Friday, July 24, 2020

The Pox


Yes, well, so... I guess its time to mention the elephant in the room.

  Aviation in general, and Canadian Aviation specifically, has been decimated by the events surrounding the CoronaVirus.

  Prior to February of 2020, Canadian Aviation, from a pilot employment standpoint, was in the best shape it has been in for several decades.

  Over the course of the last five years or so leading up to 2020, things have been changing rapidly. Most , if not all, of Canada's major airlines were expanding rapidly. Smaller airlines were entering into agreements with the big airlines to take up the slack and fly their passengers to connecting hubs. The smaller airlines then stopped doing as much work on the charter side, leaving smaller charter operators to aggressively expand to capitalize on the new work floating around. It seems like everyone moved up a step.

  To a pilot, caught up in this, it has been nothing short of incredible. With Baby Boomer retirements already creating a hiring boom at the majors, you added in expansion, new airlines, new demand and increasing overseas demand of Canadian Pilots. All these things together created this giant sucking sound, hoovering up every available pilot into whatever niche or type of aviation they had their sights set on committing.

  The vacuum caused intense competition among airlines to attract crews. Pay went up, way up. Experience levels required to grace their inbox with a resume really dropped.  When I started flying, it was pretty normal to expect that you would need to accrue at least 3 or 4000 hours of flight time before you could consider your resume suitable to get an interview at one of the regional airlines, where you could slog it out for five or ten years before being considered for a spot at one of the Majors.  At the peak of the hiring boom, candidates were being hired at the 750 hour mark, and they could expect their stay at the regionals to last 1-2 years before they would be upgraded to captain on the mighty Q400 or make the jump to a major airline.

 I'm using US terminology here, but in Canada there really is only two Regional Airlines, Jazz and Encore and two Major airlines, Air Canada and Westjet. There are several other smaller regionals and smaller Majors, but really, those are the main players in this story.

  The draining of the lower time pilots off to the airlines created scarcity down the food chain as well. At the smaller charter and medevac companies, a fresh license with no previous commercial experience was typical for new First Officers. Captains were no longer grey bearded veterans of arctic campaigns, but FO's that had resisted the siren call of the airlines and had a year or two sitting copilot.

  Everyone sat around, regardless of their experience level, and declared that this wouldn't end well and that THEY had put in their time, but these youngsters...much clucking of tongues.

  That of course is history. It is just another chapter in the cycle of aviation, that we can tell stories about in ten years and the new entrants will be wide eyed to imagine it ever happened.

  In the span of about 30 days, the shutdown of all aviation in quarantine regimes and the fear of getting into a sealed metal tube with pox ridden passengers drove passengers away from all levels of aviation. Tourism, a driver of a lot of aviation demand, collapsed in the face of international travel restrictions and outright bans.

  Some smaller airlines went under. Most reduced their flying schedules by incredible amounts, Air Canada, Westjet and their regional partners were only flying 5% of their previous schedules.

  The whole house of cards collapsed. Layoffs at the airline level have been shocking, literally tens of thousands of pilots have hit the streets in Canada in the last four months. 10,000 more are hanging on by the grace of the government providing a wage subsidy to their employer. The government is literally paying their wages so the airline doesn't let them go, their employer has no need of them. The scuttlebutt is that the subsidy is simply a way to keep some pressure of the Unemployment Insurance System while it deals with the fallout of nearly every industry in Canada shedding workers.

After 9/11 there was a similar collapse, commercial aviation demand dropped significantly and the airlines resized till demand came back. After the 2008 Financial Crisis, the demand dried up again with the loss of disposable income by the flying public. This one is a bit different, demand didn't dry up, it stopped. in an instant.

  No one knows when it will come back or at what level or what cost, but the scale is off the chart compared to the last two downturns that I've had the pleasure of seeing.

  I've been somewhat lucky, in that the niche flying that I've been doing is not nearly as hard hit. Its definitely taken a bite, don't get me wrong. My employment for this summer is pretty much unchanged, but come fall, my winter work has disappeared into thin air.

  I now get to compete with the flood gates of all the airline guys firing off resumes and hitting up old pals to try and find some flying work to put food on the table. Some of them got hired with very little experience and don't offer much to the smaller operators that Id like to spend the winter working for, but others made their way up the same as I did and have years of experience flying medevac, or other charter type flying before they went off to the airlines. The smaller outfits are a little leery of hiring the airline guys as they have a seniority number in The Big Show and would flee at the drop of a hat if ( and when ) things turn around.  I'm only seeking winter work at this time too, so I'm not the first pick either, as my summer work is not something I want to voluntarily give up. Its all moot in any case as the smaller operators are not hiring anyways as their demand has dropped off the cliff too! Good times.

So, there you go, state of the union. Not pretty, but not a new storyline either.

  You still got the number of that truck driving school, goose?


  Anyhow, back to time travelling!

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Barn Find

  Out on a nice day Medevac trip to a small town one day, I came across something pretty cool at the airport we were sitting at awaiting our medics return with the patient, a PBY Catalina.

  Originally designed and built during WWII, as a naval reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare aircraft. The Catalina, also known as the Canso, was a flying boat, designed to land on water or on land. It had these cool "blister " windows that an observer could sit , searching the sea below for survivors of a downed ship, or an enemy submarine. I don't really know much for technical details, and frankly, you've got the google if you're interested in any case!

  I think the blister windows have been removed from this one, as it spent the latter part of its life in fire-fighting work and they weren't needed. THey would normally be on both sides of the fuselage, just aft of the wing. I'm told that's also where they would haul in the floating survivors rescued at sea during WWII.

  This particular Canso had been repurposed in its golden years as a fire fighting Scooper, or Skimmer. Refit with a water tank capable of refilling on lakes, it was employed in the service of Buffalo Airways in the NWT fighting forest fires, till it came to grief one day during a scooping operation on a remote lake in the Mackenzie Valley. My understanding is that its landing gear doors were somehow damaged during a scooping run and the aircraft began taking on uninvited water. The crew managed to abort the scoop and taxi the aircraft near shore, where it slowly sank in shallow water.

  The crew made it out OK and the aircraft was abandoned for  period of time in the lake. Far too remote to mount a proper recovery, eventually it was decided by its owners that they should at least refloat it and strip it for what parts they could. A team of engineers was sent to the site and they did just that.  Engines, Avionics and anything else of value were removed and then flown back to Yellowknife to live on in the rest of the fleet, or as is the Buffalo way, secreted away in one of Joes many hidey-holes of parts and kept for posterity and future value, not unlike a hockey card collection. You laugh now, but as any hoarder will tell you, you cant just throw that away, one day it'll be worth a fortune!

  The remains were left on the shore of the lake, inaccessible by road, for a period of time. Many moons, I'm told. How many? No idea, but the legends foretold that one day...never mind, you get it, I have no idea and am too lazy to look it up to make this a neatly foot-noted and hyper-linked historical record.

  So, now here it was at this small prairie airport, looking in relatively decent shape. I actually had no idea on the back story, till I saw it printed on a large sign erected near a small shack beside the aircraft. In addition to the story of its origins, was the story of the ongoing restoration. A group of retired aircraft engineers, who were now farmers in the area, knew of this aircraft and schemed to acquire the salvage rights to it, rescue it from a very remote piece of wilderness, drag it back to a barn and make it fly again. Some real huckleberry finn type adventures ensued, and they did just that.  Out they went, some 80? 100? 50? miles off the winter road of the mackenzie valley, they hacked and slashed a bush road into the site, prepped it for transport by dismantling the major components, wing, tail, fuselage and got it back to the winter road. From there it was moved by transport truck to the nearest town, Norman Wells maybe?

  There it sat till the summer barge season on the Mackenzie River, where it was moved down to Hay River, and then back onto trucks for the journey to the barn in Northern Alberta.

  That was as far as the story on the sign went, but underneath that was a call for volunteers and/or donations or membership purchases to their historical aircraft restoration society they had formed to help fund the project.

  As an FO, I had little in the way of funds to help, but they did specifically ask for volunteers, skilled or otherwise to help with the project.

  I wrote the number down and called them up a few days later.

  They let me know that they'd be happy for the help and that I should come out and attend their monthly meeting at one of the leaders farms a few weeks hence.

  Driving out there in the northern prairie winter darkness was interesting. There is something very surreal about being in a warm, quiet vehicle, driving over desolate winter rural roads. Reminds me a little bit of flying, inches away through a glass and steel( or aluminum I suppose ) structure, is a violent and unforgiving environment. The truck suddenly breaks down or the airplane engine stops making noise, and things change from warm and comfortable, to considerably less so in fairly short order.

  I had no idea what to expect of the "meeting",  but it turned out to be about six guys, sitting in upended milk crates and old office chairs in the shop of one of the farmers. Most brought thermos's of coffee and baked goods from home. The meeting was to plan for the next months projects, discuss parts acquisition plans and go over some of the tasks that needed doing. At this point in the restoration, most of the real grunt work had been done, the kind of stuff an unskilled person could help with. Tedious jobs of cleaning parts, tracing wiring, etc.  Although I didn't end up with any involvement in the project, it was cool to hear the story first hand. The baked goods were not bad either.

  The aircraft had been plundered by Buffalo for a lot of major components, notably engines. Luckily, they had come across a museum in the maritimes that had an intact and running Canso donated to them for static display. They had no need of perfectly good running engines, so cut a deal with these guys. If they could come up with a couple of engine " cores", non-working, but intact engines, that they could hang on their display model, they'd trade straight across for the working ones they had.

  Apparently, one of the bigger challenges they had was the wiring. As the engines are mounted up on the wing, all of the controls and wiring were routed up through a central pillar connecting the wing to the top of the fuselage. During the pillaging, this bundle was simply cut to disconnect the wiring. You can imagine too, that over the 50-60 year working life of the aircraft and its various modernization and upgrades/refurbishments, that the wiring had been changed so many times that it likely did not resemble the clean engineering drawings they had to go by. Each wire had to be traced, identified, replaced, a perfect job for the unskilled, but long since complete.

  In fact, at the stage that I came along they were nearing the finish line. The aircraft was intact, engines running and most of its systems airworthy. Odds and ends and some obscure and difficult to find parts for a few items were that was left. They even had a couple pilots lined up to fly the thing and were aiming for a flight date only a few months away.

  I asked how long the project had taken them to get to the current state.

" About nine years, eh frank? "

" Yup, about that. "

Holy crap.

  This wasn't a side hustle or hobby project, this was a lifetime achievement!

  I haven't personally seen it fly, but I know it has. As far as I know, the plan was to take it touring on the airshow circuit for a few years to try and recoup their sizeable expenses. These guys are nothing if not persistent, so I'm sure it did!

Monday, May 11, 2020

Lets go Back

Alright, lets get you updated, to a degree.

  I spent four years up North, flying seasonally, driving a truck in the off season.

  We had always known that our time up north was limited. One of our primary concerns was that when my daughter was school age, we didn't want her to be in the public school system in our far flung part of the world. There's some real challenges in the school system in remoter areas of Canada, both in available resources and the ability to attract good educators. This is by no means a slight on the school teachers that work up there, but I think even they would tell you of the frustration in seeing fresh-out-of-uni teachers coming up to cut their teeth in remote areas that the more experienced educators typically don't want to go to.

  So, there was that.  TWO was approaching the end of pre-school and getting ready to embark on her kindergarten career. We decided it was time to start the search for something that might take us somewhere else.

  The other concern of course was that while I loved the flying up north, the economics of that type of operation didn't lend itself to paying me a whole ton of money. Neither did the seasonal aspect lend itself to getting the kind of hours in the logbook that would let me earn something decent.

  Out went the resumes!

  When I first started looking for flying jobs, I sent out 100 resumes and got three responses. They were thanks-but-no-thanks responses, but I was happy to see them. Now I had 1000 hours and sent out 20 resumes. I really wasn't wanting to take ANYTHING like I did when I went looking for my first job. I knew I wanted year round work, knew I wanted to be south of 60. The industry was still very tight, jobs were still scarce and 1000 hours didn't mean much.


  Started to worry a bit and we girded ourselves for one more year up north. As is the way when you start to make other plans, the phone rang.

  On my resume I had listed a reference whose name was known by someone doing hiring for a King Air 200 Medevac First Officer gig.

  Funnily enough, after that resume blitz, my resume hasnt got me any of the other jobs I've held since. The industry is so small, as a commercial pilot, you're probably two degrees of separation at best from pretty much every chief pilot of every airline in Canada. If you're not an idiot, and you have a reasonably well-kept reputation, networking your friends and colleagues is going to be a whole lot more productive than the carpet bombing of resumes you have to do in the beginning! Even in this case, it had little to do with my resume, but more the fact that she knew someone that I knew and I put his name on my resume as reference.

  They called, I got excited, we chatted a bit about that person, and I made a joke or two. They chuckled, relieved I was at least personable, and was told I could expect an offer email.

  That was it.. A few days later I got the email, we talked about what it would mean in terms of moving, timelines, housing, school, pay and then we pulled the trigger.

  Notified my current employer that this would be my last season, and got busy with the details.

  Little details, like finding a place to live, finding work for my wife, finding a school for my daughter.

  We made a reconnaissance trip down a few weeks later to scope out a few places and get  the lay of the land. We made it South of 60, but not by a ton, haha. Far enough south that we now had access to several fast food places, a walmart and a canadian tire. Downright metropolitan!

  New Town had a lot going for it, including being a part of the tail end of a fairly significant oil-boom ( cue dramatic fore shadowing music ) that no one saw ending anytime soon. This is where Morgan Freeman's voice comes on in the background.... " It was going to end very soon. " he'd say, but we couldn't hear him.

  New Job also had me flying a King Air 200 as a first officer, something I was very excited about. IFR, Two-Crew, Turbine, exciting stuff! It was a medevac gig too, something that also interested me.

  We ultimately came to the conclusion that it was going to be cheaper to buy a house in New Town rather than rent. Crazy, but true. All of the local rental properties were being snatched up by the local oilfield companies for crew housing, driving the vacancy rates down and rents up.  We had managed to save up some money as my winter work paid well and the wifes government job paid well too. Our expenses were very low, living in our little trailer, so we had just enough to plunk some money down on a nice older house with a big yard and a garage.

( this picture is actually from when we moved out, we moved in with a much smaller moving truck, but like a goldfish, we expand our belongs to match the size of our tank..... )

  A close friend of mine from back in the day actually lived in New Town and we had him drive up to Northern Town and help us pack the moving truck. He'd then make the odyssey back down to New Town with us, he'd drive my Truck, the wife would drive hers, with my daughter, dog and back seats piled high with crap. I'd drive the moving truck. Of course it snowed on the way down and we ended up in a slow moving convoy, peering through the blizzard trying to stay on the road the last few kilometres. Keep it between the Mayo and the Mustard! ( yellow lines and white lines, I thought that was funny when I heard it..and in typical dad-joke fashion, I've ruined it by explaining it.. )

  One of my favourite parts of the new digs was that the backyard was big enough, and the weather cold enough, that I could put a homemade ice rink in the backyard.

  So, there we were. We made it "south" but still very much northern. We left a very small community, to a bit bigger, but still quite small community. Our winters were still cold, and relatively long, but a lot shorter than they used to be. Summers felt decadently long, at least for the first couple years, lasting from May though to October now, instead of June to September. If that doesn't seem long, well, like I said, its relative....

  I had to do a pre-employment drug test at NewCo, which doesn't bother me, I'm far too old to bother with drugs. Besides, can't really afford drugs on an FO salary!

  I dutifully showed up at the nurses "office", which was actually her home, along with another fellow who got hired at the same time as me. I have to pee in a cup twice a year as part of my medical exam to hold my license, so that's never bothered me or given me a second thought really. Until you move a thousand kilometres to a new city, with a wife who hasn't found work yet, and a young daughter, a fresh mortgage on a home you can barely afford, and EVERYTHING riding on your ability to pee in that cup. Guess who couldn't express a drop when it counted??  I had to eventually admit defeat, call the chief pilot and explain my technical difficulties.  Not my finest hour, but we laughed it off and I reported back the next morning with several litres of water sloshing around in my belly. Mission accomplished.

  Training started the next day, 5 hours of on-the-wing flight training on the King Air, taking turns with sitting up front for my training session and sitting in the back observing while the other guy did his. A training captain in the left seat up front.  I've done a few PPC's now, but I was still in single digit territory as to how many I'd done.

  A PPC is a Pilot Proficiency Check, a series of exercises, maneuvers and instrument procedures that certify you to fly a specific airplane for a period of one year. Every different " type " of plane you fly requires a yearly PPC or you lose certification on it. Most commercial pilots will have many different " types " on their license, but only valid PPCs on a couple that they fly regularly. A Type Rating is your initial course on that plane, and you hold the Type Rating for life, but if you want to be employed to fly that plane, it still requires a yearly flight test.  I'm giving you the coles notes here, as there's lots of little wheretofores, howsoevers and Unless in Accordance with the Minister legalese details, but thats it in a nutshell.

  Five hours of holding onto the mighty king air by my fingernails, followed by a hour and half  flight test with an examiner in the back. One false move and the house, the job, all on the line. Not stressful at all!

  Flight test done, 20 odd company training modules and exams, and there I was, a newly minted Medevac FO in Northern ( but not as northern as before ) Canada.

Not dead.

** Pfuuuuuu ** cloud of dust rolls off my blog, shreddies dust, goldfish crackers, an old OFP with coffee cup circle stains and a random paperclip.

Howdy strangers.

  I've been thinking about reviving this page for a long time, but just haven't had the time. As Jeff whats-his-name might say,  life, uh, gets in the way.

  I was thinking the other day about how a lot of the pilot blogs I followed when I first got into flying sort of faded out the same way. In a reduction similar or the number of guys I knew when I first started flying to the number I know that are still flying now. Eager beginnings, wide eyed and innocent, to jaded, couldn't be bothered clock punchers and folks who just dropped out of the industry in frustration or due to the reality of flying as a long term career.

  Anyway, I've found myself with some time in my daily routines and would like to keep this going.

  One of the reasons I stopped was that as my career progressed, I came up against working for companies that took confidentiality a lot more seriously. Employment agreements spelled out the posting publicly of just about anything to do with my paid employment as specifically No Bueno. Blogs and facebook posting were named specifically.

  Since the start of this blog though, I'm on my 5th employer. A lot of water has gone under the bridge. I'm thinking that I'm probably safe to time travel back and post some thoughts and experiences from a few gigs ago and be relatively safe. I will of course try to keep things anonymous, but frankly, this industry is so freaking small its likely that some people reading will pick up on my mannerisms or well worn cockpit stories and be able to identify me or my past or present employer.  Please play along and try not to comment or otherwise post anything that could endanger my ability to tell tales if a past employer was to see that they've been identified and don't like the content.

  I will also note that my current employer is strictly off limits, so I'll avoid that as best I can, and shut this down abruptly if I cant. Or my three readers aren't able to respect my need for anonymity.

  So there we go, I'm still alive, still committing aviation on a commercial basis, still paranoid about a forgotten old blog outing me. 

Saddle Up!

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.