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.