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.