Saturday, October 31, 2009

At the Pumps

We're at the fuel pumps, after the flight. I've already described the broken bonding strap, and when the Thanksgiving long weekend is over I will call the owner and get the darned thing fixed. There's another source of silliness on this pump. Here's the routine.

  1. Park aircraft, set brakes
  2. Run bonding strap out to aircraft, wrap it around something and clip it awkwardly in place
  3. Take fuelling nozzle off pump and run hose out to aircraft.
  4. Swipe credit card at kiosk. It asks which pump: select #1. It doesn't ask how much fuel, it just automatically authorizes for 250 L. Wait until authorization is complete and kiosk displays "approved."
  5. Go to pump, turn fuel valve on.
  6. Pump fuel into aircraft hoping to fill tank before fuel flow cuts off at 250 L
  7. Go back to pump, turn valve off.
  8. Go back to kiosk, insert credit card. Kiosk asks "print receipt?" -- answer yes. Wait for receipt to print. Take receipt.
  9. Wait for machine to stop beeping and displaying "print receipt."
  10. Repeat steps 4 through 8 until all fuel tanks are full.
  11. Stow fuel nozzle. Attach hand crank to reel and manually rewind hose
  12. Unclip bonding line and manually rewind bonding strap

This account omits mention of the subroutines involved in taking winter gloves on and off in order to manipulate pockets, fuel caps and credit card kiosks. There's a sign on the fuel pump saying that the preapproved amount can be reset remotely for amounts over 1000 L. We fall into the inconvenient range of more than 250 but just less than a thousand. This should be the last time we fuel here, anyway. And it's Thanksgiving Day, so good luck getting a hold of someone.

While we're taxiing back to parking from the pumps an inbound aircraft calls the aerodrome radio operator and asks him to pass a message to the FBO. "What's there to pass?" he asks bluntly. "It's self serve cardlock fuel."

There's a pause during which I imagine one member of the inbound crew calling the other an idiot. "Okay. Thanks for that," they reply to the CARS. We giggle and surmise they are not from the north.

We've been joking about dining tonight on one of the local turkey-sized ravens, but one of the hotels is hosting a surprisingly good buffet thanksgiving dinner, with turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes with cranberry sauce and more gravy than I've ever seen in one place in my life. We're north of sixty, but not far north enough for $200 turkeys.

And yes I know it's Hallowe'en today not Thanksgiving. But it happened on Thanksgiving (regular Thanksgiving, not American Thanksgiving) and I'm typing it the week before Hallowe'en. You'll find out what happens to me on Hallowe'en sometime around American Thanksgiving. I'll find out for myself on Hallowe'en.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Dead: Two in the Cockpit, Four in the Cabin and One Far Away

This accident investigation tells a sad tale. It's not just the story of an airplane that had some kind of problem after takeoff. The crew consisted of a results- (as opposed to safety-) oriented maverick chief pilot and what the NTSB terms an "ill-prepared" first officer. They explain that term only in stating that the company gave inadequate checkrides, but one can imagine he or she was new, got less actual training than the company records stated, hadn't been required to demonstrate an ability to fly the airplane unassisted, and did not operate in an environment where he was given the opportunity to absorb an understanding of two crew teamwork.

They take off, and something happens that makes control of the airplane difficult. It might be runaway trim, the autopilot misbehaving: the investigators don't know. As soon as this happens, the pilot who notices, probably the flying pilot needs to articulate the problem to the other pilot, even if they aren't quite sure what is wrong. "I can't hold the nose up!" "The trim is freaking out!" "I'm holding full left rudder to keep it straight." The flying pilot needs to continue flying the airplane, concentrating on keeping the airplane right side up, clear of obstacles and with an appropriate heading and airspeed. If it's an emergency for which there is an aircraft checklist, there will be a call for that, e.g "runaway elevator trim emergency checklist," and the correct aircraft configuration, procedures (and exactly what the pilots say to one another) may be specified right in the checklist with the first few steps committed to memory. If it's something outside the checklist, well that's why pilots learn how their airplanes work, so they can make reasonable decisions.

Usually any relevant checklists are followed exactly, but if there are extenuating circumstances and where the crew hasn't yet determined what is going on, the captain makes the final decisions. But the division of labour is fixed: one crew member flies the plane, and the other one does other stuff. For this reason the captain often gives control to the FO in an emergency, because anyone can fly a plane, I mean really, you could. I tell you "you have control. maintain 140 knots, three thousand feet, on this heading, and you're going to have to exert about 10 kilograms of back pressure to keep the nose up." If the FO has toothpick arms, then the captain may make a different decision, but someone has to be flying the airplane. They shouldn't both be trying to find a circuit breaker any more than they should both be working on their laptops.

There are many events like the one the NTSB describes that led to this fatal accident that are non-events, because a crew manages the situation professionally and returns to the airport to get it fixed. The "we don't know what happened, but they should have handled it better" vibe is a little harsh here. After all, if they don't know what happened who says that the crew didn't manage it in a flawless textbook manner, but it was more than human beings could handle? The dead, ex-drug runner captain has already shown a disregard for the law and others' safety, so he's an easy mark on whom to pin the blame.

Also do you see what they are doing regretting the absence of cockpit video monitoring? Every time they say "too bad there was no video recording," they are angling for video monitoring of our workplace. YouTube of the future will be a more grizzly place.

And finally, the fact that their cargo includes a human transplant organ, introduced extra pathos for me. Had there been five in the cabin instaed of four it would have made no difference to me, but I imagine someone's cellphone ringing that afternoon, with the joyous news that a matching donor organ had been found. That person grabbed an overnight bag and went straight to the hospital, or perhaps they were already in hospital, knowing a transplant was their last chance at life. They were prepped for the operation, and then received the news that the organ wasn't going to arrive after all. And the loved ones of the donor were hoping to hear news that their deceased family member's organ had helped someone else to live. Instead they learn that six people died transporting it, and the organ became fish food.

The NTSB investigation report from which I have inferred all this melodramatic speculation is here.

Yesterday Cirrocumulus pointed out that the aviation industry "needs objective research into effective ways of keeping boredom at bay and humans alert while they're just monitoring safety-critical machinery. At present the humans are between the rock of forbidden pastimes and the whirlpool of stupefaction." I liked this by itself, and then Aluwings took up the standard to outline some of the strategies employed. I laughed at his post because I have done and seen similar ones. Never met the UFO guy, though.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Clouds and Mountains are Higher in the Cold

It was too cold or perhaps too windy last night for overnight frost, so we get away without having to clean the airplane. We just need to wait for a layer of cloud at the airport to lift or scatter out. While we are waiting we chat about the forecast to the CARS guy on duty. The TAF is calling for 4000' broken, but the last three METARs have had a ceiling of 2500'. We ask him if the 2500' is still his best guess. He points out the heights of some of the nearby hills that he is using to gauge his observations, and explains that it's common for the TAF to remain at odds with the forecast for hours. (Usually a forecast shown by reality to be incorrect is updated, cleverly 'predicting' that the weather will continue to be what it is. It's not just making the forecasters look better: it's safety). But our CARS guy says that the TAF here is rarely changed to reflect reality. He has had the Edmonton Environment Canada forecasters telephone him to say that it can't be snowing, when his submitted observation contains snow. I really think that a guy who lives in the Yukon Territory should be trusted to identify snow when he sees it.

I suspect there may be some sort of political issue at work where the Environment Canada forecasters grudgingly acknowledge the Nav Canada folks who are their eyes and ears at all the reporting aerodromes, but deny the existence of CARS personnel. It's true that CARS workers don't have the same training as flight service specialists (and they aren't in the union), but they provide a valuable service at airports that would otherwise be unstaffed, and they can usually be trusted to look out the window. There's even talk of leaving CARS observations off the Nav Canada website that distributes Environment Canada forecasts. That's not right. Pilots should have access to all available information, be it autostation, FSS, CARS or the copilot's grandmother looking out her window. We know from experience the relative reliability of the different observers and would rather make up our own minds about what to believe.

At the next observation he calls it 3000', and says it might be a little more, he's being conservative. We needed to get to a thousand metres over the airport to do our job, and that's a little more than 3000', so we decided to give it a try. The time-building pilot graciously offered the left seat and controls to me--apparently our insurance company doesn't care if the time he builds is dual or PIC--and I accepted.

I take off and fly north of the airport. At 5700' on my altimeter, we are 1000 metres above the ground, and just below the cloud bases. I turn and fly over top of the airport. By the time I am south of the lake, the other side of the runway, there are tendrils of cloud reaching for the airplane and I descend. I call back with a PIREP. "Cloud bases over the airport are five thousand seven hundred indicated."

He asks, "Is that ASL?"

I say yes, even though that's not quite true. Someone with FSS training would know that the indicated altitude is similar to the altitude above mean sea level, but is not corrected for temperature. And as I write this I realize that seeing as I know I was 1000 true metres above the ground, and that the airport elevation was 2255' asl, we can work out exactly how much that temperature correction needed to be.

One thousand metres (thanks Google) is 3281'. Add the height above the runway to the runway elevation and I was 3281 + 2255 = 5536' asl while indicating 5700'. That's because the air below me was colder and thus denser than standard and thus the pressure drop in my climb through 3281' was equivalent to the pressure drop after climbing 164' more in standard temperature air.

Pilots will be able to use the above information to calculate the temperature at the aerodrome. I'll write more about cold temperature corrections later.

The area of cloud ended about ten miles north of the airport and I climbed up over the mountains with blue sky above. Even though there was a fair amount of wind we had almost no turbulence. We were all giddy with the beauty of the scenery, and our proximity to the spectacular peaks. "Oh, traffic," pointed out my co-worker and I looked, startled, not having heard a word on 126.7 or 123.2. We saw a small single leave the crooked runway hours ago, but he didn't climb much so we probably just going to a nearby camp. I swivel my head looking until I laugh to see that he is teasing me, pointing out contrails in the sky, far overhead.

"Are we still working?" asked the mission specialist, and we were. What a job. It was a bit of a disappointment to have to dip back under the clouds to still-overcast Watson Lake at the end of the day.

I know I already typed part of this, but I can't find it. I think I must have opened the same blog entry twice in two different windows and saved the wrong one, overwriting changes. Or you'll get to read part of the adventure twice.

"You engaged in conduct that put your passengers and your crew in serious jeopardy ... while you were on a frolic of your own."

As mentioned in comments a couple days ago, the pilots of the errant flight NW188 had their licences revoked by the FAA. Here's an image of the letter the captain received. They sent each pilot three copies: regular mail, FedEx and certified mail. Ouch. I feel really badly for those guys. I'd definitely be good for a few beers for them to cry into.

Update at 0208Z: I edited the post to remove the implication that Nav Canada produced the faulty forecast. As a Nav Canada reader pointed out, they just publish the stuff, and also suffer when the forecast is way off.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Territorial News

The article headlined Bust Involved Multiple Kills was the one that made me sit up and pay attention as I scanned the regional newspaper. It was down in a corner of page five of the weekly Yukon News. You might be thinking that this is a pretty hardbitten justice-comes-out-of-a-gun kind of place if a bust involving multiple deaths warrants only a couple of inches on page five. But then you read the article and realize that the deceased consist of two moose and two caribou, taken without a licence, or perhaps in a national park. It's a poaching bust.

The front page went to a group of First Nations youths portaging a dugout canoe in association with the groundbreaking ceremony for a new cultural centre. Page two is a sympathetic article about the overworked half-time privacy commissioner/access to information officer for the territory. The page three story warns that unregistered cabins (there's a $150 a year lease fee for having a cabin in the Yukon) may be burned down with only six months to a year notice. A cabin owner is angry that his aviation fuel was removed and his collapsible boat was junked. The government says that there are cabins and fuel caches in some places that have been abandoned since the gold rush. You have to have a trapping licence to build a cabin, but you can register an existing cabin and keep up the lease without a trapline. Then we have articles on overuse of the ambulance service in transporting drunks, forest fire prevention rules, and caribou population decline. Later in the issue there are stories about government overspending, Michael Jackson's doctor, and how Facebook and Twitter ruined the mosh pit.

Then there are the classifieds. People have placed wanted ads for 1960s STIHL chainsaw parts, Bugs Bunny DVDs, models for a life drawing class, someone to bag catfood, leftover white paint, an "octangular" piece of glass, someone to teach me Russian, a canoe, a plastic toboggan, and a fresh egg supplier. Someone wants to trade a non-running 1990 Isuzu for some gravel. A hundred fifty dollars gets you a kid-sized two dog mushing sled with working brake. There are no dating personals or escort service ads.

Almost everything featured is in Whitehorse, so take everything above and imagine other people complaining about how 'everything in the territory is centred on the big city and they don't understand our way of life,' and you can imagine life in the Yukon outside of Whitehorse. There are 32,000 people living in the whole of the Yukon territory, 27,000 of them in Whitehorse. That means that outside of the one city there are 5,000 people living in the same area occupied by 100,000,000 in Germany.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Safety Argument Against Stupid Software

Everyone is already familiar with the peculiar incident last week where we saw a Delta/Northwest Airlines A320 on a flight plan from San Diego to Minneapolis remain out of contact with ATC for over an hour, overfly its destination by 150 miles and then turn around and land over an hour late, with both pilots claiming they weren't sleeping, had merely been so thoroughly engrossed in discussion of company policy that they missed the radio calls and lost track of time.

This FlightAware track, which I can't see because I'm on stupid, stupid hotel internet, should show its path and this terse NTSB press release gives the facts.

I'm not sure whether your pilots missing their exit because of a "heated discussion" is preferable to their falling asleep. Falling asleep can be called an involuntary physical reaction to being sleep deprived, rather than deliberate neglect of responsibility. I guess the argument is that if you're awake in a discussion you're more likely to notice and correct a abnormal condition, but the facts of the case dispute that argument, seeing as they failed to answer multiple ATC calls, SELCAL signals or notice that they had reached the point at which they should have been descending.

I wasn't there, so I instead present the top ten explanations for the tardiness of flight 188:

  • 10. intense discussion of company policy
  • 9. sleeping
  • 8. playing a game of chicken on when to start the descent
  • 7. waiting for the movie to end
  • 6. hoping for some talk show appearances to jumpstart new careers as "celebrities"
  • 5. flying over the captain's girfriend's house to check for a strange car in the driveway
  • 4. trying to confirm rumours of a "Tetris mode" on the FMS
  • 3. joining the six-mile-high club
  • 2. abducted by aliens for two weeks, then replaced in the cockpit with no memory of the event, and only an hour later in Earth time
  • 1. just wanted to supplement their paycheques with a couple of hours extra pay

The NTSB, as mentioned in the press release, has pulled the cockpit voice recorder, but the variety in that plane only records the previous 30 minutes of conversation. The pilots would have known that, and whatever happened they used the 150 miles of backtracking to get their story straight. I'm guessing by passing notes, or typing on someone's PDA, while the CVR recorded only normal cockpit sounds.

There's a malfunction that occurs sometimes on those old cockpit voice recorders. I know about it because has come into play in at least one accident investigation. While the tape loops around every 30 minutes, sometimes the old track isn't erased, and you get an audio equivalent of the double exposure. I have no idea how rare this is.

Update: I can't find a link to this on the NTSB site, but here's the latest on the investigation:




National Transportation Safety Board
Washington, DC 20594

October 26, 2009




In its continuing investigation of an Airbus A320 that overflew the Minneapolis-St Paul International/Wold- Chamberlain Airport (MSP), the National Transportation Safety Board has developed the following factual information: On Wednesday, October 21, 2009, at 5:56 pm mountain daylight time, an Airbus A320, operating as Northwest Airlines (NWA) flight 188, became a NORDO (no radio communications) flight at 37,000 feet. The flight was operating as a Part 121 flight from San Diego International Airport, San Diego, California (SAN) to MSP with 144 passengers, 2 pilots and 3 flight attendants.

Both pilots were interviewed separately by NTSB investigators yesterday in Minnesota. The following is an overview of the interviews:

  • The first officer and the captain were interviewed for over 5 hours combined.
  • The Captain, 53 years old, was hired in 1985. His total flight time is about 20,000 hours, about 10,000 hours of A-320 time of which about 7,000 was as pilot in command.
  • The First Officer, 54 years old, was hired in 1997. His total flight time is about 11,000 hours, and has about 5,000 hours on the A-320.
  • Both pilots said they had never had an accident, incident or violation.
  • Neither pilot reported any ongoing medical conditions.
  • Both pilots stated that they were not fatigued. They were both commuters, but they had a 19-hour layover in San Diego just prior to the incident flight. Both said they did not fall asleep or doze during the flight.
  • Both said there was no heated argument.
  • Both stated there was a distraction in the cockpit.
  • The pilots said there was a concentrated period of discussion where they did not monitor the airplane or calls from ATC even though both stated they heard conversation on the radio. Also, neither pilot noticed messages that were sent by company dispatchers. They were discussing the new monthly crew flight scheduling system that was now in place as a result of the merger. The discussion began at cruise altitude.

  • Both said they lost track of time.
  • Each pilot accessed and used his personal laptop computer while they discussed the airline crew flight scheduling procedure. The first officer, who was more familiar with the procedure was providing instruction to the captain. The use of personal computers on the flight deck is prohibited by company policy.
  • Neither pilot was aware of the airplane's position until a flight attendant called about 5 minutes before they were scheduled to land and asked what was their estimated time of arrival (ETA). The captain said, at that point, he looked at his primary flight display for an ETA and realized that they had passed MSP. They made contact with ATC and were given vectors back to MSP.
  • At cruise altitude - the pilots stated they were using cockpit speakers to listen to radio communications, not their headsets.
  • When asked by ATC what the problem was, they replied "just cockpit distraction" and "dealing with company issues".
  • Both pilots said there are no procedures for the flight attendants to check on the pilots during flight.

The Safety Board is interviewing the flight attendants and other company personnel today. Air traffic control communications have been obtained and are being analyzed. Preliminary data from the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) revealed the following:

  • The CVR recording was 1/2 hour in length.
  • The cockpit area microphone channel was not working during this recording. However, the crew's headset microphones recorded their conversations.
  • The CVR recording began during final approach, and continued while the aircraft was at the gate.
  • During the hours immediately following the incident flight, routine aircraft maintenance provided power to the CVR for a few minutes on several occasions, likely recording over several minutes of the flight.

The FDR captured the entire flight which contained several hundred aircraft parameters including the portion of flight where there was no radio communication from the flight crew. Investigators are examining the recorded parameters to see if any information regarding crew activity during the portion of flight where radio contact was lost can be obtained.

The Safety Board's investigation continues.

It sounds like I missed possibility #11: Computer software lessons in my list. And I hope the final report answers my greatest outstanding question on the matter: were they Macs or PCs?

Monday, October 26, 2009

To the Nipple and Back

Next morning my coworker knows there is frost on the airplane, because he watched it starting to form as he was holding the flashlight for the AME. Ay carumba, I know he doesn't have very good gloves either. He still has all his fingers, and he's ready to fly, so we go. We don't have proper deicing fluid, because it's not available here and it's considered a hazardous material that we don't have a permit to carry with us. So we're using winter windshield washer fluid, which you can buy at any gas station in Canada, but which, when diluted with water from the frost, will freeze to the airplane in these temperatures. To get around this, we first brush off as much frost as we can, then as we apply the deicer and immediately wipe off the resulting solution with rags, before it can freeze. Yes, this is slow, cold and irritating. But it works and our airplane is now as clean as one in a Transport Canada training video. What do other people do? Other people most likely don't operate out of an aerodrome with no hangar space or deicing services in the Yukon in October.

There's a helicopter parked at the fuel pumps, so I walk down to verify that it isn't blocking the avgas. There's room, so we bring our critter around to top it up. The bonding strap is broken. Like most fuel pumps, there is a retractable reel of wire next to it with a big spring clip on the end. But when I pick up the spring clip, I discover that it isn't actually attached to the wire. I run the wire out to the airplane, wrap it a couple times around a contact point on the nose gear and then clip it down with the spring clip. I'd call the fuel supplier and get them on fixing it, but it's Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, so there's unlikely to be a response.

We chat with the helicopter guys while we are fuelling. They are with the Yukon department of natural resources, coming from Whitehorse, I think they said. They ask where we're going. It doesn't have a name that I know of, so I wave my hands in the air and say it's by a particular wiggle in the Yukon-NWT border. "Oh I know where that is," says one of the helicopter guys, "I use it for navigation reference, too. I call it the nipple."

The flight is spectacular. I take pictures knowing that they will never convey what it is like t be in the clear cold Yukon air looking out at these peaks, range after range of mountains all perfectly iced with snow. There are literally thousands of peaks and probably no one has been on most of them. Most of them have never even been given names. I jokingly name one after the mission specialist, and we take some pictures of it, but now that I look at my photos I don't know which one is his mountain. Feel free to claim one for yourself. I think there are enough mountain peaks here for everyone to have one.

There are flatter valley areas, but much of the area is like the picture. Some of the mountains are unbelievably steep. I'm not sure how the snow and ice cling to it. In places the rock itself has strata and the striations are visible through the snow, because each layer juts out a different amount. We try to guess which areas of white are glaciers and which are just October snow, but it's hard to tell. I imagine bighorn sheep balanced on the edges of the rocks, but it's hard to know the scale, and I never see any sheep.

We return to Watson Lake after six hours, and as my co-worker turns final I tease him. It's a perfectly aligned approach, with two red and two white PAPI lights at the side, so I say, "What's with this stabilized approach thing? I thought you were an aerial work pilot?" He knows what he's doing. The CARS guy notes us down and reads the zulu time to us as we taxi off. Quite useful, really, for pilots who aren't good at remembering to note their downtime as part of the after-landing checks.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Being an AME Really Sucks Sometimes

I'm expecting to fly at around noon today, after the magneto has been replaced, but in the morning I get a call from Whitehorse. One of AME's flights was delayed, causing him to miss connections, so now he's arriving in Whitehorse around one p.m., getting him here for six p.m. I book a hotel for him and call hangar guy to see if he wants me to pick up a key in advance so as not to bother him outside business hours. He says we'll work it out when the AME arrives, because, "he'll probably want to wait until the morning." I assure him that the company wanted the work done yesterday, so there's no way this is going to wait until the morning, but he is sure that we can work it out when the time comes. I pass this, hangar guy's home number and the hotel reservation info on to my co-worker in Whitehorse.

I spent the day napping, eating, doing crosswords on my iPod and going for a stroll around the community. The weather is spectacularly perfect for flying. It's a sadly ugly town compared to the beauty of its surroundings. I think there are three scrapyards on the main street, and everything has the look that you'd expect if it was hauled up the Alaska Highway on the back of a truck and then left out in Yukon weather for a few years. Some houses still had wide load signs on the end. But everyone is friendly and the only dogs that ran out of at me were eager to have their ears scratched.

Our AME, as I discovered the next morning, spent the day flying to Whitehorse, being driven to Watson Lake and then changing the magneto. Outside. On the ramp. In the dark. At minus ten celsius. And then he got to check into his hotel and sleep. And they put him in the poorly-rated hotel. Which turned out to be not so bad. So the Internet and the cab driver were wrong in that respect.

Hangar guy answered his phone, but thought the repair could wait until morning. I would have thought there would have been some solidarity among the profession. Hangar guy has been an AME in the Yukon for decades. He must know the pain of working in freezing darkness. Maybe he wants our AME to build character. I think he must have plenty of character already, seeing as he got the job done in those conditions. He even changed a spark plug and mended a gasket while he was in there.

(And to Firefox spellchecker: don't wave your squiggly red line at me; celsius should not be capitalized. It's the name of a metric unit. The abbreviation C is capitalized because it's named after a person, but the full word is not.)

Saturday, October 24, 2009


We're getting ready to fly to a strip up by Tungsten, on the NWT-Yukon border. The temperature is about -8, but it was much colder overnight. There is frost on the airplane, and the notable thing about it is the size of the ice crystals. Normally a layer of frost looks pretty much like a layer of white fuzz, but this is, even from several metres away, clearly crystalline. I try to remember back to chemistry class for factors influencing the size of crystals. Purity of the solution comes to mind. Is the pure air and water up here causing larger ice crystals? More likely it's a coincidental ideal combination of humidity and temperature in still air. Critical surfaces, plus the nose so we don't get a shower of ice on the windscreen at rotation, cleared, we start up. We've had the engines tented (that means we wrapped and clipped custom-fitted blankets tightly around them) and block heaters plugged in, so the engines start without protest.

We taxi away from parking for the run-up. My new co-worker is flying and I'm only there because the insurance company wants him to have more time on type before he is on his own. He's perfectly competent, however, so I'm just sitting in the right seat staring out the window. He flew out of here yesterday with my chief pilot, so he knows more about the local area than I do.

Suddenly there's a loud BANG on the other side of the fuselage. I swivel my head around to the passenger cabin to see who is kicking the hell out of my airplane, but the mission specialist says, "What was that?!" Turns out that that was a magneto check. I stupidly tell an experienced pilot "you're not supposed to turn them both off at once!" and he assures me that he didn't. It does it again, the left engine emits a huge backfire with the left magneto selected off. "Okay, don't do that again," I say unnecessarily. It's probably one of my worst traits, telling people unnecessary things. And I hate it when they do it to me.

I really don't think this is caused by fouled spark plugs, but it's something maintenance will ask, anyway, so we attempt to clear the problem by leaning that engine out at moderate power, and then reducing power, this time to 1000 RPM and trying again. "BANG!" Rats.

The radio operator calls us from inside. "Is that you making that noise." Gah, you know your airplane is backfiring badly when it's disturbing the guy in the tower.

The engine runs fine with both magnetos selected on, but we have a no go item. It's remarkable how much redundancy there is in the system. It's quite possible that whatever has happened to the left engine right magneto happened yesterday, while new guy was over top of an endless range of 8000' peaks. Each cylinder has two spark plugs, fired by separate magnetos. And if you get right down to it, the engine will run, albeit badly, with one cylinder not firing at all. Plus there is a whole 'nother engine on the other wing, which is capable of getting the airplane home. But all that is designed for things that go wrong after we leave. Before we leave, they all have to be working. We have a no-go item.

It might be a dead magneto, or it could be a broken connection somewhere, a frayed p-lead making contact with ground, mimicking the condition when the mag is turned off. Just before shutdown with the power pulled right to idle, we do one last mag check. No backfire, but the left engine dies when the left engine left mag is selected off. I'm confident that this is not just a spark plug.

Hangar guy is there, still marshalling float planes, boats and motorhomes into the immense WWII hangar for winter storage. We know he's an AME so I go by and ask if he can help. He says he is too busy, and doesn't have any parts anyway. I understand, and wheedle a bit to get him to agree to look at it long enough to give us a diagnosis. There are magneto-related issues that can be fixed in barely more than the time it takes to open and close a cowling. He agrees to look at it. Meanwhile my coworkers are standing in the bed of a pickup truck waving their cellphones around, trying to get service to report on what's going on.

We taxi the airplane over, the cowling comes off and a multi-tester goes on. He quickly confirms that the magneto in question no longer works. He says it's common in the fall when water gets in. We flew yesterday and the engine hasn't been allowed to become wet or reach freezing temperatures since, so his reason is probably wrong, but we trust his diagnosis. I ask him if we can pay for the use of his hangar so our AME can do the work. He says yes, we can work that out. We drive into town, where our chief pilot, having received our texts, is already working on getting an AME in to help.

I go grocery shopping, and then before heading back go to have another look at the Signpost Forest. My hometown must be here somewhere. My cellphone bleeps and it's a text from my chief pilot. "Where are you right now?"

I text back, "Sign post forest."

Return text: "I have something to tell you. I'll be there in a few minutes."

I head over to the entrance to the forest -- there are really so many signs that you could go quite a while without seeing someone who was in there with you -- and wait. After the time it would take to walk from somewhere close by, like the grocery store, my imagination starts to wander.

When the chief pilot needs to talk to you in person, that's usually bad. Weary of the usual horror stories of getting in trouble or getting fired, my overactive imagination also manages to summon scenarios where something has happened to the owner, or to someone I know. Before I can come up with a scenario whereby my chief pilot has advance notice of the impending destruction of the planet, a car drives up and it turns out everything is fine, it was just a little complicated to explain via text or a poor cellphone connection.

My company is flying an AME to Whitehorse, with his toolbox and a magneto. His flight gets to Whitehorse at one a.m., so chief pilot is driving out to pick him up. Company is concerned about people driving around alone on the Alaska highway in the middle of the night, so new guy is going too. Chief pilot will fly home and new guy and will drive AME back, arriving tomorrow morning around seven. AME can nap during five hour drive (yes, the nearest airport with scheduled service is five hours away on the Alaska highway) and then fix the magneto before going to bed. I know that sounds pretty horrible, and it is. Get a call in the morning to get on a plane, fly all day and half the night, then ride in a car for the other half of the night and be expected to work before you get to check into a hotel. AMEs don't have legal duty days and they are horribly abused like this all the time. I never begrudge one a scheduled coffee break.

They'll be back tomorrow, but I miss my co-workers already.

On another topic, but in keeping with the title of this blog entry, readers Sarah and Tyler those who read the blog comments to a fascinating video of a pilot's last flight. One of the remarkable things about the video is that it was made in 1984, on video tape, with a video camera that was melted into unrecognizability in the post-crash fire, and then lay in the elements for a full three years before it was discovered. Deputy sheriff Dale Wood reconstructed the film.

The film is linked from this page. Scroll down to "Cessna L-19 Mountain Crash" to download it. It's a large file--took me an hour on hotel wireless--so if you don't have the bandwidth you can watch the short version linked below it. I watched it knowing only that it had been recovered from a fatal crash, but not the cause, so it was interesting watching and speculating. I'll give you a chance to do that before you read my commentary.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Snow Day

The first day that the customers are ready to work, it is raining with low cloud, unsuitable for their job. I update my blog, do a workout, and start an e-mail to my mycologist friend pictures about the mushrooms I saw while out walking. One of the customers comes by with a truck and offers to take us anywhere we need to go. This we gratefully accept, as the temperature is about one degree, and walking in the wet at almost freezing temperatures is usually unpleasant.

We go first to Department Store, a general store with two or three thousand square feet of merchandise. There's clothing, souvenirs, shoes, camping gear, knick-knacks, tools, jewellery and toys. Amongst the four of us we acquire a pair of longjohns, three postcards, a souvenir magnet, a cribbage board, a deck of cards and a package of instrument air filters. Hand lettering on the building next door touts it as offering Fast Food, so we try it next. It's very fast, entertainingly so, as the cook slides a smokey into a bun, hurls on the toppings and wraps the whole thing up. He made my wrap so fast I didn't see it happen. And it was good, although I admit to being disconcerted by the crunching sensation when I first bit into a crouton, inside the wrap. I thought I'd broken a tooth.

We go up to the airport next to check on the airplane. We also try unsuccessfully to find hangar guy, who still isn't answering his phone. The terminal is a historic log building, like just about everything else in town, and it's practically a museum, filled with photographs and exhibits about the place. I'm not sure all charter passengers would be comfortable waiting for their flight while surrounded by photos of famous air crashes and remnants of airplanes dredged out of Watson Lake, but I'm fascinated, and the place is warm, very clean and well lit. The airport operations guy is there, so I have a chance to compliment him on the terminal. He expects that hangar guy will have room for us, but doesn't know where he is, even though I quiz him about whether he has a cabin or a favourite hangout. It's a town of 800 people and hangar guy is a long term resident and business owner, so it's not an unreasonable expectation. There's no bar in town except at the hotel, no Tim Horton's. Where do old guys hang out in really small towns?

The rain is turning to snow now. That's why ops guy is here: waiting to start up the snowplough if required. We finish browsing the museum displays and go back to town and stop at the grocery store. We went yesterday so don't really need anything, but it's more interesting than sitting at the hotel. A co-worker elbows me, "You were wondering where the old guys hang out?" The grocery store has a few tables and sells coffee and doughnuts. I approach a group and ask about hangar guy, by name. They suggest his home, the airport or his brother's place. Enough people know we're looking for him now that he's sure to hear about it.

The snow is fairly heavy now and staying on the ground, but it stops before it reaches any depth. We go back to the hotel and my co-workers play cribbage while I finish e-mailing about mushrooms. Later that night I hear my chief pilot being introduced to hangar guy, and I come out to meet him, but it turns out that it was just a telephone introduction, via the hotel proprietor. And after all that the answer is no, because all the available hangar space is spoken for by the float plane owners who will be taking their airplanes out the water now that the snow has started.

Air Force Lodge lights just went out, shortly followed by a pop-up announcing that I've lost my internet connection. Uh-oh. Northern power failure. On the bright side--or at least the warm side--I'm pretty sure the heat is propane, and that people have lived here long enough not to be relying on electrical power to get fuel from the tank to the burner. I turn off and unplug the computer, turn off the light switch and wonder how long it takes for cabin fever to set in. I don't have to find out, as the lights are working again by the time I've made the bed.

I've switched to Blogger's new editor and it no longer has a button for adding photos on the HTML Edit tab. If I switch to the compose tab, where the photo upload option has gone, I lose all my paragraph markings and gain inappropriate line breaks. I had to put the photos in a separate post and then cut and paste the html.

My friend identified the mushroom as a Coprinus comatus. Instead of rotting, it digests itself into black ink. I got some on my hands and it wasn't gooey or sticky. It was just like I'd been playing with a sharpie with the lid off. It came off easily with soap and water, but didn't rub off.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Repo Man

Someone sent me this article about a guy who repossesses airplanes whose purchasers fail to make their payments.

It would be fun to fly a variety of different, fairly new, airplanes from a variety of locations, and the article points out that he mitigates his risk by always having a mechanic examine the airplane before he flies it. He doesn't just repossess the aircraft, but also sells them on behalf of the bank.

And when FAILblog (why yes, I am supposed to be updating airline applications) showed me the unfortunate abbreviation on this Women Take Flight hat, I had to find out more about the organization in question. It appears to have been a grant-funded research project involving giving flight instruction to women who had no interest in learning to fly. I think WTF is an appropriate description. I'd say WHY? but the answer is probably "to get research funding and publish a paper."

And this is about me and procrastination, too.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Air Force Lodge

The Watson Lake airport was established in the 1930s by Grant McConachie, in order to provide a fuel stop for mail flights going to Whitehorse. The community was originally located at Watson Lake, right by the airport, but in 1961 most of the buildings there were demolished or else moved down the road to Wye Lake. One of the relocated buildings was the old Air Force pilot barracks. It was used as a residence until 1988, then stood empty. The owners are aviation history buffs from Germany, and hated the idea of allowing a place like this to fall into disrepair, so they turned it into a sort of hostel, the Air Force Lodge.

It's not for everyone, but the sort of people who like that sort of thing should love it. Inside the front door, everyone takes off their shoes and there is a big kitchen table, tea and coffee, and lots of artifacts and old photos and posters. A vintage entertainment unit consists of a radio and a turntable in a big cabinet, which is also where the tea sachets are kept. The rooms are quite small, but they have a bed, a night table, a chair and a little triangle of wood across one corner, big enough for me to sit at with my laptop and my tea. We're just far enough from the cell tower that I don't have a signal, but if I go walk down the road a short way I do. There's even good wireless internet.

We went for a walk the next morning to check out the town. There were definitely worse motels in town. Most places were boarded up for the winter already, and some of the ones that were still operating also had a few boarded over windows. There's no snow yet, but it's about five degrees out. A couple of motorhomes and one hardy tent trailer still occupied the downtown RV park.

Tourist season on the Alaska Highway is definitely over, but the biggest tourist attraction in town is outdoors and accessible year round. Apparently in 1942 when the American Army was here, building the Alaska Highway, they had a signpost showing directions and distances to various places in the Yukon, plus New York, Chicago and Tokyo. A bulldozer had run over the sign, so an injured soldier on light duty was asked to repair it. He got permission to add his own hometown to the signpost, and then everyone wanted to do it. There are now over 50,000 signs on hundreds of signposts, known as the signpost forest. Over the years the point seems to have been lost, so the majority of the signs are just names of towns or "Bob was here" type markers with no distance marked on them and not oriented as signposts pointing the way to the place in question. Many of the signs are actual street signs, presumably stolen from the named towns all over the world, mostly the United States. There were so many that none of us found markers for our own home towns. I don't think I found any for anywhere I have lived.

When we returned to the hotel and mentioned that we had been to the Signpost Forest, the proprietor said, "Ah yes, the world's largest sanctioned public display of stolen goods." I'm glad I wasn't the only one unimpressed by that aspect of the display. Now that it was clear that the tourist attraction was not a sacred celebrated monument to the locals, I mentioned the fact that so few of them were actual signposts anymore. The idea has morphed from a directional marker to a "we were here" record. He nodded, "The early ones were done by pilots, so they were better."

Interesting. Sixty years ago perhaps only the pilots had the tools and expertise to determine the direction and bearing to a place, but these days anyone can plug it into a GPS or a website. Is the actual distance and direction to a place simply not as important to someone who can't just point their vehicle that way and go there? Even though I am not one of the pilots who opened the north, and won't pretend to have their skills, I am still proud of being in a place that was founded for and by pilots. I imagine it's the pride you feel being a farmer in Saskatchewan, a cattle rancher in Wyoming, or an engineer at the Panama Canal. My kind did this! I am one of this line! I also enjoy that I am sleeping in the building that housed air force pilots sixty-five years ago, even if it has been moved to a different lake and especially as it has been totally refurbished and is now well-insulated and heated.

The proprietor knows the owner of the hangar we want into, but we can't get a hold of him at his home, business or brother's number. We'll try again tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Internet Was Right

Climbing out of Fort Nelson, we watch the bands of yellow and green trees recede below us. Before long there are a few patches of snow visible on the ground between the trees. We're climbing over the beginning of a mountain range, and the peaks and ridges of the rock formations are capped with snow. We level off a thousand feet above the highest en route peak, and can see many higher mountains to the south, covered, rather than merely capped, with the white stuff. Just snow, no cloud. The Liard River snakes back and forth under our track, sometimes shadowed in its valley and sometimes reflecting the rays of the late afternoon sun brightly into our eyes.

To the north there are more mountains, but they are covered by a blanket of scattered to broken cloud. It's just as the Internet told us it would be, and it stays that way right through the flight. After we pass the highest ground in and return to flatter land to the west of the mountains there is no longer snow on the ground. The view the the south is spectacular, but I know the light is all wrong for photography, so I just admire it and don't get out the camera.

Watson Lake doesn't have a tower, and doesn't have an FSS either. It has a different kind of service, unique to the territories, called CARS, Community Aerodrome Radio Services. A CARS operator doesn't give ATC instruction or control traffic. He usually makes local weather observations and can pass pilots Nav Canada weather information, but he doesn't have the same level of training as a flight service specialist. The CARS guy at Watson Lake responds to our call and gives us the current weather after long thoughful pauses. We all giggle at his deliberation, but he could be multitasking. We land and taxi to the apron then call him back to ask for a parking recommendation. He indicates what he refers to as "the old runway" but it doesn't line up with the end of the disused cross runway. It's an area of cracked pavement with grass growing through. I think it's just a disused apron. We'd like to get in the hangar, but the chief pilot's advance enquiries about that have not been fruitful. We'll try to work that out before any bad weather.

Considering him and this morning's taxi driver together, I wonder if "runway" is a common layman's term for any aircraft movement area. I do remember before I was a student pilot, using the term taxiway to describe a place where an airplane taxis but doesn't take off or land. I thought I was making up the term, but expected it to be descriptive enough for the pilot I was talking to to recognize what I meant and supply the correct term. When he didn't, I asked and was a little surprised to find that what then seemed like a very awkward word was the correct one.

Whatever this piece of the ramp is or once was, the chief pilot rejects taxiing onto it because of a big puddle. We shut down on the apron side of the puddle and then look around for plug-ins. I spy some in the parking lot, against the outside side of the fence. Obviously they are for cars, but we can easily run our extension cord through the fence and plug in there. I run around through the terminal to plug in the cord, but the outlet is not live; there's no electricity.

I go back into the terminal to see if there is someone we have to ask to get the power turned on. The CARS guy says no, and instead offers us another place we can plug in. He takes me through the terminal to a little garage with a plug inside. He says we can run our cord through the door. It's a typical hangar door, with a chain to raise it, kind of like the string you pull to draw a curtain. I walk over and start looking for a latch to release before I start pulling on the chain: sometimes there's a deadbolt or something near the floor. Here it turns out to be a pull handle in the ceiling. Nowmal for a garage, I guess. He reaches up and releases it, then raises the door by brute force. The chain is broken, he explains.

We plug in there, and then pile in a taxi. The driver gives us a tour of town on the way to our hotel, rating all the restaurants and hotels. We apparently did well to avoid the one the Internet panned, and the only one better than the one we are in costs more than twice as much.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Making Peace

I shower, getting water all over the bathroom, and get dressed. The weather doesn't look excellent, but it's good enough to get out of here. I finish packing and go to breakfast. To my amusement, it is eight forty-two. My coworkers are in the hotel "business centre" looking at weather online. "Get a late checkout," they advise. The weather is worse further northwest, with 700' ceilings and visibility as low as 2 statute miles in drizzle at en route airports. And no one knows what in the 200 mile stretches between airports with reported weather. We can't go IFR because we have some instrument issues.

Conditions here will deteriorate throughout the day, but the weather en route to Watson Lake should improve to 1500' to 2000' ceilings at least as far as Peace River. That gets us that much closer to our destination, and allows the weather here to be impassable tomorrow without affecting us. We agree to try for Peace River, maybe even Fort Nelson. I eat my breakfast, goof off for a couple of hours and then we all go to lunch. (Finally I got the pyrogies I've been craving since Vegreville, and yes, I know by now that I drove right past the world's largest pyrogy. Someone send me a picture and then I can photoshop myself into it and be done).

We call a cab and cram everything, including the printer which I loathe, into the truck and our laps and the driver takes us out to the airport. We direct her into the parking lot and then through the gap in the fence onto the apron. "I can't drive on the runway!" she protests. We assure her that it's not the runway, and that she's allowed. She parks next to the airplane, facilitating our unloading all that gear and then loading it into the airplane. It's raining now, but the ceiling is high enough and we back track and then take off to the west.

We pass Slave Lake, but there is no traffic there. It's the in-between season: too late for fire flights but too soon for heavy oil work. The trees below are a lovely mix of green conifers and yellow deciduous. The clouds are sometimes low enough that we skim through for a moment, but we're at a comfortable height above terrain, mindful of towers. Then we skim through a wisp that turns out not to be a wisp, and of course is the reason you're supposed to remain clear of them in the first place.

The pilot flying does a big 180 turn and flies back until we're back in the clear and then heads south for a while, looking for a way around. For a while there it looked like we were spending the night in Slave Lake, but then we found a way through. I called Edmonton radio via Slave Lake for updated Peace River, Fort Nelson and Watson Lake weather and after a brief discussion changed the GPS destination to Fort Nelson. Watson Lake weather was still nasty and there are mountains between here and there.

It gets sunny enough that I want to put on my sunglasses. I resist for a while, but then I really want them, so I apologize if it causes a jinx, but put them on. Immediately the weather deteriorates. We make a couple of attempts to get around a rainstorm that added poor visibility to the low ceilings. Not a good mix. Ceilings at Fort Nelson were 2000', and that's agl, so as Fort Nelson is 1250' asl, that meant clouds bases at 3250' asl, which was pretty much what we had. Our problem wasn't that we had a patch of low clouds, but that we had a patch of high terrain. We just have to get off this plateau.

I look at the terrain mode on the GPS (after pressing enter to confirm that I know that terrain avoidance is my own responsibility and that Garmin is no way accountable for my use of the data they provide). They provide three coloured contours: red for known obstacles less than 100' below you, yellow for known obstacles less than 1000' below you and black for everything more than 1000' below. We're on a yellow plateau, with our destination ahead in the black. Looking at the shape of our plateau, I see a finger of black extending quite a long way into it, not far to the south. Thinking three-dimensionally, the yellow lining up with that black finger will be lower than the yellow around it: it's a valley. You can see the same thing on the contours of the regular GPS map screen or on the paper chart which is also open on my lap, but it's somehow clearer on the very crude three-colour contour map than it is on the more detailed ones. The pilot flying navigates towards the supposed valley, and it is there. We're flying quite low, and the clouds ahead are quite low, but every time I draw breath to say it's not going to work, it works. There are some lower patches of clouds, but the terrain keeps dropping faster than the clouds. We cheer when we come out on lower ground with a clear distant view below the clouds.

As we approach Fort Nelson, the weather over the mountains even looks good. On approach into Fort Nelson a November-registered aircraft calls Fort Nelson radio on 126.7 to file a flight plan. There's an undercurrent of impatience in the specialist's voice as she explains that 126.7 is the air advisory frequency and is not appropriate to file a flight plan. The pilot can call flight services at "1-866-weather brief" from the telephone at the kiosk or he can contact Edmonton radio airborne on another frequency, which she gives him. We land in Fort Nelson for fuel and a pee break. During shutdown checks the pilot calls back and says the phone number won't work. I bet he tried the number on his cell instead of the kiosk. The Nav Canada number is only available from Canadian phones, and of course he'll be carrying a US cellphone. I wonder how shocked he will be by the roaming charges when he gets home and sees his phone bill.

We go in and use the kiosk ourselves, to see the weather ahead. Both the GFAs and the satellite views show clouds to the north of our route but not the south. We are confident that we can get over the mountains to Watson Lake, and if the clouds move in despite the forecast, we can drop into the Liard River valley and follow it to Watson Lake. We'll do that as soon as fuelling is complete, but tomorrow on the blog.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Watson Next?

After only a few days in Cold Lake, we will be moving to the Yukon tomorrow. That's a little unexpected, as we here there's already snow on the ground in Whitehorse, but we go where we're sent. I loved the Yukon last time I was there, so here's my chance to see if that was a fluke. And this time the destination is Watson Lake, which with a population of about 800 is the Yukon's second largest community.

The client has already booked rooms there for the whole crew, but my wonderful chief pilot, who is working with me on this shift, reports that internet reviews of the proposed accommodation are not favourable. The most recent one reads, "Don't stop at this hotel, if all other places are full, sleep in the car."

The best place in town, considering quality, availability, and not exceeding the price at the hotel the client chose is the Air Force Lodge. There's one catch: barracks-style shared toilets and showers. We decide we're okay with that, and tell the the clients where they will find us.

There's no flying today, so I do a workout, read the newspaper, go to lunch with the crew, sent some e-mail and read through the archive of an Internet comic that wasn't worth recommending. Leftovers for dinner. So yeah, my working day was kind of like your weekend. Tomorrow we'll fly to Watson Lake.

"What time do you want to meet in the morning?" I'm asked.

"Nine," I respond, for no particular reason. There's no hurry, we don't have to be there until the day after.

"Is that breakfast at nine, or checked out at nine?"

"The latter. Breakfast at eight forty-two."

I don't need eighteen whole minutes to eat breakfast and check out, but as I said, there's no hurry.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Best Parts Story Ever

The person who told me the best parts story ever was working at an FBO and was asked to order instrument air filters for a Piper Chieftain. Panel instruments can heat up quite a bit from friction and electrical power, so typically there is a fan drawing air through a channel to cool the instruments. In order to avoid damaging the instruments with particles or dust, the air is filtered. Eventually the filter gets dirty and has to be changed. All very sensible and logical. Hence the need to order new ones.

As you would expect, the air filters have a part number. Ordering airplane parts is much like ordering anything else. You contact the supplier with the part number and shipping and payment information and they agree to send you the part. Ordering of this part was uneventful. I'm just drawing out the story.

The parcel arrives. Inside the box is a poly bag printed with the Piper name and the correct part number. Inside the poly bag is the paperwork certifying these to be genuine aircraft parts. And inside the bag are five Tampax tampons. I don't mean five rolled wads of cotton with strings on the end, closely resembling Tampax tampons. I mean five actual Tampax tampons, still in the manufacturer's individual wrappers, designating them as "super" absorbency, not regular or junior. I'm afraid I neglected to ask if they used the "pearl" or the biodegradable applicators.

They cost approximately ten dollars each.

I also didn't ask if they came with insertion instructions, but I'm going to assume that if they did, they weren't the same as the ones Tampax generally provides.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Road Bumps

A while ago -- a long while ago, I just found some old notes -- a fellow pilot out at Oakland in his Cessna Skyhawk had a closer-than-comfortable encounter with an MD-80 that was transporting federal prisoners.

We were e-mailing about the juicy non-blogged details, and then I said, "Can you imagine if there had been a collision and they had to evacuate it on the runway? It would have been like a scene out of The Fugitive!" (I love that movie. I probably rewatch it a couple times a year). But then a moment's thought made me realize, "Mind you, running over you probably wouldn't have damaged it at all."

He produced this speculative cockpit conversation aboard the MD-80:

"What was that noise?"

"I dunno... probably just the new embedded hold short lights. Oh look, there's that weirdo Piaggio parked next to Execjet again! Now where the hell did that 172 in the runup area go?"

Ouch. He continues to be vigilant so that scenario does not come to pass.

My aircraft is only big enough that I have to worry about where my prop wash goes more for courtesy than endangering smaller aircraft, but I suppose there are airplanes small enough that I could run one over in the dark. I think I'd notice, though. I know right away as I add power if some helpful FBO employee has chocked a wheel without me noticing.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Inconvenience Stores

You know how people say "this must be for a reason" when they find themselves in the midst of miserable things? I've decided that the reason for some of the tribulations I have endured is to ensure that I never again think things are bad. I started for a moment to call this post "Middle of Nowhere" but then I gave my head a shake and reminded myself that this town has several businesses which are not snowmobile dealerships, is located on a paved highway that is usable twelve months of the year, and in either direction one can reach an international airport. That is not the middle of nowhere. It might however be the near edge of nowhere.

It's nine p.m. and I'm not especially interested in the healthy snacks I have in the room. I want some chocolate or candy. There's a vending machine upstairs in the hotel, but the selection isn't great, so I asked Google maps for "seven eleven near" my address. It produced two, equidistant and each over 50 km away. Oh, right. Let's not be so picky, Aviatrix. I tried "convenience store near." Nothing nearer. How about "stores near." See? Lots of stores.

The nearest one is a Cat Rental Store. I entertain the image of sharing my hotel room with a nice furry rental kitty just long enough to click on the link. They rent bulldozers and winter illumination. There's also a Trailer Store, a 24-hour lock shop, and a Flooring Gallery. Booming metropolis. In Weasel there were no trained trades people, so the competence displayed in the execution of anyone's floor, driveway or appliance installation was a reflection of the competence of the householder and householder's circle of friends.

Also there's a gas station across the street, but after all that, I decide I don't need a chocolate bar. Life is good, down south here in the Cold Lake area.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Restricted Doesn't Mean Impassable

Canadians use the "class F" airspace designation a little differently than the ICAO standard, and Americans skip F altogether in their airspace alphabet. Canadian flight students learn to distinguish between two types of Class F airspace: advisory and restricted. The advisory area is designated with a numeric code prefixed with CYA and there are no restrictions for entering it, but non-participating aircraft are advised to remain clear. It may exist for flight training, aerobatics, parachuting or some other activity that it's inadvisable to go cruising through the middle of. Restricted airspace is designated with a CYR prefix and it is illegal to enter it without permission of the controlling agency. I'm sure I post gleefully about this every time I do it, but I always feel extra smart when I act on the second half of that phrasing.

We're working up by Cold Lake, a large military base, and there aere several areas of restricted airspace around it. The one that most concerns us is based at 7000 feet and active only weekdays from 15 to 01Z. I think we can work around this four-dimensional restriction, but if it works out that we can't, I want to be able to get permission quickly, without making several phone calls and having to talk to someone who is at a conference in New Brunswick this week. Ordinarily I would look up the name and number of the controlling agency in the Designated Airspace Handbook, but the Internet connection at the hotel is slow and intermittent, so I call a Nav Canada briefer instead. She puts me on hold, most likely to consult a paper copy of the same handbook, and gives me a phone number and extension. The person who answers that phone listens to my request and transfers me to the terminal controller. He says it shouldn't be a problem, unless something is going on at the time, in which case it's a problem. He gives me a frequency to call airborne if I need in to the restricted airspace.

This is just the way MOAs work in the US, but that word "restricted" and the fact that you have to make phone calls because the frequencies aren't all printed on the charts. I guess it's not surprising that I get a kick out of working in restricted airspace when you consider that I still grin inside as I go through the "authorized personnel only" doors. I still remember the very first time I did that.

My room is one an "accessible" room, which usually is just a little weird, but this one has a couple of oddities I haven't seen before. There is no shower door or curtain, just an open space through which one could transfer from a wheelchair to the shower seat. Yes, the water does get out all over the floor. Also there is no toilet paper roll holder, the rolls are just left on the top of the toilet tank. Presumably they couldn't come up with a design and position that didn't interfere with transferring from a chair to the toilet seat but that was still operable by someone with limited mobility.

And I was wrong about the Canadian Tire. Maybe later.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Not So Bright, Avionics Guys

Over dinner the pilots brief me on the maintenance situation. The oil leak on the right engine turned out (after two o-ring changes) to be the governor leaking. Each time they changed the o-ring, the associated sealant held off the the leak for about ten hours, but now it's fixed, using the governor from the airplane that still hasn't gone to Kansas, because it's now waiting for an on-order governor. (Its papers turned up in someone's briefcase). The CHT is still deferred, as they have apparently determined that the replacement gauge was faulty.

The electronic tachs work well, except -- and my co-worker knew me well enough to preface this with "you're not going to like this" -- the numeric readout does not dim in response to the dimmer switch.

He's right. I don't like it. What is the matter with avionics manufacturers these days? I don't think I've had a newly manufactured avionics item installed in an aircraft that has hooked properly and completely into the dimmer rheostat. In this case the circumference LEDs dim, but the display on the face of the tach doesn't. Add that to the fuel transfer light and much of the specialized mission equipment, and the cockpit looks like a fricking pinball machine when I want it to look like London in the Blitz. And not the parts that were on fire. I need my night vision for finding things like conflicting traffic and airports, and I don't appreciate being half blinded because some equipment designer never considered that someone might fly an airplane in the dark and have better things to look at than their blinking lights.

There's a Canadian Tire in town. I'm going out tomorrow morning to get some of that static cling film you put on your car windshield to declare that you love Siamese cats or brake for shoe sales, and I'm going to cut bits the right size to go over the offending pixels at night.

Monday, October 12, 2009

World's Largest What?

I take an airline flight to Edmonton. The guys unloading the airplane are wearing toques. Sigh. Summer is officially over. They were probably wearing shorts last week. Fortunately it's not really that cold out, because I have to rent a car, and for some reason the terminal is designed so you have to go outside and then back in to get to the rental cars. Perhaps there is a tunnel that I can use when it's thirty below and blowing.

The reason I have to rent a car is that we're not working in Edmonton, but at an airport four hours away on the Saskatchewan border, with no airline service. I now know to rent from Avis, because they have a hassle-free policy allowing any fellow employee to drive the car without further payments or paperwork. They offer me a GPS unit at the rental counter, but I have Google maps directions printed off, and it's pretty hard to get lost leaving Edmonton, so I decline.

It was a Ford compact of some sort. It looked boxy with a high side profile but I should have written down what sort, because if you're any taller than me, don't rent this car. At the lowest possible seat setting my head was so close enough to the roof that my hair kept static clinging to the ceiling. Is this some kind of dodge by American car companies to get people to buy larger cars? I've been in plenty of smaller Japanese and European cars and never had head versus roof issues before.

The exit from Edmonton International Airport leads right onto highway 2 north, which ends at an opportunity to get onto 216 and then the Yellowhead Highway eastbound. I do all that, and then settle in for the drive. I don't like driving as much as flying. It's not as comfortable and you keep having to turn for arbitrary reasons. After a very short while I realize I forgot to refill my waterbottle at YEG, and I don't want to drive all that way without water, so I exit at a signed rest stop.

It's the worst designated highway rest stop ever. It has parking. No shade, warmth, vending machines, tourist information, toilets or potable water. That's right, a highway rest stop with no toilets. It doesn't even have any sizable bushes. I assume the truckers are just going in the bushes behind their big rigs. The only facility at the place is a couple of large garbage cans. I move on.

The next town on the highway big enough to be on the Google Maps printout is called Vegreville and the highway signs promise all services, plus the world's largest pysanka. I have no idea what a pysanka is, so I imagine it belongs to the family of edible dough things called names like perogie and pyroshky, depending on who is making and pronouncing it. I exit at the town and shortly see that I am on 50th Avenue at 52nd Street (or possibly on 50th Street at 52nd Avenue, I forget). Because this is Alberta, I know I'm two blocks from the downtown, and if you're going to have a World's Largest Something in your town, isn't that where it would be. There's a plaza there, and a parking space, but no large thing. A nearby store offers "pysanki" for sale, and I know enough of Slavic languages to recognize that as plural of pysanka. I am disappointed to see that it's a pottery store, so a pysanka is unlikely to be food, and she is disappointed I don't want to buy pottery. She does fill my water bottle for me and direct me to the world's largest, and explains that it's a Ukrainian Easter egg. She has some pottery replicas.

The World's Largest Pysanka was constructed for the centennial of the RCMP. It looks to me like a pretty savvy move on the part of the town to use federal horse force money to build themselves a giant tourist attraction, but their little blurb about it symbolizing the safety of their town thanks to the brave Mounties was so convincing that they were awarded extra money for their project. It is an interesting meld of an old fashioned handicraft with the high tech (in 1973 anything using a computer was high tech) construction. I love the line "required the development of new computer programs," as though writing code was an earthshattering breakthrough. Apparently no one had ever modelled an egg before. Hmm, 1973: does that predate Fortran? What would they have written it in?

It was worth exiting the highway for. Giant decorated egg on stick, rotates with the wind, and it's always windy there, so it kept moving as I was photographing it. I decided not to eat in Vegreville, but save my hunger and dine with my colleagues when I arrived. Apparently there is a World's Largest Pyrogy somewhere along that drive, and I missed it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Time Off

I arrived home, unpacked, did laundry, repacked with fancier clothes, had a vacation in which I ate fabulous meals, watched ocean waves on the beach, met up with lots of people including an old high school friend who lives on an island on the west coast and is saving the world, and got addicted to the blue potato chips (they're actually blue, made from blue potatoes) served on Jet Blue flights. Got home again, did laundry again, went hiking or had lunch or dinner or dessert with various people, didn't get organized enough to meet up with many more, and then repacked for work.

It all went by about as fast as that paragraph, but was much more fun and punctuated by many iterations of "we must do this again." The only problem with having so much fun on my time off, is that it makes me reluctant to go back to work. But then I remember that at work if conditions are suitable I fly and airplane and if they are not I can watch TV, explore new places or play on the Internet. And I like all those things. If I stayed home I would be obligated to clean the bathrooms, do home repairs, or file paperwork. So work is good.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

What Happened to Kansas?

By now I'm sure there are a few people eagerly awaiting my arrival in Kansas, so they can direct me to the hilly bits where people know how to use pi correctly, or get me a tour of the Cessna factory. In my job, however, the fact that I have been told to go somewhere, that I have filed a flight plan, filled out a complicated webform, and advised customs officers of my intended arrival time never means that I actually went there. So no, I didn't go to Kansas. I pulled up the airline websitebooked a flight home instead.

Then I called back the US Customs people to say I wouldn't be coming after all. They couldn't find the e-form that said I was coming, so just as well. Then I called back flight services to tell them the flight was cancelled. "Mind if I ask why?" asked the specialist, in exactly the tone used by the guy at the newspaper when I told him I wanted to cancel my service forever. "The aircraft registration and certificate of airworthiness are missing," I explained. (To the FSS guy, not the newspaper guy. I cancelled the newspaper because the presence of a newspaper on my doorstep bore almost no relationship to the "vacation" status registered in their computer).

And then I took a cab to the airport, and flew home.

On the way I overheard a quintessential Canadian conversation comparing snow and rain, "In the snow it's cold but you can do things. In the rain you get all wet." Winter is coming. I don't remember if it was the same or different people who while discussing transit options came up with this arithmetical theory, "We could take the #44. Or we could take the #22 twice and maybe we'd get there."

Kansas, presumably, is still there, and maybe I'll get there later, too.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Another Reason Not To Outsource

While looking for the date of the last pitot-static certification, I found the following snag and rectification in an aircraft journey logbook.

Avionics master comes on with battery switch. Found stall warning power connected to avionics bus and stall warning system connected to pilot instrument light power.

I picture some inadequately supervised apprentice somewhere in Temiscaming or Chatanooga playing with the panel wiring like an old fashioned telephone switchboard. That would be why our PRM has decided not to have remote shops supervise the maintenance work.

The engineer comes by to tell me which breaker he will put the new tachs on. It's so completely unrelated that I've forgotten what it was, maybe with the landing light on the CB for the "rear cabin door open" warning light (I just looked it up).

"There are a couple of unused circuit breakers behind my elbow in the cockpit," I mention, assuming that it is neater to have every piece of equipment on its own. He already knows about the spares, but explains that it would take another hour of aircraft disassembly to wire the tachs in there. He has done an electrical balance and there is plenty of room for them to share. A light bulb goes on for me, as I now realize why two airplanes of the same type don't have the same equipment on the same circuit breakers. Anything that isn't original factory equipment is just wired into whichever breaker was convenient to the person who installed it.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Specialized Substances

I went as directed to a back room to look for a particular can of glue approved for securing loose carpeting to the walls (I only replaced the floor carpeting, because the stuff on the bottom of the walls is fine, just that some of it is loose). I didn't find it at first, but was amused by the very specialized products on the shelves.

  • Deicer conductive cement - I think this is for the strips on the leading edges of electrically heated propellers
  • Spar varnish - I assume it works on wing and tail spars, but don't use it on the ribs?
  • Cessna flap screw and trim tab grease - disaster befalls you if you use it on Piper flaps?
  • a roll of wire labelled "turbine only" - it looked like lockwire. What possible difference could the type of fuel make to wire?
  • a can of ordinary baby powder - I laughed at the incongruity

Oh and here's the broken cable.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Outraging the Modesty of a Woman

According to this The Times of India article, a physical fight of some sort, involving both pilots and two flight attendants, broke out in the cockpit area during an Air India passenger flight. It's really not clear from the multiple accounts cited in the article and the accompanying video who was fighting whom over what, but it may be relevant that Air India pilots have just called off a strike, as political issues are some of the worst to have in a cockpit. I can't see reasonable people coming to blows and leaving the aircraft controls unattended over which version of the ETA the FA used in her PA without some underlying quarrel.

To me the most interesting thing about the whole mess is the charge against the pilots of "outraging the modesty of a woman." Clearly that means something in Indian law. It's a common phrase in Indian news articles and it appears to cover almost everything from grabbing a woman's hand inappropriately, to rape. It appears analogous to the Canadian concept of sexual assault. Compare the Canadian concept to the Indian judgment cited here, downgrading a charge of rape to one of outraging the modesty of a woman. (Texans may need to stop and read the Canadian link before commenting: the Canadian definition is significantly different from the Texas one cited there).

"Intention is not the sole criterion of the offence punishable under Section 354 IPC and it can be committed by a person assaulting or using criminal force to any woman, if he knows that by such an act the modesty of the woman is likely to be affected."

In many cases the Indian wording may be better than the phrase sexual assault, but in some the Indian wording may trivialize a serious offence that falls short of rape. One wonders if the modesty of a man can also be outraged.

ClustrMaps shows me a lot of red dots on India, so perhaps a regular reader will know more about outraged modesty and Air India policy and practice with respect to who is or is not on the flight deck, and the state of the cockpit door in flight. At any rate, I am liking the phrase, "Sir, you are outraging my modesty," for distracting someone whose behaviour hasn't yet escalated to a point calling for physical or legal defence.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Securing the Homeland

Up until recently, a person received some kind of American scrutiny upon entering the US, but none upon leaving. I have often entered the US without showing ID of any kind, just the assertion that I was a Canadian citizen resident in Canada. And I have returned to Canada on the same assertion. Now passports are usually requested, but I'm not sure they are always scanned and recorded. I have crossed the US-Canada border on foot, by bicycle, car, boat, private airplane, as an airline passenger, as a commercial pilot, on the bus and probably more ways I'm forgetting. I think I have never swum across nor crossed on horseback, but I wish to preserve my right to do so in the future. I have always reported to the proper authority at the border, and I suppose it is possible that there is an international agreement that the Canadians and Mexicans tell the Americans who has entered their country from the US, so that it can be verified that someone who entered also left, but with an airplane I can leave the US for a country that doesn't even maintain diplomatic relations with the US, let alone freely give them a list of immigrants. The Americans now wish to maintain better knowledge of who is leaving as well as entering. Enter eAPIS.

eAPIS stands for Electronic Advance Passenger Information System, and while the first word under the page title and agency names is "Welcome," the text appearing under that is possibly more characteristic of the feeling one has encountering this thing.

Security Notification:

You are about to access a Department of Homeland Security computer system. This computer system and data therein are property of the U.S. Government and provided for official U.S. Government information and use. There is no expectation of privacy when you use this computer system. The use of a password or any other security measure does not establish an expectation of privacy. By using this system, you consent to the terms set forth in this notice. You may not process classified national security information on this computer system. Access to this system is restricted to authorized users only. Unauthorized access, use, or modification of this system or of data contained herein, or in transit to/from this system, may constitute a violation of section 1030 of title 18 of the U.S. Code and other criminal laws. Anyone who accesses a Federal computer system without authorization or exceeds access authority, or obtains, alters, damages, destroys, or discloses information, or prevents authorized use of information on the computer system, may be subject to penalties, fines or imprisonment. This computer system and any related equipment is subject to monitoring for administrative oversight, law enforcement, criminal investigative purposes, inquiries into alleged wrongdoing or misuse, and to ensure proper performance of applicable security features and procedures. DHS may conduct monitoring activities without further notice.

If I disappear suddenly, you may suppose I've been taken away in a black helicopter for disclosing information gleaned from the system.

My first task is to create a username and password, so I can enroll myself in the program. I have an automatic password generator, but its output doesn't meet the criteria.

ERROR: Your password must be between eight and twelve characters in length and must begin with a numeric character and contain one of the following special characters: "~", "!", "@", "#", "$", "%", "^", "&", "*", "(", ")", "-", "_", "+", "=", "{", "}", "[", "]", "", "|", ";", ":", "/", "?", ".". Your sender id can not be part of the password, and no character can be repeated consecutively more than two times.

I then go through the e-mailed activation key routine common to most websites these days, and then I have to fill out the forms. It wants to know the middle name of my flight follower. What is this American obsession with middle names or middle initials? They even made a president who didn't have a middle name make up a middle initial. What if you have two middle names? Are you supposed to pick one or put them both in the space?

Using this website, I'm supposed to notify the US every time I enter or leave the country in an airplane. I'm not sure they'll know I've left if I park the airplane and ride a horse home, especially as the Canadians who admit me and my horse might not record my middle initial. Nor the horse's.

I'm not quite sure how long eAPIS has been in force, I have been blissfully unaware of it because the customs broker has been doing it on my behalf. I do remember his e-mail when he wanted to know a bunch more information about us, so that must have been him registering us for the system. This has now added internet access and a good level of internet literacy to the requirements for international air travel. A Q&A on a Mexico aviation site notes:

Q: What if I need to file eAPIS and there is no Internet access available at my departing airport.

A: DHS indicates that you must go to another airport that has Internet Access

If any legitimate operation is going to break this system, it will be ours, where airplanes might stay in the US for months at a time, with several changes of pilots. I don't look forward to discovering what they do when the computer loses track of where we've said we are and declares me in violation of something. When that happens, I hope I am facing a customs officer as friendly as the one who gave me the link.

Monday, October 05, 2009

eAPIS, or Praise Be to Customs Expediters

I learn that my next task is not to return to the field with this airplane, but to take a different airplane to Kansas to get the autopilot repaired. Apparently every avionics technician in Canada has washed their hands of this terrible autopilot, and there's a superb shop in New Century, Kansas (I'm guessing that town just celebrated its centennial) where they know how to fix the most reluctant autopilots. Airplane number two is currently sitting in a maintenance shop at another airport, where a different engineer and apprentices are wrestling with the installation of the electronic tachometers. The PRM will drive me there and then I will take the airplane to Kansas and get an airline flight home for my time off. Meanwhile the next shift of pilots will come here to take this airplane back to the jobsite.

So the downside is that I won't get to see the look on the customer's face when he sees that his complaint about the carpet has been addressed in full, but I've never landed in Kansas, as far as I remember. I don't even know much about it. I understand that Kansas is very flat, has powerful cyclonic storms, is located somewhere south of Nebraska and north of Arkansas, and they make Cessnas there. And wheat. I had also heard a rumour that circles in Kansas were officially not quite the way they are in the rest of the world, but that seems to have been Indiana, and not made it into law. I prepare to go to Kansas.

You might think I'd start by increasing my geographical precision beyond the Nebraska-to-Arkansas approximation, but getting there will be the easy part. It's getting permission to get there that will hold me up. I ask the boss if he has started the paperwork with our broker for the flight, or if I should contact them myself. He says that as this is not a commercial flight, I shouldn't bother with the broker, just do it as a private flight to get the work done on the airplane. I start by choosing an airport of entry, one close to a straight line from here to Kansas, with 24 hours customs service, and fairly close to the border so that if anything happens requiring a diversion, I'm not forced to land at a US airport with no customs. I call the airport to find out their procedures. This shouldn't be necessary, but experience has taught me that things are not done the same way at every station and the best way to avoid delays or disapproval is to respectfully find out exactly how they want it done. I reach an amazingly friendly and helpful customs agent who e-mails me the form I need and a link to the appropriate website along with instructions for exactly where to go and what to do at his airport.

As well as filing the usual flight plan and customs arrival intentions, I now have to complete eAPIS paperwork. Except, as the e implies, it's not paper, but electronic. This is where I find out about the work my customs expediter has been doing on my behalf. Mind boggling. Once I see how much work it will be I go to bed, planning to do it in the morning. The airplane won't be ready to go until midday.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Fossilized Cable

An apprentice is working on the left engine and she shows me the broken tach cable. It has broken fairly near the engine end. "How do you get the rest of the cable out of the housing?" I ask.

"That's what I was wondering," she confesses.

The engineer explains, "Normally, you would push it out with the new cable as you installed it, but because we're converting to the digital system, it will just stay in there."

"Forever? Like a mammoth preserved in a tar pit?" I am enamoured of the image of this historical piece of airplane entombed in its housing for all time. "But how does the new one work without a cable?"

Apparently it determines up the propeller rpm from the magnetos. I think this is every bit as cool as the picture on an iPod shifting from horizontal to vertical when you tip the device. It's probably just as simple, more a breakthrough in someone thinking of doing it that way than in the technology itself, but I will be pleased to never see another broken tach cable again, even while I am carrying a fossilized one around.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Carpet, Continued

I pass on the free food vibe by bringing chocolate for the engineer and apprentices. It looks like technicians are just as fond of free food as pilots. Not too surprising, that. Is there anyone who doesn't like it when you bring them food?

I like doing new things, and laying flooring in an airplane is a new thing for me, but I know if do this poorly in any way I'm going to have to look at it every working day, so the pressure is on. I have the old carpet to use as a template, but the carpet is more flexible, and if I assemble it at a slight wrong angle on the linoleum before I cut it, then my linoleum will be crooked. I measure everything so I can double-check my template. I reassure myself that no matter how bad it is, it won't look worse than the old carpet, so I should just go for it.

Meanwhile the engineer is preparing to install the new electronic tach gauges in the panel. The old panel has a two-in-one gauge: one gauge, two needles. The new system has slightly smaller gauges, but there is one for each engine, so the old hole in the panel has to be covered and new ones made. The engineer has the piece of the panel in a vise and in order to make the right sized opening, he drills small holes all around the perimeter of the big hole required to fit the gauge. It's not an easy job.

For a pilot, it's much easier to confirm that a needle is at the right angle or that two needles are at the same angle than it is to read, interpret and compare digital numbers. Our chief pilot had expressed that concern about digital tachometers, so they show me the new gauges. In addition to the big digital display in the centre of the unit, there is a ring of coloured LEDs around the outside, to simulate the position of the needle. I can see at a glance that the 'needles' match, and are in the green. I ask to confirm that the brightness can be dimmed for night, and they say yes, it will hook into the same control as I use to dim other engine instruments. I approve. Some illuminated aircraft equipment, like my fuel transfer light, doesn't dim at night and it's very annoying.

I find a big straight edge with which to guide my knife as I cut the flooring. There are a couple of places where it abraded the edges instead of making a clean cut, but fortunately those are in an area where there is flashing that screws down over the edges. So far, so good. I roll it up, transfer it to the airplane and roll it out again. Yes! It isn't crooked. It's a bit long in a couple of places, where the carpet could probably be compressed, so I take it out and trim those places, then put it back in. Works. Good. Now for the hard part.

There are a number of small, oddly shaped holes in the carpets for various equipment-attachment fittings to go through. I have to get these in exactly the right places and exactly the right size and shape, or I won't be able to put some of the seats in the plane. I spend a long time fussing about before I plunge the knife in and make the holes. The last part is to put holes in all the places where the carpet was screwed down to the floor. For carpet, you can just stick a screw through without pre-poking a hole, but for this I have to line the holes up with the holes in the floor where the screws go. I get it all rolled down with the holes lined up and it looks great.

Getting all the screws back in is harder than you might think. While I'm sure they were originally all the same size screws in all the same sized holes, something has happened in the intervening years to make them individualistic. I share my theory with the apprentice. "Every screw has its own unique personality. You have to find some place that it wants to go, because if it's not motivated, it won't doa good job. She agrees heartily, but the engineer overhears and opines that he finds a big screwdriver to be a powerful motivational tool. "But maybe that says something about my management style," he adds, glancing around the shop at the apprentices.

Once I tighten the screws on all the fittings, I'm not quite as happy with it. The floor creases a little from the distortion of the fasteners, where the carpet just gave. The PRM says the creases will settle out after it's been in place for a while. He says it looks great, and that he'll have to get me to redo the flooring in another airplane. The maintenance guys and gal laugh at me and tell me that's the peril of doing a good job, but I don't mind. I'm prouder of this than I would have been of two days spent lounging around at the hotel.