Monday, November 30, 2009

Middle Seat

I made sure I had my passport for customs, my pilot licence in case there was any on-base scrutiny of who I was, and my camera so I could take pictures of anything that wasn't a military secret, and got in the car. I drove across the border to catch a cheap flight south. The customs official looks dubious at my reason for going south, but when he asks my profession a light goes on. I think you can get away with all kinds of crazy stuff on account of being a "commercial pilot." It's like having a Canadian flag on your backpack in Europe.

Check-in is painless. It's nice just carrying overnight stuff and not my massive Arctic-to-Florida work bag. It's coming up to American Thanksgiving, so the flight is chock full and the flight attendants are busy trying to get everyone's bags, coats and butts in the appropriate places. A guy is there with two young kids and they don't have seats together, so the flight attendant was obviously trying to rearrange people to create a row for them. Airline should have taken care of that at the gate before seating people, because now it's more complicated. Passengers were apparently refusing some of the offered seat swaps so it wasn't just as simple as emptying a row of individual travellers and replacing them with the family. I volunteered to move and the FA was pathetically grateful when I accepted a move into a middle seat to make it work out for the family, assuring me that she would comp all my drinks in compensation. It's sort of sad that it was that hard to get people to move over so a little kid could sit with his dad.

I liked my new seatmates better, anyway. My original neighbours were a little girl in the window seat next to me an angular mother who seemed to be checking me out for my propensity to molest little girls. And speaking to, smiling at or acknowledging the presence of counted as molestation. Okay, I'm obviously not being fair there, but I got such a cold vibe from her that I was happy to move to the friendlier spot in between an electrician from Alabama and a woman with elaborately hennaed hands and black-tipped fingers, on her way to her sister's wedding. I slept on the flight, so I can't report on the fascinating things that take place in the back of an airliner. Except that the flaps were filthy. filthier than mine, even.

As we came into land, I could see that North Carolina is a little swampy, with lots of trees, just starting to change colours for the fall. I grabbed my carry-ons and headed for the exit. About this time I realized I hadn't booked a rental car. I meant to. We'd discussed it. You could almost hear the chuckle in John's e-mail as he replied to my enquiry about buses or trains from North Carolina's Raleigh-Durham airport. It seems that North Carolina is not a public transit sort of state. "You'll need to rent a car," he'd explained. And then I neglected to. But never mind. I'm a master of flexibility. I jumped on a rental car shuttle, figure I'd go down the line at the rental car desk, and see who had one to rent me.

It turns out that at RDU all the car rental counters are on the individual companies' lots, so I just have to hope that the one I've reached has cars. I ask the gentleman who greets the van and he just gestures at the parked cars, "pick one." That's right, the cars are all parked with the keys in the ignition and you pick the one you want, drive your car to the exit and do the paperwork right there. Americans are masters of car-related convenience. The checkout clerk looks at my Canadian driver's licence and asks if I speak French. He's Arabic-looking and his nametag identifies him as Abdallah, so he's probably from a former French colony in north Africa. "Not as well as you," I say in English. Yeah. I know: chicken. I should have taken the opportunity to practice a disused skill. When we're done I say thanks and good evening in French. I'm a block away before I realize that I forgot to ask for a map. I hope my approaches in the simulator are better planned than my arrival at the base.

I know I have to go southeast, so I take the option directing me to highway 40 "east," and am lucky enough to find a gas station before I get to the on ramp. But they're all out of maps, and no one has heard of Havelock. A truck driver has a GPS unit for his car and plugs in my destination. It's easy: east on I-40 then east on US-70 and that will take me right into Havelock. I'm on my way.

It's dark for most of the drive, so I can't report on much except that US 70 kept bifurcating into the 70-bypass and 70-business and about half the time I took the wrong one, because I couldn't tell the bypass from the business sign from far away enough to get into the correct lane to make the turn. I stopped to get a map, just in case I missed one of those turns and got lost in the dark. Another customer in the store assured me that it didn't really matter which 70 I took at any point because there were about the same number of lights on either.

I stopped at an old-fashioned Chinese restaurant, the kind with the neon-edged pagoda roof. It had obviously been there a long time, and there were lots of cars in the parking lot, so it couldn't be too bad. And it wasn't. Sesame chicken, broccoli beef and ice cream for dessert, then back on the road.

A bit later my phone rang, and not knowing the local rules about cell phone driving I pulled over into what turned out to be a butcher shop parking lot to return the call. Every time I ask anyone if it's illegal to answer a cellphone while driving in their jurisdiction they say something like "sort of" or "only if they catch you." It looks as if North Carolina is okay with me talking on the cell phone unless I'm a teenager or driving a schoolbus. John is just checking up on me, then calls back again as I get into town and guides me to my hotel so we can go out for coffee.

Plans have changed now. I left out some of the previous plan changes, so suffice to say I am not surprised. The colonel has decided that it is best that I be there in the daytime, which may be good news, because I'll possibly be able to fly with an instructor or a trained pilot, to make better use of the opportunity. And it means I get to sleep in tomorrow. We get gently kicked out of the doughnut shop by the staff who want to go home, and John will call me in the morning to plan our day.

Wait, what? They just advertised a 30 calorie energy drink on TV. (I'm multislacking: blogging while watching TV). Wouldn't I burn 30 calories taking a bottle out of the fridge and removing the lid? How is this useful, unless an athlete has a purple food colouring deficiency?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Intriguing Invitation

Longtime readers may remember John, a reader who helped talk me out of one of my "I don't think I'll blog anymore" phases. He is now working on a military base in North Carolina and some time ago he suggested that he might be able to get me into a simulator to try my hand at flying a KC130. I of course said something along the line of "Wow, thanks, I should do that!" and then never actually did anything about it. Fortunately he's the sort of guy who writes back and says, "Hey, when are you coming down to see the simulator?"

John works in IT. When you consider that a simulated airplane has no engines to leak oil, no landing gear to swing, no wingtips to bash and very little in the way of structure to corrode, most of the maintenance is IT, so he knows one end of it from the other. Originally when we picked this week for our fun, the sim wasn't very busy, but it broke down a while ago and is only just back online so there is a backlog and the working hours are fully booked. We consider postponing, but who is to say that another month will be any better for scheduling, and they are looking at upgrading the airplanes to include classified equipment, which would make the whole simulator classified, and thus certainly off limits to a foreign civilian. But we're not out of luck. There are four hours a day that John gets the sim: it's is scheduled for maintenance from midnight to four a.m. By coming down to use the simulator overnight, I'm gambling that it doesn't actually require maintenance that night, and that I'm just 'helping' John check out all the systems.

So as soon as I've finished my usual unpack/laundry/repack sequence, I'm heading down to North Carolina. I'm going to come for two nights as insurance against it being broken one night. It's a full motion simulator with high fidelity visuals, a HUD for each pilot, and controls and avionics that closely duplicate the actual airplane.

When else would I have a chance to fly a four-engined tanker/transport, even if it all happens inside a box.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

My Customers Are Smarter

I've been browsing a website of astonishing customer interactions. I'll give you the link in a moment, but first let me give thanks for my own wonderful customers.

I am very grateful that my customers are sane and aviation savvy. They understand that I can't fly the airplane with something wrong, even if they would drive a truck in the same condition. They recognize the safety value of making conservative decisions. And they have never once taken frustration out on me when the weather, aircraft, regulations, late arriving parts or other aspects of the world mean that a flight has to be cancelled. The frequently change their minds, but my job is to be flexible for them. Occasionally they make decisions that don't seem optimal to me, or reject suggestions that I thought would make their lives easier, but I am able to trust that they are sane and will take responsibility for their decisions.

Sometimes I do charter flights with people less familiar with aircraft, but it's expensive enough to book a charter flight that I seem to be shielded from the customers who lack not only a basic knowledge of the world, but the comprehension and information processing skills to ever learn. This post is dedicated to all the front line customer service people who have no protection against such customers.

All the people I interact with seem to be familiar with basic logic and causality, plus know that airplanes need fuel, airports are noisy, weather can make air travel unpredictable, and amazing as I am I am not superhuman.

The site is Not Always Right. I'll warn you that it's so simultaneously hilarious and jaw-dropping that you may not be able to tear yourself away from it. Here's an aviation example illustrating the principle that some customers don't seem to be able to absorb basic information about the world. It \s also a commonly successful type of response: the person serving the customer finds something to say that satisfies the customer, even when it's not entirely true.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Break Time

The forecast snowstorm never arrived, so the highways stayed clear and our relief shift did arrive. We all sat in one of our palatial hotel rooms and relayed notes about everything that needs continuity. Oil consumption, heater operation, where we're parked, what we think we've lost in the airplane and hope they will find (my memory stick!), the pet peeves of the current client, and the particular radio frequencies we might need.

We have everything packed already, so early the next morning we drove to the nearest international airport to head home for a break. My co-worker has an early flight, so he hops out with his stuff and then I take the car to look around town before my flight. I pull into a tourist info place to get a map of town so I don't get lost, and while I'm there I ask the bored teenager to suggest something to do near here. There does not appear to be a local giant thing to photograph. She picks up a yellow highlighter and marks a few spots on the map where she says there are cafes. That's not a bad idea, but I'd like to see more than the inside of a cafe, so I ask her if there is a good place to go for a walk nearby, seeing as it's such a fine day. She stares at me for a second or two and says "not really." I indicate a couple of green spots on the map, presumably parks and ask about them. She is noncommittal. Having wrung the encounter of all available information, I thank her and get back into the car.

I soon pass a bank with an electronic temperature/time display. It's two degrees outside. Perhaps to most people this isn't beautiful weather for a walk. But it is lovely. Still air, blue sky, birds tweeting.

The first highlighted spot consists of a row of retail stores that don't open for another couple of hours, and a car wash. It occurs to me that if you were a bored teenager who hated her job and everyone who asked you for information, you could tease a tiny thread of entertainment out of your job by sending them to random highlighted spots on the map. It's not like they're going to bother to come back and complain. I myself get more enjoyment out of the speculation that she has done this deliberately than I would have from accurate directions, so I forgive her and park a couple of blocks past the car wash. The map shows a river with green space a few blocks from here so I head towards it. Is there a city with a river running through it that doesn't have walking trails along the banks? Not this one. It's a pretty nice multi-use area with wide paved and narrower unpaved paths. Lots of other people agree with me that it's a nice day for a walk.

There's also a museum on the map, not far away, so I drive over there and see an exhibit on diamonds. Part of the exhibit was just a promotion extolling the virtues of diamond jewellery, but there was a more interesting section on exploration. It turns out that the geologist leading the team that discovered the Diavik mine in the NWT was a woman named Eira Thomas.

And then I get on an airplane and go home.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Digging Out

It's almost a shame to check out of our luxurious rooms, but the snow has truly stopped and the ceiling is sufficient for us to make our escape. The airport shuttle is out of order so we call a cab to get to the airport.

We somewhat regretfully call the after hours number for our hangar contact. It's 8:30 on Sunday morning the day after Hallowe'en and it's a safe bet he wasn't planning on coming in quite this early. He answers though, and says he'll be there in half an hour. He is, and maybe a little bit early. We load our gear, preflight, and confirm that the hangar bill is taken care of. We're ready to go.

Before we can get the airplane out of the hangar, we have to get the other airplanes out, but before we can do that, we have to clear the snow. He has a little Honda tractor, the same one we've been towing airplanes with, fitted with a plough blade. He starts by driving around in an oval pattern, with one straightaway across the ramp entrance of the hangar. We shovel the snow away from the ends and he orbits until there is enough of a clear space immediately in front of the hangar for him to push snow straight away from it. He tows a caravan out and then goes after ours. The beams supporting the roof of the hangar are lower to the sides of the hangar than the middle, and where our airplane is parked the beams are lower than the top of our vertical stabilizer. So how did the airplane get parked back there? Same way as we're going to get it out. The expert hooks up the tow bar, I stand on the rear airstairs and my coworker jumps up and hangs off the horizontal stabilizer. That tips the whole empennage down enough that it will pass under the beam as the tow tractor pulls it. That's not an uncommon procedure. Sometimes they have a concrete block already to hook up to the tail tiedown ring, for the same purpose.

With the airplane outside, we're ready to go. We apologize again for rousing the other pilot on a Sunday morning, and hope that some of the hangar fees we've been paying will find his way into his paycheque. He says he expects it will be reflected in a full employee beer fridge. Ah beer: the Canadian currency of debts that mere money cannot address.

I text the customers with a pessimistic arrival time. There's a low ahead to the south, so I am expecting a headwind or at best a crosswind, and I don't want to be late after they've been waiting for three days. The run-up is uneventful and this time not only is visibility good, but we have an absolutely hammering tailwind. Yeah, tailwind. The low isn't where I thought it was. We're above a very thin layer of cloud that we can see right through and we're going to be an hour ahead of schedule. The customers are going to think we forgot the time change last night.

The very thin layer of cloud thickens a lot, but we still want to be over it. Canadian VFR over the top rules require our destination to be pretty much clear for hours before and after our forecast arrival and there's no weather report or forecast for our destination, so to avoid scud running, we would be obligated to use the GFA, which definitely doesn't forecast such a thing in our area. The nearest station to our destination is currently 11,000 broken, which is just fine, but its TAF is calling for 2000' broken and a mile in snow. So we can't fly above a cloud layer on the basis of that forecast. We have a band of cloud here, ending just to the south, with the winds clearly showing that the low is to the north. So are we rebels to think we're better than the forecast and overfly the cloud layer despite the nasty forecast? Heck no. We'll use a trick the trans-Atlantic carriers do. The ol' file 'n' switch.

So as far as the VFR-over-the-top is concerned, we're going to Regina. We've got the fuel. Regina has a TAF and is wide open. And there is nothing illegal about being on our perfectly legal way to Regina and then landing somewhere else along the way instead. Airlines do the opposite. They can't carry enough fuel for the legal requirement to get all the way from North American points of origin to many European destinations. So they officially fly to London, and then when they have almost reached London, switch over to Berlin, because the excess fuel required to go from London to Berlin is less than from New York to Berlin. You're allowed to file to any airport you please, and you are never restricted from landing early or refiling to anywhere you can legally go.

The clouds below thin out just before top of descent and we descend through the scattered layer without even having to detour to the south as we expected. The airport is easy to find and the plug-ins at transient parking even work, once we reset the circuit breaker. We put on the wing covers, which are the wrong size, but were all along. I remember them from last year. You have to be creative. And you know, based on our flight planning, that we are.

There's a surprisingly lovely pilot lounge with new, matching furniture and a big flat screen TV. It's sort of confusing. Standard pilot lounge decor is the discards from someone else's remodelling.

Then the customers pick us up and take us to an even classier hotel. We thought we were lucky with our upgrade at the last place. Ha! This hotel room is big enough to get lost in. And it's brand new. Almost too bad we're going home as soon as our replacements arrive, probably tomorrow. I have to finish up my paperwork then repack everything so anything sharp or liquid is in my checked bag and anything valuable or fragile is in my carry-on.

A friend of mine just lost a digital camera to someone who had access to her checked luggage, and it's disturbing. Not just in the sense of "damn, I liked that camera and it was expensive" but also in the sense that if they can take something like that out of your suitcase and get it out of the secure area unobserved, what can they put in it?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

And This Makes Three

"And those small dots...blockin' our path? I supposed it's too much to hope dat's just snow."

Today is Hallowe'en. It snows all day again. The GFA includes snow, freezing rain, and a gigantic, ugly, trowelly low wrapped around the north. The shape is like a fist with one giant focused finger of weather pointing from here to our destination. We're supposed to be there today starting work. But at least the customers waiting for us will have the same weather, so we couldn't have worked anyway.

The town Hallowe'en fireworks display is cancelled because of the snow. They'll have it next weekend instead, probably. For most Canadians, public fireworks displays are more of a summer thing, like for Canada Day but fireworks work best in the dark, so in the north they save them for winter holidays. Literally save them, as Ottawa gives municipalities grants to celebrate the nation's birthday with fire, but allows northern communities to take the grant and shift it to a more appropriate date. I meet someone from way up north, I can't remember where, who says they let theirs off to celebrate the first sunrise of winter, a tiny peek of the sun on the southern horizon, only lasting a few minutes. I think she said it was in late January.

After nightfall, the snow stops falling and we make plans to get the eight a.m. shuttle to the airport, and fly out of here.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Racing the Storm

At seven in the morning the snow has not yet started and the clouds are reported as 2000' scattered. It's still pitch black of course, so we can't peer at the clouds, just refresh the METAR over and over again to make sure a special hasn't reported it worse. The graphical forecast shows a huge area of low visibility and ceilings in snow sweeping to the east along our flight path (yes, company has advised us where we're going next, just in time). The word is yes, we are released.

The hotel shuttle doesn't starts operating until eight. The clients can't really drive us to the airport with our gear before then because they are busy packing their trucks with their gear, and they want to get on the road and get out of here before the snow starts in earnest too. We eat breakfast, go to our rooms for our gear, check out and it's almost eight anyway. A few light snowflakes are falling here and there. It's still good at the next station to the southeast, but they are all forecasting all kinds of miserableness for this afternoon.

We jump on the hotel shuttle, peering at the tiny bit of greyness that is the dawn. The ceiling is probably still coming down. We just need to sneak out from under this cloud before the visibility drops to nothing and we can arc south out of the path of the storm.

At the hangar the locals are there, unloading an airplane we saw them loading yesterday. That sounds productive, but the cargo looks very familiar. Yeah, it's the same cargo. They have a load that was supposed to go northwest; they didn't get through yesterday and they know they aren't getting through today. They put the freezer stuff in the freezer and the fridge stuff in the fridge, then put a pre-made laminated placard on the pallet with the non-perishables "CARGO IN FREEZER/FRIDGE." Good strategy.

We load our own gear in our airplane, secure it all down and get towed out to the apron. The ceiling is now 1500', but it's still not snowing. WE CAN DO IT! All systems are go and we call for taxi. Maybe it should have been a warning sign when it takes three radio calls to correctly specify our intended runway. I won't say who was on the microphone. I'm protecting the dignity of either myself or my sterling coworker. The FSS accepts all three of our choices and we finally depart off the one we meant. There's inbound King Air traffic, but he won't be an issue. We level off just below the cloud deck and head southeast. What I don't like is the lack of a nice clear view of the distance below the bases.

The visibility where we are is fine. It just kind of ends. We descend a bit, but so does the cloud. And the terrain rises here before it falls. We arc a little towards the river and lower ground, but there is no path out of here that meets our safety criteria. We call the FSS back to let them know we are inbound. The GPS says we have gone a total of 7.5 miles, but we retrace our steps and land.

On the taxi back to the hangar I text everyone to let them know we didn't escape. In the time it takes us to shut down, the snow has started. By the time we get to the hotel it's clouds to our elbows and snow to the ends of our noses. We're here for the duration. But can it really snow like this for three days? Sometimes a local forecast calling for three days of snow means three days in which it snows every day, not necessarily three solid days of snow.

Back at the hotel I ask that very question, "Do you think it will snow like this for three days?" There are two clerks at the desk. They don't hesitate, they don't look at each other for confirmation, they both simply nod, solemly, twice. It's like that scene in Fargo where everyone says "Ya."

They understand our plight and are nice to us, letting us check back in even though it's not yet ten in the morning. We say we're happy to have the old rooms back uncleaned, but it doesn't work that way. The rooms we just checked out of have already been stripped but not recleaned so they assign us new rooms. "You'll like them. They're bigger," she says. Ooh. They've been very nice to us. The new rooms are not only bigger but have full kitchens and a fireplace. I put away my luggage then spend an hour alternating between the waterslide and the hot tub in the hotel pool, then turn on the fireplace and snuggle back into bed with my laptop and the TV remote.

There are worse places to be snowed in. I know. I've been to many of them. I e-mail everyone to know we will try again if the snow lets up, but it doesn't. It snows all day.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Impending Snow

We have about four hours worth of work to do and the weather forecast offers us a a little window in which to do it. We're west of Fort Nelson, near where the highway starts to enter the mountains just south of the Yukon border. There is clearly more snow visible on the ground than there was on the last flight, and there is a fine veil of altostratus cloud over our heads. Winds are strong but there is only a little turbulence

Within an hour the mid-level cloud layer is noticeably thicker and lower, and cloud continues to waft in as we fly. A large mass warm air--well not very warm, but warmer than the air mass that's over us now--is slowly travelling east. It abuts the cold bubble of air currently covering the Yukon, and northern BC and Alberta, and as it is warmer it rides up over the present air mass. Same old story: rising air expands; expansion causes cooling; and cooling causes the formation of liquid water droplets, otherwise known as clouds. The incoming warm air mass contains a lot of moisture because it formed over the Pacific Ocean, so there is the potential for a lot of cloud.

Over the course of our four hour flight the ceiling drops three or four thousand feet. The highest mountain peaks to the west have disappeared and we can see spots in the mountains where it's already snowing. The local weather forecast calls for three solid days of serious snow.

We return to the airport for landing and call one last time to refuel. We're scheduled to fly to our next job tomorrow, after the client is certain they no longer need our services here. Of course we're not yet certain where the next job will be, except that it has to be south and east of here. We asked to be released today, so we're not trapped by the incoming snowstorm, but the answer was no, they won't give up their airplane until they know they don't need it anymore. They will let us know that at 7 a.m. tomorrow. We let the hangar people know this, so they can stack our airplane near the front, and we give them instructions on sending the hangar space bill (almost as much as my hotel bill) plus a offer a forwarding address should the wing covers ever arrive. And then in walks someone with a package for us. Just in time. We put it in the airplane and then go back to the hotel to pack up for the move.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Oil and Geekery

It's another bad weather day, but we have some busy work to do, and one of the mission specialists has the time to drive us around. We need oil and some photographs.

We were running W100 oil all summer, but switched to W80 at the last oil change. We would have switched on the one before, but neither I nor the airplane knew we were going north into winter already. While he was doing the maintenance the AME bought two cases (12 L each) of oil, and put 20 L in the engines leaving four over for us to use. The engines aren't burning much, maybe a quart each in ten hours, but we want to have some spare, so we need to buy some more. The FBO is all out of W80, but there is a store across the river where we can get some.

They have automotive products displayed on shelves in the reception area, but the woman at the counter knows what Aeroshell W80 is and cheerfully agrees to supply us with a case. "How much is in a case?" asks my coworker, I guess double-checking that we're not asking for some gargantuan amount.

"It's twelve bottles of point nine four six litres each," she says. right off the top of her head. This is may be the nerdiest description of a case of oil I've ever heard. You can buy a 1 litre bottle in the UK. I guess distribution is easier if they have the same size bottles and the same size cardboard boxes all over North America, so what we call one litre of oil is always 0.946 L, because that's one US quart. (The Canadian product doesn't look quite like that: the label is different and the carton is just uncoloured cardboard with the product specifications stamped on it). Maybe next time I add oil to the engine I'll write in the journey log that I added 0.946 L. Or maybe not.

Ultraprecise lady sends someone to the warehouse for a case of oil and then opens the case to assure us that we are buying what we want, even though it's stencilled on the outside of the box. I'm always impressed when suppliers understand and cater to the aviation level of paranoia. We pay for the oil and take it to the hangar where we carry out mission #2.

My colleague loads the oil into the airplane as I take photos of the front cowls. Boss is ordering new cowl plugs (to keep warmth in and birds out while parked) and needs photos so the supplier can see which sort of cowls we have. We grab a ruler off a table and take a couple of pictures with it in the shot, just in case they need the measurements, although he didn't ask for that.

While we are there, I ask the hanger's regular denizens if there has been any sign of the overnight delivery wing covers. Nope. It's only been a week and we're sitting on the 60th parallel, so why would I expect them to have arrived yet?

Friday, November 20, 2009

On Keeping Your Mouth Shut

A guy named Dustin Curtis visited the American Airlines website and found it to be a confusing and disharmonious experience. As a designer himself, he couldn't understand why a large company that sells much of its product online would have a website that looks like a cross between a Geocites homepage and a squatter's portal. So he wrote them a letter.

I don't know what Dustin expected to accomplish. Perhaps he thought that his suggestions might be welcomed and that there was a chance he could get some work out of it. I've written a similar letter to a jetshare company whose Internet image was the complete opposite of the high end professionalism the copy professed, and I just wanted to tell them. The way you might tell someone they have a taillight out. People need to know these things and don't always notice them themselves.

A member of the American Airlines design team replied to Dustin. The gist of the reply was, "I agree the site needs work; it's hard to change things in such a large company, but wait patiently and you will see." Dustin was thrilled to hear that someone cared about the site, reversed his opinion of the designers' competence and said so on his blog. An hour after he posted an anonymized version of the reply, the author of the e-mail was fired.

Ostensibly, he was fired for violating the non-disclosure agreement he signed with AA. Billy Sanez, Director of Corporate Communications at American says "We have employees all over the world using social media to communicate. The issue is not posting for us, it is revealing company secrets." What did he reveal? It's certainly no secret that AA is a large company with many departments. Were the spilled beans this list of planned improvements?

Some of our slated efforts include improved navigation; 16 column grid-based layouts; a lighter, more airy visual design; improved user interactions; and an increased transparency to fares and sales policies across the board.

How dare you reveal to our competitors that we plan to improve the user interface! I can't see that that's the real reason, though. The real sin was breaking the facade of unity in the company. That's no secret. It's so unsecret that rather than redesigning the site, AA has created three new booking portals for subdemographics. They're just as cluttered, but they think they can increase their appeal to gays, blacks and women by providing us all with separate drinking fountains. I guess if you're a black lesbian you have your pick. I can be snarky because I don't work for AA.

It doesn't matter how many coworkers you have: you don't tell the customer the landing sucked because your copilot made a lousy landing; you can't tell the charter passenger you're an hour late because management told the dispatcher to schedule two pickups at the same time; and you don't tell them the website sucks because 200 departments are fighting it out for space on the front page. It's tempting to do so, because the quickest way to get the customer off your personal back is to side with them and designate a new, common enemy to blame it all on. But you have to keep ranks.

I worked for a chief pilot once who took this one further. We kept ranks not only within the company but with the regulator, too. He forbade us to use phrases such as "Transport Canada requires you to remain seated with your seatbelt fastened." We weren't to transfer any safety demands to another organization but to make them a personal requirement by us, the flight crew, for your safety. I don't think it was a coincidence that this chief pilot had the best relationship with Transport I've ever seen. He didn't just say that we were all in it together for safety, he meant it.

But we were still free to blame everything on the weather.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Easy-Bake Pilots

There's a break in the weather and we're back to work. The outside airplanes have a thick layer of frost and snow on them, so we're glad to have had the airplane indoors. The ramp is so slippery from ice that we all come close to falling as we walk out to the airplane, even as we're all warning each other about it. I pull sideways on the towbar to straighten out the nosewheel so we can reconnect the steering scissors, but instead of the towbar turning towards me, I slide across the ramp towards it. There's not enough friction to equal the force the towbar is exerting on me.

Once again the runway surface condition report is offered as an afterthought, not part of the airport advisory on first contact with the FSS. I looked this up but I can't find anything on why I would know I had to ask for it. Today the runway is 90% ice patches, 10% bare and dry with a 65' wide centre strip sanded. No crosswind. We don't expect any trouble on take-off, and there is none.

Fresh snow on the mountains highlights their jagged shapes, like cat teeth, kind of pyramidal, but with sharp chisel marks all around. They are so like sharp bones and teeth lying there in the landscape that I imagine them to be the remains of huge mythical beasts. Or maybe I'm hallucinating from the heat. Yup, the heaters are still cranked for those finicky electronics in the back.

We fly over some high but very flat-topped plateaus (why is it tableaux but not plateaux?) I try to picture the geographic processes that formed these. I assume they were once jagged-peaked mountains too, and something ground them off. Hard to believe the same glaciers whose disappearance is being concernedly documented all over the world did this kind of thing. The plateaus are tree-covered with only a light dusting of snow. Now that I look more closely, what I thought were deciduous trees in fall colours are actually beetle-killed conifers. The deciduous trees are all bare now.

A crew calls flight services and asks them to please call Fort Simpson for them. "We're supposed to give them an hour prior notice for fuel" they explain. Someone else hears the call and asks the Fort Simpson-bound crew, "got a second for a plus five?" It was "go up a nickel" when I learned it, but funny I haven't heard that in a while. I follow them up to 126.75 MHz on the VHF radio but there's nothing juicy to report so I go back to monitoring 126.7.

It's a bright sunny day, and the sun streaming through the cockpit windows increases the temperature inside, but as the windows are blacked out in the back, it doesn't warm the electronics operating in the cargo compartment, so now we're hotter than ever, even though it's -15 degrees outside.

You probably think this is hyperbole, but it turns out it's literally baking in here. Yes, I mean literally. After landing I gather up my belongings including an uneaten snack, an apple in a plastic bag. The apple is soft to the touch and almost too hot to hold comfortably. I open the bag and it smells like fresh baked apple pie. All I need is cinnamon.

I don't know why this is a problem this winter but it never was before. The boss is working on getting a rear heater installed, so we can stop living in an easy-bake oven.

At least no one on board has swine flu, though. Here's a story showing that Air Canada would rather put a person with contagious swine flu on your flight and in your workplace than waive a flight change fee. They wanted $700 for the certified sick passenger to change her flight to a few days later, and she couldn't afford that. Could you?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Crazy Airports - Crazy Theories

Three links today, and my comments on them, with no segues connecting them.

Canada has lots of land, so lots of room for airports. Not all places that need airports are so fortunate. The airport in Gibraltar appears to be competing with surface traffic for a very small amount of flat real estate. The choices they made when painting the lines interest me. I suppose there were four possibilities: leave the intersection unpainted; paint it as a roadway; paint it as a runway; or paint it as both, with overlapping markings, like a highschool gym that is used for multiple sports. I would have chosen runway, both, neither, road, but the Gibraltar department of public works took my last choice. I'm still not entirely sure it's not photoshopped. Send me a picture of a runway that goes through a children's playground.

Commercial passenger air transport turns a hundred, dating back to the first paying passengers on zeppelins. If it hadn't been for the Hindenburg fire, I wonder how long the service would have persisted.

Humans are astoundingly good at pattern finding. We find patterns without realizing that we are finding them. We find patterns that aren't even there. And curiously, the less sense the world around us makes, the harder we look for patterns, and the more we find them, whether they are there, or even if they aren't. Every time I see a flash in my peripheral vision and identify an airplane, or a just a part of a runway and identify an airport, I'm doing this. Same with all the times I react to a half dozen birds or a wisp of cloud as if they were an airplane. False positives on detecting something that can kill you are pretty cheap.

That's it, just three links with nothing to do with one another. Unless you can see a pattern.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When It Absolutely, Positively, Has to Be There in Four Months

To help solve the deicing problem, once we no longer have access to a hangar, I asked the boss to ship us some wing covers care of the hotel. (I've also asked him to check with the Dangerous Goods guy about special permission to carry deicing fluid). He e-mails me the tracking number for the shipment, and in it he notes that he's sent them care of the FBO instead of the hotel, because it will probably be easier to get the FBO to forward them when they are late. I'm just reading an e-mail with these details when the phone rings.

It's the front desk, and they say they have a package for me. I go down to collect it. It's not wing covers. It's a smaller package. I take it back up to the room to open it.

You might remember that back in June I was in this very town, in this very hotel, preparing to go to Alaska. And one of the preparations was ordering charts for the trip. There's no such thing as overnight delivery in the north, but I figured that ten days should be enough time to receive the package. It wasn't, and I never received the charts, but another pilot had ordered them because they thought they were going to be going in a different plane, so the expedition had charts and the ones I ordered just went into limbo. I left the hotel a forwarding address, should they arrive, but I didn't ever expect to see them.

And now they are here. I'm sure they weren't six months in transit. Maybe they got stuck at the border for a couple of weeks, and then took another week or so to make it here. My theory is that the package has been sitting on a table in the hotel office and every few weeks someone looks at it and checks to see if there's a guest by that name in the hotel. When they don't find a match they shrug and leave it for someone else to deal with. But today they found a match. The turnover in hotel staff is so rapid that no one who checks the package has ever checked it before, so no one realizes the thing has been here since July. The person who called me likely assumed that it had arrived today or yesterday. And now I have it. Anyone need a set of expired Alaska charts?

The tracking number for the wing covers tells me that they went overnight to Edmonton, and are still there. I'll give them a couple of weeks. In the north "overnight" means "in about two weeks."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Honey Mustard Flavour

"Hey," I wrote in the notebook where I write such things, "Do you think I should do a blog entry about sitting in a hotel room for two days eating potato chips?"

It's autumn in the north. You really can't expect much better than low cloud, fog, snow and freezing rain. I wanted to go out for a run, but the visibility was so poor, I was afraid of getting run over. Eventually the fog lifted to about 300 feet so people could see me on the ground, so I ventured out. I didn't want to run down highway 97, the Canada-Alaska Highway, as it has no sidewalk and still a fair amount of traffic, most of it heavy trucks, so I went down a parallel street. The thing is, in a small town on the Alaska Highway there aren't many long streets that aren't the highway. My chosen street ended at works yard, but there was a dirt road going beyond that, so I followed it. For the most part the ground was frozen enough to not be squishy, but then I got to a steep downhill and dug my feet in more. They came up like hooves, encrusted in massive globs of mud that didn't fall off even when I came out at the highway and ran along the pavement for a while. When I got back to the hotel most of the mud was still there. It stuck together better than most things I've deliberately glued together. When I attempted to wash the shoes in the bathtub I discovered some quite large rocks as part of the glop.

This really is the muddiest town I've ever been in. Even if you assiduously avoid walking in the snowmobile tracks, and try to stick to the sidewalks, you can't avoid the mud. There's mud on the sidewalks and one the streets, and sidewalks keep ending so you're dumped off into the mud. It's caked on everyone's vehicles and clothes.

I go shopping, replace the frozen vegetables and stock up on Hallowe'en candy (yay Rockets!) and potato chips. And I eat them. For two days.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Passing Your Exam Again

This is probably old news to Americans, but I just came across it now. It seems that a number of FAA testing centres were not administering the full test to prospective aircraft mechanics, just passing them anyway. It's not clear to me whether the candidates paid extra to take exams they were guaranteed to pass, or whether the testing centre simply charged the normal fee and gained extra revenue by taking less time per student for the testing and attracting extra business as word of the expedited process at that testing centre spread. It's probably coincidental that a lot of this occurred in Texas, and that it was work done in Texas that was the final straw in our Person Responsible for Maintenance deciding to always fly a company mechanic out to work on our airplanes.

I have a few thoughts on this. I'm probably not as horrified as the media tells me I should be, because I don't think exams are the end-all and be-all of knowing how to fix an airplane. A newly "qualified" person is probably going to be supervised anyway, and regardless of how they was tested or how they did on the test, new personnel are going to learn lots more as they actually do the job. If someone challenged your possession of your credentials and asked you to redo your qualification tests right now, would you pass? I have to repass my proficiency test on this airplane every year, which includes an oral knowledge portion, but I wonder how well I would do on the ATPL written papers. I'll bet there are hundreds of competent Canadian pilots who couldn't pass the PSTAR right now. That's the written test on which you must score 90% before making your first solo flight, usually at around ten to twenty hours of flight time.

Taking an exam in Spanish in a predominantly Spanish-speaking area didn't sound so bad right off. The pilot might speak Spanish too, and pretty much anyone can point at a part and say "no va" or draw a diagram of their problem. I have done that with English-speaking mechanics, when my problem went beyond my vocabulary. Then I learned words like escutcheon. Sometimes the engineer has to look up the name of the part in a book. The problem comes when an esoteric part arrives with important English-language instructions that the mechanic can't properly interpret. The person also needs to be able to understand and implement ADs, not always the most clearly worded documents. The altavista babelfish isn't going to cut it there.

A lot of airplane maintenance and repair tasks are not that hard. I just changed the brake pads and hydraulic filter under supervision of an AME. There are plenty of people more mechanically inclined than I am who could diagnose and repair problems without a lot of formal training. So I don't think that the improperly tested people are going to be producing repair jobs like these, but, assuming they had the same training courses as the typical candidate, then a number of them left their training with weak areas that should have been identified and retested. What it comes down to is that when I do maintenance work an airplane, a properly certified AME watches and takes responsibility for it. If someone cheated on a test, where's the responsibility?

I would definitely like to have incompetent personnel removed from the roster of qualified aircraft repair people. But I don't believe all of the incompetents are graduates of improper testing centres, or vice versa.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

More Clouds

The fog lingers a little later every day and comes sooner every evening, as does the darkness of night. This far north it is very evident that we are in the season where we turn our back on the sun. We're working too close to the hills to do night missions, so there's only time to fly one mission a day.

I call for the airport advisory and get back calm winds, no traffic. I choose the nearest runway and then the specialist asks me if I'd like the surface condition report. I'm a little irked that that wasn't considered part of the advisory. I mean, it's information about the airport that I should have to make decisions about my movements. I'd prefer it all at once, not offered as an afterthought. In this case I'm advised that the runway I have chosen is 90% bare and dry, 10% ice patches. Sounds about right. I don't change my mind and we continue to taxi for that one. There are salt crystals of some sort on the movement areas. It won't be ordinary NaCl, as that's too corrosive for use with airplanes. It must be something more exotic and expensive.

I take off and we head west. The morning fog is gone, but there is still a layer of cloud to the north. The wind is less toda, so we don't have as high an airspeed, reducing the cooling at the back, so we don't have to bake quite as hard. We're flying in the clear with the mountains to the west and the prairies to the east and the Alaska Highway and some meandering rivers snaking back and forth underneath us. On each side of us, clouds are seeping in below. Before we'd like to, it's time to call it quits.

The clouds are fairly low over the airport as I join downwind, and the terrain rises just past the riverbank. I turn around a little sooner than I might otherwise have and hook it back into line with the runway without overbanking. The weather is changing, though. We don't expect to fly tomorrow.

Much further south, in Arizona, BLKAV8TOR2003 turned up these pictures of the results of a birdstrike. The pilot and airplane came out of it a lot better than the bird, but damn, it wouldn't have taken much to make that a tragic tie.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Freezing or Sweltering

The morning's forecast calls for freezing fog over much of he area, and the town is already enveloped in fog. I go through it to get some groceries and a layer of ice doesn't form on me, but I don't know if that's because it's not freezing fog or because I'm not an airplane.

After a few hours the fog dissipates and we go flying. A guy tows the airplane out of the hangar for us with a little tractor. It's not one of the old agricultural tractors like on the prairies, but a smaller, newer, utility tractor. It does the job.

As I watch him towing out the airplane I see an enormous raven glide over the hangar. It pauses to perch on a fence, then swoops down out of sight behind the hangar. A moment later another worker yells at the guy on the tractor, "Hey, there's a raven after your lunch!" He runs off to shoo the bird and rescue his lunch. What I couldn't see was that the raven was in the back of his truck. I'm not sure whether it was opening his lunch box--they're certainly crafty enough to do that--or just tearing open shopping bags. I'm certain that birds like that understand the concept of swiping stuff as opposed to finding your own, because they steal from one another all the time and go chasing after the thief, gronking loudly. But do they know that the things in cars and trucks are ours? I bet they do. I think they know perfectly well that lunchboxes are not a naturally occurring phenomenon, and that they will annoy us by taking food from them, just as they annoy wolves by "sharing" their kills too. But that's what they do. My airplane takes 100LL. Ravens take your lunch. Local legend asserts that Raven stole the sun, so a few sandwiches constitute very petty larceny.

The engines are happy with their fresh oil and overnight hangar stay, so we're on our way after conditioning the new brake pads. We crank up the heat in the airplane for the computers in the back, but because some of the electronics are in the rear of the airplane, designed as a cargo compartment, we are sweltering in order to have enough heat back there to keep the computers going. I lay my arm against the cold exterior window and pour some of my drinking water into my bra in an attempt to cool off. It varies between -10 and -15 outside, and apparently it's only 15 degrees at the back, but it's like a sauna in the cockpit.

There is some fog still on the ground west of town. It gradually vanishes during the flight, but it's forecast to come in worse tonight, so we finish our day before dark and put the airplane back in the hangar.

Back at the hotel I'm ready for a delicious fresh salad, but a minor tragedy awaits me. My fridge is too cold. I have all the ingredients for a very very crisp salad. Everything is frozen. The lettuce is delicate crunchy like autumn leaves. I rinse it under the tap and the entire package reduces to a double handful of mush, like cooked spinach. The cucumber is so solid that at first I think it's okay, but it thaws to mush. I don't even think a raven would eat it.

Here's a weird accident report. Anyone familiar with CRJ systems have an idea how this could happen the way the pilot said it did?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Discovered on the Airport PA

Peter Mansbridge, a respected Canadian broadcaster, has just been awarded the Order of Canada. I wouldn't have remarked on this, or any other OC appointments were it not for how Peter got his start in broadcasting. Apparently at the age of 19 he was slinging bags for Transair, a small airline in northern Manitoba, and a CBC employee who heard his voice on the airport PA offered him a job at the radio station.

But why was he in Churchill working for a local airline? Most young people working in any capacity at a northern airline base are pilots or wannabe pilots. Is Peter Mansbridge a pilot? He probably wanted to be. The Canadian Encyclopedia says he flunked out of Navy pilot training. He wasn't even a customer service agent, he was a cargo handler, filling in on the PA for someone who was off sick. This anecdote suggests that he can recognize an engine failure without freaking out, but the same is probably true of many seasoned travellers.

I don't even know if that's true. It's more likely to be so than this version of the same story, which I found in an intership newsletter.

Mansbridge became instead an air force pilot until, after hearing his voice over the radio, someone hired him to open the CBC`s first post in Churchill, MB.
Air Force/Navy ... pilot/flunked out ... radio/PA ... it's all the same, right?

Don't you wish you were looking for a job in 1975? I have heard so many stories of the seventies when people with minimal qualifications got jobs because they gave someone else a ride to work, or were delivering something, or doing something else almost entirely unrelated within sight of someone who worked there. The availability of good jobs in the seventies is why that generation thinks my generation are all slackers, and don't understand why we roll our eyes when they tell us how hard they worked to be where they are.

Not that I doubt Peter Mansbridge is good at his job. And I think he did work hard to be noticed. To be where he is, he not only has to do a good job of telling the news, but an exceptional job at politics and interpersonal relations. I would probably be at an airline if I had half his people skills. And he probably wouldn't be an officer of the Order of Canada if he were flying for Air Canada today.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lest We Forget

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Excerpt from In Flanders Fields
by Lt.-Col. John McCrae
(1872 - 1918)

When I was a kid, we used to watch elderly veterans in the Remembrance Day parade and think that one day the there would be no war veterans left to march, and then eventually no one left at all who remembered the Canadians who fought and died in wars. We didn't know, as kids, that there would always be more wars, ensuring a steady supply of veterans.

The Veterans Affairs timeline doesn't include it, but today you don't need a memory longer than a fortnight to remember fallen Canadian soldiers. We will hear nothing about the war for a few weeks, and then learn about the deaths of more of our soldiers. We see their pictures. As I page through the photos of the fallen, I wonder what they tell the recruits as they get photographed in front of the flag there. I don't think the army has a yearbook. An ID photo would be just the face. Do they know as they pose that this is the photo that will be released to the press if they are killed in action? Is there some other less macabre internal purpose to these nicely posed photos?

I can barely imagine flying that biplane, but I'd love to have a go, so long as I didn't have to go to war in one. I don't even like playing violent video games.
I like that they are carrying bicycles ashore for this landing. I wonder if there's anything that would be different about the modern airplane had the first airplane entrepreneurs not been bicycle mechanics.
The Veterans Affairs Canada does a good job explaining how and why Canadians observe Remembrance Day on November eleventh. It's a day to remember all soldiers who fought in all wars. The website also has a page full of photos to download, specifically for blogs and personal websites, but it's a little awkward to use because there are no thumbnails and not very descriptive names of the photo sets, just zipfiles. The photos on this page are from there, so I don't know who the people are, or where they were serving. I can tell by the filenames that the men with the horse and airplane are from the first world war, the beach landing is from the second world war and the colour photos are modern publicity stills.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cold Temperature Correction

While nominally the aircraft altimeter measures altitude, what it really measures is air pressure, so the needle shows the pressure difference between the altimeter setting source and the aircraft. An altimeter setting source is just a station (usually an aerodrome) that gives out altimeter settings. When you call a station for their "altimeter setting" they tell you a number that instructs you how to set the altimeter to display station elevation at that station. If the air pressure where you are is the same as at the station, your altimeter will read station elevation. For every one inch of mercury ("inches of mercury" is a measure of atmospheric pressure) difference between the pressure at the altimeter setting source and at the airplane, the altimeter displays an altitude gain of one thousand feet.

If the air is at standard temperature, then a column of air a thousand feet deep exerts just enough pressure to equal one inch of mercury. But if the air is colder than standard, it's denser, so a column of a thousand feet of air actually weighs more. Or, equivalently, the column of air sufficient to produce a one inch of mercury change in pressure is less than a thousand feet thick. So an airplane with an altimeter that claims it has climbed a thousand feet over the aerodrome is actually less than a thousand feet over the aerodrome.

I've written about the above before, but yesterday I was in the position of simultaneously knowing the laser-measured, linear height above sea level of the cloud base (5536') and the altitude displayed on a correctly set altimeter at that altitude (5700'). Was the altimeter wrong? No, the altimeter was correctly displaying what the altimeter is legally required to display. This cold weather discrepancy is one that pilots are trained to be aware of, and to compensate for.

There are formulae for those who like that sort of thing, and also a table for those who would rather not have to work everything out from first principles. Neither way is convenient to do in situ, so you work out the corrections ahead of time and scrawl them on a photocopy of the the approach plate. I'm guessing that if you have modern avionics you can tell it the location and temperature of the altimeter setting source and it will work out and display all your new minima for you, right on the EFIS.

Imagine that for safety I was supposed to be at 5536' asl, perhaps because there was a hill on approach. In cold weather, I would want to know how high to fly by my altimeter in order to know that I was really that high. The elevation of the altimeter setting source is 2255' and it was -10 on the ground. So I go to the table in Figure 9.1. (You're welcome to use the formula instead. Let me know how that works out for you.) Minus ten is the second row. You can see that's really not all that cold by chart standards. It is, after all, only October. The height above the elevation of the altimeter setting source is 5536-2255=3281'. I think of that as 3000 + 200 + 81. The correction at -10 are:

3000': 290'
200': 20'
81': .4 x 20 = 8'
total: 318'

The example uses the 2000' correction to work out the per-foot correction, but if you look carefully at the -10 row, you'll see it's a 10% correction all the way to 2000, and that's close enough for me.

Three hundred eighteen feet is about double the correction I actually observed, and admittedly not what I was expecting when I started to blog this. Reflecting back I recall that there was a temperature inversion that day, so when we cruising at 8500' it was only zero outside. The table is very conservative, rounding up at every opportunity and assumes a decrease in temperature with altitude. So while it's not a very good example, it is real life. I was thinking of reworking the numbers to make it work out to match the table, but I'm too honest.

Cloud bases on a METAR are given as height above the aerodrome. That value may be measured with a laser ceilometer, reported with reference to the height of a nearby mountain, calculated based on the temperature-dewpoint spread, or transcribed from a PIREP. The METAR never indicates which of these methods has been used, but to properly estimate ones chances of seeing the field at minimums, the ceiling should be compared to the uncorrected minima for the first two case and to the cold-corrected minima for the second. That is, a pilot breaking through a ceiling measured at 5500' asl with a ceilometer could be indicating over 5800' at the relatively mild temperature of -10. With very cold temperatures and high minima, there would be a considerable discrepancy between accurately reported and pilot-observed ceilings. I wonder if Nav Canada has a policy about this, if the FSS applies a correction to PIREPs, or if the METAR/ATIS ceilings fluctuate between pilot reports and observations relative to mountain heights.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Solution to Faltering Airlines

One of the participants in an online discussion group gave me permission to steal his novel economic proposal for the entertainment of you blog readers.

Force every oil company to buy at least one airline, i.e. make the operation of an oil company conditional on owning an airline with the size and scope of one of the US majors. Then Congress does not have to worry about bailing out airlines, and they don't have to worry about public outrage about exorbitant profits at oil companies either. It is a win-win all around!

Also, you could redeem petro points for air miles.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Cellphone Bill

By way of an answer to various questions on my previous cellphone rant, I present my cellphone bill.

The lowest base rate is $25 dollars. That includes 100 local minutes. It doesn't include the system access fee, 911 fee (that's 911 as in the emergency telephone number, nothing to do with the terrorist attack), or taxes. So if I made no long distance calls and only 100 minutes of calls both to and from my local calling area, the total bill would be $37. Earlier I quoted $50 before calls, because I choose to pay the $35 base rate. It has a couple of features that save me at least $20 later in the arithmetic. Specifically, it includes unlimited nationwide calling and texts to my five "favourite" numbers, which I choose once a month. Seeing as the list generally starts with boss, maintenance, and customer I'm not sure that "favourite" is the best description, but that's what they call it. That probably saves me $15-20 a month, plus the $35 plan includes $10 more "local" minutes than the cheapest, $25 plan.

You might think that I wouldn't need 200 local minutes, because, as a reader put it, "Aviatrix is never in her local calling area," but with my phone company you have to use "local" minutes in order to call long distance. Or as footnote number four on the contract puts it: "Long distance refers to calls originated in Canada and terminated in either Canada or the U.S., except for Hawaii and Alaska. Airtime is not included." That is, any call uses airtime, and long distance calls use airtime plus long distance time. How much? Thirty-five cents a minute each, so long distance is 70 cents a minute, plus tax.

It's not quite that bad, because I can buy either sort of minutes in advance, a hundred at a time, for ten cents each. They don't carry over to the next month and I can't swap local for long distance or vice versa if I make more or fewer local calls than I expect. So I add 200 minutes of long distance for $20, and use the 200 "airtime" minutes that came with the plan so I can actually use the long distance minutes. I add in a $5 package that gives me 250 nationwide text messages (otherwise they'd be 15 cents each).

That gives me:
  $35    base rate
  $20    200 long distance minutes
  $5     250 text messages
  .75    Enhanced 911 Access Charge
  $6.95 System Access Fee
  $7.50 Tax

For a Canadian, that's not an exorbitant phone bill. I only use the phone for work: my friends get e-mail or postcards. I don't use data other than text messages, and we all tend to keep calls short. Reader SwL_Wildcat pays $450-$500 per month, and I must mention his point that the population density is lower and the size of the country higher than anywhere else in the cellphone-equipped world, so perhaps we aren't being ripped off quite as badly as we feel we are.

Were I to use the telephone in the United States it would cost me 95 cents a minute for incoming calls and $1.45 a minute for outgoing calls. Instead I bought an entire phone and 400 minutes of airtime for the price of twenty minutes of talk on the Canadian one.

I find it more tiring to explain my phone bill than to explain how a VOR works. And I'm not going to explain what a system access fee is, but I leave the comments open to any Canadians who wish to explain it.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Time to Spare? Go by Air! (And accept unskilled help)

After our magazine reading and tower-visiting we check the engine nacelle. I put my hand inside the front of the cowling. "Hey, it's warm!" This is going to work. We discuss how we'll do it. Untent the right engine now and see if it starts. If it does, leave it running and then untent the left and throw the tent in the cabin. If it doesn't, tent it up again and go and see if hangar guy is back from lunch. We coordinate our movements as to who will do what, but then totally disregard the plan.

The right engine doesn't start right off, but it is sounding much better than it did, and we think we can get it started, but don't want to run the battery down. So we decide to start the left one first again. We put all the cords and tents away in the lockers, start the left to get an alternator running and then the right starts after a couple more tries. Hurrah! We run up the airplane and depart, first to the north to get out from under the local layer, and then to the east, over the mountains. The only traffic we see is once again a far-above jet visible only because of its contrails. And he got me again with his cry of "traffic!" befoe I saw that it was just a distant jet.

The scattered layer thins out just past the mountains and we descend above the flat terrain around Fort Nelson. We have a hangar waiting for us, and arrive in time for the people working there to not have gone home. It's now time for the next scheduled inspection, which is why our AME has been hanging around with us pilot types. He goes straight to work. "Can we bring you anything?" I ask.

"Hawaiian pizza with mushrooms."

I get a large and we bring it back, then ask what we can do. Generally at this point we're delegated to cleaning the junk out of the nose locker so the people who do the real work can get to the battery, or just asked to stay out of the way. It's often less work to do something yourself than to get unskilled labour on it. But this guy puts us right to work. My first job is to remove a couple of manifold heat muffs for inspection. The inside looks like a medieval weapon, with all spikes on it, presumably to help with heat dissipation. He inspects them and I put the muffs back on.

Then he asks, "Have you ever used lockwire pliers?" I haven't, just seen them in use, and seen the results many times. Airplanes have a lot of vibration and vibration has a tendency to cause threaded fasteners to work loose over time. It's fairly important that parts not fall off an airplane in flight, so we use lockwire to back up the fastener. It's fairly thin wire wrapped between a removable part and some other part of the airplane, and wrapped in the direction such that the wire is pulling it in the tightening direction. In order to loosen, the part would have to pull the wire. The wire is always two strands, twisted together incredibly neatly. My admiration for the neatness of this process went down a little when I discovered that there is a special sort of twirly pliers that twists the wire together, but it's still an art. He showed me how to do it on the first part that needed lockwiring, and then send me to replace the hydraulic filter.

That required first cutting the old lockwire holding the filter in place. Sounds easy, but it was a little tricky because it was a tight space and the wire is twisted tightly, so you have to cut it very close to the end, or untwist it in order to get it off. I did a bit of both. Removing the old filter was also tricky, because I didn't know exactly which part was coming off, so I was turning it the wrong way at first. Now it's off, and he has provided me in advance with a rag to catch the fluid that drips out as I remove the case from around the filter.

The filter is a corrugated tube inside the case, and it stayed on the airplane as I removed the case, something he remarks on as being unusual, but desirable, as it's a little tricky to get out of the case otherwise. I'm now left with a tube about the diameter and half the length of my mini-maglite flashlight. It's filled with red hydraulic fluid. "Can I dump this in here?" I ask, indicating the big bucket under the nacelle, into which the last of ten quarts of dirty engine oil are dripping. He says yes, and I upend the little cylinder. The hydraulic fluid pours out but there's a little extra splash and a shift of weight that suggest, "Uh, there was something in there that I shouldn't have dumped in the bucket, wasn't there?"

There was. A little spring. He offers me a magnet on a stick, but the spring doesn't seem to be magnetic, so he finds me some gloves so I can root around in the bucket and find the missing part. Oh man. I'm the absolute definition of why it is less work to do something yourself than to have unskilled help. I find the spring, clean it, the gloves and the magnet on a stick, then reassemble it all with a new hydraulic filter. Now I have to lockwire it in place. I can't get the lockwire pliers to do the little twisty thing, though. Turns out I'm squeezing the release as I squeeze the pliers. That sorted out, I make another stab at it. First try, is completely awful. I cut the wire off and try again. The second try is salvageable. I have to untwist some of the wire and then retwist it better around the part. When I "finished" I still wasn't sure it was tight enough, but he was busy at that moment showing my coworker how to remove brake pads.

I learn how to remove and replace brake pads, too, and then I look after the right brake while the other pilot does the left. The AME checks up on how we're doing, tightens up my lockwiring job and calls us "my young apprentices." He seems pleased with us and pretends we're better than some of the apprentices he has to work with.

"Your apprentices must love you!" I muse.

"Why?" he asks, genuinely confused as to how taking the time to give clear instructions, trusting people to try things and patiently tolerating screwups is anything worthy of appreciation. I guess he's just a natural instructor.

Once everything is done, we clean up and put away the tools, and we get to leave the airplane in the hangar overnight. Ahh, luxury. The cost per night to keep the airplane in the hangar is almost as much as my hotel room, but it's worth it.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Spirit of the North

The job is done, and the client drops the three of us -- two pilots and the AME -- off at the airport before they drive south. Our mission is to get back to Fort Nelson. It's a five hour drive on a treacherous mountain highway for them and should be an hour and a half up and over the pretty mountains for us. There is a lot of steam fog, still mostly over the lake, but seeing as the runway ends at the lake, it's also right off one end of the runway. It's also overcast at 3000' but we can see that it scatters out to the north and satellite images have shown it scattered over the mountains, so we're not worried about that.

It's very cold, -17 degrees, and there's a lot of frost on the airplane. We brush off as much as we can loosen with soft brushes and then use our spray-and-wipe-before-it-refreezes technique on the layer sticking to the wing, but it's still freezing a little, and so are we. We clear about half of one wing and then retreat inside. The weather is supposed to improve, with a high of -3 and this broken layer scattering out. We have all day to get to Fort Nelson, so we see no reason to freeze our butts and fingers. We go inside.

There is a warm pilot's lounge full of broken down but comfortable couches and old National Geographic magazines. It's just adjacent to the CARS office and we can hear the airport workers coming in and out, commenting on the temperature. "It's not supposed to be this cold yet!" they complain. I read an article about a mountain climber who has soled Everest with no oxygen, and that's only a tiny part of his lifetime of accomplishment. Some people are inspirational and some people go so far beyond that that it's discouraging. People mentoring at risk children should remember that. I read out some of Messner's feats to my coworkers and they toss back, "I'll bet he can't fly an airplane." I'll bet he could deice one better than us at minus seventeen though.

It's not going to get appreciably warmer until the broken layer dissipates, and after a couple of hours it becomes evident that that isn't happening. We'll give it a shot. We finish deicing the airplane. Our method actually did work pretty well. It just needs two iterations to get all the frost off without diluting the fluid to the point that it freezes. When the critical surfaces are bare and dry we un-tent the engines, unplug the cords, pack everything away and pile in. I give a quick and slightly adapted passenger briefing to the AME e.g. "you know how to open the emergency exit, 'cause you do that during the inspection," and then climb in the cockpit. As I put my foot into the footwell the toe catches the centre console and tears off a big chunk of plastic facing. Argh. I pick up the broken piece and hand it back to the AME. "Could you add this to the list of things to fix?" More evidence for him that pilots just gratuitously break things.

While I'm busy wrecking the place, the other pilot starts up the engines. Er, the engine. The right one is a little balky, so he switches over and starts the left one first, making more power available to start the right one. It just doesn't go. We check and double check all the usual things: tank selection, firewall shutoff, magnetos selected on. The starter is working admirably for a motor asked to work in these temperatures and the propeller is going around, but it won't catch. Most likely we kicked the engine heater plug loose during our first deicing attempt, or it was never properly set the night before.

After several unsuccessful attempts, my coworker offers me the chance to make a fool of myself. No joy. I try various permutations ask the AME for any suggestions. So we have three of us in this airplane, professionals in the art of making an airplane go, and none of us can make the sucker run. Anyone who has been there can hear us suggesting tactics to one another. We try flooding it and using the flooded start procedure. We try it with the throttle and mixture full open. We try it with the electric boost pump running. A few times it seems to start, and we cheer, but then it dies again. It's like it's not getting enough fuel. I check the firewall shutoff again.

The AME figures it's just too cold for the fuel to vapourize properly, so even though we flood it to the point that there is liquid fuel dripping out on the ground, there isn't enough fuel vapour in the cylinders to make a combustible mixture. We know these things. We know this is a mechanical device, subject to all physical laws, but as humans we've been working with each other and with draught animals much longer than with combustion engines. It's hard not to imbue it with a personality. We coax it gently, apologizing for how cold it was, promise it an oil change and anything else it wants at the end of the trip. We beg it; we swear at it; we wonder if internal combustion engines have a patron saint we can pray to. I consider sacrificing chickens, but what we really need is a flock of warm, non-pooping, non feather-shedding chickens to warm it up with their body heat.

All the while that we are doing this, hangar guy is driving back and forth to and from the lake, hauling floatplanes. So you know, he wasn't lying about needing the hangar space for floatplanes, but if he's hauling these ones into the hangar now that means that last night there was five floatplanes worth of empty space in his hangar. We don't take up as much space as five floatplanes, and we would have paid good money for that space. The airplane is in a hangar elsewhere as I type this, and lets just say we're paying as much per night for its accommodation than we are for mine.

After over half an hour of attempting to start the engine we come up with a new strategy. We're going to shut down and tent up the engines again, this time with an electric space heater inside the nacelle of the right engine. We'll plug everything in and go back and read some more National Geographics while it warms up.

While the other two implement the heater plan, I also go to see if hangar guy has a Herman-Nelson. That's surely a staple in a WWII hangar in the Yukon. He's at his hangar and I greet him and ask. He has to be aware of our predicament, as there's no mistaking an airplane with one engine running and the other prop halfheartedly turning over for several seconds at a time. "Ah yeah," he says. "I think you flooded it."

Oh we most certainly flooded it. I admit it. Sometimes that works. He does have a Herman-Nelson, but it's lunch time now, he explains. And so he drives off to town.

I'm surprised. He's not obligated to help us, I know. But he does operate a business related to helping people with airplanes. This would have been an easy hundred bucks for him. Maybe two. We wanted the damn thing started. There's some cultural thing I'm missing here. Obviously money is not a great motivator for him. If he's happy with the income he has at the work level he has from the customers he has, then he's happy, and I can't really complain about that. And he seems like a nice friendly guy, really. Just not one inclined to accept our business. It must be a northern thing.

I go back to the National Geographic magazines. This time I read an article on the evolution of the eye. It was something that confounded Darwin, but he didn't know of as many creatures as modern biologists do. I also look at cute furry animals from somewhere, and expensively-attired debutantes in Laredo, Texas.

The picture shows the airport. The closer building is the WWII hangar, with a single otter and other smaller aircraft parked outside. The further building is the terminal, with glimpses of the lake beyond. You'll notice, as we did, that the terminal includes a tower. There's no one in the tower: we know the CARS guy has a desk and office on the main floor near the pilot lounge, and there is no tower controller. The tower is left over from the old days when this was a bustling hub on the building of the Alaska-Canada highway.

We ask the airport manager if there is a way to get into it. We have been around inside the terminal several times and there doesn't seem to be a locked door. "Sure," he says. "Mind your heads on the bracing." He opens a trap door in the ceiling and unfolds a metal staircase out of it. "Look out for bats," he warns cheerily and goes back to his office.

We go up the stairs, and up the wooden stairs beyond that until we come to the first landing. This is a three story log building built in the 1940s, so I guess we shouldn't be surprised that it seems to be held together by a lot of bracewires and struts. It's also cold. The floor below is insulated so they aren't losing any heat through the tower. I test my footing with each step as I walk across the floor. Judging by the colour and wear of the carpet, this place was refurbished in the 1970s and still in use for a number of years after that. There's only a few items of broken furniture remaining, but we imagine one of the landings was an office, and another a lounge and coffee room.

The tower cab at the top is mostly empty too. There's an old TV and some giant light bulbs in boxes, but no antique radio equipment. Maybe it is still in use downstairs. There's another ladder up to the roof, presumably for weather observations, and a balcony. We finish our tour and go back down, closing the stairs up behind us. It wasn't something I'd describe as a fascinating slice of history, but it was a fun mini-adventure. I think one of the most fun things is that we were allowed to do it at all. Can you think of anywhere in the US or Canada that isn't north of sixty where you would be allowed to just wander into an abandoned area of a public building? This is completely aside from the fact that it was at an airport, normally the most paranoid public place out there.

That's the spirit of the north. You can get yourself into trouble and you can get yourself out, and no one seems particularly inclined to interfere one way or the other.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Oceans of Cloud

The next day the weather is far better and we follow the coordinates we've been given, over the hills to the north. I look out the window and note, "This isn't looking so good, guys." But then I correct myself and amend it to, "It's looking spectacular, just not good for the mission."

Many valleys are full of clouds, with the peaks rising out of the blanket of white like islands in an ocean. The further north we get, the more cloud there is, but then by some quirk of nature, our reward for turning back yesterday, I suppose, the one valley we need to be clear is almost entirely so.

The GPS coordinates lead us to a little camp in the mountains that we didn't know was there. We saw a camp in the area on a previous trip, and had assumed this was it. It's not far from the first one but this isn't the same one. Not only is the camp itself smaller, but the runway is ... distinctive. Notice anything odd about it?

It's now the Tuesday after the long weekend. We take our last load of fuel, ready to head southeast in the morning, and when we get back to Watson Lake where my cellphone works, I dial the number from the pump to report that broken bonding strap. The number, according to the recording, is not available from my calling area. I give up.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Not Done After All

My Thanksgiving flight was supposed to be our last in the area, but a communications error between our customer and our customer's customer mean that we have to go back. A shame, as the weather was perfect on Thanksgiving and now it's ... not. The weather is good to the north, but is forecast here to come as low as 2000' broken and five miles visibility in snow. We head out to the airport anyway to try and get the job done.

The airport is on the edge of Watson Lake, with the approaches to two of the runways (one is closed, but you can still see the markings, it used to by runway 02) coming right over the water. If you slid off the end of the runway you would get wet. The air is cold, maybe minus ten or fifteen on the ground, but the lake is still open water, and thus warmer than the ambient air. The layer of air immediately over the lake water becomes warm (where one degree above freezing equals "warm") and saturated. Warm air rises, but as it does it cools by expansion and by contact with the sinking cold air. The water vapour it collected from the lake condenses into fine droplets, making plumes of fog appear all over the lake. This is called steam fog. You can see it over the ocean in the high arctic.

The fog is making a wall to the south, but we are headed north and decide to give it a try. I mark a waypoint in the GPS as my coworker climbs out, and mark it as 3 MILE FINAL 08. Five miles vis in snow is not a lot for setting up a visual approach, and it could end up being special VFR visibility on our return. We climb to about 4500' indicated and we've reached the misty beginnings of the cloud bases. It would be possible to sneak into the valley between the first two peaks we can see, but it would not be wise. It's fully possible that the clouds part after only a few miles of this, and we know it's high overcast at the destination camp, but there are too many rocks in these clouds for it to be worth pursuing. This isn't like on our way up when we were flying above the altitude of all terrain within miles and ducked under low cloud to access a gully leading off a flat plateau. These mountains get higher to the north, and we are already below the height of peaks within sight. We fly west a little ways in case there is a clearer route from that direction, but soon return to the airport and call it a day.

As we tent the engines and plug everything in one of the plug receptacles breaks. It was held against the inside of a hole in the nacelle by a plate. I can find the part with my fingers, but I can't pull it out. I can see that it was plastic, and it just snapped. Funny that something designed to withstand pressure in the cold would be made of plastic. It's cold enough overnight that the engine won't start if it is left to cool overnight. I have to find a way to plug it in.

This airplane is wired a little funny. Usually these heater plugs are on the inboard side of the nacelles, but on this one they are on the outboard. And it's the left side, such that the wing inspection light, the light I can turn on at night to see if ice is accumulating on the wing, is right above it. I could probably remove the screws all around the wing inspection light, as I would do to change the light bulb -- something I am authorized for in elementary work -- and while I was in there I could just happen to reach down and plug in the tanis heater. I'd do that if I were on my own, but it so happens that the AME who changed the mag is still here, so we assign him the problem instead.

He reports back that he managed to reattach what was left of the plastic plate to the inside of the receptacle, so as long as we are careful it should last until the next scheduled maintenance. "How did you get to it?" I ask. He says he went through the deicing light. I feel smart.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Tweeting on a Jet Plane

This song might be really mean if it weren't so funny. Also I love the original, because I'm always leaving on a jet plane and not knowing when I'll be back again. (I wish there were an option to accept a cookie from airline websites such that when I visit the default ticket type is "one-way.")

I promise this is my last post about NW 188, unless something really startling come to light, like it turns out that the crew members they interviewed are really robots made with alien technology, and not the original pilots at all. Even if they are robots made with ordinary Earth technology. But it has to be at least that startling.

In response to this incident and Aluwings' post on the subject, I tried to keep track of what we did on my last flight to pass the time. Once we were clear of controlled airspace and had bade farewell to the local controller, we:

  • commented on how much nicer the weather was than last time we came this way
  • discussed the best sort of glasses frames for wearing with headsets
  • ate some snacks out of our respective flight bags
  • talked about the variation in stickiness of those stickers they put on apples
  • compared brands of energy bars/supplement bars/meal replacement bars
  • marvelled at the thinness of some of the clouds below us
  • performed fuel management tasks
  • waved our hands around to try and explain how we were getting a 40 knot tailwind when we were flying to the northwest of a low
  • took some pictures of the clouds
  • looked at the list of nearest airports about forty different times, some of which we then clicked on to see the names and frequencies
  • called flight services for altimeter settings and the latest destination weather (14,000 broken) and forecast (tempo three miles in snow broken 2000)
  • discussed an alternate plan should there be a snowstorm so fierce that we couldn't get in
  • turned on the windshield defroster just to make sure it worked (yes)
  • discussed the potential of the defroster as a hand-warmer (good)
  • climbed 2000'
  • pulled out the POH and looked up the single-engine performance ceiling for our weight, new altitude and outside air temperature
  • looked up the times in the journey log for a previous flight so we could laugh at how much faster this one was
  • tried to locate the source of a draught, but decided it was just air circulation from the cabin, so cranked up the rear heat
  • gratuitously adjusted some heating system sliders which the mechanic said weren't connected to anything that he could see
  • kept track of our position on the paper charts as well as in the GPS
  • looked up the names of lakes that we passed
  • looked up an aerodrome we overflew in the CFS to see who owned it

That's kind of the size of it. It doesn't seem boring when you're there. This song, however is going on my iPod.