Thursday, December 25, 2014

No Room at the (Good) Inns

The next day the clouds are still towering above the mountains. Their fluffy-seeming shapes are pregnant with supercooled water, yearning for something to freeze on, especially something thin and sharp like my propeller blades or the leading edges of my wings and stabilizers. I won't fly through them, but today their bases are higher, and I have mapped a few passes that will allow me to remain clear of terrain while still comfortably below the cloud bases. The bad weather is predominately on the other side of the mountains in the plains, and that I can deal with. I take a cab out to the airport and prepare for flight.

The airplane has waited patiently for me, and is ready to go. Fuel is on account, so all I have to do is verify that the tanks have been filled per my request and I have no paperwork to do with the FBO. I notify company of my intentions and various fallback plans and fire up the engines. Oil pressure rises, suction indicators clear, and the discharge light on the ammeter extinguishes. It showed a discharge as I drew current from the battery to start the engines, but now the needle flips past the zero to the positive side of the scale to show that the alternators are now charging the battery. No, I lie: in this airplane it's a digital ammeter, so it's just the flip of the sign, but my memory stores the information as if it were from as analogue instrument. At the end of the engine run-up I will ensure that the battery is charged, that the alternator output is sufficient, and that the load is balanced between the two alternators. A split could indicate a problem with one of them, or its accompanying voltage regulator. All is well and I depart, heading towards my chosen mountain pass.

I have entered GPS waypoints corresponding to the valley choices I have to make, but they are a back up to the very old fashioned visual flying I will do, identifying my valleys by the shapes of the rivers and the valleys. It's much easier to do by looking at the spacing and shapes of the peaks, but the clouds cover them. I can't use conventional navigation aids, because the rocks block their transmissions. This was before I got my tablet GPS toy, so I'm using paper charts. Once upon a time people did this without charts at all, and of course if I flew through this range all the time I would know it well enough not to need the map, but I can't know every mountain and don't expect myself to. The crucial piece of navigation on this route is to turn right into a valley that will not be immediately visible. This will be after I reach a very distinctive hook-shaped lake. When I do, it's unmistakable, and I make my turn, with the clouds darkening above. The valley widens and diverges into many valleys, but I don't have to choose one because the terrain is dropping away below, the mountains fading to mere foothills. Under the shadow of the clouds I notice how bright my strobes are. It's recommended to turn strobes off in cloud or dark night conditions, but it's broad daylight and I am not in cloud. And then I remember that this airplane doesn't have wingtip strobes. The bright flashes are lightning. The storm is far enough north that I am not concerned about it striking the airplane. I am not dodging clouds or in turbulence or heavy rain. I see photographs sometimes of lightning that show it looking like it looks in my eyes but I think you have to use a fancy camera with a long exposure. My pictures just look like dark clouds. I later drew a postcard to show what it looked like to me, but I must have forgotten to photograph that one before I sent it, because I don't see it with the others.

The thunderstorms are the signal that I have completed my trip through the mountains, and am on the plains. It isn't much further to my destination, and I land and taxi up to the FBO we use there. They are repaving their apron, but they know my by the airplane and value our business, so marshal me to a prime parking spot and greet me enthusiastically. It's nice to be known. I'm bringing this airplane here alone. The other crew member will meet me when the weather becomes suitable for our main job.

I call my usual hotels here, but it's the local rodeo week, and all the rooms are occupied. Every hotel I know is full. The FBO attendant steps up and keeps calling, working his way down the chain until we find an available room. It's in a motel. I watch a little anxiously out of the cab as we go down the highway to find it. The parking lot is right off the highway. The building isn't in terrible repair. I check in at the office, paying in advance, because that's what they require. They give me a metal key and direct me back outside. My room is on the ground floor, in the centre of the horseshoe facing the parking lot. It's not necessary to go through a lobby or past hotel security to reach it. The door is not very heavy and I think I could kick the deadbolt out of the wood myself. I close the door and the curtains, drop off my stuff and go for dinner.

At the end of the day I think about the fact that I feel safer alone in an airplane in a thunderstorm in the mountains than I do in a motel in Alberta oil country. Does this speak to the society I live in, or to the well-documented human failing when it comes to judging and acting on relative risks? I don't know.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Days I Don't

I'm sitting in a hotel room in British Columbia while an airplane my company wants in Alberta sits on the ramp at the local airport. It's a nice airplane, but some of the equipment that required for dispatch into "known ice" has been removed for weight consideration, so with today's cold weather and convective conditions, it isn't safe or legal to fly it over the mountains. The clouds are too low to go under, too high to go over, and too highly composed of supercooled (liquid below zero) water droplets to go through. And, to be thorough, I should add too extensive to go around. An air mass that has moved across the Pacific Ocean is being forced up and over the BC mountain ranges, producing a lot of precipitation and humidity. It's a very nice hotel room, but it's stressful having my company want me somewhere, and me be unable to go.

I scrutinize each new METAR, each new TAF and each new set of GFAs looking for an opportunity. I set myself a "not after" time: if I left after that time then I would not be able to reach my destination and shut down within my permitted fourteen hours from when I started this vigil. I should just say, "screw it, not happening," but there is always a faint hope of success. And it's miserable weather here, too.

I go for a run in the miserable weather. Too slow, and I can't entirely blame my poor speed on the stumble-making cracked sidewalks, the muddy trail, the cold temperature or the traffic lights and crosswalks I have to navigate on the way to the running trail. I haven't been running enough lately. My body forgets how to do what it hasn't done consistently. I'm always on the road in the summer so I can't enter races to give me the incentive to train hard. Often in the summer there literally are not enough hours in the day for me to get legal rest and work out, too. And in the winter it's so dark in the evening I don't want to run on uneven sidewalks.

I get back to the hotel and before I do anything else I check the weather again. No miraculous path has opened through the mountains.

The glass wall of the shower stall makes up one wall of the bathroom, so I can see though it into the bedroom. It's made of a special adjustable glass, that can switch between transparent and opaque. It's fun to make it clear, and watch TV while I'm in the shower. Too bad there is no switch that will make the weather clear through the mountains.

I call the vigil off for today and go to dinner.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Information Asynchrony

As anyone who has tried to contact me through my blog e-mail knows, I'm not amazingly responsive there. It's not by accident, and I'm not ashamed of it. While I love you guys, my blog is a hobby, and the e-mail account attached to it is like a sub-hobby of my hobby. But I happened to look at it this week, and found a request for participants in a research study on a topic that interests me: pilot-ATC communications.

It's very important that information relayed between pilots and controllers be clear and understood by both parties, but it also needs to be sent efficiently. Recently I had a controller tell me that I was hard to understand on the radio, but that it wasn't my radio, it was my rate of speech. I think it may have been that I had just switched from an extremely busy frequency with the controller speaking quickly and saying "break break" between transmissions so as to get everything said, and I had matched my rate of speech to his. But clearly if I wasn't understandable, I was overdoing it.

I'm always fascinated by tidbits of research regarding the way pilots and controllers exchange information. When given a number with a doubled digit, pilots are very likely to double the wrong digit. Does this speak to how we store "3221" and "3211" in our brains? I remember being castigated in the US for reading back a runway number as "zero five" when the controller had said only "five." In Canada there are no single digit runway numbers, and apparently when I am given a runway number I assign it to one of thirty-six pre-labelled boxes in my head, rather than storing the words the controller actually said. (I still think that controller was a bit of a dick, as ATC communications are supposed to accommodate international differences, but it's possible he thought I was "correcting" him, so he was slapping me down.

The researcher says,


My name is Samuel Lien and I am a graduate student at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada conducting research on human factors in aviation / air traffic control. I am from Humans in Complex Systems Lab. Information can be found here.

I am writing this to ask if you might be able to help me, or direct me to someone who could help me create exposure to a study I am conducting that looks at the effect of information asynchrony on pilot-ATC communication. The study will be conducted completely online.

We are interested in professional pilots, preferably commercial license and air traffic controllers (any domain) as our subject-matter expert and participants for the study.

Participation in this study involves going to our online experiment website from participant’s computer as the experiment will be conducted online. Participation in this study would take approximately 2 and half hours of your time. I would like to assure you that the study has been reviewed and received ethics clearance through a University of Waterloo Research Ethics Committee.

The online experiment website is here: I haven't opened it yet, because I'm told it will take approximately 2.5 hours to complete. That's quite a chunk of time, but I intend to do it, because I think it will contribute to safety.

As far as I can tell, the information asynchrony under study is pilots getting information at times other than when they actually need it. Maybe when I've done the questionnaire, I'll know what they mean.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Out of My Nose

Six hours ago I was woken for work. Five hours ago I arrived at the airport. Four and a half hours ago I had completed a preflight inspection, towed an airplane out of the hangar, and was supervising fuelling. Three and a half hours ago I knew the weather forecasts everywhere in our purview, and was out of Candy Crush lives and unread Facebook entries. Forty-five minutes ago I was told I would be released from duty in thirty minutes. Half an hour ago I called friends to say I could be at their place in forty-five minutes. Twenty minutes ago I was given a destination to fly to. Nineteen minutes ago I filed an IFR flight plan according to the CFS-listed Preferred Routes, and cancelled with the friends. Thirteen minutes ago I started the engines. One minute ago I was at the hold-short line waiting for departure clearance. "Traffic ahead is in the circuit; turn right ten degrees as soon as safely able so as not to run him over; contact departure airborne; cleared take off." Now I'm airborne.

My clearance was to follow the filed route. I'm coming up on the waypoint at the end of the published departure from the airport. The plate says "expect radar vectors to assigned route" and sure enough the departure controller assigns me a heading. It's a left turn of about twenty-five degrees, keeping me clear of some traffic, I presume. He approves a climb right to en route altitude. I put the ice protection on before entering cloud, but the forecast was correct, and I picked up no ice at all. After about ten minutes, I'm cleared direct my next filed waypoint, to continue on the flight planned route. I come up through the cloud layers into the sun.

For two hours I fly on top of the clouds, enjoying brilliant bright sunshine. Clouds look so much nicer from the top. At top of descent the icing protection goes back on and I start down. Oxygen valve off below ten thousand, but I still have the nasal cannula on my face, because it's tangled up with my headset and I'm busy with charts and checklists and engine controls. The controller clears me to an altitude that is just above the clouds. We skim along, almost touching them. It's the only way you can see how fast an airplane goes, to be that close to clouds whipping by. I take off the cannula and set it aside. Ahh, nose freedom. I'm told to expect direct to the initial fix for the destination approach in five minutes, and I'm starting to slow down to configure for that. The airplane has microswitches in the throttles: retard either one below a certain point before the gear is locked down, and it will set off an alarm. The point at which the microswitch is tripped is a constant amount of throttle travel, but it's not marked on the throttle quadrant--and I don't look at the throttle quadrant markings while adjusting power anyway. I'm looking at the manifold pressure. The manifold pressure reading at which the gear horn will sound varies by an inch or so (I originally wrote "150 rpm or so" which is too confusing to leave, but too funny to just delete). I guess it depends on temperature and air pressure and who tuned the engine last. I sometimes want the power that low before I want to put the gear down, so I warn my crew that the alarm may sound. I do this today, and he replies with a question, "Why would that make the stall horn sound?"

I realize I have inadvertently said "stall horn" instead of "gear horn." I accept the correction and explain, "The wrong word came out of my nose."

At the end of the flight I admitted that I hadn't intended to say "nose" there either. Apparently my brain was busy processing altitude calculations and thought "nose" was close enough to the word I had asked for.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


“There is a risk involved — anything flying, there is risk.”

The above quote is from a drone operator. The drone was part of a restaurant promotion in which helicopters bearing mistletoe and cameras swoop over patrons, trying to get them to kiss for the audience. Someone got hurt.

Two things here: One, there's risk in anything. After an incident, the nature of the risk is the question, not the answer. Two, if you have an incident, shut up and let the spokesperson talk to the media. Your job is to spin the blades, not the story.

Sorry about the posting drought. You all probably know by now that I write a novel every November. (It was over 100,000 words this year, but I still think 2012 was my best effort). The posts you got last month were pre-scheduled.

Today I washed an airplane. Tomorrow we might wax it. We will endeavour to mitigate risks.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Geo Referencing

You have at some point probably seen a movie or a television show, usually for children, that uses a gimmick where a story in a book comes to life, or morph into the action of the show. Usually the pages of a book are shown on screen, with text introducing the story, and then a picture. The picture becomes live action, or perhaps the pictures move around in the text. In a movie it's a sufficiently common device that you know if it starts that way, the movie will end back on the printed page with the ornate words The End. But imagine if you were reading a regular, real book. A familiar reference book whose fonts, diagrams, and footnote style have so long been part of your life that you know exactly what to expect of it. Now imagine that a picture or diagram in that book, the one you are holding in your hand, comes to life and starts explaining itself. That's how my introduction to approach plate Geo Referencing went.

An approach plate is a diagram showing an airport runway and the procedures, points and aids associated with navigating an airplane to a point in space from which a safe landing can be performed. If shows the plan view and the side view, with symbols showing where and how to turn, minimum altitudes for each sector and part of the approach, distances, magnetic variation, and type of lighting. It tells you the frequencies for ATC, how much to add to your minimum altitude if using a remote altimeter setting, and has an effective date. The Canada Air Pilot for each region, the physical book in which these things are published is reprinted with changes every 56 days. Most plates don't change from one revision cycle to the next, but the whole CAP is reprinted. When the new one comes you strip the coil bindings off the old one and toss the pages into the recycling. You can tell there's no change if the new plate has the same effective date, worth looking at in case you have inadvertently memorized some data that has changed.

With the Fore Flight electronic flight bag, these approach plates are replicated on the iPad. Instead of paging through the coil-bound CAP trying to guess whether a particular airport will be alphabetized under its own name, or considered a sub-plate of the larger nearby airport, you hold your finger on an airport displayed on the iPad chart until a box comes up, showing all the airports that your stubby finger could reasonably have been aiming at. Tap More next to the one you wanted, then Details then scroll down to Procedures and you can tap Approach and select the approach plate you want. I haven't done a timed test from pulling the iPad or CAP out of the map box, to looking at the desired plate, but I think the iPad is faster. The paper one is easier to read in bright light conditions, even with the iPad turned up full, but in dim light the self-illuminating iPad is great, until it is pitch black dark, at which point it becomes too bright, even if you follow the instructions and turn the brightness to minimum in settings before dimming within the app.

Either way I get the familiar approach plate, very carefully replicated. It's possible to zoom into the iPad ones to read little numbers, easier than pulling out a magnifying glass, but you have to be careful not to leave it zoomed in, when that moment comes on the approach where you glance back at the plate to confirm the minimum descent altitude, and the data isn't on the screen because you zoomed in to see if that waypoint was spelled with an F or a B. A hundred feet above MDA is not a good place to have to pinch or scroll a screen.

The first time I used the iPad for an approach, I had the conventional paper chart and the iPad both out, and it was VMC. I briefed the approach, flew direct the cleared fix and then eeep! the approach plate came to life. A symbolic airplane representing my position appeared on the screen in the position where I actually was. Even though I have used moving maps for years, the appearance of a moving you-are-here dot, Fore Flight calls it "ownship position" on the plate was freaky exciting magic. Ten years from now pilots will stare at old approach plates in puzzlement, unable to situate themselves mentally. This is a huge benefit for situational awareness. It even switches automatically to the taxi diagram and shows me where I am on the airport after landing.

I learned that this was called Geo Referencing a couple of days ago, from an error message. The app told me that Geo Referencing was not available because the plates were not current. What? These are valid until November 13th. (And the error message came up in October). I think American charts are on a 28-day cycle, so the app auto-expired Canadian stuff after that time period. I brought the iPad into the hotel to try and update them. It's just downloading the same set again, I'm sure, but this is hotel internet. It hasn't worked in all the time I've spent writing this blog entry. Why did it not update everything before I left when I selected "pack" for the flight out here? There are a number of things that Fore Flight doesn't get quite right for Canada, and I haven't found a bulletin board or user forum where these things are discussed, to determine for sure whether it is the product and not me who is missing something. I now know that the iPad has to be updated at the same time as I update the GPS database (which comes from the US, on a 28-day cycle).

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Highway 63

I've been to this airport before. I remember that you can't buy fuel on Sundays, but today is Saturday, and it turns out we've landed at the same time as another pilot who has a key to the pump, so she can fuel any time she likes. When she has filled the tiny tanks on her Cessna single, we stretch the hose out to our tanks and put in fifteen times as much fuel. (The fueller who filled us beside at the FBO next to the solar-powered coke bottles said we had set a record for the amount of avgas she had ever put in one plane. But we were really empty then. I'd gone a couple of minutes into our reserves, because we were working overhead the airport, and there was another one just down the valley, in case of emergency). We go in and pay, and call a cab, which arrives eventually, in the manner of small town cabs on the weekend.

It's an okay hotel, but it's on the edge of town, and the town is spread out enough that it would take about forty-five minutes to walk to a restaurant. And probably as long to get that cab back again, so we order pizza. We try to avoid eating pizza on the road, because eventually we'll be forced to, and we want it to be a treat. We eat the pizza together in my room, while watching a show called "Naked and Alone." It's kind of like Survivor except without the odd psychological games and the uncanny ability of the women to maintain an absence of bodily hair through the whole ordeal. There are actually two people, and they do start out naked, but have made themselves television-acceptable clothing by the time I tune in. They are really miserable: diarrhea from eating too much fruit, driven crazy from insect bites, and one of them doesn't like seafood, but the other one makes him eat it. At the end they get scores out of ten for their survival skills.

In the morning we come down to breakfast, standard motel breakfast of wrapped muffins, fruit, and make-your-own waffles. We ask the clerk if she can call us a cab. There are no cabs here until 9 am. The airport is not actually very far away from the hotel, but we'll be behind schedule if we throw in a half hour walk with our baggage. Back to the breakfast room to chat with the guys in reflective outwear and work boots. They have trucks. I ask them where they work.

"We work on highway 63."

They didn't even know there was an airport around here, but agree to make a small detour to drop us off. I've hitched rides before with a friend of the hotel receptionist, a medevac pilot, someone who just came to drop off her friend at the airport, and the guy who came out to sell us the fuel. It's become just part of the adventure.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Solar-Powered Coke Bottles

I don't know what these things are. We see them on mountaintops. We saw one at an airport, just outside the perimeter fence, but obviously not installed. We thought it might have come down for maintenance or be waiting for transport to its mountaintop.

They are made of fibreglass. The transparent panes don't seem to be solar panels--I named these things solar-powered coke bottles when we only saw then from afar, and I assumed they were. The thing at the top appears to be a lightning rod, not an antenna. Are there transmitters inside? Are they radio relays? Lightning detectors? A suit of armor for a tree? Are they all over Canada or just in the mountains where we have noticed them?

I expect the full story from a solar-powered coke bottle expert who reads this blog. Don't disappoint me, Internet.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Post Mortem

Well what a clusterfailure that was. Imagine if that vacuum and indication failure had all happened over the course of once turbulent flight in night IMC across the mountains. Suction failures are extremely dangerous. The suction-driven instruments are central to the instrument scan and experiments and studies of actual accidents show that they have a very high chance of killing you. The "ninety percent" figure sometimes quoted is misleading: accidents attributed to vacuum failures (about three per year in the US) result in fatalities 90% of the time. That's because there aren't many ways to crash an airplane due to spatial disorientation without it being deadly. More than ten percent of pilots who experience vacuum failure in IMC do get out alive, but I'm not going to guarantee I would be one of the survivors.

Here's what a vacuum failure can look like.

The gyrating blue and black instrument is the attitude indicator. It won't necessarily look that energetic in a failure. Its slide to one side or the other may look exactly like a functional instrument indicating a real wing drop, prompting the pilot to bank and pitch in an attempt to return the aircraft to straight and level flight. The pilot must fly by the turn coordinator, the tippy little white symbolic airplane at bottom left. It indicates rate of turn, not bank angle, so doesn't respond as instantaneously to changes in attitude.

I had difficulty identifying the failed vacuum system because its own indication system did not work properly. When I felt that the heading indicator was not working properly, I suspected the vacuum system, but the indicator lied to me, telling me the system was okay. When I shut down an engine, the associated vacuum failure indication appears immediately, leading me to believe that the same thing would happen in the case of a real suction failure. The two vacuum pumps are in two different engines, had widely separated serial numbers and had been installed by different people at different times. I had never heard of one vacuum pump failing and taking out another one.

If an electric instrument has a power loss, it immediately throws up a flag, so I know not to trust it. There is no failure indicator on the heading indicator or attitude indicator and without other reference, it is really easy to follow the dying instrument. The autopilot tried to follow it, too. With TWO failing vacuum pumps, there was no pressure differential across the shuttle valve to pull the autopilot out of the system. Flying across the mountains to the FBO where company has shipped the replacement pumps, I have post-it notes over the failed instruments, still the only indication, apart from their unresponsiveness, that they are not working. When practicing flying on instruments, if the pilot can see the real horizon, even a little, the task is much easier. Even if you try to ignore it, you subconsciously draw on a lifetime of doing what your species does: visually determining which way up you are. While it's easy to design an indicator that is invisible until electrical power is removed from it, I guess it's harder to calibrate one to not enough suction. Maybe it could depend on gyro rpm. This FAA document claims that "attitude indicators with failure warning flags are available in newer model aircraft and are slowly making their way into the general aviation fleet as retrofits," but I think they may be talking about replacing vacuum-driven AIs with electric ones.

The cause of the double failure is eventually determined to be poorly-installed air-oil separators. Oil was able to enter the dry vacuum pumps and damage the vanes. I'm not sure if the indication issue was because it was a gradual failure, or because oil got in the indicator, too. It is all functional now, but now the vacuum pumps are in phase, which makes me nervous, because that airplane has flown about 900 hours since that happened, and I'm back in it. This article seems to think that vacuum pumps fail every 500 hours or so, but our mandated time between overhaul is definitely 1000 h.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Are there one or two Ns in "Brokenness"?

I start the engines the next day to do some VFR work. As the engines fire up, the engine start checklist directs my eyes to the tachometer, then the oil pressure, and to the suction gauge. The suction gauge indicates that the right vacuum pump has died. Okay! That sort of explains the zombie heading indicator, and means that I've snagged the wrong instrument. I should have not written it up while it was questionable. The laws don't allow me to write, "never mind, it's not broken after all," which is why there are so many airplanes flying around with sort of broken stuff. As soon as it's written down, it grounds or restricts the airplane. As I understand it, only a maintenance engineer is allowed to correct a pilot's mistaken snags.

Fortunately, the effect of the unserviceability is the same, as I'm not allowed to conduct IFR flights with only one vacuum pump working, and we're in the north in the summer, so "night" is virtually non-existent. What's weird, though, is that the reason there are two vacuum pumps, is that one is supposed to be able to serve as a back up. Either suction pump on its own is supposed to be sufficient to run both the attitude indicator and heading indicator. I'm supposed to be able to safely complete an IFR flight with one suction pump failed. Come to think of it, the autopilot is not supposed to engage if only one vacuum pump is operating, to ensure that there is sufficient suction to run the essential instruments. The autopilot is still working, although a little half-heartedly, as the heading indicator is still sluggish. So is the attitude indicator. The shuttle valve that is supposed to disable the autopilot must have failed, so the autopilot is remaining on line, leaving not enough suction for the heading indicator and attitude indicator. I turn off the autopilot, but it doesn't help much.

After a few hours the heading indicator and attitude indicator are both completely useless. Weirdly, the autopilot will still engage. (I keep forgetting and snapping it on when I want to look something up or open a Clif Bar to eat). But it will attempt to follow the slowly toppling attitude indicator. Pretty scary, really. How far would it roll the airplane? That's not in the manual.

In the old days, there were no heading indicators or attitude indicators or autopilots. The turn and bank instrument and the compass were all you had for staying right side up, and if the former died, it was just the compass, which has all kinds of errors or lag and lead. The old bush pilot trick for letting down through an overcast was to do so on a heading of south. On south, if you bank at all, the compass will immediately swing around, even before the heading has changed, especially at high latitudes. I try this at the end of the flight, because my destination is pretty close to due south of my position. It's pretty hard. Try it sometime.

As I taxi in at the end of the flight the suction gauge indicates that the second vacuum pump has failed. Well this would make a fair amount of sense: the pressure differential between the working and failed vacuum pumps is what is supposed to throw the shuttle valve to disconnect the autopilot. And obviously if they have both failed I can't expect the suction instruments to work properly.

Company has already made arrangements to ship a vacuum pump to a maintenance shop a few hours flight away, so now they will ships two vacuum pumps, and we will head there on the next flight.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Death Rates

I'm IFR in the flight levels on a clear VMC day. The IFR part means I'm following a set of rules and procedures ("Instrument Flight Rules") designed for pilots of aircraft in weather conditions that don't allow them to navigate by looking out the window. The flight levels part means I'm flying above about 18,000'. In Canada the "transition altitude," between altitudes designated by the local air pressure and those altitudes designated by a universal standard pressure setting, is 18,000'. One never flies at 18,000', but instead sets the altimeter to 29.92 and flies at flight level 180. I don't know how our transition level was determined. Our highest mountain is about 19,000', so it wasn't set relative to that. VMC is "Visual Meteorological Conditions," that is weather that permits navigation just by looking out the window.

So why am I IFR in VMC? Because in Canada everyone operating in the flight levels is required to do so under an IFR clearance. It's a safety regulation. I have to fly only as directed and cleared by ATC, in order to ensure separation from all other aircraft. And I'm up this high because this is where I need to work. There's only half as much air pressure up here as at sea level, which means only half as much oxygen per breath, so I'm wearing a mask that provides me with supplemental oxygen. The masks do a great job of that. Testing my blood oxygen level always shows me at 98 or 99% saturation, the same level I get sitting on my chesterfield at home. (The tester looks at my blood by shining a light through my fingernail: it doesn't take a blood sample). Only problem is that in providing a tight seal around my face and being secured to my head underneath my headset, the mask give me no opportunity to eat or drink during the flight. Air before food.

The mask also interferes with the seal between my headset earpieces and my ears, so it's a little noisier with the mask on. Even noisier when my noise cancelling cuts out because my headset batteries died. I'm not sure if the noise cancelling "works harder" to keep up, or if it has the same battery consumption regardless of the ambient noise, and this is just coincidence. I use rechargeable batteries, which when they are new last about fifty hours in the airplane before they die, but after many cycles have shorter lives. I have numbered all my rechargeables and track how long each set (the headset takes two AAs) lasts before it dies. When they can't go a full flight, they get retired to a plastic baggie in my kitchen. Eventually they will go to recycling, when I figure out where to recycle rechargeables. They last pretty well: there are only six batteries in the retirement baggie and I've been using rechargeables in my headset and flashlights for at least eight years.

I change batteries and then notice I'm off my heading. The autopilot has disconnected. I must have hit the button. I reset it and then turn to a new heading, but something doesn't look right. The GPS says I'm going where I want to be, but the heading indicator is way off. I reset it to the compass, and it follows for a while, but soon loses interest again. The heading indicator is powered by two engine driven vacuum pumps, one of which I reported close to needing replacement a few days ago. The suction gauge shows slightly less of a vacuum than ideal, but in the green range and no less than it has for a few weeks. The other part of the instrument shows both vacuum pumps on line. The attitude indicator, powered by the same system, still appears to be working. Legally I'm required to inform ATC of the failure of a heading indicator. I do so, and they seem confused. No, it isn't affecting my operation at all. I'm using an electronic guidance system, and I will be landing at an airport that I'll be able to see sixty kilometres away. I don't need it for the flight. Maybe people don't routinely comply with that regulation anymore.

Before I land, the stupid thing comes back to life. Charming. I'm far from base, but I call maintenance so they can order one, or pull one out of another plane or something for when I come back. They don't have any troubleshooting tips for a zombie heading indicator. It's working now, but it's not reliable, so I snag it. That is, I write in the journey log that it is not operating correctly. This will limit our operations to day VFR (the looking out the window counterpart of IFR) only, which is a huge pain in the neck, because it prevents me from continuing the work above FL180, even though its effect on safety is negligible. I have had transient problems with equipment that never recur, but usually they hint at trouble and then throw a full failure if ignored. I think I've only seen simple heading indicators (as opposed to the more expensive and complex HSI) fail twice before in about 7000 hours of flying. And one was a simple fix, turned out that there was an installation error that had made a screw come loose. I wonder if the suction line is leaking or blocked or something. Nothing I can do about it, anyway.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Peer Pressure

As I fly from one airport to another I speak to numerous air traffic controllers. Let's say I depart Grande Prairie (I think they're almost finished the runway upgrade) for Calgary. I would call Grand Prairie Radio, who would ask me to monitor the clearance delivery frequency. Once I had the clearance I would go back to radio, until after take off, when I would switch to Edmonton Centre. They clear me to my cruise altitude and on course heading, and then might switch me to Edmonton Centre on a different frequency to continue monitoring my flight. As I approach Calgary they will switch me to Calgary Arrivals (which is probably the same frequency as Calgary Departures), who will give me an approach clearance. If there are numerous approaches available at an airport, they may ask me which I prefer. If not, they'll just assign me the usable one. If the weather conditions are fine and I can see the airport, the approach may be "visual" -- no fancy electronics required, just fly to the runway. They can assign me the visual, or I can ask for it, but if I don't feel comfortable with the visual, or just want to practise my skills, I can ask for an instrument approach.

On this occasion I've just switched to the arrivals frequency and I hear the controller telling a pilot, "Everyone is doing visuals, but if that's what you really want to do, you can plan it." That pilot had obviously just asked for an instrument approach.

The pilot responds, "Okay, we'll do the visual."

We did the visual, too, as fast as we could and still get the gear down, because that's what tower (the frequency approach handed me off to) asked for.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Migratory Birds

I learned to use a GPS receiver for air navigation when I was working in the north. Many of the airplanes in the fleet had three line text GPS units. Some had none, but even that nascent technology was so useful, compared to the NDB airways and map-compass-watch navigation they supplemented, that captains spent their own money on handheld units, for the days we were assigned airplanes that lacked the magic box. Airports, radio navigation aids and other named fixes are few and far between in the far north. Given a full load of passengers and cargo and fuel to max gross weight, there wouldn't usually be more than four or five airports within range. It was pretty much guaranteed that when we selected the we selected the "nearest" function, the intended destination would be on the first page. That was the quickest way to select waypoints: no tedious dialing in three- to five-letter identifiers letter-by-letter. Back then we just hit NRST (or rather, I don't remember exactly how, selected it from an obscure user interface), and selected the one we wanted from the list.

Of course this technique doesn't work down south, where there may be hundreds of little municipal and farm airports within an hour's range. Now I'm resigned to dialing in my waypoints, one letter at a time, into the much newer, but still not state of the art GPS unit. But every once in a while the way I learned first re-emerges and I hit the NRST button, to be bewildered by a list of unfamiliar identifiers. Today 'm flying in northern Alberta, not much in the way of towns around here, just a big whack of restricted military airspace. I'm given a reroute via a five-letter fix, still called an "intersection" because once upon a time each was defined by the intersection of two airways. Some still can be located that way, but many are simply convenient lat-long points in space. I always wonder why there are so many of them in close vicinity of LETRM. I think it may have something to do with routing aircraft around the military airspace. Usually they aren't that dense outside the terminal airspace of a busy cluster of airports. Or maybe I just remember better not to do that nearest thing when I'm in an urban area.

Approaching destination I hear the controller talking to a pilot who says he's on a migratory bird tracking flight. I'd never heard of such a thing. The controller says it's great to watch the birds migrating on the radar. Wow, I did not know that either. Birds so thick that they paint primary surveillance radar are a force to be reckoned with. The controller offers to send the pilot a tape, and if I weren't busy getting set up for the approach, I might have asked "me too!"

Here's a composite radar picture of bird migration in the US (see the notes on YouTube for an explanation of what you are looking at). I couldn't find a recording of what it looks like on a local level. How many birds does it take to show up, and can you see the V shape of the skein?

I switched to tower frequency and landed in a challenging crosswind, fighting winds twenty to thirty degrees off the runway and twenty-two knots gusting up to thirty-five, all the way down to the runway. I touch down centred and straight and straight, with one little bounce, but I laugh and point out that they were both smooth landings.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Future So Bright

It's a rainy, miserable fall day with the freezing level a little lower than the minimum en route IFR altitude. I study the GFA showing the cloud levels and types in the area I'll be flying through, and decide that yes, we can do the flight in this airplane. I can climb above the level of the cloud that will carry the most dangerous ice before I reach the area that has those clouds, and destination is clear, giving a safe descent. I file a flight plan beginning with a waypoint that we always file out of this airport, because it's the end of the published departure procedure, but as we're going the other way, I don't expect to actually go there. We'll be in radar contact with ATC as soon as we're off the ground and they will vector us on course.

Except they're busy. I end up flying all the way to the waypoint, and then a little bit past on vectors, and then more vectors. Vectors to the right towards the way I want to go, and then, possibly because I wasn't climbing fast enough for the controller's liking, vectors back to the left. "Vectors" just means the controller assigns me a heading to fly. Altitude is being meted out to me in thousand foot increments, from the departure plate up to the MEA, but still not my filed altitude. We're intermittently in rain, cloud, raining cloud and between clouds. "Raining cloud" isn't a thing that I've ever heard anyone say before, but it's sort of a thing. Sometimes when you're in cloud it's quite light, but you just can't see anything around you. That would be near the top of a cloud with sunlight above. Sometimes it's dark and cold. It's usually very moist, with water running up the windshield, but sometimes it's dark, with obscured vision and pelting rain. I guess on those times I'm inside a cloud underneath another cloud that is raining. It's kind of hard to see, as I'm in a cloud.

I say to my co-worker, "you bring your sunglasses?" He hasn't. "Just wait and see," I tell him. "This is one of the most fun parts of being a pilot."

We're level now, with the outside air temperature flickering between plus and minus zero (it rounds to the nearest degree on the instrument, but must have finer gradations internally). Into another cloud. This one is bumpy, a bad sign, and it's a raining cloud, but water doesn't stream up the windshield. It freezes onto it. All this vectoring around and delayed climb has got me into the area I want to avoid. I can see the water running back on the wings and freezing in little horizontal dribbles, exactly like the icing on the edge of a cake. (I think Americans call that frosting). There's a strip of rime building forward, too. This is not acceptable. Thanks to terrific weather forecasting technology I know exactly where the tops of these clouds are. I tell the controller we are picking up ice and ask for a climb to that level, the level I had wanted to fly in the first place. We get it, breaking through the tops of the clouds, a perspective that changes them instantly from dark monsters that obscure my vision and threaten to burden my airplane enough to tear it from the sky, to a brilliant white reflector for the sun. There's nothing but blue sky overhead, and I quickly put on my sunglasses. The temperature here is below freezing, but the air is dry so the ice sublimates, passes from solid to vapour, leaving me again with a clean airplane after a few minutes.

Approaching destination, ATC advises me that there is opposite direction traffic that could be a conflict, do I want to start down now early, or arrive high? I ask for the early descent and we slip through a few wispy clouds before coming out at our destination, under clear skies. At the end of the day I update the flight time in company records and advise company that there are less than fifty hours left on the right hand vacuum pump. Vacuum pumps have to be replaced every thousand hours. I have often seen them fail early. The possibility of failure is why there are two of them, and I'm pleased that the two on this airplane are out of phase; the left one has only five hundred hours on it.

Friday, October 10, 2014

I Would Have Gone With Stephen Hawking

Before making an approach to an airport, every pilot wants to know the wind strength and direction, what clouds they will encounter, the altimeter setting, and what runway is in use. At some airports the pilot figures out this information herself by flying over the field. At others a flight service specialist simply recites the information to each arriving pilot. At busy airports, a recorded message called ATIS recites the information on a dedicated frequency. The information on the ATIS is typically updated once an hour, or when conditions change. At some airports a controller just reads the information into a recording machine, so you can hear his or her voice, fast or slow, annoyed or cheerful, with occasional minor stumbles and the tower background noise. At others an automated voice reads the ATIS.

Here's a live human reading the ATIS:

Here's the ATIS read by the English-language automated voice Nav Canada uses (in Montréal, the Frech ATIS is on a different frequency):

Today I've just picked up an ATIS that uses an automated voice, and my non-pilot co-worker says, "I like him. He reminds me of David Suzuki." It's pretty obvious that "he" is a robot, and I've never thought of David Suzuki as sounding robotic. For foreigners not familiar with Suzuki, here's a clip. (I ask you to please refrain from commenting here on Malthusian economics, environmental sustainability or Suzuki as a person. The clip is there just so you can hear his voice).

I don't hear the resemblance, except perhaps that he has the earnest careful way of speaking, slowing down to make points. But not more so than any other public speaker. It made me realize, though, that I always assumed the robot was a white guy. I'll try and picture him as different ethnicities now, and wearing different funny hats and ties.

Here's a British automated ATIS voice, not as frightfully British as I was expecting.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014


My eye just fell on a story from a month ago, of a Cirrus that flew into restricted airspace over Washington, DC. Intercepting jets noted that the pilot appeared unconscious, and followed the airplane until it crashed into the sea, I'm presuming because it ran out of fuel. Here's a flight log from FlightAware. The incident itself is not astonishing. The pilot was sixty-seven years old, and while I hope I'm still doing many things safely and well at that age, he wouldn't be the first sixty-seven year old to die suddenly and unexpectedly while in control of a vehicle. The thing that elevates the story to the "I have to blog this" level, was the comments I saw on articles about it.

They aren't vituperative rants blaming the government or the other party (or maybe I haven't read that far yet). They are well-meaning people who have read a news article, digested the information and formed opinions on the material, opinions that they are proud enough of to share. (Okay, that's a low bar: I write this blog, for example). I'm fascinated by the ideas some have, the way they see my world.

The article describes the Cirrus as having an emergency parachute. This is true. It's a safety feature. The Cirrus was designed to attract non-pilots into flying, and one thing many non-pilots wanted was a parachute. A number of pilots have deployed the Cirrus parachute and survived situations they did not believe they would have otherwise. And then you get the comment: Something tells me that a plane built with a parachute for engine failures is not a safe plane to fly. Does this person also believe that cars without seatbelts and roads without guardrails are safer? I've seen this before in comments from non-pilots: adding a layer of safety, be it a procedure, an attitude, or a piece of equipment, is perceived as reducing the safety of the operation. It's as if they assume that any aviation operation has a constant level of safety, so any added safety feature causes it to be lacking in another area.

Another reader asserts, This is a good reason why recreational pilots should be required to have co-pilots. While I don't deny that a second pilot in the cockpit represents a huge safety benefit, requiring recreational pilots to fly with a copilot would pretty much destroy recreational aviation. Most recreational airplanes don't have a lot of useful load, so a pilot would have to leave behind a member of her family or most of the fuel in order to take on a another pilot. Recreational pilots can't be paid for their services, so the pilots would have to negotiate where they were going to go and when, I suppose on the basis of "I'll sit with you when you fly to Montreal, if you'll sit with me while I fly to Halifax." Imagine if you were required to have another qualified driver beside you during every car trip you took. While it must have happened, I cannot think of an accident where a person on the ground was hurt because a private pilot was incapacitated. It's not a sufficient problem to require a legislated solution.

This next one fascinates me because it appears to use the term "nanny state" in a non-pejoritive fashion. Or is my sarcasm detector broken? Google is working on a driver free car, next is the pilot free airplane. I'm not going to see a lot of these advancements, but I sure hope my grandkids don't feel the need to rebel against this cradle to grave nanny state. there are enough mindless thrill seekers out there to fill the emergency rooms right now.

This thread is from an aviation site, so most of the farfetched ideas are corrected and explained by other commenters.

This one is from an American public radio station known to be left leading. Its commenters see a coverup for the plane being shot down, or ISIS action. It makes less sense for ISIS to take down a private pilot on his way from Waukesha, Wisconsin to Manassas, Virginia than it would for them to ambush a suburban soccer mom on the way to the grocery store.

This is from an eyewitness in a boat, quoted in this article. “You could tell the jets were extremely well-equipped and in control of the situation. We obviously paid close attention, but at no time did we think we were in danger. I think the jets could have controlled where and when it went down.” While they could have done that with armaments, the way the Cirrus is described descending into the sea is consistent with running out of fuel and not with being blown out of the sky.

And finally, not to forget that the pilot was a person, I found this blog that compiles the NTSB report, a few news stories, and numerous obituaries. It would appear that Cirrus pilot Ronald Hutchinson was an experienced pilot and well-regarded community member. My condolences to his family and friends.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Female Problems

Don't worry, this post isn't about instrument air filters or the lack thereof. But for the "problems men don't have" category I submit:

Attend aviation conference before work. Bring flight clothes to change into. Forget shoes. Do six hour flight wearing really cute little ankle boots, colour coordinated with your camisole.

Could have been worse. At least I wasn't wearing stiletto heels. I might have punctured the aircraft.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Child Prodigy Inspiration

You know the kind. The kid who built a nuclear power plant in his parents' garage. The seventeen year old wunderkind who is flying an airplane she built herself across the continent. The teenager who is not yet old enough to vote, but who has successfully lobbied for a change in foreign policy and raised $300,000 to help enslaved kids in the third world. They used to make me kind of depressed and irritated that I had so much lower an accomplishment to lifespan ratio. But recently I started to look at them in a new way.

If a kid has accomplished so much in ten years, the first few of which he or she was mainly focused on learning to talk and control bodily elimination functions, then any of us can take the next ten years and do whatever we want without having a lifetime of that behind us. Whatever we know about the subject is going to be greater than what the kid started with. All the kid has on us is that he or she didn't know it couldn't be done.

I haven't decided what to do with my newfound inspiration, except maybe use it as a procrastination excuse, but I thought I'd share it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Cold, Hypoxia and Spiders

From time to time a person stows away in the wheel well of an airliner. There's a big space up there, with room for all the hydraulics, a retracted wheel, and a person. Doors close over the opening to provide streamlining, but I don't know that they close tightly enough to prevent draughts. Mine certainly don't. My gear doors don't even cover the whole opening. There is no pressurization and no heating in that space. At altitude the proportion of oxygen in the air is the same as at sea level, but the total air pressure is less, so the partial pressure of oxygen is also less. This pressure is important. A person can't get sufficient oxygen just by breathing faster. The pressure of the oxygen is what allows oxygen to enter the bloodstream. If the pressure isn't high enough, there is insufficient oxygen for the brain to function. A person loses the ability to make decisions, passes out and if the deprivation is severe enough, eventually dies.

The air temperature decreases by two or three degrees for every thousand feet of altitude, down to about -56C. I've never seen one of these where the stowaway had sufficient knowledge--or resources--to wear a parka. I've been outdoors in temperatures down to about -40. Wearing a parka, and gloves, and a toque underneath my parka hood, and giant Sorel boots, and mittens, while physically active. If I had stopped and curled up for a few hours I know I would have become very very cold.

Most of the time the cold, lack of oxygen and sometimes falling out of the wheelwell kills the stowaway. But sometimes they make it, like this kid from California. Humans can be freaking tough. I find it hilarious, but not that surprising that an unhappy teenager successfully breached airfield security. There is trust involved in aviation. Many places we pay for fuel on the honour system. It takes no genius and rarely requires tools to breech an airport gate. There is also a trade off, mutual assistance among aviators is a tradition much older than airfield security. It's hard to stop people from helping one another. And absolutely any tool someone might need on an airport can literally fly over the fence.

I'm amused that the commenters on that CBC piece include someone who insists a wheelwell monitoring camera and pre-departure check thereof should be standard, someone who doesn't believe the incident happened at all, and someone who sees a conspiracy theory at work.

My airplane often carries little stowaways that seem to suffer no ill effect. Spiders crawl up in my wheel wells. I landed the other day, taxied a short distance off the runway, shut down and got out to clean the windshield. In that time, maybe five minutes since the propellers had stopped spinning, a spider had already strung silk from the propeller across to the fuselage, such that I had to break the web to access my forward cargo area, where the windshield cleaner is. I don't know that it was one of the spiders I carry with me, but I like to think the conditions are producing super spiders. I wonder if insects are attracted to the heat coming off the nacelles, making that a prime spot for web building.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Who Knew September Was Such a Busy Month

I haven't dropped off the face of the Earth. I've been flying, amassing comments on the iPad, assessing the proposed new duty time regulations for pilots and how they will affect my company's operations, and mostly stuck in hotels with terrible Internet. That makes company paperwork take twice as long and leaves no room for blogging. Oh good grief, "An error occurred while trying to save or publish your post," and this is one of the better hotels this week. Okay, this is what I've got got for you today: an aviation headset has two plugs, one that connects the earphones to the system so the crewmember can hear, and one that connects the microphone to the system so the crewmember can speak on the intercom or radio. Each seat in the airplane has two receptacles to hold these two plugs. The intercom in this plane has three settings: ISO, CREW, and ALL. The ISO setting allows the left seat pilot to hear and transmit on the radio and talk to herself, while everyone else plugged into the intercom can talk amongst themselves but not hear or disturb the pilot or the radios. The CREW setting allows the two front seat occupants to speak without being heard by the person in the back, and ALL puts everyone in the loop. Generally the intercom is on ALL for normal operations. I will use the ISO settings if the crewmember in the right seat is training the crewmember in the back (or vice versa) and they are talking over ATC or want to talk during sterile cockpit times. I use CREW if I'm training a pilot in the front and want to give feedback in private. Or if the crewmember in the right seat is training the one in the back and we want to make snide remarks about them. I'll also use the ISO setting if I notice the crewmember in the back has fallen asleep (this is permitted, and indeed encouraged when they have no duties) but hasn't pulled out his or her headset jack, so that radio transmissions don't wake them up. I encourage them to pull their headset plugs if they want to sleep, because that way they don't have to throw crumpled up wads of paper at me to get me to turn the intercom back on when they wake up and want my attention. And then there's today: howling headwinds had us slowed to a crawl, done our work but proceeding to another aerodrome where they want us to start tomorrow. And the pilot starts singing, "The propellers on the plane go 'round and 'round, 'round and 'round ..." Usually I swing my microphone away from my mouth before I sing, but sometimes my fellow crewmembers must suffer. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I teach you how to pull out your headset plugs.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Bad Technology Day

I've been struggling with my phone lately, not getting text messages, not having it ring when I'm called. An update to the OS did the trick, even though the OS update notes were all for apps I don't use. I heard someone in the air having an equally frustrating time with technology.

"We're struggling with the FMS right now. Can we have direct BOXON?"

The FMS is the flight management system, the magic box that tells the flight director and the autopilot where the airplane is supposed to go. I don't know the clearance that the pilots were given initially, but they were apparently unable to persuade their FMS to accept the waypoint or procedure, so they chose one it would accept to fly towards it while they continued the battle.

I hear another pilot given a hellish multi-stage missed approach clearance including direct to a random sounding lat-long. It's because there is a large swathe of NOTAMed active military airspace blocking access to the normal airways no doubt. Programming a lat-long into the FMS while on approach sounds fun. Not. I screw it up on the ground from time to time. I have to create a user waypoint for the lat-long, can't enter it in the flight plan or direct-to screen. The pilot reads the clearance all back and life goes on. But a while later she comes back to confirm the lat-long. Yep, it's correct.

"The FMS won't take lat-long. Can we go direct [fix]?" she says. Negative, that's in restricted airspace.

"How about [fix]?" That's approved.

We cancel IFR and slip underneath it all.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Technology Ups and Downs

My ideas file is much longer than the time I am spending using it, so I've pulled out several news stories that I'd better comment on before they expire.

No headline writer could resist the fact that the captain's arm came off during landing, but if you read to the end you realize that the prosthetic stayed attached to the body. It's the clamping device he was using to ensure that the artificial limb maintained a grip on the yoke during the flare that came off the yoke. I have worked with a student pilot with an prosthetic foot and know of a pilot who lost both arms flying with prosthetics, and a pilot born without arms flying with her feet. (The hardest part of the exercise for her appeared to be fastening the lap belt). I have worked with commercial pilots missing a finger or two, but not a whole limb. I would have thought a co-pilot briefing on the subject would be required, and I would also have expected a co-pilot to automatically grab the yoke without a briefed transfer of control, the way you would reach for something fragile if you noticed it slip from your friend's hands, or the way the passengers in your car stomp the floorboards if the car in front of you brakes suddenly. (Except me: it has been documented that I grab for the brakes with my hands, as though I was stopping a bicycle. I rode a bicycle for many years before I drove a car and apparently in my brain that's still the hardwired subconscious stopping reaction). I thought until it was pointed out to me that I was throwing up my hands to protect my face, so perhaps it has now mutated into an attempt to bank out of the way.

As the person who sent me this link pointed out, rich idiots looking for fun has always been a source of danger in our communities, but the line that struck me in this article was, "Recreational drone users don't need approval from Transport Canada." Surely, however, they are restricted to uncontrolled airspace? It shouldn't be too hard to make it illegal to fly one in an airway or approach path. I will have to do more research on this in the winter.

I don't remember where I got this purported mid-air airplane repair. It must be staged, but it's still a pretty neat trick.

This caught my attention not only because it was an air accident involving a very respected Canadian operator with a lot of Antarctic experience, but also because it was on CBC North. Antarctica is the North of the South, of course. And it's likely that the crew although from Calgary, had ties to the North. I'm six minutes to boarding so don't have time to find if they managed to recover these bodies, or if the antarctic ice shifted and swallowed everything up.

Safe flying, people. Keep both arms on, and watch out for those drones.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Paper or Plastic?

So we're about to evaluate the electronic cockpit. That is have all the charts on an iPad. Eliminate the two boxes of maps in the cockpit, the express ordering of charts for regions we suddenly have to venture, the hunt for a vendor that has the new VTA in stock, and possibly the chore of checking the charts periodically to see if a new one has come out. (Canadian VFR charts do not have a predetermined expiry date: there is a website that lists the probable release date of updated versions, but that list is a bit like the to do list that indicates when I will clean my kitchen or get my hair cut: that is, almost never happens on time.

The proposal presents two contradictory reactions. The progressive, "hey cool stuff, think of all the things a computer can do that paper can't" is checked by "wait a moment, what about all the basic stuff paper can do that e-charts can't?" In this blog entry I'm going to ask the questions, kind of make myself a to-do list for research and experimentation. I'll start with the strengths and weaknesses of old fashioned paper because that's what I know best.

  • You can spread paper charts over the whole wall/bed/floor to get a big picture of where you are going. To be fair, this is also a weakness of paper. You have to have a large surface to see a long VFR trip in one go. Given that I can presumably scale in and out at will on the electronic one, I think the only thing I lose here is the physical scale, and to tell the truth I haven't done the multi-chart array thing for ages. Ooh, except that I had a couple of interns put together one on the wall of the office, and that's damned useful. But that won't go away.
  • Paper charts don't become useless when broken. Paper charts retain most of their usefulness despite being dropped on the floor, stepped on, ripped in half, slammed in the door, having water spilled on them (they're pretty good quality paper) and other indignities that they suffer regularly. The destruction of one paper chart does not eliminate access to everything else on board. The robust case Transport Canada requires for an iPad should partly address this, but is this concern founded or not? I've never heard anyone say, "Our iPad just crashed, in the missed approach." Does it happen?
  • Paper charts are temperature and pressure independent. (At least up to 451F). I have had electronic equipment fail for me because it got too hot or too cold, and I suspect my running computer stopped working because it was depressurized on a daily basis. We'll stress test one of the units (i.e. subject it to normal operations) and see how it does.
  • Paper doesn't glare or wreck your night vision. anyone who has tried to use a computer near a window knows how hard it can become to read in the sunlight, something my cockpit usually has no shortage of. Now the iPad has to score some points for being self illuminating during those times when the sun is not flooding the cockpit with light, but can it illuminate itself with a dull red light, making the chart visible, without reversing the up to thirty minute process my eyes eyes have undergone to make the optimum adjustment to darkness. Again, a point for testing. Perhaps the robust case can include an anti-glare screen cover.
  • You can write on a paper chart. The technique I was taught in low level mountain flying, and which I still use, despite all the augmentations of a terrain equipped GPS, is to mark with a pencil on the map where I am, and the time at each waypoint, so that if I ever get disoriented or discover I have taken the wrong valley, I have a track that tells me when and where I last knew where I was. Even without that particular navigational technique, it's useful to be able to write on paper. When the NOTAM says AMEND PUB, I'm supposed to actually amend the publication, to fix the incorrect frequency, the nav aid removed from service or the new restricted area. Does the electronic version support both 'pencil' (temporary, relevant to a limited number of journeys only) and 'ink' (permanent, to be retained until that chart is replaced) markings by the pilot? Done correctly, this could be a huge advantage for electronic: allowing markings to be searched, saved, scaled, and never obscuring map features. If Nav Canada would only update their NOTAM format (and I have faith that they will, someday) the NOTAMs could conceivably be applied directly to the electronic charts.
  • You can set up a series of paper charts to show the important stages in your journey. Let's say I'm departing Edmonton, flying through a mountain pass to stay out of icing, and then heading into Vancouver. Before departure I set up the Edmonton VTA to show the western portion of the zone. I fold the Edmonton chart to centralize the area of the pass I will be negotiating, I have the enroute charts handy opened to the correct area, and i have the Vancouver VTA opened up so I can just grab it as I descend into their complex airspace, to know whom to talk to and where. I need to find out how to bookmark certain 'views' on the iPad, for the same effect. I will be disappointed if it cannot do that, but the iPad scores points for its ability to scroll continuously from one area to the next without my needing to dig in the box for the next chart.
  • Paper is just paper, it can't do anything. A computer is a computer: it can compute. I imagine if I want to find Moose Creek airport I can do a search, rather than hunting all over the map for it, or looking up its lat-long in the CFS. If i want to know the distance and bearing from Moose Creek to Squirrel Pond, I expect the electronic product will draw a line on it for me, and tell me its bearing, distance and MEA. It would be nice if it could also line up the frequencies I should expect, but I'll be pleasantly surprised if it is that clever.
  • I've already mastered paper's sneaky tricks. The most hilarious thing paper does when you're trying to use it is be hard to fold, and take over the entire cockpit, or rip. Approach plates don't change, zoom, or close when you poke them. If i put my finger on the MAP, will I change my view?

I was in the field for the meeting at which this purchase was decided, so I asked if it was intended to be supplemental or replace the paper charts. I got one answer (supplemental) from the ops manager and the opposite answer (replacing) from the pilot who I think is spearheading the project. So it's the old busted versus the new hotness. Any experience, tips, or features I've not thought of?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Tell Me Something I Need to Know

When I was a student pilot I bought a trifold kneeboard. It consisted of a small metal clipboard inside a sturdy nylon array of pockets that could open out to cover slightly more than my lap, with a velcro strap to hold it on my leg. We almost all bought that thing. I know there were a few hardy students that made do with ordinary clipboards, or who made their own, but in general we thought this piece of technology would increase our ability to juggle map and nav log, pens and E6B, so we paid the money and strapped it on our knee.

I never quite figured out what to do with the black nylon pockets, so eventually I reduced it to the metal clipboard. As well as holding my operational flight plan and my weight and balance forms for me, it has some cheat sheet type information printed on it. There's an RVR to statute miles conversion chart, alternate airport rules, position report items, VFR cruising orders, standard holding pattern entries, components of a PIREP, required and recommended IFR reports, transponder codes, a Celsius/Fahrenheit conversion chart and a flight plan form. Problem is that the most of those items are either things that I know well enough to not need to look up, never have to look up, or are given for USA requirements only. I laminated (with packing tape) some Canadian information onto the back. That has long since worn away, and most of what I need to know has probably changed. And now the clip on the clipboard has finally worn out, leaving my papers attached with a big binder clip.

I ordered a new clipboard, and it has arrived, but I discovered to my chagrin that I seem to have a sentimental attachment to the old one. It's battered and bent and scratched. It was there on my lap when I did my first solo cross country, and had a stuck mike while I coached myself down final. It has gone to all the corners of the continent. I think it has been used as a pry tool and a hammer. The velcro strap is stretched and fuzzy. (But I notice that the velcro on the new one doesn't go far enough around the strap. When I put it on securely the hooks will not have many loops to mesh with). The new one is on my desk at work. The old one is in the field with me. Maybe it's just that I don't want to sort through all the papers on it to transfer them to a clipboard that doesn't hold as much as the big old binder clip.

By way of encouragement to use the new one I'm going to make up a new Canadian cheat sheet, with the flight plan form, company phone numbers, the changeover altitude between squawking 1000 and 2000 for uncontrolled IFR, and maybe some things out the CAP GEN that I keep having to look up.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Guilty Little Pleasure

I love conspiracy theories. I love the idea that the facts as presented could be explained in a way that fits the just as well as the accepted explanation, especially when it conveniently explains some other facts that are conventionally held to be unrelated, but mysterious. So for me "we didn't actually land on the moon: they faked it in a studio" doesn't qualify as fun, because "I don't understand physics well enough to understand how space travel works" isn't a fact that I need explained. But some things do need explaining. We complain when a movie or a book leaves loose ends, and we expect our stories to wrap everything up. If there's a gun in act one, someone needs to be shot by act three. If a loquacious limo driver dominates the prologue, he has to have a role in the denouement. And if an airliner disappears without a verifiable trace, and then another airliner that looks almost the same drops out of the sky in a war zone, we demand that the two be related.

As you may recall, the incomplete location data from MH370 suggested that the airplane was somewhere on a line stretching from Kazakhstan to Australia. My favourite conspiracy theory (link in Russian) postulates that MH17, shot down on the Ukrainian/Russian border, is the same aircraft. MH370, the theory goes, ended up at an American military base Diego-Garcia. from there the CIA transported it to the Netherlands where it took off packed with explosives and the already dead bodies of the original passengers. The pilots parachuted out and the airplane continued on autopilot to the designated location, where it was programmed to explode.

"Evidence" presented for the theory includes the undocumented claims that:

  • passports found at the site were all very new, and unscorched
  • some of the passports were clipped or punched in the way that their countries indicate invalidated passports
  • a flight status screen showed the flight as cancelled
  • the registration of the two aircraft differs only by an O versus a D: 9M-MRO for MH370 and 9M-MRD for MH17
  • no relatives gave media interviews
  • all the Facebook accounts of the passengers were created on April 21st, after the disappearance of MH370, and nothing was posted to them
  • The configuration of windows and painted flag shown on news photos of the wreckage matches MRO, not MRD.
  • the corpses were said to have a strange odour, and seemed to be drained of blood, not freshly dead

Now I don't have a problem with passports being found in excellent condition despite being onboard an airplane that was shot down. The passports were not in the engines nor the fuel tanks. They were probably in protective cases in secure pockets of people's carry-ons, at least that's where mine is. Unlike human beings, passports held flat the way people tend to put them away are not damaged by extreme pressure changes or long falls, and if we trust Ray Bradbury can sustain temperatures approaching 451 Fahrenheit.

The clipped passports thing is a little odd. I suppose there may be people who keep their expired passport with their valid one. I've seen pilots produce multiple licences ... actually I remember doing that myself once at a flight test. I'd just added the new paper to the original. The examiner told me to put the old one away at home somewhere. Now I have a file folder full.

I'm not surprised that the flight information site would mark the flight cancelled, seeing as they almost certainly didn't program it with the option of "shot down by missile". The data at that page--the same flight number on consecutive days--could be interpreted as a record of arrivals, and the arrival of the July 14th flight has most decidedly been cancelled.

The similarity in the registrations is kind of startling, and it is actually true. It would be a good way to cast doubt on a report by someone who claimed to have seen a change in the tail number from departure to arrival, but it becomes a lot less mysterious if you consider that all Malaysian Airlines operates B777s registered as 9M-MRA through to 9M-MRQ. The prefix 9M simply represents Malaysia, and it's very normal for an airline to buy several aircraft at once and have consecutive registrations.

Perhaps relatives in other countries were more circumspect, but the distraught sister of Andre Anghel, the lone Canadian on board, allowed herself to be interviewed on the radio. I had to pull over and cry after listening to her. She spoke about her brother going to medical school in Romania and then on holiday with his German girlfriend. She had sent him a text saying she loved him, and it was very important to her that he had seen that text before he turned his phone off for the last time, but she didn't know if he had.

Andre has a Facebook page, created January 21st 2007, and the good sense to keep most of his posts private, but updates to his public profile picture, along with comments on them from his friends can be seen prior to the disappearance of MH370.

I like the windows one, because it makes plane spotters into sleuthing heroes, the holders and creators of a distributed database of information on these airplanes that is also shared with the world through sites like I'll leave it to someone else to resolve the disappearing window mystery.

Here are some more English language sources for these and other bizarre conspiracy theories about the two flights. I like the one that just says matter of factly that aliens were responsible for MH370, now let's move on to MH17.

My theory, and it's a pop psychology theory, not a conspiracy theory, is that in this big confusing world, it's on some level comforting that someone has everything under control. Some people prefer to believe that their own government would kill thousands of people, largely their own citizens, as a calculated provocation, than accept that that same government, tasked with their protection, would fail to act against foreign terrorists. Planes don't get accidentally shot down or disappear for no reason we can know. It's all linked up and someone is in control. It's like when you're a kid and trusting that your parents really do know everything. It's like believing that when things go wrong it's a test, it's making way for something better to happen. Anything other than the possibility that things just happen. People abhor disorder and terrible things that have no explanation. Religions literally arise from such things.

Also if you speak a language you want to practise, read things that interest you. My new word of the day is якобы supposedly, a word no Russian-speaking conspiracy theorist should be without.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Mysteries of the Universe

My report time this morning was 5:20 am. I got to work at 5:15. Take off eventually happened at 9:29.

Most of that delay was weather. But while we were waiting for the weather other excitement occurred. Mystery One occurred when we couldn't find the keys to the nose baggage door, but didn't allow that to cause a delay, just stole a set from maintenance. They weren't in yet, and it's not really theft if you send e-mail to say you've done it.. I also couldn't find a funnel, to add oil, but that's not a mystery. People keep throwing out my funnels because i make them out of old oil bottles. Mystery Two is that my Swiss army knife, which I would have used to improvise a new funnel, seems to have gone missing last time I had to check it on the airlines. I hope it's just in the bottom of a bag somewhere. I poured the oil carefully down the dipstick, didn't spill any. Mystery Three was the location of the back-up emergency checklist. It's just a company thing that we have an extra, and not mandated in any of our manuals or regulations, so we resolved to find it later, and started engines without it.

Mystery Four is why the airport was so strangely deserted, and we got to take off with no waiting. This was 9:30 in the morning, not the originally planned 6:20.

We landed at a different airport than was filed in the flight plan, which seemed to confuse the FSS specialist whom I called to close the plan. "That's what we do," I said in a tone that implied I was saying something helpful. Maybe it was because the airport we landed at was in more or less the opposite direction from the filed one. But that is what we do. It was 29 degrees on the ground, and potable water was not available at the airport. None of that is mysterious.

The second flight went well. I called a tower controller to cut through a control zone that hadn't been on the original plan. He assigned me a squawk code and cleared me through quite efficiently. Another aircraft called up right behind us to go sightseeing in the control zone. "Not without a code!" said the controller sternly. The pilot ummed for a bit and then asked if the controller could assign him a code. The controller did. So why did I get one automatically, but the guy behind me had to beg? That is a mystery. I think I'm up to five.

Mystery six is how we landed at home base six p.m. but I didn't get out of the damn office until eight. Does it really take two hours to disembark, get fuelled, tow the airplane in, do the paperwork, send a couple of e-mails, check that the lights are off and the doors locked, set the alarm and leave? I guess there was answering the phone--a call from the bank for someone who went home hours ago. At 7:30 pm? I think someone at the bank got time zones mixed up.

On the way home I decided I wanted Mexican food, but knew there wasn't much in the fridge. Looking for a grocery store to get cilantro and tomatoes I found a Mexican cafe I didn't know existed. I ordered beans and rice for take out. I get it home and they are GREEN beans. Is that a mystery?

Monday, August 04, 2014

We Just Don't Always Use It

A fueller once told me that he loved watching me take off because the shallow climb angle is different from the way the other aircraft at that airport behave. He thinks it looks cool. Interesting.

Almost all the traffic there besides me are training aircraft, light singles flown by students. Having worked as a flight instructor, I know that such aircraft are also usually close to max weight with an instructor on board. Students tend to rotate late and lift the nose wheel higher, thinking they are pulling the airplane off the runway with their own strength. The manufacturers recommend climbing at the best rate of climb speed, which makes sense because if the one and only engine fails, the more altitude the better. They're only going to climb to three or four thousand feet above ground level anyway, so that's reasonable for them. they are climbing at 500' to 700' per minute, maybe less if it's hot.

Most of my takeoffs are within two percent of max take off weight. At rotation speed I lift the nosewheel just enough to have it clear of the runway, with no attempt to haul the entire airplane off the ground. I know that will come. At that point I am waiting for the speed to come up to blue line, the single engine best rate of climb speed. That happens just before I run out of runway, and then I raise the gear. When both engines are functioning, there is no reason to climb at as low a speed as single-engine best rate. There are no obstacles or noise abatement areas off the end of the runway, so I don't use the two-engine best angle of climb speed. I could climb at the two-engine best rate of climb speed, but the manufacturer recommends a speed fifteen to twenty knots faster than that. I know that I can reduce power slightly, and then climb at the manufacture's recommended climb speed for thirty minutes without overtemping anything. So that's what I do. I stay low over the runway, get my speed, ensure the airplane is flying properly and then climb away at a sustainable rate. I'm climbing at around 750' per minute, but because I'm doing so at around twice the forward speed of the little guys, this translates to a lower climb gradient. I guess it looks cool because it's the way heavies take off.

Obviously if there is terrain, or IFR climb gradients in excess of my default climb rate, then I'm leaving take off power set and climbing at the angle required to meet safety and regulatory requirements. And if I'm on a test flight or empty for some other reason, then my take off profile might be a little different. It's never like the one at the beginning of this video, though.

The second take off in the video, with the immediate left bank, is pretty common for me, when I'm at an airport served by large jets. ATC wants me out the way, fast, so they clear me to make a left (or right, but the most recent one was left) turn as soon as safely able. As soon as have stable control of the airplane, I bank and turn myself out of the path of the Boeing or Airbus that ATC will clear to take off as soon as they are content that I am clear. The other day I saw a Boeing 737 doing a fairly steep low level turn. It was a bright sunny day and I guess they didn't want to go way the heck west to intercept the ILS.

Airplanes are way cool.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Drawing From Both Bags

When I get to the airport company sent me to in the previous post, there is a NOTAM on the ATIS  for fire fighting operations on the edge of the control zone. There's a forest fire. I should have checked NOTAMs during the diversion. I did tell Centre were were headed here, and I hope they would have mentioned it had the airport been actually closed. When told to divert, I had just enough fuel to get here with thirty minute reserve, and I accepted the mission.  There were other airports available en route if I had had an emergency, but I'm almost here now.

Some people are going to think that it is irresponsible to plan to land with only 30 minutes reserve. Most private pilots plan a healthier margin.  But there's a business margin to be considered too, and if I waste an hour of the day descending, fulling and climbing back up again, will there be money in the bank account to pay for tires, alternators and other parts I need to be safe? Part of being a commercial pilot is knowing your aircraft well enough that you can plan to get the optimum usage out of it in a day.  Legally I need to plan the flight such that I can arrive at my destination with thirty minutes reserve fuel. After I take off that rule is no longer in effect. it would not be illegal for me to land with two minutes of fuel left in the tanks. If I ever did, it would suggest that I had been stupid, or had had a very serious unforeseen situation. If I were to run out of fuel I would probably be charged with something.Something with "endangering" and or "failure" in it, I suppose.

It definitely would have been smart to check NOTAMs. I don't remember now whether I tried to call an FSS or just didn't think of it, or had looked them up hours ago, before the first flight of the day. As we hold clear of the airport for the fire fighting aircraft, we have a great view of the orange fire suppressant streaming out of the bomber onto the blaze.  White smoke, green trees, yellow water bomber, orange fire suppressant, red fuel gauge.

After the bomber run, and a detour I come in to land. It's hot. The blast of heat from the pavement makes the airplane bobble in the flare. I finesse with power. It's like flying a C172 again.

There is about twenty minutes left in my lowest tank. So less than I aim for, but that's sort of what reserve fuel is for.  If I never ever used it, it wouldn't be worth hauling around. I think I've only gone  this far into my reserve three times in my career. Once for strong winds, this time for a forest fire, and the first time for strong headwinds and a forest fire diversion.

I taxi clear of the runway and onto the FBO apron. The guy from the normally very quick Esso FBO walks up and tells me the fuel truck is broken. I have a moment of "oh---FIRETRUCK!" When you don't check NOTAMs, you can get it from both sides. And then he says, "I'll call the Shell for you." Oh right. This airport has more than one FBO. That's one of the reasons we use it.

We fuel, start with the engines facing the wrong way for the wind, but it's not strong, and then take off with a quartering tailwind. Long runway, no obstacles ahead, and it's operationally much more efficient.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Dead Reckoning

As usual I have flight-planned for one task and the onboard satellite communications link to base brings us instructions to do something else. We're to fly direct to a particular airport, and get a maintenance extension from an approved maintenance organization there. We can do that. I punch it in on the GPS, O Mighty Box that guides us safely from place to place.

The GPS in this particular airplane is not that mighty. It's a nice colour moving map, WAAS capable IFR installation, but it has a habit of losing GPS position for exactly two minutes at a time, about twice a day.  We don't fly GPS approaches in this airplane. The database isn't up-to-date and it has a great ADF and VOR.

It's almost nice to have the one or twice a day reminder to keep my navigation skills honed.  DEAD RECKONING says the screen, continuing to show the little airplane symbol, assuming that we're continuing on the same track and speed.  People say that it used to be deduced reckoning, reduced to ded. reckoning, and then converted to dead. I don't know if that's a reverse etymology or not, but some people get quite stuffy about spelling it DED. Garmin does not agree. And two minutes later, almost to the second, it knows where it is again. It isn't a satellite configuration issue. It hasn't lost power. I haven't banked excessively, blocking the GPS antenna. it just does it. We track the issue for a while, trying to troubleshoot but never find its periodic outages corresponding to time of day, time in operation, position, anything.

Eventually when the plane was down for maintenance long enough for this to happen, we pulled the entire unit and sent it in for repair. Like all electronic devices these days "repair" consisted of us receiving a reconditioned model of the same type. It hasn't lost GPS position since, and we bought a database subscription for it, so now I trust it with my life. Or at least with my acute embarrassment.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Summer One-Liners

I always scribble notes on my OFPs, but I don't always get time to transform them into blog entries. Here are a few.

This is an oldie that has come back.  Many types of flight require a flight plan, a notification to air traffic control of where and when you want to fly your airplane. You "file" the plan either electronically, or still the old fashioned way by telephone. It's often easier to make a phone call than to get an internet connection. When you call to file a flight plan you start by specifying the call sign, the registration of the aircraft. The specialist can sometimes look up the aircraft in his or her database, removing the need for the pilot to specify the aircraft type, onboard navigational equipment, aircraft colours, and other details that don't change from flight to flight. It's common for the controller to double check that they have the right database entry by saying the type after they find it. There's a flight service joke that I first heard as a student, still stumbling over the required information for the flight plan. The specialist takes the callsign, and then says, "Ah yes, here it is, Boeing 747 on floats."

The correct answer to this is obviously, "Nah we put it on skis over the winter, haven't swapped them back yet." Or perhaps, "Nah that's GOLF Mike Tango Foxtrot. People get us mixed up all the time."

One the flight plan is filed, you need a taxi clearance, permission to drive the airplane on the ground to the runway, or maybe from the parking space to the place you pick up your passengers or buy fuel. Much of the ground may be uncontrolled, not requiring a clearance, but at an unfamiliar airport it is not always clear exactly where the controlled portions of the apron are. One always errs on the side of caution and asks for taxi clearance. Or even if I know it's uncontrolled, I'll usually call and tell the controller, so he or she isn't wondering where this airplane is off to. The controllers are usually happy to give directions on the uncontrolled portion of the airport, to help pilots find a particular hangar. So it's wasn't completely bizarre to hear a ground controller say this to another pilot, just funny.

Ground controller, "If you know where you are going, continue."

Then you take off, and the controllers help you stay clear of other traffic.  You know you're pretty far north on a clear day when you hear the words, "you'll be following a VFR 737" and you're not in the approach phase of the flight. One usually expects aircraft as large as a B737 to fly IFR for most of their trip.

But by the end of the flight on a good day everyone is cancelling IFR to make it easier for others to get descent clearance. Descent for us means a chance to take off our oxygen masks, the context for my final quote, from my co-worker. "Taking off an oxygen mask is like taking off ski boots."