Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Line of Text

It's a long weekend, or the middle of the night, or maybe both. I'm picking up an airplane that has received scheduled maintenance overnight at a maintenance organization that we have an existing relationship with, but we don't own. The Ops Manager and the Person Responsible for Maintenance are out of contact and out of the country, in a central American country that a Google image search illustrates with palm trees, beaches and masked men carrying machine guns. I'm in Canada, working for a Canadian company, and thus bound by the Canadian Aviation Regulations and Standards, which require not only that the work be done, but that before the airplane is flown the work be documented as complete in the airplane's journey log.

There is no one at the hangar, but I have access to the airplane and the journey log is inside. I read through the entries. Nothing fancy: oil change, lube, basic inspection and the recurring airworthiness directives. ADs are corrective measures mandated to make up for some revealed weakness of the type of airplane. There are six of them required every hundred hours this airplane flies. Each requires a special inspection of a specific component. All were due for this inspection, but only five have been entered in the logbook. I check to see if it has been entered somewhere else in the description of the maintenance. Nope. I page back through the last hundred hours to see if it was done early for some reason. Nope.

I call and e-mail contact numbers we have for the maintenance company. No joy.

Now the work that has to be documented here was almost certainly done. It's a minor inspection requiring no dis-assembly, and while it's not legal for me to declare it inspected, I can look at it and see that it's fine. But it's not documented done with an official signature, so in the eyes of the regulatory authority it has not been done and is therefore unsafe. I could fly this airplane and in the tiny chance that an inspector performed a random check of me, my airplane and its paperwork, there is a multiplicative tiny chance that the inspector would recognize that this airplane was lacking this inspection. They would see from the paperwork that an inspection had been recently carried out. They would walk around and look for evidence that we were neglecting fluid leaks, brake pads or control hinges, check our weight and balance paperwork, make a few token attempts to intimidate me, and then be on their way.

If I failed to spot the missing line item and flew the airplane for a week and back to home base before I "noticed" it, there would be no repercussions for me. But that's not how I roll. I try to think outside of the box.

There are a number of airplanes parked on the ramp, not the same as ours but from the same manufacturer and I know that they have the exact same AD. The company that operates these aircraft is the tenant of the hangar next door, and their door is open. I also remember that because of some complicated personnel-borrowing trick we did last year, that they are legally allowed to sign for our aircraft. I poke my head in and find a lone guy doing something to the airstairs on a Metro. I trot out my sob story, including the detail about where the key personnel from my company are, because it sounds so remote it might as well be the moon, to me.

"That's my country, where I'm from," says the guy with the wrench. Okay, that works too, on the sympathy front, maybe.

The central American is super nice, and a fully certified AME, but he's worked with this company for less than a week so is not yet legally allowed to sign documents as a representative of their company. Yep, the guy is 100% qualified to safely do an inspection that has almost certainly been done anyway, but he still can't sign for my plane.

I get a call back from someone who confirms that the inspection was performed, but that he was a day contractor and therefore can't sign it. I need to get the head aviation maintenance engineer to amend the entry. The next morning he came out to sign it, and then the flight was cancelled.

If you can find an operations that has never lost a flight to fouled up paperwork I'm not sure if you've found a truly amazing company or a really irresponsible one, but something is not normal there. Honestly, more energy goes into making sure airplanes are legal according to the safety regulations than goes into actually making them safe.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Hockey Gold

Someone asked me once if all Canadians are obsessed with hockey. Are we? This is the 401, Canada's busiest highway, during the men's Olympic hockey final. I must admit that it was Sunday morning, so not a time you'd expect a lot of traffic. But then consider that more than one province made temporary changes to the liquor laws to allow bars to sell beer during the game. Hockey has a special place in our hearts.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Day at Work

We don't look like this, but this is me, the ops manager and a line pilot.

Be strong out there. Never become a management pilot, unless you aspire to spend more time discussing how to get other pilots to do things than you do flying.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

It's Enough to Make Me Forget the Wheels

I really should be working, not blogging. But I have to pass on this pearl of operational wisdom.

Wheel up landing ARE NOT authorized

The above is actual wording from a Power Point slide I was given, to help me develop better in-house training on our aircraft. I'm not sure which bothers me more: the grammar or the implication that the operator who developed the slideshow thought there was a real possibility that they might hire a pilot who was stupid enough to need to be told this. I'm leaning towards the grammar bothering me more, because I can't just tell myself, "Chill, Aviatrix. Someone forgot an s." I'm endlessly tortured by the indecision of whether the s is missing from the end of wheel or the end of landing. Either, but not both, would fix it. But perhaps the grammar issue is a positive, distracting me from the message.

Maybe it's a joke. Throw that in, lighten up the mood. Certainly it's lighter than the preceding slide, which lists the dimensions, ply and recommended pressure for all the tires. I don't truly understand the purpose of slides like the tire one. No one should be expected to memorize this stuff. A photograph of a tire that has been damaged by excessive braking (been there, done that), showing the various ply exposed would make a better slide. Hmm, did I take a photo of my shame? You have to look up the part number to order a tire anyway, so knowing the size isn't sufficient. The only useful datum in the list is the tire pressure, and we write the recommended tire pressure on the rims in Sharpie because who wants to trust memory or look that stuff up when you don't have to.

When I teach systems and procedures to professional pilots, people who have both completed commercial pilot training and worked for a few thousand hours in industry, I shouldn't need to tell them which way up the airplane goes, right? I should be able to assume a basic grasp of the concepts embodied by hydraulic and electrical power. But the little voice that caused the person who made that slide to include the instruction above spoke to me. It tells me I should explain that the hydraulic system is a means of transmitting a pushing force at a distance, around corners, by means of fluid pressurize. And I've figured out how to do it too. I'll invite non-pilots in the organization, people who do flight following and who might benefit from knowing what "we have a hydraulic problem" could mean to the beginning of the session and load them up with a quick overview of "what the pilots already know." In case they don't.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Mocking the Manual

"This manual serves as a series of checklists and a record of experience for pilot duties at Company. It does not include many basic airmanship tasks that are expected of any competent pilot."
- my current company pilot procedures manual

Long time readers will recall my habit of mocking passages in my company documents as I study them and ordinary sentences suddenly become ridiculous through boredom and fatigue. Now the shoe is on the other foot. I have to write the damned things. I figured out pretty early on that company manuals have two primary purposes. One is to fulfill legal requirements. The other is. like the air law itself, to serve as a comprehensive list of things the pilot can be blamed for doing wrong in the even that that pilot has an accident or otherwise inconveniences the company. That, and the never-ending task of keeping it up-to-date in the face of new routes, procedures and aircraft, explains the contradictions and impossibilities. Pilots rarely get in trouble for contravening company policy if they bring an undamaged aircraft back on time without customer complaint.

Ideally you would be able to tell pilots to fly the plane safely and efficiently, obey the law, and don't scare the customers and then instead of a three-hole punch and a ring binder you'd just laminate the one page manual and be done with it. But you have to anticipate what pilots might not know and give them the information in a way they can understand to it, refer to it and recognize its importance. There's a balance to be achieved, and I hope I've done that.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Keeping It Between the Lights

About ten years ago a crew landed a Boeing 737 at Edmonton International in the fog and snow, and touched down beside the runway instead of on it. They got the airplane back on the runway after taking out a sign and a bunch of lights, and no one was hurt. The poor pilots had been up for almost twenty-four hours by the time it happened.

I feel so badly for them. I've landed at Edmonton International at night, and there are a lot of lights. When you land on a northern, snow-covered runway you find the rows of lights or reflectors and you land between them. You can't see the runway. It's exactly the same black and then reflective white as the area outside the runway. You just flare and hope the information you got on the depth of the snow and how packed it is was correct.

I think I did a similar thing when I was a commercial student, landing on a grass field. It was an actual field, just your standard chunk of turf in between the farm roads. There was a windbreak of poplar trees planted along one side, and then a line of tires showing the edge of the area they considered the runway. Presumably the "runway" side was more packed down from landing aircraft, more frequently mowed, and checked for rocks, mole hills, and the like. The CFS entry for the airport didn't mention the tires and I think I may have landed on the wrong side of them. I don't even remember--that's how un-serious my incident was. It could have been bad had the ground been soft or the grass really long and hiding obstacles on the "bad" side. I just remember that someone later told me which was the correct side. Obviously it wasn't an international airport, and before someone put the tires there I'm sure folks just landed all over.

Last time I landed at CYEG it was night, and the end of my working day. The controller asked me to turn a five mile final, but not knowing the local night time landmarks well it was difficult for me to choose a bearing that would set me up for that. I could easily turn final five miles from the airport, but I didn't have a waypoint set for the threshold of the runway, and single pilot at night, and tired in descent for a runway is a really bad place to start calculating a lat and long based off runway information, or perhaps there was a waypoint on a GPS plate, and then programming a lat and long out of a book into the GPS. Normally for that sort of thing you can use the runway as a yardstick and just mentally extend it to where you need to join, but the layout of runways at the International there combined with the angle I was approaching from made it tricky. So I did that thing that is free and safe and doesn't require me to take my eyes off the instruments or the scenery: I asked the controller a question similar to, "does this look good for where you want me to intercept final?" I probably threw in the word "unfamiliar," as well. The controller has a radar screen that shows the runways, and my blip, and he has tools that can show my extended track and distance, but he probably doesn't need them as his job is to look at blips and know whether they will conflict. It definitely made me look less cool. I couldn't pretend to be a completely fearless pilot utterly blasé in the face of any danger. But it saved me a couple of minutes in the air, because the controller told me I was free to fly direct to the threshold. And who wants a pilot inured to danger when you can have one who gets you there safely?

This is in no means intended to imply that the 737 crew wouldn't have had their incident had they asked for help. I was only trying to point out that on a beautiful visibility night a pilot who is a lot less tired can get confused. The visibility was terrible for these guys and they must have been exhausted. The upside is that their company changed the procedures after that, so crews no longer risked having to do that night landing after being up for a full day.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Ditching Instructions

I'm delivering recurrent emergency training to pilot and non-pilot crewmembers in a couple of weeks, so I sat down to brainstorm some of the items to cover. Challenge-response checklists, the names of the various levers, the protocol for what to say if the right engine is on fire and the pilot asks you to confirm left as she shuts it down. (Hint, not "right!"). I covered evacuation, including special life-saving tips like "wait until the aircraft has stopped moving" and "be careful not to get run over by a firetruck". It would be depressing that so much of training people consists of telling them what they could figure out for themselves, except that it in comparison to reading reports of accidents caused or exacerbated by people not doing things they could figure out for themselves, it's not depressing at all.

I move onto bullet points for the Off-Airport Landing. We don't fly floats or bushplanes, so this represents a fairly drastic emergency situation. I type in ...

  • possible reasons
  • pilot briefs situation
  • secure cargo, self
  • consider needs
  • distress call
  • landing configuration
  • brace position
  • evacuate

An extreme form of off-airport landing is ditching, landing on the water. That's obviously going to be the next item. As I'm starting on that, I notice that one of my keycaps is loose, so I wiggle it into place and press down on it to fix it. Then I look back at my document. It says...

  • aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

Maybe I'll leave it like that.