Visit To Winnipeg FIC

When we’re doing cross countries, we call Winnipeg Flight Information Centre, both to file our flight plan, and (if we’re smart) get a weather briefing. One day (the day of my flight test, actually) the guy I talked to told me I should come in and visit them. I didn’t realize it, but they also do onsite weather briefings in person – you don’t even need an appointment, it’s just a walk in thing.

So I went to visit them a few weeks ago, and they lamented how all the pilots check the online weather now, and they never come to see them anymore, and they even prefer if you come see them, because it’s easier to point out things on a screen than describe it over the phone. That and they lamented that pilots were all briefing themselves with the online resources and frequently missing things that they would have been able to make sure they knew about. They said certain times of the year, three quarters of their calls are from Harv’s Air students, and they seemed I sat and chatted with them for a while, and they told me funny stories about idiot pilots:

An American pilot who flew with roam maps instead of aeronautical charts, and his radio frequency info was five years out of date, so when he got to Canada, and some of the frequencies had changed, who charged into FIC complaining that no one had answered him on the radio.

A whole flock of cadets going on solo cross countries called in to file flight plans who, when asked if they wanted a weather briefing, all assured the briefer that they had briefed themselves online, and subsequently called in, one by one to amend their flight plans when they had to turn back upon encountering fog the briefer would have told them about.

And another story about a couple of Cadets who lost their licences after crashing their plane. They had told Transport Canada that they’d had engine trouble, and tried to land in a field of cows, but when the Transport Canada investigator found a camera on the ground at the crash site, the pictures revealed that they’d been buzzing the cows from only a few feet off the ground.

The weather thing is big. There’s so much that can happen in the weather. People joke about how inaccurate weather forecasters are, but if you look at what they have – they’re actually far more accurate than we realize. When I take off, and the clouds are consistently right about the height they told me they’d be at – damn, I’m not gonna tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about. The thing is, if you’re standing in one place, like, for example, in a town or city, it could be raining on one side of Winnipeg, and not on the other, so half of Winnipeg is going well, I guess they were right, it did rain, and the other half is going, ha, ha, they were wrong. But that’s not how weather works – it moves around in masses and when the masses touch they interact in relatively predictable ways. What happens in the five to six feet from the ground to the tops of our heads is such a tiny part of what weather is, and there’s so much that happens in the winds aloft, at different altitudes, the amount of detail they can give us pilots to prepare for what we’re taking off into is really impressive.

The final thing I want to mention is one interesting element in the conversation between a weather briefer and pilot. A weather briefer isn’t responsible for a pilot’s decision on whether or not to take off. They’re there to help the pilot make the decision, but they have no idea what the abilities of the pilot calling in are. They might say something like, “It looks like great flying weather today” or “It’s going to be some rough windy weather out there” or “The visibility is very poor, just barely VFR minimums”, but they’ll never say “The weather is bad, you should stay on the ground.” So it’s interesting, on those iffy days, listening to the briefer’s tone after I tell him that I’m relatively inexperienced, to try and gauge whether or not he thinks I should go.

Anyway, they’re awesome, and so very integral to aviation. We couldn’t fly without them.

Trip Downtown

One of the things that made me nervous about starting to fly was the number of rules of airspace, and the level of control over it. I’m afraid of getting in trouble for screwing something up. And then when I got started, and learned how much there is to rules of airspace, there was ten times as much to know as I could have imagined. My school has an online ground school and the presentation on airspace is a solid two hours long. My mother in law was listening from the other room as I was watching it, and at the end said “Do you actually have to know all that?”

And yeah, there’s not really any way around it – I do have to know it.

And with my social anxieties, interactions with ATC make me far more nervous than the actual flying, for the most part. My instructor says I never had trouble with the radio work – it helped a lot that I’m used to talking to people on the phone a lot at work – not having faces to deal with makes it a lot easier, actually. And it’s not talking to them that makes me nervous, it’s the fear of screwing up something and them getting mad at me.

The first time I was in Class C airspace was on my second dual cross country, and I was definitely anxious about that. I can’t remember if my instructor made sure I was doing all the radio calls that day or not – they might have done that for me to let me focus on navigating and working out how to join the circuit without disrupting traffic. Of course, it wasn’t as bad as I was afraid of. Then a few days later, I was in terminal airspace on the solo long cross country – that was the first time in class C airspace solo, for me, and that went fine.

Aside from a short Class C Advisory north of the city for my preflight, I wasn’t in Class C airspace again at all until after I got my private license. I’m pretty good at pushing through anxiety though, and since it was something that made me nervous, I knew I had to get myself more comfortable with it. So anytime I was flying far enough to make it worthwhile climbing above 3000 feet into terminal airspace, I filed my flight plan with an altitude that would take me there.

So when Winnipeg and St Andrews Towers had a presentation and they mentioned they were inviting people to come fly over Winnipeg in the control zone, for sightseeing, I was ready to take them up on it. I took a friend with me and we flew over downtown, and North Kildonan – I got him to call my husband and tell him when we were overhead, and Nathan was able to spot us from the ground. Then we went for a touch and go at CYWG – another thing I’ve done twice before, but never solo.

The most amusing part of that flight was when we went over to Oak Hammock airpark for a touch and go on their little grass runway. I did kind of a crappy assed turn to final – it had been a few months since I’d practiced on that runway, and the turn to final on 36 there is a tad unforgiving, because you have to turn before the highway or you end up in St. Andrews airspace. Come to think of it, I may have never actually brought a 172 into Oak Hammock Airpark, though I did a half hour of circuits in a 152, and a ton in the citabria. That runway’s too short to dick around with though, and I figured fairly early in  the final approach that I was going to have to do an overshoot. I did, and came around for a second try, and second time was perfect. The amusing part though was when my passenger asked why ATC had stopped responding to my radio calls.

I was suddenly reminded how much procedural stuff there was to know about flying. I couldn’t begin to explain to a passenger all the rules to the three different airspace classifications we’d passed through in the previous half hour or so. But from Winnipeg control zone (class C), we’d passed through St. Andrews control zone (class D) and into uncontrolled airspace (class G). A passenger couldn’t possibly be expected to know what it meant when St. Andrews tower addressed us, saying “November India Quebec, radar services are terminated, cleared to enroute frequencies.”

Anyway, I gave him the short version “We’re in uncontrolled airspace, there’s no tower here – radio calls are basically made ‘to whom it may concern.'” It was kind of neat though when I had Nathan with me on the flight to Gimli, Dauphin and Brandon, because he has an amateur radio licence, and he can follow a lot more of what’s happening on the radio. With the amount of exposure he’s had, just from living with someone learning to fly, he understands a lot more than the average passenger would. Hopefully I’ll get up with him again soon.

The Thing About A First Solo

I already did a post about my own first solo, but a comment on another post got me thinking about it again. In my first post, it had just happened, and I was excited and it was all about me. Now, in my last post I mentioned, a few weeks ago I got to be in the circuit with a young man going on his first solo, and it’s just interesting to be on the other side, watching someone else do it.

A pilot’s first solo is a big deal – it’s the first time they take the plane up alone. There’s something a little bit sacred about that moment. It’s a moment a pilot will remember for the rest of their lives. It’s like a graduation day, or a birthday. Only there’s some things that make it different.

One of the things about the first solo is when it happens, it’s not necessarily planned ahead. The day you’re ready might not be the day the weather is calm enough for you to handle it, or you’re having a rough day and aren’t flying well, and the instructor decides it’s not the right day. But because they never know until you go flying that day, whether this is going to be the day, that means they don’t tell you ahead of time that this is going to be the day. No one wants to put pressure on you, so there’s not a lot of fanfare.

And since you can’t plan it, your friends and family don’t come out to see you do it. The witnesses are your instructor watching from the ground, ATC watching from the tower (if applicable) and anyone in the circuit with you.

So in that way, to be a witness to someone doing their first solo, it’s kind of less like attending a graduation, and more like being in the right place at the right time and getting to see a foal born. Or being online checking the eagle cam while the eggs are hatching, or spotting loons doing a mating dance, or catching a baby’s first steps. It’s a special moment you don’t see every day, and if you ever get to see it happen, it’s only because you happened to be in the right place at the right time. And normal people will never be in that place. The only people who will see it will be other pilots, and ATC. I got to see something that few other people will see, and witness a moment in a stranger’s life that I know he will remember. He may even remember for the rest of his life, that someone said “congratulations” over the radio when he got down. He’ll never know who it was, but that’s okay.

At a time like that, it’s neat to be able to be there, and with so few witnesses, to acknowledge that “Yeah, I saw what you did there. Good job.” He’ll get it from his instructor, but sometimes the words of random stranger – it’s funny how that can mean so much sometimes.

And that all makes me think of other things that I get to experience as a pilot, that no one who doesn’t pilot an aircraft ever will. I didn’t realize what a cool thing it would be, but taking passengers up with me is really fun. Getting to share this world with them, being the pilot is just so different than going for a plane ride. And lots of things I’ll get to see, like a water bomber flying by, or sharing the same airspace as the Winnipeg traffic helicopter. And one of the most special things in the world, I swear, is taking someone flying for their first time. No one gets to do that but a pilot.

Flight School Update: Cross Country Time Building (Part 2)

Anyway, part 2, because the cross country discussion got long.

At ground school the other day, the instructor was commenting “I always tell my students, you learn more in those 200 hours after you get your private license, than in the hours it took to get your license.” I said “I believe that.” Because that was right after my last cross country trip, from St. Andrews, to Gimli, to Dauphin, to Brandon, and then back to St. Andrews.

Weather wise, it was a perfect day for flying, and I took Nathan. He’d been looking forward to it, and I was feeling more confident, and ready to have passengers to tend while I handled getting more used to the size of a cessna 172. Cross countries do present the novice pilot with a bunch of extra challenges, from needing to pay attention to navigating, taking times, recalculating ETAs, radio communication, all while flying, and then there’s landing at unfamiliar airports – figuring out how you’re going to join the circuit, and estimating where your key points are going to be as you turn base and final – so you know how high you should be at what point as you descend to land. That I’m definitely getting better at – especially with the 172, which likes to float  over the runway a long ways – my landings that day were much shorter and neater than some of my earlier cross country landings.

Approaching Gimli, I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before. I’d never flown to Gimli at all so far, so had never seen it from the air. But I had no trouble spotting it at all, and I pointed it out to Nathan. He couldn’t see it. I got on the Gimli frequency, and there was a water bomber doing touch and go’s at the Gimli airport – he and I worked out where one another was, and I spotted him just short final, but Nathan couldn’t see him until we were a good bit closer. The same thing happened approaching Dauphin – minus the water bomber – I spotted the airport a good five miles or so before Nathan was able to see it when I pointed it out to him.

I know Nathan needs new glasses, but still – I remembered then how it was on my first dual cross country, and while I wasn’t having too much trouble working out where I was, I had trouble spotting the airports from a distance. Sandra would be pointing at it, and I would be saying, nope, can’t see it. Or I saw two or three things that might be it, and wasn’t sure which it was. But even over such a relatively small number of cross country trips, my ability to spot the runways has got way better – I have a better sense of three dimensional orientation, I think – a better feel for how far away something is by looking at other landmarks. It’s not that I wasn’t trying to think about things that way before – it just comes with much less effort, and more certainty than before.

So I can definitely see why the cross country time building is important. Even in the little bit I’ve done, I can see how much I’ve improved on pretty much all aspects of cross country flying. Nathan has an amateur radio license from his time in boy scouts, so he understood what was happening on the radio a lot better than a lot of people, and thought it was pretty neat to see the radio being used for an actual purpose rather than just people hanging out and chatting. He also thought the fact that we were actually talking to the guy flying the water bomber was really cool.

As we were leaving Brandon, I heard an instructor telling Brandon Radio that he was sending his student up for his first solo. He took off just ahead of us, and as I was turning on course, I stayed on the frequency, waiting for for his radio call that he was clear of the runway and on the ground again. In St. Andrews the tower almost always congratulates students when they get back from their first solo. Brandon Radio I guess doesn’t – or maybe it’s just that one, I dunno, but since Brandon Radio didn’t, I did. He answered “Thanks!” sounding like I must have caught him off guard (that’s probably why the tower doesn’t congratulate them until they’re on the ground – that and well, you don’t want to congratulate them prematurely – it’s probably bad luck or something.) But I could hear the elation in his voice, and it brought me back to my first solo. It started to sink in how far I’ve come from then. It was kind of an awesome way to start the last leg of the longest cross country flight I’ve ever done so far.

When you get your private license, it doesn’t mean you’re particularly good at flying, it just means that they’re reasonably confident that you’re capable of getting a plane from one place to another without killing yourself or anyone else, and that you’ve got the maturity to know what you can and can’t handle weather wise and won’t take off into something beyond your abilities. But still, lots of pilots do take risks, and some do get themselves killed – just like inexperienced drivers on the road go out on icy roads and get themselves killed when they have bit off more than they can chew. I remember the day I went out to see my family doctor last – the highway had huge patches of black ice that when I was on them, I could touch the brakes and couldn’t even feel it. A year ago, I might have driven half the speed I did that day, or even turned back, but at that point, I’d been driving a lot more, and was more confident. The sun was shining off the ice, so I could see where the road was icy and where it was clear, and though I saw three cars in the ditch on the hour’s drive to Portage La Prairie from the ‘Peg, I got there without incident. A driver who’d just got their license shouldn’t have been out on those roads that day, but an experienced driver can assess the situation, and make a good decision on whether they can handle it or not.

Flying is just like that. Overwhelming at first, and even when you first get your license, you can do it, it just takes all your concentration to keep everything together, and you’ll make mistakes, but theoretically, you’re at the point where they shouldn’t be fatal ones if you listened to your instructor and keep up with the good habits they taught you.

Anyway, wish me luck on time building. I’ve got to work my way up to my 300 nautical mile straight line cross country to fulfill the commercial requirement.

This Guy Gets Dieselpunk

A friend directed me to a post today, and you all have to read it. 

Or anyway, if you like dieselpunk, you should read it.

Aside from my knee-jerk need to point out that steam is not a fuel, the fuel what is burned to heat the steam, and there were, ironically enough, steam engines that ran on diesel fuel, this guy really gets the spirit of the difference between dieselpunk and steampunk. “Steampunk heroes are engineers and tinkerers. Dieselpunk heroes are drivers and pilots.” In a steampunk book, the main character would build an aeroplane from scratch, maybe the first aeroplane ever, and it probably just barely flies. In a dieselpunk story, the main character flies the coolest, most advanced aeroplane their civilization has ever built, and a team of engineers to keep it running.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go buy his book.

What’s It Like To Fly An Aeroplane?

One of the questions on the Nano forums was for a writer who’s character was going to be starting flight lessons, and they were asking about the experience of piloting an aircraft. What’s it like? Would I be far off describing it as this incredible feeling of freedom and oneness with nature?

I mine wasn’t the first reply, and the previous commenter said the same thing:

No, it’s not really like that at all.

Which is not to say it isn’t awesome. But oneness with nature isn’t what we’re chasing – really, twenty five thousand feet above ground level is hardly a natural place for a ground dwelling human to be. And with the level of ATC control in the sky these days, the feeling-of-freedom thing is something we laugh at.

So what is it?

You’re in a machine, and everything that machine does is in response to you. It’s not like a car where you can just go slow when you’re just learning. When you’re landing, your approach speed in the 152 is 60 knots, and you’re generally touching down at 55 knots, which is literally 100 kilometres (about 63 miles) per hour. Learning to do that is a damn accomplishment! So when your instructor sends you up for the first time solo, when they’ve got the confidence in you that you can do it, that’s such a feeling of accomplishment and pride, I don’t know what I could possibly compare it to.

It’s a thing that people say “Oh, I wish I could do something like that,” or “Wow, that’s amazing that people can do that,” or “That’s not something I could do,” in admiration of our ability to guide that aircraft safely into the air and back to the ground. And we pilots are those awesome people who do it. We’re awesome. I’m so fucking awesome, you don’t even know.

I heard something about pilots and egos somewhere…

But it’s empowering like you wouldn’t believe.

I’m sure it happens to other pilots too, but every once in a while, as I’m lining up the plane on the runway, I remember what I’m doing. My intellectual brain reminds me that I’m at the helm of nothing but an (arguably) well organized heap of metal and fibreglass with a giant fan bolted to the front.

And then I open the throttle and my animal hind-brain wakes up like it hasn’t been paying attention, realizes what’s going on, and shrieks what-the-fuck-are-you-doing-this-is-insane.

Meanwhile the pilot brain is going “HAHAHAHAHA!”

But I don’t have time to listen to them because I’m watching my airspeed climb up to Vr, and then I’m in the air. And then it’s calm.

I read about a word in welsh a little while ago, that has no translation in english, but someone had written that the closest approximation was homesickness for a place one has never been. It’s like that, only it’s a place that by all logic, I shouldn’t belong, and yet I get there and it feels like coming home.

Four things Forum Posters Do That Piss Me Off

Nano’s going so-so – I’m behind, but not so far behind I have no hope of catching up at this point. But I have some thoughts on writing forums.

So, I’m on a community on Livejournal called “The Little Details” geared towards authors who need details on things for their novels. It’s neat idea, so when NaNoWriMo started, and I noticed there was a category in the forums called “Reference Desk” for basically the same thing, I started watching it for people asking questions about aviation that I could answer.

I’ve also ended up answering questions about Autism and Canada, too, but there’s been some things I’ve noticed about forum posters over the years. Not all of them, but in those sort of forums, these posts always show up, and they’re always annoying.

1: Question: That’s the post title there. No indication of what the post is about. No, I’m not going to bother clicking on it to find out, I don’t fucking have time. And these people wonder why they get so few responses.

2: I need to know everything you know about _____: Poster’s question is so general that no one knows where to start. If you point out that it looks like they haven’t even tried to start researching their topic, they say, well of course I have, I know this and this, and whatever else, and well, how am I supposed to know you already know that if you don’t say so?

3: I want you to do all my research for me: This person actually hasn’t done any research. One person went so far as to be cute and tell me to assume everything they knew about aviation was listed here. I shouldn’t have bothered to spend as much time on that one as I did – there was so much that person could have found out themselves if they had bothered to try. If I can type the title of your post into google and get the answer, you’re not at the I-need-an-expert stage.

4: I want you to write my story for me: This one’s where the author isn’t asking for information as much as asking for brainstorming ideas from the group. This one, surprisingly, gets a lot of responses, because everybody has an opinion, and I think people are flattered to be asked, or maybe there’s just lots of people who will jump on a chance to make their voice heard. I dunno. It just makes me roll my eyes.

Anyway, I think what I’m going to do is respond now with “read this and then tell me what questions it hasn’t answered.”

And there’s lots – there’s so much information about aviation that I could give, that I could spend hours typing out an answer. I just don’t have time to do that.

So please, if you’re asking for information, take your research as far as you can by yourself first. I mean, the person asking how to read a standard pressure guage in a small plane (pressure guage for what…?), okay I can understand that. But really, the world can’t be your personal teacher to teach you from scratch about aviation. Well, I could, but you’d have to pay me.

Well, once I’ve got my commercial license and do an instructor rating anyway.