Saturday, June 29, 2013

Northern OFP Notes

After take-off I routinely scan the instruments. The left oil temperature is a little high in the climb. It's no concern. The summer heat is here. I climb at a slightly higher speed: that probably sounds contradictory, but that means I leave the power the same and lower the pitch of the nose slightly, giving more airflow through the oil cooler. And I leave the cowl flaps open until after level off. I usually close them a couple of hundred feet below the target altitude.

I'm flying in the north. It doesn't really matter north of what. Every province turns from roads and fields to rocks and trees and lakes as you move north. We're in the north and some of the lakes are still partly frozen. I can't tell if the rocks or trees are frozen, given that they remain solid summer and winter. Also there's smoke again, another constant of the north. Water from the lakes evaporates. The sun heats up the rocks, causing the moist air to rise into thunderstorms which unleash lightning, setting the trees on fire, hence the smoke. The only relief from this is when winter comes and the lakes freeze. Or you get far enough north that you run out of trees. Lichen doesn't support much of a fire. I make a note on the OFP to get maintenance to check the air filters early, and keep flying.

I wrote a few other notes on the OFP to share with you.

"We already nuked the strip." I didn't write down the context for that, but obviously it's Centre's line. The "strip" is the data on where an airplane is going and what clearance they have to get there. It used to be a literal strip of paper, but now it's just data in a computer. Someone must have cancelled IFR and then wanted something that required ATC to have the just-deleted information. It was probably funnier at sixty degrees north.

I'm pretty sure that if I had been able to hear the response to the ATC call "German Air Force 55 heavy, what are your intentions here?" I would have written it down, so we'll all have to wonder together.

An airline pilot was told, "You were cleared for an IFR approach, not a circling." The answer was a testy mumble followed by ATC saying, "Now you're cleared for it all." ATC aren't that forbidding, you just have to ask for what you want before you do it.

The OFP also contains a note about how much I would like to eat BBQ shishkababs.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


I'm at an airport. I've been here before. Some of you have too, no doubt, and will recognize it from the following I know the essential things a transient pilot needs to know. I know the gate code to return to airside. It's a truncation of a famous mathematical constant. I know how to find the fueller. He often monitors the traffic frequency so if I announce my need for fuel exiting the runway, he'll probably park the fuel truck in front of the airplane as I shut down, but if that doesn't work, there's no specific FBO frequency. He has an office with an entrance inside the airline office, so I can ask the customer service agents at the airline counter to alert him for me. I know where the women's washroom is. It's downstairs past the stuffed bear. The men's is probably there too, but a sign implies there's a unisex accessible washroom on the main floor, for those who can't navigate stairs. I've filled my water bottle in the women's washroom before, but the water from there tastes terrible. Much better-tasting water, and baked snacks are available at the café.

On this particular occasion all my knowledge of this airport does not help us have a quicker turn because we are waiting here for something. I don't remember what we're waiting for. It' snot my job to decide when it's time to leave. It's my job to be ready to leave when I'm told it's time to leave, or to explain succinctly why we can't. On this occasion I am waiting in the café for whatever configuration of factors is required for it to be time to leave. I have eaten all the baked snacks that I require and am now entertaining myself by reading a book that someone has left at the café. I don't have a really discriminating taste in literature. I'm reading Maximum Boy starring in Attack of the Soggy Underwater People by Dan Greenburg. Its eleven year old male protagonist obtains superpowers from moon rocks. He also has to get his homework done. The story climax is predicated on an immediate need for ammonia at the north pole. Mr. Greenburg nursed my willing suspension of disbelief all the way through the scenes of conflict with the protagonist's sister, negotiations with the titular soggy underwear people and meetings with the president and then broke the whole concept by having Maximum Boy identify the the helicopter pilots (they were also at the north pole, but I won't spoil the whole story) as a potential source of ammonia. They use Windex to clean their helicopter windshields. Noooooo! It spoiled the story for me. It wasn't a detail. It was the pivotal moment in the story, and it was supposed to be a science teaching moment too. There's no way the helicopter pilots were using ammonia-based Windex to clean their acrylic windshields.

If you're cavalier with the integrity of your windshield you might use non-aviation specific products like Pledge furniture polish or acrylic polish marketed for the marine industry, but generally pilots use a product specifically designed and marketed for care of aviation windshields. The windshield allows us to see oncoming aircraft; it keeps the air inside pressurized cockpits and it protects us from the onrush of air and particulate matter we're flying through. If it fails in any one of these endeavours we could die of the results. Windshields and their care are kind of a big deal. I've heard and generally abide by the vertical strokes only rule too. The idea is that if you put a scratch in the window you definitely don't want it to be in a direction that would align with the wings of an oncoming aircraft.

I usually use 210 Polish, but if I run out and I'm in Winnipeg or something, I may have to settle for Prist (not to be confused with the fuel additive). Prist is foamier and doesn't work if you keep it in a cargo compartment where its temperature drops below freezing. And neither of them contains Windex. And that is why I am never supporting the Maximum Boy franchise again. I didn't think much of the new Star Trek either.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Sounds Like It's Raining

The CFS says I need to call for a transponder code at least 30 minutes before entering the control zone for this airport, and that includes entering it by taking off at this airport. I call and tell the flight services specialist who answers my details, including that this will be a local flight, returning to the same airport. He says that flow times are required for all aircraft arriving here from, and then he lists off every airport within a 50 nm radius. Except this one. Heh, loophole. The rule is supposed to give them greater control over local flights, but they weren't expecting me to attack from within. I get my code, and no flow time.

Trim is set for take-off, doors secure and circuit breakers are set. Engine start goes well, each engine catching right away as I motor the starter, with the propeller spinning up perfectly to 1000 rpm. I turn on the avionics master, reset the Shadin fuel flow meter to show full fuel, and power through OK-ing the prompts on the Garmin while I listen to the ATIS. I get my clearance, set up the avionics and when I finish my run up, it's time to call ground for taxi. I see three airplanes all painted with the same airline colours taxiing out from a side apron onto the taxiway I need to follow, so I note with my call, "check the parade." The controller ignores my comment and just gives me clearance. Well I though it was cute. I guess he sees them every day.

When the three airliners have been cleared for take-off I'm next. I roll, ailerons compensating for the crosswind and then rolling to turn into it as soon as I'm airborne, in order to maintain runway heading on climb out. I adjust the power, sync up the props and tweak the mixture to compensate for the engine that otherwise has a higher fuel flow and lower EGT than the other. There's a sound from somewhere in the aircraft like rain on the roof. It's not raining. It's a vibration from somewhere. It's not the props, but I re-synchronize them anyway. The glareshield isn't loose. Maybe there's a screw somewhere rattling around inside the dashboard. The sound goes away before I can troubleshoot it.

Later in the hotel the air conditioner makes the exact same sound. At least, it sounds like rain on the roof. Is rain on the roof my default answer to unidentified sounds? Nothing wrong with rain on the roof, so long as the roof doesn't leak.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mitigate This

I'm definitely out of practice at my job. Oh I can fly the airplane fine, but I almost injured my wrist falling out of the hotel bed in the dark. I forgot that I don't get to sleep in the same bed twice in a row, and there isn't a ledge here. That has to happen periodically: flight crew injuring themselves badly enough while on the road that company has to send someone else out to fly the airplane home. In this case I remember in time while falling to just crash onto the floor and take it on my shoulder rather than try to catch my whole weight on my hand. Crazy reflex that probably works better in species with less complex wrists, and that run on four legs.

Dress, hotel breakfast, check out: I manage to remember the usual routine. Then it turns out company doesn't want us to take the airplane home. They want us to take it to another province. Okay, we can do that. Our current charts include those for the next province over. We can buy clean underwear there, too. After a week on the road we come home wearing Wal-Mart underwear and thrift store t-shirts, carrying our essential toiletries in now-battered plastic bags. I note once I get home that I have bruises on my legs. I always have bruises on my legs after road trips and I'd assumed before that it was from using my legs as a backstop and rebound point as I hurl my suitcase in and out of cabs, airplane and hotel room luggage racks. But there has been no suitcase this week. I have a new theory.

It's hotel room chairs. For some weird reason, few hotels spend any effort making their chairs match their desks in any way, so sometimes I have to grab a couple of pillows for the chair in order to work at a computer on the desk, and sometimes I can't jam my legs underneath the desk while sitting in the provided chair. Sometimes there's no desk at all and I move the TV to one side to do my paperwork on top of the piece of furniture that supports the TV. These hotel chairs usually have armrests, too, so my theory is that I bash my legs getting in and out of hotel chairs in awkward configurations with hotel desks. I don't bash them hard enough to make myself limp around yelling "ow" or to remember doing it, but just hard enough to come home with a week's worth of bruises.

I will also take this opportunity to complain about hotel lamps. This one has been festering for a while. In your own home you know which switches control what, but in a hotel ... you know what, this is going to take more time than I've got right now. It will have to fester a little longer. I will tell you about hotel lamps another time.

Friday, June 14, 2013


We're assigned to a short mission at a site not far from base. I'm flying with a new guy who doesn't have a company credit card yet. I don't have one either because I'm a contractor. (I'm still pretending I don't really work here, for some reason. I've so far even completely avoided getting airport ID, using a loophole that allows transient pilots to just show licences. "Just a contractor, here's my pilot's licence," I say to the airport security, who have now stopped asking because I've been here so long they all recognize me and know I belong in, by, or under this company's aircraft). "There's a chance we'll run long and need to refuel before we come back," I say. I'm guessing from his age that the price of a fill-up would push the limit on his personal credit card. My wallet is in my main flight bag, but we were training yesterday so the seat where I usually keep the flight bag had to be cleared out. Instead I have the essentials for one flight crammed into my pockets. I add the wallet just in case, and we take off.

While we're up, near a lake, ATC points out unidentified traffic at five o' clock, after a bit of twisting around I spot and report a yellow and red biplane. After a pause Centre asks me if it might be a water bomber. I look again. Yep. It's a CL-215 in federal colours. I thought it was closer and thus smaller than it is, and that the little sponson was the end of a second wing. I score a D in airplane identification. I swear if you repainted mine when I was at lunch I wouldn't be able to recognize it. The water bomber passes by. I wonder why ATC knew it was there but didn't have it tagged up. Perhaps its pilot called in on a different frequency right after ATC gave me the point out.

We're in uncontrolled airspace, so technically no one needs to call ATC while we're VFR, but we, and presumably the fire-fighters, have taken advantage of the safety afforded by VFR flight following. It doesn't guarantee they'll see or have opportunity to tell us about all collision threats, but it's a lot better than no help at all. Later pick up a controlled VFR clearance in order to climb above 12,500', where we're required to use ATC services. We're not far from a busy airport and there are a lot of jets coming in and out. We keep having to get out of their way. It's pretty inefficient so as I suspected could happen, we don't get all our work done with enough fuel to get home. We don't even get all our work done before we have to land to be within legal reserves. We land at a little GA airport, not the busy one. At the self-serve fuel pumps we're interrogated by a curious GA pilot on a bicycle. He wants to know about our airplane, how much fuel we burn in an hour and what we do. We answer a few questions and then direct him to the company website for the rest. The sky is waiting for us.

The engines are always a little reluctant to start when they're hot, but I coax them back to life and we return to the sky. After I call clear of the GA airport circuit and switch back to the centre frequency I can hear the controller giving me as a point out to another aircraft. The controller even guesses it's us, as he tells the other aircraft the traffic "is probably" our type, and once their conversation is over I come on frequency and confirm it all. We go back up to CVFR altitudes but conditions are no longer appropriate for our work so we turn home and tell ATC and company that we are doing so. ATC says "Roger" but his tone is more like, "Sure, whatever."

A message comes back from company, "Did you bring overnight gear?"

Sigh. I am so out of practice for this job. I didn't even bring a toothbrush. I almost didn't bring my wallet. I tell new guy to message back, something like, "No, but we can adapt." It costs a lot more to fly this thing to base than it does to get two toothbrushes and a hotel for the night. We'll get the work finished in the morning.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Hazard Mitigation

I hear cursing from the operations manager's office and go to investigate. A new client requires all their contractors to submit worker safety hazard mitigation plans for hazards that could exist on the job. We're all for safety. We've had serious discussions on how to mitigate the risk of slip and fall due to water spilled from the water cooler. (Confession: the spilling is usually my fault. I always put too much water in my water bottle and then displace some when I put the cap on). So taken individually, the hazards and need to mitigate them seem reasonable, but when I see the laundry list of hazards our mitigation document requires I can understand how this has caused temporary insanity in the ops manager.

Bears. How will we mitigate the hazard to workers caused by bears? We will not open the doors of the aircraft if there are bears observed in the vicinity. We will not carry uncaged bears on the aircraft. We will not stay at hotels infested with bears. We can't carry bear spray because in an unpressurized but none the less reasonably closed and confined space, the risk of spraying ourselves far exceeds the possible benefits.

Heat/cold stress: How will we mitigate such hazards? We will wear appropriate clothing. We will use the heater and air cooling vents as appropriate. We will drink water and eat food. We will use the sweat glands and shiver reflex that biology has provided us with.

Dehydration: We will mitigate the hazard of dehydration by making potable drinking water available to all crew members at their stations, and drinking it.

Weather fluctuation: We will mitigate the hazards of weather fluctuation by following the basic instructions we learned from our mothers or other caregivers around the time we learned to dress ourselves and walk to the park to play. We will wear appropriate clothing, monitor changing conditions and choose alternate routing or end the mission if the weather proves challenging.

Solar radiation: We will wear sunscreen. And hats. And really cool aviator sunglasses.

Try it. Try to explain with a straight face how you will mitigate the hazard of slipping and falling while boarding an aircraft, and then go on to explain how you will mitigate the hazards of bee stings, fallen trees, earthquakes, traffic accidents, stabbing oneself with the pointy end of a pencil, and encounters with a man wielding a mango. You can do a few, but after a while you end in profanity, sarcasm or wondering sadly about the fate of humanity when workers need a written policy to know when to come in from the rain.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

One of Many Things That May Matter

Remember when I used to obsessively post every detail of almost every flying day? There must have been readers who thought this was a carefully crafted fictional narrative and not a true account, because of the minor details that became recurring themes and that finally ballooned into crucial matters of life and death. There were however thousands of minor details that never turned into anything, because that's the way life is, but we forget those ones. Here's a detail of the sort that occurs every day. Maybe it will be a cool precursor to an inflight incident or a great maintenance catch. Probably it's nothing at all. It's my job to take such things into consideration, day in and day out. I start with background on how the system works.

Very small airplanes, and some older large ones, have a fixed pitch propeller, a single artfully-shaped piece of metal or wood that bolts to the drive shaft and delivers thrust as its airfoil shape spins through the air. Experimentation and science shows that a propeller like this is most efficient at a given angle of attack (or angle of incidence, as the British call it), one particular speed. One can get propellers that are optimized for climbing (useful for a drop zone plane), or for cruise (useful if you rarely need the best climb but want more speed or fuel economy on longer flights), but if you're willing to spend a lot more on a propeller, you can get the best of both worlds: a constant speed propeller.

On a constant speed propeller, each blade is a separate entity, set in a hub in which it can pivot. The pilot sets the desired rotational speed of the propellers and then counterweights within the hub swing out if the propeller is going faster than the set speed and swing in if the propeller is underspeed. When the weights swing in they open a valve, allowing pressurized oil to flow to the hub, twisting the blades to a finer (flatter) pitch. (Americans call it low pitch, I think.) For a given speed and power setting, a finer pitch propeller will turn faster, getting it back on speed. If it goes too fast the counterweights will close the valve, and the propeller blades move towards a coarser pitch, eventually going all the way to the feathered (maximum turning resistance, minimum forward drag profile) position if oil pressure is lost. I can command this drop in hub oil pressure by pulling the propeller lever all the way aft to the "feather" position. The ability to feather is another huge advantage of a constant speed propeller: if one engine fails I can greatly reduce the drag it causes by feathering its propeller.

The oil that does this job is the same oil kept in the crankcase, the oil that performs the regular functions of cleaning, cooling, lubricating and sealing my engine. At start up, this oil is the same temperature as ambient air, and thus it's a little sluggish. The propeller is not feathered during a normal engine shutdown (pins lock the propeller pitch as rotation slows below 1000 rpm) so the oil that was acting to keep the propeller blades at fine pitch before shutdown is still there at start up. Cold oil is not good at circulating nor at moving through little valves, but should I have an engine failure at the worst possible time--right after take-off, low altitude, low speed, nose up attitude, max weight, poor terrain ahead of me--that is what I will urgently need the oil to do. As soon as I recognize an engine failure after take off, and before the propeller slows to below 1000 rpm, I'm going to be pulling the appropriate propeller lever back. I don't just trust that the lever will do its job though. Before the first flight of the day I let the engine warm up enough that the oil can circulate, and then I pull each lever back to the feather position and then forward again, quickly, but just enough that I can see that the rpm is falling in response to the command. I'll do this three times with each propeller, alternating so the rpm can recover in between.

On this particular day I observe that the left propeller doesn't feel quite right on feather check. It doesn't take longer to react. The RPM comes down the same amount. I just don't feel like it's going to feather if I ask it. That's so ridiculously subjective I don't even know what it is. The resistance must be subtly different in the cables. It's the sort of thing I could ignore. There's no quantity check or measure I can point to that it doesn't meet. The left propeller is due for its 500 hour desludging soon. That's probably all it is. But I mention it to maintenance anyway. It's odd what a pilot can sense without knowing how or what. I once told a maintenance unit that the propeller control on a newly overhauled engine didn't feel quite right. I don't know if I had any more specific comment than that, and I don't know whether they took a closer look on account of my statement, or by coincidence, but they told me a few days later that the wrong propeller cable had been installed.

And that's all of this story that I know so far. There are a thousand such stories. Hiccups, unexpectedly difficult starts, flickering gauges, and funny noises and only a few do we ever know the cause of or have any concern about ever again.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Contingency Planning

Before our season (yup we have a season) had really started yet this year I was already flying regularly because the company subcontracted me and an airplane to another company. They were paying by the hour for the services of me and our airplane, and it's my job to fly where and when they direct as long as I judge it safe, but there didn't seem to be someone there willing to pull the trigger on final decisions.

The guy who comes in the airplane with me to operate the client's equipment is new to their company. I think he has done this job with their pilot in their aircraft, just not for very long. The first day I come out to the airport, get the airplane ready, brief him on emergency equipment, expected behaviour, and the like. He is familiar with sterile cockpit procedures and respects the position of pilot, so this isn't hard. People who haven't flown for long tend to be a little intimidated and those who have become acclimatized to the safety culture. I can't think I've ever had a passenger who was really obnoxious. Nothing worst than the airline regulars who would roll their eyes and hide behind their newspapers during the passenger briefing, or the few that will not put away their cellphones until I am personally and physically headed their way.

Part of being new to his company and having both critical work and expensive contract equipment at his command is that he doesn't want to screw up the go/no-go decision. He relies on advice from a supervisor who seems in turn not to do anything without talking to a project manager who is on paternity leave in another province. On day one the weather was marginal. I don't remember whether we flew or not, just that confusion reigned. For example prior to engine start I ran through my company prestart mission briefing which includes clarifying the locations and timing of the flight. It's all right near the airport. The client wanted to do area A now at 2500' and proceed to area B to be there for 0617z at 2000'. I ask the client, as we peer at the clouds so low they reflect the city lights, if area A is not flyable does he wish to go to B early, hold airborne until 0617, or land and wait? This provokes a new flurry of telephone calls. I brief before take off on what I will do if one of the engines happens to quit during departure and these guys haven't considered what will happen if the clouds don't cooperate?

I did manage to get a list of required weather criteria for their work. The specified altitudes can be reduced a little. It should not be raining or snowing. We must not be in or above cloud. Light mist is okay. I've done this type of work before, but every project manager bends the rules in different directions. On day two they ask if I can come out to the airport for a flight.

It's interesting being asked not told. Knowing how busy they will keep me during our season, my company made it clear that I did not have to do this work if I didn't want to, it's just an opportunity to make some extra money. And for me it's an opportunity to increase my currency. My recurrent PPC ride (flight test to renew my credentials) is coming up, always a fun thing to do when you're out of practice from an off-season layoff. It seems that the voluntary nature of my participation in this project has been stressed to the client. To my mind once I agreed to the work I agreed to complete it, or at least work up to the agreed-upon cut-off date, but it sounds as though they think I might refuse on any day. I have specified a couple of days on which I have appointments. The off-season is my only chance to make appointments I can keep, because otherwise I may be out of town at short notice.

So here we are on day two. I am available, and make it clear that it is safe to fly and I will do so if they want, but I point out some discrepancies between their mission criteria and the actual and forecast weather. Finally they do that delayed response consultation thing again and cancel the flight. On day three I send them updates with each new forecast, interpreting the weather products and indicating the current weather and the forecast weather, along with what I think is the best and worst they can expect. The weather is horrible, but they have pressure from their client, so still want to try the mission. I go along, because it's safe, and me flying is how my company gets paid. It turns out to be an eighteen minute flight. The odd thing is that both my contact and at least one of the chain of command above him are able to read METAR, TAF and GFA weather information. They just seem to skip the step of comparing it to their needs. On day four I can't believe the client wants to fly again. In the middle of the night. The forecast weather won't support their mission. I go have a two hour nap. At the last minute they cancel. On day 5, they cancel at a reasonable hour.

The project drags on like for weeks, almost until the cut-off date. I nevertheless tried to coach them in subtle ways on how to make more efficient choices. At one point I sent I think they had an appreciation for it too, because I found out later that they wanted to keep me. Nuh-uh. My company wants to keep me more. It's so nice being wanted. I came home from that stint with a new appreciation for my own company's communication, planning, training and efficiency.