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!


Traveller said...

In 2004, my wife and I took February off to drive to Alaska and back. We even took a detour to visit Fort Liard in the NWT as a daytrip from Fort Nelson.

(Who would have thought hotel room would be scarce in Fort Nelson in February? ;^> )

So, some of us do visit the Great White North of Canada.

Glad it was just another day.

Sarah said...

Forest fire smoke can be amazingly thick. I had an encounter a few years ago in Utah that got my full attention as a vfr-only glider pilot... final glide home with no visible horizon and only able to see the ground straight down -- I don't want to do that again.

ETAs - can't speak for others since I spend 99% of IFR time in radar contact. Perhaps they understood but were stalling for time while figuring it out.

Airplanes do like to leave their mark. If I don't finish a pre-flight with a little bloody nick somewhere, I for sure have a grease smudge which I will unwittingly smear on my face. It's how you know I've checked the oil.

Jim said...

Re airplanes making their mark: When the rest of my hair finally falls out, the top of my head will reveal the many criss-cross scars I'me whacked in there, from crossing under the wings of the 172 with the flaps extended - and stood up too soon. Head wounds bleed a lot.

John Lennerton said...

Yay, indeed!

And, although there is that annoying time lag, it's Thanksgiving today in Canada, so Happy Thanksgiving to you and all your Canadian readers up there in the Great White North.

Aviatrix said...

Thank you! We celebrated it yesterday: two pilots, a paramedic, a couple of young lawyers far from home, and whoever else we could find to help eat the massive turkey that I procured and the other pilot cooked.

zb said...

Yay. This post not only remined me of forest fire episodes earlier in this blog, I also had to chuckle because of a previous piece of information about aviation-certified air filters.

Aviatrix said...

zb You don't think I pull the blog post titles out my ... um ... out of thin air, did you? It's not like I'm not going to reward people for being loyal and alert!

GPS_Direct said...

Ewwww... TMI! Although I have relayed the filter story on to others.

Glad the smoke didn't cause any returning issues. It can be sneakily deceptive, like a thin, hazy layer below you that you can't see until you descend into it realize your forward viz has gone to zip...

Thanks for the travelog too. The trip WAY north is on the bucket list and my notes from this blog will be in the flight bag when I get a round tuit.

Traveller said...

@Sarah: I once got sucked up into a developing cumulus while flying a glider. I just held pat and the circle exited the side of the cloud and I could navigate to clear air. There are times when you can get too much lift.