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.