Saturday, April 19, 2008

Tower Visit

It was a rare quiet night at Buttonville airport. Only two planes doing the circuits, but the two pilots kept thing interesting with one making a position report with a different call sign (me) and the other overshooting the landings (we later found out she was practicing night overshoots). As I tried to remember how to land the Cessna (“are you going to put in flaps?” “Oops, forgot about those”), my instructor chatted with the controller. One thing after another led to the invite to visit the tower to the crews of both planes. We accepted the invite, finished circuits, tied down the planes, piled into my instructor’s car and soon were driving the labyrinth of back roads that apparently let to the tower as we were soon walking up the stairs.

I never got a chance to visit the old tower that was in the same building as the flight school, so had nothing to compare it to, but the new state-of-the-art modular tower was impressive. State of the art, because it is very recent. Modular, because it can be disassembled and shipped elsewhere in case Buttonville ever closes up. It sits in a better position compared to the old tower as controllers have unobstructed views of both runways and most of the taxiways and apron.
The tower had several floors. Second floor housed what could be defined as a typical apartment. It had a rest room (with a couch for sleeping), a rec room with some machines, washroom and shower, computer station and a complete kitchen. The purpose of all that was to make sure controllers could relax when they had an ‘off’ time during their shift. I did not write down the details, so won’t quote exact numbers but in a typical shift, the controllers would have several on and off periods and, having the facilities on site, meant they do not have to leave the facility. Sometimes the controllers get to work a shift that ends late at night and the next shift starts early in the morning, so they can just stay and sleep right there.

But the main attraction of the tower was of course the command post. It occupied the top floor, had a circular layout and wraparound windows so that controllers could see everyone over and around the field.

One controller was at work monitoring both ground and tower frequencies while the other showed us around. The lighting in the tower was at minimum intensity to make sure that occupants preserved their night vision. All the instruments (and there were quite a few) were dimmed as well.

The off-duty controller showed us the radar data on the computer and how it worked. Using radar computer at the other end of the room (away from working controller), we were shown how to turn on the different layers (altitude slices) and how much traffic that adds. I was very impressed with how much information could be on a radar. Given YKZ’s proximity to YYZ (Toronto Pearson), radar showed a lot of Air Canada traffic, their call signs, altitudes and destinations. We later turned all extra layers off and saw the visual take off of a small plane from our field and then his appearance on a radar.

We then went away from the high tech and looked at the brilliant low tech solution designed to track all the airplanes in the circuit and coming in. That solution involved rectangular metal plates were sliding up and down inside the box with the name of the plane written on then in erasable markers. Once the plane first contacts the ground, it gets its own rectangle that gets into one of two boxes depending on whether or not plane was intending to do circuits or go away from the zone. More over, all the airplanes in the circuits would be stacked inside the box in the order in which they are cleared to land. Very neat!

Afterwards, we spent what seemed like a few minutes chatting about controllers' pet peeves (misreporting a reporting point, stepping in the middle of others’ conversations, ignoring busy frequency and talking too much were among the “favorites”) and listening to stories.

Time flew by and soon I discovered we’ve been in the tower for over an hour and it was time to go home, which I did, reluctantly. It was a very worthwhile visit for me. I now understand much better “how it works” and hopefully won’t be annoying controllers too much in the future.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Ice Capades

(Simcoe ice shots at the end of the post)

“Flight line, this is OYR”…I released the button and waited for answer. It did not come. I thought may be my handheld radio was not working and powered up the plane radios. “Flight line, this is OYR” yet again was met with nothing but silence. My buddy and I looked at each other in complete disbelief, frustration written all over our faces.

It was a few months of not flying or flying at night, and a few months of not flying, period, for my pilot friend. The weather was supposed to be miserable for 5 days straight, but as my booking time came up, the skies miraculously parted, winds died and plane was available and had nothing broken in it. There was just one little problem. There was an icy rain the night before and the airplane was covered in ice blobs of various size and we could not raise maintenance over the radio to ask for the de-ice. With ice covering the critical surfaces such as wings and tail, we could not fly.

The sun was starting to shine and melted some, but not enough for me to deem it flyable. We thought of turning the plane so that sun would reach all the surfaces, but thought better of it as winds were starting to pick up and natural melting would take time that we did not have.

Running out of ideas and time, I remembered something: “Do you have an old credit card?”. My buddy looked at me funny, until I mentioned that I read about people cleaning the ice of the planes with the credit cards. Naturally, in that story, the protagonist was stuck in the middle of nowhere in Africa, while we were standing on the apron of one of the biggest flight schools in Canada with sizeable maintenance department, but at that moment we could as well have been in Africa, as if that plane did not get clean in the next 30 mins, we were not flying anywhere.

Desperation and desire to be in the air made for an incredible teamwork and, with a little help of the sun, loosening some of the ice, we scraped the plane clean in 15 mins and soon were strapping in for a local flight.

I was happy to have my pilot buddy along as I really enjoyed our night flight a few months ago. Plus I wanted to take some shots of the ice status of the usual diving spots, so having a second pilot in the cockpit would allow me to concentrate on a camera instead of trying to fly and shoot at the same time.

We had a bit of the wind up our nose and our progress towards the Lake Simcoe was slow, but I knew we’d pick up the time coming back, so was not worried. We chatted about training and renting successes and frustrations and daydreamed about plane ownership – the usual thing pilots do.

Soon, we arrived at the Lake and I passed controls to my buddy, and pulled my camera. For a next little while we flew towards the diving spots and then my buddy was executing various turns as I tried to get a good angle. The lake was still completely iced over, but the ice was very thin in a lot of places and I predicted it would start cracking and disappearing within a week.

Eventually, the time was up, I took the controls back, flew us back home and even managed a fairy decent landing. A happy end. And the pictured turned out OK too.

Cooks Bay and our left wing

Kemperfield Bay - still very frozen, but very thin ice.

Go Trains at Barrie terminal. I take the Barrie Go trains to work, so was neat to see where they parked them over the weekend (the service is Monday to Friday).

Centennial Beach

Big Bay Point Dock, 2 angles

The point

Friday, April 4, 2008

Current Again

Realizing that the longer days were coming fast and I better re-start my night rating soon, I booked a flight with the same instructor that started my night rating and got me hooked on it by flying over downtown Toronto.

The Wx was crappy in the days coming to my booking, but cleared few hours before we were to take off. The plane was available and even had all the lights working and I surprised myself by remembering all the radio procedures, so we were off to a good start. As we took off and climbed, I only had a brief chance to admire the brightly lit outline of the downtown Toronto as my instructor took control and handed me the hood as I still needed over an hour of simulated instrument time.

For the next hour we flew to and from the Simcoe VOR as I was trying to keep the plane straight and level while chasing the needle on the instrument. It mostly worked. During that hour, I had flown a few 280 to full 360 degree turns and noticed the leans a few times when, as I returned the airplane into straight and level, it felt like I was initiating the turn instead. First time caught me by surprise and I started to correct a perceived turn that my brain was telling me I was in, only to look at perfectly straight airplane on the panel. Next time I watched for the effect and, fully knowing I was straight and level, was still surprised that my body was telling me I was turning. Here’s the FAA document with pictures that explains the effect known as a subset of Spatial Disorientation.

Eventually, it was time to go back to the airport and I got to enjoy the view a bit as hood came off as soon as we got into the zone. As we got closer, we listened to the tower radio and determined that it was a relatively quiet night with only one other airplane in the circuit and one controller working both tower and ground frequencies.

My radio calls up to that point were all without a hitch, so no one was more surprised than myself when I keyed my mike to report OYR (the plane we were in) passing a reporting point and called ourselves VLD instead. There was a pause on the other end of the radio and then controller cleared us into the right downwind “assuming we were an OYR”. He then proceeded to tell the other plane to taxi Echo instead of Bravo, at which point everyone had a good laugh and the crews of the two planes were invited to visit the tower when we were done our circuits.

More on that in the next post.