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.


Colin said...

Wow, what makes you sympathetic? That the new crew scheduling software was so interesting that they broke out a couple laptops to look at it, violating airline policy (and, technically, federal aviation regulations)?

Do you find that policy onerous? I mean, would you pull out a laptop if you had a plane full of passengers and were PIC? Maybe if you were SIC and needed information, right?

I was disgusted and I'm glad they are no longer pilots and hope they serve to make any other RJ pilots nervous about pulling something similar.

Aviatrix said...

It's one thing to screw up after thirty incident-free years in the industry and have your licence revoked. It's another to have it done in bureaucratic triplicate and through international media. My empathy considers the latter.

I don't think that what they did is worse than falling asleep and is definitely not as bad as reporting for work drunk, but the media and FAA response seems harsher in this case than on the drunks and nappers. As a fallible human being who knows what it feels to receive a letter demanding the surrender of an aviation document, I wouldn't turn my back on these guys if we were to cross paths. I think they must feel pretty bad right now, but that they are not reprehensible human beings. Who knows, maybe I've already met one of them. I strike up many conversations with fellow pilots waiting in airports for weather, a part, or a connecting flight.

Aluwings said...

"... while you were on a frolic of your own..."

What the!? What kind of legal language is that!? A frolic? Also, isn't there still "due process" etc. for them in all this?

Aviatrix, I'm with you. Without under-stating the seriousness of the offence, let's not have them drawn and quartered just yet.

Aviatrix said...

It is apparently a valid legal term. (See the second paragraph of the linked book review).

A Squared said...

Also, isn't there still "due process" etc. for them in all this?

Not for the moment. It's an emergency revocation, which is to say that it's a case in which the FAA has determined that the certificate holder(s) pose such a great hazard to the public that the revocation takes effect immediately, bypassing the "due process" part. They eventually will get their Due Process, but it will occur while their certificates are revoked, as opposed to a more typical certificate action in which the certificate holder retains the certificate and it's privileges until the outcome of the "due process"

Aluwings said...

Well that is interesting - learned something new today. Here's a good explanation of why this term is very apropos in this situation:
Frolic of your own

mattheww50 said...

Actually there is due process, although at this stage quite limited. They can appeal the Emergency revocation order to an NTSB administrative law judge, who has 48 hours to decide if an emergency revocation is appropriate.

If it is found to be inappropriate, the ALJ will rescind the order, and the FAA will move to revoke the licenses, but the revocation can not take place until after the hearing.

This is separate and distinct from the formal appeal of the revocation.

However it is a safe bet that they won't be flying any NW airplanes again until after this matter is settled, and NW (actually Delta) will probably take action to terminate them for gross negligence.

It is doubtful these guys will ever fly again for a US flag airline.

nec Timide said...

...but that they are not reprehensible human beings

Granted, but their actions were.

I'm not familiar with the layout of all Airbus cockpits, the only one I've seen had tray table/work surfaces where a Boeing would have yokes. I hate to make assumptions, and this is only my imagination, but my mind's eye keeps throwing up an image of both pilots, tables deployed with laptops open, screens obstructing some of the instruments.

Also creeping into my mind is the question of what kind of culture exists that would allow senior pilots to decide to have an in flight software lesson. Perhaps someone at the FAA decided a huge bucket of ice cold water was in order and slammed these two hard 'Pour encourager les autres' expecting fairness to come out in due process.

Aviatrix said...

nec Timide: Your assumption about the cockpit layout is absolutely correct.

Scott Johnson said...

For some reason, my gut still tells me that they were both asleep and were too stupid to admit it. I cannot imagine laptops being so distracting that they wouldn't hear radio calls that were (per their story) routed to cockpit speakers.

Peter said...

Not sure where you found the copy of that letter, but on page 4 they failed to redact the pilot's certificate number. Might want to pass that along.

Colin said...

The airlines take up quite of bit of the national mindset. A large portion of the population flies on a regular basis (at least a couple times a year), and airline pilots have, for a long time, been held up as an ideal. Extraordinary people in a demanding field. Recently some of the unfortunate truths (pay, sleep, advancement) about their jobs has started to come to light, but I believe most Americans expect to see Sully when they peek in the cockpit door.

Showing up drunk is the sort of decision one can only make while drunk. Extremely stupid.

I have zero sympathy. It's a job in an economy where one in ten people can't find any work. Duty time is strictly limited, so you are not pressed into overtime, the way many people in the current economy are. In trade for the absolutely terrifying, tremendous responsibility you have to give up some freedom and follow the rules. Astonishingly, there is a union and if you don't like the rules you can pipe up and do something about them.

All this is known to veteran pilots. If you want to learn the new software (or take a nap) do it on the ground. Anything else is a blatant violation of the enormous trust placed in your hands (on those controls). If I were Delta I would make a television advertisement out of firing them. If I were the pilots union I would come out with a statement saying that they wanted nothing to do with pilots that are willing to behave that way.

By the way, do you believe this is the ONLY time they have done it? Or that this is the only time they happen to screw up enough to get caught?

The crash in Buffalo looks like poor cockpit resource management, which is probably the first step to having laptops open and ignoring the radio. If the pilots, in both cases, were doing what they were meant to be doing, and ONLY what they were meant to be doing, then everyone on that Buffalo flight would be alive.

Again, I wouldn't be buying these guys any drinks. I don't think they were caught passing notes in class, I think the endangered the lives of over a hundred people and put professional pilots like Dave (and you) in a really bad light.

Cirrocumulus said...

I do software for a living, even show people how to use it. It's a job, but no workplace software is so absorbing that you'd fail to notice you'd spent three hours when you only had two. Or be oblivious to people who kept trying to get your attention.

I reckon they'd finished with the work-related software and were playing a game on the laptops.
And I reckon NTSB's excitement is due to frustration because they thought the pilots were lying and couldn't prove it.

I'm SLF but nobody was likely to die so I'm with the sympathy party.

Colin said...

In case it isn't clear from the comments and links above, both laptop trays were in use, which blocks the pilots' view of the primary flight instruments (and probably a bunch of telltales). They did that for over an hour.

If I were Delta I'd want the pay for that hour refunded. No one was flying the plane.

Sarah said...

Sigh. This is so depressing.

I am imagining an ironic picture. Two airline pilots, in flight, working on software issues on their laptops. Here I am, a software engineer running a flight simulator instead of working(*). I'd give anything to change places with them. Maybe they were feeling the same.. I hope so, for their sake.

And my E6B ( a real honest-to-goodness plastic slide rule ) has insufficient resolution to answer the quiz to my satisfaction. Best I can guess is +2 degrees C at the airport elevation.

* No, not really. I'd get fired.

Cirrocumulus said...

I realise the aircraft was flying itself. I share the suspicion that it wasn't for the first time. As with the Air India fight, if people are going to do that they should do it at altitude and in an aircraft with a sense of self-preservation.
Your industry (among others) 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.

Aluwings said...

Re:" Your industry (among others) needs objective research into effective ways of keeping boredom at bay."

I began answering this here, then it got too long so I just blogged it. With your indulgence Aviatrix - here's the link (thanks for the clue about clickability):

A Day in the Life: Passe-Temps