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.