Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Aviation Grade Easy-Off

Next day I spend more time scrubbing the airplane belly, and crouching under the wing getting oil off the flaps. It's not so much that cleaning is unpleasant, as working above your head in a cramped position. It's too high to do lying on my back, but I have to tip my head sideways to work crouching and it gets uncomfortable quickly. Every once in a while I get called to go up to the cockpit and move some levers so the AME can check on the engine controls.

We're feeling grateful to the people in the shop for all the help they are giving us, so just before coffee break we go in search of doughnuts. The expedition almost comes to a screeching halt when we realize that there is no Tim Horton's in town. There's no Tim Horton's for over a thousand kilometres. Where do we get doughnuts? We ask and are directed to the grocery store. They don't look as good as Timmy's doughnuts, but if that's what people eat around here it will have to do. We get two dozen, because there are at least a dozen people working here, and who doesn't like seconds? They are well received.

Later we go back over to Reese's to get more supplies, but even though it's only about 100 metres away from the hangar we have to drive because the direct route would take us across the runway. Instead we have to drive the length of the runway down the on-airport road, turn left on a street, turn left again at the traffic lights, go halfway back down the length of the runway on a major street, then turn left off that street into parking for the supplier. I can't remember what we bought, random stuff that pilots don't even know exists until it breaks. I re-expressed my wish for magical airplane cleaning spray and was offered something called X-IT. What the heck. It might work. Or at minimum I can spray it on and fantasize for the seven minutes recommended dwell time that it will work, before I wipe it off and discover no difference. I'll spare you the suspense: it doesn't work. It might work better than the last stuff, or maybe it just doesn't work in a different way than the other stuff. I think the problem is that the soot has penetrated the paint. The only thing I could spray on this airplane to have it come clean is paint remover.

In between bouts of pretending that I can make the airplane presentable, we look around the shop. There's an engine test bed vehicle that's pretty interesting to me. It has an engine bolted to the front, complete with a propeller, except it's just a stubby-armed test propeller without proper blades, so it provides the right resistance but does not develop thrust. There's a crazy Frankenstein's monster of a cowling over the engine, because in order to run an engine for any length of time it has to be cowled or it won't have proper cooling.

And that, as you guessed, is the answer to my "mystery panel" from the 29th. It's a generic engine panel, installed in what I think was once a forklift. They bolt on the engine that needs testing, drive it outside to the runup area and run the engine for as long as they need to, then drive it back inside and check it for leaks, or make whatever adjustments it needs. The two photos are taken on different days, so the test propeller is on in the top photo and not in the lower one.

I have very much enjoyed all your answers, both the marvellous vehicles I wish I had seen and information on test stands. Please tell me more about them. I didn't get a chance to ask any questions about this one. I think I have some more photos from different angles, if there's something you want to see that doesn't show up in these shots.

Update: Earlier someone asked for more pixels. Here's the unedited shot and an equally pixelful shot of the vehicle's own control panel.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Semiskilled Labour

I had a kind of ear block this morning. Not a really serious one that would prevent me from climbing or descending in the airplane, just water in my ear in such a way that sounds all came through glubbily. I tried tilting my head all different ways, and lying down. I tried putting my hand against my ear like a suction cup. I even tried having a shower and getting water in the other ear to match, just to balance things out. So I entertained myself by making foghorn noises, which sound much more realistic through my blocked ear, until finally I tilted my head or wiggled my jaw the right way and it came out. No more foghorn noises. Damn am I easily entertained!

After breakfast I went to help out with the airplane. The hangar belongs to a family-run engine overhaul shop. They usually receive engines in boxes and ship them out again in boxes, so they rarely have airplanes in the hangar. The hangar area isn't a lot larger than our airplane, so we are kind of in the way, although most of the people working are in a couple of shop areas and not in the actual hangar part.

As semiskilled labour, we pilots help out the AME as he needs, and otherwise work on cleaning the airplane. First we unload the cargo into an organized pile on the floor of the hangar, so the AME can get inside to the cabin and cockpit, and so the airplane can be raised up on jacks later.

We take off the cowlings, which means disconnecting the cowl flaps, turning some screws to unlock the top from the bottom half of the cowling, then removing all the twenty-dollar (not kidding) screws holding them on. Then you try to wiggle the cowls apart, and only then do you remember that there are some hoses that connect to apertures in the cowls and the hose clamps need to be loosened to disconnect them. Then you can wrestle the cowls off the engines and set them aside.

Next we're handed screwdrivers and asked to remove all the access plates. The usual way I like to do this is for each plate, remove all the screws but one and then loosen the last screw so the plate swings out of the way without being completely removed. The removed screws get collected in a container. Some AMEs have containers available for this purpose, but if they don't I cut the bottom out of an empty oil bottle and use that for a receptacle. Some people just pile the screws on the wings or on the floor near where they came out, but I disapprove of that. The airplane is not a table, and that's a good way to lose screws.

Some of the screws are stripped, or in very tightly or both and I can't get them out. If it's just one stuck screw in an access plate, I make that one the one that stays in, and work around it. Or I just say "I can't get this one" and move on to another. It's the AME's job to know how to fix this problem, even though it's probably some pilot with an electric screwdriver that wrecked it in the first place.

When the access covers are all open for inspection I start scrubbing the outside of the airplane. There's oil under the flaps and nacelles and heater soot on the fuselage. Neither is easy or fun to remove. I fantasize about something I could just spray on the airplane and then wipe off leaving the airplane clean and shiny underneath, like in an oven cleaner television commercial. except with an airplane and not an oven. The oven cleaner stuff might do the job. I'll bet it's not approved for use on aircraft aluminum, though.

The people in the hangar are very friendly to us. They don't have a hangar cat, but here is a beautifully trained hangar dog, whose name is probably in a different notebook.

When I went to save the websized photo to my "posted" folder there was already a copy of the identical photo, just cropped slightly differently, but I don't remember posting it. Sorry if it's a repeat. But he's a nice dog and deserves an encore. On the subject of misplaced photos, I write blog entries off line and then copy them into blogspot when I have a good enough Internet connection to do so, so when I intend to illustrate an entry with a photo I just put a note where it will go. So if I refer to an image or you see text like [airplanepic.jpg], please remind me in the comments to post the actual image.

P.S. I didn't forget the hint for yesterday's photo. And the person who had insider information amounting to the hint did get the right answer.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

What Is Odd About This Panel?

You know I love to look at instrument panels, and that I go crazy over unusual or clever instruments. Here's a panel I saw recently. There's nothing particularly unusual about it, but the sum total is a little odd. I never would have guessed what it was, but I'm sure Cockpit Conversation readers will.

What am I sitting in as I take this picture? It is not an instructional aid or a museum piece. It is a real, installed engine instruments panel connected and working.

There will be a hint in the next post.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bad Risk

My coworkers is married and getting a mortgage, so wants insurance. He asked on company e-mail if anyone knew of a company that would sell him life insurance for a reasonable price. I don't have any life insurance, but I have always had property or renter's insurance as appropriate, so I asked my insurance company if they covered pilots. They said:

Dear Mr. Anonymous,
Thank you for the inquiry with Canada Life. Yes, we do approve commercial pilots.

However, each case is underwritten individually, and individual circumstances are evaluated. We look at the total number of solo hours, age of the applicant, locations where the flying is done, what kind of hazardous conditions are involved, and more.

After an application is received, from a commercial pilot, we would either mail out our aviation questionnaire if the applicant prefers, or we can have our teleunderwriters gather the information by doing a telephoned interview. This is our fastest way to have a final decision on an insurance application.

I'm not going to object to a knowledgeable analysis of the risk posed by a particular client but solo hours? Solo hours become largely irrelevant after finishing the requirements of the private licence. It makes the insurance company sound like someone's mother. He's already spoken to this company, it turns out, and they gave him a quote that seems to indicate they don't think he has good odds to last out the year. I guess he doesn't have enough "solo hours" for them.

And yes, they did call me Mister.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Taxi Through Construction

This morning the weather is worse, and is forecast to be that way for several days. The decision is made--and I say it that way because I'm not sure who proposed it, approved it or finalized it--to do the next scheduled maintenance here, ahead of time while we wait for weather. The two attempts to find our way through the big rocks put just enough time on the airframe that it is now eligible for an early inspection.

We move out of the rotting hotel and back to the original one and then see about where the airplane will stay. The FBO at PANC is convenient and well- appointed, but they have a lease tenant in their adjoining hangar, and the tenant don't want others using their hangar. At least that's what we infer from their $750 a day quote for hangar usage. Our engineer looks elsewhere and finds a hundred dollar a day hangar at a business at nearby Merrill field.

I go out to move the airplane the few miles between the two airports. It would almost be quicker to taxi down the highway to Merrill Field instead, it's so close. As I settle up with the FBO I pick up a copy of a memo to pilots on the state of construction. It explains what I already know from the NOTAMs and the ATIS, that runway 7R/25L doesn't exist right now. They've removed the signs and will not refer to the runway by name, instead just saying "Taxi through construction, Hold short of Runway seven left" when we cross its ghost. The memo is exceptionally clear, and they've even painted a line to follow through the construction zone. The controllers too are very clear in their phraseology. I would call it one of the least confusing pieces of airport construction I've had to navigate. I wish all airports worked half as hard to alleviate confusion during construction.

Still, not everyone has the memo. A Korean crew is cleared to "taxi through construction, hold short runway seven left" and reads back "taxi across runway seven left." The controller makes two attempts to correct the readback without success. The controller responds to the third incorrect readback, while the B747 trundles across the runway, with a resigned "whatever." He was smart enough not to star his take-off rolling until he knew he had the non-English traffic stopped.

What I don't like about the construction awareness is that they put all the construction information on the ATIS. PANC ATIS is clogged with construction information, and this is not even the slightest bit unusual. It's very irritating when they do this. Sure it's at the "end" of the ATIS "after" the more ephemeral information, but the ATIS is circular. There's little chance I won't have to listen all the way through the construction NOTAMS before I can hear the beginning. I like it better when the ATIS says "see NOTAMs regarding taxiway closures" or "tune 121.975 for construction information." That is, put the construction NOTAMs on their own separate ATIS on a different frequency and let the people who haven't checked the NOTAMs listen to that, while keeping the regular ATIS clean and streamlined. I listen through all the gunk and call clearance delivery.

The active runway, naturally, is the one pointing away from Merrill Field, so after takeoff they immediately vector me back towards the GA airport at 1500'. Once I confirm I see the floatplane crossing right to left, they switch me to Merrill Field tower, who ask me if I have received their ATIS. I didn't think to check if I could receive Merrill Field ATIS on the ground at PANC, and I certainly didn't have time to pick it up since takeoff. Merrill Field has their own set of construction NOTAMs, also turning their ATIS into the extended remix. So now. They give me the wind, runway and altimeter setting and clear me to the circuit.

I land and roll out, taking a left exit before I reach the construction zone, and then I call ground. They ask where I'm going on the field. I know the name of the company and have an approximate location plus a description of the hangar. I read the name to them off my OFP, and they give me directions right to the hangar door. There are some parking Ts painted on the ramp there. Usually you park an airplane with the wings over the crosspieces of the T, but they are marked with tall cones at the sides and I'm afraid I'll hit the cones with the props, so I shut down kinda sideways. The others have meanwhile driven over and are already here. So it really would have been shorter to taxi. We push the plane into a spot (it wouldn't have hit the cones), chock it, and leave it outside for the night. We have use of the hangar starting tomorrow morning.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Things Mothers Cringe At

I went to Yahoo News following this story of a regional airliner crash in China. I don't have any comment on the story, and I'm sure there will be much more information available by the time this post goes live. I present it merely as context for my distraction by the next story.

While I was on the site, I noticed this serief of pictures of an alligator in the Chicago River. Which is apparently in Chicago, Illinois. I love the look on the woman's face in the third picture her son looks at the alligator. That's what my mother looks like when I look at airplanes. Perfectly intact airplanes, not crashed ones. She's been flying with me a few times, but only when she's desperate to get somewhere, and her friends would know if she chickened out.

I figured Chicago was kind of far for these little alligators to have wandered north from their usual habitats in the southern swamps. This species is very very old, and has survived a lot of planetary upheaval, but migrating to Chicago still seems out of line. They haven't even colonized Kentucky yet. And yeah, quotes at the end of this story indicate that officials believe they (it's the second alligator found in that river recently) were freed pets. Why would you make a pet of something that could grow up to be four metres long and kill large ungulates on the hoof? I guess if you wanted to one-up the neighbour's pit bull.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Turn, Turn, Turn

It's go day. The airplane is jammed full of gear so our AME and clients are taking the airlines. It's amazing where airlines go in the US. And it's not a Twin Otter, either. They drop us off at the FBO and then drive back to the terminal to check in.

We bid farewell to the folks at the FBO. They've treated us well. The weather at destination is not great, but should be adequate for us to get in. We just have to bypass the mountains that bar our way in every direction but south. We taxi out and are cleared for take-off on the same runway we used for departure on the mission, but I think it was an intersection departure this time. We follow their instructions to fly south, then by vectors, then on course. I keep my eyes peeled for beluga whales as we go over the inlet. I so want to see a wild beluga whale.

The first route we attempt to navigate is Merrill Pass. It's a very long pass, going in over a low river and lake before reaching the saddle that is the highest point in the pass. We try to fly high, above a scattered layer, but the clouds build in front of us forcing us higher into a sandwich with the layer above. Ahead of us all is indistinct grey-white. We can't tell whether the layers meet each other or grey rock. You already know, as I said this was the "first" route, that this one was unsuccessful. Perhaps a pilot very familiar with this pass would have pressed on, but that's not us. We reverse course and tell flight services we were unable Merrill and we're going to try the lower pass at Lake Clarke. He saves us the trouble by giving us PIREPs indicating that it too is impassable. Okay, maybe we can go around further, at the end of this range. I love having fuel and speed. I'd love more going up and over, but it's a long way up to get to IFR altitudes here. This range contains Mount McKinley, locally known as Denali, the highest point in North America. That means that even with summer temperatures on the ground, the forecast ice in convective cloud is beyond the certification of this airplane.

As we work our way south down the coast the visibility drops in rain and mist. We're down over the sea, watching out for pointy islands and hoping we don't get in trouble for being within 3000' of oil rigs. Finally I say, "Screw it, we're not bush pilots. This isn't going to be safe when there isn't an ocean to the left." I take that unobstructed left turn and head back north. "Is there another airport closer that looks like it has an okay town for an overnight?" He doesn't see one on the chart and after discussion I agree with his recommendation to return to the same airport in Anchorage, where everything is. It's a better place to be stuck.

The FBO don't mind that we've come back. The manager gives us a ride to a grocery store with a deli, so we can buy lunch. We bring it back to the FBO and sit upstairs in the pilots lounge, reading National Geographic and obsessively refreshing the mountain pass webcam sites, as if we can clear the clouds by shear force of clicking. We're still hoping the weather will improve today so we can deliver ourselves and our cargo on schedule.

The manager tells us that he is going home early, but to call him if there is anything we need. We can hear the FBO staff talking downstairs. They don't know their voices drift up clearly through the architecture. They are griping about a change to the corporate policy about dogs at work. It seems someone brought a dog that barked at a customer and wrecked it for everyone. Then they start reading aloud the gory details of a CFIT accident report, with some amount of glee in their voices. I hear laughter as they get to the particulars of the broken bones in the pilots' hands and feet (this is always analyzed in fatal accidents to determine who had control at the time of the accident, and possibly how they were applying force). I don't know whether the accident happened to someone whom they hated with a passion that even death could not dim, or they genuinely think it's funny to play jigsaw with parts of a former human, or it's defensive laughter to show bravado in the face of death.

Finally the webcam shows the Merrill Pass navigable, and the stations reporting ceilings generally have higher numbers than the pass requires. We pay our landing fees and launch again. Low visibility greets us as soon as we look for the entrance to the pass. We haven't even got to the lake yet and already we are peering into gloom. "I see ground, I see ground, I see ... nothing." Mist, cloud and snow-covered rock are all the same colour. If we tried to guess which was which and guessed wrong, mine are the bones that would shatter where I am holding the control column. We turn away back to where we can see and try a different angle. We get a little further, but not far enough, not with enough visibility to be safe through the pass. Defeated, we turn back and park at PANC for the night.

The hotel we were in so far this week is booked up, so we find another. We check in and the receptionist rapidly recites a litany of forbidden activities. It sounds like "no smoking, no pets, no dancing," but the last turns out to be "no damage." You'd think that would go without saying, but a lot of things about this hotel aren't what you'd expect. For example we aren't really in this hotel. We've checked in here, but our rooms are in the scuzzy hotel across the street. The hallways smell of wood rot, and the elevator doesn't go all the way up. I unlock my room, drag my luggage in and look around. The toilet runs continuously. I know how to stop it, temporarily, but I'd like the components of my room not to require disassembly before use.

There is a sign on the window that looks a bit like our airplane emergency exit placard, so I go over to read it. The instructions are very similar, except that the last step is to signal for help, and not to effect an egress independently. Probably wise, as the hotel is on the third floor and there's quite a drop to the ground. But still, you want to be able to get out. There is another building fairly close and lower, but you couldn't get enough forward momentum to guarantee jumping to it. Maybe you could swing on something.

After a while my coworker comes in the still open door to ask if the internet is working for me. I have to confess I haven't tried it. "I was looking at the sign on my window and devising my escape plan. I figure I could take out my knife and cut each bedsheet into strips and tie them together, plus the curtains too. I'd move one of the bedframes over close to the window as an attachment point." I was just deciding whether five strips from each sheet would be enough, or if I should do more, when he came in. He didn't treat me as though I was completely insane, so he probably thought it was just an extension of my safety-consciousness, as opposed to a manifestation of my wandering mind.

I try my computer and it doesn't connect either. I call reception to report the difficulty. The desk clerk, who is very polite, confirms that the internet doesn't work from this particular property. We can go downstairs and across the street to the other building and sit in the lobby there to use it.

We go out for dinner at a little restaurant with red and white checkered plastic tablecloths. It has good service and quite tasty lasagna at reasonable prices. We eat up and go back to the hotel. I skip having a shower because I think I'd have to be dirtier than I am for the laws of dirtodynamics to suggest that I'd become cleaner in that shower.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Getting Ready

Before he goes to the wilds of remote Alaska, the AME wants to buy some consumables that weren't worth hauling on the airlines, but that we can carry on board the plane for his use at destination. We still have a couple of hundred pounds of weight available and can find space to secure what he needs. The first one is easy, a couple of cases of oil. I start by calling the FBO to see if they sell it. They tell us to go to Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart, for aviation oil? Yes, Wal-Mart carries aviation oils. Who'd have thunk it. Unfortunately when we get there they don't anymore. They've just discontinued it. I'm sure they sold lots in this town, so I'm guessing head office didn't understand why they were carrying something that no other town's Wal-Mart had a demand for. Back to Merrill Field. I remember the store that sold charts also had oil.

When we get there, they have oil, but not our grade. There's an empty space where it should be. We ask if there is more somewhere, but no. The person in charge of ordering it has just returned from vacation. She recommends another place on the field, Reeve's. We recognize that name. There was an exhibit on them at the museum, lauding them as a one of the pioneers of aviation in the state. A piece of history. We find the establishment and inside see a couple of cases of W100 oil being used to hold up a boombox, so I told them we were here to buy a radio stand. There was apparently something wrong with those cases, or else the boombox was too delicate to use another grade of oil for its repose, because they went in the back and brought us two different cases of W100.

I told the man it was interesting to be here, seeing as they were featured in the museum and all, and I asked, did they still have 100 year old junk in the back room? There's some stuff no one ever throws out. It turns out that the business isn't exactly the one that ran the famous air service. The current owner, whom we're talking to, bought the name from Reeve, who was a good friend. He points out the window towards the building that housed the original Reeve's and acknowledges that it did have a lot of very old junk a hundred years worth of burned out pitted cylinders, expired survival kits, waterlogged kapok life jackets and the like. The museum was give their pick and most of the rest was finally junked. We come back again to Reeve's for miscellaneous things like oil filters and grease and the proper glue for holding on brake pads. Alaska is an awesome aviation city. You can get anything for airplanes here.

It looks and feels just like an American city, with all the same kinds of traffic lights and cars and everything. I suppose if the Americans built a moon base they would make it this much like home, too. I wondered out loud at all that stuff coming up the road from Canada, but it doesn't. Nothing comes and goes through Canada. The customs hassle is just not worth it. It comes by sea--the place isn't named "Anchorage" because it has such great airports, after all--or it is flown. If you're sending or receiving anything from Seattle don't bother sending it air: it has to go by air, even if you only pay for ground. Every once in a while the facade slips and you ask for something ordinary and it's not available, because they're out. It's a northern town after all, just doing a very good impression of being southern.

I write a thank you card to the brilliant and helpful controllers at PANC tower. Amusingly, this friendly note fulfills three of the USPS nine criteria for suspicious letters, four if you count the shape being unusual for a business letter. I hope they read it and didn't take it out to the range and blow it up.

Oh and at some point earlier in the week I got fed up of not being able to get prognostic weather charts of the area and called a 1-800-WXBRIEF for a US flight services briefer, to ask how to find Alaska on the ADDS site. The answer is that it's not on there. Alaska has its own site. I don't know why. And if that site isn't nice enough for you, they are migrating over to this site. Possibly both those links will go the same place soon. That's strange that a single state has a separate website when the rest of the country has one integrated one. You can get the METARs and TAFs for Alaska by typing them in at the prompt on the regular site, but not the graphical information. Hawaii has its own site, too. I'll bet Hawaii has many of the same problems Alaska has, related to isolation and not being included as a real state. Hawaiians don't have the problem of dying of exposure if they pass out drunk, though. And the sun goes down at the same time every day there. Goes down in like five minutes, too. It's freaky. I guess if you're from Hawaii and come north you get freaked out by the fact that the sun is just hanging there, not down yet, even though sunset started forty-five minutes ago. Is the sun stuck? I love the world.

Then we're driving out to the airplane with two pick up trucks full of gear to load. This is just like old times for me. And I have the precious, precious tie down rings. The first load includes a solar panel. It's in a wooden box, which is bulky, and they say we can take it out and leave the box if we want, but the box has handles by which it can be secured, and will protect the panel. We put most of the awkward to secure things in the wing lockers, but we can't do that with batteries. Those must be in the cabin so if there's a fire we can fight it. Make sure we have our letter of exemption for northern dangerous goods carriage. I doubt it would be asked for up here, but you never know. I feel like I work for a living.

We're going to have to figure out where to stow all this stuff, so I say anything that can sit in the rain (of course it's raining), just put on the ramp. If it can't get rained on, we'll put it straight inside, to be juggled later. Do you have another box you can put that loose stuff in? They do. Excellent. The clients go back for a second pick up truck load, and then call to ask if we can wait forty-five minutes to an hour. Something came up.

Yes of course. We are paid to wait for you. If you tell us to be here at two and you turn up at five, we are doing what we are paid to do, and you are exactly on time for the service you have paid for. If you tell us to be here at two and we turn up at 2:01, we are late. Telling us that you will be delayed is polite, but our job as charter pilots is to 1) fly the plane and 2) wait around. Or maybe the other order makes more sense. Sometimes we wait for days.

When the second truckload arrives we start loading in earnest. It's like a wacky game of tetris in the rain, except even if you get a whole row loaded perfectly, it doesn't disappear. Just as well. Some of it is expensive gear. When it's all on board and secured it doesn't look pretty, but we know it's not going anywhere. I take a few photos so I can remember where everything is when I double check the weight and balance later. Our engineer trying to psyche us out out by asking if we're sure the load is safe. We just elbow him.

Back at the hotel there's a power failure. Ten minutes dim and then back on, but the internet is still broken. Another sign we are in the north.

We go for dinner at the Century, a hotel right at the end of Lake Hood. We can see the airplanes landing and taking off from the tables. We get to chatting with two women at the table behind us. They shriek and shudder when we tell them where we're off to tomorrow, and warn us about our destination, asking if I am the new teacher. Apparently the last one was eaten by bears. They also tell us that it's legal in Alaska to grow marijuana for personal use. They deny on both counts that they are having us on. No wonder the rest of the USA forgets their existence.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Direct Hit, Mr. Prime Minister

Recent news coverage of Russian Prime Minister Putin on board an aerial firefighting mission gave him a chance for media attention and me a chance to look at an airplane I'd never heard of before, the Be-200. "But Aviatrix, didn't you fly one of those?" No that was a 100, and you're not supposed to have those specifics, and the code for the King Air 200 is BE20. This is a Russian Beriev Be-200.

Here's a picture. More at the same site.

It turns out that Putin was in a thirty-seven tonne, high wing, twin-engine, amphibious jet. Honestly if you told me that yesterday I would have thought you were stringing randomly selected airplane descriptive terms together. Amphibious as in you can land this 68-passenger jet on a lake without the nuisance of having to declare an emergency, and then you can take off again without having to get a new airplane. Assuming you have a big enough lake, but the Russians have big lakes. And freaking big floatplanes.

It's apparently built to Western safety standards, and from the Airliners.net and news story cockpit photos you can see it has EFIS screens and western-style standby instruments, including an AI with the blue on the top. The Russians build some cool airplanes.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Precious Tiedowns

After spending all day overflying it, we're going back to the airport today, this time to see the local air museum. We follow the signs off the main road to the terminal, then somehow miss the museum and end up driving all the way around Lake Hood. Lake Hood is the seaplane/skiplane base visible in the aerial view of a couple of days ago, the largest float plane base in the world, and probably by a long shot. It's an irregularly shaped lake, actually two lakes joined together by a dredged take off and landing channel and a slow taxi channel. There are over four hundred little docks and beaching areas densely packed all the way around the perimeter. The first thing I thought when I saw the place was, "Wow, I bet someone has to die childless before you can get a tiedown berth here." I checked and the waiting list for a spot is currently ten years; it's not clear whether you're allowed to will your family spot to your kids along with the airplane.

After we drive all the way around the lake we find where we should have turned to get to the museum. We have to cross an active taxiway to get there, with big signs warning us to go straight through and not to turn. Okay, Alaska is starting to look a little northern now. How many southern international airports trust people not to hang a left onto taxiway K? I'm impressed that they have managed to integrate the local traffic with the airline traffic so well. I only heard a couple of float planes on the tower frequency during our mission, but that, as I learn later, is because there is a dedicated frequency and tower position for the Lake Hood operations.

The Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum is in and around a series of old hangars near the shore of Lake Hood. I know it's going to be interesting because the history of Alaskan aviation isn't just about some old airplanes. It's the political and economic history of the whole state. The strength of the museum turns out to be their collection and restoration, not really presentation. I loved the whole room full of skis above, but it could have told the story of the development of the aircraft ski, or the compromises that have to be made in deciding which kind to use. They're not in chronological order or anything. The museum has so much actual metal to display that there has been less effort than I expected telling the story that connects them all. Some of the best parts are materials developed by Alaska Airlines to commemorate their 75th anniversary. Like most major airlines, Alaska Airlines is the culmination of decades of mergers between the pioneers who first brought airplanes to the area and established air service on little connecting and competing routes, so when Alaska Airlines tells the story of its history it has to include almost everyone who ever turned a prop up here. There's a room set up that consists mainly of hangar fronts and signs from old aviation operations. I don't know if they are real or replicas or fanciful, but it's fun, and not completely outdated compared to present-day Merrill Field.

During WWII it was believed that the Japanese might attack the US from Alaska. That was the impetus to build the highway and to man air bases up here. Canadians had already been at war for a few years. I can't remember exactly what this group was doing in Alaska, but I love the pose. I have to remember to get a crew team photo all posed in front of the airplane pointing at a map like this. Leather caps and goggles wouldn't hurt, either. I really should get a set like that, shouldn't I? Anyone know where?

When we're finished at the museum we go over to the terminal to pick up a company AME. We're expecting a scheduled maintenance event to come due before we leave Alaska, and we don't want to be in a remote area without him. When I find him at the terminal, he is chatting with a couple of German tourists who are going travelling to Whitehorse from here. By bicycle. I on;y know enough German to say (and not spell) "Fahrrad?! Gott in Himmel." I love to ride my bike, but that's going to be one hell of a road. I hope they made it okay.

I laughed at this sculpture at the Anchorage passenger terminal. It's nicely executed and I understand the concept, but I think the average airline passenger wants to hope that there will be more than a propeller and a single wheel left of their airplane by the time they arrive. Do take a moment to dig the outfit, though. Isn't that basically a cavalry uniform? Long boots, jodhpurs, riding jacket, does he have spurs, too?

Along with all his tools and parts, our AME has brought us my precioussss rings. Cargo tie down rings. Properly loaded and with the cargo properly secured, this airplane can climb out and be safely maneuvered back to the runway on one engine. But let the load slide around and it will kill you. Plus the load itself is valuable and we don't want expensive equipment damaged in transit. These will make it possible to load all that gear and have it stay where it should be.

Coincidentally, as I type this up, far away from Alaska, an American news station on TV is broadcasting a local beauty pageant sponsored by Alaska Airlines. It's so local that the contestants are normal teenagers: some of them are plump and the closeup on the winner shows gaps between her imperfectly aligned teeth, and a real smile. She just picked up $6000 in scholarship money and a gold necklace with diamonds in it. Wow. I thought you just got the plastic tiara.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Anchorage Tourists

The next day I check the METAR to determine the temperature, and then dress accordingly to go for a run. Anchorage in June (yeah that's how far behind I am in blogging!) is really comfortable. The whole city is more or less the temperature of an air conditioned gym. As I run through the streets around the hotel, I imagine someone coming here from somewhere down south where air conditioners run year round. It would be an amazing thing to such a person to have the outdoors be a comfortable temperature for physical exercise. Or perhaps they would think it was shivering cold; I'm sure they would be appalled by winter temperatures, even though Anchorage is right on the sea, so the winter lows aren't that bad. I'll bet the airframe icing is horrendous in the spring and fall, though.

The suburbs I'm running through are pretty much the same as suburbs in any other American city. Paved streets, sidewalks, painted crosswalks, wooden fences in good repair, landscaping, houses of various styles, tame dogs in yards, late model cars with windshields and glass windows all the way around, blue mailboxes, a school--I think it even had a sign proclaiming it to be a drug-free zone. Most of you are probably reading that wondering what sort of idiot I am expecting anything else. I wasn't really, but I was prepared for it to be a few steps towards Nunavut on the comfort and civilization continuum, not indistinguishable from Boise, Idaho. Alaska has stereotypes to uphold!

There's a park I could run through, and if I have my geography right it goes towards Hood Lake, but the trail is really rocky and I don't want to turn an ankle while I'm running, so I stay on the sidewalks and turn back to the hotel for breakfast. While I'm in the lobby eating my muffin and Cheerios, a tourist points out a moose in the bushes beside the parking lot. It's just hanging out there eating. I suppose there are moose in Boise, too, but this one is here, fulfilling the Alaska stereotype. Thanks, moose.

The client's head office wasn't prepared for us to be done this mission on a Sunday, so they haven't made all the necessary arrangements, giving us a couple of days opportunity for being tourists. We drive around and start checking out the tourist spots.

Downtown Anchorage is a tourist town, easy to walk around with lots of cafes, restaurants, art galleries and souvenir shops. We visit, for example, the Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers' Co-operative. It's part educational display, part store. Musk oxen live as far north as Cambridge Bay in Canada, but were hunted to extinction in Alaska, so their herds descend from domesticated animals brought from Greenland. I admit that I am baffled as to how such a large ungulate can derive sufficient calories from the sparse winter vegetation in the wild, but they do. They clearly need exceptionally warm wool. I imagine the Inuit, or Eskimos as they are still called here, have used musk ox wool for millennia but these aren't really traditional native crafts. They comb hair out of domestic musk oxen during the spring shedding season and then ship it to Asia to be carded and spun. The resulting yarn is sent out to knitters in the communities who make it into garments which the coop then sells. It's very soft and warm, like cashmere, and with prices to match.

We also go to the Ulu knife factory. It's in an industrial area across the canal and we drive there with me navigating. We have to turn left on Ship Creek, that's Ship Creek. I wonder if it was named that on purpose, for the double entendre. They don't sell paddles, just knives and cutting boards. An ulu knife has a semicircular blade with a handle on the top, and is a modern version of a native all-purpose stone tool. I bought one with a bone handle, after first making sure that it wasn't made from an endangered or protected species. They had some with handles made of petrified whale bone, and I wasn't sure if it would be legal to import into Canada. Whale products can't be imported, but does petrified bone count as being made out of whale or stone? I didn't chance getting arrested having it confiscated to find out. My favourite sculpture from the galleries we saw was made from a long-weathered whale vertebra. The bone demineralizes over time--or maybe the whale died with advanced osteoporosis--leaving a beatiful porous texture. I can't find a picture of the sort of sclupture I admired most, but here is someone else's work showing the texture. The ones I liked had less detail and were abstract, just playing with the existing shape and texture of the vertebrae. They even had petrified mammoth bone as an ulu handle choice, but cool as it is to think of having a part of an extinct arctic elephant, I didn't find it very attractive.

There are a lot of really fine restaurants in Anchorage, and we took advantage of the opportunity not to eat boring chain restaurant food. We had Pacific salmon, Alaska king crab, arctic char, and reindeer (it's illegal to sell caribou meat in Alaska, so they farm reindeer. They're the same species, just a different lineage). My favourite dish, however, wasn't local at all. It was a beef tips in coconut curry with basil at a restaurant named Ginger. It was so good I wanted to stick my face in the bowl to lick it clean.

One of our clients was in a store today buying supplies, and the clerk asked him where he was headed. He answered with the name of our next destination and two unrelated customers within earshot both groaned in sympathy, and the clerk said, "Oh, I'm sorry." It sounds as if Alaska may have places akin to Attiwapiskat, after all. Every time we check the weather there is is IFR or at best marginal VFR with low cloud or mist, and raining.

Also we will have to haul close to a thousand pounds of our clients' gear to the remote site. They usually drive it, but there are no roads that lead where we are going. I call around looking for cargo tiedown anchors to fit our seatrails, but no joy. I swear these things are migratory, and someday I will find where they all go and harvest them. Honestly, has anyone ever broken a cargo tiedown? No. They just wander off.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Delayed Reporting Time

So I slept, or at least held my eyes closed and thought about how I'd better be sleeping, or I was going to be really tired tomorrow, from around six p.m. to 2 a.m., woke up, turned on the computer, got dressed while it unhibernated, and at 2:05 am determined that it had been raining for the last six hours and was forecast to continue doing so for the rest of the thirty-six hour forecast period. I looked outside and yeah, it wasn't raining hard. There were still dry spots under parked cars, but it was raining.

So our meeting was short. I called ATC and the people who were looking after our airplane and told them the flight was cancelled. And then I went back to bed. At that point I noticed that the bedside clock was an hour slow, which made getting up in the middle of the night when it's still light out and then not getting up after all seem all the more surreal. Did it really happen?

I went back to bed and slept until I was done sleeping, which was about six hours. Now, it hasn't been dark yet, and I've slept twice. What day is it? Alaska is confusing, and duty time laws even more so.

We were supposed to report for work at two a.m. but simply woke up and went back to bed fifteen minutes later without leaving the hotel. So what time does our duty day end now?

Part 700.18 of the Canadian Air Regulations says:

Where a flight crew member is notified of a delay in reporting time before leaving a rest facility and the delay is in excess of 3 hours, the flight crew member's flight duty time is considered to have started 3 hours after the original reporting time.

That's the rule that best applies here. For the first six hours of delay, it also gives an advantage--to the person optimising pilot utilization--over the split duty day rule, which allows a duty day extension of one to three hours: one hour of extension for each two hours of rest in the middle of the duty day. For a delay greater than six hours but less than eight hours, the results are identical to applying the split duty day rule. If the delay were a full eight hours, plus time for meals and personal hygiene, then it would be a new day. It's that rather than the calendar or daylight that determine when a pilot's new day dawns.

If our rest period continues without interruption until eleven or so, the duty day has been technically reset, and we could legally be asked to work a fifteen hour day starting any time after then, say five p.m. until eight a.m. tomorrow morning. That would be nasty, but every once in a while the work demands it. There are some other factors that come into play, the trump card being that if we the pilots consider that we are fatigued or likelt to become fatigued as a result of a schedule, we're bound in law to refuse it.

That's the law, here's the application. At nine a.m. not only has it stopped raining, but all forecast of rain is gone from the TAF. I call back ATC and ask when our next window is for the work. Sunday morning is a pretty quiet time at most airports, but PANC isn't most airports. It's the same lady, what kind of duty days do they have? She's a realist though, and I guess she doesn't have vacation comng this week. After some more hmming and making sure I know just how inconvenient this is, she verbally shrugs, "Sooner you start the better." I call everyone to say we're a go, again, and we'll be airborne within the hour.

Out at the airplane, the FBO has reconnected the nosegear scissors after towing. That's rare. but they've screwed up the billing despite my "FUEL ONLY" verbal and post -it-ed designation of the credit card number I gave them. They'll sort it out later. We've decided to fly this two-crew, because of the busy-ness of both the airspace and the radio work. I ask the other pilot if he wants to drive or talk. He says he'd rather leave the talking to me, if I don't mind. He says I'm good at talking to authority figures. He just knows I love to yap. It's the role I would have chosen. The flying isn't different from what we do every day, but the ATC negotiation and traffic will be interesting.

I call clearance delivery right after start up on the ramp and they already know all about us and our unusual mission, so I don't have to do any explaining. They assign me a transponder code and a runway. I ask if they'd like to assign us a temporary operational callsign for the mission, "to avoid all the alphabet soup." This is for me as much as them, because American controllers won't shorten my five letter callsign to the last three the way Canadians will, and they will pronounce the C maybe as Charlie, maybe as Canadian, sometimes include the type and sometimes not, sometimes pronounce the letters in the phonetic alphabet and sometimes just use their names the way they are pronounced in the alphabet song, and just the way you may not hear your name when it is called by someone who pronounces it incorrectly, I may miss a call for me. And I don't want to spend the next five hours reciting my entire callsign in every call. "Sure," says the controller, "what do you want to be?" They want ME to pick? I make something up on the spot, almost as cool as AIRSHARK ONE. They accept it unblinkingly and tell me to call tower for taxi. I acknowledge, laughing as I release the mike button, because I'm an AIRSHARK! I'm hoping that I haven't stolen someone else's handle or done something illegal here. I was expecting ATC to assign me something convenient for them, usually just the type and a number, or a part of my full registration.

We taxi to the threshold of the runway, take off and start work. It's fun. It's awesome. Anchorage is an awesome area, with sea and mountains and a big inlet and airplanes everywhere. At first ATC asks us to call every turn, but they quickly realize that we are going to do exactly what we say we are going to, with clockwork predictability. If I turn the tracklines on on the GPS they make pretty patterns, because even the turns are close to identical. As I'm not flying, I can see the whole ballet unfolding, and keep expecting being asked to turn aside, wait twenty seconds, extend a line or modify a turn.

We play chicken with B747s flown by pilots with minimal English skills, counting on their comprehension, flight plans or habits to have them turn east at four hundred feet. We do what feels like an airshow pass with big-yet-manoeverable metal inbount to Elmendorf air base. "I acknowledged having it in sight without remembering what it was. We report sighting the helicopters, float planes, and even other aircraft the same type as us as they look out for us. An advantage I didn't consider of being AIRSHARK is that we're not advertising the foreign callsign.

Over the course of the flight we were handled by five different controllers, working quite long stints at the mike, considering that they kept up a continuous stream of instructions, advisories and clearances. And after all that time, ATC has not delayed our relentless progress through the grid by as much as one second. They are moving the massive Boeings around us. It's now well into the working day, but they aren't asking us to give them a break, either. Man, they really want to get rid of us.

We told them when we had flown our last line and were cleared in to land, with a Korean Airlines B747 waiting at the hold short line for us. We taxi off triumphant and proud. I call the ground controller and ask him to convey our thanks to everyone involved. Anchorage ATC are awesome. They took full responsibility for a very awkward flight, never asking me to change frequencies nor wasting a second of our time.

I'm on a high after accomplishing this mission. The ultimate in happiness for me is achieving something as part of a team when we weren't sure that it could be done. To get this done the second full day in Alaska is beyond expectations. Except for the pessimist's expectation that the more you want to have an opportunity to explore a place, the quicker you will be yanked out to go somewhere else.

Our supper restaurant has placemats with a map of Alaska on them, and we look at them to see where we're going next. Hmm. The annotation for that region of Alaska says that it is "cool and foggy" in the summer. Just what we don't need. And the food is truly awful.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

You Want To Do What?

The source of charts that was recommended close to the hotel appears to be primarily a doctor's office that does pilot medicals. They used to sells charts, hence the "Pilot Shop" neon sign visible from the parking lot, but no longer do, so the chart purchase will wait until tomorrow.

Alaska is so far west that every time zone gets up earlier. I've been working mornings, so I wake up early and by our eight a.m. planning meeting I have finished my laundry and gone for a run. After the meeting, the two pilots drive over to Merrill Field. It's a municipal airport, but it stuns us. You know what a mall parking lot looks like when it's busy? Well imagine that, except with airplanes instead of SUVs and hatchbacks. There are hundreds of airplanes here, mostly utilitarian single engine personal transport, all parked in rows on numerous aprons. A large enough proportion are tailwheel that it makes the tricycle gear airplanes looks kind of ... unconventional. The only place I've ever seen this many airplanes in one place is at the Oshkosh fly-in (welcome back those of you who went this year, and thanks for the e-mails and pictures), and my colleague has never been to Oshkosh. He has never seen this many airplanes in one place,anywhere. If you're not an aviation aficionado (although I suppose there aren't many in that category reading this blog), you may not have seen this many airplanes, ever, cumulatively. We're definitely not bothered by the fact that addresses at the airport aren't very useful and we just have to drive around looking for the store.

The recommended store isn't open yet this Saturday morning, so we try a flying school. They are open and have some charts, but are out of the "Alaska Supplement." Curiously, in Canada, the book that tells you details about airports is called the Canada Flight Supplement. In the contiguous American states such books are called airport facilities directories, and they're green. But in Alaska that document is called a supplement again. It's the same format as the AF/D, except that it's orange. I spent a while at first trying to buy an A/FD or a "green book" for Alaska, before I discovered the secret. We chat with the flight instructor about flying here, looking for local information.

When the other chart store opens we go there, and wow, they have every chart. I think they have every sectional and WAC for the whole US and they have Canadian charts that we can't get at home. And they're cheap. We start buying everything we could conceivably use in the next month. We know we're going out to west next, so buy sectionals in that direction. The last WAC doesn't have too much of the mainland on it and we open it up, wondering if it's worth getting. It has part of Russia on it. "Cool, we have to get it!"

There's one chart that isn't available there, so we go down the street to a charter company that may have them. The outfit looks like a cartoon about a dodgy Alaska charter company and I can't entirely tell whether this is something they put on for the tourists, or if that's really the way they are. A sign says "Use This Door" on the least likely looking door. It goes into a small hangar in which the shelves are filled with old baby car seats. There's no one there. We try the other door, and it goes to an office with a scheduling whiteboard, where someone sells us charts. I suppose the door to be used is the one through which arriving passengers reach the boarding area, and they don't want all the passengers in the dispatch office. And I guess the baby seats are for babies on the airplanes.

We did a few more errands, like activating US cellphone plans, buying souvenirs and replacing a computer cooling fan, then went back to the hotel where I started negotiations.

I first laid out the local terminal area chart, the contracted flight grid, and an Anchorage street map, in order to determine multiple ways to describe the area we needed to overfly, and to familiarize myself with the airspace we will be disrupting, and with any landmarks that the local controllers might use in discussing the proposed flight. I look in the flight supplement for a starter phone number.

It's a starter phone number because I know that I will reach someone who then has to transfer me to someone else, who will give me another person to call, who will be on vacation for two weeks, and so on. It's part of the job. I call the starter number. Anchorage is actually very well organized in the ATC department. The person who answers listens, appears to understand and transfers me and this happens once more before I am given a new number to call. I tell each successive person who has referred me, until I'm talking to an Anchorage tower cab shift supervisor.

I identify myself and the aircraft, describe what we need and our constraints, emphasizing our flexibility and willingness to work with their schedule anytime throughout the twenty-four hour day. We're hoping to start tomorrow morning. The shift supervisor listens, asks a few questions and says that shouldn't be a problem. I can hardly believe it. I thought there would be tantrums. I'm sort of disappointed. He needs me to send him a map. I e-mail it, and call back to discuss it, but he didn't get the attachment. I try again, cc:ing the e-mail to my other account so I can look at it myself. It looks perfectly fine to me, but he still hasn't received it. Perhaps the FAA firewall has eaten it. He asks me to fax it. The map the client has provided shows red and black lines on a green Google Earth background. There is no way on God's green, black and red Earth that this will fax legibly. I offer to drive over and deliver it in person, but that is more complicated than it might appear. An FAA ATC facility has very tight security, and this one, like most is too understaffed to spare someone to come out of the secure area to receive a hand-delivered map. Instead, I redraw it freehand on the back of an old operational flight plan, showing the control zone boundaries, shoreline, and major roads, then take it to the hotel front desk and have them fax it. The shift supervisor says he is off tomorrow so to call and confirm with the next shift.

At this point I made like a normal person and went for a late lunch downtown with my coworker at an excellent brewpub we found by Googling "Food Anchorage." We only went the once, because when we tried to go back it was always too busy to get a table.

Back at the hotel I call PANC tower again and ask for the shift supervisor. The new one is on duty, she has received the map, and she is not happy about our proposal. Ten years ago I had to brace myself to ask an air traffic controller if I could cut across the ILS approach path at a major airport. Today it's just part of the fun getting one to approve my spending five hours flying a fine grid that covers the entire airport at 1700' agl, with turns in all approach and departure paths, and the airspace of numerous surrounding airports, possibly including one military one. I acknowledge sympathetically that this will be very inconvenient for her. But I don't take her problem away. I present our areas of flexibility: we're prepared to work any time through the twenty-four hour day. We can move off our line or altitude immediately at any point (but we will have to come back to the same point, and that will take more time). We can fly the lines in any order. We can't compromise on altitude.

I wait for her response. We know we're asking for a lot, and we've budgeted time for the work, but the weather is going to be good this weekend, and in Alaska good weather is never a given. We can't fly this mission in the rain.

She doesn't say, "What makes you think you can do this?" but she must be thinking it. She asks what the work is for. I don't know exactly what it's for; I almost never do. But I know whom it's for. I tell her. It's my trump card. She's not stupid. She knows we have to do this, and she realizes that the sooner we get it done, the sooner we'll be out of her hair.

"We don't really have quiet times here." I know. They are a major courier hub and have passengers arriving from all over the world, as well as smaller aircraft from all over Alaska and plenty of local traffic. She offers us two a.m. to four thirty a.m. tomorrow morning. Rapid duty day math tells me that if we go to bed immediately we can reset our duty days and be back at work at two. I tell her that we plan a take-off at two-thirty a.m., that we'll make another phone call before take-off, and thank you.

Then I call the rest of the team to let them know we're a go, and jump into bed. It's hard, but as a pilot you kind of have to have an "off" switch, in order to be properly rested. I'm anticipating a week of choppy sleep and weird duty days as we try to schedule this work.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Safety is What You Make It

When you fly, even if you're a jaded, experienced traveller, and know how to hide your notebook computer under your jacket when the flight attendant looks at you, please put it away. Stow your carry on baggage completely and don't hold heavy objects during takeoff and landing. Fasten your seatbelt tightly. Pay rapt attention to the safety briefing and any instructions from the flight attendants. I understand that a certain joking fatalism is a common defense mechanism to avoid thinking about what could happen, but it's better to think and be prepared. There are survivable airplane crashes. Here's a B737 torn apart by impact forces, but the only death associated is suspected to be a heart attack and not the immediate result of injuries sustained. There was no fire, and clearly the nearest emergency exit to many people would be the gaping hole where the fuselage ended, so no one was trapped.

I don't have any information on what happened to cause that crash. It sounds like they might have encountered a sudden downdraft. I'll try to follow up when the investigation reports a result.

Another story, related only in that it takes place in Colombia has a reader of this blog flying as a passenger in Colombia, in what he thought was a small pressurized airplane, about ten to fifteen passengers on board. And it was raining inside the plane. It's not clear if it was raining outside and leaking or if there was condensation leaking out of the headliners, but the folks in the back were getting wet. A passenger yelled up to the cockpit that it was raining inside and we were all going to die. The FO turned around and his enraged response was, "Callate por favor! Tenemos problemas mas grande aqui al frente ... no podemos ver nada, hay montañas en todas partes aca y hemos perdido contacto con... ."

I'll give the Spanish speakers a chance to gasp and or laugh at that while the others can wonder what they'd think about the FO yelling incoherently at them. He was yelling, "Would you please shut up! We've got bigger problems up front ... we can't see anything, there's mountains everywhere, and we've lost contact with ..."

The person who told me that story says he prayed until a safe landing and never again took a "non-reputable" airline in South America. Ironically, the day before he had read a very similar account in a story from 1945. Some things never change.

It's not that people in Colombia cannot fly safely, maintain airplanes safely or do everything else to any arbitrary safety standard. There is no absolute safety, only a level that you choose to maintain. It's just that the normal level of what is generally considered to be 'sufficiently safe' is different from place to place. The roads in different countries aren't built to the same standards; South American buses are a cliché. A lot of it is money: money for parts, inspection, training, maintenance and infrastructure too. It would cost the same amount of money to build and maintain one road to US department of highway standards as it costs Colombia to build and maintain any number of roads. The degree of safety in any organization is balanced between money available, regulatory pressures, regulator oversight, competition on price, customer demands, and inertia of the current practices and procedures. In any organization you get the safety you work and pay for. There are freak accidents, yes, but there are also freak 'almost accidents' that warn alert companies of the possibility of actual ones.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sweet, We're In Alaska!

In Whitehorse we're cleared to taxi and then take-off, with no restrictions on turns or altitude, so we're quickly on course for the United States. (I keep saying that, because it's so weird). The weather is definitely poor to the south, but along the highway it's excellent. We look from the dotted line on the GPS to the ground, trying to spot some evidence of the actual border. There's not a river for it it follow, just an arbitrary straight line, and they probably don't mow a line in the trees up here like they do along the 49th parallel in western Canada. We see a pull off with a large building on the highway and conclude that that is the border control station. Kind of low-key, but I doubt it's a hotbed of smuggling.

We soar over mighty rivers and past majestic mountains. All that stuff. Looks just like the Yukon, so far. Which is nothing to scoff at. Our flight plan calls for us to hang a left at an airport with customs, I think it was called Tok. The GPS tells us where it is and we can see the pass to enter on the left. As we make the turn the PIC asks, "did you actually see the airport?" I didn't. It's a broad flat, kind of swampy area with a road running through it. The airport should have been pretty obvious. We shrug and continue on, deciding that perhaps it was a waterdrome. I looked it up just now, and it's a 1700' dirt strip, so we can be forgiven for missing it. But it shows how reliant we have become on GPS. I can't imagine ten years ago turning into a mountain pass without ensuring all the landmarks required to identify it were there.

We have two GPSes working on the project right now, the Garmin 496 and the 430. The 496 is a much better tool for this job, because the 430 is designed for IFR and if it had a personality it would be reduced to a quivering wreck by the proximity of rocks in a pass like this. We can't set a comfortable zoom level on it and use it to look around corners for rocks, because it zooms in close and sounds an alarm whenever we snuggle up to the right side of the pass. The 496 just puts up an inset covered in Xs that it thinks we're going to hit. We always turn so we don't.

The weather in the pass is surprisingly poor, dumping rain on us and reducing visibility in mist. It's really nice to have two pilots in here to confirm the navigation without having to look away from the window. It's a bit of a twisty pass. It's in the middle of nowhere, but there's an RCO, a remote communications outlet, right in the pass, so I can file a PIREP while we negotiate it. Pretty cool. We go around another corner and the weather is fine again. Here we are hooking up with the road (which took a different route) as the pass dwindles back to swamp.

Yeah, swamp. By my estimate almost all the bits of Alaska that aren't mountains or rivers are swamps. Do they call it muskeg here? I forgot to ask. There are hectares and hectares of swampland. Must be millions of mosquitoes down there. It's honestly a bit of a letdown. Alaska gets so much press and here it is looking exactly like northern Alberta. Or northern Saskatchewan, Manitoba, or Ontario. It doesn't have the sweeping rocky look of the Northwest Territories. It probably looks awesome all covered with snow, though. Great for snow machines.

The bad weather that was to the south is now to the southeast, we've kind of gone around it. There are mountains over there and as we draw closer their spectacular beauty makes up for the swamp. Between the rocks are huge glaciers. I don't think we appreciated how huge. I know that at first I thought the one in the picture was a road coming out of the mountains, you know how a road that has snow on it stays snow-covered well after the surrounding snow has melted, because traffic has compacted the snow? Then I looked at it longer and realized that it was a giant glacier. The roadlike ribbon of ice continues out of the photo to the right. I just couldn't fit it all in. Glaciers aren't very photogenic. You really have to go and look at them.

There was an RV park at the foot of one glacier, close enough that you could probably smell the ice from there. If I were to come to Alaska as a tourist in a motorhome, I would definitely want to stay at that RV park. While the mountains with their glaciers and bad weather are to the left, the hills to the right have a curious sandy quality to them. Maybe it's different rock, or maybe just the way the weather comes through that have given them different erosion or vegetation. I need a geologist to follow me around and tell me what I see.

The sandstone side approaches the rock side more closely and we go to the right of a hill in between the two. That turns out to be a shame, because as we come out the other side of the hill we realize we missed a close flyby of another glacier. Maybe on the way back. If we were doing this for fun we would definitely have headed over closer to check out the glaciers better, but we have a customs ETA into Anchorage soon, and we're not being paid to sightsee.

Also recall that we have been unable to buy proper Alaska charts. We're working off the GPS database and the information I've researched on the net and printed off. It should be pretty good, but you never know. We should be within radio contact of Anchorage around the next corner. We are, and the Anchorage area is a long, broad inlet. We pick up the ATIS approaching Wasilla--yes the Wasilla of which Sarah Palin was mayor. It appears to be a suburb of Anchorage rather than the isolated Alaskan village I had pictured. There are dozens of airports on the delta. I call Anchorage approach with our position, and intentions, and they assign us a squawk code and ask if we're familiar with the something-or-other VFR route. We're not, so they give us a vector. We rejoice. A vector means we can't screw up too horrifically now. We're under ATC control. As long as we do what we're told and we can't blunder into any airspace we didn't know about. Real professional, I know. I promise I'm embarrassed about this.

The vector takes us downwind along the west shore of the inlet, then they give us a new vector, taking us further west. I think at first that I've misheard the instruction, it's away from the airport and we're already 20 miles away, but that's where they want us to go. We hook up with a base leg, and then final. I have the airport diagram out and verify our assigned runway, 7L. It intersects runway 14 a thousand or so feet in.

A couple miles back on final the controller asks us where we are parking. I'm glad I did my research and can answer with the name of the FBO. I call back on short final to add that we're going to customs first. I don't know whether their question was to determine whom to bill for our landing fee, or what taxi instructions to give us, so now they have both pieces of information.

Flaps are down, gear is down, cleared to land--we were cleared to land ages ago--and then just as we flare they ask us to go around. We don't see the reason, but the controller obviously does so we don't question it. The PIC does a textbook go around, transitioning from going down to going up very smoothly and cleaning up the airplane. We then follow further instructions to turn around and fly a close right downwind for another try. We are rolling out of the 180 when the controller changes his mind again, "Can you accept runway 32 from there?" It's a complete chop and drop, with runway 32 right there off our right wing but my coworker nods and we put it on the runway. This actually puts us closer to customs. It's almost straight in front of us as we turn off at the first convenient taxiway.

The controller thanks us for our cooperation and gives us a long taxi clearance which I copy down and read back. Much of PANC is one huge stretch of pavement with taxiways being defined routes over that slab. I don't get to just beeline across the pavement to the customs hall. I always find it a little harder to find my turns in this scenario. I like it when there's grass or dirt between the taxiways. I study the taxiway diagram then realize that the route we've been given does not go to customs. It's to the FBO. I call ground back and reiterate our need to clear customs, so they give us a new taxi clearance. We successfully find customs and shut down. I pull out the aircraft documents, my licence and passport, and the rest of our paperwork, and then open the rear door for the arrival of the customs agent.

He comes out quite quickly and is friendly. After checking the airplane paperwork against the letters painted on the vertical stabilizer, he asks us to bring our paperwork and come inside. We follow him through a secured door into an enormous customs hall, an area that could accommodate a B747 full of people, but aside from a few other customs officers, no one else is there. He takes us over to the desk labelled "crew line," where someone else checks our paperwork and types things into his computer. They also direct us to a phone where we can close our VFR flight plan. Our customs escort is also a pilot; we soon learn that practically everyone in Alaska is. I think we disappoint him by not remembering the names of the passes and glaciers along our route. I feel a little guilty knowing that this casually executed, spontaneous and underplanned jaunt is the trip of a lifetime that I'm sure many pilots spend years plotting. Sorry.

Back in the airplane we start up and taxi to the south side of the airport. Ground switches us to tower in order to taxi across the parallel runways, one of which temporarily doesn't exist, due to construction. A friendly woman with a stop/slow sign waves as we taxi through the construction zone. I'm guessing that airplanes always have right of way through construction, and her job is to stop any trucks that might be approaching as we move through. The FBO is the first one on the other side and we park and shut down under the direction of a marshaller.

We take our bags and head inside. There is great consternation amongst the staff that they didn't know we were coming. One of them has dialed the manager, who isn't in today, and he gives me the phone. Darn. The guy I spoke to didn't make it clear that I needed an explicit reservation. I guess he thought all airports were like that. The manager, however, apologizes profusely for not being prepared for our arrival. I affirm that I did call ahead, but didn't give a definite arrival time or date because I didn't know for sure at the time. Is this going to be a problem? I tell him that I don't need anything special like ice. As I say that, it occurs to me that ice is amusingly far from "something special" in Alaska, so I amend it to caviar sandwiches. The manager, whose name is Louis, says that he could probably get us caviar sandwiches if we wanted them, and that we are welcome to stay there. I guess we pass the screening.

The one thing we do need is charts. Those turn out to be a bit of a problem. We describe the ones we want, but they only have some expired ones for reference. Louis makes some calls and then tells us where we can get them. They aren't available on the field, but there are two sources, one quite near our hotel and another an FBO at a nearby airport.

Meanwhile our customers have arrived via the airlines so they come and pick us up. We check into the hotel, which has small but nice rooms, and the twenty-four hours of daylight mean that I don't really mind that most of the lightbulbs are missing. There is a comfortable windowseat with a view of the mountains. Just before I go to bed I find out what the job here is. Oh boy. This is going to take some diplomacy.

Also, a former senator with the same name as the airport, Ted Stevens, just died in an air crash. I think he may be the airport namesake even though he was still alive when the airport was named. Americans don't always seem to wait until people are dead before naming things after them.

Monday, August 16, 2010

On the Marge

The next day we load the airplane with our personal gear, cursing as usual the paucity of tiedown points in this thing. Once everything is packed and secured, I call the customs broker to tell him we really are going today. He's used to our 'hurry up and wait' schedules, but now the US won't let us postpone arrival permission from day to day, so he can't file the paperwork and let us catch up to it anymore. Everything has to be done the same day. Good thing I called, because a pilot switch means he doesn't have all the current details on my coworker. I grab his passport out of his bag and provide the broker with the relevant details, and with an estimated time and place for our penetration of US airspace en route. I have to call him again from Whitehorse to get a fax sent to the FBO.

It's very weird for me to be going north across the border to the US. I'm used to going north out of the usual infrastructure of Canadian life. And I'm used to going south across the US border. I'm afraid I'm going to forget some basic rule of going to the US, just because I'm going the wrong way. To me the US being "south of the border" is as cliched as Mexico is in the US. I just received an Aeroplan e-mail that starts "Want to take flight south of the border? Treat yourself to a 10% discount with Aeroplan." It's valid for any flight to the U.S. Imagine if Mexico had a part that was right in the middle of Kansas and that's how disorienting this is.

We take off and fly north, or actually mostly west. It's almost due west by the compass, because the magnetic variation is 21 degrees here. The weather is spectacular in BC and the Yukon. I follow on paper maps to identify the mountains and lakes. We're coming up on Whitehorse, but we're almost parallel to the BC-Yukon border, converging very slowly. We'll cross it just shortly before reaching Whitehorse.

I have a memory of there being something irregular about radio procedures in Whitehorse, but I search the CFS and can't find anything odd. I tune the tower a long way out to get situational awareness coming in. A pilot on frequency position reports "coming up on Lake Leberge" and I freak out. No, not because he's at our position and altitude, but because he's on the marge of Lake Lebarge. My innocent crewmate is 'treated' to a sudden Robert Service recitation.

There are strange things done in the Midnight Sun
By the men who moil for gold.
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your bllod run cold.
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake LaBarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

I would have gone on, but mercifully I didn't know any more by heart. I resolved to rectify that at my earliest convenience, but I think that's after my other resolutions about running, simming and building a solar-powered hovercraft, so don't ask me about it soon.

Except for poetic outbursts, descent into Whitehorse is routine. The field is easy to spot and we're sequenced number four for landing, behind a Convair, then resequenced number four again after the first guy lands, because a faster aircraft turned up to fill in one of the gaps. Pretty adept work for what I believe is a non-radar tower. As we exit the runway, on a cross runway, tower asks us where we're going on the field. I say something like "Looking for avgas" or "to refuel" and we're given taxi instructions up a hill. Just when you think you're at a modern airport. At the top of the hill is a little charter operation, or maybe a repair shop, but nothing that looks like a fuel pump. We wave off the marshaller, do a very awkward one-eighty and call back ATC for clarification. They confirm that there is no fuel up here. Whatever I said coming off the runway sounded like the name of the company based up that hill. we taxi back down the hill and across the cross runway, and park where we should have gone in the first place.

We go into the FBO and ask about fuel. It will be about forty-five minutes, because the fuel truck, just went up the hill to fuel a charter fleet. We pick a safe estimated time of departure and divvy up duties: I'll take care of customs and fuel while he does weather and files a flight plan. I also get their fax number and permission to receive a fax. He calls 1-866-WX-BRIEF while I call the customs broker and fill out a fuel order form.

The fax is several pages of all the dirt US customs wants to know about us. I page through it to make sure everything has printed properly and there aren't any glaring inaccuracies. They spelled our names right, anyway. The fueller arrives ahead of schedule and I direct him which tanks to fill, then sign his paperwork.

There are a lot of other aircraft around, some military, I didn't notice whose, and a small fleet of firefighting aircraft from Saskatchewan. They've been working in Alaska, helping to fight forest fires. I didn't know we gave international aid to the Americans. I wonder if the Americans chartered the Canadian firefighting capability, or if there's simply an international agreement and we come to each other's aid in the burning forests. Probably the former. I'm such a communist to think of the latter.

The other pilot, he's the PIC on the customs paperwork, comes back with an 'everything old is new again' discovery. He says that when he called Flight Services they said, "Why don't you come on over?" and they gave him a face-to-face briefing. He's exhilarating in the experience of being right there with a briefer who could point at things on weather charts and at how much easier it was to get a complete picture of the weather. He's too young to remember that that was the way things used to be everywhere. They didn't have GFAs back then, and I don't think the satellite imagery was as good, but it is a good feeling to have an in-person weather briefing. Especially when it was that same person that you were talking to on the radio as you taxied out for departure. The weather is low on the south route, so we'll have to follow the Alaska highway and then cut south down the valley to Anchorage. That makes the trip a bit longer, but within our contingency planning. Also the Alaska-Canada border at Beaver Creek doesn't count as ADIZ, so we don't need to worry about being super accurate with the crossing time.

I call US Customs in Anchorage with our recalculated ETA, and to ensure that they received their share of the paperwork. You'd think this could all be more automated or less labour intensive, but when your dealing with international travel nothing is predicable enough not to worry about. In this case the Americans are ready for our arrival.

Also: I'm looking for someone who has easy access to CYPK who could do a fun favour for me in the next few days. Please e-mail me if you think you could.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Visual Lookout

Depending on how closely you follow NASCAR and/or the EAA Airventure (a.k.a "Oshkosh") you may know that NASCAR owner Jack Roush crashed his Hawker-Beechcraft jet during arrival at the Oshkosh event. The above link is to news coverage after the fact. The NTSB report refers to amateur video of the crash, but I haven't found it posted.

The NTSB report says:

A review of amateur video taken at KOSH showed the accident airplane in a left base turn to final for runway 18R. The airplane appeared to overshoot the runway centerline during this turn and then level its wings momentarily before entering a slight right bank simultaneously as the nose of the airplane pitched up. The airplane then turned left toward the runway centerline and began a descent. During this descent the airplane’s pitch appeared to increase until the airplane entered a right bank and struck the grass area west of the runway in a nose down, right wing low attitude.

The above, eyewitness accounts on the news, and the following description of the situation from Mark Martin (Roush's friend, former driver for Roush's team, and a pilot) suggest that he was distracted by traffic and slowed the airplane too much while manoevering for the field.

Jack got in a situation where he thought, "How am I going to get out of this without hitting somebody?" Because of all the things that were going on, which is exactly what I thought would happen, because, you know, he's in a jet and there are some very small aircraft at different speeds and those kinds of things, and he just got in a situation where he was uncertain about how he was going to make it all work, got slow and tried to get slowed down and got a little too slow and whatever.

"Stall speed," the lowest possible flying speed for an airplane, increases with bank angle, so a wing that is flying straight and level may stall as soon as the airplane banks, without a reduction in speed.

Oshkosh is an incredibly busy piece of airspace during airshow week, and they do crazy things to accommodate the rate of landing aircraft. Oshkosh arrival procedures are set up for aircraft of different speeds. Pilots choose either the 90 knot stream or the 135 knot stream, but are encouraged to fly at 90 kts if they can. The way they are handled and the spacing they are required to maintain means that Roush shouldn't have been forced to tuck in behind someone in a Cessna on final approach at 55 knots. The NTSB video analysis and eyewitnesses don't mention conflicting traffic. The standard VFR arrival is a right base for a combined final to 18L/18R, with the air traffic controllers directing aircraft left and right. On the left base arrival he was supposed to turn left base directly towards the blue dot, partway down the runway. If he was late on that turn he could have put himself into conflict with arriving slower traffic. We do know his final turn was late so he was slightly past the final approach course where he was supposed to be, right of the centreline on runway 18R, further from traffic on 18L, and towards a shaded "do not fly" zone over airshow guests. I wonder if another aircraft was arriving on a right base for a different touchdown spot for 18R and that was an issue. My internet connection here isn't good enough to download the full NOTAM pdf, or to find some stall speed numbers on the airplane he was flying. The runway "18R" on which he was cleared to land is normally just 18, and runway "18L" is a taxiway the rest of the year. Amusingly the media are calling it "runway 1836" perhaps after NOTAMs or airport signs that would call the piece of pavement "runway 18-36" after its two ends.

Another source, which I don't recommend you click because it is making my computer screen flash--I think it's trying to load pop-ups--states that Mr. Roush was initiating a go around right before the crash. I think that may be just because he went to full power in an attempt to recover from the stall. Mr. Roush doesn't mention that in his description, "Basically a landing accident, based on a conflict in airspace with another airplane, after I'd been given clearance to land."

I assume he was flying with the 135 knot contingent, and not the 90 knot aircraft. I wouldn't try to do an arrival at 90 kts in my bird. It's theoretically possible, but not safe.

The article that caught my attention was this one, with a pull quote from Roush claiming that there is no FAA restriction on private pilots with monocular vision, "except maybe airline pilots." I believe one-eyed US pilots do have to demonstrate ability to compensate, but after that, they can become airline pilots.

ICAO medical standards require binocular vision, but "flexibility based on national experience may be applied," so Canada makes an exception for the licensing of monocular vision private pilots, and on a case-by-case basis, sometimes with restrictions for commercial pilots who lose vision in one eye.

This is Roush's second airplane crash. His first was a crash of an experimental homebuilt into a lake, an accident which the NTSB attributed to "the pilot's decision to fly at low altitude and his improper visual lookout resulting in an in-flight collision static with wires."

He had two car crashes as a racing driver, too. I could say he just lives fast and takes risks, but overshooting the runway centreline when he was already slowed to below his normal approach speed suggests that he didn't have exceptional control of the airplane. Considering the quantity of recording equipment and witnesses involved, there's lots to work with to determine what happened. I'll be interested to see the full report when the NTSB completes their investigation.