Thursday, June 30, 2011

The First Eight Hours of My Duty Day

So I wake up, a bit earlier than I would have liked to. This is it. Flight test day. Why am I doing this again? I remember back when I was a flight instructor when I advised my students to get all their paperwork done that they can, get a good night's sleep and arrive for the flight test rested and ready. Yeah, that would be nice. I'm not even in the right city yet, and there's no really firm guarantee that I will be. I eat breakfast: oatmeal with fruit. I go to the airport. I spray stuff on the soot stains aft of the heater exhaust and scrub it off several times. It's not having a big effect. Maybe the paint is a bit cleaner. There's a special product for soot stain removal. I've used it once, on a turboprop. I can't remember if it did a better job, but it gave me a happier feeling of doing all I could to get the smoke stains off. I clean off the bugs and walk around and make sure all the parts are attached that should be. There's a dime-sized chip out of the nose cowling and a corresponding little burr on both blades of the prop on that side. It's not a no-go item, just a "damn!" like having a scratch on your car. I'm pretty sure I got it on the runway. I saw a white chip like that fly by as I added power on the button for one of my test flights. I assumed it was paint coming off the runway stripe, but now I bet it was the result of a rock being swatted by both blades of the prop then whackign off the fuselage. It's very common for FOD to hit more than one blade in the same place.

Next I go for another test flight, to make sure none of the cleaning products ran into any crevices from which they can emerge to soil the camera, and to make sure the hydraulic fluid dripping problem is completely solved. I'm told to just cycle the gear a lot of times. So I take off, climb to a thousand feet above circuit altitude and then set the autopilot. While I'm cycling the gear it intercepts a radial and tracks towards the VOR on my command, then I turn it back to heading mode and use it to fly a circuit. A couple more engine failure drills, a touch and go, more gear cycling, and I'm ready to land. I considered doing a flapless landing, never done one in this airplane, but I'd need a longer final approach to get down without flaps, so instead I just turn base where I am and fly a normal length final. I check several times to make sure the gear is down before I land.

The operator asks me if I did a touch and go, and I say yes. "For practice?" her asks, and I agree with that too. It's nice to have done something once before being tested on it. I'll see if I can fly the ILS on the way into the flight test airport. This is so crazily unlike any flight test I've ever done. If I can do this, I can pass anything.

There is no hydraulic fluid at all on the belly or the camera, and not even a drop in the breather line, so we load up the airplane, top up the fuel, and go to work. The fueller (and a commenter a few days ago) says it is the pine trees that are spewing the yellow pollen. It's still too early to call an examiner and ask if we're good to go, so I have to trust it's going to work out. Our work is higher altitude today, controlled VFR between 15,000' and 17,700'. I accept an altitude block clearance for FL150 to FL180, then the controller calls back and amends it to FL150 to FL190 "because of the altimeter setting." I smile as I accept it, because I know why, but it's a little obscure. I only remember it because I was reviewing my high altitude rules back in February. I'll put the explanation in a later post, because this is going to be a long enough day already.

I'd tell you the exciting sights and so on of the flight, but ATC assigns us a block of altitude, then pretty much leaves us alone to fly in really straight lines. It was just three hours of being fairly cold while focusing on coloured dots on the screen in front of me and following instructions from the operator to reach each next line. I only get to take a good look around at the turns, and there isn't a whole lot to look at. It's flat. Someone is paying us a lot of money for some very boring pictures. But they're very good pictures. Until the clouds start. It's what clouds do, in the late morning, and it ends high altitude photography for the day.

I ask ATC for descent out of controlled airspace direct our landing aerodrome. They're confused because the aerodrome I've just asked to land at is not the one on my flight plan. Flight plans are primarily about going from A to B, so ATC expects us to go to B unless there's some kind of emergency or impassable weather. But for us the journey is the important part. We hardly ever land at the airport we filed. I try to guess right when I file the flight plan. but the operator just likes to pick places he's never been before. Adaptability is an important concept for a pilot who works for Eagle. He picks an aerodrome. I look at the CFS and determine that it's appropriate for the aircraft and the conditions, call flight services for NOTAMs and go there. It generally confuses ATC, but I try to keep them informed.

The cabin warms up as we descend and I set course for the newly chosen aerodrome. I've never been there before. It's just a good place to stop for fuel on the way to the flight test. The clouds are building, too. I deviate to the right to go around one buildup and then while I'm still on that heading I zone out for a moment, looking back at the GPS and thinking I've wandered off track. I correct my heading, then see the cloud I was avoiding and realize what I'm doing. Gah, I'd better not zone out like that on the flight test.

I brief myself on the destination, looking for wind signs on the ground and water and listening out on frequency for local traffic. Based on the wind and runway orientation, I can fly straight in on this heading, if I can establish that it is safe to do so, but the frequency is buzzing. I can't tell if all this traffic is at the destination or at another aerodrome sharing the same frequency, with pilots making calls like, "Ed is turning north on the powerlines, have Rod in sight."

I make a normal call to alert traffic I'm inbound to my fuel stop, and no one responds from that aerodrome. Just to make sure I make a call asking, "Ed and Rod, what airport are you at?"

They aren't at my destination, and one pilot catches my sarcasm, explaining that their abbreviated calls are because they are doing COPA flights--taking kids up for a few minutes each to introduce them to the fun of flying--and they're trying to keep coordinated while reducing frequency congestion. It's actually a good idea. They weren't chatting about cheeseburgers, just joining the circuit to land.

I satisfy myself that there is no one else at my destination and land straight in, over a bunch of dirt piles on short final, and off the runway to the fuel pumps. They are the classic little honour system flying club pumps and while the operator sorts them out --he's the one with the credit card-- I go to use the washroom and file an onward flight plan. There's a little terminal building right there and people barbecuing in front of it, but when I try to open the door to go in, they tell me to go around the back. They're reflooring the clubhouse. There are some workmen at the back, but they okay me going in and I find the toilets and then a payphone with the shortest handset cord ever. I can't get a hold of the examiner, so I just leave voicemail that I'm on target for a 2 p.m. test. It makes it a little awkward to refer to my charts and notes while answering questions, and you don't realize how much you talk with your hands until they're tethered with a metal cable. I'm also trying to share the corner that houses the payphone with a giant UNICOM radio, an anemometer, and the operator who is trying to operate an ancient credit card processing machine. Will that be Cash or Chargex? swick swick! (Chargex was the old name for Visa in Canada, but would you believe I can't find a video clip of the old commercial?) He wins the battle, takes his receipt and we go back to the airplane. The operator goes to get something out of the back to clean the camera with and comes back with his polycarbonate water bottle. Full of slush and chunks of ice. So yeah, it was cold up there. That bottle must have been frozen almost solid before we descended.

I double check fuel caps and then start up and taxi out to depart. There's one more tiny job to do before the flight test, it's right near the flight test airport, so we head off in that direction and set up for the line. There are clouds above our altitude and we don't want their shadows in the photos, so we literally hang out, circle around and try and time our passes so that we get pictures with no shadows. It only takes a few tries and we nail it, so I head for the airport where the flight test is. They're too busy to accommodate a practice ILS, as they're using the opposite runway as the ILS is on, so I just get to see the needles twitching on the spurious backcourse. I'm sure a sizable portion of my readership is thinking disparaging things about my preparation and diligence right now. You'd better be, because I sure was. I don't even know where I'm going.

I assume the examiner is associated with a flying school, but even if she isn't, most of her victims are going to be students, It's not a giant leap for me to switch to ground and say, "Request taxi instructions to the flying school."

"Which one?"

"How many are there?"

"About eight."

Eight? No wonder they were too busy to accept wrong-way traffic. I can see the sign on one of them from right where I am on the taxiway, so I ask to go there. I'll sort out where I'm supposed to be after I shut down. It's a big school with a busy ramp and I start to manoeuvre for a parking area when a guy in coveralls comes out to marshal me to another section. I follow him gratefully, but balk when his signals lead me over a rough area of bad pavement. I make a "no" face and shake my head, pointing, and he's smart enough to understand why (I don't want to damage my propellers any further), and immediately selects a different route. I shut down where he designates, and thank him. He apologizes for directing me over the bad spot, they're meaning to get that fixed. He explains that the first parking area I chose would have been blocked in by trainers in a few minutes. I tell him I'm meeting an examiner here, planning to take off again in a couple of hours. He's happy with that. The operator goes into the flying school lounge to wait for me and I call the examiner's number, leaving another message, then clean up the airplane and make sure it's ready for the flight.

It's about 1:30 p.m. so I'll have time to get weather and NOTAMs before the flight. I'm just deciding where to go for that, when my phone rings. Two p.m. is still fine, and the examiner has the go-ahead from Transport Canada to do the ride. She gives me directions to her school. It's easy to walk and leave the airplane where it is, so I take my paperwork, the aircraft flight manual and the journey log and go over.

The examiner is super busy: teaching, supervising, managing, and scheduling. She says hello and points me at a room to set up in: "the middle office." There are four. I decide not to count the one she was in, so pick the third, but she comes back and moves me to the second. Great start, examiner thinks I can't count. I rework out my weight and balance, based on the amount of fuel I actually have on board, more than I planned for, so it takes some cargo juggling to keep it within limits. I lay that out with my flight planning, licences and aircraft documents. I eat a couple of energy bars. 'm not hungry yet, as I'm used to working all day between breakfast and supper, but I know this will call for more energy. I call for a weather briefing and take copious notes, adding those to the array. The examiner comes back and gives me a copy of the approach plate for the airport I couldn't find. Turns out I couldn't find the airport because it doesn't exist, it's a made-up practice approach for flight training, based off a private NDB. Instructors keep coming into the room where I'm working and using the filing cabinet. I say hi and try to pump them for information on the traps in the route. Instructors know if students tend to descend too soon or too late, or other typical mistakes. One of the instructors can't find the approach plate he wants, and the examiner comes back to help him find it. I have been given the wrong plate. They give me the right one, on a different NDB, but the same made up approach. The examiner corrects the bearings on the plate, because the printed ones apparently don't work right. It's also in a different direction and a different distance than my original planning, so I have to redo the wind calculations. The instructor comes back and needs another plate. He sees my current CAP (approach plate book) on the table and asks if he can borrow it to make a photocopy. I tell him of course, but the payment required is one tip for pleasing this examiner. If I'd trained here with these instructors I'd know all her pet peeves and ways to avoid being yelled at. That alone doesn't pass a flight test, but it's local knowledge that can keep me from being yelled at and thus rattled.

I'm making a mess now. I had a pencil last night, but it must be in my suitcase. I can't find it in my flight bag, so I'm doing stuff in pen, which is getting ugly. You don't fail on ugly paperwork, but you lose marks and create a poor first impression. I traditionally do not lose marks on the ground in flight tests, but that's not happening today. The instructor comes back with my CAP and says simply "Speak slowly," as he puts it down and walks away. I bargain with another instructor for the advice, "Be precise." I'm still trying to get that flight plan to look right when the examiner comes in and starts the test.

I've been on duty for eight hours now. That would be a full day for some people, but I'm legal for another seven. And if I can't pass a flight test after working for eight hours, why should I be legal to fly an airplane for real?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Can You Hear Me Now?

Morning comes early. I have no recollection of what that hotel room looked like. I was in it an conscious for maybe eight minutes total. I drag my bag down the corridor to the breakfast room with two minutes to spare before the agreed-upon departure time. The cab is already here. I shove a couple of apples and a bagel in my flight bag along with whatever I ordered last night to go, some kind of wrap, I think, and get in the cab.

I check oil and move the airplane from parking back to the pumps and do the run up there, while waiting for the fueller to arrive. He does, and I then finish my preflight inspection and set up charts for the trip and file a flight plan while it's being fuelled. Full all around and caps checked, we take off only a little behind schedule. The wind is calm, so I take off from the apron end of the runway, straight off and then a turn to the northeast as I climb enroute.

I bid adieu to the circuit traffic at Salmon Arm on the ATF and then make a general call on 126.7 to let folks know where I am. The radio doesn't sound quite right. I'm not hearing myself in my own headset the way I should be. The camera operator says he can't hear me. Oh oh. I check the plugs on my headset jack. They're fine. Just my luck to get a headset with a problem. I grab a spare headset. Oh my God it's been a long time since I wore a cheap headset. It's uncomfortable from the earseals, to the weight, to the way it fits on my head, to the amount of noise it lets in. How do people stand these things? I guess I've become a headset snob. From that point of view it's fortunate that the headset swap doesn't fix the problem, because I couldn't work in one anymore, and I'm glad my new headset isn't defective. So is the jack defective? Maybe there's nothing wrong with my old headset. I put my own headset back on and try plugging it in the jack for the other side, trying that intercom jack. No joy. The operator tries the same headset and jack swap in the back.

I can hear the operator, but he can't hear me at all. I'm literally writing notes on my little notepad, then tearing off the sheets and tossing them in the back. He suggests that the intercom may be set incorrectly. It has an electronic control panel that cycles between PILOT, CREW and ALL. I assume that those put the left seat, both front seats or all seats into the intercom circuit, but we test all positions anyway. I'm pretty much in despair about fixing it until I realize that there is a master volume knob for the whole stack and it is in two parts, concentric rings. The inner ring is set to a reasonable volume, but the outer ring, intercom volume, is somehow turned right down. I dial it up and all is well. I still have no idea how it got turned down in the first place. I haven't adjusted anything in that vicinity. I must have hit it with something. How can I have flown so many airplanes and take so long to sort that out. At least I'm in the middle of the mountains in the early morning and not in terminal airspace in a busy time.

We continue over the mountains then I start descent towards a small airport where I have been asked to land. The operator is concerned about some aspect of the camera software, so asks me not to land yet while he tests the system. I fly big circuits overflying the runway at circuit altitude while he sorts it out. It gives me a chance to verify the winds. There's no other traffic around, so my presence isn't interfering with anyone. Each time around it's "just a few minutes more" but eventually I'm given the okay to land. Because of the elevation, landing appears very fast, but it's at a normal airspeed.

We taxi in, looking for the fuel pump, which turns out to be about ten metres across gravel from a narrow taxiway, partially blocked by a tied-down Cessna. I inch by, not wanting to snag my wingtip on the tiedown, nor to put my spinning propeller over the gravel to the side of the taxiway. I go well past the parked airplane then over to the far side of the taxiway to turn around and pull up behind it, making the closest approach to the pump we can without blocking myself in behind the Cessna.

The hose isn't quite long enough to reach the furthest tank, so we ground handle the airplane a little to wiggle closer until it is. The pump isn't clearly labelled as avgas, and it's not a standard cardlock pump, so we call the telephone number in the CFS for information on fuel purchase. They confirm the fuel type, take the company name, aircraft ident and credit card information and then tell us the codes to turn on the pump. I also call Edmonton Centre to notify them of the photo blocks we will be flying in. Meanwhile the airplane and camera have become covered in fine yellow pollen. There are no obvious flowers around, it's a bit early for flowers this far north. I speculate that it's tree pollen and then remind myself that trees have cones not pollen. They're all conifers around here that I can see. I add some oil, too, and clean the windshield, then we start up and roll out to take pictures. A pretty quick turn: thirty-one minutes from engine off to restart.

We're working at about 8,000', I think, and it's cold outside, but we don't dare turn on the heater, lest the backfiring soil the camera lens, or even worse cause a fire in the aircraft. We just wear our parkas and tough it out. The outside air temperature is -7C but it's warmer than that in the airplane, with our two bodies and the multiple cameras and the thirteen computers computers that control them all generating heat. Still the low temperatures can't be good for all the electrical equipment. They aren't like us humans who have adapted to living at altitudes higher and temperatures lower than this. I'm not personally so adapted, so I am breathing supplemental oxygen and wearing leather gloves and a stretchy toque I pulled out of my flight bag. I have to admit to not being too disappointed when clouds prevent us from flying out the complete mission. We made a big dent in it, though. We land at a larger airport and then jump out and bask in the warmth of the sun while the airplane is fuelled.

I also manage to make contact with the examiner, who says that she needs seven days notice to do a PPC test, because Transport Canada needs opportunity to demand to do the ride themselves. I know that company has been working on this for at least that long, so I get the name of the person at Transport who can waive the seven day notice, and then toss the ball back into my boss' court. The examiner says that if that is worked out, tomorrow around 2 p.m. will be fine, and she gives me, when I request it, the route to plan for the flight test.

Fuelling complete, I go and park. The operator climbs underneath to check the camera and comes out raving about a fuel leak. He says there's fuel all over the belly. The fuelling was competent, no overflow, and even fuel running aft off the flaps should have reached the camera. The operator says it's staining the camera red. Wait, red?.

"The fuel we use is blue." I say. "Red is hydraulic fluid." I climb underneath to see.

"Yeah, I know," he says. "I thought something might make it look red."

I don't really see anything. There's the soot stain from the heater outlet, more of that yellow pollen, but nothing covering the belly. A thin oily stripe does run from the edge of a belly panel towards the camera array. It's consistent with dirty hydraulic fluid. He's cleaned the camera lens already. I don't know what that panel conceals. I don't see why a hydraulic line would be running that far aft, but perhaps a hydraulic leak further forward has pooled inside the fuselage then run out of this access panel. I grab a screwdriver and start loosening the panel. I rely on hydraulics to get the landing gear up and down, so regardless of what it does to the camera, I want to know what's going on here. The operator takes a turn removing screws. It's actually pretty tiring lying on your back twisting your arms overhead. We remove enough screws to peel back the panel and see what's inside. Nothing. There is no pooled fluid, no leaking line, no stains. It seems to be a coincidence that the dirty stripe starts just aft of this panel. Perhaps it was clean enough or enough in the airstream that the fluid was carried over it without staining, then it picked up some grime at the aft edge of the panel.

There are a few drops of red hydraulic fluid visible in the nosewheel hydraulic breather line. It's probably just a few millilitres, normal seepage, maybe from the altitude changes, the purpose of having a breather line in the first place. Text messages and photos go between us and the maintenance unit and they don't think it's anything serious. Except that for the mission of this aircraft is is serious. If it happened on gear retraction after takeoff, it has ruined our day's work, and it means the loss of more than a day, because the weather may not be right for this work tomorrow. We hope it happened on extension before landing.

I ask if he can check the photos now, but the resolution is so great that on the screen in the airplane they may look fine when they are really ruined. We'll have to see later. We haul our gear to the terminal then after more discussion I'm assigned to take off and cycle the gear several times to see if it happens again.

As I strap into the pilot seat I grin to myself. "Hey, first solo." I haven't flown this airplane by myself before. I taxi out "for a local test flight" and cycle the gear up and down, up and down, making sure it's locked in each position before restarting the cycle. I give myself a couple of simulated engine failures while I'm at it, to practice the procedure: gear down, approach power, engine failure, maintain direction, power to hold on the other engine, gear up, simulate feather, emergency checklist complete, give myself the engine back, start over. Instead of doing touch-and-goes I just overfly the runway. And then I land and taxi in. There's a little bit of fluid, but not much. He sends me up to do the same thing again. Cycle, cycle, cycle, cycle, up, down, up, down, up, down, make sure it's down, land. Now there is no seepage. So maybe we're good. We go shopping for airplane cleaning supplies, and call it a day.

I now have about forty minutes to prepare for tomorrow's flight test and get to bed in order to have the required rest for tomorrow's report time. Forty minutes is probably more time than I pend on preflight paperwork for a normal flight, but for a normal flight I use the standard, precalculated weight and balance, use block fuel, round times roughly and only calculate takeoff and climb performance if it's an issue because of high temperatures or marginal runways. And then I generally round up to the next highest weight, temperature and altitude that has its own line, and just verify that it doesn't ask for more runway or lower obstacles than I have. For a flight test, I want the examiner to walk in and see about six pieces of paper with neat, meticulous calculations for each phase of flight. Yeah, that's not happening, considering it takes me at least fifteen minutes to figure out how to rearrange everything on board to accommodate an examiner in the front seat and stay within the weight and balance envelope. This airplane is nose heavy, and not usually flown with no one in the back. My next problem is that I can't find the airport I was told to plan to. The examiner mentioned that the approach was a VFR-only training approach and that she would give me the approach plate, but I need to at least plan fuel to get there. I find an airport with a similar name in the approximate area, and plan to that, eventually saying "screw it, I use block fuel and average winds every day, I'm not losing sleep to do calculations per segment for this artificial situation." I know, I know, a flight test is an artificial situation, but my need for sleep is real. It's already too late for me to get the required eight hours. Maybe I'll have some time to do more paperwork in the morning.

I suddenly remember as I'm drifting off to sleep that a single pilot PPC includes demonstration of competence with the autopilot. I've not mastered it, though. I've never had a chance to practice intercepting and descending on an ILS with this one, because the only airport I've been to that has one has controllers who prefer to vector me all over the place for a close-in base below the glideslope, or a visual diagonal final. I've done a PPC before where the autopilot went below the glideslope and I simply took control and finished it by hand, with no censure from the examiner. If I or the autopilot don't set this up correctly, I'll do the same. There are a few more "better figure out how to do that" moments before I drift off to sleep. It's really embarrassing but there has simply not been opportunity for a proper practice flight.

You guys have made a few guesses as to the nature of the Aviation-Themed Towel of Questionable Taste, which will be the booby prize in the sunglasses contest. No one has come close to guessing how bad it is. It has four different aspects of badness to it. Perhaps I should rename it, the Aviation-Themed Towel of Definitely Poor Taste. The only questions about it is why did someone send it to me, and why is it suddenly so popular?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Mountain Valleys

The next morning's weather actually is better, it wasn't just a procrastination technique on my part. I let the operator know I'm willing to do the flight. The weather at Vancouver is still marginal, but the altitudes I need through the Rockies should be ice-free, so I file an IFR flight plan for the trip. I may be able to do it VFR, depending on when the operator actually chooses to go, but I'd like a chance to fly this airplane IFR before the ride. I also get his okay on doing the approach to destination (in visual weather) with the power to one engine pulled back, so I can see what this airplane flies like on one engine.

We go to the airport, but now the operator doesn't want to leave yet. I unpack various cleaning supplies from the nose and use the leather cleaner to try and make the seats look nicer. They aren't disgusting, just a little grimy, but like all cleaners, the product isn't magical and while my effort makes the rags noticeably dirtier, it doesn't make the seats seem a lot cleaner. This is an airport where people have security badges like crazy, and I don't have one. I go on the airport website to try and find a ramp badge policy, but there doesn't seem to be one. I know I could get in trouble if I'm standing about poking at an airplane with no badge, if I'm supposed to have one. But I can't tell if I am. I call security to ask about the south side badging policy. The guy puts me on hold twice. I get the idea it's his first day. Or maybe he's the team enforcer. He seems to be telling me that it's the responsibility of whoever's hangar we're working out of. That would be the maintenance unit that looked into the EGT overtemp situation, but they aren't escorting me. They said my pilot licence would do the trick. I try to get security guy to confirm that my pilot licence is sufficient ID for a ramp check here, but he defers to my employer. Well of course THEY say I can be here. How does he know I don't work for a radical BC Separatist organization that wants to bomb the local legislature? I ask if it's possible to get a temporary badge, but apparently it would take a couple of weeks just to get an interview to apply for any sort of badge. Funny that. A friend who works at Air Canada said that the non-union temp workers they brought in to cover during the strike all seemed to get badges overnight.

I get an e-mail with an examiner's name and instructions to call and arrange the ride directly. I leave voice mail with my own e-mail and phone number and the fact that I am on the road, but am hoping to be there to do a ride on Tuesday. My guess for when we are leaving is about to expire, so I call back to flight services to change my filed departure time, just guessing a new one, I can change it again later. While I am waiting to be told to I sit down to study the aircraft operating handbook and the CAP GEN for my mysteriously situated PPC ride. I think I know most of it. I was well-prepared last time, but I'll never forget the ride I was underprepared for. It was a similar situation, "I did a ride recently. I know this stuff," but I didn't. So I study again.

When the operator is ready to go, I discover the weather is pretty good now, and also good on the webcams through the mountains. He only wants to get across the first mountain range tonight, to be sure we won't be trapped in Vancouver by coastal weather. I call Flight Services to file a VFR flight plan (can probably do the whole trip around 9,500' and get out of here more efficiently) to possibly replace the IFR flight one (at 15,000'). For some reason this is a big deal for them. It turns out that I've called on the day that some kind of changeover is happening, so they could have done it easily yesterday and will be able to do it effortlessly tomorrow, but today it's an issue. They can't have two flight plans in the system at once for the same airplane. I suggest that they put the VFR one with a proposed departure after the ETA of the IFR one and then I can change it just before departure if I go VFR, but that doesn't work for them. I can't remember how we resolved that, possibly by departing IFR and then taking advantage of the phenomenally poor tower-terminal relationship to cancel in the air. Or the ground controller was surprisingly accommodating and helped me have the best of both worlds. There's a massive banner on the control tower, cheering on the Vancouver Canucks hockey team.

I was originally planning to fly eastbound along the Fraser River to Hope and up the highway, but once airborne, I see that the more northerly route looks better initially, and that ties in with the worst of the weather being to the south, too. I request an altitude that will take me through the passes up the valley overhead Whistler Mountain, where the 2010 Winter Olympics were. I'd show you pictures, but did I tell you? My camera is sort of broken. In some sort of cosmic joke, while I fly a giant camera around, the one in my flight bag doesn't work. It still thinks it is taking pictures, but all the resulting saved images are just pure black rectangles. I hope maybe there's just a broken spring (do cameras even have springs anymore?) somewhere and that the shutter isn't opening properly. I'll try to get it repaired, and in the meantime I may be able to borrow one.

I plug a few coordinates in on the GPS and set it in terrain mode, but mostly this kind of flying is about looking out the window and making sure the valleys in real life match the valleys on the VFR chart. There are clouds above, but not in sufficient numbers to hamper my turning around if some low ones block the valley, and I don't think they will. Their bases get higher as I go up the valley. I do reach one wall of cloud. It's a cumulus build-up along a ridge that I thought I could hop over by going visually between peaks. There are too many clouds to do that, so I turn south along the valley the ridge defines, to climb in order to turn back and go over them. Normally outclimbing a bank of Cu is a poor proposition, because there tend to be higher and higher ones beyond. This I'm pretty sure is just at this ridge, with a lower plateau without the buildups beyond it. I'm right, but as we climb over it, there's a kind of a slapping sound, like a loose strap or a hatch come open. Maybe it's the new headset. Wouldn't that be rich, buy a new headset and have it be defective.

There's that noise again. Maybe it's a cable slap. The ailerons make some odd noises as a result of rerouting for the camera port in the belly. That's a little freaky, but it's all STCed and frequently inspected. The sound stops. I ask the operator if he heard it, and he did. I pull my headset plugs out to see if he still hears it. There's a long pause, but it happens again without my headset in the system. And then it's quiet. Maybe the ANR screwed up the intercom. I've been blamed for intercom problems before, back when I was an early adopter of ANR technology and everyone else with passive DC units would blame problems on freaky electronic headset girl. But the operator still hears the noise when he unplugs from the intercom.

Some minutes later I hear it again, variously a banging, slapping, popping sound. I have to adjust the trim as the operator wanders around trying to pinpoint the source. It seems more on the left than the right, sometimes further forward, sometimes further back. There is no yawing or fluctuating engine indication. We keep thinking it's stopped, then it starts again. The operator suggests turning off the heater, and I try that. It doesn't happen for a long time ... then it continues to not happen for a further long time. It seems to have stopped. Not good. The heater burns fuel. We hate to think what it's doing when it malfunctions.

We continue without further incident over the plateau and then dip down over the lake to land at Salmon Arm, the same place in the BC mountains where I surveyed last summer. I make a call on the traffic frequency and there's a small airplane up. He tells me the wind is calm. I cross over the town and join downwind, the narrow valley clearly showing why the CFS recommends using this airport at night unless you are very familiar with the area, and all the hazard beacons are operating. I land close over the trees and the golf course and roll out to the exit. There's a guy in a little airplane in the run up area. I wave and taxi in for fuel, which according to the CFS is available for another thirty minutes.

We park at the pumps and call all the numbers listed for fuel, with no reply. I walk over to the hangar where the pilot has parked and ask him when the fuel is open until. He agrees that it should still be open this time of year and says the guy was around recently. He gives me another number, and I call that. It's now about seven minutes to the time the CFS says fuel closes. The fueller doesn't want to come out now, so he agrees to come in a bit early the next morning to get us going on time.

Meanwhile, it's obvious the heater was the problem. There's a stream of soot down the belly of the airplane. I wipe off what I can and put "soot remover" on my shopping list. The pilot is done in his hangar and gives us a ride into town where we get a hotel and a quick meal. The waitress is intrigued by our "detailed maps" as we pore over the next day's flying, and she is very helpful in packing "to-go" meals for tomorrow's lunch. The time we have to leave in the morning is the same time breakfast starts at the hotel, but we can probably grab muffins and fruit to go as the cab arrives.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Emergency Headset

I'm not sure if I mentioned that I have had some communications difficulties with ATC lately, missing calls, or having to have parts of calls repeated. I thought it was distraction, working with a new task or missing an unfamiliar callsign, but taxiing in at Vancouver I realized that moving the cord made a difference to whether or not I could transmit. What a time for my headset to die. I could get it repaired, but that would involve express shipping it to the manufacturer in Portland, Oregon and back. And I'd have no headset in the meantime.

Or no good headset. There are a couple of spare headsets in the airplane, but wow, sorry, if you've used a good noise cancelling headset for over ten years, passive no longer cuts it. I wonder how people managed with those things. I have to do a PPC ride and work in the flight levels. I can't not have it work.I was an early adopter of noise cancelling technology, reasoning that I only had the one set of ears. People laughed at my bulky earcups, but then they tried it and they bought them too.

I suppose there may be some readers unfamiliar with noise cancelling. It's also called active noise reduction (ANR), active noise cancellation, and probably some other things. Each manufacturer has its own jargon. It works by having a little microphone in each ear cup, sampling the sound that's getting in there, and then generating a noise that is the exact opposite of that noise, cancelling out the first noise. It works because sound is not a thing with form, but only exists as squished and stretched out parts in the air, so you play a sound that squishes and stretches the air in the exact opposite way, and the result is much less sound. There is no time travel technology associated, so it can't predict the future, therefore takes a moment to cut in, and works best on steady sounds, like engines, and therefore actually allows you to hear irregular sounds, like something going "clunk" or someone speaking, even better. The sound dampening provided by merely having something clamped over your ears is called passive protection, and the total hearing protection offered by a headset is the combination of active and passive. Less expensive headsets offer only passive noise reduction.

The noise cancellation still works on mine, but the wiring inside the cord has probably broken. Also the headband doesn't fit as securely and the earseals always fall off overnight. After five thousand hours of service, the headset owes me nothing. I was planning to replace it soon, but had hoped to have leisure to compare and test different headsets.

Fortunately there is a headset dealer at the Vancouver airport, less than a kilometre from where the airplane is parked. I bring my old one and then get straight to the point. "Hi, this is broken. I need a comfortable, high quality ANR headset that fits small. What do you have in stock?" The clerk asks me what my budget is. I know how much a good ANR headset costs, "A thousand dollars," I say, in a way that is intended to convey that I'll pay more if that's what it costs. (Yeah, none of the tools of my trade come cheap). I know that I can't buy new ears, that an airspace violation could cost me that much in fines, and a botched clearance could kill me. I can see the display case of headsets, but instead of going over to it and showing me what's available, he disappears to the back of the store without another word. Weird.

I look at headsets for a while. There are some David Clarks, but while they are the unrivaled leader in durability and movie appearances, they were late on the ANR bandwagon. I remember a guy who sold a homebrew ANR conversion for DCs, and it was better than what the company itself came out with. There's a Telex, but not the ANR model. I think the only ANR headset there is a Bose. Another salesman comes out to help me. I think the first guy figured he didn't know enough about the headsets to deal with me and went to get the expert. The Bose is comfortable, fits me, has good noise cancelling. You can't really tell if a headset is going to work for you until you've flown with it, but it's significant;y lighter than the old headset, and has an excellent reputation and warrantee, including a thirty-day satisfaction return policy. Ordinarily I'd buy a headset letting the seller know I was taking it for a test flight, but when I take off from here I don't know where I will land. I'll take this one based on reputation: I'm sure it will be good enough, and given a chance to test the newest model from other manufacturers, I can mail it back if they are significantly better for me.

I tell him I'll take one. But as I haven't pre-ordered, he doesn't have any in stock. And he's not getting more until September. Bose has a US military supply contract and therefore aren't super concerned about getting their headsets in small retailers' hands.

"What about this one?" I ask, of the display model. He quickly decides that it's worth selling it to me, and puts it in its box. Comes to over $1200 with the taxes. It's a Bose A20 with Bluetooth connectivity, an extra option I wasn't planning on spending $100 on, but that's what it has. Bluetooth is kind of a joke for me as my cellphone is so old it doesn't even have a jack for a handsfree headset, and I still have two perfectly functional non-Bluetooth MP3 players. Come to think of it, I bought the cellphone in a similar, "NEED PHONE NOW!" panic. Is this the way I live my life? I guess some people keep a constant awareness of products they might need, knowing which one they want most at any moment so that when their current one dies they can replace it with confidence. Actually, don't answer that. The normal way is to replace your stuff before it wears out, with newer and better. I like my stuff and hate discarding functional things. I'm going to see if I can get my camera repaired, for example.

So I stash the old headset in the back of the airplane and set up the new one. Comfy!

Also I've noticed that at least two numbers (37 and 107) have two takers each in the sunglasses contest. You don't have to read all the submissions, but to increase your chances, double-check your choice by using the "find" command on the comment list to see if it's already been picked. I'll leave the contest open until we run out of numbers or the first appropriate (not raining at destination) flight after I get a working camera, whichever comes first.

Friday, June 24, 2011

None Shall Know the Day Nor the Airport

I did an IFR flight test on an unfamiliar airplane several months ago, so I should be good at this now. I know I know my IFR details, but this is a PPC ride, where I'll be grilled on the airplane. I have been asked crazy details on PPC rides, like how many vortex generators an airplane had (88), the identity and amperage of the largest circuit breaker (hydraulic motor and I think it was 30A), and the identity of every antenna and line sticking out of ports in the belly and engines. Sometimes you have to fall back on, "I don't know! If it comes loose or leaks a lot I'll take a picture of it and e-mail it to maintenance." But I should know how this airplane works. I spend a day with its manuals and many supplements and hope I have the right things memorized. When you're working towards a PPC ride with a particular examiner, the person training you knows what the examiner is sticky about and primes you for such questions. I would not, otherwise, have been counting vortex generators. But not only do I not know who the examiner will be, I don't have anyone training me. I'm a pilot, so I'm supposed to know how to fly this thing.

And now the monitored ride with the Vancouver examiners is unlikely, because company wants me to take this airplane back to Alberta. They're going to find an examiner for me in Edmonton. Okay, I can do that. Except maybe I can't right now, because the mountain passes are choked with stratus and fog, and there is weather all around Vancouver, too. Oddly, although I need an IFR PPC on the aircraft in order to fly it around in beautiful weather at 20,000', my regular IFR rating is sufficient for me to launch into actual IFR conditions, for a ferry flight. It's only for revenue flights that I need a PPC.

So the pilot is approved and the operation is approved, but what about the airplane? It has an autopilot. I have a yoke-mountable chart holder, and a headset with a boom mike, almost archaic (as in who doesn't have these things?) requirements for single-pilot IFR. The airplane, however, does not have leading edge ice protection. It is therefore "not certified for flight into known ice."

So we look at the icing forecast, of which this is part. Red is turbulence, blue is ice.

I'm headed from the bottom left of British Columbia, the province outlined in black, to the middle of Alberta, the next province to the east. That route goes nowhere near the one patch of blue on the whole forecast. So does that mean there's no ice? It doesn't. This seems so weird now that I have to explain it, but if you look at the bottom of the chart, right above the red Canadian flag, you see some bold yet cryptic notes proclaiming that CB TCU AND ACC IMPLY SIG TURB AND ICG. This translates to a reminder that cumulonimbus, towering cumulus and altocumulus castellanus clouds can be counted on to be full of the supercooled water droplets that cause airframe icing. An airplane without leading edge ice protection definitely cannot safely fly through such a cloud. To see where those clouds are, you have to consult the corresponding clouds and weather chart.

Even if you don't read weather, you can pick out ACC and TCU in the bubbles I need to fly through. They are 'scattered', which means that theoretically I could go around them, but what if they are inside other clouds? This looks tricky. Later in the day they are calling for better weather on the coast, but thunderstorms through the mountains. I tell them tomorrow looks better, and they believe me. And now they can't get an examiner this week in Edmonton, but there might be one at some little northern airport somewhere. I'm not sure whether I've finally done enough flight tests that I'm not panicked about this one, or whether I don't really believe they will be able to find an examiner on such short notice.

Vancouver, meanwhile, lives up to its reputation of being rainy.

I have to wait until I can get my camera fixed, because I want to properly document our game of nosewheel roulette (and I'm embarrassed to ask someone else to photograph it for me), so its still not too late to enter the contest to win a pair of sunglasses.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

First Full Day of Summer

Today (that is the UTC day, not necessarily your local day) is the first full day of summer. In the latitudes I have been operating in there was snow a couple of weeks before, and it doesn't mean there won't be snow tomorrow, but the sun has set once since it had its moment overhead the Tropic of Cancer, and will remain north of the equator until the equinox in September. Yes, it's odd that we've settled on what is also known as Midsummer's Day as the beginning of summer, but it is pretty close to marking the date of the beginning of warm weather in the northern hemisphere.

As announced earlier, today is also the date is sponsoring a contest in which you can win a pair of SXUC mirrored aviator-style sunglasses, specifically these ones. sells expensive brands, as well, but the website copy makes it clear that SXUC is not an expensive brand, just fun, but they do have UV400 protection. (For work I use expensive sunglasses, but when I'm not working I typically wear sunglasses in about this price so that I won't scream in pain when they get sat on, scratched, or lost. I get my optometrist to verify that they have the advertised UV protection, and he puts them in a machine and tells me they do, even though he's the one who sells me the expensive sunglasses).

After considering various options for the workings of a contest, I've decided that we will play nosewheel roulette. On my next flight, I will mark and photograph a chalk line on the left side of the lowest point of my nosewheel tire during preflight. Then I will taxi, take-off, fly an entire flight and return to parking, at which point I will disembark and re-examine the chalk mark. Your task is to predict how many centimetres clockwise around the circumference of the tire the chalk mark will appear once the airplane is stopped. This may be at the fuel pumps or it may be at the final parking location, wherever I first get an opportunity to photograph and measure it for you.

The total circumference of the tire is 128 centimetres, giving a giant roulette wheel with 128 possibilities, from zero to 127. Post your selection in the comments, then back it up with an e-mail to me with the subject Sunglasses. Your e-mail should contain the same guess, so I don't need to sort out which Anonymous or which David is which, when I need to contact you for your mailing address. You can also save that step and put your mailing address in the e-mail. I won't use it for anything except maybe sending you a postcard sometime, unless you win in which case I will send it to so they can send you your prize. If you live underground and don't need sunglasses, or want to play for glory only, and prefer to cede your prize to the next runner up, you can put that in the e-mail too.

Don't pick a number someone else has chosen, because I'll give priority to the person whose comment appears first. If two guesses are equidistant either side of the correct location, that's okay because there are two pairs of sunglasses available to be won. If there is some added complication I haven't thought of, I'll do my best to be fair.

There will also be a booby prize for the entry furthest from correct. The booby prize is a second-hand (or possibly more) aviation-themed decorative towel in extremely questionable taste. Someone sent it to me and after I looked at it, it went right back into the envelope waiting for its next victim.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Bankeþ Airplane

In honour of the beginning of summer, this post arrives on your blogstep at the same moment as the sun is overhead the Tropic of Cancer, and I have a summer song for you.

This is possibly the oldest known English song. It dates from around 1240, so after the Norman invasion, before the great vowel shift, before foreign typesetters tossed out the thorn, and before post-inflected English had established its current SOV word order. All the endings you see are the archaic third person singular, spelled -eth in Shakespeare, and omitted entirely in modern speech and writing.

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med

And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel þu singes cuccu;

Ne swik þu nauer nu.

Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

You can figure most of it out if you know your animal-specific English verbs. The only word that doesn't exist at all in modern English is swik which means "stop". To figure it the rest out, pronounce u as ow (like what you say when you're hurt) except in the word cuccu make it a long oo and immediately before e pronounce it as v. You can find a modern translation here. There's music, too and here's a video of it being performed.

I find it interesting that some of the specific verbs related to animals are becoming obscure in English. Maybe it's just because I don't work with animals, but I would probably say that a ewe "baas" and a cow "moos," before I thought of bleats and lows. I think I only know the latter because of the Christmas carol in which "cattle are lowing."

I'm trying to think of any verbs relating to airplanes and engines that are not shared with animals. Our engines sputter, splutter, cough, roar, hum and purr. An airplane banks which I think is related to the meaning of bank "earthen incline, edge of a river," which is at least as old as this song. A banked road or racecourse would allow a chariot or bicycle to corner more easily, and the leaning sense must have transferred from the earthen bank to the vehicle. Pitch, roll and yaw are similarly not new with airplanes. Airplanes land and take off, but so do birds. A little internet research confirms the feeling I am getting here: it is easier for new nouns to enter a language than new verbs. So airplanes flooded us with new words naming the parts of the new invention, but we didn't make up many brand new words for what the heavier-than-air machines did. Honestly, if you can think of any verbs that were newly coined with the airplane, I bet they are verbed nouns.

Come back at midnight zulu for tomorrow's post, the contest I promised you, in which you can win a pair of new sunglasses.

Updated with working YouTube link.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Pop Quiz Indeed

My boss, or perhaps I should say my customer, seeing as I am a contractor, announces what is phrased to me as "good news and very bad news." It's further broken down as good news for the company and very bad news for me. I've had very bad news just too many times in my career to break down into tears at this point. And this is a temporary job. I'm guessing off the top of my head that the company has been bought out and they don't need me any more. Or perhaps there's some air regulation I didn't know that requires me to be shot at dawn for having requested the wrong departure from clearance delivery. I really don't remember that from the CARs. A pilot has to keep up on these things! I'm braced.

The good news is that the company has received approval to do IFR work. IFR photo survey might sound like bad news for anyone involved, but this doesn't mean we'll be taking pictures of the insides of clouds, it's for an airspace technicality, like needing CVFR flight over 12,500'. The airspace 18,000' and above is designated as Class A (which the Americans pronounce "alpha" but the Canadians pronounce "eh") and it is open to IFR traffic only. So in order to fly above 18,000' we need to have an IFR operating certificate.

Why might this bad news for me? Although my IFR rating is current, renewed less than ten months ago, I need to do an IFR flight test on this aircraft type. As soon as possible. Normally it's difficult to get an expedited ride (flight tests are called "rides," I guess because the Americans call them checkrides and the shortened form came north), but Vancouver has a regional Transport Canada office, so TC agreed to do the ride themselves, with the stipulation that it is a monitored ride. Not monitored as in "this call will be monitored to ensure customer satisfaction" but monitored in that there will be one person evaluating me and another person in the airplane evaluating his or her ability to evaluate me. But from any pilot's point of view it means there will be two Transport Canada inspectors sitting in the airplane taking careful notes on the way I screw up. Joy.

I tell the bearer of these tidings that having my skills evaluated is a normal part of my job and that really the second Transport person in the airplane is there to evaluate the first one, so it spreads out the pressure rather than intensifying it. Where ever did I learn such sang froid? I think it's like handling an emergency in the airplane: it's such short notice that there isn't time to get all angsty. I just have to do it. I can fly this airplane. I can fly IFR. I should be able to fly this one IFR. I ask for the opportunity to do a practice flight with a safety pilot, during which I can practice stalls and engine failure drills. I don't know how this airplane responds with a failed engine, or what power setting will hold an ILS glideslope in zero wind, and I don't know what tricks the local controllers might have for me. The employer agrees to that, and even suggests a local Vancouver pilot who knows the airplane and the area.

And then I go and take pictures.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Magnetic North is Not the Same

People not involved in map-related sports or professions probably don't think about "north" much. I think most people have learned that "true north" and "magnetic north" are not the same, but I worded the title of this post the way I did to cover the fact that magnetic north is also not the same as itself over time. The earth's magnetic field varies somewhat randomly on a daily basis and also steadily over time. It still amuses me when I come across concrete manifestations of the unconstant nature of magnetic north, and I saw one in a NOTAM recently.

TIL 1105050901

YVR is a VOR -- a navigational radio station -- near the CYVR airport and it "tells" a pilot that her airplane is on a particular radial, i.e. that it is located a particular magnetic direction from the VOR ground station. She uses that information to navigate in the vicinity of the airport, perhaps to do an instrument approach that follows a specified radial straight to a runway, or to stay out of a restricted area that she has determined from the chart to be west of a particular radial. A number of radials are published on charts as named routes, for example on the expired chart I have here, the 037 radial from the YVR VOR was designated as part of the V304 airway to Calgary, sort of like Portage Avenue in Winnipeg forms part of the Trans-Canada Highway. A pilot tracking a radial makes heading corrections as needed to compensate for any crosswind, but she expects that in zero wind she will be flying on the same magnetic heading as the radial while tracking away from a station, and on the reciprocal heading while tracking towards a station. (To get to the station on the 000 radial, you fly 180, or south). A pilot who filed a flight plan from Vancouver to Calgary along V304 would expect to be flying on a heading of 037, and because the published minimum obstacle clearance along that radial is 9000', she would also expect that by keeping the 037 radial selected and centred on her VOR at 9000' that she wouldn't fly through any clouds with crunchy centres.

A VOR does not use the orientation of the earth's magnetic field to function, but it is set up and calibrated so that its zero radial runs due magnetic north of the station. That means that when the earth's magnetic field shifts, the YVR 037 radial still runs along a safe path between YVR and the next VOR on the airway. The pilot might just have to fly a different heading to stay on the airway. But after a number of years the accumulated magnetic shift is enough that Nav Canada wants to recalibrate the VOR such that the 037R really does run in the 037 direction. So they rotate the actual VOR signal. I'm pretty sure they just go in there and electronically adjust the direction in which the station sends its signals, but it's more fun to imagine that they jacked the whole thing up (they're usually about the size of a garage, except round) and cranked it around four degrees counterclockwise. But once they've done that, the 037 radial no longer runs through that safe route towards Calgary. It might pass a lot closer to some pointy rocks. So they have to amend all the publications so that what once specified the 037 radial now specifies the 041 radial, and so on all the way around. There are about fourteen airways defined off the YVR VOR. And they do amend all the publications that show those airways, and pilots or their companies are required to buy new ones every fifty-six days, but they didn't rotate the VOR on the same day as the new publications come out. This NOTAM informed me that until the new chart became effective, on May 5th, that I should add four degrees to any published radial from YVR. The new chart labels the 041 radial as V304, and the 039 radial subsides into unpublished obscurity.

There was a Nav Canada Challenger at YVR while I was there, probably in town to check the alignment of the airways and approaches.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Neither Fish nor Fowl

Next day report time is not until eight a.m. so I have studied all my departures before I get there. You're supposed to make a phone call to get a VFR transponder code within 30 minutes of your departure. Yesterday when I made that call I asked to confirm if I was supposed to squawk VFR once I left the zone. That's the default rule, but Vancouver seems to be special. The specialist said to keep the code, but that I would need a new code to get back in, but that seeing as I wasn't landing anywhere else I could get it by radio.

It's easier to call flight services on the radio than by phone, so I decide I'll do that. The specialist says sorry, he's not allowed to give out any codes by radio. It's a new rule. So I call the same guy back on the phone and get a code. Not sure what that accomplished. Maybe he gets a cut from my cellphone company.

I listen to the ATIS. It's a long recitation of runways and approaches in use, along with the mandatory cautions about SIRO and SPIA--I may have made up the latter abbreviation, but that's what I write down when I copy the ATIS and they are advertising Simultaneous Intersecting Runway Operations and Simultaneous Parallel Instrument Approaches in use. The former means that you might be asked to land and hold short of a crossing runway, or you might be cleared to use a runway that crosses another runway that someone is landing on. One of the pilots has to acknowledge a "hold short" instruction for each such instance. The latter means that you had better not fly through the localizer because there may be another airplane on approach beside you. It's like turning left at an intersection where there are two left turn lanes: you have to stay in your lane and watch for people who aren't.

I call Clearance Delivery, and he assigns me a Metrotown departure at 2000'. I find that on the chart. It's in the opposite direction as the active runway, so that's kind of confusing, but if the takeoff clearance doesn't assign me a routing to it, then I'll ask. I copy my departure squawk code and switch to Ground.

I tell the ground controller my position on the apron and assigned departure, and request taxi clearance. He says Metrotown is not available and gives me a different departure. Now I'm paranoid. Was the clearance delivery guy messing with me in retaliation for asking for a less efficient departure route yesterday? Then the ground controller says, "I presume you'll be wanting a runway again today?" Hey, it's the same guy who mistook me for a helicopter, and he remembers me. Cool.

But then the paranoia cuts back in. Maybe I'm supposed to specify the runway I want in my taxi request. It's not standard, but this wouldn't be the first (nor second, third or fourth airport) I've encountered with its own unique way of doing things. Or have I been away from flying for long enough to have forgotten how to make simple radio calls? I almost freak myself into believing that until I realize that while I've been on frequency I've heard a lot of calls as simple as "Air Canada, taxi." So that's not it. I read back my taxi clearance and follow it to the runway.

I don't remember what we took pictures of that flight. I think we were finishing up lines from a previous flight. I hope nobody blinked. I think I explained the improvements I wanted to the pilot guidance screen, beginning with colours and numbers I can actually see while working and working all the way to my demands for an opportunity to score points by flying well, and a high score list. And the dots should sparkle more, like in Bejeweled. Yes, I think I already blogged about this, because I remember the internal conflict it sets up for me, having to spell "bejewelled" incorrectly for my country, because it's the name of a product.

Back into Vancouver, this time with a straight in clearance that seems to take forever. I keep feeling as if I'm going to be run over by a landing B747, but then I realize that they do all the heavy landings on the north runway and the takeoffs on the south one, so a light airplane coming in for the south one isn't holding anyone up unless we're slow clearing the runway. I scramble off at the first available taxiway and call ground for taxi in.

The next flight has an interesting complication, because we will be flying above 12,500', in class B airspace. VFR traffic is not permitted in class B airspace in Canada, but there's a loophole where you can file "controlled VFR" to follow IFR rules on what is essentially a VFR flight. The CVFR clearance is further complicated by the fact that we are flying photo blocks. I've heard of "flying photo blocks" lots of times, but always assumed it was just jargon for flying around taking pictures in a grid. No, it turns out that there is a specific thing called a photo block that we photo-taking pilots have to know about. I'll explain it another day. Let it suffice for now to say that I filed an IFR-type flight plan and then started up and called for clearance "for a local Controlled VFR flight." I notice pilots here say "round robin flight" instead of "local flight" to indicate that their destination and departure airport are the same, but I stick to the phraseology I first learned. To me "round robin" implies that you are landing at other airports before returning.

The controller says he only has an IFR strip on me. I've been warned about this: there is no separate procedure at ATC units for CVFR: a strip can be either IFR or VFR and CVFR gets an IFR strip. I try to explain that I'm CVFR, departing VFR and then climbing above 12,500' but he says he doesn't have the capability to accept composite flight plans, and basically puts me on hold while a long line of people with more normal requests get their clearances. I can't even get a word in edgewise to say I can accept an IFR departure. Finally the controller gets back to me and assigns me an IFR departure. I look for it in the CAP, hoping it isn't too complex. It's trivial, easier than the VFR departure routes. It tells me to take off, climb straight ahead, and wait for further instructions. I call ground "for taxi two six left" and take off when cleared to do so. The clearance specified to contact departure airborne, so I do that as soon as my gear is up and climb power set, and they radar identify me and immediately give me another frequency to contact. The next controller is baffled by my strip, because I'm an IFR departure but he can't vector me to an airway and be done with me. He wants to know if I'm cancelling IFR. Uh, sure, I can't be CVFR and IFR both at once. I say it, "Cancelling IFR" because they need me to be clear about it. He transfers me to a different terminal controller and we have to go through this all over again, because I still have an IFR strip. Eventually I'm cleared to the photo area. Oxygen on through ten thousand and then I fly in straight lines while the operator takes pictures. We're over Bowen Island and the Gulf Islands, taking pictures of the shoreline. This job can only be done during the two hours of low tide, so every time I mess up, by not being quite straight enough, or having a wing down what seems like just a tiny bit, were it not for the glaring red dot, it costs more than the fuel to turn around and go get it. In just the couple of hours we've been out here there is a huge difference in how much is rocks and how much is water. There are some clouds over the islands, but they are over the middles of the islands, not the shorelines, so we keep snapping. We don't quite finish the work in the time allotted, but there is another, non-tide-sensitive job we work on to round out our mission.

After all that I'm not sure whether we are on a VFR flight plan or an IFR one, so I call flight services to close it, just in case.

Monday, June 13, 2011


I went to an agricultural fair recently. You know the sort I mean? With cows and pigs, and games where you try to throw a dart to win a giant stuffed dog, brightly coloured spinny rides with loud music, and cotton candy and barrel racing. I was describing the events of the day to a friend, when I realized I remembered all the animal pictures (you were supposed to "collect" them on a checklist, but I didn't bother) displayed inside a maze made of straw bales, and I could recite biographical information on the various cows I saw. Why did my brain choose to store that? That storage capacity would be much better occupied by information on how to ensure my autopilot doesn't fly me into a tree today. I got it to work well once, but ever since when I have tried to engage it, it is excessively pitchy.

Perhaps if my autopilot had clear operating instructions printed on the side of a cow I would have as firm a grasp of its use. Mind you, if only my autopilot had clear operating instructions, I might have a firm grasp of its use. It has vague operating instructions, without pictures, and leaves the rest to experimentation. For example, I don't really know if there is a tree-seeking mode, or if there is something specific I must do to disable it. That's the sort of thing I'd expect an autopilot instruction manual to be clear about, if I hadn't read this one.

It has approximately five on/off switches. There's a large rocker switch for roll, square push on-push off buttons for heading, altitude, and something else not clearly specified on its switch, but probably pitch, plus a separate wing leveller. That's five, or it's six if you count the red pushbutton on the yoke, which doesn't work quite the way I expected.

Roll is the basic mode. There is a left-right roll knob, like balance on an old stereo system. You're supposed to centre that knob, toggle the heading lock button off, and engage the roll rocker switch. The airplane should now roll up to a 30 degree bank angle in response to turning the roll knob. If you toggle the heading lock on, bank should be restricted to twenty degrees.

Pitch only works when roll is already engaged. You're supposed to disengage the altitude on/off push button and centre the pitch "command disc," a vertically-mounted edge-on wheel with a flat spot that presumably represents the centre position. It tells me "with the airplane in level flight," implying that this isn't something I can do on the ground before takeoff, to rotate the altitude selector DN/UP knob (looks just like the roll knob) until the trim UP/DN indicator is level. The trim UP/DN indicator is a tippy line in a circle. The instructions next say to calibrate the altitude indicator to match the altimeter by rotating the knurled altitude indicator dial. The altitude indicator is a wide vertically mounted edge-on white plastic wheel with numbers on it representing altitudes, and intermediate lines between them. One edge of it has knurled ridges, so you can change which altitude is displayed, but it doesn't go that far. When I was at 8000' it was displaying 13,500' and I could only coax it down to 12,000'. Just two more steps: rotate the altitude selector knob to select the desired altitude and finally push the altitude preselect button to ON.

The pilot can trim the airplane with either the trim crank or the electric trim on the yoke, but trimming is automatic when the pitch section of the autopilot is engaged. There is a pitch trim warning light which should illuminate if the pitch is out of trim for four seconds while the pitch section of the autopilot is engaged. To me this could mean inoperative trim, runaway trim or possibly some balance problem with the trim surface such as ice accretion. You shouldn't use an autopilot in icing conditions.

Wing Leveller: The manufacturer has given this a cutsie name, shared by a passenger briefing system and a kind of torque converter, obscuring for the pilot what this function is supposed to do, but the hints that it is approved for use during take off and landing and is automatically disengaged by selecting the roll rocker switch suggest to me that it's a simple wing leveller. The pilot is advised that to make turns using this mode, she should press and hold the the off button on the control wheel, make the turn and then release the off button to re-engage the wing leveller. That would be the first 'momentary off' yoke-mounted autopilot disconnect button I've ever encountered. It looks to me as though the wing leveller mode is needed because the rest of the system is so crazy that it can't be momentarily engaged so the pilot can take her sweater off.

The instructions do summarize this in a way that sounds simple:

  • trim airplane
  • engage wing leveller
  • ensure directional gyro and artificial horizon are functioning properly
  • engage roll section
  • engage pitch section
My issue has been that there is so much pitching that I can't troubleshoot it with someone in the back.

There is also an array of navigational functions that the autopilot can be selected to follow. There's heading, to follow the heading bug, OMNI and NAV to track the selected radial on the VOR receiver with approach or en route precision respectively, and there's a LOC and BC mode, which I've had no chance to check. There's also a glide slope coupler, and curiously, the instructions imply that the landing gear must be extended in order to use this mode. Or perhaps they just figure that extending the landing gear is such a good idea they will include it in the instructions.

There is also a procedure to ground check the systems before flight.

Turn everything off. Engage the roll rocker switch and rotate the roll knob full left and right. The yoke should follow. Centre the knob.

Rotate the pitch command disk full DOWN and full UP and see that the control column similarly moves fore and aft. Then centre the disc.

Engage the pitch function and hold the press-to-test for the trim warning indicator. After four seconds it should illuminate.

Ensure autopilot disengaged before takeoff.

I'm going to need a pretty big cow for all this, aren't I? I wish I were as resistant to stress as Highland cattle claimed to be on their info card.

Update: I've since found some better instructions, and seem to have better control of it now.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Heads Up for a Pop Quiz

I get a lot of requests to advertise on this blog. It doesn't gather millions of eyeballs, but I suppose it's a niche market of people who trust me, and advertisers are feeling around for a way to reach people. I know I should just ignore the robotic linkfarm spam, but I often respond anyway, explaining briefly how vastly unlikely it is that I would ever place a link to their site on my blog. I know it just confirms me as a live one, but it amuses me to reply.

Every once in a while my "Sorry, I don't participate in linkfarms" or "Why would I link to a site scraper?" gets a response from a real human being, who isn't always a linkfarmer or a barely literate employee of a scammer. The problem with linkfarmers trying to look like legitimate bloggers is that sometimes legitimate bloggers end up looking like linkfarmers.

My first contact with John of the cleverly named Golf Hotel Whiskey was like that. I had looked at the site briefly, not parsed the name, seen something I thought was a generic travel review site, and given him a brush off. He defended himself, I took a second look, and while it still isn't a regular read of mine, I acknowledge it as original work, related to aviation and worthy of respect. Another site I dismissed as a site-scraper is How It Flies. I told him flat out that it's obvious that all the content has been scraped directly from Wikipedia, making not only the material unoriginal, but the concept. Paste a chunk of text from any Wikipedia article into Google's search engine with quotation marks around it, and you'll see how popular it is to build a site by plagiarizing Wikipedia. Keith argues that the Wikipedia material is just the seed and that his site has a different purpose. I'm still not entirely convinced, but it isn't advertising supported, so he must be doing this out of conviction. I'll let him explain.

I understand your aversion to site scrapers. I debated long and hard before incorporating Wikipedia content for a number of reasons. One is that the quality is inconsistent, but mostly because their focus is not what I'm aiming for. Their writing is for a general audience while How It Flies is oriented towards pilots. Over time I imagine that the articles will shift focus as people edit them. Their content focus is also limited. I'm looking to have a much larger collection of photos as well as videos. All of this though takes an immense amount of time and my calculations showed that, without seeding the site with content, I would never have the critical mass necessary to create a useful resource. I have been stunned at the results. Since adding wiki articles a little over a month ago, traffic to the site has quintupled.

Besides the different focus, we're also making the information from Wikipedia more useful by creating structured data. Wiki information is one big text file. I've been able to get a great deal of the information into a database which will eventually allow people to search and manipulate it in ways I can't even foresee.

A big-name company interested in grassroots marketing but completely unrelated to the topic of my blog sent me an "infographic" they thought I might like to share with my readers. It was ... an infographic. Someone with some amount of skill in information presentation had crafted it, but still, it had nothing to do with anything. I told him that if it weren't for linkfarm spam, his missive would win the award for the lamest attempt to be featured on my blog that I have received all year, and that I very nearly opened Microsoft Paint to make him an infographic he could put on his wall to commemorate that stunning failure to impress me. "I may yet sponsor a reader contest to do so," I claimed.

Perhaps this inspired me, because recently an advertiser actually associated with a vaguely aviation product enquired about the price of links or banners and instead of saying "no" I said, "I don't do banners, but I would do a contest giveway." I was thinking, "I don't want to burden my readers with ads, but if I can give them something, that's different." And the manufacturer thought it was a fair deal. So I'm just deciding what sort of contest this will be.

Fellow blogger Michael 5000 runs a weekly honour-system quiz which I always have a great time attempting, despite my woefully poor knowledge of art, American literature, and music. I think I may start a similar regular feature: only aviation-related. You would be on your honour not to use Google, Wikipedia, books, posters, roommates or other resources not already located within your own head to answer the questions posed. I think this is probably not the best choice for a contest with a prize, because it would literally reward people for cheating. I don't want to do an open-book quiz, because then it just turns into a Google/Wikipedia competition, and that's no fun.

I have been thinking for years of doing a "how well do you know me" quiz covering everything from random eggs and burrowing mammals to my most abused adverbs, and that would favour long-term and attentive readers, but seems a little narcissistic. (Wow there are a lot of ess sounds in narcissistic). And it might be tantamount to just giving the prize to my friends.

I did a giveaway a while ago where I asked contestants to explain why they were the most deserving of the prize, but you were all so nice to each other that you all just awarded the prize to the first cute kid entrant. Another option is to ask for your creative work, such as your speculation on what the dot was asking me. (Let me tell you, after five hours of keeping it centred, the dot is usually asking me to do unspeakable things).

I'm leaning towards a game of "nosewheel roulette". I make a chalk mark on the nosewheel, normal to its low point on the ground, then I taxi out and do a flight. After shutdown I get out and see where the chalk mark ends up. The pockets on the roulette wheel correspond to the number of centimetres around the circumference of the tire from bottom dead centre to the chalkmark. Whoever guesses closest wins a prize. The downside is that it's purely a game of chance, but the upside is that it's easy to judge, impossible to cheat, and someone gets free stuff. I'll let you know the circumference of the nosewheel when the contest is on.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Trial by Ground

We find someone to look at the engine, and he sees nothing visibly wrong with the number two cylinder. They checked the mags, replaced the spark plugs, cleaned the injectors and swapped the #2 and #4 probes. That way they've addressed the most likely issues and if it is the probe or the gauge it will now be a different cylinder complaining. Smart. I'm happy with the work and we fuel and go for the Vancouver mission.

Vancouver International is one of the larger airports I've worked out of for a while, so I have all my charts lines up to find my way around. I listen to the ATIS and call clearance delivery for a departure. He offers me a choice between two departures, They are both in the wrong direction, because the work area is to the east and they are using westbound runways at the moment, so I pick one without much consideration. I'll work out exactly how do get there once they are done vectoring me through the departure. He then asks for more detail on the actual work area and chews me out because I have selected the wrong departure for the most efficient route to that area. He advises me to study a VTA next time. I say "<callsign> checks," contritely. The VTA is an astonishing forest of VFR reporting points, many of which are over the water. Do you get your bearings by identifying particular fish?

Once Clearance is done berating me, I call Ground for taxi. I know I'm on apron two. He asks me pleasantly which pad I will be departing today. Pad? Insert moment of radio silence while Aviatrix processes this question, and then my response, almost student pilotlike in its careful deadpan earnestness. "<callsign> is an aeroplane," pronouncing all three syllables of the last word. "Pad" refers to helipad. This apron is home to some helicopters. There must be a local helicopter with a similar callsign.

"Oh so you'd prefer to depart from a runway today?" he asks. Don't they have a strip on me? Has he been listening to Clearance Delivery telling me where to go and decided to take his turn? Is it a friendly joke like the briefer who pretended he thought I was a B747 on floats for my first student cross-country? I assume it's the last.

"If that would be convenient for you, sir." Sir is routine in the US, but in Canada "sir," like "niner," is often jocular or hypercorrect.

He gives me a taxi clearance I can manage, and I find my way to the correctly lettered piece of pavement and then to the hold short line, monitoring tower. They clear me to position and then for takeoff, and I switch to departure through 1000', as specified on the VFR departure instructions. They quickly vector me around to where I need to go.

It's very beautiful here. The mountains, which still have snow on them, wrap almost all the way around. There are mountains on Vancouver Island to the west, mountains stretching up the coast to the northwest, mountains forming a huge barricade to the north, blocking Vancouver into a valley, and more mountains to the southeast, as the coastal chain continues into Washington state. There's even a ten-thousand foot volcanic peak just south of the US border, with a ski hill on it. I don't get to look at all that much.

I get to look at nearby traffic and a screen with lines and dots on it. Sometimes I talk to the dots. When they talk back, I figure it's time for a snack. I'm improving, but it's easy to lose concentration for a moment, to be distracted by engine management and bank just a little at the wrong moment. "You know," I venture, "This could be made into the world's most boring video came for the iPod." The thing would be, you're not allowed to stop for six hours. So whether you have to make dinner, eat dinner, or attend to other physiological needs, the dots keep coming, and you keep having to follow the line. I also lament that I should get points. The dots should sparkle, like in the game Bejeweled. There should be points for my getting them spot in the middle with the crosshairs centred, and points lost for any red flashes. There should be combos available, and maybe a voiceover telling me to "Get Ready!" for each new line. The game should track high scores, per pilot, and maybe have spaceships. I'm not sure how you'd incorporate spaceships, maybe in the advanced levels I haven't reached yet. If I had an iPod developers' kit, I would try to make this game.

The engines behave perfectly, and lean right back to the fuel flow the operator expects, with normal EGTs. I hypothesize the flaky cylinder had a fuel injector issue or a bad spark plug. Too much fuel or too little ignition might cause combustion to continue too late in the cycle, raising the EGT, and too little of either could cause the intermittent rough running. Whatever it is is fixed now. The video game has to have a screen for fuel management, which you must periodically monitor without losing track of your dots.

Eventually I run out of dots, or spare fuel, I can't remember which, and head back to Vancouver for landing. I've been talking to Vancouver Terminal all this time, so they point me towards a runway and tell me to contact tower. I call them "<callsign>, 3500', with Xray" and tower is already mad at me. They want to know why I'm not with Terminal. I mentally review the last instruction from Terminal. It wasn't "Contact Tower crossing the river," or "Contact Tower through 2500'." It was "Contact Vancouver tower now, <frequency>." Tower has for some reason assumed that I have just appeared in their airspace without deigning to contact the agency that controls ALL the airspace surrounding it. The only way I could reach Vancouver Tower's airspace without passing through Terminal would be to take off from Vancouver. And I've already been through that trial by Ground. Is there such a major problem here with small airplanes bulling their way into class C airspace without a clearance that that is the first assumption on what I must assume is a botched terminal-tower handoff? I'm still cleared straight in, which is a little freaky, because it's a busy time at a busy airport, but I see they are aiming me for the departure runway, so they keep taking off jets in front of me, and landing them on the parallel beside me, and I don't interfere with either set.

I land, can't see a sign on the nearest taxiway, so maybe it's an entry-only taxiway and I roll to the next one, clearing the runway quickly with an Air Canada positioning behind me.

The operator knows I've worked hard today, and asks me if I can do another flight. Yeah, my duty day is good to seven p.m., that's with the time change. And I'm strangely energized after capturing all those dots. The next flight will be just an hour. After fuelling I call clearance again, this time requesting the departure that I think will do me the most good, and he assigns it to me with my squawk code. Ground clears me out and then warns someone else to watch for me. Yeah, watch out for her. He can't see me, but I can see him. He won't run over me. I guess apron II goes all the way to the the east end of the runway, and Ground doesn't know which bit I'm on. Is there a chance I've misnamed my apron location? The chart seems pretty clear.

We take off and go take pictures of a movie set. Cool, eh? I'm high-powered paparazzi now. I'll have to find out what movie. I didn't see the set, just the dots.

Landing back afterwards they clear me for a tight downwind and then clear me to land "keep your base in close." I turn base immediately and plummet to the runway with full flaps and gear down, clearing on that first taxiway, which is labelled, just further back than I looked. I may not know all the VFR departures, but I can keep my base in close.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Trial by Fire

My telephone rings at 4:20 a.m. It's the camera operator and mission logistician, if that's a word. He's still agonizing over the decision about where to attempt to work today. He wants to make hay while the sun shines, but in the most efficient way. He wishes we could wait until the next GFA comes out. This is where I relay the information I realized last night, "We can. It's an hour earlier in Vancouver. We can go back to sleep for another hour." I did my napkin math in local instead of UTC and totally forgot about the time change. He likes that plan, and I go right back to not being a giraffe. Not being a giraffe means sleeping comfortably.

An hour later the weather picture is clearer and he wants to go to the coast. I get a quickie phone briefing that reveals the weather has cleared overnight except for low lying fog, en route. I plan to Abbotsford, a big airport outside of the busy mess of Vancouver airspace. We get the same cab, with a different driver and go back to the airport. There's someone, presumably a pilot, asleep in the terminal. He has a sleeping bag and a pillow and a whole set up going on there. I hope guiltily that the cab driver did come back for my helicopter guy, and wonder who this guy is. Fire suppression pilots are paid well enough that a cab and a hotel shouldn't be an issue, and most of the transient aircraft seemed to be associated with the fire. The sleeping pilot's cellphone is ringing, or maybe it's his alarm, but he doesn't even budge. I'm not going to wake him up. If he needs sleep that badly, whatever it is can wait.

We ready the airplane, including wiping accumulated rain and dew from the outside of the front window, and working out how to turn on the defrost for the inside of the window. More condensation forms on the outside after I start up so I have to taxi cautiously, looking out the side. Another reason to have a windshield wiper. We backtrack to the appropriate end of the runway, turn around and ensure we're lined up and roll. The airspeed soon clears the window and I can climb and turn on course. The provincial boundary is along the great divide, the peaks of the Rocky Mountains and marked on my GPS so I call off the crossing and announce that we're now on BC time. There are several ranges of mountains to cross, so I don't descend yet, in fact climb a little, because there's more cloud and I'd rather not be dodging it when I can't see which clouds are crunchy in the middle. I'm trying to lean the mixture, but I seem to have a one hot cylinder. I'm trying to keep exhaust gas temperatures around 1425 degrees, but while the analogue EGT and CHT gauges show everything normal, the digital gauge shows that #2 on the left engine is spewing out gases at 1900 degrees. I enrich the mixture on that engine to get the temperature down to the range that would be green on the EGT, even though that leaves the other cylinders cold. I explain that the analogue EGT, which is the one that he can see, takes its reading from the outlet of one cylinder, the normally hottest, while the digital one has pickups per cylinder. "What would happen if you didn't have that one?" he asks.

"I wouldn't know about the problem and I'd lean the others to 1425, not knowing that I was cooking the other one to death, until it fried, and we had a rough running engine. The engine would run on the remaining cylinders, it just wouldn't sound pretty. And in fact we're below our single engine service ceiling, so we could fly on one engine right now. But given that we've paid for the extra information about this cylinder, we can use it to avoid destroying it." I'm trying to strike a balance between, "It's important that I not destroy this cylinder" and "We won't die if something happens to it." I'm concerned, but my concern is about loss of production, and my looking bad for taking a perfectly good airplane into the field and destroying it.

"How does it get that way?"

"If it's abused once, it gets pitted walls and that leads to poor combustion. Could be a bad valve ... I don't know. It's kind of freaky how placidly painted-on the the analogue gauges appear compared to the frenetically spiking #2 cylinder. How many times has this drama been played out in my engine without my knowledge?

"Could it be the gauge?"

"Yep. But it not being the gauge would be consistent with the rough running we've been getting when I lean it the same as the right engine." It's been the gauge for me before when there was other corroborating evidence. You can always find evidence.

I'm over the highest of the maintains and can start to descend. My chart tells me that I'm coming up on Vancouver's airspace. (Oh yeah, we're going to Vancouver now, not Abbotsford. It's sort of a rule that the destination has to change midflght here, apparently). I talk flight services out of a code for Vancouver, get the ATIS, and then call Vancouver centre on a gradual descent through 11,300'. She acknowledges, then asks me again for my altitude. "Descending through one one thousand." She calls me again radar identified and asks again for the altitude. "One zero thousand eight hundred."

"What altitude are you descending to?" she asks.

I resist replying, "Sea level," but I don't really know what she is asking. "Descending for landing at YVR." I already told her that. "Do you wish to issue an altitude restriction?" Kind of a non-standard call, but what the heck does she want?

She solves her problem by handing me off to Vancouver terminal, which gets the whole descending for landing thing more clearly, and does give me an altitude restriction of 3500', then 2500'. They fly me over the airport and then out for a right downwind for runway 08R and a 180 to land back on that runway. I exit read back a crossing clearance in the taxi instruction and find my way to parking on the apron. Company has already lined up someone to look at the overtemp indication.

Fortunately, while the EGT got pretty high, there, the fire of this blog entry title was not mine, but Slave Lake's. At the end of the day I learn that much of the town of Slave Lake has been destroyed by fire. In an astonishingly short time it went from no fires nearby, to a few forest fires in the vicinity -- a not uncommon situation anywhere in the north in the summer -- to full on evacuation as subdivisions and main street businesses blazed. Forest fires are burning all summer all over the north, but the area is so sparsely populated that there is not much property damage. In Slave it just so happened that two fires converged on a community. There wasn't even an intermediate step of a voluntary evacuation. Fortunately it has good highways and it's a prosperous and friendly community so pretty much everyone had a truck or a ride from someone. I'm glad in a way that I got to walk its streets one last time, and I'm extremely glad to hear that there were no deaths or injuries. It means that I don't need to worry individually about the fate of the waitress who was going camping, the fueller who happily came out early and stayed late for our crews, the non-smoking hotel receptionist who saved our time by admitting that the smoking rooms (all they had left) definitely smelled like smoke to her, or the non-multitasking hotel receptionist who slowly checked us in at the Super-8. It's bizarre that all those businesses and homes have gone up in smoke. I find later that the crew of the airplane that had been in Edmonton for camera repairs did spend the night there, and had to be evacuated with their hotel staff, because the airport was shut down and the fuel reserved for fire-fighting. I realized that the pictures we had taken that day were the last pictures of Slave Lake as it was; someone else realized that too and allowed our crew back up to take some "after" pictures and then return south and escape the evacuation zone with their airplane.

Here's a video that shows a lot of the destruction: you'll see homes, the city hall, a main street Ford dealership and the new mall completely gutted. A lot of the scenes that show fire behind a screen of trees is not forest fire at all, but the actual town blazing up that brightly, behind a windbreak. There are a lot of videos of the fire, but this one best encapsulates the fire, the aftermath and the feeling of losing ones community that way.

The second video shows just how thoroughly the destroyed houses have been destroyed, and has some information on the cleanup. The RCMP are going through the remains of the homes, looking for objects of value, before people return, to prevent looting and injury, and reunite people with whatever can be saved. It's tragic how little is left, and sweet that the authorities recognize the value the little things may have. I think Slave Lake will rebuild and rebound.

I've noticed some comments about "who started it?" There is no wasn't an arson fire or a cooking accident. It didn't start in town, but in the forest, probably from lightning strikes, the cause of most Alberta forest fires. It was a natural phenomenon that didn't stop just because it wasn't in its natural habitat anymore.