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)