Friday 28 August 2009, 14:26
Pitot tubes. Until recently I had never heard of them. But as we headed from Calgary to Toronto on an Airbus I wondered if they were icing up as the outside temperature hit minus 40 - that low, C or F is the same.
Iced up pitot tubes feeding the wrong information to the onboard computer are the leading explanation for why the Airbus A330 on flight AF447 plunged into the Atlantic between Rio de Janeiro and Paris on 1 June. The false readings confused the computer which mishandled the plane and passed control to the humans. They could not save the aircraft so close to its tolerances in turbulent storms above the Equator. Airbus has now advised upgrading all pitot tubes even though it insists there was nothing wrong with them.
Until then I had taken comfort from the fact that modern jetliners are flown by computer. Even the pilots admit it. Two weeks earlier as we approached Toronto from London the First Officer talked us through the weather and the time at our destination, then added 'we will shortly begin our descent into Toronto in about, ooh, five minutes the computer says.' Relax, First Officer, we'll be down before the Captain has finished his Sudoku.
So I kept a look out for ice on the sharp bits of our Airbus 320-1 as we sped away from Canada's West.
Ah the West! We had said goodbye to the Rockies the day before, driving East on the trans-Canada Highway (two lanes and warnings of elk crossing though we saw none). We over-nighted in Calgary, a city of a million folk and, gosh, a hundred years old or more. It turned out to be a weird place with little to see - and less on Mondays as the Art Gallery is closed. But we stumbled upon a secret none of the guidebooks mentions. Calgary has the best restaurants and bars in Canada. We had struggled to find either so far. But Calgary's 8th Ave SW has a string of them.
Lunch was an Atlantic burger (a wonderful Canadian invention for us semi-veggies which wraps a bap round a North Atlantic salmon fillet) with chips to die for and a light Caesar salad in the Trib Steakhouse. The local house wine, carefully measured in ounces and served in very large glasses, was fruity and rich.
Then to the museum which filled half the afternoon. Not least because the official panels explaining the exhibits, which took us back through a hundred years of the West, were paralleled with alternatives from the point of view of the Aboriginal peoples (as the First Nations or Native Americans now want to be known). Reading them thoroughly was my expiation as a visitor from the nation which had stolen their country.
A short walk to the Bow River, the rapids and canyons we had marvelled at in the West now calmed into a placid highway for timber. Then two beers at the Barley Mill Eatery and Pub, converted from the Calgary Water Power Mill and the wooden office of the Eau Claire and Bow River Lumber Company. More walking and then the search for dinner took us back to 8th Ave SW where we happened on the Mango Shiva. The food was perhaps the best Indian food we had ever eaten and the thin, crisp, buttery Nan bread certainly so.
Why, I asked our server Sharyse, were there so many good bars and restaurants in Calgary? A pause. 'Our demographic is, well, we have a lot of drinkers.' Her voice went up at the end in the rising inflection that nowadays adds emphasis to a statement. And it sits on huge oil and gas reserves. 'It's a very wealthy Province' she added.
The flight from Calgary to Toronto was the day before the flight from Toronto back to London and counted as the journey home. So my thoughts were allowed at last to turn away from waterfalls and glaciers and lakes and mountains and the complete absence of bears to money and the day job. There was plenty of time. What was scheduled to be a three and a half hour flight began with nearly half that rolling round the tarmac at Calgary airport. Problems with the cabin lighting would have left the toilets dark and several soft resets by the crew failed to cure the problem. We went back to the pier and took on a maintenance engineer whose orange jacket brought the lights back to life.
The young man next to me with blond hair, frayed jeans and walking boots, who was already so late he would miss his connecting flight, cheered himself up by reading the death notices in the Calgary Herald. I spent the time absorbing the business sections of the newspapers and magazines. In the press there was a long debate over whether the regulation of financial services should be principles-based (treat customers fairly) or rules-based (do this, don't do that).
Canada is moving to the former just as the UK is moving away from it to the latter. A Ponzi fraud was revealed, smaller than Madoff (of course) but just as devastating for its hundred or so victims. Controversy raged over the disposal of the bankrupt telecoms company Nortel and who bid what for it, when and to whom.
Half way through the flight the near-bankrupt Air Canada, which charged a hefty fare for the flight, now made us pay again for less-edible-than-usual cold snacks. No-frills service at flag carrier prices. It could be a slogan.
I moved on to pages about the Canadian pension crisis. Salary-related schemes closing, some being dumped (with no protection scheme in place) and Canadians being accused of spending too much and saving too little for too long. I could have been home already. That was followed by an analysis of why fund managers in the large public sector schemes had made such big losses on the hundreds of billions of Canadian dollars entrusted to them. The three largest lost 19% or C$72 billion off their C$385 billion assets in the last year because their active managers prefer to put the money at risk in shares rather than keep it in safer bonds.Defending this approach Jim Leech, the CEO of the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan which lost C$20 billion, said 'The fact of the matter is we have to take on risk to meet our pension promise.' Oh Jim! If taking a risk guaranteed those extra returns you need so badly it wouldn't be a risk would it? The risk is you may lose another C$20 billion. Perhaps Toronto teacher Kelly Alles should be put in charge. 'A high return is great' she told Canadian Business 'but when it comes right down to it I'd rather have a guaranteed lower return'.
And before I knew it we were landing at Toronto. Another journey survived. Only six more hours on the flight to London to watch out for ice on those pitot tubes.
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