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.


Anonymous said...

"I fly to Regina, where I make a fool of myself, momentarily turning the wrong way on the taxiway." Been there, done that... A lot.

Julian said...

the way you describe your day makes me so jealous. all i want is to do what you do! although i did have a lot of fun taking some sightseers around in these 30+ kt winds today :)

Anonymous said...

Not sure if your post is time warped from another day - but it fits for whats going on around here right now (alberta). in a few hours i get to strap into a navajo and attempt 6 take-off and landings at 3 airports served only with ndb's.

i'll trade you your warm hotel room for several flight hours of steam gauge snowy canadian twin piston fun..

John Lennerton said...

I typed the tail number for Slowbird into Google, got the owner's name, Googled that and found that a person with that name in that area of Canada is a Lt. Col. So, maybe no whimsy.

I wonder if any of his fighter pilot buddies have seen his private ride? :-)

Looks like a fun little plane, though.

Aviatrix said...

Notice that it's a Foxtrot, too. That means he has had it a long time. Ultralight callsigns have started with India in Canada for many years.

Kier Smith said...

I followed up on what John said above, and discovered that not only is he correct, but the pilot holds severalFAI records with that aircraft.

It's also an official paint job, authorized by 431 Sqn.


(Verification word: syctfich Is that a German term to do with syncing your engines on a twin?)

GPS_Direct said...

"...if it looks like I might arrive with just my legal reserve, I fidget."

Funny feeling, that. I always wonder who feels comfortable planning to arrive with 30 minutes in the tanks, especially in remote areas.

Left out of First Flight Aiport in NC once (no gas there) and decided to sight-see down the Outer Banks. There's an airport not far from your C-130 escapade. Dipped the tanks, so I "knew" I had the gas to make it, but the wind was stronger than forecast. Kept a nervous eye on the GPS ETA. Ended up with night reserves on landing, but plodding along the coast (over two other airports with no gas) meant the sight-seeing took 2nd seat to watching gas gauges and the clock...