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.