Friday, October 31, 2008

Our Helicopter

One of my helicopters was parked at the pumps recently when I came in to refuel. I think it's pretty nice. Snappy paint job, good avionics, and I'm sure it does that up and down thing that helicopters do so well. If you're Canadian it's yours, too. We should buy more of these. And lots of spare parts and stuff.

I've never flown a helicopter, and I'm almost daily glad that I don't, because of the really challenging sites they have to take off and land, but I'm always amused by their ability to do things I can't. They call "On final for the pumps," or if one is hovering over the taxiway I have called that I am planning to use, the pilot will cheerfully tell me he's moving sideways over the grass to let me go by. They can take off straight up, taxi backwards, land almost anywhere, even if it's just setting one skid down while the cargo is unloaded.

The closest I can get is when my GPS-indicated altitude bobs up and down, with my wheels firmly planted on the ground. I'm always amused when it does that.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Vanishing Airplane

I had an odd experience yesterday, holding at an uncontrolled airport. I taxied out in calm winds and then was asked to stay on the ground while someone in the back made a telephone call to confirm something. It's like driving a limo sometimes, except with the roar of the engines instead of the glass partition separating me from the back. While the telephone call was going on, the wind picked up and I was now at the wrong end of the runway. I was willing to take a few knots tailwind, but there were aircraft arriving so there were other safety issues involved in the runway choice. I checked with the back and they were now waiting for a call to be returned, so I had time to taxi back to the other end. I describe all this merely as preface, to indicate that I had been on frequency for a while and picked up a situational awareness for who was coming and going.

Sitting in the runup area at the correct end of the runway, with enough room for others to taxi around me if need be, I heard an airplane call inbound to the field, giving his ETE as 11 minutes. It was three minutes to nine at that point, so I wrote down his call sign and 9:07 on my kneeboard. That would give me an idea of when he was due, to help me not taxi out in front of him. A few minutes later he called again, seven minutes back. It was nine on the dot, so his ETA was unchanged. A few minutes later the cellphone conversation was over, the destination confirmed, and the cabin ready for takeoff. I called the inbound airplane by callsign for a position report. No response. Just in case I got his callsign wrong, I called again referring to him by destination and type. No response. He didn't answer on either the aerodrome frequency or 126.7. I would have seen him had he landed in front of me on the into wind runway. There was a possibility he had landed the other way, with a tailwind, but there was no taxiway between the one at the threshold, and mine. So he landed very short despite a tailwind and turned around to backtrack off the runway without making any of the required downwind, final, backtracking and clear calls? Unlikely. There would also be no advantage to backtracking: the two taxiways are equally inconveniently located to the apron.

I determined that whatever had happened to him, there was no conflicting traffic, and I took off. My current theory is that he accidentally used the wrong aerodrome name in his calls, and he was descending into some other aerodrome sharing the same frequency. Once he reached circuit altitude I stopped hearing his transmissions, and he could not hear mine.

Or he found himself suddenly in the Bermuda triangle, where he took advantage of the international card in his GPS and landed somewhere hospitable where he and his passengers are enjoying fruity drinks with umbrellas.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

World's Ugliest Paint

As you marvel at the selection and placement of colours on this commercially-operated airplane, consider not only the individual and combined awfulness of the turquoise and orange, along with the bizarre block placement of the colours on nacelles, stabilizer and rudder. Stop to think that someone had to choose those colours. Someone had to decide that would be a good colour scheme. There might even have been a meeting, at which multiple people nodded in assent. Someone had to go out and buy that paint. And someone had to actually apply it. Possibly in multiple coats. This airplane represents a serious breakdown in CRM. Someone should have stepped in and called a stop to this decision.

I spoke to the crew, but it was hard to understand them, as they had paper bags over their heads.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Lightning Reflexes

I'm supposed to head north tonight, but one nav light (the red one, on my left wingtip) is burned out and I'm waiting for someone who may be able to sell me a spare bulb. I check the weather while I'm waiting. I have clear skies ahead, but there are thunderstorms approaching from the southwest. I haven't seen the radar image myself, because I don't have internet access here. I've just talked to a briefer who described them. The storms are moving northeast at 15 kts, and the last radar image has them 25 nm away. So I had better be ready to go in an hour. I can already see lightning flashing to the south, but even though I am outdoors I can't hear the thunder, so it must be a good ways off.

Soon the lightning flashes creep around me, visible to the south and west, really lighting up the sky, even though they still aren't close enough for me to hear the thunder. That's weird. Sometimes I see vertical cloud to ground strikes, sometimes horizontal cloud to cloud discharges, and sometimes there's a sheet of undifferentiated light illuminating the countryside. It's quite the storm.

The guy who might have the bulbs comes by with his camera, to take pictures of the lightning, then goes to the stores and finds lightbulbs with the correct part number. We get two bulbs so as to have a spare for next time, but by the time it's installed and I do a runup I decide the storms are too close. If it were daylight I'd do it, as I could see clearly what I wasn't flying into, but I admit my possible overcaution with, "You know what they say about old pilots and bold pilots." No one argues.

Early next morning on the drive to the airport we pass utility crews repairing power lines. I start the engines and have made it to the run-up area talking to "Villeneuve Traffic" before the tower opens. As is usual in this situation, the after-hours "Traffic" frequency is the same as the tower frequency. I know the controllers are probably in there, listening already, so I note in my transmission that I am monitoring the Ground frequency as well. I make it all the way to the run-up area before the tower broadcasts words to the effect of, "Villeneuve Tower is now open. All aircraft in the control zone, all ground vehicles, say your position." I'll bet you a nickel the controller is looking straight at me as he says it. I think I'm the only one in the zone and I taxied right by him. He has to know where I am.

I dutifully report call sign and type, in the runway 26 run up area, VFR to my destination on a company note. When my engines are warm and all systems check out I call ready. He clears me for takeoff, and to make the necessary turn after departure. The day is smooth and calm, clear to the south with layers thickening to the north. I slip under a layer of low cloud to land where I'm needed next, before I'm actually needed.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


I'm supposed to meet someone in Edmonton, but not at Edmonton International. He's coming to a satellite airport designated Edmonton/Villeneuve in the CFS. This is the town I mentioned with a population of 156. (Kudos to Ward for his Googlishious skills at not only identifying the town, but finding a picture of the webmaster's doghouse. I challenge you to do the same). Despite the size of the community, I'm told that its airport is the primary site for ab initio flight training for the whole Edmonton area. And I'm arriving in the early afternoon on a sunny Saturday. This would be a good time to make thorough preflight preparations so I'm heads up all the way in.

Villeneuve is in class D airspace under the shelf of the ovals of Class C that encompass the International and City Centre airports. It has a control tower and two paved runways: a 16/32 and a 08/26 diverging and not sharing any pavement. I study the reporting points and arrival procedures. I'll do my engine stage cooling early so that I can enter the control zone come in nice and slow with flaps down, able to fit in the circuit at the same speed as training traffic. Well maybe not at the same speed as Cessna 150s flown erratically by student pilots who have discovered they have more time to think on downwind if they fly it at 2100 rpm. But at a speed that is fair to a busy controller trying to fit me in with the tiny singles. And guess what, what works for the student pilot works for me too. More time to think at an unfamiliar airport is good.

There is a forecast probability of thunderstorms in the Edmonton area a couple of hours after my planned arrival, but there is nothing in the actuals anywhere around that suggests they are getting started early. I think this will be one of those forecasts that doesn't materialize. I'd rather go VFR with forecast thunderstorms, though. That way I don't need to get permission to deviate, and I can go under the clouds. Not that I want to go under a CB, but I don't want to go through one either, and I have a better chance of spotting the CBs and TCU if I'm not inside a cloud layer. I like looking out the window, anyway. There's also a NOTAM giving an ATIS frequency that has somehow been omitted from the CFS.

After a preflight inspection, I make some notes on my OFP, arrange all my charts and bookmark my CFS. I feel virtuous for writing it into the CFS. The NOTAM after all is an instruction "AMEND PUB." I have amended the publication. The windsock is dead. I've been using one runway exclusively all the time I've been here, so I decide to use the other one for a change. Also off my chosen runway the climbout will be over a lake, reducing noise for local residents. I start engines, taxi to the holding area near the threshold and complete my runup there. Now I see a different windsock and it is showing four or five knots of wind favouring the runway I haven't chosen. Figures. I choose to depart with the tailwind. There's sufficient runway to take that penalty, and it's not as if there's an obstacle to climb over at the end.

I imagine I can see the delay in airspeed alive registering on the ASI as I accelerate, but I reach rotation speed and climb out normally. En route I cross check the chart with the terrain, noting distinctive squiggles in rivers and oddly shaped lakes to confirm my position, even though I also have a Garmin 496 sitting on the dashboard. I tune the ATIS frequency about 80 miles out, because I don't have anything better to do with that radio, and then flip the switch down to monitor it. I wouldn't say this was a habit I suggest anyone emulate, but I do it a lot. I will automatically be reminded to check the ATIS when I start to hear it, as soon as I'm in range, and I'll know for next time how far out I can get it. Except I don't, because I forgot already. It was perhaps thirty or forty miles. It was information Echo, but he said it oddly, so I thought it was Tango at first. My current heading is straight in for the active runway.

I switch frequencies and monitor tower. Nothing. That's odd. No long-winded students trying to give position reports. No flight instructors begging for a quick stop and go. No frazzled controllers telling people to follow their traffic. Silence. I'm glad I checked the NOTAMs or I'd think I had the wrong frequency. Fifteen miles back I call tower. He clears me straight in, big surprise. I see a runway straight ahead, but I can't see the other one to verify. I put the gear down and he clears me to land as I complete the prelanding checks. I exit at the end and call ground, per instructions and he gives me taxi clearance to my destination. I mention to the ground controller that I was expecting a swarm of training airplanes and am surprised to find it so quiet. "Must be your lucky day," is all he says.

The person I'm meeting isn't here yet, and I'm hungry. Several phone calls later I discover that no one will deliver pizza out here. Edmonton, your primary training airport is boring and isolated.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

That's the Way to Make a Living

I might be at dinner with company clients and be asked something like, "Can you start at four-thirty tomorrow morning?" I have to quickly do duty time math and determine if that will be legal, considering that I need eight hours sleep.

It's not incredibly difficult to think, "four and a half minus eight is negative three and a half, plus twenty four is twenty and a half, so that's 20:30," and thus determine that I have to be in bed by 20:30. But remember that I was probably up at four the morning before the evening on which I was asked to make the calculations. And whenever you have to do calculations through midnight it's easy to make mistakes. But thanks to Dolly Parton & Co., there's an easier way.

The theme song "Working Nine to Five" describes an eight hour work day, but for me it provides the perfect guideline for the eight hours I need to sleep. I just say it to myself in my head as "Sleeping Nine to Five..." and then adjust each end by an hour or so to match what the client is asking for. In this case four thirty requires me to get up at four, an hour before five, so I have to be in bed an hour before nine, or eight p.m. I can smile sweetly at the client and say, "Certainly, as long as we're done here in time get me back to the hotel for seven thirty."

Those of you who have philosophical objections to reporting for work at four thirty in the morning may prefer to remain at your nine to five jobs.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Chalk One Up

I like the spelling attempts accompanying this rack for airplane chocks. At some point someone realized they might as well have fun with it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Exciting Times

I'm going on a side trip with a half-day hold, so I look up where I'm going ...

The town has a population of 156. Not a typo: one hundred fifty-six. Its points of interest, listed on the town website, include:

  • airport
  • church
  • groceteria / gas station
  • rec hall that has both a kitchen and a dance floor
  • a covered half-size ice rink
  • 3 baseball diamonds
  • a soccer pitch
That's not actually bad for a town of 156 people. And I'm still impressed they have their own website.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


I've been hanging onto this photo for a while, waiting for some reason to say something about it, but really it speaks for itself. For anyone who can't see pictures, it's a business sign on the side of a red pickup truck, reading, "Beginning Guitar or Chess Lessons" with a phone number.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Let There Be Dark

Our customers want to run computers in the back of the airplane during flight, and they complain that they can't see the screens, can we make it darker? My coworker and I go to Canadian Tire and buy deluxe windshield sunshields, velcro, duct tape, and marker pens. We also bring scissors and a newspaper. We have a project.

Our first step is to make window sized templates with the newspaper. We hold up the newspapers to the windows and trace out the shape and size we want with the markers. We want them a bit bigger than the windows so we can velcro the sunshades onto the window frames. It turns out that we have three different sizes of windows, as they get smaller towards the back of the airplane. I was afraid they might all be different, so that's actually a relief. It takes a few iterations of taping newspapers together, tracing and cutting before we're happy with the results.

Next we lay out our templates on the silver windshield shades and trace around them with the markers. We cut out the window shapes. We weren't sure if the structure of the shield material would hold up after we cut them, because the edges are sealed with cloth tape, but it turns out that they're made of bubblewrap coated on each side with shiny foil, and they stay glued together just fine without the edging. It's a prety good design, really: foil to reflect the light and bubblewrap to provide insulation against the transmission of heat. We could use them overnight in the winter to keep the cabin warmer, too.

We hold the silver panels up to the windows to make some trimming adjustments with the scissors, and then finally stick put little patches of industrial-strength velcro on our panels and on the corners of the windows. It's really dark now! It will help me, too, because now I won't have beams of light coming in the back windows to glare off my instruments.

On my next flight with the darkened windows I amend my passenger briefing to note that in an emergency I will ask them to pull down the screens before landing so that they can see the surroundings, in order to choose the safest emergency exit to use.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Hot, Heavy and High

Comments on yesterday's post remind me of this story. I can't remember if it's a joke or a real story someone told me, but it goes like this.

A fairly new pilot has flown his rented flying school airplane into a high altitude field on a hot day. He's very conscious of the responsibility he has to be aware of the performance penalties involved and is walking around on the ramp admiring some of the other airplanes. There's a nice little Piper being with the doors open and he sees the fuel truck arrive and fill the tanks while the pilot and large adult passengers pile baggage in the back. He takes an opportunity when the passengers are busy photographing themselves in front of the airplane to ask, "How can you load the airplane like that on such a hot day?"

"Oh, it's okay," the pilot says proudly. "We have air conditioning."

Saturday, October 18, 2008

What and Balance?

The latest issue of Aviation Safety Letter (or at least the latest one that I have managed to be home to receive) reprints an article on weight and balance that surprises me. His thesis is that only five percent of private pilots do a weight and balance calculation before a flight, and that eighty percent couldn't do the calculation correctly if their lives depended on it. His narrative implies that W&B isn't even taught as part of the licence, and is not tested as part of the flight test. A Canadian pilot licence candidate would fail a flight test if she couldn't produce a very accurate weight and balance for the proposed flight.

Now I'm not expecting that a private flyer would whip out an operational flight plan every time he came out in the evening to do a few circuits between dinner and sunset. If you own or regularly rent the same kind of airplane, you know, for example, that your own weight plus full fuel is well within limits. You'll know perhaps from repeated calculations, or careful examination of the graphs, that a passenger in the seat next to you cannot put the airplane out of balance limits, so you only need to count weight. Or perhaps you've determined that with 200 pounds in each passenger seat you can carry 50 lbs of bags, but they have to go in the forward compartment. I wouldn't fault someone who knew his airplane taking on loads like this without doing any calculations.

The example given in the article of the pilot not asking the heaviest person to sit in the front with him seems bizarre to me. If he was shy about mentioning weight to a female passenger, then just say, "Hey Susan, Sara has sat up front lots of times, why don't you sit up here." Or offer here the front seat for more "hip room." Myself I would have just sized up the passengers and assigned seats, no excuses, no explanations. My own family might know that I was doing it to get the weight in the front, but no one needs to be told if they are going to be embarrassed by it.

The thing is, an airplane loaded out of the manufacturer's limits probably will fly. It probably won't even crash. But in some configuration there is some otherwise reasonable maneuver that your airplane is no longer able to perform. Maybe it becomes unstable in the slow flight regime. Maybe it makes it harder to maneuver with a distraction. With an overweight airplane, turbulence puts more stress on the airframe and could lead to an in-flight break up. Maybe it won't climb out of ground effect or won't give you the published rate of climb. Maybe there's some attitude or or maneuver from which it won't be recoverable. it happens to commercial pilots too. This airplane has flown a couple of legs with an unknown elevator rigging problem, but it only killed people on the leg that they had an aft C of G.

The last example above departed with paperwork showing it within limits, but that is because the paperwork took into account standard passenger weights, based on a fifty year old survey. People weigh more now, and that accident was the last straw. Americans don't use quite the same standard weights Canadians do, but within twenty days after that accident, Transport Canada had issued new standard passenger weights to be used by all operators. If your passengers aren't standard, don't pretend they are. One method a reader mentioned for discreet but accurate weight and balance on small private airplanes is for the pilot in command to enter the moment of the empty airplane on a calculator, hit the plus key, then to tell each passenger to enter his or her honest clothed weight multiplied by the arm (obviously you tell the passenger the arm of their seat), hit the plus key and hand the calculator to the next passenger. You'd want to assume reasonable calculator skills on the part of the passengers, and ensure your calculator used the proper precedence of operations.

You'll notice that in almost all of these fatal accidents, the out of envelope condition was not the only factor in the accident. It's a little like "speed was a factor" in automobile accidents. In the car, once you're going too fast, any other thing that goes wrong, or any other mistake you make, is more likely to lead to a crash. In the airplane, once you're loaded out of weight and balance you've deliberately given yourself a penalty for anything you have to do. Not being within weight and balance limits is like not sending all six players onto the ice for a hockey shift. Yes, you may successfully skate out the penalty, and sometimes you even score a goal shorthanded, but in sudden death overtime, everyone should know enough not to take unnecessary penalties.

I'm guessing that pilot readers of Cockpit Conversation, being biased towards the smart and geeky, can all do the simple arithmetic required to determine the centre of gravity of a loaded airplane, and mostly do check the balance limits if they are putting an unusual load in their airplane. if any non-pilots (or any of those hypothetical eighty percent of pilots) is now curious how to do a weight and balance calculation, leave a comment and I'll be happy to explain in a future post.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Its Not the Years, It's the Hours

First thing in the morning for the FBO isn't first thing for me, but as soon as he gets in, the engineer starts work on my airplane, even though there is work to be done for his company as well. He has a reconditioned magneto available, and negotiates a trade-in value for the core our magneto, which he will recondition in turn. Paperwork will record all the serial numbers of parts swapped through the aviation world in this manner. It's a pretty normal occurrence. It's actually pretty funny to see one of our airplanes taken apart and to see all the points of origin recorded on stickers or plates on various components. I once had a maintenance shop refuse to do work because an instrument had a sticker on it claiming it was on loan. Fortunately the company whose name was on it was still in business and I was able to get them to relinquish any claim on the equipment. At some point there must have been a trade-in involving that loaner equipment, and no one took the sticker off.

After the installation, which didn't take long, he sent me out to do a runup with one of his apprentices. That's a nice way to do it. I've had shops go and do the runup themselves, come back and sign it off, and I've had shops send me out to test the equipment, and sign it out on my say so. I'm okay with both ways, but this was a best of both worlds. The shop avoids the problem of worrying about messing up my radios or any of my equipment taxiing my plane without me. I get to verify for myself that the magneto is now working correctly. And the apprentice has a strobe-light rpm detector to measure the rpm drop per mag exactly without having to rely on the accuracy of my gauges. I've seen the rpm detector before, when someone was testing the calibration of an RPM gauge, but I'd never seen someone use it to check the rpm drop on a magneto. We taxi back and park. Now it's all over but the paperwork.

It's a bit of a relief to be working in Canada now and know that I don't have to explain journey logs and TTAF to a US AME. This shop has a good system with checklists and workcards that are not loaded with unnecessary overkill items, but have a thorough list of what does have to be done, and I can see they've actually been used on the shop floor as opposed to being all filled in at the end after the work is done anyway. As he signs it off and verifies the billing information, the AME mentions that this is the highest time airplane he has ever certified. My airplane isn't frighteningly old. It just works hard for a living. I think this guy has worked mainly on medevac aircraft, which don't go off on all-day missions like ours.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Red Wire or Blue Wire?

We're scheduled for an early morning takeoff. At first all goes well, with a recorded start time of 05:52 a.m. (that's translated from Zulu time to local time) on my operational flight plan. The engines warm quickly and I taxi to the runup area near the threshold where I go through the systems checks. Propellers work, electrical works, deicing works, gauges work. I select the left engine left magneto off to ensure that the right magneto works independently, but it doesn't. The left engine rpm drops precipitously. I quickly flick the magneto back on again, but it's too late, the left engine dies. Damn.

I restart the engine and run it up hot, leaning the mixture for a high cylinder head temperature. The right magneto is connected to one spark plug in each cylinder so if the right plugs are fouled, turning off the left mag could leave some cylinders without a working spark plug. I don't really believe this is the case, but it's the sort of thing the maintenance manager will ask me to do when I call, so I want to have it done before they ask. By running the engine up hot it can burn off the carbon deposits. It can also damage the cylinders, so I don't do it for long. The procedure has no effect today. The engine still will not run on the right magneto alone.

It's six o' clock on a Sunday morning. Things like this always happen on the weekend. I advise the customer that we may be able to get the airplane fixed this morning, but no guarantees. I advise company immediately (text message to PRM says something like "bad mag. no flight. looking for local help") and then I wait until seven to call the 24-hour contact number for the local FBO. Sure it's "twenty-four hours" but it's still a real person who has to pick up that cellphone, and I know he's probably sleeping. He isn't sure if he can get maintenance for me on a Sunday, but says he'll give them another hour to sleep and then call them. The good news is that this company operates the same type, and magnetos are parts one expects to fail now and again--that's why I have two per engine--so chances are good they have the part as well as the expertise.

Meanwhile my PRM is a little disdainful of my diagnosis. The reply is "What do you mean, 'bad mag'? How much of a drop is there?" Properly my snag should read, "Left engine will not run with left magneto selected off." I knew that. I don't actually know it's a bad magneto. It could be a lot of things. I was lazy with the text message. Company wants me to disconnect the P-lead to check if the magneto is bad or just accidentally grounded. The way these things work is that when they are switched off, they are connected to ground, to avoid accidental injury. If the grounding wire rubs on something so the insulation wears off, it can be grounded all the time and the magneto will behave as though it is off, regardless of the switch position. With the mechanic on the phone, I pull off the engine cowling and find the right magneto. It has two wires coming from it, not the one that was described. I feel like I'm in one of those movies where the hero has to decide which wire to cut in order to disarm the bomb. I carefully describe what I'm looking at. This is why pilots have to know the parts of their airplanes. The mechanic identifies the extra wire as part of an optional starter system. I remove a nut to disconnect the wire he specifies, folding it out of the way and securing the ends so they won't contact anything. I put the cowling back on and restart that engine. If the problem was that wire, then the engine should continue to run now whether or not the left magneto magneto switch is on. In fact, now it should continue to run with both magneto switches selected off. It doesn't. It behaves exactly as before I disconnected the lead.

My PRM is forced closer to my abbreviated diagnosis of "bad mag." The FBO has got a hold of the local mechanic, and he's fairly sure he does have the part, but he is fixing his roof, and has hired a crew, so can't work on my airplane today. He promises first thing tomorrow morning. I tape a sign to the mag switch that the p-lead is disconnected, even though it's just me. You never know.

I have to tell the customer we're down for the day.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Is There a Doctor Onboard?

Don't worry, no one got sick on my flight. I just found this blog entry from a Calgary doctor who was called on to treat a patient during an airline flight. It raises some interesting issues.

I think anyone would put step forward and offer his or her skills in a life or death situation. If a person is trapped under something heavy, people with the capability to lift heavy things, be they weightlifters or crane operators, will do their best to get the object off. People want their skills to be useful. If there's a way to save lives by swimming, knowing regular expressions, or using the Heimlich manoeuvre, people are glad to have had the opportunity to do it. It's true that the skills of trained accountants are rarely called upon to answer to emergencies in public places, so doctors may bе disproportionately called upon to interrupt their leisure to do unpaid work. I think Dr. Fernandes has the right attitude about it.

Oh, and my lizard didn't win, but the CBC has a cool map of who did.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Attention Canadians: VOTE TODAY

Canadians: Don't forget to vote!

I always find tears coming to my eyes when I see news pictures of newly emancipated people lined up around the block to vote, or coming out of the polling booth showing the inked finger that is their country's equivalent of voter registration lists. I don't know if it's happiness for their pride in the new power of democracy, or sympathy for the soon to be shattered naïvité of people who think that casting that ballot really is going to make their world better.

It's not a very big power, because there's so much going on above our heads controlling the choice offered to us, and the way people behave once chosen, but it's still an important part of the system. Know what the candidates offer you. Know what you want. And make a choice.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Pilot Kill Switch

My latest new customers just installed this equipment in the airplane. Should I be worried?

Maybe I'll just retaliate and put a large PASSENGER KILL SWITCH in plain view on my console. Or maybe one in reach of their seats, labelled "PASSENGER EJECTION SEAT: DO NOT TOUCH."

Oh and on the remote chance that there's someone here with spare turkey today (Canadian Thanksgiving), I'm in Grande Prairie tonight.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Airport Goth

Once upon a time people dressed up to go on airplanes. It was some kind of occasion, like dressing to dine at the captain's table on an ocean voyage. Then the sixties came and dress codes changed almost overnight. I know a woman now in her seventies who was on an extended trip in Europe when the sixties arrived. When she returned to Canada she was quite stunned. what had happened to everyone? What were they wearing? They had gone from white gloves and hats to tie-dyes and beaded headbands in the turn of a decade. Also around the same time, air travel became more commonplace and no longer an occasion. People now usually wear whatever they are wearing when it is time to leave, or what they need to be wearing when they get there.

That makes most air travellers dressed for either business or vacation, with the business shading from suits and ties to workboots and jeans, depending on the route flown. But a few independent souls buck the trend and wear astounding things. They probably aren't really bucking the trend at all, and are simply wearing what they wear every day, or what they need to be wearing when they get where they are going, but still, they make waiting at the airport more exciting.

I saw this woman as I walked towards my gate. She was reading a magazine as I walked by. I stared, hoped she didn't notice, then got a few rows of seats past her and remembered the old retaliatory taunt for staring, "take a picture, it lasts longer!"

I doubled back and simply asked her, "excuse me, may I take your picture?" She put down her magazine and struck a pose. I guess you don't dress like that if you're averse to a little attention. Thank you to all the airport goths. You make my day.

And on the topic of all kinds of people with all kinds of normal, I skipped a day blogging yesterday in order to extend the Secret Ballot discussion. I'm really enjoying everyone's opinions and ideas. I'm proud to have readers who can discuss politics without getting into a slanging match.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Secret Ballot

Now that I have my ballot, I have to decide whom to vote for. I haven't given much thought to it yet. The Canadian election was called well into the American election campaign and we vote on October 14th. The whole Canadian election campaign has been in the shadow of the American theatrics. It's hard to pay attention to what's going on in Canada when the ex-P.O.W., the lipstick-wearing moose hunter, and the community organizer who is a bigger celebrity than Paris Hilton are so fun to watch. But I have to look after my own country now.

We don't vote for the Prime Minister in Canada. We vote for our local representative, and then the Governor-General asks the political party that has the most elected representatives to form the government. Their leader therefore becomes the Prime Minister. The runner-up party forms the official opposition. It's as if the US presidential election were determined by who had a Senate majority.

Some Canadians consider their vote for the local candidate to be purely a vote for the leader of that party, while others vote to elect the most suitable representative for their electoral district. I'm in the latter group, so I start to look for information on the actual candidates in my district, known here as a riding.

I have an alphabetical list of the candidates who will be on my ballot. I go to the website for one of them. There's boilerplate from the party, including a sidebar about the number of women in the House of Commons.

"Oh yeah, this is a woman's name," I realize. Candidate gender was nowhere in my considerations about whom to vote for. I pause to consider whether it should be, and I discard the idea. I don't see it as having any relevance. For that matter, she is a different race than me: also irrelevant. I think these things are not as important in Canadian politics as the US media is making them in the current race south of the border. I don't know whether that's the media or the reality. Or perhaps it's just that she's just a local candidate, and it would be a bigger deal for the party leader. We do have one female party leader and have had others, including a Prime Minister. Anyway I'm impressed by this one's accomplishments, and while she doesn't have experience in government, her volunteer work has exposed her to a lot of politics and her experience includes a lot of negotiation and working with a wide variety of people. I think she would be a strong voice for me in parliament.

The next candidate website I visit leads off with the fact that he's married and has kids. It almost makes me giggle. You have one opportunity to make a first impression on me and you've decided to start with the fact that you've managed to get it up more than once? You want me to say yes to you representing my interests in parliament, and you think reporting that a woman said yes to your marriage proposal will influence me? Perhaps he's trying to assure me that he's not gay. That would suggest that he thinks a candidate's sexual orientation should influence my choice. Or is he protesting too much? I concoct a whole secret life for him. I'm reading way too much into this, I know, but he hasn't given me anything else to read. His bio and personal statements give no evidence of any particular skill or experience that argues for his ability to convey my voice to the halls of power. I think he's here as a placeholder for his party, for the people who are going to vote the party name and not the candidate.

If I'm going to invent secret lives for the candidates, perhaps I should consider that as an immigrant, the first one I looked at could really be a deep cover spy and her success here has been aided by other operatives who want to get their spy into the seat of power.

Another candidate has a website with links in Cantonese, Mandarin, Hindi, Vietnamese and Tagalog. He's inclusive, anyway. Perhaps he's a spy, too. He's a lawyer, so that implies the ability to think, and a set of useful parliamentary skills. He has a lot of political experience and has been an activist his whole life. He could also be an alien masquerading as a human.

I take a closer look at their party platforms. I don't feel I can trust any party to carry through on its promises, but the direction they are claiming to push will at least indicate which sectors of the economy can expect the most pork from them.

I finally choose a candidate who is unlikely to be part of a plot to enslave humanity under alien masters. I print the name on my ballot and seal it inside all the envelopes, one after the other. It's a bit like entering the Readers' Digest Sweepstakes, except that I'll get a government instead of a book.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Voter Registration

Canadians don't normally have to register in advance to vote. This year there are new rules requiring everyone to have ID at the polls, even if they've been voting in that riding for years. This seems pretty straightforward, but there are places in the north where people have nothing in the way of ID, pay cash rent to landlords who pay the utilities, but everyone in town not only knows who they are, but who their mother is, their entire family, and every single person they have dated, place they have been, and stupid thing they have done their entire life. It's not like you're going to walk into one of those communities and pretend you live there and people won't notice. There are also homeless people who chronically don't have ID. And the homeless do vote and want to vote. The people who don't have any ID are likely not people who would be voting for the current government. I'm not quite cynical enough to believe it is intentionally a disenfranchisement scheme. I do certainly hope no one is denied their right to vote over such a thing.

Myself, I will be away from home on election day, so I have to register to vote by special ballot. I didn't have a chance to do it between finding out I would be away and having to leave, so I stopped at an Elections Canada office in a small town. I got the address in advance from the Elections Canada toll-free line, but I didn't really need it, because it was the kind of small town that has one main street where all the businesses are. The Elections Canada office was set up in an abandoned supermarket, with elections workers being trained under the Meats sign and lots of bustling going on behind partitions down at the back in front of the Dairy section. I was directed to sit down at a desk in Fruits and Vegetables, and fill out a form. it was pretty simple, just name and address, birthdate, phone number and sign to certify that I qualify to vote in Canada. Then the elections worker realized she'd given me the wrong form. I'd filled out the one for electors which to vote by special ballot inside their home riding, and I was registering to vote outside my home riding. I was then given another form to fill out. It seemed to be identical except for the title of the form. They tore up and promised to also shred the first form and then took the second completed form and went off to Deli to get me the special ballot.

This took a long time. The problem was that they didn't know the official number of my home constituency. I knew its name, but not its number, and they didn't seem to have a way of looking that up. They did find me an alphabetical list of all the candidates running for election in my riding and then spotted the voter registration card which I had brought with me. I was told by Elections Canada that I would not need it to vote by special ballot, so the only reason I had it was that I had scrawled the address of this office on it. But it also had the number of my riding on the address label, so they were able to give me an official ballot and an array of envelopes and stickers.

My instructions are to print the name of my chosen candidate on the ballot, then seal the ballot in the anonymous white envelope. Next I will seal the anonymous envelope in the envelope with the name and number sticker on it, and I am to sign and date that envelope. Finally I will seal the identifying envelope in the mailing envelope, put a stamp on it, and send it. I thought it odd that I require a postage stamp. There is no charge for sending mail to a member of parliament: I would think they would do the same thing for a ballot, so that they would not be symbolically charging me the price of a stamp for the right to vote. When the ballot gets to Ottawa, someone will open the outer envelope, verify that the next envelope correctly identifies someone who has the right to vote, then they will open and discard that one and the sealed ballot is now anonymous and can be opened by someone else for counting.

The ballot is a very simple, plain piece of paper for such an important purpose. Rather than having some special watermarked, official paer, they've gone for the simplest, plainest piece of newsprint you could imagine.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Two Pilot Operations

Our two-pilot operations are working out okay. I land, park at the fuel pumps and I only see my co-worker during fuelling. I give her the keys, or more accurately, she reminds me to give her the keys, and I report anything irregular that happened during the flight. One of us cleans the windows and then I say "have a good flight" and go to the hotel. I will be asleep by the time she lands, and she will be sleeping when I take off the next morning.

It's a little odd when I'm used to having the airplane be my exclusive domain for a rotation, to have someone else in it all the time. It's mostly just a matter of rearranging the cushions and remembering to be very consistent with where I put charts, checklists and other accessories. I also have to check everything over carefully, because it might not be the way I left it. Fortunately she isn't one of those people who turns the intercom off at the end of the flight. That gets me every time when maintenance does it. I can feel righteous when she leaves the transponder on. It so doesn't matter, as no radar will sweep us on the ground here.

I take my headset with me at the end of my shift, perhaps because I'm used to working in extremes of climates and have had a headset frame crack from the cold and another time had the ear seals come off when the glue melted in the heat. I know the airplane contains a spare headset for the customer intercom, and I observed the customer bring his own headset on board. So I didn't think too much of stowing the extra headset in a box in the back. I thought so little of it that I forgot where I had put it when my co-worker called to ask if I had seen her headset.

"Yes! I put it ..." Damn, where did I put it? Fortunately she is clever as well as talented, and found it promptly. She is also forgiving.

I have it good.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Stalling for News

I continue to be irritated by the media response to airplane crashes. There were a number the week of the fatal I blogged about, and I know the media was contacting pilots unconnected to the events for comments on the "state of flight training" and the "safety of small aircraft." I know they have to do something to sell newspapers, but why is the response so different than when there is a rash of automobile crashes?

When people die on the roads, the media questions the decisions made by the driver: were they drunk, speeding, fatigued, passing unsafely or driving a vehicle with poor maintenance? They look at the conditions: rain, dark, snow or wind. They might question the infrastructure: narrow roads, poor sightlines, a need for a traffic light at that intersection. Occasionally they even question the particular automobile, suggesting the CofG is too high. But I don't remember ever seeing them question the driver training process, or the general safety of humans driving cars in the first place. Have you ever seen a roving reporter ask people at a mall about how safe they feel our automobile transportation systems are?

And I am still irritated, ever single time in ever single story by reporters who can't take the time to learn the difference between an engine failure and a wing stall before writing it down and submitting it.

Dear Mr. or Ms. Reporter, if an investigator or pilot witness tells you that the airplane stalled and you write down that the engine stalled that makes about as much sense as if you reported a break in a window as a brake failure. If you find out anything about an airplane accident and you don't know about airplanes could you at least ask, "does that mean ..?" before printing lies that you made up in your ignorance?

Do reporters get it this wrong about your area of expertise?

Monday, October 06, 2008

Cushy Job

This customer on this job asked for two pilots and one airplane, not for the added safety of two-crew operations, but so as not to be constrained by the mere fourteen hours that they're allowed to work each pilot. We joke that we're going to have it easy because we'll only have to work 12 hours a day each instead of our usual duty day of 14, but of course if we're running the airplane 24 hours a day, there will be an overlap so that when I step out of the airplane, the next pilot is ready with weather, paperwork, and a meal in her belly for another six hours in the air. We'll both work close to 14 hour days. I hope the airplane can stand up to not having a break.

On the way to the customer base we determine that we both prefer not to do a lot of night flying and we both like super early mornings. There's such a thing as too compatible. I was hoping she would be a night owl so that she could happily land at 2 am and I could take over for the sunrise shift. But you do what you have to. We'll try to make it fair. I'm PIC on this leg and she falls asleep in the back on the way. We're going to an up north place named after a body of water. It's too specific to name without identifying the customer, so we're back to anonymity. I'm surprised on approach by how beautiful it is here.

The customer is at the airport when we arrive, by coincidence. The similar airplane that was departing as I set up the approach had just finished working for them, and they were there to drop off the crew. My new co-worker becomes my new hero thanks to her tractor-driving and airplane-pushing skills. She puts the airplane in the hangar so the clients can reconfigure it according to their needs and waits around to put it back out again afterwards. She stays up late doing that, so I go to bed to be the early shift. She'll sleep in until around noon and be ready to go when I land.

It turns out that that the client doesn't want night work, anyway, because their personnel aren't keen on becoming nocturnal. So we all get it pretty good. I wake up at four thirty, for take off by six and by one thirty or two in the afternoon I'm back at the hotel. I don't have to go to bed until eight, so I now have six hours off.

While bragging about this it dawns on me that "normal" people get of work at five and go to bed around eleven, so they too have six hours free every day. But it's still a good gig. Lac Nullepart is nicer than it sounds.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Our Destination Has Only One Runway

I wish to report the following four facts

  • It's hard to use a computer in the back of my airplane while in flight, because it's bright and bumpy and you can't see or control the mouse pointer.
  • You can't see anything useful on the ground outside from the back.
  • CYMJ is not the identifier for Moose Jaw Municipal Airport.
  • Canadian military controllers are very understanding of navigational errors
This is all I wish to report on this topic.

Saturday, October 04, 2008


I arrive in Regina and meet the other pilot, the one who needs the antenna. We stay in a hotel overnight, where we've been instructed to lay low, take it easy, and check out late, to prolong starting our duty days tomorrow. The plan is to leave one airplane here for another pilot, and then for the two of us to both move on in the same airplane, because the next customer wants two pilots and one airplane.

There's no telling what time this antenna will catch up with us and we don't know when we'll need to leave or how late we will have to work. So we meet for a leisurely 9 am breakfast, where I take advantage of a free copy of the Globe and Mail.

There on the front page is a story about an airplane crash in British Columbia. It's the same airline I was on between Vancouver and Campbell River, and the crash occurred as I was boarding my flight. The pilot and four passengers were killed and two passengers escaped with serious injuries. The ELT was destroyed in the post-crash fire and one of the survivors guided rescuers to their position with cellphone text messages.

The crew that flew me to Campbell River wouldn't have known about it yet, because it took some time for the airplane to be overdue. Perhaps on their next leg they took part in a radio search for the aircraft, just trying to find if it was on frequency. They probably knew the pilot personally, and even if they didn't, they know a dozen people who did. What a tragedy for the company whose employees all the passengers were, for the little family-run airline, and for the families of those who died.

There is frustratingly little information on the cause of the crash. In one paper the same article says they had engine problems, they stalled, and they flew into a mountain. If you're going to speculate madly, at least pick one cause, stupid journalists. They don't even realize that "stalled" has nothing to do with "engine problems."

In my room is an airline customer service questionnaire I have already filled out. I throw it away instead of sending it. It doesn't seem meaningful anymore. I keep the envelope, meaning to send something else, but do you send condolences to an airline? I know people there, but not really well enough for contacting them to come off as other than voyeurism. For those of you who read this, I'm so sorry.

I hope investigators find out what happened.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Mountains. Lots of Them.

I just picked the worst time ever not to have my camera charged on a flight. I had come straight from camping at Oshkosh, (yes, that's how far behind I am on blogging) where I had little opportunity to plug in electronics, and then my company flew me out to Campbell River, British Columbia to pick up an airplane and take it across the mountains.

The main terminal at Vancouver International Airport is pretty much like an airport terminal in other cities: heavy on the ethnic artwork and with some interesting architecture and confusingly multilevel departure and arrival vehicle areas. Like every other airport in the world, it's also under constant construction. But then there's another part of the airport, that you'd swear was up north or in a small town somewhere. It's called the South Terminal.

You take a shuttle from the main terminal to the south terminal and there you find a small town airport terminal. I think there was even free parking. There is a float plane base across the road, just like in Weasel Inlet. Inside there is a small concourse, a cafe and one, maybe two gates. Passengers mill around with their fishing gear, waiting for charters. The check-in desk stamped my ticket "security required," implying that some departures did not require security. I think I did see a group of people going out the side door for a charter, bypassing the security routine.

When my flight was called, the FO introduced herself and walked us out across the tarmac to the turboprop. We boarded, she gave the passenger briefing and then she slipped into the--no door--cockpit with the captain and they flew us up to Campbell River. I was watching carefully out the window to get a preview of the weather I was in for. Some low cloud, but not low or thick enough to affect VFR flight.

It was a quick turn at Campbell River, with the local agents saying hi to the crew as the only passenger for this stop (me) disembarked, my luggage unloaded from the cargo hold in the time it took me to walk down the steps. I thanked everyone and went into the terminal, as security requires, before coming back out onto the apron through a different gate. I was amused that the airside gate immediately next to the terminal was a fancy electronic one, but the other side of the flight services station it was the old mechanical kind where you can press one and two together and then five, or whatever the code was. The previous pilot had given it to me along with directions on where the airplane was parked and where the keys were hidden. This is so small town, isn't it?

I walked back down the ground side of the airport to the Pilot Information Kiosk, an infuriatingly slow internet connection to the Nav Canada flight planning website. There I looked at GFAs at about 300 baud, checked some TAFs, METARs and NOTAMs, got the upper winds and called it a preflight briefing. Everything looked good until the final range of mountains, where there might be thunderstorms. And of course there are afternoon thunderstorms on the prairies, too. I don't mind skirting thunderstorms in the prairies, but they aren't something to mess around with in the mountains. I told boss there might be an overnight en route to wait for storms and he okayed that. The airplane I was meeting was on the ground waiting for a new antenna to be installed and the part wouldn't be delivered until Tuesday, anyway. And then I taxied out for takeoff.

Pretty much immediately I was flying above the most amazing jagged mountains. There is snow, which I suppose is mostly glaciers but, being summer, lots of rocks show through, and some of those rocks are jaw-dropping. I flew right by a vertically upthrust black cylinder on top of a cone of rock. I knew exactly what I was looking at but could hardly believe it. The black part was the glassy hardened lava that hadn't quite made it out of the top of the mountain during a long ago volcanic eruption. The sides of the former mountain that originally contained it had mostly eroded away, leaving just the plug, atop what was left of the mountain. The glaciers around it made it look even blacker, and it seemed perfectly flat on top, like you could land a fair-sized helicopter on top with just enough room to walk around it. I wonder if anyone ever has. It would feel so amazing. It was phenomenal just to fly by. I'm looking at the inside of a volano, so old that an entire mountain has eroded away around it.

Elsewhere the mountains appear to be tilted layers of very sharp rock, upthrust into the teens of thousands of feet. It's hard to believe that rocks can taper into such knife-edged jagged ridges without breaking off in the wind. I kept imagining what it would be like to walk along one of those ridges like a tightrope. It would be terrifying. If you slipped you would fall off, just plummet, as surely as if you stepped off the side of a skyscraper. But it would be amazing. I want to do it.

The landscape is cut by rivers snuggled up to glaciers, so raw that you can see geology happening. It's like being inside a giant geology textbook. The mountains get higher and sharper, and then gradually round off. There is an intermediate phase in the interior of British Columbia where the land is high and hilly, but not really mountainous, and then the mountains start again, ever higher, all the way to Calgary. Just before Calgary they disappear quite abruptly, such that I was flying over complete wilderness, surrounded by ten thousand foot plus peaks while I was looking up an appropriate waypoint with which to report my position to Calgary Terminal, only about twenty-five nautical miles from the centre of the control zone, which is on a flat plain.

The Calgary controller was a little snippy about my not having a discrete transponder code. I later checked the procedures section of the CFS and sure enough VFR traffic just transiting is supposed to call ahead on an 888 number and get a code. I confess that I do not read the CFS entries for every en route airport across the country. I asked him if there was a frequency I should call to belatedly acquire such code and he said he'd assign me one. I suppose the snippiness is required so I'll remember next time. Because it works: next time I will.

From there I had an excellent tailwind across the prairies, mostly flat and featureless, with the exception of Diefenbaker Lake. I landed in Regina, which by contrast to Calgary has no terminal controller at all, and they assigned me a transponder code with no complaints at all.

And yeah, no pictures. I'm very sorry about that. Also my C-key is acting up. I think I got them all, but if any of this doesn't make sense, "reonsider if it ould be more omprehinsible with the insertion of a ouple of Cs."

Thursday, October 02, 2008

David's Daughter

By the unanimous and gracious decision of my readers, the winner of last week's baseball ticket giveaway is David's daughter. I will send David the gift card code and the website link, and I assume the young lady can go from there to choose the exact nature of her prize. I hope she'll get back to us to say what game she saw, and how it went. If she likes to write, she could even do a guest blog entry on the subject.

Also let it be known that henceforth Callsign Echo bears the official title of Posterperson for Readers of Aviatrix's Blog. I'm not sure what her duties and privileges as such are, but I'm sure she'll tell you if you ask her.

Further to the topic of readers and titles, let me introduce the title of a reader's new blog. A few posts ago we were talking about the logistics of turning around a B767 between flights and Dispatcher mused about having plenty of tales to tell. I offered to host some on my blog, but my services won't be needed. You can go to Dispatcher's Diaries and read them there. It's an interesting new angle for the aviation blogosphere.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Emergency Descent

I blogged recently about the panic engendered in passengers by the standard, safest response to a depressurization incident at altitude. I'll say it again, though. The one non-standard thing that has happened is that the cabin pressure has dropped. Passengers will feel this through ears "popping" and or pain in their sinuses and ears. They probably will not notice any shortness of breath.

Then the airplane and crew reacts according to design. The oxygen masks fall from the ceiling. Everyone screams. Drop them on the ground, with the wheels on the pavement, people still scream. The homey airlines like Southwest and Westjet will even include "stop screaming" as one of the instructed steps for use of the oxygen masks.

The crew begins an emergency descent. They are getting you and your screaming lungs to a place where you can breath unhindered just as fast as human reflexes, the surrounding terrain, and the structure of the airplane allow. The rapid descent is a good thing.

I can sympathize with passengers not knowing this, and even if they do know, I can understand how unsettling a rapid descent can be. And the pain can be very severe ruptured eardrums and sinuses do heal, however, while the results of oxygen deprivation don't. It's a very easy choice.

But the media are not sealed in a rapidly descending airplane with a crew who are too busy to make a passenger announcement about what is happening. They have the opportunity to ask questions of informed people. But they prefer to just talk to the shaken passengers. So you get things like this.

Up to 26 hospitalized in forced landing in France

The terminology "forced landing" usually refers to a landing made by an aircraft that cannot sustain flight, typically one without engine power. The descent to 10,000' was forced, but that's a whacky way to describe the event. The airline says that those taken to hospital were complaining of earache, and were all released. Judging from the line in the article, "Although French officials said the plane descended 26,200 feet (8,000 meters), Ryanair gave no details about a loss of altitude," the airline should take some blame for this ridiculous article because they didn't explain the emergency descent in their press release. The reporter is left believing that the airplane malfunctioned in some way so as to suddenly drop out of the sky, and has transmitted this ignorance to the readers.

26 Hospitalized After Ryanair Jet's Midair Plunge, Emergency Landing

Emergency landing is more accurate than forced landing, but really it was an emergency descent. I wonder if they even had equipment waiting. Once again the headline describes the response to the emergency, not the actual emergency itself. Is it because the actual emergency makes a boring headline or does FOX not get it either?

I'm not saying that the reason for the depressurization might not be a serious problem. I just want the media to realize that the rapid descent is a proper response to the problem, not the problem itself. If they did report that, then perhaps the next planeload of passengers to experience a deliberate emergency descent wouldn't think they were in a death plummet.