May 24, 2007

A Day in the Life (20) Beaten Down

A description of a typical day's flight from Montreal to Vancouver and back - as a backdrop for a detailed, non-technical description of what an airline pilot does. (check left hand column for series index).

Log Entry 2003 - A320 Capt - Cruise

Time: CYVR Arrival minus 5H00M

Encounters with clear air turbulence (CAT) can be a little like the unavoidable troubles that befall us all in life. Sometimes they arise gradually accompanied by clear signs and specific warnings from others who’ve gone before. But often, like today, things happen suddenly, as if trying to catch you unprepared.

Connie is just reaching the breakfast tray over FO Paula’s shoulder when the first ripple hits. There’s a particular cadence to the ripples that I’ve heard before and I instinctively reach for the seat-belt sign and flip it on. Just as I do the next ripple hits but this is more like a full-blown tsunami.

FO Paula barely manages to set her tray onto her chart table, then decides to quickly stow it more securely along the outboard side panel by her flight bag. At the same time with the other hand she reaches for the speed control knob. I give her the thumbs up because I was thinking the same thing. It’s time to reduce our speed, both to guard the structural integrity of the ship, and to ease the ride for the flight attendants and passengers who've been caught unawares.

The next blast of turbulence strikes as Connie is staggering back to her seat. She slams the door closed behind her, while I'm delivering a quick P.A. announcement, trying not to knock my teeth out with the handset: “Ladies-and-Gentlemen-as-you’ve-noticed-we’re-encountering-turbulence. Hopefully-this-won’t-last-long- but-for-now-remain-seated - with-your-seat belts-securely-fastened.”

After struggling to replace the handset in its cradle, I call ATC.

“Toronto center, Goose Air one eleven. We’re getting moderate turbulence now at flight level two eight zero. Any idea how far this extends?”

“Negative One Eleven. You’re the first to report it at that altitude.” He then checks with some other flights in the region. Someone at flight level two six zero reports mainly smooth conditions.

I quickly ask FO Paula, “Do you want to try two six zero?” I know it’s a leading question and I did tell her she should make her own decisions about our flight profile. So, I try to make it not sound like a suggestion. In fact, if she wanted to wait here for a few minutes I’d go along with that. Clear air turbulence is hard to predict. Even if we give back two thousand feet of hard-won altitude, there’s no guarantee we’ll find smooth air. It’s a judgment call and often it’s more like a guess.

She nods “yes,” and I request it. “Standby,” comes the response from ATC as he studies how we'll fit into his traffic pattern at the lower altitude.

I hate giving back the two thousand feet. It cost precious fuel to get here, and we’ll have to spend that all over again later when we finally climb to our cruising altitude. But today the extra fuel seems like a reasonable investment towards keeping our sick sacks clean and pristine.

Finally we get the clearance, I acknowledge it and FO Paula is already twisting the control knob to inaugurate the descent.

“Leaving flight level two eight zero for two six zero,” she calls as the muffled roar of the engines and air-conditioning surge slightly then descend in cadence amidst the chaotic rattles of troubled air beating against our airframe.

Time: CYVR Arrival minus 4H50M

May 21, 2007

Low and Slow

My other plane is a Mazda Miata ... well not really. But when I began flying our amateur-built CH601, that's how I described it to folks. "It flies the way a Miata drives." I don't drive a Miata so it's all about impressions rather than facts.

During the move to the west coast, the nose tire went flat. The culprit was a piece of metal debris embedded in the tread. The original kit-tires were labeled "Wheelbarrow Tyre. Not Approved For Hiway Use." Which always made me laugh wondering if that meant I shouldn't land on a road in the case of an engine failure. I could just imagine the RCMP officer congratulating me for surviving the landing, then noticing the inscription on my tires and with a long face, issuing me a ticket. Then of course Transport Canada and my insurance company would become involved, arguing about whether this invalidates my Certificate of Airworthiness. And the more I'd laugh about it, the more I'd wonder if this could actually happen!

Last year, I'd already swapped the main tires for trailer tires. Not because of any serious concern about the above comments, but because I use asphalt runways more than grass, and the wheelbarrow tires were wearing out too fast. I think the rubber can't stand the heat. I was procrastinating about the nose-wheel so this was the time to change the whole unit.


Meanwhile the airplane sat out at the airport looking very dejected and neglected. It was being carefully guarded by the official airport attack rabbits. And also by several friendly and welcoming pilots and home-builders. Airport life turns out to be about three parts socializing, and one part actually working on the plane.
So, when time came this spring to finally get the nose wheel re-installed, I was grateful to have my wife and chief 'assistant' along. As well as being an accomplished commercial pilot and flying instructor, she's also comfortable with wrenches and such. Consequently, while I was engaged in greeting the new friends at the field, she actually managed to get some work done.

And finally the airplane is re-assembled and waiting only for the Annual Inspection.

May 15, 2007

A Day in the Life (19) Top of Climb

A description of a typical day's flight from Montreal to Vancouver and back - as a backdrop for a detailed, non-technical description of what an airline pilot does. (check left hand column for series index).

Log Entry 2003 - A320 Capt - Top of Climb

Elapsed Time: Take-Off plus thirty and counting

Flying in haze is disorienting. There’s always a sense that you are about to burst out into clear air but you never do. The world remains hidden, mysterious, a rumor hinted at by the dots and lines on the navigation displays.

We’re riding in mainly smooth air right now, but an occasional ripple runs through the plane every few minutes at irregular intervals. Like a veiled threat. There’s more where that came from.

I finish scanning the flight deck panels and checking the extra items as we do once a day on the first flight. Test the radar and set the antenna for the best picture at our current altitude. Pull down the standby compass and check all the heading displays for agreement. Finally tick off the “First Flight of the Day” checkbox in the journey log so subsequent crews will know it’s been done.

The morning rush is now officially over. I slide my chair back a few inches and prop a foot up onto the comfortable Airbus-designed footrests. (Thank you to the Airbus engineers who actually considered the needs for pilots sitting during the long hours on the flight deck.)

I have some amendments and other paperwork to catch up on, and I just begin browsing through this when a loud alarm ruptures the white-noise “quiet” of the flight deck. I flinch at the sudden interruption, recognizing the flight attendant call horn. For some reason it’s the noisiest alarm on the aircraft and resembles the screech of fingernails on a blackboard.

I grab the handset. “Goood moooorning…”

“Captain, we have your crew breakfasts ready. Would you like to eat?”

I nod to FO Paula. “You hungry? Breakfast is served.” She indicates yes and I convey the message. A few seconds later there’s ring at the security panel and I go through the procedure to ensure that breakfast isn’t really a terrorist ploy to take over the airplane and crash us into the Big Oh-Oh (Olympic Stadium in Montreal).

I might “say” that with a touch of levity - or sad irony. But 9-11 is never forgotten nor the price paid by our comrades for inadequate training in the face of a new breed of terror. And our world will never be the same. I tell my friends and neighbors that outside of my fellow-pilots, I'm the only one I know who works behind a locked, bullet-proof door and has a body-guard. I don’t carry a gun, but I’ve thought about it.

So, once we’re sure it's safe, Connie brings in our morning’s servings of ‘Green eggs and Ham.” Just as the turbulence starts up.

Elapsed Time: Vancouver Arrival minus 5 hours or so…

May 13, 2007

Over the Rainbow - and other transitions

I'm feeling a little down today. We experienced one of life's bitter-sweet transitions yesterday at the World Parrot Refuge where I volunteer.

Maybe it's from knowing - from experiencing that mere taste of flight that we humans enjoy in our noisy contraptions? Whatever it is, my heart is always restless at the thought of birds like these destined to a flightless life. And that's before considering the other sorrows of parrots in captivity. (If you know anyone considering buying a parrot, please repeat these words loud and often: "Parrots make lousy pets! Wonderful, amazing, glorious creatures, but lousy pets." Thanks.)

Finally Joey is flying freely again - somewhere...

May 10, 2007

A Day in the Life (18) Transitions

A description of a typical day's flight from Montreal to Vancouver and back - as a backdrop for a detailed, non-technical description of what an airline pilot does. (check left hand column for series index).

Log Entry 2003 - A320 Capt - CYUL - Climb

Elapsed Time: Take-Off plus ten and counting

Transitions are what life seems to be about. Change is inevitable and how life ultimately shapes. Sometimes change is easy and to be enjoyed, while other times just the opposite.

Our surrounding airmass is in transition this morning - I can feel it. The visibilility isn’t what it should be according to forecast. The cloud cover seems to be flowing in over head from the north west. There’s an "ill-wind-blowing" kind of feeling here. I pull up a new forecast strip. It is still amended but so far there's no amendment to the amendment.

Climbing through ten thousand feet FO Paula makes the call and I respond with a quick check of the pressurization system, and retract the landing lights. Then I pick up the inter-phone for a quick conversation with our purser. I glance up quickly to the cabin safety-check form inserted into a seam in the wall just over my head.

It's funny how when a new airplane arrives on the line, the pilots soon develop non-written "standards" for arranging the myriad little details that aren't specified in the manuals. The Data Link reports get folded just like this, and then set right here... and the weather reports should be here and the weight and balance should go just there.

Today, we have five flight attendants to handle the full load. I've flown with Connie-the-purser before but never long enough to actually get to know her or remember her name the next time our paths cross. But I do recall that she's very good at her job. The rest of the crew are strangers and I may never work with them again. As the airline gets bigger I spend more time working with strangers and missing the camaraderie of twenty-five years earlier. I really am turning into an "old fart." Transitions.

“Hey Connie, I’m still suspicious about turbulence once we get to cruise altitude. I’ll let the folks get up for a pee-break, but don’t rush out into the aisles with any hot stuff until I ask ATC a few more questions - okay?”

She acknowledges and quickly hangs up. As our workload in the flight deck eases, hers is just beginning. I flick off the Seatbelt sign. Within a few seconds the washroom door behind us slams as someone hurries to drain the morning coffee.

Montreal Terminal control soon hands us off to Toronto Center who clears us to flight level 310, our initial flight plan altitude. I start asking about rides.

“Anyone complain of turbulence westbound this morning?”

“Not that I know of. But you’re the first that far north. Standby and I’ll check ahead for you.”

“Thanks.” Some controllers are so helpful you wish you could reserve them for your flights every time you go to work.

After a few moments he reports back. “Occasional moderate chop across northern Ontario above FL290…” I re-negotiate our cruise altitude to flight level 280. We arrive even as I feed the new number into the computer.

“Mach. Alt-Star,” FO Paula calls as the auto-flight status annunciates transition to cruise level*.

I’ve learned to watch the auto-flight carefully at this point. I’ve been burned before when an interruption caused the autopilot to climb through the altitude and not grab it. Airbus crashed an A330 during a test flight partly due to the vagaries of the “Alt star” mode. And other industry incidents have led to more simulator training. As I said, transitions can be difficult.

Once we're locked onto our flight level, and the house-keeping chores are done, the flight begins to settle into the calmness of cruise. I keep busy for the first few minutes updating the aircraft journey logbook and transferring numbers from MCDU to the flight log.

Just as we back up the mega-dollar navigation computer route data by reference to “twenty-five-cent” printed charts, we also keep paper notes of our fuel and time progress with another “twenty-five-cent” solution - a ballpoint pen. I wonder when we’ll trust the high-tech tools enough to dispense with this? For now we're in the midst of another transition. One that holds promises not yet fully-realized. And surprises unimagined. And we hang onto our “twenty-five-cent” solutions.

Transitions often require an extra measure of caution.

Time: Take-Off plus twenty minutes and counting...

* Alt Star is the way we pronounce the indicator:
ALT* on the auto-flight annunciator panel. -- It reveals that the altitude capture mode is leveling the aircraft at the selected altitude.

May 9, 2007

When the Fire Goes Out... Part B

A320 Captain — Flight Simulator -- climbing out of CYUL runway 06L departure:

“GooseAir Trainer One, after three thousand turn direct to the Ottawa VOR on course, maintain flight level two five zero.”

First Officer Smedley reads back the clearance. I feed the new parameters into the Flight Control Unit (FCU) along the eyebrow panel from where I am controlling the auto-flight system. Smedley punches in a 'Direct To' and I push the heading button to transfer our lateral fight path guidance to “Managed” mode as Airbus calls it.

The airplane smoothly rolls out on the north-west track and FO Smedley runs through the after take-off items. Then I hear a sudden change in the background noise - like a giant bumblee bee dying in the distance emitting a gasping, descending hum. This is followed by the tell-tale flickering of CRT screens and flight deck lights. Then the clunk of a relay from the bulkhead behind us. I glance at the upper ECAM to see the engine one ‘needles’ winding rapidly downward. A tell-tale ‘ping’ sounds as the amber caution warnings blink on.

FO Smedley is calling “Power Loss,” just as I notice the engine two parameters heading south as well. “We’re losing both engines!”

The first thing I do is to quel that inner voice which is protesting that “This can’t be happening…” An instant of latent panic. It’s good to have a rote drill to fall back on and it's even better to loudly announce: “I HAVE CONTROL. CHECKLIST - TWO ENGINES OUT...” - as if to drive back the irrational sense that we are doomed.

I redundantly hit the auto-flight disconnect button. I gently push the nose over to maintain a safe gliding speed, and I check to ensure the seatbelt sign is still on.

The engines are windmilling which guards the electrical and hydraulic power for now. But the airflow from our forward speed won't keep the engine-driven generators happy for long, so one of the first checklist items requires startiing the APU. I wonder what would happen should the dual engine flame-out be caused by fuel contamination or starvation. We have a RAM air turbine as a final backup but that is more restrictive.

A quick glance to my left toward the runways we’ve just left behind at Montreal, and I see that we can reach runway 10. I bank a little left to bring us into a downwind position parallel to it. Meanwhile FO Smedley notifies ATC of our predicament.

We continue working the checklist. There is mention of attempting an engine re-light, but at this low altitude we don’t have much time. There are announcements to be made to warn the flight attendants to prepare for an emergency landing. And as we glide past the button of runway 10 there are flaps to extend. They will increase our drag and shorten the distance we can glide, but as our landing speed goes down our chances of survival go up.

We’re at three thousand feet. This looks good. I take a mental note of the distance to fly from here … maybe two miles downwind, one mile crosswind and two more back to the runway - five miles. Time for some quick math. I use an average of one-hundred and eighty knots - three miles a minute. We’ll take just about two minutes to make that route. Our descent rate will decrease when I start to bleed the speed off, but once we’re configured to land, we'll lose some gliding performance.

As we turn base I call for the next notch of flaps. I continually compare our profile with the ‘ideal’ visual circuit profile. We’re higher than normal. With gravity as our only tool for levering altitude into airspeed and distance, that's not bad.

I continue the turn onto final approach, asking for the last notch of flap. We’re still high - good. I’d rather skid off the far end of the runway at eighty knots than touchdown short at one hundred and eighty.

The FO is finishing up the checklist - time to make the final Brace-for-Landing call into the passenger P.A..

At some point the tower controller says, “Cleared to Land.” Like we have an option. Hey, it’s his job and he has to say it.

Then the threshold is streaking under the nose, and it’s time to flare and bleed a little speed off as we wait for the main wheels to touch down. Which happens a little further along the pavement than I’d like, but we’re ‘ON’ — I hit the brakes hard.

The airplane drifts to a stop and FO Smedley and I both exhale together. We made it. Now if only reality will be so cooperative should ever the fires go out for real.