Sunday, August 31, 2008

Security Transmitted Diseases

Security signs usually make me laugh. They're so earnest and serious and I can imagine them being discussed and approved by a committee somewhere. I suppose that people may see signs reminding them to abide by security procedures for the few weeks that it takes for them to have the security procedures ingrained. Then they completely stop seeing the signs.

This one amused me more than usual. It's a good sign, really, drawing on the psychology of the stop sign, and it's trying to come up with a catchy acronym for the security area. But while SIDA is something you can catch, well-displayed security badges are not the usual prophylactic technique. I believe SIDA is also the Spanish acronym, so perhaps the reference is deliberate, rather than having been conceived in monolingual innocence.

The one below was repeated at about eight metre intervals all along the fence of the Salt Lake City ARTCC. They wanted to be very sure that even casual invaders with poor peripheral vision understood about the threat to human life that their invasion proposed. The facility behind the fence shared an architectural style with my highschool, and probably every other institutional building constructed in the 1960s, but it was in good repair. I guess the signs, and the absence of teenage hordes, kept decay at bay.

And I have no idea what the "flying colors" forbidden on this one are. It must be a gang thing. I didn't go in there.

Saturday, August 30, 2008


Poisons are often labelled with a skull and crossbones logo to warn of their toxicity, but I've found another skull-related warning symbol: the skull of a hooved mammal warns of poor living accommodations.

The remnants of this antlered beast indicated appalling crew quarters at Victory Airways. The building had actually been condemned twice but pilots were still housed in it.

The skull of this antelope is in better shape, and I must admit so was the Days Inn whose breakfast room it was mounted in, but the service there was bizarrely poor. When I checked in, my bill indicated that I was named Christopher, and lived in Phoenix. When I complained that this was not me, and that I wanted to have the points credited to my own account, the clerk "fixed" the problem by crossing out Christopher's name and account, and pencilling in mine, then giving me back the printout. The customer who had been served before me then noticed that her bill too was in the name of a completely different person. And the same thing happened to others in my crew. They seemed to be pulling up random accounts instead of ours.

Early the next morning, when I was looking for information on the status of military airspace, I discovered that my telephone didn't work. I mentioned it on the way out, and they promised me maintenance. None had occurred by the time I returned, so I ostentatiously used the desk phone to make my calls the next day, hoping that would make them remember. As I left, I pointed out that the members of the large tour group that had just checked out probably had all had telephones, so could I please have one of their phones? That evening, still my phone does not work. I brought it downstairs to test in the jack by the desk, and it didn't work there, either. The next day, my third in the hotel, someone brought me a phone just before I left for the day. When I returned that evening I discovered that I had a phone, just a phone. No cord. I should have known from the antelope skull.

The motel with this ashtray(?) mounted cow skull was a place I stayed on a personal trip, not for work. And you know, I think it was was worth all of the $44 a night I paid.

So the question is, does the symbol of death suck the life out of the place? Or does the deathly atmosphere inspires the decor? I don't know, but today's advice from Aviatrix is to avoid hotels decorated with animal skulls.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Next Comes the Chainsaw Test

In an attempt to test the physical security of aircraft parked overnight on the ramp at O'Hare, a TSA inspector climbed on top of nine different American Eagle airplanes, using the external Total Air Temperature probes as a foothold. Forty flights were delayed while mechanics inspected the sensors, which are required for proper function of cockpit instrumentation. More details are given in this article.

That was stunning enough when I heard about it, but not beyond the bounds of imagination when I consider the zealous actions of the TSA inspectors I encounter regularly. Someone hadn't informed this guy that an airplane is not a jungle gym but a very delicate piece of machinery. Despite the fact that it can travel at close to the speed of sound, it is easily damaged by applying force to the wrong parts of it. I imagined that he would have a little talking to, and a memo would go out, advising people not to climb on airplanes they are supposed to protect. At least now I know whom the instructions on a toothpick box are intended for.

But then I found out that there already was a memo. A memo encouraging TSA officers to attempt to enter aircraft parked on the ramp. Someone's model of airplane security is just wrong. These aren't tanks. They are designed to keep air pressure in, to resist small bird strikes, to be quickly evacuated in case of fire. They are not designed as idiot-proof fortresses. The TSA sees this action as akin to a security officer trying doorknobs. They don't see that it's more like the security officer kicking in windows. It's like someone hired as a bodyguard for a family came along and pushed all the kids off their bicycles, to see if they were tough. Well no, they're not. It is fairly easy to get into an airplane that is stopped on the ground, especially if you don't mind damaging it in the process. That's why we need security.

My aircraft is sitting locked on an unsecured (no fence) ramp right now. I'm glad there is no TSA security to 'check on it' for me.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Run Teen Run

I had to laugh at this combination of newspaper headlines. If you can't read it in the photo, the main story, Pride & Joy, about a local girl who qualified for the Marshall Islands Olympic team, has the subheadline In less than a month, a Marysville teen will run the race of her life as an Olympian for the Marshall Islands. Right next to it is an article about a boy criminal, still on the loose, who has been breaking into vacation homes. The headline there is Teen can't run forever, police say.

The combination of the two headlines sounds like a threat.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Many autopilots incorporate a flight director, a little V-shaped device that pops up on the attitude indicator to tell you where the autopilot thinks it should fly. I've seen the flight director described as the brains and the rest of the autopilot as the muscles of the system. You can engage just the flight director mode of the autopilot, such that you the pilot control all the movements of the airplane, but if you look at the flight director, and set the attitude of the airplane such that the symbolic airplane on the attitude indicator is always aligned with the flight director, then you will fly exactly the way the autopilot would. But without the sick-making trim adjustments.

I first saw a flight director in the cockpit of an airliner. I'm going to guess it was a Canadian Airlines B737, but I'm not sure. The crew turned it on to show it to me, but I remember being unimpressed. It looked like an orange plastic springy toy that came out of a box of Shreddies. And not the fancy new Diamond Shreddies, either.

I don't think very many people use the flight director alone, except perhaps in take-off/go-around mode where they've just disengaged the autopilot, but it's nice to have some direction. I suppose it could be good for training, to take some of the workload off a student. And anything that takes some of the workload off is valuable for any pilot.

It's also valuable if part of the autopilot isn't working properly, but the flight director is. Not just for "oh well I don't have an autopilot today, but at least the flight director works" but for troubleshooting the autopilot. If you engage the autopilot and the airplane dives left while the flight director climbs to the right, that indicates a significantly different problem than if you engage the autopilot and the flight director leads the way into a left spiral dive. In the first case it looks like the trouble is in the control servos while in the other it looks like a problem in the attitude sensing.

There's no flight director on my current ride, so I can't take a picture for you.

And "showing your age" awards to those of you who get the reference in the title of this entry.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Information Transfer

I admire the following sentence.

Large portions of this section were written in a hotel in Ban Hat Yai, Thailand, which is one of the information-transfer capitals of the planet regardless of whether you think of information transfer as bits propagating down an optical fiber, profound and complex religious faiths being transmitted down through countless generations, or genetic material being interchanged between consenting adults.

Who knew where it was from without googling?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Life Quest

I wasn't going to blog today, but instead decided to pass you this chicken cartoon. Even advanced self-awareness has its downside.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Perfect Lake

There's a particular stretch of North America that I have flown over many times, usually on a long flight, usually in hot weather. Every time I am there I look down and see the same beautiful lake and I always think how wonderful it would be to go swimming in that lake. This is literally something I have imagined and fantasized about for ten years.

Recently, I was on the ground, close enough to the site, and with enough time to spare, that I could get to it. I asked a local where I could get into it to go swimming and was told that it was not possible, that it was only accessible through private agricultural land. I chose not to believe that person. I went on a quest for my perfect lake.

I didn't even see any agricultural land. My lake had a boat launching ramp. Where you can launch a boat you can launch an Aviatrix. I followed the signs. The boat launching ramp was closed. But there was nothing stopping me from launching me. There were even some other people swimming nearby. Well there was one limitation: the fact that I didn't have a swimming suit, but no way was that going to keep me out of my perfect lake. I stripped down to my bright pink underwear, reasoning that it covered more than some people's bikinis, and I waded into my lake.

I waded in to my knees and then jumped over the drop off. It was better than it looked from the air. It was refreshing, it was cool, but not too cold. It was wonderful. I swam across it and back, then put my jeans and t-shirt on over my wet underwear and continued on my way. I can't remember ever anticipating something for so long and have it so richly fulfil my expectations. And no, I'm not going to tell you where my perfect lake is. You probably have your own.

I still have mud from my perfect lake stuck around my toenails. It has perfectly fine sticky mud.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Second Class Citizen

So, having passed the portion of the flight test that takes place on the ground, I head out to the airplane. You don't go flying unless you pass on the ground.

When we get to the airplane, the examiner surprises me by pointing to parts of the airplane and asking me questions about them. Not that I mind, I know the systems well; it surprises me that he thought there was a reasonable chance of an instructor candidate not being able to identify and describe the function of a wing root cabin air intake, the filtered air intake, the alternator belt and the underwing fuel tank vent. He is satisfied with my answers, although I have to think a moment about whether the overvoltage light will go on in this aircraft in the case of a broken alternator belt. I hold his door for him, let him know the seat is adjusted full aft, and start to explain how to get in, as if he were a student. That's okay, he says, just get in. "I take it you decline the passenger briefing?" I ask.

"Offered and declined," he says, a mental tick in a box. "I want to spend as little time as possible in these things."

I start up, get taxi clearance and taxi out. He asks for a soft field takeoff, my favourite, and I demonstrate one. Next he wants me to teach him straight and level flight. I show him how to use the trim, and chastise him for looking inside the cabin for it. He makes it easy to pretend he is really a student, as he's a good roleplayer, so I just relax and do what I am good at. He asks me to demonstrate some maneuvers, teach others and evaluate others as he does them. He demonstrates a beautiful perfect steep turn and I tell him he would get a four out of four for it on a flight test. steep turn pretty much perfect, Mine was not as good. I am hamfooted, if that's a word: hamfisted with my feet. The airplanes I fly for work need bootsful of rudder, whereas this little airplane needs me to merely think about the rudder for it to be too much rudder.

As we approached the airport he said that he would do the landing and that I should assess him, as I would before a first solo to see if he was ready to go on his own. I give him control and see that he is set up very high for the field. I ask him matter-of-factly (not with the "you might want to think about this" edge in my voice that an instructor uses when hinting) what flap setting he plans to land with, and what he planned touchdown point is. He says twenty degrees flap, and the beginning of the third centreline stripe. Both are reasonable choices, although I don't usually teach a student to land with more than ten degrees flap until after first solo. I look at his eyes to make sure he keeps a proper lookout, He keeps his hand on the throttle and makes small, necessary corrections around all three axes of movement and with the power. He is on track for a for a flawless landing. He carries it to the runway like that and at the last moment I realize what he is going to do. I brace and put my hand ready to grab the yoke, even though I know that he won't carry through and do what a student might do.

The airplane rounds out sightly and then meets the runway smack!. The nosewheel comes down at the same moment as the mains. It's a perfectly calculated bad landing. I'm not sure I could do a bad landing so well. I say nothing until we have taxied clear of the runway, then I take control and debrief him, praising him for setting up a perfect approach and telling him--as the student--that he will be rewarded for all his good work on the approach if he just holds the airplane off the ground a little longer. I tell him as the examiner that if I were supervising a new instructor with this student I would tell her that she could solo him as soon as he was holding the nosewheel off right through touchdown, and that if that was achieved in the next three lessons, I did not need to fly with the student again.

In the real debrief he tells me that when he does that stunt, many candidates will criticize him for landing long on that exercise. He always responds with "you didn't tell me where to land." So I have scored points for determining where the student planned to put the airplane. I criticize myself for my poor rudder work, and he agrees that that is the worst thing. I am praised for being articulate, adaptable, and am criticized for using trigonometry during the briefing. I admit that I put in the trig because he was pretending to be an instructor and am surprised when he says that knowledge is not necessary, even for an instructor. Not everyone agrees that trigonometry is a beautiful thing and should be exercised whenever possible.

It was one of the most enjoyable flight tests I've ever done, and despite my propensity for overusage of both rudder and trigonometry, I am once again qualified to be paid to tell you how to fly. According to Transport Canada statistics, as of March 2008 there were 302 valid class 2 instructors for aeroplanes in Canada. I wonder how many of them work as instructors.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Ground Grilling

I recovered from food poisoning, got a practice session in and prepared my notes for the flight test. That morning I arrived at the flying school just after it opened, so I had lots of time to get the weather, preflight the airplane and be ready for the examiner's arrival. That done, I sat down and read ten year old aviation magazines, featuring airplanes still too new for me to have ever flown them, and avionics I would still love to get my hands on.

Eventually a guy in a Transport Canada windbreaker came in. He expressed a desire for a cup of coffee, and knew where it was, but as he poured his cup I didn't recall seeing anyone make coffee that morning, and remember I arrived as they opened. I checked with the dispatcher, and warned him just in time that he was lifting a cup of yesterday's coffee. "Here," I offered, "I'll make you a fresh pot." I should have thought to do that while I was waiting, shouldn't I have. He decided, however, that it was enough to reheat the old coffee in the microwave. Yikes.

We went to a briefing room for the examination. The first part of the test is administrative, like every other Transport Canada test. I hand over money, my licences and medical and he gives me a receipt and copies my information onto a form. Next he gave me an excellent, patient explanation of the whole process of the exam, even though he knows from my record that I've been through this many times before. He was really quite expert at putting me at ease.

Next he asks me questions designed to determine my knowledge and judgement level for running a flight school. The instructor rating I wish to renew qualifies me to do that, so he has to test me for it. He isn't too impressed with that. He thinks that it should be a separate test, such as the test to be a chief pilot or a person responsible for maintenance, so that the flight instructor test can concentrate on instructional ability. I knew I wasn't going to be able to have all the regulations he could ask about at the figurative fingertips of my brain, so I have brought in a printout of the parts of the CARs applicable to flight training, and answer his questions by looking them up and reading them to him. He asks me some questions to be sure I understand what I am reading and is satisfied.

He has printouts of the flight test records of my most recent students, years ago. I'm embarrassed not to remember all of them. (Their names are not on the printouts, but I should remember who failed the 180 power off landing, and have no recollection of that happening. Perhaps it was someone I signed off to take a flight test before I left the school, and I never found out how he or she did.) I'm also embarrassed that there are a few poor flight tests. I start to explain that towards the end of my time as a flight instructor I worked at a big school where I was the troubleshooter and the patron saint of lost causes. When a student was doing well, I handed them off to a less experienced instructor, in exchange for one who needed my skills and attention. He understands completely and isn't holding the record against me.

My rating also qualifies me to supervise brand new instructors, so he asks me about the minimum supervision required of a class four instructor. I tell him succinctly that I must fly with the student prior to solo and prior to flight test, and then start off on a long winded explanation of my philosophy of when to do what with whom. I rein myself in when I realize I'm answering more than he asked, but he asks me to continue. He wants to see that I understand and take responsibility and I do, so this part is truly just relax and be myself. he asks me if I have to see all flight test items in my preflight check. "Yes," I say. "I have to sign a form that certifies that ..." I scrabble in my papers for the form. He suggests that I am countersigning the form for the class four instructor who certifies that she has seen all flight test items. I'm just certifying that I don't think she's lying. I look at him dubiously and he admits that he agrees with me, but that the other interpretation is accepted in some quarters.

Next he wants to see me teach a lesson on the ground. He asks me to brief him on spiral dives and slips, and then left the room to allow me to prepare. This is standard for flight tests, even though in real life students just arrive and you may have someone else's student to fly with at the last moment with no time to prepare. I read over the Transport Canada lesson plan and my own notes and am ready to begins. The scenario he asked for is that of a new inexperienced instructor who is having trouble with this briefing and has asked for a perfect demonstration. It's a set up that is sort of grooming me towards the next level of instructor rating, which would qualify me to teach others to be instructors. There are only 467 people in Canada who are qualified to do that, and many of them are working as examiners, like this guy, or have moved on to the airlines and their ratings just haven't expired yet. I was encouraged even at my initial class two exam to think about a class one rating, so it's not surprising to have this intermediate scenario.

I set up the whiteboard and when he returns I explain that there is no such thing as a perfect presentation that I could give so he could watch, memorize and regurgitate. if that were so, Transport Canada would produce them and distribute them on DVD. You would show them to the student, see if they had any questions, and then go flying. No, the reason this briefing is one-on-one is that it is adapted to the particular student and it is as fully interactive as you can make it. I then elicit the topic and the definition from the student and develop the lesson by asking him questions all the way through, so that it is built out of what he knows and understands, using words and concepts he can identify with. This can be awkward when the 'student' knows the material well, but I have confidence in my knowledge and know that as well as assessing me he is looking for useful techniques he can steal, so I show my stuff. He's happy. We go flying. I'll describe the flight tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Refills and Straws

When you order a soft drink in an American restaurant, two things are assumed. One: you will get a drinking straw, wrapped and sealed in a paper tube. You are not required to lift a drinking glass to your lips in the United States. There is always a straw. And two, there will be free refills.

It's kind of disconcerting, sometimes, to be halfway through a glass of lemonade and then discover it has been taken away and replaced by a fresh one. Was there something wrong with the one I was drinking? Not all restaurants are quite that proactive. Most wait until you've actually finished the drink before replacing it, and some actually require you to ask for the refills. If a restaurant isn't going to provide free refills, it's usually for some specialty drink, like mango lemonade, and they write it on the menu. Usually the free refills are provided for pop, lemonade, iced tea and the like.

Some Canadian places offer free refills, but that will be written on the menu, probably highlighted. And those are probably American chains. I always wonder how many Americans visiting Canada ask for several refills of their Coca-Cola over the course of a meal and then are stunned to discover that they have been charged the full price of the drink each time. Of course they probably wouldn't drink them all, because they'd be still waiting for their straw.

So when statistics tell me that Americans drink 600 12-oz servings of soft drinks a year, I have to wonder how many of those they actually drank. I often get myself in trouble if I order a soft drink because they were a rare treat when I was kid, so I drink it all up, end up drinking two or three glasses, and then find I've filled up on sugar water and can't eat my main course.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Domestic Policy

I'm not home much, but the place I live has a lawn and some plants. They're great plants, the kind that have lots of flowers on them, and don't die altogether even if I never water them, and come back the next year without my having to do anything. I could have just said that they were drought-tolerant flowering perennials, but those words would give you the wrong idea about my knowledge of and involvement with the resident flora. Today I unwrapped a bindweed plant from a hydrangea, because I liked the hydrangea better, but that's not to say the bindweed doesn't continue to flourish. In the end it will be bindweed versus dandilions, winner take all. I wonder if either could actually eradicate the other. Maybe I could crossbreed the two and get an aggressively climbing vine with full soft yellow flowers, requiring no watering nor care of any kind. Or perhaps it would tear apart your house, eat your pets, then run for council. Possibly, considering my local government, it already has.

Plus, I can't think of any reason why Hell would have lawns, but if it does, they look like mine. Some how it manages to be overgrown and dead, both at once. It's a zombie lawn. I'm also not sure it contains any species that are actually identifiable as lawn grass. I mowed it anyway. Didn't help its appearance.

It's a good thing the lawnmower is the manual push kind that doesn't burn gas. Aside from the fact that MOGAS would go skunky in between mowings here, I don't think I could afford to mow. I put gas in my car yesterday. My SMALL car. My car so small that they never sold them in the United States because they thought Americans wouldn't buy a car this small. (They were apparently wrong, because Americans are buying Smart Cars and mine is bigger than a Smart, but it was sold before gas prices soared.) It was down to the last tick on the fuel gauge, but not dead empty, maybe 60 km from the bottom of the tank. And it cost $57 to fill. I don't believe there is anything original I can say about the astonishing price of gas these days, so I'll just smugly report one of the benefits of being away from home all the time: This latest fill-up brings the total cumulative amount I have paid for automobile gas in 2008 to just over $200.

It helps also that because I'm not really in a hurry when I'm at home, I bike or walk or take the bus most places.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Fractional Dogs

I've wanted to fly for a fractional jet ownership company for a while. It's a good combination of being able to provide personal, high-end service, while still having a lot of variety, and the training resources of a big company. I was looking at NetJets website, where they lay out the duties and working conditions.

  • Cockpit/Pilot station size – Pilots must fit and be able to fully function in NetJets aircraft. Aircraft assignments or changes to assignments are not based upon pilot size.
  • Owners will bring baggage and cargo of various sizes and weights that will be loaded by crewmembers
  • Owners and passengers can and will smoke during flight
  • Animals (including, but not limited to dogs, cats and birds) can and will be carried aboard the aircraft in the main cabin. Animals are not usually in cages. This means NetJets pilots have direct contact with animal hair, feathers, etc. Human remains (container after cremation, coffin or body bag) may be carried in the cabin
  • With few exceptions, the maximum required duty day is 14 hours
  • The minimum rest period is 10 hours

I'm just trying to imagine if the actual working conditions os a northern airline were detailed that way. But it's a good list. I hadn't actually considered whether I wanted to work in an environment full of stogie-chomping customers with poorly-trained dogs. A pilot told me you can jut crank up the cockpit air and it doesn't bother you. The nicotine, that is. You'd have to have one hell of a bleed air valve to use airflow to fend off dog attacks.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

This Never Happened on the CD

So I went to the concert. We lined up for an hour or so to get through a security bag check. It was like being at an airport, except we didn't have to take off our shoes. They made everyone dump out the contents of any liquid that was not still sealed, to prevent people from bringing alcohol in, I guess. They did have a water-bottle filling station inside the gate, but it was a pain. The publicity material had said no bottles or cans, which I assumed was to prevent litter, broken glass, and things being thrown at the performers. But everyone had to dump out canteens, waterskins, camelbacks and the like. I've just while writing this realized that if you absolutely need a mickey of cheap liquor to complement your retro pop, you could probably bring it in inside an opaque sunblock container. But I suppose the folks that really need vodka to recreate their high school experiences need more than 200 mL of it.

The weather was perfect, sunny and warm, but not too hot. The performers were great, and I lay in the grass and listened without once thinking about steep turns or one hundred eighty degree precision landings. The ambiance and showmanship more than made up for declines in vocal ranges over the years. I stuffed myself on festival food and then fell asleep right there on the picnic blanket. Turns out I had food poisoning. I went home and mostly slept for another day and a half until my immune system had sorted out whatever it was and turned my brain back on for me to use. Sometimes real life is like nethack.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Rental Checkout

I arrived home and the next day turned up for a rental checkout in the small airplane I would take my instructor renewal test in. A rental checkout is like a little mini flight test, just to ensure that a pilot is familiar with the area and can operate the airplane safely. It's for the club renting me the airplane, and for their insurance company. I have flown with this instructor before, back when she was a student pilot. Now she is a assessing me. This is a pretty normal thing in aviation.

I ask to sit in the right seat, the instructor's side, and I demonstrate the maneuvers she asks for. She closes the throttle to simulate an engine failure. I choose a field and set up to land in it, and then realize that at idle power the airplane floats a lot better than my regular ride. I have to sideslip aggressively and do S-turns so as not to overshoot the field. Everything was good enough to demonstrate competence for the rental checkout, and the instructor gave me full marks, but not everything was good enough for a "perfect demonstration" to introduce a student to the maneuver. The instructor thought I was ready to go and retest, but I will come back and practice. I want to get the landings better, too.

This being my time off I have a number of social events and other obligations crammed into the days I have home. One of them is an outdoor concert, with performers that were big when I was in high school. I thought when I said I'd be home for it that it was an evening concert, that I could go to after a practice session, but it starts in the early afternoon. I call the Transport Canada examiner and beg out of the flight test that booked the day after the concert. He offers and I accept a later date for the test. Wait, wow! I have a life! And I'm putting something of it before aviation! This is an important occasion for me.

Friday, August 15, 2008

NEXUS Please

Returning to Canada through a busy airport I found myself in a customs hall packed with travellers. The wickets at the end of the room differentiated between residents and visitors, but although there were two snaking lines, there was no compliance with the tiny sign indicating that one was for residents and one for visitors. I really wished I wore a company uniform, because the line for diplomats and uniformed aircrew was wide open. The other line that was open was the NEXUS line, for people who have paid extra to be scrutinized by Canadian and American authorities and earned a speedy bypass of border lines. It works at land crossings too. I wrote down on my to-do-when-I-get-home list "NEXUS pass." An hour and fifteen minutes later, when I reached the wicket, the customs agent suggested herself that I apply for NEXUS. And now I am.

The application process requires navigating a government form, and an American government for at that, because you apply to the US, then they share the data with Canada and they both have to say yes for you to get the pass. And in order to apply to the US you have to create an account on GOES the umbrella for all the US fast lane customs systems, for Canada, Mexico and International (i.e. other than Canada or Mexico) And to create an account on GOES you need to create a password that conforms with the following rules.

# Minimum Length : 8
# Maximum Length : 12
# Maximum Repeated Characters : 2
# Minimum Alphabetic Characters Required : 1
# Minimum Numeric Characters Required : 1
# Starts with a Numeric Character
# No User Name
# No past passwords
# At least one character must be ~!@#$%^&*()-_+={}[]|;:/?.,<>"'`

That made me laugh as well as roll my eyes, because it reminds me of a very old joke.

And then, because no one is ever going to remember the password they generated in compliance with those rules, and because most people will lose where they wrote it down, they present a list of security questions, clearly chosen by the most stable and boring bureaucrat in the word. You must choose five of the following and provide answers that will remain inviolate in your mind.

What was your childhood home address?
What is/was the name of your first pet?
What is/was your father's profession?
What is your favorite vacation spot?
What is your favorite movie?
What is your favorite restaurant?
What was your favorite subject in school?
What is your place of birth (i.e. city, state)?

If you were raised by a single mother who moved a lot and couldn't afford to feed a pet, and your tastes vary with time, there is only ONE question to which you could provide a permanent answer. You have to pick five. If you were raised in a stable household with one address during your childhood, and your father had a steady career in one profession that has one name (i.e. you won't put "doctor" now and get it wrong later with "physician,") and you have owned a pet, and your first pet acquisition was of a single pet, (not say, two kittens or six fish), then you still can't necessarily select five questions that you will always answer the same way. Unless you had a clear favourite subject in school (I didn't), you are not permitted to change your tastes from now until the application process is complete.

The next challenge was to provide a five-year employment history. The only fun part of looking up the addresses of everyone who has failed to continue to employ me over the past five years is giggling at the fact that they all have addresses on Airport Road. All different Airport Roads in different cities and mostly different provinces. Some employers no longer exist, but phone numbers were mandatory so I gave them the last known phone numbers. The person who designed the form lived in a stable universe where every employer exists forever.

And then the last stumping question asked me to provide details of my conveyances. I'm not being flowery here. Thе word was conveyances. There is a Type drop down at the top, but the only choice in the dropdown is "Vehicles." So what's a conveyance? I enter my seldom-used car then wonder if they want my bicycle, too? The airplanes I fly for work? My friend's skateboard? If they mean automobiles, why didn't they put that? In the end I just enter the car, because they demand a VIN for each conveyance, and I can't find the serial number on my bicycle.

In six to eight weeks I'll know if I'm an undesirable.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Other Duties As Assigned

Back, by popular demand

My job is not just to fly the airplane but to have the airplane ready to fly, and to be there for my client to fly the airplane when its needed. It's definitely part of my job to keep my cellphone on and charged and within earshot. I've never been given any kind of standard to keep, but if I'm not given a particular report time for the next morning, or if I'm released from the need to fly at that time, I can expect the client to call me sometime during the day and ask me to be ready to leave at a particular time that is typically between five and thirty minutes in the future.

So I have to be dressed, fed, know the weather and NOTAMs and be ready to go. One of the amusing parts, at least in the retelling, is when they know they are going to fly later, but are not going straight to the airport, so they just put the pilot in the truck. And I get carted around to hardware stores and electronics stores and whatever other sort of stores they need supplies from before the trip.

I'm not being fair here. I'm part of the expedition. I usually enjoy it, and they will divert to Radio Shack to get me more minutes for my cellphone or stop off somewhere to indulge my postcard collecting. Often their trip involves things that I need anyway: buckets and cleaning supplies and snack food, and usually I come with them because I like hanging out with them, but occasionally I don't have any reason to go into the store and just sit in the truck. Like a puppy. They even crack the windows open for me. I would wag my tail when they come back, but you know, I don't have a tail.

Recently I started getting a lot of calls from the manager of the people I was working directly with, calls of the form, "tell so-and-so to buy more hard drives" or "get so-and-so to come by my hotel room before supper." I'm happy to relay messages to people nearby, and I get a cellphone allowance to cover my costs, so that wasn't a problem, but I wondered out loud to my coworkers about why I was suddenly number one on his speed dial.

"It's because we never answer our phones," they told me cheerfully.

Just another use for a pilot, I guess. I'm happy to be reliable.

This post was briefly deleted because the first commenter misinterpreted it as my customers mistreating me. That is not the case and I did not mean to imply that at all. Thanks for reassuring me that most people read it the way I intended.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

All's Fair in Love and War

This is kind of a part two to my earlier post office description, because it didn't fit well in the first entry. On one wall of the post office was an notice telling men to sign up for the draft, called "selective military service." Canada doesn't have that, and I didn't know the US had that still. You can ask for a form here to sign up, and I'd like to see it, but being foreign and female I'm afraid I would be regarded with suspicion for such a request.

The USA only drafts men into their armed forces, but accepts applications from female volunteers. That is probably a sore point with some men, and would certainly become more so if the US ran out of military volunteers and started calling up those registered for the draft. I imagine that will have to be redone at some point, but what a can of worms!

Under the laws of the US, the draft should probably be gender-blind. Women are supposed to be treated the same as men in voting, running for public office, receiving government benefits and every other dealing with government, so it's not exactly fair to the men for women to have a special exception for warfare. It's also, in a perverse way, unfair to the women, because if men are asked to pay a higher price for citizenship that justifies them receiving preferential treatment.

One reason women don't traditionally go to war is that they have not been considered capable of the duties. While being big and strong and testosterone-charged is very important when it comes to beating your opponent to death with a stone club, its importance shrank with the introduction of firearms, and size became a disadvantage in some military professions with the advent of tanks and fighter jets and other mechanized vehicles. Given training and indoctrination and assignment to appropriate war trades, I think women are as capable as men at waging war.

The things that women can do that men can't make a different and more valid argument against women fighting in wars. In order to sustain the population and produce the next generation of soldiers or post-war citizens, the women are more important. Only women can bear children, and once they have done so they nurse them, and traditionally they raise them. On the flip side, women can get pregnant during deployment, which is rather inconvenient to the army. This isn't accusing women of having poor self-control: it takes two to tango, plus in a war zone sexual assault is common.

The last is another reason nations keep women off the front lines. Part of what a nation is defending in wartime is their people, and their belief that they are better than the enemy. They don't want their women bearing the enemy's children. They want them home bearing their own children. The psychological effect of the war on the population at home is very important. Israel has a universal draft, and initially found that women performed well on the front lines, but when they saw the terrible effect on national morale of women coming home in body bags, they pulled the female draftees back to support positions. It may have been something people would have become used to, as people are quite used to women delivering mail and performing surgery these days, but it wasn't something the country was willing to try. There's also the risk of the enemy catching onto this and using the female soldiers as hostages, taking advantage of a weakness men have, that urges them to protect women even when it's not the smartest thing to do.

Warfare, it seems, is such a full-being activity that it really does matter what sex-specific body parts you have. I'd suggest a universal draft, with deferrals available for the essential functions currently exempted, plus pregnancy, nursing, and other childcare responsibilities. Parents of weaned children could choose which of the couple would take the deferral. This would have the weird side effect of inverting the population growth patterns of previous wars: I'm sure plenty of women would get pregnant in order to avoid going to war. And then that would be perceived as unfair by men who had no such option. I guess there's no fair answer.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

US Post Office

I have to mail a package before my flight back to Canada today, but because of time zones I can't get the destination address until 9 a.m. So I'm in the post office, which opened at eight-thirty. I've already bought the postage, but the postmaster tells me that I can't just drop it in a mailbox because it weighs more than a weasel, and new regulations require anything weighing more than a weasel to be submitted to the mails at an actual post office. (He didn't use the word "weasel" but rather some reference to ounces, but I don't know ounces, except in the context that puts them in the same phylum as weasels, and "weasel" is a funnier word.)

My plan is to stand in line, letting people go ahead of me until I have completed the telephone call that gave me the correct mailing address, then just hand over the parcel and run back to the hotel so I'm not late for my flight. It's a good plan, but an unnecessary one, because this post office defies the stereotype about post office lines. There is never more than one other customer here.

I use my waiting time to examine the post office decor. Like Canadian post offices they have community notices, like a copy of the police blotter. (The post office wasn't in Grass Valley. I linked to that one because the blogger's commentary always makes me laugh). Of course the post office has rules. No parking for more than 18 hours at a stretch. No carriage of firearms. Photographs may be taken in in public areas, except where prohibited by official signs, security force personnel or other authorized persons, or a federal court order. Fascinating: that's official sanction of security personnel concocting arbitrary photography restrictions. Gambling at the post office is forbidden, with one curious exception: sale of state lottery tickets at vending facilities operated by licenced blind persons. I wonder if that's a licence to sell lottery tickets or a licence certifying that you are actually blind. Probably the former, but the wording makes it sound like the latter.

There's also a detailed list of the rewards available for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators of illegal mail-related activities. You can collect up to $100,000 for helping to solve a murder or bombing; $50,000 if the crime is assault, meter tampering, robbery or child pornography; and $10,000 if it's burglary or money laundering.

And I can pick up a form to fill out to buy a postal money order, to send money to another country. The fascinating thing is that there was one version of the form, a bilingual Spanish/English form, and the primary language is Spanish. The prompts telling you which information to put in each blank are printed first large and in Spanish, and then the English is given, small and in parentheses, underneath. Clearly the vast majority of American residents who send money to other countries without using bank wire transfers are from Latin America, but I didn't expect it to be so blatantly acknowledged on the form.

A couple of people come in to get free mailing boxes (cool!) and all-you-can-fit fixed price mailing boxes (really cool!) I asked about the latter, and yes, it doesn't matter how much you put in them. The postmaster said some people use them for mailing pennies. I guess uranium would be out, for other reasons, but you could mail lead weights and barbells around the country for a low fixed price. Awesome.

The postmaster is very cheerful and patient with everyone who comes in, and recommends ways people can save money on their postal needs. As each person gives him a parcel, he asks them if it contains any liquids, explosives or dangerous items. Everyone says no.

At 09:01 I completed my telephone call, got the address and handed over the parcel, pre-emptively stating that the parcel did not contain any liquids, explosives or harmful materials. I made my flight, and I understand that the parcel arrived safely.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Instructor Renewal

Now that it's determined that I will not be plunged into a B727 training course in the immediate future, and since it's becoming more probable that I will live out my days as a contract pilot, I think it would be a good idea for me to renew my instructor rating. That will give me more areas in which I can contract, and some more stress.

My instructor rating has expired, but recently enough that it can be renewed without much trouble. The trouble required is specifically a one-on-one examination with a Transport Canada inspector, both on the ground to assess my level of knowledge and classroom instruction skills and in the air to make sure I can both fly and teach the maneuvers to the required standard. The former should be easy, but the latter means going back into a type of airplane I haven't touched in a while. It will need some practice.

I know for sure I'll be going home for the first of the month, because my medical expires then: the first is the last day I can fly. In three days can I

  • renew my medical
  • check out in a rental airplane
  • practise the maneuvers to flight test standards, and
  • do the flight test?

I'm not sure, but it's worth a try. I book the medical and flight test by telephone, and the rental checkout and practice sessions over the internet. It's not a very smart schedule. I'll probably have to cancel it all. But there's no time like the present.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

What the Pentagon Wants

The Pentagon (that's the "bombs and missiles Pentagon, not the demon-summoning sort," as I remember having to clarify seven years over a poor intercom, when I was told that it was on fire) wants aircraft to be fitted with a Kill Switch. Not to actually kill the occupants, and specifically not to interfere with the crew, but to disable the aircraft. They specify that the innovation should allow the aircraft to be quickly (and presumably economically) returned to operation, but that it should block the aircraft from taking off.

This runs against the entire design of aircraft, which strive to avoid any single point of failure. As soon as you design one in, you have one, and it can fail, thereby making the airplane more dangerous. The simple fact that you have designed the airplane with a single system that can independently shut down the airplane, means that someday it will, unintentionally. I promise that every other single thing that can break has happened to an airplane.

The strategists have divided their desire into disabling an aircraft before take-off and then preventing an aircraft in flight from overflying a particular area. Let's look at the first. If they wanted a legitimate aircrew to abort a flight by remote command, that would be simple: turn on a fire bell. Immediate abort of a takeoff in progress, or if it occurred after V1, an inflight engine shutdown and immediate return for landing. There's nothing wrong with the aircraft, you just ask the crew to perform one of the highest risk procedures in aviation, at the most critical phase of flight. Usually this can be accomplished without injuries or significant damage, because aircrews practice and pass a test in it at every renewal, and recite to one another the procedures for doing it before every take-off. That's how critical it is.

But of course that's not even on topic, because it's unauthorized take-offs they want to prevent, and for an unauthorized take-off, that wouldn't work. If you are breaking the rules, you probably break all of them. If you're planning to die you might as well do it on one engine at take-off power, so the airplane has to be actually disabled. This is where an airplane is not like a car. Take the example of the fuel pump issue I had a while ago. It was fixed with a few taps of a rubber mallet, and I went on my way. A reader expressed concern that I didn't have it checked out more thoroughly. "What would happen," he asked, "if it were to refreeze most of the way through a take-off?" The answer, as people who read the comments know (some don't, which is why I am repeating myself) is "nothing at all." The other, engine-driven, fuel pump for that engine would supply sufficient fuel pressure to keep the engine operating at full power. I would not even notice that the electric pump had failed until the next time I went to start the engine. Not only the electric fuel pump, but the entire electrical system--both alternators and a battery--could spontaneously shut down and my take-off would be unimpeded. At night I would notice my lights going out, and probably abort. By day I might notice the sudden cessation of radio chatter. But the essential functions of my airplane would still function. A more complex airplane, is more reliant on electrical systems, but has even more redundancy, (although, as discussed recently, the A320 could use a bit more), so a kill switch would have to cut a wider swath through systems, making the airplane more vulnerable.

Most airplanes have what's called a squat switch, a sensor that tells systems whether or not there is weight on the landing gear. Systems may be squat switch limited (e.g. landing gear retraction or operation of heaters that require significant airflow) so that they won't work on the ground even if the pilot tries to turn them on, or squat switch activated (e.g. transponders), turning on automatically as the airplane leaves the ground. I would expect Pentagon-mandated disabling mechanisms to be squat-switch limited. But this doesn't solve the problems that whatever measure the kill switch takes--cutting off fuel, deflating tires, deploying spoilers--could for one, happen accidentally once it has been rigged to happen, and for two, happen at the end of the take-off roll, after V1 when an abort is exceptionally dangerous. And I should mention that the squat switch can fail just like anything else: it's not like it gets tested before every flight, so the accidental kill could happen in the middle of the Pacific, or during climb out, too.

The 'prevent the airplane from flying over a particular area' part is a little more science fictional, but presents the same sort of safety issues. It could be done by requiring airplanes to fly by autopilot at all times, with clearances physically enforced, but the danger of that should be apparent. There are plenty of approach plates that warn pilots to take independent action if not cleared to turn onto the ILS, because of high terrain beyond. And there are plenty of cases where ATC radios have failed. I don't think I have ever flown across the country without hearing reroutes or accommodations being made for failed ATC equipment. And then the terrorists can forget about going after aircraft and just go straight for the ground stations that control them, or by breaking the code of the transmissions made to the control mechanisms. Aircraft must be able to navigate independently.

I understand the military desire for a way to stop errant aircraft in their tracks, but I think it's an issue of design philosophy rather than just finding the right switch to throw. And I haven't even bothered to address the issue of the implications of a remote control off switch for airplanes. Airplanes malfunction quite enough on their own without help; what's keeping us in the air is redundant design that opposes single points of failure, and pilots who are trained to troubleshoot and take appropriate action.

Edit: I neglected to include a reference for this entry. I don't remember where I heard about it, but here is the Pentagon RFP. The anti-aircraft measures are Objective C on that page.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Border Town

Wendover is situated not only in a pocket between two sorts of restricted airspace, but right up against the Nevada border. So while Wendover itself is a dusty Utah town with a Family Bargains store a dinosaur-themed gas station and a Days Inn, the main street continues unbroken across the border into West Wendover, where suddenly giant neon lit casinos line the road. They've actually painted the line of the border across the road, with the state names marked either side.

I can imagine the Wendover high school students all walking across the border to get plastered. We ate dinner on the West Wendover side, because the all-you-can-eat casino buffets were still open at eleven p.m. Inside was a swirl of light and neon so disorienting that I just kept my sunglasses on.

The phenomenon Phil has reported on of towns putting giant letters on the rocks outside of town is alive and well in Wendover, with this W up on the rocks behind my hotel. It's a funny geology: generally really flat, but with this rocks poking up everywhere. I think I've said this before, but I keep thinking that the whole landscape looks very much like the backdrop to a coyote and roadrunner cartoon. We kept our eyes peeled, but saw no coyotes, roadrunners or Acme birdseed-baited traps.

I was pretty sure that Wendover's military role was completely in the past, but just to be sure I asked at the FBO if there were any restricted areas on the airport. We wanted to look around at the heritage hangars and other relics. The woman at the FBO looked embarrassed to answer that yes, there was a restriction on my wandering, because there is a B737 that comes here, and the area where it parks and unloads is restricted to badged personnel. One of the casinos owns this airplane and provides very cheap flights to gamblers from a dozen or so locations around the country. I later discovered that I need to time my fuel needs around the servicing of the Boeing, because the FBO personnel are all required for handling the jet.

This Con Air airplane was sitting on the airfield, with the intention of its becoming part of a museum eventually. We went inside and you could see the lockups for the prisoners. What was left of the cockpit looked more like the cab of a truck than a flight deck.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Northern Gossip

In December 2003, the operations manager of a northern air charter company went to Trinidad & Tobago for a week on business. I'm not sure how a Caribbean island relates to the business of schlepping pop and chips around northern Alberta, but I can't blame the guy for taking advantage of whatever connection he found. Unfortunately, that's not all he took advantage of, and the waitress whose breast he grabbed and squeezed reported his actions to police. I suppose Trinidad and Tobago is a little more civilized than the oilfields. I've never been to that country, but the culture isn't going to be the same as in Canada.

He was arrested, spent a five days in a miserable Trinidadian prison and then returned to Canada. The Court of Appeal of Alberta has just approved a Trinidad and Tobago request to extradite him for trial. I suspect his behaviour at home isn't that different from abroad, and that there are a number of Fort McMurray waitresses high fiving one another on hearing that news.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Training Airport

I pick up my story back at Wendover Airport, which turns out to have an interesting history. During World War II this town was an air base with a population of as much as 20,000. Here is where the Enola Gay practiced with her crew for dropping the first atomic bomb used in war. They have a tiny museum right at the airfield, and I had time to take a look at it.

Most of the exhibits were little dioramas, like models of the Enola Gay and the airbase, and some medals and documents. My favourite was something I didn't remember hearing about before, the Norden Bombsight. In the words of the accompanying plaque, it was a mechanical analogue computer made up of gyros, motors, gears, mirrors, levers and a telescope. The bombardier would input the airspeed, wind speed and direction, altitude and angle of drift. The pilot would engage the autopilot and the computer would control the trajectory of the airplane and the release of the bomb. This device was so secret that it was installed in and removed from the airplane under armed guard last thing before and first thing after every mission. There was even an oath to be sworn before being introduced to the device.

Mindful of the secret trust to be placed in me by my Commander in Chief, the President of the United States, by whose direction I have been chosen for bombardier training... and mindful of the fact that I am to become guardian of one of my country's most priceless military assets, the American bombsight... I do here, in the presence of Almighty God swear by the Bombardier's Code of Honor to keep inviolate the secrecy of any and all confidential information revealed to me, and further to uphold the honor and integrity of the Army Air Forces, if need be, with my life itself.

I hope the pilot had better instruments than I do to provide that data, because my wind speed and direction statements would be a complete guess, especially because I expect a variation in wind speed and direction between flight altitude and the ground.

This weather limits sign served as a legacy of the training function of the airfield. A flying school today will have a supervising instructor who will examine the weather conditions and rule on whether it is suitable for flight training. This one was once controlled by a switch in the base commander's office.

I don't know where the military traffic dropping practice bombs on the restricted airspace launch from today, but they aren't here at Wendover now. The most traffic I saw looked like a weekend ultralight fly-in. I think most of them could have taken off widthwise on the runway, or launched into the air from the ramp at hardly more than my taxi speed, but they all taxied out diligently to the threshold of the most into-wind runway.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Oshkosh Wrap Up

Oshkosh was a lot of different things. For the price of admission you could get your money's worth in many ways, each of which ignored the bulk of the event. And you really have to choose your own Airventure, or you get overwhelmed by all of it and feel frustrated.

Every day included an airshow of a calibre that on its own might elsewhere command the entire daily admission price. There was a helicopter that rolled upside-down and back right side up again: the latter half of the stunt was recently considered impossible. There were modern military aircraft, vintage warbirds (military aircraft over 50 years old become "warbirds" instead of war planes, not sure why), aerobatic stunt planes, trick flying, airborne pyrotechnics and a stunt that had its own t-shirt for sale, the Wall of Fire.

You could spend most of a week just walking the flight lines. Some of the airplanes are there just because that's how the owners got there, and some are also there on display to compete for prizes, or maybe just recognition. You know how at a typical GA airport you can walk down the flight lines and see a lot of Cessnas and Pipers and a handful of RVs, maybe a Sea Bee or a Taylorcraft and a few more, "Hey, do you know what this is?" airplanes. Well at Oshkosh it doesn't seem to matter what you fly in, there's a whole row, or even a whole field of them. I don't think I'd ever seen a C195 before. Here they had their own section. And I'm told that numbers were down, and that many had already left. The only airplane in the parking section I noticed that was the only representative of its type was a South African registered DC-3. Not the same one I saw in the north, but probably owned by the De Beers Company, too.

All the major GA manufacturers were there, showing off their line of aircraft, and I'm sure making serious sales. I walked by a Mooney that I was no way going to buy, but I was curious about a really irritating looking rear cargo hatch. It was located such that you would have to lift bags to chest height to get them over the lip of the cargo hold, and then drop them in. The opening itself wasn't big enough to admit the 50 lb suitcase that I normally carry for work. And I'd rather load cargo at floor level. I asked if it needed to be located there for structural strength or something. The salesman said yes about the need for a small, carefully positioned door for strength, and described the gunmetal--he was not talking about colour--roll cage of the airplane. He told me it smelled like a gun barrel, and emphasized that there has never been an inflight breakup of a Mooney. And then he argued for the top opening so you could stack cases one on top the other without having to "upload." I was skeptical about how high you were going to stack things in a cargo hold that only holds 120 lbs. I pointed out that I weighed more than that, and the top of me would be well below the lip if I curled up in the bottom. He seemed to think that the typical item loaded in a Mooney is less dense than an Aviatrix. I guess Mooney loads are all chips and no pop.

There was a whole section of classrooms for seminars, on topics including building with composites, test flying your ultralight, and aviation in China. At any one time there were perhaps ten or even twenty different seminars to go to. You could easily spend the whole show attending related seminars, and treating the event like a course in building an ultralight.

One thing that was noticeable was that anyone who was anyone was there. For example if I think of US flight instruction products, I think of a series of books and videos from Rod Machado and another from the Kings, a couple who between them hold every possible aviation licence. I'd expect to see their books for sale at the show, and then when I grasped the everyone who is anyone nature of Oshkosh I realized that they were there. You don't send your second string to Oshkosh. The people there were the owners and the CEOs of the companies. I was chatting with someone at an FAA booth about a video they were giving away and he used the first person with respect to the production. He had produced the video. I'll tell you about it when I get a chance to see it.

Over all, there were too many details to take in, too much to see and too much information. Trying to get a handle on it all, I found myself looking at the infrastructure supporting it all. And that was praiseworthy. There were a lot of people there, but there were not waits for washrooms, and they were reasonably clean, considering that they were portables. There were enough and large enough garbage containers with regular pickup. There was free and simple transportation not only between the venues, but from the show to the mall, the museum, the campgrounds and other places people might want to go. The parking was well organized, with armies of people in reflective vests marshalling both the winged and the automotive traffic into wel organized parking areas. You could see features that were probably there to rectify problems from previous years, such as the person with a microphone who perched on the back of each tram to tell the tractr driver at the front when it was safe to pull out. This was the first year they had internet, and I suspect that next yeat they will have servers that can better handle the load.

I have more to write about the show, but I'm now back at work with my brochures and goodies all packed away at home, so I'll get back to them at some theoretical future time when I have nothing else to write about. I hope everyone else who went had a good time and I welcome your comments about what you saw and liked.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Keeping Amateur Aviation Afloat

On the third day we went out to the seaplane base where there was a field for amphib parking and then a couple rows of float planes anchored in a little lagoon. I expected there to be more but some had already left and the price of fuel kept some away. We watched a few aircraft taking off and landing on the water. It was fairly windy and the choppy waves made it challenging for the airplanes to get on the step, where drag with the floats in the water is reduced sufficiently to accelerate to flying speed. It's an opportunity for the watching pilots to stand around and authoritatively tell each other what the pilot who is trying to take off is doing wrong. This sort of thing is a mainstay of aviation.

The Oshkosh event is officially the EAA Airventure, that is the annual convention of the Experimental Aircraft Association. The Experimental there refers not so much to Boeing testing the first B787, but to the MacGyver spirit that caused the Wright Brothers and hundreds of other inventor pilots to put things together in their backyards and basements. The classic ultralight airplane in my mind is made entirely out of things that you could find in a garden shed. It is powered by an engine from a lawnmower or a weedwhacker. You sit in a lawnchair. The propeller is possibly the trickiest thing to homebuild. There's a company called Warp Speed that seems to make most ultralight propellers. I was disappointed by the low number of true ultralights on display at the show. My friend, who used to be a dealer for light sport planes, theorized that the light sport plane has killed the ultralight. An ultralight dealer I know said that the EAA killed the ultralight, via their lobbying for the the LSA category. Because any homebuilt bigger than the tiniest ultralight now has to be inspected and approved by the FAA, the true whacko libertarians aren't building airplanes anymore.

Anywhere you go, you can certainly find plenty of rugged individuals with theories that "they" say make no sense. But at Oshkosh the individual is standing next to a Piper Cherokee that has painted on the door the list of speed competitions it had won for its category.

Or perhaps the ultralight is alive and well, but Oshkosh is no longer a hospitable environment for them. The Fly Market was originally a buy and sell are of new and used airplane parts, or chunks of airplanes (or entire airplanes cut in half with a skill saw--to relieve the original builder of any liability from someone attempting to fly an airplane sold for scrap). Now it still has some of that spirit, but there's a lot of trinkets and cookware and the other things you see at standard flea markets.

I have pictures now, but blogger tells me they cannot be uploaded due to an internal server error, so they will have to wait.

Monday, August 04, 2008

In Transit

Wireless access at Oshkosh was very poor, and I haven't had the combination of time and internet access to blog lately. Give me a couple of days.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

From Everywhere

The EAA Airventure celebrates the fact that visitors come from all over the world. They have an international pavillion, which is just a big tent full of trestle tables and chairs, but it's staffed with volunteer interpretators to help out people with language difficulties or just to chat with. Mostly it serves as a place where pilots can meet other pilots and chat with them, just like the rest of the show. I'd been tipped off by my friend to visit the pavillion and register for the international dinner: an evening of free food, drink and dancing. They gave us nametag-tickets for the event and told us to come at noon for the parade. Hey, a parade is fun. We all milled around in the tent and then someone hopped up on a bench with a megaphone and called out country names, one by one in lphabetical order, for us to collect our flags and join up in groups. We were right behind Brazil, I believe, and the whole world knows that the Brazillians know how to throw a good parade. There were about twenty or thirty Canadians in the parade, from Halifax right across to Vancouver. There was some representation from at least seven provinces, including a large Winnipeg contingent representing a local airfield that was basically a well mowed section of someone's hayfield. We all laughed about our stereotypes because our section of the parade kept developing big "Oh go ahead, no after you" gaps in it. There was one lone representative from China marching behind us, but two of the Canadians were of Chinese descent, so dropped back to keep her company and take turns carrying the heavy flag. We laughed some more as we realized that we could theoretically all disperse to support our ancestral countries. It was a short and kind of silly parade, reminiscent of the sort mounted by neighbourhood children. I don't know if anyone but the participants paid any attention to it, but we all had a blast and took pictures of one another and tried to speak each other's languages.

I tried to take in more of the show, but it's so big I didn't do a very good job. I go into a tent and find something that ordinarily would be interesting to occupy me for an hour and then I either spend a hour, and then feel guilty because what else might I have found in that hour, or I rush past because there is more to see. Some of the displays are informational, like a whole huge tent for the FAA where I got some videos and some information about ICAO conformation plans (very gradual, but happening) or a tent for Border Protection, with a dog handler and his charge on the stage as I passed through, on the way to a seminar on US Airline jobs. I didn't stay very long because it wasn't covering anything I didn't know, and if I want to hear pilot whine about their working conditions, I don't need to walk that far to do it. I spent way too much time walking back and forth from place to place. One of my conclusions is that the vendor whose product actually IS a flashing light basically wins the trade show. All the vendors try to attract people to their booths with flashing lights, but the guy who is selling collision avoidance lights has it made. His booth is filled with brightly flashing lights that don't distract people from the actual product.

In the evening I went to the international dinner. Brazilians know how to party as well as parade, and for some reason there are a lot of them here. Along with Canadians, Australians, French, Russians and a guy from Wisconsin who was apparently there because his Argentinian wife taught school to the organizer's kids. An event with Canadians, Australians and free beer would have a hard time not succeeding, so we all had a grand time, even though mosquitoes kept flying into my eyes. We danced the night away.

Women Fly

A small two-man camping tent at Oshkosh is not the best place to spent a restful night. (Or as my friend put it: "that's not a two-man tent. A two girl tent, maybe!") I was thinking of doing a blog post with an alphabetical catalogue of all the noises that were keeping me awake, when I remembered that I had brought earplugs for the airshows. A few minutes of time for foam expansion later, and I was fast asleep.

Friday morning I and one of my camping companions were discussing the "Women Fly" or "Women Fly Too" t-shirts you sometimes see. We both think they are weird and insulting. Women have been flying since airplanes were invented. Anyone who doesn't know that probably isn't observant enough to learn things from a t-shirt slogan, and someone wearing a shirt like that seems likely to have a chip on her shoulder. I'd far rather have a t-shirt that said simply "I Fly." Print it across my boobs and I'm sure people will figure out that I'm a woman and do the math. We said catty things about the women who would choose to wear them, and then went to the show.

Friday's first order of events was the Women in Aviation Celebrity Breakfast. We found the tent where it was being served, after running around what seemed like the whole fairground (but was probably less than a tenth of it). It's fun to come together with other women and talk about flying, especially with the celebrities. Most were older women who overcame barriers so that now I can speak dismissively of needing to inform people that women fly. I suppose the shirts were designed by the older generation. There were also some men there, such as an airshow performer named Corky (I forgot his last name and can't take the online time to try to look it up, yes I'd make a terrible reporter). Corky found out after the fact that he hired the first female jet aerobatics pilot. He described the first time that he was sent as a representative to to speak to a female aviation group, by someone who was asking a favour. "Wait a moment," he claims he said, "You're asking me to go to a place where there are two thousand women, and they all speak airplane?" He said he got to sit at a table full of C-5 crew who all wanted to know about his flying, but he demanded they tell him about their airplane too. He says he learned things he didn't know, like how many toilets were on it. (Eight). Later, he claims, he asked male C-5 pilots how many toilets were on their aircraft, and they didn't know. The real gender differences come to the fore.

Breakfast itself was of course a simple buffet, but I noticed that even though I was there pretty early, they were already completely out of fruit. I wonder if they ordered a standard buffet for two hundred and if the fruit would have been demolished so soon had the crowd been the more typical aviation mix of less than ten percent women. My mind holds a stereotype than women are more likely to choose fruit and a bagel for breakfast and men the sausage and bacon. So, um, the WIAI breakfast was not a sausage fest. What else is news, Aviatrix?

The president of Sporty's Pilot Shop came up and announced two $5000 scholarships available to Women in Aviation members (membership is open to anyone, including men). The scholarships are intended to finance a recreational pilot licence for aircraft mechanics, to help them better speak the language of pilots. I'd love to see a guy win one. It would probably help if you have an ambiguous name like Lee or Jean, and get your references to avoid gendered pronouns in the recommendation letter. I don't like to see sexism in either direction, as I want to avoid being clobbered by a pendulum swinging back the other way.

At the end of the breakfast was a prize draw, mostly for books and notepads and the like, but I'm having a good week. Yesterday I was standing in the middle of Aeroshell Square peering through my binoculars at an aircraft flying overhead when I was tapped on the shoulder by a "prize patroller" who handed me a sack of goodies just for wearing the right sticker. At the draw I won a silver necklace. I have to go and enter the "win an airplane" draws today. Or maybe "win an airline job." Yeah, being here has got me all fired up about my career again. Silly woman. I went out next and had my picture taken with what was supposed to be the largest mass of women pilots ever assembled, but I guess we aren't as numerous as the organizers had hoped, because it wasn't that impressive a showing, considering how many people are here. I'm right next to Sarah. Or maybe three over.

I forgot to tell you what the necklace looks like. I won't try to upload photos on this poor connection, so I'll just say it's a little sterling silver square with an airplane, and the words. "Women Fly." The Fates are always depicted as a women, aren't they? And they have an endlessly wicked sense of humour.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Oshkosh Day One

Three different friends finally persuading me to come to Oshkosh. We took an airline flight to Appleton, and as soon as we came off the runway we could tell something was up. We crossed a taxiway to reach the apron, and the whole length of it had little general aviation airplanes, one-seaters up to maybe King Air-sized, angle parked either side of the taxiway. They run a shuttle from here for the people who opt not to fly into the zoo that is Oshkosh, and apparently so many people take advantage of it that Appleton turns into a satellite zoo. Another satellite zoo is Fond du Lac, a few miles away from Oshkosh. The Oshkosh airport, Whitman Field, is now full for airplane parking, so overflow traffic has to stay at Fond du Lac and shuttle in.

We don't have to worry about car parking because a friend has finagled a campsite for us, right across from a side entrance to the show. We've arrived before them, but find our assigned site and my companion and I pitch a small tent and go in for a first look at the show.

The show is vast. I have lived in smaller towns. It's a trade show, but much of what is traded is stories. We register for the Women in Aviation breakfast and the International pilots dinner. Along the way we chat with all kinds of people. Then we head out to see this afternoon's air show. There are Pitts Specials doing high G aerobatics and head to head passes, leaving heart-shaped and loop-shaped smoke trails, then doing a high speed flyby canopy to canopy with one inverted. There was a F-22 Raptor that made screaming ascents, accelerating vertically into the clouds and shaking the air at a level beyond sound as the lighted afterburners turn towards me. I have my earplugs in for this part of the show. At the end of the Raptor's act, it does some formation flying with a P-51 Mustang. But the highlight for me was a Beech 18 piloted by Matt Younkin. It's not an aerobatic airplane, certified like the Pitts to +10 Gs. It's an older twin transport airplane intended for flying in straight lines between airports. The mastery involved in this act is not to show off the engineering or the human stamina that allows sustaining high G loads, but to make the act interesting (and it is) without infringing on any of the limits of the aircraft. The words of the blurb were something akin to "the aircraft doesn't know it is doing aerobatics." Somehow that fits in with my whole philosophy, and I really enjoyed watching the old plane do things it didn't know it was doing, and that its designers never expected it to do.

Back at the campsite, I discover that my friends have arrived and pitched their tent. It is big enough for our tent to be pitched inside it. They have a queen-sized bed inside. And enough room left over for a ballroom dancing competition. They drove, so their luggage didn't have to fit within airline checked baggage limits.

I would write more, but I don't type well in the dark and I'm being bitten by mosquitoes.

And it turns out that as this is the first year Oshkosh has had wireless, they underestimated the demand, and the servers have crashed from the onslaught. I'm lining up next morning at the EAA tent, waiting for amateur photoblogger and pilot Piperwarrior to finish his blog so I can post. Further updates, when I can.