#WeAreNAVCANADA

August 29, 2019

Onboard the NAV CANADA Dash 8 for its final flight inspection

In April of 2019, the NAV CANADA Dash 8-100 Flight Inspection Aircraft took off for its final mission. With a takeoff in Iqaluit, a fuel stop in La Grande Rivière and final destination of Ottawa, planespotters took to social media to take part in the celebration of this final operational flight. 

A work-horse that has served three solid decades calibrating navigation aids and surveillance systems at various airports across Canada, the Dash 8 was one of three planes in the flight inspection fleet which also includes two CRJ200s. The Dash 8 is being decommissioned due in part to the reduction in fleet flight hours. It’s been performing flight inspections since 1986, first with Transport Canada and then with NAV CANADA and has 20,500 hours under its wings.

Heather Bell of NAV CANADA’s Communications and Public Affairs group was fortunate to ride along on NAV CANADA’s Dash 8 during the aircraft’s final trips as a member of our fleet while its flight crew performed inspections in northern Quebec and Baffin Island. What follows is her firsthand account of the complex work of our Flight Operations team.

Not an hour went by that our plans for the day – and the entire trip – weren’t reimagined, requiring constant coordination between the flight crew and the planning and dispatch team that support them.

A sample of the factors that affected our best-laid plans: daylight; fuel capacity; visibility; wait times for nitrogen carts, generators and de-icing; the temperature of flight inspection electronics on the plane; sold-out destinations with no hotel rooms to spare; and ground support availability. (Never mind the 40 sets of donated hockey gear in the back of the plane, whose delivery to two northern communities we needed to coordinate.)

Flight inspection trips like these, called profiles, are performed by NAV CANADA aircraft and crew, giving us confidence in the accuracy of our navigational aids and the procedures we publish. Scheduling and conducting over 100 trips each year is a complex process. The flying is specialized and technical, with the plane warning systems sometimes shouting things like ‘BANK ANGLE’, performed professionally by experienced pilots.

There are also long hours of monotonous flying between work areas. Members of the flight crew are adaptable, spending over 50 nights per year on the road, often in remote locations. For a ride along, the experience was fascinating and exciting.

EXPECTATIONS

Monday morning, we left Ottawa expecting to reach Greenland, but ended the day in Kuujjuaq. Leaving the next morning with all of our luggage, we hoped to spend the night in Iqaluit—but again returned to Kuujjuaq. Taking off on Wednesday, we were confident enough in our return that one crew member left a sweater in the hotel. Naturally, we spent that night in Iqaluit. All these changes were due to a variety of logistical considerations. Such is life on a flight inspection trip.

A small divergence, on dining recommendations for Kuujjuaq (and perhaps flight inspections in general): as a flight crew of four, plus a ride-along, relying on the only restaurant in town for seven consecutive meals, we explored and exhausted the menu. If you find yourself at the Auberge Kuujjuaq, a medium pizza – which was excellent – will do for one dinner and two days’ worth of lunches.

Having frequented Kuujjuaq often, the rest of the crew already knew this. Flight inspection days can be long and unpredictable; being able to heat up a slice of pizza in the small-but-mighty galley oven is a nice thing to count on. (If you forget your pizza, the overhead bins are filled with granola bars, cookies and — interestingly — several varieties of milk.)

What I learned throughout the week was that very little ruffles the feathers of the pilots, technical flight inspectors, and engineers on board, as well as the team that supports them from afar.

THE WORK

Flight checks of our 120 Instrument Landing Systems are conducted twice a year. A comprehensive annual check takes place in the summer, and a routine check, which is shorter, is conducted in the winter. There are also nonroutine checks of ILS to restore service after an outage, which take priority over regular maintenance.

Photo: Brian Tattuinee

Each of our 135 very high frequency omnidirectional ranges (VORs) is checked every nine months. Modifications to newly designed approaches, departures and arrivals are flown to ensure correct design, waypoint coding and terrain clearance for conventional procedures and satellite navigation-based procedures, all prior to them being published in the Canadian Air Pilot manuals.

During these inspections obstacles such as communication towers, cables and trees are assessed on a map to ensure they correspond to those used during the procedure design stage.

Specialized inspections are also performed to assist other stakeholders, such as ADS-B signal coverage for Aireon, or during the commissioning of Multilateration (MLAT), RADAR, VHF direction-finding service (VDF) or Non Directional Beacon (NDB) systems.

During navigational aid inspection, an array of antennas on the plane receives information from the aids. The technical flight inspector, sitting at a specialized console within the stripped-down aircraft, monitors the system, letting the pilots know if the right information has been collected, or if a run needs to be repeated.

When inspection runs show that an aid is not within tolerance boundaries, adjustments can be made by CNS technologists on the ground and verified with more runs. If an inspection cannot be performed within the period regulated by ICAO, or if the aid cannot be brought within tolerance, a NOTAM or waiver will need to be issued.

No, my toddler did not attack my tablet with a crayon in the photo above — those are flight inspection tracks during ILS testing in Iqaluit.

Inspections for an ILS usually involve low-level passes above a runway centreline, followed by steep climbing turns, as well as large arc across the localizer. Each run checks part of the ILS system, from the on-course guidance signal along the extended runway centreline to the corners of the radiated signals.

Testing a VOR involves flying a large circumference at a specific altitude, and then its published radials. The day we inspected the VOR in Val d’Or, this meant flying for long periods of time in cloud, with ice accumulating on the props. Pilots Pascal and Sylvain repeatedly de-iced the props by varying the speed of the engines, sending sheets of ice flying off.

DONATING HOCKEY GEAR

The reason I was on the trip was to help coordinate the delivery of 40 sets of hockey equipment to Iqaluit and Pangnirtung: skates, heaps of gloves, pants, elbow pads and chest protectors, goalie gear and 18 brand new helmets. This is part of a great partnership with Canadian Tire stores (where people can drop off used gear), the Ottawa Senators (who organize and store the gear, and provide brand new helmets, sticks, and bags), and NAV CANADA — working together to make a difference for communities in need.

The kids in Pangnirtung were very excited about the hockey gear, the plane, the pilots on the plane, and some of the snacks we had on the plane. It was an incredible experience for everyone on board; we were all moved by their enthusiasm and joy.

A MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE

I’m grateful to NAV CANADA’s Flight Operations crew – the pilots, flight engineers, technical flight inspectors, and the team that supports them – for giving me some insight into their world. I take away from this experience an appreciation for how unique and challenging it is and how much of a team-effort it involves. I debarked from the trip inspired by the professionalism of everyone involved.

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