Thursday, February 28, 2013

Women Colour the Skies

I encourage my female readers who will be flying, maintaining, controlling or dispatching airplanes between March 4th and 10th to participate in this challenge. The idea is to log all the flights that women make happen, and presumably they'll make a graphic out of it, connecting the corners of the world. It will show only a fraction of our real participation in the skies, because even with the connectivity of the aviation community, not a high proportion of women will have the inclination or time to participate, but it is a fun idea to show how many flights depend on women, and amazing as it probably is to you, my regular readers, there are still plenty of people out there who exclaim with surprise, "a woman pilot!" or "a woman mechanic!" Many think it's an astonishing rarity, which in turn makes women who might otherwise fly turn away, so there is a non-fun reason for playing.

I can't see that there are many flights in the Canadian sky that are not touched by women at some point between the hangar and shutdown. I don't know if I will fly that week, but if I do, I'll play.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Time in the Tanks

I'm coming in to land from another remote location, once again balancing greater true airspeed at altitude against expected decrease in headwind below, and rationing my gravitational potential energy as I descend. I've been operating under controlled VFR, required for flights between 12,500' and 18,000'. The controller gave me leave to descend unrestricted and I cancelled the CVFR through twelve five, leaving me plain old VFR. On my own and and far from anything, including airports. The GPS shows me forty-five minutes from landing, but that's because of the increased speed on descent. It should be about an hour to landing and I have an hour and thirty minutes of fuel on board.

As I level off, the airspeed drops and the GPS estimated time en route climbs. The groundspeed is a little higher than it was at altitude, but not as much as I had expected. The groundspeed settles down and I've really made no progress with the descent. I'm going to be eating reserve fuel.

I know that's what reserve fuel is for but I'd rather it be in the tank when I land. I reduce power a little. It's always hard when you're eager to get somewhere before the fuel runs out, and you have been trained to think of fuel as time, to reduce power and get to the destination slower, but just as you'd sprint to catch a bus, but slow to a jog or walk if you missed it and thus had to go ten kilometres on foot, the airplane will go further on the same amount of gas at a lower power setting. The problem of how slowly to go when you are also fighting a headwind is another fun curve to play with, but again I'm missing information. I have forecase wind and altitude information from two stations, one to the west and one to the south. I don't know right now whether the wind is stronger than forecast for this altitude or just more from the south than forecast. I'm trying to draw a picture in my head of the high and low pressure spots and figure out how the wind is moving, so as to guess where the wind will let up, or how to use knowledge to beat the system.

Never let the fuel gauge become the primary instrument in your scan. That is don't put yourself in a position where fuel is such a concern that you look at the gauge every five seconds. I'm going to make the field with most of my half hour reserve on board. I still think the headwind will drop as I get further south, but I still need to allow for an airplane crashing on the destination runway just before I get there. But really up here it wouldn't be a hard decision what to do. I'd ask the FSS if they had a preference between me landing on the taxiway and me landing on the runway over or short of the existing wreckage. I don't even recall if that airport had a long taxiway. It may have just had an apron. There are places where I would land beside the runway, but those are flatter places with better groomed airports.

There is no traffic at the airport, crashed or otherwise and I shut down after landing plus a fairly long post-landing engine run with twenty minutes of fuel on board. I take on another load of fuel and then head south again, two hours to an airport most people still consider north. The other crew member (a non-pilot, with no duties on this repositioning flight) sleeps most of the way. I was going to see if I could keep him asleep right to engine shutdown, but turbulence wakes him up in the descent.

Unrelated, B787s are grounded all over the world while Boeing comes up with a solution to the battery problem. Here's a list of where they are.

Friday, February 22, 2013


We're working up at 19,000'. I can't see the ground from my position in the cockpit because by the time the vector representing my angle of vision reaches the ground, it has dissipated into the mist. Mostly I see cirrus clouds around me, and they're kind of pinky orange, the sunset colour of a sun that won't set for a months, as this is a summer story and we're in the north. Between them in the distance I see blueish-green. If I were to put my head against the window so I could see in front of the wing root, down between the fuselage and the nacelle, I'd see little tiny trees. They're not just tiny because I'm way up in the sky. They're tiny because they have a short growing season and a long harsh winter. There are little cutlines and creeks and lakes, and probably rocks and bears, too. And mosquitoes.

I'm constantly doing fuel math, weather math, duty day math, and tweaking the heater controls to try and keep my feet warm. I judge it time to go home, and not just because my feet are cold. We're a decent distance from our intended airport of landing--indeed from any airport we can use--and I'm anticipating a headwind all the way south. I ask for down, both down south and down out of the cold and the worst of the headwind. The trick is to convert altitude to speed, descending rapidly enough in feet per minute to find more favourable winds quickly, but not so rapidly in airspeed that the benefit of the 'free' airspeed is lost to drag, which increases exponentially with airspeed. Someday I should set up the differential equations to determine how fast I should descend in this case. I think it's a solvable problem. Airbus computers probably do it. I just going by gut, though, and the desire to get down to where it's warmer. And today ATC makes that decision for me. They want me to cross a fix that is 30 DME from the destination at 5000'. Fix is aviation speak for any identifiable point at which you're supposed to report or turn, or do something. In this case it was identifiable only in as much as it was 30 nautical miles (DME is almost nautical miles. I'll explain that sometime) from the aerodrome. I'm asked to confirm I can do that.

I tell them I can make the crossing restriction. I didn't do any math for that either. I know how many nautical miles it is to the fix, how many thousand feet I have to descend and my current speed and rate of descent. That would be enough to calculate the altitude I would arrive at the fix, but to arrive there at 5000' I need to increase my rate of descent which will increase my speed (I don't plan to start powering back until I'm a lot closer to the airport than I am now). I used to know a rule of thumb for speed gain with fpm descent, but I think it may have been only applicable to Cessna 152s.

ATC amends my crossing restriction to 5000' at 20 DME, but I don't change my descent profile and reach it at at 30.8 DME, just to prove to myself that I was not incorrect in accepting the clearance. Actually 30.8 was a GPS distance, so it was a little more in DME.

From there I call the FSS and they give me traffic, nothing but a King Air taxiing out to head south. He'll be well out of the way by the time I'm on final. Land, fuel, park, secure for the night and wait for a cab. The airport manager is painting a railing at the front of the terminal. He tells us they frequently have to go out and get beavers off the runway here. We think this is hilarious. Why would they be on the runway? Maybe because it's warm. Maybe even beavers get tired of slogging through swamps all the time and like a nice paved road once in a while.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Waiting at the FBO

I'm at an FBO in a northern boom town, waiting for my aircraft to be fuelled. I'm overnighting here, but the last two times I've ordered fuel here, morning preflight has revealed that no fuel has been delivered to the aircraft, resulting in departure delays. So this time I'm going to stand right here and wait until I can verify the presence of fuel in my airplane, before I get a cab. The fueller is off servicing an airliner down at the terminal, so I have to wait until he is done.

Inside the FBO there are two clean cut white guys in pilot uniforms, and a curvy woman in a jumpsuit flaked out asleep on couches. The woman's jumpsuit bears an aeromedical patch: they're a medevac crew obeying the aircrew maxim: never forego an opportunity to eat, sleep, pee or do laundry.

A fancy car pulls up outside the plate glass window and a pregnant woman walks up to the FBO counter, swinging the car key on her little finger. She asks the attendant about an incoming Gulfstream. It's expected, but hasn't radioed in yet. I don't hear the whole conversation. I can't tell if she's delivering a rental car or meeting someone off the plane. She went back out to the car or perhaps to the washroom.

The guys on the couches wake up. Their paramedic continues sleeping, masses of curly hair hiding her face. In my experience the paramedics usually have better duty days amd rest rules than the pilots, but perhaps she is unlucky.

"Waiting for an ambulance?" I ask the pilots.

They are. I've been there, done that, but this crew has never even heard of the community where I was based to do so. A bizarre thing about medevacs is that they need a plane right now to get a patient to another centre as soon as possible, but the ambulance and patient are never ever ready when you arrive. You can wait three hours for them to turn up. In many cases if they started driving as soon as they called for a medevac, they could have driven the patient to the distant hospital first.

When the ambulance arrives, the pilots gently wake up their paramedic. As she walks groggily out to their aircraft with them I notice a sticker behind her ear. It must be but one of those airsickness medication patches. Her job can't be fun if she gets airsick. No wonder she's exhausted.

The fueller returns and fills my wings with avgas. I pay and then wait forever for a cab, so I can go to a hotel and sleep, too.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Military Code of Honour

I'm working in the vicinity of military airspace today, where by today I mean the day on which I took these cryptic notes and put them in my blogging file. In Canada the lateral boundaries of permanent military airspace are marked on charts with a busy line itself composed of fine parallel lines that are perpendicular to the line they define. The area so designated is usually tagged CYR and a unique three digit number. That must be C for Canadian, Y for why do Canadians use Y so much in aviation? and R for restricted. The number is so you can look it up in the Designated Airspace Handbook to see who is in charge of it. Some military airspace may be CYA (A for advisory), but that just warns pilots that military aircraft may be present, and doesn't obligate pilots to remain clear or obtain permission the way restricted airspace does.

The vertical and temporal limits of restricted airspace must be discerned by careful scrutiny of the notations inside the marked boundaries. A lot of military airspace is only active nine to five local time Monday through Friday. Given the non-business-hours nature of military operations, this always seems a bit strange to me, but it's nice to be able to use their sky on the weekends. The civilian term for airspace restrictions being in effect is the word I just used, active, but the military controllers say hot and cold which is short and clear and sounds flashy. The military are good at that. Often military airspace is hot between certain altitudes continuously and then at an extended range of altitudes occasionally by NOTAM. That means I have to check the NOTAMs to see if CYA 999 is active today, but of course I have to check the NOTAMs anyway to see if there are any temporary flight restrictions. And yeah, I used that phrasing so I could make fun of the US which has what appear to be permanent TFRs over strategic national locations such as Disney World. They do have some pretty advanced robotics there, and you never know, Disney World might close down before the end of the current chart cycle.

On the particular day I'm writing about, I have done the chart interpretation dance before the flight, and decided that our work doesn't require entrance to the military airspace. I talk to the military controller anyway, for flight following. I go under some airspace, because its floor is above the altitude I need. Some parts are NOTAMed cold, so I get to go through them. There are clouds in the area we want to work, but the actual spot we want to overfly is very small, so we fly around in circles waiting for the clouds to get out of the way, and trying to dodge them and their shadows well enough to complete the work. It takes a number of passes, but we get it all and then inform the military controller that we are going to land at a small non-military aerodrome nearby. There's a published mandatory route to land there, and I tune a particular radial to ensure I follow it. The controller sees what I'm doing and clears me direct. Well that was easy.

There's an elaborate honour system involving multiple codes and keys to obtain and pay for fuel here, and a really questionable restroom. A wave hello to those who know exactly where I am today. I know it can't be too hard to figure out if you've been here, and it's okay to guess in the comments if you want, but more fun for the game to leave cryptic hints than a straight out answer. Once everything is put away I file a new flight plan and depart. The controller again clears me direct through the airspace I planned around. Just in case you need confirmation of your guess where we are, my fellow crew member starts making cow noises after a pilot coming into the same airport reads back his clearance. I laugh hysterically, because I had been about to moo, too.

On the ground an older pilot sees my ride and comes up to me to reminisce because he once worked in Nepal flying the type I'm flying now. He nails the strengths and weaknesses straight off, and tells me something I didn't know, that the fuel selector is designed such that at low temperatures it can become impossible to switch from the inboard to the outboard wing tanks. Interesting. I had not known that. The manual permits take off and landing on any tanks, without a published restriction on which fuel is burned first, as long as there isn't a sizable imbalance between wings.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Giving Up Sleep for Lent

I'm working nights at the moment. So I go to bed in the morning darkness, sleep in with the phone off and a sort of anti-alarm clock telling me "don't get up until" some time in the afternoon that varies with the nighttime natural phenomenon we're currently tracking. That probably sounds like we're following the migration of vampires, but vampires are not migratory, at least not in Canada. And I don't fly an all-black Skymaster with a red interior.

I try to make the next day's to-do list before going to sleep and I succeeded yesterday. Today's list starts with "sleep". While I'm perfectly fine with an official shift to my duty day start, apparently my to-do day always starts in the morning. I tick off item number one and check my e-mail. Non-committal comments from the client team. I'm not sure they realize that my life revolves around them at the moment, that I have people I'd see and places I'd go if they would be a little more definite about when they need a pilot and when they don't. But my job is to be available for their flights, so I can't tell them to poop or get off the pot.

I check the GFA and the TAFs for the area we'll be working in. The forecast looks, well as non-committal as my clients. It might work out. It probably won't. The next forecast will tell. I look at the actual reported weather, the METARs. Pretty close to the corresponding TAFs so far, maybe a little worse. And one METAR includes a code in the remark section. LENT. Huh? Yeah, it is Lent, almost, but that's an ecclesiastic phenomenon, not a meteorological one. Oh I know what it must be. I check it in one of my favourite Nav Canada publications, the MANAB. It's my favourite because its name is consistent with its contents: aviation abbreviations that make sense in context but are sleekly obscure if you don't know. It's fun to work them out. FROIN. PVLNC. NECLY. GSVLK. They're like airway fixes. I was right. LENT designates lenticular clouds, a sign of mountain wave activity.

I don't think that will affect our proposed flight, but you never know. I've finished my breakfast. Blogging wasn't on my list. I could use a nap, though.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Yes, Master

There's a thing that has existed ever since I started flying, called a "master flight plan". It means that the Flight Services personnel have the aircraft "on file", which in turn means that when I call up to file a flight plan, as soon as I give the ident, the specialist knows the details of the type of airplane, what colour it is, your onboard navigation equipment, what kind of survival equipment we carry and how many life rafts we have. With a master flight plan on file, then while filing a flight plan for a particular trip, I need specify only the details that changes from flight to flight. They'll even keep the names and licence numbers of several pilots on file for any given plane, so I give my name and they can fill in the licence number. This is really convenient when filing a flight plan over the radio, which I have to do sometimes.

I sometimes need to modify the master flight plan. While filing a specific flight plan the briefer might ask, "I have a 'Graham' on file. Is that you?" I can tell her that Graham no longer works here, and get her delete him and add me and my licence number to the master. Other changes might be to tell them we've upgraded the instruments and now have RVSM capability, or put the aircraft on floats for the summer. I don't suppose anyone has ever pranked someone by calling up and changing their filed aircraft colour to pink polka dots.

Yesterday the flight services specialist couldn't find the aircraft I filed. It happens from time to time. I called up today to see if it was still lost, or if it was just a glitch. Nope, still not there. It must have expired, she says. Would I like to create a new master flight plan? Yes, yes I would. It's online now. I go to the Nav Canada site to do that. I have to create an account.

Now a number of you are wondering, "Is this really Aviatrix, or my grandmother?" because how can a pilot live in the world today and not have online flight planning mastered? Weeelll, it's because we generally file very special flight plans. Flight plans that need direct communication, and often negotiation, yea even bribes to the relevant Area Control Centre. But that's a topic for another time. I have to create an account.

The site requires me to:

Choose a username
Create a security question and answer
Specify a password (twice)
Submit the application
Receive an email
Click the link therein
Specify a phone number and choose whether to receive a voice or text confirmation code
Enter that confirmation code
Log in with the username and password

So, a bit more security than before. The days of being able to virtually repaint someone's airplanes are apparently over. I follow all those steps and am given the choice of creating a Flight Plan or a Flight Template. The template allows me to specify whatever I want for the defaults for every field in the flight plan, which is kind of cool. So people who fly the same airplane to different places can fill in all the airplane details and leave the route blank. Those who fly different airplanes to the same place by the same route can do the opposite.

Canadian flight plans are different from US ones and don't conform exactly to ICAO standards either. Different geography, different types of aviation, different needs. There are some bugs. For example, to enter the letter codes for various types of navigation equipment I can enter it as SDFG/C or I can click on a symbol beside the entry field and get a popup window in which I can select individual checkboxes next to VHF, VOR, ILS, ADF and GNSS. But I can't exit that window and return to the form. I have to reset the whole form and start over to escape. As I work my way through the familiar fields I see a new one: the Tracking URL. I'll let Nav Canada explain it to you.

Many pilots are now using GPS tracking units, such as Spot or Spidertracks, which convey position information automatically to satellite based receivers and to a unique website address (the ‘Tracking URL’). Information about the location of the GPS tracking unit can be found on the internet using this URL.

Pilots want to include the Tracking URL with their flight plan information.

Prior to this release of NAVCANplan such URLs could not be included in flight plans or flight plan templates as they often contained lowercase letters and reserved words such as ‘com/’. NAVCANplan will now accept the full Tracking URL in the flight plan form.

To be included in the flight plan, the full URL is entered into the Tracking URL field

If you're a non-geeky reader of this blog (apparently there are some) and you have persevered this far (well done) hoping for a good bit, then here you are: ATC for birds. That's your reward. The rest is just geeky rambling. Nav Canada continues:

NAVCANplan automatically transforms it into a shortened, uppercase alias to the original URL. For example, becomes HTTPS://PLAN.NAVCANADA.CA/U/YHTJA.

The shortened URL is not visible on the flight plan or flight plan template forms.

The shortened URL is included in transmitted flight plans in the Survival Equipment Remarks section (i.e. included in field 19 as part of N/).

The shortened URL is also included for pilots and dispatchers in the Details view of the flight plan.

The shortened URL is included in FIMS flight plan templates in the Survival Equipment Remarks section (i.e. included in field 19 as part of N/).

When the shortened URL is accessed, the request is redirected to the original Tracking URL.

The alias between Tracking URL and a shortened URL is created when a flight plan is filed and when a flight plan template is saved.

This all suggests to me that the web interface is still talking to an underlying flight plan processing engine so ancient that it ONLY KNOWS ABOUT CAPITAL LETTERS. I wonder when it was first programmed. It doesn't seem that complex from here, but I suspect it interacts with radar computers and other programs that range so dramatically through the ages that they're terrified to touch it. All the information about how and where the URL turns up isn't really important to the user. I think it's in there mainly because they're bursting with pride for having figuring out how to shoehorn a URL into the data despite the limitations of the way it's stored.

I think birds probably do crash into one another now and again, but they are softer and slower so they keep flying.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

How Men Pack

Back before I got fed up trying to find time to blog, I was attempting to write an entry on the hazards of wearing the same pair of shoes sixteen hours a day for weeks on end, and on the mysterious ability my male co-workers have to have everything they need weigh only five kilograms. Now I can follow up.
I don't think it's a really case of my needing more outfits. I wear the same clothing in the airplane as I do to dinner, and I think the guys bring workout gear just as I do. Or maybe they just wear the same clothes. Men can wear workout shorts in a northern town in public without being asked for their rates. They don't need to change bras before going from the airplane to a 15 km run. (For those who don't know, a workout bra is too tight to wear for hours sitting in the plane, but a sitting-in-the-plane bra doesn't provide enough support for running. They should make a bra that instantly adapts to its surroundings, like those Transitions sunglasses, so an ordinary bra instantly becomes a sport bra in turbulence). Another part of it is that the men aren't in the field as long as I am, so can probably get away with one pair of pants and a pair of shorts. The reason they out as long is that they company calls and tells them they are being swapped out, like they have just done. There is no commercial air service from where we are, so I fly to a larger airport and taxi in towards the terminal.
Every airport works a little differently for airside security. Some of them anyone can go anywhere. Some everyone inside the fence has to have an escort or a badge, and some are divided into zones. This one has zones, I think. I tell the controller I have a passenger with baggage to drop off at the terminal, where can I stop? He tells me in no uncertain terms that the terminal gate parking is a restricted area. I acknowledge this, trying to imbue my reply with a calm tone of calm "I would never go in there, sir," referring to the secure zone I can't yet see around the terminal. There's probably a painted line or something. I negotiate permission to shut down briefly near an airside exit gate that is only a short walk from the public entrance to the terminal. In addition to his meagre luggage, my guy has some heavy company equipment to lug home, containing the fruits of our labours.
I offer to help him carry it into the terminal but he's fine, and I let him know it's okay to leave anything he wants in the airplane. That's another reason why they have less baggage. One learns in one's first romantic breakup and has reinforced frequently throughout an aviation career: when you walk away, make sure you have everything with you, because it's really hard to get it back otherwise. There's a pair of hip waders in rear cargo that the guys share, and a pair of thongs--that's the shoes, not the underwear--that belong to someone. On this occasion he says he doesn't have anything but I prompt for the stuff I might forget, "Do you have a knife? Leatherman? Spare laptop battery? Toiletries over 100 mL?"
"No," he says. And this is the part, besides penises, where men are different than women, "I don't bring any of that. I find the hotel-provided toiletries sufficient."
This awes me. Sure he doesn't have any make up with him, but neither do I. Well maybe one lipstick. He's not carrying any sunblock, let alone a different kind of sunblock for his face, as for his arms and hands. He carries moisturizer lotion neither for day nor night, neither for face nor other parts of his body. He uses the mysterious shampoo and conditioner provided by the hotel on his actual hair. He probably has a little mini tube of toothpaste that wouldn't last three weeks, and isn't available in the for-sensitive-teeth brand I prefer. He doesn't need a little bottle of special soap for washing compression socks. He shaves without cream or lotion, or maybe he uses soap for that. Hotel soap. I wish him a good flight, in a subdued kind of way, and get a message that his replacement won't be arriving on the same plane he is going out on, so I should go to the hotel on my own.
I start up and taxi past the terminal, staying clear of the secure area, and waving at the windows, in case he can see me. I park at the FBO and cab to the hotel where I discover that the can of shoe deodorizer has let go in my luggage, filling its plastic bag with nicely scented white powder and leaving no propellant in the can. This is what I meant in the previous entry about "in case it explodes". They're designed with a relief valve, so they don't actually explode explode, they just vent. It's the first time I've had toiletries leak in my luggage, and there's no mess. Next time I'll just buy a box of baking soda.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

A Pilot Landed An Airplane

Here's a true story that should be very boring.

A company has many workers trained for the same job, and on every shift they assign two qualified employees to the workstation. Both have plenty of experience and either one could do the whole job alone, but as they are both present, they work together to maximize productivity and minimize mistakes. They never both take a break at the same time, and they take turns doing the various tasks. One day one of them passed out at work. The other one continued doing the job safely while a doctor helped the incapacitated one. It added a little excitement and a lot of paperwork to the work day, but the healthy employee didn't do anything he didn't do any other day. The only concern anyone had was for the health of the affected employee, a twenty-eight year veteran.

The news story says, "A co-pilot was able to land a Seattle-bound Alaska Airlines flight safely in Portland after the plane’s captain passed out Thursday night."

Aaagh. "The assistant manager was able to complete a customer transaction after the manager passed out at a Seattle Wal-Mart on Saturday." Aaagh. "A Jehovah's Witness successfully handed out seventeen leaflets after her sister got a blister and couldn't keep walking." Aaagh.

Both people at the front of the airplane are pilots. They both know how to fly the airplane. The "co-pilot" (not even a term used in the industry) is a pilot, fully qualified on the airplane. It's not newsworthy that he or she can land the airplane!

Maybe other people are so bad at their jobs that they couldn't complete a job they were ostensibly trained and qualified for if their co-worker collapsed. Clearly the person who painted the signs on this fuel truck was in dire need of a co-worker for translation and interpretation of instructions.

I would laugh so hard if that fuel truck pulled up to service my plane, that I would need a co-pilot to take over. If they pulled up right after I had landed after a long flight, I might need a new pair of pants, too.