Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Flying is Exciting

Corny, old joke, but it makes me laugh.

A man is traveling by air for the first time. He gets to the gate and sees an aircraft at close range for the first time in his life. It has "Boeing 747" painted near the nose. He gets very excited and starts shouting "Boeing, Boeing...", creating a commotion.

An airline employee comes up to him and says, "Be silent".

So, he starts shouting "Oeing, Oeing...".

I have always liked the boinginess of the Boeing name.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Long Green Locks

I didn't to get my hair cut immediately before I started this work rotation. I usually do, because my hair grows really fast, but this last time home I got it cut immediately on arrival, so I'd look civilized for the passport photo, thus it had a bit of time to grow before I left, and has been growing ever since. It's going to need cutting pretty badly before I get back. It needs cutting now. I could get it done locally, but (and guys won't understand this), even if I didn't end up with Texas-style "big hair," I'd still be betraying my own hairdresser. I figured I could fake it pretty well with hair gel, but they don't seem to sell anything but extra firm hold hair wax. Or maybe I just don't recognize the brands. I abort the hair gel acquisition mission and wear a hat a lot. But my hair is getting in my eyes, too.

These bangs have to go. Well I'll just cut it. And obviously cutting hair is important, you don't want ragged stupid hair all month. I'm not sufficiently badass to do it the way Starbuck did in season three of Battlestar Galactica. I don't have a hair and make up department to step in and make it look like I did a good job hacking my hair off with my knife. But I can fly an ILS, surely I can cut some hair. So I do it very carefully, as straight as I can, with logical precision. Just like flying an ILS, right?

So how'd that work out for you Aviatrix?

Shut up.

I look like Spock.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Clipboard Notes

Sometimes I write down hilarious things that I heard on the radio to tell you about later. Obviously I have to abbreviate, just put down a couple of notes and then recall the conversation, right? Oh and I often do this in the dark, in turbulence, while not looking at what I'm writing. The results are predictable. I present to you the best transcription I can make of funniest thing someone said on the radio this week. I imagine it was written down while I was controlling the airplane, looking for traffic and laughing hysterically.

You sure GS hazl?

R cicre n moin

I think that's what it says, anyway. It's a good thing it wasn't my clearance.

Controllers here fairly frequently ask aircraft to find airplanes they can't reach on frequency. In the US, "flight following" is avaialble right across the country, but if a low-flying airplane misses a handoff because a transmitter is out and he's too low to receive from a back up, the controller loses radio contact. They'll call another pilot in the right vicinity and ask him to "raise N123RE on 123.75 and tell him to call me on 127.65."

"The military has all the money in the world, and we can't get radios that work," complains one controller. He was working Polk approach, and Polk is a military airfield, but that doesn't mean he was military. If he was he was complaining about military inefficiency that couldn't buy him new radios, but I suspect he was civilian and was comparing resources between military and civilian facilities. I've heard "It's the best we've got" several times when pilots report weak signals. They work very well around the deficiencies. One day I heard controllers telling pilots "Houston approach and landline is out of service." I wasn't going towards Houston, but I found it odd that Houston was contactable neither on approach (i.e. the approach controller's radio frequency) and the landline (i.e. telephone). I wondered if there was a bomb scare or a power failure that had shut down the whole facility. The system is very fault tolerant, however, so Houston Center managed to hand people off to tower without approach, and airplanes got to where they needed to be.

One call stood out well enough that I could interpret my notes. A pilot called to ask what for the nearest airport to her. Was it maybe Newton? The controller said yes, Newton was twelve miles southeast. The urgency of the situation was raised when the pilot asked to confirm that there was nothing nearer. The controller gave her a moment before delicately asking what was wrong. She said she had a sputtering engine, and would "try" to land at Newton, "what is the Unicom frequency there?" The controller said "standby" but I knew the frequency off the top of my head, so transmitted simply, "Newton Unicom is 122.8."

The pilot asked if this was Newton, about three miles off to her left, and after a bit of rescaling to the radar, the controller confirmed that it was. The pilot announced that she was overhead the airport, and switching to Unicom. The controller let her know that he could receive her on the center frequency until almost at the ground there. She should be fine. Drama over.

We switched frequency for a while and then returned to that one. A pilot called in and reported that there were two people talking on guard, but they were just chatting, nothing related to an emergency, and they sounded very far away. At first I thought "Huh?" Was the pilot trying to rat on someone abusing the emergency frequency? I've been let to believe that chatting on 121.5 is quite common in the US, especially by the military. My specialist asked me about it too and I speculated that perhaps he had asked that pilot to monitor 121.5 for a possible ELT activation.

That was confirmed when the controller got a hold of the another pilot who had just taken off from Newton. "Anything unusual at Newton?" the controller asked.

"What? No. Everything was normal."

"Okay, thanks," says the controller.

"There was a flaming pile of wreckage at the south end of the runway, but that's usual for a Tuesday here," I quip to my coworker.

And then to our hilarity the queried pilot adds, "There was a Bonanza landed earlier with engine problems, but no, nothing out of the ordinary." Reminds me of my first aid training. The instructor delighted in an example of a patient born without a limb who has grazed the end of a stump, making first aiders think they were dealing with a traumatic amputation. You have to establish what is normal for the patient. The pilot confirmed that the Bonanza landed without further incident, so that controller was satisfied.

I wondered why the controller hadn't simply asked the Bonanza pilot, as a Canadian one would, "Give us a call when you're on the ground." If I have an emergency or any problem that I've told ATC about, they'll always ask me to call if I'm landing at an unattended field. I'll just call Flight Services, and say, "Hi, this is Aviatrix. I've just landed GABC on one engine at Middle of Nowhere Municipal." The specialist will tell me to hang on and then transfer me to someone who will note down anything he didn't get in the radio exchange that he needs for his paperwork. It's painless. My mission specialist suggests that they don't have a centralized flight services office for a region, and they have so many more airplanes in the sky at any one time, that it wouldn't be practical to link up the data, and that the controller wasn't going to ask a pilot in an emergency to copy a number. I don't buy that, though, because indications from the US Airways landing in the Hudson and the Colgan vanishing over the outer marker, that ATC integrates spectacularly well not only with other FAA agencies but with every other service that they can call into play.

If you ask ATC for assistance or inform them of an irregular situation, do you call them after landing to assure them you're okay? What are the procedures in your country?

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Colour Theory

This is a topic that, unlike user-pay heathcare, I know in advance is controversial, so please note that I'm not telling anyone you're counting your population wrong, or that any colour of person should count more or less than any other. I'm just documenting what surprises me, and admitting the misconceptions of this one anonymous aviatrix. We touched on this earlier in a discussion in another post's comments, I believe.

I'm in a town of approximately ten thousand people. I looked it up on Wikipedia to see what people do here, what the industries are, or if there is any local history I should know about. There isn't much, but the article says the local population is within a few percentage points of fifty percent black and fifty percent white. And it says that only 1.5% of the population is composed of two or more races.

Wait, what? That's 150 people of mixed race in the whole town, a stunningly low rate of interracial mixing in a place where people of the two races clearly work and go to school together. It stretches credibility. This was once a cotton-growing, slave-owning area, so there have been black and white people living close together here for a couple of hundred years. Let's say that seven generations ago, when the slaves were freed, the population contained only pure white and pure black people, and that just one couple ever dared to breed outside their race. Assuming that two of their kids lived to produce kids, and so on for each generation, a single interracial couple in 1860 would produce the progeny to match the census claim, with no other interracial children being born or coming to the town.

I know for sure that there were interracial couples as far back as the 1860s. There was a speaker at the museum whose great-great-something-great-grandfather was a white slave owner and whose great-great-something-great grandmother was a black slave. I don't believe there was only one such ancestor in this town. Not to be too indelicate, but rape and drunken accident alone would bring the total higher than that. The possibilities, I concluded, were:

  • a) Wikipedia is in error
  • b) Almost everyone of mixed race leaves or does not have children
  • c) The vast majority of people of mixed race either lie on the census or do not know about their ancestry

Option (a) is no fun, so I'll assume that the answer is a combination of (b) and (c), which implies that being of mixed heritage carries such an extreme stigma here that you are socially ostracized or worse unless you can hide the admixture and claim to be descended from solely one race or the other.

While I was hypothesizing on the social hierarchy that would make it less acceptable to be partly descended from the dominant race than not at all, someone laughed at me and swept it all aside. In the United States, he explained, if you have enough African ancestry for it to be visible in your features, you are legally black. You can even be legally black if people can't tell by looking at you. Mixed race, he said, applies only to people who are, for example, part Pacific islander and part Caucasian, or maybe part Cherokee and part black. But if your mom is white and your dad is black, or vice versa, you're black.

I'd heard of the "one drop rule" but I thought it was historical, not a current definition. There does need to be a definition here, because in the US there are still some affirmative action opportunities for blacks, such as scholarships or quotas. For comparison, in Canada there are financial benefits to being a status Indian, so there are rules about who gets status, i.e. 1) the child of any two status Indians retains Indian status, and 2) the child of one status Indian and one non-status person also gets a status card, but only if the status parent did not get his or her card according to part two of the rule. It's called the second generation cutoff.

The probable result of the Canadian rule is that after a number of generations there won't be anyone left who is a status Indian. First nations folk aren't particularly racist in my experience, so if they are living in an area where people of other races are present, which is just about everywhere now, there is a chance they'll have children with someone who doesn't have a status card. But the result of the American rule is almost the opposite: with continued intermixing of the great American melting pot, eventually almost everyone will be able to trace some ancestry to Africa. And no one will be bothered by it.

Modern science tells me that I am ultimately of African descent, but, as far as I know, all my African ancestors walked out of that continent before recorded history, and their descendants trekked further north into Europe before settling down to breed my documented ancestors.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Blog Your Way to the Cockpit

Air Asia is running a promotion beginning with the words, "So YOU wanna be a pilot? Simple. What do you have to do? Blog. What? Thats it? Yes, you're reading it right. Blog." Woo! I'm doing it right!

In many countries, including the UK, it is normal for candidates with no flight experience whatsoever to be hired by an airline, trained from square one at that airline's expense and dropped into the right seat of a jet at two hundred odd hours. Students who pay for their own training are considered "self-sponsored," underlining the fat that someone else usually sponsors the process. During my flight training, I had an e-mail correspondence with a fellow student pilot in England. It went pretty much the same, with us debating the differences in radio technique ("what? you're allowed to say 'takeoff' on the radio?") and airspace ("Purple? Our airspace has letters, not colours!") When we both finished, he started flying a B737 and I got a job flying traffic watch in a C172. I'm afraid we kind of lost touch after that.

Usually the selection process for the coveted training spots involves personal interviews, aptitude tests and so on. I'm not sure how they normally choose the people they call to interviews. I imagine a lot of it is the same as me competing with thousands of pilots who meet the minimum standards of Canadian airlines: timing, luck and who you know.

So why not allow ten people whose daddies don't have the right friends to compete with those whose do? As the competition states, "The 10 winners are entitled to be the first to attend the first round of selection for AirAsia's new pilot intake." These folks aren't skipping the interview phase at all. They're just getting an interview. They could winnow resumes based on school marks, but after a certain level you're getting nerdier, not more suited for aviation. Really if you're going to hire someone and train them to fly an airplane, why not select the part of the candidate pool on the basis of spelling, grammar, composition and the knowledge and maturity necessary to write a good blog entry.

The person who pointed me at this thought it was poor publicity for Air Asia, but I don't see that. In my opinion, a passenger delving deeply enough into the workings of his airline to be reading their blog is beyond believing the pilot fa├žade and might be interested to see a bit of the real people who strive to get interviews and make the decisions. Of course I'm biased, but I think you can read a wannabe airline pilot's blog without worrying about the quality of fully-trained pilots.

I'd enter the competition, but I don't have time to learn good Bahasa Malaysian before the competition closes.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Butt Recognition Software

The European Union dislikes the delays and inconvenience caused by security authentication procedures as much as we do, and is funding a project called HUMABIO to develop passive identity verification, just as if a person who knew you were watching you stroll into work, and looking in on you to make sure you hadn't been hijacked, without having to interrupt you. HUMABIO project is studying a broad range of biometric parameters, even brainwaves, to recognize individual signatures. Their idea is to use continuous monitoring rather than one checkpoint, and to have the authentication completely passive.

Right now they use headgear and and other sensors to take ECG and EEG readings, seat sensors to examine posture and body signature, cameras to analyze gait and facial recognition, and audio voice recognition. A side effect of the continuous monitoring is that it could also reveal behaviour changes caused by drugs, illness or drowsiness, improving safety even when no unauthorized persons are trying to gain access.

The idea of monitoring to prevent truck hijacking brings to mind the scene in Terminator where Arnie hauls the truck driver out of the cab, and throws him on the road, before driving off with the truck. I'm guessing the 'liquid metal' terminator that imitates what it touches is programmed to fake biometric parameters as well, but keeping up that deception would at least sap some of its processing power.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

TAS - HW != GS

A couple of days ago I posed this puzzle:

Here is a wind speed puzzle. Your course is due north, 000 degrees. That is you will proceed in a straight line over the ground to a point that is due north of where you are now. The wind is blowing from 100 degrees, that is from mostly off your right wing, but slightly behind you. With no wind at all, your groundspeed would be 100 knots. Will your groundspeed in the described conditions be greater than, less than or equal to 100 kts?

Some who posted was smart enough to know that the answer is, "it depends on the windspeed." That may seem strange when all I asked for was the sign of the change in speed, but it's true.

As a general rule of thumb, if the wind is blowing from ahead of you, it slows you down, and if it is blowing from behind you it speeds you up, just as you'd probably expect. In rough flight planning I estimate that an n knot wind from m degrees behind me resolves into nSIN(m) worth of tailwind and then add the tailwind to the true airspeed to get groundspeed. (Don't think I'm some kind of walking trig table: when I say I estimate the sine of an angle we're talking "negligible," "a bit," "a lot," "half," "most," and "all.") But when the crosswind component represents a significant proportion of the speed of the airplane, things become more complex.

When there is a significant crosswind, the airplane heading is noticeably not the same as the course. The airplane travels diagonally over the ground with respect to the direction it is pointing. This means that some of the thrust of the airplane is being used to keep the airplane from being blown off course. Logically, then, that reduces the thrust available to maintain groundspeed along the track. So the component of the wind along the track is increasing the groundspeed of the airplane, but the crab is simultaneously decreasing the groundspeed.

If you haven't got your own flight computer handy, try this online one. Scroll down to the third section: Heading, Ground Speed, And Wind Correction Angle. Put in a wind direction of 100, a true airspeed of 100 and a course of 0. Now enter a wind speed of 20 and press Calculate. The calculated groundspeed is 102, so that's two knots of tailwind. Try it again with 37 knots of wind, for a calculated groundspeed of 100. Try it again with sixty fricking knots of wind, like I had the other night, and you calculate a groundspeed of 91 kts. Yeah, the wind is behind you, and you're still down nine knots.

For a given wind speed and direction the amount of head or tailwind is fixed, but the crab angle and thus the proportional reduction in speed due to the crosswind is related to the ratio between the true airspeed of the airplane and the strength of the wind. So the same wind could provide an increase in speed for a fast airplane and a decrease in speed for a slow airplane going the same direction at the same altitude. Bizarre, eh?

My favourite answer was provided by Paul, who amusingly pointed out that all your calculations will be in vain because ATC will vector you into the wind no matter what.

It's disorienting enough flying in the dark in turbulence with a whopping big wind correction angle, but when I found that I needed to fly at a high power to maintain a groundspeed of 140 whether I was going north or south it just felt unfair. You get cheated in wind anyway, because the time lost being slowed down by a headwind is not regained flying the same distance with the same wind on the tail. But when you're slowed down by wind going both ways. Well I want to complain.

The controller working Houston Center was being funny, telling every pilot who checked in that he had "reports of intermittent chop at all flight levels, so just tell me what altitude you want to be bumpy at." Around ten in the evening airline movements diminish and the frequency quiets. I called up Houston and told him I'd like to complain about the sixty knot winds. "Okay," he said, "But I'm not going to do anything about it." As I told him: yeah, I knew. It just makes me feel better to complain.

Does the fact that I'm amused that the sign of the change depends on the sine of the wind direction a sign that I'm a word geek or a math geek? Signed, Aviatrix.

P.S. The bruise is lots of pretty colours, but it's just a bruise, nothing to worry about.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Controlling One's Language

I was very interested to learn from comments on my last ATC-related post that "How do you hear?" is the official US wording to elicit what ICAO language describes as a radio check. The US controllers clearly understood both my "request radio check" version of the call and the ICAO scale of strengths and readabilities, so this makes me curious. I have some questions specifically for any US air traffic controllers (or ATC of any country that has local differences, but the US seems to have the greatest deviation). When you initially learned radiotelephony, did you learn both US standard language and ICAO standard language as separate vocabularies? Do you have to demonstrate competence in both separately? I'm assuming your regular instructions are what I have observed: that you understand and accept both vocabularies, but give instructions in American. Will you switch to giving instructions in ICAO language if there is a difficulty in understanding or at pilot request?

As a pilot, I learned primarily the local suite of phraseology, and some of it was footnoted with "this is how it works in Canada, but it's not international." For example in Canada I never give the first letter of my callsign, because everyone knows it's C. Pilots don't receive a lot of formal R/T training in Canada. The only exam we take is a horribly outdated one that ensures we know we can be fined for swearing on the radio, and that hydrogen gas is evolved from lead-acid radio batteries. So many of what I think are standard phraseologies may be Canadian-ICAO differences. I know that American pilots do not carry a separate radio operator's licence, so presumably they have no formal test on the subject. (Someone correct me if I'm wrong).

If I were designing the system, I would declare that that pilots could use ICAO language or local differences within their own country and but be required to always use ICAO in foreign countries. By that logic, controllers would be able to use ICAO or local differences with locally registered aircraft, but stick to ICAO standard communication only with foreign-registered aircraft. That would match exactly the rules for using local languages other than English. So why isn't that the rule? I suspect it's that in English-speaking countries people quickly forget that radio language isn't the same as English.

Radio language isn't even the same all over one country. Was it Florida where I was working that the controllers kept saying "one two, twelve thousand" to reiterate that they were talking about 12,000' and not 1000' or 2000'? Turns out the Dallas and Houston controllers I worked with say "one two thousand" without any clarification, just like Canadian controllers. It must have been a regional thing.

Regardless of what language they speak, the controllers here are really good. They juggle all the incoming aircraft into a conga line for the runways at DFW and IAH, while keeping track of the planes going to little airports in between. They don't forget about me and rarely lose track of what I have requested even after several handoffs. And they watch out for the pilots who need more help. The controller was so gracious as he asks a pilot to confirm his destination and recommends a heading change that I don't know if the pilot even realized that the controller suspected he was lost. This particular pilot kept drifting back to the incorrect course, but the controller never lost patience. "What is your means of navigation?" he asked. I didn't hear the pilot answer the question, only the controller's half of the conversation was audible. I suppose the pilot was operating with a map and a directional gyro that needed to be reset to the compass at regular intervals. It was a windy night so either wind or gyro drift or a combination may have led to his difficulties, but eventually the controller gave him "no compass vectors," asking him to put the airplane into a gentle right turn and hold the bank angle until the controller told him to roll out. I admire the versatility of the controller handholding in one call and then in the next telling United to cross AZEDD at 300 knots, in a big game of three-dimensional tetris.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Wind Speed Puzzle

Here is a wind speed puzzle. Your course is due north, 000 degrees. That is you will proceed in a straight line over the ground to a point that is due north of where you are now. The wind is blowing from 100 degrees, that is from mostly off your right wing, but slightly behind you. With no wind at all, your groundspeed would be 100 knots. Will your groundspeed in the described conditions be greater or less than 100 kts?

My answer and why I mention it, in a couple of days. And as usual, if you know you know, give the student pilots a chance to answer first.

Also, I stood on the wing to fuel tonight, then as I slid off the leading edge holding the fuel nozzle I managed to bash my leg on a nacelle fairing. A customer watched me do it, and I was telling him the truth when I smiled and said I was fine, but I have a really amazing colourful bruise on my leg now.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Local Language and Cuisine

In which Aviatrix tries to get her mouth around things.

I've been tasked by a reader familiar with the ways of Texans to try a few experiments. All involve comestibles. Two involve fast food establishments, the first of which is called Whataburger.

At Whataburger, you must have at least one thing on the menu. If it is breffiss time, you MUST HAVE A POTATO AND EGG TAQUITO. Must. If it is 'other' time, have a whataburger. No special requests, just have one.

Whataburger was only about a kilometre from the hotel, but I borrowed a vehicle, because that's how fast food is done, and drove to Whataburger. I still did it wrong, because it was only after I parked in the parking lot and went in that I realized they had a drive through. Look, they do have cars and drive throughs and everything in Canada. I've been through the Tim Horton's drive through and I know what a double-double is. It's just not my lifestyle. And I would have spent too long gawking at the menu and been hard to understand in the drive through, anyway. The instructions proved difficult to follow, as it was, as I'm on the late shift, prepared to work through to the early hours of the morning, so my breakfast is at noon, and Whataburger's breakfast menu ends at 11 a.m. I had carefully memorized the words "potato and egg taquito" but had not been prepared for it to be not available. I choked on the fallback and ended up with a chicken burger, which now that I re-read my instructions might not have been what I was supposed to do, but it was pretty good.

It came in a bag with a space on the side for me to write my name, I guess the idea is that I might reuse the bag for my kid to take his lunch to school. Better than sending your kid to school with a lunch in a liquor store bag. The chicken was crispy and the lettuce and tomato inside actually tasted like lettuce and tomato, not just garnish.

And touching on Airplanes, Breakfast and Chicken, we have this episode of SMBC. The linked cartoon is at the tamer end of the author's range, so don't click on to other examples unless your tastes range to sick adult humour.

I had a short flight in the rain that day, allowing me to return land, fuel and park in time to have supper at a civilized hour. We went out to a local place where I ordered pot roast with carrots and okra. The word okra always makes me think of okapi, but okra is a vegetable. It arrived breaded and deep fried. I keep forgetting that pretty much anything you order might be delivered that way. I should consider myself lucky the pot roast (tender and suculent and way too much to eat) and the carrots (can anyone wreck carrots?) were not breaded and deep fried. I peeled the breaded coating off the okra with a knife and fork and a little bit of fingers and the okra inside was really good. I'm not sure whether it was just the "fat makes everything taste good" principle or whether I actually like okra, but I didn't regret ordering it.

Meanwhile I'm learning not only a new accent, but a new grammar. In Deep East Texas, "you" is used only to denote second person singular. So if I'm talking to one person and they are asking me a question about myself, they say "you." But if I'm at dinner with a group, we are addressed as y'all. That's one syllable, in as much as anything a Texan says involving a vowel can have only one syllable. Rhymes with maul. That is the standard pronoun for seonf person plural. And it has a possessive form: y'all's. It was fascinating, because the word was unfamiliar it stood out. "Do y'all want y'all's salad before y'all's meals?" I don't think the waitress ever used used "you" or "your" to refer to us. And why whould she? I think in her dialect of English that was not an appropriate pronoun. It would have made as much sense to her as addresing us as "he."

I talked to one woman from Houston, she was working in an FBO a bit further north and her north Texas co-workers were challenging her to try not to say y'all. I asked her, "does it feel wrong to not say 'y'all,' and just say 'you' when talking to multiple people?" And she said yes, it did.

I guess people here are used to hearing movies and national news broadcasts and the like where the grammar isn't the same as theirs, so they don't hear my speech as wrong. Sometimes I have to say things a few times to be understood. The experience makes me feel a bit better about the quality of my French, as it shows that a person can be saying something correctly according to their initial instruction, and just not be understood because the local accent doesn't match the instructor's accent. I try to slow down a bit, and not speak 'so Canadian' but I don't want to be perceived as mocking. You can't turn off your native accent without striving to sound like something else. I don't even know if people could tell I was trying. There's a lengthening and lowering and gravelifying of the vowels that is a wonder to behold and at times seems like so much effort that I'm watching and listening to try and figure out if there is some new use they have for what to me are the easier shorter vowels. Do I sound like I'm rushing or clipping my speech?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Two Left Thumbs and the Electric Courthouse

I fuel after landing so the airplane is ready for the morning. The fuel pump is the standard self-serve type. There's a sturdy clip attached to a spring loaded retractable grounding wire. You pull the wire out of the reel far enough to clip onto a metal part of the airplane. I have a tab on the nose gear that fits it nicely. Then you can press Enter on the console to acknowledge that the airplane is grounded, and swipe the credit card. It asks for the grade of fuel you want: 1 for Avgas and 2 for Jet A, and then you tell it how many gallons you want. The game is to ask for just the right amount so you fill the airplane without authorizing more than you needed on the card. It usually takes a couple of minutes for the machine to receive an authorization, so while I'm waiting for that to come through I zero the counter, pull the hose out to the furthest tank and take off the first fuel cap. I would have checked the length of the hose before authorizing had there been any doubt it would reach, but I know I'm good here. The manager has painted arcs on the ground labelled OW and SP to show how far the hoses will reach for OverWing and Single Point fuelling. When the credit card has been authorized the pump turns on, and then all I have to do is lift the valve and then fuel will come out when I squeeze the trigger on the nozzle. Some people lift the valve lever while they are waiting for the authorization, but I have met pumps that won't work if you do that first, so I always wait, even though it may mean an extra trip back and forth from wing to box.

My favourite little touch at this fuel pump is the work gloves that have been provided. In cold weather it's nice not to have to hold the nozzle with your bare hands, and when retracting the hose or especially the possibly spiky wire grounding line, it's good to wear work gloves. The reason these are of note is that there are two left gloves. I'm betting the right handed owner had two pairs of work gloves for which the right glove was worn through, so bought a new pair for his own use and put the two lefties on the pump.

I'm done for the day now, so I go for a walk around town. The centre of town has an old historic courthouse building, still in use, with an equally historic jail, no longer used for that purpose, right on the front lawn. There are a number of historical markers on the courthouse lawn, commemorating Confederate bivouacs and veterans of every American war since. There are also a very large number of electrical plug-ins all over the courthouse lawn, all the way around. It's not a little cluster where one might have amplification for a summer band or the microphones of a rally. They're everywhere and in large numbers. It's as if they were expecting the confederate soldiers to return to camp on the lawn, only this time with RVs and tent trailers requiring electrial services. I really can't work it out, unless the courthouse lawn really is intended as a refugee camp of some sort.

I pass around the courthouse to an old hotel across the street. The owner and some of the guests are sitting on the porch and I stop to chat. The owner has a son studying to be a pilot, so we talk about that for a while. They want to know what I think of Texas so far. I tell them some of the things that I've told you, and admit that I got beaten up pretty badly on my blog when I said Texas heath care seemed scary to me. It turns out that two of the guests are nurses from out of state, brought in because there's a shortage here. They laugh and tell me it scares lots of people, but it's all likely to change soon anyway. And then the Texans teach me two expressions that they say could come in handy if anyone gives me any trouble about what I put on my blog.

Aren't Texans nice?

Oh and everyone really does know one another in small towns. Honestly, every person I met already knew every other person I mentioned, along with whom they owed money and where they got their truck. That doesn't seem possible, as the signs claimed a population of over eight thousand, and I didn't even know everyone in my highschool, but there you are.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Deep East Texas

I'm carrying less fuel than usual, because I have some favours to ask of the destination FBO and buying 200 gallons of avgas is a good way to open a conversation of that sort. I called ahead and asked the owner if he could supply the amount of fuel we'll be looking for over the next week and he answered in the affirmative, punctuating his enthusiasm for that volume of sales with the words "Praise the Lord!"

The controller gives me clearance to "taxi to runway 31 via bravo, cross runway 36" There are two things unusual about the clearance. Firstly, the other times I've departed out of here on 31, the controller has given me an intersection departure. That is, he has told me not to go all the way to the beginning of runway 31, but to enter it from an intersection with a taxiway. One day I took off from the delta intersection. Another day I held short at taxiway charlie while a couple of Cessna 172s waited at echo. That's a situation that raises a pilot's alertness just a little, because accidents happen when airplanes are lined up in different places for access to the same resource. Some airports don't allow intersection departures at all, for that reason. The Cessnas were there first, but the controller cleared me for takeoff first. Not unusual, as he knew I'd be up and out of the way faster than the single-engine guys. Or maybe the first Cessna in line was taking his time and hadn't called ready yet.

The other unusual part of the clearance was the explicit instruction to cross runway 36. That would be required in Canada, but in the US if the taxi route you are assigned crosses a runway, you are implicitly cleared across that runway. There are exceptions, airports where you do have to get an explicit clearance, in an attempt to cut down on runway incursions. Crossing without the clearance is a little nervewracking for me, like driving in a city where the rule is that you don't stop at red lights, just drive on through. Sometimes I stop anyway and irritate controllers by asking for confirmation that I am cleared across. But this guy did tell me to cross 36, and that's doubly unusual because 18/36 is NOTAMed closed today. Maybe they're fixing the lights.

I'm guessing the controller is also qualified at another airport that doesn't give intersection departures and always gives explicit runway crossing instructions. I suppose I should have asked for the intersection departure. Maybe he thinks I need the whole runway. I don't usually ask for anything I'm not offered at an unfamiliar airport. I don't know what system I'm going to interfere with.

I line up and take off. The empty airplane climbs like a bat out of hell. I level off at 1900' because there are still a few clouds around and very little civilization to disturb with my engine noise. I just zip straight and level across bayou-like country, with a few farms, or perhaps oil rigs. I'm not paying close attention to what's on the ground. Just watching for traffic. I start my engine cooling just before a big feathery-edged lake. I suspected at the time that it was man-made, because time and Mother Nature tend to smooth out the edges of natural lakes. Since then, blog comments regarding another lake indicate that pretty much all the lakes in Texas are man-made.

I'm coming into an uncontrolled airport, or "non-towered" as they're officially called here. I call traffic thirty miles back and again ten miles back, careful to use the airport name at the beginning and end of each call. Many airports share the same Unicom frequency and the same runway numbers.

I'm at circuit height, or traffic pattern altitude, as it's called here, just coming up abeam the opposite end of the runway from where I plan to land. A Cessna pilot calls to say he is taking the runway. It's the same runway I picked, good. I didn't have up to date wind information, just guessed based on what I had aloft and the last METAR I had. I call joining downwind, and the Cessna pilot immediately amends his call and says he's holding short.

"No, no, you go ahead and take off," I say. That wasn't really good airmanship on my part: a pilot can make up his own mind whether to go or not. I should have said something closer to "I will be landing in two minutes, you don't mind if you take off," instead of telling him what to do. The point is, he has plenty of time to roll before I get there, and there's no point him wasting his time waiting for me. I see him rotate before I'm through downwind. I turn base and then final. Hmm. The taxiway and the runway are both the same width and I can't see any markings on either. Which one was he on? There's a definite eenie-meanie-miney-moe moment with my hand looking for the airport publication, before I spot the APAPI on the grass in between. I can't remember ever seeing an APAPI that wasn't on the left of the runway, so the runway must be the one on the right. On short final the worn runway markings become visible there.

I land, roll out and taxi in, looking for somewhere to park. I don't know which spots are reserved and which are for transient aircraft, so I park on an unoccupied area of the ramp aways from the other aircraft. There's another pilot on the apron, getting out of an old "fastback" Cessna. I ask if this is his home field, and he answers in the affirmative. It's Sunday, so I'm not expecting any service, but when I wonder where I can plug in my equipment, the pilot tells me I should call the manager.

"You have to remember where you are," he says, as if that should explain everything. We go into the FBO so he can look up the manager's home telephone number for me. A government poster on the wall designates this region as Deep East Texas. That seems somehow appropriate. The airfield manager recognizes my voice (how many Canadian chicks call to ask him about bulk avgas purchases?) and is happy to come out to get us settled in. The local accent is amazing. The vowels go on for ever. I've never heard this even in movies. I'm glad that the rate of speech is slow, because even when the sounds are not so different I can't understand, the novelty distracts me from paying attention to the meaning of what people are saying. I know that I must sound this different, and also that my speech is unnaturally rapid. I try to remember to slow down, but there's no way I could copy those vowels.

The airfield manager/FBO owner is a lawyer. He tells me he's doing some public defence work for some juveniles and is glad he has some folks to defend. I give him a card with my cellphone number on it, and mention which hotel I'm staying at, as another point of contact. His daddy owns it. He introduces me to everyone who taxies up to the pumps and standing indoors tells me who he caught stealing fuel, whose daddy ows him a favour, and everyone's relationship to everyone. I didn't get the blow by blow of who was sleeping with whom, but he told me one story containing a distinguishable piece of self-censorship as he selected the word "butt" to replace what had presumably been "ass" in the uncut version. I guess there's still a distinction here about how you talk to a lady, even if she is wearing an oil-stained baseball cap.

I feel as if a John Grisham novel is about to break out.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

From the Flight Deck

You all know that I am a commercial pilot who would like to be an airline pilot. So, you would probably guess that when an airline in-flight magazine has a column written by one of the pilots, I read it with a mixture of admiration and ambition, imagining that I could be doing that someday. That's half the reason they put that column in there, isn't it? Almost everyone wants to talk to the pilot, to be reassured that he or she seems competent and caring, or just to get a touch of that stardust that makes these huge airplanes fly. For me the column counts double, because not only do I want to be the one flying the plane, I'm already one of those doing the writing. I love to write and to explain my job to people.

On Air Canada, my country's flag carrier, the pilot who writes the From the Flight Deck column is Captain Doug Morris. The other day, completely out of the blue, I received e-mail from Doug Morris. Not just any old e-mail, but e-mail thanking me for the piloting resources I put on the Internet. I was ten feet tall for the rest of the day. It's comparable to a struggling writer getting e-mail from Margaret Atwood. (Or perhaps from John Irving, to put that in American translation). So of course I wrote back, and he wrote back, etcetera. Captain Morris shares my interest not only in flying and in writing about aviation, but about aviation weather. He even has a degree in meteorology. (I'm self-taught). As many of you who have started private e-mail conversations with me know, it ends in us telling each other stories. Doug tells good stories.

He has recently published a book which is a compilation of his From the Flight Deck columns. Sample his style on his blog where he posts some of his magazine columns. It's a real blog though, including not-published-elsewhere original entries such as this detailed account of his latest recurrent sim training. You have to be able to take off in the sim, knowing that all manner of things are going to go wrong and that you will handle them correctly in order to keep your job. That demonstrates your ability to take off in real life, never knowing what might go wrong, and being able to handle that correctly so you and your passengers can stay alive.

En route now uses a question and answer format for the From the Flight Deck column, so Doug is currently soliciting questions to use in a similar context on his blog. I suggest you click over there and ask your airline flying questions now, before he has too many to answer. I expect that fans of my blog or of Dave's Flight Level 390 will make From the Flight Deck a regular read.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Finding the Corners

I have a quick forty minute flight to do, but I haven't checked the weather for a few hours, because I checked out of the hotel this morning and my computer is packed away. I go into the FBO to use their pilot briefing room. They have a dedicated terminal for a proprietary weather briefing system. The US has many different proprietary pilot briefing systems that different FBOs subscribe to. Some of them are great, better than the Nav Canada system, but I haven't learned ever wrinkle of every system. I click something that looks useful on this one, but it tells me this FBO doesn't subscribe to that option. Too useful, I guess. If I have the option I'll just go to the US government system, because I've invested the time to learn my way around it, and it's good.

I don't know the chronology on this, but here's what I suspect happened. The US has long had an online system called DUATS. I wouldn't be surprised if DUATS were originally a teletype service for the airlines, back when the Telex and the DC-3 were first invented. DUATS classic is a highly condensed ALL CAPS code that the cool American pilots with computers were using back when Canadians just called up flight services on the telephone. It's no wonder that commercial services stepped in to offer the Americans easier-to-use services. They must have been expensive, but they were a benefit the competitive American FBOs could offer their customers. In Canada the FBOs didn't have to attract customers (what are you going to do, stay up there forever or land at the only airport in 400 miles?) so no such system arose until Nav Canada put everything on a website. I don't know which website provided flight briefing services first, Nav Canada or NOAA.

I click around the unfamiliar program to find the same products I would get anywhere. Most of these systems are pretty intuitive: you click on things and get METARs and TAFs and pretty pictures. If you're lucky the one you are using has done something clever with the data to give you a graphical route briefing but as far as I can tell, this one just retrieves text forecasts and reports, and a graphic of TFRs, including the oxymoronic "permanent TFRs." The closest TFRs to me are Disneyworld and an airshow up in North Texas, so I'm safe.

Meanwhile the METAR for destination shows me clouds lower than the highest towers in the vicinity of the runway, and low visibility. In fact there's an IFR AIRMET Sierra out for such conditions to persist over a wide area until noon. An AIRMET (it may have been a SIGMET, they're identical in format) warns of a hazardous condition affecting an area. Here's an example, not the one I was looking at, but the same format.

WAUS43 KKCI 182045
CHIZ WA 182045

The first couple lines say which station issued it and when. The third line names this update as Z3, warning of icing conditions until 03Z, occurring in the states listed in the fourth line. Specifically the ice is expected inside an area bounded by lines drawn between the points given: from 20 nm northwest of YQT --hey, I know that one: Thunder Bay--to 80 nm north-northeast of SAW and so on through the airports I don't know, back around the polygon to Thunder Bay.

I'm not positive that the AIRMET covers my destination, as it gives corner points, all airport identifiers, and I can only find two of them on my chart. I'm used to the graphic and am not used to reading the text version of the US style. I may be missing a graphical mode on this system to show me the AIRMETs, like the first page on the NOAA site. In Canada, the boundaries of a SIGMET or AIRMET are given in lat-long coordinates, with directions and distances to airports in parentheses, so you don't need to know where YQT is to find it on your chart.

WSCN34 CWUL 181918
SIGMET A4 VALID 181920/182320 CWUL-
WTN 60 NM OF LN /4808N05156W/45 NE ST JOHNS - /4615N05610W/30 S ST PIERRE.

I would have pulled up the same warning for the Canadian side, but Canada only issues SIGMETs for severe icing. SIGMETs are issued for ICAO-mandated hazardous conditions and AIRMETs for country specific hazards that don't meet SIGMET-nastiness criteria. You can see that the format of the SIGMET above is pretty much like the US one, but with lat-long coordinates and spelled out place names in place of airport identifiers. I like that because I usually have some idea where "Muskoka" or is without looking, but if you don't you can find it on the chart easily. There are so many airports in the US, no one could know them all, so I'm surprised that they don't do the same. Of course, they probably think our system is broken for not plotting the SIGMETs on a map of the country.

There must be a tool I'm not thinking of that I could use to find these airports. I could google them, or otherwise look them up but I'm just sitting at a dedicated planning terminal with my chart. I'll have to go back out to the airplane and get the AF/D. I refresh again and now see that AIRMET Sierra has been extended through to 03Z. That's nine in the evening. Great.

I put off figuring out the AIRMET and check the NOTAMs. The NDB is out of service at my destination and the only other approach there is GPS, which I don't have for IFR approaches. So I'm going VFR if I'm going.

I refresh the destination METAR a few times. It's an autostation so should give frequent updates and I can get a trend. So far that trend is downwards.

Another pilot comes in. I offer him the terminal, but he's just here for coffee. He used to fly Dash-8s, so we chat about Dash-8 anti-ice protection and stall behaviour. I mention my AIRMET issue and he offers to see if he knows the airports. When I pull up the AIRMET it's gone. There isn't even a S3 cancelling the original AIRMET. That must be an artifact of the system. Or don't US SIGMETs end with a cancelling SIGMET, like this.

WSCN34 CWUL 182149

I refresh the METAR and my destination is 3800' scattered. Hey, works for me. Good talking to you. I'm ready to go.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Preemptive Fire Suppression

Someone just sent me this link to a story with pictures about what happened to a United Airlines Boeing 767 that had just been refurbished with an all new interior and passenger entertainment system. It was sitting in the maintenance hangar in Chicago, almost ready to be released back to the line, when the hangar fire suppression system activated. It was the third erroneous activation of the system in as many weeks.

Now a hangar full of airplanes needs some serious firefighting capability. An airplane pulled in off the line with a problem may have thousands of pounds of jet fuel inside it, and a fire could kill dozens of workers. So this is not a sprinkler like the one in your office. This is an automatic deluge of thousand p.s.i. water cannons, blowing through eleven side windows and destroying the new interior, and the entertainment system. The list of resulting maintenance issues at the bottom of the page shows that the cockpit was also drenched, with radios and numerous avionics destroyed, including multiple computer display screens. Everything will need to be removed and cleaned, and a lot replaced, and likely the airplane will suffer from irritating avionics problems for years to come.

Word is that the fire system contract went to the lowest bidder.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Post With No Content

This post removed because people don't heed warnings, and I don't want to contribute to other people's nightmares.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sunday Flyers

The mix of traffic on the weekend is noticeably different than during the week. There are far more single-engine airplanes on short hops or "in the pattern" (doing circuits) and fewer jets on long flights. Some of the Sunday pilots aren't as fluent in ATC speak as their weekday counterparts.

A controller wanted to know one pilot's clearance valid time or when he had filed his flight plan or something. I wasn't listening closely until the conversation got odd. The pilot knew the answer, but was having trouble finding the words. The controller suggested zero zulu, but that wasn't quite right, for some reason.

Still struggling, with the words, you could almost see him wrestling with the trim, the mixture, the yoke, and the power setting in low level turbulence, the pilot managed "It was ... one minute before. Uh before ...that."

"Twenty-three fifty-nine?" suggested the air traffic controller.

"Yeah! That's it!"

I think maybe you had to be there, but it took us a while to stop laughing after that.

Oh and for those of you who don't read the comments, you're missing more than usual from my intelligent and witty readers on the In a Flap posting from two days ago. I've got two turboprop experts expounding on exactly what it means to be in beta. I think if I had them in my living room we might need some more beer and yummy chicken things by now.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

This Part of the Cow

I went out to the FBO to bring the keys for the mechanic to work on the gauge. I also went on board the airplane to double-check that the brakes were released, so they wouldn't be dragged as the airplane was towed into the hangar. As I opened the door, the hinge broke. Great. I added that to the journey log. The brakes were off after all.

I waited inside the FBO for the mechanic so I could tell him he had an extra door-fixing job, too. There, I chatted with the folks at the FBO. They are friendly and probably think my accent is as funny as I think theirs are.

It's the receptionist's birthday so she has cake which she is offering to everyone so she doesn't have to bring it home. I don't quite understand how cake is a hardship, but I don't search too hard for the logic: I'm being given cake. My Cake Wrecks knowledge causes me to hope that Happy Birthday is misspelled, but it's a pretty ordinary cake. It has a photo of her with her boyfriend on it, which is odd to me unless they have the same birthday, but perhaps it was an anniversary too, or it was just a picture she really liked.

While I'm eating my cake one of the guys mentioned that he's going to go parachute jumping if the weather holds. He names an airport I haven't heard of then says it's north of Shreveport. It's in Arkansas. "Oh, across the border," i say, with recognition. He laughs, at what I've said and then I realize. "Oh yeah, I guess 'the border' would normally mean in Mexico, eh?"

He shakes his head, "No, it's exactly what someone in Texas would say. Texans think that Texas is its own country. I'm just laughing that you'd say that."

I recall then, from American TV shows featuring kidnapping and smuggling that the correct expression is "state line." In the US, countries have borders while counties and states have lines. In Canada countries and provinces have borders.

Later we go out for Texas barbeque. It's a very nondescript place, which we've been told is required for real barbeque. There's a Coca-Cola menu on the wall and specials on the chalkboard, but we don't really understand it all. I was just going to order something and see what we I got, but my co-worker is more direct.

"We're not from around here. How does this work? Is there like a meal that we can order all together?"

There is. We can get up to three meats and two sides for five dollars. There is chicken and turkey, and ribs and brisket and some other things that got lost in the list. No hamburgers or hot dogs, which are the standard barbeque items at home.

"What's brisket?" she asks me while we're talking about it. I don't know. Some kind of cow meat. Again, she is direct and asks the guys behind the counter. "What's brisket?"

The guy at the grill lifts one knee up, as if he were going to put his foot on the edge of a chair to tie his shoe. The position of the leg rounds out the shape of his butt and he slaps it with his hand. "This part of the cow."

I chose turkey, ribs and brisket with baked beans and potato salad and lemonade. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't a "wow!" experience. I expected it to be more flavourful somehow. More smokey tasting I guess. The turkey was in big strips, tasted about the same as baked Thanksgiving turkey. The ribs were probably the best, dry, not greasy, so you could flake the meat with a plastic fork. The brisket was very uniform in texture and colour. It reminded me a little of tinned corned beef, but it did taste better than that. And if you know anything about Texas you can guess that there was an amazing amount of food. I took the leftovers back to the hotel and ate some the next day, but hadn't finished it in two days when we moved on and I had to throw the rest out.

Friday, March 13, 2009

In a Flap

The customer called me at noon for a mostly daytime flight today. I picked up a strawberry chicken sandwich at a deli and ate it in the truck on the way to the airport. It was slightly messy, but definitely good.

The before takeoff checklist requires me to verify all the gauges are green: oil temperature, oil pressure, cylinder head temperature, fuel flow, EGT: every needle sitting in the proper range. As I add power, my eye flicks again to the two three-fold engine gauges. When I flew this airplane two crew the non-flying pilot's line was "green six ways" and I still think that as I start to add power for the takeoff roll. Airspeed alive, rotate, positive rate, insufficient runway remaining, gear up. The engines are at full power now, and I'll leave them that way through five hundred feet of climb. I'm not going to mess with them until I have at least a few seconds of glide time in which to think.

I'm never conscious of having just looked at my engine gauges, but my wheels were barely off the pavement before I knew that the needle on my right engine oil temperature gauge had fallen to zero. Perhaps the motion was rapid enough that I caught it in my peripheral vision. Presumably I'm descended from the cavemen who saw the sabre-toothed tigers sneaking up, and not from the ones who missed that slight movement of a stalking cat, so this sort of thing gets my attention. It's training not evolution that resulted in absolutely no reaction from me though. That's not steely astronaut nerves. It's just knowing that there is no emergency that causes oil temperature to suddenly zero. It's just the gauge. I continue the flight, tapping the instrument from time to time, but it never comes back to life.

The route took us over Texarkana, a town name that reminds me of the names of the American republics in Robert Heinlein's future America in his novel Friday. It's actually a town on the border of Texas and Arkansas, mostly the latter. I don't know what it has to recommend itself apart from its cool name and accessible airport. While we were on frequency there, a departing jet reported a flap problem. The flaps were stuck at nine degrees, I think the pilot said. "Do you want any equipment?" asked the air traffic controller, after confirming that the filed destination was unchanged. The pilot gave a rambling answer, saying that he'd discussed the issue with company, and that he wasn't declaring an emergency, and he didn't expect any problems, but under the circumstances, yes, he'd like trucks. For those of you not familiar with aviation euphemisms, both "equipment" and "trucks" here refer to the sort that have flashing lights all over them, and sirens.

After a while he changed his mind and said that yes, he was declaring an emergency, but that his situation hadn't changed, he was going to be fine. I don't think the paperwork is any different whether you use the e-word or not.

I'm sure he arrived safely, after a somewhat slower than usual flight and a somewhat faster than usual landing. I hope his passenger briefing was more succinct than that radio call. I'm not saying I'm any expert on emergency PAs, nor that I don't make the same mistakes, but you can hear some cringeworthy cabin announcements from pilots who are more worried about scaring the passengers than about the upcoming landing. The rule I'm trying to cement in my head is keep it brief. If you say there's nothing to worry about once, some passengers start to worry. But if you say it twice, everyone starts wondering just how worried they should be. Phil has an amusing account at his blog of a flapless landing.

A reader sent me the clip above of a propeller malfunction at fifty feet after takeoff. Not only did the propeller go into beta uncommanded, but pulling the prop control back to minimum didn't fix the problem, so he had to shut down the engine. All done correctly by a brand new captain, I'm told.

There's nothing in his PA that shouldn't be. It doesn't matter whether the engine is surging, on fire or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir jumped out of it and started dancing on the nacelle, "experienced a slight abnormality" and "precautionary shutdown" are reasonable things to say. The bullshit might be less obvious if he had left off the "slight." You don't want it to come out like, "Nothing is wrong, we're just going back to land because uh, I forgot my wallet." I think it's mostly the repetition of "here" that undermines his message. He sounds like that not because he can't talk, but because talking is occupying only a small part of his attention. Passengers hear that and think that the rest of his attention is taken up with "Oh my God, we're all going to die!" A Dash-8 climbs like a bat out of hell on one engine, and he's in VMC, so while I'm sure he's focused on landing the plane, he's also thinking about the inevitable paperwork, fending off idiotic comments from his FO, wondering if this is going to screw up his whole work schedule for the month (answer: no, a newly upgraded captain already has the worst possible schedule), and hoping his SOPs are letter perfect on the tape.

I approached my destination just after dark. The shape of clouds that had not been topped very high at sunset obscured some of the stars. I was focusing on my descent checks and noticing flashing on the engine nacelles. As the sun goes down the strobes reflect off the nacelles and I almost always think, "was that lightening?" One the sunset was so bright and orange reflecting off the bottom of the nacelle that I did a double-take, looking for flames. The strobes can become distracting, so I switched them off, but I had a little suspicion already that it wasn't just the strobes this time. I turned slightly and at that moment the clouds right in front of us lit up the sky, right to the back of the airplane with its blacked out windows. You can't count the seconds between the flash and the bang in the air, because you hear the lightning instantly on every radio frequency. There was little radio interference, and winds at the airport below were light, both consistent with my belief that the lightning was a good ways off. Terminal passed me off to tower and I joined "downwind" (in quotes because I had been required to stay high until very close to the airport, so we were still plumetting towards circuit altitude, not flying a level circuit). I land, and taxi in past someone washing his car on the ramp.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Love of Flying

I love flying airplanes. I like everything about it, but it's the whole package that skyrockets it into love.

I'm not a machinery enthusiast, really. I trace the paths of the squirrels and marbles to laugh at Rube Goldberg contraptions. I'm impressed by machinery that does a complex job utilizing simple machines like winches and levers, wheels, cogs and screws. I like to know where the escalator goes when it gets to the bottom and why the handrails don't quite keep up to the stairs. When I was a kid I liked taking apart my toy dump truck with the toy wrench and screwdriver, and spent hours playing with those sandbox diggers with the cables and levers, but then I also spent hours crocheting hideous dolls' clothes. (Both the dolls and the clothes were hideous, if you're curious about the ambiguity there).

I have no huge affection for internal combustion engines. I acknowledge the cleverness and usefulness of the invention, and I certainly appreciate the way the parts of my engines keep on moving, hour after hour while I fly over Texas, but there's nothing else with an internal combustion engine that I appreciate as anything more than a tool. For example I would rather walk than take a car for the same amount of time, and in many cases I'd rather ride a bike than drive a car for the same distance.

I like computers. The idea of being able to parlay yes/no circuits into higher and higher commands and subroutines is interesting and disciplining. The way a computer mimics real intelligence offers insights into real intelligence. There are lots of computer applications that impress me. Usually that's not so much for the scale of how many computations they do, because I've grown up with computers and compute is what they do. I'm more impressed that someone realized that this thing that no one has done before is actually possible to do, because a computer can make that many computations and just make this work.

All of these things are part of what happens in flying an airplane, but being in command of an airplane is just something else. You put all this together and have it work for you. It's a little bit like having a well-trained dog or a horse respond to your commands, making you fiercer, more sensitive and far far faster than you are without its help. It's a little bit like being able to fly yourself. And then you feel the responsibility to get it where you are going.

I love navigation systems. Things as simple as an A-N beacon and things as simultaneously simple and complex as GNSS. I've always loved maps, especially the old ones that revealed through their crazy guesses that maps are just what we think is out there, and not necessarily what is there.

I love interpreting weather. I wrote a novel once (one of those write as fast as you can and who cares if it's any good efforts) and my friends laughed at the fact that my descriptions of the weather in each chapter could not have been written by anyone but a pilot. I couldn't write about a cloud without describing how it got there, nor have the weather in successive chapters not make sense from the point of view of frontal passage.

It doesn't matter how frustrating the customers have been, how bad the hotel, how unpalatable the food, how cold or hot it is or how cranky the ground controller was. At some point in the day I get to line up with a runway, push those throttles forward and fly! Every time the mains come off, even though I'm thinking about blue line and how far it is to the fence, and whether that Cessna pilot on the crossing runway understands what "position and hold" means, and keeping the wings level as the gear comes up, even if the gear doors cause some yaw ... every time the mains come off I also think "wheee!" I'm flying.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Magic Placebo Pills

Whenever I hear about a cure for the common cold, I remember the old explanation that folk remedies will make the cold go away in about seven days, whereas the cold would probably last a whole week without them. Nevertheless, if I have or think I'm getting a cold, I hit it with everything I've got: all the sleep I can sleep for, copious amounts of weak herbal tea laced with raw honey, chicken soup made chunky with raw sliced garlic, gargling salt water, you name it. I'm not allowed cough and cold syrups or anything drug-related, but I'm all over the folk remedy pharmacopoeia.

So when a reader offered me a trial of Cold-EEZE, a non-pharmaceutical product that is supposed to stave off or, failing that, shorten the duration of the common cold I said yes, please. It would be usable in circumstances where chewing on raw garlic is inadvisable and hey, pilots can't resist free stuff. (On that topic, here's a year-old post on pilot cheapness via The Flying Pinto, a witty and frequently-updated flight attendant blog.)

The theory is that zinc ions interfere with the reproduction of the virus, which sounds plausible, thus increasing its efficacy as a placebo, plus I have seen this in places other than on the manufacturer's website, so I suspect it's even true. The trick seems to be getting the zinc into your system in an active yet palatable form.

Cold-EEZE offers a pretty good choice of how to ingest your zinc. There are lozenges, gumballs, chicklet-sized gum and several different flavours. I find that if you have just one, it's tasty, like a piece of candy, but following the directions and having them every few hours all day the underlying metallic medicinal taste becomes more apparent. It's still perfectly palatable and I find that it helps to vary the flavours, so have a green tea one and then a honey-lemon one and then later a cherry one. They should sell a "mixed flavour" pack. (I'm mixing and matching from the various different boxes). I gave a box to a coworker when she and her husband-to-be were both sick with a sore throat, but she reported them too sweet to be palatable, admitting that she was having trouble swallowing anything so it might not be a fair assessment.

I suppose this is a testimonial, but I have no idea whether they work for me or not because I haven't cut back on the other preventative techniques, and who is to say which times when I thought I might be coming down with a cold but didn't, the Cold-EEZE thwarted the rhinovirus? There's no 'control Aviatrix' out there NOT taking the remedies for me to check up and see if she gets more colds than me. I haven't ever had to beg off work because I was sick or congested, and I don't eat garlic when I'm in close contact with other people, so they're probably helping. I call them my magic placebo pills.

Oh and e-mail just arrived continuing the theme of free stuff: Leading Edge Aviation at the airport in Ogden, Utah has free hot dogs at 5 p.m. on the first Friday of every month. I got on their mailing list by buying fuel, and it makes me laugh every time they e-mail me to invite me, so I have never asked them to take me off.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Hail the Rampee

I woke up this morning and turned the TV on to the weather channel. They were talking about the hailstorm that went through last night, calmly pointing out the areas with golf ball-sized versus softball-sized hailstones. Eeeyow! Texas has Texas-sized hail. We got in too late to get the airplane in the hangar. I hope it's alright. I guess I would have heard by now, because the weather is good, so my co-worker must be up flying already. Yep. She is. It's fine.

The weather is clear today, with a waxing crescent moon. But instead of being upright, like the curving part of a capital D the moon at this latitude and time of year appears to be a hat, like a jauntily worn beret. I think about it for a moment, making arcs with my fingers and trying to picture where the sun and moon are, and how the moon is the wrong way up, but we've arrived at the airport and it's time to preflight the airplane so I let it go.

The sun sets off my right wing during the flight. I'm still startled by how fast the sky goes from orange to black around here. The sun sets faster the further south you go. I turn on the navigation lights as the disc approaches the horizon, and then I turn up the cockpit lights so I can see the instruments. About this time a GPS alert tells me that it is sunset and that the GPS is switching into night mode. That means that it dims and uses different colours, a darker background with light markings so it doesn't affect my night vision so much when I look at it. I usually dim it further as well. My night vision isn't coming in right tonight, though. The cockpit lights seem too dim and the battery must be fading on my headset light, because it doesn't illuminate my kneeboard when I look down at it. It's a slight hassle to change the battery, and I really don't think it needs changing, because it's a low power LED light, and it's only run for ten hours on these batteries. Maybe it doesn't take well to the rechargeables I put in.

It must have been pitch black for two hours before I finally scratch my nose and feel the frame of my glasses bend. Bend? Yeah, I have "flexframes" that are designed to not break if I sit on my sunglasses. On my sunglasses. I sheepishly take my sunglasses off and all of a sudden the cockpit lighting is much better.

The moon is still out there, too, but now it's a smiley moon. At night the crescent part appears to be on the bottom, just like that on Arabian flags. The stars do not shine through the moon, however.

I mention the lazy southern moon to my coworker and he says he was noticing that satellite dishes point up around here. I guess you have to put them on your roof instead of on the south side of your house.

At the end of the flight I make my way across the ramp to parking. We have a spot staked out within reach of electrical power so we can plug in equipment overnight, and the FBO know we're using it, but it's a bit of an obstacle course tonight. Around behind a couple of Cessnas watching out for the fuel truck parked behind that, then up towards the wall, but not too close, watching to be sure that the wing will not hit the electrical cart on one side and the chain on the airplane on the other. My wingtip will go under that airplane's wingtip, but not through the chain. I have it lined up and am about to go forward when a rampie comes running out of the FBO. I hold my position while he darts each side, checking the clearance and then waves me ahead.

I knew it was good because I did more or less the same thing the last night I came in here, unassisted after the FBO was closed, and I knew it was good then because I was being careful. I've parked in gnarlier places than this with worse lighting, but I've cut it too close before too. It's always good to have an extra set of eyes.

Also, my earseals didn't fall off when I took off the headset at the end of the flight.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Not Flying Tonight

I'm not flying tonight because the forecast was poor. I'm just sitting in the hotel room with the TV on. Law and Order, or some similar crime drama, I think. But the weather is drowning out the TV. Here's a 60 second video clip as poor as the weather. There's enough ambient light that I can see the rain between the lightning flashes on my copy, but uploading to blogger drops the resolution enough that you only need look at the first few seconds to see all there is to see.

The beginning of this storm was a thunderclap so loud that the next morning when an airport dog barked at me it hurt my ears all over again. I would easily have believed that the sound was a bomb falling on the building. According to the desk clerk it set off part of the fire protection system, and guests were calling to ask what it was. The storm had been going on for at least fifteen minutes before I thought to film it, so this is actually a clip of the storm dying down. It was over perhaps fifteen minutes later. Just long enough for me to realize that I really should have turned off the TV before taking the video. You can use it for perspective and note that the TV volume is turned up fairly loud because ten years of sitting between engines has taken a toll on my hearing. It may need to be louder still thanks to that thunderclap. Plus the TV is in the room with me, while the audio of the storm is coming through a double-glazed window. I'd love to have a better shot of the sky, but you can see why I didn't want to go outside.

That would be quite something to fly through. The rain is forceful enough, and there may be some hail mixed in with it, without adding the speed of the aircraft to the impact. The weather is supposed to be good for tomorrow morning, though.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Communications Failure

No, there's nothing wrong with the radio, and the headset hasn't undergone a final disintegration. It's my mouth. I can't seem to get communications right with this customer. I try to be really communicative, because that's one of my strengths. I can express myself, explain things, recognize information that will help people make decisions, and share it in a way that is relevant and understandable to them. I've never fallen prey to the desire for power through withholding information. Yay for me! But I keep telling these customers things that make them angry.

For example, I received a text from my company about our planned maintenance schedule. I called the customer to get his approval on that plan, and while there was nothing wrong with the plan, and we were willing to change it if there was, the customer was unhappy. I believe he felt ambushed because a mere pilot knew before he did. I should have waited until my boss told his boss and his boss told him, so he'd know in a day or so, instead of my getting the information to him as soon as possible.

It just seems wrong to me to have information that someone needs and wants, and that is intended for him anyway, but to be obliged to withhold it until it arrives through the proper channels.

It's not all cruising along above the mountains, joking with ATC and recalculating my fuel reserves.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Keep Your Ears on Good Buddy

Next morning I go out to Wal-Mart to buy hair gel, conditioner (they were out of the 'special formulation for green hair' at home), rubber cement and snacks. Strangers in Texas are friendly. You can talk to them in the supermarket and they'll carry on a conversation, not stare at you as if you're a danger to your children. Southern Canadians won't talk to strangers.

Back at the hotel, I take my headset out of the bag and the earseals fall off. Directions on the rubber cement say that for a stronger bond I should put glue on both surfaces and press them together wet. I apply the rubber cement to my headphone and to the earseals, and then put the earseals on the headset. They fall off. I ball up a sweatshirt and clamp the headset over it as if it were my head, and leave it there for an hour. When I take it off to put in the bag, the earseals don't fall off. I go out to the plane.

My co-worker mentioned that she had had problems with the comm 1 radio last flight. After engine start I pick up my headset. The ear seals do not fall off. I put on the headset and use comm 1 to listen to the ATIS. It receives fine. I call ground for a radio check. They call back as if I had just made an initial call in preparation for asking for a clearance. I repeat "radio check." I'm not sure if that's the standard term here. When a controller gets a hold of an aircraft that has missed a few calls here, the controller will usually say "how do you hear?" He doesn't really mean "how do you hear?" He means, and often adds, "I've called you three times. You have to pay better attention!" But I use the terminology I learned first.

The controller thinks for a moment and then rates my transmission as "scratchy and barely readable." I write that down to go in the report to maintenance. I can fly until the inspection using the remaining radio.

Now that I know I just have the one radio, I'm cautious about every quiet moment and misunderstanding on the radio. The controllers here have been really good, getting the Canadian callsign easily on the first call. Must be lots of Canadians around here. But tonight Center has trouble understanding my call sign. After a couple of repetitions he gets it and I ask if that was due to the radio or my accent. "A bit of both, probably," he speculates. "Our radios aren't very good."

While I'm flying, another pilot calls for a radio check and the controller answers "loud and clear." I snicker, because that's what CBers say. In Canada we use a one to five scale to indicate how loud and how clear. I get a chance to demonstrate it a while later when the controller asks me for a radio check. As I mentioned, this usually indicates that a pilot has missed a call, but if I have, it's due to a radio problem, not my vigilance. I haven't been talking on the intercom and I have been listening out. I wonder how long the radio was not receiving properly. I tell the controller he is "five by five," indicating strength and readability of the signal is excellent, and then I brace for the chewing out. But he seems happy. He understands the "five by five" and he really was checking his radio. I hear several more comments in that sector over the next few days that really do suggest someone needs to spend money upgrading ATC equipment.

A reader commented earlier that Texas airline pilots use poor radio language when they are flying recreationally, but I don't notice this. It seems that the smaller the airplane, the more formal the radio work here. Almost as if it's a badge of honour to talk informally on the radio.

There's one airline that keep calling with a callsign that sound like "Startrek" and a number. I know it's not, I think it actually begins with T, but I keep hearing "Startrek." Who has a callsign like that in East Texas? Anyone know?

At the end of the flight my earseals do not fall off. I declare the headset fixed.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Trickling Red Fluid

I knew it was the right hotel, because the clerk greeted me by name when I stumbled in at three-something in the morning. I had already been marked as a no-show, but I checked in and e-mailed the clients to tell them I was in the hotel, but not to be disturbed until my rest period was legally complete, turned off my phone, and slept in as late as I could, to ready myself to fly the next day. In the morning I set up my flight bag, got some exercise, and I was finishing up breakfast (or "lunch," as the people who don't sleep until the afternoon call it), when the call came. We went out to the plane.

The FBO interior was being repainted so I sat outside in the breeze to avoid getting stoned from the fumes. The temperature had been hovering just above freezing on the drive from Dallas last night, but it was about ten degrees in the daytime. My coworker taxied in from her flight and shut down, so I took over the airplane. I first went onboard to put my gear in the cockpit. Flight bag on the copilot seat, strapped in with the seatbelt. Charts, taxi diagram, OFP, set out where I can reach them. Headset out of bag and plugged in. The headset earseals fall off. The glue is not very sticky anymore, after so many cycles of hot and cold. I pick the earseals up off the floor and stick them back on the headset.

Today's mission specialist has experience working in an aviation environment. He used to be in the military and has some funny stories I might share later. For now he has spotted a problem. The nose oleo, i.e. the compression strut that offers shock protection and connects the nosewheel to the airplane, is leaking fluid onto the tire.

I got a rag out of the forward cargo compartment and wiped the fluid off. It was thin, oily and slightly pink. Hydraulic oil. That's required for shock absorption and also hydraulic centring of the nosewheel. Already the fluid is making its way down the strut again. It's almost a trickle, not just a drip. "How many drips per minute can you tolerate on that?" asks my specialist. I don't have a number, but it doesn't look good. I get the FBO to call an A&P --airframe and powerplant mechanic-- for a verdict. The specialist tells me the military had an acceptable drips per minute threshold for every conceivable leak.

The mechanic arrives. I've pretty much decided I want this fixed before I take it up, and then he points out that if I lose enough fluid that the centering mechanism doesn't work properly, then the wheel might not come back down out of the nose compartment at all. It will take a few hours to fix, but it would take a lot more time to fix the consequences of landing without the front wheel. In that case I might need a new cushion on the pilot seat, too. The catch is that the mechanic isn't sure he has a seal that will fit. If he doesn't, he'll have to order one and we won't get it until tomorrow morning. He goes to check.

That take a long time. I decide that taking a long time is a good thing. I reason that if he didn't have the part, he'd look it up in the computer, see no part, and then call back to the desk to tell the pilot he can't fix her plane. But if he does have it, then he has to go back into stores to verify that it is on the shelf, verify that he has the manpower to fix it today, and come back with a tug to take the plane. But I do one more thing to make sure that he has the part.

You see, if the part is not available, I have to take all my stuff back out of the plane, and go back to the hotel. Whereas if he does have the part, I need only take my wallet and cellphone and leave the other stuff there for a couple hours, because I'll use it when I come back. So, drawing on the principle that the universe loves to inconvenience me, I take all my stuff out of the plane. The ear seals fall off my headset again. I stick them back on again. And my plan works. As soon as I have I gathered everything up and left the aircraft, the mechanic returns to tell me he has the seal in stock. He takes it to fix.

A few hours later, the airplane is back on the line, paperwork and all, within his initial time estimate. Guy knows what he's doing. The seal looks good and everything else checks out. I put everything back in the airplane. We're ready to go.

On rotation there is a loud clattering noise, reminiscent of the sound of the gear door falling off the airplane. Further reflection on the matter makes it a sound much more like that of the clipboard with the airport information on it skittering off to parts unknown. All the lights are out on the gear indicator panel. I put the clipboard away and complete the after takeoff checks.

Landing is nearly seven hours later, well after nightfall, and after both the tower and approach controllers have gone home to bed. Or possibly gone out to prowl the red-lit streets of town and suck the blood of unsuspecting citizens, But I doubt it. I mean no one walks here in the daytime. Whom can a vampire find to prey on at night? Perhaps they fear me when I walk, because only zombies walk in this town. Anyway, where was I? Sadly, that question would be opportune in this narrative even had I not digressed into speculations about the local undead.

Ahem. So approximately where was I? Dark. No controllers. Airport. Clipboard. Airport information. The airport has three or four different names, and two to six runways, depending on which version of the airport information publication I use. That would be the one on the clipboard that fell somewhere on rotation or the one in the airport directory that I can easily reach. You can see where I'm going with this. At least someone can see where I'm going.

I know that I have a decent north wind up here. I know surface winds are light, but the wind aloft will help me set up for runway 36. I took off from runway 18, so by airport runway logic there is a runway 36. I check the publication to see if there is any reason not to land there at night. Nope. The lighting is pilot controlled after tower hours. The two other runways (two? I must have mistaken one for a taxiway) are not lit. Because of the nature of our operation, I don't get to fly a regular descent and approach, and don't fly a circuit quite by the book either. So I'm too close in and descending into a really poor excuse for a downwind, but I'll fix it on base. Except on base I can't see the runways lights. I re-key the pilot controlled lighting, and turn final, but despite frantic clicking, there's nothing there but a big black hole.

We don't go don into big black holes. Mixture, props, power, nose, gear, flaps, airplane. They all go up. And now there's the stupid runway. It's not 36. Three-six is not lighted after hours. And I'm not getting away with telling the savvy guy in the back that there was a chicken on the runway. (A boss I had once told me to always claim there was a chicken on the runway if I had to go around in VMC. Never admit to an unstabilized approach, inappropriate winds, or failure of the gear to lock down, he ordered.) Sigh. I come back around for the brilliantly illuminated runway, put the gear down and double check three green lights in the panel and one nosewheel light in the nacelle mirror. In the dark I have no way of verifying that it's straight.

I clunk onto the runway--no it wasn't a beautiful landing--and taxi in. Every bump we go over makes me glad I got the hydraulic leak fixed. Once on the ground the red fluid that is supposed to supply oxygen to my brain tissues trickles through to the appropriate brain cells and I realize that I read the wrong page in the publication and allowed myself to be tricked as if by a shell game shyster. I assumed that as the runways revealed in the book were not lighted, that the one that was not mentioned was the lighted one. But that runway wasn't on that page at all. There aren't even two other runways.

Dumb error. Good thing it didn't cost me more than pride. I was well within legal duty limits, and I really felt as though I was adequately rested, and but that's got to be a factor. Either that or I'm an idiot.

I take off my headset. The ear seals fall off. I shine my flashlight on the floor so I can find them to stick them back on.