Wednesday, March 30, 2016

How Far Along Are You?

My company recently bought a new airplane for our fleet. I may have blogged already about the previous owner and his son watching it go like it was a child going off to college. We told them we weren't sure exactly when we would arrive, so to leave it out on the ramp for us to collect, after the payment cleared. But they preferred to make the trip from town out to the airport on our schedule, to open their hangar and tow it out for the last time. The ops manager and I flew it to its new home, and then it sat in our hangar for a while, which maintenance discovered and rectified decades of idiosyncratic repairs. The wiring for the wing strobes was literally wrapped around the aileron cables, because there's nothing better than abrading through electrical wiring right by your fuel tank, while restricting the movement of your flight controls. There were a coupled of days I was alerted for an impending test flight, and then waved off, because the final run up had turned up a new leak or suspicious behaviour. The right side brakes weren't working. Even though I fly it single pilot from the left, and right brakes are optional on the type, a problem with the brakes is a problem with the braking system, and cannot be allowed to stand.

Finally, I was to instructed to fly it to another airport for a specialty refit. The avionics haven't been addressed yet, so I waited for the weather to improve to VFR and then grabbed the minimum plot equipment and flew it up, to take an airline flight back. The first officer stood at the foot of the airstairs as I boarded the commuter airliner, and he spotted the VFR charts sticking out of the pocket of my headset bag.

"You're an aviator," he observed. Not one to interfere with the linguistic process that is eliminating gendered terms for professions, I answered in the affirmative. (I also don't mind, guys, if you want to call yourselves aviatrices. It is a cooler word). "How far along are you?" asked the first officer.

I was halfway up the stairs by then, almost entering the cabin. What's the answer to that? Ten different jobs, an ATPL, eight thousand hours ... I ended up saying something condescending, telling him I likely had five times his hours. It could actually have been ten or twenty times: they're hiring FOs pretty green these days. I didn't mean to be condescending. I don't think he intended his comment that way either. I took it cheerfully, like being IDed at the liquor store. I was planning to apologize on the way out of the aircraft at the end of the flight, but it was windy and noisy and he was busy, so I just said goodbye with the other passengers. If you're reading, dude, this is your apology. If he's not, that's okay. I remember some pretty rude pilot passengers who thought they were better than me, from when I was flying airline, but now they're all just funny stories, so I don't mind being one of his.

To him, professional aviation is a progression from VFR to IFR and from small airports to big airports, so someone with a headset and VFR charts boarding a plane at a little airport was perceived to be near the beginning of the chain. I should have answered "oh maybe three quarters of the way there" based on the number of hours I estimate I'll accumulate before I retire. On the other hand, someone has to teach him that it's a bad idea to ask a woman "how far along are you?"

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Hotspots in the Sky

I'm working in a little corner of the sky that includes the top edge of a cylinder of class D airspace that is monitored by a flight service specialist, a slice of class C terminal airspace, and the edge of an area of uncontrolled airspace with its own air-to-air frequency for the low-level local traffic. I checked in with the FSS and they handled me for a while and then decided that I should talk to the terminal controller, to coordinate my movements with inbound IFR traffic. I did so, and tried to monitor both frequencies for a while, but it was an overlapping cacophony of sound. Even turning down the volume for radio tuned to the second frequency, I wasn't sure I wouldn't miss calls on the primary, so I told them I was going to let them go.

When the work was finished there, my next job was in military airspace. Prior negotiation had secured us permission to work in the airspace, so all I had to do was call their controller for a clearance. But just as I was about to do so, we discovered a problem. Data that was supposed to be on board in our computers was not. The data is required to do the work. We have a satellite link on board, which can be used to communicate with company, but only via short text messages, not special format data files. This wasn't an unprecedented situation. I found a community with a cellphone tower and dropped to a suitable altitude to orbit the tower until we had good bars on a cellphone and could set it up as a hotspot to log the laptop into it. The laptop wasn't charging properly and the battery was low, but there should have been enough juice to grab the data. Then I hear cursing from the back of the plane. Windows has decided that this is the right time to download and install updates.

The town with the cellphone tower also has a little airport, with a little tiny terminal. I check runway length and procedures and put my wheels down. It's much easier to download data while on the ground. Also easier to visualize. I caught myself claiming we were "uploading" data, because it had to come up to get into the airplane.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Second Best Place To Set a Bomb

An airplane I flew today had an oddly located fire extinguisher. While looking up the rules in CARS 525 on where the fire extinguisher has to be with respect to the pilot's duty station, I found some rules on airplane interior design that weren't there when I learned to fly.

(c) An aeroplane with a maximum certificated passenger seating capacity of more than 60 persons or a maximum certificated take-off gross weight of over 100,000 pounds (45,359 Kilograms) must comply with the following:
(amended 2010/06/16; no previous version)

    (1) Least risk bomb location. An aeroplane must be designed with a designated location where a bomb or other explosive device could be placed to best protect flight-critical structures and systems from damage in the case of detonation.

According to this FAA document the Least Risk Bomb Location (LRBL) has been a thing since approximately 1972. The crew should be aware of the LRBL, but we can be forgiven for not knowing, as the guidance document includes a prohibition on marking it with cute international graphics or bilingual block lettering saying something like "place unattended bombs here." For more information on determining the best location of an LRBL, you may consult a document entitled “DHS Recommended Least Risk Bomb Location Procedures for Airlines,” Sensitive Security Information (Limited Distribution). The FAA will need your letterhead and an e-mail address. I hope they do more than glance at the letterhead and go, "ooh, it's embossed, and someone used expensive design software on this, they must be a legit airline. Quick, e-mail them the secret LRBLs." Probably they have more secure procedures than that, but the whole letterhead thing is so quaint that I had to make fun of it.

If you don't have a need to know, or a fancy letterhead, you can still find out about LRBLs. The public document is interesting enough, with little diagrams and recommendations on how the LRBL should work. If you click through to look a the document, don't forget to scroll down to the name of the person responsible for it, and imagine how much fun he has at airports when he's "randomly" selected for special screening based on his name, and then they discover his carry one is full of Sensitive Security Information about where to put bombs on airplanes. Whatever city he lives in, that's where the meetings are.

The airplane I fly does not have a passenger seating capacity of more than 60 persons. Were we to discover a bomb on board, I would direct it to be thrown out the emergency exit. Such a measure would be an extreme emergency procedure for me, but its physically impossible to open an exit on a pressurized aircraft in flight, because the exits are plugs held in place by the pressure. The only way to open one would be to blow it up. The implication of the document is that that's kind of what some LRBLs do. It also points out that decompression is less harmful if it's not done explosively, so I imagine the "oh no there's a bomb on board" procedure involves an emergency descent and controlled depressurization. The descent would be so that by the time the airplane was depressurized and the oxygen in the generators was exhausted, the ambient oxygen would be sufficient to sustain the surviving passengers.

    (2) Survivability of systems:
        (i) Except where impracticable, redundant aeroplane systems necessary for continued safe flight and landing must be physically separated, at a minimum, by an amount equal to a sphere of diameter
        D = 2 v (H0 / P )
        (where H0 is defined under 525.365(e)(2) and D need not exceed 5.05 feet (1.54 metres)). The sphere is applied everywhere within the fuselage limited by the forward bulkhead and the aft bulkhead of the passenger cabin and cargo compartment beyond which, only one-half the sphere is applied.
        (ii) Where compliance with subparagraph (c)(2)(i) of this section is impracticable, other design precautions must be taken to maximize the survivability of those systems.

I think that is meant to imply that if you want to take out redundant systems, you'll need more than one bomb. Plus I'll throw you overboard with your bomb.

    (3) Interior design to facilitate searches. Design features must be incorporated that will deter concealment or promote discovery of weapons, explosives or other objects from a simple inspection in the following areas of the aeroplane cabin:
        (i) Areas above the overhead bins must be designed to prevent objects from being hidden from view in a simple search from the aisle. Designs that prevent concealment of objects with volumes 20 cubic inches and greater satisfy this requirement.
        (ii) Toilets must be designed to prevent the passage of solid objects greater than 2.0 inches in diameter.
        (iii) Life preservers or their storage locations must be designed so that tampering is evident.

What and ruin the plot of so many bad airplane movies? At least there's no rule about disabling the secret passage out of every airplane washroom into the giant avionics bay. I think the life jacket one is interesting. I've never noticed the lifejacket pouches to appear particularly tamper-resistant.

(d) Each chemical oxygen generator or its installation must be designed to be secure from deliberate manipulation by one of the following means:
(effective 2015/03/20)

    (1) by providing effective resistance to tampering,
    (2) by providing an effective combination of resistance to tampering and active tamper-evident features,
    (3) by installation in a location or manner whereby any attempt to access the generator would be immediately obvious, or
    (4) by a combination of approaches specified in (d)(1), (d)(2) and(d)(3) of this section that the Minister finds provides a secure installation.

(e) Exceptions. Aeroplanes used solely to transport cargo only need to meet the requirements of (b)(1), (b)(3) and (c)(2) of this section.
(effective 2015/03/20)

I haven't yet seen a bad airplane movie in which the bad guys repurpose the oxygen generators as poison gas grenades, but maybe it was so awesome I forgot.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Security Cordon

I woke up today to social media reacting to the attacks in Brussels. I prepared for work not knowing exactly what they were reacting to, then before I went out the door, read a news story that was low on details, telling me only of locations and explosions with the implication of Islamic terrorism. On the way into work I had the radio on, tuned to the French language station. I'm not fluent in French, so I have to use mental effort to divine meaning from the sounds, to connect the words with their meanings and have them evoke picture of what they mean. I don't comprehend every detail, and I have no mental capacity left over with which to permit the words and pictures to evoke additional thoughts. What's normally just a way to practise my French in the car also serves as a layer of insulation against the world.

I need that insulation. I empathize very easily. I enjoy bawling at fictional people's lives and deaths on Grey's Anatomy. I cry over the crises in my friends' lives. Back in 1991 I sat at the kitchen table with the newspaper front page story on the Highway of Death in Kuwait, and I cried for hours. My roommates took it in futile shifts to try to console me. I can't live like that. I have to insulate myself from other people's horror. When the next Gulf War came along and the coalition went into Iraq, I activated a mental forcefield. I cordoned off Iraq--and most of that region--as a place where bad things happen, where life is worth less. It's not. I'm sure a person in Iraq would be just as sad as you or I would be if her cat died, or he didn't get the job he really wanted, or her child got picked on in school. People don't modulate their emotions to maintain proportion to other people's tragedies. They depth of the heartbreak you feel when the person you love is no longer there for you does not vary with the number of people who died in a Peruvian bus crash the same day. The comparison might make you feel foolish on an intellectual level, but it doesn't diminish what you feel inside about your own tragedy.

The forcefield around places where bad things happen cushions me as the Daesh violence spreads north, because apparently Turkey was already inside the forcefield I was maintaining. And articles like this one show that it's not just me who uses this kind of forcefield. To switch metaphors, when there's a forest fire raging in an area, it's common to create a firebreak. Firefighters take out a swath of trees ahead of the path of the fire, to prevent it from progressing. (I have seen a situation where a forest fire was sweeping through a community, and firefighters drove a bulldozer through a mall, to create an urban firebreak). If the fire is wild enough and the wind strong enough, the fire can jump over the firebreak and spread to the trees beyond the break, or the other end of the mall, or Belgium.

I didn't realize how close to home the attacks in Belgium were, until I was approaching an international airport today. Terrorists attacked an international airport. I'm not afraid that I'm going to be attacked. I'm not walking around the terminal jumping away from Kalashnikov-toting shadows. I'm just angry that terrorists hit where I live. It's not only the people in Brussels and Ankara, and in aviation and public transit, who were hit where they live this week. Islamic people were too. I try to imagine what it would be like if someone committed an act of terrorism in the name of something I believe in. I can imagine if someone maybe killed someone in the name of equal rights for women. There would be a level on which I could empathize with the person. Yeah, it sucks being told to your face that the job is unavailable to people with your genitalia, but it's not a reason to blow people up. If it happened, there would be people hurling all kinds of retaliatory abuse at women in general, and at me in particular for being one. Heck, that happens even in response to lawful protests. I would feel a more immediate need to defend myself against the backlash, than to condemn the one or the few that carried out the act of terrorism. And then there would be men criticizing me for not immediately condemning the terrorist in the same terms that they did.

I understand how people write off all of Islam as a bad thing. Plenty of people condemn all Christians because some of them picket gay veterans' funerals or shoot up abortion clinics. It's emotionally complex to consider that there could be people who pray side by side to the same God, using the same words, but one of them would plan the death of other human beings in the name of that God, and another would be horrified beyond words that anyone could do that.

Despite my self-serving walls, I realize the ubiquity of the human willingness to do horrible things to one another. My sympathy to the victims, to those whose city or trade has been attacked, and to the innocents who are persecuted for their similarity to the perpetrators.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

All Other Names Used

I'm filling out security clearance forms today. The blank "All other names used" always amuses yet scares me. I know that most people are comfortable mentally editing this to "all other names you've ever had on a credit card" or something of the sort, but it says ALL. The same need to be honest and correct that reduced me to a quivering wreck when airport security used to ask me "Has anyone placed anything in your baggage without your knowledge?" now compels me to frown intensely at that little blank and consider getting out a separate sheet of paper and listing every alias I've ever used since they called me "Spaghetti" at camp. Or maybe I should go back to when I couldn't pronounce my own name and called myself something my parents documented as gaah. The authorities know this is the age of the Internet, but they can't possibly want all my noms de blog and Twitter handles, can they? I use the tiny size of the blank as justification to winnow the list down to just the names that have ever appeared on my ID or in media stories about me.

Maybe security checks should look at people's social media accounts. "I'm sorry, you've been denied a security clearance because you shared a really stupid meme without fact checking it." Do we really want to give someone clearance to walk around an international airport with a screwdriver in her pocket if she retweets everything Justin Bieber says? Attitudes to security do change. Once upon a time it was considered a security risk to be homosexual. Why? Because someone could blackmail you into compromising security. When society reached the point where the worst consequence of being outed by a blackmailer would be losing your security clearance, there was no reason to have such a rule anymore. Your reputation as a Wikipedia editor or a redditor may be a better indicator of your reliability as an employee than what your grade twelve soccer coach has to say about you.

I am officially challenging you to include at least one social media handle amongst "All Other Names Used" on your next airside pass or other security application.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Sorry for the Show

It's a federal offence to swear on the radio. Not that it doesn't happen, but it's extremely rare. We all censor ourselves on the radio, because the style of speaking is different, so the same expressions don't slip out as easily. If you do hear cursing on the frequency, most of the time it's because someone doesn't realize their microphone is turned on. A flight service specialist with an open mic said some truly obscene things about me once and I probably could have got him in no end of trouble, but I didn't. Today a controller made me smile by leaving a space where the taboo word fit, but leaving me to fill in the blank.

We'd called for a clearance, and the controller vectored us one way and then the other, and couldn't give us a good altitude and then finally got us going. "Sorry for the ... show," he said, the missing word before show clearly distinguishable without being pronounced. There are some expressions in English that lack a good non-profane equivalent.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Aviation Tax

Once upon a time I had a math teacher, an old school, male, teacher who taught geometry as though the ability to bisect an angle with a compass was going to be a life skill that could sustain us in our old age. I'm pretty sure I could still bisect an angle if my life depended on it but then angle bisection is the sort of thing you'd figure out how to do pretty quickly on your own, so long as for you messing around with a compass was about drawing arcs and not seeing how many different things you could stab holes in with the pointy end. The latter seems to me a more life sustaining skill than bisecting angles, but I don't have a bad word to say about geometry.

My math teacher cared about his students, even sponsored a shiny award plaque for the top math student in grade eight. And he would encourage us to get going in life. I suppose math was a frequently failed subject. He'd urge us to do well, and if we couldn't do well right away, to go to summer school and get the course completed. He was very fond of telling us that if you spend one more year in school than you need to, you will lose one year of the top salary you will earn in your life. Students often looked confused when he said this. He thought we couldn't understand that we weren't losing the first year of pay, because they were going to get that anyway, that the money was going to come off the top end, right before retirement.

I'm not sure if he realized that we were confused by the unstated assumption. We didn't see our future careers as an even steady staircase leading upwards in salary from fresh out of school to the day we would retire at sixty-five. Do people do that? It was only two years ago that I reattained the salary of my first career, the one that I left to go into aviation. Given that money was probably worth a bit more back then, I may not have reached that level yet. There are other careers with published salary schedules that I could step sideways into with a slight salary decrease, and then pass my current salary quite quickly, for a bigger pile of money on retirement. But I don't think I'll make the career change. I like flying.

And that's how it works. There are some captains at the major airlines that make a metric tonne of money, but for the most part people in aviation make less money than people with comparable training, experience and responsibility do in other fields. The people who maintain my airplane make less than the ones who maintain my car. The people who taught me to fly made less than the ones who taught me to drive. It goes all the way up: there's never a shortage of investors willing to lose money on aviation. Aviation is cool. That's the tax.