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?


majroj said...

While I'm a groundling, I know conifers, and they can be the biggest pollen makers in your vicinity. The tiny male cones produce pollen, each tree has hundreds or thousands, and it can be on any given day that most of that species is pollinating.

Anonymous said...

That's why it's the "Booby" prize.....


Cirrocumulus said...

When you finally get to award the Towel, please post picture of it.

Wayne Farmer said...

Correct, majroj. In North Carolina I've seen clouds of yellow pollen billowing from male pine trees in a gusty wind. It accumulates in the street gutters and all over your car.

Linn said...

Go work with Sulako!! <a href="http://sulako.blogspot.com/2011/06/everything-changes-everything-ends.html>Flying C550s!!</a>