Thursday, December 26, 2013

Back to the North Pole

We're not anywhere near the north pole actually, just north of most civilization. We departed IFR from an aerodrome that had flight services and they passed us on to Centre. We have an elaborate flight plan that switches to VFR and then back to IFR, so we have to discuss that a little. We will be passing out of controlled airspace shortly, so Centre gives us a clearance that is valid "while in controlled airspace," and then clears us to en route frequencies. The "while in controlled airspace" tag is very common. Many IFR routes pass through swathes of uncontrolled airspace, especially during descent into remote destinations.

We accept the clearance and then change to the en route frequency, 126.7. Across Canada pilots in uncontrolled airspace make reports to one another on their positions and intentions using this frequency. The initial call will be quick and simple, because most of us aren't in each other's way. If a pilot makes a call and it sounds to someone else as though their routes may intersect, then the pilots concerned provide more precise information or negotiate routing or altitudes that will ensure they don't conflict.

I state my position with bearing and distance from the aerodrome I departed, and then give my track merely as, "Northbound for the middle of nowhere." I'm not even expecting anyone on frequency to be close enough to hear, as I'm still climbing out, but there's a reply.

A surprised voice with an Australian accent says, "I've just come from there!"

I ask him, "Is the weather good?" and he says it is.

Later we change our minds about the flight plan, something that happens on about eighty percent of our flights, because that's just the way our operation works. Only problem is that despite being at FL180 we can't contact ATC. We need a clearance to climb higher, and don't want to waste the gas to do so anyway. We can't raise anyone else on the radio to do a relay for us, but we have a satellite-based tracking transceiver that is capable of transmitting text messages to our flight follower. We get the flight follower to call the flight services to cancel IFR and close out the rest of our flight plan.

The weather was very good in the middle of nowhere, and we got a sizable proportion of our work done before returning to the southern reaches of nowhere. But we didn't see Santa. I told you we weren't that far north.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Cleared to Land

All the best, folks. I'm not flying today, so I can have all the rum and eggnog I want*. Please enjoy all of whatever it is you enjoy this season and smile graciously when declining whatever it is you don't.

*That would be none. I don't like eggnog, and while it's possible to add enough rum to hide the taste, I don't like straight liquor much either.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Castor gras

The guys in the maintenance hangar are working on an outside customer's airplane. It's a Beaver, not one of those stunning privately owned amphibs with a spotless retro paint job and a millionaire owner, but a working airplane, company logo on the tail and oil streaked all over the cowling. There's a joke that you don't have to teach the routes to a new hire at a bush company. They can just follow the trails of oil from place to place, left by the Beavers.

Maintenance folk always seem to like working on Beavers. I guess it's nostalgia and respect for the famous workhorse. And I guess they aren't too fiddly. I've flown the Beaver. I've also flown a Found, one of the recent attempts to replace the Beaver. Yeah, not there yet. And it's not as if most Beavers need replacing, just a little end of season TLC. I say something about the amount of grease on the airplane as I go by. They're quiet, probably trying not to bust a gut from accidental innuendo. We're not unaware that Americans use Beaver as a slang word for female genitals, but for me it's a great airplane, our national animal, the symbol on the nickel and a big chunk of our history first. It was trade in beaver pelts that drove the early Canadian exploration and economy.

They were used to make hats, and the pre-worn greasy ones, castor gras were the most valuable.

Last time I saw a privately-owned one it was parked between me and the FBO. As I walked by, admiring it, a man in his sixties asked, "What are you grinning at?"

"Pretty airplane," I said, as though it weren't self-explanatory.

"We come with it," said another man.

You know, if you wanted to get picked up by rich, self-confident men, an airport would not be a bad place to hang out.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


A few people have asked about NaNoWriMo, my one-month novel-writing stint. National Novel Writing Month is a thing people do, an international event, despite the name, open to anyone but largely done by English-speakers because it started in the US and the website is monolingual. The exercise is to write 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. Everyone who writes fifty thousand words or more is considered a winner. You're allowed to develop your characters, conduct research, or outline a plot before the beginning of the month, and you're allowed to continue writing after the month is over, but I'm doing other things the rest of the year, so I finish writing and print out a copy before December starts. My NaNo started November first with a few ideas scrawled on a post-it, and the File New command. I had arranged to meet a couple of friends downtown at seven a.m. for the ceremonial beginning of our novels, but before I could leave for that, I was called into work.

I'm usually pretty happy to go to work. I get to fly an airplane, with great people, over spectacular Canadian scenery, but this has been a long season with a lot of flying, plus more than I wanted to do of that other stuff I have to do since I succumbed to the pressure and let them make me chief pilot. I stomped a little. I went to the airport, researched the route, filed a flight plan, walked around the airplane, hauled it outside, supervised fuelling, sorted out charts and an operational flight plan, and loaded the gear. The flight was then postponed for a couple of hours.

I started up my computer and banged out a couple of pages about a pilot who had something else to do but had to work, and about a bitchy charter passenger, who was also going the to last place she wanted to be. Write what you know, they say, but I got off track pretty fast. I had a cow spontaneously burst into flames by the end of that chapter. The flight was eventually cancelled. I kept writing. I wrote at home on the couch, on airplanes, in airports, on trains and buses, in hotels, in restaurants and coffee shops and at my friend's house. There are some airplanes, sentient electromagnetic catapults, a volcano, and radioactive Polynesian artifacts. Now even without the foregoing you have to know that a novel written in a couple of hours a day over the course of a month is not going to be a work of art. The working title was "Legs," and my point-of-view characters legs number between zero and ten. Not all of the characters are human, although one of the zero-legged ones is. He and the hermit crab (technically a decapod) are my favourites. I think I might bring them back for a sequel. Of course the sequel might turn out to be a bad Victorian era mystery drama instead of a bad science fiction drama. I was initially intending to write a tech horror, but space aliens turned up and they were having so much fun that the genetically engineered pine beetle predators (six legs each) who were supposed to kick off the plot barely got a cameo. So did Ian Hanomansing. I like him.

I thought the novel might be horrifying, but fortunately it's ridiculous enough that I think it's just funny. It's not very funny, scientifically accurate, poignant, or gripping. It's not even very weird. It's just your everyday novel about biologists who don't even know they are dealing with a new life form, and explorers who take too long to figure that out.

Here's an excerpt. The space aliens aren't very knowledgeable about matter. They're visiting Earth, and they have just discovered gravity.

Having a sense of the organization of such a complex planet was empowering to the group, so when they detected a large piece of solid matter suspended well above the rest of the solid matter, up in the gas layer with the clouds, they were confused and disappointed. They analyzed the situation more closely.

The outside of the object was solid, but it enclosed both liquid and gas components. There were no photosynthesizing plants present, but the front of the object was emitting moderate amount of heat energy, and parts of the structure contained constrained linear flows of electrical energy, so common on this planet. The electrical energy transmuted into heat and light in some places, but nothing other than its suspension in midair seemed unusual. There was moving warm matter present too, two discrete quantities. They scanned the larger one. It was extremely complex, had to be a product of intelligence, but what was it for? It didn't convert energy in any way they could detect. And then suddenly they spotted something they had missed before with animal matter. The warm matter contained double helix energy signatures. It was not a mistake, or some stray plant matter. The same signature was repeated throughout the structure, always identical, missing only from the dead, outer layers in some places. But this was alive.

They started paying closer attention to the energy flows within the structure, and found that the main electrical flow was from the inside of the roughly spherical top part, down a roughly straight column. From there it branched out to the other parts. They probed the inside where the electrical impulses were centred. It was a kind of solid liquid mixture. They couldn't figure out what the impulses were for. They were not being transmitted anywhere outside the structure, and were not resonating at all with the energy flows that produced heat and light. The electrical activity of the alive thing increased, and the ends of the structure moved around quite a lot. That was very interesting. They thought that might be a reaction to stimulus, but after a short while the electrical activity stopped all together.

So yeah, the Nobel committee doesn't haven me on their short list this year, but I had fun. Any other NaNoers among my readers?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

As Pretty As An Airport

Douglas Adams said many sage things. Way back in school I was asked to write a term paper on the Brandt Report, and I summarized my criticism with Douglas Adams' observation on the oddity of proposing movement of small green pieces paper as solutions to the problems of people being miserable, given that it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy in the first place. But when, in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul Adams asserts, "It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression 'As pretty as an airport'," it becomes clear that he does not understand the true beauty of an airport.

An airport is soothing when it appears along my route, its inviting stretch of flat unobstructed pavement serving as a marker that I am on course, a milestone in my journey and a source of refuge if anything should go wrong. An airport is pretty when it comes into sight right ahead during descent, and I am cleared to the circuit, especially if I need to pee. An airport is a stunningly beautiful sight, dark and lashed with pounding rain, blowing snow or almost obscured in fog, when it appears at minima on an IFR approach. No one who has ever flown any distance with peripheral vision repeatedly drawing her eyes to needles flickering at the E on the fuel gauges, or the red line on the oil pressure, or illuminated red caution lights on the glare panel can fail to appreciate the all-surpassing glory of an airport.

The closure of an airport is the loss of a refuge, and in the case of Edmonton City Centre, which finally closed on 30 November of this year, it's the loss of a great place to stay when there's no emergency either. It really was in the centre of the city, within walking distance--with luggage--to hotels, restaurants and malls. It's been under threat of closure for years. They shut down runway 16/34 years ago, meaning that when the afternoon winds picked up there was almost always an exciting crosswind challenge getting in there. YXD has dodged the axe so many times that I haven't flight planned into it for a few years without double-checking that they were still open, and still had fuel available. Lately that caution has been warranted. A month or so ago the FBO sold their oxygen equipment, so we had to go to Edmonton International for an O2 fill. The last time I was there, less than a month before it closed, I had to track down airport security to get off the airport. It had been designed around 24-hour FBOs and when the last one cut its hours, there were no pedestrian gates to let me out after midnight.

In 1926 the Edmonton City Council approved a $400 outlay to pack the soil and cut a few trees to turn the Hagmann Farm into Jimmy Bell's Air Harbour. It became Canada's first licensed airfield and was later named Blatchford Field, after the mayor who approved it. It has also been known as #2 Air Observer School, RCAF Western Air Command, Industrial Airport, and Municipal Airport. I've been a passenger on a B737 that landed at Edmonton International, made a short hop to the Muni, and then continued north to Grande Prairie and Fort Nelson.

This site used to discuss the decision to close the airport but now that it's a done deal, it's just a page about the development process, mentioning the airport only as history of the site. I suppose we'll be landing at the International more often. Their ATC are great, handling our little aircraft without making us feel like we're second class, and the FBO we used provided everything we needed, plus they had an Estonian consulate on site, because you never know when you're going to need one of those. Once you leave the airport you're in a little bubble of hotels, way the hell out of town, and the other remaining airports in the area are no better. You can't even get a pizza delivered to Villeneuve.

CYXD, I'll miss you.

Edit: I looked it up on the NavCanada weather site.


CYXD -> Invalid or unknown aerodrome ID

Erased from existence.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

For Altitude

I'm in an area of complex controlled airspace. One agency, a big city tower, controls the airspace from the surface up to 4000'. Above that, the terminal controller is responsible for airspace up to to 12,500', and Centre controls everything above 12,500'. I've been working in high level airspace, but have now descended and am talking to terminal. They know my intentions: to land at an airport just past the big city. They've told me to maintain 6500' VFR. I do this, following the route they specify, following landmarks, then an assigned heading and then direct a nav aid. They have traffic below me, but I must be past it now, because they tell me I'm cleared to 4500', contact tower for lower.

I'm expecting this, so I have the tower frequency already tuned on standby. After I acknowledge the instruction, I push the button to switch to tower frequency. I don't call immediately, because I need to listen for a moment to make sure I'm not interrupting a conversation. I start descent and then call tower, giving them my call sign and that I'm passing "six thousand two hundred for four thousand five hundred." The first number is the altitude they can crosscheck with my transponder readout, and the second number is the altitude I was cleared to.

The tower controller says that he is not responsible for that airspace, and that I should call terminal. "Terminal sent me to you," I say. It's not uncommon for there to be miscommunication between tower and terminal. The tower controller tells me to go back to terminal then, because 4500' is not in his airspace. And now I know the problem: although my destination should be encoded on my radar blip, either the tower controller hasn't looked at it or it's been miscoded. I tell him the airport I want to land at and he clears me down through his airspace for it, grumping that I should have asked for that in the first place.

I wonder out loud to my coworker about who put a frog in the tower controller's cocoa, and continue my descent. But I see the ambiguity there. Pilots say, "Niner thousand for six thousand five hundred," both to request a descent to six thousand five hundred and to indicate a descent in progress, with the intention of stopping there. The latter could be a clearance limit in uncontrolled airspace, or just a pilot stating her intentions, if the descent will take her out of controlled airspace. I could have said "six thousand two hundred requesting descent for ." I went out again and came back the same way later that day, with similar clearances, and I think I used the latter wording without incident.

UK-trained pilots will jump in now with radiotelephony rules, because their language and training is more precise. I agree ours should be, and am somewhat surprised that in thousands of hours of flying this is the first time this particular ambiguity has bitten me. I suppose there have been numerous times when the second controller has taken my statement of an existing clearance to be a request, and recleared me to that altitude, but they didn't stand out enough for me to realize the ambiguity.

Controllers are damned smart. I think most of the time they just figure it out.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013


I'm participating in the NaNoWriMo one month novel challenge, so there will be no blog posts this month.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Look Up, Waaaay Up

The VP sends me a kmz file and asks me to recommend a suitable airport to base at for this work. I'm looking for sufficient hard-surfaced runway length, fuel, local services, not prone to fog this time of year, that kind of thing. The file is named Bathurst. While I'm waiting for Google Earth to load and open the file I try to remember how far out of town the Bathurst, NB airport is. New Brunswick is an east coast province. Designated mountainous region three. Fish, lobster. Borders Maine. French and English speaking. This is where the Cajuns lived before distance and language changed their name from Acadians. The file brings me out by the river, but I don't see the airport or the town. I zoom out a little bit. Oh it's a lake, not the river. This doesn't look like New Brunswick.

Oh, Bathurst must be the client name. I think there's a pulp and paper company called that. I must be in Quebec or Ontario. The middle of the country. I zoom out a little more. I don't see the Great Lakes. I don't see the St. Lawrence. I don't see the Hudson Bay. Where the heck am I? I zoom out some more. And some more. And then finally I see where I am. Bathurst Inlet. In Nunavut. About 65 degrees north. No wonder he needed a pilot to comment on this one.

I seem to recall something about funding for paving the runway in Cambridge Bay, but the latest CFS still calls it gravel. I know it's good gravel, but if they want pavement we'll have to work out of Yellowknife. There isn't a lot of pavement north of Yellowknife. There isn't a lot of anything except rocks and lakes. Even trees are in short supply.

I tried to duplicate my zooming out in confusion experience with a Google Maps link, but now that I know where I am it seems obvious that it's in the arctic on first glance. Expectations influence experience.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Walkaround Excitement

I walk around the airplane--it's the one with the gouge under the wingtip. I can't miss it now that I know it's there. Everything is in order once I top up the oil, so we haul it out of the hangar and clear of the broken pavement FOD zone that has developed around the front of the hangar. I'm not sure whether the landlord or the airport authority are responsible for maintaining it, but they're not. We don't want to damage the propellers or the payload with flying debris, so ensure that we're on clean pavement for engine start and taxi. I call for fuel and then check all the caps and do my traditional last circumnavigation of the airplane before boarding. It's a last chance to spot an open inspection port, key left in a door, anything like that. I often wonder if other pilots will see me and think that's my whole walkaround, a literal walk once around the airplane. I spot something that shouldn't be there. I'm not even sure how I see it, but the mind learns what should be there and without even reporting to the consciousness when the eyes sees the expected, it quickly raises a flag for the unexpected.

I crawl back under the airplane. There's a screw head sticking out of one the main tires. More to the point, there's a screw point sticking into one of the main tires. The tire tread is good, not much wear, a big solid looking chunk of rubber. And the head of a screw sticking out of it. I have no idea how long this screw is. It's a pretty standard screw head that I've seen on lots of different length screws. It could be so short it's nothing. It could go right through to the tube. It could be only in the tire so far, but the force of one landing could drive it through to the tube and cause a blowout. I don't even know how long it has been there. Did I miss it on the proper walkaround this morning? The airplane could have been standing on it. Did I pick this up hauling the airplane out this morning or has it bee there for a week? Do I check every visible surface of every tire well enough every day I fly that I would have seen this as soon as it occurred?

The most likely case is that I can pull the screw out with my fingers or the edge of my knife blade and then fly the airplane with no ill effects. But I'm not going to do that because there's the possibility that the tire will go flat--either right away, or in flight while it's retracted. If anything is going to be damaged because of this, I want it to be done by someone who can repair it. I get an AME, who looks closely and pulls it out. It's a perfect ambiguous length such that it could still maybe, possibly have nicked the tube, but we don't think so and all agree that we'll go flying.

And the tire still hasn't gone flat, so we were right.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Lamest Excuse Ever

Pilots make mistakes, and we often try to explain ourselves, or cover up. Some of the excuses aren't even excuses anymore, just a code that everyone seems to accept. Like "the sun was in my eyes" on a missed tennis return (this one is used to explain a poor landing, too). Most of the excuses are things we say to ATC, or that ATC says to us, to help us save face.

Aircraft in busy airspace have to be equipped with a transponder, a device that responds to radar pulses (called "interrogation") by sending out a little signal reporting its altitude and assigned code. The code is mapped in the controller's database to the aircraft call sign, type, and filed destination, so that the controller can see that on her screen, along with the speed and position the radar displays. After take-off, the controller is watching to see that the transponder is responding correctly to interrogation, so she can declare the aircraft radar identified. The old sort of transponder has to be manually turned to the ALT position in order to be ready to respond to interrogation. I am privileged enough to have one that turns on automatically, either squat switch or speed linked, I'm not sure which, but I still hit the ALT button at line up in that airplane, because I don't want to get of the habit for another airplane that lacks the luxury. If I forget, ATC usually acts as though the fault is the transponder's and ask me to "recycle" it--turn it off and on again. That does sometimes need to be done, I'm pretty sure they know that most of the time they don't get a return at the expected altitude, it's because the pilot forgot. Pilots use the same lie. If ATC says, "I'm not getting a return on your transponder," the pilot replies, "I'll recycle" and then reaches over and turns on the forgotten switch.

Similarly if a pilot is a little bit off the assigned altitude, the controller may advise them of the altimeter setting and ask them to confirm their altitude. That gives the pilot a chance to pretend that they were off because they had the wrong altimeter setting. Or if a pilot is told she is at the wrong altitude, she may ask to confirm the altimeter setting. All of these things are sometimes true excuses for the controller not seeing what they want on their scope, but not as often as they are heard


It was in this context that I heard the lamest excuse ever.

ATC: I see you at 15,400'. Descend to 15,000' immediately.
Pilot: Sorry, my altimeter got stuck.

Might as well say, "Sorry, descending," and leave it at that.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Windows 8 Experience

My working day starts and ends on the computer. It starts with e-mail telling me where I need to go this what flight plans I need to file. I look at the GFAs and specifically check the weather for the places I'm asked to go, and other places I know we could end up. I pull up NOTAMs for all the major airports in the region, scan them, and then search the resulting list for the strings "CYR" and "fuel" in case I missed something important. Good gods, if someone at Nav Canada would like to become a pilot celebrity and leave a lasting legacy, they could please revamp the existing NOTAM system. But that's the NOTAM experience, not the Windows 8 one. I turn off the computer, eat breakfast, go to the airport and do piloty things to and in the airplane for ten or twelve hours and then shut off the airplane, chock it and go back to the computer. The day ends back on my computer, with my paysheet, my duty time log, and sending base the TTAF hours and a report of any trends or operational issues.

The efficiency of my computer therefore is a determining factor in my ability to enjoy breakfast, and how soon I get to go to bed. My new computer runs Windows 8, the operating system that pretends your computer is a touch screen, just to see how many fingerprints it can trick you into putting on the screen.

It's has pretty giant icons for everything you use, which it helpfully rearranges into the order you use them, so that you won't develop any bad habits like muscle memory based on knowing where the Excel icon was last time you turned it on. Somewhere in there is probably a "Hey Windows, honey, I put those icons there for a reason, don't rearrange them, please" option but I haven't found it. Windows probably doesn't want me to. Windows doesn't even want me to know my own directory structure.

By default, or by some option that seemed perfectly reasonable at the time, Windows slideshows all my photographs in a big thumbnail on the front page. I've got to admit it's kind of cool looking at all my photos, and exciting wondering when a naked one will pop up, but when I click on the displayed photo it doesn't go to that photo. It goes to a different photo, and from that different photo I can click on an arrow and go to an even prettier full screen collage of my photos that come up semi-randomly in date-based themes like "2008" or "November". Half of the photos are either aircraft issues being reported to maintenance or company paperwork--I photograph and e-mail the operational flight plan to the flight follower. The resulting collage is still fascinating, even mesmerizing, because I like my life, but there's no way to interact with the photos. If I see one I like and I want to view it fullscreen, or copy it, or post it on my blog, I can't edit it nor see its file location nor select it in any way.

There's an orange icon (I think they're called something else now) labelled "Trending" and when I first turned the computer on it told me that the trending topics were: Justin Bieber, NHL scores, Canadian dies in Cuba. Those same topics were "trending" for the first five days I had the machine. I thought it was stuck, but couldn't be sure. Justin Bieber and NHL scores are a pretty constant interest of certain, but mostly non overlapping, segments of the population. And Cuba is like Florida and Arizona: a hot place with cheap labour where Canadians go when they're old. People must die there all the time. I'm not sure why it was news. After a few days I clicked on the "Trending" icon, but it didn't tell me more about those things and I didn't care enough to type them into the search engine, so I still don't know, and finally it changed to HIV breakthrough, Queen in hospital, Justin Bieber. I guess it is all Bieber all the time.

As part of the setup process I selected the languages I wanted to be able to type in and there is now a not terribly inconvenient toolbar item that lets me swap among them. This is cool. I specified English as my primary language, so most of my apps default to English, but the aforementioned useless app that displays my photographs, the maps feature, and the news feature are in Russian. I don't know why it hasn't figured out that it's in Canada. It gives me Canadian weather. In Russian. A friend who is a senior Microsoft developer even poked at it, confidently pulled up some settings and was then confused and defeated when it continued to be in Russian. I don't mind. It gives me Russocentric news, which refreshingly only mentions American or Canadian politicians when they actually do something of note, and procuring sex, drugs and hookers don't reach that bar.

I tried for a while to work with that opening screen, the new Microsoft way, but the apps start when you do a gesture, which is all very fine when you have a touch screen to gesture from, but it proves quite difficult to not gesture at the wrong moment when using a touchpad mouse. There's also no Start button and no shut down icon. The power switch I have set to hibernate, not shut down. The best I can tell, if I want to shut down the computer from where I am right now, typing this blog entry into Firefox (Chrome wanted to know too much about me), Microsoft seems to want me to:

  • press the Windows key
  • move the mouse pointer down to the bottom right corner of the screen and wait a moment for floating icons to appear
  • move the mouse up to the floating "Settings" icon and click on it
  • click on "Power" in the resulting submenu
  • select Shut down from the resulting dropdown.

Who ever would think I would want my Start button back? Back in the '90s I remember being vaguely annoyed at Windows 3.1 for trying to take over the operating system, but then MS-DOS called the shots and you could choose to run Windows or not in any particular session. Even if you had the command "win" in your autoexec.bat, making Windows start up automatically as soon as DOS was running, you could at any time exit Windows and go back to DOS. In later versions Windows became the base of the operating system for the user, so to run DOS commands you had to open a command prompt window within Windows, rather than by quitting Windows. The power of the command prompt is still there. I have a taskbar icon whose target is "C:\Windows\System32\shutdown.exe /p /f". That shuts down the computer, no questions asked, quite promptly on a single click. I love it. The other thing you must learn is Win-D, which exits the opening screen into the desktop or whatever application you were using.

The basic controls move around a little on airplanes. I've used trim located almost everywhere I can reach: left side, right side, behind my elbow on the armrest, roof, floor between the seats, centre console. It's been a wheel and a crank and a bicycle gear shifter, and the throttles have wandered around a little, too, but once I put my hand on them, they seem to work the same way.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Can't Everyone Just Learn the Radio Alphabet?

When you work with the radio alphabet every day, the "letters" become just letters. When I hear "Juliet" on the radio I don't have to remove the association with Shakespeare, or my grade two classmate before I can extract the J and picture it painted on the side of a helicopter or written on a chart as part of a VOR identifier. Pilots never say "J as in Juliet". It's just Juliet.

I understand that if you don't have this set of words attached to letters, that when I spell "Foxtrot Lima India Golf Hotel Tango" you can't untangle the mental images of ballroom dancing, beans, llamas, Sikhs, Gandhi, putting greens and room reservations from the letters fast enough to write down the word. And I understand that you have to search for words that match each letter if you're spelling to me. I got "Walrus" and "Nectar" in a phone readback from someone recently, and I thought it was sweet. Such readbacks are always slow enough that I can picture a tusked walrus and a honeybee perched on a flower, and still have plenty of time to write down W and N.

Recently I had to make a train reservation that resulted in my making a phone call to Germany. It's some special train that doesn't let me book online. Or that's what Google translate says the website told me. After I somehow managed to navigate a German phone menu, and heard a lot of recorded messages in German on hold, I got to talk to a person who greeted me with what was probably "Thank you for calling the big Germany train company, how may I help you." I don't speak German. I offered "Sprechen zie Inglish bitte?" I don't write German, either. The answer was "Nein." If you speak even less German than I do, that means I asked if she spoke English and she said no. Fair enough. Ball's in my court. I did, after all, call her, after navigating a website in German and getting them to send me a quote. In German. I'm not going to give up now.

Often Europeans say they don't speak a language when they mean they aren't qualified to conduct customer service in it. I offer French and perhaps should have tried every other language in which I was capable of performing the transaction, because you don't get through school in most European countries without a foreign language, but she doesn't offer anything to negotiate in counter to my French, so we're going to try this in German.

I have a file number and I know the numbers in German. If I can get her to find my file, containing my itinerary and then I say "Ja. Das is gut." I can probably give her my credit card number and be done with this. But my file number has letters in it. The radio alphabet is international, right? And trains are like planes, so they, like cops, maybe can do this. I try boldly with "mine nomer ist Sieben Romeo..." I think she figured out the Romeo, but there's a Z and a Y and she's not getting them at all. In retrospect I might have been able to come up with Fffff - Volkswagen, Zzzzz - zee, but I don't know any German words that start with Y. I'm a little disappointed in myself for not solving this problem, 'cause you've got to know how proud I would be to have conducted a transaction on the phone in German. Fortunately the operator managed to find me someone who spoke English and I got my ticket.

I could also have got a German-speaking friend to make the call for me. I even have a German friend who is a train expert and suspect he would have enjoyed finding me a better ticket price and finishing the transaction for me. Lots of things I could have done. Crashing and burning in a telephone call is so much less hazardous than doing so in an airplane that I don't spend nearly as much time planning for unexpected situations, but contingency planning is still a grand thing. And so is the radio alphabet.

It turns out that most of the letters sound just like English, with just enough sounding like something completely different that we could have had massive confusion. I'm guessing from the video that NO German words start with Y, and I don't think I would have guessed Ypsilon. Maybe "Inglisch Yes" would have worked, but then how many English speakers know to spell ja with a J?

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Let Me Know When You're Sure

When I look at those websites that compile silly pilot jokes, most of the time I think they make up the jokes, but I swear I heard these calls myself, and scribbled them on my OFP while giggling. I have changed only the call signs.

Centre: N123, I'm sure you have the airport in sight.
Pilot: I think I do.
Centre: You let me know when you're sure.

It was a clear day, and I suppose pilots familiar with the airport had been reporting the airport in sight further out, but I sympathize with the visitor. You can get embarrassingly close to an unfamiliar airport before you're SURE it's not an agricultural field or a straight spot on the freeway.

ATC: ABC are you on frequency?
Pilot: Turning back to practice area now, sorry 'bout that.
ATC: Proceed to the practice area and stay in there.

The pilot had just transited controlled airspace associated with a major airport in order to reach an uncontrolled training area, and the controller correctly guessed that he might still be on frequency.

"We haaaaave, well whatever's current at Edmonton" - major airline pilot

The pilot was attempting to say the identifying letter of the recorded airport information he had received, but realized after starting the sentence that he's forgotten it or couldn't find or read where he'd written it down. The elongated word while trying to think of the right information is so pilot-like, because we are trained not to say extra words. In ordinary conversation you might extend the sentence while looking for the information, "We have the current ATIS information here, it's ..." but that would sound ridiculous on the radio.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Airplanes Will Be Airplanes

This is an old accident, but recently at work I was asked to evaluate the suitability of the type involved for our operations and turned up this account of the accident while looking for evidence I could include in a package to support my recommendation. I didn't get very far into the article before it made me angry.

Two candidates were undergoing flight skills tests. On the day before the accident the first candidate was asked to demonstrate a stall. But the poor weather conditions - turbulence, rain and low cloud - tended to trigger the stick-pusher, and the commander pulled the stall-avoidance system circuit-breaker to prevent nuisance activation.

Now, deactivating stall protection for flight training purposes is not an automatic bad thing. You don't want the trainee to learn to ignore the warnings. A loud stall horn degrades communication in the training environment. The candidate should not become dependent on the a stall warning light to recognize the situation or on a stick pusher to effect the recovery. (A stick pusher is a device that, on detecting an impending stall, automatically applies control force to lower the nose. This simultaneously alerts the pilot to the situation and starts the recommended recovery procedure). Some measure should be taken to make damned sure that CB gets reset before the next flight, but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt here.

But who does stall recovery practice in an actual aircraft in bad weather in IMC? Is this considered normal somewhere?

"The candidate found this exercise frightening as she experienced great difficulties, having to use all her available physical strength to regain normal flight with the engines on full power and in [instrument] conditions," said Norwegian investigation authority SHT.

No shit she was scared. She might have been fired had she refused, or simply marked as someone who didn't have the right stuff. Too bad she or the next candidate didn't refuse, because the next day they died doing it.

For the second candidate's test the following day - also in instrument conditions, and with stronger winds - the examiner instead requested slow flight up to the first indication of stall, and a recovery with minimum loss of altitude. The stall-avoidance circuit-breaker had not been reset.

While the commander added power and retracted flaps at the candidate's request, the pilot "lost control of attitude and airspeed". Altitude increased by 200-400ft (61-122m) and airspeed dropped to just 30kt (56km/h), even though the stall warning activated and full power was applied.

Just 37s after the control loss, and with an eventual sink rate of 10,000ft/min, the turboprop hit the sea in a near-horizontal attitude, killing all three on board.

I didn't recommend the airplane as suitable for our operations, but not because of this accident. Any airplane will stop flying if you get the angle of attack high enough and don't break the resulting stall. I have a theory that the more comfortable it is inside an airplane the easier it is to forget that you have to fly it. That doesn't stop me being happy that we've finally got the heater working well, though.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Three Shades of Guilt

The ops manager asks me to come from the office into the hangar to look at something. That's not a really unusual occurrence, but what I see is a gouge under the wing of the airplane I flew back to base last night. The metal is creased in. Not sharply just enough to make it abundantly clear that this is not a mere paint scratch. I feel sick. This is the result of taxiing or towing the airplane such that the wingtip passes over an object, except that it doesn't pass over, it scrapes over. Obviously it's something that shouldn't happen, but when it does, the pilot should notice and report it. I have no memory of any incident on my just-returned-from rotation that could have caused this.

I look around the hangar at the equipment under the path that wing would have taken into the hangar. Nothing has paint scraped on it. I'm sure the ops manager can see my horror. I don't remember what I said. Either I did this or I missed seeing it on multiple preflight inspections. Either way I bear some responsibility. I care much less that a deer bashed in the side of my own vehicle the week before. This gouge, or some other wingtip damage I failed to spot could have been serous damage that I shouldn't have taken into the air. I'm very sure it isn't, but I'm not a structural engineer. It's not my job to make that call. Had I found it on a preflight there would have been iPhone pictures going to someone with a maintenance certification before I flew it.

I go back and look at the gouge. It is a little difficult to see, just because of the shape of the wing, and the colours of the paint, and my height. I always check wingtips for damage, because that's a common place to get damage on the taxi, in the hangar or while parked on the ramp. I always look at the underside of the wing, looking for blocked vents, signs of bird or insect entry and fluids from the engines splattered under the flaps. I'll look from the wingtip, under the wing and along the length of the spar for signs of airframe stress, but then my focus is not on the near underside of the wingtip. I have to duck down and look at it from a slightly different direction to see this gouge. So embarrassing as it is, I prefer to think that I missed seeing this as opposed to missed doing it.

But I fly this airplane a lot. Did I do it sometime in the past and the difficulty I have just argued for in seeing the gouge means that no one has caught it in months? I look even more closely to see if I can pretend to know the age of the damage from its appearance. And then I see something almost hilarious. Part of the reason the gouge is hard to see is that it has been painted over with touch up paint. I almost laugh. It's an old problem, one that has been inspected, written off and fixed up. It's even more embarrassing that I didn't see it, ever, but it's now certain that I didn't do it last night.

One of the regular maintenance staff says he thinks it's been there since we got the airplane. I think the ops manager is still suspicious that it represents mishandling of the airplane in the hangar, and a cover-up by someone in maintenance. Unfortunately at the time this story takes place we were having some issues there that made this not paranoia. I trust the guy who said it had been there all along, and not just because it conclusively gets me off the hook for having done the damage. He's a trustworthy person, but more than that, and I told him this myself so he knew I wasn't suspicious. "I've seen paint jobs that you have done and you would never have done such a crappy job." You can see every brush stroke and the colours are poorly matched.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Summer is Over

It's still sunny some places. I still have my cap on for shade not warmth when I step out of the airplane on the ramp, but the mornings are starting to get cold. I ran my finger through the morning dew on the wing yesterday morning, to make sure the sheen was not ice. They can look exactly the same, but only one flows harmlessly off the wing without dangerously affecting its aerodynamics. The sky is starting to pink up when we land about suppertime and it's still dark when we get up for flight planning. Winter is just around the corner.

Last week I scared my fellow crewmember on approach. It was a VFR arrival, already cleared straight in, but straight from where I was cleared would have been either through a hill or dive-bombing over it, so I was coming around the side of the hill, so as to enter the zone on final. I could see a structure on the hill, something standing out from the green trees. Towers tend to be on the ridge at the top, but this was on the side of the slope. Was it a banner? A piece of heavy equipment? An old wreck? As I got closer I realized what it was, "Whoa!" I said, in surprise: not something you want to hear your pilot say all of a sudden. I apologized. The thing that had caught my attention was a tree, an ordinary deciduous tree, bright yellow in fall leaves. We weren't even that far north,. Ten days later and a couple of degrees of latitude further north the deciduous trees are yellow and orange everywhere I look. In a week or two they will be bare.

Comes the seasons of block heaters, engine tents, toques and boots. This morning already I wore work gloves during the walk around, and not just because I was wiping hydraulic fluid seepage off the left main. (Maintenance knows about it. Replacement seal on order.) Someone asked me once which I preferred: winter or summer flying. Sure there's density altitude, sweltering taxiway queues, bugs to clean off the windshield, bugs eating you alive, and sunburn on the ramp, but does anyone not accept those things gladly to escape icy runways, frozen water bottles, de-icing, scraping snow out of the hangar door tracks and frozen condensation making things not work everywhere?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Automatic Rough Running

I'm re-reading Vol de nuit by Antoine de Saint Exupéry. It's available here for free. I know it has been translated into English, but perhaps the copyright hasn't expired on the translations yet, because I didn't find it online in translation. It's one of those novel like Fate is the Hunter that pilots like to read because the author identifies situations and feelings we didn't even know were there to express. Non-pilots can read them and get a glimpse what a pilot thinks and feels. Both are about what now is history, so they allow me to look into the past and imagine life without SIGMETs, without reliable weather forecasting or reporting at all.

The passage that made me want to share was this. It's a conversation between a pilot and a manager, about the pilot's experience when his instrument lights failed. He has already admitted to being afraid.

Je me sentais au fond d'un grand trou dont il était difficile de remonter. Alors mon moteur s'est mis à vibrer...

— Non.
— Non ?
— Non. Nous l'avons examiné depuis. Il est parfait. Mais on croit toujours qu'un moteur vibre quand on a peur.

My translation: (if someone has a copy in English, a professional translation is probably better).

"I felt like I was at the bottom of a big hole that was difficult to get out of. Then my engine started vibrating..."



"No. We examined it afterwards. It was perfect. But one always believes that an engine is vibrating when one is afraid."

It's so true. The name in English for the phenomenon is "automatic rough". You get automatic rough running as you get overhead a large body of water, impenetrable mountains, or simply go further from your home airport than you've ever been.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Landing Advice

I received e-mail from a student pilot today, and it put a big smile on my face. He said:

Wow ! what fantastic advice !!!
You must be one great teacher… !

I didn't even remember giving him advice. Probably a quick e-mail answer dashed off while waiting for a fuel truck. He had asked me in asterisk-studded angst ***Why can't I get the hang of landings?*** What did I tell him?

Don't worry about the landings. Almost everyone feels they aren't getting it at first, but eventually it clicks.

1. Work on the approach just as hard as the landing. Make sure you get to the beginning of the runway at the right speed and altitude, and properly TRIMMED. If you're not trimmed, speed control is difficult, so it is difficult to be consistent, and then the flare becomes more difficult. Remember to use POWER for altitude, PITCH for speed and RUDDER for direction.

2. Pay particular attention to where your flight instructor tells you to LOOK, and look in the same place while your instructor is landing as when you land, so you get the whole picture.

3. When you think the airplane is just about to land, pull back a tiny bit more. Pilots don't land airplanes, airplanes land themselves. Your job is to keep it from crashing until it runs out of speed and has to land. The slower the airplane is going, the more you have to pull to get the same change in pitch.

Remember that you are in slow flight during the flare, and your goal is to stall the airplane right over the runway. That's why your instructor had you practice aircraft control in slow flight and in the stall.

Be patient with yourself and with the airplane. Eventually you will get it.

The student can land now. It seems that trimming properly for the approach did the trick. But I felt that I should warn him that there are ups and downs in landing, so I added.

You will have landing slumps, where all if a sudden although your landings are safe, they just aren't all that great any more. The best solution to that is to buy new socks. It's your socks' fault, I swear.

There is some possibility that the first advice I gave him is more accurate than the second. But it's always nice to have new socks.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Not Stranded at Animal Waterbody

Those of you who haven't followed this blog for years may not know that almost every town in Canada is named after an animal, a body of water or both. If you think it isn't, chances are that it is, just in another language. Also members of the Royal Family and European explorers count as animals. Place names in this blog are often not named after the same animals and bodies of water as they are in real life. Our story begins in

I preflighted an airplane that was parked at Antelope airport this morning. It was clean and had all the right parts attached the right way around, but had mysterious scratches on the inside of the pilot's side window. I think there may have been a seat removal incident. (Getting seats in an out of an airplane is sometimes a topological challenge). The side windows I use more for finding the runway than finding traffic, so the scratches aren't a tragic impediment.

I confirmed the fuel load and then filed two IFR flight plans: one from Beaver Bridge to Civet Creet and one from Civet Creek to Duck Ditch. Then I loaded the airplane and flew it on a VFR itinerary (meaning with no flight plan at all, just my company keeping track of where I am) from Antelope to Beaver. I then departed Beaver on the filed IFR flight plan, but before I reached Civet, asked Centre to pull up my subsequent flight plan from Civet to Duck and asked to now intercept that pla, without actually landing at Civet. They were okay with that, so we did it. About three hours after that, we were discussing the relative merits of landing at Elk, Fox and Gopher. The fuel at Elk was by callout only, and this was a holiday weekend. I've never been to Fox, but the CFS makes it seem like a reasonable place, and with no hours given on the fuel service, it must be self-serve. Fuel is self-serve at Gopher, too, but the airport is really remote and kind of an awkward set up. If we go there and something is wrong we won't have the fuel to go anywhere else, and we'll be stuck there until the long weekend is over.

You'll notice that Elk, Fox, and Gopher weren't on the menu this morning. I definitely didn't check NOTAMs for Gopher. I don't like Gopher much. They have dingy hotels and restaurants. But the airport is fine, if you aren't in a hurry for your fuel. I try to call Flight Services. I'm in the flight levels, something like 20,000' and I can't reach Flight Services on any of the surrounding frequencies, in two different FIRs. Usually the flight follower also acts as ground support, but it's a long weekend, and someone is out on compassionate leave, so the flight follower today is the company president, holding a cell phone that we can send satellite texts to, but don't want to disturb just to ask for a NOTAM.

Finally I ask the Centre controller if he can see if there are any NOTAMs for Gopher, for me. He says doesn't have access, and I understand. But a few minutes later he comes back and tells me no NOTAMs for Gopher. I thank him, explaining that we're considering landing there and I really didn't want to spend the rest of the weekend there if there wasn't fuel. He says, "No kidding!" in such a heartfelt way that I suspect he had personal experience with the place. I advise the controller that in five minutes are going to start a descent out of high level airspace, cancel IFR and land at Gopher. Could we please get an appropriate altimeter setting? The field has none, but he finds one not too far away and there is a huge ridge of high pressure, so they should be about the same. He asks me to report through 18,000'.

Through 18,000' I call, but there's no reply. I try again on the back up frequency he gave me--it's common in remote areas for controllers to give you a "if I lose you on this frequency, try me on ___," instruction. I hear another aircraft make a call on this frequency, but when I call to ask for a relay they don't respond. I'm not going back up to make a call that I was told to make below. I suspected this might happen. That's why I told him what I was going to do before starting my descent. I continue down, trusting the controller will figure it out. The CFS says that there is an abandoned aerodrome a mile east from my destination, so I look carefully, trying to spot the old one so I know I've correctly identified the new one. I can only see one, and the one I see doesn't appear to have any pavement markings. I'm about to circle west, but then I see two airplanes and a functional windsock at this one. The pavement markings are very faded, but present.

Once I land I make a quick phone call to let the IFR controllers know I'm down and that I tried to call when they told me to. They seem unconcerned. The fuel pump works, and we use it. Our next leg is VFR and we just advise the flight follower, no flight plan.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Diversity in Coveralls

I'm still working on my Human Factors course. In typical training film style the cast features maintenance personnel of varying age, sex and ethnicity, acting out little scenarios. I keep wondering if they are starving actors or actual AMTs. The module tells me that assertive statements are honest, open, and direct and "deal with facts (rather than your opinion)."

Assertive body language requires:
- maintaining eye contact
- talking in a strong steady tone of voice with a normal volume
- standing comfortably (relaxed) but firmly
- standing close enough for your presence to be felt but not so close as to be aggressive
- gesturing with your hands (keep your hands out of your pockets)
- using facial expressions which support your statement
Assertive body language will help you stand up for your rights!

Okay, I can be assertive: state the facts, not too submissive, not too aggressive, untainted by my opinion. But then the same page advises me to include statements like "I feel", "I want, "I think." Wait what? Prefacing a fact with "I feel," "I want," or "I think" is a way to reduce the directness and assertiveness of a statement, and turn it into an opinion. Are they trying to tell me that That tire needs to be changed is less assertive and direct than I feel that tire needs to be changed? Did I write that down wrong? I'm told to use assertive statements like: "I felt embarrassed when you criticized me in front of the others." I don't know that there isn't a scenario in which the reply to that is not somewhere between "Man up!" and "Good, so don't screw up again." Maybe, "Would you like a hankie?" Or what about the suggestion to be assertive and telling your supervisor that you need a variety of tasks in order to avoid boredom? Anyone try that?

They don't show those suggestions as a video dialogue. Instead the actors show the right way and wrong way to approach tasks. Guess which this one is:

AMT #1: "I haven't had a chance to do the APU combustion chamber and external inspection. Can I forget about it?"

AMT #2: "Yeah, takes two hours to do it all, and I've never seen a problem with one."

That's very comparable to pilots skipping checklist items. "It's never been a problem," is a ridiculous reason not to check something, but it totally happens.

There's a strange mix of useful and loopy suggestions, leaving me wondering if I'm too cynical to realize that the loopy ones have their uses, or too naive to realize they are all loopy. I'm not even sure whether Most of the pressure generally comes from you. You create the pressure by accepting unreasonable timelines. is sage or the loopy result of someone who doesn't understand that the timelines predate problems. The pilot finds a problem thirty minutes before the airplane is ready to depart. The customer is waiting. At what point does the AMT accept any of this? Clearly Scotty of the USS Enterprise managed pressure by multiplying his repair time estimates by three, but you notice the Enterprise never had a problem that required a part to be shipped from Vulcan during that planet's High Holy Week. They never had to remove the defective part, send it across the neutral zone to be overhauled and then wait for it to be shipped back. That's the beauty of replicators.

Or maybe when Captain Kirk is yelling over the intercom, Scotty is mentally asking himself ...

What is the reality of the problem? (e.g., Can I safely complete the job in the time allotted?
- What is the worst thing that could happen to me?
- Am I overreacting to the situation?
- Can I change the situation so that something positive can come out of it?
- If I can't, what is the best way to deal with the problem?

Has this happened to me before?
- If so, what did I do? What can I do better?
- If not, then what is a rational plan to solve it?

The warp core goes critical and/or we are tortured by Klingons is usually the worst thing on the Enterprise, but sometimes I think it may be destruction of the universe and another parallel one. Or maybe it's missing a birthday party.

Nancy was pleased that she would have the help of two experienced AMTs for the detailed inspection. This will let her finish the job on time so that she can be at her son's birthday party. She had to work through the last two parties. Nancy's supervisor walked over and said, "Sorry but Jason had to go to Tuktoyaktuk to work on an engine failure and Melissa has to solve a pressurization problem on the plane that just came in. You're going to be on your own for this one. This is a good opportunity for you to prove yourself and keep your job".

Should Nancy prove herself or disappoint her son again?

I'm not even sure what that's supposed to be about. I don't get to go to birthday parties. I think it might be written in my job description, "does not attend birthday parties." Being required to work unscheduled overtime seems to be a sucky thing about working in maintenance, because you could just put down your tools and go home. The pilot doesn't really have that option, so I don't have a broad basis for sympathy. Aviation in general is not compatible with being there for other people's life events. I kind of suspect that Nancy's kid will have a better year in general if she keeps her job than if she loses it over a birthday party. I suppose we're supposed to counsel Nancy to have a hissy fit, excuse me to be assertive and demand additional resources for the inspection, but that's not going to make them appear. The program tells me to Click on "Continue" to see a suggestion.

According to the module, Nancy should "Stop", "Look", "Think", and "Act". The action would be to talk to her boss about how her overtime work affects her family life and how this stress is affecting her job performance. Okay, so she's had a nice talk with her supervisor. Now does she perform the inspection or go home and blow up balloons? The lack of resources advice in the training module consistently fails to address issues that arise when there just aren't resources. There isn't a hangar available. It's going down to -30 tonight and it will be -32 tomorrow night, and soon there won't be day at all until spring. There's no good strategy. So don't pretend like there is.

Oh, now I totally want to see a human factors training course where all the examples are drawn from Star Trek.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Four Bad Omens for a Human Factors Course

There are a lot of accidents cause by pilots flying in poor weather. Decades ago Canadian aviation authorities tried to rectify this by increasing meteorological knowledge requirements and offering more opportunities for ongoing learning, and I think also improved weather information products. In the process, someone realized that pilots knew what kind of weather was forecast, knew the implications for their flight, and went flying in it anyway. It wasn't about what the pilots knew or how good the forecasts were. It was about the decisions they made with that information.

So we have Human Factors training, about the human, not mechanical or meteorological, factors in the accident chain. The theory is that if we understand why and how humans make stupid decisions and arm ourselves with some strategies to avoid such decisions, that we will make safer decisions. It's mandatory recurrent training. I recently had to ground a pilot I supervise because company records didn't show human factors training to be complete.

Last time mine was up for renewal, the safety coordinator and ops manager had signed us up for an online course. That's not an uncommon nor even a totally unwelcome form of information delivery these days. The NASA icing course is fantastic. Also free. This one wasn't, but after the first few minutes my expectations were not high.

Omen #1: The course can only be accessed though Internet Explorer.

Omen #2: When I open the course in IE, the server barfs a full page of java error messages because it can't handle the fact that I have a three letter language code set in the browser for my first choice language.

I reset the browser to en-ca and then again to plain old en and the server will finally talk to me. It asks me, "Do you think you could ever make a mistake leading to a potential aviation accident like that shown in the photograph?"

While the photograph is loading I think, "yes" because I know I make mistakes. The text is saying something similar. And then I look at the picture. It's a helicopter. So I amend my thought to, "No, I probably wouldn't try to fly a helicopter, but if I did, it would look like that shortly."

Omen #3: The next words are "However, this program will help you, an Aircraft Maintenance Technician (AMT), avoid the error you don't intend to make by raising your awareness of how those errors are made."

Um ... I'm not an AMT. Have I got the wrong course here? It's all registered to my name. Good abbreviation though. A way to refer to AMEs and apprentices in one go without having to know their paperwork status.

Omen #4 The words "to facilitate your learning you should view the "Human Factors in Aircraft Maintenance" video. The video can be obtained from Transport Canada."

Wait, they are doing web delivery of a course that requires me to go to a branch office of Transport Canada and borrow a video cassette? Okay TC has probably got it on DVD now, but geez, are they going to deliver the content or a pointer to it?

Every slide is illustrated by accident porn: the crumpled strewn remains of an aircraft. It probably sounds really macabre but in aviation we do think about these things all the time. I learned to fly in an airplane that had the words "serious injury or death" placarded in at least two different places on the dashboard in front of me. You pretty much have to present a pilot (or aircraft maintainer) with a crumpled ball of snot and aluminum to make us sit up and pay attention.

Sometimes the text doesn't change when I advance to the next slide and sometimes only part of it changes, so I have to play "spot the difference" to get the content. The core of the content is a menu of "dirty dozen" human susceptibilities. I've seen these before on maintenance breakroom posters. It's the AMT (see, I'm using my newly acquired knowledge) equivalent of the Five Dangerous Attitudes that the pilot-oriented courses teach. The student can work through the dirty dozen in any order, but even though the course encourages you not to try to do it all at once, there is no bookmark, done flag or other indication of which ones you've completed.

There are videos embedded in some slides. Possibly they are embedded in all the ones where nothing seemed to happen when I clicked next, so I clicked next again. If so, the course allowed me to go on without viewing the video. It tells me to "Click on "Continue" to see a suggestion." There's no continue button and I can't go on because the next is greyed out. I pressed the button for French, because that wasn't greyed out, and the program crashed. I log back in and look at some more, then it crashes again on refresh.

There's irony in that I'm doing this training while somewhat fatigued from last night's overnight flight and distracted by constantly checking the weather for tonight's, two of the dirty dozen right there. I'll go get a nap and tell you more about it later.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Finding Things in the Dark

I'm on another VFR night flight, but there's no fog this time and lots of bright lights around for most of the flight. I'm on the destination arrival frequency for a while before I descend to land. I hear there's a last minute rush of traffic at twenty to midnight, and then peace on the frequency. There's probably a curfew for jets here. I know I'm allowed to land here twenty-four hours a day.

Eventually approach transfers me to tower. The final approach here will be over darkness, no houses or roads, so I'm briefing myself on precautions against black hole effect, but that doesn't turn out to be my problem. While I'm on right downwind, tower asks me to keep my base in close. That means I won't have as long a final to get set up, but I can descend more rapidly than usual to meet ATC needs, so I turn base at a distance out that is safe for me and still keeping it in close. As I drop the right wing into the turn to base leg I lose sight of the runway lights. There's cloud between me and the runway. I try to get my bearings by looking further around, spotting clues beyond the perimeter of the airport to help me align, but I really need to see this runway in order to descend for it, and to turn final in the right place. I can see the constellation Orion above me out the left, as clearly as if it were outlined with little arrows in a planetarium, but the constellation defined by two parallel lines of lights about a mile away eludes me.

I confess to tower about not having the runway in sight anymore and am given vectors, plus clearance to land long. The vector brings me out where I can see the runway lights and I plummet onto the welcoming strip of three parallel bright lines. My approach briefing to myself didn't include the fact that this runway has centreline lighting, not that I would have found it any more easily had I been looking for three parallel lines instead of two. Someone is cleared into position behind me as I roll out, my nosewheel juddering slightly as it rolls over the inset centreline lights. They're ever so slightly off centre, but so am I. I think the other crew silent apologies for their delay, and they probably laugh at the ditzy aviatrix who can't find a runway on a fine night. I probably snuck behind the only cloud in the sky.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Modern Technology - Like Fax Machines and Photocopiers

Nav Canada has awesome controllers and really pretty reliable approach facilities, but chart publication must be where they throw the people who lack the attention to detail or management skill to make it in the real time world of air traffic control. You've heard my rants about trying to buy instrument plates electronically. The most frustrating part of that experience was that no one I talked to, and I went as high as I could get people to talk to me, would even acknowledge that it was a problem that the only way to get current information on how to safely use airports all over the country was to have it mailed to a base where I wouldn't necessarily be when the mailed information arrived. They treated me as though it was bizarre that a PILOT could be in Yellowknife and need information on how to get to Thunder Bay NOW, as opposed to two weeks from now, though a mailing address in Saskatoon. Now electronic downloads of some publications are available, but until very recently, i.e. THIS YEAR, I couldn't order anything online from Nav Canada. I could look at their website to see what they sold, but in order to buy it I had to print out a paper form, calculate the cost and the taxes on each item manually--I felt like it would be out of the spirit of the thing not to do long division with a pencil and paper--and then fax in the form.

Now they have online ordering. Here's a challenge for you. Go to the Nav Canada website and try to put a Thunder Bay VFR enroute chart in your basket. It's what the Americans would call a sectional, but it's known in Canada as a VNC, a visual navigation chart. If you can do it in fewer than eight clicks and two scroll-downs, tell me how you did it. I almost gave up and thought they weren't available through the "NEW" online interface. Yeah, and look again at that online store. This isn't a legacy online sales system. This is the best they could come up with in 2013.

And then you get your chart. At first I was working in a flat bit of the world and didn't really notice, but then I unfolded it to a different section and though, "holy shuttlecraft, I have a counterfeit chart!" It looks as though it has been made on a colour photocopier with some of the colour nozzles blocked. The printing, something I have to read in low light, in turbulence, while doing other tasks, is blurry from poor colour registration. The hypsometric tints aren't crisp. Did someone spill something on this map, or is there a hill here? Nav Canada has this to say.


VFR Chart Hill Shade:

NAV CANADA has developed digital production process for the terrain layers of all VNC and VTA charts. There are limited choices in the technology that can generate digital hill shades. As well the combination of digital terrain and hill shading produces unacceptable chart clutter. As part of our analysis we reviewed VFR chart best practices from around the globe. As a result of the current technology limitations, clutter and best practices the shading will not be incorporated into the VNC and VTA charts series effective immediately.

NAV CANADA will continue to reassess shading technology as improvements occur.

To inject a bit of positive I'll make this a message to the people who did whatever they did to make my charts look so great before the digital production process came along. "Wow, your charts looked great and I could always read them easily, day or night and instantly interpret terrain. Thank you for doing such a good job of that from well before I started flying through 2012."

I'd add that thanks to new digital processing charts now have fewer errors and printing delays, but a significant number of the VFR charts I buy were behind schedule, and everywhere I look there's a NOTAm for a missing peak height or frequency correction. Is this all because kids twenty years ago were told they were all winners no matter what?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fog Roulette

I'm going to conduct a primarily VFR flight with a destination that is forecast to be IFR at time of landing. It's also a destination that has flow control, so I file a "Z" composite flight plan, meaning VFR then IFR, so I essentially have my name on the list for the IFR arrival. The IFR planners don't like something about my plan, so they call me back and ask about it. I explain in more detail what I want to do, and then they tell me what I have to file in order to get that. It's less like what I want to do, but if that's what they want, then I'll file that.

We fly. It's night. It's pretty quiet. In flight I get periodic updates on weather at destination. The airport has an ILS, which puts my minima at 200' and 1/2 mile visibility. It's now 500' overcast and three miles, which will be a nice exercise in doing everything right ending in a comfortable margin below the clouds to transition to landing. And then it's 300' overcast and 3/4 mile. That's still something that anyone who is instrument qualified should be able to do, but leaves much less room for error. And then the next report is 500' overcast and half a mile. I recheck the weather and forecast at my alternate. Still good. My alternate is closer, but I'll try the big airport at minimum advisory visibility. I'm going slower than the big jets, so I'll have more time in that last 300' of descent to distinguish the runway lights through the mist. And if I miss I miss, another good exercise, and head to my alternate.

I'm ready to check in with the approach controller but Centre tells me that they are not permitting Cat I aircraft to attempt approaches at my destination. That means that since I don't have autoland or other special equipment and training to land in lower than half a mile visibility, they aren't even going to let me try. I feel, well for my initial notes on this flight I wrote "blue balls." I'm all set up and mentally prepared for the ILS and then told I can't play. But I understand. They are trying to get heavies on the ground there, have to increase their usual separation and they don't want a light aircraft tying up the facility and then going missed and making them have to hold the heavies out of my way.

I tell Centre I'll land at my alternate. Their ATIS notes they have a fog bank encroaching from the south. Oh, fun. They are still VFR. They have me keep my speed up because there's a fast jet behind me, but I get all the right bits sticking out at the last minute and put it down. Exit, taxi cautiously in dropping visibility. I advise the ground controller that this was a diversion, here overnight but don't know where to park. We were thinking of waiting it out here for a bit and then trying the big airport in the wee hours of the morning, when either the weather might have improved or they weren't so busy, but by the time I've parked in what the ground controller assures me is a good spot I really have to take his word for it, as it's 1/4 mile in fog and 200' here. We call it a night and take a long cab ride to the destination. Where the weather is now four miles and 800'. Argh. I was going to say you can't win with fog, but when you get the airplane on the ground, it's a win.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Moral of the Story

I'm sure many readers of this blog already follow Randall Munroe's xkcd ("A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language,") but not everyone knows about his side projects, like his what-if blog. In it he answers questions of life, the universe and everything, such as "could an airplane fly in the atmospheres of other planets?" His answers tend to be both amusing and comprehensive, plus you don't need any math to understand the pictures illustrating the calculated success of flights on the various bodies of our solar system.

Turns out Titan is our best bet. It would be even easier to fly there, but too cold. Cold, Randall points out is merely a materials science problem. He says, "I've never seen the Icarus story as a lesson about the limitations of humans. I see it as a lesson about the limitations of wax as an adhesive." Yes, Randall, yes. So many stories ask me to accept baffling morals.

I more than once got in trouble in English class for laughing at stories that were supposed to be sad, or just being plain baffled as to why the story ended where it did. Shadow of a Gunman features a young women infatuated with a writer. She asks him to typewrite their names together on a scrap of paper and later protects him during a raid by hiding contraband that he in her room. At the end of the story she has been arrested, then shot dead while attempting to escape custody. A neighbour reports this, saying that the police found a scrap of paper in her breast with her name on it, and someone else's name, all covered in blood. I howled with laughter right there in class and when I explained that I liked the irony that she thought she was protecting him, but really she has condemned him by keeping that paper. The English teacher patiently explained that her blood had obscured the name, so she had protected him, and the teacher refused to accept that the most basic of 1920s police procedure would be able to read typewriter ink despite blood. I believe I challenged her to bleed so profusely on a piece of paper that I could not distinguish typewritten words using merely tools I could prove existed in 1920. I never considered it a bad thing to be kicked out of that English class.

Romeo and Juliette is another one. How is that not a hilarious lesson on the stupidity of overly dramatic teens? Or the story about the woman who sells her hair to buy a watch chain for her lover, who sells his watch to buy a jewelled hair comb for her. A lesson for all on basic communication in a relationship. And her hair will grow back. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer teaches us that it's okay to mock and exclude someone for being different up until the point that that difference is proven to have a material benefit to us, at which point we can do an about-face. An earlier version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears ended with the titular intruder (then a silver-haired old woman) impaled on a church steeple for her crimes, but now I could think I was supposed to believe it's about not giving up until you've found something that's just right, and running away if anyone questions your right to it.

Sometimes the story doesn't support the moral, but if the story itself is well told, then people accept the moral they are fed. How about this TSB accident report. (Hah, yu thought I'd wandered so far off aviation I was never coming back, didn't you?) Normally I love the attention to detail and the simple laying out of discovered facts in an accident report. Nothing is pushed on you. You can see what they found, what occurrences the experts find it consistent with and pretty much draw your own conclusions. While it is quite startling to see the altitude deviations correlated with the pilot talking on the phone and sending text messages, I think this accident was more a convenient place to hang the "no cellphone use during flight" message than it was a demonstration of the dangers thereof. Read it and don't you get the idea that the TSB considers the cellphone use a bigger deal than the fact that the pilot was flying at night for a company not certified to do so, and therefore with no recent night-specific training and quite likely no recent night experience? My company hung the cellphone message on this accident, too: the preliminary report year or so ago was the trigger for my own company's ban on pilot cellphone use during flight. Oh well, I could never get Facebook check-ins to work at 15,000', anyway.

A moral that doesn't match the story isn't necessarily a bad moral, and a story with a mismatched moral isn't necessarily a bad story, I just feel like someone is trying to cheat me when I encounter the combination. Also, the air gets cooler the closer you get to the sun until well after the altitude at which Icarus would have asphyxiated.

Monday, August 19, 2013

I'm Not Even the PRM

As pilot in command of an airplane I have to be assured that all the maintenance is done as both safety and legality require before I take to the skies. When I came on with this company they had a problem with missed maintenance events, so I made them an excel spreadsheet with conditional formatting to colour events close to due in bright alerting colours. Every once in a while a new thing that I should have been tracking but wasn't is unearthed, either because I set up the sheet based on the aircraft manufacturer's intervals and the component manufacturer had a more specific requirement, because the requirements are amended, because I made a false assumption or because I just plain missed something. Today it was determined, I think through researching an STC, that a particular check valve, if it was one of two particular possible models, is due for replacement ten years from the date of manufacture. I pulled off the panel under which the check valve lurked and determined with a flashlight and determined squinting that the part was of one of the specified model numbers, dash four. I don't know if the -4 radically changes the life expectancy of the part. I just relay this information to the AME.

And then I go and do some other things slightly more piloty. Or maybe less. I think it may have involved getting a return authorization for oxygen regulators that were adjusting themselves in flight, leaving two crew members with hypoxia in the first week we used them. We stopped using them after that.

And then back to the check valve. Dash-4 or not it still needs to be replaced ten years after manufacturing, so the AME goes back into the panel, with a flashlight and a mirror, hunting for a date. There's a straight line in the manufacturer's label that has been scratched off. Was that the date. I joke and ask him can't he determine the model year from the colour and styling? We kind of suspect that if this check valve were a Volkswagon Beetle it would have a split windscreen and tiny red tail lights. "I'll order one now," sighs the AME.

And then after I went back to my computer, the ops manager kicked me out for working too long a day.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Standard Approach Profile

To land a tricycle gear airplane on a runway is not very difficult. You just place it in the correct slightly nose up attitude and keep it straight while the main gear settle onto the runway, and then you gently lower the nose. The difficult part is to arrive at the beginning of the runway at a speed such that when you raise the nose the appropriate amount the airplane neither stalls abruptly nor balloons into the air, and to arrive there at an altitude such that the airplane contacts it at just the same moment the wings stop flying. Also the airplane needs to be configured for landing. At minimum, landing configuration should include wheels.

My airplane has a maximum speed at which I can extend the landing gear and three different maximum speeds for extension of different amounts of flaps. In a normal landing I should have the gear and all the flaps down, the final stage of flaps coming perhaps a couple of hundred feet above the runway. In order to have the speed required for that, I aim to be at the speed for the second stage of flaps by 1000' above touchdown, and that's also a good point for me to have the gear down. In order to reach gear speed it helps to have the first stage of flaps extended, usually five miles out, or mid downwind. Until then I can fly any speed I want, so long as I stay below 200 kts in the control zone, or slower if the control zone has its own speed limit. Plus I need to be out of the yellow arc if there is a risk of turbulence. Let's call that by 10,000'. And so on, continuing to work backwards until I'm leaving FL190 and deciding whether to push the nose down for a drag-increasing 2000' fpm descent or leave it gently trimmed for a 400 fpm let down. You learn in initial flight training about the relationship between airspeed and drag: the latter increases with the square of the former, so if I want to arrive at a point in space with less energy, both gravitational potential (i.e. altitude) and kinetic (i.e. airspeed) I need to push my nose down and go faster.

I'm landing today at a larger international airport, but they only have one of their runways open: construction, FOD cleanup or something, so everyone including me is heading for the same runway. I'm asked to maintain 160 knots. Not a problem on the descent, but as I get closer I want to bring the power back on my engines to cool them gradually and I ask the controller if he still needs the speed. He most emphatically does. I have to increase power to hold it. And I'm also above my maximum gear and flap extension speeds.

Remember that the aircraft is designed to fly efficiently through the air. Even if I slam the throttles to idle, which I'm not going to do, because I have to depend on these cylinders not cracking from shock cooling, the airplane will take time and space to slow down. Getting flaps and gear down adds drag, but I have to slow down to be allowed to do that. I'm finally permitted to slow down, so I pull the nose up to slow down until I have approach flap speed. This makes me climb, but they don't mind that. As soon as I add approach flaps that increases drag, and increases the amount of nose down that gives me the same speed, so I can put the nose down while still slowing down and as soon as I have gear down goes the gear, still slowing so I can add more flaps, put the props ahead and on the runway nice and slow, so I can exit at the first available taxiway.

Phew, not how the flight instructor taught it, but still using what I learned (and taught) back in flight school.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Pros and Cons of Weekends

Weekends have their good points and bad points, but I think weekdays are probably better.

Weekends are good because there's less traffic on the way to work, fewer scheduled airline flights to wait for at the hold short line, and on Saturday the restaurants are open later in the evening. But stores and restaurants and sometimes FBOs open later in the morning in a weekend, and in many areas the increase in small airplane training and recreational traffic is significant enough to cause delays. ATC units are more likely to have staffing shortages, resulting in denied routings and altitudes, on the weekend, and if the airplane needs maintenance that previously favourable decease in scheduled airline flights means it's harder to get an AME and the needed parts into the field.

A lot of people seem to be awfully keen on weekends, though, so maybe I'm missing some important aspect of them.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

A Story In Radio Calls

A light has illuminated to tell me that my landing gear is safely stowed in the wings and nose, and the gear handle has returned to neutral. Climb power is set and the airplane is trimmed for about ten knots above best rate of climb speed, a speed approved by the manufacturer and one that experience has taught me will get me to my altitude and destination in an expeditious manner without any of the little temperature and pressure needles hitting their yellow or red extremes. I have made the slight left turn which I advised the local radio operator I would make, and according to the little green circle depicted on the GPS, I am clearing their zone. I press the button on the radio that swaps the active and standby frequencies so that I'm now listening on the Centre frequency, as I confirmed I would when I read back my IFR clearance before departure. I listen before speaking, because on the radio just as in real life, it's poor form to interrupt a conversation or speak at the same time as others.

The controller is advising a pilot of conditions somewhere, by telling him that a particular carrier "got in". That means the weather is poor there, near the minimum required for a safe approach and landing and that there was some doubt as to whether he would or not. It's good where we are, and where we're going. I call up with my current and cleared altitude and get the rest of my clearance. A few thousand feet later I'm asked to squawk ident and say altitude, so I push the IDENT button and tell him the altitude I am now climbing through, and he tells me I am now radar identified. For a while, anyway. Two and a half hours later I'm no longer on radar and I'm asked to state my position and direction of flight. I think the controller actually said, "GPS position," knowing we all have these magic boxes. I twist the middle knob all the way to the last nav page and read it off, rounding to the nearest minute of latitude and longitude. I don't even like to think what a pain that would have been to do the old fashioned way, with charts.

My position must not have been an issue because an airliner is cleared to descend for an approach. The pilot says he will be on the ILS but will be flying the missed approach for the corresponding RNAV approach because the ILS missed is not in his database. That sounds lame, but I know from the NOTAMs that the missed approach has recently been modified, so it's plausible that the onboard database doesn't reflect that and that the pilots aren't allowed to fly procedures that aren't in the database. It's professional to figure out what issues you're going to have with an approach before you're actually experiencing them. The controller accepts the pilot's suggestion and clears him to fly it "in the event of a missed approach."

A few minutes later the pilot is back. They missed. That is, they followed the instrument landing instructions, flew as low as the procedure would allow them, but didn't see the runway, so followed the RNAV instructions for what to do in this case. They ask for a hold, suggesting that it be at a particular NDB, inbound on the 185 track. The controller doesn't understand at first, probably because he isn't in an airplane thousands of feet above and with a straight line to the one that is asking. The pilot repeats the request and the controller clears him to do it, so the pilot repeats back the clearance, the one he asked for in the first place. The 185 track to the NDB is probably a direct entry to the hold for him, so he can cross the beacon and turn outbound to 005 right away, but I automatically look at my heading indicator to see how I would enter that hold were I direct the beacon on my current track. It's in the parallel sector for me, so I would turn left to 005, left direct the beacon, and then right outbound to 005, so I could turn right and track 185 inbound.

The airliner enters the hold. The centre controller checks on them from time to time, asking if they want weather. Nope, they're fine, they are monitoring a continually updating AWOS recording which tells them the visibility and ceiling down there at their destination. They tell the controller that the visibility is now good enough, but that they'd like another hundred feet of ceiling. It sounds so bush. I imagine them sitting there in the cockpit telling 'so there I was' stories about holding over Moosonee, expecting it to clear, but having to decide whether to expend the precious fuel on flying to Timmins, which might itself fog in, or maybe make a run all the way to Rouyn. Meanwhile their automatic airplane probably flies the hold for them.

There's another NDB NOTAMed out of service somewhere, possibly just went down today, as pilots keep asking for an approach that uses it and asked for their intentions vis-a-vis the unserviceable nav aid. Most of them seem to not have heard about it. Someone asks if he can get vectors for the ILS and the controller says no, you have to fly the full procedure, can't see you down there.

The airline crew asks for the approach, and are cleared for the same combo plate conventional ILS approach with an RNAV missed. "Have a good day," says the controller, an oddly non-specific salutation for the situation, and the pilot says he hopes not to talk to the controller again very soon. We don't hear that airplane again, before we ask for our own descent, into somewhere else, so presumably he got in that time.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Safety Dance

I always pee before departure. It's part of the ritual. The "safety pee" I call it. I get back from the restroom (or from behind a tree, depending on the sophistication of the available facilities) and then do one more circumnavigation of the airplane before boarding. That last walk is where I spot unsecured baggage doors, FOD, items placed on the airplane, or the remainder of interrupted tasks. This isn't what I mean by my preflight walkaround: that is more thorough. It's just a last look before I board.

Yesterday I completed the safety pee, walked around the airplane, got in the cockpit, flew for 5.7 hours, drank water when I was thirsty, landed, unloaded, fuelled, taxied from the fuel pumps to parking, and then went to pee, because I felt like I needed to a little. Today I took off after the same preflight ritual and only an hour and fifteen minutes later had to pee so badly I was doing the pee-pee dance right there in the cockpit. I wasn't going to make it to the destination, only forty minutes away. When it comes to technology that makes my life better, folks, the pee bag rivals the wheel. I have landed airplanes without wheels, but landing is so much harder with my legs crossed. So I succumb to the biological need and fill a pee bag to the 600 mL mark. Yeah, my pee bags are calibrated. I have no earthly idea why. Maybe some people like to keep track. Or brag. Am I bragging? Six hundred millilitres isn't bragworthy. I can pee much more than that. I can hold much more than that. Why did my body desperately have to void that 600 mL then and there, when on another day it would happily tanker 900 mL to destination?

So I peed in the bag, flew to destination, landed, threw out the full pee bag, drank more water, and then flew another 5.8 hours without even thinking about my bladder. Body, what are you doing in there? Millions of years of evolution and for most of them our ancestors could pee wherever they were. I did a bunch of reading once on the various nerves and systems that allow us to pee and signal to us that we need to, but it didn't answer the question of why frequency and timing of urgency is so poorly correlated to water intake and recency of voiding.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Alcohol-Based Oxygen Generation

As I descend into the aerodrome environment I position report on the general traffic frequency of 126.7 and then switch to the mandatory frequency for the airfield and make another call. I'm thirty miles out, descending through, I don't know, nine thousand or something. A helicopter pilot calls short final. Not for the runway. Not even for the aerodrome. He's on final for Bear Mountain. Can you be on left base for Bear Mountain? I never know what helicopters are doing, but the pilots tend to be professional and know what they are doing, and they also grasp that we dimwitted fixed wing folk are bedazzled by their whirling wing.

We land, on a runway, not a mountain. We persuade the people there to put fuel in our airplane in exchange for their being able to take an imprint of a piece of plastic our employer gave us. Seems fair. We also need oxygen, but that is not a service the FBO offers. A local operator has oxygen though, and the fueller knows one of the maintenance guys there, so he makes an introduction. They have the oxygen. They have the time. We have the fittings for our non-standard tank. But they aren't set up for selling oxygen. Eventually the service is negotiated in exchange for the northern currency: a case of beer. Honestly if the stuff wasn't so heavy and perishable we'd just carry a couple of cases around at all times. Any favour can be had for beer in the north.

We leave, with our oxygen, and hear that helicopter on final for a different mountain.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

By the Numbers

I'm descending out of the flight levels on a sunny day. The airspace I'm descending through is green on the IFR chart, meaning that it's uncontrolled even above FL180, so I have been working with only a company flight itinerary, no IFR flight plan, just me and the company flight follower.The sky is littered with little puffy clouds, based around ten thousand feet, but the scenery is clearly visible below. I can see a ridge of trees, a long lake with a river at each end, a little settlement, and a runway parallel to the lake. It's just as the CFS and sectional say it should be.

I advise traffic of my presence and intentions on 126.7 and on the aerodrome frequency, but there doesn't seem to be anyone around. Through ten thousand feet, oxygen selected off. My oxygen mask is on underneath my headset so I can't take it off without taking off my headset, and that will also knock my glasses off, so for now I'll just plummet, breathing now the ambient air that sucks into the mask. Altitude falling, temperature rising, runway coming into view. I glance again at the diagram I've scribbled on my kneeboard to remember the runway numbers and the location of the exit taxiway. I advise traffic I'll be downwind for my chosen runway, and I join the circuit, a thousand feet above runway elevation, parallelling the runway just far enough away to see it by my wingtip. Flap speed, approach flap set. Abeam the touchdown point, gear speed, gear selected down. Three green lights, turn base, continue descent and increase flap to one half. Turn final, roll out. I can see the runway straight ahead, a sawmill underneath and the lake beside me. I call final to the traffic that isn't there to hear me, and add the last increment of flaps, letting the speed bleed back to blueline and then below as I ease over the threshold and ...

What? The runway number is not the one in the publication. It's not the opposite end either, nor is it freshly painted. I haven't been here in many years, so don't remember the airport layout, but there's no way I'm not at the right airport. I let the main wheels clump onto the runway and then lower the nose for the rollout. I have to backtrack to exit, so I have opportunity to see again. No, this is definitely not the runway number that appears in the book.

After shutdown I look at the CFS again. Yup, I have the right airport. I recheck the date on the CFS, even though I know when all my pubs expire and this set is fine. Yup, the CFS is current. I pull up NOTAMs on my phone, looking for the one I must have missed. Nothing for this airport at all.

I call Flight Services and ask if the NOTAM has been accidentally deleted or misfiled or something. They tell me I must have out of date publications. I assure them I wouldn't call them if I hadn't checked that, and that despite being a pilot I do know all my numbers, and the ones painted on the runway are not the ones in the book. The most disturbing thing about the whole conversation is how little the flight services specialist seems to care. This is a big deal. This is a major identifying characteristic of the airport. A friend said that if he came down an ILS and the numbers at the bottom didn't match the numbers on the chart, he would put in the power and go around. If the official publication is wrong about the numbers, how do I know I can trust what it says about runway length, elevation or anything else? The numbers aren't even newly painted. Am I the first pilot to care enough to report this, or has it been ignored so long?

Yes, every once in a while they have to change runway numbers. This happens either because the shift of magnetic north is sufficient that the runway is no longer aligned within a fair tolerance with the heading its number designates, or because the airport is building more runways and what was once plain old runway 14 is now runway 14L. But this sort of thing should be accompanied by NOTAMs, probably beginning with runway 14/32 closed for maintenance followed by amend publication: runway number 15-33 vice 14-32 and finishing off with a new cycle of publications that all show the correct new runway number. It should be a pretty standard process.

I depart the next day, this time calling the runway by the number painted on the pavement, and climb through ten thousand feet before I can get a hold of centre. I really feel like I'm in the land beyond civilization. I leave it behind and end the day at a little airport in another province. And it also has the wrong runway numbers! Is someone trying to drive me insane? I report this one too, and either they care more about such things in this province or the ranting lady tone in my voice warns the specialist to humour me, because he seems to appreciate more than the previous one that this is something that Should Not Happen. I'd never seen that in my whole career, and then I get two on consecutive days.