Sunday, October 31, 2010

Pause Button

I was wondering about things to write about the other day. There are only so many pictures of communities, airstrips, clouds, storms blah blah that one can take photos of and still keep it interesting. Some of the more interesting stuff happens at night and the photos just dont work. So i was thinking of some more hairy times i have had. Maybe hairy isn't the right word, but when the workload gets to that level where you suddenly realise there is more going on in the aeroplane and outside and suddenly you are behind the aircraft trying to catch up. I like to think i'm a good operator and this doesn't happen very often, but i can think of at least 2 times when it has.

I used to play a lot of flightsim before i started flying. I loved it, and it actually did give me a firm understanding and grounding in aircraft/airspace procedures, terminology etc. Even so, i remember when there was a lot to do, i could pause the sim and set everything up and even look at a big map and figure out exactly what was going on. I don't have that luxury anymore, and even though it's not a hypothetical 767, I often have 8 very real passengers depending on my skill and expertise to do a flight safely and professionally.

I can't actually think of exact moments where i have wished there was a pause button, i just remember times when i have been thinking "what is happening, what is going on next." And it is a horrible feeling. Especially in IMC, with a dodgy autopilot, flying turbo aeroplanes, on minimum fuel, being told unusual vectors. The other day I was flying back into Darwin, and was given a vector straight into a storm. Naturally i said, unable and was given almost a reverse track due to other arriving/departing traffic. I was then in solid cloud, bumps and was fairly high for my DME/distance to Darwin. (FYI - We use a descent profile of 5 for our descents. Therefore at 9000ft, we use 9 x 5, and would need to descend at 45nm. But obviously common sense says that if there is a howling tailwind, and you are going straight in, then you would descend earlier.)

I was given a lower level and was finally visual and was then cleared a visual approach. I could hear Brasilia's and a Beech 1900 going around into Darwin, and this was the first alarm bell in my head. However, from where i was i could see everything. I kept descending and going towards the field. I was virutally established on the ILS anyway, so i knew my profile and speeds were in check for a visual approach. Yet as i approached 2000ft, i realised, i was visual with everything in Darwin, bar the airfield. There was just a curtain of heavy rain over the field, which was not even mentioned in the ATIS. I then requested to shoot the ILS approach and after the outer marker was able to get visual with a very wet runway.

Now this wasn't particularly a 'bad moment'. But for starters, i was doing a visual approach, i didn't have my plates ready or briefed for the approach. That was a few minutes of rummaging and pulling them out. It was an unexpected workload to then do the approach and have to reconfigure the aircraft for where i was in the approach. I just remember getting on the ground and it was just a messy and not really in line with my own single pilot procedures. I think every pilot has their own way of operating, and when they are suddenly forced to do it a different way, thats when mistakes and accidents happen. And it was just a moment where a pause button was needed.. just to stop, think and reconsider and reevalute the unexpected situation. Having said that, its situations like these that make us better pilots, as they usually force us to learn from our mistakes, or be better prepared for next time. Was i naive not to have a plate out or brief it already? Thats up to interpretation. Im flying single pilot IFR and probably should always expect the worst so im prepared.

Either way it was an uneventful flight in the end, and it was an experience i have taken under my belt in the game of learing. In other news, for all those pilots from Australia who i know, getting paid nothing to work in Indonesia, so that you can call a 737 your "office," get some real experience, command time so you too can experience making single pilot command decisions.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

MGD at night, for the coroner

Sometimes i get some interesting flights which happen at odd hours. One happened yesterday, where i had to pick up a body for the coroner from Maningrida. I departed at 5pm for the 80 minute, 200nm flight in the baron. There was a lot of weather around, and this is why the flight was done in a twin, rather than the C206. We normally do coffin runs, or these sorts of flights in the C206 with the seats removed, but as per company policy and overall safety, we only do flights of this nature at night when there are thunderstorms around in twin engine aeroplanes.

Yesterday wasn't bad weather for myself as such, lots of rain, a little bit of cloud and dodging bigger cells, but for some of the other poor GA warriors flying last night, they were in the thick of it, without weather radars asking for help from centre, and requesting vectors to avoid the big storm areas. There was a big line of storms stretching around 150nm long, between Katherine (Tindal) and Oenpelli. All the jets flying to Asia were going up to 40nm right of track to avoid this line.

So picking up a body in a body bag sounds pretty gnarly, and by all means isn't my favourite thing in the world, but it's amazing how you generally don't think about it when it's in the plane with you. The only difference with this body was that for the first time i could actually smell it, and it wasn't overly unpleasant or anything, it was just a strange smell, once i landed and it got a bit stuffy in the cabin; so i couldn't work out what it was straight away, and obviously i eventually registered the source!

Flying IFR at night in marginal weather without a radar is definately not fun, however up here in the top end, the monsoonal storms aren't overly aggressive, or long lasting either, unless a tropical depression/cyclone develops. They are very isolated too and the flashes of lightning can be seen everywhere, making the worst of the weather reasonably easy to avoid. This is not always the case when there is embedded storms, but this doesn't happen all to often.

Straight after take-off i was handed to approach, who vectored me around some inbound vfr traffic from the north. I was actually passing 6000ft by the time i flew downwind to Darwin airport. I am then transferred to the class E frequency of 129.85. Class E in Australia means IFR traffic is seperated from other IFR planes and is radar monitored. We are given traffic infomation about VFR traffic only. If i was below 8500 (Class G) then i would only recieve infomation about IFR and VFR traffic and it would be up to me to avoid them and take suitable action. Mostly around Australian airports, Class E extends around 90nm above 8500ft. Its lower level beyond this becomes FL180 and anything below this becomes Class G. Up in the top end we are radar identified till around 140nm out of Darwin at 9000ft, and about 100nm at 8000ft.

From leaving Class E, i then get transferred onto centre 124.1 (Class G), which is patched with a lot of other frequencies, and covers a large area. As i get around 50-60nm out from Maningrida, i transfer to what we call the "MAF" frequency. Well, i call it the MAF frequency, because Mission Aviation Fellowship, which operates out of East Arnhemland, always make their CTAF and traffic calls on Brisbane Centre. There is no law against or for this, but when the frequency is busy with IFR traffic, it can be hard to get a radio call in, on top of hearing VFR traffic heading coastal at 5500ft to some unknown Aboriginal community blah blah. It's their company policy though, so i guess they are just adhering to what they are meant to do.

Anyhoo, this frequency for me is 123.4. This is patched all the way down to Tennant Creek, across the Horn Island in the Torres Straights, and basically pretty close to Cairns. It covers a lot of area, and is always cool when i hear some of my mates who fly out of Alice Springs and Tennant Creek on the airwaves. Maningrida, and virtually all the places i fly into (apart from Tindal) are all on CTAF procedures. Maningrida has the CTAF frequency 127.5. Maningrida also gets VHF on the ground, so no need to use HF radion for a change!

So i waited on the ground for a bit in MGD until the body arrived. It was in a big precession, with about 10 cars, and probably over 200 people accompanying it. They do a ceremony as they load it into the plane which is quite amazing/odd to watch for the first time. Mostly everyone is really respectful and are quite gracious to the pilot for these jobs, but i have seen people start smashing their heads into the sides of the planes and causing possible damage, so i always keep an eye on whats going on. Yesterday ran as smooth as it could, and the police at MGD were good blokes who helped me out.

Departure and return to Darwin was uneventful, despite going through a lot of rain and cloud, and having lightning going off in the distance. All in a days work i guess!

I do have photos of some of the events, but i don't know how disrespectful it is to post some of it, so i might just keep them hidden for now.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

More 402

Well the wet season is coming stronger and stronger. I have now had to do a few ILS's into Darwin on the return leg from a days flying. The weather is usually ok up until the mid afternoon and then it turns sour. I'm not 100% what a microburst is, but i assume there have been a few near the field with the windsock literally swinging around in direction every few minutes, up to 25kts from east to west and north to south. Made for one or two hairy approaches on the edge of the storm. However 4km of runway and the C402 doesn't pose me a huge problem, even with a 25kt tailwind. Having said that, when you are turning a 2nm final over the field and you can feel yourself being dragged towards the strip sideways in the base turn, it's definately not a procedure i want to practise regularly.

I'm feeling a lot more confident now in the C402, with fuel figures and understanding the aeroplane. I find the hardest part is all the conversations, which is really a recipe to fail unless you are diligent in your calculations. What i'm trying to say is constantly converting between litres, kilo's and pounds can lead to the wrong figures in the paperwork, wrong weights for max payload take-offs, and the wrong amount of fuel being loaded. We use pounds in the flight plan, and also the planes fuel gauges are all in pounds. This is easy to use as the plane burns roughly 100lbs per engine per hour. So if each tank is showing 300lbs, as a rule of thumb you know you have 3 hours of fuel, and around 2.4 hours till you will hit your fixed reserves. Now we have to convert the pounds to litres for the refuellers. This is done by dividing the pounds of fuel by 1.58 for avgas. We then use kilo's for the weight and balance, so pounds divided by 2.204 gives you the weight in kilos. Again, its not hard or challenging, you just have to think about which conversion you are attemping and make sure you do it in the correct order.

As a rule of thumb in regards to fuel, the boys always substract 50lbs off the final fuel figure (we call it our 'gravy'). So basically whatever fuel figure you are using from the previous paperwork, you know there is roughly 30 litres of extra fuel in the tanks. When available (depending on the job) we also use a 10% extra policy, on top fixed reserve, flight fuel, variable reserves (15% of the flight fuel) and plus whatever holding is needed. This ensures adequate fuel, as even though our planning is around 200lbs per hour, it ends up being roughly 230lbs with take-off, climb segments included.

I have been flying the C402C a lot more as well. Definately a much nicer plane to fly. Significant improvements are the vortex generaters which allow greater lift and payload. They also have 50 more horses on take-off, and the turbos boost the engines to 39" of manifold pressure, whereas the B model only goes to 34'5" of manifold pressure. So the take-off performance is a lot better. The wing also looks better without the tip-tank, and best of all is the tank-to-engine fuel systems. No need to change tanks unless you are crossfeeding to balance the tanks. It also holds about 200lbs more than the B model, total fuel being 1236lbs, roughly 785 litres of fuel, for those of you using the metric system.

Other nice features on the C model is the weather radar. They are probably from the stoneage of aviation, but still when flying in the soup with weather around, it gives you are better informed idea of where the significant weather is so you can avoid it. It's definately not great, or even colour, but its better than having no radar!

Till next time, thanks for reading.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Sorry its been a while since i last posted! I have actually had 2 weeks leave, which was well earned and deserved as far as i'm concerned. So haven't had a whole lot of photos to take or things to write about, in regards to flying at least.

Although my first flight back was down to Hooker Creek (south of Darwin 355nm), and returning in the late afternoon into Darwin, was my first proper taste of the 'wet season.' I was in and out of huge areas of cloud build up. I tried to avoid the big ones but sometimes its hard, and you just need to ride the bumps with the powers turned back. Anyway once visual there was a line of thunderstorms to the south of the field i had to navigate around (without weather radar, for those playing at home!) I was lucky in the sense i was able to see a tiny gap, where a semi-visible horizon was seen, so i made a bee-line for it before the gap closed. Worked a treat. Darwin at this point was being hit by torrential rain, so i was cleared the VOR 11 approach.

So anyway, i don't think i had done a VOR approach since my intial instrument rating test! I have done many ILS, which cover me for VOR recency, however not a VOR. I barely got visual at the minima, and finally a little to the right of my line of sight i could see the PAPI lights glowing through the rain. Once i selected full flaps and landed, the runway was completely saturated and another first on this flight, actually experienced aqua-planing and had very unresponsive braking.

So there is nothing like a 2 weeks break from work, and have an unfamiliar approach down to minimums to get you back in to gear. It is also one of those experiences that makes you confident in your ability, but also makes me realise how much there is to still learn. Flying piston twins in weather like that is no my favourite thing in the world, im also lucky i don't have icing conditions to deal with either. There is no mucking about doing an instrument approach like that, and for the life of me cant figure out why i didn't ask to do the runway 11 RNAV. Either way, it all worked out!

Anyway, i'll get some photos up soon of my holidays! Take care.