Sunday, October 31, 2010

Knowledge is not a Democratic Principle

I wanted to write a post about something scary for Hallowe'en, and I think I just found it. I came across this question and answer. The asker wants to know if he can use the Archimedes principle to weigh an airplane without a scale. And he knows that Archimedes developed this principle to determine whether a crown purported to be solid gold was indeed solid gold.

Several people tried to answer this question. Two suggested that the way to do this would be to completely submerge the airplane, evacuating all air. One concluded that this would work, assuming one knew the density and composition of the materials from which the airplane was made ("measure the volume of water displaced and multiply it by the mean average density of the plane to get the weight") and the other, citing "I'm a vampire blur" as sources concluded that such calculations were not possible, "so neh." Three suggested floating the aircraft and one didn't read the question properly, so suggested weighing the airplane on scales, using more or less the methodology cited by the asker in the original question.

The Archimedes principle is this:

"When a body is wholly or partially immersed in water, the upthrust, or loss of weight is equal to the weight of the water displaced."

One of the people who gave me my start in science and mathematics had come from an educational tradition where students learned things by rote memorization and demonstrated their knowledge by standing next to their desks and reciting them. A generation or so earlier they probably had to say it in the original Greek. That was never demanded of me, in any language, but when learned snippets of natural philosophy are recited by someone you respect, they stick anyway. I never have to look that up. Rote memorization is obviously not sufficient for understanding and application, but it's an anchor for the knowledge.

An airplane could be weighed by the water displacement method if you put it on a floating platform in a tank of water, and noted the water level in the tank. Then you hoist the airplane off the platform and measure how much water you must pump in to fill the tank back to the identical water level. That is the amount of water the weight of the airplane displaced, and by multiplying its volume (which you measured while pumping) by its density at that temperature, you have the weight of the airplane. That's easier than filling the tank to the brim without the airplane then collecting and weighing the water that spills over the top when you add the airplane, but it's functionally identical.

But because this is the way the world works now, on people voted on which was the correct answer. The vampire blur who wanted to sink the airplane "won." I know this is by no means the nadir of stupidity in online question and answer polls. You might tell me not to get too upset about this because he only received two votes and one of the floaters received one, but it's a second risk of the democratization of knowledge: not only has popularity become the definition of truth, but low voter turnout makes it easy to influence "truth."

Once upon a time in some parts of human history, when people didn't know things and they couldn't easily test them for themselves, they went to people who were wise, or powerful or lucky and asked them for the truth. What they said was accepted as the truth, even in the face of meticulous contradictory observations. Then came the scientific revolution. It wasn't about new knowledge. It was about how we know knowledge. We test it in a way that anyone can reproduce, and experience as truth instead of being told. That's the purpose of laboratory science training in schools, to show students that what they are learning is real and discoverable, not rote and on faith. Scientists worked in Latin and Greek not to be obscure and elitist, but to communicate. The Greeks and the Romans had the first literate engineers in the western world, and theirs became the tradition for communication. Newton reported on some of his discoveries in English, and despite a few centuries of language change, it's some of the most clear readable reporting of primary scientific results you'll ever read. It's not laden with jargon, just uses and defines existing terminology for the phenomena.

Since then knowledge has become more esoteric, experiments more expensive, scientific language more obscure, and people have to rely not only on others to do their experiments for them, but on others to read the results and filter them. We've gone back to individuals choosing which wise man they will turn to, and we've lost the distinction between philosophy and experimental knowledge. There's nothing wrong with turning to someone whose experience, subject knowledge and capacity for thought is greater than yours and asking for help understanding the world. There's nothing wrong with taking ones own knowledge of the world and trying to share it with others (at least there had better not be, because I do it all the time). But it results in a breakdown in the distinction between what is empirical fact and what is opinion. There is very little real historical fact. Some bones, some photographs, some rusted swords, are all. We assume that when numerous sources close in time and space to the occurrence agree with each other and with the physical evidence that we have historical fact, but we have to be open to the possibility of collusion by the only people who knew the truth. Wikipedia has rapidly become a major source of information for individuals and for the media we depend on to give us a broader view. Wikipedia is kind of a shoutocracy. When the only version of events that anyone looks at is the one laid down by he who shouts loudest, then did anything else really happen. Ethics have no empirical truth, and all we can do to determine which are right is to consult our wise people, our consciences, and the norms of our society. But some things are either real or not, and when there is a conflict among voices on determinable facts, but the "winner" is determined by volume1, popularity, tenacity, intimidation, tradition or apathy, that is very scary. Happy Hallowe'en.

1. Not by immersion in water, but that might be nice, in certain cases, incidentally settling the matter of who is a witch, just in time for Hallowe'en.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Other Projects

I was going to write a blog entry today, really I was, but I don't have time. It was going to be about a project reader Townmouse is associated with, a project to rebuild a Link trainer.

Update: Sorry, there's no information on the link trainer there, just about the museum where it is happening. Townmouse says in the comments:

Yay! Thanks for the link to the museum site - there probably won't be anything there about the link trainer project because the whole place is run by old boys in overalls who are much happier with a spanner in their hands than sitting at a computer. My other half (despite not having any overalls and not being that old) is busy taking the Link trainer apart piece by piece and lovingly restoring it. It's a fascinating project because the trainer itself was based on player piano and organ technology so it's all operated by bellows and vacuum pipes and the electronics are 40s technology, if that. Complicated doesn't even begin to describe it. A few people have restored them and there are a few resources around on the internet but mostly it's been a question of looking at the original manual and tinkering. A few weeks ago they managed to get it turning and pitching under power, although there's still a long way to go

If anyone is in SouthWest Scotland and is interested, it's being restored right there in the museum in a polytunnel so go and have a look. In fact, I recommend the museum to anyone in the area who's interested in old planes and world war 2. It's run entirely by volunteers and while not the slickest museum in the world, it's full of interesting stuff and they let you climb into most of the planes and make aeroplane noises if you like.

Friday, October 29, 2010

True, Magnetic and Whatever

I'm up north, and I have a whack of GPS equipment on board that tells me which way is which, so the lowly whiskey compass at the top of the windshield doesn't get much regard. Not that I disregard it. A compass is a very cool device, incredibly low tech, but working all over the planet without power. I can imagine an advanced technological society that had lost the knowledge of compass navigation. They could have built so many structures, electronic devices and power transmission lines that compasses didn't work most places, and have so much signage and technological assistance that no one used them anyway.

The Earth's magnetic field lines, with which a compass aligns, encircle the planet emerging from and disappearing into the poles. My compass is a hemispheric shell suspended by a point in liquid (the "whiskey") and free to rotate and tilt to align with the local magnetic field. I can't use it to roll out on a heading because the turning errors are enormous at this latitude, and even in level unaccelerated flight the tilt of the bowl is such that it's not easy to read.

The HSI is a kind of stabilized compass, as it gets its information from a magnetic compass, but right now mine isn't working. It hasn't been removed from the aircraft, because we're planning to go south to Edmonton soon. There's an avionics shop with an excellent reputation there, and the AME wants them to examine the HSI in situ. That would allow them to spot if it's something simple and removes the risk and cost associated with removing and shipping it, especially as we're still orbiting the black hole of postal and shipping services. In the absence of an HSI, I'm setting the copilot side directional gyro; habit and original training makes me look at the compass to do this, even though I have far more information available from the GPS and INS.

I'm tracking 270 degrees true, and the compass reads 260 degrees, which is obviously a magnetic reading. The chart says the local magnetic variation is 23 degrees east of true. The compass correction card says for 270 degrees steer 272, and is reasonably consistent from south through west, and it's dated last month. The computer says I'm crabbing four degrees to the north. How do I put that together to make any sense?

270 true minus 23E suggests we're tracking 247 degrees magnetic, but we're crabbing four degrees north, which makes a heading of 251 magnetic, for which I should steer 253 magnetic. So there are seven degrees missing. I'm willing to believe it's the result of all the extra kit that wasn't running when the compass was swung, because we stow some of the valuable non-aviation equipment before giving the airplane over for extended maintenance. Either that or the universe is wrong.

Eastbound on the exact reciprocal track of 090 true, the compass reads about 035, but I didn't write all the associated numbers down, so I can't play with them.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

All Aboard the Pan Am Clipper Ship

At the beginning of the year, I introduced you to Elizabeth, who spends much of her spare time, energy and money on the Postcard Project, sending postcards to anyone who wants one, especially to those whose lives are improved by the gesture. She's still alive, beating all kinds of odds, and still sending hundreds of personally selected and hand-decorated postcards. I keep telling her not to send them to me because firstly I'm never home to receive them, secondly she really does have limited resources, and thirdly I didn't think she was ever going to beat the very first card she sent me. But just as she defies the expectations of all medical professionals, Elizabeth defies any attempt to get her to stop sending postcards. And I think she may have found a better one.

It's not just a postcard, but an actual card depicting the boarding process on a "Giant 32 Passenger Pan American Flying Clipper Ship." That's a flying boat, a seaplane, with a giant high wing fitted with four Pratt & Whitney engines. I can only see three in the picture, but I assume it's an S-42 and that artistic licence has hidden the edge of the fourth engine in the picture, so they didn't have to depict part of the engine cut off by the frame.

Elizabeth puts a lot of pictures of pictures on her blog, and they don't have big camera flash solarization marks on them. I found out how she does it, too. She waits for a sunny day and photographs them in natural sunlight. Next I'll have to get her to teach me how to make them not be crooked.

I've never flown an airplane of that size, especially not a seaplane. My experience of flying boats is that on account of the hull being down at water level, I don't have a good enough view of the water around me to spot sticks and deadheads and waves. It's nerve-wracking not knowing for sure that your takeoff surface is clear. I see that a number of the clippers were destroyed in take-off accidents so perhaps my caution is justified.

When I told Elizabeth I would be posting this one on my blog she urged me to tell you that she has other classic airplane and car postcards, plus railway, cats, dogs and space. I only ask that if you're going to take advantage of her generosity that you consider getting something for her, from her wishlist.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Rivers and Mountains and Chocolate

I sleep for not long enough, but there's too much noise and light to sleep more, so I get up and make a phone call. I sit on hold for half an hour. I ordered The West Wing complete series earlier but the friend who receives mail for me e-mailed to say he already owned it and I could borrow his any time. So I wait on hold until I get a Return Authorization Number to send mine back, then go for breakfast. I take the Do Not Disturb sign off the door for my weekly room cleaning.

I get back from breakfast (a waffle). The room is cleanish, but the TV is still not fixed. So I nap. Then I go to Boston Pizza. May I go home yet?

The a.m. crew got off to a late start again. Fog, of course. I meet them after landing at four and we discuss a brake that was spongy on the taxi out, and the left inboard fuel gauge showing half full between half and quarter tanks. Neither of these is groundable now, so the AME says he will look at them tonight. That discussion over, I say, "Well, I guess it's time to make airplane noises," and both the other pilot and my mission specialist immediately and simultaneousy make propeller noises with their lips. I love my coworkers. We get in and make airplane noises using the actual airplane.

It's a good flight, out over the mountains and rivers, with the sun slowly creeping past the layers of clouds down to the horizon. The clouds serve as a sunshade from the glare of the sunset. I'm grateful when they do that. Finally the sun does go all the way down, and then darkness follows, about the time that we're almost done anyway. We finish up and head back to the airport. It's harder to track a straight line in darkness, especially without an HSI. I scan across to the right side one, and use the GPS. I might be quite literally lost without them. The compass is not that useful here. The wisdom of the rule stating that I need a heading indicator at night is sound.

The airport is invisible on our first pass, because we're not in the direction of a runway and the trees alongside the airport block the edge lights I might have seen. Or maybe they weren't turned up yet. They are bright enough to find the airport, and on final I have red-blue-green and a light in the mirror. (That's the red mixture levers forward, the blue propeller levers forward, three green lights on the dashboard and the light mounted on the nosewheel reflecting off the mirror on the nacelle, confirming that the nosegear is down and the landing light works.

I'm wired after the night flying. I haven't done a night landing in ages, having been the morning pilot or in the north all summer. It's still legal for me to have done one tonight because there are no passengers on board, just crew. It goes well. I guess I haven't forgotten how. The AME meets airplane as I shut down, here to look at the gauge issues reported by the a.m. pilot. I can't confirm the fuel gauge issue because I landed with half tanks on the inboards, and the brakes worked fine for me. He opens an access panel to confirm the type of fuel sender. He'll order a new one.

The FBO charges $50 for a callout between five and nine pm and $100 for one between nine pm and seven a.m. Fog is not forecast tomorrow, and even if they don't get going before seven, they will want fuel first thing, so we decide to pay the $100 callout fee now, and not risk not being able to get a fueller to come on Sunday a.m. Sometimes you can't buy fuel before noon on a Sunday at all. It's not that they are closed, just that you can't get anyone to come out. Just because there's a callout phone doesn't mean the person who took it home is going to answer it. They answer my night call--I did warn him we might call around midnight. It looks like the fueller's friends have decided to keep him callout company. There are about half a dozen people here, one wearing pajama bottoms. I ask if I may just leave now and come back and pay tomorrow. They okay that, so yay, day over.

I've had the same very slight headache for three days. I self-medicate with chocolate.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Value of Reality TV

Today is the 109th anniversary of the birth of Beryl Markham. She was the first pilot to fly non-stop from England to North America, worked as a bush pilot in Africa, bred and trained thoroughbred racehorses, hunted with Kenyan tribesmen, and wrote a novel that made Ernest Hemmingway say he felt ashamed of himself as a writer.

By all accounts she would have competed just fine with modern reality TV folk. Gorgeous and manipulative, she persuaded a string of men to finance her aviation adventures, and may have had help from Antoine de Saint Exupéry, one of her many lovers, to write that well-received book. Hemmingway also called her a high-grade bitch. Hmm, I wonder if she ever met Jean Batten. Maybe I need to work it a little more to produce career progress.

Rather than encouraging her, most people in her society would have thought she was out of line for even trying these things. There's a movie and a handful of books about her, and a crater on Venus named for her. She died at the age of eighty-six, and not by getting lost at sea. I think most people would rather compare their accomplishments with those of reality television show competitors than with people like this, because it's intimidating to realize that we haven't achieved what she has in even one field.

Monday, October 25, 2010


I don't usually watch scary movies, but when I saw the publicity photo for this one, with the cast posing in a piston twin, its very familiar cockpit prominent in the background of the shot, I had to see it. Fortunately it isn't really movie-scary. That's not to say that pilots watching this movie won't have nightmares afterward. Let me set the scene.

A non-instrument rated pilot with only a few hours multi-engine experience, poor weather assessment skills and an affected emotional state boards all her closest friends onto an aircraft she has never flown before, with inoperative wing boots, and without providing a preflight safety briefing, securing their baggage nor performing a weight and balance calculation. She departs beneath the dark bases of towering cumulus and then attempts to outclimb them in poor visibility in mountainous terrain.
None of these factors dooms the flight, but an authoritative preflight safety briefing may have helped their case. Or maybe not, considering what the film throws at the terrified group of teens. Unlike my typical movie 'review,' I'm not going to give the whole story away. Most of the scary parts are an old-fashioned movie of the imagination with some depicted B-movie monster fun.
Although some aspects of the initial emergency that drives the plot are roll-in-the-aisles funny to anyone who knows how an airplane works, the aviation parts of the movie show the hand of a competent technical adviser. I know her. She is a commercial pilot who worked on Wings Over Canada. The pilot runs accurate checklists and, before she degenerates into screaming "MAYDAY" on multiple frequencies, makes the most authentic radio calls ever heard in a major motion picture. The weight calculation that she performs in her head (in flight, after icing become a concern) doesn't include any moment arms, but it's almost startling to hear her use terms like "basic empty weight" and explain that the stall speed will increase with weight.
Sadly the movie does not escape the "we have to lighten the load!" trope, involving throwing baggage out of the airplane, but they do avoid cutting to the fuel gauge at dramatically more frequent intervals. The pilot even leaves the Janitrol heater turned off specifically to conserve fuel. You don't realize how many things there are to know about aviation until you see the high ratio of things they got right to things they got wrong in the details.
The aircraft callsign for the purpose of the film is C-MYXZ. That's not a real callsign, as Canadian registrations never have an M after the C. Registrations are often changed for movie purposes. The Americans even have a small group of N-numbers reserved just for movies. This is the first time I've seen this particular obfuscation on a Canadian movie airplane. Maybe it's M for movie. it's like a 555 telephone number prefix for airplane registrations. The actual registration on this airplane is personalized to the owner, while YXZ is about as generic as you get.
I think not being a giant studio movie placed fewer layers between the technical advice and the finished product, and the result lends a lot more verisimilitude to the picture than you'd expect from a scary teen movie set in an airplane. Even though the director may not have intended suspense based on a VFR pilot hand flying through IMC, my heart was pounding. Spotting editing errors like an outside shot of the aircraft crossing the hold short line while the dialogue has the pilot reading back a hold short clearance, or a huge split in the mixtures when both engines are functioning normally is just part of the fun.
So is the ultimate hazard to this aircraft to be a control surface malfunction? Icing? Structural damage from turbulence? Fuel exhaustion? Loss of control from disorientation (and the pilot constantly turning her head around to talk to the people in the back)? Psychotic passengers? Hypoxia? CFIT? Not even close. Try giant space octopus. That's not a spoiler: its tentacles are right on the movie poster. Advance publicity billed this as a Lovecraftian monster movie, but monster fans will probably be disappointed. Aviation B-movie lovers should buy it right away, though.
The writer confesses that the original ending killed them all by crashing into terrain, but the actual ending is clever and satisfying. There are still a few loose ends, but I'll just call them red herrings. My largest complaint is that the visual post-processing was done overseas by a mainland China shop. This is not a quality issue, but because there's a lot of taxpayer funding in this, Kaare Andrew's first feature film, I'd rather it have gone to local talent. I'll forgive them because apparently they tried to have it done locally and then there was some screw-up; a Chinese company, with a Canadian connection, saved the film. It's filmed in Canada with anonymized airports and nav aid names, but if you've been there you'll easily spot where they really are.
It's rated restricted in the US for "language" and a "sexual gesture," but it's not a sweary or obscene movie at all. Apparently in the US, a guy hidden by a seatback who makes a gesture that suggests he may be opening his pants and waggling his wang poses potential trauma for a sixteen year old, while kids are free to see movies where someone is bludgeoned to death, so long as no blood is depicted. (I recall no bludgeoning nor bloodshed in Altitude).
As you can tell from the date on this blog entry and the direct-to- video release date of the movie, I got to see an advance showing, but I don't have a personal or financial connection to the film or its crew. I paid for my ticket and for my own copy of the DVD.

On the topic of products being released imminently by independent Canadian entertainers and of entertaining fictional death, a year or so ago one of my favourite webcomic artists, Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics, solicited stories about a world in which a person could learn the manner of their death in advance. Selected best stories have been edited into an anthology, and the book is about to be published. In an attempt to get a little bit of attention to a book that major publishing houses wouldn't accept, they ask that if you'd like to buy the book, buy it on on October 26th, in order to spike the sales and get it on Amazon's bestseller list, just for a day. A more cogent argument for that strategy is here. Again, I have no connection to the product, didn't even submit a story, but I appreciate Ryan's work, and I'd love a world where artists did wonderful things and simultaneously had enough money to support themselves, without all the intervening apparatus of the ... I want to say "dinosaur publishing world" but that would imply that they were as cool as Ryan's character T-Rex.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


I have a text at 8:45 saying the first flight was delayed due to fog. It's still foggy. I think the Season of Fog has arrived. It will persist until the Season of Frost, from which I will flee before the snow gets too deep.

I consult the first aid kit list to confirm that we have everything, and then I realize we forgot one item, an eyepatch. Of course: "pailit" "pairit" -- what's the difference? I go out and acquire an eyepatch. Except I have remembered this wrong, because I was there with another pilot and we bought a lottery ticket at the same time. We only matched two numbers, so we can't retire yet, though.

At 10:05 I receive a text message (with a timestamp of 11:05 -- all my text messages here are like that. It must be something about being close to a time zone border) The message says they are taking off now. The hotel Internet is down, so I can't look at the forecast, but it's clear outside. I make a telephone call to get weather and NOTAM for my flight. I expect them to return around 4:40 pm, so I go for a meal at 2:30. On the way out I wait a long time for underclued clerk to deal with some people at the counter, and after all that he doesn't know where to put the postcards I ask him to add to outgoing mail.

The other pilot lands and texts back that the weather failed on them. They return after a detour to the airport terminal to pick up their e-mail using the free internet there. We discuss the fuel flow readings. After the fuel servo failure we're paranoid, I guess. Yeah, the right fuel flow shows lower when it's leaned out, but I never really worried about that. I guess I chalked it up to parallax. I'll check on it if I go flying later.

The lack of Internet really cuts into my entertainment and connection with the world. I watch TV instead, although the television doesn't work that well. The remote doesn't work and the controls on the TV only have channel up and channel down, so I have to scroll though all the channels (they have cable, so there are over fifty) to get to the one I want. And any time I turn it off it goes back tot he default one advertising the hotel and the pay movies. And every once in a while the top half of the picture disappears so I can only see the bottom. I call the front desk to complain about the TV, for repair or replacement, but the promised maintenance guy never arrives.

The internet starts working a little bit. My e-mail program polls for new mail ever seven minutes, and every two hours or so it manages to actually connect and download something. But surfing the web is almost impossible. You have to keep hitting the reload button and having it time out until finally you happen to hit it during one of its brief spurts of workingness. And most websites these days require you to load more than one page, for example log in or choose from a menu, so unless I'm willing to invest half an hour in seeing a web page, I'm not seeing it. I go back to watching TV. There's a show called Say Yes to the Dress, the moral of which is "brides are crazy." Or maybe this show just deals with that segment of the population that is already stark raving bonkers, and happens to be getting married. Oh also brides' mothers are insane. I really understand how some men come away with the idea that all women are crazy. You look at something like that from a human being and you have to attribute it to something, so you go with the most obvious difference.

With television like this, I might as well do something more productive. It's around nine p.m. and I get dressed for a run, but there's a knock on the door. It's our client at the door. "Ready to go flying?" he asks.

I wasn't expecting that, as we haven't usually been going out this late, so I say something like "oh," instead of the more appropriate, "Certainly, please give me five minutes."

Before I can translate he says "just kidding." He told his boss he didn't want to go out in the dark with this terrain. I explained that the door was propped open because I was expecting TV repair. He sympathized with my internet and TV woes. His remote works a little bit and he enumerates the pieces into which the remote will dissociate if you throw it hard enough. (six).

My run is good: up to the traffic light (yes, there's a traffic light in town), across the street to the post office, up the road that goes to the airport where I pass a guy sitting on a front porch playing a country western tune on a harmonica. I don't know what it was, but it sounded good. "Hey, that's good" I yelled. Musicians deserve recognition. I continue along the same road until it connects with the other road that goes to the airport, and I follow that one back to the highway to get to the hotel. The whole route is a couple of hundred metres short of ten kilometres. It's kind of dusty with the trucks, though. Next time maybe I'll pick out a hillier route through quieter roads in town.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


It's overlap day: the replacement pilot has arrived and the guy I've been working with all month is going home tomorrow. I have another week or so to go, as our schedules have gone out of sync. We three pilots plus the AME have lunch together, making our food orders based on each other's habitual orders. There's lots of catching up to do. The latest company gossip includes the possibility of getting another type of aircraft. These overlap days are our major means of communication and sometimes the only time I see certain pilots in a year.

No one is flying today so we do errands. A recent first aid kit analysis reveals that the standard kit we have is missing four mandated items: splints, burn pads, paper and pencil. We go over to the pharmacy to stock up. "The airplane is made out of splints," I protest. The damn thing is almost entirely composed of strong lightweight aluminum splints, but I guess we have to be prepared for broken limbs in a situation where it would be simultaneously inappropriate to disassemble the airplane and impossible to summon more thoroughly equipped medical personnel. We buy the required items and go back to the hotel.

We're standing in the corridor discussing ambiguities in the maintenance control manual. Someone is just saying, "for example, if you can't get a hold of the PRM and the HSI is broken but it's day VFR ..." when an airline pilot in uniform steps into the elevator lobby and pushes the call button. Even to my peripheral vision the "hey, they're talking about airplanes!" head swivel by the airline pilot is obvious. He boards the elevator and as the doors close I can hear him being interrogated by others in the elevator, "what airline do you fly for?" It's a boon to be recognizable as pilots only by the way we talk, and not by the way we look.

Before my outgoing colleague goes back to his room I wish him well for his month out, in case I don't see him in the morning before his flight, and ask him if he happened to buy any charts I should know about. Gotcha back!

Friday, October 22, 2010

He Bought Charts

Another day, another meal at Boston Pizza. I sleep in, then have microwave oatmeal and an apple for breakfast. We take off but don't get much done because we soon run into rain and cloud at our altitude and that interferes with the work we have to do today. Back at the airport the wind is reported to be 270 at fifteen knots gusting to something. I land on the most into-wind runway, which still gives me a crosswind but it's not a problem for this airplane.

I go back to my room and write postcards before yet another meal at Boston Pizza. My coworker is going home in a couple of days, so he keeps telling me things he might have forgotten to mention when I first came on shift. Today is around the third time that he tells me that he bought current IFR charts I finally tell him, "It's okay, you told me about the charts. I remember."

I go and do some grocery shopping, then on the way back I meet him again. "Oh Aviatrix, I just wanted to make sure you knew I bought charts..." He's joking this time, and I swat at him after he laughs at the "oh my god, my coworker is losing it!" look on my face.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Best Stories

I flip on the TV guide channel and wait for it to scroll to the channels that there is a chance of me watching. But it's not the listings of channel numbers, names and shows that captures my attention. Instead of the usual advertising or muzak, the audio for the cable listings channel is a local radio station, and they are just introducing a dramatic reading of Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. There is definitely nothing better than this to switch to listed on the TV guide, so I listen. I'm familiar with the story, but its been a long time since I've read it, so I don't remember exactly when it ended, although of course I remember where and how. It's an excellent story, so I'm being vague so I won't spoil the ending for anyone who hasn't read it.

I appreciated the storytelling, both by the reader and the author Ambrose Bierce. On first reading, each detail makes perfect sense in the narrative and then later when you know what is coming it still makes sense with the real story. I also like the way at first the protagonist is a sympathetic character, so we're rooting for him, then as we learn a little at a time more about the way he treats people, we don't like him as much, just in time to be shocked but not disappointed by the ending.

I read a modern version of the story once, involving thieves who make their getaway down an empty elevator shaft. It still captures the imagination, but it wasn't written with the same complex layers and attention to both readings of the story.

This is my opportunity to segue from that well-written fictional story to your opportunity to vote on contest entries. If the trick I tried there to link to a not-yet-published-as-I-type-this post didn't work, and I haven't had opportunity to fix it, someone please link to the 14th October Jet Age post in the comments. Last week I offered you an opportunity to win a copy of Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World, by telling me a story. I asked:

What is your favourite anecdote from the history of aviation? In the comments for this post, leave a description, up to 200 words long, of the funniest, most poignant, most inspirational or whatever you think is the "best" story to come out of man's urge to fly.

Please review the entries posted there and in the comments on this post, give your vote (or votes) for the best story there. Use whatever criteria you like for "best," and feel free to lobby, debate, and have fun. I know you will remain your usual civil selves. When I get back to Internet access I will announce the winner, casting an arbitrary vote of my own if your anarcho-democracy has not done my work for me.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


I keep talking about the HSI, and implying that it is somewhat replaceable with an "HI" or a "DG" so I think I'll try to make this all clearer. An HSI is an HI/DG combined with a VOR receiver. I promise to explain. Or at least make it muddier in an acronym-rich way.

HI stands for heading indicator, which does just what it says: indicates what heading the airplane is on, which means which direction the pointy end is pointing. The face of the instrument is a circle numbered with angular degrees around the outside of its face. Most have a tick every ten degrees and a number every thirty, except that the number is abbreviated by leaving off the final zero, so "3" is thirty degrees and "15" is 150 degrees. They fit on the instrument better that way and you learn to read it with no trouble. The numbers are written right side up at the top and upside down at the bottom, because the way the heading indicator indicates is that the disc rotates such that the current heading is constantly at the top.

DG stands for directional gyro, which is a synonym for heading indicator, "directional" referring to heading and "gyro" to gyroscope, which is what is inside the instrument, behind the disc. On start up you set the indicated heading on the DG to match the one reported by the compass. The spinning gyroscope maintains its orientation in space despite the motion of the airplane, so the difference between the position of the airplane and the initial position of the gyro is used to drive the heading card. It can get out of sync after a while, so if it isn't slaved to a fluxgate compass, you have to reset it to a more stable source of heading information, usually a magnetic compass, ever 15 minutes or so.

A VOR receiver is an instrument that indicates your angular displacement from a selected track to or from a VOR broadcasting station on the ground. You select the track with the OBS (a.k.a. "knob") and the displacement is shown by the CDI (a.k.a "needle") swinging across the instrument between zero and ten degrees in either direction, with "ten degrees" meaning "ten or more." Plus there's an additional recognizable indication if you happen to be exactly 90 degeees from the selected track, or directly overhead the station, or the instrument is broken. Same indication, on the "To/FROM indicator." I have no idea why the TO/FROM indicator doesn't have a silly name like "TFI" or "XJQ." VOR, by the way, is pronounced "vee- oh-are" and it doesn't matter what it stands for.

Note that the angular displacement is the angular displacement of the aircraft position, not the angle the aircraft heading makes with the selected track. The reading on the VOR is not affected by the aircraft heading. This can be confusing on a standard VOR because if the indication is that the aircraft is five degrees left of the track to the VOR, but the airplane is not facing towards the VOR, the pilot may need to turn left to get on track. The proper way to use the instrument is to look back and forth between the VOR and the heading indicator, do a little math and then turn to the correct heading for the intercept.

The HSI puts the VOR CDI and the OBS right on the DG. (Yay, I got all the abbreviations in the same sentence). It does the calculation for you, flipping the CDI to the correct side of the instrument for the heading, so the pilot can turn towards the needle no matter which way she is flying. So really, despite its vagueness, the name "horizontal situation indicator" accurately describes its function.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Test Flight

I stay in the hotel this morning, anticipating the airplane working in the p.m. and me needing a fresh duty day. I believe they cleared some small deferred snags in the morning and then I joined them for lunch and to check Greyhound for our package. The AME returns to the truck swearing. He has the package. The disinterested girl at the counter has just told him it arrived yesterday. He says he didn't even bother telling her, "You just cost the company $10,000," because she wasn't going to care.

He manages to remove the old servo in an hour, but it takes three to put it on and reassemble the airplane. We go for dinner, where the service is terrible. The waitress never looks at us. She has admirable breasts, and probably complains about people staring at them, but lady the "my eyes are up here" thing works both ways. We get pretty much all of our service requests relayed through a waitress who is working in a different section.

After dinner the AME starts the paperwork. He asks me to check the throttle and mixture cable connections inside the engine, something I haven't been officially assigned before. After verifying that they are attached and that the levers have proper cockpit travel I sign part of the paperwork, too. I've signed many times after a test flight for the airplane conforming to the type, but this is my first dual signature for the work itself. The law allows me to do this as the pilot of the airplane, because I'm expected to know how it should work.

We run up and taxi out for a test flight. The AME wants to fly, so I do the same thing I did as a flight instructor: have him taxi along the centreline of the taxiway so I can see his control. The taxiway is wiggly here, as it goes around the terminal loading area, and he follows the line adequately, so I have him do the take-off. We start with full static power (that is: advance the throttles to full while holding the brakes) to see that the correct power is developing with all the temperatures and pressures correct. It is, so we release the brakes and I let him drive for the take-off roll. I call rotation and coach him to the correct attitude for a blue line climb. Everything looks good and I bring back the power to slow cruise. There's no one around, so it doesn't matter where we go. He does a couple of airborne doughnuts and everything is fine, so I direct him to a downwind back towards the airport and ask him to reduce the throttles by one inch of manifold pressure. He pulls about five inches off and jockeys them back and forth trying to get it right. "Just so you know," I explain, "That's what pilots mean if we complain about a throttle being oversensitive. These aren't that bad, but sometimes they can be almost impossible to set with one motion.

I ask him if he knows how to use the trim, which he does, theoretically, because he knows how to repair it, but he didn't expect the trim to be so sensitive, either. He knows it's about seven turns from one end to the other, so puts in a quarter turn instead of just nudging it, and startles himself. I take over and approach to land. There's no PAPI approach slope indicator on this runway and he asks about that. It's only on the opposite runway. We land and then he tells me we have to let the engines cool off a bit for five minutes and then go up again.

This time I fly a quick circuit, to land back on the end of the runway that has the PAPI, so he can see it. He points out that I have left the emergency fuel pumps on for the whole circuit and I agree. I leave them on any time that it would be severely inconvenient to have an engine quit. If I were teaching a student to fly circuits I'd have them turn them off reaching circuit altitude and on again on downwind with prelanding checks, but for one circuit I deliberately leave them on for the whole time. I put down the gear and turn base, then final. He looks at the PAPI on short final and quotes "four red you're dead!" I explain that if we follow the PAPI exactly to keep two red and two while all the way to the runway we land 1000' in, so since we have to turn around and backtrack the runway to get off, I'm landing on the numbers, which to the PAPI is way low.

We return to parking and I text the PRM with the successful outcome. He replies "Next time don't do a test flight at night." We look around. I guess it might be getting a bit dark now, but I don't think it's night. I didn't check specifically, but usually one can tell. I text back that it's not night yet. He texts back "At 10 p.m.?!" I check with Flight Services. Night officially started six minutes after we landed. We're good. The PRM meanwhile has considered our latitude and conceded that it might still be light here.

I sign the part in the logbook that says the airplane can fly the way it's supposed to, and we head to Boston Pizza where I buy the AME a beer, because he worked hard and I know he's broke. He offers me a sip and laughs at me when I look at my watch before accepting it. That's ingrained. I am never going to be "oops" illegal on a flight as far as alcohol is concerned.

The HSI still doesn't work, and it can't be replaced with the copilot side directional gyro because that DG is driven by pneumatic suction and the HSI is electric, so the connections aren't the same. We're technically legal for night or IFR now because there's another VOR and an NDB, and the law doesn't say where the heading indicator has to be, but a scan involving a heading instrument on the other side of the cockpit isn't the most fun thing to do.

Also, there's still time to enter the contest to win a book by telling me your favourite true aviation story, personal or historical. Judging in a couple of days.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A1 Priority

Sometimes when you spend a long time reading dry material, tiny points of interest seem proportionately hilarious. From AIM RAC 8.2.1.

ADS WPR is a service that allows aircraft equipped with FANS 1 (the Boeing implementation of FANS) and FANS A (the Airbus implementation of FANS) to provide certain ATS units with position reports.

ADS WPR is Automatic Dependent Surveillance Waypoint Position Reporting and FANS is Future Air Navigation Systems -- that's going to sound pretty funny when it's the LORAN C of the 2040s -- but the funny-to-me part is the suffix designations for the rival manufacturers' systems. It makes it sound as though neither wants to sound like their system plays second fiddle so they don't want to be 1 and 2, but A for Airbus and B for Boeing would also sound like A was better than B. This initial impression is wrong: according to Wikipedia, ICAO initially developed the concept, then a group of airlines asked Boeing to make it a reality. Their system was originally just called FANS became FANS 1 and they are now at work on FANS-2. Meanwhile Airbus' FANS A has been upgraded to FANS A+ and they're at work on FANS B. Not the usual progression of letter grades. I hope they go to the Greek alphabet after they pass Z. The people who control sixty airplanes at once from the ground while playing video games and instant hologramming their friends can contend with FANS 39/Omicron.

Or maybe it will just be called Skynet. In pre-FANS technology, trans-oceanic pilots out of radar range of air traffic control had to monitor and make position reports via HF radio. The difficulty of sending and receiving the transmissions limited the density of use of the airspace. It was a bottleneck, so FANS automates communication of aircraft position. Coupled with improvements in navigation precision, it allows more airplanes to safely use the same airspace.

I wonder if when RAC 8-2-4 tells me that crews should, "use “A-D-S” after the aircraft call sign" in voice transmissions, they mean "Eh-Dee-Ess" or "Alfa-Delta-Sierra." If my training didn't cover it, I'd just listen in and see what other crews did.

Darn, don't you hate it when you're procrastinating but you end up learning things?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Spinning Our Wheels

While we're waiting for the part, we go out and work on the airplane to see if we can find another cause that doesn't require a new part. I think it's a bit like looking for your lost contact lens in the spot that has the best light, but what else do we have to do? It's also kind of entertaining seeing how everything comes apart. We know the fuel isn't getting to the engine fast enough at full throttle, so maybe it could be a fuel flow blockage somewhere.

While the AME works on the main problem, the pilots go to work on some small snags. There's a cowl flap position indicator light that I complained about being unserviceable, then they changed the bulb and now I complain about it shining in my eyes. I get down to figure out what its problem is. The cowl flap position indicator is lit from the side, just a little bulb tucked under the side of the mainly cosmetic in the centre console area. The problem is that the little curved bit right at the edge of the cowl flap indicator has broken off, possibly they broke it while installing the new bulb. So instead of shining sideways and illuminating the indicator, it shines up into my face. The plastic is black, the same colour as an Aeroshell oil bottle, and the Aeroshell oil bottle curves all different ways in different parts. It's like working with an ogee in drafting. I turn the clean dry bottle around and around in my hands until I find the right curve to match the missing one, then I cut out the piece with my Swiss Army knife and fashion a shield to deflect the light. It works perfectly and my coworker declares that it "looks real."

Meanwhile he has one hand, a screwdriver, and a flashlight inside an access port fixing the cowl flap position indicator itself. It has been registering half open when it is fully open. He tweaks the sender one way and now it registers a quarter open when it is fully closed. After a lot of fiddling he gets it to show closed when it is closed and almost all the way open when it is fully open. The AME says it will probably fail completely soon, and he has ordered the part.

The AME does not remove the unserviceable HSI because his licence doesn't permit him to take it apart anyway, and he hopes to have a good avionics shop in Edmonton look at it in situ, which will be quicker and less expensive than removing it and shipping it.

He also can't put on the new tire, not only because we don't have a jack, but also because we don't have the right paperwork. The tire company sent was purchased for another airplane in the fleet in a two-for-one sale, and the certification for both tires was on the same piece of paper, which is in the other airplane's technical log. Or somewhere. We have to get it before this tire can be legally used, to prove that it isn't counterfeit.

In the morning we clean and apply Ice-X to all the pneumatic boots and the rubber over the electrically heated props. We don't get quite to the top of the vertical stabilizer because we don't have a tall enough ladder to do it safely. When the AME thinks he may have solved the fuel flow problem, we haul the airplane outside and test it.

The tow cart starter battery is dead the first time we try to start it, but there are two battery carts in the hangar, so we jumpstart it and leave it running after the tow.

We run the engine for just a short time with the cowl off, but it quickly demonstrates the same problem. That's the way the day goes. We go for lunch, then come up with the idea that with all the smoke maybe the air filter is clogged. It looks good, and doesn't really match the symptoms, but we're grasping at straws now. We run the engine with the entire air filter box removed. No difference.

When the Greyhound bus comes in we go out to get the part, but are told that it hasn't arrived yet. Greyhound has no tracking system, so you just have to wait.

In the evening I watch Spinning Boris, a movie about American election consultants working for Boris Yeltsin in Russia, based on a true story. I mention it merely because it appears to have been partly filmed in Canada. There are only Canadian airplanes visible in the scene at the "Moscow" airport. No attempt has been made to hide the prominent Canadian registration on one, or even a Canadian flag and a Canadian corporate logo painted on another. I wonder if it was easier to get filming permits at an airport in Canada than the U.S. The scene is at night and I don't remember there being snow on the ground, so it's not like they came here for the scenery.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Fixing Things That Aren't the Fuel Servo

While we're waiting for the part, we go out and work on the airplane to see if we can find another cause that doesn't require a new part. I think it's a bit like looking for your lost contact lens in the spot that has the best light, but what else do we have to do? It's also kind of entertaining seeing how everything comes apart. We know the fuel isn't getting to the engine fast enough at full throttle, so maybe it could be a fuel flow blockage somewhere.

While the AME works on the main problem, the pilots go to work on some small snags. My coworker is using a screwdriver and a flashlight inside an awkwardly situated access port in order to try and fix the cowl flap position indicator. It has been registering half open when the cowl flap is really fully open. He tweaks the sender one way and I motor the cowl flap up and down. Now it registers a quarter open when it is fully closed. After a lot of fiddling he gets it to show closed when it is closed and almost all the way open when it is fully open. The AME says it will probably fail completely soon, and he has ordered the potentiometer required to repair it properly. There's also one blade on one propeller that isn't heating up properly, but that turns out to be merely a disconnected wire, and a very easy fix.

The AME does not remove the unserviceable HSI because his licence doesn't permit him to take it apart anyway, and he hopes to have a good avionics shop in Edmonton look at it in situ, which will be quicker and less expensive than removing it and shipping it.

He also can't put on the new tire, not only because we don't have a jack, but also because we don't have the right paperwork. The tire company sent was purchased for another airplane in the fleet in a two-for-one sale, and the certification for both tires was on the same piece of paper, which is in the other airplane's technical log. Or somewhere. We have to get it before this tire can be legally used, to prove that it isn't counterfeit.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Breaking Things

I wake up and check my text messages. I should buy a scrubbing brush so I can clean my nails better. There are three texts for me. The first one says the a.m. flight departed at 16Z. The second one says it didn't depart after all, but aborted on the runway for an engine problem. One of the engines--not the one that had the problem earlier--wasn't making full manifold pressure. The third text asks me if I noticed any unusual yaw or power loss. No, I didn't. It climbed like a dog,but it was thirty freaking degrees out, so I can't blame it. They're disassembling it looking for a problem.

Meanwhile I play on the Internet. Dav e Carroll, the United Breaks Guitars guy has release the third and final song to make good his threat to United. This one is no longer angry or sad. It acknowledges that United "broke" his career, but that while he has come out well from the incident, there are a lot of other customers whose damage claims have been ignored and who haven't been able to fight back as well. And it's funny Canadian folk music, which is what I like.

I check the weather and it's ... um ... interesting. Not the weather itself, but the delivery. The METARs have been served up on the screen in completely random order, not chronological at all. The number after 06 in each row is the observation time. There are hardly any two in the right order, just scrambled all over the place. The weather turns out to be irrelevant because the problem is suspected to be a failure of the fuel servo, brand new with the engine, and we don't have a spare with us. We are getting one on Greyhound, yes, the bus. It's the fastest way to get it here, short of chartering a plane to fly it directly.

As we go out to dinner I hear the AME on his phone telling someone about the problem. "And then the GFY light came on," he explains. I ask the other pilot sotto voce what that is and he whispers the answer back to me. Oh. Right.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Jet Age

I have just finished reading Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World by Sam Howe Verhovek. It's the story of the development of the first jet airliners, and the establishment of transoceanic air travel, including reviewing the whole history of aviation from Icarus through to the Boeing 707 and its contemporaries.

After a few hilariously pessimistic quotations from people who should have known better doubting the future of aviation, the book opens with the de Havilland Comet, pride of the British Empire, grounded after three aircraft were destroyed by explosions shortly after takeoff. Meanwhile in Seattle, Bill Allen of Boeing was trying to make the jump from military to civilian contracts. He staked the future of his company on the Boeing 707, which debuted while the Comet was still grounded. Verhovek's story is not linear, often irritating in the way it jumps back in time then builds forward again along a new thread, returning to a previous development as if it had not already been the subject of an entire chapter. Perhaps people who grew up reading hypertext don't read books straight through, and a good index ensures you'll be able to find the time period or player you're looking for.

Every aspect of the tale is deeply researched, and illustrated with occasionally quirky but never boring anecdotes. It covers not just the technical aspects of spanning the world in an airplane, but also the politics, from the "great sandwich war" of 1954 to the negotiations between the manufacturers, airlines and government to finance the development of a jet, and of course the people that made it happen. There are even mini-biographies of some unexpected players, such as Tex Johnston, the Boeing test pilot, who famously rolled the 707 during a public demonstration flight and Ellen Church, the woman who conceived of flight attendants and convinced United Airlines to hire her as the very first. Highlights of airplane designer Geoffrey de Havilland's bio include his ancestor Sieur de Havylland, one of the commanders of William the Conqueror's army. There are fewer details than I had hoped for of the accident investigation process that revealed the design flaws in the original Comet, but Verhovek does describe the amusing Britishness of the worsted three-piece suits and other wardrobe of the crash test dummies. I suspect the eight page bibliography provided is just the highlights of what Verhovek read while preparing this book.

There are few geek details on specifications, design decisions, and the construction and testing of the new airliners, and this is not a picture book, although it does include about eight plates of historical black and white photos. In addition to the 707 and Comet, Verhovek also mentions the roles played by Douglas aircraft, the Canadian Avro C102, Soviet Tupolev Tu-104, and French Caravelle.

I found Sam Verhovek's prose occasionally distractingly flowery, calling attention to itself rather than simply creating images and providing information. Perhaps Verhovek is nostalgic not only for the age of the jetliners but for the days when news stories used the kind of language seen in the copious period quotations. It's still a very readable book and it doesn't demand background or current knowledge of the industry from the reader.

If you want technical details on the design process of the B707 or an explanation of the Comet disasters that extends beyond "square windows" and "metal fatigue" this book may disappoint. But if you like aviation stories and don't demand your history in chronological order, you'll probably enjoy reading Jet Age.

I received a free advance copy of this book from the publisher.

Publisher Avery offers another copy of this book as a contest prize. I wasn't going to run a contest, but reading all the stories in Jet Age inspired me. Here's the competition:

What is your favourite anecdote from the history of aviation? In the comments for this post, leave a description, up to 200 words long, of the funniest, most poignant, most inspirational or whatever you think is the "best" story to come out of man's urge to fly. If you don't have a registered blogger ID, please e-mail a copy of the comment to me so I know who made it, in case you win.

In a week I'll put up a new post that lets everyone vote on the best. Judging criteria (going by my experience of such things) will probably be a combination of how much the voter likes the story, how well they think you retold it, an assessment of your spelling and grammar, and how much you have annoyed or pleased other readers during your tenure as a blog reader. I'll leave voting open for a week, then I'll tell the publisher to send a copy of Jet Age to the winner. I'd plan a speedier timeline than that, but I expect to be incommunicado for a couple of weeks starting day after tomorrow, so I'll have to let this run itself.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

San Jose Mine Rescue

I'm watching near live footage of the Chilean miners being pulled from the collapsed mine from the link on this page. It's an extraordinary ordeal these men have been through, and I'm impressed by the planning and details of the rescue operation. It looks as thought it will take a couple of days to get everyone out, even if nothing goes wrong.

As I watch I see parallels with aviation. After fifteen rescuees it's getting a little routine, perhaps, and it is still urgent to rescue everyone, but I'm silently urging the rescuers, "don't get sloppy; don't try to go too fast; inspect it every time; don't get fatigued: sub out with less tired people."

Food, Water, Medicine, Haircut

I'm up earlier the next day, still with sticky eyelashes. They're actually better today, but I decide not to rely on salt water home remedies where my eyes are concerned. I google up the local medical clinic. I try to call them on the hotel telephone, but every time I dial 9 to get an outside line, as indicated on the telephone itself, I end up talking to the front desk. She asks if I am paying for my room or my company. I say my company is, but it's a local call. She says she'll fix it, but evidently doesn't know the right code, because I still get her and not an outside line. I give up and walk up the road. The clinic is about a kilometre away, near the grocery store. Immediately inside there is a rack for shoes. It's a no shoes zone, a good idea considering that this place has the worst mud and dust of anywhere. I leave my boots in a shelf at the door and proceed barefoot to reception where I admit to not having an appointment.

"Can you wait?" she asks and I can, but I have to be at work at noon. It's quarter to eleven. She says that should be okay. I show her my health card and fill out a short form, then I read Canadian Geographic for a few minutes. I think it was about whales, or bears, or maybe pingoes. I had barely time to get interested in the article before I got in to see the doctor. I tell him my medical details and that I think I have an eye infection. I also tell him I am a pilot because the CARs require me to give that information to any treating physician. He examines my eye briefly, asks about pain, vision, the possibility of a foreign body in the eye, and then writes me a prescription for antibiotic ointment. It isn't even eleven o' clock yet.

I drop off my prescription at the grocery store down the block and buy some more snacks while waiting for it to be filled. It's $14.50 for the ointment, which I consider to be a fair price to keep teeny little nasty things from reproducing in my eyeballs.

I've got something else in my eyes these days: hair. I know that my hair could spread the infection from eye to eye. I'm not very good at cutting my own hair without making myself look like Spock, so I stop in at the town hair salon to see if I can get my hair cut there before work. She's booked solid until next week, and then it's only afternoon availability, when I'm likely to be working. Wow. Not to be catty, but I didn't think there were that many people in this town that bothered with haircuts. The sign on the door said to ask about special appointments at other times, or rates for bridal parties, so I'm about to ask her what her callout fee would be for an appointment before regular opening hours tomorrow morning, when she takes a phone call. Her 11 a.m. customer just cancelled, so she does me, and does a great job.

With all my errands done, I jump in the customer's truck and we go out to the the airport. It's hot out. I put the ground cooling fan on during taxi, then switch it off just before take-off. It's not needed after takeoff because the forward motion of the airplane provides the same advantage. That, and the fact that we'll climb into cooler air. Eventually. The heat produces very poor climb performance, and there is terrible visibility in smoke. It's the worst it's been yet. Everyone is pirepping it all day. It makes my job harder, especially with the non-functional HSI. It's almost like flying in IMC partial panel. Hills loom out of the gloom and I turn the Garmin into terrain mode.

I fly, eat some snacks, and drink some water. I always try to bring enough water that there will not be a need to ration it, but I've just got a one litre canteen. It may be time to start carrying a second bottle. Every once in a while I see a river or a lake through the smoke instead of just indistinct brownish ground and trees. The smoke is so bad along one VFR route that pilots are reporting turning back.

I come back to land. I land on a different runway, than I have been, wondering if it might be more efficient. It's bumpier than the main runway, but no more efficient. I put on the ground fan again. I look at my phone and I have a text from the maintenance guy. He's doing scheduled work tonight and has found another, larger hangar we can use. He asks me to please bring the airplane there. I pull back left engine to let out the mission specialist with the engine running, then taxi to hangar. Again we pull the cowls, and drain the oil. (We're doing shorter oil changes with the new engines to make sure everything is okay). I "help" with compression tests, which means mostly that I get in the way. He is happy that he has the right kind of compression tester, because this one allows him to correct for today's density altitude. He says otherwise he would have to use a default, higher pass rate. I make appreciative noises when all the cylinders test near perfect, so the density altitude correction was not a factor, anyway. With that done, he takes me back to hotel. He will work until 2 a.m. on scheduled maintenance tasks. I feel badly for him, but then I have worked from noon til almost nine. We all do our jobs.

I eat dinner in my room. I haven't managed to get all the grease out from under my fingernails, though. I should remember to put soap under my nails before working on the airplane next time. At least there's no temptation to put stained fingernails in my eyes.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Don't Touch Your Eyes

I wake up and discover that the eyelashes of one eye are stuck together. Aaaah! Pinkeye! Or some kind of eye infection. Firetruck. If it's pinkeye, a.k.a. conjunctivitis it's incredibly contagious. People who are familiar with it are probably moving their hands away from the keyboard as they read this, with an instinctive fear that they can catch it by reading my blog entry. I get up and wash my hands then rinse out my eyes with clean water and salt water and dry them with a clean towel, then throw it on the floor. (That's hotel code for "I'm not going to use this towel again") There is not time to get to a clinic before work. I can go to work, because I don't believe it affects vision in any material way. It is only a little bit painful and itchy. I tell myself sternly, "DO NOT TOUCH YOUR FACE FOR ANY REASON!"

I eat breakfast and go to the airport. Before the flight I go over to the FBO to pay for the fuel we just took and for the hangar. I notice that they charge me half the originally quoted price, which is fair, seeing as we only managed to get the airplane halfway inside.

There are lots of helicopters working today. They are longlining building materials into a camp outside of town. Listening to 126.7 gets tedious because they are all working below me, going in and out of places that aren't on the map. It's a tedious day. The smoke is better, but the view is still not great. I find myself eating my flight bag snacks just for entertainment, not because I am hungry. I finish them all. I don't do that very often. I'm kind of surprised when my fingers reach the bottom of the pocket and there's nothing more there.

It's still what I've seen Canadian ATC call --on an official poster--"November season," which means there are a lot of pilots around who aren't fully familiar with Canadian air traffic services. We have a lot of airports that have no tower, but are manned by a Flight Service Specialist. The FSS gives you te information you need to make decisions, and then you make them and announce them to the FSS, without receiving clearances. The FSS tells one pilot that the active runways are 03, 21, and 26, which simply means that someone is taxiing out to take off 21, someone else has announced an intention to land 03 in eight minutes, and a guy is rolling out after landing 26. Any runway that is currently in use is tagged "active." The pilot doesn't seem to be familiar with this idea and seems a little stunned by three active runways. Other pilots land 21 because they are told 21 is active even though it would be far more convenient for everyone if they would land 03, which leads staight to the apron.

When I am returning for landing there are two American Cessna 182 both maneuvering for the circuit at once. It's not really a problem as the visibility is reasonable now and they aren't on opposite base legs or anything. One, with a female voice on the radio, is approaching from the VOR and the other, piloted by a male, is coming from the south. The male pilot is trying to get a better situational awareness and slips up on his radio language, asking simply, "Where is the other C182?" without addressing the FSS or giving his callsign. It's obvious who he is, but the FSS gives him a bit of a verbal slapdown, replying with a formal, "station calling, identify yourself." They sort it out and we all land

I'm still idling on the apron after the C182s have parked. The woman calls on the radio to report that her cellphone doesn't work, and to ask where there is a payphone. There is cellphone service here, but not for all networks. It turns out that she just wants to call the hotel shuttle, and the FSS specialist volunteers to do that for her. Then the guy gets back into his airplane and the beacon goes on. He calls up to ask if there are any hotels here. The specialist rattles off a catalogue of every hotel in town, along with their relative price point and and amenities. She checks with the hotel that has the shuttle to see if they have a room, but reports back that they are full and as far as they know, so are all the hotels in town. It's not a good season to be here without a reservation, because the hotels are full of long-term stays, like us.

Once the beacons are off on both Cessnas (indicating that they have shut off electrical power and thus are no longer listening to the radio) I compliment to the specialist on her skills as a travel agent. She admits that she's officially just supposed to say that there are several hotels in town, but that she feels sorry for people when they turn up unprepared, and tries to help out.

The woman is waiting by the FBO for the shuttle bus as I leave. She says she wasn't flying that leg, just doing the radio because she was tired. She's with someone, presumably her husband, on the way back to Alaska from visiting grandchildren, I think it was in Oregon. I didn't see the pilot from the other C182. Presumably he found somewhere to sleep. Maybe he had a tent.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Smoke and Blood

Breakfast is leftover salad from last night. It's about as good as you'd expect leftover salad to be. Maybe I'll have a low carb day. Some people say it's good for your pancreas to have a day off of churning out insulin.

The other pilot has returned from a mission, but he texts that he has a very rough running engine on the ground. He suspects a bad mag. That could have us down for a couple of days if we can't source one locally, but it could be just dirty spark plugs. We go out and meet him.

You know how if a vehicle breaks down, even people who know they have neither the skills nor tools to fix it always pop the hood and peer inside? It's universal. The pilot has pulled the top cowl off and I walk up and look inside. You can't see a bad magneto or a bad spark plug just by looking inside a cowling. It's just gawking. Except that I find a spark plug lead that isn't attached to anything, just dangling out the bottom of the engine. I hold it up and make an ahem noise. We don't need parts, just a wrench and someone who has the proper qualifications to turn it. We manage to borrow the services of a local wrench turner and ensure that all the spark plug leads are secure for my flight.

I put my flight bag on board and start up. Everything is normal, it was just the loose lead. We go flying. Forest fire smoke has reduced the visibility such that while it is safe to fly, there is no scenic vista for me to enjoy. You don't realize how much entertainment you get from the tapestry of rocks and lakes and trees until you can't see them. I guess at night or in IMC I am concentrating extra hard, so I don't miss the view so much. And at night there are usually stars or lights. I complain to the mission specialist that I'm bored, and jokingly ask him to put on a movie. (His computer controls what is displayed on one of my screens). A moment later he comes forward and props an iPod up in front of me, with a movie playing. That gives me a good laugh, which was what he intended. Now I know that if I get really bored, it's there.

My other source of entertainment is the radio. Mostly it's pilots calling in PIREPs about the forest fire smoke. It's bad everywhere, so bad along one VFR route that pilots are turning back. There are a lot of Americans. I guess some are doing their trip of a lifetime to Alaska and some are Alaskans heading down on one of their regular trips to the lower forty-eight. I suppose there could be some just come to visit us, but why? Who comes here to visit?

There seems to be a pattern of Americans not understanding the question "What is your ETA for the field?" Multiple pilots have been baffled by it. The FSS resorts to, "how long will it take you to get here?" and then they answer. I wonder if the common wording is different in the US or if there is just so much radar there that the question is never necessary.

I am just turning around when the information in my cockpit stops matching everywhere. I can't see well enough to line up with features on the ground to fly a straight line, so I zigzag a little before crosschecking confirms the problem. My HSI has died. HSI stands for "horizontal situation indicator" and it's an instrument in the middle of the panel right in front of me. Its name ties, in my opinion, with "Distance Measuring Equipment" for the most stupidly generic in aviation, but it's a very smart instrument. It is half heading indicator and half VOR receiver, combining the direction you are going with your angular distance from a selected track to or from a VOR, in a way that is less confusing to look at than this sentence is to read. The number at the top of the HSI should always match the direction the airplane is heading. I don't even have to adjust it for drift, because it syncs itself. Except that now it sometimes doesn't turn while I'm turning, and sometimes turns while I am going straight. I switch off the power to it (unusually in my experience, this one has its very own switch instead of a circuit breaker) and back on again. It motors to match my heading, but very soon wanders off again. The back up to this instrument is the heading indicator on the other side of the panel, the one that was removed as unserviceable, with its replacement in a box in the other pilot's hotel room. Sigh. They are completely independent, on totally different aircraft systems and they die within a week of one another.

Neither is required for day VFR work, which is what I'm doing now. The compass works, so I can continue. I turn on my cellphone and have a signal, so I text the new maintenance guy, whom I haven't even met yet, to tell him the news. He asks a few trouble-shooting questions, then asks if I'm aborting the mission. I'm not, this will just make it a little more challenging in this visibility.

Avionics is a separate and arcane maintenance specialty, so unless there's something simple like something disconnected, he probably can't do anything except pull it out and send it for repair.

I turn the HSI back on a couple of times to see if it magically got better: maybe it just overheated. This forest fire smoke can't be the best thing for the instrument cooling air filters. It starts motoring back and forth rapidly so I turn it off again, not wanting it to damage itself further. I pull one of the "intentionally left blank" pages out of the last signature of the CFS and fold and tear it to attach to the surrounding knobs and block the instrument. I hate having non-functioning instruments in my scan.

We return for landing shortly before nightfall. I'm entering the circuit as an A-Star is crossing the field at 2000'. I call up and say I am "downwind for 03, not below 2500' until the Astar reports clear." I guess I'm giving myself clearances, but who else is going to. The FSS doesn't issue clearances, except to relay IFR clearances. My call made it clear to the FSS and the helicopter pilot that I was aware of him, and described my strategy for collision avoidance, while saving the FSS guy's breath in relaying positions and intentions.

On the ground, the AME meets the plane. It's time for an oil change. I stay to help with that, because it's much easier to pull cowlings with two people. We have arranged for use of a hangar, but the airplane only fits halfway in. It would go all the way, but the door doesn't travel quite to the top, even though it looks like it should. We leave the tail sticking out and just work on it like that. I position the buckets and turn the quick releases (it's so easy on this airplane, you don't need a wrench or anything) to drain the oil, while he removes the oil filters. It occurs to me that I could probably burn myself doing this, but I never have. Have I just been lucky? Dunno. I haven't even been that careful.

While we're working, a young pilot comes up and asks if we know a good place to camp on the aerodrome. He is flying around the north, looking for a job in the Northwest Territories or the Yukon and he's just stopped here for the night. We recommend he try the local charter operator, because we know he has good machines and the pilots are well treated, but we can't help with a camping suggestion. He sets up a tent between his wing and his horizontal stabilizer and it blends in with the airplane.

The AME discovers that he is missing his oil filter cutting tool. That's a hazard of running an AMO out of the back of a truck. After a bit of cursing he improvises with an ordinary set of cutters, but the wall of the oil filter turns out to be a lot thicker than either of us expected and it takes a while. After a good struggle, he inspects the filter media inside and it shows no metal, which is good. He replaces the filters and I refill the crankcases with clean oil. He also checks the connections on the misbehaving HSI. We push the airplane outside and I run it up. It's not going to be helping the jobseeker sleep in his tent, but such is that hazard of sleeping at an airport. The runup is satisfactory, except that the HSI still doesn't work, and there are no leaks, so we're done that task. It was supposed to be a quick job but it's the next day before we finish. That's not a problem for me because I still have ten hours before I'm back on duty.

We stop by a convenience store on the way back to the hotel and the clerk asks him about the blood on the back of his knuckles. He shrugs it off as an occupational hazard and then I look and see that I too have skinned my knuckles on something. Airplanes are vicious.

Oh and for those who know why this might be relevant: no, the forest fire smoke doesn't trigger any kind of PTSD in me. It's just another day at work. Yay!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Anahim Lake

I still have the CAP I bought from renewing my IFR in BC, so that's the one I'm simming with. Anahim Lake is in the coastal mountains of BC. It has two published instrument approaches, an RNAV runway 31 and an NDB A, both from the same direction, but the latter named as a circling approach because it is 14 degrees off the straight in. If you're using the Bella Coola altimeter setting and the wind favours runway 13 in a category B aircraft (i.e. you can keep your speed down to 120 knots while circling to land) then there is only ten feet altitude difference between the RNAV and NDB MDA. That looks weird at first, but seeing as either way the crux of the procedure is circling, the only difference is how precisely the nav aid gets you to the point where you break off and circle.

I set the simulator up for take off from Bella Coola and fly AR 34 to Anahim Lake. The plate says "Use Bella Cools altimeter setting. Available limited hours." Does that mean that the procedure is not approved at all outside those times? I'm not sure. Usually there is an altitude penalty for using an offsite altimeter setting, but this one never has a local altimeter setting and when Bella Coola is closed I guess there is nothing close enough to be safe.

I'll fly the NDB approach, because I don't have a good GPS simulation in in MSFS. The MDA is 5580', so I set up weather layers from the ground to 5000' as few clouds (1/8th coverage) and light rain; from 6000' to 8500' there is 7/8ths cloud coverage and I throw in some altostratus layers above that. I leave the visibility pretty good below the clouds, probably not accurate for the area, but I can ramp it up later. The advisory visibility is 3 nm and the missed approach time is 3:01 at 120 knots groundspeed. So I need to be at the MDA 90 seconds after the beacon, but that's only 1000' to descend, so shouldn't be too bad. Bella Coola has no instrument departure, so I have to climb VFR to--yikes--11600'. This won't really work, so I cheat and turn off a couple of cloud layers until I get to the airway. Too bad I can't do that in real life. A bit of NDB tracking practice then cheat slightly by using the GPS to get a distance back and plan a descent to the MSA. It looks virtually clear below. I thought I turned my clouds back on again. I pause the game and check that both 'global' and 'local' weather are set to include the thick layer of broken cloud down to minima, as I described earlier. They are. I enter a shuttle descent at the MDA.

The weather still looks too good. I check it multiple times and shift the layers around a bit. At first there seems to be more cloud below, but as I complete the shuttle, inbound at 6600' to the beacon I can see the airport easily, so I go land at it.

I tried!

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Round the Bend

No, waiting for engine installation to be complete didn't driven me insane, but it did given me some time to read. I just finished the novel Round the Bend by Nevil Shute. Blog reader Hawke sent it to me some time ago. I'd already read On the Beach by the same author and enjoyed that, and hey, someone wanted to send me a book. Of course I said yes to his offer.

It's out of print, I think. My copy is hardback with the proper old book smell and a map, in the endpapers, of the region between Saudi Arabia and Australia, where most of the action takes place.

I cracked it open and started reading the adventures of the protagonist, who as a teenage boy was so enthralled by a flying circus that he joined them as a labourer, becoming an aircraft mechanic and a pilot and eventually starting his own air transport business in the middle east. Despite the fact that he doesn't have much flying or business experience, nor even a commercial pilot licence, nothing much goes wrong, and he demonstrates a talent for business and people.

Before I got very far on my initial reading I had to go to work, so I left the book at home and didn't pick it up again until my next time off a month or so later. After a few repetitions of this, I wrote Hawke to assure him that I was reading it and I did like it.

Just like this blog, it's told in the first person and I was lulled into enjoying it simply for the similar but from another age and place recitation of the minutia of preparing airplanes for flight and the various logistics of going to new places, finding food and accommodation, and ensuring there will be fuel and maintenance available. The people he meets and employs along the way are interesting, and, despite their diverse religions and races, are treated as individual respect-worthy human beings, both by the narrator and as subjects of the novel. I more than once flipped forward to confirm the 1951 copyright date. Someone who today calls bigoted attitudes 'antiquated' is doing a disservice to the time.

I was probably halfway through the book before I began to suspect that the narrator was not in fact the protagonist, just a witness to the messiah-like life of what had at first appeared to be a minor character. Neither the book nor its humble messiah asks you to believe anything you wouldn't ordinarily, or to stop believing anything you already believe. The story could probably be criticized as simplistic, but the framing excuses that. It's presented as the matter of fact memoir of a pilot--someone who describes Agra by giving just as much weight to the quality of the runway and hangars as he does to the Taj Mahal--and as long as his airplanes are flown and maintained well and responsibly, it doesn't matter what the craftsmen believe. While reading the final pages I had to assure a Boston Pizza waitress that I was fine, really, just reading an emotional book, could you please bring me another napkin?

Nevil Shute was himself an engineer, pilot and entrepreneur, and according to Wikipedia, he considered Round the Bend to be his best novel. I think I'll try to find some of his other aviation novels to read.

Out in the real world, Captain David Cronin died Monday at age 81. He was the pilot-in-command of UA811, a B747 that landed in Honolulu with a gaping hole just behind the cockpit, after a forward cargo door came off.

Friday, October 08, 2010

It's Orange

My airplane, the real airplane this time, not a simulation, arrived at 9:45 a.m. and was wheels up on the next flight at 10:45 exactly. It's not orange, and neither is the mystery plane, but I'll get there. A coworker flew my plane in from the southern shop that did the engine change. We met him at the airplane, helped unload his gear and he briefed me on its various idiosyncrasies. There were no specific engine break-in instructions for me, as the first few hours had been done in test flights and ground runs. My walk around revealed a tire near the end of its tread life, three matching burrs on the three blades of the left propeller and a dirty windscreen. The arriving pilot assured me that a replacement tire was on its way and that the propeller had been clean when he left. We agreed not to park on that gravelly section of the ramp. Also the copilot DG was missing from the panel. It had not been working properly, but don't worry, there's a spare one in a box waiting to be installed. I cleaned the windshield and started up.

It took me a couple of tries to start the left engine, probably a combination of it being already hot from the flight and from the rigging being different, so the ideal throttle position isn't as it was. But I fix my technique for the right and engine, and they both sound great.

I raise the gear when I'm out of runway and climb up over the clearway. It's been trimmed since last time I was here. It was getting scraggly. I notice a black insect with yellow stripes buzzing against the inside of the windscreen. It's not a wasp or a bee. Maybe it's something that doesn't even sting and just has the stripes to scare predators into thinking it will sting. I expect it to stop flying and huddle in a corner of the dashboard, the rapid pressure drop from the climb activating its instinct to shelter from a storm.

I call clear of the zone but remain on frequency to monitor incoming traffic. It's very quiet for a while. The first call I hear is made by an older male voice with a slight northern European accent, maybe Dutch or German. The aircraft is a Cessna 172. Usually an old guy in a C172 is a recreational pilot, probably in his own plane. If you're flying a C172 for work, it's probably early in your career. But I must be wrong in this case, because he says he's on a company flight plan. He then contradicts that by asking for a touch and go. Hmm, is he a student and the "company" is the school? Is he out of currency and needs one more landing before he can pick up his passengers? I'm going to continue with the older guy in his own airplane, but add that he has his own company, too. Maybe he runs a lodge or something. Later he tells the FSS that he's taxiing to the terminal for his passengers. And then they're off, tooling around the north in a single engine airplane. Ça c'est fini.

Just as he is leaving, the airspace gets busy. The FSS is juggling position reports for an inbound Bonanza, a couple of helicopters and me. Everyone reports in and then ATC tells everyone individually where everyone else is with relation to each other. It's not fully necessary, because we aren't even inside the five mile zone and we are listening to each other, but I guess it's their job. And it's an impressive job of spacial visualization considering that they don't have any radar. A pilot calls up in a "Pitts 300S" and the controller asks him what that is. At first I think "How can he not know that? It's a famous aerobatic aircraft!" and then I realize that he didn't say Pitts Special or Extra 300S but Pitts 300S. He tells the controller it's a homebuilt. Ha ha, clever name. Perhaps I'll build a homemade "Comcorde" or "FR-71". Pitts 300S guy gives his ETA as "Four minutes forty-five seconds." Someone has an airplane with ambitions of grandeur and a brand new GPS.

The stripey insect hasn't read the manual on the dangers posed by a rapid drop in air pressure and is still buzzing around. The black and yellow one gives up on the windscreen and flies into the back where the mission specialist complains about it. I admit, "Yeah, there's a mosquito in here too." He asks me to please keep my pets in the cockpit.

I've got critters everywhere. I mash something especially juicy on the outside of the window, then happen to fly through a little rainstorm and get rid of it. That was convenient. That giant smear would have bugged me for hours.

There's a Dash 8 arriving now. (It's probably that same "secured" one I saw in Dawson Creek). I'm crossing their runway approach path and position report so they know it. They have me on TCAS and then they cancel IFR and go by behind me, straight in for landing.

An A-Star calls up "5.4 miles" out and ATC relays his position to another pilot, who makes passive aggressive remarks about how it "would be nice" if the other traffic gave more than 0.4 miles warning of his approach to the airspace. The controller pretends not to notice his attitude.

The controller calls us again, saying that possible traffic is a Rawlins coming from Peace River. Now I don't know what something is. I ask her to say again type. She clarifies. "It's a homebuilt. It's orange." They are expected to be receive only, unable to make radio transmissions and are expected soon. The Dash-8 calls taxiing and the FSS fills him in on the homebuilt. "Expected now, actually."

The Dash-8 calls for its IFR clearance, while sitting in position on the runway. That would be ridiculous at a busy airport in the south, but it's pretty common here for an airliner to sit on the runway waiting to copy their instructions for the whle flight. I let the FSS know that I'm about to pass through the extended centreline of the runway, ten miles back, but they get their clearance and take off anyway. Once again they "have me on TCAS" but I've lost them all together. Then I spot them zooming away to the southeast, lower than I expected. Rather than waiting five seconds they just stayed lower than normal and zoomed underneath me.

The missing orange homebuilt still isn't here. The FSS passes it as 'possible traffic' to everyone. It was due sixteen minutes ago. I hope this isn't going to turn into a search. At least orange is easy to spot. Finally he calls, "39 miles out, be there in thirty minutes." I guess he does have a radio after all, but it's terrible. The FSS can barely understand him. Eventually he arrives, landing on the long runway in the least convenient direction, requiring a long backtrack. But I guess if you fly at sixty knots you land slowly enough that tolerating a five knot tailwind is not a good idea. He frustrates someone by taxiing slowly back down the long runway.

After all this excitement, I'm setting up to land. While orbiting overhead the aerodrome I hear a call "...Tutor jets, flight of two, planning overhead the VOR for the 03 ILS approach." Ha ha! I know what colour they are. There's only one operator that flies Tutor jets. It's our national military aerobatic team. Where there are two there are likely to be all eleven.

I call final and "Snowbird eleven" asks the controller if I am a full stop or a touch and go to remain in the circuit. The controller says full stop and I append, "after six and a half hours, I just want to get it on the ground." The Snowbird pilot says he wishes he had that kind of fuel range. It doesn't matter what you're flying: you're always jealous of someone. I'm in the flare now, so I don't banter, but the controller answers for me. "You're not likely to get much sympathy here, considering what you're flying."

I call clear of the landing surface, "taxiing to parking to watch the airshow."

I was just making a smart remark but there is an airshow. Snowbird 10 and 11 do a low level formation pass and then break and come around to land, followed by three groups of three Snowbirds, doing the same thing, fast and loud and low. "That was awesome" says the controller. "I wish there were more people than just me and that pilot around to see it."

I have parked, not very elegantly, in my usual spot opposite the fuel shack. The engines are still running for the equipment in the back. The jets taxi in and park, one by one in a perfectly straight line next to me. It makes me laugh so hard to be part of this lineup. Of all the days to park crooked.

They climb out of the cockpits, wanting the same thing I want after a mission: the washroom. We direct them, then they come back and we exchange airplane stats. They've just come from Anchorage via Whitehorse and some place in between that they can't remember the name of, in the middle of the Alaskan mountains. They only fly one-hour legs. They can't fly Anchorage to Whitehorse in one leg the way I can. Mind you, they can still do it faster, even with the fuel stop. One of the pilots shows me how to extend the access steps from the outside of his airplane, and invites me to climb up on them and look in his cockpit. Hmm, a single hour in there is probably worth six and a half in mine. And they've had two people in each airplane the whole way, with overnight bags stuffed in the canopy behind the headrests. I'm not sure they can even stretch. And the equipment, wow. As you folks have probably figured out already, this is the mystery panel. Here's a diagram of what they are. These instruments have been serving the Canadian military long enough to retire with a full pension. One of the aviation technicians is there and I ask him how many of these airplanes there are. He says "eleven," but I explain no, not the team, I mean all together. I forget the number, but it was small. They don't have a large pool of parts planes. They have to keep these birds flying with what they have. This is an elite team making commitments all over North America every year and they are flying metal older than mine with not a lot of upgraded components. I'm not quite sure how I asked it, some combination of words and facial expression, to convey, "How do you keep them in the air?" without denigrating a national icon. The technician understands and answers with a wry smile, "It's a labour of love."

The publicist brings me a poster, but I opt not to go after the team for autographs. Their job involves a lot of PR, but they're on a break now. I would have liked to chat to one of the women, though just because we'd have a little more in common. There are so many different aircraft and missions out there but there's enough in common: chatting on the same frequencies, landing at little en route airports we forget the name of and having stray Cheerios rolling around under seats. I giggle at the idea of Cheerios loose in the cockpit of a Tutor jet, but that's what was in the snack bag. The comments are now open to any aircraft maintainers who would like to whine about stupid pilots and their snacks. I know they get everywhere, and I'm sorry, but we all eat Cheerios like we were toddlers.

My favourite snack guess is perogies, just because I like the logistical challenge of actually having them. They would have to be warm, because who wants cold perogies, but they couldn't be too hot, because you have to be able to pop them in your mouth without burning yourself. I guess you cook them, cool them a bit in a colander, then take them on board in a squat thermos, or tupperware wrapped in tinfoil and towels. Kind of awkward, but I have heard stories of a pilot who would bring onboard an entire roast chicken and ingredients to mix for a full Caesar salad.

The jet jockeys let me cut in line to get some fuel before they finish, because they aren't all leaving right away. I hear them leaving later and look out my hotel window as they take off in flights of three, beat up the town, and then zoom off all in formation. They'll be doing airshows in Daytona on the 9th-10th, Atlanta on the 16th-17th and then back in Moose Jaw for their 40th anniversary celebration on the 22nd-23rd.