2 weeks of snow, winter tyres were worth it

•January 17, 2013 • Leave a Comment

There has been so much snow up in Scotland recently, every day seems like we have had a blizzard blowing with another foot of snow arriving.  Respect to the local councils though, they are well and truly geared up for this and have snow ploughs and gritters everywhere keeping the roads reasonably clear.  We seem to be lucky on our road, despite it being a private estate in the middle of nowhere, someone comes and grits and ploughs the roads a few times a day, as well as clearing the pavement.

What is a problem is flying the very first flight of the day, it means I have to leave the house by 5am and this is before anyone has turned up to plough the roads.  It was for this very reason, as well as wanting to take advantage of the ski slopes here, that I wanted to have winter tyres fitted to the BMW. Anyone that owns a rear wheel drive BMW and has driven it in a snowy winter will know exactly what I am talking about.  They are just hopeless and you really wonder what on earth you were thinking when you bought it as it slowly skids at a tangent to the direction that you want to travel.

I have used winter tyres before, I lived in Sweden for nearly two years where it is the law to have them from October to march.  The tyres there are also ice tyres, so not only do they have a special compund and tread, they also have tungsten carbide tips in them to bite into the compacted snow and ice.  I can’t describe the level of grip that is achieved from these tyres, it’s virtually like the snow and ice is not even there.  The local mentality in Sweden is the opposite to that in Britain, if it starts snowing early and you haven’t yet swapped your tyres, you will find that no one will get in a car with you for fear of certain death. Whereas in the England, no one thinks twice about driving the whole of winter in their summer tread and then wonder why they get stuck as soon as the snow falls.  The answer people seem to think especially in the south of England, is to have 4WD.  This is all well and good and may give you a bit more chance of getting moving from a standing start, but they are the exact same as a regular 2WD once they are moving and are just as likely to slide into a ditch.  I once had a guy in Woldingham try to get up a hill behind me in his X5, a truly useless 4wd machine if ever one was invented, I was on my mountain bike with snow and ice tyres and he lost grip and ended up sliding all the way back down and hitting a wall then had the audacity to blame me for not making it.

I did my research on winter tyres and decided that the Hankook Icebear W310 was a great value product.  It had come in the top 5 in several autobild tests in Germany and they also came in the size for my car.  I spoke to a guy about fitting them and he would swap them over onto my alloys for a bargain price, so in the end I just bought the tyres and not a set of wheels.  I ordered a set of 4 from oponeo.co.uk. At first thought you feel it is a bit of a dodgy Eastern European website, you are ordering tyres from Poland and they in turn could be sourced from any other country.  However, the order process is really simple and they turned up on my doorstep 3 days after ordering.

I got thewheelspecialist.co.uk in Aberdeen to fit the tyres for me, they did it straight away and only took 20minutes, it took me longer to load and unload the car of tyres between the garage and my flat I think.  It was when I was at the wheel specialist that I realised a lot of people in Aberdeen use winter tyres and I found this encouraging.

I have to say, the levels of grip in the snow are incredibly impressive and they have saved me on black ice on at least 2 occasions.  I can confidently drive up hills and around bends at speeds I wouldn’t dare attempt with the summer tread I use, braking is also highly effective.  The only worry is that others around me will not have them and someone will run into the back of me 😦  not only are they could in the ice and snow though, they are far better in the cold and wet and through standing water because of their big multi tread design.

If you are thinking about winter tyres, I highly recommend the Hankook Icebears from Oponeo.  If you own a rear wheel drive car then you should definitely have a set of these, or a front or 4 wheel drive one for that matter.


•January 2, 2013 • Leave a Comment

For some reason the formatting is dreadful on the last few blog posts, i have been using my iPad app and was unaware of what had happened.  I will try and find out what has gone wrong.

Boiler packed in

•December 14, 2012 • 4 Comments

What a time for this to happen, it has been -8c up here in Aberdeen lately with lots of snow and ice.  I was on the evening shift last night which finishes at 2230 and I got back to the apartment and it felt really cold, I just assumed it was because it had been a really cold day.

I don’t normally feel the cold, I’ve spent literally 100s of nights camping in freezing conditions including being caught out in a snow storm on top of a mountain and another in a welsh valley when I forgot to bring a ground mat and the cold just flooded through from the ground into my sleeping bag.

So when I woke up at 3am this morning because I could not get warm under the thick duvet I quickly got an extra thermal top out and went back to sleep, only to be woken again at 5am.  I knew the heating would come on at 0530 for a bit and that would take the chill off things.  I finally gave up at 7am and got out of bed to turn the boiler onto advance.  It whirred up and made loads of noise but 10mins later all the radiators were still stone cold.  I got the book out to the boiler and realised it had either lost pressure or the ignitition was knackerred. As luck would have it, either the previous tenants or the owner had broken the pressure gauge so there was no way of knowing how much pressure the boiler had left.  What I do know is that the thermostat was reading a solid 6c.

I went to the gym to have a quick ride on the spinning bike and then get a shower there, then came back to get changed and pack my stuff for Germany where I will be spending the next two days.  The property manager is supposed to have a contractor come and fix the boiler while I am away, fingers crossed…

My German is not great at the best of times, I haven’t been to dusseldorf in a quite a while, but I did use to work there for a number of years.  My PA in german could prove to be interesting…

Trying to land in freezing fog

•December 12, 2012 • Leave a Comment

The weather today was pretty grim, the forecast was for low cloud and fog all day and you just know its going tone one of those days when you aren’t going to get home.  I packed some extra stuff in my bag before I left in case I ended up night stopping, which with the way the weather was heading, was looking increasingly likely.

The forecast in Birmingham was for broken clouds at 200ft and overcast at 300ft, this means that you pretty much aren’t going to see anything at 300ft and you may be able to see something at 200ft.  The clouds are reported above the aerodrome level.

For landing at Birmingham using the category 1 ILS we must make a decision at 510ft, this is above sea level and Birmingham has an altitude of 305ft, this means that we are between the broken and the overcast clouds and therefore unlikely to see the runway before we have to abandon the approach and go-around.  Additionally there was mist forecast on the runway with a visibility of only 600m which meant we could make an approach into Birmingham but that we would probably have to initiate a go-around.  To make matters worse, because of the freezing fog we would be landing in icing conditions which meant the aircraft would have to fly faster and be a much more difficult thing to get on the ground.

We decided before we departed that we would be using Manchester as our alternate, that is, we would make one attempt into Birmingham and then turn around and head to Manchester instead where the weather was better. 

I have flown quite a few flights down to minima before and it makes me quite nervous, there is something about watching the altimeter reading lower and lower numbers until it is not much higher than your house before you decide whether to land or go-around, and the chances are that you won’t have seen anything when it happens.  I have put this down to watching all of the air crash investigations where some form of human error has taken place and the aircraft has ploughed into the side of a mountain or hit the ground 1 mile short of the runway, these are called CFIT, or Controlled Flight Into Terrain.  This is where there is no problem with the aircraft and similarly, the crew are unaware of any danger, the aircraft is simply flown in a controlled manner, into the ground.

There are different categories of landing systems available, the Dash8 can fly using categories 1 & 2, there is then categories 3, 3b and 3c.  Category 1 is usually deciding around 200ft above the ground on the barometric altimeter, it’s therefore vitally important to have the pressure set correctly and to verify distance and altitude against the approach plate.  Category 2 is usually deciding at 100ft above ground on the radio altimeter which is a much more accurate piece of equipment to measure height, it also requires extra procedures, training, and currency (certain number of landings in a set period).  Category 3 goes right down to having the aircraft automatically land onto the runway by itself, in up to zero visibility. For auto land to be allowed the aircraft must have independent autopilot systems and an auto throttle, the Dash8 has neither of these and hence it can only land to category 2 limits.

The captain on my flight was out of currency and hence we could only land to category 1 today.  The captain was going to be making the landing and I did feel for the captain slightly because the conditions were far from ideal and the ILS at Birmingham seems to have a slight bend in it positioning you slightly off to one side at around the moment you want to decide to land or go around for category 1.  As we started our final descent into Birmingham it was actually a really nice clear evening, it was only when we became established onto the ILS at 3000ft that we could see the fog and the mist below us.  We continued descending and were handed over to Birmingham tower who informed us that the rvr and the cloud based were still 600m and 200ft, the captains finger was covering the go-around trigger more than usual, the trigger would start the chain of events that would have us leaving the runway below us like a scalded cat.

As we descended throu 1500ft the cloud and mist started to drift across the aircraft and then when we descended through 1000ft, suddenly everything was gone and all we had was the white cloud in front of us lit up by the landing lights and the intense bright flash of the white strobes on the aircraft. We were cleared to land and my heart started to beat a little bit faster, we reached our first checkpoint as the radio altimeter called out ‘five hundred’, 500ft to go until terra firma, and we could see nothing but white clouds. The 100ft above decision came next, and there was a faint glow of approach lights up ahead, then just as the decision altitude was reached, there was a break in the low cloud/fog which allowed us to see enough of the runway to continue down to land.

I have to admit, I was fully prepared to be going around and heading to Manchester.  It’s strange how the mental process change when you know your chances of not landing are high.  Once on the ground we had the battle of finding the exit off the runway and then finding the stand before having to deice the aircraft all over again and head back to Aberdeen.

Taking photos at night – Aurora borealis

•November 27, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Today I was flying back up to Aberdeen and had been checking the status of the northern lights, I knew that if it was a clear night then there was a very good chance of seeing them as I flew back up to Aberdeen on the 2030 flight from Birmingham.  Annoyingly I forgot my camera, although it would have meant dragging my SLR out with me as well as my usual stuff. My SLR has a gyro lens which helps give good stability, but the problem with taking photos at night from a plane is that to capture what the human eye sees you need a long shutter time to get enough light into the lens, even with a camera aperture capable of f2. The problem that this intern causes is that you need a dead-still camera, I thought of mounting the camera to the cockpit to keep it perfectly still, but actually all this does is make the camera vibrate at the same rate as the aircraft and so it makes things worse.  The next problem is that the ground or the scenery is constantly moving and so this will make any long shutter time give a blurred picture. So this leaves cranking up the ISO to something like 1600 which will give a grainy picture.  So really at the moment, I’m not sure I can win, there is nothing in my dslr magazines that talks about such a situation, I may have to go hunting on the forums for some ideas, it will probably involve a mega expensive lens though. 

The northern lights weren’t exactly spectacular, but they were there.  I was hoping for something more akin to that which I had seen in Sweden, but I appreciate that where I was in Sweden was a much further north and hence the effect is much more dramatic.

Winter operations

•November 22, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Aberdeen is slowly moving across to winter and we have already had the first snowfall back in October and a few times we have been de-icing early in the morning. The start of November was reasonably mild and it was only the first flight of the day that the aircraft needed de-icing; for those that do not now what happens, a truck which is filled with a mixture of hot water and deicing fluid similar to that which you would spray on your car, has a large crane on the end of it with a guy controlling a high pressure hose that fires the hot deicing fluid onto the aircraft.  It is basically blasting any traces of ice or snow or even frost off the aircraft.  It is particularly important to remove any traces from the tail, elevators and the wing because even the slightest small trace upsets the flow of air over the surfaces, reducing optimum lift and hence the ability to fly according to the way it was designed. In extreme cases aircraft have failed to climb away to a safe altitude on take off, perhaps the most famous example is the florida air crashing into the Potomac River where the wings had ice all over them and the engine instruments also iced up giving false indications to the amount of power available.

The Dash 8 which I am flying has a T-tail and these aircraft are particularly vulnerable to icing and what is known as a ‘tail stall’.  A tail stall is when there is enough disruption of air over the surface and the surface rapidly loses any lift, because it is the tail surface that has lost lift, there is a rapid pitch-down nose movement and high speed and power is required to recover from the stall.  The symptoms and the recovery are slightly different from a conventional stall, but the principles are the same, reduce the angle of attack and increase speed.

Now that the days are getting much colder and we are starting to have regular snowfall we must perform what is known as a two-step deicing procedure.  This is where the aircraft is first deiced using the hot fluid, and once this is completed the aircraft must then be coated in an anti-icing fluid which has a consistency similar to maple syrup, the anti-icing fluid prevents snow and ice from re-forming on the aircraft before it can get out of the icing conditions, eg on the ground upon which the inflight mechanical and electric deicing and anti icing systems take over.  Depending on the temperature and the type of fluids used (there is a list of about 30 fluids available), the active time of the anti icing fluid will vary from anything as high as 90 minutes to as low as 10 minutes. With the extreme low case, this means the aircraft has 10 minutes from the anti icing fluid first being applied to the aircraft rolling for takeoff, a very short time indeed and it is the reason that there are so many delays in the uk when it comes to winter operations, that and the lack of deicing rigs available, although the latter is less of a problem here in Aberdeen.  In Europe the airports are far more geared up for winter operations, in Germany and Sweden they have what looks like a giant car wash that the aircraft just drives through.  It is often located close to the runway and hence increasing the chances of being able to takeoff within the calculated time available, it is also much quicker and hence reduces delays vastly.

Having lived in Sweden for two years, one major difference that I have noticed is that once the big freeze has come, they do not bother clearing the runway any longer and instead use big machines to cut grooves into the snow and ice so that aircraft can grip the surface.  This is in stark contrast to how things work in the uk where the runway must be clean enough to eat your dinner off it, the recent example of how not to do it was with heathrow in 2011 where the airport was effectively shut for almost a week due to the lack of resources and equipment.

Unlike the jets such as A320 or 737 of the world, the Dash8 flies at a maximum altitude of 27,000ft which often means that it will remain within some form of cloud, it doesnt have the performance (or the need) to climb above all of the weather all of the time.  It is therefore far more susceptible to icing on the airframe as it will often be flying through some sort of cloud at some point in its journey.  The aircraft had many different forms of ice detection and prevention, one of them is a small spigot attached to the (almost useless) windscreen wipers.  This spigot which has been engineered to give a visual clue as to what is happening to the tail when airborne and if in icing conditions for long enough, it can form what looks like a golf ball attached to the spigot.  Obviously whatever is on the spigot is manifested on the tail of the aircraft, therefore I am quite paranoid about icing on the airframe, maybe that is because I have watched just about every air crash investigation going, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with being paranoid about a weather condition which if left unchecked, can cause a potential catastrophe.

One advantage that the Dash8 does have over jet aircraft is that the deicing and anti icing systems do not drain a huge amount of power from the engines.  With jet engine aircraft, they have hot air pumped around the wings to prevent ice and numerous electrical system to prevent icing elsewhere on the aircraft.  All of this power means that the engines must turn over at enough of a rate to power the systems, this becomes a problem when trying to descend because the engines will no longer run at idle and hence a descent must be started much further out and the approach must be much quicker. The Dash8 must still fly at an increased speed of 15kts and use full flap which makes for a rough and turbulent approach, but the speed for landing is much slower than that of a jet.

The big disadvantage of the Dash8 is that with the extra 15kts of speed it carries combined with the large flap setting makes for a nose-down attitude and this makes flaring the aircraft to land on the back whEels quite tricky.  A chunk of power must be removed and a pitch of around 1-2 degrees to let it settle onto the Tarmac without wheelbarrowing down the runway and damaging the nose landing gear.

It’s only December at the moment, but we are sure to get worse weather throughout December, January and february.  The ski slopes have started to open all of their runs so at least that means I can get the skis out and go and try enjoy some of the snow, although more often than not Scottish slopes are covered in ice.  I have brought my spiked snow tyres up for my mountain bike too to that I can continue riding in the bad weather.

Christmas is coming

•November 15, 2012 • Leave a Comment

The Christmas roster has now been released.  I requested Christmas off and said I would use my annual leave for it, but unfortunately luck was not on my side and I was fostered Christmas Eve, standby on Christmas Day, then a morning shift on Boxing Day; I couldn’t have gotten a much worse roster really, except my poor housemate Alex got 5 days of block standby over Christmas which basically means he could be absolutely anywhere, to make matters more unfair, his American girlfriend is over for the festive period.

I am going to visit my inlaws before Christmas and then allie will come back up to Aberdeen with me on Christmas Eve in time for me to do my evening shift. We will visit my parents after Christmas for a few days and then come back up to Aberdeen for the rest of December.

My friend Jeremy will be up in Aberdeen for a few days over New Year night stopping, he managed to nab a full scholarship with GAPAN and then a lucrative job with BA Cityflier the jammy git.