MH 370, and what didn’t happen.


So much has been talked about and speculated over the last 12 days regarding the fate of Malaysian Airlines flight 370. A Boeing 777-200, among the most sophisticated in the air today, has vanished. It seems everyone and their dog has a “theory”, but that’s wheeler it ends. They are all theories, of which I am ad to say are almost all wrong.

First, the possibilities. Yes anything is possible in this world we live in today (including losing a plane full of 239 people). But let’s look at what has been said, and why it is most likely incorrect.

First, the easy ones. Terrorism. I think by now if the plane had exploded in mid air, at 500 mph, the scattering of debris would have been stumbled onto. (It seems that will be how this is discovered eventually, by stumbling onto it). And given the fact that there are enough ships to walk from Singapore, to Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong without getting your feet wet (Hunt for Red October style quote) I’d say it’s nowhere in the South China Sea basin. Secondly, when a plane explodes, it makes a hell of a flash. This part of e world is full, and I mean FULL of fishing boats. With more then 2 billion people in this corner of the globe, fishing is among the cheapest ways to feed them all. I have seen enough fishing boats between Indonesia and Hong Kong that lit up the black ocean more then the Canadian prairies are lit up at night. Someone would have seen this when it happened, and someone would have found wreckage by now. The same points can be made for an accidental/purposeful shoot down with a missile.

As far as the other theory on terrorism, the plane has been hidden, for a 9/11 type mission at a later date? Why? 9/11 was as dam dating as it was because NO ONE saw it coming. Least of all the authorities. With damn near the whole world looking for a white 777 with a red and blue stripe, it will not get anywhere near a major city without being noticed. So sorry, that’s out too.

Flew by the Maldives you say? Took 11 days for ANY witness to come forward? That right there doesn’t add up. I know they have TV in the Maldives, so someone would have realized they should say something long ago if they did in fact see a 777 cruising by the southern Atoll at sunrise.

The pilot is making a political statement. He has been photographed wearing a “democracy is dead” t shirt. Political extremist wiling to hijack a plane full of people he must be. He is not a political extremist, he sounds like someone who is tired of living in a Muslim nation. It is 2014 after all, some things don’t fly (excuse the pun) anymore (like jailing homosexuals). I can say however that his t shirt collection alone does not make him stand out. In fact, shirts like that with pointless sayings (a t shirt never brought back democracy – revolution maybe, but not a t shirt) are ALL over Asia. Here in Hong Kong I see things on a t shirt almost every day that don’t make much sense, but people think they look cool (like my chip and pepper t shirts in the 80’s).

Ok, the captain has a flight simulator at home. You know why? It’s not because he was practising some elaborate scheme to hide the jet (18,000 hours should have been enough practice). It’s because being a pilot is awesome. We dreamed about flying since a young age, it’s a rush, it’s challenging, and it’s so much fun, many of us do it on our days off. Those that can afford have their own plane, those that can’t OFTEN set up PC based flight simulators. I have rarely seen a lawyer post a picture on Facebook sitting in front of his new laptop with a thumb in the air. But the first thing a pilot does (especially this day in age) when they are checked out onto a new plane, snap a pic and send it to friends/post it on a social media website. People don’t hang out front of a law firm hoping to see a lawyer walk by, but every airport I’ve been too there are “spotters” and “avgeeks” everywhere taking pictures and watching big shiny things make a shit load of noise. If it’s that much fun for people to watch, then obviously it’s that much fun for a pilot to “take the job home” with him/her.

Now for the big one, the viral theory. Which I’m happy to report is starting to be debunked. An in flight fire. Whether it’s a cargo fire, cabin fire, unknown source of smoke, ANY smoke/fire drill calls for two memory items and then auctioning a checklist.

Oxygen mask on.
Communication establish.

Breathe, and talk to someone. First your partner in the cockpit. And then ATC. Even if the smoke/fire requires your immediate attention (they usually do) a quick “Hong Kong control Malaysian 370, unknown smoke, emergency in progress, standby”. Why do we do this, so while our attention is shutting down systems, closing valves, and trying to isolate and put out what is among the worst inflight emergencies, ATC starts their work. They immediately will move traffic out of the way, knowing that you are about to turn around and land somewhere, because if you don’t, you are probably going to die in a little less than 20 minutes. They will also instinctively know where the closest airports are and start pulling up weather and NOTAMS to make sure that airport can accommodate your emergency landing. So once you have completed a checklist/procedure and the pilot calls ATC and says, we need to land ASAP, ATC can come back with Langkawi Airport is at your 7 o’clock 70 miles, weather CAVOK. Heading bug left 130 degrees and away you go. Swissair flight 111, the MD-11 that suffered a fire inboard spoke with ATC for 15 minutes before the cockpit roof finally melted on the pilots heads and the plane crashed into the Atlantic. A UPS 747-400F suffered a cargo fire leaving Dubia, and spoke win ATC for 10 minutes until there last calls were “there’s too much smoke, we can’t see anything, which way do we turn”. Pilots talk, even when there is nothing to to we talk to each other. It’s rare, almost unbelievable that they would not have said one thing to ATC. and certainly if the plane was over come by smoke and the pilots coughed their last cough, they would have said something before the pane just headed in the direction it was programmed for 5 hours. And if a fire was bad enough to knock out the passengers, how could the plane fly for 5 more hours without burning up?

So what was it? Where did the plane go that no one could find it? Someone was in control that I am sure. Someone who knew how to turn things off and fly in a way that would be difficult to track. Someone who knew where the deepest part of the Indian Ocean is, and how to get there with the fuel they had. Someone who wanted to die. Sadly, it has happened before, and I think this could be what has happened now. A pilot suicide event. I won’t speculate any further, as there is no need. These are just my thoughts on where something went and possibly why, and most likely why not. Time will tell we are all hoping.

Fly safe.

A Day In The Life: Time to go to Work


 

 

As I approached this idea to write about “a day in the life” I figured it best to take the “average” day.  As most of my trips (about 75% of them) have a sign on time in Hong Kong between 10pm and midnight, I will write about one of those days.  

 

One of the most important things when considering starting a flight after 10pm that will last anywhere from 8-14 hours or sometime more, is proper rest. So when I’m going to bed the night before I go to work, I usually set my alarm for around 700am.  I find it important to wake up nice and early with some sort of physical activity for the morning.  Usually this involved a workout with Impact Fitness of Hong Kong.  By the time an intense workout is over at about 930 I return home for yet another important part of the work day.  A good breakfast.  It can be a very uncomfortable flight if you have eaten large, rich meals all day before going to work late at night.  Not only can it be physically uncomfortable, but a full stomach also (for me anyway) really makes me want to go to sleep, especially when its near midnight.  So for breakfast, usually a fresh fruit/spinach smoothie, or maybe a couple of eggs, avocado, and a decaf coffee.  Decaf is important, along with waking up early for a common reason which I will get too.  The next few hours can vary, sometimes we will take the dogs to the beach, or the waterfall, or do some errands in the town center of Mui Wo.  Those few hours can also be as simple as taking the dogs for a walk and relaxing at home and catching up on some North American TV.  When that comes to an end, I will usually take care of all my “pre-flight” activities.  I pack my suitcase, get my uniform ready, and review the route for the evening with our company port pages and route briefings.  The port pages are a 4-12 page document that detail everything there is to know about a given airport.  Terrain considerations, speed restrictions, Low Visibility Operations capability, even as detailed as to which taxiways our large 747-8 can taxi on (Vancouver as an example has many taxiways that are not certified for a plane of that size).  The route briefings are just that, a 8-12 page document that detail ATC requirements, typical weather patters for a given region, communications procedures, and others, so that before heading out on a given flight, between the port pages and route briefings, we can have an excellent understanding of a new route, or a good review of a route we frequent.  So with those notes done, and my luggage packed, I will either look at the bus schedule or arrange for a taxi.  Generally the ride from my village to the airport is about 40 minutes.  Sometimes less, sometimes more, but it usually offers a nice view crossing the mountain range on Lantau Island.  

 

So off to bed.  My pre flight nap.  The light breakfast/decaf coffee, along with waking up early in the morning and working out, usually yield a little fatigue for me by mid afternoon.  This is the perfect scenario.  I close the blackout blinds, put in ear plugs and head for bed.  I usually set an alarm for 3-4 hours later depending on how tired I am.  If I sleep for the whole time, great!  If I wake up after 2 hours, well that is just my body telling me I’ve had enough sleep.  So when I wake up I am usually greeted with my wife having prepared a nice dinner for me.  Again eating lighter foods, and smaller portions are key for me.  If I have a big heavy, rich meal, I get to work and just want to crawl into bed.  If I have a smaller meal that is healthier, I remain energetic when it comes time to report for work.  So after dinner, I will relax with the dogs and my wife.  Take the dogs for a walk, and then check the airline’s employee web site for the first version of our Computer Flight Plan.  Usually within about 5 hours of the departure time, there will be an initial flight plan generated.  Sometimes these plans will change, usually just the Zero Fuel Weight as passenger/cargo loads can change.  So once I have downloaded the 60 plus page document onto m iPad, I start with the basics.  First things first.  Check the aircraft registration, the type (can be one of five different types: 747-400 passenger, 400 freighter, 400 Extended Range Freighter, 400 Boeing Converted freighter, and of course the 747-8F) of which there are three different engine types.  So there are some numbers (weights, and engine temperature limits are the most relevant) that need to be reviewed once we know which plane we will be operating.  

 

Next I check the fuel information.  I cross check all the numbers with the total fuel required and then add the zero fuel weight to get a ramp weight.  These figures are all on the flight plan, but of course we double check them before each flight.  From those calculations we can get our takeoff and landing weights to ensure they are within the operating limits.  For those interested, the maximum takeoff weight of the 747-8F is 447,695 kgs.  Or just under 985,000 pounds.  Quite impressive in my opinion.  

 

With all my preflight notes complete, its shower, change, and head to work.  I like to arrive about 30-45 minutes before sign on time to make sure I am well prepared, and just in case there are some traffic problems I have a built in buffer.  

 

So arrival at work.  We scan into Cathay City with our crew id cards and head to the storage room next to flight planning where I leave my suitcase until it’s time to head to the plane.  The room is quite large, and accommodates several wide body crews (up to 21 of us on a 747-400 passenger flight).  Off to the bathroom to quickly get into my uniform shirt.  The Hong Kong summers are too hot to make the commute to work in a uniform shirt, so I usually wear a T-shirt and then make the change into a freshly ironed shirt once I am at CX City.  With that, it’s onto the briefing tables.  Cathay has a nice set up where each flight has it’s own table or counter with our documents bag.  In here we find the binders with all relevant port pages and airport charts for the route.  We also add a few house keeping items.  Ear plugs, sanitary wipes, screen wipes, replacement earmuffs for the headset, and of course, Evian facial spray to help stay moisturized in the dry air of a pressurized airplane.  Once “the shopping” is done, I double check that the paperwork matches the online information that I looked at earlier.  It is around now when the other crew members arrive and we all introduce ourselves, or catch up with someone we may have flown with before.  It is quite common that there will be some changes to the load (passengers or cargo) at this point, or perhaps the aircraft tail number we will be flying, if there has been a maintenance issue with the planned airplane.  Once we take note of any changes, the crew decide on a fuel load.  If all things are as planned and there are no outstanding contingencies, we will take flight planned fuel.  Our flight plan fuel covers virtually all contingencies enroute (weather, traffic, etc.) as well as an additional percentage to cover us in case there are more things to deal with on our flight.  Generally speaking flight planned fuel is enough, but occasionally we will increase that fuel if the weather at the arrival end is questionable.  Even with an ok forecast at out arrival airport, we can take advantage of other clues to see if the weather will in fact be as advertised.  The most common example is returning to Hong Kong, with say Shenzhen as our alternate.  Perhaps Hong Kong has some thunderstorms in the forecast, but Shenzhen does not.  So using Shenzhen as the alternate is legal, but when you look at Macau, and Guangzhou weather, you see they are both forecasting thunderstorms.  All of these airports are within about 20 miles of each other, so it is likely that some extra gas will be needed.  

 

Ok, so fuel is decided.  Off to the airplane.  We clear customs and security right in our building next to flight planning.  We jump on a crew bus and make the 5 minute drive to the airport.  Depending on the gate, or cargo position we are parked at, we are usually at the plane within another 5 minutes.  Collect our bags, and make our way up the stairs to the main deck.  In the freighter we leave our suitcase on the main deck near the L1 door, where cargo handlers will strap them down next to the sidewall in the midst of 100 plus tons of cargo.  On a passenger flight, we can check out bags right at Cathay City and they are loaded in the belly just like everyone else’s bags.  Up to the cockpit now and we all sort our belongings and start with job number one.  The Captain will go through the Log Book.  ANy outstanding defects or operational notes we need to consider?  Hopefully not.  For the most part these “snags” are dealt with whenever the aircraft has some down time between sectors.  Of course if there is a serious matter, they are dealt with immediately.  When all the information in reviewed in the Log Book, we then start our duties.  The pilot flying for the sector will begin initializing the FMC and ACARS, while the monitoring pilot will go do a walk around.  Big or small, every plane needs a walk around by one of the flight crew.  Me?  Well the second officer has the responsibility of a cockpit pre flight check.  It is a basic run down of all the equipment on board.  From cockpit voice recorders, to life vests, to escape harnesses.  The freighter aircraft adds more of the safety equipment that normally falls under the duties of a flight attendant (life rafts, portable oxygen masks, etc).  Once that is done, it’s time for the easy part.  Make the beds.  Both the freighters and passenger 747’s have two beds for in flight crew rest.  

 

When that is done.  We all assemble back in the cockpit.  I usually start a pot of coffee if I am on a cargo flight, and grab some bottles of water for the Captain and FO.  When we are back up front, the cockpit set up is finished.  Our final zero fuel weight arrives via ACARS and we enter the current weather information and send for our Take Off Data for the day.  We obtain our IFR clearance, enter the data into the CDU for the flight, and then we are ready for pushback and start up.  Throughout all that my role as a Second Officer is basically just support and an extra set of eyes.  

 

Next comes the fun part.  Taxiing our for takeoff you get a real sense of the size of the 747, especially when you pass any other airplanes.  With the exception of the A380, the 747 dwarfs other airplanes.  A large wide body like the A330 doesn’t even compare to the length and height of a 747.  It’s a cool feeling considering the last airplane I was a crew member on had a prop clearance of less then 12 inches.  Once on the takeoff roll, it doesn’t take long for the mighty 747 to reach takeoff speed.  Despite being more then 800,000 pounds, or just shy of a million pounds in the case of the 747-8F, Boeing and GE/Pratt Whitney, and Rolls Royce have teamed up to make an airframe, wing, power plant combination that would defy what the Wright Brothers first envisioned possible when it came to powered flight.  Even at the heaviest weights, we reach a cruise altitude of 31,000 feet (typically) in around 20 minutes or less.  With an economic cruise speed of around Mach 0.83, the 747 is almost climbing at that speed through the final segment, and rarely needs any time to accelerate.  My old metro, at a heavy weight, might be climbing at 140 knots when leveling at 21,000 feet, and would take 10 minutes to reach a cruising speed of 190 knots indicated airspeed.  

 

So with the plane set up in cruise, we have a few house keeping items to take care of.  By this time I will have jumped in the right or left hand seat depending on who is ready for sleep first.  Fill out a bit of information in the ACARS for the closing report that will come at the end of the flight.  Next, enter the step climbs as they appear on the flight plan into the CDU.  This gives our FMC (the brain of the airplane) an accurate plan for our flight when it comes to calculating fuel used and time to our arrival airport.  Once the house keeping items, the next thing to do is get some enroute weather.  When departing for Anchorage, the first airports that we obtain weather for are usually Taipei, Naha (Okinawa), Fukuoka and Osaka.  These are basically the major airports on our route at intervals of about 45 minutes to an hour.  The reason for checking weather at airports we have no intention of flying to?  Well once the ACARS prints out the latest METAR’s we check to see if there would be any reason that we could not land there in the event of an emergency.  We also go over the NOTAM’s (which we checked before the flight) for those airports for a quick reminder on the relevant info.  So if we know there are no NOTAMS restricting a landing, and the weather is good to support a landing, then we file that in our minds as good to go “in case of”.  In case of what?  Well a cargo fire is the most time critical situation, and if that occurs, we take immediate action to head to one of these airports.  Engine failures and depressurization are also critical situations, but mostly when it comes to fuel.  Depressurizing is the most fuel critical situation, as we have to descend to a breathable flight level (FL140) where our engines are less efficient per nautical mile flown.  In both these cases however, we more then likely would not divert to the closest airport.  It is a very situation specific.  If we had a simple engine flameout, we can consider continuing all the way to the destination (especially if the destination is Hong Kong).  Once an event has occurred and has been dealt with, we will communicate with the company and then make the best decision for the situation.  

 

Ok, so we are cruising happily along with all the house keeping done, and with good situational awareness as to where to go in the case of an emergency.  Here comes the boring part.  For the next several hours, the job basically consists of monitoring the radio and making frequency changes as we cross FIR boundaries.  Hourly, we make a fuel check to cross check flight planned fuel burn vs actual fuel burn.  The 747-8 typically makes gas on a long haul flight.  That is, burns less gas then the flight plan predicts so on our arrival, we have “made” more gas to use in the event of a diversion or holding time.  

 

Lets fast forward to the last 90 minutes or so.  Prior to the top of descent, we will review the planned arrival into our destination based on the latest ATIS for the airport.  Based on our landing weight, we assess our landing performance via a Landing Data request sent via ACARS.  A quick review of the aircraft status (in case any systems have failed or downgraded during the flight) and we are ready to descend and make our approach to landing.  

 

By this time, as the Second Officer, I am comfortably in my observer seat, watching the more senior crew do their thing.  Again I am an extra set of eyes and ears, and there for support.  Once on the ground and parked, its simple again for me as the So, put the documents away, file a bit of paperwork.  We leave the plane for customs, and hopefully without too much delay, we are on our way to the hotel.  Check in, receive our per diems, and get up to the room.  

 

That is all for this installment.  

 

Fly Safe.

Game Plan


A Day in the Life

 

After reading a few other blog posts related to the aviation business, I thought it would be fun (for me at least) to start a small mini series of “a day in the life”.  I would like to think there are people out there who are curious about the life of an airline pilot, both on, and off the job.  So what I have come up with is to write a series of posts on the following:

 

A day in the Life: Day Off – what does the typical day hold for an expat in Hong Kong?  What is different then home in Canada, and what is the same?  Just a few of the questions to be answered. 

 

A day in the Life: Time to go to Work – the job begins when I get to the airport, but the preparation starts hours earlier.  A daily routine before a long haul flight is very important and can make an all night challenge to stay awake, much easier if a few things are followed.  So before I even start thinking about work, there are some must do’s to prepare.  Then of course once I am in “work mode” I need to prepare for the flight of the day.  

 

A day in the Life: Layover – One of the several perks about this job is that we get to spend 24-48 hours or more in some amazing places that we might not get to see otherwise.  Virtually everywhere I have flown too has some unique experiences, so I will try and highlight some of these things in the various cities I have flown too.  Those cities include, London, Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt, Mumbai, Johannesburg, Anchorage, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.  I will also discuss the routine while away from home to make sure I am rested, and prepared for the long flight home to Hong Kong.

 

I may also include:

A day in the Life: Recovery Day – obviously after a long haul flight crossing many time zones, through all hours of the day or night, it can be a challenge to re-acclimatize to a “Hong Kong Body Clock”.  I will discuss some of my routines to help with this, as well as what I find works best when on a “super compact roster” where I return to Hong Kong with around 24-36 hours, before departing on another long haul flight.    

 

I hope this has some interest to some of my readers, and will be working on these posts over the next few days, so please stay tuned.  In the meantime, I hope everyone has enjoyed the Labour Day weekend in North America. 

 

Fly Safe

Brrrr!


Blog Post 4

 

Well today’s work trip is quite an easy one for me.  I am sitting in business class of a Cathay Pacific 777-300ER enroute from Hong Kong to Vancouver.  It is the first work trip that has brought me to my home country Canada, albeit about 1200 miles short of my home town of Winnipeg.  That said, these trips that involve a PX (deadheading sector) are for me at least, a interesting change of pace.  Basically I head to work like usual, accept I do not go through the pre-flight routine of checking weather, NOTAMS, and other Flight Planning information.  I simply show up to the airport, and get on the plane in a nice comfortable seat with the usual great service our cabin crew have to offer, and a multitude of things to keep me busy for the 12 hour flight.  

 

Today I find myself reading a book I picked up in Anchorage last week.  “Arctic Bush Pilot” by Jim Reardon is an interesting read about a pilot who had his beginnings in the US Navy during World War Two, moving on to Alaska following the war to make his living as a bush pilot.  For an aviation enthusiast like me, it definitely has some interesting stories.  It has also jogged quite a few memories from my recent days flying in Northern Canada.  Particularly the cold weather stories bring back some chilling memories.  

 

I will start off by saying the best $300 dollars I have ever spent came in September of 2006 when I bought a used Canada Goose “Resolute” parka.  One of our most senior pilots at the time had been hired by Air Canada was selling off his things that he would clearly no longer need at his new job.  Air bridges at Toronto International Airport, just aren’t as cold as the ramp in Shamattawa in January.  So set I am with my new/used jacket for a Canadian winter that was sure to take me to colder places then even I was used too.  Before I go on, if anyone finds them in need of a good parka for any cold weather environment, the Canada Goose parka’s are worth their relatively steep new price of 500-1000 dollars.  Rob a bank if you have to, you won’t be sorry.  

 

Back to the point, cold weather adventures.  The first of the cold weather experiences I can recall came in the winter of 2006/2007.  Churchill Manitoba, a small port town of about 800 people located at the northern edge of Manitoba on the coast of Hudson Bay, was in need.  The only means of heavy transport in and out of Churchill is the rail.  No roads here, so the largest of shipments will come by train.  However the tundra approaching churchill is so uneven, that the train ride, despite being 600 miles or so, takes more then 2 days.  The uneven ground forces the train to slow to about 20kms an hour for the last few hundred kilometers.  This particular Friday night, the train which had a large load of fresh food onboard, was stranded in the heavy, drifting snow somewhere south of Churchill.  The local Northern Store was running dangerously low on food, so they called in a Perimeter Metro 3 to take a load of groceries to fill the void until the train could be dug out.  It was particularly cold in Winnipeg, somewhere around -30, the usual January deep freeze.  But 600 miles north, it was worse.  Much worse.  We filled our plane full of groceries, engine tents, survival gear, and as much gas as we could carry.  Unfortunately because of the long leg in front of us, our Metro 3 full of cargo couldn’t take enough gas to make the flight non-stop.  So we planned to refuel in Gillam Manitoba, about 200 miles south of Churchill.  I was flying with a relatively new Captain, and I had only been flying for Perimeter for about 6 months, so between the two of us, we had little experience to draw on with respect to cold weather operations.  We landed in Gillam, a balmy 40 below zero with enough wind to make it feel even worse.  The landing in Gillam was my first gravel strip night landing (of what became hundreds by the time my 6 years at Perimeter were up).  Landing on gravel provides its own risks like propeller damage, and steering capability among others, but factor in landing at night in Northern Manitoba and it became a very challenging experience for a new First Officer like myself.  Landing at night in these communities we flew too is not like landing at a major airport.  Typically the runway lighting is much weaker, the approach lighting is usually non existent, and the surrounding darkness of Canadian Boreal Forrest provides a black hole effect, as if the runway is just floating in space.  I managed reasonably for my first of these challenging landings, but the hard part of the night was yet to come.  

 

We filled our tanks and obtained our IFR clearance to depart Gillam for Churchill via the remote Winnipeg Center frequency.  Once departed, we had a quick 45 minutes up to Churchill.  We called the airport Shell Fuel provider and arranged for a fuel truck to meet us on the ramp.  We wanted to spend as little time as possible on the ground in an effort to keep the plane from freezing solid.  We also spoke to the office in Churchill and relayed our ETA so that the grocery store could also be ready with a truck to transfer our cargo into.  All of the things we needed to do for a quick turn were arranged, and we were set with our plan once we landed.  Shutdown, get out and put the engine intake plugs in, and secure the engine tents to preserve the heat.  Hustle to the back and unload the cargo as quick as possible.  Close up the cargo door, remove the engine tents and plugs, and get the hell out of there.  So as we land and taxi into the large apron at Churchill, we soon realize (as neither of us had been to Churchill before) that we have no idea where to park.  We decide the best place is behind our company Merlin near the terminal building.  Mistake number one.  As we set the park brake behind our sister ship, I bundle up in my Canada Goose and all the other winter gear I collected that fall, and open the door to step outside.  Then it hits me, the coldest I have ever felt to this day.  Air temperature -53, with a 20 mile per hour wind, that felt like the mid -60’s.  And much to my dismay, the Merlin in front of us is spooling up it’s number two engine, about to magnify the windchill tenfold.  I yell at Scott to get out quick, as we have little time to get the engine tents on before the propwash from the starting Merlin makes it much more difficult.  We manage relatively quickly, before the Merlin has started it’s other engine.  Good work I must say on our part.  Now we move to the tail of the plane where the large 4×6 cargo door is located.  The captain of course takes position well inside the fuselage which has retained some heat, while I am settled at the door ready to pass cargo to the truck drivers.  We move as quick as we can and almost make the entire offload without any problems.  That is until I let a 2 liter plastic jug of ketchup slip through my now frozen hands (mitts would have been a better option then the gloves I was using) onto the concrete below.  The Drop was about 5 feet, and in that time, from a plane that was still above zero (although not by much) the plastic had frozen and shattered into a million pieces by the time it hit the ground.  Cold.  Damn cold!  I figure that the loss of the ketchup is a small price to pay given the expense that charter would have cost, so I do not lose any sleep over it.  

 

With the offload complete we remove the engine plugs and tents, button up the doors, and start up our two Garret turbo prop engines.  By this time, we have enough gas to fly non stop to Winnipeg in a little less then 3 hours.  The downside?  The plane is now nicely chilled to somewhere well south of zero, and the cabin heating system doesn’t have a chance at warming it up even over the course of 2-3 hours.  Typically we preheat the cabin  and cockpit of the plane on right before we depart on flights in the winter.  Large Herman Nelson heaters with cloth hoses pump 100+ degree heat into the plane warming the entire cabin in a few minutes.  Pull the hoses out and close the door quickly and the plane will retain most of that heat for a good 15-20 minutes.  Once the engines are started, the cabin heating system can maintain that heat quite easily, but producing that heat from a cold soaked plane, is near impossible.  

 

So what followed was a shivering 2 hours and 45 minutes in a cockpit full of frost except for the portion of our heated forward windshields.  Wearing our parka’s, gloves, and a toque in the cockpit definitely helped, but cold was the dominant feeling for the evening.  

 

It wasn’t uncommon in the various types that I flew at Perimeter that we had planes with weaker heating systems, and even sometimes those systems failed.  So flying while seeing your breathe in the cockpit was not all that rare.  But that one cold night in the winter of 07 proved to be the coldest I have ever been.  Let’s hope it stays that way.  

 

Years later I found myself in another cold situation in Gillam this time.  I was a Captain on the Metro 3, and was sent to Gillam for an all day hold on a charter flight.  We landed with no incident and with the 40 below temperatures, ensured the plane was put to bed for 9 hours with everything plugged in we could find.  We had both engine block heaters plugged in and could hear them working, we had the intake plugs and the engine tents wrapped quite snug.  We had two portable heaters for the cabin, and they were functioning properly, so when we left the plane for the hotel for the day, we had every notion that we would be returning to a warm, ready to fly airplane.  How wrong we were. 

 

As it turned out, the power for the engine block heaters had tripped at some point much earlier then our scheduled departure time of 5pm.  The cabin heaters were plugged into a different circuit and were fine, so the inside of the plane was comfortable, but the engines were very cold.  

 

The Garret engine had a minimum oil temperature for starting of 0 degrees Celsius.  Our oil temperatures were sitting near -12.  I had stared more then a few engines near zero before, and knew that with good ground power, it would be a slower start, but still doable.  In Gillam however, the oil temperature was much colder, and there was no ground power, just two very cold 24 volt batteries in the frozen wing of our plane.  Our duty day was such that we had to be in the air by 5:30 in order to have a legal amount of time to get to Winnipeg.  As this was approaching quickly, we were running out of options.  Plugging the block heaters back in would mean several hours to get the oil temps back to above zero, and there were no hangars in Gillam big enough for our 56 foot wingspan.  I looked at my FO and said, well, we can spend a night here, or we can give it a try.  

 

To start the Garret, we placed one hand on the “stop and feather” knob in case we needed to abort the start for any reason, and the other hand on the start button.  Once pressed, the starter would engage and with power from our battery, would crank the engine.  Rotation comes first, and at 10% engine RPM, a yellow ignition light would illuminate over the EGT guage, and fuel would automatically be scheduled into the burner can for light off.  That process would usually only take bout 10 seconds.  On this day in Gillam, it took longer.  A lot longer.  We used a trick by flipping the battery switch from parallel into series, which effectively doubled our cranking amps as we used both batteries to start one engine rather then just the respective one.  This helped, but we still sat patiently with my thumb on the starter switch for what must have been close to a minute.  Beyond the starter limit of 30 seconds.  I was doing a few things this day that were well outside the prescribed method of operating the Metro.  But like any plane, there is what the manual says it can do, and there is what it can ACTUALLY do.  I learned what it could actually do that evening.  Once number two spooled up we let the oil temperature warm up well into it’s normal operating range, trying to be as careful as we could after having put the starter and oil systems through the ringer.  Once it was safe, I increased the engine RPM in an effort to recharge the over worked battery after the long start.  That process normally took 2-3 minutes to get the operating amps back below 100, a safe range to attempt a cross generator start on engine number one.  This evening, that took almost 20 minutes.  But eventually the amps dropped, the battery was charged, and we went through the whole process again on the number one engine.  Two hours later upon arriving in Winnipeg, I spoke to the mechanics (who I had a great working relationship with) and explained what I did.  They were to my surprise, happy to hear that I had taken a few risks, but ultimately got the airplane running and home.  If I didn’t, it would have likely meant a late night for the mechanics as they prepped another plane to send north to rescue my passengers.  They assured me they would look over the engines, but said they would be shocked if there was any damage.  Sure enough, my ego, and the engines lived to fight another day.  

 

Here I am 7 years removed from my trial by fire into the cold weather operations of Canadian flying, sitting in the warm cabin of a brand new 777, sipping a piping hot jasmine tea.  Times certainly have changed, but I wouldn’t have traded those cold winters day for anything, especially with the lessons learned that will hopefully one day make me a successful Captain at Cathay Pacific.  

 

Fly safe (and warm if you can) 

 

Jeremy