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.