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.