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.