Category Archives: Industry News & Commentary

The little airlift and its precious cargo

You’ve heard about the Berlin Airlift, the mammoth air freight service that sustained the citizens of West Berlin through a Cold War blockade in 1948-49. This is the story of the Brantford airlift, a considerably more modest, but nevertheless remarkable, logistical undertaking that shepherds precious cargo — 50 to 60 Ontario special needs kids — to and from their schools and homes every weekend.

Bearskin Metroliner

Aircraft lined up on the Brantford ramp, awaiting their cargo of children for transport. Note the sign in the foreground, indicating route of that particular aircraft.

It begins, like clockwork, each and every Friday, when four Bearskin Airlines Fairchild Metroliners shoot the approach for 05/23 at Brantford Municipal Airport (CYFD) and touch down around noon. The airplanes are promptly met by YFD staff, marshalled into a smart line on the ramp, serviced and fuelled. While their pilots talk shop and nosh a quick bite at the airport’s restaurant, the children begin to arrive.

The children hail from all over the province and are the raison d’etre of the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Provincial Schools Branch: eight boarding schools set up around the province whose mandate is to educate students who are either deaf, blind or who have learning disabilities. It’s more cost effective for the province to fly students to and from centralized schools than to build schools in each community. Hence the airlift.

Brantford happens to be home to one of those schools — the W. Ross Macdonald School for students who are visually impaired, blind and deafblind. Brantford airport is the conduit allowing its students to get to class and maintain contact with their families.

Mark Culshaw, general manager of the Brantford Municipal Airport.

Mark Culshaw, general manager of the Brantford Municipal Airport.

“It’s a remarkable program and we’re delighted to play a part,” says airport general manager Mark Culshaw. “A lot of people know about the Ross Mcdonald school, but they may not know how aviation fits into what it does”.

The logistics of the program are managed and coordinated by Skyservice, the charter airline and aircraft management company. Skyservice, which has one employee dedicated full time to the program, subcontracts the actual flying to Bearskin, whose Metroliners criss-cross Ontario with scheduled service each day.

(bearing360.ca contacted Skyservice for comment but they stated that terms of their contract with the province prevent them from speaking about it; the Ministry of Education also declined comment).

The children arrive with guides and they and two Brantford airport staffers help ensure the proper kids get on the right aircraft. Each Metroliner (pressurized turboprops that seat up to 19), has a unique routing depending on the children involved each school term. Generally, one aircraft goes to Ottawa, one to Pembroke-North Bay-Timmins, one to Sudbury and a fourth goes to Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay. The Ottawa flight picks passengers up in Ottawa, flies them into Pearson (CYYZ), where they connect to an Air Canada Jazz flight to Windsor.

On Sunday evening, the Metroliners once again spool up their engines, take to the sky, and the process is reversed as the kids travel from their homes back to their respective schools.

Brantford is something of hub for the program, with kids transferring to and from different aircraft.

“We do everything we can to ensure it all goes as smoothly as possible,” Culshaw says.

The program, says Culshaw, is one of the airport’s most important, generating economic activity in the form of landing fees, fuel and services worth $55,000 per year.

But it’s the frequent fliers carried by those Bearskin airplanes that fills Culshaw and his staff with a sense of mission and accomplishment.

“We’re helping kids, getting them home for the weekend to be with their families,” he says. “What could be better than that?”

 

 

Is debacle too strong a word for the 787? Perhaps not

Well I certainly didn’t anticipate writing about Boeing’s 787 problems two days in a row but it’s impossible not to do so in the wake of the eye-popping developments last night.

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All Nippon Airways Boeing 787 with its evacuation slides deployed after an emergency landing in Japan.

For those who haven’t yet heard, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines yesterday grounded their 787 Dreamliner fleets — collectively 24 aircraft in all and nearly half of all 787 deliveries made so far — in the wake of an emergency landing by an ANA flight at Takamatsu airport in western Japan.

ANA said the aircraft’s pilots received a cockpit message indicating battery problems. A burning smell was additionally detected in the cockpit and cabin. All 129 passengers and eight crew members evacuated safely using the emergency slides.

The episode comes in the wake of a decision last Friday by the FAA to conduct a review of the airliner and its certification after a litany of problems, many of them related to the lithium-ion battery technology the aircraft. Here’s a link to a comprehensive list of recent snags from Britain’s Telegraph newspaper.

Boeing last night tweeted this response: “We’re aware of the ANA 787 diversion in Japan. We will be working with ANA and the authorities to determine what happened and why.”

That the batteries once again appear to have caused a problem is striking. As I wrote in yesterday’s post, the airplane makes use of battery technology in place of hydraulics as a weight-saving measure (the weight saving is one of the reasons the airplane is said to be 20 per cent more fuel efficient than other aircraft of its size). I came across a tweet today from Stephen Trimble (@FG_STrim), an aviation reporter and editor at flightglobal.com, who says a 787 lithium battery caught fire in 2006 and — ehem — burned down an office building.

By the way, here’s a picture, in a story written by Stephen Trimble, released by the NTSB in the U.S., showing the charred battery box from an incident last week involving a JAL flight at Boston’s Logan Airport. Clearly the battery was on fire.

I received training on extinguishing Lithium-ion battery fires when I was a flight attendant. They’re commonly used as a power source for laptop computers and cell phones. When a li-ion battery has what’s called a thermal runaway and overheats, the result is nasty. And cell phone batteries have had precisely these kinds of runaways on aircraft before. In fact there was one in 2011 in Australia. Temperatures can go as high as 1,110 F. The important first response is to cool the battery using water.

More from twitter: Josh Newman (@joshuan542), who is studying to be an AME in the UK, sent me a message pointing out that ANA and JAL use the same maintenance company. Worth noting, given the majority of the 787 problems have come from those two airlines. That said, those two airlines also have more of the aircraft than any other operator thus far.

By the way, Air Canada has ordered 37 787s so far. Here’s a link to a list of 787 customers.

No one at this point would be surprised if the entire 787 fleet was grounded until the FAA completes its review. Increasingly, it would appear the FAA made a prudent decision last week and it’s important for Boeing to respond as openly and transparently as possible and not simply assert the airplane is safe. Clearly it’s not quite.

The reason Boeing’s 787 needs a formal review

imagesSo I went back and forth all weekend trying to make my mind up about whether or not this Boeing 787 tempest was worth some discussion or no.

For those who missed it, the FAA on Friday announced it was going to conduct “a comprehensive review” of the Boeing 787 systems and a “sweeping evaluation of the way Boeing designs, manufactures and assembles the aircraft.”

In aviation circles, this is a big deal, and something that doesn’t happen very often. It illustrates just how many problems have emerged with the new airplane recently; as of Friday, Reuters said there had been approximately 10 events in the span of six weeks. The list from last week, which I’ve more-or-less cut-and-pasted from two L.A. Times stories and a story from the New York Times, looked like this:

  • A smoldering battery fire related to the auxiliary power unit, discovered Dec. 7 on the underbelly of a 787 operated by Japan Airlines.
  • On the same day, a United Airlines Dreamliner flight from Houston to Newark, N.J., was diverted to New Orleans after an electrical problem emerged mid-flight. Qatar Airways, which had accepted delivery of a Dreamliner a month earlier, grounded the aircraft for the same problem that United experienced.
  • Last Friday a crack on the cockpit windscreen on an All Nippon Airways 787 was discovered. The plane landed safety but its return trip to Tokyo was canceled.
  • On the same day, oil was discovered leaking from an engine on another All Nippon Airways 787.
  • Last Wednesday, All Nippon cancelled a 787 flight after a computer mistakenly showed problems with the aircraft’s brakes.
  • Last Tuesday, a fuel leak forced a 787 operated by Japan Airlines to return to its gate minutes before taking off from Boston.

Quite the list, no doubt. But by Sunday night I finally decided it wasn’t worth adding my two cents. My thinking was this: Teething problems on a new airplane are not new, particularly on one which has introduced, as the 787 has, so many new technologies. I read remarks from Boeing engineers who said the 747 went through the same sort of process when it was introduced, and thought to myself, OK, they’ll sort it out, and the FAA review is just good safety management.

And then yesterday, Monday, yet another problem emerged on a Japan Airlines 787: An inspection Sunday revealed that the same 787 which leaked fuel in Boston more than a week ago had spilled another 100 litres of Jet A at Narita Airport outside of Tokyo.

That event snapped me awake and made me decide something important was at stake and needs discussion, and I’m not talking about last week’s problems or the FAA review, per se.

In my time as a journalist and just a guy following current events, I’ve come across countless examples of accidents or near-accidents unfolding from organizations that once considered themselves bullet-proof.

The episodes that immediately came to mind were the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters. They shared a common thread: Arrogance, indifference, procedural creep.

Boeing has had a pretty good ride of late. It’s order sheet is fat. It’s building airplanes as fast as it can, airplanes that are considered state of the art. The Dreamliner, as it’s known, has introduced lightweight carbon-fibre construction and replaced much of an aircraft’s traditional hydraulically actuated systems with electrical systems using lithium-ion batteries. The ensuing weight reduction has generated 20% fuel savings compared to an older airplane seating as many people (210 to 290, depending on configuration). It’s an enormous technological leap and understandably, airlines, many of them struggling financially, are lining up to buy them.

And you know what? That’s precisely when you put the brakes on and have a good look-see.

Nobody would (yet) suggest Boeing doesn’t manufacture a fine product or that the Dreamliner isn’t a remarkable airplane. They do and it is.

But it could very well be that a company going hell-bent-for-leather, one under pressure to get aircraft out the door (the first aircraft was delivered in September of 2011, more than three years late, and then production went into high gear and last year the company built 46) misses something. Or that the FAA, during the “unprecedented” certification process,  misses something. People and processes aren’t perfect, as aviation has proven again and again and again.

There was a terrific quote posted online by Time magazine on Jan. 11:

“'[Boeing] may have gone too far, too fast in building 46 planes,’ says Richard Aboulafia, vice president of Teal Group, an aerospace and defense industry market analysis firm. ‘You need the proper cadence, that proper manufacturing rhythm.’ Boeing is clearly a sophisticated and experienced producer, but going from zero to 46 with this much innovation is just inviting glitches, says Aboulafia.”

So why not have another look? For silly. Yes, it will cost Boeing and the FAA some money. And why not think of that as an investment rather than a cost? After all, if one of those airplanes has a serious safety episode, one that results in the loss of life, the cost, in human and financial terms, will make the review ordered last Friday by the FAA look like so much pocket change.

Hauling air cargo, untapping potential, in the Hammer

Hamilton_InternationalFascinating news out of Hamilton yesterday. John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport (CYHM) announced funding for construction of a new $12-million, 60,000-square foot, cargo terminal. The federal and provincial governments are going to chip in $8 million and Tradeport International, which manages the airport via contract for the city, will add $4 million.

It’s an interesting step from an infrastructure point of view and might help generate enough critical mass for the airport to grow and perhaps one day meet its potential.

See, YHM is a strange, woefully underused, beast. It’s an enormous facility. It has a long, 10,000-foot runway (12/30) capable of handling virtually anything in the air and a decent 6,000-foot secondary east-west runway, which was slated for expansion to 9,000 feet some time between 2015 to 2019 (am uncertain if that’s still in the works).

While serving as the site of the modern-looking Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum (see yesterday’s post), some of the hangers have a forlorn, although endearing, vibe about them, harkening back to the days when it was part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan during the Second World War. In fact, it was constructed in 1940 to be part of the BCATP.

The airport captures a lot of traffic from nearby Lester B. Pearson (CYYZ) because, unlike Pearson, YHM doesn’t have a curfew. While this is a source of frustration for nearby residents, it’s allowed the airport to set itself up as a niche cargo facility. Cargojet, Purolator, UPS, DHL and SkyLink and Kelowna Flightcraft all run cargo out of the facility in part because they can’t get into Pearson between 12:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. without paying exorbitant fees.

(By the by, Toronto sports teams use the facility, as well, for the same reason: Their post-game charters are often arriving late and landing at Hamilton saves having to pay the curfew penalty.)

imagesGiven the amount of cargo moved in and out — 430,000 kilos in 2011 and cargo growth in each of the past five years — it makes sense to play to the airport’s strength. No doubt the new facility, which will enable the airport to handle refrigerated goods and efficiently move trucks in and out of courier facilities, will generate more cargo air traffic. Construction is expected to begin later this year finish by mid-2014.

Certainly YHM could use the shot in the arm. Given its size, and considering the population nearby, the airport is desperately underutilized. According to StatsCan, Hamilton ranked 39th in Canada last year in aircraft movements.

While cargo operators like it, passenger operators have come and, mostly, gone, despite being designated an Airport of Entry, with customs and immigration officials on site. Consider that YHM handled 332,000 passengers in 2011. Pearson handled 33.4 million.

Part of the blame, I’d suggest, rests with the airport itself, which has long favoured cargo over passenger service. It’s telling, for instance, that Tradeport was willing to pony up for yesterday’s  cargo facility expansion but hasn’t yet built covered ramps, or jetways, for the passenger terminal. Passengers are still forced to use stairs to board and deplane, which isn’t adequate in a country with our climate and hardly provides incentive for a passenger operator to set up shop.

Still, even without the jetways, the airport is extremely user-friendly, and I know this first hand, having worked their for six months as a WestJet customer-service agent. Passengers love flying out of Hamilton. Parking is abundant and cheap. Traffic is rarely an issue. Check-in is quick, simple and efficient.

Passenger service briefly enjoyed a renaissance in 2000 when WestJet made it their eastern Canadian hub. In 2004, however, the airline moved the majority of its operation to Pearson, leaving just a few flights out of Hamilton. The airline still owns a hangar and offices at the airport and has been trying to sell them, so far unsuccessfully.

(An aside: I can’t help but wonder if that hangar wouldn’t be the perfect place to maintain WestJet’s Q400s once its Encore regional airline, due to commence operation in mid-2013, sets up shop in eastern Canada.)

Flyglobespan flew overseas out of Hamilton for a few years, but stopped in 2009 after it went bankrupt.

Playing in the background of yesterday’s announcement is a desire by the City of Hamilton to turn the airport’s vast surrounding farmland into something of a business park, leveraging the economic activity generated by the airport itself. The city plan, entitled Airport Employment Growth District (AEGD) is facing stiff public opposition, is being appealed and is now before the Ontario Municipal Board.

No doubt the city’s hope is that expanded cargo traffic will help justify the business park, which has been dubbed aerotropolis.

I confess I have a soft spot for the airport (I will forever remember shooting the ILS 12 approach there when I did my IFR ride) and the Hamilton area (I was born in Hamilton and much of my family still lives there) and would like to see it thrive. Given the need for a second major airport to serve the Greater Toronto area, and given the immense resistance to construction of such a facility in Pickering, I can’t help but wonder why Hamilton isn’t touted as the obvious solution: Its excellent, underused, infrastructure already exists.

Perhaps the cargo facility will be a step toward that eventuality one day arriving.

Museum pieces that fly

High time, pun intended, that bearing360 introduce a few more aircraft to the site and what better way to do so than with a visit to the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum?

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CF 104 Starfighter at entrance to museum.

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DC3

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Hawker Hurricane

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Avro Lancaster, undergoing engine work.

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Avro Canada CF100 Mk 5D

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Cockpit of the CF100. Tight fit.

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Bristol Bolingbroke, undergoing restoration. Note the perspex indent on the nose to provide better visibility for the pilot.

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Restored Bolingbroke mid-upper gun turret with twin Browning .303 machine guns.

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The museum is located at the John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport (CYHM) and is about an hour’s drive from my home. It’s one of my favourite aviation stops. I dropped in with my kids last weekend.

(Hamilton, I should add, is my birthplace and home for five generations of my family. Six if you include two of my kids, who were also born there. More about Hamilton and its airport in a future post.)

The museum. It’s notable not only because it has a remarkable collection of vintage aircraft — likely the best collection in the nation outside of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa — but is unique insofar as most of the aircraft, including an Avro Lancaster bomber, are in flyable condition. In fact, you can book a ride in many of the aircraft, including the Lancaster, DC3, and B25 Mitchell bomber; before I leave this mortal coil, I must ride in that Lancaster, which is one of only two remaining in the world that still fly. Getting married? The museum hosts wedding receptions and meetings on its hanger floor (and yes, I was tempted when I got hitched; the Mrs. wasn’t quite as enthused).

Among the museum highlights : a walk-through of life as a Lancaster crew member during the Second World War and a North American Yale aircraft, which played a role in the (mostly regrettable) 1942 Hollywood film, Captains of the Clouds, starring James Cagney.

The museum is also dedicated to aircraft restoration. It has three projects on the go, including a Bristol Bolingbroke medium bomber, a Canadian variant of the Bristol Blenheim Mk IV bomber. The Bolly, as it was known, was built and used exclusively in Canada for anti-submarine patrol on both coasts during the Second World War and as a training platform under the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. It’s distinctive nose has an indented cutout in the perspex covering the bomb aimer compartment in order to provide better visibility to the pilot. I spoke last weekend with one of the gentlemen busy with the restoration and was told it should be complete three years hence.