Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A lazy evening storm lights up the local palm trees down south. Better to be on the ground wishing I was flying than vice versa.

When I was little, I'd look up at the stars and wonder if my true love was looking at the same stars as me. Sometimes when I'm away from Lisa, I'll tell her to look outside at the same time I am, so we are both staring at the constellations together, though we are miles apart.

I flew night cargo in Goderich for a few years, and on clear evenings I'd frequently see meteors burning across the horizon for a second or two before they winked out, incinerated by earth's atmosphere. Whenever I saw one I'd make a wish, usually involving my being safe and warm at home instead of flying single-pilot night cargo in icing conditions in a small piston airplane with a dodgy heater. But overall it was really easy flying and I was home every night by 930pm or so, so I'm not complaining at all.

I enjoyed flying at night because the air was smoother, there was a lot less traffic, and I could actually see better at night than I could during the day - in summer the smog tends to make it hard to see more than a dozen miles or so during the day, but at night I'd be able to see the lights from towns 50 miles away at least. If I was bored I could have actual conversations with ATC people to pass the time - they were usually quite happy to converse during the off-peak hours. Sometimes when I was flying back to Goderich at the end of the evening, I'd light up my landing lights, drop to 2,500' (100nm safe altitude) and follow the main highway home, pretending to strafe the cars along the way. The Baron's landing lights were like laserbears and I'm pretty sure I looked like an alien fightercraft, come to enslave the inhabitants of southern Ontario, turning them into human jerky for the sustenance of my alien race. Yeah, I had the backstory all worked out and I might option it for a movie one day, so hands off my intellectual property.

Anyway, for me, night flying was peaceful and relaxing until I got my next job, flying medevacs. When I flew medevacs on the MU-2 based in Timmins, my logbook shows I flew more at night than during the day. My pager would routinely go off at 9pm and I'd fly until noon the following day.

And this wasn't ILS to ILS or anything either.

We'd fly at night to 3,000' snow-covered gravel strips in a blizzard, picking up and dropping off the unfortunate people who were so critical that they couldn't wait until daylight. We'd fly in all sorts of weather, bumping along during rainstorms, eyes fixed on the weather radar that we desperately hoped would paint a picture of what to stay away from before we plowed into it.

"The scary night bumps" is how my friend and former Captain described them once as we were going to Sault St. Marie at midnight in the middle of heavy rains and bad weather. I hate thunderstorms since my little incident years ago, and I was white knuckling this particular leg. She and I both knew there weren't any thunderstorms in the area, but we were in cloud the whole night and we couldn't see a thing. My rational mind knew it wasn't particularly dangerous, but my primitive mind told me there were demons swirling outside our windows in the fog, waiting to sink their fangs into the wings and tail as soon as I acknowledged their existence. So I trusted my Captain and continued to focus on flying, refusing to let the skeery night bump demons get the upper hand. She was right, and we remained safe.

I can't overstate how tiring it is to be on call 24/7, then fly all night, even if you are 99.9% sure you'll get paged out at 9pm, just like the 5 nights previous. If we didn't get paged out by 3pm or so, we'd have a nap for 2 or 3 hours, so we'd have a little edge at night. Unless the pager didn't go off at all, in which case we'd sit, wired, and watch late-night tv and try to get to sleep in case the pager went off at 6am the next day.

More often that not, when we landed I'd be grey and shaking with fatigue. Not shaking a lot mind you; I don't want to give the impression that I was writhing about and convulsing on the floor, because I wasn't. It was more like a soft vibration that went through my head and consciousness, dulling all the edges, something that Tim Horton's couldn't fix no matter how many double-doubles I loaded up on during my shift.

There were times I'd fly 15 hours, ending with an ILS to minimums to get home, then start to doze off at the wheel during the 10 minutes drive to my apartment. I'm sure I was a safe pilot, but I'm not so sure I was a safe driver on those 10-minute trips home from the hangar, heading toward my minimum legal duty rest before doing it again the next night.


Windsor said...

I know where you are coming from as far as being tired. I'm no fan of the 14 hr duty days at all hours of the clock. Shooting approaches to mins at 5am after being up for 20 hours is no easy task. I'm a big fan of rockstar, jolly ranchers and any FBO black crap i can get my hands on at those hours. Good to see those days are mostly behind you. Its fun, but hard flying.

jennifer said...

Ah, the soft full body vibration....good way to describe it!!
I will NOT miss that one bit.