Monday, November 10, 2008

With A Fort In It

We've been in Grande Cache for a few days and the customer has started to indicate that we'll be moving on soon. "Where are we going next?" I ask, hoping for a chance to do some advance planning. The customer hasn't yet had the word from head office, but he has an idea.

"Some place with a Fort in it," he says.

Ah yes. Anyone who has worked in northern Canada knows what some place with a fort will be like. It's not a literal fort. We're not going somewhere with a log palisade or stone battlements. We're headed somewhere with a name beginning in Fort. Many places in Canada started out as fortified outposts, but as they became more civilized, people dropped the "Fort" and the place became merely "Vancouver" or "Saskatoon". And then there's the places that never became civilized enough to lose that appelation. Fort Severn, Fort McMurray, Fort St. John, Fort Nelson and many more. You know before you get there that there will be a majority male population, driving white, American-made, pick-up trucks with mud on the fenders and toolboxes in the back. There will be at least a couple of bars in town, and a lot of mud, snow or dust, depending on the season. We're currently in the late mud/early snow season.

My next Fort turns out to be Fort Nelson. The client jokes that perhaps we could base in Nelson, instead of Fort Nelson. Nelson is in the same province as Fort Nelson, but about eight degrees of latitude further south. It probably has art galleries and trendy cafes and minivans with kids in carseats as mom pulls up to the recycling depot. We muse on whether every "Fort" town has a civilized non-Fort counterpart in the south. Our theory breaks down because can't think of a McMurray anywhere, though.

My trip to Fort Nelson will take me northwest, along the eastern foothills of the Rockies without crossing the mountain range. The weather is good in Grande Cache, but there's a trowal pushing eastward, what the Americans call a warm front occlusion, putting a line of poor weather in my way. I'm expecting low ceilings, and low visibility in snow and or rain. As soon as I get out of the Grande Cache area the land will be flat and undeveloped, though, so I can go low level through poor visibility without compromising safety.

I clear the ridges in the Grande Cache area as I climb out. The cloud shield ahead of the approaching weather is already above me, and it has that particular translucent quality that indicates a high proportion of ice crystals in the cloud, usually meaning not a lot of icing potential, but that precipitation will likely fall as snow. My planned track arcs around to the east, bypassing the forecast area of worst weather, to reach the high ceilings and good visibility forecast for the far north of British Columbia. I can see that ceilings and visibility are lower to the west. I think it's snowing just west of Fort St. John, as I approach. In order to be clear of cloud I am less that 3000' agl, so I call Ft. St. John radio to let them know I will be transiting their zone. I barely enter it, my track cutting a thin slice through the eastern edge of the circular control zone. I call entering and they ask me to call five miles past. The radius is five miles, so I'm five miles away almost as soon as the radio exchange is done. A few minutes later the controller tells another aircraft that I will be leaving the control zone shortly. He didn't understand that my "five miles northeast" call was a report and not an echo of his request. I make another position report, and continue on my way, leaving any confusion in my wake.

The weather is getting crappier. I'm in mixed rain and snow, but I'm not picking up any ice. I file a PIREP and get an update on the weather at my destination. They're reporting six thousand feet broken with fifteen miles vis, no reported precipitation. I'm peering through snow now, maybe 1500' agl, keeping an eye on the chart for where there might be towers. There's a big hole in my dashboard where the NDB and the second VOR should be. They're out at some avionics shop being serviced, so I'm VFR. This is not as much fun as it should be.

There's not a lot of difference between what you see when flying in flat featureless prairie with three miles visibility in snow and what you see when flying in a cloud in the snow. It might sound like there should be, but in the first place you see three miles of white blurriness and in the second case you see 10 metres of white blurriness. There's not much to distinguish between one depth of blurriness and another. The ground that I see out of the front of my airplane is about three miles away, so if I have three miles visibility I can maybe sort of see the ground straight ahead of me. Or maybe that's just more snow. You kind of have to look out the side in front of the wing to see nearer ground. And when the visibility is that poor I'm not doing a lot of sightseeing out the sides. Which is why it takes a while for me to conclude that I am no longer clear of cloud in low visibility, but actually in cloud.

Note that three miles visibility is perfectly acceptible for VFR flight in the class E airspace of the airway between Ft. St. John and Ft. Nelson. If I change my track, as I'm gradually doing, so I'm no longer on the airway but in better weather to the east, one mile visibility is legal VFR. I'm not sure why they allow that. I guess it's just sanctioned flight in IMC for people who an't carry IFR fuel or are missing some technicality to file IFR. Like me. It would be utterly inappropriate for someone who actually required visual reference to keep their airplane on track and right side up.

Being in cloud is a situation that induces much pounding of the heart and dryness of the mouth for a VFR-only pilot. When you are an IFR-capable pilot in an airplane with good instrumentation but not VFR only on a technicality it is still a place you don't want to be, but it's more of an irritation. I'm trying to come up with a more politically correct metaphor but what I've got right now is that being in the middle of a cloud when you're supposed to be VFR is a bit like taking the wrong exit from an American freeway and finding yourself in a dead end in the projects. It doesn't matter who you are: you're doing the U-turn to get back where you wanted to go, but whether you're irritated or terrified depends on things like your race, size, and level of armament. In a cloud, the U-turn is the move to make. My eyes are on the gauges. I note, as training dictates, the time including seconds, in case the heading indicator dies in the turn. It should take me a minute to do a one-eighty. I start a rate one turn to the reciprocal heading and fly that heading until I can see ground for sure. It still works just as it did on the private pilot flight test.

I circle around further to the east and remain clear of cloud. I really don't want to have to land in Fort St. John to wait this out. I settle into an altitude with lousy but VFR visibility and cruise along there without further incident. About forty miles from my destination the sky and vis both open up. I can see almost all the way to where I'm going now. I collect the ATIS; I think there was ATIS, there, switch the fuel back to the main tanks and begin my stage cooling and top of descent checks.

I tell the flight service specialist his weather is a lot better than fifty miles south, but he doesn't sound interested. I tell him instead that I will do an overhead join for the active. I do so, turning downwind and landing on a runway that points towards the apron. I roll out, exit the runway and park in a line of aircraft with their backs to the runway. I hop out right away and put tents (quilted, fitted blankets) on the engines before they cool off. I add wing covers too. That snow may yet arrive here.


Lord Hutton said...

My lovely partner just got back on a flight from Edinburgh. It was bumpy and they had a screamer on board. Poor soul.

Anonymous said...

Brings to mind a long distance ambulance run to Pocahantas Iowa one winter afternoon. Clear as a bell, moderate wind, driving on a two lane county road through stripped cornfields (eighteen inches AGL), temp about 10 deg F, perfect except the dry cold powder snow had blown off the fields, filled the eight foot deep ditches, and then was flowing over the road in a six inch thick layer, enough to obscure the shoulder and those treacherous ditches.
Breathtaking in the slanting golden sun, yet deadly.