Thursday, December 24, 2015

Anxiety Over Time

I find a letter in my mailbox from Transport Canada. My anxiety level increases. What do they want? I recall that the really bad ones are sent by registered mail, so they can prove you got it, so anxiety goes down a little. It's a window envelope, and the paper through the window looks like the kind government cheques are written on. Anxiety decreases further. Maybe I paid a licence fee than my company had already paid on my behalf and I'm getting a refund? I open the envelope.

Inside is a licence booklet sticker. When I pass a flight test to renew my instrument rating, the examiner will sign my licence booklet, and her signature is valid to prove my renewed rating for ninety days. If I haven't received a new sticker within the ninety day period, then I am not legal to fly. I have not taken a flight test in the last ninety days. My company does renewals in the spring. If I didn't receive my renewal sticker back in April, then I have been flying illegally all summer and fall. My anxiety level increases.

I look at the licence sticker. It has the same type ratings, endorsements, expired instructor rating and English language proficiency certification as the old one. I dig out my licence booklet to compare. Yep, everything is the same except there's no expiry date printed next to my instrument rating. What? My anxiety moves sideways.

I have a hunch. I google Transport Canada instrument rating expiry and quickly find Advisory Circular 401-004. Transport Canada in its wisdom has decided that instrument ratings no longer expire. Anxiety goes way down. Pilots still need to take a biennial Instrument Proficiency Check to ensure we still know what we are doing. Anxiety level reset to where it was before I opened the mailbox. All this means is that the format of the instrument test has changed slightly, it has a different name, and I need to keep track myself of when the thing expires, instead of having it conveniently printed on my licence. I have to keep track of it anyway, because as chief pilot I have to track it for all company pilots. Plus I am required to do a pilot proficiency check for each type I fly every year. Under the old system we simply paid a little extra every second year to have the test also renew the instrument rating. So no difference at all for me.

I read some more. The document says, "failures of instrument flight sequences during Pilot Proficiency Checks (PPC) or IPC no longer invoke suspensions of instrument rating privileges". That takes some stress off. Under the old system, you screwed up on any ride, even if you were just being the other pilot for someone else's test, and you lost your whole instrument rating. The examiner was instructed to scratch it off your licence. So it's a small difference, but worth going to the mailbox for.

I may blog later on the new IPC format. Anyone taken it yet? These changes took effect November 1st, but I was distracted.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Pilots and Birds

Pilots have sort of a love-hate relationship with birds. Some learned to fly out of a desire to be like the birds. I came grudgingly to appreciate avian skills while I was a student pilot learning to judge winds and momentum in the flare. I still derive schadenfreude from watching a bird misjudge a crosswind landing, because they usually get it so perfect, angling their wings and tail and settling on a single branch just as groundspeed and vertical speed reach zero. I knew an ultralight pilot whose pinnacle of life experience occurred the day an eagle flew along wingtip-to-wingtip with his tiny craft, checking him out and then seeming to just share the joy of being aloft on a beautiful day. If you've got through any part of a career in aviation without having to reject a take-off, perform a go-around, declare an emergency, or visit maintenance because of birds, then I can't imagine which part of the planet you fly over.

The airplane I flew yesterday bears a scar that we think is a rat strike. I know that a rat is not a bird, but I still blame a bird. See, one day an eagle crossed our path while we were on the take-off roll. There was no thump and no exploding cloud of feathers, so we were pretty sure we hadn't struck the eagle, but after the flight there was nevertheless a small dent, mostly just stretching of the aluminum skin between two ribs on the wing, and some blood spatters. The airport crew reported finding no carcass, and certainly an eagle would have made a bigger dent. Our theory is that the eagle dropped its payload in order to more easily dodge us. I should have gone full CSI on the remains. I'll bet I could have found some fibres and checked them out at the MicrolabNW Photomicrograph Gallery. As it is I just nag maintenance to put the dent repair on their spare time list, because tiny as the dent is, it is a roughness in the wing, and that spot is always the first one to ice up in flight.

The video below (preceded by an ad, you don't lose anything if you just mute the whole video) is from an incident a year ago when a bird strike smashed the spinner on a Dash-8 on take-off. I don't see any damage to the propeller itself, but the damage to the spinner must have caused an imbalance, because the pilots elected to shut the engine down. You can see the blades feathered (aligned with the direction of flight for minimum air resistance). And I have to laugh at the fact that the very terminology "feathered" is bird-related.

They inspired us to fly in the first place. They interfere every day with our ability to do so safely. We can't stop admiring them and we can't stop resenting them. This whole post has just been an excuse to show you this gif. Does anyone not love this crow? It's just a looped gif, but the full YouTube clip shows that it wasn't an accident. That crow was hanging in there for the ride. I suppose it wasn't all that different to clinging to a branch on a windy day, but it's having fun, isn't it?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Why Helicopters Work That Way

I've never studied helicopter aerodynamics, but I witnessed a helicopter crash once, and the event was consistent with the theory that it's principally the integrity of the tail rotor that prevents the helicopter from behaving the way the bluebird expects, but the chicken has an excellent point.

2 Cows and a Chicken Comic Strip on

Also as the days get darker and the weather outside arbitrary northern hotels gets bleaker, I'm tending to agree with these chickens.

Currently binging on House, Grey's Anatomy, Community, and Fringe.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Logbook Strategy

I finally got my logbook up-to-date, every flight entered, every page totalled, grand total calculated. Each line represents one flight, and includes the date, aircraft type, aircraft registration, point of origin, destination, crew, and duration of the flight. There's also a remarks field which I sometimes use to include information like "annual review," "hit an eagle at rotation," "picking up new airplane," or "ferry permit with u/s flaps." Long ago I used to write my first initial and full last name in the pilot in command or copilot field, as appropriate, but that got tiring and sometime over the last couple of logbooks ago I switched to "self" and then "me," with the other crewmembers reduced to initials after the first few entries with their complete names.

The duration blank for each flight is not a single column, but eighteen columns, the whole facing page, in all appropriate combinations of single- and multi-engine time, night and day, pilot-in-command, dual instruction, and copilot, plus additional columns to record time in instrument meteorological conditions (clouds), simulated IMC, and in a flight simulator. For the last seven years I have used two columns: multi-engine day PIC and multi-engine night PIC. I'm even pilot-in-command for my annual training flights, because we hire outside experts who aren't ensured on our aircraft. So on every page I complete there are only two columns I need to total, multi-PIC-day and multi-PIC-night. I sometimes fill in numbers for IMC, or landings, but long, long ago stopped totalling them. There are a even a couple of do-it-yourself columns in which I sometimes track time on floats, turbine vs. piston or tailwheel. I tried to persuade myself to stop carrying forward the times in the columns other than the two that actually get updated every page, unless for some reason I flew a single-engine aircraft or acted as co-pilot, but despite being lazy enough not to update my logbook for three years, once I started updating, I felt obligated to carry those stupid numbers forward, page after page. According to the numbers, at some point in my career I acted as a copilot at night. I can't even think when that was, as the two-crew aircraft in which I logged my copilot time was a day-only operation. I think I must have been acting as co-pilot for new captain. But I'm copying forward that 2.0 every time I turn the page. Also the 13.1 night dual single engine. I have this minor fantasy of renting a single-engine aircraft and flying just long enough, day, night, PIC, and dual, in order to bring all my logged hours up to even numbers. The trickiest part about copying the numbers forward though, is making them fit in the boxes.

Both my single- and multi-engine daytime hours extend to five digits, including the one after the decimal point, and the boxes allocated for the totals are not very big. There are a few possible strategies for coping with this. I generally used a fine-tipped pen and very small printing, but depending on how many 4s, 6s and other digits that don't compress well there are in the total, sometimes I combine this with writing the number diagonally from corner to corner of the tiny box, or writing the decimal point and final digit on a second line. Sometimes I just give up and write the total in the bottom margin, with an arrow pointing into the box it should occupy. I suspect most of you with this kind of time don't bother keeping a personal logbook at all, just hand the paperwork that shows you're legal into company, and then at medical time just add what you've flown in the past year onto whatever total you gave the year before. That's what I've done for the last three years. The real timekeepers among you will be using an electronic logbook that, at a couple of button presses, can extract all your multi-engine turbine time flown on a Tuesday. But I can't be the lone holdout Luddite enough to be still using paper logbooks, but having trouble fitting the big numbers on the page. What's your preferred strategy?

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Partial Research is Funnier than None

At 1:35:14 of the movie The Bourne Identity, there's an airplane. It's not important to the plot, just a brief scene to show that Important Serious Guy is going to Paris. It only merited a second glance because Important Serious Guy was going to take the "first flight out" which usually refers to scheduled flights, yet the airplane in question is a Dassault Falcon 900 and the passenger is driven up to the boarding stairs in a limo. It's clearly a private flight. So in between writing the dialogue and getting the location, someone decided that the secret agent guy wasn't going to fly airline, or it was just cheaper for the production to get the plane and the location for one guy boarding a small jet than to arrange a whole airline cabin set, and they missed changing the actor's line. I can even accept that by "first flight" the guy meant, "as soon as the pilots have the airplane ready," and that there's nothing wrong with the dialogue.

It's a three-engine jet, which is kind of cool. Wikipedia tells me that it and the Falcon 7X are the only trijets still in production. On the nacelle of the centre engine we see the aircraft registration N-GIDE. I can't say whether it was the oddity of an N-number followed by a dash and four letters that drew my attention to the fact that the N has clearly been stuck on as a patch, or vice versa, but that is one silly aircraft registration. It took me three guesses to find it as French-registered F-GIDE a Dassault Falcon 900 currently owned by GE Capital Equipement Finance, and based in Paris. The airplane looked like this in 1998, which doesn't match the movie, but the 1998 paint job looks like my high school locker room, so I'm not surprised it would be changed. I'm imagining someone has scouted the location, paid whatever is the going rate is for using someone's airplane as a set for a couple of hours, and got airport permission to drive their limo and camera trucks and whatever around the apron. They put an actor in the cockpit--just one, we'll presume that the other pilot is in the back to greet the passenger--and generally tried to make it look as though it's a US government airplane ready to take this guy to Paris. They slapped a US flag decal on it, by the boarding door, and then someone did just enough research to get in trouble. I think the location manager spotted the F starting the registration and realized that that represented France. They somehow learned that American aircraft registrations start with N, without realizing that they don't have a dash, and they have numbers in them. To me the result is as adorable as a kid trying to hide by covering her eyes: that act of concealment draws more attention than none at all, but it shows that they tried. Had they tried harder, they would have discovered that the FAA reserves the tail numbers N88892, N9748C, and N9747P for use in movies and television, and then I never would have noticed. Probably I wouldn't have noticed if they had left the French registration intact, either. I'm sure the US government leases aircraft in more exotic places than France.

Given that it's the same kind of half-completed research I do all the time for my blog, and will definitely be doing for this year's NaNoWriMo novel, starting today, I hope I'm not alone in getting enjoyment from the funny.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Wrong Trousers

On my first job with a uniform, I was required to wear black pants and a white pilot shirt. That's a pretty standard outfit, and a lot of companies just leave it to the pilot to obtain those articles of clothing. That first company didn't pay much, so I just wore whatever black pants kind of fit me at the second-hand store. Another company sent me to Mark's Work Wearhouse to buy a particular style. I think they wanted beige, but the style number was a men's style, so I spent half an hour or so trying to find the women's style that looked the most like the men's style, yet still fit me. I don't remember how that worked out. At a later company I actually did wear a men's style because I could get far better quality for the same price, and while the fit at the hips was not stellar, at least the legs were long enough, the pockets actually able to hold things, and they didn't have little cutesy buckles or offer tummy control or butt enhancement. Seriously, if you've never bought women's pants, you'd be amazed by what they claim to do. Stupid things had to be dry-cleaned though, and I'm pretty sure they were flammable.

In my job I have to crawl, literally crawl on my hands and knees, under aircraft. I have to lug things against my legs. I sometimes wipe oily hands on my pants (not my underwear, British readers). I sit on my butt for five or six hours at a time. I occasionally need to wear thermal underwear under my clothes. I want pants that are black, cotton, durable, and machine washable. They need to be comfortable, not too tight, but not so loose that you're going to see my underwear as I crawl under the plane. Not that I care all that much about that last one. I always figure if you're hard up enough that seeing a pilot's underwear is going to do it for you, then I can throw you that one for free.

After a while I settled on a style at Mark's Work Wearhouse. I would buy several pairs at a time, making them ship extra ones in from elsewhere to fulfill my order. A couple of years ago they stopped selling them. It wasn't just that they'd changed the style, they no longer sold a medium duty woman's work pant. They had the really heavy duty ones, not something I wanted to sit for hours wearing, and they had yoga pants and dress pants. So last year I carefully measured myself according to the instructions on the website, and ordered a few different styles from Dickies, all of which arrived big enough for two of me. I sent them back and ordered four more that fit me about as well as the ones from the second-hand store, but by this point the old ones that fit me well all had patches on them, so I kept and wore the ill-fitting ones. Now I have a collection of badly-fitting black pants some of which have holes in them.

Today I tried to buy more pants. I finally gave up when a link for women's work pants took me to a page where not only were all the pants too short for the actual models, but the models were all wearing high heels. I guess "working women" need work pants too. I'll have to go back to men's styles.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Oxygen Exchange

I work in an unpressurized aircraft at altitudes where the atmospheric pressure is low enough that oxygen is required. Between 10,000' and F180 (about 18,000') I wear a nasal cannula: an arrangement of tubes, including two blowing oxygen up my up my nostrils. Above FL180 I wear a mask that covers my nose and mouth. I could skip the cannula and wear the mask any time I was above 10,000' but I can't eat or drink while wearing it, so it gets old fast. Plus the design of the cannula is such that it recycles exhaled oxygen, meaning that the oxygen supply lasts a lot longer on cannulas. Thus we only use the masks if we're working above 18,000'.

Putting the mask on involves taking off my headset, putting the mask over my face, pulling the head strap into place, putting the headset back on, and fastening another mask strap behind my neck. Finally I have to swap the microphone plug for the headset boom mike with the microphone plug for the in-mask mic. I can do all this before take-off, which I will if I'm in busy airspace. I started up next to a military jet once and noticed its pilot put on his oxygen mask before start up. If I am in uncontrolled airspace, I typically put my mask on just before I climb through 10,000'. If I'm expected to be monitoring a frequency, I wait until a needy or slow-talking pilot starts to make a call irrelevant to me, and then I can get the headset off, mask on, and headset back on before the call is over, ensuring I don't miss any calls. It takes less than thirty seconds. On descent, I can use the same technique, or just leave it on until I park, likely confusing the FBO marshallers.

Sometimes the day starts out with an hour of work at at 20,000' and then progresses to three more at 15,000'. Obviously I need the mask for the high level work, but would prefer to be able to eat and drink for the rest of the flight. In this case the swap involves all of the above, plus disconnecting the mask from the oxygen receptacle, connecting the cannula, and putting the cannula in my nostrils. It looks just like the cannulas the patients in House wear, but rather than looping around my ears and hanging down in front, it just goes around my head, held up by my headset earcups, and secured in place with a baseball cap. The point of this post is that I think about perfecting the swap between oxygen supplies at altitude. Should I breathe normally, or hold my breath during the swap?

The way breathing works is that the partial pressure in the air I inhale is greater than that in the lung capillaries it is in contact with. The imbalance causes oxygen to diffuse into the capillary, until the partial pressures are equal, the way any gas does across any membrane. So if the partial pressure in the ambient air is less than that of my lung capillaries, the act of breathing will actually decrease the oxygen level in my blood, and it would be better to hold my breath while I switch between mask and cannula.

The partial pressure of oxygen in ambient air at sea level is 21% of 29.92 inches of mercury, which is 6.28 inches of mercury. I'm going to convert that 160 mm Hg, not because I'm obsessed with metric, but because Wikipedia gives me biological numbers in millimetres of mercury so I have to convert one of them in order to do the math. At 18,000' the partial pressure of oxygen in the ambient air is half that at sea level, so 80 mm Hg. The partial pressure of oxygen in lung capillaries at sea level is 20-40 mm Hg, and as the mask maintains my blood oxygen at the same saturation as at sea level, then that's the partial pressure of oxygen while I'm wearing an oxygen mask. Eighty is clearly greater than forty, so even at 18,000' breathing is better than holding my breath to maximize blood oxygen during the mask swap.

So at what altitude should I hold my breath? At 32,800' the partial pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere is 25% of the sea level pressure, which is 40 mm Hg, the top of the range for lung capillary pressure. I would say, "so up to 32,000 it's better to breathe than hold one's breath when swapping oxygen sources" but above 32,000' the time of useful consciousness without oxygen is around a minute, even with no physical activity, so one shouldn't be messing around with one's oxygen source at such altitudes. But my conclusion is that above that, hold your breath for those few seconds of scrabbling before you either get your oxygen on or forget how and pass out.

I only took biology to about grade eight, so most of what I know about the human cardiovascular system comes from lifeguard class. I welcome any corrections to this analysis, even if you're stopping by years after I wrote it.

Monday, October 19, 2015


I was away working last weekend, so I wasn't really thinking of Thanksgiving as a holiday. I usually work right through October, so a proper Thanksgiving celebration only happens by chance. Sometimes a little late, like the one I had this year. But with or without the dinner, I'm still thankful for things that happened and those that didn't.

Things happen and things don't. Whether they happen or fail to because of our own skills and planning, because of stochastic processes, or because of an omnipotent being, I am grateful when the right things happen and the wrong things don't. Neither history, nor science, not even religious texts seem to indicate that gratitude or the lack thereof has great influence on what happens and what doesn't, but I still have gratitude. The engines turned when I needed them to. The electricity flowed when I depended upon its service. The ice and the air and my wings did not interact in a way that had a disastrous effect on my flight. Over the years, the malfunctions that have occurred in flight did so after sunrise, within single-engine fuel range of a usable airport, once I was clear of IMC, when I had sufficient altitude, or before I was too tired. I saw what I needed to, and am surrounded by those who look out for me. I am grateful.

Also, you will find it hard to convince me that there is a better way to eat leftover turkey than cold, with my fingers, while standing in front of an open refrigerator.

P.S. to foreigners: Thanksgiving is a post-harvest festival that Canadians celebrate on the second weekend of October. It's not a public spectacle or a commercial event (for places other than grocery stores), just something you do in your home. People with normal jobs get a day off work on the Monday, but family or groups of friends will get together on any of the weekend days for a meal, usually involving roast turkey and seasonal vegetables, especially squash. If you're crafty you can score two or even three turkey dinners over the weekend, and everyone eats turkey sandwiches, turkey soup and turkey salads for a week afterwards.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Extra-Vehicular Activities

I was trying to find a clip of the coffee-ordering scene from the movie Pushing Tin. In the film it's a demonstration of how many pieces of data on different aircraft that an experienced controller can hold in his or her head simultaneously. I didn't find the clip, but I came across a pilot ordering coffee and wings in the midst of an emergency, and a fun YouTube channel of humourous exchanges from the New York Kennedy ground frequency.

Taxiing at a large, unfamiliar airport is just about as stressful as flying at night in ice. There's just one of me to keep the airplane moving, watch out for bad pavement, find the directional signs, interpret the taxi diagram, identify the intersections, and spot the aircraft I'm supposed to give way to. It's obvious to the controllers which way I should go, but they know the airport layout perfectly, and from their vantage point they can see where they want to put me. They seem almost as unhappy when I pause to complete a checklist or figure out my route as they do when I think that Foxtrot-Golf is the next turn, not this one right here. Sure, if I get it badly wrong in ice, I'll lose control of the airplane and die, but that consequence might be less painful than the scolding that an irate controller can dish out. The worst case scenario on the taxi is also death: should I venture onto an active runway at the wrong moment, I could get run over and take out a widebody, too. That is part of the reason the controllers can be so stressed. The rest of their focus is knowing that it is ridiculously easy for us poorly-maneuverable ground vehicles to become gridlocked, delaying everyone. The controllers have a plan for getting everyone where we are supposed to be, and if I miss a turn, I'm like the Tetris brick dropped in the wrong place, messing up the whole board. Meanwhile controllers are really smart, constantly building and recalculating plans, but with enough spare brainpower to make smart remarks.

The link above is not to the first or the funniest of the clips on the channel, but rather to one that is more odd than funny: a Lufthansa crew suspects they have an access panel open and once that's confirmed by another taxiing aircraft, ask permission to put a crewmember outside the airplane to close it. It's interesting and a little outside the norm, but the controller seems to think it's hilarious. I wonder what he would have made of a stop-and-go I did the other day: I landed on a long runway, let a crew member out to adjust an external sensor, and then after he was back in and belted, took off again without ever leaving or backtracking the runway. The controller handling me didn't act as though it were an unusual request. I had assessed the approaching traffic on frequency before making the request, so I was confident there was no one close behind me. I'm not sure we spent any longer on the runway than we would have had we landed and taxied off in the normal way.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Runner's High

This story starts about five years ago when I first realized that combining my fondness for running, maps, and cool watches in one technological device was possible and affordable, even if it did barely fit on my wrist. I bought a Garmin Forerunner 305. It's essentially a stopwatch integrated with a GPS, heart rate monitor, and computer, so I can know where I am, how fast I'm going, and how hard my body is working to achieve it, all at once. And then I can upload the resulting data to my laptop and stare at it in tables and graphs and maps to come to conclusions like "I get really tired when I run up mountains" and "I should run faster." I used to come to such conclusions without the technology, but now I have data to back it up. It's ludicrous how much more fun it is to go running when you get statistics at the end. I don't remember how I ever went running without a box on my wrist telling me if I was doing it right or not.

I took my GPS watch in my flight bag everywhere I went, so that if I had time to go running at the end of the day, I'd have the motivation of knowing how far and fast I was going, and also so I could activate the "Return to Start" feature. Return to Start gives turn-by-turn directions to get me back to the hotel, regardless of how identical the suburban streets, wooded trails, or gravel road turn-offs appear to be. I don't know that I would be still wandering around a highway truck stop somewhere without it, but there's more oxygen deprivation in my brain after fifteen kilometres of pushing my pace than after five hours of sucking supplemental oxygen through my nose at 17,000'. It's nice not to have to worry which forks I took in the trail network of an unfamiliar town.

I have my data all in Garmin's Training Center software: years of runs from Alaska to Florida and many where I have to zoom out on the little map several times before I figure out which little town with limited map information is traced by the record of my exertions. I like to review this data and use the Training Center "Compare" feature to virtually race the years-ago Aviatrix. (I'm pretty sure I can still take her). But while I've become sleeker, faster and more resilient with the years, the watch hasn't fared as well. It became harder to charge, and reluctant to connect to the computer to give up its data. The beeping sounds stopped working, and then it started shutting off in mid-workout. It's well out of warrantee, and the model is discontinued, so I had to choose a replacement. I could probably export the data in a standard format. Garmin is so prevalent in the GPS field that any manufacturer that couldn't convert or use their formats might be a little silly. But my first choice was just to stick with Garmin.

Their website is a mess of poor feature explanations. It doesn't suggest an upgrade path from the 305 to another product. I didn't find an overview on what the focus of the Forerunner, vivo-, or fēnix lines is, nor could I see any coherent logic to the Forerunner model numbers and suffixes.

I thought I'd had an e-mail conversation about this back when the Forerunner was still available and one could send it in to a Garmin-approved dealer for a flat-rate "repair" (obviously a replacement with a reconditioned model, but it was worth the $75 for me back then). Mining my e-mail archive for "GPS watch" found me all my old blog posts that mention "GPS" and "watch". The insane detail I included allowed me to relive some interesting flights and revisit all manner of places. No wonder people who weren't on the flights to begin with enjoyed reading them. This has somewhat inspired me to find a way to keep blogging about them. Perhaps I'll talk to the owner about the blog.

I tore myself away from my former adventures to google up second hand explanations and information on features and backwards compatibility of Garmin products. There are SO many models. Finally I decided to artificially limit my choices by going to a store and making my selection from only what they had. I took my flaky old Forerunner with me, and on the bus ride there, noticed that the crack between the layers of the case was quite wide. With no prying or wiggling, I lifted the face of the watch right off the back, revealing its electronic innards. Well no wonder it wasn't staying on, charging and connecting. I was lucky it hadn't fallen apart during a run. I feared I had killed it by carrying it with me everywhere, including into the flight levels in an unpressurized airplane.

The higher you go in the atmosphere, the less air there is on top of you, thus the less pressure you feel, so that instead of being all squished together to sea level pressure, the molecules are all spread out. One breath takes in less oxygen, unless I supplement it from a tank, which I do, through the aforementioned nose tubes. Anything with air sealed into it that I bring up from ground level retains the same pressure inside that it had on the ground. As it ascends, the differential between the inside pressure and the outside pressure increases, producing a force acting to expand the sealed container. The tank full of breathing oxygen is cylindrical, and its strong walls and robust valves are inspected weekly to ensure that as the pressure outside the tank decreases, the tank will not rupture, bulge or leak from the added force. Potato chips are deliberately packaged with trapped air, to protect the chips, and their bags will bulge out drum-tight, and sometimes burst, as we ascend. The gases in our intestines and ear canals expand and escape through the usual routes. I was afraid that the air sealed into my GPS watch damaged it. But then I realized that the Forerunner 305 isn't waterproof, and my Timex wristwatch, which works perfectly, is. (I'd tell you what model Timex, but it's so old that all the words have worn away, and the chunks of decorative plastic stuff have fallen off, leaving a bare case with buttons on it). A little more research showed me that plenty of people had their Forerunners come apart, sometimes falling off bike mounts and/or being run over by cars.

I got to the store and interrogated the clerk about the selection. I was almost ready to buy a Garmin Forerunner 225. It has the heart rate monitor integrated in the watch itself, with no need for a chest strap. It has a built-in accelerometer to give pace and distance information on indoor treadmill runs. "What about winter?" I asked. "Can I use it with a chest strap in the winter, when I wear the watch on the outside of long-sleeved garments?" To answer this question, the clerk went not to the Garmin website, but straight to the blog of DC Rainmaker, an obsessive sports technology reviewer. I'd encountered one of his reviews while googling for compatibility information earlier, and not noticed that everything I could ever want to know about pretty much any sports watch is on this guy's blog. The Forerunner 225 will pair with a chest strap, for people who mount it on bicycle handlebars, as well as winter runners, but it was missing a couple other features that I wanted. Indeed none of the watches they carried had the Back to Start feature, so I went home without buying any of them, and went back to DC Rainmaker's site.

Ray Maker (get it?) conveys the excitement of taking a new electronic toy out of the shipping box, gazing at its packaging, and then breaking the shrinkwrap. He includes photographs detailing the plastic bags and twist ties containing all the sub-components of the products. He does more running, biking, and swimming to test one device for a review than some buyers will log in the lifetime of their device. Every review is ridiculously detailed. Some people would say too detailed. So a little like many of my blog entries, if I did way more research. It parallels the way I'd like to blog if I had the diligence to drill down to the technological and legal root of everything I said, rather than speculating and drawing on knowledge already in my head. It made me cheer a little when I found a typo now and again, on his site, because it just goes to show that typo-free is not a requirement for an insanely awesome blog. He also displays a lot of integrity: he borrows and returns all reviewed gear despite the fact that his reviews are clearly enough work to deserve a lot of freebies. If you run or bike and like gear, you almost certainly already know his site, but if you don't you're in for a treat. If you never do anything more energetic than opening the refrigerator, but just like tech, especially GPS, you'll probably still want to read his site. The comparison tool there allowed me to quickly determine that the correct watch for my needs is the Forerunner 310XT. It wasn't at the store nor prominent on Garmin's website because it is ALSO being discontinued. I decided to get one now, through a site DC Rainmaker partners with, to compensate him for the work he does. I had some trouble with that site, so posted a comment on his blog, and as I was already thinking of blogging about the experience, I signed the comment "Aviatrix."

It turns out that DC Rainmaker is a long-time reader of Cockpit Conversation. It made me feel like a member of an elite when he asked if I was that Aviatrix. As I told him, some days I’m convinced that there are far fewer people on the Internet than is generally thought. Maybe it’s just you, me, the awesome people who comment on our blogs, and a lot of Chinese spambots.

Meanwhile I ordered a Forerunner 310XT somewhere else, bound my Forerunner 305 together with rubber bands, found it worked perfectly, glued it together with silicone sealant (as recommended by several people on the Internet), and am currently in high level discussions with my printer on why it should print the return mailing label for the 310XT. When the 305 gasps out its final beep I'll do this again, probably with a whole new set of features. I might get one of the "lifestyle" watches that track your every move, including sleeping.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

You Won't Believe What This KLM Flight Attendant Said

I hate those headlines, but I was feeling uninspired.

There's a human factors exercise known as the "Five Hazardous Attitudes," where pilots evaluate their tendency towards different safety ways of neglecting the safest route. It occurred to me today that airline passengers suffer from exactly the same tendencies. They are anti-authority: disregarding crew instructions just because they don't want to be told what to do. They are impulsive: too busy to pay attention or to do it right. They don't want to think about it so pretend they are invulnerable or can handle it on their own. And very often they are resigned and don't take any responsibility for their own safety.

A friend was irritated by a flight attendant asking her to pay attention to a passenger briefing and commented, "Surely these people don't actually believe that anyone is getting out alive if that thing goes down in Irish Sea?!" Last time I was at my annual medical I was complimented on my low blood pressure and as the doctor explained how the machine worked he commented that at other times, my blood pressure might be higher. I think this is one of those times. Aviatrix rant activated.

People get out. Smart, lucky people who have paid attention in the safety briefing and remembered how many rows to the nearest and alternate exit in each direction. I am a professional pilot and I pay attention to the safety briefing when I am a passenger.

An A340 jet went off the end of the runway into a ravine, in Toronto during a thunderstorm. Half the exits were unusable, and 90 seconds later the aircraft burst into flames and burned to a shell. EVERYONE GOT OUT. With few, minor, injuries.

An A320 ditched in the river in New York. One dipshit passenger who hadn't paid attention to the emergency briefing opened a door that was not to be used in the case of a water landing. That passenger jeopardized the lives of others, and most of the passengers forgot to take their seat cushions with them to use as a flotation device, but EVERYONE GOT OUT. Mainly minor injuries, the worst may have been to a flight attendant who was trapped in the rear because of the stupid passenger.

A B767 that had been hijacked ditched in the Indian Ocean, out of fuel, and while the captain was struggling with hijackers. FIFTY PEOPLE SURVIVED. Many of those who did not survive died because they didn't pay enough attention to the emergency briefing to remember not to inflate their life jackets before leaving the aircraft.

You put down what you are doing, you take off your headset and you pay attention to that announcement as if your life and the lives of those around you depend on it. Because they do. Decades of research have gone into manufacturing the aircraft and safety equipment and training the crew to give you the safest flight possible. The least you can do is pay attention for ninety seconds.

In non-rant mode, I have to admit that Doreen Welsh wasn't really trapped, and that her difficulty evacuating was because of an injury sustained in the crash, but a passenger opening the wrong door and flooding the aft of the aircraft didn't help her or anyone else get out. The point of this blog post, however, is what another friend posted in response, talking about her preflight behaviour. I'm just going to leave it here, because I have no coherent response.

I noted to the flight attendant that I didn't have a flotation device beneath my seat. She said, very quietly, but very aggressively (since she had been quick to already tell me it was nothing to do with her, since it was the flight engineers that do those checks), that we wouldn't be delaying take off to sort this out, since there was no chance we would get out alive anyway. I also never heard back from the letter I wrote to KLM.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

I See Fourteen Lights

There might be fog or mist present when I depart tomorrow from an uncontrolled aerodrome. The minimum allowable visibility for my departure is half a statute mile, so I need to be able to determine how far I can see along the runway, without a tower, a flight service specialist or an electronic runway visual range (RVR) measurement. I'll have to count runway lights.

I haven't done this in a while--you don't get fog much in the summer--so I had to double check some numbers. I found then in A Quick Reference: Airfield Standards from the US FAA. (Nice little reference. I intend to read it through in its entirety sometime, maybe while waiting for fog). It confirms for me that the lights along the runway edge are spaced 200' apart. There are six thousand feet in a nautical mile, but for some reason ground visibility is measured in statute miles, which contain only 5280 feet apiece. (I had to look that number up, too). That means that I need to be able to see half of that, or 2640' feet along the runway to meet the half-mile minimum visibility. And at this point I realize "well duh: if there is an RVR then a half mile is RVR 2600." So I'm on track. This means that if I pull onto the runway even with one set of runway lights (they are aligned with each other on each edge of the runway) I need to be able to count 2600 divided by 200, or thirteen more pairs of them, stretching away into the foggy gloom, in order to be legal. I'm happy to ignore the extra 40' because RVR values do, and because I'm looking along the hypotenuse of the triangle whose base is on the runway edge, and surely I'll pick up another forty feet there.

Whom am I kidding? This is Cockpit Conversation. We don't make assumptions about trigonometry here, we do trigonometry. The base of the triangle runs from my position at the first runway edge light, to the fourteenth runway light, and is 2600' long. Assume I'm in the middle of a runway, standard width 200', making the height of the triangle 100'. The measurement of the hypotenuse is therefore sqrt((2600 x 2600)+(100 x 100)) = 2602. So no, actually, there is almost no difference between the distance from the first runway light to the fourteenth, and the distance from my eye to the fourteenth light. That's a very skinny triangle. My assumption is wrong. So if I wanted to be a nerd, I could park thirty-eight feet back from the first pair of runway lights. But generally I want to go flying.

In order to save Americans time telling me that the RVR for half a mile is 2400, I'll confirm that in Canada and the other countries I checked researching this post, the RVR for half a mile is 2600. I don't know why Americans use 2400, and neither do the people in this thread on the subject. I especially like the way that the person who initially answers the question there doesn't notice that RVR 2400 for a half mile doesn't add up, until the student points it out. Another thing I expect American commenters to want to tell me today is that "if you have to count runway lights on short final, you should go missed." That's becase their landings are legally restricted by visibility. But Canadian landings are governed only by decision height or MDA. If the runway is visible at DH/MDA, a landing is authorized for us. Our plates have an "advisory visibility" which we can use to calculate whether we expect to be visual at minimums, but its value does not affect our legality to put the airplane on the runway. Once we are past the FAF, the RVR does not restrict us. We do have something called an approach ban which can stop us from legally attempting an approach in terrible visibility, but that's a whole 'nother topic.

Saturday, September 19, 2015


I finally updated my personal logbook, sitting down with a small stack of journey logs, a calculator and a sunset/sunrise time database, to make entries for about two and a half years worth of flights. I've never got that far behind before. I don't advise it. There's a muscle in my middle finger that hurts like I've been flipping people off all day. It's oddly nostalgic being reminded of events of that day as I copy the flight details into my logbook.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Why I Love My Director of Maintenance

I'm afraid I have to be much vaguer than I would like to be, due to the company rule forbidding operational information on social media, but I want to share the DoM's awesomeness.

The first part of the story is probably familiar to all pilots and aircraft repair personnel. We had a long text conversation about a possible snag. (Snag is Canadian-speak (I think Commonwealth-wide) for a reportable aircraft defect--Americans call them squawks). I had noticed a small discrepancy between the way I expect the airplane to behave and the way it is behaving. It has done this on a couple of flights. It's subtle, and not a mode that I use for long on a typical flight, so it probably went a while before I noticed it at all. At first I had blamed my technique or inattention for the effect, so didn't perceive it as a reportable defect. But then I got verification from someone else who didn't know what I was expecting him to observe. It's a tiny effect, but if it is a system that breaks a little bit before it breaks altogether, it could be a really big deal.

My director of maintenance patiently texted back explanations of how the system works. The texts themselves were themselves neither condescending nor dismissive, but by assembling the pieces one could read the message "that's not how it works." I respect his knowledge, and I know that the mental model I have built from the description and diagram of the system in the aircraft manual is far from the way it works to the people who actually put wrenches on it. I can understand that what I think is happening isn't readily explained by the construction of the system. It's a difficult system to inspect, but there's a fairly straightforward shop test that can be done that might confirm the observation--but again it might not, because it's possible that the aircraft has to be in flight for the effect to occur. I suggest that that test be done, and promise to try and think of another explanation for my observation.

And then a single text message says it all:

I doubt you are wrong. It's probably fucked up. I will fix it for you.

Trust, directness, and action. Is there anything else one could require from someone who maintains her aircraft?

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Delicious Donair

Tower passed me to the centre frequency just in time for me to hear, "We have the delicious donair in sight."

I could see the question marks over my non-pilot co-worker's head before she asked, "Is that a restaurant?"

While I have been asked to report overhead a McDonald's before, that was by a small tower where the controllers knew me, not on a Centre frequency. I gave her my best guess as to what had transpired, and I'll tell you what that was in a moment, after a diversionary paragraph or two on other recent ATC exchanges, in case you want to formulate your own guess before you see mine.

This one also takes place on Centre frequency, but I've been on the frequency a long time, and it's quiet. An airline pilot gives his call sign and asks, "Are you still there?" The Centre controller answers in the affirmative and the pilot explains, "It was getting lonely." That may sound like a frivolous exchange, but it's actually a slightly quirky way of making an often necessary call. It's not uncommon to get out of range of your assigned frequency before you're assigned another. Sometimes the controller is just about to swap you but there's a flurry of activity or a handover briefing and you glide out of range before they can. Aircraft at the same nominal altitude are at different actual altitudes above terrain from day to day, depending on the temperature, so the point at which terrain cuts off a signal for an aircraft at FL180 is not identical from one day to another. Your radio can die, you can accidentally switch frequency, or the controller can think they have you on one frequency when you're really on another. My approach is usually to ask for the latest altimeter setting. That confirms that I'm still in range and gives me useful information, too.

Just today a United flight made a plaintive little call for anyone on frequency to respond. They had lost contact with Centre, and asked me if I could find them a frequency. I wonder if they thought Canada was terribly primitive not to have kept track of them. I relayed their predicament to the controller. I have been in the room where those Centre controllers are, and would have half expected the controller to just lean back in her wheely chair and call out, "Who's looking for United 1126?" But nope, she asked me for the aircraft's position and then, based on that, advised me which frequency to relay back to them.

So back to the donair. My best guess was that the controller had asked them to report the Dornier [probably the Do-228, a boxy turboprop] in sight, and that the pilot decided to call it a Donair [meat sliced from a vertical rotisserie, usually served in flatbread]. If we're really lucky, someone who was on frequency for the whole exchange is a reader and we can find out the truth.

Friday, August 28, 2015

That Horrible Moment When ...

... you land at some little GA airport in the afternoon, because it happened to have a runway long enough, and it was equidistant from the various places you thought you might be asked to go the next day, and then you get a phone call at o-dark-hundred, and during flight planning you ask yourself, "Does the aerodrome have lighting?"

It did. But with fall just around the corner, I'd better start checking that.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Birds on a Schedule

A NOTAM (at some point it stood for NOTice to Airmen, but I think it's just a word now) is a bulletin advising pilots of non-meteorological hazards to aviation: e.g. runway closures, unlighted towers, air traffic control frequency outages, amended procedures, unserviceable navigation equipment or the presence of a nuisance bear at the airport. In Canada a NOTAM begins with the last two digits of the year it was issued, and then has more digits to make it a sequence number. I think the sequence is only unique for that "NOTAM file" -- the major airport under which all the NOTAM in an area are listed. The NOTAM file's four-letter code comes after the number, making the combination unique. After that is the written-out name of the individual airport to which the hazard pertains. After that is a new line, usually starting with the four-letter code for that airport. In fact I originally wrote that it DOES start with that code, but I've just noticed that sometimes they skip it. I wonder if such cases are errors. It's a little disquieting for me to realize this, because it means that one of my shortcuts could miss important information. More on that later. Whether or not the second line starts with an airport code, the rest of the line, and possibly several lines, is an abbreviation-ridden string of text describing the hazard. The last line of a NOTAM shows the period during which the NOTAM is in effect, and it can have three forms. I would have said two forms, but just found many examples like the first one below, where the final line takes the form absent:


Above, the pilot is requested to AMEND her PUBlication, in this case the CFS, because that's the one with a PROcedures section, to add the line about closing flight plans. Perhaps they used to close VFR flight plans automatically at YEG (Edmonton International), or maybe too many people were forgetting so they figured adding an extra line to what is already half a page of dense text on local procedures at the international was the right fix. This NOTAM will go away when the next issue of the CFS becomes current, right now, I think: 00z on the 20th. Also YEG is unsurprisingly in the YEG NOTAM file.

OBST LGT U/S TOWER 542759N 1153430W (APRX 13 NM S AD)
377 FT AGL 4298 MSL
1506171512 TIL 1509181330

Above we see the second form the effective period line can take: a string of numbers representing an exact date and time TIL a second such string. 1506171512 is June 17th 2015 at 1512z. I'm kind of impressed with the precision with which they noted the appearance of this obstacle. I suspect that it reflects the time at which the unserviceability of the light on top of the tower was reported, or entered into the system. The second date and time then is the one at which the NOTAM will no longer be in effect, here September 18th at 1330z. That's 7:30 a.m. on a Friday in Edmonton. I guess they ordered a new lightbulb from somewhere that has 30-day delivery and are going to install it at first light the day after it arrives. Or they told the owner of the tower that if she didn't put a light on top of that thing by Friday morning, they were going to knock it down with a backhoe. Or they just picked an arbitrary day and time for the unlighted obstacle to cease being a hazard. The end time is not a guarantee. Nav Canada just has to issue a cancelling NOTAM if the hazard is gone before then or a replacing NOTAM if the hazard will be there for longer. And this NOTAM does not give the identifier for Swan Hills, although I think it should.

1506042150 TIL APRX 1509041800

Notice that the name of the aerodrome is Edmonton/Cooking Lake and it is a waterdrome, that is a place where you can't take off if your airplane doesn't float. You can sort of land, or at least alight, but that doesn't really work out well. It used to be just called Cooking Lake, but a few years ago they subsumed a bunch of aerodromes into the entries for nearby large ones, such that you have to guess whether a given aerodrome is far enough from the large one to merit its own entry, or whether you have to look it up under the name of the nearby large city. I'm not a fan of the change.

The last line is in the third form it can take, the TIL APRX statement. It means that even if your airplane does float, you're not allowed to use the aerodrome because there isn't enough water in the lake. Because the Edmonton area has not yet perfected weather control, there is no scheduled time for the aerodrome to reopen, but they figure that by noon on September 4th there will probably have been enough rain to use the lake again. They can still cancel or replace this NOTAM with another one, so you'd think there wasn't a big enough difference between the TIL and TIL APRX forms to be worth most of a blog entry, but there's even a question about this on the PSTAR exam you have to take before you're allowed to fly. So they care.

And so now I can reveal the scheduled birds.

1508141530 TIL 1509210659

What ornithomaggedon is going to happen at precisely one minute before one a.m. on the 21st of September? I'm easily amused.

NOTAM are actually a freaking mess. You can't sort them by date or relevance. You have to sift through pages of unlighted towers at 300 agl 10 nm from an aerodrome you're not even landing at in order to find that the one you are planning on using is out of fuel, or has a sinkhole in the middle of the runway. If you want the NOTAM for one airport in an area the "file" system forces you to wade through all the NOTAM for all the airports in that area. And if you're in southern Saskatchewan there are a hundred farm strips in a file. One of my tricks is to load the NOTAM and then hit control-F in my browser and put in the identifier of the aerodrome I'm actually looking for, searching again until I'm back to the beginning and have cycled through all the ones for that aerodrome. Trick doesn't work if the aerodrome you're interested in is the same as the name of the file, and it also doesn't work if the aerodrome identifier is not included in the NOTAM. It's not the distinction between local and FIR NOTAM. All these examples are from the local section. It's not the distance from the airport, because I can find unlighted towers the same distance from an airport, both with and without the identifier. I blame kids these days.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Snark Redirect

My airport authority sent out a useless little memo "urging" everyone to play safely while at no point apologizing for or even mentioning the horrendous poorly-documented mess airport construction has made of the movement areas. My fangs came out and I wrote them a response, then remembered that these are the people I'm still waiting on to issue airside vehicle operator permits, and from whom I may need other services. So I'll tell you.

And I urge you to put out NOTAMs when you change the configuration of the pylons, taxi lanes, and gaping holes in the ramp, so that an aviatrix taxiing in dark after being away for a week isn’t in terror of her life and aircraft just trying to get between the runway and the hangar line.

Also I found a cigarette butt on airside in front of our hangar while removing the daily accumulation of FOD from the dump trucks and other construction vehicles that take turns blocking access to our hangar. Please impress upon the contractors that an airport is not an appropriate place for a smoke break.

I was working at <other airport> this summer while they redid a runway and apron and the comparison with respect to site hygiene, clear NOTAMs and speed of completion of the work makes your construction program look like kids playing in a sandbox.

I was going to say "... like a cat fighting with a skunk in my compost bin," but then I realized the metaphor had wandered too off topic and I didn't know where it was headed. Probably to raid the garden.

Monday, July 20, 2015

"My Frequency" Confession

When flying IFR, a pilot "reads back" that is repeats back all the instructions we receive from air traffic control, to demonstrate that we have heard and accept the instruction, and to give the controller a chance to notice if we have heard incorrectly, or if the controller misspoke. It gets a little silly sometimes: the pilot asks for a particular clearance, the controller clears them for it, and the pilot reads it back again, but it prevents us from descending to five thousand when it's only safe down to nine thousand. When I say pilots talk to "air traffic control," we are only sometimes speaking to someone who can look out the window of a tower and see us. We're usually speaking to someone who can see an electronic blip on a computer screen, generated in response to radar return and transponder code information from our aircraft. We may even be talking to someone who merely has a copy of our flight plan and has keep track of aircraft based on our position reports, in an area with no radar coverage. They probably have a map of their area and some cool computer tools to help them. The sky is all parcelled out vertically and horizontally into different classes of airspace, some requiring air traffic control and some not. A pilot might first talk to the clearance delivery position, then call ground for taxi clearance. The ground controller instructs the pilot to contact tower at the hold short line. The tower controller passes us on to departure or terminal and then terminal instructs us to switch to Centre. All the way across Alberta, and much of northern Canada we're talking to Edmonton Center, but as I cross Alberta I'm progressively switched between frequencies, so I'm always in range of the antenna that transmits and receives on that frequency.

The controller might say, "ABC, Contact Edmonton Centre on 132.75" and then I say "ABC, 132.75." I tune 132.75 and then call that controller, saying, "ABC, one five thousand." If a pilot neglects to acknowledge a frequency change, and just goes straight to the next frequency, the poor controller that directed her to change has no way of knowing whether she changed or just fell asleep. And of course she has to check in on the new frequency or the new controller doesn't know that the change has been made successfully. Sometimes the controller's wording is "Contact me now on 133.4." That means the one controller is managing multiple frequencies. "Contact me now" means "Switch to my other frequency" Sometimes they just say that, too, or "Switch to my frequency ..." When things aren't too busy, in remote areas or overnight there are fewer controllers, so one person may manage all the frequencies in a vast swath of airspace. Sometimes the controller sets it up so that all the pilots on the various frequencies she is controlling can hear the controller regardless of which frequency she is broadcasting on, and sometimes we can hear the other aircraft on those frequencies too. This makes it easier for us not to call on one frequency when the controller is speaking or listening on another. Sometimes the frequencies aren't paired this way so we do sometimes talk at the some time as the controller is busy on another frequency, and she has to ask us to go again.

I learned to fly IFR during the day in busy airspace where all the frequencies had their own controllers. I would read back my frequency change instructions, change frequencies, and check in with the next controller. And then I went north and honed my skills in remote areas in uncontrolled airspace where there were no Centre controllers to talk to, just pilots talking to one another, reporting when we changed altitude or passed over waypoints. So it took me a really long time to notice something. Here comes the confession.

If a controller says, "Contact me now on 132.75" you don't need to read that back on the original frequency and then switch frequencies and check in." You can just dial in 132.75 quickly and say, "ABC on 132.75." This did not dawn on my for the longest time. I noticed a pilot doing it one day, when the controller had paired the frequencies, so I could hear the pilot given the instruction to switch and simply acknowledge it on the new frequency. I think most people do this most of the time. Do you?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Beating Popular Wisdom

On Saturday, sixteen-year-old Autumn Veatch was on board a Beech Bonanza, a zippy little single engine airplane, with her step-grandparents. Autumn must have been a passenger, as one must be seventeen to pilot an airplane like that in the United States. So her grandmother or grandfather was flying it. They were en route from Kalispell, Montana (at the southern end of the Rocky Mountain Trench) to Lynden, Washington (on the west coast, just south of the Canadian border). This route crosses mountains, some of the most rugged and remote territory in the contiguous United States. The aircraft is capable of flight up to about 25,000, enabling it to climb over some mid-level weather, assuming those on board have supplementary breathing oxygen. I don't know if they did, or if they flew at oxygen-requiring altitudes on this flight. In the US a pilot can cruise indefinitely up to 12,500' without supplementary oxygen, and the mountains in that area are not so high that they would need to be above 12,500'.

Autumn has probably flown with her grandparents before. She looks comfortable in her headset and a photo of her wearing it was available to the press. I don't think that her parents would have given it to them. CBC likely got the photo off social media. My experience shows that reporters will creep the Facebook galleries of a person, their family, employer, and known associates in order to print pictures of them and their family in association with a story. Having an unusual name just makes it easier for them. The Bonanza crossed the Idaho-Washington state line and then dropped off radar. If US radar is anything like Canadian radar in that area, that disappearance itself is nothing to be concerned about. Radar just doesn't cover aircraft below the flight levels as they cross that expanse of mountains. Typically Canadian controllers let the pilot know that they have been lost from radar, and that they are likely to lose radio contact also, then give the pilot a time and frequency to attempt to contact the next controller. But the Bonanza pilot did not ever contact the next controller. The aircraft was reported overdue on Saturday afternoon.

Autumn said that the plane entered a bank of clouds and then crashed and caught fire. Autumn escaped from the wreckage, largely uninjured. and stayed in the area, a mountainous, wooded and probably kind of smoky spot: smoky from numerous forest fires in British Columbia, in addition to the smoke from the burned plane. If she had her phone with her she may have tried to use it, but was unable to get a signal, or perhaps the battery was dead. Searchers were able to track the aircraft occupants' cellphones until about an hour and a half after the plane was lost from radar. Five aircraft equipped with special radios for detecting the missing plane's emergency-locator transmitter searched the mountains, while ground crews focused on the area along their course not far past where they dropped off radar.

The usual advice for anyone in an airplane crash is to stay with the aircraft and wait for rescue. The logic is that the airplane is a large metallic object that may have been tracked on radar and is probably emitting an emergency signal that can be tracked by satellites and search and rescue aircraft, while you are a tiny piece of meat who doesn't know exactly where she is. You are at risk of falling over a precipice, getting more lost and injuring or exhausting yourself. Whether Autumn knew this advice or not, she followed it for about a day and then decided to walk out. It was mostly downhill, but she didn't fall over a cliff. There was a trail and she followed it, walking for a couple of days. She came out at a road, the somewhat ambitiously-named "Highway 20." The road is often closed in the winter, but probably she didn't have to wait too long for someone to drive by. A motorist gave her a ride to the little town of Mazama, where they called 911.

Autumn is physically okay, but the civil Air Patrol has turned the search over to the Navy. Reading between the lines of the story, one can only presume that the grandparents were killed in the crash or the post-crash fire. No wonder Autumn chose to leave the site. I haven't searched for information beyond this one news story. I could probably find that half my assumptions are wrong if I looked a little further, but this isn't news reporting. I've merely added some information based on my own experiences. The NTSB preliminary report isn't even up yet. I don't know Autumn or her family. I just happen to have written a story a couple of years ago that included a sole survivor of a single-engine plane crash walking out of the woods in the northwest, and a damaged Beech Bonanza turned up in our hangar today, so it struck a chord.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Stowaway Cat

Here is one of the many reasons why there is not an exhaustive list of things to check on preflight inspection. You just walk around that airplane and poke bits of it until you're satisfied that it is airworthy. You'd think that would have included spotting a cat in a translucent wing, but apparently not. The cat seems less upset about the whole experience than the typical cat is about vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, or a change in cat food brand.

I have unexpectedly found cats in or on an aircraft on three occasions, but two were in the hangar and one was a cat in a cage that was part of cargo, and the PIC knew it was on board. Current boss won't let us get a hangar cat. We had to settle for a hangar fish, which doesn't do much about the mice and birds.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Is The Best Part Taking Off?

A friend wrote today to congratulate me and my countrymen on the 106th anniversary of powered flight in Canada, and then he followed up to ask "is the best part taking off? I always imagine that the best part must always be taking off." And he's right.

You get in and put on your seatbelt and make sure everyone's settled and nothing is in the way, just like heading out for a car trip if you have multiple children inside and pets possibly running around outside. (Don't forget to preflight your car by banging on the hood to evict cats or squirrels that might be snuggling up to your engine block for warmth). You start the engines, and while each one springing into life and turning around is a little victory, especially when it's cold, that's only a little more triumphant than getting the car started. It's nice to see the oil pressure come up, the vacuum pumps show that they are online and sucking, and the alternators come on line and flip the polarity of the charge rate shown on the ammeter, but those are just steps in the preamble. Taxiing to the runway is a bit of a warm up for the pilot, just as the run-up is a warm up for the engines, but finally you're cleared into position on the runway. It's big, like a wide open stretch of three-lane highway with no traffic ahead of you and you know for sure no speed traps. Cleared for take off, you put in the power and feel acceleration, and the rumbling of the tires against the pavement. You keep the airplane aligned with the centreline with your feet. At the correct speed you pull back on the yoke and lift the nosewheel off just a little bit. You wait, and in a few seconds there is no more rumbling. You are in exactly the same attitude, slightly nose up, but now YOU ARE SUSPENDED IN AIR! That's the best part.

Take off is also the part where the most spectacular things can go wrong, so it’s very alert and exciting, as you have to watch all the indications to ensure that none of those things are going wrong, and mostly they don’t go wrong, so that’s a good part too. Imagine that every time before you merged onto the highway you were legally required to recite what you would do if a bad thing happened, so you were all psyched to do whatever one would do if a semi crossed two lanes and tried to take you out. And then you merged and nothing bad happened at all. It’s a mini celebration every time.

I can't imagine the multiplication factor for the thrill of taking off in the Silver Dart in 1909. The aircraft took off from an ice surface, but was on wheels, not skis.Tricycle gear with fairly large, spoked wheels. (On later flights the rear wheels were replaced with skids). The vibration on the take off roll must have been quite juddering. Sea ice is not smooth like a hockey rink and those wheels are not mounted on piston-like oleos the way mine are. The account says that the craft was airborne in about a hundred feet. It would have been very obvious to the pilot the instant the wheels left the ice. People were throwing their hats and mittens in the air. The pilot flew for about half a mile and landed back on the ice, quite gently by his own account.

While a smooth landing is satisfying, and harder to achieve in an airworthy craft than a smooth take off, anything can land. For millennia we could only dream of taking off.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Shutdown Checklist

During an annual training session for flight followers, my ops manager stated that no information on company operations was to be posted on social media. This restriction definitely wasn't targeted at me, and don't think anyone at work knows about this blog, but the ban definitely includes the sort of things I have been posting here. I'm going to respect that request. Kinda too bad, because I have lots of stories to tell, but I have a rule that if your employer wants something done, and it's safe, legal and moral, you do it.

I will blog less now, and what I say will probably be duller without the personal anecdotes, but it may be truer to the original purpose of the blog: to learn by explaining.

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Ultimate Flight Bag

My current flight bag is a backpack. It's black, has the brand name Jaguar on it, and is in a traditional tombstone shape: flat on the bottom and curved on the top. There is a main zippered compartment with a smaller zippered compartment on the front of it, and a third, yet smaller, zippered compartment on the front of that. It looks nice and symmetrical with the three concentric zippers. In it I keep all the personal things I need to access outside of the hotel room, especially during flight: batteries, gloves, pens, lip balm, kleenex, pee bags, oxygen tester, more pens, flashlight, magnifying glass, other flashlight, extra binder clip, what the heck is this doing in here? You get the idea. It is also kind of worn out. The fabric has separated next to the zipper at the top of the largest compartment, so I can zip it closed, but it's still not completely closed.

So being busy, my first pass at solving this problem was to ignore it. The problem is not especially amenable to sewing, because the material is all frayed away from the edge, and there isn't a lot left on the zipper side to sew into. Maybe I should try to find an appropriate patch not made of duct tape, but, being a geek, my second course of action involved duct tape. The duct tape didn't last the first week of the season, so I started looking at ideas for a new bag.

I looked at the BrightLine bag over four years ago, and even had a link (now expired) to buy a discounted one, but I didn't buy one then. They've since been improved and are more modular, and I am considering them again. The blog entry I wrote then suggested that a Spider-Man backpack would be an unprofessional choice, which is amusing, because I've been considering getting a Star Trek or Top Gun backpack this time around. I also still have that leather messenger bag that I was using at the time I wrote that four year-old entry, so I think I'll try it again for a while before I buy something new. Your flight bag suggestions, links and stories happily accepted.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Drones and the Grey-Haired Biddy

For reasons that I don't wish to elaborate on, today I was reading Mary Worth, a legacy soap opera cartoon about a self-righteous senior citizen who can't keep her nose out of her neighbours' business. She's cast as the hero of the strip, always fixing everyone's problems with sage platitudes and quotations (usually mis-attributed or out of context) with never a hair out of place. I was reading the comic online and the page served me an ad on Transport Canada UAV regulations. It was the blandest little ad, no picture, just a slogan like Know How to Use a UAV, and the Transport Canada logo. (Yes, I've refreshed the page thirty times in search of the ad, but all I get now is cruises, AMEX and evening gowns). If I weren't concerned about the technology, I doubt I would have noticed the ad nor known what it meant. As it is, I wasn't entirely sure what it would be about until I clicked on it.

It lead to this page, which lists the places you cannot fly your unmanned vehicle:

  • Closer than 9 km from any airport, heliport, or aerodrome.
  • Higher than 90 metres from above the ground.
  • Closer than 150 metres from people, animals, buildings, structures, or vehicles.
  • In populated areas or near large groups of people, including sporting events, concerts, festivals, and firework shows.
  • Near moving vehicles, avoid highways, bridges, busy streets or anywhere you could endanger or distract drivers.
  • Within restricted airspace, including near or over military bases, prisons, and forest fires.
  • Anywhere you may interfere with first responders

It also requires the drone operator to have direct visual contact (not remote camera) with the craft at all times, and has provisions for Special Flight Operations Certificates for people who need to fly in these areas.

This list is not all that different from a list of places you aren't allowed to fly an airplane without contact with air traffic control or other airspace users, plus it restricts drones to an altitude below the lowest operational specification I've ever had for operating an airplane. It's a set of rules that should keep innocent bystanders and licenced airspace users reasonably safe from drones. It's also a set of rules that almost no toy helicopter operator will ever comply with.

Do you know where all the heliports, airports and aerodromes are in a ten kilometre radius of where you are? Did you say there aren't any? Are you within ten kilometres of a hospital, television news station, or navigable water body? Chances are, the first two have heliports and the water is used for seaplanes, and there may also be a heliport to ferry harbour pilots to and from the ships. I have been in plenty of towns where the whole town is within ten kilometres of the airport.

But lets say you're diligent and manage to get nine kilometres from any airport. You drive out of town, away from the airport, and heliport to a big empty field. This field is the size of a Canadian football field and there is nothing in it. That sounds like a pretty prudent place to fly your model airplane, doesn't it? Can you fly your drone in this field, below 90 metres? If there is a cow looking over the fence on one side, a haybarn in the next field over the other way, or a road with any traffic at the end of the field, then no. A Canadian football field is 150 m long, so even in the very centre of that field, you are not 150 m from the listed hazards.

Even if you stay a football field length away, you're still probably "near" a large group of people. That's not even well enough defined to determine how easy it is to violate accidentally. The "military bases, prisons and forest fires" plus the prohibition on interfering with first responders will probably cover most restricted airspace, but I can think of some wonderfully remote spots not obviously associated with any of those institutions, where the airspace is restricted. Heck, when I was a kid I got in trouble--where in trouble means a stern man in a military police car talked to my dad--for flying a paper kite. We had managed to infringe on the protected airspace for a military airport in the area.

These regulations render pretty much all recreational UAV use illegal. Even in their video--look at the very first few frames--there appears to be a structure, a two or three story building. Would you say it was within 150 m? I'm not sure. It's really hard to find a location that meets all the criteria.

There are no grey-haired old ladies in the video, and neighbourhood busybodies should now know that it is unlawful to snoop on your neighbours with your drones. I think it's more of a Mary Worth move to go up to the couple with the UAV and tell them off for disturbing the dog. The dog in the hammock may be the best part of that video. Or maybe the man and woman are just friends, and Mary set them up with the drone to try and push them into a relationship they don't want.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Where Is That?

An "ordinary" flight plan, filed by a pilot whose goal is to get from point A to point B, has a fairly simple format: a point of origin, a route, and a destination. The origin and destination are typically airports. (Those of you who start or end your flights in places other than airports know what it's like to be not filing an "ordinary" flight plan). A route may be along airways, direct between points, or a combination of the two. They're fairly similar. On an ICAO flight plan, to go direct between points you can just write the identifiers of the two points side by side and it's assumed your route between them is direct. On a Canadian flight plan you can also put a D between them, typically written with a horizontal arrow across the middle of the letter. If part of the route will be on an airway, you specify the point at which you will enter the airway, and then name the airway, finishing with the point at which you will exit the airway. Specifying the points is the subject of this post.

If point A and B are airports, they are easy to specify, as every airport has a four-character code. I say character and not letter because while the bigger ones have four-letter codes, smaller airports may have digits included. Many airports I know the codes for by heart, while others I have to look up in the CFS. Other points along a flight plan might be NDBs, identified by two-letter codes, VORs, identified by three-letter codes, or intersections, identified by five-letter codes. And then of course there is me, going to random places that are not at any of these easily filed waypoints.

I can specify my location by giving a latitude and longitude, there's even an official format for such a waypoint: 5025N09823W, although I usually leave a space after the N. I hope that doesn't irritate anyone. Another way to give a location is "fifty nautical miles northwest of" some other point. You code it as the point, the bearing, and the distance. I once filed such a waypoint: EC330050, and the flight planner called me back to ask me what it meant. It was an obscure little NDB that no one ever filed to, so combined with the bearing and distance information, he just didn't clue into what it was.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Regional Rivalries

In the course of our operations we operate both VFR and IFR, often switching between the two regimes, sometimes more than once, in the course of a single flight. VFR stands for Visual Flight Rules, and the rules are simple. As long as my company knows where I am, I don't need to file any flight plan, follow any specific route or maintain a particular altitude or speed. Under VFR I am not allowed above 18,000' in most places, and I need to plan a landing with thirty minutes of fuel remaining, and I need at all times to be able to navigate and maintain control of the airplane by looking out the window at visual features, e.g. rocks, lakes, roads, cities and the horizon. If I can't see where I'm going, I must file IFR.

IFR stands for Instrument Flight Rules. It requires an advance flight plan showing a precise routing, a clearance before departure, and permission to make any changes in altitude or heading. In any area, I'm not allowed below the minimum IFR altitude, even if I can see that it's perfectly safe. If I fly IFR at all during a day, I am limited to eight hours of any flying during that day, which may limit reaching an objective. I must fly IFR if the weather conditions anywhere along the route do not allow me to fly visually, or if I wish to fly above about 17,000'.

So you can see that if my company wanted me to leave an area of poor weather, do some low level flying in an area of good weather, and then land somewhere else covered in low clouds, I would need to be IFR then VFR then IFR. But if the task was to fly low over a city for thirty minutes and then climb up to flight level 220 (about 22,000') for three hours and then then land at a tiny airport in the mountains with no instrument approaches, I would be VFR then IFR then VFR. Such a plan is called a composite flight plan. This shouldn't be that complicated, except that the people in the IFR and VFR systems hate one another. As best as I can tell, the controllers that handle the stereotypical high speed, prestigious IFR traffic are contemptuous of the people in the system that handles the slower, lower, quirkier VFR traffic, and the VFR folks in turn resent the IFR controllers. They aren't really set up as two different systems. The Flight Service Specialists who track VFR flights also pass clearances to IFR traffic, but they get it from the people who will be managing the IFR flight after departure. Those same controllers handle many VFR flights, but in many cases they release us as soon as we are clear of controlled airspace, lacking radar coverage or time to pay attention to flights they have no legal obligation to provide coverage for.

Let's say I file an IFR flight plan out of Frog Valley, proposed to last two hours and terminate under VFR in Weasel Swamp. I can file this flight plan with either the predominately VFR FSS or with directly with the IFR data people. If I do the former, the FSS will simply forward the IFR portion to IFR data, where the planners will map it out to ensure that it doesn't interfere with other traffic or violate any rules or procedures. If I file with data they will lob the VFR portion off to the FSS. So imagine I depart on that flight, but after an hour company calls and tells me to fly to Ptarmigan Inlet. I tell the controller that we aren't going to Weasel after all, please amend our destination to Ptarmigan, estimated time enroute, three hours from now. I request descent out of controlled airspace, turn en route for Ptarmigan Inlet and then an hour out call up Flight Services to update destination weather. At least half the time I will encounter a controller who is on the edge of frantic, considering me an hour overdue into Weasel. The IFR controllers forget to propagate the change in destination and ETA through the system, even when I explicitly confirm with them that they will. Simultaneously changing flight rules, destination and ETA is an extremely common occurrence for our operation. I tried for a while explicitly telling the IFR data controller NOT to propagate the VFR portoin of the plan, that company flight following would handle it, but they didn't always comply with my request, so I still had to check, and I discovered that the FSS was annoyed at being circumvented. I now always close the flight plan with both the IFR controller and Flight Services, but often terrain, altitude or remote location prevents me from reaching an FSS right away. I've learned, however, that when I call late, telling the annoyed flight service specialist that I did amend the plan, but the IFR controller forgot to pass on the change immediately soothes the wrath. In fact, just about any error occurring in the course of a composite flight plan can safely be blamed on the part of the system you are not currently speaking to. A similar lack of communication, but not the outright hatred, applies across provincial and territorial borders, even on a flight plan that is not composite. A controller from one flight information region (FIR) was unfamiliar with the abbreviation PTD (proposed time of departure) that designated the content of a blank on a standard form from an adjacent FIR, and to work the edges of our national, integrated air traffic control system, it pays to have an intimate knowledge of regional and departmental preferences.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Your Clearance Cancelled Time is Cancelled

I overheard this post title on switching to a frequency. No one has ever said that to me and I'm not certain which of two possible but contradictory meanings it might have. If I received it, I would ask a clarifying question, but the pilot who received it did not.

Before departing on an IFR flight, a pilot first files a flight plan, specifying for the air traffic control system exactly which route she intends to follow, with what timing. The flight plan may be filed online, by phone, or sometimes by radio. I usually file mine by phone, because I can do that while using my eyes and the non-phone-holding hand for other things, and can say what I'm doing in words rather than having to code it for the online form. I would only file by radio if I discovered while airborne a need to convert to an IFR flight, and I was out of cell tower range so I couldn't use my awesome Bluetooth headset-iPhone combo. (I didn't want Bluetooth at the time I bought the headset, but I needed a new headset RIGHT AWAY and that was all they had in stock. If you ever have reasons to talk to someone on the phone with your engine(s) running, get the Bluetooth. The days of holding the phone against your ear and yelling, "I can't hear you: I'm in the plane" are over).

The IFR flight plan is supposed to be filed minimum thirty minutes before departure, but the controllers are generally so awesome that the plan is coded and available in the system in minutes. When my company says, "Can we go to Fort Dead Royalty now?" and the flight requires an IFR clearance, I say "sure," file the flight plan for thirty minutes hence, and then board, start, run up and call for clearance. My actual take off time will usually be fifteen to twenty minutes after filing, and I'm calling for clearance as few as five minutes after filing, but it's almost always ready as soon as I need it.

The clearance I get may be identical to the one I filed, or it may be altered to comply with local procedures I didn't know about, specific runways that are active, or I may be cleared not to my destination airport but to an intermediate point, requireing me to get a new clearance before I leave that point. (Yes, I would have to stop and hold, flying in a little oval, if I hadn't received the clearance by then, but it's almost always given to me before I need it). If the airport I will be departing is a controlled airport, then when I am ready to take off, the tower controller will talk on the phone to the IFR departure/en route controllers and get an IFR release, allowing them to clear me for take off. But if the airport is uncontrolled: unstaffed or staffed only by a Flight Service Specialist, the initial IFR clearance will include a clearance cancelled time. The controller giving me the clearance is going to ensure there is a space in the system for me, but if I'm not airborne by the clearance cancelled time, I'm not allowed to go, because my space will have passed by. My departure clearance will have been cancelled. Sometimes there is also a clearance valid time, meaning that I can depart any time between the clearance valid and clearance cancelled time.

So if I were given a clearance cancelled time, and then my clearance cancelled time were cancelled, my first guess is that that means the traffic that was going to be a problem after the clearance cancelled time is no longer considered to be interfering with me--perhaps it has changed course or altitude--and that I can delay as long as I like before take off. My second guess is that "your clearance cancelled time is cancelled" is synonymous with "your clearance is cancelled." I'm ninety-five per cent sure that the first meaning is correct, but because there is a chance that I'm wrong, I'd ask. Beats getting run over by a Boeing 737.

Friday, January 09, 2015

The World Is For Me

I imagine a spectrum in which each person's feeling of entitlement shows up as a different colour. On average, people feel entitled to somewhat more than the world can provide for them, leading to the phenomenon of the tragedy of the commons, a general dissatisfaction with one's lot, or the assumption that rules are for other people, and that whatever works best for me is the thing to do. So at one end of the spectrum we have Mother Teresa who sees that the world has problems, and that there is something she can do about some of them, so dedicates her life to helping people. At the other end we have extreme psychopaths who will kill someone for entertainment. Some people dump unwanted items and garbage in vacant lots or on the highway. Some people separate all their unwanted items into things that can be used again by others, various types of recyclables, and garbage, and then make the effort to get them all to the right places. Some people organize others in their community and go out to clean up garbage that has been dumped in vacant lots. I'm not saying that Mother Teresa never littered or that if you throw your trash in my backyard you're probably a psycho killer, but these are examples on the spectrum of how much a person feels entitled to inconvenience others.

I once expressed reluctance to be the first person to park in a curb lane after morning rush hour had ended, when it became legal. I said something like, "I hate to be that person who takes that lane out of service for everyone else." My friend thought that was bizarre. She said she loved to be the first person to park on a block, because it was so easy. Someone's going to be the first person to park there, so why not her? The effect one's actions will have on others affects different people's actions by different amounts. Intelligence and experience factor into it a little, but I have observed young children and those with intellectual disabilities make decisions for the good of the many. I'm not talking about decisions driven by ignorance or malice, just those made by assigning different weights to "this inconveniences me" and "this inconveniences someone I don't know." People's behaviour can be artificially bumped along these scales by laws and social norms. I want six cookies, I don't care if anyone else gets one, but I share them equally because it would be more inconvenient to me to have all these people annoyed at me and consider me rude, than it would for me to forego five of the cookies I want. It is a lot of bother to find a legal parking spot in rush hour, but my friend does so, because if she parks in the curb lane before nine am she'll be ticketed and towed, and that would be a lot more inconvenient than driving a few more blocks and walking back.

This spectrum of empathy and entitlement speaks to whether you crowd around the boarding lane at the gate before your row is called, recline your airline seat, put one of your carry-ons under the seat in front of you, and otherwise share the limited space on board a passenger airplane. And then there's this guy. I suppose it is possible that he was really as clueless as he claims, that he didn't figure out that others were queuing in the aisle because that's how one gets off an airplane. But I think he saw a special little door just for him, the way solo drivers in the HOV lanes "didn't see" the signs or the diamonds painted on the tarmac, just the opportunity for them to get where they are going more quickly. The bright side is that he showed that the emergency exits are obvious enough to use that a passenger who wasn't paying attention had no problem operating one. I wonder if he brought his carry on with him.

Secretly, don't we all want to go down the airplane slide? How much would you pay for a chance to do that? How much extra to be the one who pops the door and sets off the slide? At the $16,000 to reset, quoted in the article, I don't think it's a missed revenue stream for the airlines, especially as passengers often sustain minor injuries, such as broken ankles, during real evacuations, but wheeee! slide!

The aircraft I fly doesn't have an escape slide, but I require all crew members to practice opening and egressing through an emergency exit at annual training. It causes a little wear and tear on the aircraft and the crew members, but I flew so many airplanes myself without ever having actually operated their exits, that I wanted it done. It's hard to describe exactly how it opens until you do it, and this way we know for sure that they work.

Oh! Don't tell anyone, but I'm going to see if I can get a toy inflatable slide for this year's training.