Monday, June 15, 2009

In My Ears

It's almost summer on the calendar, and I think it's safe to say that summer has arrived here. The temperature no longer drops below freezing overnight, and the bugs have arrived. They aren't so bad in the heat of the day--which gets up well into the twenties--but land in the evening and as I'm putting the plane to bed they descend in a whining swarm. When I was a kid, the worst part of mosquitoes was the itching bites. I remember crying over them. But now, although I can feel a few on each forearm as I type, I think I'd rather spontaneously develop itchy welts than have to have to hear them whining in my ears and feel them piercing my skin with their possibly contaminated little proboscises every time I go outside.

My coworker landed at one and while the customer drover her back to the hotel, I prepped the airplane for the next flight. The fueller here is excellent: he's parked in front of the airplane as soon as the propellers have spun down to ask the requested fuel load, and if we land after they have left and ask to be fuelled by a time in the morning, the airplane is always full of fuel when we get there. Also they gave me a very cool pen. The windows were juicy with bugs, so I cleaned them off, just using a soft fibre wipey cloth and soap and water in a spray bottle. There are two spray bottles in the cleaning kit, the other one is filled with Varsol to remove grease from the paint. I know this so I not only check the label carefully, but test spray the one labelled "Soap & H2O" to verify its contents. On my hand. It's properly labelled but I laugh at myself. I guess my hand won't turn permanently discoloured if I accidentally get varsol on it. But literally imposing my flesh between my airplane and harm is somewhat overdedicated.

After start, the FSS (that's their office, in the picture that looks like a tower) tells me that the wind is 080 at ten, preferred runway 08. There's also an aircraft coming in for 03. I say I'll taxi for 08. That's a little awkward as I have to backtrack 03 a short way to get to it. The FSS guy suggests I go to the other end and backtrack 08 instead. That works, and I call "entering 08 at bravo for the backtrack, will hold short of 03." That's for the FSS and the incoming pilot so they know they don't have to worry about a runway incursion. The airplane isn't down as I reach the hold short line, so I just turn around and line up there, leaving 500' of runway behind me. Runway behind me one of the most useless things in aviation. There's still enough for my takeoff in these conditions, but it focuses me on my procedures. Climb performance is slow. It's fun to climb out over the river valley after rotation. It wouldn't be quite so fun if I lost an engine at rotation, but I get the gear up right away and both engines keep turning today.

Further north, on a westbound track, it starts to get hazy. There are large areas of forest fires north and west of here; they even closed portions of the Alaska highway for a few days. I told you it was summer in the north. There are forest fire NOTAMs out but not near enough to where we're working to affect our operations. My eyes are stinging. I think it's mostly sunblock coming off my face, but it's probably exacerbated by smoke particles. Ow ow ow ow. I'm flying with one eye open now, and barely holding the airplane on the precise line I'm supposed to follow. "What's going on up there?" asks the mission specialist.

"You don't want to know," I reply. Finally I grab my waterbottle. It's not the nozzle type, so it's hard to use as an eyewash. It just has a wide mouth so I can drink a lot quickly, so I pour a lot quickly over my face, down my shirt, onto my lap. That cleans out the eyes okay. And I bring lots of water so I won't have to ration. Icky wet seat, though.

I'm monitoring the nearest aerodrome frequency, it's an FSS, and the normal enroute frequency of 126.7. An American voice calls Fort Nelson radio with a position report in a small airplane with a November registration. He is on a flight plan from Watson Lake to Fort St. John. He might be on his way back from a one-in-a-lifetime trip to Alaska. Or maybe he goes back and forth several times a year. I don't think so, because there's a careful precision to the call that suggests to me that he's savouring something that is important to him. I smile for him. He's flown across some amazing but hostile territory and now he's in foreign airspace coping with our rules and regulations. After his position report he asks for the "St. John" weather. Funny. Is it normal to drop the "Fort" from placenames in the US? Do you fly into "Worth"? I know that many Canadian placenames used to have Fort and no longer do. Most of the remaining Forts have non-fort counterparts. Fort Nelson is an Alaska Highway town full of oil and gas guys driving pick up trucks and living in trailers or basic box houses. Nelson is a hippy enclave with cute painted houses and an economy fuelled by marijuana grow ops. Fort St. John is just like Fort Nelson, except 400 km south along a highway inhabited by nothing but moose. St. John is a small city on the east coast. (and, just to keep things interesting, so is St. John's, but in a different province). Ft. McMurray doesn't, and I guess you hear just "McMurray" sometimes, but more often "Fort Mac."

The FSS guy knows that He wants the Ft. St. John weather and not the St. John weather and gives it to him, reminding him that if he wants further services of that type he should call Edmonton radio on 123.55. The pilot reads back that frequency, but seeing as he got all the way to Alaska and back without figuring it out, he probably still doesn't know why he was told that. He knows that you can get weather and flight planning information from an FSS. He called an FSS. So why did the guy send him to another frequency? What he doesn't know, and isn't clear from the publications, is that there are two kinds of FSS duties. The FSS at a field that doesn't havea tower, is a quasi tower. They take position reports and help to maintain safety of landing, departing and transiting aircraft. But if you want weather, or to file a flight plan, you call another frequency and get the central FSS for the whole region, where the person has all the resources, and isn't trying to keep track of B1900 and an ultralight competing for the same runway. It's very common to hear American pilots using on-airport FSS frequencies, or 126.7 for long weather or flight planning related calls. The FSS folks are so nice about it that I suspect the pilots think the new frequency they are given is just the next one along their route of flight, like US flight following.

It makes me wonder what errors I make in the US that mark me, as much as my callsign, as not from around here. What do US pilots cringe at again and again from Charlie callsigns or Canadian-based airlines?

Of course the pilot I heard could be from Alaska, and on his first international flight, but why would you leave Alaska in June, just as the weather is finally getting good?

When I land there's a text from my co-worker apologizing for not cleaning the bugs. I know the feeling: you're on approach thinking "I really have to clean this windshield" but as soon as you're down you have other priorities. When would she have had a chance to do it, anyway? I was there when she taxied in.


Geekzilla said...

Humorous and interesting. Excellent post once again!

Sir Lukenwolf said...

A good number of giggles was had :-) Nice post, although I think, flying around in a wet shirt and on a wet seat wouldn't be very high up on my funny list, but so wouldn't sunblock in my eyes.
Linked the story about the November plane, wonder wether he/she was on the way to the lower 48.

Anonymous said...

I sweat a lot in the summer from doing practically nothing. Therefore I was so pleased to recently have have found SPF 50 "Xtreme Sport Sunblock" that really works well, is water and sweat resistant and doesn't run in my eyes. You can check it out at This might spare you from wet shirts and seats. Keep up the great blog entries...I look forward to them everyday.

Dave Earl said...

Ummm... as an AK pilot that flies through Canada.... I've done just what you described (and they ARE nice)... Where do I find the "weather/flight plan" freq instead of bugging the 'quasi-tower' folks? Thanks,


Anonymous said...

Dave, as a Canadian pilot I often have the same question!? Standing by for Aviatrix' reply...

dpierce said...

I'm not sure anybody ever drops the "fort" from names down here. If anything, nicknames can make the names longer. Fort Worth turns into "Fort Worthless", Fort Leonard Wood turns into "Fort Lost in the Woods", etc.

There's a certain bliss in being in a foreign culture -- you always have an excuse for your ignorance. The problem is when you get comfortable and want to be treated like a native, and then make a rookie mistake ...

Aviatrix said...

Finding the FSS frequency for en route weather:

On a chart, look for a box called out with a line from a nav aid near the airport. If it has a frequency listed above it that is not crossed out, and is not the same as the MF frequency for that airport, that will get you a briefer who will take your flight plan/give you weather. If there's more than one frequency fitting that description, use the one that is not 126.7. If there's a place name clinging onto the box by a pair of brackets, that's the name you'll use to call the FSS by, e.g. "Edmonton Radio."

In the CFS COMM section for the aerodrome, you are looking for the frequency tagged "FISE" - Flight Information Services Enroute. There isn't one attached to every airport, but usually if there is an FSS responding to the MF, there is also a discrete FISE frequency.

If you can't find one, you can call the quasi-tower guy and ask for the FSS frequency for en route weather, or call on 126.7 and if your call is more than a quick position report ask if he has a "discrete frequency," so you're not sharing your life story with everyone on 126.7.

Now, in return, what's the best way to find whom I should address calling Flight Watch? They get snippy if I just say "Flight Watch," as if I was supposed to know who was going to answer.

dpierce said...

"(Center) Flight Watch", ie "Atlanta Flight Watch". You might be interpreting their bearing as being snippy. Then again, they might be snippy.

Anoynmous said...

It's been decades since I listened to aviation radio while in an airplane, so I wouldn't notice anything odd procedure-wise no matter who said it. But I find the Canadian callsigns always draw attention to themselves just because of the alphabet soup. :)

Jim said...

Runway behind you
Altitude above you
Fuel still in the FBO's tank

Sarah said...

Nice post. Isn't summer delightful? Minus the bugsplats I have to keep cleaning off the trailing edges of my slow airplanes. Soap & water in a spray bottle is the way to go, especially if you keep your wings lightly waxed. If only grease came off the belly that easily.

I only made the mistake of putting sunscreen above my eyebrows once, and the resulting eye stinging when I sweated it into my eyes is memorable. And rubbing doesnt' help.

I doubt US flightwatch cares if you omit 'which' flightwatch they are on callup ... do they, dpierce? From experience, though, I know Green Bay FSS gets snippy when I make multiple callups with the volume turned down on the radio so I can't hear them answering. :}

In the US midwest, it seems airfields are either towered ( active control tower ) or uncontrolled completely. The ones with unicoms that do any more than pre-arrange car rental or refuelling are rare in my limited experience.

dpierce said...

I doubt US flightwatch cares if you omit 'which' flightwatch they are on callup ... do they, dpierce? ...

Not at all, but I was trying to provide the correct-estest answer to the question. Civilian ATC functions in the (especially southern) US can be rather casual, and as long as your intent is unambiguous and you don't happen to run into the guy's Personal Tripwire of the Day, they're mellow. But you never know what the tripwire will be!

(This isn't to say mil radio can't be casual, too. But their tripwires are more consistent.)

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy rules apply when it comes to sweat, sunblock, and blowing particulate matter: Always bring a towel. Also useful for impromptu lumbar support, de-funkification of oily surfaces, or helmet anti-chaffing duty.

Ed said...

Glad you explained that the US term "FSS" can mean both the aerodrome service and the en-route one; I thought it was me that was confused. In the UK they have separate acronyms: FIS - Flight Information Service and AFIS - Aerodrome Flight Information Service.

Dave Earl said...

Thanks for the info. Can't help you on "Flightwatch" - We don't really have that in AK. I just find a FSS freq (usually remoted - an RCO) and say "Podunk Flight Service, Socata 850 (I wish!) N59AK on the Evenmorepudunk RCO 122.5, do you know why these F-16s are following me?"

I'd ask them "What should I call you guys?" if they seemed put out. But then again, I'm not in CLB... lol

Frank Van Haste said...

Dear Trix:

The reason that it is helpful to preface "Flight Watch" with the name of the appropriate Center is that when you are working close to the border between Centers there can be more than one Flight Watch facility hearing your call on the common duplex 122.0 MHz freq. At the time of the call, you know where you are but they don't, so there can be confusion about who should answer you.

If you call on their receive-only freq and say "...listening on ABC (VOR)" then the Center name in the call up is probably redundant as the Flight Watch owning that VOR will know to respond.

One thing I have noticed is that the Flight Watch specialists don't spend a whole lot of time talking on the radio, so I try to be careful with phraseology, and say "Over." and such stuff when I talk to them. They are cool but they aren't ATC.



Aviatrix said...

I remember getting chewed out by McMinnville flight watch for calling them "flight watch" and I think I was on Portland Center at the time. Would they or someone else have answered to "Portland Flight Watch" in that area?

Alaska's system sounds more like Canada's.

I imagine in the future that Canada will give separate names to the en route and aerodrome FSS functions. The separation only happened about six or seven years ago.

Guy said...

On "St. John", it isn't common to drop the fort, but it is common to chop the name of who you're talking to down to one or two syllables. I imagine that the pilot figured that the "fort" part was the most superfluous.

OTOH, about half the airports in California have a "San" in front of them, and we never chop that off, so go figure.