Heather Fleck is Assistant Chief Pilot at Vintage Wings of Canada, in tune and in synch with all of our flying business and every aviator and mechanic, but is also one of the key communicators for our organization. Heather blogs and writes without a net for the Vintage Wings website and its many sub-sites like Yellow Wings and Warbirds of the Med. But before all this she is a pilot.
Fleck was born to an aviation family, surrounded by airplanes, inheriting her father's ready room charisma and beer call humour. But after high school, she had difficult decision to make when she found herself with a full scholarship offer to Carleton University's prestigious flagship School of Journalism, one of Canada's best. She was also accepted at Seneca College's equally prestigious School of Aviation and Flight Technology. She chose to fly.
Graduating first in her class meant an immediate offer from a major airline operating short haul Dash 8 feeder liners – definitely bypassing the first four or five rungs of the typical commercial pilot ladder crawl to the top. Soon she was a fully qualified but trepidatious three-striper flying an airliner through the mountains of British Columbia.
These simple and eloquent correspondences with her family, at times personal, funny, laced with jargon and mildly self-deprecating, paint a vivid image of a young pilot at the outset of her commercial career - filled with fears and joys and accomplishments, with an underlying longing for family. They show why journalism and aviation fought for her soul back then and even today and why she is loved and respected so much. [Ed}
By Heather Fleck, with photo illustrations by Dave O'Malley
Subject: So Green it Gurts
So, first mission. Yes, well, it was obviously awesome, crazy, unbelievable, totally overwhelming. My captain is really nice, though I do feel bad for him for having to put with up me, as I'm sure even just yesterday was a test of his patience.
Right, so, haven't flown IFR in a long while, never flown out of Calgary before, never flown in the mountains before, hardly flown at night before, and first approach we're doing a night approach into Kamloops, a step-down approach with about 18 steps down, all requiring temp comp, with very tall, very black mountains very close by. Was a gorgeous night, clear skies and bright moon, just a layer of overcast a few thousand feet thick in the Kamloops valley. I guess it was about an hour and a half there, though I can't really remember because I was pretty busy forgetting checks and making radio calls on the wrong frequency.
Captain took off out of Kamloops (very long, scary engine-out route in the mountains), then handed control to me. Right, so no problem, I'll just take this 40,000 lb aircraft and fly it around and pretend I know what I'm doing, just like that. It is a very, very stable aircraft, and especially easy to control after just coming out of the sim, where everything is pretty squirrelly (note: calm winds and no turbulence may also have been a factor). You're always re-trimming it though, because you can feel every time the flight attendant walks up and down the aisle. Got to hand-fly it up to 15,000 feet. NEAT.
Captain was really nice and was like "If I'm going too fast, just let me know and I'll slow down" meanwhile his hands fly around the cockpit so fast and he rattles through the checklist so quick, I actually had no clue what he was saying, though suspected it was the Approach Check. Then we're doing 200 kts on final at 6000 ft, 12 miles from the runway - hi, so I'm looking for my 120 kts, stabilized on the glide slope, 15 mile approach that I'm used to. Ahh real world. He had just given me this big speech about not flaring too much, not more than 5 degrees nose up other wise you strike the tail, so I basically almost drove the nose in.
Right, and that was day one. So now I can say that these hands flew a Dash 8!!!!!! Despite the fact that EVERYTHING is so, so, so, so new and unfamiliar, and I still don't even have the hang of gracefully toting my little wheely bag around, am looking forward (with some trepidation) to day 2, stay tuned, airing today at 14:45 CMT.
Subject: Windy in the Mountains:
Flight from YYC - YKA
Just got back last night from a 3-day pairing, have this morning to wash up my white shirts and then am out again on an easy 1-day-er this aft. Had kind of a crazy day the other day.
The captain that I just finished flying with is a good guy, an old bush pilot with about 20,000 hours, high on the seniority list, and seems to purposely go out of his way to contradict and NOT do every single SOP in our book. That's fine, he's the boss, I just kind of do my own thing and we get along great. Except that he tells me he's getting Line Checked by the big boss on the last two legs of the last day - which just happens to be a Kamloops turn at night.
So I spent all yesterday morning going over the SOP calls, poring over all the Kamloops approaches, including the complex departure and engine-out procedures. Even better, with big brother watching over my shoulder, it will be my leg to fly the 18-step-down approach into the mountain valley, ending with a night circling procedure in winds gusting to 30 kts. And I think the last time I went into Kamloops was my very first flight of Line Indoc about 2 months ago. Yippee.
As it turns out, big brother, for whatever reason, fails to show by the time we depart for Kamloops, so little sigh of relief there. All that stress for nothing. Not that it was an uneventful flight. Strong westerly winds make it pretty bumpy over the mountains, no matter what altitude we try (doesn't seem to bother the captain, who has been absorbed in sudokos since the gear went up). Kamloops weather is saying scattered at 8 thousand, with light winds out of the west. Sweet, we should be visual, we can do the straight-in, no circling.
Halfway through the approach, at five thousand feet, we're still totally IMC (Instrument Meteorlogical Conditions - Ed.), with all the de-ice and anti-ice blazing. It's pretty noisy in the cockpit as we're being pelted with ice pellets and snow as we scream down through the black murk trying to get down to the next altitude in time. It's a pretty eerie feeling - you know the big, dark mountains are all around you, you can feel them, you just don't know exactly where they are. Plus, with all the landing lights on, you get some crazy visuals out the front window as you race through the clouds.
We finally break out about 2000 feet above ground and slowly the runway shows up ahead of us through the snow. But now that we're down in the valley, the winds are doing that funnelling thing and it's bumpy as hell. Wind check on final is 7G29, shifting through about 60 degrees. Even the autopilot is having a hard time keeping it on the loc... so you can imagine what happens when I disengage it. As you would say Dad, it was time for some of that stick and rudder shit. Luckily, I manage to overcome my Seneca training and deal with the greater-than-5-knot crosswind. Exhilarating, but must admit, sure was glad my captain was nearby for that one. He said sometimes it gets so bumpy in the valley that the Dashes just do a missed and head to their alternate because its too hard to control the plane.
So people get off, people get on, start the engines, taxi back out. The weather is good enough for a visual departure, but that doesn't make the "TERRAIN TERRAIN WHOOP WHOOP PULL UP PULL UP" screech of the GPWS (Ground Proximity Warning System -Ed) any more comforting on climb out.
Anyway, we made it home just fine, back to the comfort and familiarity of good old flat Calgary. We almost had to do another missed approach though (oh yeah, did my first missed approach yesterday - the airplane ahead of us didn't clear the runway in time - we were IMC on the ILS in Edmonton). Anyway, it seems the controllers out here have a hard time fitting us in among all the Air Canada and WestJet guys. They either want us to do 260 kts (which we can't on short final...no, wait, we just can't do that period.) or they want us at 90kts (which we also can't do).
OK, well my shirts are almost dry so I guess I should wrap this up.