Monday, February 20, 2017

You Can Always Go Around

You might want to play the video as background music while reading or responding to this post. You've probably seen all the clips before, so you don't really need to watch it. The song, however, is good advice. I'm trying to remember the last time I did a visual go around. It's been a while. I think in the last year I've had ATC ask me to go around once when someone was slow off the runway, and I believe I've gone around of my own initiative for a tractor on the runway at an uncontrolled airport, but that may have been from a planned inspection pass rather than an intended approach to landing.

I think my recent go arounds have been more in the nature of five miles back, saying, "eh, the tailwind is too strong for this to work out. I'm going to make this a downwind for the opposite runway." I was prepared to do one not long ago when someone on frequency had reported deer near the runway, but there was no sign of them on short final. The helicopter must have scared them off. I'll be sure to practice a go-around at my upcoming recurrency training.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Cargo Pilot Status

I buy a supply of non-perishable food for crews to eat in flight or when report times are earlier than restaurant times in the remote places we sometimes overnight. Even so-called "non-perishable" food gets stale eventually, so at the end of the season, I usually take the leftover unopened packages, along with my old boots and some new pairs of socks and underwear, to a homeless shelter.

Last year I forgot that season-end ritual, so in preparing for the new season I had several packages of snacks to dispose of. Most have passed their expiry date, and while I know that the food is perfectly edible, and that anyone living on the streets would probably eat far worse things, it felt kind of scummy to give actually-expired food to the shelter. The message of "this is what you deserve" could take away more than the calories gave. I didn't really want to throw food out, though. And then I realized the perfect use for them. I took them to the pilot break room at the cargo company in the next hangar down.

I was on my way back to my office before I realized the status that action assigned to cargo pilots, but I can confirm it is correct. Homeless people still have pride. I've been a cargo pilot.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Someone Has to Read Them

The flight that was cancelled in the previous blog entry is back on again, but there's a new weather puzzle to solve. The scud is still present in the low terrain, but this time the air is stable, only trace icing expected. The clouds only go up to ten thousand, so I can climb through them and fly on top with no fancy routing. We'll cancel IFR and alerting after we get into uncontrolled airspace further north, so we can descend out of radio contact and look at the things that it's our job to look at, without people getting all antsy about us showing up to do an approach at our destination.

This time we do depart, and the flight goes as planned. The wings and windshield stay clean as we climb through the slowly brightening grey. I switch to sunglasses as we break through the top into the sunshine. I'm going northwest, and the sun has risen behind me, projecting a round rainbow on the clouds below me, visible through the propeller. It's called a glory or the glory of the pilot because you have to be between the sun and the clouds to see it. The colours repeat through the ring, faintly right into the centre and fading away to the outside. It's a light refraction effect, obviously, but according to the Wikipedia article it isn't certain how they are formed.

As we continue north, dark shadowy holes appear in the solid deck of clouds below, and then they widen to become green and grey and sparkling as the clouds scatter out and we can see the rocks and lakes and trees that define most of Canadian geography. the lakes are not yet frozen and some of the deciduous trees still have their coloured leaves. The clouds thin to occasional wisps and I cancel IFR to fly without having to follow a clearance or stay so far above terrain. Once we finish our work we turn again toward our destination. I'm listening to the Centre frequency as well as the air-to-air en route frequency of 126.7. I can't communicate with Centre, but I can hear other aircraft talking to them and pick up some information that way. A Dash-8 announces that they are in the missed approach from what we'll have to call Elk Creek. The fact that Elk Creek is below minima is a bad sign for the weather at my destination, because the two airports are relatively close, but then the Dash-8 pilot reads back a clearance to my destination. That's a good sign that overrides the bad one. He wouldn't miss and then go somewhere dubious. Sure enough I soon hear the Dash-8 pilot say he's planning the contact approach, which means he has the terrain in sight and is confident he'll remain visual all the way to the runway. He asks to fly direct a fix I'll call WIBEL and then I start to be able to hear the controller, who can't find WIBEL, even after the pilot spells it. The pilot tells him which approach it's on, and that it's the fix before AXFUG. (I wonder who makes these things up. It's kind of fun.) The controller says that the fix before AXFUG is WAGPO. I know what the problem is, but I can't interrupt their conversation. The two of them discuss this for a while, get the pilot an appropriate clearance, and then the controller has a number of calls to catch up on. When he's done I check in and add, "There's a NOTAM out today on the WIBEL/WAGPO situation." I knew I was planning in here VFR, but my eye ran over a NOTAM mentioning a waypoint substitution, and them repeating the waypoint name has triggered my recall.

The controller says, "Thanks, Aviatrix," using my real name over the frequency. He finds the NOTAM and reads it out. WAGPO has been temporarily replaced by WIBEL. It's curious that the airliner had a database that showed the new temporary waypoint while the controller didn't. I would have expected it to be the other way around, or to have them both be operating with post-its on their screens.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Under, Over or Through

Autumn is settling in, but company wants me to go north. The weather is actually better in the north as a ridge of high pressure is pushing in from the territories, but the south is nasty, cold and rainy. The clouds and weather pages of the graphical area forecast are all scalloped edges and green dots as a low pressure system drags itself slowly across the province, dumping snow and rain. I flip over to the icing and turbulence chart and see a vast area of blue dots centred on my airport. Moderate mixed icing, beyond my aircraft capability, from the freezing level to eighteen thousand feet. I flip back to the clouds and weather page to look at the clouds bases and hmmm over whether I could get thorough VFR underneath it. Picturing the terrain, it's iffy, and there aren't weather reporting stations or escape airports at the worst spots. The terrain isn't that high, but the cloud bases are going to be that low, and forecast low visibility under the bases makes scud running a bad proposition.

Back to the icing chart. Can I get VFR under the weather to a point where it would be safe to climb to an IFR altitude? No, I can do better. The freezing level will actually get quite high today, and while it drops as I go north, it's still high enough at the point where the icing forecast ends that I might be able to go IFR close to the minimum allowed altitude. I pull out the chart and find a not-especially-direct route that uses airways all with minimum altitudes below the ice. I won't even have to fly the wrong way, or between the MOCA and the MEA, below nav aid reception. I'll start a climb just before the end of where the ice is forecast, in order to get onto the adjoining higher airway segment. I check NOTAMs and winds, do the math to declare my ETA and file a flight plan.

I realize at the last moment that I haven't chosen an alternate. The obvious one already has low weather, and while it might technically qualify as an alternate because of its precision approach, I'd like an actual alternate that I feel confident I can get into, if my destination goes down in freezing fog. I ask the briefer to recommend one. He starts to name the same obvious one as I was going to, and then clearly has the same thought as I did, and recommends one that I never consider because has no fuel for me. I put it down anyway. I would be safe on the ground at least, and would land there with enough fuel to get back VFR to the original destination.

A few minutes after I get it all filed, the flight is cancelled. My co-worker apologizes, for making me come into work and get the plane all ready for nothing. I really don't mind. Figuring out a flight plan is a bit like solving a crossword puzzle. There doesn't have to be a point or a prize. And now I don't have to go flying in nasty weather. I go home.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Drone vs Helicopter

This wasn't put together as a PSA on drones, but it's being passed around the aviation community as one. I haven't figured out how to embed it as a video, so let me know if the link doesn't open a video for you.


Having the audio on is not strictly necessary, but after the main sequence there's an explanation that you may find interesting if you like that sort of thing.

Drones are scary little things. You'd think the danger a small thing like a bird or a drone can pose to a large aircraft would be impressed on the minds of the public after things like US Airways Flight 1549. (I'm not going to call it by its nickname because that undermines the training and expertise of the aircraft designers, SOP writers, pilots, flight attendants and rescue personnel). But people go on thinking that anything in the sky above them is as impervious to as the moon to their interference, and they try to check us out. Transport Canada has a renewed campaign trying to protect us from them. The roads around my airport are marked out with bilingual and graphic "no drones" signs. I was going to say that people wouldn't throw rocks at passing cars, so why do they launch these things at airplanes, but then I remember a relative of mine getting picked up by the police for dropping rocks off a pedestrian overpass, so yeah, people would do these things. I can almost imagine this Casualty One episode inspiring people to attack helicopters.

I've reported drones twice in flight, both times while in the immediate vicinity of an airport, and both times taken very seriously by ATC. Just like playing with fireworks, lasers, or things that look like grenade launchers, even if you think you're not causing any harm, you do that in the vicinity of people operating aircraft and we're going to launch law enforcement (or more) right back at you.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

One To Beam Up

I'm on my way into into a major Canadian airport and overhear another pilot on frequency asking to fly direct to a particular fix. A "fix" is a point of latitude and longitude that has been designated with a five-letter code so that air traffic controllers and pilots can refer to it. It might be the point at which pilots are supposed to change frequency, or allowed to start descent, or just another way for a pilot to request to deviate from course, usually to get around convective cloud.

In any event, this pilot asks to fly direct the fix, but the controller doesn't recognize it. That's not surprising, there are hundreds of these things in any patch of airspace, and people only pay attention to the ones that are on the route they are flying right now. The pilot repeats the waypoint name. The controller still doesn't recognize it.

"You're going to have to spell that," advises the controller, sounding a little crusty.

The pilot spells it. It has a couple of Ks in it, I think. VIKOK or KADOK or something.

"Great," says the controller with heavy resignation. "Another place out of Star Trek." I didn't notice if the pilot got his clearance or not.

Saturday, July 30, 2016


I'm at my desk checking NOTAMs while my co-worker pops out for a quick Tim Horton's run before boarding. Seconds after he leaves, I hear footsteps on the stairs again. Thinking he has forgotten his keys or something, I start to say, "That was the quickest Tim Horton's run ever," but it's not someone I recognize. He works for the company next door.

He says, "Oh, not one of your pilots. Do you know where he has gone?"

It takes me a moment to parse this. The first sentence makes perfect sense, because I'm the chief pilot here, so a pilot working for this company is in some sense "my" pilot. But why does he want to know where my non-pilot co-worker has gone, or even know that he exists? Then he continues with why he's here, and my understanding cuts in. In his eyes I am not a pilot. I am a woman working at a desk. The possibility that I am the pilot he seeks has not even crossed his mind.

The guy who is now on his way to Timmy's towed the aircraft out to an inappropriate position, and it is blocking the egress of another airplane that is ready to depart. I apologize and leap up to help move it, but he says that's okay, he has a co-pilot. With my permission they will push it back a few metres. About a minute later their assistant chief pilot comes in with the same complaint, but he knows who I am. I grab a reflective vest and go out to the ramp even though I know it's handled.

I suppose I could choose to be offended or outraged that some twenty-something (who is inexplicably wearing a toque even though it's about twenty degrees now and will go up to thirty by the afternoon) has a concept of "pilot" that does not include people who look like me. On the broader scale, there are huge problems in a society when people's concept of "law-abiding citizen," "person suitable for employment," "person worthy of respect as a human being," and "potential friend" arbitrarily exclude huge swathes of the population, but today I will just be amused by my own power of invisibility.