Thursday, January 8, 2015

On Patrol

  So, a big part of my summer flying up north consisted of doing whats called " Smoke Patrol " for the local forestry department. Up here they're called the " ENR" , for  Environment and Natural Resources.

  On no particular schedule they'd call us up and request a plane ( and pilot ) to fly one or more of their guys around and do a patrol of the district for any new fires and to get updates on existing fires.

  Most of the time I flew with the same ENR guy. Occasionally when he was busy, they'd send up someone else, but most of the time it was me and Smoky the Bear. 

  Smoky had been doing this job for a long time. In fact, he'd moved further up the ranks in ENR than they would normally have someone out doing patrol. When things got busy later in the season, he'd have his hands full actually coordinating the actual fighting of the fires rather than the somewhat mundane task of buzzing around looking for new ones.

  The only thing was, during a patrol, he'd be able to have a first hand look at what the fire was doing, where it was, what kinds of fuels and terrain it was in and be that much better equipped to fight it. If someone else was to go up and do the initial assessment, the information they brought back to him was sometimes lacking... If you want something done right.....

  Anyhow. Smoky's office would call us up, usually in the morning, and book the plane for the afternoon. Smoke Patrol was usually done in 3-4 hour blocks and started typically around 2. Start too early and the fires might still be laying down from overnight dew. 2 was usually when things started to peak temperature-wise. Typical summer afternoons also meant thunderstorms, whose lightning causes 90% of the fires in the first place. If you went too early, you might miss the very early stages of a fresh fire where a helicopter or ground crew could quickly put it out.

  I'd fuel the plane right up, giving us a solid 4.5 hours of flight time. Occasionally we'd fuel up and go back out again later if things were really hopping, but usually it was just one 3-4 hour trip. The Territory is divided up into several fire districts and our district could be covered in 4 hours, depending on how many active fires there were.

 Smoky would show up and give me a brief overview of our route, usually referencing lakes, ridges, hills, towns, rivers, etc. I'd convert that into a short text message to my flight follower giving a very rough route with waypoints we all recognized. Smoky's office gave him a little briefcase-GPS tracker device which we'd set up in the back seat. I had a commercial tracker unit as well clipped to the side of the cockpit. We'd strap into the Mighty Skymaster and sweat our way through a quick run-up, before we blasted off and up into cooler air,

   It gets pretty hot in the plane on the ground, but in the air, we had " air conditioning ". Nothing so fancy as compressed refrigerant, but instead, I had a little fly window on my side that I could open and blast in 180 mile an hour air into the cockpit.

  We'd usually have a list of coordinates that they pulled from their storm monitoring program that listed clusters of lightning strikes from storms the previous day. These would be likely spots for new fires, which we'd check out. We'd also have a list of reported fires, from people on the ground or more often, passing aircraft. Up here there are a limited amount of roads, so spotting a fire from a passing car was pretty unlikely. Later in the season, we'd also have a list of active fires that we would monitor.

  Arriving on station at a new fire, I'd set up an orbit around 1000 feet and circle the fire a few times for Smoky to do his assessment. If this was a new fire, he'd also do an " ISM " report and radio it in. I'm pretty sure ISM stands for Initial Smoke Message, but I'm not 100% on that. In my head, I always thought of it as I Smell Money. A new fire meant I'd have at least one more flight to check on it, more if it got bigger and they were going to action it.

  As we'd orbit, Smoky would be recording fuel type, terrain, distance to nearest water source and a host of other details. These got recorded on the ISM report and then called in on the VHF radio we had installed in the plane for them. I'd provide temperature on the ground, wind direction and speed. Temperature derived from our temperature at altitude and corrected for lapse rate to the ground. Wind direction and speed were best guesses based on what I observed at altitude, plus visible signs on the ground, tree movement, water ripples, smoke, etc. I was pretty accurate with this as you needed to be able to figure this out for flying floats, and honestly, its not that hard.

  After the ISM was completed, we'd usually have to climb up to get better radio reception and range, so we'd either start the climb, or if we planned to map the fire, we'd duck lower and do the mapping first before calling it in.

  Mapping out the fire meant flying the perimeter of the fire as close as you could, while Smoky used a handheld GPS to get record the ground track so they could upload it into their fire map database. It also allowed them to calculate total area of the fire in Hectares. This was pretty important, so I assume a degree of their funding calculations were done based on reported hectares of fires for the season.

  Down we'd go to 200-500 feet depending on terrain and visibility. I'd usually slow to about 120 miles an hour and drop a notch of flaps. Flying the perimeter of a fire was fun and challenging, Fires are not nice and round, they often have "fingers" that run out from the fire that might only be a couple hundred feet wide. Sometimes the fingers were so long and thin it would be tough to make the turns to keep yourself over the fire, so you occasionally " took in some green ", where you ended up flying over unburnt ground. I'd usually cut in over the fire to " take in some black " and even things out, so the total size was accurate even if the actual map wasn't.

   Helicopters would do mapping too and they could do it much more accurately then me. If the actual map was critical, they'd send a helo out to do the mapping later. We were "ad-hoc" chartered too, where the helo's were usually on a fixed contract for a certain number of hours for the whole season, I think it was 300 hours. If it was a slow season, they'd send the helos up to burn off those hours doing something productive as they were going to pay for it anyways even if they didn't use it.

  The trick with mapping too, was to make sure that you " cut-off " the GPS track. You had to completely encircle the fire, with your ending track running over where you began the track, closing the loop. If they stopped the GPS tracker short, all they got was a circular line on the map and the computer couldn't calculate the area inside, Down low, concentrating on flying the perimeter, it can be easy to mistake where you started the track, so you made sure to pick a good landmark when you started. Picking part of the fire didn't work as it all looks the same, you needed a lake, a ridge or swamp, something distinct.

  Mapping was fun and challenging, probably my favorite part of Smoke Patrol. Mapping out an actively burning fire was another challenge as well. You had to navigate the burnt part, but you also had to deal with the burning side as well, the " head " of the fire. You wanted to fly as close to it as you could to get an accurate map, but now you also had flames up to a couple hundred feet high, as well as a column of smoke and hot air to get around or through, depending on the wind. If the wind was light, you could usually duck down low and duck under the smoke, beside the flames and get pretty close to the edge. If the wind was up though, you either had to go through the smoke down low or cut around it so wide as take in a lot of unburnt ground ahead of the fire.  I'm not a huge fan of flying down low in low visibility and flying through heavy smoke and ash was hard on the plane and its air filters, so it was a tough call sometimes. On really big fires, sometimes you took in huge mounts of unburnt ground to get around the head and sometimes you just couldn't map it.

  Flying through smoke always left tell-tale signs on the props, windshield and leading edge of the wings, so the Boss always knew too. I was to avoid it when practicable, but we all knew sometimes you had to go through the smoke a little.

  I really regret not taking more pictures of this part of the job. The smoke creates some really weird and beautiful lighting underneath it, with the sun trying to get through. I remember one fire in particular, it was so big it had a dozen or so really active heads, each creating huge columns of smoke. The air was pretty still so the columns formed up overhead to make a huge dome over us. Inside the "room" below the air was perfectly still as the sun couldn't heat the ground to make any convective currents and the light was this eerie red colour.

  You had to be careful though as the hot air of a fire can create its own weather and can really rock a small plane if you get into it. Occasionally the rising air is so hot and rising so fasst it punches right up into the stratosphere, making its own thunderstorm overhead the fire. There were a couple of these " Pyronimbus " clouds formed this season that deposited ash from the territories as far away as Portugal!

  After mapping, we'd climb back up to 1500 feet if we were going to transit to the next fire, or higher if we were going to radio everything in.

  Fires were assigned a number, in sequential order of their discovery. at the beginning of the year, up to about fire 40 or so, you knew them all by heart. Chances are, you discovered all of the, anyway. Later in the season, when they got up to 90 or so, there were lots that had been found by helo crews, others that had gone out and you needed coordinates to find them. The Garmin 430 in the plane I flew the last two seasons, it was a piece of cake to enter coordinates. Prior to that we were using a plane with a Areamap something-or-other that had you using a little joystick to physically move the pointer on the map while the coordinates displayed underneath. This was a bit of a pain as to get precise locations and the map turned if you were turning at all, making it hard to keep oriented with the joystick, while flying.

  Smoky's GPS tracker gave real-time location info to the fire dispatch centre, mine only plotted a location when I pressed a button, for my flight follower to know where we were. I'd use the aircraft timer to do 30 minute check-ins, and usually do my fuel calculations or tank switching on the same schedule. I needed to burn an hour of fuel out of my main tanks before I could switch over and use my aux tanks. I had to burn my aux tank fuel as soon as that hour was up, and they burned for 45 minutes. You couldn't burn aux fuel first as the fuel injection system returned half the fuel pumped to the main tanks, if they were full, the returning fuel would go overboard, out the vents. you couldn't burn aux fuel last either as they didn't have a boost pump for the aux tanks, meaning if the engine quit, you couldn't restart it.

  Fire dispatch would give us updates on other aircraft working around us, letting us know if a fire was being actioned, so we could keep our distance. We'd also talk to the bird-dog pilots who would warn us if the bombers were en route. In civilian aviation, airspace around a fire is automatically restricted airspace and you need to be either 3000 feet above it or 5 nautical miles away from it. Since we were involved in the fire action, it didn't apply to us, but if there were bombers on the fire, we'd stay at least that distance away, if not more. They were being coordinated by the bird dog aircraft flying above, and had restricted airspace to work in, so weren't looking out for other traffic most of the time, focusing instead on the ground and their bombing run. Helicopter pilots working a fire were simply crazy and would run into you, just to see what happens.

  I had one instance where we were going to a fire we spotted that was right on the edge of the territorial boundary with a neighboring province. We couldn't tell if it was on the border or outside our jurisdiction, so we flew over to it to check the GPS coordinates. Arriving, we found it just outside our territory, but it looked fresh, so we decided to do an ISM to pass onto the neighboring province, as long as we were there. Problem was, they did know about it and had two helicopters working it when we arrived. We didn't see them until our second orbit or so and they weren't on our radio system so didn't hear them either. I usually monitor the enroute frequency of 126.7 as well, but had turned down the volume earlier as I had three radios squawking at me, and had forgotten to turn the volume back up. They had been making calls, and I thought I was monitoring, but I couldn't hear them. As soon as we saw them we did a 180 and got out of there. I went to make a radio call on 126.7 and that's when I discovered the volume turned down, turning it up, i heard them talking about the " white fixed wing ". Apologized and beat feet for home. oops.

  This past fire season was their worst season in, I think, recorded history. A big fire for us would normally be 30-50,000 Hectares. We'd get two or three of those in a typical season, with the rest being much smaller. This season we had four fires that were each 500,000 plus Hectares in size, along with many more in the 50,000 plus range. It got so bad later in the season that Smoke Patrol pretty much died off to nothing, as they couldn't spare the manpower to go up and look for new fires. Quite frankly, I think they were scared what they would find.

  Crews and tanker aircraft, helicopters and ground crew were brought in from pretty much every other Canadian Province and probably the States as well. 200 Man camps were set up and moved around as they tried to fight these huge fires. Communities were threatened and we were grounded more than once due to extremely poor visibility in the smoke, blanketing thousands of square miles.

  Once community in particular was completely encircled by one fire, 


  With the ground crews fighting the fire from the streets of the village. I had been flying a charter and was listening on the VHF radio as the drama unfolded, with the fire jumping the only road into town, they were trapped in town and the radio calls were getting pretty panicked. Vehicles abandoned, all they could do was put their pumps in the lake and fight the fire. They managed to save the village, but the luck of the winds was on their side or it could have ended quite differently.


  There is an old debate about fighting these fires. One side is to let them burn, its a natural process and keeps the fires small. The other side is to fight everything and hit them when they are small and can actually be put out.

  If you let them burn, the right combination of winds and fuels can let a monster set up and then threaten a town. Why didn't you fight it?

  If you fight everything, the unburnt fuel builds up to unnaturally high levels, setting the stage for monsters to get going, which you can't fight, even if you wanted to. Why did you fight them?

  I felt bad for Smoky, as it was often his call as to whether to fight a fire or not. He had decades of experience in making those calls, which is why he got stuck in the plane so often. But so much is out of his control. He'd fight something small and they'd accuse him of wasting resources. He'd let a fire go and the winds would change around a couple times and suddenly a Value-At-Risk was burned down.

  Value-At-Risk or VAR, was the term for pretty much anything man made that a fire might threaten. A key factor in the decision whether to fight a given fire was whether or not their were any VAR's nearby. a VAR might be a trappers shack made of a few sheets of plywood and tarps, hauled in by snow machine in the winter out to the middle of nowhere. It might only be worth a couple hundred bucks in materials, but they'd send in 10,000 dollar an hour bombers to save it. Then again, next winter when the trapper gets stuck in bad weather and needs his shelter that he put up and finds it gone, when he needs it the most.....well, you get the idea.

  As a pilot up here, you got to know where all these little shacks, lodges and cabins were. Either by flying the owners or materials out in the first place, or just from mentally cataloging them as you drone along over hundreds of miles of wilderness. the ENR guys, even Smoky, would ask you first if you knew of anything nearby, as the location of a lot of this stuff isn't recorded anywhere else.

  Couple random pictures;

  This is a test-block. Used for testing different methods of firefighting, fire control and who knows what else. They'd burn sections of these from time to time, maybe to train firefighters, I'm not really clear on the whole purpose. I'm sure google knows and I'm too lazy and/or uninterested to look.

    Hope you enjoyed your time On Patrol!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Winter Work

So, my first four years as a working, commercial pilot, actually consisted of four consecutive summers as a seasonal pilot. The outfit I worked for had lots of work in the summer, particularly during the summer fire season. Not so much work during the winter. The company was a small family-run and operated charter outfit, consisting of Mom the Operations Manager, Dad, the Chief Pilot and AME and one older son as a Pilot, another younger son as an apprentice AME. They typically take in a junior pilot to help fill the gaps during the summer seasons. 

That was me.

  Their was still flying to be done during the winter months, but not enough to keep three pilots on payroll. Dad and Son could easily handle the winter flying and I needed to find something else to fill in the other 7 months of the year. 

  I worked down south as a fuel truck driver at a major airport, so decided to try my hand at driving for a living up here. Given that the fuel hauling business up here is also very seasonal, it actually worked out pretty good. In the winter, most homes up here are heated by Diesel ( Furnace Oil ) and that fuel needs to be delivered to the tank at their home several times a winter.

  Since I hold a class 3 commercial driving license, I am qualified to drive a " straight-truck ", also referred to as a " Body-Job ". That is, a non-articulated truck. Not a tractor-trailer combination, but a vehicle where the tank or cargo container is affixed to the truck chassis itself.  You need a Class 1 license to drive a tractor-trailer, but the tractor part of the Body-Job is the same truck. Usually a little bit smaller in terms of horsepower and transmission. My license technically allows me to drive a Semi for hire, I just cant drive it hooked up to a trailer.

  In any case. At the end of my second summer flying up here, I decided to look for winter work. There are two fuel hauling companies in my little town, so I polished up my resume and stopped by to see them. The first one said thanks, we'll let you know, but we're not looking for anyone right now. Second one asked me if I had time to interview when I popped in unannounced, and I left with a job offer pending reference checks.

  I came to find out later that the unemployment rate up here is pretty much nil. The only people not working are generally those that either don't want to, or don't need to. People up here don't go looking for jobs, jobs go looking for people. I'm speaking in broad terms, but you get the idea. Its pretty hard for them to find qualified people for a lot of positions and a lot of companies just end up taking whoever is willing to do it. 

That was me.

  My driving " experience " from my airport job down south gave me a little in the way of knowledge, but really, I had a lot to learn.

  To start, all the trucks I used to drive were Automatic Transmissions. All the trucks at my new employ were Standard. 10 and 18 speed semi truck transmissions. I spent the first month shadowing one of their drivers to learn the routes and equipment, but to also get used to driving a " real " truck. My license was restricted to Auto only, so I had to take another driving test to get the restriction lifted. Everyone told me that the Department of Transport guys that administered the tests were very big on the " double-clutch " method of shifting these big trucks, I spent a month driving around trying to master the double-clutch. 

  Gegenerally big trucks don't shift with the clutch at all, you simply learn what RPM ranges and speeds you can shift up and down in, along with when to give it gas during the shift, and it shifts very easily without using the clutch. Double-clutching, not so easy. I wont even bore you with the details of how to double clutch, as it was, and still is, pretty useless information.

  Turned out that the DOT guy didn't care, or he didn't say anything anyway. Maybe he would have said something if I tried to shift without the double clutch, but the road test was pretty basic, so I kind of doubt it.

  So there you have it. I had a winter job, that paid quite well and was seasonal for the winter only, they were only too happy for me to leave in the spring and go back to flying.

  I spent two winters on the Body-Job, delivering furnace oil to home tanks, gasoline and diesel to gas stations and industrial tanks. Once a week or so had me driving on the highway to neighbouring towns to do home deliveries or other fuel deliveries. I'd help out at the airport operation, filling a plane now and then or just keeping the self-serve tanks at the airport topped up with Avgas and Jet Fuel. 

  There was a dedicated airport guy who went out and operated the pumps for itinerant aircraft, but I was the back-up since I had airport fueling experience. Sometimes this involved taking an on-call cell and coming in after hours to fill planes. Other times I'd get called out after hours to fill peoples home tanks who had let them run low or even out. Call outs like that paid a flat call out fee and it all went to the driver. It was a usually 150 bucks a shot, so it was a nice little way to make up for getting suited up at 40 below and coming in on a Sunday to do one delivery. I felt bad sometimes though as people had their furnaces stop working, so they call in for an after hours fuel delivery. Pay a hefty fee on top of the price of the fuel and then at least half the time that's when they found out it was their furnace itself that had died, not run out of fuel.

  Heating your home up here is expensive, to say the least. Our little trailer, 900 and change square feet, costs about 1200 bucks a year to heat. All of that is in the seven months of winter, so its 150-200 bucks a month depending on the temperature an average house with a basement and say, 2000 square feet of space, you could easily spend 400-500 bucks a month, just for furnace oil. Thats assuming you have decent windows and insulation too. Your neighbour, with an older house of the same size, but crappy insulation and windows, might spend 700-800 a month.

   Electricity up here is brutal too. Most places down south pay 6-10 Cents per Kilowatt hour, up here, its almost 30 Cents. We averaged 2-400 dollars a month for Electricity as well, just for our tiny little place. I can only imagine what a larger house costs to run.

  The home deliveries were a lot of work too. Once the snow was piled up, you had to make a path to the tank from wherever you could get the truck closest to the tanks. Technically, the homeowner is supposed to have a clear path, shovelled to the tank and we were supposed to not deliver if there wasnt. In reality, for the three or four times a year that we needed access to the tank, you could hardly blame them for not shovelling a 50 or 100 foot long path that gets used so little. Most of the time, you made the path yourself, tromping through the snow, dragging the hose behind you. Tanks like the one below needed a ladder to access in the summer, in the winter, most of the time the snow piled high enough that you didn't need it.

  Dragging that hose through the snow forty or fifty times a day was good exercise though.

  On top of the tank are the filler port, a vent and a gauge. The gauge is just a little plastic dome where a bobber shows the level of the fuel in the tank. Most of the time, snow falling off the roof of the home had piled up on the tank, either breaking the gauge or it ends up buried in a frozen block of ice. The rest of the time, water in the mechanism has frozen it solid anyway and it is hardly reliable. In the early winter and late winter, when the temperatures fluctuate above and below freezing, the ice-cold fuel will leave a frost line on the outside of the tank. The rest of the time, the only reliable way to know how much fuel you have is to dip it.

  The vent also has a little whistle in it that will whistle as you fill it and, theoretically, stop whistling as you approach full. I say theoretically, as I have first hand experience of occasionally finding out the tank is full by the presence of fuel spraying out the filler port as you attempt to overfill it.

  Most tanks also have some kind of insulation on the fuel lines going into the home as well. Surprisingly, the little heat conducted through the metal pipe from the parts of it inside the home to the parts outside the home can be kept fairly well if wrapped up.

  All of the fuel in our town arrived by Rail cars and is stored in giant tanks that we fill our trucks from. The fuel is cooled by the trip up here and then again sitting in the tanks. By the middle of winter, you can easily be dispensing fuel that is -30 degrees celsius. If the outside air warms up to say, -5, the tanked fuel takes weeks of that temperature before it warms up. Hence the frost lines on the outside of the tanks, similar to a cold glass of beer on a hot day.

  My favorite part of the job was the highway trips. Most of the neighbouring towns were around 100-150 kms away. 2 hour drive out, do my deliveries, grab a sandwich, two hour drive back, load the truck up for the next day and I'm done. Most of the day spent in the nice warm cab listening to satellite radio and drinking coffee.

  It wasnt all relaxing though. When the weather was bad or there was a lot of fresh snow, the highways up here leave a lot to be desired. Such as shoulders. 6 inches or so past the white line on your right was usually the ditch and the beginning of a very long and bad day if you strayed too far that way. I only managed one foray into the ditch and that was enough for me. 

  When the roads are snow covered, our little two-lane highways become " single-track ". 

Vehicles travelling in both direction drive in the middle of the road. When you come upon a car or truck coming at you, you both slow right down, to 30-40 km/h and move over into the fresh snow as you pass each other. Passing another truck doesn't leave a lot of room between your mirrors and if one of you hasnt slowed right down, the visibility in the blowing snow behind you is pretty much nil.

  In this case, I moved over for a car coming at me, but managed to move over too far and caught the edge of the ditch. I felt the back wheels go over the edge and start pulling the loaded truck over the side. Knowing that fighting it and trying to swerve hard back up onto the road surface was inviting disaster and an overturned fuel truck, I pointed it down into the ditch and rode it out into five feet of snow. 

  8 hours later, another truck had come up to meet me and we pumped my load of diesel into his truck to lighten my load and a winch truck pulled me up the embankment and back onto terra firma. He continued on to do my delivery and I turned around and headed home with my tail between my legs. I only needed to learn that lesson once.

  I was lucky that I didnt spill any product and that equipment was available to get me out the ditch. Had I been somewhere more remote, had I flopped it over, had the snow ripped some of the plumbing off.....things could have been much worse.


Occasionally, I got to do longer trips. Usually the big trucks did the big trips, but sometimes there was need for only a small amount of fuel or the location couldnt accomodatea big truck. My tank only held about 15,000 Litres. 

  In the shoulder seasons, this meant crossing rivers on reaction ferries. Ferries that went across whenever traffic was there to go across. 

In the winter, the rivers froze up and you drove across on the ice. 

Realisitically, the ice is so thick that there is little danger of going through. I was told by one old timer to take your seat belt off, roll your window down and keep the radio off so you can listen to the ice as you go across. When the Ice was covered in snow, you could hardly tell you were on a river, it just looked like any other snow-covered highway up here. When the wind had blown the ice clear of snow though and you could see down into the ice, it was a little spooky. The cracks in the ice make a white ribbon, clearly showing you exactly how thick ( or thin ) the ice was, but it also showed you black, cold water below. Not my favourite.

   I also got to do a few trips on the real " winter roads ". Some of the communities up here have no road access at all in the summer. These were usually the ones I was flying into in the summer.   In the winter, there'd be a cut line, where a Cat had basically bull-dozed a semi-level trail off the highway, through the bush and swamp, out to the community. Not navigable in the summer, unless you were on an ATV and were carrying your own fuel, but in the winter when the ground froze up hard enough, they'd do their best to level out the snow and ice and make a winter road.

 A lot of times, theyd make use of lakes along the route and the road would have you driving over the nice flat ice. Other times, they simply take snow-cats and plows and pack a snow and ice road and when it was frozen and packed enough they'd open it up to heavy trucks. The winter is the time when all the communities bulk goods and fuel is stockpiled for the rest of the year. Since these towns run on generators, it take a lot of stockpiled fuel in the winter to last them through the summer, when there is no way at all to get fuel in.

  Only problem, sometimes they use more fuel than they anticipate over the summer. Sometimes winter comes late and the summer stocks dwindle to critical levels before the road is ready to take the big trucks. So, I got a few trips where they made an exception for my " little " truck and out of neccessity, allowed me to come out on the road before it was judged ready for heavier trucks. The first time I did this, the road was definitely NOT ready. The trip was pretty tough. Later in the season, I took a load in again after the road was done and it was much, much easier.

  As part of the granting of the " exception " for my first load in, they met me at the start of the road and told me very sternly that I was, under no circumstance, to go over 25 km/h on the road. For a 150 km "road", that was three hours away from base before it even started off the side of the " highway ", that made for a long day.

  I laughed about an hour later, I was lucky to get 20 km/h, holding onto the steering wheel for dear life and being bounced against my seat belt straps the whole way in. To make it even worse, it had snowed a good 8-10 inches the night before and the only tracks I had were from my escort truck ahead of me.

  I passed about a dozen pickup trucks on their way out of the community as I went in. Wasn't a lot of room to squeeze by each other when we met either. Since I had a big truck with chains and pulling straps, I always watched them carefully in my mirrors as we squeezed by each other to make sure the little trucks didn't need me to pull them out. With one set of wheels over on the side of the road, not entirely sure if you were driving on packed " road " or about to drop a wheel over the edge and get stuck.

  Going in wasn't too bad, as I had 15,000 litres of diesel to give me weight on my wheels and good traction. Coming out, the bouncing was worse with my now-empty truck and I wished I had a little more weight to help in some of the rough spots. Between my truck and all the little trucks, plowing through the fresh snow, going out it was a churned up mess. In a lot of spots, you simply got going as fast as you could manage and didnt dare slow down.

  Later in the year I went in at night when the road was done and it was much nicer.

  When you stopped at one of the rest areas along the highway, you were usually greeted by at least a couple of Ravens who had found that most truckers are more than happy to share a little of their lunch. Some of them are pretty bold. This one sat on my hood and awaited his meal, but I've had others sit right on the mirror outside my window, inches from my head, cocking their heads and waiting for the window to come down. they'd probably eat out of your hand, but I'm not that brave, these are big birds.

  I always kept a box a dog biscuits in the truck for the home deliveries and the Ravens seemed quite happy with a couple milk bones. In some of the communities, the dogs got to know this too, and I felt like the Pied Piper driving around town with a couple dogs chasing along behind me, waiting for the next stop.

  Anyhow, that kept my winters busy and paid for the fuel in my furnace tank for the two winters we spent up there in between the summer flying.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Well, I finally remembered my login for this site. I've left this dormant for so long, I forgot how to get in..haha.

  Its been over two years since I last posted, I'm sure most of the people who used to follow along have long since abandoned this site from their reading list, but what the hell.

  I found the last post I had stored in "drafts" and it detailed the last of our move north and the first little bit of our stay here.

  So much has happened since and so much is happening now.

  I'll post this old one up for now and then try and do a recap of the last couple years. 

  To entice you to stick around and hear me out, I'll give you the TL;DR

- Flew for a total of three more summer seasons 
- Got myself checked out and PPC'd on the KingAir 100, my first turbine twin, as an FO anyway
- Drove a Fuel Delivery Truck for two winter seasons, driving on the "highways" of the North, such as they are. Ice Bridges, Winter Roads, all kinds of fun.
- Got a new job offer last week to move to a town a bit further south and start flying as an FO on a KingAir 200 as a Medevac FO
- Selling our place up here and Buying a "real" house down there.

  Part of the reason the blog got quiet was the fact that I live in a VERY small town. While nothing I've posted would really be weird or awkward if my neighbours saw it, I still felt/feel self conscious about it and it really did scare me off worrying so much about posting the wrong thing, or being identified online. While the town I am moving to is still small, its a lot bigger than this one and frankly, I'm coming around to the idea of just not giving a crap anymore.

  In that light, I'll try and post a lot of pictures from the last couple years and maybe try and mend my ways for the upcoming adventure and try and keep up on this again.

  Anyhow, enjoy a the pre-quel and I'll try and get some more stuff up here soonish.

Well, its been a busy few months... Can't even pretend to be disappointed that I haven.t been updating this site very much lately. I can keep pretending, but the fact is, its a little down in the priority list these days.

  Things have settled down a little now, so who knows, maybe things will change... Lots of big stuff has passed astern now and we are both settling into a slower routine than we used to have, but its still busy nonetheless.

  Couple of the big things;

  We finally sold our Condo in Big-City.

  Took over five months to even get an offer. For a city where stuff sells over a weekend, this was a bit of a shock to us... I think we bought into the real-estate hype a little too much and forgot that when we bought our place, we knew it was a "starter" condo. That's real-estate speak for kinda-crappy-but-hey-its-cheap. Our development had no amenities, a troubled history with a builder that just barely completed the building before going under, landscaping that sat unfinished for four years and a small legal battle with the city and the New Home Warranty company to colour our strata minutes a certain shade of troubled.

  Our unit itself was even further down the list. Small ( 720 sq ft. ), located under a stairwell facing out with its lone little window onto the walkway to the front entrance. Sitting in your living room, you are treated to a steady stream of people walking by at arms reach and head level past your front window. Frankly, when walking past an apartment window that is RIGHT THERE, don't you turn your head, even for a quick peek? Yeah, they did too....all of them.

  Anyhow, we dropped the price a couple times as we were getting tons of showings, but no bites. Finally got a good offer and we pulled the trigger as quick as we could.  Our realtor was very patient with us, especially since we bristled initially at her advice to start lower than we thought it was worth.

  So, that's done. Lots of things to sign, paperwork to scan, courier and stack in a big pile for filing one day....

  Moving on, we moved in. Took us a better part of a month to really get set up in the new place and find homes for all our stuff. Man, we have a lot of stuff. Despite having just returned from living overseas in 2005 and returning with little more than a couple suitcases and a van-load of boxes to pick up from storage, we've managed to accumulate a fair schwack of crap in the last seven years.

  Enough to fill the uhaul that brought our stuff here right to the brim, floor to ceiling, front to back.

 I thought of stopping in the last-biggish-town-that-has-a-walmart on the way here to load up on a few cases of diapers, but there was no room. That's how much crap we have. I'm ashamed to admit we still keep up a storage locker down south with stuff that is worth too little to drag 2000 kilometres north but too much to drag to the dump.

  And then, we finally closed the deal on this place. The deal with the seller was that they would let us " rent " the place till our condo sold and we could complete the sale. After a month here I realized that we could financially pull off buying it and carrying a second mortgage, given that it was so cheap. We notified the seller and the bank and tried to forge ahead, but the seller wasn't quite ready, they had assumed we would be at least another month and didn't have everything ready on their end. Turned out OK in the end as they agreed to a reasonable time-frame for closing and were reasonable on the pro-rata of the rent for the interim.

  Originally when we were looking at places we were aiming for a price range at least double what we paid for this place. Turns out, given the gaps in our employment, carrying our empty condo for a couple months and the costs of moving, buying, closing, selling, etc, we just barely squeaked it by into this place. Had we gone a lot higher in price, we might have had a little bit of trouble.

  In any case, all our stuff is now squirreled away into the nooks and crannies of a little trailer, circa 1985, that measures 70 feet by 14 feet. 980 Square feet of OURS.

  Situated on a sizable lot of 100 by 150 feet, we have great neighbours all around and good sprinkling of trees and bushes as well. Not much for a lawn, as it turns out though. I raked it all out in preparation for the first mowing after the snow melted and found that what looked like a lawn at first glance was actually 70% weeds, 10% gravel, 10% old leaves and dead weeds from last summer and 10% actual grass. Talking to my neighbour, she mentioned that same, if the weeds were gone, we wouldn't even have " lawns ".

  I saw a couple bags of grass seed for sale at the hardware store and snagged them and scattered them over the lawn earlier in the spring. Might as well have bought green paint and threw that around for all the good it did. Technically the area where we live is an inland desert. Summers are very dry and we haven't had any appreciable precipitation since early-early spring. Mowing the weeds makes it look like a lawn and my daughter doesn't give a hoot about playing on dandelion leaves as opposed to grass, so its not really a big deal, but its my pet project. I don't really have the time, inclination, nor spare cash to do it right, so I'm just picking at the problem like n old scab... I threw down a hundred square feet or so of black dirt, raked it our and seeded the crap out of it. It looks silly, but its really the biggest chunk I can spare the water to keep it moist enough to give them half a chance at sprouting. Even then, I'm not sure its enough.

  I forgot to mention, we moved into " old town " which is exactly what it sounds like, the site of the original township up here. Sometime during the early sixties, they had a big flood and a lot of homes were destroyed. This wasn't the first flood and the government convinced everyone to move the town upstream a mile or two to higher ground. Except a lot of people didn't leave either, and since the real estate prices were a lot cheaper and now available with the exodus to new town, well, old town is still here. Old Town has no sewer or water connections, everything comes in and out by truck service. We have a small trailer with a small tank, 250 Gals to be precise, so we get water delivered three times a week. Truck pulls up, hose gets plugged in and they pump our tank full. Once every two weeks another truck comes and hooks up to our sewage tank and takes that same water, now gently used, away.

  You don't really realize how much water you go through until you have to walk past that tank in the hallway and see the level every day. Thinking about it, we use, on average, about 40 Gallons of water, per person, per day. That's a Full Drum of water, every day. A shower, a dishwasher load, a laundry load and a little cooking. Doesn't sound like much, but the numbers don't lie.

  In any case ,not a whole lot left over to water the lawn with. Hence the little patch of moist-ish dirt out front, covered in grass seed and high hopes.

  The other day I actually made a little bit of a fuck-up and tried to use up the last of the water in the tank on the grass before leaving for work. I turned on the sprinkler and went back inside to watch the water level and finish my coffee. Water level runs down to with an inch or two of the bottom, suction pipe make a little burbling noise as it sucks air and I go back out and turn off the sprinkler and then head to work.

  Problem is, the water system runs on a pressure-pump. A little pump pumps water from the holding tank into a little tank the size of a 20 lb propane bottle. Inside this bottle is a rubber bladder filled with air and a little room for water to come in. Pump pushes the water in, squeezing the rubber bladder until there is roughly 50 lbs of pressure in the balloon and then stops. The bladder, with its Captive Air Pressure ( thats what the little tank is called ) is what pushes the water out the tap when you turn it on. Once you use enough water for the pressure to drop below a certain amount, the pump turns back on and fills it up again.

  Except........if you run it dry.... My pump was trying to fill up the Captive Air Tank, but couldn't, there was no water left to push in there. I had left for work and wasn't inside to hear the little pump working away....fruitlessly......continuously........without the water it needs to lubricate, seal and cool the internal pump parts.........all morning.

  I came home at lunch and heard it, barely. It was really quiet as it wasn't actually pumping anything, just turning..... But the damage had already been done. The internal bits of the pump were cooked, the impeller and seal most likely were melted from spinning dryly inside the metal pump housing and even with the new supply of water in my holding tank, they couldn't pump anymore without a seal.

  So, yesterday was screw around with broken pump trying to prime it morning, followed by buying a new pump and contemplating how bad I could screw this up by attempting to put it in myself. You, and my wife, would be happy to know I followed up expensive pump purchase with a shot of plumber to wash the day down.

  So yeah, the water runs again and we are free to fritter away our water resources on keeping dirt moist and dishes clean.

  Also, the wife has picked up very good paying work up here. We had hoped she might get added to the on-call list and pick up enough for us to get by on in addition to my meager pilot salary. Instead, she got full-time, with benefits. Now they've asked her to come in and train for a second position so that they can call her in on the weekends. The weekend work being overtime, to the tune of double her rate. She is off this weekend training for that. I mentioned to her the other day, if she could just try and think of the family, she might get up a couple hours earlier during the week and be able to pick up a little more work in the mornings....haha.

  So, that takes care of most of the Big Stuff that had us stressed about the move. We've moved into housing that we really like, and can really afford. I am flying, she is working and for the first time in our ten years of living and budgeting together, there is money left over at the end of the month, instead of month left over at the end of the money.

  The folks at Visa are probably going to cancel our cards due to " suspicious activity " when we actually run a zero-balance.

  The flying has been good as well. It could be busier, but you take what you can get. I've had quite a few flights on the C337, which I enjoy and a few more on the C208 as well, which I really enjoy. Its funny though, I didn't see it last year, but I do this year, the Caravan really IS the easier airplane on the two. The systems are quite a bit simpler, even if just in operation, and it really does handle " like a big 172 ". I've gotten to do a little bit of float work on it as well this year, which I really enjoy as well.

  Career wise, yeah, I could probably rack up hours somewhere else at a faster rate, but the downside would be I wouldn't get anywhere near equipment as challenging as a Light Piston Twin or a Turbine Caravan on amphibs at my level of experience with most other companies.

  So there it is, a snapshot of my last feeble attempt to keep this site going, two and change years ago.

  My new work schedule has quite a bit of down-time, given that I'm on call. Maybe I'll pick his up again and try and fill in the blanks, or maybe I'll have new stories to add in, who knows.

  It won't be this week though, and maybe not even this month. Right in the middle of moving again, selling, buying, closing, packing, driving, painting, unpacking... you get the idea.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Hi Strangers....

Well, its been awhile... a lot has happened since I last summoned up the courage to type out an entry and get over my embarrassment at not having posted for eight months.... But, what the Hay, lets see if I can make a run at this again....

  I guess a recap of the missing time period would be a good way to start.

  Last summer I left the coast and went up North for a seasonal flying job. My first " real " flying job. Aside from a little stint instructing on Ultralights and a season as a dock-hand. The dock-hand job was definitely not a flying job, the instructing a little more so, but still....not quite....

  I posted a little bit, so I won't go into all the details, but suffice to say, I added some time to the logbook, got my first PPC and even managed to get checked out on a turbine machine, the caravan, and log some time on that. Not too shabby for a 90-day gig.

  At the end of the summer, I talked over with the owners my plans for the future. They were very receptive to the idea of me coming back to fly for them and frankly, I have been looking for an opportunity to get out of the city. In broad strokes, at the end of the season, the plan was that I would return in the early spring, with worldly goods in tow, along with The Lovely Wife and The Wee One, and we'd try and make a go of it in the Great White North, year-round.

  So, short story shorter, here we are.

  We made the big move and found ourselves a cozy little place to buy and have spent the last few weeks getting settled in.

  I don't particularly like using this blog as a platform to tell people about my personal life, because, well, that's personal. Family that check in here from time to time may be disappointed not to see pictures of my incredibly cute and unbelievably smart little girl. I enjoy posting about aviation job, the things I see in my job and connecting with others who like to post about their aviation jobs.

  So, I'm hoping to do a little better than last year and post some interesting stories and pictures of this summers adventures. Maybe in the winter when the flying " cools down ", I'll post some fridge-drawings or baby-birthday party photo's, who knows....

  This week was all about getting back in the saddle and all my paperwork in order to start flying this summer. My PPC is valid for a year and since I didnt get it till mid-last summer, its still good till mid-this-summer. I do have to refresh a bunch of exams and some refresher flying training as well to get current again, but thats coming along nicely.

  Last year, I did a " VFR PPC ", which allowed me to fly the multi-engine aircraft as PIC, during Visual Meteorological Conditions ( VMC ) and under Visual Flight Rules ( VFR ). I did however, have all the training, written exams and prerequisites in place to do an IFR rating, but haven't done a check-ride yet to complete the actual rating. We're hopefull that this year, when my PPC comes due for renewal, that I'll be ready to do an IFR ride and renew my PPC as an IFR PPC and, as an added bonus, add an IFR rating to my license in the process.

  I could have simply done some refresher training and booked a flight test with an examiner in the off season, but to be honest, we're talking anywhere from 2000-5000 dollars out of pocket...a little much for my budget these days, Especially seeing as there was no guarantee it would be of any use to me this season. It now appears it will be of use, and we can hopefully get it done as part of my company-PPC training and kill two birds with one stone.

  In the midst of training, I also went out and helped out on some other flights as a second pilot/swamper for some cargo-intensive loads and as a way to get back in the airplane and try and shake some rust off. Eight months out of the cockpit can be a long time.... Its surprising how fast it all comes back though. I feel pretty comfortable in the Caravan, but still need a few more flights and some refresher training on systems, limitations and emergency procedures before I'll get re-checked out on that. The smaller, multi-engine aircraft will come first and I only have a few hours of flight training flights to do and if everything goes smoothly, I should be back on line with that one anyway within the next week.

  Today was a long day of flying food, gear, gas and equipment out to a fishing lodge that is in the process of setting up for a season. First it was the crew, out to take down the plywood off the cabin and lodge windows and then all other jobs they have to get the place de-winterized and ready for guests. Then, the fuel and food to keep them going for the week or two they'll need to complete it. After that, its barrels of fuel for the boats and generators that they will need stockpiled to have in ample supply for most of the season. We'll do a few more runs over the season to top up the gasoline, mostly for the boats. In a week or two when they open up, it will be guests, both in and out, along with their gear and the occasional grocery run as well to keep the freezer stocked out there for workers and guests alike.

  It's nice going out to this lodge compared to the outpost lodges I went to out in NW Ontario. Out here, they have three or four guys down on the dock when you arrive, to catch the plane and do most of the offloading. Compared to the outpost lodges, where the pilot has to do all the work, or his trusty dock-hand sidekick who comes along to hold the plane straight and level in cruise and then bust his hump with weedwhackers, barrels of fuel and chainsaws while the guests pile in and out of the plane.

  Still a lot of Ice up here on the bigger lakes and a little on the rivers as well. This lodge is on a river, so most of the ice is out, but there is still a bit coming downstream that you have to watch out for on the water. It is after all, still pretty early in the season.

  Even went out the other day to take some officials from the local highways department up to have a look at some of the ice conditions on one of the local rivers. They wanted to go upstream a ways and have a look at what was left to come down the pipe before they gave the official all clear. Happily, this springs breakup and runoff has been very mild and uneventful. Which is a good thing, as we just bought a little house right in the middle of the flood plain....haha.

  The first little bits of new grass are just starting to poke out from under the snow-flattened grass and the trees are only just starting to show signs of budding, no leaves yet though. On the coast, its pretty much moved past spring and into early summer....With the short summer season up here though, things move pretty quick though. I'll bet I see green grass lawns and trees full of leaves inside of two weeks.

   I also just realized that since I don't work at the FBO anymore, I could post a few pictures from the CENSORED pile that might have got me in trouble before....  Since I haven't had a chance to take many pictures yet, expect some random aviation pics from the past....

Sunday, August 14, 2011

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Went out the other day on a flight to Fort Liard, and ended up holding for most of the day in the community.

It was hot, like 30 degrees hot, and I had dressed for a relatively cool morning and still in bug-protection mode. ( pants and at best, a long sleeve shirt wit the sleeves rolled up )

I did get the opportunity to hang out a little bit with the husband of a husband-and-wife team that manned the Fort Liard Community Aerodrome Radio Station. They had an interesting story of getting on during a hirinjg blitz for the 2010 Olympics and after it was over, their pick of a few interesting spots in the North. ( My suspicion is that if you are the type of person who finds places like these in the north interesting, you probably get your pick of the litter. I tend to agree, but I'm sure the vast majority most likely feels otherwise...

It was a nice little airport setup, with all the basic airport-things you need. A little building, a parking lot, some radio gear, maybe a nav-aid and some runway lighting. A bathroom, a few chairs and magazines in a waiting room, a run-up pad and a hangar.

From left to right, the instruments and radio gear are;

A Wind Direction indicator
A Wind Speed Indicator
Dual Altimeters ( For giving out Altimeter settings )

The wind direction/intensity indocators are the two big black dials on the far left. I always thought that the wind information they gave you was averaged out, but apparently not in a place like this, as I asked him after watching him give out an advisory to a helicopter. Maybe thats an ATIS thing?

The CARs operators get a fair bit of downtime while on shift and manning their posts, so these places are usually pretty clean and this one was no exception. Its the unattended ones that tend to be a little on the grotty side...

I got the grand tour and was surprised to find this bad boy lurking in the closet.

This is the NDB, the electronic guts of the airports only functioning nav-aid.

a Non-Directional Beacon is typically a fairly low-power AM transmitter, usually located at the airport or a short distance away and I've always been told is the most common up here, mostly due to the low-maintenance and low-cost to setup. Imagine my surprise when I found the W.O.P.R in the closet, pumping out random 1974 computer noises and a vicious amount of BTU's that their poor little window-mounted air conditioner couldn't even pretend to keep up with.

In my mind, I had always imagined a little box, about the size of a portable radio!

We live in interesting times in the field of Air Navigation. The use of GPS as a primary aid is quickly catching on. Costs for certified installations are dropping and the number of approaches available to those who choose to invest in the hardware and the training, get the comfort of an approach more accurate by a factor of ten than what you can do with this one.

In fact, I probably shouldn't say this out loud, but I'm pretty sure that the vast majority of aircraft and pilots, flying around with un-certified GPS setups in their aircraft, to an airport with an NDB, are using the GPS to tell them where the beacon is as opposed to the ADF ( radio reception gear for the NDB ) and maybe sparing a glance over at the poor little ADF needle bobbing and weaving around from time time as a back-up.

After hanging out at the airport for a few hours, I decided to brave the heat and go for a little stroll around the village. I managed to find a route that followed mostly the shady side of the street and made my way down to the river to have a peek. Its a nice little town, lots of old-school log cabin type structures, right in the middle of the village, and right alongside modern stucco-sided ranchers.

One woman had a food-stand type of mobile trailer set up on her front lawn. It wasn't open, but looked like the "mobile" part of the setup had long since stopped being an option and she had hunkered down to sell burgers and fries off her front lawn. Great idea, but good luck trying to float something like this with the zoning folks down south!

Thanks are due to my Mother, who gave me the tip of reducing file size to try and get photos posted on here. I went from an avewrage of a meg or two per picture and a good five or ten minute wait on the upload, to a couple hundred kilobytes and a 10 second upload time!

Back in business.

Its kind of too bad, I really looked forward to doing a bit more posting this summer, but a couple things have conspired against me.

One was the photo issue. I love posting pics, even just to look back at myself. The upload time made posting a bit of a drag and I stopped altogether for awhile.

The other issue is that now that I am flying passengers around, and living and working in such a small community, I'm a lot more aware of how posting details that could identify my customers or my employer, might not be such a good idea in the general business sense. Or not, I might just be a little paranoid or self conscious...

Anyhow, to try an catch up, here are a few pics and a few littler adventures of late;

Went fishing a few weeks ago. Had a weekend off and nothing to do, so I threw my fishing stuff in the car, packed a little cooler with lunch and drinks and hit the road. I'd seen a decent lake a couple hours drive away and a river that connected to it that was purported to have a set of waterfalls on it.

Fishing was pretty goo, a lot more fishing jumping then biting it seemed. The dragon-fly's were out in abundance and were doing their clumsy mating flying down close to the surface of the river and I suspect thats what the fish were feeding on. When they mate, they are joined together but still manage to fly around, just not with very much precision. I imagine from below the waters surface a pair of conjoined dragonflys buzzing the rivers surface and/or occasionally getting stuck in the water, is a decent target.

The little spot where I was fishing had one other fisherman when I got there. He told me he had seen a bear across the river an hour earlier. A half hour or so after I showed up, we could hear it walking/ crashing its way through the bush on the other side of the river. I eventually did see him a little later on, as he came free of the trees and found a spot in the tall grass along the river to lie down in.

Also happened to turn my head and see a family of mink? weasels? crossing the river about forty feet behind me. They were pretty quiet, so I only noticed them by fluke.

After fishing for a few hours with moderate success ( 4 little Northern Pike and 1 decent sized Walleye ), I popped in to see the falls on my way back to town.

The falls were pretty spectacular to see. I think there are three sets of falls on two seperate rivers all close by up here and all worth a look.

Was a little nervous about wandering around the footpaths, as there were bear warning signs up and no one around but me. In my fishing tackle box I have a little bell that you can clip to the tip of your rod in case you are throwing out a baited hook and then sitting back waiting for the fish to bite. It also doubles as a good little bear-bell, clipped to my pants pocket and ringing away with each stride. Grizzly bears in the area can be readily identified by the presence of such bells in their spoor.

If you look closely at the top of the falls on the right hand side of the picture, there is a little rock just before the falls themselves.

Closer inspection reveals that it is a little inukshuk-type structire built by some pretty brave/stupid people.

The countdown is officially on, as I will be leaving to go home to the West Coast for the winter in less than two weeks. I've got a good little stockpile of pictures, so perhaps I'll get the motivation to post some more on here once I'm back in the land of unlimited high-speed internet.