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.

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.