Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Underwear Bomber

My only response to this is that, given a choice, I would prefer to pass though airport security completely naked than have to be separated from all my stealable and smashable personal electronics every time I board someone else's airplane.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Year in Review

This wasn't a stunning year, career-wise. In fact, I think the only thing I did to further my career was to fly my bosses' airplanes to the best of my ability. I didn't do anything to damage it either, except grow a year older, so maybe I come out even. I didn't resolve to get a jet job this year, just said I might like to, and wishes aren't jet planes any more than they are horses, so that's that. I've been pretty passive, but that's because I've been comfortable, and the latter is better than the opposite.

Here's what I did resolve for 2009:

  • 1. Never read the comments on YouTube videos or LOLcat cartoons. No matter how funny or intelligent the images, the comments will be illiterate and inane, and I'll regret the time spent reading them.
  • 2. Eat only the best chocolate I can afford.
  • 3. Whenever I can gain something of merit without risking anything but my pride and my Internet surfing time, I will make my best try to do it.

Hmm. I did pretty well on number one. I've definitely broken the habit of clicking on comments in search of intelligent debate. I've finally learned that my own blog is one of the few places on the internet where the comments hold intelligently considered opinions and insider information supplementary to the main article. My readers can even snicker at zebra penises and make it sound erudite. So SUCCESS, and I have no desire to relapse on that one.

Number two went pretty much perfectly up for almost ten months. I rationed imported European chocolate made out of "sugar, cocoa butter and vanilla." I didn't touch anything made by Hershey or containing soya lecithin or polyglycerol ricinoleate. But then came the latter half of October. People, there were giant boxes of mini Kit-Kats, Smarties, Coffee Crisps and Aeros available at every grocery store, even in the north, for about $12. Everywhere bad chocolate was being given away. I'm only human. I was no match. And then when Hallowe'en was over, I went back to the vending machines. And there's a Fun-Sized Aero bar in my home, but I haven't opened it, even though I had to pick it up to see how to spell ricinoleate. I think I can give myself a PARTIAL SUCCESS on this one.

The third resolution is pretty nebulous. I lose by not having looked very hard for such opportunities, but I went on a couple of great bike trips, made some new friends, built a raft out of beach-found materials and paddled it, entered a 10 km footrace, and demonstrated the carpe diem spirit right up to the end by venturing onto a foreign military base to fly the simulacrum of a giant airplane, so I'm going to count it as a SUCCESS too.

So I had a pretty good year by the standards I set out for myself. I hope your own year went well, or at the very minimum that you can salvage something from the memories that you can hold up as a success. I've a few days left to figure out my 2010 resolutions. I'll tell you about them on New Year's Day.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

And the 787 is Airborne

Screenshot of first take-off, from the live webcast

I thought the little "flight tracker" gadget there on the right (click on picture to see) was supposed to show the progress of the flight, but it hasn't moved, so I guess it's just ornamentation. Track it for real on FlightAware.

Test Flight

Seeing as people got excited about the test post, I'll give you a real one, by mentioning that Boeing's latest product, the B787 is scheduled for its first test flight today. A live webcast of the event is supposed to have started by now, but currently says "Please stand by."

Takeoff is scheduled for 10 a.m. Seattle time, which is 1800Z. There was a severe winter storm forecast for the US Pacific Northwest today, but being that it's Seattle, that means rain, not snow. There is a low ceiling right now, but the latest from Boeing is that the test crew still plans to taxi out and hold, waiting for appropriate weather for their tests. They have to launch or scrub by 2 p.m. because they want to complete the flight and be down before dark.

In addition to the webcast, a local TV station has a helicopter up, with a live feed.

Thanks to Aluwings for the webcast link and Flightblogger for the latest from Boeing.

Update 1820Z: The airplane is taxiing out, as Boeing Zero Zero One Heavy Experimental. The webcast is pretty amateur, though. The commentator is articulate, but not strong in trivia, specifics and the sportscaster or talk radio host-style gift of the gab that could liven footage of an airplane waiting for taxi. People frequently walk or stand in front of the camera and who ever is doing control will leave the blocked picture up for several seconds before switching to another view.

Test post

Bullet List
  • item
  • item
  • item
End of list. End of test post.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Screw Bronze

I got distracted from my own blogging by a stunning and terrifying blog by someone whom I first accused of being nothing like me, but the more I read the more she is like me. I've been barely keeping a day ahead of posting about the North Carolina trip -- ask John, he's the one who has been receiving chapters to censor as little as an hour before the post goes out. It might be a while before I catch up with writing my own adventures. It might be a while before you want to read mine again, after reading Elizabeth's.

Elizabeth McClung is a Canadian, but she refuses to fall into the national characteristic of settling for third place. She survived some very dark childhood chapters, wrote an award-winning novel, excelled as an amateur epeeist, fell prey to a bizarre and inexplicable disabling condition, took up boxing (yes, in that order), went to Japan, and now endeavours to send postcards to everyone who needs them. There's a tiny Flowers for Algernon feel to some entries, as you get to read first hand accounts from an off-the-charts intelligence on what it's like to lose temporal lobe function.

She's also aiming to keep breathing almost twenty-four hours a day. Most people would include that last one in their goals, if prompted, but few people have to work as hard at it as Elizabeth does. Most people would be dead if they had to. She goes at everything about 150% harder than I do, such that when she was told to get an electric wheelchair because she didn't have the physical capacity for a manual one, she got a manual one and started competing in 10 km races. If I pushed as hard as she does I'd be flying the Space Shuttle by now. All the life lessons in the blog can be overwhelming, but it's readable and hilarious (remember the bit about award-winning novelist) and I've also discovered that people who love goth and animé aren't as different from me as I thought, and I can handle that one. Who even knew there was Goth Hello Kitty?

I know if you've been on the net as long as I have you've heard this one before, but Elizabeth is not a little boy named Craig trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. She is a real person, feeling a little cut off from the world because she doesn't get outside much anymore. So here's my Christmas request: Read enough of her blog to get a little feel for her as a person. It doesn't really matter if you read the early entries full of epee fighting and praise for her novel, the newest entries about the Olympic Torch relay and badminton, or something in between: she's the same person throughout. Some of the entries are about dying in horrible pain, but not so many as you might expect from someone who is doing exactly that. If you like her, send her a postcard to say hi, or some stickers, cards or stamps (U.S. or Canadian) that she can use for her project. When she approved my posting her mailing address she insisted that I let you know that she would love to send a postcard to anyone who is lonely or who would just like to have a postcard.

Elizabeth McClung
PO Box 2560
Port Angeles, WA 98362
(Yes it's a US postbox: she lives near the border).

If you're going to forward this in any way, please include a link to one of her blogs so that people can check to make sure postcards are still wanted and she and her partner are not buried in millions of postcards, the way the former home of Craig Shergold is.

I'm going to make this post the beginning of my end-of-year blogging break. I'll put up one more post in the next couple of weeks reviewing the year, and then I'll see you again on New Year's Day.

Monday, December 07, 2009

New Uniform

I think it needs over-the-knee boots, what about you?

And while I'm throwing out random links, here's one that offers an explanation for the MSP overflight that makes much more sense than alien impersonation. It also shows that the captain takes full responsibility for an error initiated by the FO.


A baby was born on a recent Southwest Airlines flight.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

If I Did It

So, as I said, the instructor quit an hour early so as not to miss his favourite TV show, leaving an unbooked hour in the sim. After discussion with John, I've decided to document as follows. If I had a chance to fly the sim for that hour, this is how it went.

I'm in the left seat, a colleague of John's is in the right, and John is running the sim. Rather than spend precious minutes starting up and taxiing, I ask John to position the aircraft holding short of the runway, engines running. The same eternal twilight prevails. Maybe it's the default. It's commonly used in sims, because you can still see well, but the brain accepts that indistinct visuals are caused by poor lighting conditions, heightening the efficacy of the illusion.

Not Me (nor Lee), doing prestart checks in an Australian C-130

I call for the pre-takeoff checklist, which I had thought was displayed on screens on the glareshield, but now that I can see it close up I find that the centre panels are nav and radio frequencies (funny to see numbers starting with "2" up in the UHF range) and it's where you set the autopilot parameters, which is why they were looking at it at checklist time. You can sort of see them in the photo. My copilot, whom I will call Lee, because it's awkward to keep calling him "the guy in the right seat," says "it's a flow," meaning that it's a silent rechecking of systems. I give a takeoff briefing consisting mainly of the appalling, "I'm going to push everything forward and rotate at ... umm, what's it say on the TOLD?" and "then we'll make it up as we go along." We obtain a takeoff clearance, and then I taxi onto the runway.

You might wonder why I didn't just ask him to start it up ON the runway, like the default in Microsoft Flight simulator. I do want to see what it's like to taxi, not just to know, but because a take off run is transitioning from taxiing to flying and let's give me a chance to see how this thing works before I'm actually taking off. Oh and there's a wrinkle that I very almost forgot. In an airplane this size there is no rudder pedal-nosewheel steering linkage. I have to steer with a separate wheel. It's like the steering wheel on some buses: a normal steering wheel with a knob on it so you can crank it fast. It's weird to have airplane steering in my hand.

With the right hand, it's quite easy to push four power levers forward. They've been designed to act as one, or as two for differential power. Oops, it's too easy. You have to put the power up and wait for things to happen when the airplane is this big. Maybe I'd be more intimidated by this airplane had I had to walk up to it and climb into the cockpit instead of walking across the little bridge into something I could see wasn't much bigger than a minivan. I stay on the simulated runway and get the thrust under control.

Centred -- more or less -- on the runway, that again-forgotten 'go past before you need to turn' thing, and my slowness on the nosewheel crank worked in my favour here. You don't have the same foot feedback on whether the nosewheel is centred like with rudder-linked steering. You have to look at the markings on the pointer by the steering wheel to see if the nosewheel is back in the middle after a turn. I eat up a few hundred feet of runway experimenting with the steering and getting the airplane properly centred with the nosewheel straight, then I stop and look at Lee. "Ready?" Some aircraft have lineup checks or "below the line" items on the runway. If this one does he's snuck them in, because he just says, "Ready, Captain." John must have paid him to say that. I grin like a kid and push the power levers forward.

Oh. Yes. Baby. This is a twenty million dollar sex toy. Size matters, as long as it's got this much thrust. In the back of my mind is the knowledge that lurks there on every real or simulated takeoff that it may be an abort, but I do everything but call out "don't stop!"

It climbs like a bat out of hell, and is remarkably stable doing so. I call "Gear up" and find myself hunting for an HSI or other directional indication to maintain my heading. We're in VMC but even with all these windows, I can't see a ground reference at this climb angle.

"Heading information?" I ask.

John just says, "that's fine right there." He thinks I was asking for a heading. I figure it out. It's on the HUD, like a compass, only forward, which is backwards for a compass. Don't ponder that too hard. I'm right side up and have nowhere to go in particular. I also have to clean up the power. I'm so far behind this plane I wouldn't get hurt in a crash.

"What torque do I set for the climb?" Lee's hand beside me does it. The beauty of having at least one crew member who knows what he's doing. Wait, there are no propeller levers. "Where are the propeller controls?" The throttles are just throttles, but this is not a jet, it's a turboprop. You're not going to tell me it has fixed pitch propellers?! Apparently it's automatic. How cool is that? I have no idea how it works. I could look it up, but then this blog post would be even later.

We're through ten thousand feet in the time it takes me to figure out how to look straight ahead of me and accept that I have no propeller levers. I level off and then make some shallow turns to look around, and get the feel of the airplane. It feels very much like an airplane. Knowing the way a simulator works: tipping and lurching to simulate various kinds of motion, then sneaking smoothly back to the middle so it's ready to do that again, I had intended to try and trick it and come up with a scenario that would allow me to notice the little man behind the curtain, but even as a passenger it didn't occur to me during maneuvers that there was anything going on other than airplane physics. Now that I can try it, I want to think about trying the plane not the sim.

There's a reason the trainees were doing steep turns and stalls. It's not just that they're flight test items, but that's how you tell what an airplane does. You need to know how it responds to roll, pitch and power inputs. On an examination you demonstrate a steep turn to prove you have mastered these controls. On a test flight you find out how the airplane behaves. On a lesson you find out how the student behaves. I find out whether I'm going to make a fool of myself.

I see no traffic. (It doesn't matter that you're in a glorified box on a stick, if you were properly trained you can't do a turn without checking for traffic) and try a forty-five degree turn. Look at the horizon; roll smoothly through thirty degrees; climb two hundred feet as I add way too much thrust. "Easy on the rudders!" advises the right seat pilot. It's surprising he can speak, given how hard he must have been biting his tongue up to now.

I roll out, using much less rudder, readjust the power, and then try again. This time smoothly, easily, lock it on the horizon and carve a semicircle in the sky, and then back the other way to where I started. It's really just like my regular ride. I usually screw up the first one in recurrent training, too, because due to my regular payload I'm operationally forbidden to bank over 16 degrees, often less. I trust that the way the simulator feels is very much the way the actual airplane feels, but it doesn't feel like I'm hauling around three Humvees, 64 paratroopers or almost 30,000 kg of fuel.

"What weight is it set at?" I ask, scanning the areas where the guys seemed to have been looking when they did their fuel calculations. I don't have their benefit of groundschool, study manuals (I asked, but they were all "not to be transmitted outside the department"), or non-motion cockpit trainers. "Can you adjust it so I can feel it at max gross?" John does so, and I do another steep turn. Now I need more power.

"What is the stall speed in this configuration?" There's a TOLD indicator on the centre console. I think it was one thirty something. Forgive me for not taking notes. Those sinusoidal fans Angus mentioned seem to have done their job. Or maybe it's the week or so delay in writing it up. So fly plane, reduce power, fly plane, reduce power, hold altitude, trim, airspeed dropping. "Hey, I want to hold it in slow flight for a moment," increase power, keep nose up, hold altitude, now I get to use the rudder a bit more, but I guess it has a yaw damper, because not as much as I would expect. I'm trying to balance it on the edge of a stall. There's something amazing about the skills I learned in a Cessna 152 being applicable to something that probably needs chocks bigger than an entire C152. I hold the attitude and reduce the power a bit more.


I was intending to stall it, and knew it had a stick pusher, but the movement of the stick actually pushing takes me by surprise. It's like a flight instructor angrily grabbing the controls, or the first time anti-lock brakes makes themselves felt under your feet. The pilot is supposed to push the stick forward to get the nose down if the airplane stalls, but this airplane isn't taking any chances that I'm stupid or slow, so it shoves it forward itself. Many smaller airplanes are aerodynamically built so that the airplane noses down at the point of stall. This feature replicates that. I increase the power as I should for the stall recovery. The familiarity of that maneuver--stick pusher notwithstanding--is a testament to this being a historic airframe, predating airplanes too fancy for humans to fly them without computer stabilization. "Take it down to a minimum weight," I dictate to John, words like 'could you please' completely lost in the combined spirit of scientific investigation and pilot-in-command.

I stall and recover again in level flight, letting the stick pusher push one hand while the other pushes power levers. I'm really not sure if I can tell that the airplane behaves differently or if I just imagine it does because I know the forces are different. In the real airplanes which I've flown so far, I only really notice weight differences in slow flight, i.e. take off and landing, but the max and min weights are not so different. I try a steep turn at the lower weight and I nail it. Seriously, a HUD is the best invention since the windshield. This would so rock for aerobatics.

Insert a half second pause to consider what I just thought there. Okay, that's enough of a pause.

"Ladies and gentlemen, please ensure your seatbelts are fastened, your tray tables up and your carry on baggage securely stowed." I make a rolling gesture with my hand where Lee can see it but John can't, and he grins and nods. Look at the horizon. Look at the HUD. Coordinated aileron and rudder into the roll. Hold heading, hold altitude, hold the roll inputs, look at the horizon. Amazingly, it really feels like I've rolled inverted. You can actually see the ground ahead through the highest windows. Oh oh I shouldn't have swung my head like that. Check the nose, keep the roll going, look at the horizon, back to right side up, and roll wings level. I make a noise like "Yippee!" only less articulate. This is awesome. I'm sure someone who does a lot of aerobatics would be able to distinguish between the expected disorientation of being upside-down and the artificial orientation of a simulator asked to do something it can't sustain, but it felt good enough to me. Writing this, I realize I should have tried to sustain inverted flight to see how the simulator would respond to that and I might have tried it, but just then an alarm went off.

I look at the glareshield for an annunciator. I'm low on fuel, because that's what I asked for: minimum weight. John magically refuels me. "Inflight refuelling," I say, a standard instructor-in-simulator joke. And then I realize that this is an airplane that provides inflight refuelling to others in real life. I ask if we can simulate air-to-air refuelling. They tell me we need a flight engineer to do that right. In the J-model (we're in the Hercules C-130J) the Marines use the FE position as an FE, navigator, defensive systems operator, loadmaster and refuelling operations controller. Older models had more crew members, but automation has allowed them to condense the jobs. The FE is especially busy during refueling. the pilots just have to fly straight and level while the receiver hooks up and the FE does all the interesting stuff during the transfer. So while it would be cool to see the simulated receiving aircraft pull alongside, it wouldn't be any more educational than watching a movie of the real thing.

It really boggles my mind that they are pumping fuel between aircraft. I wonder if it's an aviator/aviatrix thing whether you see an aerial mating dance, or the comparatively little helicopters suckling at the teats of the mommy Hercules.

I'm trying to think of what else can I do in this airplane that I couldn't in any other. It has radar jamming countermeasures, but useful as that may be, it doesn't sound like a hoot to simulate, and it's the FE's job, anyway. "Can we drop the paratroopers?" I ask, "After the way I've been flying I'm sure they want out." Yes, the sim does do that. I often have to retrim an airplane because one person walked to the back. What is it be like when sixty-four of them jump out the back? There wasn't a crazy pitch change as John insta-fuelled me earlier, but that's not a normal function of the airplane, so I wouldn't expect it to be modelled. But the trainers would want a pilot to know what to expect when everyone jumps out the back.

I turn around so we're headed back to the airport, and we run the checklist. The pilot not flying, that's Lee, does the depressurization. Pressurization is so automatic that I haven't had to think about it yet, but the aircraft is pressurized, so popping the back door might not result in quite as orderly a jump as my simulated Marines have planned. Depressurization is trivial: he has set the pressurization control to "NO" and the rate of depressurization to "normal." It's easier to use than on the King Air. Our altitude (about 12,000', I forget) is good.

When the depressurization is complete, Lee tells me he's going to open the cargo doors and reaches up. Normal airplanes have separate panels for things like lights, fuel system and deicing. This one has all that, plus an 'aerial delivery control panel.' You can drop a tank out of this thing. I'm exercising bad CRM by rubbernecking at the panel and it bites me. The whole airplane shakes violently. I redirect my attention to the controls where it should be and manage the airplane. I have a caution light, but it's just the 'door open' light, not the 'door ripped violently from the airframe' light or the 'missile attack' light that it feels like. Apparently this turbulence is a bug in the sim: it's supposed to be simulating normal airframe vibration caused by opening the door, but every once in a while it produces too much vibration for the event. I slow to the jump speed of 120 kts. Lee is working more switches on the panel. Later I look and see that there are deflector shields (cargo bay doors and deflector shields (it's Star Trek: 2001), plus caution lights in the cargo bay so the jumpers know what is going on. Presumably I would have a jumpmaster or someone else down there to talk to on intercom, too. When Lee tells me everything is ready I "approve" the egress.

I concentrate on flying nice and level and not hurting any of my simulated jumpers, and try to feel if there is any simulated CG shift. Nothing significant. "How long does it take them to all exit?" I ask after a moment.

"They'd be out by now."

It was maybe thirty seconds. "Can I see them?" I immediately want to know, looking out the window. John doesn't know if the simulator shows that. I bank over and try to look, but we don't see any simulated parachutes opening. I'll just have to assume my guys (and gals, if there are there female paratroopers) are all alright. I head back to the airport while Lee closes the doors and tidies up after the jump. We totally abbreviated that procedure, and skipped a bunch of checklists required to ensure the safety of real jumpers. John sent me a lot of information on how it should have been done, so I'll post that in a later entry. Remind me if I don't.

Isn't that the coolest picture? It completely conveys "ready for anything" when you can jump out of an airplane wearing a parachute and swim fins. I guess they just jettison and abandon the parachutes, as you certainly couldn't swim with one. Seems a waste, but then I guess most military operations involve throwing something away.

I descend for the airport and join downwind. Lee talks me through it and sets flaps and gear. I feel like I'm flaring too early, but it's textbook, in the first third of the runway, on the centreline. As an instructor myself, I know that I can pretend to take credit for that, but it wouldn't have looked as nice without the unobtrusive coaching. On the go of the touch and go there's surprisingly little to do. No propeller levers, the gear is supposed to stay down for circuits (but I raised it after takeoff without thinking). I wouldn't have pilots practice circuits with the gear always down. You could train out the instinct to always check it, and end up with something like this.

There's not a lot of time for circuits. I want to try a bush pilot style short field landing, flare over the weeds and stall onto the beginning of the runway, so I fly a long downwind and turn base to set up a long approach, as I said before an easy way to help judge descent profile. But we have to be out of here with the sim shut down and ready for the next people by eight o' clock and it's almost time. Lee says, "Quick, let me show you something."

"You have control."

He takes it, cutting the corner to final and then he shoves the nose down, divebombing the airport. I think he might have added power. He overflies the runway without slowing down. And then reaching the other end of the runway, before I can say 'hey cool,' we're in a knife edge left bank. I look at the simulated ground, including radio towers and buildings. Just when I think he's about to roll it inverted, he cranks the yoke back the other way and makes an equally steep 270 to the right, pulling the throttle to almost idle. He calls for gear down and flap fifty, and before I have that set he has rolled out perfectly on the centreline and wants full flaps. Done, down and brake. I don't think we've quite stopped rolling when John shuts down the sim. Without the visuals, we can feel the pod resetting itself to the neutral position. I'm still saying "holy firetrucks!" or something like it as we unstrap, grab our stuff and vacate the machine with a couple of minutes to spare.

Apparently that roller coaster approach is a trick to confuse people who hang out near your airport with ground to air missiles, and aren't on your team. I won't be trying it soon in my ride. That was definitely more than a fifteen degree bank. It kinda violates the Transport Canada regulations on flying a circuit, too.

As we all left the sim building we passed the open door of a briefing room where two more clean-shaven young men in flight suits were sitting with an instructor preparing for their simulator session. I hope they do well, and what I've seen from the quality of the instruction around here, they will.

It turns out that Lee, whom I didn't get more than a handshake introduction to before flight, is working on qualifying to be an instructor pilot. I wish I'd known that before the session: I could have made better use of his knowledge. I tease him, "I'm an instructor. The first thing is you have to be more outspoken. Don't let some ignoramus in the left seat push you around when you know better." We chat for a bit about the airplane and instruction in general, but he declines my offer of beer and or dinner, probably seeing through my shallow ploy to siphon more information out of him before casting aside his lifeless husk. John watched me do that to an aquarium volunteer, probably warned Lee. Lee therefore accepts only my abject thanks for his role in my flight of fancy, and goes back to studying.

So remember if I flew the KC-130 simulator, and I'm not saying I did, because that could get someone in trouble, that's more or less the way of it. I might have got some things wrong or left some parts out. Those sinusoidal extraction fans are something else.

Afterwards John and I went to a generic sort of food place that unfortunately did not measure up to the barbecue recommendations some of you gave when I announced this trip. I had an unmemorable entree, but then one of the dessert items offered was deep fried cheesecake. If I tried the cheesecake, and I'm not saying I did, because that way it's symmetrical with the previous paragraph, my tastebuds were wary but ultimately happy, my pancreas seemed worried and my arteries cried out in anguish. Seriously, y'all will deep fry anything around here!

So, anyone else have any thrust levers or cheesecake I can sample?

Saturday, December 05, 2009

I haven't written it yet

I'm sorry, I'm not trying to drag this out, but I've been pretty busy since I got back and I haven't managed to write posts fast enough to keep up with time. It's midnight, I just got in from covering an airplane with tarpaulins, and tomorrow I'm going to have to go out a few times and shovel the snow off it, because it's going to dump. I'll post the next installment when I catch up.

Update: Reader Angus has discovered the real reason it's taking so long to write up. I apologize for the fact that this may break some browsers, but it's too cool not to show you.

Friday, December 04, 2009

On the Flightline

I move forward and sit in the pilot seat to take a look. I get a kick out of the fact that I wasn't allowed to take a photo on the actual flight line, but that I can take one of the simulated flight line. There was a row of simulated KC-130s out the other window, but this picture was the only one that worked out. It's hard to get the camera to focus correctly on the projection screen. The illusion is even better than this photo shows, because I wasn't yet sitting right in the seat when I took it, so the view is a little distorted. When your eye is where it's supposed to be, you don't see the spherical distortion.

The instructor asked us not to touch anything during the break, because everything was set up exactly as he wanted it, and he didn't want it moved. Fair enough. The guys went off for their debriefing and were back before I had a chance to do anything but take a few photos, anyway. I talked to the pilots briefly. One had no flight experience prior to enlisting and did basic flight training from scratch. The other attended Embry Riddle and completed his commercial licence before he joined up. I ask if that proved to be an advantage and the answer was interesting. It was a great advantage at first on the bookwork, and it reduced the total number of training flights he had to do, which a much greater advantage than you would think, because of the way the scoring works. You start with a perfect score and you lose points for every error you make. The more flights, the more errors. He said as soon as they got past that stage the earlier training didn't count for much, but he already had the high score which got him the placement in his choice of aircraft, so it didn't matter any more.

I've trained under that system and I find it irritating as an instructor. You want to aim the difficulty of each lesson to the abilities and temperament of the individual student. Every student should make errors: that's how they learn. If a student is struggling, you make it easier for them and if they are coasting you make it harder, so they are continuously in the learning zone.

I asked them a few more questions about the airplane. They were keen, respectful interesting pilots. You might think that an Embry-Riddle grad who was also a Marine would be an insufferable prick (dickishness is an unfortunate side effect of having been consistently told you're the best of the best) but I've rarely chatted with nicer friendlier pilots anywhere. Go Marines! And come back safe.

They went back to work. The second session was more of the same, except they switched seats. I'm thinking that part of their debriefing was to do with SOPs, because checklists were noticeably crisper and they made more of the callouts I expected. They still didn't do the "take off power set ... airspeed alive ... rotate" mantra I'm used to, or if they did it was too quiet to be audible from where I sat. There were little cameras on the ceiling aimed at each pilot position, so presumably there were microphones too, such that an instructor could review the whole performance with a student.

As the crew joins a simulated downwind, suddenly the entire exterior view goes black. The visual display has shut down. From the pilot seats I hear, "oh shit" and "watch your heading bug" in quick succession. It's obviously not a checklisted emergency, but they handled it beautifully. Someone taught these guys that when all else fails, fly the plane. The visual display came back up just in time for them to turn a wide base. It happens again on final, and again they quickly make a sensible decision, "Go around." They apply power and climb back up to circuit height, continuing on in an instantaneous and unforecast solar eclipse.

"Can you fix this?" asks the instructor, and I realize he's talking to me. Urp, he must have spoken to the end of the chain that got the idea I'm a visual systems expert.

John covers for me quickly, but natural curiosity and problem-solving instincts make me play my part. I ask troubleshooting questions looking for patterns of when and where it occurs. I wish I could report having solved the mystery, but it's not related to any particular workload, period of operation or anything I can find.

The scenery comes back--the instructor may have reset it--and the guys join the pattern again for more circuits. One of their weaknesses is not only the centreline alignment on final that I noted earlier, but centre positioning on touchdown. They are landing parallel to the centreline, which is important and good, but they are not putting it right on the big white line in the middle. If they were my students I'd be saying, "Gee, I wonder what that big line is over there to the left. Does either of you have any idea?" I'm pretty sure I stole that from another flight instructor, but it's stayed with me. You hear your flight instructor's voice in your head forever, which is why it's so important to teach it right the first time. Don't ever program the words "it really doesn't matter" or "that's good enough" into your students' heads. Transport Canada knows this. A flight instructor candidate can qualify even though she is really incompetent at teaching and barely proficient at handling the airplane, but one phrase out of her mouth that could kill a student if they followed it, and it's back to flight instructor training for you.

I don't need to worry about biting my tongue on that comment though, because before I could have finished saying it anyway, the real instructor reminds them where they should be landing. And it's like this for the whole session. I wonder why, when they're consistently high on final, they aren't putting in some flap a little earlier, just before the instructor suggests the tactic. I've got my big, "I'm in an airplane!" grin on, but it's only a little bit because I'm in a cool pretend airplane and mostly because I know how to fly an airplane. It doesn't matter that it's a four engine turboprop I'm not even allowed to look at in real life, with systems I can only guess at. (For example, I'm guessing from the instructor's pre-taxi tip that it has two alternators, on engines #2 and #3). It doesn't matter how big it is. It's an airplane and I know how to fly it. I'm totally comfortable with what's going on here. I'm sure I'm missing plenty, and I'm sure these sharp young men do this a lot better than I would have with their experience, but experience counts for a lot.

John asks the instructor why they do not fly a longer final approach. That's a good way to solve problems with alignment and not being able to see you're high on base (although they have the latter pretty much licked now). The answer is a little surprising. Because that's what the Air Force does. The Marines way is a circle to final. Just because it's harder? Just because it's different? I don't know. There's definitely a Marine pride in not being the Air Force. At another point I tried to ask if there was an attempt to standardize procedure across types on their fleet. I wondered if they make the same callouts, when appropriate, on an F22 as on a C130. Maybe this explains the lack of the airline-style two-crew take-off calls. He answered a different question though, saying that no, the Air Force flies them one way and the Marines fly them another way and they don't mix crews, so it's not important. Marines fly this aircraft with a flight engineer and the Air Force doesn't.

I noticed that approaching touchdown, the instructor was calling out altitudes. I asked whether the actual aircraft was supplied with an annunciator that the simulator lacked and he said no, normally a non-pilot crew member would do that, because if you assigned the non-flying pilot to do it, he would fixate and that would be all he looked at.

The instructor announces that he's quitting at seven o' clock because he wants to go and watch NCIS. The guys come around for their last circuit and turn final, right on the centreline this time. And they are right on slope, no jockeying the power. Speed is good, gear is down, flaps are set. This is going to be a beautiful one. And it is. The sim may not duplicate the back pain of a poor landing, but it lets them know they did well. They taxi in and shut down as directed.

"I knew you were going to ace that one!" I confide as they leave for their debriefing.

"So did we! Did you hear us?" I didn't, but all the way down final they were quietly cheering each other on for what they knew was going to be a greaser. I don't remember which guy was at the controls. It doesn't matter. It was a beauty. CRM spirit achieved.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Middle Seat, Again

It's time to go over to the simulator building. Oh and John billed me as a Canadian bush pilot, but someone involved in the approval process got the idea that I'm a simulator visuals technician. I guess it doesn't take too much message mangling to go from "visual flying" to "visuals." "So maybe you could admire the visuals," suggests John. I'm actually nervous about the sim, not because I might be faking my visual credentials, but as a pilot reflex. Being in a simulator is about succeeding or failing at a job interview, or about getting to keep your job versus having to go back to the bush leagues. Even though no one will ever know if I fly this pretend airplane badly, it's still how I feel. I also don't want to look like an idiot.

The simulator building is inside a fence which we enter through an unlocked gate. John points out a new simulator almost ready for use in its own building inside the compound. It is for another type, which I don't know if I'm allowed to name. Once it is operational that gate will be locked and one will have to enter through the checkpoint around the other side of the fenced area. Today there's no one at this gate to check my ID.

The lower door into the tall room where the simulator sits is open and I can see that it looks pretty much like any other motion simulator, a big pod up on a hoist, with hydraulic hoses and wires hanging off it. It is white, like other simulators; the Marines have somehow resisted the temptation to paint it grey or khaki. Upstairs, past an Uncle Sam "WE'RE AT WAR! ARE YOU DOING ALL YOU CAN?" sign is the entrance to the simulator. There's a North Carolinian touch added to the standard sign forbidding food and drink in the simulator.

We cross the bridge into the simulator pod. At the left side near the back are monitors and controls for the instructor to see what the students are seeing and where they are, and to change weather, location or the operability of the aircraft. There's a flight engineer seat on the right and of course two pilot seats at the front. Each of the two pilot positions has what looks like a clear sunvisor positioned in front of it. When you sit in the seat you can see green lines, providing a horizon, airspeed, altitude and some radio nav information: a heads-up-display. Instead of having to choose between looking at the cockpit instrumentation and looking out the window, you can look at both at once, or switch your focus between them without moving your head a single degree. And I thought the "VFR" button on my transponder was a cool attention-saving device.

You can see a throttle quadrant, a traditional-looking FMS, EFIS screens, standby instruments, and everything else you'd expect to see in an airplane. I'm directed to sit in the flight engineer's seat, which is on a track, such that I can slide it forward and left from its position at the FE console to the middle of the airplane looking between the two pilots. There's a four point harness and I put it all on, then shrug off the shoulder straps so that I can still lean around all over the place to rubberneck.

I'm introduced to the instructor, but it turns out that he hasn't been informed of my presence. John and the instructor both take this as a matter of course. It's always heartening to know that one's own organization is not the only one with communication difficulties. The instructor checks with someone, I think, and then we're on. I asked him if there was anything I would see or hear during the lesson that couldn't be published. He assured me there was not. I still know I have a habit of noticing the one thing I wasn't supposed to know about, so this is all double-checked through John before posting. There is no safety briefing, unlike other simulators I've been in.

The pilots whose session I am sitting in on will be taking their second lesson in this simulator. They have been through basic flight training and upgraded to turbine engines on the military equivalent of a King Air, but they have never flown this airplane for real. They are both very young men, wearing one-piece flight suits with blank velcro for the insignia patches on their shoulders. The instructor closes up the back of the simulator and tells them that today they will take off, climb to altitude, practice as many steep turns as they like and then do some stalls before returning to the airport for circuits. It's a pretty standard familiarization lesson. Their conversation with the instructor is casual and respectful both ways, with no military overtones. I know someone who quit a Canadian military flight instruction job because he didn't like the training atmosphere, but I'd be happy supervising this session.

The trainees are directed to set up the computer. They are entering weight and fuel information, communicating with each other, but not through checklists or crisp SOPs, just talking. They get everything set up and the instructor gives them a tip for entering their fuel burn when the route includes maneuvering, instead of just point to point. When everything tallies they are directed to start up. The first engine they start is #3, and the whole simulator shakes from the vibration of the simulated engine. They continue through the checklist on the glareshield, starting #4 next, then #2 and #1 last. Imagine having twice as many engines that might not start on any given day. At least they are turbines. And their simulated ATIS gave them a 20 degree day. It's twilight, but it doesn't matter if it is dawn or dusk, because the simulator is set to remain frozen in time. The instructor says there is a continuous setting that allows time to run, but instructors never use it.

The instructor offers a hint to the left seat pilot to bring up the power on the inboard engines, in case the FO accidentally turns off the APU. I didn't see the layout that suggested that was likely. There's a simulated marshaller on the ramp, but the instructor turns him off, because he says he's a pain to operate. He just gives the guys a taxi clearance, which in typical American style names no taxiways, so they are free to find their own way to the assigned runway. They go most of the way down the ramp, which the instructor says is fine, when they ask. As they turn they know too go past the intersection before turning, because they are sitting forward of the nosewheel. I would have forgotten; I sit over my nosewheel.

Positioned on the runway, I shrug my shoulders back into the shoulder straps and watch power application. Centreline control isn't perfect, but probably pretty good for someone's second time with that many engines and that much power. I'll have to remember to be right THERE on the rudder as the power comes up. A master caution light illuminates on the panel, "door open," but to my surprise neither pilot calls for an abort. I have written most of "why aren't they aborting?" on my notepad before they decide for themselves that that would be a good plan. Oh yeah, I realize. As cool as they look in their flight suits and as far superior as they are to me in youthful reflexes and expense of training, these guys have less than five percent of my experience. They come to a stop without going off the end of the runway and the instructor reminds them about correct and timely callouts for such an occasion. He says "don't look out the window, it will mess you up," and resets the simulator to the beginning of the runway. Of course I look, and see the mind-warping whoosh as the airplane accelerates backwards and rematerializes on the threshold. If you're prone to airsickness, don't look!

On the next take-off the same door-open alarm sounds and the guys react much better, not flawlessly, but enough to win instructor praise. They joke about getting maintenance to look at that door. They haven't eaten up much runway this time, so he clears them for take-off from that position and this time he fails an engine. They abort correctly, and stay on the runway despite a some directional control problems.

The next time they are allowed to get off the simulated ground with no failures and are quickly at exercise height. They do a good job of the steep turns, both technically and with a good brief from one to the other for the two-crew exercise, and they are happy to move onto stalls after two steep turns each. The computer tells them the speeds to fly to approach each stall for their weight. The left seat pilot has the controls first, approaching at 145 knots to a clean stall, then a dirty one and then a climbing turn stall. He tries another one just letting the stick pusher do the recovery.

There is a ding-dong alert from the avionics, but the instructor clears it. It is a fuel quantity disagree error between the flight computer and the fuel sensors, due to the trick he used with the fuel planning. He tells them how to clear it themselves if need be. The right seat pilot repeats the stalls. Like the largest airplanes I have flown -- none as big as this -- they just power out of stalls with no pitch down.

The instructor simulates the ATIS again for their return to the airport and the pilots run the approach checklist. "Passengers and cargo?" says one pilot from the checklist. Presumably the correct response is something along the lines of "briefed and secure," but there's a pause, perhaps they haven't learned the correct briefing yet, or realize that there isn't really enough time. Then the other pilot replies, "They're all dead," and they get on with the checklist. It's nice that they can concentrate on one thing at a time, and train seriously without having to be super serious.

They are still very high as the instructor gives them vectors onto final. I've never flown this airplane of course, so perhaps it drops like a rock. At the point that I'm wondering what their plan is, one of the pilots jokes that it's a "space shuttle approach." I had a boss once who used to say things went "down like a rocket." Perhaps I've finally realized what he meant. They are high and fast and resolve the problem by doing a go around. They are high on the second one, too, but lose a little altitude getting back to centreline after hooking the approach, and then get it down even though they are only using half flaps. It's a little fast and my flight instructor instincts cause me to shift my feet and arms so as not to take the touchdown impact directly on my once-broken spinal column. But the simulator is merciful and doesn't smack us as hard as a real airplane will. And the seat is a lot cushier than in a C150, too.

The instructor asks the pilots what is considered a good touchdown point for this airplane, and he approves their answer of "in the first third of the runway." Heh. I'm going to do a bush pilot short field approach, and put it at the beginning of the runway, just to see how short you can land this behemoth. Probably pretty short. They continue flying and the pilot improves quickly. I still think he's starting the flare a little too soon, but then we're pretty big.

After a few circuits the instructor directs them to land with full flaps. He says it's easier with half flaps, but that full is the correct way. I'm not sure why it's easier. It looks much more correct to me with full flaps. The right seat pilot takes control and he does right hand circuits, so he can see the turns. They're both having a little trouble rolling out aligned on final, but they work on that. After a couple of hours the instructor freezes the sim and they take a break.

My turn? Oh man, now I have to put my money where my smart-assed blogging fingers are. John checks with the instructor. Narrative continues after I check again with John to see what I can blog.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


After the aquarium I had been planning to go back to the hotel for a quick nap, but I was feeling wide awake and knew I wouldn't sleep so I asked if we could go straight to the base, maybe look around a bit. I knew where it was already, as I'd seen several exotically pointy aircraft descending in that direction, and you can't miss the sound of jet fighters taking off. It's a small town, too. I could pretty easily have walked to the gates from the hotel. But no further, I'm sure.

I'm a little nervous about going onto a foreign military base, and think about what's in my purse to make sure there's nothing anyone could worry about. I brought only carry-on luggage, so I know I can pass a security scan. "Can I bring my camera? Will I be able to take pictures? Is there a dress code?" I have my ID and my pilot licence ready but we only pause a moment in front of the soldier at the gates before being waved on. They don't even check John's ID. He says he has a special sticker on his car. I knew the car had to have some redeeming feature. It wasn't the paint job, the tracked "automatic" shoulderbelts or the missing panel completely exposing the interior of the driver's door. Apparently his sister bought a truck with bullet holes from being blasted by a drunk logger with his rifle when it would not start, so it must be an issue of family pride.

The US military has Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines. I get that an air force flies, an army travels over the ground and a navy does things in boats, but that doesn't leave much room in the universe for a fourth force. The US Army, Navy and Marines were all founded in 1775 to fight the American Revolution. It seems that in those days the Navy concentrated more on sailing the ships and firing the guns, and the Marines were a fighting force that went with them. John explains that the Marines have always been regarded as shock troops, their traditional mission being to capture beachheads and hold them until occupation forces arrive. Nowadays it seems that they are an elite force that get to do everything all the other forces do, but spend their training being told they are better than everyone else, which, as John put it, "meant in practical terms that the individual marine trusted in and relied on his comrades to an extraordinary degree and that he himself was trustworthy and reliable."

They're better because they are told they are better? That seems a little touchy-feely for jarheads, but John has advised me that one doesn't mess with Marines, so I'll take their word for it. It does seems a little insulting to the other forces, who I'm sure have their own elites and don't think of themselves as the 'safety schools' of military forces. This whole base is a Marine base, no other forces personnel are present.

There are lots of civilians, though. I think I see more people in civilian clothes than military uniforms. I see a car with a GRAMMA personalized plate outside of a hangar and at first I think, "heh, some A&P has borrowed his grandmother's car." But there's no reason not to think that an A&P didn't order that plate when her son or daughter had their first child.

I had been hoping to take a picture of a real KC130 on the ground, and then the simulator inside, but it turns out that the entire flight line is one of the places where photography is forbidden. Not that I could see anything out there anyway. There was a pretty solid row of hangars all along the runway, so I can only see the aircraft on approach and after taking off. My US military aircraft identification skills are poor, but John pointed out a Harrier and a V-22 Osprey. You know someone doesn't know a thing about military aircraft when she has to have those identified to her. I can report that they are both angular, loud and grey.

The housing area looks like a nice residential district anywhere. There's a marina with sailboats, a school and a gym, that sort of thing. Along one road, the chain link fence is covered in creative homemade banners welcoming individual marines home from deployment. There isn't really that much military stuff to see just driving around. We go to John's office.

It looks like a computer geek's office anywhere. Cartoons on the door, old computer manuals (ADA, anyone?) on the bookshelves, undecipherable scribbles on the whiteboard and printouts taped to the wall. He gave me permission to photograph and post one of the snag sheets, a list of what is wrong with the sim. The items to be fixed are not burned out light bulbs or missing screws as on an actual aircraft, but rather modifications that are required to make the sim exactly like the real airplane. Amusingly to me, many of the snags relate to lights not dimming when they should, something I can definitely relate to. Presumably lights burn out and screws get lost on the sim, too, but someone junior to John gets those repair jobs. I poke around the office and giggle at the geeky calendar while John works on unclassified military business, related to photocopier maintenance contract billing schedules.

Hey, there are fifty thousand people on this base. They can't all be flying around in fighter jets and stabbing bayonets into mannequins all day.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Fish Finding

John calls at the appointed hour. We'll be in the simulator with some trainees from four to eight p.m., and my chance to fly it will be during their break, or afterward if the instructor quits early, as they often do if all goes well. It's not quite what we planned, but this opportunity couldn't be put off, anyway. Another piece of news John has for me is that the aircraft will soon be upgraded with some classified equipment and as soon as the simulator reflects that, the simulator too will be classified, definitely making it off limits to foreign bush pilots.

In the morning we go to the local aquarium. It's interesting driving there, seeing the architecture and vegetation. North Carolina is geographically and culturally halfway between Florida and New England and everything I see fits in with that. (I might have written that already, in an earlier blog entry but I'm way too lazy to check right now). There are both palm trees and colourful foliage trees here. At home the leaves are all brown or fallen, but here it's still fall colour season.

You can't go far wrong taking me to look at an exhibition of science or natural history, so of course I endorsed the aquarium idea, but it turns out to be a very good aquarium. They haven't tried to be all things to all people. They have specialized in the aquatic wildlife of North Carolina. It's not a huge state, but it stretches from the Appalachian Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, and is not densely populated, so there are a lot of wild places and creatures to fill them.

We start with the fish that live in mountain streams. There are walleyes and pike and bass and rainbow trout. The rainbow trout are a non-native, stocked species and aside from very neutrally noting that they have displaced the native species into the smaller streams, the exhibit is very neutral about their presence. Biologists are usually pretty outspoken about intruder species. Sports fishing must be an important industry around here.

There's a big tank of river otters, who couldn't be cuter if they had been given an intensive training course in cute. Two of them are snuggling on the shore while the younger one is literally ricocheting off the rock walls of its swimming area, in between racing up to the other two to check, "NOW do you want to play with me?" While we are there it is feeding time. All the otters rush off to a separate area where they are handled and inspected for any wounds or other need for medical attention and receive some food, and meanwhile a keeper enters the enclosure and hides food of different sorts all over the enclosure. Some things float, some sink to the bottom of the pools, some are hidden in holes, some placed on high ledges, and a couple of live goldfish swim around in the pool. The otters come tearing back in and climb over everything, gleefully finding the treats, including chasing down the goldfish.

You might think a "pat the stingrays" exhibit was a joke you'd tell to unsuspecting Canadian tourists, but there really was one, a flatter tank full of various types of rays, with their poisonous barbs clipped. I expected them to be sandpapery, like sharks, but they were very soft, the texture of wet velvet. The horseshoe crabs in the next tank over were also softer than I expected. I'm going to admit that I didn't think horseshoe crabs were a current species. I thought they only existed as fossils.

The fish in the first picture are ocean fish whose identity I failed to record. They only got their picture taken because they were slower than the sharks whose images I tried to capture. I wasn't able to tie a shot such that the camera figured out all its light settings and opened the shutter at the same moment as a shark cruised by. After that I stopped trying to photograph fish in tanks.

Okay, what else? There were turtles and frogs and snakes and alligators (not available for patting) and the aquarium was built right on the shore of an estuary, kind of half swamp half river, so after you're done looking at the fish, you can go outside and see egrets and herons eating them. We went out on the veranda and then just kept walking onto a nature trail, including over an amusingly almost-sinking boardwalk across a swamp. I forgot to look both ways for alligators before crossing it, too. Good thing I still have all my toes.

We then had a quick lunch, then off to the base for airplanes. I'll tell you about that part later.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Middle Seat

I made sure I had my passport for customs, my pilot licence in case there was any on-base scrutiny of who I was, and my camera so I could take pictures of anything that wasn't a military secret, and got in the car. I drove across the border to catch a cheap flight south. The customs official looks dubious at my reason for going south, but when he asks my profession a light goes on. I think you can get away with all kinds of crazy stuff on account of being a "commercial pilot." It's like having a Canadian flag on your backpack in Europe.

Check-in is painless. It's nice just carrying overnight stuff and not my massive Arctic-to-Florida work bag. It's coming up to American Thanksgiving, so the flight is chock full and the flight attendants are busy trying to get everyone's bags, coats and butts in the appropriate places. A guy is there with two young kids and they don't have seats together, so the flight attendant was obviously trying to rearrange people to create a row for them. Airline should have taken care of that at the gate before seating people, because now it's more complicated. Passengers were apparently refusing some of the offered seat swaps so it wasn't just as simple as emptying a row of individual travellers and replacing them with the family. I volunteered to move and the FA was pathetically grateful when I accepted a move into a middle seat to make it work out for the family, assuring me that she would comp all my drinks in compensation. It's sort of sad that it was that hard to get people to move over so a little kid could sit with his dad.

I liked my new seatmates better, anyway. My original neighbours were a little girl in the window seat next to me an angular mother who seemed to be checking me out for my propensity to molest little girls. And speaking to, smiling at or acknowledging the presence of counted as molestation. Okay, I'm obviously not being fair there, but I got such a cold vibe from her that I was happy to move to the friendlier spot in between an electrician from Alabama and a woman with elaborately hennaed hands and black-tipped fingers, on her way to her sister's wedding. I slept on the flight, so I can't report on the fascinating things that take place in the back of an airliner. Except that the flaps were filthy. filthier than mine, even.

As we came into land, I could see that North Carolina is a little swampy, with lots of trees, just starting to change colours for the fall. I grabbed my carry-ons and headed for the exit. About this time I realized I hadn't booked a rental car. I meant to. We'd discussed it. You could almost hear the chuckle in John's e-mail as he replied to my enquiry about buses or trains from North Carolina's Raleigh-Durham airport. It seems that North Carolina is not a public transit sort of state. "You'll need to rent a car," he'd explained. And then I neglected to. But never mind. I'm a master of flexibility. I jumped on a rental car shuttle, figure I'd go down the line at the rental car desk, and see who had one to rent me.

It turns out that at RDU all the car rental counters are on the individual companies' lots, so I just have to hope that the one I've reached has cars. I ask the gentleman who greets the van and he just gestures at the parked cars, "pick one." That's right, the cars are all parked with the keys in the ignition and you pick the one you want, drive your car to the exit and do the paperwork right there. Americans are masters of car-related convenience. The checkout clerk looks at my Canadian driver's licence and asks if I speak French. He's Arabic-looking and his nametag identifies him as Abdallah, so he's probably from a former French colony in north Africa. "Not as well as you," I say in English. Yeah. I know: chicken. I should have taken the opportunity to practice a disused skill. When we're done I say thanks and good evening in French. I'm a block away before I realize that I forgot to ask for a map. I hope my approaches in the simulator are better planned than my arrival at the base.

I know I have to go southeast, so I take the option directing me to highway 40 "east," and am lucky enough to find a gas station before I get to the on ramp. But they're all out of maps, and no one has heard of Havelock. A truck driver has a GPS unit for his car and plugs in my destination. It's easy: east on I-40 then east on US-70 and that will take me right into Havelock. I'm on my way.

It's dark for most of the drive, so I can't report on much except that US 70 kept bifurcating into the 70-bypass and 70-business and about half the time I took the wrong one, because I couldn't tell the bypass from the business sign from far away enough to get into the correct lane to make the turn. I stopped to get a map, just in case I missed one of those turns and got lost in the dark. Another customer in the store assured me that it didn't really matter which 70 I took at any point because there were about the same number of lights on either.

I stopped at an old-fashioned Chinese restaurant, the kind with the neon-edged pagoda roof. It had obviously been there a long time, and there were lots of cars in the parking lot, so it couldn't be too bad. And it wasn't. Sesame chicken, broccoli beef and ice cream for dessert, then back on the road.

A bit later my phone rang, and not knowing the local rules about cell phone driving I pulled over into what turned out to be a butcher shop parking lot to return the call. Every time I ask anyone if it's illegal to answer a cellphone while driving in their jurisdiction they say something like "sort of" or "only if they catch you." It looks as if North Carolina is okay with me talking on the cell phone unless I'm a teenager or driving a schoolbus. John is just checking up on me, then calls back again as I get into town and guides me to my hotel so we can go out for coffee.

Plans have changed now. I left out some of the previous plan changes, so suffice to say I am not surprised. The colonel has decided that it is best that I be there in the daytime, which may be good news, because I'll possibly be able to fly with an instructor or a trained pilot, to make better use of the opportunity. And it means I get to sleep in tomorrow. We get gently kicked out of the doughnut shop by the staff who want to go home, and John will call me in the morning to plan our day.

Wait, what? They just advertised a 30 calorie energy drink on TV. (I'm multislacking: blogging while watching TV). Wouldn't I burn 30 calories taking a bottle out of the fridge and removing the lid? How is this useful, unless an athlete has a purple food colouring deficiency?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Intriguing Invitation

Longtime readers may remember John, a reader who helped talk me out of one of my "I don't think I'll blog anymore" phases. He is now working on a military base in North Carolina and some time ago he suggested that he might be able to get me into a simulator to try my hand at flying a KC130. I of course said something along the line of "Wow, thanks, I should do that!" and then never actually did anything about it. Fortunately he's the sort of guy who writes back and says, "Hey, when are you coming down to see the simulator?"

John works in IT. When you consider that a simulated airplane has no engines to leak oil, no landing gear to swing, no wingtips to bash and very little in the way of structure to corrode, most of the maintenance is IT, so he knows one end of it from the other. Originally when we picked this week for our fun, the sim wasn't very busy, but it broke down a while ago and is only just back online so there is a backlog and the working hours are fully booked. We consider postponing, but who is to say that another month will be any better for scheduling, and they are looking at upgrading the airplanes to include classified equipment, which would make the whole simulator classified, and thus certainly off limits to a foreign civilian. But we're not out of luck. There are four hours a day that John gets the sim: it's is scheduled for maintenance from midnight to four a.m. By coming down to use the simulator overnight, I'm gambling that it doesn't actually require maintenance that night, and that I'm just 'helping' John check out all the systems.

So as soon as I've finished my usual unpack/laundry/repack sequence, I'm heading down to North Carolina. I'm going to come for two nights as insurance against it being broken one night. It's a full motion simulator with high fidelity visuals, a HUD for each pilot, and controls and avionics that closely duplicate the actual airplane.

When else would I have a chance to fly a four-engined tanker/transport, even if it all happens inside a box.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

My Customers Are Smarter

I've been browsing a website of astonishing customer interactions. I'll give you the link in a moment, but first let me give thanks for my own wonderful customers.

I am very grateful that my customers are sane and aviation savvy. They understand that I can't fly the airplane with something wrong, even if they would drive a truck in the same condition. They recognize the safety value of making conservative decisions. And they have never once taken frustration out on me when the weather, aircraft, regulations, late arriving parts or other aspects of the world mean that a flight has to be cancelled. The frequently change their minds, but my job is to be flexible for them. Occasionally they make decisions that don't seem optimal to me, or reject suggestions that I thought would make their lives easier, but I am able to trust that they are sane and will take responsibility for their decisions.

Sometimes I do charter flights with people less familiar with aircraft, but it's expensive enough to book a charter flight that I seem to be shielded from the customers who lack not only a basic knowledge of the world, but the comprehension and information processing skills to ever learn. This post is dedicated to all the front line customer service people who have no protection against such customers.

All the people I interact with seem to be familiar with basic logic and causality, plus know that airplanes need fuel, airports are noisy, weather can make air travel unpredictable, and amazing as I am I am not superhuman.

The site is Not Always Right. I'll warn you that it's so simultaneously hilarious and jaw-dropping that you may not be able to tear yourself away from it. Here's an aviation example illustrating the principle that some customers don't seem to be able to absorb basic information about the world. It \s also a commonly successful type of response: the person serving the customer finds something to say that satisfies the customer, even when it's not entirely true.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Break Time

The forecast snowstorm never arrived, so the highways stayed clear and our relief shift did arrive. We all sat in one of our palatial hotel rooms and relayed notes about everything that needs continuity. Oil consumption, heater operation, where we're parked, what we think we've lost in the airplane and hope they will find (my memory stick!), the pet peeves of the current client, and the particular radio frequencies we might need.

We have everything packed already, so early the next morning we drove to the nearest international airport to head home for a break. My co-worker has an early flight, so he hops out with his stuff and then I take the car to look around town before my flight. I pull into a tourist info place to get a map of town so I don't get lost, and while I'm there I ask the bored teenager to suggest something to do near here. There does not appear to be a local giant thing to photograph. She picks up a yellow highlighter and marks a few spots on the map where she says there are cafes. That's not a bad idea, but I'd like to see more than the inside of a cafe, so I ask her if there is a good place to go for a walk nearby, seeing as it's such a fine day. She stares at me for a second or two and says "not really." I indicate a couple of green spots on the map, presumably parks and ask about them. She is noncommittal. Having wrung the encounter of all available information, I thank her and get back into the car.

I soon pass a bank with an electronic temperature/time display. It's two degrees outside. Perhaps to most people this isn't beautiful weather for a walk. But it is lovely. Still air, blue sky, birds tweeting.

The first highlighted spot consists of a row of retail stores that don't open for another couple of hours, and a car wash. It occurs to me that if you were a bored teenager who hated her job and everyone who asked you for information, you could tease a tiny thread of entertainment out of your job by sending them to random highlighted spots on the map. It's not like they're going to bother to come back and complain. I myself get more enjoyment out of the speculation that she has done this deliberately than I would have from accurate directions, so I forgive her and park a couple of blocks past the car wash. The map shows a river with green space a few blocks from here so I head towards it. Is there a city with a river running through it that doesn't have walking trails along the banks? Not this one. It's a pretty nice multi-use area with wide paved and narrower unpaved paths. Lots of other people agree with me that it's a nice day for a walk.

There's also a museum on the map, not far away, so I drive over there and see an exhibit on diamonds. Part of the exhibit was just a promotion extolling the virtues of diamond jewellery, but there was a more interesting section on exploration. It turns out that the geologist leading the team that discovered the Diavik mine in the NWT was a woman named Eira Thomas.

And then I get on an airplane and go home.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Digging Out

It's almost a shame to check out of our luxurious rooms, but the snow has truly stopped and the ceiling is sufficient for us to make our escape. The airport shuttle is out of order so we call a cab to get to the airport.

We somewhat regretfully call the after hours number for our hangar contact. It's 8:30 on Sunday morning the day after Hallowe'en and it's a safe bet he wasn't planning on coming in quite this early. He answers though, and says he'll be there in half an hour. He is, and maybe a little bit early. We load our gear, preflight, and confirm that the hangar bill is taken care of. We're ready to go.

Before we can get the airplane out of the hangar, we have to get the other airplanes out, but before we can do that, we have to clear the snow. He has a little Honda tractor, the same one we've been towing airplanes with, fitted with a plough blade. He starts by driving around in an oval pattern, with one straightaway across the ramp entrance of the hangar. We shovel the snow away from the ends and he orbits until there is enough of a clear space immediately in front of the hangar for him to push snow straight away from it. He tows a caravan out and then goes after ours. The beams supporting the roof of the hangar are lower to the sides of the hangar than the middle, and where our airplane is parked the beams are lower than the top of our vertical stabilizer. So how did the airplane get parked back there? Same way as we're going to get it out. The expert hooks up the tow bar, I stand on the rear airstairs and my coworker jumps up and hangs off the horizontal stabilizer. That tips the whole empennage down enough that it will pass under the beam as the tow tractor pulls it. That's not an uncommon procedure. Sometimes they have a concrete block already to hook up to the tail tiedown ring, for the same purpose.

With the airplane outside, we're ready to go. We apologize again for rousing the other pilot on a Sunday morning, and hope that some of the hangar fees we've been paying will find his way into his paycheque. He says he expects it will be reflected in a full employee beer fridge. Ah beer: the Canadian currency of debts that mere money cannot address.

I text the customers with a pessimistic arrival time. There's a low ahead to the south, so I am expecting a headwind or at best a crosswind, and I don't want to be late after they've been waiting for three days. The run-up is uneventful and this time not only is visibility good, but we have an absolutely hammering tailwind. Yeah, tailwind. The low isn't where I thought it was. We're above a very thin layer of cloud that we can see right through and we're going to be an hour ahead of schedule. The customers are going to think we forgot the time change last night.

The very thin layer of cloud thickens a lot, but we still want to be over it. Canadian VFR over the top rules require our destination to be pretty much clear for hours before and after our forecast arrival and there's no weather report or forecast for our destination, so to avoid scud running, we would be obligated to use the GFA, which definitely doesn't forecast such a thing in our area. The nearest station to our destination is currently 11,000 broken, which is just fine, but its TAF is calling for 2000' broken and a mile in snow. So we can't fly above a cloud layer on the basis of that forecast. We have a band of cloud here, ending just to the south, with the winds clearly showing that the low is to the north. So are we rebels to think we're better than the forecast and overfly the cloud layer despite the nasty forecast? Heck no. We'll use a trick the trans-Atlantic carriers do. The ol' file 'n' switch.

So as far as the VFR-over-the-top is concerned, we're going to Regina. We've got the fuel. Regina has a TAF and is wide open. And there is nothing illegal about being on our perfectly legal way to Regina and then landing somewhere else along the way instead. Airlines do the opposite. They can't carry enough fuel for the legal requirement to get all the way from North American points of origin to many European destinations. So they officially fly to London, and then when they have almost reached London, switch over to Berlin, because the excess fuel required to go from London to Berlin is less than from New York to Berlin. You're allowed to file to any airport you please, and you are never restricted from landing early or refiling to anywhere you can legally go.

The clouds below thin out just before top of descent and we descend through the scattered layer without even having to detour to the south as we expected. The airport is easy to find and the plug-ins at transient parking even work, once we reset the circuit breaker. We put on the wing covers, which are the wrong size, but were all along. I remember them from last year. You have to be creative. And you know, based on our flight planning, that we are.

There's a surprisingly lovely pilot lounge with new, matching furniture and a big flat screen TV. It's sort of confusing. Standard pilot lounge decor is the discards from someone else's remodelling.

Then the customers pick us up and take us to an even classier hotel. We thought we were lucky with our upgrade at the last place. Ha! This hotel room is big enough to get lost in. And it's brand new. Almost too bad we're going home as soon as our replacements arrive, probably tomorrow. I have to finish up my paperwork then repack everything so anything sharp or liquid is in my checked bag and anything valuable or fragile is in my carry-on.

A friend of mine just lost a digital camera to someone who had access to her checked luggage, and it's disturbing. Not just in the sense of "damn, I liked that camera and it was expensive" but also in the sense that if they can take something like that out of your suitcase and get it out of the secure area unobserved, what can they put in it?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

And This Makes Three

"And those small dots...blockin' our path? I supposed it's too much to hope dat's just snow."

Today is Hallowe'en. It snows all day again. The GFA includes snow, freezing rain, and a gigantic, ugly, trowelly low wrapped around the north. The shape is like a fist with one giant focused finger of weather pointing from here to our destination. We're supposed to be there today starting work. But at least the customers waiting for us will have the same weather, so we couldn't have worked anyway.

The town Hallowe'en fireworks display is cancelled because of the snow. They'll have it next weekend instead, probably. For most Canadians, public fireworks displays are more of a summer thing, like for Canada Day but fireworks work best in the dark, so in the north they save them for winter holidays. Literally save them, as Ottawa gives municipalities grants to celebrate the nation's birthday with fire, but allows northern communities to take the grant and shift it to a more appropriate date. I meet someone from way up north, I can't remember where, who says they let theirs off to celebrate the first sunrise of winter, a tiny peek of the sun on the southern horizon, only lasting a few minutes. I think she said it was in late January.

After nightfall, the snow stops falling and we make plans to get the eight a.m. shuttle to the airport, and fly out of here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Racing the Storm

At seven in the morning the snow has not yet started and the clouds are reported as 2000' scattered. It's still pitch black of course, so we can't peer at the clouds, just refresh the METAR over and over again to make sure a special hasn't reported it worse. The graphical forecast shows a huge area of low visibility and ceilings in snow sweeping to the east along our flight path (yes, company has advised us where we're going next, just in time). The word is yes, we are released.

The hotel shuttle doesn't starts operating until eight. The clients can't really drive us to the airport with our gear before then because they are busy packing their trucks with their gear, and they want to get on the road and get out of here before the snow starts in earnest too. We eat breakfast, go to our rooms for our gear, check out and it's almost eight anyway. A few light snowflakes are falling here and there. It's still good at the next station to the southeast, but they are all forecasting all kinds of miserableness for this afternoon.

We jump on the hotel shuttle, peering at the tiny bit of greyness that is the dawn. The ceiling is probably still coming down. We just need to sneak out from under this cloud before the visibility drops to nothing and we can arc south out of the path of the storm.

At the hangar the locals are there, unloading an airplane we saw them loading yesterday. That sounds productive, but the cargo looks very familiar. Yeah, it's the same cargo. They have a load that was supposed to go northwest; they didn't get through yesterday and they know they aren't getting through today. They put the freezer stuff in the freezer and the fridge stuff in the fridge, then put a pre-made laminated placard on the pallet with the non-perishables "CARGO IN FREEZER/FRIDGE." Good strategy.

We load our own gear in our airplane, secure it all down and get towed out to the apron. The ceiling is now 1500', but it's still not snowing. WE CAN DO IT! All systems are go and we call for taxi. Maybe it should have been a warning sign when it takes three radio calls to correctly specify our intended runway. I won't say who was on the microphone. I'm protecting the dignity of either myself or my sterling coworker. The FSS accepts all three of our choices and we finally depart off the one we meant. There's inbound King Air traffic, but he won't be an issue. We level off just below the cloud deck and head southeast. What I don't like is the lack of a nice clear view of the distance below the bases.

The visibility where we are is fine. It just kind of ends. We descend a bit, but so does the cloud. And the terrain rises here before it falls. We arc a little towards the river and lower ground, but there is no path out of here that meets our safety criteria. We call the FSS back to let them know we are inbound. The GPS says we have gone a total of 7.5 miles, but we retrace our steps and land.

On the taxi back to the hangar I text everyone to let them know we didn't escape. In the time it takes us to shut down, the snow has started. By the time we get to the hotel it's clouds to our elbows and snow to the ends of our noses. We're here for the duration. But can it really snow like this for three days? Sometimes a local forecast calling for three days of snow means three days in which it snows every day, not necessarily three solid days of snow.

Back at the hotel I ask that very question, "Do you think it will snow like this for three days?" There are two clerks at the desk. They don't hesitate, they don't look at each other for confirmation, they both simply nod, solemly, twice. It's like that scene in Fargo where everyone says "Ya."

They understand our plight and are nice to us, letting us check back in even though it's not yet ten in the morning. We say we're happy to have the old rooms back uncleaned, but it doesn't work that way. The rooms we just checked out of have already been stripped but not recleaned so they assign us new rooms. "You'll like them. They're bigger," she says. Ooh. They've been very nice to us. The new rooms are not only bigger but have full kitchens and a fireplace. I put away my luggage then spend an hour alternating between the waterslide and the hot tub in the hotel pool, then turn on the fireplace and snuggle back into bed with my laptop and the TV remote.

There are worse places to be snowed in. I know. I've been to many of them. I e-mail everyone to know we will try again if the snow lets up, but it doesn't. It snows all day.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Impending Snow

We have about four hours worth of work to do and the weather forecast offers us a a little window in which to do it. We're west of Fort Nelson, near where the highway starts to enter the mountains just south of the Yukon border. There is clearly more snow visible on the ground than there was on the last flight, and there is a fine veil of altostratus cloud over our heads. Winds are strong but there is only a little turbulence

Within an hour the mid-level cloud layer is noticeably thicker and lower, and cloud continues to waft in as we fly. A large mass warm air--well not very warm, but warmer than the air mass that's over us now--is slowly travelling east. It abuts the cold bubble of air currently covering the Yukon, and northern BC and Alberta, and as it is warmer it rides up over the present air mass. Same old story: rising air expands; expansion causes cooling; and cooling causes the formation of liquid water droplets, otherwise known as clouds. The incoming warm air mass contains a lot of moisture because it formed over the Pacific Ocean, so there is the potential for a lot of cloud.

Over the course of our four hour flight the ceiling drops three or four thousand feet. The highest mountain peaks to the west have disappeared and we can see spots in the mountains where it's already snowing. The local weather forecast calls for three solid days of serious snow.

We return to the airport for landing and call one last time to refuel. We're scheduled to fly to our next job tomorrow, after the client is certain they no longer need our services here. Of course we're not yet certain where the next job will be, except that it has to be south and east of here. We asked to be released today, so we're not trapped by the incoming snowstorm, but the answer was no, they won't give up their airplane until they know they don't need it anymore. They will let us know that at 7 a.m. tomorrow. We let the hangar people know this, so they can stack our airplane near the front, and we give them instructions on sending the hangar space bill (almost as much as my hotel bill) plus a offer a forwarding address should the wing covers ever arrive. And then in walks someone with a package for us. Just in time. We put it in the airplane and then go back to the hotel to pack up for the move.