Friday, January 30, 2009

Aviatrix Versus Duck

The weather warms up a little and it snows. After a while we go out to the airplane to make sure it's still plugged in, and to sweep off the accumulated snow. If you let too much snow pile up, the weight can damage control surfaces or even tip the airplane over. And the more snow we get off now, the less we'll have to get off later when we're in a hurry. I should have brought more warm clothes. I confess I thought I'd be going to the southern states for this rotation and packed a little lightly on the cold weather gear. I was expecting to be offered a ride down the ramp in a golf cart, not to be wishing for snowshoes. Maybe they should have skidoos here instead of golf carts. The rampee apologizes that there may be ice under the snow, but they can't salt the ramp, because it could damage airplanes.

We have a couple of those car snow brushes you get at gas stations, but they are a bit of a joke for something the size of an airplane. I've noticed the flying school students cleaning their airplanes off with brooms, so I go to the school office to ask if we can borrow a couple. The guy there doesn't care if I do or not, so I do and we make short work of the job. It's still cold enough that the snow is dry and comes off easily, but we laugh when we're "done" because the snow has covered the airplane up again as fast as we can sweep. The guys at the FBO say they'll sweep it off again before they go home at nine, so it will be okay for the night.

As I'm leaving, a flashy turboprop with a November registration and a custom stars and stripes paint job pulls up to the FBO. "Fancy ride," I comment to one of the FBO employees. He's bursting with 'discretion' over the VIP customer, and without me asking a single question I learn that he emigrated from Russia to play hockey in New York but now plays here, for the Canadiens. I didn't think there would be more than one player matching that description, so I was going to use some Google-Fu and work it out, but I'm sure I have a reader who knows this sort of thing without looking it up, and who will delight in telling me who I left the FBO with. He was driving an Austin Mini.

With the snow coming down, the rest of the crew was cocooning at the hotel and getting pizza. I know I'm going to end up eating pizza sooner or later at work, because sometimes it's the only thing available, but I like to forestall that moment as long as I can. I find one person who is interested in dinner out and is willing to accede to my desire to try some local cuisine. I warn him that it's a fancy restaurant so might be a bit pricey, but he's game and we walk through the snow to the restaurant. The temperature is dropping again and it's windy, too, but the restaurant is nie and warm.

We look over the menu and order in French, not from some high faluting fancy restaurant snobbery, but because the menu is in French, and we're in Quebec. After the waiter has left with our order, my dining companion asks me what part of the duck the magret in the magret de canard a l'orange I have ordered represents. "I don't know," I confess, "Breast, I thought. I assumed it was some menu word that didn't matter." Heck, half the time I don't understand all the menu words on an English menu. "Don't you know?" I point out. "It's your language." He's francophone, but we're speaking English because he's better at it than I am at French.

"No," he says. "I guess it's a menu word." He sounds a little dubious.

Now I'm scared that the duck a l'orange I'm looking forward to is going to consist of some avian internal organ so obscure that even a native speaker doesn't recognize it. In English, duck a l'orange gives me duck breast, but come to think of it "breast" in this sense is poitrine, so what the heck is magret? There must be more than one word for the same thing.

The order arrives and it's fabulous. It is breast meat, skin on, cooked to perfection in delicious sauce with roast vegetables. Even the beets were delicious. And you know what? The whole meal cost the same as a medium Rustic Italian from Boston Pizza.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ville de Montréal

There's no problem getting my required rest, as I have the next day off. I've spent enough time in Montréal in the past that I'm not interested today in seeing the museums and cathedrals, nor overeating on smoked meat and poutine. It's nice to be back in a big Canadian city, with every amenity I could possibly want, and a few old friends live here too.

One of my co-workers complains about the signs being in French, making it hard to get around. Funny, it's one of the things I like about the place. I don't think it's much harder to get around than any other city. Right turns on red are forbidden by default in the city. It has your typical maze of crooked downtown one-way streets, turn restrictions and bridges forking into highway ramps, but I don't recall any signs that didn't conform to international standards. You don't have to read more than a highway number and an arrow to take the proper exit from an overpass. I guess there are people who don't know their ouest from their est, but that's about the only source of confusion I see. My colleague, and others I've spoken with, feel that the French are being deliberately difficult, but I would say that Québec is more accommodating to English speakers than the rest of Canada is to French speakers.

It's true that language laws restrict the display of English signage, resulting in what to me is an amusing forest of signs advertising goods and services with familiar logos but twisted names and slogans. Canadian corporations go to some trouble concocting names that work equally well in both official languages, like the former Canadi>n Airlines, using a chevron to cover the difference between the French and English spelling.

I'm proud of my country's history, and that includes both solitudes. Quebec is a nation within a nation. It is different, and in a more significant way than Newfoundland is different from Alberta. I don't believe that the culture and language of a people should be subjugated just because their ancestors lost a battle two hundred odd years ago. I'm pretty sure it was exigency not planning that left society and legal system of Lower Canada unchanged after the English victory, but I like the resulting plurality of my country. I see what happens in countries where nationalists of once-independent states are suppressed. Heck, it happened here in Canada the 70s, before the laws. Now the quebecois are more confident in the security of their culture, so there is no need to kidnap cabinet ministers. Sure, some tourists are confused. Other tourists enjoy an exotic experience without leaving their own continent. And you have to get pretty far from the cities before a plaintive, "Does anyone speak English, please?" wouldn't be met with help. Get far enough north and people don't speak much English, but keep going north and they don't speak much French either. How's your Cree? Damn, I love my country and all its crazy languages and cultures.

Montréal has excellent public transit. I take a bus to the metro and buy a six-pack of metro tickets in anticipation of a few more snow days.`(A "snow day" is what you call it when school is cancelled because there is too much snow for the snowploughs to get through).

Monday, January 26, 2009

Slow Start

My most recent work rotation took me to Montréal, Québec, just in time for the first deep cold snap of the winter. The airplane was parked outside, with electric heaters in the engines and cabin and extension cords snaking across the ramp and through the snowbanks to the electrical outlets. My handover briefing from the pilot I relived included instructions to use only the outlets along the back fence--the ones to the side would blow fuses--and that I should come out and check the cords on non-flying days, as the FBO had more than once managed to unplug them. We were staying not at the city's major airport, the one named after a former Prime Minister, and not at the secondary airport, which once competed for passenger traffic but now has subsided into its role as a cargo hub, but at a smaller airport across the river. Canada doesn't have airports specializing in private jets the way the US does, so most of the airplanes on the ramp were flying school airplanes, giving us 'big airplane' status.

The first morning that I came out to fly was dark and cold and clear. Not that dark, because although midwinter dawn was hours off, we were in the environs of the second largest metropolitan area in the country, and there was a thin layer of snow over higher elevations, reflecting the city lights further than in the summer. As I left the hotel for the airport, the temperature on the most recent METAR was -20C. The cords were all still plugged in and the airplane warm inside. I put my gear in the warm cabin, complete my cockpit checks and then go back outside. I should have brought warmer gloves.

The airplane appeared to be in good condition, with no ice. One advantage of those temperatures is that the air is too dry to hold much water vapour, thus none deposits on the airframe. The tires were firm enough and not frozen to the ground. When I put my hand inside the engine cowling it feels warmer than outside. It would feel warmer anyway, because it's out of the wind, and it doesn't feel that warm, because there's only so much the heater can do against cold and wind, but it's the only way I have to measure that the block heaters have been working. I leave the engine tents wrapped around the cowlings until we're completely ready to go, then pull and stow them and hop aboard. First priority is to start the engines, then with the brakes set I can set up my cockpit the way I like it and fuss about with flight following and the like while the engines warm up.

I start with the right engine. Cowls are open. I set the engine controls, check that the propeller is clear, and press the starter. I wrote "key the starter" but that could confuse you, as there is no key, just a spring-loaded rocker switch. When I hold it down, it energizes a solenoid that closes the circuit connecting the aircraft battery to the right starter motor. I can hear the clunk of the solenoid engaging from the cockpit. The starter motor turns a little toothed Bendix cog, which engages with a flywheel and turns over the engine. I see the propeller go around once slowly, protesting the bitter cold, and the engine does not catch. Everything conspires against my starting an engine in the cold. The metal parts have contracted ever so slightly, so don't move against each other as well as they should. The oil that should facilitate that movement is a viscous sludge in the bottom of the crankcase. The motor that drives the rotation is powered by a battery which itself is less potent and has less endurance in the cold. And in Canada cold equals dark, which means the same battery is powering lights. I only have the legally required ones on now. I'll put the others on after the battery is charging.

I prime some more: the fuel won't evaporate as easily in this temperature, and the air is denser, so I need more liquid fuel to get the same combustible mixture in the cylinders. As the engine turns it should compress that mixture and energize the magnetoes which in turn are supposed to fire the spark plugs, igniting the compressed fuel and allowing the engine to run on its own, without the impetus of the wheezing starter. I key the starter again. Half a rotation and it stops. Rats.

When all else fails, start the other engine. A running engine drives an alternator to generate electricity and charge the battery. Both my starters share the same battery, so if I can get one engine going I can bootstrap the other. The left engine starts. I bite my lip and mentally whisper useless apologies to it as it clunks and misfires for several seconds, trying to find its rhythm. I wait for the oil pressure to come up, and slowly it does. The battery indicator shows charging. I wait a moment or three and double check all the switches for the right engine, then try it again. No joy. Sigh.

I run the left engine until the oil and cylinder head temperatures are in the green and the battery charge rate is zero. That way I'll have at least one engine I know I can start, then I shut everything down and wrap the left engine in the engine tent. I put the engine tent back on the misbehaving right engine too, for all the good it is going to do. There's no heat left in it. I can't find anything wrong visually. The propeller does turn through manually with resistance, but not so much resistance that it couldn't be explained by heavy pistons moving in cold sludgy cylinders. Or maybe not. I go into the FBO for help.

Montréal is a French-speaking city, but the aviation language is English and everyone at the FBO speaks it well or at least passably. I ask them for a ground power unit, which they can provide, and they also offer a Herman-Nelson machine, basically a giant blow dryer to heat up the engine. I drink tea inside while they run the forced air heater, then come out and pull the tents again to try a new start, With the engine warm and the battery bypassed to run the starter off a generator, the engine should start now.

With the starter engaged the propeller turns as slowly as before, and only one revolution. I happen to know that one ramp worker here is an apprentice aircraft mechanic, and he is working today. We communicate by handsignals and I shut everything down so he can turn the propeller and inspect. A few more tries, but no start. There's something wrong beside the cold.

There's a maintenance organization on the field that we have used before. I call and they have time to look at it, but not a lot of time. As luck would have it, there's another company airplane sitting idle here, with a bigger problem, so we have them pull the starter out of that one and put it in this one. That takes a few hours, everything does, so there's lunch and more waiting, and paperwork but we finally get out for a flight, one which takes me to the very last minute of my duty day, including an extra hour that my company op spec allows, provided I get extra rest the next day.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Like the FMS, For Example

One of the blogs I read is Schneier on Security, a blog about the security mindset, and security issues in and out of aviation. Bruce Schneier is a security consultant who has decided to bash his head against the wall in a public forum. The blog gets a little repetitive, because it's mainly driven by news stories, which themselves are repetitive because people don't learn from previous mistakes.

Comments on a recent discussion of the indiscretions of US sky marshals included the not-new suggestion that the cockpit be completely separated from the cabin, with separate food, water and washroom facilities for the pilots.

Meanwhile someone else raised the also not-new suggestion that "Then the only possible target for the pilot to shoot will be the co-pilot. Which, if you arm them all and wait long enough, is sure to happen."

I stopped reading and got the best laugh at a follow up comment, "If you were to survey current pilots, you'll find that there are several pieces of equipment more likely to be shot before the co-pilot."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Showing My Stripes

Now that I've done my obligatory take on the news story of the week, I will think about the new year.

Cockpit Conversation was initially supposed to be a blog focused on me learning things that would help me get a job as an airline pilot. I was going to explain things to hypothetical readers, thereby cementing them in my own mind, and forcing myself to research what I didn't know. It's a bit like practicing instruction by teaching things to your dog. (If you want really rapt attention, emphasize your important points by waving a bit of bacon around). I did that for a while, with you, not the dog. And it turned out I had real readers, not hypothetical ones, and I didn't even have to wave bacon. Then I got a really interesting job and the blog turned into an episodic record of that and subsequent jobs that were supposed to lead to the airline career. Two of the jobs were actually at scheduled carriers, so I was an airline pilot, but the most recent airline made me redundant before I ever got in the airplane. Lately this has turned into a blog about me not getting a job as in airline pilot, which really doesn't fit the theory of blogging in order to focus my mind on what I want, does it?

I like blogging. I especially like having my e-mail box full of interesting, clever and friendly comments from all of you. I'm pretty much addicted to it. I like flying airplanes. I like planning and preparing for flights. I like having contingency plans and solving problems. I like briefing passengers. I don't mind delays as long as I have the feeling that I've done what I could to predict, prevent, and work through them. I even get satisfaction out of doing the paperwork that shows what I intend to do, what I have accomplished, and what went wrong each day. And I like flying through the air, the master of the machine. I'm addicted to that, too.

I took down my mammal lists (my record of how recently I had reminded prospective employers of my availability to fly for them), because they were discouraging. They'd pretty much all said no at one point or another, and I felt like I was beating a dead horse. It was better in the short term to stick my head in the sand and be happy where I was, than to be rejected over and over again. But an ostrich isn't a mammal. Here's a clip of a non-burrowing mammal really fighting the odds, so he doesn't become a dead horse.

He's going to be my inspiration this year. If he can half-drown a lioness that has her teeth in his throat, I can get all the way through the airline interview process and into a jet cockpit. Right?

Another zebra video taken at the San Diego zoo illustrates another remarkable length to which the zebra may go, but I'll leave you to find that one on your own. Warning: it may leave human men feeling inadequate.

True to my New Year's resolution, I did not read the YouTube comments.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

So Mosquito Netting Won't Work, Eh?

I do have some December flying stories to write up and post, but I am still reading and thinking about the US Airways ditching, so they can wait a few days more.

People ask why they couldn't just put screens in front of the engines to keep the birds out. I suppose people are envisioning the sort of things you staple around your eaves to keep the birds from flying in and nesting. One letter to the editor of the New York Times compared the concept to that of cowcatchers. Let's compare. A cow weighs about 500 kg. A locomotive tops out around 80 mph, or 36 m/s. The kinetic energy of a moving object is 1/2 m v2, so for the locomotive-cow collision that's 0.5 x 500 x 36 x 36 = 324 kilojoules, if I have my units right. I'm told the A320 is going to be climbing out at about 250 knots (corrected from a conservative or 210) or 128 m/s. A Canada goose weighs in at around 5 kg. Put those two together and we have a kinetic energy of 41 kJ. So the energy that must be dissipated when a slowly climbing airplane hits a single goose hits is about an eighth that of a speeding train hitting a cow. Could a structure be built over engine intakes so as to absorb that energy?

The structure would have to span what is about a two metre diameter across the intake, be strong enough to withstand bird strikes and never itself shed foreign objects into the engine. If you're having trouble believing that eight birds in the air equals one cow on the tracks, type "birdstrike" into Google's picture search for images proving that birds penetrate windshields, radomes and wings. This giant screen would have to have small enough holes not to let birds pass through, yet large enough holes to not impede airflow to the engine. That combination is an impossibility, as anything in front of the engine impedes airflow, so either the engine would have to be bigger or the performance of the airplane less, in order to compensate. I don't have the flow dynamics knowledge to begin to construct equations for this, but LTV Aerospace Corp. figures it's feasible, and here's a 2001 patent for a retractable bird deflector grille. I do know that tiny changes to an airframe, such as an angled piece of metal the size of half a Ritz cracker, can make huge differences in handling and controllability, so that even if such a structure were built, the whole airplane might have to be redesigned around it.

A reporter tried to answer the screens question live on CNN while I was watching, and he first admitted he didn't know, and then speculated that accumulated debris would block airflow into the engines. Not a bad speculation. The screens would have to have some way of preventing ice formation, probably by being electrically heated, so that chunks of ice neither blocked the intake nor fell through the engines. Heating the intake air would decrease engine performance, however, and heating a screen that size and weight would take a lot of power.

A lot of thought has gone into birds damaging engines. A Wall Street Journal article pointed me to the lengthy FAA rules governing the testing of engines against birdstrikes. Here are some excerpts.

All ingestion tests must be conducted with the engine stabilized at no less than 100-percent takeoff power or thrust, for test day ambient conditions prior to the ingestion. In addition, the demonstration of compliance must account for engine operation at sea level takeoff conditions on the hottest day that a minimum engine can achieve maximum rated takeoff thrust or power.

The impact to the front of the engine from the large single bird, the single largest medium bird which can enter the inlet, and the large flocking bird must be evaluated.

Medium bird engine tests shall be conducted so as to simulate a flock encounter, and will use the bird weights and quantities specified in Table 2. When only one bird is specified, that bird will be aimed at the engine core primary flow path; the other critical locations on the engine face area must be addressed, as necessary, by appropriate tests or analysis, or both. When two or more birds are specified in Table 2, the largest of those birds must be aimed at the engine core primary flow path, and a second bird must be aimed at the most critical exposed location on the first stage rotor blades. Any remaining birds must be evenly distributed over the engine face area.

The specs include tables of bird weights and numbers and expected performance that any engine must meet before certification. And it has to be said, because this is the internet and someone else is going to say it if I don't: "chicken cannon." Yes, they actually fire (already dead) poultry at airplane components to test them. And no, it isn't always necessary to thaw the chicken first.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Safety Is Not a Miracle

A few days ago, a US Airways A320 airplane took off from La Guardia, New York and flew through what is suspected to have been a gaggle of geese. Airplane engines are designed to withstand ingestion of small birds, but that is no guarantee. A jet engine requires a precise flow of air controlled by multiple banks of meticulously shaped fanblades, and when those blades are mangled and clogged by the impact of flesh and bones, it is quite possible for the resulting cascade of shrapnel to overwhelm the engine. Or engines, as appears to be the case, the pilot having radioed the control tower about a "double bird strike."

As everyone in the television-watching or newspaper-reading world is aware, the captain ditched the airplane in the Hudson River and all passengers were quickly evacuated before the fuselage submerged, with no loss of life. And then, having interviewed everyone available and panned around everyone's cellphone photographs, for lack of anything else to say about it, the networks and headline writers started calling it 'a miracle,' and making me yell at the TV. Don't get me wrong: this landing wasn't a routine occurrence. It's a stunning, inspiring event. It's good that no one died. It's also good that no one died on the hundreds of flights US Airways conducted that day without incident. But I think it's somewhat insulting to attribute any of that safe flying to divine intervention.

People set standards for training, materials and procedures and people designed and built and maintained that airplane while other people trained and practiced and did their jobs well. Standard operating procedures are a system of a thousand things that are done every day, in a particular way, even when they are annoying, or boring or time-consuming. Pilots practise the required procedures for engine failure after takeoff. We practise in simulators and/or during training sessions in the actual aircraft at altitude, depending on the aircraft and the company. We recite the procedures aloud in our pre-takeoff briefings and practise them in our heads. I suspect that many pilots who regularly fly out of La Guardia have mentally ditched in the Hudson River many times. It appears to be the best clear path for an aircraft that can manage neither to return to La Guardia nor make the runway at Teterboro.

I don't know how many times I've heard people mock the water landing page on the folding safety briefing card, disbelieving that a commercial airliner could be landed on water and sit there floating like the picture. Up to now I've been citing the B727 B707 that landed on Lake Victoria by accident. In that case the airplane touched down with gear extended, because the airplane was too low on the glideslope for the intended airport. The gear sheared off, the engines on the wings sheared off--as they are designed to do--and the airplane came to rest right side up and floated until the next morning. I understand that the engines sheared off the A320 too: the last I read they were still looking for them in the river, in order to investigate the accident and get the DNA of the guilty birds.

Dave estimates that not more than a dozen line pilots could have kept their cool and landed an airplane on the river that well. I shouldn't question his experience, but every line pilot knows the drilled emergency procedures and has practice every-single-flight in touching down perfectly straight, wings level at the prescribed speed, every single time. Given that place and time and the placid river, I think many could have done it. I don't envy Sullenberger the chance to try, though. A lot of things had to go right for that to work as it did.

The incident inspires me to greater professionalism, to know my emergency procedures more fluently, to mentally practise what could go wrong everywhere I work, to make every routine landing as perfect as possible and to ensure my passengers are thoroughly briefed and understand the importance of following them. I'm sure more passengers will pay attention to the safety instructions before departure now, enough that I need a at-shirt now, saying "I paid attention to the passenger briefing before it was cool.

Curiously, it seems that most people exited onto the wings in this case, but the United Airlines A320 safety briefing (I couldn't find one for US Airways) advises passengers not to use the overwing exits in the case of a water landing. I would expect the instructions to come from Airbus and that US Airways would give similar directions, but then not all the passengers obeyed the instructions that were given. One article mentions a woman who tried to retrieve her cabin baggage from the overhead bin. When told to leave it she insisted that she needed her stuff. A man interviewed on CNN was proud of trying to evacuate "women and children first," but I'm suspecting that in the confined space of an airplane cabin any kind of precedence wasted time needed to get everyone off the airplane. Likewise at least one evacuated passenger re-entered the aircraft from the wing in order to reach a different raft. Puzzlingly, this article states that the captain refused a lifejacket, as though it was somehow a heroic gesture. What the hell? I find it hard to believe that that refused a basic safety device in order to look bold and captainly on the news. I understand that he was searching the cabin to make sure there was no one left behind, and possibly anticipated having to dive down to escape if the airplane changed orientation while it sank, but why not wear the thing as an example, and just not inflate it.

There have been two air incidents in the last month, both engine failures at take-off, that could have been tragedies but had one hundred per cent survival. The system is working, but investigators will still comb the wreckage for ways to improve procedures, facilities and aircraft in order to increase safety for future flights.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Beginning the Walkaround

I'm back from a blissful hiatus with no internet or phone and only occasional and limited TV. There's nothing in the buffer and random notes on the laptop about what I'm supposed to be blogging about. When a blog has been sitting idle this long I can't just start it up and go. I'll have to walk around carefully, sweep all the snow off, remove the pitot tube covers, check the tire pressure, and then do a good long run up, and maybe a bit of high speed taxiing before take-off.

I expect to ramp up to normal bloggage over the the next few days.