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.


Sue said...

I don't want to offer trite and inane comments, but I do want to wish you happy holidays. I've been following your blog since the beginning and am still excited when my RSS feed shows a new post from you. All the best for 2015.

Aviatrix said...

Thanks Sue. It's hard to tell with common names whether people are the same people, and I do like to think of keeping touch. I had a keen and personable student named Sue once. She hadn't finished her licence when I left instruction, so sometimes I imagine you are she.

Unknown said...

"I remember this airplane doesn't have strobe lights ...." -- made me laugh. Funny how our minds mis-classify stuff like this sometimes. Similarly - the ammeter. Ask anyone over 50 to tell you from memory what color a YIELD sign is. Chances are they'll say it's yellow. They haven't been yellow for decades (all now being the international red inverted triangle on a white background).

Motels like that make me nervous too, and I'm a larger-than-average sized male. It speaks to an awareness of the relative dangers of (some) humans, especially in the vicinity of alcoholic beverages, imo.

Thanks for taking the time to keep sharing your flight experiences. Wishing you safe flying and continued adventures in 2015.

Anonymous said...

A great post. I cannot answer your questions beyond suggesting that yo continue to fly with a pristine, professional approach. In your kind of operation - and location - I think you are fortunate to have an employer that respects your professional judgment. Stay safe and tell us about how you do so. Thanks.

Greg said...

Understand your concerns about the motel door. many years ago I had three guys trying to kick their way into my motel room in Dodge City at 11:30 PM. Luckily I was armed.

Best wishes for 2015