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?


Sarah said...

I know it's a non-issue, but it's rare enough to draw this comment. How common are women examiners? I think it's a rarity here in the US, but I managed my PP and Instrument ride with a designee who happened to be a woman. Come to think of it, the FAA examiner who does the glider instructor exams locally is also a woman. Hmmm. It's officially a trend.

Unknown said...

You are officially hard core. That is one tough schedule you maintain!

Loving the flying

D.B. said...

Sarah, are you by any chance in the DFW area? Because of the 10 or so DPEs listed on the Dallas FSDO web page, the only one who is a woman is also the one who did my private glider check ride back in 98.

If Aviatrix's posts are 1 week delayed, she and I both had a checkride on the same day, mine for a CFI add-on.

john said...

Gawd, you're going to keep us up in the air for another day. This suspense is killing me.

(BTW, did you apply for the job Sulako is advertising? If you did, keep in mind that one airplane might be too small for two blogs.)