Thursday, April 29, 2010

Slowed by Snow

My chauffeur arrives early while I'm still checking out. My ride is reminiscent of a European taxi. It's an old BMW originally sold in Europe and imported to Canada after market. I guess some people get really attached to their cars.

The airplane is ready as promised and passes muster as I walk around. I smile as I see that the sun-ripened nosewheel tire has been replaced with a new one, complete with shiny sidewalls and little rubber whiskers, you know the way new tires have. I mentioned the condition of the old one, but didn't specifically request it be replaced, left it to their discretion. Tires are actually quite cheap as airplane parts go, so it's a small price for peace of mind.

This airplane, parked near mine, gave me a laugh. It's painted in the colours of the Canadian military aerobatic team, the Snowbirds, but if you look closely you'll see this one is a Slowbird. It's a Challenger ultralight. The owner's name was stencilled on the other side, styled as a Lt. Major, but I don't know if he really had military rank or whether the title was as whimsical as the colour scheme. The mechanics say that he treats the little bird as if it were a registered commercial airplane, with fifty hour inspections and all aviation grade parts.

I fly to Regina, where I make a fool of myself, momentarily turning the wrong way on the taxiway, as I come off the runway, but ATC has my back. Later I call for a weather briefing for a longer trip, out to Red Deer and then on to British Columbia. The recorded message that says I'm "first in line for the next available briefer" identifies this as "Winnipeg Flight Information." That's odd. I thought Regina was in the Edmonton FIR.

The briefer comes on and gives me the weather. It's fine to Red Deer, but several times as he recites the mountain weather I expect him to just stop and recommend against the trip. It sounds good right now, but very shortly is forecast to have things like visibilities under 2 miles in snow and ceilings down to 1500'. Bear in mind that these ceilings are above the few valley airports through the mountain ranges separating me and destination, not above the ten to twelve thousand foot ridges separating them. The words "just a sec, there's so much written here on the GFA I can't read all of it" almost make me shut the briefing down right there, but his speech rhythm doesn't invite interruption and he's continuing with such a positive attitude I keep expecting him to say, "but after 02 zulu" or "if you go north to Grande Prairie" everything will be fine. Maybe I'm doing the zulu calculations wrong for my time zone. Then he finishes and the peculiarity is explained.

The briefer apologizes and reveals that he is not used to briefing mountain trips, this being his first day on duty since the Winnipeg FIR took over Saskatchewan from the Edmonton FIR. He strongly recommends that I call Edmonton when I get to Red Deer for a more experienced look at the mountain crossing. Suddenly it all makes sense. Two miles in snow with 1500' ceilings is business as usual for aviation all over the prairies. His instincts are strong enough to make him suspect this might not work too well in the mountains, and his CRM skills are good enough that he makes sure I know that he isn't the best person to advise me. I appreciate that. I will be picking up a second company pilot in Red Deer, so I text him on departure and ask him to check the weather himself, as in Red Deer he will automatically be connected to an Edmonton briefer. The decision will still be mine, but he can get a head start on it. I blast out of there and roll out on course for Red Deer, into a pretty strong headwind.

I'm always second-guessing myself on fuel. I know I have the fuel burn for the trip, plus the required half hour reserve, plus some extra, but I always want to have extra extra, and if it looks like I might arrive with just my legal reserve, I fidget. I fidget for a bit watching the groundspeed and the minutes remaining on the GPS until it's obvious that the amount I have allowed for the headwind is fine and I will arrive with almost an hour in the tanks. I land at Red Deer and taxi off at the end towards the terminal, where I know there is short-term parking. After I clear the taxiway I switch the radio to the FBO and call for fuel. There is a response, but I can't understand it. It's barely more than the carrier wave, so I shut down and phone them.

"Sorry," she says, "I tried to tell you on the radio, but I don't think it works very well." The fuel truck is broken and I'll have to taxi to the pumps. No problem. I start up again and pull up to the pumps according to marshalling instructions. While the lineguy fuels I call the other pilot and he is already here in the terminal, but he tells me the Edmonton briefer just laughed at him when he asked about going further west. Also we need to tie down tonight, because they are expecting winds in excess of 100 km/h. The fueller is helpful and offers a tie down spot on the grass and even gets a tractor to push us into place. I check the secured ends of the ropes and they are tied with bowlines, just the way I do them. (Was I here before and tied these ropes?) One of the ropes is frayed, though, so we substitute a tie down strap of our own.

I go to a hotel and watch through the windows as ridiculous amounts of wind blow the snow and rain around the streets. I stay inside and enjoy a workout while watching Law & Order:SVU (the kid's older brother did it). As I leave the exercise room I hear a guest checking in mention that the highway is closed "both ways" I think that means north and south. It's a very good thing we weren't in the mountains.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Incomplete Intermediate

This always happens to me. I'm interested in something. I learn a little on my own, or I learn a lot on my own, but not in any organized way. Then I want more information, so I seek professional instruction on the subject. The instructor talks to me and tells me no I don't belong in the beginners' course, so I start straight in at the intermediate level, and promptly get in trouble for having missed something vital in my self-study. (Sometimes I do take the beginners' course, which risks making me bored and distracted and thus missing something that way). If I have one-on-one instruction I say, "don't assume I know anything" but they find out I know X and Z and assume I know Y, without me knowing that there is any interpolation going on. And then later mayhem ensues because I lack all knowledge of Y.

Fortunately, the way aviation is set up in Canada, the system is rigourous and demands that the instructor that sends you through to the next level has seen you complete each qualifying exercise to standard, and can't assume that X + Z implies Y. This is good, because my early aviation education was similar, with me learning what was interesting from books and online, and then being taken up by a friend for doezens of touch and goes, until I could land an airplane by rote without having practiced any of the underlying skills. If you're interested enough in a thing to want to learn it right with no shortcuts it is beneficial to do it from the beginning even if you already know some, provided the ab initio instructor knows what they are doing. You pick up things that true ab initio students miss. (If the instructor is just winging it, you get in trouble, because you're picking up on the stuff the instructor is faking).

My latest episode of learning just enough to get into trouble seems to be cooking. I would say that I can cook. I can buy ingredients, i.e. things from the grocery store or farmers' market that don't have any ingredients listed on the side and produce meals that make me say "yum." But I want to be able to make five dishes featuring a random secret ingredient within an hour and have them look like the ones on Iron Chef. And I want to be able to grab a live cow standing in a field of grain, and turn it into a perfect hamburger. That's right, I'm a Food Network addict.

It sort of makes me wish that I was hooked on the Food Network twenty years ago instead of science fiction. Imagine if the brain cells now occupied by Star Trek and Ray Bradbury trivia were full of information on how to properly braise and marinate and accent. Now I'm hooked on food. But the Food Channel isn't really a good vehicle for learning more about cooking. The shows that tell me how to actually make the food with any kind of step by step instructions are telling me how to make hummus as if it was an amazing reveal that it's made out of chickpeas and sesame paste, or giving detailed steps for making spaghetti sauce, pausing for me to gasp at the idea that it doesn't come out of a can. Once the shows pass the "cute guy or gal reads a recipe at you" mode, they leap over a vast gulf of techniques and generalizations into the territory of ultra elite chefs making things I don't know the names of by processes I'm not certain how to reproduce, faster than the untrained eye can follow. I guess there are lots of people who would like to know something about cooking, a lot who like to marvel at what the experts can produce, and not enough to be a viable market segment who want to know the how of the in-between part.

I looked up a fancy cooking course and discovered that professional chef training will set you back about as much as a commercial pilot licence. I guess good food costs more than avgas. Instead of flying to New York and signing up for an elite cooking course, I order the course textbook. I could focus every moment of my life single-mindedly on aviation progress, but a girl's got to eat. She might as well do it well.

Do I have any readers who are professional chefs? Or do you know of a fun professional cooking blog? (I already know Cake Wrecks, of course).

One thing about watching the world's best chefs prepare itty bitty exquisitely-presented portions of stunning food is that you aren't tempted to down platter-filling glop in the name of sustenance. Seeing how good food could be, actually helps me not overeat.

Last night's meal was eaten while reading the local paper. I was offered a choice of two: the provincial paper and the town one. The town one was a lot thicker, but I had read t at breakfast so I opted for the local one. "Is it exciting?" I joked to the guy at the hotel desk

"There's a goose on the cover," he said, his inflection managing to find a little strip of territory that was neither sarcastic nor falsely enthusiastic. And so there was: a Canada goose, photographed standing on one foot on the edge of the frozen river. It didn't get any more exciting inside. There weren't even any dead bodies.

And then I get a text from one of the apprentices who has been working on the airplane. The airplane is ready and she'll pick me up at 7:30 tomorrow morning to get it.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Two Years Earlier

Discussion engendered by the photograph of a combustion heater in this post continues. I've been asked to provide more illustrations of aviation heater installations but the only one I have is by coincidence in the same airplane, two years earlier. The earlier photo was taken the same day work was being carried out on the heater, so it may not be in fully installed condition, but it looks almost exactly the same to me.

Here's the photo taken two years ago in a hangar in California.

And here's the one from last week, the same heater on the ramp in Saskatchewan.

If anyone else would like to share an aviation heater photo I can add it to the gallery.

Sunday, April 25, 2010


I mentioned the met station in Estevan. Once upon a time there was an FSS there, and a pilot could go up the stairs to get a weather briefing or look at weather charts, faxed from Edmonton, I think, and hand-coloured by the local briefers. Or you could phone the FSS directly to get the latest weather. You just had to be careful not to call them at the top of the hour, or else they would be outside taking the hourly weather observations, or busy coding the observation. About eight years ago they they separated the task of observer and briefer, moving the briefers into consolidated regional Flight Service Stations and leaving the lonely observers behind, in some cases literally building a solid wall across the door the pilots used to enter for briefings.

We first noticed the Nav Canada met observer when my passenger mistook him for a Transport Canada official--I guess he has a sharp eye for aviation functionaries. Late that day we spotted this device just outside the airport fence.

As you can see if you click and enlarge the photo, it consists of a ninety degree arc, fixed firmly to a vertical column and calibrated on a non-linear scale in "metres" and "coded vales." There is also a sight, pivoted so that it can swing through the arc. Its location, between the met office and the outdoor weather sensor array, plus the words Atmospheric Environment Service indicated that it had something to do with making weather observations, but what? The azimuth angle between the observer and the base of a randomly selected cloud is not a useful datum for a pilot, or for anything meteorological that I can imagine. I snapped a picture and saved it until now.

The observers at the airport where I learned to fly had a laser ceilometer, a device that bounces a short pulse of light off the cloud base and times its return. Speed times time equals distance, so you take the time it took to return and divide that by the speed of light and you have the distance the pulse travelled. Divide that by two (because it had to go there and back) and you have the height of the cloud above the emitter. I get a serious thrill out of the fact that a trivial calculation whose results I use daily involves the speed of light, so we must now pause for a big grin.

In mountainous areas, weather observers use the known height of nearby peaks to determine cloud heights by looking at where the cloud hits the mountains, but I hadn't until today given any thought to the pre-ceilometer technique in this notoriously non-mountainous province. (I made a two hour flight in Saskatchewan the other day and the elevation of the landing airport differed by one foot from my take-off point). The alidade and ceiling projector combination is the answer to the question I didn't think to ask.

The unfamiliar word alidade, describing the scale, looked eminently googleable so that's where I started. Technically the alidade is just the pointer with the sight, a part of many ancient and modern scientific instruments, but some whole instruments are called alidades by association. Fortunately for me this sort of alidade is one of the example pictures on Wikipedia, and links to the article on the ceiling projector with which it is used.

According to the Wikipedia article, the ceiling projector is a bright light that shines straight up at a known distance from and the same level as the alidade, and then the spot where the light reflects from the base of the cloud is observed with the alidade. The scale on the alidade is simply the solution to the resulting trigonometry problem. How beautiful is that? (If you won't at least pretend to appreciate the beauty of trigonometry you aren't allowed to read my blog anymore).

In my diagram, y is the height above ground of the alidade and the projector (relatively negligible for the ground-mounted instrument, but some of these are probably on rooftops), d is the distance between the alidade and projector, and A is the angle above horizontal of the observed light spot on the base of the cloud. You put your eye where the red dot is and raise the sight along the scale until the light spot lines up with both rings of the sight. The unknown x is the distance from the projector to the cloud base. Using trigonometric ratios, tan A = x and then x + y gives you the cloud height above ground level. The scale is marked along the arc as the solution to the equation, instead of being in degrees, so the observer doesn't actually get the privilege of doing the math.

That's two ways to get the same information, one requiring knowledge of the speed of light and the ability to produce and monitor coherent nanosecond light pulses, and the other requiring only tools and skills known and available to ancients. If that's not the coolest thing you've seen all day then you are obligated to click on the comments and tell us all about your even cooler thing.

For a scientific experiment of a different kind, there's Boobquake, a US college student's response to an Iranian cleric's assertion that earthquakes are caused by by women dressing immodestly. I'll join the effort and show some cleavage on Monday, provided that it's not snowing.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Local News

Welcome to a Cockpit Conversation recurring feature: "Aviatrix mocks your town by reading your local newspaper." Today we look at the Regina Leader- Post. I'm not actually in Regina, but, as two readers promptly figured out when I asked, in Estevan, Saskatchewan. This is the complimentary newspaper at the hotel.

Front page news here relates the intriguing tale that "Members of several religions took part [...] to celebrate Good Friday and Easter in Regina." Shouldn't that be "to celebrate Passover, Easter, Songkran, the Feast of Ridvan and the coming of spring?" I suspect that the 'multiple religions' involved in this ceremony were all flavours of the same one. The directory of religious services inside the paper supports that theory: there are forty churches listed under fifteen categories, but every one is Christian. But just when I think I have this community pegged, I see the leftover space on the same page is filled by an open-minded article on Buddhism. Perhaps the multifaith celebrations of other spring festivals were held on other days. The other front page story involves one politician giving another the finger.

Inside the paper we focus mainly on arrests, sentencing, and manhunts. One man who received the minimum sentence for possession of child pornography says he downloaded it because he was curious about whether it really existed. Police are looking for someone who cut across a field in the middle of the night, leaving tire ruts, and for a guy with lots of tattoos who has violated his parole curfew. I wonder if the latter has a tractor. A police spokesman said, regarding other incidents, "There's lots of collisions ... and the people who die, we don't really know what's in their heads." The paper also notes that, "Police say Thursday night and Friday morning were extremely busy, with domestic disputes, fights, and alcohol-fulled incidents." There's a photo of a man in a baseball cap riding his bicycle by sitting backwards on the handlebars and pedalling. He says he was hit by a vehicle once and rides this way to keep an eye on oncoming traffic. I suspect his cycling is alcohol- fuelled, and that if he has a domestic partner, they have had disputes about the wisdom of riding this way.

Last week's paper had a surprising number of reports of unidentified dead bodies. I think all the people that get lost or murdered over the winter here turn up in the same week of spring.

The most interesting news is a wire story on a Canadian named Julia Gaffield who found the Haïtian declaration of independence. No it wasn't lost in the earthquake. It seems that when they originally declared it, they printed up a whole bunch of copies and handed them all out, forgetting to keep one in a safe place. Eventually, as with most ephemera, everyone who had had one had moved or spring cleaned enough times that no one was known to have one anymore. They knew what it says, as they had lots of handwritten copies, just not the original item. Julia found it in the British Library because someone had sent a copy to someone important enough to have had his correspondence archived. Nice timing, and I hope it inspires Haïti during its rebuilding.

There's sports (ice skating, curling, bowling, running, baseball. lacrosse, and hockey, of course), movies (3D everything), homes ($250-600k), and classifieds. The announcements sections has four birthdays, a birth, a graduation, an anniversary and a congratulations to the girl who scored the most points in the playoffs, helping her team win the SFMHL hockey championships.

My favourite part was this cartoon, mostly because I looked at the picture, thought "okay, airliner" and then looked for the joke in the caption, before realizing that the picture is the joke, and the name of the airliner just echoes it.

Oh and the AME at the FBO calls to confirm receipt of the airplane and the work order, and to ask if I happened to notice if the NDB antenna was standing when I arrived. Apparently it blew down. So I guess it was windy enough to be worth tying down the plane.

Also, not local, but way too bizarre not to post, is this story of two eagles crashing into a snowbank while engaged in an aerial mating dance. The male was killed and the female may have a head injury and permanent ligament damage. These birds need to practise safer sex.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bonus Electrical Post

Commenter Mark identified a number of potential problems with the heater installation in my airplane, pictured in Monday night's post. The heater looks perfectly normal to me, and I've flown a number of these airplanes maintained by various people. This particular airplane has been in and out of various shops and no one has complained about the heater installation, but standards vary. I'm neither an AME nor an electrical engineer, so I'm not really qualified to pronounce one way or the other. I printed off Mark's comments and gave them to an AME. He chuckled a bit, but went back to arguing with a recalcitrant grease nipple on my nosegear without offering any specific rebuttal.

But as a bonus to Mark for his interesting analysis, I present a photograph I took some time ago, of wiring in an actual working airplane. I took this in a maintenance hangar some time ago. I no longer remember why.

Mark?  Mark!  Are you okay?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Booted Indeed

I successfully fended off the cries of the Easter eggs last night, and am looking at NOTAMs after a healthy breakfast. I hate stuff like this:

TIL APRX 1004291800

Not the block of all caps text. I'm not super fond of that, but it's normal for NOTAM. I hate the information about a hazard that I can't do a lot about. Am I just supposed to close my eyes and hope for the best as I go in and out of Regina? (And yes, I phrased like that for all you people who think Saskatchewan's capital city is the funniest thing since Dildo, NL). Also most pilots hate lasers being fired into our workplace, so that's double hate.

The job here is over and I was told at breakfast that I would be released (I'm not actually shackled: that's the word for when they are done with me and I can fly the airplane away) in about an hour. That was two and a half hours ago. So I'm packed, including stuff from the fridge, which I once again forgot to check for proper temperature before putting my snacks in it, so I have a bag of baby carrotsicles. I have instructions from company on where to go next, am flight planned, and ready to go. But I can't go and do a workout, because when the client says "we'll take you to the airport now," that means now, not after I have showered, changed and packed away my workout gear. As it is, all I have to put on my boots, put my computer in my bag, and check out of the hotel.

Just as I wrote that. the phone rang and one of the guys asked "How soon can you leave?" I simply read him the sentence I had just typed, and then met him in the hotel lobby. "Do you have the box of spare parts?" I asked.


Okay, excellent. He helps me with my stuff, and folding the wing covers and things. All very unnecessary, but appreciated. I offer him some carrotsicles, but he declines. I explain that people always turn the fridge up to coldest to chill their beer faster and I forget to turn it down before putting my vegetables in it. He points out that he hears a lot more people complaining about warm beer than frozen carrots, so the temperature is correct.

The fueller happens to be at the field. I guess someone else called him out on Sunday morning. There's a $50 callout fee though, and I think the fueller gets most if not all of that, so he's made some money off us this weekend. He asks me if I need anything, but I'm good on fuel. His daughter is with him so I ask her if the Easter Bunny came to her house. Turns out that that renowned rabbit brought her a bicycle. How awesome is that? The weather is perfect for a new bike, and I think she's the right age to learn.

With my bags all loaded and the preflight inspection complete I fly northwest along a highway. I think every paved road that goes somewhere in this province is designated a highway. The highway parallels a railway and little priarie towns are spaced along it at perfectly regular intervals. Someone told me recently that the spacing of the towns is equivalent to the distance a steam engine could travel before it needed its boiler topped up with water.

I'm ashamed of my reliance on GPS these days. I used to confidently fly all over the continent without one. I never had one during training. Sometimes I'd rent a plane with one in and I'd let the passenger play with it for entertainment. I remember doing time building at night with a student pilot passenger. She had just bought a really fancy tablet GPS; this was years ago, it must have cost a mint. I asked her to keep it hidden from me and periodically quiz me on where I was, how long it would take me to get to the next destination and so on. And I knew. I flew to the southern US in a rented C172 and locals came over to check me out. One guy looked in the airplane and said, "Where's your GPS?" When I told him I didn't have one, he looked at me in awe, "You came all the way from Canada without a GPS?" I remember looking confused, and telling him I had maps. Why would I need a GPS?

Now I'm looking at the GPS all the time, to plan cooling, to stay clear of airspace, to plan my descent. To verify that I have correctly identified the lake on the chart. I try not to look for a while, but I keep slipping up. I can't turn it off, because it's my comm radio now too.

I concentrate on the landmarks. Another highway will intercept the one I'm following and there will be a double set of powerlines five miles back from my destination. I must stay north of the highway to avoid military airspace. I call traffic, slow the airplane gradually as I cool the engine, and find the runway. I add approach flaps, then gear, and on final I double check my GPS groundspeed with the TAS--that's a really useful trick--to make sure I don't have a tailwind. I have four knots of headwind at 1000' agl, but I think none at all at ground level. The windsock is straight across the runway. Windsocks are kind of two-state devices in the prairies. Either the wind is light and variable, or the windsock is straight out. I guess that's because a windsock straight out indicates fifteen knots or more, and fourteen knots of wind is light in the prairies. I touchdown, pull power idle, brake brake brake on the short runway and do a 180 back to the centre taxiway.

I taxi off and look for a place to park. I'm getting an oil change at the FBO here, but they won't be here today because it's Sunday. I would park on the apron in front of their hangar, but a pressurized Skymaster with a November registration has already claimed that spot, and I don't want to park close beside it in case the wind changes and one of the airplanes blows around. All the tiedown spaces that I would fit into on the apron are taken, and I don't want to block anyone in or out of their spot. And I kind of would like to tie down. Maybe it's overkill as this is a pretty heavy airplane and I don't think the wind is too much over 15 kts, but better safe than sorry. There are two spray planes tied one behind the other, and a space with painted tires on either side in sequence behind them. In this context tires like that are usually filled with concrete for tying an airplane to. I know there's not a third spray plane due back any minute, because no one would spray in this wind: the product wouldn't go where you wanted it. I pull into that spot and shut down.

Years ago in another century, the first time there was a big overnight windstorm at the airport where I had my first job, I couldn't sleep after the wind woke me up. I got up and went out to the airport at about five in the morning to check on my airplane. It was fine, but some other airplanes were loose. I called an emergency number posted outside a flying school, because one of the airplanes was theirs and the person on call called a few other people so we became an airplane capturing team. I discovered that it's almost impossible to manhandle an airplane against the wind. They really have been designed to point into the wind. I also saw that the worst damage was from airplanes crashing into one another. And I saw the way the majority of airplanes had come loose from their tie downs. They hadn't broken their ropes. As long as the rope was long enough for a knot to pull tight before it pulled through it wasn't poor knot tying by the pilots that allowed the airplanes to escape. It was almost always the rope coming untied from the tiedown point on the ground. Since then I have disciplined myself when tying down an airplane to always look at what it is tied down to and I have found a surprising number of really solid tie-down points, such as doubled over rebar embedded in a buried concrete anchor, with a rope tied in a thumb knot with only five centimetres of loose end left over. That will pull through quite easily if you wiggle it back and forth.

Like this.

I retie the anchor knot into a bowline, which results in my boots becoming filthy with mud. It's some kind of especially sticky unwipeoffable prairie mud. I think it's made out of cow pee and manure or something. You can follow everything I did after that by the footprints, going to the nose locker to get the chocks, placing them, then back to the boarding door, then crawling in on my knees trying not very successfully not to get mud on the floor while I retrieve my bags, then checking the tie downs one more time, then running after my bag which blew over, then writing a note for the maintenance guys. I haul the bags into the lee of the hangar and call a cab. While I wait for the cab (yeah I thought of calling it while I finished up, but you can never predict how long that will take) hangar cats meow soundlessly at me through the window of the FBO.

At the hotel I turn on my computer and it makes all the right noises, but nothing comes on the screen and I realize there is no hard drive activity at all. I turn it on and off forlornly a few times, then flip it over and pull out the battery. There is a tiny bit of water on the bottom of the computer, but it's not inside the battery compartment. It doesn't work without the battery either. I remove and reseat the hard drive. No joy. Damn. It must have hit the ground harder than I thought when everything blew over. I thought the case would protect it. I open some more things that probably contain no user-serviceable parts, but nothing seems to be loose or wet. Still doesn't work. I guess I'll have to fax the paperwork.

And then I go to another compartment in the same bag that has the paperwork and it's sopping wet, as is a brand new book on GPS that someone gave me. A waterbottle with a not-quite-screwed-on lid has flooded the bag. I don't know which aperture the water entered my computer through, but it's not happy about it. I wrap the books in towels and upend some of the hotel furniture on them to keep them flat and squeeze out the water. I prop the opened laptop up on one side and leave it there to dry while I go and do a workout in the gym.

A few hours later I try the computer again. It works. Resurrection! It is Easter Sunday after all.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Deliberate Eggs

My new hasty packing method is proving to be a pain. Under the old regime I put all the hardly used stuff on the bottom and then the daily used stuff on top, and spent time arranging it all just so. Now everything is just in any order and I hate it. That experiment in speed packing is not one I will be repeating. I somehow find clothes to wear anyway.

At the breakfast I realize that unless I count the stuff on the bottom of the yogurt, the spread includes no fruit. They have little packets of oatmeal, but it's not just oatmeal, it's mixed with sugar and salt. Why do they do that? Everyone who has a stove or microwave available has to them has access to sugar and salt to flavour their meals to taste. Rant rant rant.

This time I'm wearing my toque and gloves. And it's -7. I get out a screwdriver and remove a panel from the nose of the aircraft, in order to get at the circuit breaker inside. The heater circuit breaker is hidden where even the most desperately cold pilots can't reach it in flight, in order to prevent us from blowing up the airplane in an attempt to stay warm, should the heater be malfunctioning. All I have to do is press in that little red button. Ahh, potential warmth.

The fuel crew includes the dog this time but not the daughter. As I approach the airplane I think "aargh." There is frost on the wings and I didn't use the new wing covers. Fortunately it is really sunny and the frost is melting and sublimating. The leading edges of wings are already dry and the rest is fairly soft. I whisk off most of the frost while he fuels and the dog explores the frozen puddle, seemingly fascinated by water that breaks instead of splashes when you jump on it. It's a puppy, only six months old, so it's skinnier and jumpier than it will be when it's full grown. The fueller puts the hose away and I consider saying "don't forget to check the litres," but I don't. We go inside and he realizes that he didn't note the number of litres I took. Ah bad CRM on my part. I should have spoken up. Or even better, I could have noted it out loud, reminding him without letting on that I was doing so. (I glanced at it and saw that it was more than 500 litres, as I expected, but didn't note the exact amount). He goes back out and gets the number.

The building smells vaguely of backed up toilets, and I do say this out loud. It's the water. There's a sign in the washroom advising us not to drink the well water, and whatever is in it that we shouldn't drink builds up in the hot water heater, making the place smell when the floors are washed. Charming.

The remaining frost is almost gone as I start and the winds are calm so I run up facing the other way, making them completely dry before I taxi out to backtrack the long runway.

It's a short flight with beautiful weather. I left my sweater on and never even needed the cockpit heater. What a difference a day makes. The area that was so gloomy and inaccessible yesterday is clear and dry and we encounter no problems. I land on the long runway. It's not butter soft so I say "we're here!" with an implied, "I guess you couldn't miss that," acknowledging that the landing could have been better. This airplane is easy to land well, so I should do it well every time.

After I park I put the wing covers on. The client helps, which is wonderful, but I feel guilty that he's doing my job and I can't really help him do his. I let him know he's welcome to wait in the warm terminal, but he's happy. Maybe he's curious about these new wing covers, too. I'm putting them on partly in case the frost is harder tomorrow, but mostly because it's sunny and there's no wind: a good condition under which to learn to put them on. They are really skookum, with holes for the static wick to go through and fitted tip covers and straps to cover the whole wing outboard of the nacelles. And they're really easy to put on when there's two people in no wind and broad daylight. We'll see later about being alone in the cold windy darkness.

I take a walk through town. As I walk down Fourth Street, the houses on the right side of the street look dilapidated. It's not poverty or a lack of care, but the winter. The houses have spent the last five months being iceblasted by furious winds. The doors lack paint, faux stone facings are worn down to their backing, the edges of roofs are all bashed back. Even brick and concrete looks fatigued. The flat lawns show a little green in the brown. There's no zoning here, so a tanning salon, an upholsterer, a wrecking yard, a church and private homes are all intermingled. My walk ends at the Co-op at 4th and 8th, where I buy hummus and vegetables and a couple of bagels for me. I grin to myself at the old guys in feed caps doing their shopping. It was exactly what I was expecting to see, so it's reassuring to see them. I also pick up a bag of chocolate Easter eggs for the met station people who have been working around the clock so that I have the information I need to stay safe. And it's fun to give people Easter eggs. Now I just have to not eat any.

Even though I had groceries, I decided not to take a taxi home. I didn't tell you which town I was in, not because it's any secret, but because I thought it might be fun for you to figure out where I am from what I've said. I haven't checked to see if there's enough information here to tell exactly where, but you know from the name of the main street what province I'm not in, so go from there. Another hint, which might not help at all, is that it makes me think of Waiting for Godot, but I'm not implying a sense of hopeless waiting for something to happen. Oh and the post title is a little Easter egg for long time readers, because I love you guys for sticking with me all these years.

I eat my dinner and then realize what have I done? Those chocolate Easter eggs are CALLING MY NAME. How will I make it through the night?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sometimes It's Monday on a Friday

Just before I wake up I have a dream that the front gear collapsed. I jump out though the crew door and survey the damage. Both ends of both propellers are curled under, so there's engine damage to contend with to. I berate myself that if only I had gone out the back door instead of the crew door, it wouldn't have overbalanced. That makes no sense, seeing as I only got out to look, but the whole thing makes no sense. For example, this particular machine doesn't have a crew door. It's an option for cargo flights, but it's not installed on any of our company aircraft. The crew can go out the airstairs door, through the emergency exit beside row two behind the FO, or by kicking out the front window. And my airplane has three-bladed propellers, not two-bladed like the airplane in the dream. And, you know, the real airplane isn't morphing into a whale or whatever else seemed perfectly normal in the dream world. Looks like my subconscious is really worried about that nosewheel tire. Or my brain is just processing back to work stress, and channelling it through an easy target. I'll bet parents have some spectacularly horrible nightmares about things happening to their children.

Back-to-work also includes not having all the luxury of my own kitchen full of food. The hotel only has flavoured yogurt, and I prefer plain, but it's the fruit-on-the-bottom kind, so I eat the white off the top and leave the sugary flavouring at the bottom. And I have a bagel with marmalade. Commercial marmalade might contains gelatin, so this is a bit like eating matzo with bacon, but whatever keeps my engine running. I find out what the job will be and promise to do what I can to get the airplane fuelled before they need it.

It's Good Friday, a public holiday here, and many Canadians take a four day weekend. Given that there were biblical themed children's books (e.g. God Made Outer Space) on the stand at reception that typically contains postcards or tourist brochures, this may not be an easy town to get things done in on Easter weekend. I start with the fuel callout number listed in the CFS, but no one picks up the phone. I leave my name and number then I look around the chart and use Google and the CFS try to find somewhere nearby I can fly to for fuel if no one calls back. There used to be a flying school at this field, but it moved to another airport just last month. I momentarily thought I had found a 24-hour cardlock pump, but it was at an airport with the same name in the states. The obvious one takes cash only, which isn't out of the question, but how am I going to get several times my ATM withdrawal limit of cash on a holiday? Google offers me "The Best <my location> Online Dating Sites." I hate those things that hijack your search terms and offer you a useless page on the subject. I pick another airport close by and then realize that it is across the border in the United States. I try calling the FSS to see if I will luck out and get a briefer with local knowledge, but this FIR is so huge that he can't help. Once upon a time I could have called the FSS on the field and they would have known.

I call back the fuel callout number to give my cell number instead of the hotel number, and to make sure he hasn't been trying to call me. Still no answer. As I listen again to the outgoing message, I realize that the company name is that of the flying school that just moved out. I'm probably calling a phone that is dead in a drawer. I go to the airport to see if there is a different number there. There is, but just as I'm dialing it, the fueller I had given up on appears. The company that ran the flying school is still running the fuel pumps here, and he just left the phone upstairs. Yay!

He's brought a team with him: a two or three year old daughter wearing a purple Tinkerbelle coat, and a shy but energetic dog with silver ear tips. The dog had a very short coat--no winter pelt, even though this area is just creeping out of winter--and I first described it as brown, but it's an interesting colour, maybe a bit grey, also almost purple. She has silver ear tips. I think it's some kind of German hound, a Wehrmeiraner or something. (It's funny, I could always Google things like that and act as if I were already an expert on everything I encounter, but I'd rather be my natural self and let some reader who is expert on dogs tell us the details). The dog drinks from a puddle by the airplane. I cringe, wondering how many toxic substances are in that puddle, from the fuel pumps, deicers, airplanes leaking fluids and the sealed tarmac itself. The dog doesn't drop dead, though. The fuller tows my airplane to the pumps, his daughter riding on the tug and the dog dancing excitedly all around. He fuels, goes in to get the bill, then realizes he has forgotten to copy the number of litres off the pump and comes back out.

It's a few degrees above freezing, but it's windy so seems cold. I thought I put my winter stuff in my flight bag, but there's only one glove and no toque. I go inside with the fueller and pay, then explain that I will need one more load of fuel this weekend, but it can be any time between this evening and Sunday morning, does he have a preference for when I call him out? At first he says anytime is fine, then amends it to "not Sunday morning." He wants to enjoy the Easter egg hunt with his daughter.

I had anticipated fuelling and then going back to the hotel before flying, but I brought my flight bag just in case. And the case comes up. Fly now. I finish my flight preparations, taking off the tents and putting them in the wing lockers, the mission specialist catches the fact that I have the cord hanging out of the locker and that I have left the electrical plug cover open, before I do. It makes me look sloppy. I feel icky about it, and I'm also not certain the engines will start. They really don't like freezing weather overnight. Remember the right one freezing in a couple of hours at Watson Lake? They were tented all night, but that's just to contain their own heat left over from the flight. With no plug in, they weren't producing any heat of their own.

I bribe them, promising them nice fresh oil if they'll just start for me. They are champions! I praise them out loud for their sterling performance. During the run-up I turn on both heaters, but the sun coming in the cockpit windows warms me up so I flick off the front heater. I stick my hand back behind the cockpit partition to test the temperature in the back. The client is on the phone and thinks I'm trying to get his attention. Oops. There are some ground delays related to the computers in the back, then we finally take off, and yes, I manage to do that right. It's just before noon, and I had breakfast at seven. Day in the life. I eat some Arrowroot cookies out of my flight bag. They're soft because they've been there for months and the package is open. It's cold at altitude and I turn on the cockpit heater again. It gets colder. I only had it on for a few minutes on the ground. It is approved for ground operations, with a squat switch linked fan to keep the air moving in the absence of forward motion, but sometimes it overheats while sitting on the ground, and this is one of those times. Oh I'm having such a great day.

I also didn't have a blank OFP form with me. I just came out to fuel, thinking I'd be back to the room before I left. I usually have spares in my flight bag, but it turns out that all the ones on my clipboard are used. I had an old one that had been partially filled out but not actually used, from a day I didn't go to Montana. I reworked that form messily before I left, just to have the weight and balance and a place to fill in the times, not changing everything else because I'm going to recopy it properly when I get back to the hotel. It still says I'm going to Montana, with 100 pounds of baggage instead of a passenger, but I have the correctly worked weight and balance on my computer. It's Good Friday: I'm not going to get ramped today, if anyone ever gets ramped here.

We do the flight and I'm rusty, so waste a bit of time, but the work goes reasonably well until the last half hour when weather conditions don't allow us to finish, so we turn around and go home. There are two runways at destination: a long one and a shorter but still long enough one. There are four airports in the CFS for this town, and they all have two runways. It's a windy area. There's currently still a howling north wind, so I land on the shorter into-wind runway, which despite my landing with lots of runway to spare and not using aggressive braking I find out afterward made the client uneasy. I turn around and taxi in. As I'm parking a voice from the back says, "Hey it's Transport Canada!" You've got to be kidding. I look. It's one guy in a multicoloured toque and a nondescript coat. No, it's not TC. They travel in pairs, with matching jackets and ramp passes. They stick out like sore thumbs at little airports where no one has a ramp pass. It was probably the met observer for the local weather station.

Dinner is yesterday's leftovers nuked in their takeout container in the breakfast room microwave. The styrofoam warps alarmingly. Inside the potatoes are still frozen and the vegetables dehydrated. It's not quite enough for one of only two meals I get to eat today. There's a Tim Horton's next door so I walk over, but once I get there I question whether I am really hungry or just bored and in need of comfort food. I ponder for a while then order two Timbits. That comes to thirty-six cents, which I count out carefully. The server gives my my Timbits in a bag and I thank him and leave the store. When I open the bag I discover I have three Timbits. Do I look so impoverished that a Tim Horton's employee has taken pity on me and snuck me extra food? I eat all three. I really would have preferred vegetables, but there aren't all-night vegetable stores.

I recopy my messy OFP, and prepare new one for the next day. I call the fueller and we agree on a time tomorrow morning.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Iceland: Not Just Ice

I wasn't going to say anything about the volcanic activity in Iceland shutting down aviation across northern Europe, because I didn't think I'd have anything to add to the news coverage. But then CTV had a piece on it, including an interview with a former airline pilot in which they asked him why volcanic ash was such a threat to airplanes. His answer was that it forms very large clouds that don't show up on radar. That's true, but he never got to the nitty gritty of why, the literal nitty gritty, or at least gritty. Volcanic ash does not vanish to powdery nothing on your fingertips like wood ash: it consists of very hard, sharp particles of well-tempered glass. It flames out jet engines as its volume disrupts the airflow, damages the first stage from the inside by etching and abrading the perfectly machined moving parts, and then the glass can melt again inside the combustion stage of the engine and then re-congeal. Where it doesn't melt, it can mix with atmospheric moisture into a concrete-like slurry. The ash cloud also opacifies windscreens and inundates all moving parts, effectively sandblasting them.

Then the reporter set him up perfectly by asking, "Are you saying at an enormous 747 with four big engines could fly into ash and have all four engines snuff out?" By naming that specific type I suspect that the reporter had done some research and wanted the reveal of this flight or this one to be made by an actual airline pilot.

But instead of saying, "It has happened," the pilot said "it would never happen in practice," and went on to describe the satellite imagery and communications that steer aircraft free of ash clouds. I'm sure he knew about the BA flight, and was acting on the side of not panicking people and giving modern information. Technically the ash only shut down three engines on flight 9, as one of the engines had already been shut down as a precaution. That was in what saved them, because the engine that had not been running during the ash encounter was able to restart.

Oh and here's a brilliant piece of ignorance from a commenter on a CNN article. (Sorry I don't have the link, someone forwarded the text to me).

The ash cloud has stopped fights because of the danger of it stopping the aircraft engines? Another blatant lie. How were those aerial photos and videos taken? Those aircraft were far closer to the ash plume than commercial craft would fly. Why didn't their engines stop?

Perhaps the airlines sold this little falsehood because the real problem is that the ash would cause extra wear in some engines and they don;t want the expense of more maintenance. As always, the news media eagerly repeats any "official" story without thinking, "Can this be true?" Follow along now sheeple, nothing to see here. You there! Stop that thinking right now!

That person probably thinks airplanes fly just fine underwater, because he's seen lots of aerial shots of oceans and lakes. Just to be clear, that's from a member of the public in an online comments section, not a paid member of the media. But hey, at least he's not believing everything he's told.

Here's a geekmade tool showing the skies over Britain clearing of aircraft after the warning came out, the largest airspace closure since September 2001. There's an upside, though, according to this infographic on CO2 emissions.

I've never had a volcanic ash encounter, nor had to cancel a flight for ash. I have seen volcanoes and wow. The Earth itself can wreak havoc. Maybe there will be fish to eat in the future after all. Fish that breathe fire!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Always Watch Your Autopilot

Once I'm clear of Calgary's airspace, I climb to 7500' and then level off and trim every which way while the speed stabilizes. The GPS is set direct to destination, the trackbar to the track I am following to get there and the heading bug to the heading I'm flying to hold it in northwest winds. I turn on the autopilot, and press the Engage button. Unlike Star Trek the airplane doesn't flash and disappear into a rainbow rubber band of light. Instead it rolls into a thirty degree right bank and drops into a 300 fpm descent. I retake control, climb back to 7500', disable altitude control and switch it from nav mode to heading mode. When I reengage it, it follows the bug straight ahead, and left and right when I move it. I go back to nav mode and watch it for a bit. I'm a few hundred metres off the centre of the track and apparently when you're an autopilot this calls for drastic measures to regain track. I guess when you're an autopilot that's your whole job, so you take it pretty seriously. Or when you're an autopilot designed in the seventies, you only know one strategy for getting on track: you bank thirty degrees towards the track until you're within some logic of centred and then you roll level.

It's kind of interesting that the autopilot, which was designed in the 1970s works with a brand new GPS unit. There's no computer in the autopilot and no mechanical parts in the GPS. The truth is, they don't talk at all. They communicate entirely through an intermediary, the HSI ("horizontal situation indicator," the second stupidest aviation abbreviation after DME). The autopilot also talks to the flight director, which is part of the attitude indicator, but I don't believe the GPS participates in that conversation. The GPS tells the HSI how far off course we are and then the autopilot rolls the airplane into a bank to regain the course, with the flight director telling the autopilot when it has reached the bank limit. I have to set the heading bug and track bar manually.

After I get tired of correcting the autopilot, I turn off the altitude hold feature and keep altitude myself while the autopilot holds the course. This doesn't work that well because it doesn't take much force to disconnect and doesn't have a disconnect alarm, and every once in a while I turn the yoke inadvertently and disconnect it, so that it drifts off course. But I persevere. I'll have to get used to this.

Spring is coming to the prairie but there are still snow curls on the ground, highlighting all the ditches and gullies. As I approach the destination airport, I start looking at water features on the ground for confirmation that the runway I am anticipating is the correct one. I get caught by this every time: when the snow is off frozen ponds look just like open water from the air, and the ripples are frozen right in. So they're only useful to determine landing direction if I have a time machine to the day they froze. I take a guess and then compare the GPS ground speed to my airspeed to confirm that I don't have an untenable tailwind.

I land and taxi slowly in, then text the flight follower. He tells me whom to call for a pick up. Fuel is closed for the night, so I park in front of the terminal and plug into an outlet there. I don't know anything about what kind of power I can draw from it, so I only activate the cabin heater to keep the computers warm overnight. The engines will have to settle for tents and plugs. Shiny new engine plugs which keep the heat in in the winter and the birds out in the spring and summer.

I see the uv damage lines on the tire again as I chock. They're just on the surface, but they bug me because they aren't usually there. I unload my baggage, and a box of parts which must be everything they took out while doing the work. The client picks me up and laughs at the parts box. He offers to leave it in his truck so I don't have to keep it in my hotel room.

Supper is something generic at a local restaurant. I use a trick I learned from another pilot to avoid eating more than I need: I ask to have a takeout container brought with the meal. Then right away, before I eat any, I put half the food in the takeout container. That protects me from unconsciously eating it all even though its more than I need. My other strategy for this month is the iTunes tactic: whenever I'm tempted to buy a chocolate bar from the hotel vending machine, I'm going instead to buy a new song from from iTunes. It costs exactly the same and I'll have the at least as much fun picking it out. And they I'll put it on repeat and get up and dance to it.

It's the end of the day so I just check in and veg out. The TV comes on at the weather channel. A lot of hotels do that. If they don't have their own dedicated advertising channel shilling for the pay movies, they have the default channel be weather. It's useful to most people and completely inoffensive. It will never come on in the middle of a violent TV show or a sexy movie. Unless you're offended by pressure charts or footage of a woman walking down the street carrying her cat in a front slung baby carrier, you're going to be happy or bored watching this. And then they toss off a casual mention that a Chinese oil tanker has just taken a dump on the Great Barrier Reef. I literally scream. I don't know what caused the accident. Probably a stupid autopilot. I don't want to read more about it. I hate horrible things that I can't do anything about, and as a consumer of petroleum products I have to acknowledge some responsibility, too. Not too many years from now global climate change will result in easy passage through the once treacherous Northwest Passage and countries that didn't even know it existed before will be plying the arctic waters. It's a completely different ecosystem, but just as vulnerable as the coral reefs. I'm glad I'm not immortal. The future has amazing 3-D movies but dead barren seas.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Out of Calgary

I fly to Calgary International Airport and then jump in a cab, asking the driver if he knows where the Springbank airport is. He says yes, that he did his citizenship exam in Springbank. "Congratulations," I say. He is originally from Kashmir. I ask him why he chose to come to Canada and he says his father worked in the Indian Embassy here and he loves the country. He doesn't think Calgary is too cold, and the scenery is familiar, because you can see the Himalayas from Kashmir.

He's fascinated by the fact that I'm going to fly an airplane, and when we arrive at the maintenance hangar he gets out of the cab and wants to see it. I don't even know where it is, but I point through the fence at some that are larger and smaller than mine, looking for one that is the same type, but then I see mine at the back behind a twin otter and I point it out. I tell him he can go down the road a bit and get a fam flight at a school, and he'll be able to see what it's like to fly. I wonder if he'll be at the controls of an air taxi someday.

I go inside the FBO and introduce myself. The airplane isn't quite ready yet, as I expected, so I get an estimate as to when it will be, and go down the field to get lunch and updated charts at the flying club. Springbank is the Calgary area's training airport, a busy little patch of airspace where students can do hours of touch and go landings without congesting the runways at YYC. They're still all up in Calgary's airspace, and in fact as of a recent NOTAM, Springback Tower controls only its immediate airspace, and Calgary Terminal takes over again all around it. I review the reporting points here so I won't get caught out be being told to fly direct some place I've never heard of. On my new chart, I cross out the Springbank frequency and write in the Calgary one as directed by the NOTAM. I call an 888-number to prerequest a transponder code. The controller can't give it to me now, but my call ensures one will be generated for me, and he says I'll get it from the ground controller.

When the avionics work is complete and the airplane is released to me, I start a preflight inspection. They have installed that new GPS I told you about, replaced the ADF loop antenna, and adjusted the pitch control of the autopilot by tightening the elevator cables. The first thing I do is go on board. The panel is all closed up, circuit breakers reset and so on. I can just see the elevator if I have my head up against the window, so I pull on the yoke to make sure it goes up not down. (It's happened!) It goes up but there's a shuddering noise in the yoke, like there's no lubrication or something. I try the same thing with the right side yoke, and curiously there is no such noise. What the heck? The two should be completely connected and do exactly the same thing. I go back inside to get the technician. He comes out to see and then understands my concern. He explains that the bushing on the copilot yoke is worn and now that he has tightened up the elevator cables (they were loose, explaining the altitude hold problem of the autopilot) there is vibration. He says it's safe to fly, so I defer the yoke sleeve according to the company maintenance control manual and get on with it. I won't in flight routinely pull the yoke that hard or far anyway. I check all the trims, jumping in an out of the plane to see what I can't see from my seat, and I tell the techs that I will continue to destination regardless of whether everything works to spec. I know that the work was being done on a time available basis and that the contract I'm flying to means the time is no longer available. Canada needs more good avionics techs.

I call for fuel and while that is being delivered I determine that all the bits I need are sufficiently attached to the airplane for flight. There's some sun damage to the nosewheel tire, not enough to pose a risk, just an unusual thing for this airplane because it usually works hard enough to wear it out before it rots at all. It's been a slow winter.

The airplane starts easily. When I turn on the avionics master I laugh because a local AM radio station starts blaring through the overhead speaker. The techs have been using the ADF navigation radio for entertainment during the work. I don't mind, but if you're an AME or apprentice who wants make the best impression, I'd recommend you turn down the volume and set the ADF to a different frequency before giving the airplane back to the customer. I flick the ADF speaker switch back to headset and tune the Pidgeon NDB. It identifies extremely faintly, and the needle doesn't point, but it's ten miles away, so it might not work on the ground.

I monitor the ATIS and call the ground controller. He does indeed have my departure squawk code ready for me, and taxi via Charlie. Just before I start rolling forward they amend the taxi instructions to include the few metres I will have to travel on A to get to C. The controller automatically spat out the standard instructions from the flying school apron and then had to revise them to match the fact that I'm not at the flying school. I wonder if I could have got in trouble for being on alfa without an explicit clearance. I don't think so. There is a run up area by the runway, but it's not that big. I'm glad I finish before another twin comes up. I'm cleared to position and then for takeoff, "maintain runway heading, not above 5000'." That sounds pretty good until you remember that Springbank is at 3940' elevation. As soon as I'm radar identified they allow me up to 5500' and give me a vector, then switch me to the Calgary frequency. Calgary gives me another vector, then clears me direct to destination, but they apologize that they can't give me higher until I'm out of their airspace. They point out a couple of helicopters and a regional jet for me and then I'm squawking 1200 and on my own.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Condolences to Poland

I've been busy flying the last couple of days but have an evening off right now, and the opportunity to read about and interject some comments on the recent tragedy in Smolensk. On April 10th a Tupolev jet carrying 96 people, including Polish President Lech Kaczynski, crashed on approach to the Smolensk Airport in Russia, killing all aboard, the political, cultural and military elite of Poland. News reports indicate that the pilot made multiple missed approaches to to the fog-bound airport, and continued the final approach despite an altitude warning from air traffic control.

More disturbingly, the same story relates an earlier incident where President Kaczynski threatened a pilot with "consequences" when he diverted to Azerbaijan instead of landing in unsuitable conditions. That's a factor of company culture that a good investigation may have to address during the investigation. I don't have a problem with the pilot of an aircraft consulting the passengers regarding their wishes after a missed approach. Would they prefer to land as near as possible and seek ground transport to the original destination or to return home? Would they prefer to try another approach and then have to land elsewhere to refuel before returning home, or to return home in one shot? Sometimes passengers mistake this input for having the final decision, but as former president Lech Walesa recalled, "Sometimes the plane captain would make the decision himself, even against the recommendations." The captain should always be making the decision, considering passenger recommendations only after safety is assured. The fact that a Russian-built airplane crashed in Russia, to be investigated by the Russians, brings out the Polish conspiracy theorists, but while I'd totally read that espionage novel, I don't believe it is more than fiction. As Walesa also said, "We do not yet know what happened, so let’s leave the explaining to the experts."

It's not only an aviation tragedy, but a national tragedy. Poland is an ancient country with a long history of strong leadership and culture, but no country can easily absorb the sudden simultaneous loss of its leaders in multiple fields of endeavour. The terrible irony of the situation is that those on board were on their way to a memorial service for a previous generation of Polish leaders and intellectuals who were massacred by the Soviets in Katyn Forest. Approximately twenty-two thousand Poles, such as military officers, professors, lawyers, public servants, priests and other officials were executed there. It's similar to the purges Stalin carried out within the Soviet Union itself; if you remove the intelligentsia--the people capable of understanding, caring about and communicating what is wrong with your regime--then it is much easier to lead the remaining citizenry. Anyone who would otherwise interfere with your power is either dead, imprisoned or terrified.

My condolences to the families and countrymen of all those involved. I trust that Poland will find talented people to take up the reins and continue its national journey. Poland has not yet succumbed.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Finally after all those false starts, I have my marching orders: pick up an airplane in Calgary and take it to the job site. Ironically, despite being certain I was going to work any day now for almost three weeks, I still haven't packed. I don't like packing. It's probably part acknowledging the fact that I have to leave my cocoon and go out in the cold hard world for a work rotation, and part just the irritating process of finding everything I need and putting it in a suitcase so that it fits and won't get damaged. And it always seems to take me hours to pack. This time it will be different.

I print off my packing checklist and start my timer; I think it was designed as a kitchen timer; it has big giant numbers and buttons, and is easily programmed to count up or down. I use it as an IFR timer. The clock is running.

I take the suitcase out of the closet. It already contains some items that I only use at work, but I have to make sure what is there. I take them all out and put them on the bed, then start putting things that are on the list back in, as fast as I can find them, check them off and put them in. I find and pack everything in 99 minutes. That seems really slow, but it's way better than normal. I used to marshall everything on the bed first and then pack it all in prescribed places in the suitcase, so everything got checked off twice (with different sorts of checkmarks), once for being on the bed and once for being packed in the appropriate suitcase. And remember I am packing for up to six weeks, for a number of unknown (at the time of packing) locations which could be anywhere from thirty below to forty above.

Before you tell me I should repack everything, or repack everything but the things I will need while I'm home, as soon as I get home, I already tried that and it doesn't work. I used to get home, do laundry and repack everything. But over the month it was irritating to have things I needed be in the suitcase, and I kept needing to use things I thought I wouldn't, and taking them out, so by the time it was time to leave for work, I had to take everything left in the suitcase out again in order to find out what wasn't there anymore, and then we're back to the original packing problem.

And then you will tell me that I need to have duplicates of items so I don't need them during the month. I do have two pairs of running shoes, duplicate toiletries, and some clothes that I use just for work, but I don't have two iPods or computers or heart rate monitors and some of the things I take with me I take because I LIKE them so I'm not going to deprive myself of my favourite sweater just because I also use it for work.

I've gained four pounds since my last rotation--the only time I weigh myself is to tare the scale before picking up my suitcase to make sure it will be allowed on the airplane. I'd say "who cares, people fluctuate that much over a day," except that I can figure out where the extra weight is, and it isn't hiding very stealthily. My suitcase is six pounds overweight, but it's easier to trim down to size. Actually it's not very easy to choose things to leave behind. Instead I pack some heavy things into a leather bag that is already packed inside the suitcase. I'll have two carryons. I think I did that last time, too. I often do it on the way home, if I have souvenirs.

Ready to go. And just as I have this ready to post, xkcd has the perfect comic for me.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

What Feels Good

A reader of this blog works with teenage refugees. Think about teenage refugees for a moment. Being a teenager is bad enough. Now imagine you're a teenager and you have to move and leave not only all your friends but your whole country. And you can hardly take anything with you, and you're leaving because you or your parents are persecuted or in an area destroyed by war or natural disaster. So you have to learn a new language, a new culture, and fit in to a new group at a time of life where people in their own culture are feeling like misfits, and you have to get on with the usual figuring out who and what you are going to be when you grow up, even though the rules of the game may be radically different from where you came from.

One of these young people expressed interest in becoming a pilot. Another kid in the group told him he couldn't be an airline pilot because his name and appearance was obviously Arab. My reader turned to me to find out whether this was a problem, and how he could find out more about what was required to meet this kid's goal. I answered from my own knowledge, but then remembered an airline pilot reader in that same city. I connected the two people, in the hopes that information and maybe some stickers and postcards would be exchanged, and felt happy to have maybe helped.

Then a couple of weeks later I received an e-mail that leaped into ALL CAPS in its inability to to contain the writer's squealing delight. The airline pilot had set up a full tour of the operations center and maintenance hangar, including a chance to sit in the cockpit of a CRJ. The young prospective pilot received inspiration, and his outreach worker says he now looks to his supervisor and coworkers like a genius who can set up any kind of job experience in a moment's notice. And I who just sent a couple of e-mails feel fantastic. It felt as good as a perfect squeaker landing with the owner and the chief pilot on board. It's as delicious as chocolate macaroons. Feeling good about helping others does appear to be something that is encoded in our psychology/physiology. Thank you to all involved for today's high. And it's non-fattening, too.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Giant Killer

If you both read and have any interest in flight, you have heard (even if you can't spell or pronounce) the name Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. He was a pilot and a dreamer and a writer who lived and flew in the age when every flight was a dangerous leap of faith, before reliable engines, organized search and rescue, and good aviation charts. His writing is quite simple, linking the things a pilot sees and thinks about to the general human condition. The sentences are not complex, so they are good books to read to practice French, and they work well in translation, too. Even if you haven't heard of or read Vol de nuit (Night Flight), Terre des Hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars), or Courrier sud (Southern Mail) you may still have met Saint-Exupéry through The Little Prince, widely translated as a children's story. It's either about a pilot downed in the desert and hallucinating with thirst; or about a little man from an asteroid who loves a flower he believes to be unique in the universe, and who comes to earth where he discovers his flower to be common.

Saint-Exupéry disappeared during flight in 1944 and for years was like the French Amelia Earhart: no one knew what had happened, so people dreamed of the best. I only recently came across this article, revealing that they not only have found his identity bracelet and thus airplane, but they have found the German pilot who shot him down. The poignant part is that the Messerschmitt pilot, Horst Rippert, had read Saint-Exupéry's stories in school and says that had he known who was in the airplane he would never have fired. Saint-Exupéry probably inspired his own killer to take up the pursuit that lead to his death.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Hangar Management System

I know lots of you are in IT, so probably already very familiar with The Daily WTF (for the stunningly squeamish, it stands for "Worse Than Failure.") During an archive binge I discovered the Hangar Management System story. Maybe I'm underestimating the cost of writing enterprise software, but when you look at the fines, reaccommodation and ferry costs, the accumulated delays of Klaus and his minions looking up all the procedures in unindexed PDFs, then looking them up again in the update manuals must warrant a real system. When accessing that information is an onerous multi-step procedure and time is a factor, how can they not be tempted to not look everything up. Assuming you know the correct part or procedure on an airplane can have even more disastrous consequences. There were no deaths or passenger injuries in that incident, but it could easily have been a hull loss with no survivors.

The fact that a visiting college student was the one who discovered that the buzzword compliance of the hangar management system went only as far as the folder names suggests that there isn't a high level of interest in either efficiency or safety there. You can see mechanics sometimes working on airplanes with little CD readers: you'd think they were catching up on their netflicks queue until you saw that today's feature was the technical specs of the airplane. Sounds high tech and expensive, but I imagine the time saved makes up for the cost of the devices pretty quickly. They could have enhanced reality goggles for instructions on carrying out tasks. They could have built in checklist management, parts inventory and timekeeping functions, too. Aviation is an industry where time is a lot of money and mistakes are lives, so it's not beyond the bounds of reason. I won't be too surprised if someone tells me that such a system is already in use for the B787. But sadly I won't be too surprised if a reader has firsthand knowledge of the horrific code lurking inside modern avionics.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Do You Regret Silence or Speech?

Today I am looking for an inspirational poster to give to someone so he can see it while he works out. I know he doesn't want to be a bulgingly muscled bodybuilder, and he's not into any particular sports, so I was looking for something generally inspirational, depicting the healthy human form. I liked this one with the Olympic rings over a muscled golden man wearing a crown of laurels and the chariot. Then I looked closer and realized that it was for the Berlin Olympics in 1936, and decided that Aryan eugenics wasn't what he wanted to have in mind while striving for the ideal.

It's almost impossible to take typical motivational posters  non-ironically after seeing the parodies, but I looked at that category anyway. Then I saw this one. If you can't see the image at right, the quotation is: I often regret that I have spoken; Never that I have been silent. It made me do a double take. Just how chatty was this Publilus Syrus?

I take his point. Sure there are times that it is better to be silent than to speak. By talking too much you might cause others to think/realize that you don't know what you are talking about. You might interrupt someone who would otherwise have given you wisdom. You might embarrass someone by telling them something they could otherwise have been happily oblivious to. You could let slip confidential personal, competitive or military information. You might be talking about your cabin when you should be focusing on maintaining airspeed in icing while intercepting the localizer.

But if Publilius Syrus (Wikipedia and Internet consensus favour that spelling) regrets nothing he has neglected to say, then does he never think of what he could have done? I'm thinking of the first officer who didn't say, "Go around!" in Little Rock, or at least didn't say it in a voice loud enough to be picked up by the cockpit voice recorder, and of all the pilots who ever died because they saw something that wasn't quite right but assumed that the flying pilot had it under control, or that it would be safer for them and the cockpit atmosphere to remain silent than to nitpick a small discrepancy. I guess Publilus Syrus never knew anyone who committed suicide because he thought no one cared about him. Maybe Syrus was so irritating that he didn't have any friends, so none of them ever died leaving him wishing he had told them something. And if he followed his own wisdom, he never spoke out against injustice against others, even though he himself was a former slave.

Ironically it was Syrus' smart mouth that got him out of slavery. Had he remained a silent slave, his master wouldn't have been so impressed by his wisdom and entertainment value as to free him. It appears that Syrus became a professional maxim writer. I guess that's the equivalent of someone who makes a living from a cafepress store today. He was pretty good at his job, considering the number of sayings attributed to him that are still in use today, such as "a rolling stone gathers no moss."

I have no quarrel with "It is a bad plan that admits of no modification," (although if that plan is a published instrument approach, ad hoc modification is a very bad plan indeed).  "If you wish to reach the highest, begin at the lowest," is true, but I prefer the way Lau-Tzu put it. Syrus strikes both sides of the coin with the complementary, "Nothing can be done at once hastily and prudently," and "While we stop to think, we often miss our opportunity." That way whatever you choose to do, you have a quotation to back you up. One of his sayings, "It is a good thing to learn caution from the misfortunes of others," is part of the slogan of the Aviation Safety Newsletter, from which I keep highlighting things I mean to blog about and then not doing so.

According to Wikipedia, he also worked as a mime. I must admit that as a reflection on a performance as a mime, those words are spot on. But I doubt he was so bad a mime that he kept forgetting not to talk.   Another of his sayings, "Let a fool hold his tongue and he will pass for a sage," I think is a clearer expression of the same sentiment, but I still say speak out. If you are a sage, then someone can learn something from you. And if you aren't, someone else will likely speak out and help ameliorate your foolishness. And I suppose there are a dozen readers out there who silently think I'm a fool and should regard Syrus' advice.

And in other news, apparently some Indian pilots don't know how to fly. Indian reporters are having trouble reporting, too. Raw data flying is several steps removed from just turning off the autopilot, and if the pilots can't fly raw data in cruise, the chief pilot should be doing a lot more than sending circulars.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Ten Posts in One

I present my last two months in electronic communications. You know about some already, but you might need a recap.

email from chief pilot: Training and PPC rides mid-Month.

cc:ed email from owner to examiner: List of pilots, licence numbers and certifications to be tested.

email from owner: Rides are cancelled so the airplane can do urgent work.

email from chief pilot: The work the training was cancelled for has been itself cancelled so training is rescheduled for Monday.

email from chief pilot: The work is on again, so the training will probably start on Saturday.

email from chief pilot: The autopilot might not be working right. I'll fly out and test it on Monday and let you know.

email from chief pilot:The work has been delayed for weather.

pilot's Facebook status: Finally! I'm going flying!

same pilot comments on own status, three hours later: I didn't go flying after all. Just sat on the ramp for three hours while clients tried to get their equipment to work.

email from chief pilot: I shouldn't have got out of bed this morning. The examiner is stuck on a company rotation in northern Canada, the customer equipment is standing by waiting for a technician and a part, and the plane that was to be the backup just had an ambiguous oil analysis.

I left some things out. My chief pilot is awesome at keeping us up to date. Some companies think it looks them look more professional or in control if they don't tell you anything until it's certain. It makes pilots nervous about what kind of Machiavellian plotting is going on, and doesn't really fool them into thinking their company controls the weather.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Fake Pilot Licence

A Swedish pilot flew airliners for thirteen years even though the only pilot certification was no longer valid and for smaller airplanes. It wouldn't have been too hard to forged advanced qualifications on my old licence. I have to produce my licence and medical at every flight test and written test, but they are mostly just looking for the name and address.

Most employers just see a copy of the licence, because they either ask for faxed documents before an interview, or want photocopies for their files after hiring.

Mine is real.