Please have a look and leave some comments on what you think.
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.
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)
So on a recent layover in Anchorage i picked up a mountain bike at Walmart to leave in our crew storage room at the hotel. It certainly makes getting around Anchorage a less time consuming task then walking (although I do enjoy going for a walk around town). So this time in ANC I was looking forward to putting some miles on my bike. Unfortunately rain dominated the weather forecast for Anchorage this weekend, but I grabbed my rain gear and threw it into the suitcase before leaving Hong Kong.
After landing at about 5pm and having dinner, I managed to get some sleep for a few hours despite it being 2pm Hong Kong time. Sleep is always important when you fly long haul, and the easiest way I have been able to fight fatigue, is to just sleep when I’m tired. The trick to to be sure you are not tired when you are reporting for work and about to sit in the seat of a jumbo jet with 400 people on board. This usually means fighting through a little fatigue in the hotel/on a layover to be sure you can get the right amount of sleep when you really need it most. So I wake up at the crack of 2am Anchorage time and do the usual shuffle between watching tv or maybe some movies on Netflix. By the time morning comes, I head to Walmart at 6 am. I am in the market for the biggest gas BBQ I can find, and North America is much cheaper then Hong Kong. I find the one I want, but soon realize I grossly under estimated the size of the box. No way I can handle this thing with my usual load of a suitcase and flight bag. So I decide to put it on hold until the next trip and bring an empty large suitcase. I will unpack the box in the hotel and then repack it into something that rolls. Too bad I didn’t think of that a few days ago. I waste some time wandering around the near empty store and stumble onto a hiking book for the Anchorage Area. Perfect. Between my mountain bike and my hiking shoes, I hope to cover more then a few trails while I have the chance on these trips.
Back to the hotel to find myself tired after some breakfast. It’s raining still, and the local forecast calls for clearing skies in the afternoon. So what better time to get a few more hours sleep.
I wake up at 3pm and eagerly get ready to get on my mountain bike as some blue sky creeps through the hotel window. I read the trail guide for the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. The trail starts in downtown Anchorage just a few minutes ride away from my hotel and leads all the way to Kincaid Park on the other side of Ted Stevens International Airport (PANC). It’s a 22 mile round trip that is sure to offer some great scenery and maybe a little wild life. The guide cautions for bear and moose encounters and offers the standard “what to do if” so I make sure to read that twice. As the trail leads me by the airport, I make sure to bring my camera’s in hopes of catching a few planes passing over top. The first few miles of the trail take me along the mud flats of Bootlegger Cove. The smell of the pine forrest the trail cuts through is reminiscent of Canada, and certainly nothing like the smells of Hong Kong. It is a crisp 12 degrees in Anchorage today, coupled with the humid air, I can see my breathe for the first time since last winter here, as I puff along the 11 mile trail. The first point of interest is Earthquake Park. In 1964 the largest earthquake in the history of North America (and second largest in worldwide recorded history) struck the Anchorage and surrounding areas. This park used to be home to residents of Anchorage, but after dropping almost 40 feet during the quake, it has since been turned into a park. After a few more miles I realize I am getting close to the airport. I do a quick lap to the end of the trail and then back to a great spotting location at the departure end of runway 33 at PANC. There is a 150 foot bluff just behind me over looking downtown Anchorage and Cook Inlet, a spectacular view for those willing to venture close to the edge.
As I park my bike, drink some water and get my camera’s out of my bag, I take a moment and smile as I realize I flew a 747, 4700 miles across the Pacific, then biked another 11 miles only to sit and watch planes takeoff and land. I used to skip class in University and do the same thing about 12 years ago in Winnipeg. Even while flying at Perimeter in Northern Manitoba, I would often run outside our passenger lounges to see the occasional C-46 or DC-3 takeoff after having dropped off a load of freight for one of the communities. So here I am sitting under the runway when after only a minute or two I hear the roar of four Pratt Whitney R-2800 Super Charged Radial engines lifting the 100,000 pound Douglas Airliner first built in 1946 into the sky. It’s a sound I have always loved. It’s a sound that reminds me of what my grandfather heard every time he pushed forward the throttles of his airliners of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s before entering the world of turbo props and jetliners. This particular DC-6 belongs to Everts Air Cargo. Everts specializes in cargo delivery to the most remote parts of Alaska (and the world) in some of the most vintage airplanes still flying today. There fleet includes DC-6’s, C-46’s and DC-9’s, among some newer turbo props they use on passenger runs. I have been in touch with the company and will hopefully have a jump seat ride or two arranged for my next visit at the end of the month. As the DC-6 disappears on the horizon, Fed Ex is next in line for departure. There MD-11 lifts off on the Anchorage 6 departure, which calls for a left turn 30 degrees at 600 feet. There is something very pretty about a heavy jet, gently banking in the evening sun as it heads for a part of the planet where English is foreign, the food is different, and the street signs confusing. Simple, but beautiful. The next departure is the one I have been waiting for. Cathay Pacific flight 074 (CX074) departing for Miami Florida. It is the continuation of the same flight I operated the day before from Hong Kong to Anchorage. I manage to get what I think (you can judge for yourself once I have uploaded the photo’s) are some very nice shots of our “Hong Kong Trader” Boeing 747-8F. It is much quieter then the older MD-11 it followed, as the General Electric GENx-67B engines are a much more modern design with a higher bypass ratio, thus reducing the noise.
For me, my evening at the departure end of runway 33 will not get much better then that. So I pack up my gear and head for Lake Hood Seaplane Base. Lake Hood, the world’s busiest seaplane aerodrome, is located immediately adjacent to Anchorage Airport. We share the airspace with the small float planes, as they often pass underneath us while we are on final approach to landing as they position for landing at Lake Hood. I pedal my bike past the two terminal buildings, around the corner to the first of several parking apron’s of Lake Hood. There is also a gravel strip which services the wheel aircraft here so there are plenty of bush planes to see. As I scan the ramp, I can see so many of the planes I have flown in the past. Cessna 152’s, 172’s, and 182’s. Cessna 185’s, there are even a metro or two on the other side of the fence. I stop and try and recount all the different planes I have been checked out on. Here is the list I could come up with:
Cessna 172 (Land and Seaplane versions)
Cessna 177 RG
Beechcraft King Air 100
Fairchild Metro’s (SW2, SW3, SW4, SW5)
DeHavilland Dash 8
and of course the Boeing 747 (-400, 400F, 400 BCF, 400 ERF, and -8F)
As I notice the Era Alaska Dash 8-100 takeoff, I realize that almost all of those airplanes I just listed can be found at this airport. I have recently started calling Anchorage “my home away from home, away from home” and this is another reason why!
Now I start pedaling again and head for the largest concentration of seaplanes in the world. I park my bike next to the 3 foot chain link fence and get lucky with my timing. There are two Dehavilland DHC-2 Beavers taxiing for takeoff, as well as a Cessna 185 (an aircraft I have a few hours of seaplane time in) and two Beaver’s on approach to land. Five planes will land and takeoff in the matter of a few minutes. Luck is on my side. I get some pictures and videos of the movements at Lake Hood. There is something romantic about float flying. I got my seaplane rating in the summer of 1999 while I was 16, and flew a total of about 50 hours mostly on a Cessna 172, and a few hours in a Cessna 185F. It is still the most fun I have had flying, even though I did little more then take the plane to a friends cottage and go fishing every other weekend for a summer. I guess the idea of landing anywhere there is water gives the typical seaplane pilot a huge sense of freedom that you just don’t get when you are forced to land on a runway that was built for planes. Lakes, rivers, inlets and the like weren’t built for anything, they are just there for seaplane pilots to use. To fish, to hunt, to canoe or mine, whatever the purpose, they are just there for enjoyment one way or another. As the evening rush at Lake Hood appears to be winding down, I snap one more picture of our 747-400 lifting off in the distance destined for New York. With that, I start pedaling the 11 miles back to the hotel. I really hope I can arrange that jump seat ride with Everts next trip, and I just may have to see about a ride in a seaplane for old times sake. A ride, into wild Alaska.
Well yesterday was a sad day for many as we all heard news of the crash in SFO. The first wind that blew my way about the accident was over Japanese Airspace at about 3:30am Hong Kong time. I had departed Hong Kong just prior to midnight, and was lucky enough to have first rest on our freighter trip to Anchorage. After a few hours of slumber in the bunk I jumped in the left hand seat to take over for the Captain who was now headed for a snooze. The first officer briefed me as per the usual on the aircraft, and flight to bring me up to speed. The next thing I know, Singapore Cargo Flight 2 was getting a re-route via Tokyo ATC. I didn’t think much of that until later in the flight when we first looked at the ATIS for Anchorage. “Ground stop in effect for all San Francisco departures”. It’s 2013 so the first thing that crosses my mind is terrorism, followed quickly of course by, an accident. It must be something major for a ground stop. Although a brief check of the SFO weather confirms that fog/foul weather is not to blame. So we pull up the SFO ATIS via the onboard ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) and discover that there are runway closures, and taxiway closures, much more then usual. Having been to SFO just the day before, it seems obvious that something is wrong. Maybe a disabled aircraft?
Turns out the aircraft was much more then disabled. When we got out of the aircraft in Anchorage, we soon rallied around our customs officer’s computer to see the news. A crash. A bad one by the looks of it. Initial reports suggested an emergency prior to landing. But after a quick search online upon reaching the hotel, it appears the accident WAS the landing. A coworker had a link to the audio tapes and it appears nothing is wrong until the final seconds.
Opinion time. The weather, good. The airplane, also appears to be fully functional. What I do know 9again from having visited SFO the day before in our 747-400) is that Runway 28L had many closures to some of it’s normal navigation aids. The Glide Path for Runway 28L was off the air, and approach lighting was also unserviceable.
One way or the other, I believe that these two items, specifically the ILS glide path, will be found to have contributed to the accident. There are other methods for vertical guidance in this situation, like a LOC/VNAV approach. Where the aircraft uses the lateral guidance as received from a ground transmitter to direct it laterally to the runway centreline, but uses onboard navigation sources to determine the vertical path. On a good weather day such as yesterday at the time of the accident, the operational difference would be little to none. There are certain steps that must occur in the programming of this type of approach that would be different, and could ultimately lead to a mistake if it was something that the crew was not used to.
There are also reports of the aircraft being too slow prior to impact. What I do know of the 777 is that is is normally flown with the autothrottle engaged, whether or not the autopilot is flying. So if a pilot has disconnected the autopilot to “hand fly” the autothrottle computer stays engaged and controls the speed. Perhaps this was not functioning properly on Asiana flight 214, or perhaps as a result of improper programming of the approach, and being too high (also reports of being too high on the approach) the pilots elected to intervene and disengage the auto throttle (non standard).
Like we see in many accidents, there are usually a chain of events that occur to lead to something like this. If those things occur in a short period of time, they are also more likely to lead to an accident or incident.
So my quick analysis is as follows.
Routine services were not available for landing on 28L, which led to a “infrequently used” LOC/VNAV approach method for the crew. The potential unfamiliarity with such an approach could have led to the mismanagement of the approach. This mismanagement appears to have resulted in a speed issue – perhaps from being too high on the approach, which led to the crew disengaging the auto throttle. This removed any speed protection offered form the onboard computers and resulted in a slow airspeed/low altitude situation. Too high, disengage the A/T and cut he power and push the nose down. Perhaps too much so to overcorrect the high on the profile situation. There was not enough time to recover properly from this and the resulting impact just short of the runway occurred.
Again, this is just my two cents, and will very likely be proven wrong. Just hoping to open up some potential discussion amongst anyone who reads this (aviation experts or otherwise) as quite often an education can come from such discussions.
Here I am yet again sitting in an airplane crossing the Pacific. Sapporo Japan to our left, Russia to the right, and Hong Kong ahead. Unlike the last year and a half of these crossings, today I am riding as a passenger. Seat 50H (thanks for the emergency exit row to the Air Canada gate agent in Vancouver) on board a 777-300ER. Not Cathay Pacific, our flight was too full. But rather Air Canada. Appropriate I figure, as I am on the return leg of my first trip back to Canada in almost 20 months.
It’s a long time to be away from something you know so well. And it’s a long time to be away from so many people you love so much. That is what this trip was about for my wife and I. We got married before I left for initial training in Adelaide Australia, in a small ceremony in my parents living room. Just a few family was there. So this trip meant a lot to us both, to get to spend some time with those loved ones who weren’t there that day.
Before leaving on the trip I had many mixed emotions. The easiest one to explain would be sadness over leaving my two young dogs at home (well looked after I might add) as this would be the longest we would leave them to date. Of course the next emotion was excitement. Mostly to see my grandmother. With her age (95), this trip would mean a lot to my wife and I. So far her health hasn’t failed her, and the way she is going she will be around for a while yet. But she was still by far, top on my list. We had many other relatives to visit, and stay with. Some of which my wife hasn’t met in person yet. This led to creeping feelings of not wanting to go at all, too much to do in such a short time. Why not just stay home? We would never obviously, and as things would turn out, the zig zagging trip across Canada would prove among the most rewarding of my life.
So off we went to Canada. After a long night of flying from Paris to Hong Kong for me, I arrived at home to finish some laundry and packing. We took our dogs to our courtyard for a play (and a cold beer for my wife and I) before heading to the airport. The local shop near our house that sells the beer is run by a family that has a young boy (7 or 8 maybe). He is our unofficial Cantonese tutor, and has been friendly with us and our dogs for a while. This time we are in for a nice treat. He has convinced his mother to invite us in for dinner. With only a little English from the boy, we aren’t quite sure what we are getting into, but my wife and I enter their home with a smile on our face. The mother points to the chair and hands us a plate. First on the menu? Duck feet. Okay, what the hell. We start chewing and gnawing at this mix of skin and cartilage (literally nothing else). It doesn’t taste that bad, but there is not much to digest. The family smiles when I say “ho may do” (delicious in Cantonese), they clearly can tell I am being polite. Next up, some fresh clams from our Silvermine Bay. Garlic, spring onion, steamed to perfection. I can’t slide enough of these slippery little guys into my mouth. But as we finish our beer, and our meal, it’s time to get into the shower and head to the airport. As we collect our now exhausted puppies, and head for home, we decide that we will bring this family a gift from Canada on our return.
The usual ensues next, say goodbye to the dogs, taxi to the airport and check in for the full flight from Hong Kong to Vancouver. We get a seat but not together, less then ideal, but a seat nonetheless. A few hours into the flight my wife taps my head to wake me and invites me to the back of the plane to chat. We kill an hour and a half doing that, then back to the seats. Halfway across the Pacific now I can feel the excitement building. I am really looking forward to seeing everyone. As the flight comes to an end, we approach Vancouver and my first “forgotten gem” if you will, about Canada. It’s about 9pm local time, and the sun is still out in BC. In Hong Kong the sun is gone by around 7pm almost everyday of the year. I forgot what it was like to see the late twilight of the north. After collecting our bags and checking in for our connecting flight, we are off to Calgary. We order a few Molson Canadian beers for the short flight across the rockies. Starting to feel Canadian again. Landing there at about 130am, we are met by my uncle in law. We always have a good time in Calgary, and the next two days are no exception. Joining up with my wife’s great Aunt next, we tour Canmore and have dinner in Banff before a quick sleep and off to Winnipeg for my grandmother’s 95th birthday surprise party. It goes off without a hitch and the old gal was as shocked as ever. All but two cousins made the trip, so it was nice to have near the entire family with her that day. Next order of business the following morning is to help my in laws pack up the last of the boxes as the movers show up to complete the move from their Winnipeg home. They have officially moved to the lake where they own and operate a general store. After some dinner with my brother in law, the four of us head out to Clear Lake. I get another rush of Canadiana as I sip my Tim Horton’s coffee while cruising the Trans Canada Highway. The first thing I smell getting out of the car is something I haven’t experienced for a while, the smell of Canadian wilderness. Pine trees, a breeze off the lake carries the smell of the water, and of course, outboard motor exhaust. It’s a nice feeling breathing it all in again. In no time the next morning I am behind the deli counter slicing and pricing cold cuts at the store. Some baking, and butcher shop duties round out my experience there. I must say if I wasn’t a pilot, running a general store (despite the long hard hours) is very rewarding and would make a great career. After working at the shop everyday I take a swim in the lake to cool off before dinner. I am feeling more and more Canadian. We can’t stay at the lake for very long though as we have to drive back into Winnipeg for my cousins wedding after 3 days in cottage country. A great night the wedding was, and another great chance to catch up with some relatives. When the bar closes, we head back to my parents house for another short sleep before hitting the highway for Saskatoon in the morning. Three sets of grandparents to visit over the next few days. Twenty four hours in Saskatoon, then off to Jackfish lake where another set of grandparents await. We spend time visiting and catching up, and make some time to visit the local golf course where the owner keeps his Cessna 185 on floats in a hangar. A bush plane? That I used to fly? Now I am REALLY back in Canada. After another couple of nights back in Saskatoon with the final set of grandparents, we are headed for Regina, where my wife’s Aunt, Uncle, and cousins await. This will be my last stop of the trip before jumping on Air Canada to Vancouver, and then Hong Kong. As we did in all of our other stops, we spend the days visiting the family, doing a little shopping, and the nights grilling on the cue outside and drinking cold Canadian beer. I miss Canadian beer. The beer in Hong Kong is cheap, but it just isn’t the same.
Along the way we have made a few purchases for our home in Hong Kong that we think will remind us of Canada. Molson Canadian beach towels, a Saskatchewan Rough Riders flag, a Trans Canada Highway sign, and several others that will be a daily reminder of what this trip was. A great time with great family, in a great country. I must say looking back on the trip, every moment of it was special. Almost every day someone would ask us what we miss the most. The answer is simple. The people that made Canada our home for so many years. Moms, Dads, Sisters, Brothers, Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents, and cousins. Canada is great, it always will be. The smells, the prairie skies, the northern lights. But those won’t be the things I remember when I’m sitting on my rooftop in Hong Kong. It will be the people that I experienced those things with. They are, and will always be what count the most. Otherwise the rest is meaningless. We spent 18 days, in 9 different homes, with 47 different relatives, a wedding, a 95th birthday, and a shit load of Canadian beer. And despite the short nights, and long days, it was worth every minute.
With that, I am excited to be home with my dogs in a few more hours. My wife will join me at home in Hong Kong after a few more days of time with her parents at the store. I have to work 2 trips back to back (San Francisco and Anchorage) the first of which will be my annual line check. So a few days of reviewing the study notes I prepared back in April and I should be up to speed for the check. Then with the next two weeks off after those trips, it’s off to Kata Beach in Phuket Thailand with my wife to refresh after a busy trip to Canada.
More posts/story telling to come. Stay tuned and fly safe.
While flying last week with an American born captain, he made a point to show me an airport we were flying over in Western Alaska. Unalakleet is home to Era Alaska, and some great bush flying reality TV. I have winced started watching “Flying Wild Alaska” online and really enjoy the show. To anyone interested I suggest it’s worth your time if you are a plane geek like me. Also, “Ice Pilots NWT” starts it’s fourth season this week. As a matter of fact, we recently had an Ice Pilot from the show join us here at Cathay Pacific.
So its been a busy few weeks since I was a part of jethead’s interview and podcast. I have just finished my line check with my new airline and can start to settle into the routine of flying the 747. There has been something I have wanted to write about for several weeks now, which I unfortunately had to put on the back burner until the check was out of the way. So here it is. I recently read an article online (linked below) about a Boeing test plane powered by Hydrogen. Have a quick read.
When I read this the first question that came to mind was, where will technology take us by the time I retire? Then I asked, how far have we come since my grandfather took to the skies in the 1930’s?
The first airplane my grandfather flew for Trans Canada Airlines in 1937 was the Lockheed 10A Electra. It weighed a mere 12,500 pounds. The same airplane Amelia Earhart attempted to fly around the world in. It held 10 passengers and could fly for no more then a couple hours at barely 150 miles per hour. I recall my grandmother telling me several times it used to take him a day to fly to Toronto from Winnipeg, with three fuel stops in Northern Ontario. A day to rest, and another day to fly home. Ironically I am on the same type of patters today, except I am traveling from South East Asia to Europe.
The equipment in these old piston airliners of the 30’s was not much more then a morse code signal being broadcast with poor range, and based on the letter you heard, you would know which side of the intended airway you were on. When my grandfather retired in the jet age he was flying the classic Douglas DC-9. He was able to fly to Toronto in the morning and be home for lunch. With much better equipment on board.
My dad entered the airline world on the first turboprop aircraft ever put into airline service, the Vickers Viscount. For it’s day, a terrific airplane with good range, carrying 44 passengers and great engines in the Rolls Royce “Dart”. The viscount flew about 275 miles an hour. The equipment was more modern, cockpits remained cluttered with hundreds of guages. But fast forward 40 years and retire on the 747-400. Glass cockpit, ultra long haul range with 400 plus people weighing 875,000 pounds.
Today I fly the same plane, as our airline approaches retiring this fleet that is almost 25 years old. I think, if all we have done is get bigger, and fly further and faster, what will I retire on? Safe to say The world is much different then it was. We seem to be shifting away from “bigger is better” (despite the advent of the super jumbo A380). The majority of aircraft orders are for twin engine fuel efficient aircraft with excellent range.
That’s where the article caught my attention. Hydrogen powered aircraft. The exhaust of which is water vapour. When you stop and think about this, its truly unbelievable. The list is long of the damages vehicle exhaust has done to our planet and our atmosphere. But imagine a world where the biggest concern vehicle exhaust is higher relative humidity! Now I am sure the environmental effects of that much water vapour being poured into our atmosphere are huge, and I’m also sure people smarter then me have been researching this for years now.
When I look back again at what my grandfather flew in the 30’s and where aviation was then, it was more or less a time when a jet engine was still an idea. It wasn’t until the German’s in late WW2 finally flew a jet powered aircraft. So if my grandfather lived through all of those technological changes, what will I live through? It is a very interesting thing to consider, that perhaps my last flight will be in an airplane that will only leave a trail of water vapour behind it.
Normally when the phone rang and I saw it was my Operations Manager at Perimeter Aviation, I usually debated answering the phone. Was I in trouble? Can’t think of anything I’ve done lately to piss management off. All kidding aside a call from the Ops Manager was usually related to something unusual at work. An incident that needed follow up, a charter that needed discussing before it departed to somewhere other then the usual destinations. Today was no different, something unusual. My Ops Manager called and asked if I could do a non revenue trip to God’s River Manitoba and take our “jack of all trades” Derek up to transfer fuel from our holding tank, to our pumping tank. Of course I was fine with that, I enjoyed flights that broke up the routine of the scheduled service we provided to 20 some destinations in Northern Manitoba. However there was an extra request from management that day, would I mind flying alone? We were short first officers at the time, so I wasn’t overly surprised by the request. However without hesitation I asked if I could bring my own first officer. Trevor knew who I meant and was the kind of manager that despite a grey area in the rules regarding this one, knew it was a great opportunity for a family of pilots to do something special.
So the next morning in the frigid February that Manitoba is known for (-40 this particular morning) I went to work with my dad. Kind of like take your kid to work day, but the exact opposite. I did the usual flight planning and talked to Derek to see how much gear he had to take with us. Then my dad and I got the heaters out to the plane and started to warm the frozen Merlin up. We were flying a long bodied merlin to be precise, configured for Cargo with a few jump seats in it. So there was more then enough room for the three of us and a few hundred pounds of cargo, as well as fuel for the return home, something that was rare, and a nice treat to not have to refuel the plane up north where it was even colder.
I asked my dad what he wanted to do, fly, work the radios, a bit of both. So we decided that I would takeoff and he would handle the radios out of Winnipeg (an airport he spent 20 years flying from for Air Canada). We were operating under my charter number, Perimeter 947 (all of our charter numbers started with 9, i chose 47 for obvious reason, my lifelong dream to fly the 747).
When we got airborne my dad out of 40 years of habit contacted departure as “Air Canada 947”. I guess when you start every radio call for a 40 year career with “Air Canada” it’s tough not to say it when your finger keys the mic for the first time in a while.
My dad took control for a bit in cruise, and despite complaining about the noise (the merlin is one of the louder turboprops around, and much louder then the passenger friendly 747 he flew last) we were having more fun than I thought possible. We were both smiling from ear to ear. The weather in God’s River was overcast at a few thousand feet, so nothing more then descending to a 25 mile safe altitude and joining the circuit would be required for our arrival.
My dad again doing the radio work in the uncontrolled environment of northern Manitoba, struggled between Air Canada and Perimeter. I had been a Captain for more then a year at this point on the metro/merlin fleet, so I was comfortable in my chances to show my dad my skills landing this plane. The runway had a light dusting of snow, which helps in creating a cushioning effect when touching down. I saw there was a couple of knots crosswind from the left, and managed to gently touch the left main wheel, followed by the right, holding the nose off while I applied reverse thrust to help slow down, and around 70 knots, gently letting the nose wheel onto the snow covered grave runway. My dad and I were still smiling.
We helped Derek with the fuel for a while, and had a laugh that our two tank years supply for gas in God’s River was about 3/4’s of what the 747 held with full fuel tanks. We have up to 5 airplanes a day take fuel from these tanks, albeit a couple hundred liters at a time. But it was still interesting to figure that a years supply of fuel for a our fleet was barely enough for a 747 to cross the pacific.
After some hot chocolate and a quick warm up in the terminal building the three of us set for Winnipeg. My dad and I decided he could land when we got home, landing a turboprop is something he hadn’t done since 1967. Having never flown a metro/merlin before, it can be a handful. But to no surprise, and only after letting my dad know the flap and gear speeds, he did a better job then most of the FO’s I fly with who have been flying that plane for a year or more. I guess hands and feet don’t forget how to fly, and 40 years of practice sure helps. He looked at me and said “that sure was fun.”
This was a flight that I will never forget, it was something my dad or uncle never got to do, fly with there dad, so I know how special it was for our family. I am sure I will never fly with a First Officer again that has the experience mine did that day. If I learned anything from that flight, it’s the importance of taking something memorable or fun from every flight. It doesn’t have to be once in a lifetime event like this particular day, but as long as I can walk off a flight and think, “that sure was fun” I know I will have a good career.
Here is a link to an interview with Captain Chris Manno, of Jethead blog fame. Enjoy.