Thursday, September 16, 2010

Good Thing We Weren't in Outer Space

I check the oxygen equipment and set up the oxygen bottle so I can reach the valve from my seat. The oxygen bottle has its own nylon pouch, which protects it from getting scratched or getting dirt in the valve, and the pouch has pockets for the instructions and accessories and straps for carrying it, so it's easy to secure the whole thing so it can't ricochet through the cabin in turbulence. Sometimes you just have a naked oxygen bottle and those are hard to confidently secure. I've also seen pilots just stick the whole thing in a seatback pocket, as if to say, "so long as I have oxygen it doesn't matter if I'm struck in the back of the head by a heavy object."

I run up the airplane. The altitude makes the engines run very rich. Once I am lined up on the runway, I even lean it a little for the take-off, just enough for it to run smoothly. The takeoff now seems to take forever in the thin, high altitude air. The afternoon is going to be hotter and make the air even thinner. That's why the runways are so long out here.

Climbing through 10,000' I try to turn the valve on, but I can't quite get it to work, damnit. I have to get the mission specialist to get it for me. I should have just left it on and controlled it from the little valve on the canula. I adjust that little valve now so the tiny indicator ball lines up with the gradation matching my altitude. I'm sucking oxygen through my nose, but it's hard to tell if it's working, because oxygen is odorless. I check my blood oxygen with a clip on meter.

The heat of the day drives cumulus development again. The same line of thunderstorms probably forms every day. The thunderheads don't seem as high as they do in the Canadian prairies, even though the tropopause is higher, so they are probably higher. I suppose it's because we are higher already, so there isn't as much vertical volume for them to build in. Below us are dry fields. I see something that the mission specialist says is a coal mine. It's an open mine, not the underground kind that they have in West Virginia, hence the lack of tragic news stories associated with midwest mining, the way there are in the east. That was a lazily constructed sentence, but I'm not fixing it, so there.

As I come in to land, I know what is going to happen and I work to compensate, but not quite enough to get it perfect. Although I am flying at the correct indicated airspeed into a very light wind, the countryside is racing by as if I had a horrific tailwind. The air is so thin that I need to go faster over the ground in order to fly through air at the same rate. It's like if you play the same Pac-Man game on a giant monitor, the little yellow guy seems to go twice as fast, even though he's getting the same number of dots. The illusion that I'm going fast makes me think I have more energy than I do. I should have done just a little flare and let the high groundspeed come off on the rollout, but instead I try to land just a touch too slowly and the touchdown is firm. "Sorry," I say, "Getting used to the altitude."

"We were going faster than usual, weren't we," says my critic from the back. Actually, I explain, we were going a touch slower than usual; it just looked faster, which is why I went too slowly and why it wasn't that great. He says he was looking at the GPS and it was faster. I'm not sure he believed my, "Faster groundspeed, yes, but slower airspeed," explanation. Next time how about I just not screw up.

The oxygen gauge is just on the edge of the red. I take the bottle and get in the passenger seat of the other mission specialist's truck to go to get an oxygen fill at the next airport over, while the afternoon pilot fuels and otherwise prepares for the next flight. It's about a twenty minute drive to the bigger airport. It has a couple of different names, because it's a regional airport as well as a local one, but it's well-signed and we find the FBO right away. I've used an FBO of this franchise before in another state. The customer waits outside in the air conditioned car, listening to satellite radio, while I go in with the oxygen bottle. There's another customer at the counter, so I wait and then make my request.

"Oh, sorry," she tells me cheerfully. "The A&P is the only one qualified to use the oxygen equipment and he goes home at one."

To be perfectly fair, when I called yesterday I asked if they provided oxygen service and then asked immediately what their hours were. I didn't specifically ask whether oxygen service was provided throughout their opening hours. But I think that was implied strongly enough that I have a right to be ticked. Rather than making her defuse an annoyed would-be customer I make her expend the same energy more usefully. Her place of business-- whether it was her or not on the phone last night I can't say--implied that I could get oxygen here yesterday, so she is going to figure out where I can get oxygen. I ask her to where I can get an oxygen fill on a Sunday, to call and confirm that I can really get O2 there, and when she doesn't get an answer at first, to see if she can call out the one guy who knows how to use the oxygen equipment, for a fee. She finds someone at the next airport along the road that is there and can fill the bottle. It's another forty-five minutes drive or so and then we have to come back with it. I thank her and get back in the truck to break the bad news.

It's not a bad drive, really. Air conditioned truck, compatible taste in music, fences, bluffs, cattle, authentic western scenery. Someone I know was going to be driving a motorhome up here, all the way from Indiana this month. If you pretend you came some place for a vacation you can usually make it into a fun adventure, and if it's so bad you couldn't imagine going there on purpose, you can at least thank your lucky stars you're not stupid enough to have gone there without being paid. We eventually get to the proper airport and find the FBO, which appears to be named "FBO." A flight instructor takes the bottle and looks at me strangely when I say that the previous airport said only the A&P could do it. Clearly he doesn't think this is a technical job. He brings it back. The gauge reads full. Presumably it will keep our sats up rather than making us talk in a squeaky voice. I pay for it and then get back in the truck for the long drive back.

There's an air conditioned pilot lounge at the airport, so my colleagues isn't baking out there on the ramp. The mission specialist drops me back at the hotel and then he goes flying.

Some idiot is buzzing the town in the evening while I'm trying to sleep. Over and over again. He's doing circuits, I guess what he as an American would call "staying in the pattern," but he's clearly not climbing out at an optimal rate after each takeoff. If I knew where you slept, bozo, I would buzz it at six tomorrow morning.


Rhonda said...

I find it hard to believe there is a place so bad you can't find adventure in it, Aviatrix...

Sarah said...

Oxygen tanks and the refill scare me a little bit. I've heard stories about what can happen with careless use ( grease or oil on the fittings ) and have a healthy respect for O2 fueled fires. So I'm glad to have someone work on them that knows what they're doing, though requiring a mechanic is a bit much.

It does sound like this isn't a favorite place. Aviatrix is even grumping about airplane noise! Was it dark? If so, I did the same thing an evening last week. It can be tough for a private pilot to stay "night current", with 3-in-90-days - odd as it may sound to someone who flies for a living, sometimes all night.

Anonymous said...

Aviatrix, I know you would never do this, and am not suggesting that you do, but...

I get my oxygen tank filled with industrial oxygen at the local welding supply company. They also sell ABO but, and this is from the owner's own mouth: "They all (industrial, medical, ABO) are the same gas from the same source, the difference is insurance".

I've seen one major aviation oxygen manufacturer say the same, and interviewed another who was in the aviation and medical oxygen business for many years tell me this as well.

Ed said...

Apart from the obvious with grease or oil, the way you can mess up filling oxygen bottles is to take from the fullest tank first. The trick is to fill from the lowest pressure tank which has higher pressure than the bottle being filled and progressively use higher pressure tanks in turn. That way you keep a tank available for topping off at the highest pressure.

My bet would be that somebody got this wrong so the A&P said "hands off" to everybody else.