Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Days I Don't

I'm sitting in a hotel room in British Columbia while an airplane my company wants in Alberta sits on the ramp at the local airport. It's a nice airplane, but some of the equipment that required for dispatch into "known ice" has been removed for weight consideration, so with today's cold weather and convective conditions, it isn't safe or legal to fly it over the mountains. The clouds are too low to go under, too high to go over, and too highly composed of supercooled (liquid below zero) water droplets to go through. And, to be thorough, I should add too extensive to go around. An air mass that has moved across the Pacific Ocean is being forced up and over the BC mountain ranges, producing a lot of precipitation and humidity. It's a very nice hotel room, but it's stressful having my company want me somewhere, and me be unable to go.

I scrutinize each new METAR, each new TAF and each new set of GFAs looking for an opportunity. I set myself a "not after" time: if I left after that time then I would not be able to reach my destination and shut down within my permitted fourteen hours from when I started this vigil. I should just say, "screw it, not happening," but there is always a faint hope of success. And it's miserable weather here, too.

I go for a run in the miserable weather. Too slow, and I can't entirely blame my poor speed on the stumble-making cracked sidewalks, the muddy trail, the cold temperature or the traffic lights and crosswalks I have to navigate on the way to the running trail. I haven't been running enough lately. My body forgets how to do what it hasn't done consistently. I'm always on the road in the summer so I can't enter races to give me the incentive to train hard. Often in the summer there literally are not enough hours in the day for me to get legal rest and work out, too. And in the winter it's so dark in the evening I don't want to run on uneven sidewalks.

I get back to the hotel and before I do anything else I check the weather again. No miraculous path has opened through the mountains.

The glass wall of the shower stall makes up one wall of the bathroom, so I can see though it into the bedroom. It's made of a special adjustable glass, that can switch between transparent and opaque. It's fun to make it clear, and watch TV while I'm in the shower. Too bad there is no switch that will make the weather clear through the mountains.

I call the vigil off for today and go to dinner.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Information Asynchrony

As anyone who has tried to contact me through my blog e-mail knows, I'm not amazingly responsive there. It's not by accident, and I'm not ashamed of it. While I love you guys, my blog is a hobby, and the e-mail account attached to it is like a sub-hobby of my hobby. But I happened to look at it this week, and found a request for participants in a research study on a topic that interests me: pilot-ATC communications.

It's very important that information relayed between pilots and controllers be clear and understood by both parties, but it also needs to be sent efficiently. Recently I had a controller tell me that I was hard to understand on the radio, but that it wasn't my radio, it was my rate of speech. I think it may have been that I had just switched from an extremely busy frequency with the controller speaking quickly and saying "break break" between transmissions so as to get everything said, and I had matched my rate of speech to his. But clearly if I wasn't understandable, I was overdoing it.

I'm always fascinated by tidbits of research regarding the way pilots and controllers exchange information. When given a number with a doubled digit, pilots are very likely to double the wrong digit. Does this speak to how we store "3221" and "3211" in our brains? I remember being castigated in the US for reading back a runway number as "zero five" when the controller had said only "five." In Canada there are no single digit runway numbers, and apparently when I am given a runway number I assign it to one of thirty-six pre-labelled boxes in my head, rather than storing the words the controller actually said. (I still think that controller was a bit of a dick, as ATC communications are supposed to accommodate international differences, but it's possible he thought I was "correcting" him, so he was slapping me down.

The researcher says,


My name is Samuel Lien and I am a graduate student at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada conducting research on human factors in aviation / air traffic control. I am from Humans in Complex Systems Lab. Information can be found here.

I am writing this to ask if you might be able to help me, or direct me to someone who could help me create exposure to a study I am conducting that looks at the effect of information asynchrony on pilot-ATC communication. The study will be conducted completely online.

We are interested in professional pilots, preferably commercial license and air traffic controllers (any domain) as our subject-matter expert and participants for the study.

Participation in this study involves going to our online experiment website from participant’s computer as the experiment will be conducted online. Participation in this study would take approximately 2 and half hours of your time. I would like to assure you that the study has been reviewed and received ethics clearance through a University of Waterloo Research Ethics Committee.

The online experiment website is here: I haven't opened it yet, because I'm told it will take approximately 2.5 hours to complete. That's quite a chunk of time, but I intend to do it, because I think it will contribute to safety.

As far as I can tell, the information asynchrony under study is pilots getting information at times other than when they actually need it. Maybe when I've done the questionnaire, I'll know what they mean.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Out of My Nose

Six hours ago I was woken for work. Five hours ago I arrived at the airport. Four and a half hours ago I had completed a preflight inspection, towed an airplane out of the hangar, and was supervising fuelling. Three and a half hours ago I knew the weather forecasts everywhere in our purview, and was out of Candy Crush lives and unread Facebook entries. Forty-five minutes ago I was told I would be released from duty in thirty minutes. Half an hour ago I called friends to say I could be at their place in forty-five minutes. Twenty minutes ago I was given a destination to fly to. Nineteen minutes ago I filed an IFR flight plan according to the CFS-listed Preferred Routes, and cancelled with the friends. Thirteen minutes ago I started the engines. One minute ago I was at the hold-short line waiting for departure clearance. "Traffic ahead is in the circuit; turn right ten degrees as soon as safely able so as not to run him over; contact departure airborne; cleared take off." Now I'm airborne.

My clearance was to follow the filed route. I'm coming up on the waypoint at the end of the published departure from the airport. The plate says "expect radar vectors to assigned route" and sure enough the departure controller assigns me a heading. It's a left turn of about twenty-five degrees, keeping me clear of some traffic, I presume. He approves a climb right to en route altitude. I put the ice protection on before entering cloud, but the forecast was correct, and I picked up no ice at all. After about ten minutes, I'm cleared direct my next filed waypoint, to continue on the flight planned route. I come up through the cloud layers into the sun.

For two hours I fly on top of the clouds, enjoying brilliant bright sunshine. Clouds look so much nicer from the top. At top of descent the icing protection goes back on and I start down. Oxygen valve off below ten thousand, but I still have the nasal cannula on my face, because it's tangled up with my headset and I'm busy with charts and checklists and engine controls. The controller clears me to an altitude that is just above the clouds. We skim along, almost touching them. It's the only way you can see how fast an airplane goes, to be that close to clouds whipping by. I take off the cannula and set it aside. Ahh, nose freedom. I'm told to expect direct to the initial fix for the destination approach in five minutes, and I'm starting to slow down to configure for that. The airplane has microswitches in the throttles: retard either one below a certain point before the gear is locked down, and it will set off an alarm. The point at which the microswitch is tripped is a constant amount of throttle travel, but it's not marked on the throttle quadrant--and I don't look at the throttle quadrant markings while adjusting power anyway. I'm looking at the manifold pressure. The manifold pressure reading at which the gear horn will sound varies by an inch or so (I originally wrote "150 rpm or so" which is too confusing to leave, but too funny to just delete). I guess it depends on temperature and air pressure and who tuned the engine last. I sometimes want the power that low before I want to put the gear down, so I warn my crew that the alarm may sound. I do this today, and he replies with a question, "Why would that make the stall horn sound?"

I realize I have inadvertently said "stall horn" instead of "gear horn." I accept the correction and explain, "The wrong word came out of my nose."

At the end of the flight I admitted that I hadn't intended to say "nose" there either. Apparently my brain was busy processing altitude calculations and thought "nose" was close enough to the word I had asked for.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


“There is a risk involved — anything flying, there is risk.”

The above quote is from a drone operator. The drone was part of a restaurant promotion in which helicopters bearing mistletoe and cameras swoop over patrons, trying to get them to kiss for the audience. Someone got hurt.

Two things here: One, there's risk in anything. After an incident, the nature of the risk is the question, not the answer. Two, if you have an incident, shut up and let the spokesperson talk to the media. Your job is to spin the blades, not the story.

Sorry about the posting drought. You all probably know by now that I write a novel every November. (It was over 100,000 words this year, but I still think 2012 was my best effort). The posts you got last month were pre-scheduled.

Today I washed an airplane. Tomorrow we might wax it. We will endeavour to mitigate risks.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Geo Referencing

You have at some point probably seen a movie or a television show, usually for children, that uses a gimmick where a story in a book comes to life, or morph into the action of the show. Usually the pages of a book are shown on screen, with text introducing the story, and then a picture. The picture becomes live action, or perhaps the pictures move around in the text. In a movie it's a sufficiently common device that you know if it starts that way, the movie will end back on the printed page with the ornate words The End. But imagine if you were reading a regular, real book. A familiar reference book whose fonts, diagrams, and footnote style have so long been part of your life that you know exactly what to expect of it. Now imagine that a picture or diagram in that book, the one you are holding in your hand, comes to life and starts explaining itself. That's how my introduction to approach plate Geo Referencing went.

An approach plate is a diagram showing an airport runway and the procedures, points and aids associated with navigating an airplane to a point in space from which a safe landing can be performed. If shows the plan view and the side view, with symbols showing where and how to turn, minimum altitudes for each sector and part of the approach, distances, magnetic variation, and type of lighting. It tells you the frequencies for ATC, how much to add to your minimum altitude if using a remote altimeter setting, and has an effective date. The Canada Air Pilot for each region, the physical book in which these things are published is reprinted with changes every 56 days. Most plates don't change from one revision cycle to the next, but the whole CAP is reprinted. When the new one comes you strip the coil bindings off the old one and toss the pages into the recycling. You can tell there's no change if the new plate has the same effective date, worth looking at in case you have inadvertently memorized some data that has changed.

With the Fore Flight electronic flight bag, these approach plates are replicated on the iPad. Instead of paging through the coil-bound CAP trying to guess whether a particular airport will be alphabetized under its own name, or considered a sub-plate of the larger nearby airport, you hold your finger on an airport displayed on the iPad chart until a box comes up, showing all the airports that your stubby finger could reasonably have been aiming at. Tap More next to the one you wanted, then Details then scroll down to Procedures and you can tap Approach and select the approach plate you want. I haven't done a timed test from pulling the iPad or CAP out of the map box, to looking at the desired plate, but I think the iPad is faster. The paper one is easier to read in bright light conditions, even with the iPad turned up full, but in dim light the self-illuminating iPad is great, until it is pitch black dark, at which point it becomes too bright, even if you follow the instructions and turn the brightness to minimum in settings before dimming within the app.

Either way I get the familiar approach plate, very carefully replicated. It's possible to zoom into the iPad ones to read little numbers, easier than pulling out a magnifying glass, but you have to be careful not to leave it zoomed in, when that moment comes on the approach where you glance back at the plate to confirm the minimum descent altitude, and the data isn't on the screen because you zoomed in to see if that waypoint was spelled with an F or a B. A hundred feet above MDA is not a good place to have to pinch or scroll a screen.

The first time I used the iPad for an approach, I had the conventional paper chart and the iPad both out, and it was VMC. I briefed the approach, flew direct the cleared fix and then eeep! the approach plate came to life. A symbolic airplane representing my position appeared on the screen in the position where I actually was. Even though I have used moving maps for years, the appearance of a moving you-are-here dot, Fore Flight calls it "ownship position" on the plate was freaky exciting magic. Ten years from now pilots will stare at old approach plates in puzzlement, unable to situate themselves mentally. This is a huge benefit for situational awareness. It even switches automatically to the taxi diagram and shows me where I am on the airport after landing.

I learned that this was called Geo Referencing a couple of days ago, from an error message. The app told me that Geo Referencing was not available because the plates were not current. What? These are valid until November 13th. (And the error message came up in October). I think American charts are on a 28-day cycle, so the app auto-expired Canadian stuff after that time period. I brought the iPad into the hotel to try and update them. It's just downloading the same set again, I'm sure, but this is hotel internet. It hasn't worked in all the time I've spent writing this blog entry. Why did it not update everything before I left when I selected "pack" for the flight out here? There are a number of things that Fore Flight doesn't get quite right for Canada, and I haven't found a bulletin board or user forum where these things are discussed, to determine for sure whether it is the product and not me who is missing something. I now know that the iPad has to be updated at the same time as I update the GPS database (which comes from the US, on a 28-day cycle).

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Highway 63

I've been to this airport before. I remember that you can't buy fuel on Sundays, but today is Saturday, and it turns out we've landed at the same time as another pilot who has a key to the pump, so she can fuel any time she likes. When she has filled the tiny tanks on her Cessna single, we stretch the hose out to our tanks and put in fifteen times as much fuel. (The fueller who filled us beside at the FBO next to the solar-powered coke bottles said we had set a record for the amount of avgas she had ever put in one plane. But we were really empty then. I'd gone a couple of minutes into our reserves, because we were working overhead the airport, and there was another one just down the valley, in case of emergency). We go in and pay, and call a cab, which arrives eventually, in the manner of small town cabs on the weekend.

It's an okay hotel, but it's on the edge of town, and the town is spread out enough that it would take about forty-five minutes to walk to a restaurant. And probably as long to get that cab back again, so we order pizza. We try to avoid eating pizza on the road, because eventually we'll be forced to, and we want it to be a treat. We eat the pizza together in my room, while watching a show called "Naked and Alone." It's kind of like Survivor except without the odd psychological games and the uncanny ability of the women to maintain an absence of bodily hair through the whole ordeal. There are actually two people, and they do start out naked, but have made themselves television-acceptable clothing by the time I tune in. They are really miserable: diarrhea from eating too much fruit, driven crazy from insect bites, and one of them doesn't like seafood, but the other one makes him eat it. At the end they get scores out of ten for their survival skills.

In the morning we come down to breakfast, standard motel breakfast of wrapped muffins, fruit, and make-your-own waffles. We ask the clerk if she can call us a cab. There are no cabs here until 9 am. The airport is not actually very far away from the hotel, but we'll be behind schedule if we throw in a half hour walk with our baggage. Back to the breakfast room to chat with the guys in reflective outwear and work boots. They have trucks. I ask them where they work.

"We work on highway 63."

They didn't even know there was an airport around here, but agree to make a small detour to drop us off. I've hitched rides before with a friend of the hotel receptionist, a medevac pilot, someone who just came to drop off her friend at the airport, and the guy who came out to sell us the fuel. It's become just part of the adventure.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Solar-Powered Coke Bottles

I don't know what these things are. We see them on mountaintops. We saw one at an airport, just outside the perimeter fence, but obviously not installed. We thought it might have come down for maintenance or be waiting for transport to its mountaintop.

They are made of fibreglass. The transparent panes don't seem to be solar panels--I named these things solar-powered coke bottles when we only saw then from afar, and I assumed they were. The thing at the top appears to be a lightning rod, not an antenna. Are there transmitters inside? Are they radio relays? Lightning detectors? A suit of armor for a tree? Are they all over Canada or just in the mountains where we have noticed them?

I expect the full story from a solar-powered coke bottle expert who reads this blog. Don't disappoint me, Internet.