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.