Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ferry to Maintenance

Company has a hangar available for maintenance, so all I have to do is get there. There's a NOTAM out saying that all taxiways and the apron are closed for resurfacing, but the private hangar has its own apron that can be reached from the runway without my needing to use the closed taxiways.

I walk around the airplane carefully, looking for anything that would make me demand they come to this airport instead, or anything else they should be repairing during the downtime. There's no puddle on the ground from the oil, just what seeped out and flowed over the nacelle during yesterday's flight. It's not very much oil, as can also be verified by the fact that I didn't have to add any to make it up to the correct level on the stick. I wipe the nacelle clean, not out of fastidiousness--it will soon have greasy engineer and apprentice fingerprints all over it--but for their information. By asserting that I left with it clean, I am showing the engineers exactly how much leaked during the flight.

It's still not the shiniest airplane in the skies, but I wouldn't really say it needed painting. The tires are all okay and the gear uplocks and rollers click and roll as they should. All the vortex generators are present and I don't see any rivets shedding their paint. When the paint comes off the head of a rivet, it's a sign of stress along that join. Better to investigate when the paint is coming off than wait until the heads start popping off some of the rivets.

Happy with my preflight inspection, I secure my baggage and fire up the engines. They start nicely, better than they have all month, because every other flight I've done has been of a hot airplane, just returned from a flight with my colleague. Engines don't like to start when they are too hot or too cold. The too cold problem is because the oil is thick and provides resistance to turning. I think the too hot problem may be from the fuel vapourizing too easily and the engine becoming flooded. I'm not positive about that, but the hot start and the flooded start procedures are similar. It always feels like the airplane is complaining that it already worked hard this morning, why does it have to go out again? I regard the engines as a collection of tired horses shaking their heads and trying to bolt towards the barn, as I coax them to start, instead.

I text company to say when I will arrive while I wait for the engines to warm up. The oil temperature gauges and EGTs come up evenly showing temperatures I expect. I test the various systems. The right propeller doesn't respond to the feather check right away. I check the left and it is okay and then go back to the right and now it works properly. Part of the feather check is checking function, and part is just getting the oil to circulate through the hub. I make a note, though, because they supposedly just flushed the propellers at a recent scheduled maintenance, so it should be peppier. Maybe something they supposedly flushed is still oozing around in there. Also the left tach needle seems to be oscillating too, not just the right one. I guess we're going to wring every last bit of use out of this mechanical tach before we go digital.

The wind is calm and for once I'm not waddling out at max gross, so I take off from the nearest end of the runway without backtracking for the extra few feet available before the numbers. There's a gigantic blast shield before the threshold of the runway, so that jets taking off don't blow cars off the road behind them. That blast shield makes the beginning of the runway unusable for landing (unless you want to glide through the barrier) but I can still backtrack and use it for takeoff if I want to. But on this occasion I don't.

Power, gauges green, roll, rotate, climb, gear up, power reduction, turn on course, talk to ATC, level off, set cruise power, consult the checklist to make sure my fingers did all the right things, and adjust my heading as I speed up and require a different wind correction angle.

Now I just monitor everything, looking out the window for traffic, making sure the temperatures and pressures are what they should be, and looking through the "nearest" display on the GPS so that when someone calls on 126.7 out of Goat River for Empress Lake or dropping jumpers over Marvik (or did he say Bartuk?) I have a hope in hell of knowing whether he might be a conflict.

I call flight services on a discrete frequency with a position report, and to get an updated altimeter setting. It's a routine call and I go back to 126.7. About five minutes later flight services hails me on 126.7. Sometimes they do it if they are looking for an airplane and you are in the area where they think it is, so they will ask you to try and raise it. I respond. The specialist just thought I might like to know there was a NOTAM for my destination, that the apron and taxiways are closed. I thank him, and assure him I have the NOTAM, but leave it a mystery to him why I am going to an airport where it appears I cannot exit the runway. Was that cruel?

The destination is ahead and I'll be straight in for the runway. I pick up the ATIS of the nearest controlled airport to update my altimeter again and to confirm what I know about the wind from the ripples on the lakes. I'm going to be a few minutes late. I didn't include the time to complete the run up in my estimated time enroute. Another NOTAM warned of parachute activity here, so I call the ATC frequency that was given for more information, but the controller acts like he's never heard of such a thing. I guess it hasn't been a busy summer for the jumpers.

I land and then turn around on the runway to taxi back to where I can see my PRM standing with an engineer the company often contracts to, on the private apron. The PRM has come out to make sure this airplane gets everything fixed properly this time. The engineer gives me marshalling signals and I shut down in front of them. Oh you're not going to believe this, but the left tach is now dead. It couldn't even make it through the flight.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Everything at Once

Not only are we out of fuel at this base, but as we fly out the last hours before scheduled maintenance, the airplane throws a fit and we have a burst of minor defects we have to defer in consultation with maintenance: the aforementioned CHT gauge, a couple of instrument lights, and a bit of an oil leak that maintenance was right about when they said it would be messy but would not worsen or cause a mechanical problem. (That wasn't done lightly: two pilots, two engineers and the PRM all had to agree on it). It`s pretty embarrassing how much can go wrong at once. You probably don't want to know how many things are wrong with any airplane you ride on as a passenger.

During my last revenue flight before scheduled maintenance, during flight the compass started sitting at an odd angle in the housing. I rarely consult the compass after start up, because I have other instruments that use a different compass to do the same job more effectively, but it's still a required instrument. I'm used to the compass bowl being tilted as an effect of northern latitudes -- I'll do a post on that sometime, as it's rather interesting -- but as I changed heading I saw that the behaviour of the compass wasn't matching the angle of the magnetic field lines at our latitude. The compass read accurately on all headings and led and lagged as expected on turns to north and south, but it just wasn't sitting the way it usually did inside the bowl.

There is much in the way of preventative maintenance that is done on a compass. It's just there. It isn't connected to anything, except it has wires running to its light. It's calibrated once a year, and the couple of degree differences between its indicated and bearings and what it should read are recorded on a card for my use, but it doesn't get oiled or tuned or remagnetized. It's just one more thing for this stupid weekend. I imagine the rectification for this snag will be "Compass told to smarten up and fly straight," or possibly "Pilot headrest adjusted so she can see straight."

My next flight will be a ferry, to take this bag of aluminum bones to a shop where it will have its complaints attended to. They are also going to change out the tachometers for electronic ones, as we've been changing too many tach cables lately. The right tach needle is already oscillating slightly, in the way that says "order a new tach cable now before I break."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Position Reports

Comments on my post Most Useless Radio Calls Ever led to a discussion of the precision of calls like "Position report for Xray Yankee Zulu, currently 128 miles north of Edmonton, level at ninty five, enroute to Yellowknife. Any conflicts Xray Yankee Zulu on twenty six seven."

The part of that one that irritates me most is the "any conflicts" part, sometimes extended to as much as "any conflicting traffic please advise." The reason you made the call in the first place is so that conflicting traffic can advise you of their position and intentions. Saying it explicitly is just a waste of time on the frequency. If you're actually conflicting with my flight path I am now waiting for you to shut up so I can tell you.

A possible origin for such addenda is from a document giving advice to crews operating IFR into uncontrolled airports in VMC. I don't have a link or the text handy, but the theory is that a call like "Sumspot Traffic, Air Moose five north procedure turn inbound one nine alpha circling for zero one," may be intimidating to the three light aircraft in the circuit at Sumspot. They might not understand the IFR terminology enough to realize it's a conflict, resulting in a turboprop breaking through the 2500' bases and getting a windshield full of Cessna. The advice was to add a simpler call and specifically ask for response from traffic in the area. It's easy to see how people would hear the cool IFR pilots saying it and decide it's a good idea for them, too.

I hear and understand the fact that "128 nm north of Edmonton" covers a lot of territory, considering that "north" probably includes an arc of twenty or thirty degrees. That's why in the Yellowknife area people report on radials. In southern Saskatchewan (i.e. anything south of Saskatoon) you're probably always within 20 miles of an airport that is on the chart, so people call with reference to the nearest airport. This doesn't solve the problem for me. When someone calls 128 miles north of Edmonton en route to Yellowknife, while I'm out of Edmonton for Winnipeg, I at least know the northbound traffic isn't a conflict for me. I know that the traffic out of Calgary for Saskatoon might be an issue if they are at my altitude. But I haven't a clue whether the guy who is "overhead Oyen climbing to 6500' for Slave Lake" is an issue for me. There are way too many tiny places on the map for me to find them. The GPS lists an alphanumerical soup of identifiers for teeny airports in my vicinity. I do try to keep track of what is near me as I progress across the prairie, but I don't select every identifier that comes up on the GPS to see what it is named. My only recourse is to look out the window and to call and say where I am, hoping that someone who makes such a specific call knows the relation of his tiny airport to mine.

I sometimes try to make the best of both worlds with position reports like "60 miles west of Moose Jaw over Gopherphart Field," giving general information that allows the people in Prince Albert to ignore me while also offering specific details so others in the Lake Diefenbaker area know if I'm a conflict. But I'm sure there are pilots who hate the time I waste on the frequency telling them where Gopherphart is. They think that anyone in the neighbourhood should know. I'm sure, working up the scale, there are plenty of aircraft who pass over my head (albeit at a non-interfering flight level) who are oblivious to the existence of Regina.

Also I've been away for a bit in real time, and have returned to over a hundred e-mails, so e-mail again later if you asked me something important and I didn't reply, I tend to let things get buried in the pile.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Contaminated Fuel

A reader expressed a concern about our taking avgas from a small facility that does not sell a lot of avgas in a month. The risk of contaminated or otherwise bad fuel is probably greater in those cases, and we do take some precautions when using it.

Whenever possible we fuel the night before and then check the fuel sumps in the morning, giving time for water and particulate matter to settle to the bottom of the tank where we can see it. During this operation I have never found appreciable water in the fuel system, and never found any that didn't correlate with precipitation during fuelling. I too have put my credit card slip in a safe that opened with the comnbination that was written on the instruction sheet that I found inside the door that opened with the emergency code, but based on paperwork by the fuel tanks and how often we happen to see people doing official testing-like activities at the holding tank sump, I believe that the neglected airport fuel tank is not that common.

My company has had one instance of a problem from taking on contaminated fuel, and it was from a fairly large operator in the United States. The pilot was ferrying across the country and refilled four empty tanks plus topped up the two half-full inboards. Run up and take off was on the inboard tanks (there's a brief test of the outboards on the checklist, but it's only enough to confirm fuel flow, not really quality). After levelling off at cruise, the pilot switched to the outboard tanks and the engines ran roughly. They ran better on the original inboards, and after return to the airport, it was determined by maintenance that the new fuel load was contaminated with diesel, i.e. probably jet fuel. The FBO insisted that no one else had had a problem, but likely the other piston airplanes that had taken fuel had added the contaminated fuel to already half full tanks. We saw that that level of dilution did not cause an obvious problem on our own inboard tanks. It was when the engines ran off tanks that were filled from empty with the contaminated fuel that the problem occurred.

A few years back, Australia had much of general aviation grounded for a few days because of a contamination problem that originated right at the refinery. A few airplanes had engine problems and there were a couple of helicopter crashes attributed to the problem. Ironically, during that incident, if you'd been getting your fuel from a small airport that didn't sell a large volume of fuel, you'd have been pumping clean fuel while the big places that took frequent deliveries would have the contaminated product.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ten Stupid Things About My Phone

Every once in a while a Canadian just has to rant about cellphones. This one isn't even mostly about the excessive fees and charges the monopolists get out of us. It's just stuff that irritates me.

  • When it is plugged in on the charger, upon reaching the fully charged state it chirps. While this may be useful to some people, it is not useful to someone who gets in after a long day and plugs in her phone before going to bed.
  • I can't advance through several new text messages with the down arrow key. I have to hit back to get out to the message list then hit down to select the next message, then ok to see that message.
  • In order to enter a question mark in a text message I have to hit the sequence: left soft key, 3, right nav key, right nav key, 3.
  • If I close the cover on the flip phone after dispatching a text message but before confirmation that it sent, it cancels the message.
  • If I press the off button while the Message Sent! confirmation is displayed, it displays the message Sending Cancelled before turning off. The message isn't cancelled. It just says that.
  • The submenu giving me access to the alarm function is located under the Shop menu on the main screen. What does an alarm have to do with shopping?
  • It is possible to customize the nav keys to serve as shortcuts. The offered list of frequently used features includes selecting a new ring tone or changing the picture on the display. It doesn't include composing a new text message.
  • There are innocuous-looking menu options, e.g. Short Code List in the messaging menu, which launch a web browser, for which I get charged at atrocious Canadian data rates, and which I asked the phone company to disable.
  • It doesn't have any option to display the number of minutes remaining in the plan I have selected. Even if I log into the company website, they won't tell me whether my next call will be at the plan rate or at the exorbitant "you ran out of plan minutes" rate.
  • It costs me almost $50 a month just to own the thing and keep the number active, before any calls.

I wish we had Net10 or other cheap prepaid phones in Canada.

Also the CHT gauge that has been replaced, adjusted and had its probe replaced is overreading again. It's apparently something in the wiring. I think it's in league with my cellphone.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Silent But Deadly

I take off and get clearance into the overlying class C airspace, then continuing eastbound I clear the zone. I tell the controller that I'll be returning in about six hours and ask if I should keep the transponder code. He replies enthusiastically in the affirmative and clears me en route.

Ahead and above I see an airplane, about Dash-8 proportions, on a trajectory that will bring it into Edmonton. It's not that far above me and I'm surprised that the terminal controller didn't point it out to me before clearing me en route. They usually point out airplanes you can see, even if they aren't a traffic conflict. In the same instant that I see it, I suddenly realize that my initial understanding of the perspective was completely wrong. It isn't a larger fast airplane far away. It's a glider, right there, moving slowly, just above me, and there's another one below and to the left. They are white with no markings, making them harder to see against sky. Perhaps they were below my field of vision a moment ago. I dodge right and flash past them, wondering if they saw or heard me. I almost hope not. I imagine it's hard to change your underwear midflight in a glider.

I have engines and they don't, so they have the right of way, and of course I willingly cede it, but that was close. Had I struck one, it would be lucky (like this case) if either of us had survived. Aircraft are designed to withstand weather and normal inflight stresses, but not impacts. See and avoid is the rule, but you have to see first. I actually knew there were gliders in the area, because I read the CFS entry for the airport, when I was looking for possible alternate landing and fuelling spots. And today is a Saturday, so the weekend flyers are out.

I made a call on the frequency of the glider port and on 126.7, but never heard any glider traffic, and I never saw a glider there again, even though I was back and forth over that spot several times on the weekend. Perhaps they didn't have electrical systems, so no transponders or radios. I guess that's a lot of weight for a glider to carry, too.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dark Marshall

I didn't see a marshaller yesterday while taxiing in after my second landing. I just headed for where I had parked before. Just as I was about to shut down I saw the marshaller, in front of an open hangar, waving what appeared to be two dark sticks. I don't know whether he had lost his flashlights or the batteries were dead or he hadn't been equipped with any, but it was the darkest marshaller I've ever had at night. I don't think he even had a reflective vest on. Certainly not the new super-bright kind. Maybe I should get one of those vests to wear when I'm walking around a dark ramp at night. Dorky but safer. I think I've determined that the extent of a person's nerdiness is a function of their willingness to sacrifice trendiness for practicality. Tape on the glasses is really the ultimate expression of that: tape is available right at your desk for almost free. Frame repair involves an optician appointment and a lot of money. Once your nerdiness reaches a certain nadir, the tape is a no-brainer.

I shut down and saw we were quite near an ambulance. I hoped he hadn't got us mixed up with an expected medevac, but then a King Air taxiied up and the ambulance went out to it, and he was unsurprised when I just asked for fuel.

Oh, and there is no tape on my glasses.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Short Hops

Monday I reach the airplane after my coworker has landed. I have credit card in hand and walk to the pump to swipe it, but she shakes her head. "It's dead." The computer lets you activate the pump, but there's a zip tie around the lever that you lift to start the flow of fuel. We're not sure whether we have run the 20,000 L tank dry or if we have burned out the pump motor from running it for so long, but we're not getting any more fuel out of it today.

Sigh. It was already a late start, and now we will be further delayed. There's an airport with full service fuel just seven minutes flight away, but by the time you land, fuel, pay and taxi, that's at least half an hour, and we'll have to do that twice to bring the airplane back full, too. But we do.

I accept a clearance to a right base to 13. I'm just realizing that I'm setting up for a left base, and that isn't making sense, even though I have the runway in sight, when the controller asks me if I would prefer a left base for 12. I accept that and adore the controller for not pointing out my mistake. He had cleared me right base for 30, but I managed to mishear that as 13, and rotate the runway ten degrees in my imagination, such as that I was setting up for a left base to where the non-existent 13 would be. But thanks to a sharp controller, no one who didn't see me on a heading that was no way going to put me on right base for 30 sees that I did anything wrong. I'm cleared to land on 12 and taxi for fuel without making a further fool of myself.

The flight is mostly over flat land, but we also cross some impressive river gorges. I love the way the drainage there makes the vegetation a different colour, so the terrain provides its own coloured relief map.

At the end of the flight I return to the same airport and it takes me a moment to find it amongst the bright city lights. The trick is to look for the big dark patch, because although a city runway is brightly lit, and the traffic areas of the buildings have lights, most of the field is not lit at all, so when you find the dark patch you can usually find the flashing beacon and then the runway lights. I've been descending on base, just on faith that the runway is there, but I'm descending towards tall city buildings, so when I turn final I'm a little high. That's okay: the runway is long and I have plenty of time to brake and exit. Just a little further than optimum to taxi back for fuel.

I'd like to be perfect, always hit the right spot for maximum efficiency, but sometimes I have to settle for being safe.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Fifteen Hundred Litres A Day. Really.

The fuel pump where we are based has been surging oddly during fuelling, and once it cut out and had to be restarted mid-fuelling. We suspect that the supply is running low. It's Sunday, but I call the number I have for the fuel supervisor anyway, to leave a message. She answers and I tell her what we've observed.

"There were six thousand litres in it on Friday," she says. Unfortunately, that means that if we're the only ones using it it will be dry before Tuesday. I did tell her how much fuel we take in a day, but recent experience suggests that the number doesn't impress in people's heads. She says she will check again and that she can order more on Monday.

Sigh. We make sure to plan our flights to arrive with enough fuel to legally hop to another airport for fuel.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Minimum Rest Period in Suitable Accommodations

I've been out of touch for a while with the blog on automatic, but I've returned just in time to read Syrad's question and it's important enough to merit an entry in reply, rather than an extended comment. There are lots of people who don't read the comments. (They probably think they are like normal blog comments, but Cockpit Conversation readers are brilliant, so those that skip the comments are missing out). To recap for them, after I described my extended duty day, airline pilot Syrad asked:

Rest regulations and their current shortcomings are a big issue for me. I fly under 121 in the States, where the regulations say that we have to have at minimum eight hours of rest. However, that clock starts ticking fifteen minutes after we set the brake regardless of where we are. After deplaning passengers, doing postflight walkarounds, and shutting down the airplane we're rarely out of the airport by then. Our clock goes until our show time, which the company can reduce to thirty minutes before departure.

Essentially, this means that all the time we spend waiting for the hotel van/car service, travelling to and from the hotel, and checking in are part of our eight hours of rest. At my company we rarely only have minimum rest, but when we do it's common to only get five hours of actual sleep. Obviously these all come after long and hard days, because something unusual and annoying is happening at work if we're so delayed we're down to minimum rest. I hate doing min rest overnights, and I am frustrated that they're legal for us to do even though there has been copious research showing the wide-reaching consequences of not getting enough sleep. Research has shown that 97% of the adult population needs somewhere between seven and nine hours of sleep to be fully rested. Current regulations ensure that a US airline crew on a minimum rest overnight is not getting anywhere near the amount of sleep needed to be fully rested.

With your operation, how does rest work? Obviously you have control over many things that airline crews don't have, so do you calculate the start of your rest time as when you walk in the hotel door and the end as when you leave the hotel? Or do you work it some other way? I'm curious because I believe that eight hours "behind the door" (at the hotel) is the absolute minimum that should be allowed. I'm also not a fan of sixteen hour duty days, which are legal for us. Fortunately they don't happen much, either, because I don't know many people who are still completely safe to operate an aircraft after sixteen straight hours of work.

The information in Syrad's question stunned me a little. I well know that the US border separates me from a country with its own laws, culture and tradition, but we use the same species of H. sapiens to operate the same kinds of airplanes on much the same kinds of routes. I know Canadian regulators look at research and changes in regulations in other similar countries, such as the US and Australia, and Transport Canada prides itself on being proactive in improving safety. For many regulations the wording is almost identical in the FARs (US Federal Aviation Regulations) and the CARs (Canadian Aviation Regulations). I'd expect the FAA to do the same thing. They must know about the big ugly loophole that leaves Syrad and her colleagues sleep deprived. Odd that they let it remain.

In Canada the CARs definitions, explain what is meant by "minimum rest period."

"minimum rest period" - means a period during which a flight crew member is free from all duties, is not interrupted by the air operator or private operator, and is provided with an opportunity to obtain not less than eight consecutive hours of sleep in suitable accommodation, time to travel to and from that accommodation and time for personal hygiene and meals.

That is, my duty day clock stops at shut down (it would end fifteen minutes later were I an airline pilot), so if I kill the engines at the last minute of my duty day, but then spend an hour unloading baggage and negotiating with the FBO for a tow into the hangar, I am still legal, but my rest clock doesn't start until I have been fed, transported to the hotel and had a shower, and I must be allowed opportunity to sleep for eight hours before I have to get up and get ready for the next day. My chief pilot says that to accomplish that, it should usually be ten hours between walking away from the parked airplane and being required to get back in.

The start of the next duty day is a little less defined. If you work for an airline it is at report, so the ride in the hotel van is on your own time, but the ride in the hotel van has to start after that opportunity for eight hours sleep. Your employer may define it for you, e.g. if you work for Transport Canada, your duty day starts when you leave your house in the morning. I start mine when I meet the client in the lobby to discuss the day's work.

On the flip side, the law also requires me to use the eight hours to sleep. I would be breaking a federal law if I party, go sightseeing, or otherwise fail to use eight hours of my rest period to sleep.

The law also defines where the company can dump me for my rest period.

"suitable accommodation" - means a single-occupancy bedroom that is subject to a minimal level of noise, is well ventilated and has facilities to control the levels of temperature and light or, where such a bedroom is not available, an accommodation that is suitable for the site and season, is subject to a minimal level of noise and provides adequate comfort and protection from the elements.

I'm thinking that part was written by someone who had lived in northern pilot accommodations. There are lots of ways to abuse a pilot.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


The next morning we take off early for the airport that does promise to have fuel for us. My coworker is flying, but my duty day clock started ticking at the same time as hers, at the 7:00 report. The client actually wanted us to start earlier, but I landed at 10:00 p.m. last night, and by the time I finished fuelling and got back to the hotel it was almost eleven. I can get ready fast in the morning, so that still allowed me to sleep eight hours and be in the lobby at seven, but no earlier.

We roll our eyes at the number displayed on the GPS for groundspeed. Even though she is flying low level, which usually keeps a plane out of the worst winds, we have a good 20 knot headwind. It won't matter much in the end. Delays on the ground always outstrip those in the air, but it's still more fun to see the high numbers than the low ones on the GPS.

We spot the airport but can't see the runway markings until the flare. Someone needs to get out here with a line-painting truck. We roll out and taxi in up to the pump. It's an old style car gas station pump, the kind where the nozzle goes in the side and you flip down the arm after removing it. It even has a "turn ignition off" sticker on the front. "I bet it's in Imperial gallons," I predict, but it was in litres. So it's newer than 1976. Not by much, I'd bet. There's an advance person on the ground here who has arranged fuel and he gives me a magnetic key to activate the pump with. It's weird, it looks like just a little magnet, like the kind that would be glued to the back of a souvenir you stick to your refrigerator. You just pop it on the lock plate and it releases the pump. You can then put it back in your pocket while you pump.

The static line barely reaches the airplane, but the hose has an extension, so it will reach the far tank. It kinks really easily though, so we have to unfurl it carefully. After all the tanks are full, my coworker goes to fly the first shift. The ground crew offers to take me for a tour of the town, or something. I'd love to look around, maybe go and see the local museum or buy some souvenirs, but I know that the day may run past nine p.m. so I need to extend my duty day. The regs say that if I get between four and six hours rest in "suitable accommodations" I can extend my duty day by half the rest. It's my job right now to sleep.

The client's representative checks me into a little motel on the company credit card. It wonder how awkward it looks to the clerk with a guy wanting to rent a room for a woman for just a few hours. When asked my name for the register I'm tempted to blurt "Smith!" I go to the room put out the do not disturb sign, lock the door and climb into bed. About ten minutes later I the crew who were cleaning the next door room as I passed reach my room. They might have knocked; it's hard to tell what noise is knocking and what is just people moving equipment around, but then they try to come in. The inside lock stops them and they go away. I wonder what purpose the do not disturb sign serves here. Clearly it has nothing to do with attempts by staff to disturb me. Nevertheless I manage five hours of sleep. I'm now good until 11:30, which should be plenty for our mission. The motel restaurant seems to specialize in Chinese food, so I order the ginger beef. It was good and plentiful and then I get a cab back to the airport. The person who checked me in is off working elsewhere and won't be back until the end of the day.

My timing was just about right. I enter the little pilot lounge and the cab driver comes in too, to ensure that his business card is still on the bulletin board. A radio on the counter tuned to the unicom frequency squawks with my coworker's voice returning to land. I tell her the wind at the field and that there's a cab here.

She taxis back to the pump and takes the cab into town for food. I start fuelling, then after about 300 litres the pump cuts out. Weird. I restart it with the magnetic key and it works. For about another 300 or 400 litres. They promised us they could give us 1200 litres of fuel today. I don't think I've taken quite a thousand yet. But I can't get the pump to start again. I go back into the pilot lounge and start calling numbers on the contact list. I am getting people to answer, because they have provided cellphone numbers and even though it's Saturday, this is farm country where people don't have the concept of working and non-working hours. Working hours are when there is work to be done! The people I reach are friendly and wish they could help me, but everyone I reach is either away out of town for the weekend, or holding the phone for someone who is. I finally find someone who happens to know that the key is only good for a thousand dollars worth of fuel. Apparently the person who assigned it to us didn't realize that limitation, because he knew we intended to take 1200 litres, or about $1500 worth.

I examine my fuel on board situation and my POH to determine that the fuel is sufficient and that I am not too asymmetric to fly. My coworker did a good job this morning, so there isn't much work for us, and we finish up the day and return to base with more than sufficient night reserves. We land around nine, and after fuelling I taxi back to park. My coworker could have done it just as well, but I have a hotel receipt proving I had the rest. If some stupid incident happened during taxi, I could prove I was in a legal duty day. Ass covering: it's the law.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Advance Planning

The client wants us to work out of a little town in southern Alberta for a day, and calls me to check and see if the airport will be sufficient. I promise to check it out and call him back.

It has two runways, a short turf one and a longer paved one, very common here. If the long runway is suitable for you in no wind, but the crosswind is too great for you to land on the long runway, then the headwind on the cross runway is such that your touchdown speed and runway required are sufficiently reduced that the short turf runway should be fine. The long runway is long enough for us at gross weight at runway elevation and and summer temperatures, but not by much. I'm spoiled, really, with many of the runways I take off from being double what I need.

There is avgas available at the field, so I call the number listed in the CFS and ask if they can supply the quantity we need, and if fuel is available on a Saturday and outside normal business hours. He's quick to assure me that yes, that will be no problem, just call the number I called and someone will be there quickly. I confirm again the quantity and that we can take a load of fuel at 7 am, one in the early afternoon and another at ten or eleven p.m. I call back the client and tell him that the aerodrome is adequate, and I pass on the contact number so he can arrange payment for the fuel.

The next day I hear that we're going to a different small town in Alberta. I ask what happened to the first one. "There was no fuel," one of the client's employees tells me. What? It turns out that between me asking and the client calling to arrange it, the guy actually dipped the tanks and found he had only 300L in his tank. They've found another airport that can supply the fuel and have made arrangements themselves. I'm glad we found out that there was virtually no fuel at the first place before turning up and starting work, but I'm pretty ticked that he didn't at least tell me he wasn't sure, or he had to dip the tanks and call me back. I hope the client didn't think I hadn't checked.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Message from the Past

I've often thought about advice that I would give to my past self, but not long ago Irregular Webcomic asked "What would your younger self say if they could see you now?" That inspired me to think about it.

I think the strongest thing she would say was "I thought you were going to accomplish more." And she might not have the tact yet to avoid saying straight out, "I was better than this in school. What happened to make you so ordinary? How come you've forgotten so much?" She'd surmise "So I guess science wasn't all it's cracked up to be?"

She wouldn't mention the physical shape I'm in, because she had plans to get stronger, and it hadn't occurred to her back then that she wouldn't succeed or that it it would be any effort to maintain fitness. I think she'd compliment me on my hair. It looked terrible back then, and if she hung out for a while I'd probably make her ask "How do you do that?" a few times.

She's disapprove of lots of things, in her naïve idealistic way. She would want to put me back on track. I can remember her helping mentally ill people with resumés and job searches, just because they needed a hand and she was confident in her knowledge. "Let me help you make a plan," she'd say. And she'd know me too well to be fooled by my excuses.

Maybe I'd give her plan a try for a while. But I'm tired of trying to succeed.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

TLA Fever

Usually I get my weather and NOTAM information from the internet, but sometimes the hotel Internet isn't that good, or the computer is in the throes of rebooting. (Damnit, what is it with Vista that it thinks it's okay to reboot without asking after it has downloaded an update. Recently it did so with an unsaved file full of blog entry notes open on the desktop. It asked me if I wanted to save and I clicked yes, then when I fumbled the filename it rebooted anyway). If I'm not getting along with my computer at any given time I have the option to pick up the phone and call a flight services specialist. It's often faster if the computer isn't already turned on and connected, and the specialist may know better than me the identifiers of all the en route airports that have weather.

Recently I dialed flight services and was momentarily confused by an initial message telling me I had reached Lockheed-Martin Flight Services. I then realized that I had dialed 800-WX-BRIEF (the US number) instead of 866-WX-BRIEF (the Canadian number) and reached the American FSS. From a Canadian hotel. That didn't used to be possible. I'm going to pretend that it was my letter about the problems encountered by Canadians trying to close flight plans that caused the change. I can't find my original blog entry, but it used to be when you tried to dial the US number on a Canadian cellphone, it would be rejected because you were dialing from a Canadian number, but if you tried to call the Canadian number it would be rejected because it was coming through an American exchange.

So I dialed again and got the proper number, pressed 2 for a specialist, and asked for the weather I needed. I listened and wrote down:


Heh, I realize that I have strung seven three-letter abbreviations in a row, just by writing down what I hear. How long can I keep this up?


Ah, blew it with the VC.

Translation, for those who don't speak aviation/Aviatrix shorthand: Cold front moving southward toward Red Deer at 0000 Zulu. Sky condition generally scattered towering cumulus cloud. Winds gusting to thirty knots in the vicinity of the front. Headwinds of 18 kts enroute.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Most Useless Radio Calls Ever

I'm flying over the prairies, somewhere approximately on the Saskatchewan-Alberta border. I'm monitoring and making occasional position reports on 126.7. This is the frequency used by pilots all across Canada whenever they are not in controlled airspace or in a mandatory frequency area. That means that most airborne Canadians are on this frequency. And there's a lot of very flat land in this area, with nothing to stop the VHF transmissions. I can hear position reports from Wetaskiwin to Meadow Lake. There's a long silence on the frequency, with everyone settled in to wherever they have to go, and then a pilot checks in. I think he gave type and registration, but the only content of the call was,

"I'm over the lake."

He wasn't alone, however. Someone else replied,

"I'm over the town, flying runway heading."

They were evidently talking to one another, and this exchange made sense to them, but it was pretty amusing to me.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


I saw a very tall airline captain waiting for a hotel elevator today. "I hope you don't fly an RJ," I said to him, with a grin, thinking of the normal height flight attendant I'd seen recently, stooping during a meal service in the low-ceilinged CRJ-200 cabin.

"I do," he said, and stepped into the elevator with his crew before I could offer an appropriate commiseration.

Now there's a reason to pursue an upgrade.

I call the woman in charge of fuel here. There's a 20,000 litre capacity avgas tank at the airport, so assuming that there's an equal chance of any amount having being in it when we arrived, and knowing how much we take in a day, there's a fifty percent change of us alone running it dry in a week. There have been a few small singles in and out taking forty or a hundred litres at a time, too, and that also adds up. The administrator says she'll dip the tank and check. She can get an order delivered within a day of placing it, so now I won't have to worry about running out.

Monday, September 14, 2009

We're Everywhere

As you know, I'm currently partnered with another female pilot at work, and whether it's just a statistical clustering or a tipping point reached, I'm meeting women everywhere in aviation these days. Every crew I've met lately has been one guy and one woman. Every shop I've had an airplane in has had a female apprentice on the floor. And on the radio I don't even know whether there are more male or more female air traffic controllers. It's not that I'm snobby and don't like men, but having someone of your own gender in the hangar is like being on the road and meeting someone from your hometown. It's a refreshing thing to have more of us around.

At the airport where we're basing this week a crew drive up in a city truck. It's a one guy and one woman. I ask them if they know anything about how much avgas is in the tank, but they say they are just there to cut the grass. It's a small enough town that they know whom I should talk to about the fuel supply here. I should feel a little bit silly that in asking for that contact I referred to the unknown person as "he" but it's a woman's name I'm given to contact. Now who is making incorrect assumptions about who will be dealing with avgas and machinery?

Ever had someone say, "oh I worked with a guy with green eyes at another company. He was ..."? It really doesn't matter how that ends. No one would ever say it because it makes no sense to classify people's piloting skills based on eye colour. I don't think people make blanket statements about women teachers or women real estate agents or women grocery store clerks, because there are so many women doing those jobs they know that some are caring, some are pushy, some are lazy, some are brilliant, some are disorganized and so on. It's perfectly natural for people to notice things or people who are different and to classify similar ones together, so I can't even call someone who puts the two female copilots he's ever had in the same box. I'm just happy that the box is getting bigger so that we can now excel or suck on our own merits and not on behalf of all womankind.

In this blog entry, and the preceding one, Malaysian entrepreneur Tony Fernandes comments on the women working as pilots, engineers and management at Air Asia. It looks like they're just starting out there, being called "the rose among the thorns" so each of those ladies is still carrying the flag for her gender in every thing she does right or wrong. You go girls. And boys.

Those humans, they really know how to fix/fly a plane, don't they?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Wild Instincts

I'm in a small town with no flying to do today, because my coworker took the plane to the big city for scheduled maintenance. I know she takes full advantage of the city amenities, and there's someone there she wanted to see, so I offered no competition for the flight. It's also a guilt offering on my part for a communication error I made that she felt made her look bad. I think it more made me look bad, or at least made me look like someone who had been sleeping all morning, which I had, but it was still my fault. At any rate, net world happiness is greater with her in the city and me walking in the park alongside the river, so it's all good now.

I know how to behave in the city, watch your valuables, avoid secluded places, don't be alone with strangers, that sort of thing. And I know how to behave in the wilderness: know that animals you can't see are probably watching you, all wild animals can be dangerous if you surprise them, most don't want a confrontation. In both environments you pay attention to your surroundings, know where you are, let people you trust know your plans, and be prepared to abandon your belongings in favour of your personal safety.

The funny thing is that because of frequent transitions between the two environments, I sometimes have moments where I see both sides at once, and laugh. This town has a park along the river, and while it's a nice jungly park with lots of trees and bushes and paths, I seriously doubt it harbours wildlife bigger than a raccoon. You're not going to come around the corner at twilight and be face to face with a wolverine or a grizzly. But today I'm walking along a path between some trees and I spot some movement ahead in the long grass. It's an animal. A bunch of my sensors and subroutines activate. Come to think of it, detecting and reacting correctly to the presence of a non-human animals has driven millennia of human evolution. I can almost feel the primitive brain waking up.

And as soon as it does the part of my brain in charge of logic points out acerbically that it's probably a kitty, and it's perfectly correct. The fierce Felis cattus has seen me coming. It puts the top of its head on the ground and then flops over its own shoulder into belly rubbing mode, with a meow on impact. Mind you, cats themselves seem to be tossed by the same dichotomy, because just after sunset that evening I'm crossing a well-groomed playground park and there's another cat, stalking mice or maybe mosquitoes. It looks towards me and its eyes are two glowing golden spots reflecting streetlights. It's tensed in a fight or flight decision-making pose. I wonder if it understands the poor hand it has been dealt in its attempt to be a wild animal, given that it is a fluffy white cat walking across a green lawn. It's almost dark and I can still see it from across the park. I pretend I don't, so it can think that by holding perfectly still it has fooled me, and I leave it to its fun.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


You might think this post is about electrical matters, continuing to pander to zb, but it isn't. It's about the myriad things that might disrupt ones schedule in aviation. Flight delayed for weather: common. For maintenance: you bet. Because the client was late or changed their mind: that's why they're the ones that pay the bills. Frequently fuel is not available when you want it. Sometimes the pilot is sick. Sometimes the airport or airspace is closed for an airshow, or a security event. I've had required equipment not arrive in time for the flight. It is not uncommon for me to check out of and back into the same hotel three times on three consecutive days because that day's flight keeps being scratched.

I knew I hadn't seen it all, but today was a new one for me. The planned flight was cancelled because of an AC/DC concert at destination. What did that have to do with anything? There were no hotel rooms available.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Never Know Where I Spent the Night

So I did my weekly paperwork. My weekly expense/pay record is an Excel spreadsheet. Actually it used to be an Excel spreadsheet, but I couldn't find my MS Office installation CDs after I bought my new computer, so now I use Open Office. I'm too cheap to buy whatever the latest release is. I have to keep track of where I am each night and how much I spent on things like fuel and extension cords and Febreeze. The "where" is always in the form of a four letter airport identifier. Concise, unambiguous and easy for the boss to match with the logbook if he needs to check up on us.

If I've been staying in the same place for a few days I'll update the spreadsheet just by selecting the cell where I last typed an identifier and copying the information down into the subsequent cells using what I think is called the drag handle. This works fine to make a column of seven CYZF entries or four times CYXE. But when I'm working out of some little airport that has numbers in the identifier, Excel tries to get clever. If I'm in Killarney, Manitoba and have logged CJS5 into my spreadsheet, when I drag it down it autoincrements, and one finds that on subsequent nights I have stayed at CJS6, CJS7 and CJS8. I often don't notice until the increment reaches 10 and the five digit code gets my attention. I would be annoyed at the software for trying to outsmart me, if it weren't so funny. I laugh every time and just change it back.

I also manage to annoy my coworker by accidentally implying that (a) she doesn't communicate with me, (b) she was somehow responsible for my losing my battery clip and (c) that I left an apple core in the cockpit. Fortunately I found the battery, properly disposed of the apple core and I think she's forgiven me for the miscommunication. And I got the printer to behave, but I still hate it. Hates it, nasty printer.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Glamour Girl

It's around midnight. I've flown for seven hours, landed, and refuelled from a self-serve pump that is fussy about how you insert the credit card (If you want to know: put it in and out of the reader really fast, while twisting it slightly to the left). The battery clip came out of my headset and I couldn't find it in the cockpit, so I'm a bit annoyed about that. I hope it shows up tomorrow in daylight. I'm still wearing the baseball cap I had on to keep the sun out of my eyes, even though it set a couple of hours ago.

I walk into the hotel carrying my flight bag plus a tub of company paperwork, including a printer. I loathe that printer. There are a couple of people dressed for a party, partly blocking the hall, and as I have a wide load, instead of barging through, I pause to let them move out of the way.

One of them says, "Bro, where are you going with that?"

I think I said my room number, which of course you're not supposed to do in hotels, but as if they weren't going to see which room I went into anyway. I'm not sure what his response was, but his companion advises him, "I think that's a girl."

I realize belatedly that "bro" is not normally a unisex form of address. I was totally willing to accept it as such, and not as a slur against my femininity. Inside the hotel room I look in the mirror. I look like a girl to me. Got boobs and everything. I'm even wearing a ladies cut t-shirt that is tighter than I would have chosen myself, but I took someone else's advice on the correct size because fashion is not my forté.

I think it was a combination of my utilitarian clothing, the tired 'don't mess with me' expression, and the fact that he was drunk.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


It's night and the sun has set, but I keep thinking I see a red glow in the distant sky. My peripheral vision catches it and I look up and then I don't see it anymore. Is the the city lights on low cloud? Westjet flights going into land with really bright anticollision lights? An afterimage on my retinas from the dashboard screen I'm staring at? It's not the moon showing through clouds, because it's close to a new moon, so it wouldn't have risen yet, and it wouldn't be that bright.

It could be distant lightning, but it's teasing me, as it's never quite visible when I'm looking that way.

There was a forecast for 30 percent probability of thunderstorms at 04 Zulu, but the sky was still clear at sunset. Now it's dark, so I can't see if anything is building. I call flight services and ask them if there is any forecast precipitation or obscuration below ten thousand in the next three hours. I've discovered that not everyone knows you can do that: ask the briefer to interpret the TAF for you instead of just reading it. If he read it, I could either filter it through my brain as it came, discarding everything that wasn't what I was interested in, or I could write it all down and then interpret the parts I wanted. But that takes up more air time and this is simpler for me. Let the briefer throw out anything irrelevant to me before I hear it. And the briefers aren't robots. If there's a hazardous condition unrelated to the information I've asked for, they'll make sure I know about it.

The thunderstorms are still forecast, but now at 05Z, just after the time I expect to be landing. And they aren't calling for fog tomorrow morning, either. There's no burst of static coinciding with the tiny flashes, so if they are thunderstorms they are quite far away.

I land, taxi in, and shut down. Finally I see the lightning, for of course it is lightning, not out of the corner of my eye. It must be getting closer, because it's more noticeable now, even among the airport lights, but it's still far enough away that I have no concerns refuelling. I park and chock for the night. Driving back in the truck I watch out the window as sheets of lightning advance in a front slowly across the prairie. I'm tucked into bed by the time the storm hits, but it bangs on the window so hard I could believe there was someone out there asking to come in.

I admit it: I originally put the electrical tag on this post purely because of the cheering I've had lately from fans of electrical posts. I was going to put a quick quip here about comparing popup CBs to CBs popping, but I googled for the rating on those CBs. A current of 50,000 A and up to a billion volts is too impressive to laugh at. Lightning is dangerous stuff. I think because I can see it from so far away, and because to an aircraft in flight other components of a thunderstorm are more dangerous, I might not be scared enough by lightning. It's more dangerous than a whole wing locker full of daisy-chained extension cords. Or a day before yesterday's painfully biting insect, which I have been advised was probably a flying ant. Still red. Still itches. I think it's getting better, though.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Landing Blind

Silly silly story from downtown condo owners complaining about airplane noise at Toronto Island Airport.

Bill Freeman, The spokesman for the condo owners is quoted in the article as having said, "We've also just recently learned that after 11 p.m. there's nobody in the [air traffic control] tower ... presumably these pilots are landing blind."

While he has just learned about the control tower opening hours, he evidently has not yet learned that pilot, like most humans, see with their eyes, not their ears. I try to imagine the model of the air traffic control system that is in someone's head to think that the absence of an operating control tower would literally or metaphorically render a pilot blind. The control tower provides no visual information to pilots and any traffic or vectoring would have been provided by the terminal controller. In a high density area with a terminal controller, like Toronto Island, typically the only communication with the tower is a landing clearance and instructions to contact ground for taxi clearance.

I think the commenters on the CBC article have it nailed when they say that the residents are trying to give more credence to their noise complaints by disguising them as safety concerns. Unfortunately this kind of thing is everywhere. You know what happened to Meigs Field. The wonderfully convenient Edmonton City Centre airport is under the same threat. I think I've lost count of the number of petitions I've seen from pilots trying to save local airports. What was once outlying land is now prime real estate and people don't realize how noisy airplanes are until they move in.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Both at Once

I take off from a small airport underneath the overlying "inverted wedding cake" of a large control zone. I call for and am given clearance to climb into the control zone. The GPS claims it's class B, but Canada doesn't have class B airspace below 12,500', so I know it's class C. I don't consider that to be an error in the database, though, more of a translation. An American company provides the database to overwhelmingly American clients, and Canadian class C rules match US class B rules, so it's simplest for all concerned to just tell them it's class B. Likely the Canadian controllers will even understand if someone with a November-registered callsign requests clearance "into Bravo." They'd probably respond with "Cleared as requested," and sidestep the whole issue of it being "Class Cee" here.

I depart controlled airspace to the east. As the controller clears me on route, he tells me to keep the code for when I return. I'm working back and forth below the 9500' shelf of the outlying control zone, when I realize I may be pretty close to the next layer down. I check the GPS and see that according to my trails, I have nicked the controlled airspace a couple of times without contact. And I'm not an anonymous 1200 squawk: the controller knows just who I am.

I'd 'fess up anyway, so as I approach the zone again I retune him on the radio. He's having a personal conversation with another pilot about I can't remember what. It bodes well, though. It shows that he's not busy, not stressed and in a good mood. I make contact and admit "I think I've clipped the corner of your airspace a couple of times. I'm calling to beg your forgiveness and ask permission to do it again." He laughs on the radio and grants my request. Phew.

And yikes, yesterday's insect bite has raised a huge red itchy welt, twice the diameter of a tooney. That couldn't have been a wasp.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Quest for Food

The pilot quest for food never stops. When you're a student or beginning commercial pilot you're searching for food you can afford. (I know someone who did his cross-country time-building to airports selected specifically because they were across the street from McDonald's restaurants. He was living off the the one-dollar burger deal. And yes he did look about as healthy as Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me). At other points in your career the problem is availability of food, and I use that term loosely, thinking of the row of empty vending machines in one Nunavut airport, or time between duties to get the food. This week for me it's getting to the food.

I'm in a perfectly nice hotel in a fairly civilized part of the country, in a hotel that is down the highway from the town. I'm expecting to be called to fly about four, so I'll aim to finish my lunch around three so that I have the calories to sustain me until midnight. The client calls and wants to meet at three-thirty. No problem. I have an hour and a quarter to eat and get back to the lobby with my flight bag.

The first restaurant I try is the one attached to the hotel. Although the changeable letters on the hotel marquee advertise that it opens at 6:30 am, there is a piece of paper on the door advising me that it will open "soon" and "under new management." I go back to my room to ask Google for plan B. It finds me a chain restaurant just under a kilometre away. Sweet! I thought it was just residential around here. That should take me six minutes to walk there, giving me forty-five minutes to order and eat a meal, with time to get back, brush my teeth and be ready to go. I look at the directions. Cross the highway, go two blocks west, turn right and it's about three blocks down on the right. I say "about" because the only straight street in town is the highway. Everything else is little windy roads with cul-de-sacs.

I follow the directions, getting onto the correct street as planned. After about three blocks it still looks very residential, but the street curves away and there could be a plaza just around the curve. After about four blocks I ask someone on a porch. He tells me I'm about as far away from any restaurants as I could get. He gives me some directions, which I start to follow, but as I get further from the hotel I continue doing point of no return math, and stop at the point where I would have seven minutes to get food before having to start the return journey. Fast food service is not a forte in this province. Ain't going to happen.

Hurrying back to the hotel, I must have passed a wasp that didn't like the way I was cursing Google Maps and the non-linear nature of this town, because all of a sudden OW! Something bit me in the uh ... rear upper thigh. Right through my slacks. Son of a flaming firetruck. I slap at it and yeah I'm shaking a large insect like thing off my hand. Ow ow ow.

I get back to the hotel with fifteen minutes to spare and ask the client "Could we please go early and swing by somewhere I can get something to eat"? The first drive-through in sight is a KFC, and I'm in an appropriate stage of the KFC cycle to have some. (I tried to find something to link to describing the cycle of "eat KFC, remember that KFC really isn't all that great, swear not to eat it again, five months passes, eat KFC again" but all I could find was gruesome articles on how they raise their chickens. I'm sorry, chickens. It was for flight safety. I was really hungry.) I order three pieces of chicken, just the chicken, because their fries are mushy and their cole slaw is gooey. The order is relayed across the truck, through the speaker, but they get it right.

On the way to the airport I eat my chicken, taking care not to get grease and bits of chicken skin all over the truck, and not too much on me, either. As we pull into the airport parking lot the client says, "I just have to say, I'm impressed."

I'm thinking back to our last flight. It went well, I guess, but nothing to write home about. What's he impressed about? He continues, "You ate three pieces of chicken in seven kilometres." In fact it left such a lasting impression that he mentioned it later to his boss in front of me. Hey, you never know what will impress the client. I throw out the empty box with the bones so as not to stink up his car with KFC smell.

The flight went as planned and I could feel my tummy being happy because it was full of warm chicken. It may have been full of horrible bad for me ingredients, and clearly it didn't do the chicken any good, but it was better than flying hungry. And that insect bite itches.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Electrical Encore

Here's another data point in the category of resetting breakers. It has a similarity to the NASCAR incident, in that an electrical malfunction deferred after one flight carried over to the next with more severe consequences. This time the incident aircraft is an A319 operating between England and Spain.

About twenty minutes into the outbound leg, a clunk, an overhead warning light and a computer message announced that the the number one electrical generator had gone off line. Checklist actions called for one attempt to reset the generator. (See? The one-reset rule isn't a GA legend, it's a pervasive theme through the industry). That attempt was unsuccessful, so the crew shut down the generator according to the rest of the checklist and fired up the APU (an extra generator normally used for power on the ground) to supply the left electrical network. Company confirmed that the situation was satisfactory to continue to Spain.

After they landed in Spain, an engineer signed off the situation as acceptable for a return flight, with a few provisions. The captain of the return flight knew about the #1 generator problem from a company message, from the deferral in the journey log and in person from the captain of the outbound flight. They complied with all the procedures required for the deferral and brought extra fuel to make up for needing to run the APU for the whole flight. It all sounds safe and normal.

Clunk is rarely a good sound in aviation, but an hour and a half after takeoff there was another one. This one was accompanied by a loss of power to the autopilot, the captain's displays, and most of the overhead panel. The remaining electrical power appears to have been mainly concentrated in the warnings that nothing else was working. They had also lost autothrust, flight director, and all radios, plus the flight control had degraded to alternate law, reducing the smartass quotient of the Airbus.

The first officer's basic flight display was working so he flew while the captain attempted unsuccessfully to restore electrical power. They considered diverting but were concerned that without radios their actions could be interpreted as hostile, plus they already had weather information for Bristol and knew it was good there.

The captain managed to program the landing into the FMS and the airplane followed that profile. They tried to call ATC on two different cellphones, but were unsuccessful. They weren't sure what systems they would have operative for the landing. The flaps worked normally, but the landing gear didn't, until they used the emergency extension procedure, which works by gravity. Gravity is one of the few things in aviation that is always reliable. So it goes.

They landed safely and taxied to parking, where the engines wouldn't shut down using the normal method, so they used the fire switches. The APU continued to run after engine shutdown and the report doesn't mention how they shut it off, just that maintenance were subsequently unable to use the APU for electrical power.

There is plenty of interesting analysis in the report, explaining why things went wrong when there were backups still functioning. For example why didn't the landing gear extend? The Blue hydraulic system was affected by the failure, but the Green hydraulic system that normally operates the landing gear should not have been. However, the A319 cuts off the hydraulic supply to the gear at calibrated airspeeds above 260 knots, as reported by the #1 and #3 ADIRU (Air Data and Inertial Reference Unit) computers. Both were offline. No airspeed data, no gear. That's reasonable. That's the sort of thing manual backups are designed to circumvent.

There are three radio systems onboard, one for the captain, one for the FO and one for the jumpseat. If either pilot's audio control panel fails, there is a switch that allows them to use the jumpseat panel instead. Except that this aircraft had upgraded digital audio management units, and both audio cards in all three AMUs depended on power from the same inoperative bus bar. Oops. Airbus says it is "evaluating" if that power supply needs to be modified. I'll bet.

With all the lights out on the button panel, the captain couldn't tell which buttons were pushed and which were unpushed. Apparently there is a one to two millimetre difference between a button been selected and not selected. I wonder if his inability to restore power may have been related to an incorrect configuration that he couldn't see. That's what I like about old fashioned toggle switches: you don't even have to look at them, just put your finger on them, and you know what is selected.

It's also interesting to read about the incident from the point of view of ATC. The controller working the flight saw the airplane disappear from both his radar screens, as a result of the loss of power to the transponder, and when he couldn't make radio contact, "feared that it might have suffered a catastrophic event." ATC asked another aircplane to call it on company frequency, and then to descend out of its path. Just in time, too, as the other flight reported seeing the missing airplane pass overhead without appearing on TCAS. When the crew of the incident airplane selected 7700 on the second transponder they weren't sure if it was working, but it was, so ATC could see that it was descending on course, and Bristol was cleared of other traffic for their arrival.

There's lots more juicy stuff in this report, especially for you electrical fans, but most of it is readable without an extensive knowledge of aviation. Just note the Airbus abbreviation glossary at the beginning.

Friday, September 04, 2009


Someone pointed out to me recently in e-mail that aviation people rarely say the name of the airport, but rather just say or type the code. It's true. Some of it is just because the code is shorter. Why type out Yellowknife or Saskatoon when the recipient knows perfectly well where YZF and YXE are? Why say all four syllables of Iqaluit when YFB does the job in three. (And if it's in written form, also avoids the risk of typing Iqualuit, which is something else entirely). In my experience people rarely say YYZ, because "Pearson" is shorter. But few people are going to say Kangiqsualujjuaq if they can help it. Savvy passengers for whom Kangiqsualujjuaq is a simple word in their native tongue will say "YLU" to make sure they don't get taken to Kangiqsujuaq.

Part of it is because I'm not going to Moosonee. I'm going to YMO. I'm going to land at YMO, get the passengers on board and get back to YTS. I've never actually been to many of the towns whose airports are familiar to me.

Yeah, there are a lot of Xs and other letters with no relationship to the town name in the codes, but you get used to them. Aviation likes Xs. We have a lot of abbreviations with Xs.

The other day someone from mx told me to record "oil px." I'm not sure I'd seen that one before, but I knew exactly what it was. What else can you record about oil that begins with P, other than pressure? The ambiguity of x-based abbreviations can be bad though. It hard to tell a scribbled m from a scribbled w. So if a pilot scrawl looks like "cx for wx," you might later have to go to the journey log to figure out if the flight was cancelled for weather or for maintenance.

Let's see what we've got:

  • ax - got one in locker with the emergency gear, although of course I spell it axe
  • cx - cancelled
  • ex - pilots have a few, the lifestyle isn't good for long-term relationships
  • mx - maintenance
  • ox - perhaps if you don't have a tractor you could use oxen to tow into the hangar
  • px - pressure/pax
  • rx - have to clear these with your CAME
  • sx - seen this for speed
  • tx - seen for tickets, don't know if it's widespread
  • vx - best angle of climb speed
  • wx - weather
  • xx - vertical clouds topped off the chart (weather symbol)

So there's lots of room for more. Anyone seen others in use, or have creative suggestions for bx dx fx gx hx ix jx kx lx nx qx ux yx & zx?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

My Wings Over Canadian Water

I'm PIC on the way out of Yellowknife. The weather is a little low here, so we're flying across Great Slave Lake at a thousand feet or so. The weather should improve by Hay River on the other side, so we can stop skimming through the bottoms of these ragged clouds.

As a student pilot I got special permission to fly across a body of water that students at my school were not normally allowed to cross. I had finished my course and was having trouble getting an exam booking, so they decided to make an exception for me so I could go on an adventure. That was fun, and flying across water still hasn't got old for me. I wish I could fly an airliner across the Pacific.

Reaching the other side, the weather does improve. Hurray for Nav Canada. They do a pretty good job. I have now flown across the lakes named Superior, Huron, Michigan, Ontario, Erie, Great Slave (and Lesser Slave), Athabasca, and Winnipeg. These are mighty lakes and I guess part of Canadian identity is wrapped up in our rocks and trees and lakes. I've also flown across James Bay (the south part of Hudson Bay, so I'm totally counting that as flying across Hudson Bay), the Strait of Georgia, and the Bay of Fundy. I've been airborne over the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico. (I would have had the Arctic Ocean in that list too, recently, but plans always change). It's just flying around where I'm told to go, but it feels like an achievement.

I like to imagine that I can identify different kinds of terrain as I fly across the country. Of course anyone can see the quite abrupt change as the lumpy Ontario rocks and trees and lakes on the Canadian shield gives way to the flatter prairies, but I imagine that even up north I can see differences: a kind of stretchiness in the lakes that is different in Manitoba, longer rounded lakes with fewer islands in Saskatchewan, blobbier ones in Alberta, and of course the long windy ones in the British Columbia mountain valleys. As you go north into the territories the rock forms seem more scribbly. They are to southern rocks as cirrus clouds are to lower altitude formations. I'm sure it's all in my head and if I didn't know where I was, I wouldn't see my imagined differences, but that's what I think I see.

The rocks become less scribbly and I imagine that this must be Alberta now. I look at the GPS and our latitude is 59 degrees 48 minutes. I called it!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009


I read way too many webcomics. This one is about ninjas who use their stealth and guile to excel at being jerks. It sounds pretty stupid, but the drawing style is simple and fun and I'm enjoying looking at it. Here's an aviation themed one, a salute to Captain Sullenberger, for a sample.

Via Cakewrecks.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Rejecting an Inadequate Aerodrome

E-mail forwarded from the client by the boss indicates that a hotel room is booked for me in an Alberta town. I'm to fly there.

I look it up and e-mail the boss back.

"I got your message about the hotel rooms but I refuse to operate into the local aerodrome on account of it being a heliport."

I know the client has done more research than that about our needs. I find a strip at the next town over that can accommodate jets so I indicate that I will be landing there, almost certain that this is what they intended anyway. My boss appreciates the humour though. He acknowledges my e-mail with a one-word reply.


Plus, here's a bonus helicopter link on the topic of a guy giving his kid a ride to school in a helicopter and the school officials freaking out.