flight instructors. Been there, done that.

    Yet suddenly I re-read this and think, "doesn't this make it look as if we are never allowed to log more than eight hours in a day if we ever conduct single-pilot IFR?" This would appear to forbid departing IFR through an area of poor weather, cancelling IFR, and flying VFR for the balance of the flight, then refuelling and doing another five hours VFR. It even appears to forbid flying twelve hour VFR days for a week, taking a week off and then doing a one-hour single-pilot IFR flight.

    Surely that can't be what they meant. Surely I've just been reading too many air regs lately. What do you think?

    Wednesday, June 18, 2008

    NAV Mode

    While flying in at a constant heading and altitude is just great, pilots often prefer to be on a constant track, that is following a straight line over the ground, even though that means turning the nose back and forth a bit in the air to compensate for changing winds. This can be done by plotting before the flight exactly which bits of the ground you're supposed to be over, then looking diligently out the window throughout the flight, noting and correcting for each deviation as it occurs. That's how you do it on the commercial flight test (using one of two arithmetical methods of correction, not just veering a bit to the left). But this test is not of visual skills. In real life pilots fly long distances in a straight line by following a navigational instrument: a GPS, a VOR or an ADF. This airplane has a GPS, but it isn't an IFR installation, so it's not coupled to the autopilot. This airplane is a proper northern airplane with an ADF, but to my knowledge no one makes an autopilot that can do ADF tracking, because ADF tracking requires semi-magical powers and/or a lot of swearing. Only real pilots are capable of that. So in this airplane the NAV mode is all about the VOR.

    I'm sure I've blogged about the VOR, but quick review: a VOR is a station on the ground that creates beams radiating horizontally in all directions. Each beam is called a radial, and the VOR receiver in the airplane is capable of displaying the angular distance of the airplane's position from a selected radial, and whether flying parallel to the radial would take you closer to or further from the station. A pilot's usual tactic is to merge with the radial on an angle, that's called intercepting, and then follow the radial as exactly as possible either towards or away from the station, that's called tracking. Tracking allows you to follow a straight, predetermined line on the ground even if you can't see the ground and the wind is changing.

    In autopilot speak, this is the NAV mode. It allows the autopilot to intercept and track a VOR radial just as a pilot would. So to use it, you have to do all the things a pilot has to do before intercepting a radial: tune and identify the station, set the CDI to the desired track, and bug a reasonable intercept heading. Then you activate the HDG function and press the NAV button. That shows on the annunciator panel as NAV/ARM. The airplane flies straight until the airplane approaches the radial and then turns to intercept. At that point the HDG mode switches itself off and the mode switches from NAV/ARM to NAV/CPLD.

    The system is totally dependant on the pilot to tune the correct frequency and select the correct radial, but with that done, it tracks pretty well. It even uses internal logic to choose when to start turning, not unlike what an experienced pilot would do, based on the deflection of the CDI and the rate of change. It's not perfect, but maybe they program that in so pilots can feel superior.

    It would work the same way if the GPS were in the system. In fact, I don't believe the autopilot itself knows whether its input is the GPS, or a VOR. I think once the pilot selects which navigation input is displayed on the HSI, the autopilot just follows it. The difference between intercepting a GPS track and a VOR radial would be taken care of by the GPS, which is clever enough to give signals anticipating turns.

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008

    We Control the Vertical

    A two-axis autopilot has capability to control pitch as well as roll, which means that it can be used to hold altitude not just heading. There are different ways this is implemented.

    The big difference is in whether your autopilot has the altitude capture feature or not. If it does, you can tell your autopilot to "climb to such and such an altitude and then level off." There is usually a part of the autopilot console where you can set the target altitude. The autopilot knows to reduce its rate of climb or descent approaching that altitude. As the pilot, you need to ensure the correct power setting for the task; it's not an autothrottle and you don't want to be diving at high speeds, nor pitching up for a climb with decaying low speed.

    If your autopilot does not have altitude capture, as this one doesn't, you have to wait until you're just about at the target altitude, considering the rate of climb or descent, and hit the ALT mode button at just the right moment. You may coast past and have to fix it afterwards, or you may have a habit like the one I'm trying to break, and just disengage the autopilot, level off manually, and then hit autopilot hold. I have this habit because the autopilot controls by motoring the trim, not by physically moving the yoke and hence elevator the way I do, and the effect of one airplane I fly trying to level the airplane with elevator trim is seriously sick-making. When the plane makes the pilot wonder if she can reach the vomit bags from her seat, it's worth hitting the red switch.

    If you're flying level at one altitude and want to descend, there's two ways to do it. One is to leave the ALT mode engaged and to press on the vertical trim switch, not the electric elevator trim on the yoke, but a switch on the autopilot control box, and that will give a climb or descent of up to 600 fpm, while you are holding it. Or if you want a faster descent, you press the autopilot ALT button, disengaging that mode, descend like a normal person, and re-engage the ALT hold when you're at the altitude you want to hold. You can, of course, leave the heading mode on during the descent, so that the autopilot controls straight line flight and you control the climb or descent.

    This engaging and disengaging makes for fun times, because to disengage the autopilot I am used to, you can press the big red autopilot disconnect button on the yoke, or just apply pressure to the yoke. As soon as there's a disagreement between what I'm telling the airplane and what the autopilot is telling it, that autopilot surrenders and gives control over to me. This particular autopilot, however, has much more confidence in itself. If I apply pressure to the yoke without disengaging the autopilot, it trims against me. And it will continue to trim against the force I exert until it runs out of trim, or I give up. At that point the control forces exerted by the trim may be more than the autopilot can handle, causing it to disengage, and leaving me having to exert fifty pounds of control force while retrimming. The fifty pounds figure is from the manual, not personal experience. I'm sure I didn't ever get much beyond twenty-five pounds before remembering to hit the disengage switch. From now on, I plan to use the disengage switch every time so I'm ready for either sort.

    The way I fly without an autopilot, the descent rate depends on the power setting and the speed remains the same, unless I deliberately trim nose down to get a higher speed in the descent. During the training on one approach I didn't bring the power back enough because I'd started the descent on autopilot, and my speed was too high for my approach timing. I resolved to reduce the power before asking the autopilot to descend, just as I would if I were asking for the descent with the yoke, even though the training pilot did it the other way around.

    It seems like quite a lot of bother to avoid having to fly the airplane, doesn't it?

    Monday, June 16, 2008

    We Control the Horizontal

    I'm advised that I'll be doing my much delayed pilot proficiency check this week. That means that if I get the job I'll have two career-critical flight tests right after one another. Lovely. This one can serve as the warm up.

    Fortunately regulations require me to have training, not just go straight to a test, even though this is the airplane I normally fly. Well it isn't exactly. I'll be doing the test in an unfamiliar airplane, not even owned by my company, because the company airplanes are busy working and company hasn't been able to schedule them home in in a way that works out. This particular airplane is a different version of the airplane I normally fly for work. I'm not worried about that, because I've flown all the versions of this model and am familiar with the way they vary. I think the examiner will probably cut me some slack if I rattle off the numbers for the more familiar plane. The pilot who flies this airplane every day gives me a sheaf of paper to photocopy, not only the numbers for the airplane itself, but a bunch of helpful notes left over from his own training.

    The test will include my ability to use the autopilot, yet this autopilot is not the same as the one I use at work. There is no standard interface for autopilots, and the complement of things they can do isn't a given, either, so you really have to learn how to use one, not just figure it out as you go along. Before the first day of my PPC training I took the autopilot manual home with me, to get acquainted. Curiously, the autopilot has the same name as the company I just interviewed with. I won't try to interpret that as an omen; I'll just leave it as a hint for those in the know. I pretty much gave it away already anyway.

    I started out trying to blog about the Bilby autopilot but I figured I'd better explain a little about autopilots in general first, and well my explanations are a bit like my movie synopses. So here's the first part.

    In order to tell an autopilot which direction to fly, you have a heading bug a little pointer that sits on the rim of the heading indicator and which can be positioned, with a knob or by keypad inputs. It shows the heading you are asking the airplane to fly. Many non-autopilot-equipped airplanes have heading bugs too. They are useful to remind the pilot where she is supposed to be going, or to help her crab to hold a radial in wind. This autopilot has one, and it is controlled with a knob on the right side of the horizontal situation indicator. There is another knob on the left side, the OBS, which is used to select the radial of a VOR, or the localizer track to the runway. Airplanes are not standardized on which is on the left and which on the right, so a pilot should look at the symbols before twisting one of the knobs. The OBS has an arrow and the heading selector has a pentagon, the same shape as the heading bug. The heading bug can be different colours, too, and you might be surprised how distracting this can be. This one is orange, a pretty standard colour, but I've had them yellow and green for sure, and possibly other colours too.

    If the autopilot is on, working, and the heading mode is engaged, and you turn the heading bug to a heading more than a few degrees away from the current one, the airplane will roll into a standard rate (3 degrees per second) turn. and roll out on the selected heading. If you turn it to a heading very close to the current one, it will still roll, but but at a shallower bank angle. You have to be careful if you want a turn of close to or more than 180 degrees to move the heading bug part way and then wait until the airplane has turned far enough that it won't try to take a shortcut and turn in the opposite direction.

    I mentioned the heading mode. You put the autopilot in a particular mode or combination of modes to tell it what you want it to be doing. For this particular autopilot to engage heading mode from not having the autopilot active at all, I would push the command wheel steering button (on the yoke) to reset the flight director, then press the HDG button, then move another switch forward to engage the autopilot. The HDG light on the dashboard panel should now be illuminated, and the airplane should continue to follow the heading bug when I turn it.

    It's usually pretty good at that, holding the heading to within a few degrees and correcting promptly when turbulence causes a deviation. In this particular aircraft the alignment of the autopilot to the bug is a little bit off, so I have to align the left edge of the bug, not the centre part, with the intended heading. I get used to that soon enough. That alone is a pretty convenient feature. It allows a pilot to look up things in a manual, read a chart, eat lunch, retrieve dropped items all with hands off the yoke. You still have to keep a lookout, but it's a big help. It's also very useful at night or in IMC if you get momentarily disoriented, you can have the airplane fly for a few minutes while you scan the instruments and reassert in your brain which way is up.

    Sunday, June 15, 2008

    Salt Lake Saturday Nights

    Do I have any readers in Salt Lake City, Utah? I'm stopping over here for a couple of days, and all I know to do is walk down and look at the big salty lake, and wander around downtown.

    Edit: I did get to meet Chris; I'll blog about that later. I'll be around on Monday, too, if there's anyone who doesn't have a real job and doesn't have to be in the office Monday.

    Saturday, June 14, 2008


    The day after my interview I get e-mail from a woman looking for a ferry pilot, with a link to a picture and specs on a cute, tiny, airplane. I'm not even sure it counts as an airplane under Canadian law. It cruises at 85 mph. I can't even rotate that slowly. Throw in normal winds and it's like driving across the country. It makes me giggle. I'm loving it.

    Her need matches my schedule. I am all over this. It occurs to me after I send the e-mail that I am more excited about her trip than I am about the possibility of Bilby hiring me. There's something wrong with that. Perhaps this jet job isn't the right one for me. Or maybe there's a difference between being a grown up and doing a job and taking a few days to fly a cute fun little airplane. Is it time to grow up?

    Friday, June 13, 2008

    Two Meetings

    I'm all dressed in my suit arriving at the airport before my interview. A woman in the arrivals area asks me if I'm a member of a certain profession. I look at her startled. I was one of those once, but haven't been one for years. It was the career I gave up for aviation. Has it so thoroughly permeated my being that I am still identifiable as one? Nah. She's greeting delegates arriving in town for a conference. It must just be the suit.

    I have time to kill before the interview, and the greeter has to wait for a few more flights to arrive, so I stay and chat to her a bit, finding out the state of the industry I left and catching up on some colleagues we know in common. I tell her why I'm here and she knows a pilot who works there. She names him. It's Steve, the interviewer. Canada, they keep telling me, is a country of thirty million people, but I think really there must be far fewer of us. The illusion is probably kept up by a bunch of extras they keep running by in different hats. Maybe if this flying thing doesn't pan out I can get a job as an extra.

    I go off the the washroom to check myself out in the mirror. There I meet another woman in a suit who asks me if I'm interviewing with Bilby Flights, too. She's just come back from the Maldives and has the interview before mine. I wish her luck. A company like this interviews to fill a class, and it would be nice to have another women in the class.

    I see her again later. She went over to reception early and her interview is over already. Mine isn't scheduled yet, but I go do the same thing. I'm glad it's not too hot today, as I walk along the service road in my suit and girl shoes to find the right office. It's easy to find. They're also interviewing for receptionists which makes an interesting contrast between the dark conservative suits the pilots are wearing and the fluffy women with colourful nail polish filling out pre-employment questionaires in the waiting room.

    I'm led around airside to get to the chief pilot's office. He's really nice and the interview goes well. There are no technical questions. They are all questions to determine how I would fit in with the operation. I think I would, and I think I managed to demonstrate that with my answers, Not knock it out of the park well, some of my answers were a little wandering, but he seems to take most things well.

    I can see that he has written a question mark on his interview sheet where he is taking notes on my answers. I wonder if it's a question he has about me or if he's just drawn it in response to his own asking, "any questions?" I ask him about how the company is coping with fuel prices considering how thirsty the airplanes they are flying are. I'm hoping to hear that there are long term plans to move to a more fuel-efficient airplane, and there may be, but they do contract flying such that the client pays for fuel, Nice.

    After the interview I have the pleasure of meeting another sometimes-aviation blogger, Connie. I read her blog before I started blogging. She has moved on to a new blog more about music and less about airplanes, but answered my email and agreed to this meeting. I've put away the suit and changed into jeans and runners and am now scrutinizing everyone to see if they might be her. I probably should have looked at her current blog for recent photographs instead of going by my memory of photos from the old one! But we found each other and she takes me to a pub on the water, named after an animal, where we chat about being women in aviation and enjoy a good view and good food. I think it's tougher being a woman in maintenance than in the cockpit because even the densest male pilot has figured out that flying isn't about brute strength, but there are still a lot of strength-based tasks in maintenance. I imagine there are very few women maintenance engineers who are not the only one in their shop, always setting the standard for their male colleagues for what women can do in that field.

    If nothing else comes of this trip, I've met someone interesting, and will have a positive memory to take away At the end of the meal I have the fun of buying her lunch. She's all surprised and protesting, but I assure her that free lunches are one of the benefits of blogging. I've received a few, so it's only fair that I pass on my good fortune.

    Thursday, June 12, 2008

    The Season of Ice

    It's official almost summer, so for me this can only mean one thing: annual ice awareness training. Yeah, my company training is out of sync with the real world. It's just the way it is. Instead of just having me watch the Transport Canada When in Doubt video on deicing again, they had me do this NASA video course on icing, too. It's excellent. Canadians who only fly in Canada will find some of the weather products unfamiliar, but you can skip those parts. If you do, or might fly in the US, it's a good how-to-use for their icing products, which are different from the Canadian GFAs. And the advice is very practical, not just recitation of examination factoids, like "contamination the texture and thickness of sandpaper decreases lift by 30% and increases drag by 40%."

    Here are some examples of academic information transformed to simple, practical advice.

    Weather basics tell us that stratiform clouds form in layers, usually not more than a few thousand feet thick, and and cumulus clouds develop vertically. The NASA course says to escape ice in stratiform clouds, change altitude by 3000', but navigate around cumulus clouds.

    Weather theory tells us that an air mass loses moisture from crossing a mountain range, and that all else being equal, more moisture in a cloud means more icing. So NASA says, plan to fly on the leeward side of a mountain range.

    Fronts are the places where air masses meet, named according to which air mass is advancing. At a warm front, warm air is advancing over a wedge of cold air. At a cold front, a wedge of cold air is forcing warm air up. So the NASA advice is to fly on the warm air side of a front, i.e. traverse a warm front perpendicular to frontal movement and behind the front and traverse a classic cold front perpendicular to movement and in front of it. This is probably good advice everywhere in the US but Alaska, but I'd have to reverse it for the north in the winter, because then the cold air is down below minus thirty, too cold for icing, but if the warm air is up around minus ten it will contain the more dangerous icing.

    We already do this for engine failures and depressurization events, so why not develop an icing escape plan for each point along your route.

    The NASA course does treat North America wide phenomena. They mapped of the continent for icing potential, illustrating that icing is more common around large bodies of water. At first I blinked at it. Why did it not show massive icing around the northern lakes and bay? Then I noticed the caption "November to March." The northern bodies of water are frozen solid then, so are not a source of moisture for icing until spring.

    They acknowledge that their audience already knows things about icing, some of which are myths. NASA is wonderful because they don't just pool the advice of experts and regurgitate it back. They go out and do research, some of which involves flying actual airplanes around in actual icing conditions, and can back up what they say.

    Pilots who have flown regularly in ice have all looked out the window and confidently assured their terrified copilots that they've seen worse. NASA research, and you get to trust them more than the grizzled captain because they really do research what they write about, reminds us that it is nearly impossible for a pilot to visually distinguish between an accretion that is flyable and one that threatens survival. I am reminded every time I preflight of how little it takes to change the flyability of an airplane. That's because my airplane has a vortex kit, eighty-eight little metal tabs on the wings and tail. They're tiny, each about the thickness of a dime and the area of the first joint of my thumb. But lose three and the maximum gross weight of my airplane drops by six per cent. I mentally compare that to how an ice accretion could affect airflow over the wing. By how much will it decrease the maximum flyable weight of the airplane?

    And no icing video is complete without a nod to the old advice on deicing boots. In the old days, before I learned how to fly, probably before I was born, manufacturers told pilots to wait until there was a significant accretion on the wing before inflating the boots. The theory back them was that if the boots were inflated when the ice was very thin, inflation of the boots could result in bridging, creating a boot-sized airspace surrounded by ice the boots couldn't meet. NASA points out that while this may have been possible with the old, slower inflation boots, it is not with modern boots and that no one has ever shown ice bridging to occur with any boots. "Ho hum," I thought at that part of the presentation. Old news. Everyone has heard that debunked by now. The pilots I have flown with who advocate waiting are not delaying activation to avoid ice-bridging, which they don't believe in either. They are delaying it because they are waiting for the "skin" of ice to be thick enough to pull off the runback ice as the boots pop. This video, however, addresses this too. It admits that studies confirm that larger amounts do shed more cleanly with one inflation. But that research shows that although ice may remain between cycles, the ice will ultimately clear as well as it would have, had you waited for a large build up, and by activating the boots as soon as you have ice, you reduce the maximum amount of ice you are ever carrying. This makes more sense than decreasing the minimum amount.

    I have notes on a couple of things I hadn't met before, too.

    Freezing drizzle (small supercooled raindrops that freeze on contact with your airframe) is according to NASA most commonly formed by collision coalescence. That is, by even smaller supercooled water droplets bashing into one another and becoming big enough to drift down as drizzle. I had thought that it was usually formed the way textbook freezing rain is formed at a warm front, with rain falling out of the warm air aloft, and becoming supercooled by its passage through the colder air below. I can diagram it and everything. Useful as my original knowledge is for passing Transport Canada exams, there's an important difference: as the NASA course points out, I should not assume that the presence of freezing drizzle indicates warmer air above, into which I could climb to escape the ice.

    The other new-to-me thing I remember is electro-expulsive deicing where the shape of the actual wing is mechanically altered to dislodge ice, like flexing an ice cube tray.

    It's very usable, multi-media with exercises to do, and so many videos available to watch you can miss a lot of them by not looking at the 'related information' section. The only spelling error that distracted me was the term "full blow thunderstorms" where I would have expected "full blown," but perhaps that's a regionalism. The course is something you have to dedicate a day to. There's that much information.

    Wednesday, June 11, 2008

    Restaurant Meals

    On the road, I eat in restaurants. If you go out for a restaurant meal once every couple of weeks with your friends, you look it over and order something that seems tasty, without a lot of regard for how good it is for you, because hey, it's an evening out. But when you eat all your meals for a month in restaurants, this becomes a concern. I get to the point where I say to myself, "What have I eaten so far today? What do I need to eat now?" And then the restaurants don't have what I want.

    Sometimes I ask hopefully, "Do you have any vegetarian choices?" It's not that I'm vegetarian, but a person doesn't need meat every day. If you've ever eaten in a restaurant in Florida you'll know that you get enough in one meal to last you the rest of the week. If they understand my request, I'm typically pointed towards breaded deep-fried zucchini sticks or fettucini Alfredo. Applebee's has a Weight Watchers' menu, with lower fat, and the meals are good, but the dishes tend to be low in calories. Duh, that's the point if you're on a weight-loss diet, but I'm not. This may be my first good meal of the day, or the meal that is supposed to carry me through a seven hour overnight flight. Three hundred fifty calories isn't going to cut it. It's like there's a rule that if I want more than four hundred calories out of my meal, then it has to be half fat.

    Most of the time I just order something and try to overcome both upbringing and the yummy taste of fatty foods, by not finishing the enormous meat portion, just eating the rice and vegetables and a sensible portion of the meat. Sometimes I'm high maintenance enough to comb through the menu and request the basmati rice from this dish, the vegetables--hold the butter--from this one and a side of black beans. I remember once I wasn't very hungry because I'd been eating in the airplane all day so I ordered a side salad, and then I noticed that the Caesar salad was available with grilled wild salmon on top, so I had them put that on my salad. It was great, but wow, if I had had a piece of fish that big at home, I would have served it to two people.

    Scrutinizing the appetizer lists for something I can call a meal, I've learned that almost every appetizer is deep-fried or mostly cheese. Some are both. That's why they are tasty. Fat is delicious. I'm not the world's healthiest eater at home, either, but at least when you're doing the stuff to the food yourself you see how much oil you're putting in, and don't overdo it.

    You can't just go, "bring me the healthiest thing on the menu," so I got the idea of printing off a copy of the government-issued healthy eating guide so I could refer to it in restaurants and ask if they could recommend a meal that complied. Nothing freaky, just a request for the normal food people are supposed to eat.

    In school I learned to plan meals based on "the four food groups" of bread, fruit & vegetables, meat & alternates, and dairy. The Canada Food Guide has been updated since, but it's essentially the same. The graphic now appears to be a food rainbow, and the range of recommended foods more culturally diverse, but it's the same four food groups. It's a good system that's helped me shop and plan meals for years.

    Obviously I'm not going to win any friends demanding some commie Canadian meal in the US. I know they have a similar thing here, called a food pyramid, with grains forming the broad flat base, building up with fruits and vegetables, then meat and dairy, and finally fats and sweetened foods making up the tiny top of the pyramid. Same information as the four food groups, plus the visual reminder of what kinds of foods should make up the bulk of the diet.

    The graphic on the governemnt site seems to have missed the whole point of the pyramid, because the happy colours stream vertically from the apex, in equal amounts. Oh well. While the recommendations from the two governments are the same to the extent I have examined them, there doesn't seem to be a single print-out-and-stick-on-the-fridge page from the US site that would be appropriate for saying, "I want a meal like this."

    Even if it were, it's an idea you think about, not an idea you do. I know the reaction I'd get. The menu is there, lady. Pick what you want. We have found a few restaurants where you could eat according to the food guide. We found a Crispers accidentally while trying to make a U-turn. It was tucked away next to a vitamin store. Good food and fast, too. Another quick-and-good place is Souplantation, called Sweet Tomatoes in some states. It's an all-you-can-eat buffet of healthy soups, breads and salads. There's another one too that I've forgotten the name of. It's a bagel and soup place with good sandwiches, and the bonus is I can take a few bagels for the plane. And I must single out urban California for living up to its stereotype with a wide availability of healthy foods.

    Tuesday, June 10, 2008

    Idiot Light

    I work closely with airplane mechanics (often called engineers, although they don't actually hold engineering degrees) to keep my airplane working, so this blog entry from an aircraft maintenance engineer amused me. It's the view from the other side, and a message for pilots who don't heed the rule about not messing with the people who maintain your aircraft.

    Mr.V, the blogger whose story this is, hasn't set up his blog so I can link to individual posts, so I have quoted the post in question below. His language and spelling are saltier than mine, but I'm not going to edit someone else's post.

    Thursday, May 8, 2008

    In my line of work I meet a lot of pilots. For the most part they are nice and cordial but then again there are some complete dicks....

    The following is an account of a line call this morning.

    6:10 am (radio goes off, Aircraft 218 requesting maintenance)

    me: Good morning sir, what seems to be the problem

    Mr pilot: the AP (auto pilot) indicator light is pointing in the wrong direction

    the AP indicator is a dummy light that shows which person has the auto pilot engaged. This one happened to be pointing to the left. It is also a dummy light it has no effect on the AP.

    Me: Well it looks like avionics was working on the auto pilot last night and and perhaps put in the wrong bulb. this is not something we carry in the maintenance truck

    Mr Pilot: well this is not going to do we have got to get this fixed.

    me: well it is not flight critical and it is just a dummy light it is not worth taking a delay over.

    Mr (now rude) pilot: Just change the bulb and we will be on our way

    Me: I just said we don't carry these in the maintenance van

    Mr rude pilot: then get in your van and drive back to the hanger and get one.

    Me: Perhaps if you called me earlier than 5 minutes before you where to board I could have taken care of this for you.. Like i said it is not worth taking a delay over

    Mr extremely rude dick head pilot: Don't you tell me how to do my job just fix the dam system.

    Me: Ok then I got and idea can I see the flight can? (flight can is a log book)

    I took the flight can back to the maintenance van called maintenance control and deffered the entire auto pilot system.

    The look on the pilots face when I handed him back the flight can and put the inop placard on the auto pilot indicator and pulled and collared the Ap circuit breakers..... Priceless

    and the flight left on time

    By way of explanation to non-pilot/maintenance readers, the pilot in command does have the right to decide whether equipment is working to his satisfaction. It isn't out of line for him to demand that a piece of equipment he is supposed to use works perfectly, even if the broken portion isn't core to the function of the equipment.

    The thing is, for this particular company, the autopilot itself was not a required item for flight, just a nice-to-have item. So an unnecessary light on the autopilot was really not required. The pilot was, by being obstreperous, arguing that the light was a safety concern. And yes, I can see how having the wrong pilot indicated as the one who had engaged the autopilot could cause a problem. Transport Canada or the FAA could certainly (and have many times) asked for entire systems to be replaced because of malfunctions in unnecessary components. In fact, had the FAA been looking over the shoulders of the pilot and mechanic, they would probably have asked for exactly what the mechanic eventually did.

    The mechanic gave the pilot every opportunity to see that he would be better off accepting the airplane with the faulty light, but the pilot wouldn't take it. So the mechanic solved his problem. Safely, legally, expeditiously and hilariously the mechanic solved it. Disabling and placarding a faulty but not required system is absolutely by-the-book. No one can touch the mechanic for doing that. And now the pilot isn't allowed to use that system. So as punishment for being a jerk, the pilot now has to hand fly the airplane all day. Brilliant.

    Of course, most likely he'll just have the co-pilot hand fly it, and be a jerk to him or her, too.

    While I'm linking to other people's blogs, Julien at Making Time for Flying has posted some pictures that perfectly illustrate tow bars and the flat spot I was fearing from the unauthorized tow my airplane received a few posts ago. It's not an uncommon sight if a pilot has accidentally landed with the brakes on or locked up the brakes, but the title of Julien's blog post gives away what caused that pilot to lock the brakes. I'm always amused by the various creatures people manage to hit with their airplanes, around the world.

    Monday, June 09, 2008

    An Interview, After All

    It's been less than a month since the jet job interview I couldn't attend, but they called me again to say that they have more interviews scheduled this week. And this time I can attend. It's a really really good opportunity. The company pays well, has full benefits, like a real job, maintains their aircraft and I could make a whole career there. They fly old noisy three-crew airplanes, which itself would be an experience, and chances are that during my career they might renew the fleet, giving me a chance to fly a modern airplane before I retire.

    It's pretty exciting, but there's a part of me that clings to the job I have and love now. It's possible that it's a much better job but that I wouldn't like it as much. What if they hated me?

    But it won't hurt to go and see.

    Sunday, June 08, 2008

    Special Services

    Fairly frequently I'm asked to leave an airplane parked somewhere and to take an airline flight to somewhere else. I'm reimbursed for the airfare, and I can't be too picky about fares when I buy them for same day travel, but I do try to get the best fare for my employer or customer. I'll accept an awkward connection to get a significantly better price, and just check one bag to avoid incurring extra baggage fees. (Yes, in the US and on Air Canada you pay excess baggage fees for the second bag now).

    This time "somewhere" was Birmingham, Alabama, a location my company chose using a method about as scientific as blindfolded dart hurling. I know this, because I accidentally picked it. See, we didn't want to park the airplane for a few weeks on the Florida coast, because of salt air corrosion and hurricanes. This had been decided for a while, but nothing further. So with the Florida work complete, I called Person A to find out what my next assignment was. He told me to hang on, he was going to call Person B. I arranged for a late checkout, and while I was packing up my stuff, Person B called me to ask where we were going to park the plane instead of Florida. I told him Person A was working on that. Person B wanted to know where was a good place. Knowing virtually nothing about the surrounding area, but having in my possession a copy of USA Today (or The USA Today, depending on whether or not you're a pedant or a Stephen Colbert fan), I said "Uh, I have no idea. How about Birmingham?" Birmingham had the advantages of being (a) on the map I was looking at, (b) about an hour away, (c) easy to pronounce, and (d) a place I'd heard of before. Nothing more. It turns up in John Grisham novels, and I believe it features prominently in the history of US civil rights, but whether it is a location where great advances were made in human dignity or horrible wrongs were committed, driving others to action, I could not say. I picked it because being big enough for me to have heard of, it was going to have a decent airport, with security and services, but, being in a low-income state, was not likely to be too expensive. Fifteen minutes later Person A called back and told me to go to Birmingham.

    The flight was quick and easy. Alabama is flat and green, with extremely squiggly lakes. More familiar names turn up on the sectional chart: I think Montgomery is where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, and the name Selma stands out, too. (I tried to look up more about the history of Alabama and civil rights, before posting this, but I had to do a four hour internet course on icing avoidance). I'm VFR into Birmingham, approaching over hills that bristle with very tall antennae. Definitely a place to pay attention on a night or IMC approach. ATC vectors me around for a bit, so I have to add power and level off, rather than making the smooth continuous descent I had planned. Final approach takes me right over a building several stories high with at least two wings. I guess at first that it is a hospital, and send mental apologies for the engine noise, but then I see that it has a huge Christian cross up the front. It could still be a mission hospital, but it also has a big parking lot, so I change my mind and decide it is an enormous church. Land on a hill aligned with the runway was probably cheap, and there isn't much air traffic on a Sunday morning, so I guess it works out well for them.

    I'd like to stay and see something of the city, but because of my late checkout it's well into afternoon now, so if I don't get the next flight out of here, I may not be able to make the connections I need to get home. I juggle all my paperwork and my laptop in the FBO to send all the required information to the people who need it, and open up a browser window to Expedia and ask it about flights. I quickly find one that strikes the right balance between ridiculous price and ridiculous connections, and try to book it. Expedia immediately comes back and tells me that because availability is always changing, I'll have to reselect the flight in order to book it. I didn't take very long to choose one, but whatever. I go back to the search page and reselect. Same message. I check my watch. I don't have time for this. I go directly to the airline site and try to book there. I find the same flights, but when I try to book them, I get a message that the site is too busy, try again later.

    I leave the computer on a table in the FBO and go and make sure everything is in order in the airplane for the next pilot. I come back to the computer. is still too busy to take my booking. Screw it: I don't have time for this. I pack up my computer and get a shuttle to the terminal. I know that they normally charge a $20 "special service" fee for the special service of selling me a ticket to get on their airplane. I ask them to waive it because the site won't talk to me. They are contractors so "don't have that authority." Instead I accept contact information for the customer service department that does have that authority.

    United customer service won't refund my $20, but decide to send me a $50 credit towards my next flight. That works for me. I get on the plane and a few connections later, fly back to Canada.

    On the cross-border leg the flight attendants hand out customs declaration cards on the plane. Canadian ones are a trifold form, one part English, one part French and the third part bilingual instructions for filling it out. I've filled these out so many times that I don't need the instructions or care what language, so it's my habit to just fill it out which ever way up it lands on the table. Today it's in French. At the airport in Canada the customs officer looks at it, says "Bonjour," and starts to ask me a question in correct but painfully memorized French. I quickly tell him English is fine; he looks relived and welcomes me home. "Welcome home," I always love that part. Do US Customs say that to Americans when they come home? To me American customs agents are always either scarily suspicious, or suspiciously informal. They don't strike the middle ground of formal friendliness that is more standard to the Canadian ones. But again, maybe it depends on what is embossed on your passport.

    If this tale isn't funny enough, or you need more diversion today, try this air travel thread from the cartoon User Friendly.

    Saturday, June 07, 2008

    Don't Tow Me, Bro

    FBOs typically monitor the ground control radio frequency, so that when you request taxi to that FBO, they know you are coming and can be ready to wave you in. Otherwise they just see you trudling onto their apron and zip out with their little flashlights to tell you where to park.

    Some marshall you into rock star parking right in front of the door, and then tow your airplane to an appropriate place after you have unloaded. Like valet parking, except you don't need to give them the key, just leave the parking brake off. Others marshall you directly into a parking spot, usually marked out with a T on the ground, with your fuselage over the upright and your wings along the crosspiece. Then they usually offer you a ride to the door.

    Not long ago I followed the line guys' signals to park in one of these T-marked spots, put on my parking brake, and shut down. They chocked the wheels and as I locked the back door I asked them if they would need to tow the airplane. "Nope," said the guys. "It's going to be fine right there."

    "Good," I said, "Because I left the parking brake on."

    When I came back, the airplane was not where I left it. It had been towed. With the brake set. This is the sort of thing that makes pilots unhappy. I went out to the airplane and into the cockpit to release the parking brake. Then I crawled underneath to inspect the brake pads. They had been new. They didn't look excessively or irregularly worn. This could mean that they didn't grip, or that they gripped all too well. I went inside and explained what had happened, and asked for the airplane to be towed forward a little, so I could inspect the underside of the tires. The line guys who came to help were different, the other had gone off shift. They thought it was odd that the airplane had been towed and were trying to work out who it had been.

    I think I have some pictures of what happens to a tire that has been moved forward while locked. Sometimes this happens if a pilot lands with his or her feet on the brakes, or locks up the wheels by braking heavily after landing. I really don't want to see this on my airplane.

    The towing device they have is different from what I consider normal. I'm used to a towing bar shaped like a giant tuning fork. The fork hooks into either side of the hub of the nosewheel, and then the wheel is pulled along the ground. This device actually goes under the nosewheel and lifts it up. They tow it forward inch by inch and I'm watching for a flat spot to emerge from under the tire. But there's no damage. The tire shows no sign at all of having been dragged. "Phew!" I say. "Thanks for helping me check that."

    A manager has been alerted and comes up as I'm discovering that everything is okay. He apologizes, recognizes that this should not have happened, and explains that they have a system where not-to-be-towed airplanes get a different colour chocks than ok-to-tow airplanes, so he is going to investigate what happened here. I accept the apology. It turns out that no harm has been done, so I can relax. I guess the brakes released. That's why you're not supposed to trust parking brakes overnight.

    I'm a kind of stereotypical customer in that respect. I can be mollified by someone who simply treats me with respect and acknowledges that I have been wronged. If the tires had been damaged I probably would have insisted on at least free labour to change them. They had their own shop. My airplane tires are actually pretty cheap, and I'd done a lot of business with them. And I would have accepted some kind of compromise to that effect. So I leave still a happy customer, just a more watchful one. I can buy a DO NOT TOW tag, I imagine. Or just not set the brakes.

    Friday, June 06, 2008

    Fixed Base Operator

    I'm aware that I keep blogging about "FBOs" but I'm not sure I've ever explained exactly what one is. When I'm talking to people outside of aviation, I sometimes substitute the words "airplane gas station" but that phrase really doesn't adequately describe an FBO.

    First off, as you figured out already from the title of this entry, FBO stands for Fixed Base Operator. I think technically any business that provides aviation services on the airfield: maintenance, flight training, airplane washing, or fuelling is a Fixed Base Operator, but when someone says they are going "to the Eff Bee Oh" they are referring to a business that will at minimum fuel their aircraft, and probably provide many other services. If all they do is provide fuel, then I'll probably call them either "the self-serve fuel pump" or "the guys with the fuel truck." But if they offer any other services, even as basic as washrooms and a table for flight planning, then they become an FBO.

    A small FBO may be just washrooms and a bulletin board, but in a town of any size I expect a flight planning computer with an internet connection and someone who can arrange ground transportation and hotel rooms. At the high end you might see a pilots' area with TV, internet, a pool table, a weight room, sleeping bunks, a flight planning room equipped with charts and subscriptions to non-government online weather briefing products, and office facilities. They usually have deicing if that's needed in their climate, and can provide a GPU--Ground Power Unit--to help start an airplane on a cold day. You can also order ice, catering and other things passengers might need and often they have rental cars. I expect an FBO to be able to provide me with the telephone number of a local mechanic, and often they have their own repair facility. This is especially nice when you have a very minor problem like a loose wire causing a gauge to not register, or a stuck fuel cap.

    If there are multiple staff, the first people you see are the line guys. Sometimes there is a gal or two among them, but the typical division of labour has the guys running around outside, showing you where to park, pumping gas, and helping you with your luggage, while the females work inside in heated or air-conditioned comfort, behind a desk. Their jobs include answering the phone and radio, arranging things for you and printing out your fuel bill. The line guys often also get to be the shuttle drivers.

    If the FBO is a Ma & Pa operation, then Pa pumps gas and Ma collects your money inside. It's not a bad little retirement business for a couple. If it's a small airport and they own the building then I guess overhead is fairly low. If it gets busy it shouldn't be too hard for them to hire an airplane-mad kid to help, and if it's quiet they can spend more time just chatting with the visitors. I'm sure I'm being very naïve and that there is far more to it than that, but hanging out at the airport saying hi to people who come by might still be fun.

    Thursday, June 05, 2008

    Checklist Saves Airplane

    Here's a story from Australia (on p.7 of the PDF) about how one pilot's attention to checklist procedures saved the airplane, but not in the way you might think. I know not everyone reads PDFs so I'll copy the story here. I'd summarize, but I'm fascinated by the quaint English. I'll have to ask my Australian readers whether that is just the tone of this publication, or if Australia has simply preserved some usages that are more familiar to me from 19th century novels.

    The aircraft was in good order and had only flown approximately 10 hours since a very thorough 100-hourly service and the aircraft was to be used for charter. The magnetos and carburettor required an overhaul, which was completed during the 100 hourly.

    The aircraft had not been used for about four days when I intended to fly some practice landings. The day was hot with a 10 knot breeze blowing from about 150 degrees M. which was at a right angle to the parked plane and roughly straight down runway 15. As is my habit, part of the shutdown from the previous flight, I had turned the fuel selector to off. I conducted an unhurried exterior pre-flight inspection in detail and found nothing of concern.

    I then entered the aircraft, and being a hot day, I opened the passenger side door to allow the breeze to blow through and cool the interior. I saw a heavy rain scud approaching from the southeast but this would not affect my plans. I placed my maps etc. in the respective places for them and closed and locked the passenger door.

    I began the pre-start check in line with a checklist, which is straight from the Pilot's Operating Handbook for the aircraft. I selected "both" on the fuel selector. I then decided to read straight from the checklist, but I could not locate it. I knew it had been on the passenger seat a moment before and I suspected that it might have fallen out without being noticed. I leaned over and opened the passenger door and looked to the ground to locate the list.

    I then saw a large pool of fluid on the ground around the front of the aircraft. As I knew that the fluid had not been there a couple of minutes earlier, I alighted to investigate. As I shut the door I saw a heavy stream of fuel falling from the cowl flap over the exhaust stub, and over the nosewheel onto the ground. I estimate that there would have been at least twenty litres on the ground already.

    I immediately re-entered the aircraft and switched the fuel selector to off. I then investigated and found the fuel appeared to be coming from the carburettor. The fuel tender was nearby and the operator and I were about to place some absorbent material on the spill, At this time the very heavy but short rain scud arrived and completely washed the area clean of fuel.

    My pre-flight external inspection has now been altered to placing the fuel selector in the 'both' position before the inspection in order to prevent a repeat event. The breeze, blowing at right angles to the aircraft, carried the smell of the fuel spill away from the aircraft, Had I not lost that checklist and hit the starter, I believe that it would have resulted in the destruction of an otherwise perfectly good aeroplane.

    The carburettor problem was rectified by its removal and return to the overhaul shop. The checklist averted a disaster (for me) in a very unusual and roundabout way.

    Some of the details make me laugh. Before reporting the incident he seems to have gone through with a fine-toothed comb, looking for anything the regulatory authorities might pounce on as an error. Careful preflight? Check! Checklist according to the POH? Check! Weather not a threat to operations? Check! I laughed at the detail of the convenient rainstorm explaining why he didn't clean up the spill.

    I've actually had a very similar carburettor malfunction. (Now after typing all that I have to try not to fall into the same style of writing!) I may have been saved by my paint job. I was ferrying a little single-engine airplane from a repair station back to its home airport, and had ordered minimum fuel because fuel was more expensive at that airport than where I was going.

    Much of the flight was in the dark, over some rugged terrain, but it was uneventful. I landed, parked in front of the correct tie down space and got out to push the airplane back into its spot. (You can't reverse an airplane like that, so if you want it parked tail-to-the-fence between two other airplanes, you have to push it backwards after shutdown). But as I shone my flashlight to check that the nosewheel was aligned with the white line, I saw fuel gushing out of the cowling and running down over the nosewheel. I shrieked, actually.

    How did I not run out of fuel during my flight? Two reasons. The main one was that the defect in the carburettor was such that it leaked when the mixture was in idle cutoff. With the mixture rich the fuel found its way to the cylinders to be burned. And when the fueller was pumping gas into my tanks he was distracted talking to me about the unusual paint, and accidentally put in too much fuel.

    Wednesday, June 04, 2008

    Crystal Skull Spoilers

    I just saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and this blog entry constitutes a ridiculously long description and critique of the movie, at a level of detail you almost certainly don't want if you intend to see the movie. In fact what follows is a level of detail probably no one wants, but I have been boring people with scene-by-scene recitations of movies since I was four years old, so I see no reason to stop now. But you, really: stop reading now if you do not want the movie spoiled for you. There will be another blog entry in a day or two.

    The very first image on the screen (not counting movie trivia, ads, previews, and a warning to turn off my cellphone) was a dissolve from the Paramount mountain logo into a gopher mound, with a distractingly unrealistic gopher bursting through the soil. Do they even have gophers in New Mexico? Unfortunately, distractingly unrealistic is a phrase that applies to a lot of the movie, and do realize this is coming from someone who loves Indiana Jones movies and desperately wants to suspend disbelief for an hour and a half. It just seems as if a lot of the effects and sets were rushed, or not carefully evaluated for impact.

    The gopher runs away as his mound is hit by (I warned you this would be detailed) the wheel of a convertible roadster full of 1950s teenagers. In case you missed the period costumes and make-up, Elvis' You Ain't Nothing But A Hound Dog plays on the soundtrack. The roadster cuts across the desert and then meets a road where it weaves through a military convoy of troop transport trucks led by a staff car. We see some armed soldiers look at the kids briefly and disinterestedly. I thought that was unrealistic for American soldiers, who should have at least grinned at the pretty girls, but with the tone set by the gopher, I missed the foreshadowing.

    The teenagers try to persuade the driver of the staff car to race with them, and for a while the staff car speeds away from the trucks. I figured it was a ruse to lure the car away from the troops in order to capture some military secret or individual, so that was fun and exciting, but that doesn't happen. The teenagers continue on the road to the "Atomic Cafe" ; they were just there to set the era, because otherwise a military convoy is timeless. An overlay title proclaims it 1957, while the convoy turns in to stop at the checkpoint gate of a military facility. The guards there salute and apologize to the colonel who steps out of the convoy, but explain that the entire facility is off limits to all personnel today, for nuclear testing. Suddenly the colonel ducks down, and from behind him soldiers gun down all the checkpoint guards. Next, they open the trunk of the staff car and throw a couple of bodies on the ground, with a fedora hat. One of the 'bodies' picks up the fedora and --cue the classic music-- we see him put it on as a shadow on the side of the car. For a moment we revel in the familiar and famous silhouette, then the focus shifts and we see Harrison Ford reprising the character in his sixties. It was a very nice way to say that Indy's got a few years on him, but he's still the same guy. I think that last bit was in the trailer.

    The other body is also alive. He's your standard slightly overweight sidekick, reminds me of dependable Sollah from Raiders. And the ruthless soldiers are Russians who say they found Indy and his companion searching for antiquities in Mexico. The Russian army, and specifically Irina Spalko (standard issue, ramrod straight, smart brunette Russian operative boss chick) wants Indiana to find them a box in a military warehouse. There's also a tall expressionless tough guy and a lot of interchangeable soldiers who yell «давай» a lot.

    The warehouse looks a lot like my local lumberyard/hardware store and just like the warehouse from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a massive high-ceilinged space containing row after row of high stacked wooden boxes. The commies aren't after the ark, though. They want a mummy they say Indy found. Under threat of death, he cooperates, disassembling bullets and shotgun shells and using McGyveresque techniques to find the highly magnetized items. This is the standard opening scene of an Indiana Jones movie, so you know they find the prized artifact, introduce the characters and then Indy loses the prize to his adversary. We don't actually get to see exactly what they've taken. It's just something alien-looking inside what might be a mylar bag inside the presumably magnetized sarcophagus. During the ensuing chase/fight scene one of the vehicles smashes open a crate and only the viewers get to glimpse what is inside: the Ark from the first movie. Perfect. Indy escapes with his life, despite the fact that his companion turns traitor, and runs out into the picturesque desert, towards a settlement.

    When he gets there it's all candy colours, an over-the-top set piece of 1950s homes, yards, furniture, decor, brand name products and the TV show playing in the background. In fact, even the people are plastic. Literally. I guess some folks younger than me needed the subsequent announcement of the imminent bomb drop to tell them that this is a model town set up for the sole purpose of researching the effects of nuclear weapons on civilian areas. Indy doesn't. He can't get a ride out of there with the Russians, so he crawls into a lead-lined refrigerator and shuts the door. It's the old-fashioned kind of refrigerator, of course, the kind that can only be opened from the outside. (When I was a kid the dire warnings to never play in a refrigerator were still around, but those lever-lock refrigerators weren't. I always wondered what kind of idiot couldn't push the door open again). I guess Indy hadn't received those warnings, or he prefers slow suffocation to instant nuclear immolation. The bomb drops, all the happy innocent 1950s kitch is turned to ash, and the refrigerator is blown clear of the ersatz subdivision. Duck and cover, indeed.

    Next scene does not address his escape from either the refrigerator or the fall within, but has Jones being scrubbed and showered by radiation-suited men, and then grilled by suspicious communist-hunters. He is under suspicion for his long association with the sidekick character (no, he wasn't interesting enough for me to bother learning or looking up his name). They fill in the back story of what Dr. Jones has been doing all these years. He was a war hero of course, but his interrogators have war records too, and this is the McCarthy era, so everything about him is suspect. He finally gets someone to vouch for him and goes free, but then we see him back teaching at his old school, his class being interrupted by the Dean, with orders for him to take a leave of absence. He is still a suspected communist.

    It's the first time I've seen a movie that wasn't specifically about the McCarthy witch hunts deal with the suspicion that fell on academics in that time. It was ironically similar to what the communists themselves did, killing off the intelligentsia. Neither regime wanted people who thought for themselves and communicated their thoughts clearly.

    Jones is on his way out of town when a motorcycle-riding teen named Mud chases his train along the platform to deliver a message. The message is that the kid's mother and stepfather have disappeared and there's a coded letter in an ancient language for Indy to solve. The kid seems like someone who is trying to cultivate the image of a bad boy--and he's obsessed with image, doing his hair at the most inopportune moments, throughout the movie--but he hasn't actually got involved in anything bad. He has followed mommy and daddy's instructions to find Professor Jones and hands over the letter. Almost immediately the Russian bad guys reappear, so Mud starts a soda shoppe (he's too young for bars) fight and in the ensuing confusion he and Indy can escape on Mud's anachronistic (it's a modern model with retro styling instead of being authentic to the era) motorcycle. They use Indy's knowledge of the university campus to go through narrow archways and elude their car-driving pursuers, who for some reason aren't clever enough to regroup and find Indy and Mud back in Indy's study. There, Indy pulls out a couple of books, and demonstrates to multiple school dropout Mud the value of an education by solving the riddle, determining where in the world the next scene should show red lines across the map. Their transport in what appears to be a Russian airplane with Pan-American paint: I think the person tasked with producing the travel graphics got the airplanes mixed up.

    Once in Peru they find out that the stepfather went insane, but that he is no longer in the asylum. The multilingual graffiti on the walls and floor of his cell has the message "return/go back" and includes a map of a local graveyard where they discover a tomb containing the well-preserved mummified conquistadores who stole the titular skull in the first place. And it contains the skull, stashed inside the wrappings of an already opened mummy. Or something. It's hard to see with all the spiderweb set dressing. It is gigantic, clear, with clearish stuff inside.

    At some point they 'realize' that the scrawled word "return" means "give back" not "go back." That's kind of silly because they made a point of it being in multiple languages, and that would have resolved the English ambiguity of give back vs. go back. The same double meaning isn't going to exist across languages. But now they are going to give the skull back to where it came from, the City of Gold, elsewhere in Peru.

    Of course as soon as they emerge from the cemetery they are captured by the Russians again. The Russians take them more or less where they were going anyway, where they have a jungle camp. They not only have Indy and Mud as prisoners, but Mud's mother, who turns out to be Marion Ravenwood, the female lead from the first movie, Ox, Mud's now insane stepfather, and sidekick traitor guy. One big happy family. The evil Russian lady makes Indy look into the eyes of the crystal skull, the same thing that drove Ox mad. It's not just an ordinary skull of course, it's a plotomagnetic (attracts anything metal, including gold, but only when it's convenient to the plot) big headed alien skull. Indy goes all droopy after a while of staring, so they let him stop, at which point there is a lot of punching and everyone escapes into the jungle and Indy and Marion get stuck in quicksand. The Indy and Marion bickering is just like the first movie, and it's great to see a female lead who has been allowed to age like a real person. Just before they drown, Marion reveals what all but the densest audience members have already figured out: Mud is Indy's kid. His real name is Henry Jones III. Mud returns and rescues them using a snake (why did it have to be snakes?) as a rope, but it's all in vain because Indy send Ox for "help" and so he went and got the Nazis, I mean Commies. That entire sequence, well except for the snake, was completely predicable.

    Eventually they have another go at escaping, this one in a goes-on-way-too-long jungle car chase extravaganza, with more distractingly unrealistic effects. It would have been better to have the Russian tank-cars just racing along a realistic forest track than it was to have them racing along a forest track impossibly close to the edge of a dizzying precipice above a roaring river. In the first movie I was actually worried about the proximity of the cliff to the tracks of the vehicles, but this one was so overdone it took away from the excitement of the chase instead of adding. When junior gets separated from the party after an intervehicle epee battle and then sees a monkey in a tree, that's fine. But then when he rejoins the party by swinging on vines like Tarzan, there was a distractingly unrealistic quantity of CGI monkeys all joining in. When you ask the question "why?" about an effect it is suspect, and when the only answer is "George Lucas likes animals" or "because we can," it doesn't belong. And I liked all the weird alien animals in the Star Wars remakes.

    Just when you thought the car chase is over because they've all smashed into things and can't drive any more, there's an attack of giant killer ants and we all have to run away from the ants. The skull (which has been back and forth between parties like a ping pong ball) repels the killer ants, so only a couple of the bad guys get eaten alive and the good guys escape. There's more punching, I think, too. Marion then drives an amphibious vehicle over a cliff far too high to be driving over, but she cleverly gets the car-boat caught in a tree, which slowly falls over and lowers the boat perfectly to the water. Good classic moment. I wanted to see more instances where old age and guile trump youth and strength.

    Meanwhile mad-Ox is going on about three drops, but the party, despite the fact that they are floating down a river, doesn't figure out what these drops are until after they go over the first waterfall and are about to go over the second. I was finding this a little dense of them, but then it got really stupid when they did nothing with the information and just pile over the third, impossibly high rock-strewn waterfall destroying their vehicle but with no personal injury. The first waterfall was funny, but after that they should have used brains rather than movie invincibility to escape.

    Next they go inside the veil of the waterfall, and did I mention that sidekick traitor guy has now joined their party and they don't seem to care? He is dropping little flashing homing beacons to leave a trail of breadcrumbs for Irina, in case she can't follow the railroad plot otherwise. The chase leads through an ancient temple, filled with the requisite naked blowpipe-wielding natives (Indy's party dispels them by uncovering the magic skull while Team Soviet just shoots them all), mystic frescoes and advanced primitive trap technology.

    Eventually they reach the top of the appropriate sacred mountain/temple/obelisk thing, but there is no city of gold there, just a big wheel-shaped thing with an obelisk and lots of face-carved stones at the hub. Moment of disappointment, especially from traitor guy. They then discover that if they bash the face-shaped stones out of the hub, sand pours out of the hole. At first I thought this was gold dust, so wondered why they weren't collecting it, and thought it was a somewhat lame treasure, anyway. I also thought Indy was lifting his rock to bash traitor guy over the head so he'd stop following them, but he was just knocking the faces out of the obelisk pedestal. See the sand is not gold but actually a counterweight; like so many of the primitive mechanisms Indy discovers, it's a delicately balanced machine. Once enough of the sand has poured out, the obelisk sinks down and the spokes of the wheel are raised up to make a larger obelisk. Then the floor drops out from under them, and they are on a spiral staircase going down, but they can't run fast enough so they all fall down to their deaths. No wait, there is water at the bottom and apparently they all can survive anything as long as they land in water, so they're fine.

    They're now on the set from National Treasure, with antiquities from every era and area all in one big jumbled room. Saves the set decoration people from having to do any research or special construction. Plus there's another mystic door to open, but this one is keyed biometrically to the magnetic skull. Airport security of the ancients. Inside the chamber are the skeletons and skulls of twelve aliens and the headless skeleton of a thirteenth. They place the skull on the headless one, and it raises its head to begin the special effects extravaganza. Lets see ... the walls rearrange, all the aliens merge into one alien, Irina (well of course she turns up) demands payment for the return of the skull, specifically "all knowledge." Predictably, her head explodes when she gets it.

    Meanwhile our heroes escape, once again courtesy of vast amounts of water. (Oh by the way they are always dry immediately after getting out of the water). They stand on top of the mountain and watch the surrounding countryside become a whirlpool of CGI, and then a traditional flying saucer emerges. It flies away into another dimension, because these aren't space aliens, they're interdimensional hive mind beings.

    So lets see, the bad guy has a supernatural comeuppance, the good guys have found the artifact but been forced to relinquish it for the greater good, and then they all go home to live happily ever after. Indy actually marries Marion, which is about time, as considering the backstory from the first movie, he first seduced her as an underaged child. A magical gust of wind opens the church door at the end of the service and Indy's fedora blows into the aisle. Mud picks it up and is about to put it on, but Indy takes it smoothly out of his hand and puts it on himself as he escorts his new bride out of the church. "Not yet," he says, or something of the sort. Roll end credits.

    So I liked it, but the sets or the effects (I can't really tell which is which anymore) were disappointing. I don't look at the screen to criticize the set. I'm happy to take it at face value, but as they entered the graveyard it reminded me of the tin man set from the Wizard of Oz! It's still an Indiana Jones movie, and I'll buy it on DVD, even if just for the director's commentary, but it wasn't the best ever.

    Tuesday, June 03, 2008

    Caught in the Rail

    I had a new thing happen on a flight today. Not amazingly exciting; not even a little bit exciting, really. Just a matter of "heh, never saw that before." I guess the world never runs out of things to throw at pilots.

    It was a routine flight, one other crewmember on board, good weather, no problems with any of my equipment, and the mission was complete. Close to destination, I started my descent checks, which includes a seatbelt check. My crewmate informs me that his seatbelt is stuck. He can't put it on. "Did you move your seat forward?" I ask. I tell him how to move the seat back again. But he didn't move the seat. And moving it doesn't help.

    This is weird enough that I wouldn't quite believe him, but he's very conscientious and has always demonstrated excellent problem solving skills, so I do believe him. And he solves this problem himself too. The cockpit seat next to me is empty except for my gear. I put my flight bag on the floor and he comes up and sits in the front. I give him the mini-briefing on the shoulder harness and cockpit safety gear and we're good to land. This airplane tends towards being nose heavy, but we've burned enough fuel that this movement of weight can't put me out of the legal envelope.

    I ask him to flick a couple of switches for me, to save me leaning across him, and he likes that, so I give him control for a bit. Whee. Better not let him fly too long or he'll realize what a great job I have. I take control back on downwind and skid us around (in other contexts bad pilot technique, here an operational requirement) for landing.

    On the ground he goes to the terminal to get us a ride and I inspect the seat and seatbelt. The seatbelt is exactly like the one in an old car, the "lift flap to release" sort, not the newer "push button to release" kind. That doesn't actually matter, because the buckle itself is fine. It's the loose end, the part that sticks out of the buckle and that you pull on to tighten your seatbelt that has a problem. You know how at the very end of the belt, it's folded over and stitched? But it's folded over twice so that the frayed end is hidden under the stitching, and the stitching isn't at the very point of the fold? Thus because of the folded over stitched part, the end of the seatbelt is a tiny bit like a hook. I guess that's deliberate so that the end doesn't pull through and allow the buckle to fall off, when you make the seatbelt as big as it goes. When my co-worker unfastened his seatbelt in cruise (he has to move around the cabin to work), the end just happened to fall in a way that allowed it to poke up inside the channelled claw of the seat that grips the seat rails. And because the end is folded back on itself, it acted like a barbed fish hook and wouldn't come back out. I pull it back and forth and sideways, but it is in there. I have to get a screwdriver, and take the cap off the end of the rail so I can slide the seat off the rail, in order to extricate the belt end.

    And then I put it all back together again and double check to ensure the seat is safely anchored. I fasten the seatbelt across the seat as I was taught to for neatness and to prevent damage from people stepping on them. Now there's another reason.

    Update: Yellowbird has skillfully identified the aviation movie that so puzzled me while I sat blogging in Montana. It's called Warbirds, and you should read his summary and review of the hilariously unexpected plot in his comment on that entry. I'm still laughing.

    Yellowbird's blog stands out from other private pilot blogs because he owns the airplane, so blogs in detail not so much about slipping the surly bonds, but about the labour of love that goes into maintaining that airplane. He explains, for example, how to inspect the contents of your oil filter, in your kitchen, with separate advice for married people. Not a frequent updater, but well-written entries from someone who knows how his airplane is put together.

    Monday, June 02, 2008

    Wind and Time

    Out of Lincoln I planned for a five and a half hour flight to Florida. The forecast showed that I should get pretty much a direct crosswind for the first part of the flight, and then a little bit of a push further on. I didn't count on the tailwind for the flight plan; I was just going to take it as a bonus if it happened.

    Almost immediately after takeoff I suspected that that plan was not conservative enough. As soon as I turned en route my groundspeed dropped, and at level-off the ETA calculated by the GPS remained above six hours after the airplane had sped up to cruise. A weather system moves a little further east or west than forecast, doesn't have to be far, and the associated winds aren't going in the forecast direction at the point you are. Oh well. I originally planned this trip on a different route, one that would have given me howling tailwinds most of the way, but other operational concerns (i.e. my boss) dictated the route I took. So this is where I am. I'll keep a good eye on my watch and probably stop somewhere in Alabama. I've never been to Alabama.

    Nebraska gives way to Kansas, and I get the song "Everything's Up To Date in Kansas City" stuck in my head. This is doubly irritating because Kansas City isn't even in Kansas. It's in Missouri. And when I say "song" I mean that one line, it's all I know of the song. I don't even know the tune. So I have the words "everything's up to date in Kansas City" running through my head for an entire state.

    Eventually I'm distracted by the changing accents of the air traffic controllers. As soon as I crossed the 49th parallel the American accents became apparent. There's a change in the vowel length and something happens to medial Ts, but entering the southeast corner of the state there's another change from merely American to Dukes of Hazzard American. People from around here can probably identify the state someone is from, but I can't.

    I'm approaching a giant river. It's so large that I don't need to look at the sectional chart to know that it is the Mississippi. I think this is my first time flying across it in daylight. Maybe I've flown across further north where it is less impressive. I have the autopilot on so I can get out the camera, but before I can take any pictures for you there is an air traffic controller yelling at me. Oh firetruck. The autopilot has silently disconnected and the airplane has descended 350 feet. I grovel an apology, regain the lost altitude, and suffer contritely the air traffic controller's diatribe against me. Now I lose any trust I had in that autopilot. I breathe on it and it disconnects. I think I exude a hormone or an electro-magnetic field that messes with autopilots. My aviation career is one long history of autopilots not doing what they were supposed to. They dive and climb and roll and fail to follow the bug.

    The Mississippi was big and wide, curvy and muddy, snaking through flat green country as far as I can see in either direction. The cities here tend to be small and flat. I haven't seen any clusters of glass and steel towers, but I know there are some big cities around here.

    The headwind has subsided and the ETE is hovering just below six hours. I'm carrying six and a half hours of fuel. A half hour is the minimum legal fuel I may plan to land with, but that only applies to day, and the day is getting on. Plus there could be thunderstorms at destination. I need forty-five minutes reserve fuel for night, and I'm still going both south and east, both bringing night closer, this time of year. The other issue is my duty day: if I can't reasonably expect to shut down at destination within 14 hours of the time I caught an airport cab this morning, then I can't take off. I do duty day math. I have enough time for a fuel stop if I need one.

    I call flight services, looking for any CBs, forecast thunderstorms or new NOTAMs at my destination. It looks good. I ask for official night, something I should have found in my original flight planning, but I'm not sure where to find it on the US weather site. Neither is the briefer. He eventually comes back and tells me nightfall is at 20:45. I look at my watch, not the one on my wrist, which is still set to Mountain Time, but the Zulu watch on my clipboard. That was two hours ago. I ask him to confirm. "That doesn't sound right. It's already dark there?" The sun behind me is at about a 40 degree angle to the horizon. He double checks and realizes he has given me local time. He translates to Zulu. I'm golden. I'll be there an hour before dark. My groundspeed is still increasing. It looks like I'll land in daylight with 40 minutes of fuel remaining.

    US briefers often do that: translate times to local, often without telling me. They are trying to be helpful, but it's dangerous and confusing. I think they have a tool that allows them to redisplay the weather products in local. I don't mind comments like "convective activity not really expected until mid afternoon" or "the rain will probably stop by midnight" but when you give the time in numbers, those numbers should be UTC.

    I land at my destination airport in Florida, and, cleared to taxi, I take a few moments to orient myself. I've been here before. The best part is that the staff at the FBO remember me and welcome me back. I know recognizing customers and being nice to them is part of their job, but it's a really good feeling. I'm not sure which I like better in my job: going to new places and meeting new people, or going back to places I've been before and getting to see them again.

    Oh and I'm going to start adding the tags "airplanes," "commercial aviation" and "flying" to all the posts they suit, even though those are the default topics for the blog, because I looked at my tag cloud and realized it made this look like a weather and avionics blog.