Monday, August 31, 2009

My World

Why my life is good.

Today I:

  • slept in until I woke up
  • opened the curtains and looked out at a panorama of downtown Yellowknife, Frame Lake and lots of rocks and trees
  • enjoyed a bike ride around town in absolutely perfect weather
  • ate a huge mouthwatering slab of grilled arctic char
  • went for a scenic flight over the untracked wilderness northwest of town
  • watched the sunset
  • landed back at Yellowknife and went to bed, again without setting an alarm clock

Okay, not every day is like this, but anyone, anywhere, anytime who catches my whining about not achieving my intended career goals should kick my butt.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Rocks in the Middle of Town

Despite the difficulty of construction there, Yellowknife is growing at a phenomenal rate. There are condos perched on rocks all around what used to be the outskirts of town. The area doesn't have a whole lot of soil, just big red rocks poking up everywhere. It's kind of amusing the way what would be a vacant lot anywhere else is just a big rock. Over the last 75 years builders have cherry-picked the easiest spots, so even along the main street you still get half a block or so that is just a chunk of rock with trees on it. Yeah, I don't know how the trees grow out of the rocks. There must be some dirt there too.

The rocks and trees stuff continues in the surrounding landscape. Yellowknife itself sits on Great Slave Lake, which is huge, and there are lesser lakes all around. Here's a picture of the landscape on the way to Rae-Edzo. You can see the road. That's all there is. I think the road ends at Rae, but there's another aerodrome, Snare River, not far beyond that. In the winter this is just white and you can't tell lakes from rocks.

As I mentioned there's a lot of traffic in and out of Yellowknife: helicopters, people landing in the back bay on floats, and airplanes of every size and speed coming from all directions. I noticed that pilots report by radial here, not just "20 miles west" but "20 miles back on the 260 radial." I don't know whether it's an accuracy thing or a habit picked up from the amount of IFR traffic. Lots of larger aircraft like Boeing 737s. It must be quite a challenging environment to work ATC in, but they didn't let the stress show and kept us safely separated from the IFRs without restricting us noticeably.

And here's the view out my hotel window. The hotel is up on a hill (i.e. sitting on a giant hunk of rock) and I'm on the fifth floor. The territorial legislature building is off to the right and downtown to the left.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Not Just the Bush

A captain and first officer for Pakistan International Airlines have been given notice and face an enquiry for following internatial law and their own airline's regulations regarding duty rest. According to the online version of The Nation linked above, Captain Murad Arbab and First Officer S Jamala operated a ten hour flight from Islambad to Manchester. On arrival, they were told to fly as passengers on a noon British Airways flight to London, and then pilot a flight from London to Karachi.

At that point, their own company's air safety manual mandated a 20 hour rest period before their next duty, and the BA flight was only 16 hours away, plus, if I'm reading the article correctly, reporting in time for the connecting flight and then operating the Karachi flight would put them over their legal duty day, not even counting the insufficient rest. They refused the assignment.

The article says that "management is bent upon making these pilots an example for others so that the safety violations are not pointed out."

While a 20 hour mandated rest seems long to me, that was what was prescribed in the company's safety manual and the pilots must, no matter what their dispatcher says, abide by it. I wish I could say that a company that chastises pilots for following the law and the company's own regulations was unheard of, but I've been there. We landed in the early am, told the dispatcher we were dutied out until ten the next morning and went to bed. There were two calls the next day before ten am. One was from dispatch asking us to do another flight that was not within our duty day and the other was from the chief pilot, giving hell for refusing a revenue flight. Both calls, being an interruption of the mandated rest period effectively reset our duty day start eight hours. I was acting captain on the flight but the other crew member a) was the one in a house that had a phone and b) had seniority, so he got the calls. When I found out about the browbeating, I wanted to call that chief pilot back and let it be known that as pilot-in-command I had logged and signed the duty time on the flight and said when we were again fit for duty, and anyone who had a problem with it should call me. I didn't, because I knew it would just bring more wrath upon the other pilot, for not keeping the new hire in line.

No, I wasn't there long.

That's not the way it's supposed to work. I chatted with an Air Canada captain whose entire flying schedule, of flights he had bid on and wanted to make, was messed up because a few minutes after parking at the gate, he released and reset the parking brake. I can't remember why. The onboard computers automatically recorded him parked the second time he set that brakes, which added those few minutes to his duty day, and set off a chain reaction through his whole schedule. That's how seriously a real national airline takes duty days.

But what do you do when your national airline is acting like a ma and pa bush operation? You complain to your union, like the Pakistani crew did (man, a union would have been nice in the bush), and hope that the airline backs down in the face of international scrutiny. So now the few hundred people that read this blog every day, know that PIA doesn't follow its own rules but that pilots Arbab and Jamala stand up for their own and their passengers' safety.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Blue Feather

Richard Bach, the author of Johnathan Livingston Seagull, also wrote a book called Illusions. In it, the character who is seeking answers to some of life's questions is travelling with a professional barnstormer. The barnstormer is a kind of guru who tries to help him answer his questions. He tells the seeker that he can have anything he wants from the universe, he just has to ask for it. The seeker doesn't believe this, so the messiah asks him to test it with something simple.

"Okay," says the seeker, "a blue feather." He looks around and the messiah tells him he'll find it soon. The next day, or maybe a few days later, they're in another town eating breakfast and the seeker is thunderstruck to see a picture of a blue feather on the side of the milk carton. It's from the "Blue Feather Dairy."

He's astonished and points it out to the messiah who just says "I thought you wanted an actual feather."

I think of this story every time I find a blue feather. I found one today on the grass next to the apron, right where I was about to lower the stairs. The hardest part may not be getting what you want, but figuring out what it is that you really want.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Famous on the Internet

I've been to Yellowknife before, but always in the winter or spring. It's odd integrating what I see today with what I remember from previous trips. Everything looks different without show on. It's odd to see the water open everywhere. There are lakes everywhere not just Great Slave and Frame Lake. The whole landscape is a carpet of lakes.

I go down Franklin to a Chinese place that serves breakfast. I've walked through the snow to get here before and I have to quite forcibly assimilate my past memories of being here with the current place. The food is good and the service is friendly.

Returning from breakfast, I see a couple of people in Air Canada uniforms outside the hotel. I was under the impression that Yellowknife was a quick turn for them, not an overnight. Many a quick turn becomes an overnight when the airplane doesn't pass muster, so I wonder if there's a story there. I always forget that while it's obvious to me that uniformed pilots are pilots, that they can't tell that I am one. I'm incognito! So I walk up and chat. It turns out that that I'm dead wrong about the Air Canada Jazz schedule. They have enough flights in and out that there are two crews here every night, one from the last arrival at around eleven p.m. and one for the first departure at six a.m. I guess they have their own ramp to overnight the aircraft and don't get grilled by ATC on where they are going to park. It's a fourteen hour overnight for my new acquaintance, so they do have time to go out and enjoy the city if they want to.

He compares it to a Fort MacMurray turn, where they get in around midnight and report again for duty at five. I must have looked aghast for a moment, "That's not even a ... oh it's a split duty day." Yeah, they just count it as one long duty day where you happen to get a nap in the middle. Just as well. Yellowknife is a more interesting place to spend fourteen hours than Fort Mac.

He asked how I came up to Yellowknife, and I told him, chatted a bit about my job and so on. Suddenly he asked, "Do you know Aviatrix?"

What is there to say? Big grin and finger tap to chest. He's a reader of this blog. That's the first time I remember someone doing that, right out of the blue. A few others have figured it out, but they knew me better, or had more to go on. Guess I'm not so incognito after all. That was fun. I think I was a little stunned, though. I almost forgot to tell him my real name before he got on the airport shuttle.

Also, this is a great way to publicize a vintage airplane and car event. They are re-enacting Canada's first aerial police chase.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

North Again

We were supposed to go to Yellowknife last night, but by the time the landing gear was sorted out there was some bad weather building south of Great Slave Lake. Embedded thunderstorms at night. Yay. We spent the night in the south and then flew north in the morning. It was my coworker's leg so I did paperwork and looked out the window while she flew.

The weather wasn't great, so we were fairly low level over all the little towns. It's funny to see all the straight lines on the prairies, with neatly arranged towns, each with its own church, even when the towns are only a few kilometres apart. I know most of these churches date back to when everyone walked or drove the team to church, and that they are a source of community pride. I wonder how many bake sales and work bees they all represent.

We pass over the transition between agricultural land and the north. It's quite abrupt. There's a last wheat field. I'm just thinking it when my coworker says it. "I guess we're in the north now." I write it down in my notebook so I don't forget to blog it and then she asks me what I'm writing.

"So I don't forget things," I say, "So I can tell people about them." I read her what I wrote about the last wheat field. It's the truth. You're people.

Crossing the Great Slave Lake she picks up the ATIS and tried to call tower. It's comical that every time she tried to call, she gets stepped on, usually by the tower. They're actually issuing such rapidfire instructions that most transmissions have a "break break" in them, so the tower can address more than one airplane in one microphone press, not letting anyone get a word in edgewise. This goes on long enough that it's funny. She finally gets through and the first thing the controller want to know is if we have parking. Parking is by prior permission in Yellowknife,a and I really get the idea that if we hadn't prearranged a spot, they would have send us away. It's all arranged, thanks to my coworker, so they give us a clearance and we join downwind over the Back Bay. Heyyy, Yellowknife. It's still on a rock and a lake, but now the lake is open water and there is no snow on the rock. I'm too busy looking to remember to take pictures. Sorry!

Prelanding checks complete, we line up on final and she says something about what could go wrong now. Pilots always think that. I gesture to the airplane lining up in front of us, "It could have a gear collapse right there, at the intersection of the two runways." It doesn't, but as it's cleared for take off it seems to be moving really slowly, then I realize I have my perspective wrong. It's not a little taildragger. It's a DC-3. Welcome to Yellowknife.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Wheels of Fortune

The big work assignment roulette wheel spins again. Where will we go next? Somewhere I've been? Somewhere my coworker has been? Somewhere neither of us has ever seen? Somewhere we want to be? Somewhere we wish we weren't? It's all a mystery, until the wheel stops, and the ball bounces to a rest at ... CYZF. Buy a few vowels and trade in some consonants and that comes out to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. But you already knew that, because I let you know in real time.

We're doing scheduled maintenance a little early so we don't have to do it while we're up there. All went well and then they got the same gear problem as before. A look through the logbook shows that a year ago I reported that the gear horn sounded during the hydraulic pump test, also right after maintenance. The engineers have a new theory, that putting the gear up and down on a jack and then lowering it to the shop floor doesn't give the gear the same jar that actually landing a plane does. I'm not sure if they are insulting the quality of our landings or not.

They release the airplane for a test flight and I ask them to tell me what tests to perform. "Just make sure it goes up and down and the horn doesn't sound while it's locked down?" They say that's fine, and then say they'll send someone with me. Beauty. Then if the gear goes up and it doesn't go down again I'll have someone to make smart remarks to as I look for options.

I start walking around the airplane, checking the oil and the like. The engineer asks me if I'm ready to go and I say I'm just looking to make sure all the pieces are there, first. At that point they suddenly remember they've forgotten to attach one piece, and scramble to get it screwed in place before I get to it. It's an access panel, and I pretend I don't notice what they're doing. All the major components I learned about in flying school are there, and seem to be securely attached to the aircraft.

The apprentice comes on board and I give him the passenger briefing, which he politely pays attention to. The engines are warm from a previous run-up so I just do some systems checks and then taxi out past the hangar and call the tower. They give us an intersection departure, holding us briefly short of the taxiway to allow a Jetstream to come off. Then we're cleared to position and cleared for takeoff.

Gauges green, power set, airspeed alive, straight down the centreline. Rotate, raise the nose, wait and let the airplane fly. Positive rate, insufficient runway remaining, gear up. Trim. Climb out. The clunking, lights and mirror all indicate that the gear went up as selected. Turn crosswind. Bring back the power and props. I put down approach flap to keep us comfortable below gear speed and cycle it down and up. All is well. He doesn't play with anything or ask for any special maneuvers. I ask if he is a pilot too. He says yes, so I offer him control and he accepts. Either he has flown an airplane this size before in which case he knows just as well as I what it should feel like, or he hasn't, in which case it is my privilege to give him a new opportunity.

He puts the gear and the flaps down when I suggest. The wheels are down and locked. I take control on final, check the gear again, and then land, with definitely more clunk than an airplane being lowered off a jack. Darn. I should have done an awesome feather soft one, just to combat their theory. I exit the runway and taxi back in according to instructions. I sign it off as "Tests okay," or something equally bland, and the airplane is officially ready to go.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Snowbird Passage

We're flying across Saskatchewan, at least I think it's Saskatchewan. You can see how that poor guy got lost in the vicinity of Red Deer. It's flat and laid out with straight lines and fields as far as the eye can see. A voice comes on the radio, 126.7, to say he's VFR from Saskatoon to Biggar at 2500' over highway 14. It sounds like a call anyone would make, except that at the beginning of the call I'm pretty sure he said "military tutor jet." Sure enough he ends the call with "... conflicts, it's Snowbird eleven."

You don't see one Snowbird tooling around that often. I wonder why he's going to Biggar. (Despite the name, it's littler than most places you'd want to go). I'm surprised that he goes by "Snowbird eleven" when it's just the one plane, and not by some ordinary call letters. I'm picturing the little jet bombing along down there at 2500', thinking maybe it's just an ordinary training solo flight and he's going to visit his mom or something. I mean why not. If he has to fly so many hours to qualify or keep current or whatever, I have no objections to military hardware going to make someone's mom happy.

Another voice comes on the radio. Someone else has also been thinking about the little jet on a cross country jaunt. "I'm jealous," he says. No callsign, just that.

The Snowbird voice answers back, "I'm not even flying!" I'm guessing that means that the guy in the back other seat was doing the radio, as opposed to just being on autopilot.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Left or Right

Just a chuckle overheard on the radio. We're flying and its nice where we are but the cumulonimbus is starting to build further west next to the mountains. An Air Canada calls in requesting to divert to the left around a build up. The controller approved the diversion, but asks him to go right instead. The pilot acknowledges then a moment later the controller reassesses the situation and calls back to let him know that left is okay after all. ATC is quite amazingly obliging at trying to get us pilots what we need to do.

"That's okay," says the pilot. "We already started a turn to the right. We don't want to make anyone sick back there."

"I guess you don't serve meals anymore," quips the controller instantly.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Wayward Student

The FBO at Red Deer is a flying school. The instructors all wear white shirts with ties and even epaulets. I go inside there to pick up a fuel receipt and fax a flight plan to Edmonton Centre. About five instructors and the dispatcher are gathered around a phone. The dispatcher appears to be giving telephone instructions on the operation of a radio. I think I know what has happened. Some student or renter has got the radio into some unusable mode and has called in on his cell phone for help. I wait for someone to tell him to flip the auto switch down.

Further listening casts out that theory. They're not giving him the FSS phone number or telling him to just look out for traffic, land, and sort it out later. Red Deer is not a hugely busy airport and he could surely negotiate his way into the circuit without a radio. No, he's lost. The radio instructions I came in on were for the operation of an ADF. They're trying to get him back by following the needle home. This doesn't seem to be sufficient. Not surprising. Possibly the ADF in the plane isn't working, or there's some other switch he has to turn on that the dispatcher hasn't adequately described.

"How's your cellphone battery?" asks the dispatcher, a couple times until the student understands. The battery is apparently good, because they keep talking while instructors look at charts and relay questions about which side the lake is on. I didn't have a cellphone when I was a student. Most people didn't, and the ability to call your instructor for help on a solo seems to me to remove some of the point of being pilot-in-command. I'm not impressed with the student's problem solving technique. I like to see students get lost and I like to see them use methods they've been taught in the classroom or in the air to find their way home.

I ask an instructor not involved in the huddle, "Why doesn't he climb up and call centre for help?" Apparently the airplane is not transponder-equipped, but still centre could paint him as a primary radar target, radar identify him through turns to assigned headings and give him emergency vectors home. They actually have the ability to tag primaries. I've seen it done. Simpler than that, Red Deer Radio offers DF steers, able to determine the direction to a radio transmitter and tell the pilot the heading to the airport. You ask for DF assistance, hold down the transmit button for a count of five and they bring you home.

I hope the student's instructor takes him out for a flight under the hood and then repeatedly has him take the hood off and figure out where he is. There are section lines here, roads that run north-south and east-west. They should help you get oriented. Every town has a water tower with the name painted on in English. There are lots of lakes with distinctive shapes. If he's north or south of town he should be able to find highway 2, and if he's east or west, highway 11 or 12. If he can't see the highway he should know enough about his position to determine which way to fly to find it, and follow it in. He should have a nav log in front of him showing what time he last identified his position and from there he can determine a circle that must contain his position. Of course that leads back to the joke about the lost student who calls the tower for help:

"What was your last known position?" asks the controller.

"When I was number one for take-off."

You have to be able to turn "I don't know where I am" into a plan. I suppose "phone for help" is a plan after a fashion, and better that than fly around aimlessly until you run out of gas, but I hope the student will have more tools for that job before he finishes his licence.

Friday, August 21, 2009

More Vague Pontification on Resetting CBs

As I said yesterday, anytime anything in the airplane emits smoke, fire or a burning/melting smell, it should be immediately turned off and its circuit breaker pulled and left that way until trusted maintenance personnel have examined it. Whether the behaviour led to a popped CB is irrelevant. There's obviously electricity going where it oughtn't.

Prior to the accident that started this discussion a pilot did exactly that. He wrote on the form provided for that purpose "Radar went blank during cruise flight. Recycled – no response ... smell of electrical components burning turned off unit – pulled radar CB – smell went away. Radar inop." That's pretty much what I'd do. Except that the 'radar inop' note might imply that he reset the CB and turned it back on to check. I would just assume that the release of the magic smoke heralded the death of the instrument. (Everyone knows about that, right? During the manufacture of sophisticated electronic equipment, little puffs of magic smoke are captured and held in various components. If at some point in the operation of the device the magic smoke escapes, that portion of the device will no longer work).

Pilots should not attempt to operate clearly non-functioning or malfunctioning equipment. One member of our fleet contains an old fashioned strike finder that doesn't work. It displays random blips of light but nothing useful. It's been placarded U/S for over a year. I fly it with the CB pulled.

The NTSB pointed out that:

Pulling the circuit breaker for the weather radar stopped a symptom (the burning smell) of the problem by removing electrical power from the circuit; however, it did not correct the underlying problem. Airplane electrical system anomalies that result in smoke and/or burning odors are indications of possible fire hazards. Moreover, the heat, smoke, fumes, and restrictions to visibility associated with an in-flight fire can represent a significant hazard to airplane occupants and adversely affect an airplane’s airworthiness.

The maintenance department told the senior of the two accident pilots about the weather radar problem, both by phone and in person, but the NTSB investigators believe that the other pilot probably reset the breaker as part of his preflight. His preflight should also have included reading the squawk sheet, as I believe Americans call the list of aircraft discrepancies. While some people might say that such resetting falls within the bounds of the "reset once" policy, I think it's a different matter entirely. If you find CBs pulled on preflight you should be finding out why. It may be as simple as asking your engineer "Hey Jan, did you pull the CBs for the lights here?" It's usual for engineers to pull breakers while working on systems and not unheard of for them to forget to reset everything.

According to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) air traffic control records, about 0832:49, shortly after reaching a cruise altitude of 6,000 feet mean sea level, the ATP contacted air traffic control to declare an emergency, stating, “smoke in the cockpit we need…to land at Sanford.” The air traffic controller cleared the flight to proceed directly to SFB and descend to 2,000 feet. DAB airport surveillance radar data indicated that the airplane subsequently turned toward SFB and began to descend. The last radio transmission from the airplane was received about 0833:15. This transmission terminated midsentence and seemed to include the phrase, “shutoff all radios, elec[trical].”

That's startlingly fast. I too would try to make a quick radio call in busy airspace before making the airplane dark and silent. You don't know how long the two were coping with the problem before the initial radio call, but the accident was only ten minutes into the flight, so obviously not very long.

I agree with the conclusion made by the NTSB about the probable cause. It wasn't about circuit breakers.

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable causes of this accident were the actions and decisions by NASCAR’s corporate aviation division’s management and maintenance personnel to allow the accident airplane to be released for flight with a known and unresolved discrepancy, and the accident pilots’ decision to operate the airplane with that known discrepancy, a discrepancy that likely resulted in an in-flight fire.

If you're flying an airplane that is flown by many people without a good means of communication of problems encountered, then you probably don't want to reset something even once. If you fly the same airplane all the time and you trust and communicate with all the others who fly it, maybe you do. If you have a journey log or a snag sheet do read through and see what has gone wrong lately, and what is still wrong that you might not want to accept. Reading this accident report and discussion has not made me uncomfortable with any of the times I have reset breakers. It has made me happier about the times I haven't. If it makes any difference to the people who disagree with our attempt to reset the flap CB a couple of weeks ago, we were on the phone to maintenance at the time and that was the first thing they asked.

Of course it's different for them because they are usually on the ground and can run away. As the report says, "An in-flight fire, especially one located in front of the pilots and directly over their legs, would be very distracting." And I thought the faulty gauge was distracting!

Also, this is very relevant to me. I long to tear out the entire dashboard and start over in so many of the planes I have flown.

Postmanufacture electrical system modifications and installations often result in general aviation maintenance personnel performing critical work among densely packed layers of wiring of different ages and materials

And I can always be wrong. The report says that "the ATP’s instructor stated that the ATP was “highly qualified,” required little or no academic instruction, and showed “exceptional” proficiency during his two simulator sessions. As I read that I thought, "That's what I want people to say about me." And then I had to add, "But not under those circumstances."

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Circuit Protection & Fire

While we're on the subject of electrical adventure, I'll start answering the question I was asked about resetting circuit breakers. Circuit protection is an important issue in a confined space where fuel and oxygen are readily available and where electrical power is needed for lighting, navigation, communication and control. The circuitry includes two generators, a battery, and multiple buses, so there is a lot to go wrong. As a result of this accident some people are discarding the usual rule of "reset once."

I'm not an electrical engineer and I'll try not to pretend to be one for this discussion, but here are some of the things I think I know about circuit breakers. Real electrical engineers can cringe along, and fill up the comments with useful corrections. Long-ago physics classes left me with the ability to talk about electricity in terms of voltage which is how hard the power source can push electrons through the circuit, current which is how strongly the electrons are flowing, and resistance which is how hard the the electrons have to be pushed to get through whatever is in the circuit. At this point in any discussion of electricity it is also required to mention that the convention for direction of current flow is in fact opposite to the direction of travel of the electrons. This is irrelevant, but if I don't mention it, someone else will.

The device that any given circuit exists to power is a source of resistance. The battery shoves the electrons though it and the thing responds by lighting up, moving a needle, transmitting radio waves, or whatever it does. The light bulb over my VSI requires less current than the starter motor or the hydraulic pump, and the airplane is designed with that in mind. If the light bulb suddenly starts drawing more current than it should, the electrical system gets suspicious and cuts it off, kind of like the power company does if they suspect you're running a grow-op, or the credit card company does every time I buy a thousand dollars worth of fuel in three different provinces on the same day.

The circuit breaker is the thing that cuts it off. To a pilot, a circuit breaker is a cylindrical thing a bit thinner and a bit longer than a pencil eraser. Rows of them are arranged with the circular ends towards the pilot in a breaker panel in the wall, ceiling, and/or dashboard. They all have labels underneath them, although some of the labels are illegible, ambiguous or wrong. Some are flush with the panel until they pop and some stick out a little ways so you can pull them yourself if you want to. When the breaker is in it completes the circuit. When it pops it sticks up and breaks the circuit. Hence the name. I think they work via a bimetallic strip, but there are probably multiple kinds.

There are two basic ways for electrical components to break. Either they don't let electricity go through them anymore, or they let the electricity go the wrong place. When a light bulb burns out, the filament breaks and electricity can't flow all the way through the circuit, so for the purpose of that bulb, the CB might as well be pulled. If a pilot pulls out that bulb and shoves a bulb in from the supply of spares, but gets the wrong kind, or twists it wrong, or there's a some metallic debris caught on it, it could allow the electricity to flow not in the base, through the filament and back through the tip of the base, but instead skip all that hard part about going through the filament and just race around through the metallic debris and out again. The electricity gets very excited about this shortcut. Increased current increases the temperature. Increased temperature increases resistance. I'm not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg in this resistance and current chicken coop, because I'd think at some point increased resistance would decrease the current but what do I know. When the current gets going past the limit prescribed by the designer of the circuit, the CB pops and all the instruments on that circuit are plunged into darkness. Cursing and flashlights are in order.

In that example, I would fly the airplane, turn on the cockpit light or the map light or something on a different circuit that would allow me to see the instruments, turn off the control for the suddenly darkened lights, remove the recently replaced bulb, check the breakers and reset the panel lighting one, and turn the lights back on. If the bit of metallic debris was still stuck in the socket and it did it again, I wouldn't know what had happened, so I'd continue my flight on emergency lighting and then later let some apprentice on the ground fish out the debris, look at me like I was retarded, and re-certify the system. If I did happen to look inside the socket and find the bit of steel wool that had caused the problem, I probably would even reset the circuit breaker a second time to see if I could get some lights. I'd let maintenance and other company pilots know it had happened, though.

I can remember two incidents in my career that might be termed electrical fires, although only in the sense of "where there's a burning smell and melted plastic there's fire." Neither progressed to fire extinguisher-requiring flames, nor did either trigger circuit protection. The first was a faulty fuel flow gauge that overheated enough to melt the indicator needle to a crispy brown colour and heat up the case enough to burn a knuckle on the glass and melt itself into the dashboard in less than 15 minutes. The reason the circuit protection did not act was that someone had put a two-amp fuse in the slot protecting the half-amp circuit. The other was a live but loose wire from an instrument light swinging around and striking sparks off everything it contacted inside the dashboard. The display of sparks was impressive. It visibly lit up the cockpit in broad daylight, and the smell was such that 30 minutes after shutting everything off, the guy who opened the back door of the airplane needed no further paperwork or explanation to understand that I had a legitimate reason for landing with no radios. No CB tripped, possibly because I didn't give it a chance: I followed my airplane's electrical fire emergency checklist, so turned off the master and pulled every CB in the panel as soon as I saw the sparks coming out of the panel. Fire, smoke and burning smells must be heeded in the cockpit.

That starts to segue to the accident they wanted me to discuss, but I'm hungry and I've written lots, so I'll continue this later making this week an all-electrical blogging bonanza.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ideal Conditions

There's a Canadian Tire right across the street from the hotel, so I walk over there the next morning to buy an extension cord. You'd think this would be pretty easy, right? You'd think I couldn't make an entire blog entry out of buying an extension cord. Actually regular readers know I could make an entire blog entry out of choosing which colour cord to buy. Do I think too much, or do I think the regular amount and just write it all down too much?

I pick up an orange one with a locking connector. That's just like the one I thought I had, probably the same brand. I don't know what wattage the equipment is, but I'm pretty sure I don't need a heavy duty cord for this. The others aren't any heavier. There are also some green ones on sale, but they are only ten metres and I need at least a fifteen metre cord to bridge the gap currently served by the patchwork collection. The orange one has a cardboard sleeve around it for display purposes. It says it is a fifteen metre long, 16 gauge, outdoor locking extension cord. Sounds good. I flip it over and read the back. The warnings include "Do not plug extension cord into another."

A Canadian Tire employee sees me staring at the package like Wonko the Sane looking at the instructions on a package of toothpicks, and asks if he can help me. I indicate the warning. "Isn't that what normal people do with extension cords?" They're for extending other cords!

He manages to say with a straight face, "that would be under ideal conditions." Great phrase. Henceforth that's going to be my standard answer to anyone telling me I'm doing something wrong.

I buy the extension cord and I plug it wantonly into the other extension cord, in order to plug the airplane into ground power. I'm aware of the irony that less than a week ago I was mocking someone who was too important to pay attention to the safety briefing on board an aircraft, and now I dare to plug one extension cord into another. I imagine some extension cord experts read this blog and are ready to castigate me for it, so I'll leave the comments open for them to tell me the dangers posed by the added resistance of the second cord.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Stretching Capabilities

The FSS guy last night said "well you've seen the facilities, we can't really handle much." An example is the long term parking ramp. There's a narrow taxiway leading from the main apron to a long narrow apron in front of the Red Deer Flying Club. There one finds a few aged picnic tables and a row of tiedowns on the grass, because the apron isn't wide enough for taxiing and parking. To the airport's credit the grass is kept mowed neatly and the ground is very level and seemed to be free of stones. I walked it, thinking I might have to taxi off the main apron across the grass to get here. But there aren't any spare tie-down spots.

Further down that apron there may be a place I could park. There seem to be some old freighters, airplanes I don't recognize with all their windows panelled over. And there's someone's DC-3 collection there too. I'll have to bring my camera out to show you. I asked one of the pilots who was tying down the tail on his fastback Cessna about the DC-3s, but he didn't know anything about them. I think the ramp effectively ended for him at the end of that row of aircraft. His was the third from the end and he asked me "are you a one-fifty-two pilot or a helicopter pilot?" his query matching the only two aircraft beyond his in that line-up.

I don't really want to park in the long term tie down area, what I want is access to the electrical power there. The August weather is plenty warm enough for the engines overnight, but there is some electrical equipment onboard that the client wants plugged in overnight. That's why I'm out here today, not to fly but to move the airplane to where I can get power. The customer loaned me his truck to come out.

The end of the tiedown row is about thirty metres from the edge of the pavement on the main apron. I start the engines and repark the airplane so that my left tire is right on the edge of the pavement and my electrical receptacle is as close as it can get to the plug in post without my parking on the grass. Now extension cords. I should have two 15 metre cords and some shorter ones. I imagine the guys in the tower cab are watching me, because traffic is pretty quiet. So they see this pilot open all the cargo hatches in the airplane looking for something. There are no cords in the nose, but there's some Febreeze. I'm going to use that, because the carpet stinks. There's a really long red and black cord in the left wing locker, along with the Y-spliced cord for the engine block heaters and a shorter heavy duty cord. I hook those three together, but that leaves me about three metres short. Another search through everything. I thought I had another cord. It must be in a maintenance hangar somewhere.

It's late, the stores will all be closed so I can't buy one tonight and they want it plugged in tonight. I'll have to park on the grass. Unless ...

I call the client and ask if he has an extension cord. He initially says no and then remembers that he has one in his truck to plug in his block heater. In the truck I have, so I don't even have to drive back into town for it. It just fits. But my coworker will laugh in the morning when she sees the crazy daisy chain of cords I have used to get the job done. I drive back to town and put the airplane keys under her door with a note promising to buy a proper cord before she lands back here tomorrow.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Red Deer Airport

The airport at Red Deer has two good paved runways, some good taxiways and at least one "wait, are you sure there wasn't an X on this?" taxiway. That's Delta. I was glad that I had specifically checked NOTAMs for the airport before coming here, so that I could be reasonably confident that I wasn't about to fall into a pit. This must be why the controller offered me the backtrack yesterday.

There is a proper airport terminal here, with washrooms and gates (okay, gate: I think there's only one) and PA announcements and CATSA security screening. In front of the terminal is a large paved apron with a big yellow square painted on it. The square is about the size of a B737 and it's the secure area of the airport. When there is a scheduled carrier parked there, no one without a badge or a security escort may cross the line. When there's no scheduled carrier, anyone may walk or taxi anywhere on the apron. When I first arrived at the airport there was a B737 parked in the square, but the FSS folk cheerfully assured me that it was just a charter, not scheduled, so the line was not in force. Because it's so much more practical to commit terrorist acts on a scheduled flight than with a private charter that operates on your schedule, I guess.

From the airside, the terminal has the name of the airport and the field elevation written on it and there is the word enter over one door. The other door goes to the FSS in the tower cab on top of the terminal. The FSS personnel don't go in and out that door, though, they use a wooden walkway with handrails that goes along the roof to the groundside, and then down a set of metal stairs. It must be a chilly gauntlet to run in the winter, but the summer weather is quite nice, not getting below ten or so overnight. The metal stairs end in a fenced cage with a coded entry door, next to the airport staff parking. From there a secure fence with a combination lock runs along the edge of the airfield. (Pilots: your first guess at the code is correct, and there's a sticker on both sides of the gate that gives the name of the four digit number clearly enough that it could be googled). Not to worry about the security of the airfield however, because the security fence ends a couple of hangars down the ramp and anyone can just walk or drive onto the field. Just like Miami.

As I'm leaving the airport at eleven p.m. a man comes down the stairs to his car. I ask if he's leaving for the night or just a shift change. I thought I remembered that it was 24 hour here, but I could be wrong. Eleven is a common time for services to stop. It's just a shift change, though. He explains that overnight when Edmonton City Centre tower closes, Red Deer Radio steps in and looks after that frequency. I told him that I had assumed it went to a pool of people in a room in Edmonton somewhere. He says it used to, but this is new. It's not a bad idea. It gives Red Deer Radio enough work to justify them being open twenty-four hours.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


I'm working more closely with another pilot these days, making me "one of the pilots" on site as opposed to "the pilot." I try to avoid writing too much about my coworkers, because who wants people putting stuff about you on the internet without your knowledge. But we do some things together, and sometimes someone else's actions form part of my story.

I could write the whole thing as if it were just me, which removes any fear of posting something someone doesn't want said about them. And you never know what that might be. But then I end up taking credit for the actions of others, which isn't really fair. I do that a little, anyway, trying to carry the story without unnecessary personal information.

I try to avoid too much detail of what we said or did solving a problem, because while it's okay for me to misremember or poorly condense my own actions and words, I shouldn't be misquoting someone else or accidentally accusing her of something she didn't do. I'd love to spend some time comparing and contrasting the two of us. There's lots of humour and learning in it, but even if I'm simply trying to describe a characteristic I admire, I'm almost guaranteed to say something that could be misinterpreted, so it's better not to go there.

So that's it. I work with competent people who work hard, do a good job, and are easy to get along with, but I don't mention them as individuals that much on the blog. It's not to deny them credit but to avoid infringing on their privacy. Often they have stories I'd love to tell you, but as I see it they are not mine to pilfer.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


I'm in Yellowknife right now probably until Tuesday, so drop me an e-mail if you'd like to meet up.

Survey Says ...

They do it.

They have to inspect all the circuits that are served by that breaker looking for anomalies. They basically open everything up, poke at it, don't find anything, and then can't reproduce the problem. "What do I put?" muses the engineer, pen poised over the journey log trying to write a rectification.

"You've got a three letter abbreviation for that, don't you?" I suggest. "I'm okay if you just put 'NFF'." It stands for 'no fault found.' It sometimes means "pilot is stupid/lazy." I suppose it sometimes means the engineer is, because this one declines to write that. He documents the steps he has taken and signs off the airplane. I offer the flight to my coworker, but she doesn't want it.

Taxi out again. Backtrack to the end. Turn around. Power up. Gauges green. Brakes release, airspeed alive and rotate. Gear up. I bring back the power before we speed up and we cycle the flaps. All good. Flaps up, back to climb power and we're en route for real.

Today's destination is Red Deer. It's in Alberta, almost exactly half way between Calgary and Edmonton. It's getting dark as we arrive. I set up for 16 and then am offered a straight in for 29 and take that instead. Landing on 16 would have had me roll out and be at the apron, but now I'm not sure of the best route. We're coming up on taxiway delta but before I can check if it goes where I want, the controller offers us the backtrack. It's not actually a control tower, but an FSS, but it's one of the assertive ones that coordinates traffic rather than just telling you where other aircraft are and asking "what are your intentions?"

There's a 737 parked on the apron, but we tuck into a corner where we won't be in the jet blast when they start up again, and shut down.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Time for a Pool

The hotel we stayed in has a really nice pool, so we go for a swim before I volunteer to drive back for the part. My coworker did all the driving for the previous trips, so I figure she should get to sit around a bit today.

I'm not actually picking up the part from the Fed Ex office: I'm picking it up from the part retailer who get it couriered to them, so what I collect is just the paperwork and the part, in its plastic baggie. Today's part is about the size of the last joint of my little finger. It's an electronic component. I don't know if it has a name or just a part number, but apparently it is responsible for the last two day's trouble. I drive back. They install it. They test it. It works.

We load our bags. We run up. We take off. I raise the gear. It starts goes up. The green lights go out and a red light goes on. The gear clunks into the belly and wings. The hydraulic cycle completes and the red light goes off. A glance in the mirror shows that the nosewheel is stowed.

I reduce the power from the take-off setting to the climb setting. I get distracted by a very odd indication on the panel and reduce the power too much. My coworker is reading the paper but this gets her attention and I show her that the flap indicator shows full down. They're not down even a little bit and the indication was correct on the ground. Flap indicators can be wonky. This one always indicates full down when electrical power is removed. Not all of them do that. Often cycling the flaps will fix an indication problem, but when selected down, they don't budge. I inspect the obvious culprit. Yep, the circuit breaker is popped. "I'll reset it once," I say and push on it, but it doesn't go in. She doesn't believe me and reaches over and tries it herself. I forgive her for thinking I'm too stupid to reset a CB, after my power setting stunt. It doesn't reset for her either.

We almost got out of there, too.

I'm in the U-turn, thinking about the short runway. I don't have flapless landing performance charts. There's still some wind, but not a whole lot. I consider going to the larger airport. That would allow a larger margin of safety, but it would introduce a lot of operational difficulties. A lot of people think that being a professional pilot is all about always making the safest decision. It's not. It's about making the decision that will come closest to achieving the operational objective while still remaining safe. Is it safe to land this airplane on this runway, at this weight, in only this much wind? In my judgement yes. And there's nothing to hit at the other end. Not even a fence.

I fly a long final to compensate for the fact that the flapless approach profile is less familiar. I want to land at the very beginning of the runway, and I want to do it with as little speed as is safe, so as to have less speed to kill by braking. Gear down and take a couple of extra inches of power off. Over the threshold, power idle, brakes ... and without jamming them on we almost make the centre taxiway.

My coworker has already texted the engineer about our issue. The popped circuit break is for the starter solenoid, flaps and right emergency fuel pump. Weird combination. Weirder are the combinations required to start it again. With the master off, the CB resets. They have me do various combinations of starting engines, operating the flaps and turning on the fuel pump. Sometimes it pops and sometimes it doesn't. The engineer and one of the apprentices work on the problem. We go inside and chat to the other apprentice, who is also a student pilot. We tell her that if we stay the night again, as it looks like we will, she can come to the excellent hotel pool as our guest. We aviatrices have to stick together.

So what do you think? Are we going to spend another night here? Will we go back to the parts distributor in the morning? Will they fix the airplane and see us on our way tonight? If it's of any help to your guess there is a ridge of high pressure over western Canada leaving it clear all the way to destination.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Any Bets?

Same drill as yesterday. We check out of the hotel, load our gear in the vehicle, drive to the first airport, collect a squat switch and accompanying paperwork, and drive to the second airport. The weather is good here, but poor at destination, however it should clear up by the time the part is installed and we get there. We walk into the hangar with our delivery.

The airplane is up on jacks, with the gear retracted. It looks really creepy that way. I'm used to seeing airplanes sitting on their wheels, and it's okay to have them hoisted onto jacks, but it's very weird when the wheels are up, but the airplane is sitting in a hangar. It looks so precarious like that. The engineer and his apprentice are looking glum. We hold up the part triumphantly, but this doesn't lighten their mood.

"Uh thanks," the engineer says. The switch doesn't seem to be the problem. At the moment they're cleaning out the nose compartment because they had a hydraulic line come off. There's something more other than the switch that sends an electric locked or not locked signal that is causing the airplane to believe its gear is not extended when it is. They aren't going to have this today. This time we check into a hotel in this town, but it turns out we'll have to drive back to the first airport to get a part again tomorrow.

No, I did not just post the same post two days in a row. Yesterday, for example, the weather was poor here and good at destination. Today it's the opposite. In neither case does it matter, as we're not going anywhere until that airplane works. How long do you think we can keep this up?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Fed Ex R Us

The delivery isn't until the early afternoon, so we take advantage of our regular customer status at the hotel chain and get a late checkout time so we can lounge around in our palatial upgraded rooms, do a workout, and get some lunch. Life is hard, eh?

As we're leaving, a couple of Skywest pilots are having a cigarette outside the hotel before checking in, and we stop to chat. They're glad to be working, of course, but not thrilled with their working conditions. I confess that I'd like to fly for a regional, but don't seem to have what they are looking for. They both know other pilots who do what we do and don't think it's a bad option. "Yeah," I say, "But I'd really like to ..." and the captain finishes the sentence before I do with "flight privileges?"


They're really not all they are cracked up to be. And I already know this. Sure you fly for nothing or for a fraction of the regular fare, but it's space available. You can plan to get on the first flight out after your shift ends, but you might wait a day to get where you are going. Or even get stranded part way. You have to leave a day or more buffer to be sure you get back. Might as well make more money and buy cheap tickets that you know you will get to use. I know Skywest pilots don't make much money. But the FO had an awesome haircut. Maybe her brother or sister is a high-end hairdresser and she gets free cuts.

So we pile our luggage into our vehicle and drive out to the airport. It's accessed by a dirt road that turns off a poorly paved road that turns off the main highway. There's no airport fence or even a clear delineation of where the airport ends and farmland stops. We park in front of the hangar and bring in the part. While they are installing it, we load our luggage into the airplane and secure it. The hangar has no password on the wireless internet -- who's going to poach your bandwidth in the middle of a field? -- so I download and install a new version of my navigation program and update the weather. It's supposed to be a little low for the first 200 miles, with a bit of rain, and then open up for clear weather to destination. Winds are, of course, headwinds. There's a good breeze here, too, which is good because it's straight down the runway and will help us get out of the short strip full of fuel and gear.

The engineer comes in from the run-up shaking his head. "Doesn't it work?" we ask. The gauge works fine. There's something wrong with the squat switch. The gear horn blares continuously. The airplane is convinced that the landing gear is not locked down and is desperately trying to warn us to either extend it or pull up. The engineer goes into his office and returns. He's ordered another part, a new squat switch.

"I knew I shouldn't have loaded the bags!" says my coworker.

We unload the bags and put them back in our vehicle, then drive back to the hotel we just checked out of. Once again we will stay the night in preparation for doing the Fed Ex pick up dance again tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Safety First

I got the call, as usual, with my chief pilot telling me which city to fly to. I bought the ticket online but didn't check in online. I just went to the airport and checked in at a kiosk, receiving a paper boarding pass. My destination was a Fed Ex hub in the prairies, and the airport code on the printed bag tag matched my intended destination. Bonus.

Additional bonus: somehow despite checking in at the airport close to the minimum time before the flight, I have been assigned an exit row seat for one leg, the kind with so much space in front of you that you can't reach your bag under the seat ahead with your seatbelt on. And the emergency exit is a thing to behold. The aircraft is an A321, and looking at the R3 exit door I suspect that the door alone has a manual as thick as the one for my entire airplane. It has straps and levers and handles and lots of placards in English and French, plus a window with a pressure warning light. There's a little placard down by my ankle showing temperature versus pressure, but I'm not sure whether this are expected or maximum, nor do I know what use it might be here. I would dearly love to see the manual for this door, but the best I can find is in Korean, merely increasing its mystery.

I pick up the briefing card and look through it to determine which of the many controls on the door I am supposed to operate in an emergency, and which way the door is to be pushed, pulled or slid. The man next to me gestures at the card and says superciliously, "I knew there must be someone who read those things."

Some people think they are too cool for safety.

The flight attendant comes by and briefs us on the door operation. I point out the presence of a red Remove Before Flight tag on the door. She assures me that removing that tag is a part of her pre-takeoff checklist, as she arms the door. When she does it, she moves the tag over a bit into another socket. So I'm still staring at this stupid tag. I consider hiding it for the duration of the flight, but the risk of getting in trouble over it is greater than my no red tag neurosis.

I spend part of the flight reviewing my own normal and emergency checklists. I think that Mr. Too Cool To Read The Briefing Card doesn't believe I'm a pilot, but I really don't care. I then switch over to translating the dialogue from a really bad movie into an obscure language I'm trying to learn , a process which Mr. TCTRTBC observes and proclaims tedious. Not really. It's an action movie with really lame dialogue, so there aren't a lot of words to translate. It's fun. But different people have different concepts of fun. I don't ask Mr. TCTRTBC what he does for fun.

Computer put away for landing and we're down. At least fifteen knots, about 30 degrees off the runway. Another happy afternoon in the prairies.

The other crew has already left for their time off. My shift coworker has been here for a few hours already, so she knows the plan. The original plan was for us to get a vehicle, drive out to the airplane and fly to Medicine Hat. But airplanes only like original plans to the extent that they think they're being original when they thwart them, necessitating a new plan.

The airplane is sitting on a 2700' strip in the next town over, waiting for a new part. The cylinder head temperature indication for the right engine had been flickering up into the red. There was no indication of a reason for excessive CHT, and the oscillating behaviour of the needle pointed to a gauge problem. I guess on a car you'd probably just drive until something more serious happened, but with an airplane, you make it right. The replacement gauge is expected at this airport tomorrow, so rather than waiting for Fed Ex to deliver it to the airplane, we will pick it up ourselves and drive it out there. The mechanics will install it, test it out, and we'll fly away.

Oh and it's hoax week on Aviatrix's blog, as a drunk calls a suicide hotline and tells them he's an airline pilot planning to bring down his next flight.

Monday, August 10, 2009


I'm back at work, luxuriating in not blogging, and chatting online.

"Did you see the video of the guy that lands the airplane with one wing?" asks a non-pilot. He provides a link, but I'm too lazy to click it.

"The military jet?" I ask. "Those airplanes get so much lift from the fuselage that it's possible to do that." I realize how pretentious that sounds and add, "Not that I wouldn't lose control of an airplane like that with two wings."

(The six minute video documents an F-15 landing after a training accident that separated almost all of one wing).

"No," says the person. "It wasn't a jet. It had a propeller. It was at an airshow."

So them I'm thinking it's probably Kent Pietsch with his detachable aileron stunt. He has a dummy aileron, and a quick release to disconnect it, so it visibly falls of the airplane in flight. He also throws a wheel out of the airplane, and then lands on one wheel, the wheel facing towards the airshow viewers. It's also set up so the announcer is acting as though this airplane is not part of the show but has violated the NOTAMed off airspace due to its emergency. The first time I saw that stunt I got some shocked reactions from other airshow patrons because I was laughing at what they thought was a serious emergency.

Finally I click the link.

The video is shaky airshow spectator footage showing an aircraft doing a low an over. It pulls up, one wing separates, it comes in and out of frame a few times then makes a knife edge approach, weight opposed by the thrust of the propeller and lift generated over the fuselage. I'm thinking, "The pilot is going to survive this!" Theres a moment of blur and then the airplane is on the ground, on the wheels. A member of the ground crew runs up and the video ends.

Whoa! When did this happen? Why have I not heard of it? Who is the pilot? I found more information at AvWeb.

So it was a good fantasy. Fun to imagine having the skill, power, presence of mind and luck to pull that off.