Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Not So Great Divide

Rotate, retract gear, climb power set, after take-off checks complete and a right turn back towards the terminal airspace. I've kept the same transponder code and they're fine with that, clearing me back into their airspace for a second job. It's pretty much the same altitude and the same bumpiness, but it should only take about forty-five minutes. It takes less, but company wants us to land five hundred nautical miles away across hostile terrain, where the bumps are coming from. Ah heck, you know where the hostile terrain that breeds turbulence is in my country. We're being sent across the continental divide to Vancouver.

Seatbelts cinched tight and ask for the clearance. We're cleared straight to ten five, and told to fly a vector for traffic at first, then cleared direct. Ironically the vector is direct Vancouver, but the GFAs have told us that heading south to hug the US border will be the way to stay clear of the worst of the turbulence and cumulonimbus clouds. So I turn southward, and then a little more directly south, waiting until the way forward doesn't look quite so dark with building clouds. I zip up the top of my flight bag after the first time a jolt of turbulence hits hard enough to fling contents all the way out and onto the floor. The flight bag--a knapsack--is already seatbelted to the passenger seat. All my charts flew out of the map pocket, too. Tighten seatbelts further.

I don't really want to do this for the next ... well it would still be over two hours direct with these winds --headwinds of course--but with the indirect route it will be three hours. I consider landing in Cranbrook for the night, so I call flight services for PIREPs and SIGMETs. There's no SIGMET for the turbulence along my route and they haven't had any pilot reports. I give them mine. It sounds as though the worst of the bumps may be behind us, so I decide we'll continue. I still set direct Cranbrook as a waypoint, because it's a good route to intercept the southern track I want to follow.

Approaching Cranbrook, it occurs to me that IFR traffic approaching this airport could be descending out of the clouds through my altitude. I'm in uncontrolled airspace but I call up Cranbrook radio and sure enough there's a Saab 340 on the way in. I give a position report and Cranbrook has me on radar. Impressive coverage here. The Saab is in descent and once they are through my altitude and I am past the airfield I switch back to the en route frequency. I do the same thing approaching Castlegar, and this time it's a Jazz, can't remember if it's a CRJ or a Dash 8 departing visually, with a left turn over the dam. They will be too fast for us to catch, even as they climb, so no conflict. Top of the next hour I update my weather again. Penticton is all thunderstorms, and I can soon see that ahead, so I look at US airspace across the border. It's a row of giant military operations areas. I know I can sometimes get clearance into them, but I hold off on asking until I see whether the Penticton area is passable within Canada. It is. I fly between Oliver and Osoyoos clear of the storms.

I eat some snacks to keep my brain and body working, but my innards don't feel too great. Then I realize that having a seatbelt cinched to the maximum for two hours is not doing my intestines any favours. I loosen the lap belt and yay for renewed gastric motility. How do those people who wear super tight pants and belts all day digest their food properly?

I try to go through a valley but it's choked with cloud and I end up climbing through one of them, picking up ice as I turn away from the rocks. This is not how you're supposed to do it and I imagine that ice-filled windscreen is the last sight a lot of pilots have seen around here. It wasn't quite how I planned it, but the shadows of rock and snow and cloud are deceiving around here. The ice all slides off as I descend into a wider and less cloudy valley and follow the river to the farmlands around Vancouver. Vancouver Tower clears us straight in, and to land, about ten miles out.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


We're in the sky over a major Canadian city and my dispatcher has had to pull favours and whine to get us here. We sent subcontractors to do this job, because we're very busy, but they were denied entry to the airspace. Apparently we're the A Team, because ATC let us in. Company has given us a list of other work to do for when the controllers have had enough and kick us out of their airspace, but meanwhile the controller has cleared us in and given us a pretty free rein, as long as we remain west of his runway in use. Accordingly, I'm on my best behaviour, staying super alert to what the controller is doing and giving him the information he needs in the clearest most concise words I can find. He has been amazing, routing traffic under over and around me so that I can do my job, and even keeping track of where we were working when he has to divert us.

It's turbulent, continuous chop from both convective heating and mechanical turbulence. I think I'd be feeling sick if I weren't flying the airplane. As a pilot I want to help my co-worker feel better, but all the normal advice and techniques one would use to mitigate airsickness don't apply here. It's his job to have his head down concentrating on computer screens, and it's mine to make frequent quick turns and altitude changes. He does his job and I do mine and we continue that for five hours, finishing the high priority job and then thanking the controller profusely before we switch en route to land at a satellite airport outside their airspace.

I'm usually kind of slow getting out of the cockpit after a flight, but today I jump out and get water for my co-worker and start fuelling the airplane. I'm compensating for not being able to help during the flight.

I get in to taxi to parking, and he gets in too. "Coming for a ride?" Yeah, a long ride. Company has texted him instructions for further work we are assigned to do. He gets right back in the airplane and we taxi out. There's a Cessna in the circuit, and only one taxiway with a backtrack, so we wait for him to land and taxi clear. Someone else has called meanwhile with an intention to cross midfield and join the circuit, so we enter as soon as the Cessna is clear to make the backtrack and take off before the other airplane arrives. And then the arriving pilot almost instantly calls base. That was unexpectedly quick. I guess he changed his mind about crossing midfield. He changes it back when he realizes I'm on the runway, and I'm rolling while he's on final.

More on this flight later, I think.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Not Supposed to Say

I'm flying from point A to point B, and remarkably neither A nor B is named after an animal or a body of water. I'm not on a flight plan just "VFR company note" which means my company is in charge of reporting me missing if I don't turn up, and I have flight following which means I'm monitoring the frequency of a centre controller who occasionally looks at my blip on a radar screen and, time permitting, tells me if any other radar blips threaten mine. Presumably if my radar blip disappeared and I stopped talking to them they'd tell someone or make a note, too. At the very least, if I didn't turn up at destination and company reported me missing, they could examine the records (still called "pulling the tapes" as if they were recorded on tapes sitting on a shelf) and see where my blip was and whom I was talking to when I was last recorded as existing. As I cover ground, the controller whose frequency I am monitoring will eventually say, "Switch to my frequency 133.40," or "Contact such-and-such Centre now on 122.75." The same controller may be monitoring different frequencies and she moves me to the one with the best reception for where I am, or I'm moving out of her area and she is passing me on to the next sector. My information moves with me to the new sector so I just have to say my call sign and verify my altitude. They already know where I am going, but they verify it, because there are multiple airports in the same city. Another airplane checks in on the frequency. The controller gives him the altimeter setting and then it's quiet again. My headset detects silence, so lets the MP3 player sound into the earphones. (Currently playing Convoy, featuring another profession with radio jargon). The new check in comments on this, "Kinda quiet today." The controller agrees. "Getting the crossword done?" asks the pilot. "I'm not supposed to say," replies the controller, which was way more hilarious in the airplane than it seems right now. It was the way he said it, like he was really hiding some big secret. The controller passes me on to the next sector and I say to my coworker, "I should have asked him if he had figured out twenty-one across yet."

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Your Route Is Clear

This incident occurred the day I realized that I perhaps I should start blogging some of my adventures again. It was just such an Aviatrix day. Over ten hours logged, and once upon a time I would have had a sheet of paper under my operational flight plan on my lapboard and filled it with cryptic notes that would allow me to recreate the whole day for you, but a girl has to sleep and do her company paperwork sometime, so here's just that slice, complete with its life lesson.

We were assigned to work in military airspace, and I had been given a sheaf of papers including maps, the names, telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of what seemed like half the chain of command and their administrative assistants, plus instructions that we did not need to telephone anyone, just call RADIO CONTROL on such-and-such a VHF frequency ten minutes out. "Radio control" is an odd way to address an ATC entity, so I looked up the military installation in question in the CFS (directory of all Canadian airports) and found that the frequency was that listed for the local tower. Now that made sense. I called them up as instructed, with a proper efficient position report and request, "Basename Tower, this is Aircraft Type Foxtrot Alfa Victor X-Ray, forty miles northwest, nine thousand fife hundred. Request entry to CYR for previously approved air work one zero tousand seven hundred." (Someone is now itching to point out that if I was going to be truly proper I would have said "niner" and maybe I should have, but Canadians usually just say nine. I would have remembered to say niner for an American base, I hope). The numbered CYR is the designated airspace controlled by the military base.

The response is something to the effect of, "Go ahead your PPR number." PPR is a common abbreviation for "prior permission required," but I don't remember seeing such a number in my sheaf of papers. I have a quick re-read and no, there isn't one. My fellow crewmember already has his cellphone out texting company and in barely more time than it took me to indicate to the controller that I would try to get that for him, the number is provided to me. It was "six". Okay it was 2012-0006, but essentially the number between me and the airspace in front of me was six. I provide it in turn to the controller and we breathe a sigh of relief when it acts like an unlocking code to the secret levels of the video game and he says, "Your route is clear."

That sounds like permission, but it's not standard civilian phraseology, and I want to be absolutely sure. I'm organizing words in my head for the clearest, most succinct and professional way to say, "I am a civilian pilot unversed in military ATC differences, please confirm that means we are cleared as requested," when he buries that slightly fuzzy phrase in a question containing a pile of acronyms and numbers so deep that I don't know where to start asking. I think the best I can come up with is, "I'm sorry, I don't know what that means." I've been through military control zones across North America and while there are usually some quirks, I've never been at such a communications impasse before. Eventually I figure out that he is asking about the exact location of the work relative to the trans Canada highway. Yeah, one of the numbers turned out to be the local designation for Highway One and I think the rest were terms relating to the land covered by the restricted airspace. He stopped using them. We go back and forth a bit on this. He says "over" or "out" after every transmission, which is in fact part of the rules in aeronautical radio procedures, but in practice is only used when reception is terrible.

He's asked me to remain east of the highway, which is essentially an east-west highway. We don't seem to share enough common vocabulary or reference points to discuss this. He says "Wait out," which I presume to mean standby. He then comes back and asks me to fly a holding pattern. That's unexpected for a VFR aircraft. Usually a controller would just tell me to hold outside the zone, or give me specific holding instructions, but I can handle this. I'm five minutes from his airspace now, so I just fly a hold right there on the inbound track, working out that I need a one minute thirty-five second outbound leg and a fourteen degree outbound correction in order for a rate one turn to bring me perfectly back onto the inbound track, with six minutes showing to the destination. I call him back to ask for an estimate of how long I might have to do this for, but there's no answer. Eventually he comes back and tells me I'm cleared to work, "do not proceed east of [three digits spoken singly] dot one four." Now sitting where you are reading this, even with my obfuscation of my exact location, it's probably obvious to you that he was giving me a longitude, and I did figure that out after a second or so of staring stupidly out the window. It was just such an unexpected way to designate a meridian of longitude. I read it back as [three digits] degrees, fourteen minutes and told him that our our work straddled [meridian]°14'. We were at an impasse, so we lobbed the whole problem back to company to sort out on the phone and found some other work to do.

They called us back with an approval when we had not quite enough fuel to do the job, so we landed and refuelled and came back up to discover that "dot one four" meant decimal one four degrees, not fourteen minutes, so I had only to remain west of [meridian]°09', which I could do, and we quickly completed the job. It hadn't initially even crossed my mind that I'd be given a longitude in decimal degrees. Who navigates in decimal degrees?

Afterwards I lamented to my coworker the failure to communicate, and he was the one that came up with the realization that we were not talking to a military air traffic controller at all. We were talking to a comm tech down there on the ground with a radio, whose principle job was to keep people from blowing each other up on the range. When he said "out" he may have sometimes meant he was putting down the radio and walking away. And he probably had even less idea of what I was saying than I did of what he was saying. Because as the conversation got difficult I retreated to the most excruciatingly correct formal aviation radio language I could muster, trying to measure up for this terribly important military tower controller who didn't have time for anyone who didn't file flight plans in mach numbers, when really he might have been just as intimidated by my pilot jargon, causing him to try to duplicate it, and coming up with phrases that didn't mean what he thought. He hadn't once called himself "Basename Tower," just "Range Radio."

We had to return to that zone on another day and by changing my perception of the person I was speaking to, I changed my experience completely. I finished the mission by saying, "Thank you for your service," allowing him and others in earshot of the radio to perhaps realize that they had not really provided any air traffic control service to me, and that I was really thanking them for serving our country.

That made me wonder how often I have attributed to someone else too much authority or too much knowledge and, in trying to approach them at the level which I think they are expecting, have intimidated or alienated them. In future I will remember that the person in the metaphorical or physical intimidating tower is possibly not disdaining me at all, but in the same situation of trying to appear informed and in control. Maybe that would even work on the Springbank Tower controllers. And if someone is just being unnecessarily officious, they'll think they're being condescended to, which they deserve.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Empire Will Be Pleased

The title is what my coworker said through his Darth Vader oxygen mask as we descended from the flight levels in an unpressurized airplane after completing a tricky piece of work. We descended overhead Banff, Alberta. It is so spectacularly beautiful there that I was distracted from the work I was supposed to be doing. I was even raving about the remarkable pointiness and ridginess and beauty of the scenery to the air traffic controller. The air traffic controller was meanwhile excited by the fact that I could still talk to him. We went from the flight levels to dodging in and out of those spectacular stripey peaks and we still had excellent two way radio communications. And then we landed at Springbank. Springbank is the Buttonville of Alberta. Screaming busy with training traffic, and controllers who tell you what you want instead of listening to what you requested. The best was the one who gave me an instruction to turn right, and then chewed me out for deviating from the straight out departure clearance I had been given. Such a startling contrast from the service I got from the very next controller they handed me off to. I cannot turn right and go straight at the same time, although with some of the aerial work I do it almost seems that way. If you have the opportunity, you should go to Banff and fly around at about 11,000' in the spring. I think you should put it on your bucket list. I'm a not a stranger to mountains, Banff just seems to have especially amazing ones.