Saturday, October 30, 2010

Night Vision and the iPad

Flying at night in a dark cockpit with an iPad can be frustrating because the screen brightness controls are limited and difficult to access. Even at the lowest brightness setting, displaying an approach chart is pretty hard on night vision adaptation, but there is a built-in feature that can help. File this under "I should have known about this feature, but only just learned about it." (Thanks Dennis!)

Tap on Settings and select Accessibility, then set Triple-click Home to White/Black. This allows you to triple-click on the home key to toggle the display between normal and inverse.



Here's how an approach chart looks in inverse mode, which is much easier on the eyes at night.



The terminal procedures selection screen in inverse mode is also much easier on the eyes.



This is an IFR low altitude en route chart in inverse mode. It looks a bit weird at first, but it's actually quite usable.



On the other hand, VFR sectionals in inverse mode are a bit trippy.


With the night display issue pretty much solved, my next wish is to have IOS 4.2 and multitasking on the iPad in early November, though it may be closer to Thanksgiving before it's available.

Search Amazon.com for ipad

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Darn Clab, Bard Calm

Reading Matthew May's In Pursuit of Elegance got me thinking about how, try as we might to keep things simple, aviation tends to be a complicated activity. Many GA aircraft have a peculiar steam punk sort of appearance when compared to the simplicity of modern automobile designs. Perhaps the lack of progress in simplifying aviation designs has to do with the very regulations that are supposed to ensure aviation safety. Compare a non-IFR-certified handheld GPS receiver with an IFR-approved panel mount unit: The handheld units generally have simpler user interfaces while the panel mounts seem needlessly complicated. But it's not just avionics that complicate the picture. Instrument approach procedures, with the advent of RNAV, have certainly gotten more arcane. The promise of FADEC notwithstanding, GA pilots routinely fly behind aircraft engines produced with the latest manufacturing techniques, but based on designs from the 1950's that require more user input and a lot of monitoring. In the face of research that shows the human brain is not very well-suited to monitoring, pilots, instructors, and the FAA recommend procedures like checklists, flow checks, and mnemonics to help manage the workload and remember to do important stuff.

Checklists & Do Lists

Every practical test standard (PTS) publication from the FAA contains the phrase "... completes appropriate checklist ..." Not just once, but several times. Typically checklists contain a series of tasks grouped by the phase of flight - preflight inspection, engine start, taxi, before takeoff, and so on.


A checklist can be used as a "do list," where a pilot completes one item at a time, in sequence. Some instructors teach pilots to read the check list out loud in a single-pilot environment. In multi-crew environments, one pilot may read the challenge part of the task while the other pilot responds after the required action has been completed. Checklists need to be used intelligently in single-pilot operations, which is why the FAA included the following language in the Instrument Rating PTS:
The situation may be such that the use of the checklist, while accomplishing elements of an Objective, would be either unsafe or impracticable, especially in single-pilot operation. In this case, a review of the checklist after the elements have been accomplished would be appropriate. Division of attention and proper visual scanning should be considered when using a checklist.
That's good advice, though I'd change the word "should" to "must." In any event, what the FAA seems to be suggesting is that the use of a flow check or mnemonic is called for during high workload situations, after which the pilot can use their checklist to verify that they haven't forgotten anything.

Go with the Flow

A flow check is a procedure where a pilot sets aircraft controls in a particular sequence that follows the layout of the controls, thereby making the position of the controls a reminder to the pilot of what to do. The flow check may or may not group the actions to be accomplished in the same exact order as the checklist. A flow check is not foolproof because as your attention shifts to each gauge or control, you must take the appropriate action and take notice of any abnormal or emergency conditions. When using a flow check in single-pilot operations, you'd best to back it up with a real checklist when time permits.



Becoming a (Wo)Man of Letters

Mnemonics are memory devices that can help a pilot accomplish a sequence of tasks from memory when they don't have the luxury of picking up and reading a checklist. I've taught many of the common mnemonics (like CGUMPS and the five T's), even though I'm not necessarily fond of some of them. My teaching experience has shown me that to be effective, an acronym needs to be catchy and it should contain unique letters that spell out some recognizable word. While no mnemonic is perfect, correlating a series of tasks to a string of identical letters requires more mental effort. And if the same letter is used multiple times, the order of the tasks is more likely to be mixed up in the heat of the moment. Consider the following two mnemonics for an approach briefing.

M - Missed approach
A - Altimeter(s) set
R - Radios set, Nav & Com
T - Time from FAF to MAP
H - Heading on intermediate and final approach
A - Altitudes at FAF, stepdown fixes, DH or MDA

A - ATIS
A - Altimeter
A - Airspeed
A - Approach speed
A - Avionics

I've seen pilots make more mistakes with the five A's, the five C's, and the five T's. I've seen pilots unintentionally omit one of the items. Just as often they confess that they know they are forgetting something, but are only able to recall the first letter of the item.

Of course, which mnemonic works for you is up to you. Here's a mnemonic that seems to harken back to an era when smoking was more commonplace. I don't use it, but some pilots swear by it.

C - Controls, free and correct
I - Instruments, left to right, top to bottom
G - Gas set to fullest tank, auxiliary fuel pump
A - Altimeter set
R - Radios, runup completed
T - Trim(s) set for takeoff
I - Interior, doors and windows secure
P - Propeller full
S - Seatbelts, switches

Lastly, here are some memory devices I learned from Lou Fields, a Naval aviator who returned to civilian life in the late 1960's and has been an instructor and designated examiner at the Oakland Airport for as long as anyone can remember.

This is Lou's before takeoff check for an IFR departure:
D - D/G, De-ice
A - Airspeed, Attitude Indicator Altimeter
R - Radios
N - Needle & Ball

C - Clearance, charts, cockpit
L - Lights
A - Altimeter error
B - marker Beacons

And here's Lou's instrument approach checklist.
B - marker Beacons on
A - ATIS recorded
R - Radios set
D - Directional gyro checked/set

C - Clock
A - Altitude error noted
L - Landing check completed
M - Missed approach briefed

In single-pilot operations, it's obvious that mnemonics have shortcomings similar to flow checks: You best back-up a memorized list of tasks with a checklist.

Mistakes Still Happen

After a long day of flying behind glass panel aircraft, is it any wonder how some pilots might yearn to fly a taildragger made of wood and fabric, with a few simple controls and the minimum compliment of instruments? The problem is that even in a simple aircraft a pilot with good checklist discipline can still make critical mistakes. There are steps pilots can take to reduce these risks and I'll cover that in my next installment.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

MyClip for iPad



There continue to be new mounting products introduced for pilots who use the iPad as an electronic flight bag and the latest is the MyClip Thigh from TIET. The product may have an odd product name, but it's well-made and provides some unique features. Let's take a look.

Minimalist Approach

MyClip consists of a solid strap arrangement and two well-designed plastic clips. The main portions of the strap have a suede-like feel, but they have an elastic give, too.  Rather than enclose the entire iPad with a case, MyClip just clips to the edges. This minimalist approach offers several advantages and one is the MyClip is very lightweight, something near and dear to my heart.


Keep Your Cool

Another advantage is that without a case, your iPad is less likely to overheat in high ambient temperatures. I've written before about the tendency for overheating to occur with Apple's folio-style case, but if you feel a bit nervous about your iPad not having a protective case and are less worried about temperature issues, rest assured that the MyClip will work over most aftermarket iPad cases or skins.

MyClip fitted over a hard-shell iPad case

Another advantage of MyClip is that if you want to view your iPad in landscape mode, you simply attach the clips on the short edges. I personally prefer portrait mode, but it's nice to have the option.

MyClip in a landscape arrangement

Bottom Line

At $39.95, the MyClip Thigh may not be as cheap as a home-made solution, but it is well made, easy-to-install, less likely to cause overheating issues, and it works right out of the box. Check it out!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Taxi via Delta, Juliet ...

The main goal of any runway or taxiway safety initiative is simple: Prevent aircraft from running into each other whether they are taxiing, taking off, or landing. The FAA announced there were just 12 runway incursions for the 2010 fiscal year (ending in October), a 50% reduction from the previous year. The FAA's press release attributes the drop in runway incursions to new technology at airports, improved signage and markings, and improved pilot training on runway conflict scenarios. Surely all those capital improvements and increased pilot training helped reduce runway incursions, but there are low-cost improvements, too. There have also been FAA safety initiatives that may actually decrease safety as well as some widely used procedures that need to be changed.

Who's in Charge?

The dominant paradigm in aviation is to have an air traffic controller be the authority that manages conflicts, prevents collisions, and keeps the big picture. The ground controller gives instructions to pilots and flight crews and those guys and gals follow those instructions. Problems can still happen when pilots or controllers are confused or tired and make mistakes. Here's a simulation of a situation that occurred at Theodore Francis Green Airport during low visibility at night. A United flight crew makes a wrong turn while taxiing to the terminal, which takes them back to the active runway. The situation gets worse when the United crew realizes something is wrong, but twice they identify their position incorrectly to the tower controller. The tower controller loses The Flick and in the end, a US Airways crew makes a wise choice that averts disaster. (I chose this particular re-creation because it doesn't edit out the transmissions that reveal the tower controller's frustration, which I think figures prominently in this incident.)



This incident was probably the reason why Theodore Francis Green was one of thirty some airports where Airport Surface Detection Equipment, Model X (aka ASDE-X) was installed or will be installed to help  controllers keep The Flick during low-visibility situations. Pilots operating on taxiways or runways set their transponders to squawk altitude and the controller sees each aircraft's position on a color display. This is surely a welcome addition in low-visibility situations.

Where You At?

A supporting approach to the Controller is the Boss paradigm is to provide rules and a clear context to pilots and flight crews so they can prevent conflicts on their own initiative. Several years back, an experimental system was tested at the Concord airport that involved placing sensors in the taxiway pavement at hot spots - locations on the airport where history had shown pilot were likely to get confused. When an aircraft taxied onto one of the sensors, a low-powered transmitter would broadcast a recorded message of the pilot's position and the pilot received these messages through their marker beacon receiver.

Though this was a clever use of existing avionics equipment, this system was expensive to install. Pavement had to be ripped up, sensors placed, and pavement reapplied. I tried this system several times and found that it worked, but there were limits to its usefulness. A disoriented or confused pilot still had to interpret what the recording was saying, find their position on a taxiway diagram, and then get un-confused. The system was deactivated after about a year, if memory serves me.

One safety enhancement left out of the FAA's press release was an important change that became effective in June of this year: New air traffic control phraseology for issuing taxi instructions. The gist of these changes was that ground controllers were required to explicitly provide the taxiways that pilots were to use when repositioning or taxing for takeoff. Prior to this, controllers were not required to specify a taxi route and (here's the amazing part) clearance to cross any runways along the way was implied. This procedure had the advantage of requiring controllers to say less, but this always seemed like a recipe for trouble. Add to this some controllers' tendency to be ... impolite when under stress and you can have a really bad situation.

At one airport where I teach, approval was provided years ago for a large corporation to construct a hangar that blocked the line of sight between the tower and portions of two taxiways that cross a runway. So ground controllers would tell aircraft "taxi to the Old Tees via Delta, hold short of runway 15 and report holding short." Some controllers are extra careful and add "That area is not visible from the tower." After hearing this countless times, pilots taxiing in that area became accustomed to stopping at the runway and reporting to the ground controller.

There was a particular air traffic controller (long since retired) who had a widely recognized reputation for being terse and impatient (I'm being nice here). At the conclusion of a long night flight, my student requested taxi clearance from this controller, but missed what the controller actually said: "Cessna 123, taxi to the Old Tees via Delta." There was no mention of holding short at the runway. The airport was dead quiet and as we approached the usual hold short point, my student put on the brakes. Confused, he asked me "Did he tell us to hold short?"

Thinking this to be one of those teachable moments, I offered "Anytime you are in doubt, you should ask." So he reported holding short. The controller let loose with a verbal fusillade the likes of which few of us have heard on frequency. My student turned to me, his mouth was open, but no words were coming out. During the debrief, I spent much time trying to undo the damage done by the controller, explaining to my student that he had indeed acted correctly and the controller's response was both unprofessional and contrary to safety. Visibility to the area I mentioned should not be a problem once the new control tower is completed. The new tower will replace the two, separate towers and will be more centrally located (near the FedEx ramp).

Another change has been the FAA's long-anticipated adoption of the ICAO phraseology Line up and wait. The old phrase "Taxi into position and hold" was often elided to "position and hold" and could be easily confused with the phrase "hold your position." This phraseology change is certainly a step in the right direction and required no expensive equipment to be installed.

Enhanced Centerline, Runway Guard Lights

The enhanced centerline became a Part 139 standard a couple of years ago. The idea was to make a taxiway centerline change appearance as an aircraft approaches a hold short line at a runway crossing. While the motivation for this change was safety, it's my feeling that the enhanced centerline is actually visual noise. Assuming there are no other unusual surface markings nearby, the enhanced centerline may help a flight crew avoid blowing through a hold short line. In areas where taxiway edge markings and patched pavement exist, all the dashed lines can become a confusing distraction.

Can you find the Enhanced Centerline?

Flashing runway guard lights can be installed adjacent to a hold short line or they may be embedded in the pavement prior to the hold short line. When these lights are embedded in pavement, they can actually obscure the runway centerline unless lead-in lights are also installed. Lastly these lights aren't the best for preserving night vision adaptation.

Taxi My Frequency

A very hazardous procedure that is often used by ATC is having one controller at an airport running both tower and ground frequencies. While this may save money by having one person doing two jobs during off-peak hours, it a dangerous practice. With one controller listening and transmitting on two frequencies, pilots and flight crews are robbed of The Flick because they can only hear one side of the conversation. This was a contributing factor to a near collision I had while taxiing one night.

I'd called ground to taxi to parking from the fuel island and received my clearance. As I began taxiing I saw a business jet rolling out on the runway parallel to me. The jet taxied clear and I heard the controller ask the jet where they were headed, but since the jet was still on the tower frequency I didn't hear their response. I did hear the controller tell them "You can taxi either route" and my spidey senses started tingling.

Sure enough, the jet chose the route that had it headed right toward me, the controller hadn't mentioned my presence to them, and they didn't appear to see me. I turned on my strobes and poured on the coals. The jet missed hitting me by a few feet and the irony was at the time, we were the only two aircraft on the airport. I mentioned to the controller that we'd nearly had a collision to which he simply replied "Roger." Had there been a separate ground controller and had the jet been on the same frequency that I was on, everyone could have cooperated to prevent a conflict. The FAA really needs to stop this practice of one controller running multiple frequencies because, quite frankly, it's dangerous.

More Progress Needed

The drop in runway incursions is a significant achievement. The latest hi-tech and high-cost initiative is NexGen and ADS-B, which we're told will enhance safety, reduce airline delays and prevent athlete's foot. Hopefully the folks at the FAA (and their contractors) will keep in mind that along with these expensive solutions, there are still many simple, low-tech, and low-cost changes that can provide significant safety enhancements. Of course that means that pilots, controllers, and the FAA must have the will to change old habits.

Monday, October 11, 2010

How Many Engineers Does it Take?

OAK 09/200 OAK NAV VORTAC OTS TIL 1010312359

The Oakland VORTAC has been out of service for, well ... I think it was NOTAMed back in April or May of 2010. Pretty amazing when you consider this is one of the major navigation aids on the West Coast: It defines six Victor airways, six Jet airways, and numerous airports have instrument approaches, departure procedures, and arrivals that rely on it. So what is the FAA doing to the Oakland VORTAC and why is it taking so long? This isn't the entire story, just some of the pieces.

The Oakland VORTAC was missing in action for an extended period about six years ago when a range of radials had become unusable and an effort was undertaken to figure out why. Around that time the Ron Cowan Parkway had just been completed, named after the developer of the nearby Harbor Bay business and residential developments.

Sometimes called the road to nowhere, the project to build the Cowan Parkway figured in an FBI probe that started after allegations of impropriety between Mr. Cowan and then state senator Don Perata. It seems that some folk thought the road was primarily designed to increase the value of Mr. Cowan's real estate holdings at Harbor Bay at taxpayer expense, but that's a deep topic. So moving on I'll point out that the Cowan Parkway divides the Oakland Airport in half, provides alternate access to the FedEx ramp and the South Field terminal as well as an alternate route for residents of Bay Farm Island. Cyclists also benefit from bike lanes that flank the road.

Building the parkway was a big project, in part because a tunnel had to be constructed under Taxiway Bravo, the only connection for taxiing aircraft between Oakland's South Field and the North Field. In addition, airport perimeter barriers had to be adapted and new chain link fencing and razor wire installed. After investigating, it was determined that the new fences were close enough to the VORTAC that they were distorting the signals. Sections of the fencing were replaced with redwood (which you can see in the photo above), the FAA's flight check aircraft conducted various tests, there were still some radials in the Northwest quadrant deemed unusable, but the VORTAC was returned to service and life got back to normal, mostly.


Recently an initiative was undertaken to dopplerize the Oakland VORTAC to increase its accuracy and eliminate or reduce the number of unusable radials. This is the project that started in earnest last spring and after a month or so, a bunch of little mushroom-shaped antennae were seen ringing the main bowling pin antenna.

In July the flight check aircraft was testing the results. I remember one of the days because the FAA's flight check King Air made quite a stir, flying the OAK VOR RWY 9R approach when all other traffic was landing runways 29, 27 Left and 27 Right. A student I was flying with had to break off a practice approach, but I didn't mind because I assumed this meant progress was being made. Yet as the end of July approached, the NOTAM was changed to show the VORTAC returning to service at the end of September. Then I got wind of some of what was going on.

It seems that the new configuration failed the high-altitude flight check and a new effort was underway to determine why. At one point a theory was that surplus concrete debris that the airport facilities folks use to repair the numerous dikes and levees around the airport was causing the problem. The concrete chunks were piled up near the VORTAC, some of the chunks contained rebar, and the thought was this was distorting the VORTAC's signals. This isn't the first time rebar has affected aviation at Oakland: A few years ago it was discovered that both compass roses had been constructed with concrete that contained rebar, which could explain why so many compasses that were swung at Oakland seemed screwed up. The compass roses remain closed.

USD 05/081 NUQ AIRSPACE SOUTHLAND ONE DEPARTURE... NA EXCEPT FOR AIRCRAFT EQUIPPED WITH SUITABLE RNAV SYSTEM WITH GPS. OAK VORTAC OTS.

USD 05/083 LVK AIRSPACE LIVERMORE ONE DEPARTURE... PROCEDURE NA EXCEPT FOR AIRCRAFT EQUIPPED WITH SUITABLE RNAV SYSTEM WITH GPS. OAK VORTAC OTS.

USD 05/085 SFO AIRSPACE PORTE THREE DEPARTURE TAKE-OFF RUNWAYS 10L/R AND 19L/R: PROCEDURE NA EXCEPT FOR AIRCRAFT EQUIPPED WITH SUITABLE RNAV SYSTEM WITH GPS. OAK VOR OTS. 

USD 05/097 SFO AIRSPACE SHORELINE ONE DEPARTURE...
PROCEDURE NA EXCEPT FOR AIRCRAFT EQUIPPED WITH SUITABLE RNAV SYSTEM WITH GPS. OAK VORTAC OTS. 

USD 05/082 OAK AIRSPACE SKYLINE THREE DEPARTURE...
RWYS 9L, 9R, 11 NA EXCEPT FOR AIRCRAFT EQUIPPED WITH SUITABLE RNAV SYSTEM WITH GPS. OAK VORTAC OTS.

USD 05/084 OAK AIRSPACE MARINA FOUR DEPARTURE...
NA EXCEPT FOR AIRCRAFT EQUIPPED WITH SUITABLE RNAV
SYSTEM WITH GPS. OAK VORTAC OTS. 

USD 05/149 OAK AIRSPACE SALAD ONE DEPARTURE NA EXCEPT FOR AIRCRAFT EQUIPPED WITH SUITABLE RNAV SYSTEM WITH GPS. OAK VORTAC OTS.

USD 05/087 CCR AIRSPACE BUCHANAN NINE DEPARTURE PITTS TRANSITIONS: NA EXCEPT FOR AIRCRAFT EQUIPPED WITH SUITABLE RNAV SYSTEM WITH GPS. OAK VORTAC OTS.

USD 05/086 APC AIRSPACE LIZRD THREE DEPARTURE OAKLAND TRANSITIONS: NA EXCEPT FOR AIRCRAFT EQUIPPED WITH SUITABLE RNAV SYSTEM WITH GPS. OAK VORTAC OTS.

Another repercussion has been that a local freight carrier cannot use the SALAD ONE departure because many (or all?) of their aircraft are not RNAV equipped. So instead of departing runway 27L or 27R, turning East over the San Leandro Bay, and intercepting the 060˚ radial, they have to fly heading 310 until high enough to be vectored to the East. The 310 heading takes them right over residential areas of Alameda late at night and in the early morning hours.

Pilots who wish to fly the HWD LOC/DME RWY 28L approach are required to be flying aircraft equipped with a suitable RNAV system because the missed approach holding fix is (wait for it) ... the Oakland VORTAC. I got bitten by this one a couple of weeks ago when the weather into Hayward didn't clear as forecast. My student had to fly the ILS into Oakland, then we sat and waited for VFR weather so we could reposition back to nearby Hayward. Live and learn.

VORTAC with new Counterpoise
I don't know if the theory about rebar in scrap concrete interfering with the VORTAC was itself scrapped, but the latest development was an assessment that the counterpoise (the roof of the VORTAC building) was too small. An effort was undertaken to enlarge the roof, increasing its diameter by some 16 feet to a total diameter of 84 feet. It looks like this part of the project is mostly completed and the latest NOTAM claims the OAK VORTAC should be back in service by the end of October, 2010.

In 2002, the man for whom the road was named defaulted on over $43 million in loans from Lehman Brothers and the investment bank and its property management company seized much of what Cowan owned at Harbor Bay Business Park. The road itself is not heavily travelled, though it did end up reportedly costing taxpayers over $100 million. The road appears indirectly responsible for trouble faced by pilots and a noise-sensitive community. The weather is bound to get worse as winter approaches and fixing the Oakland VORTAC could go down to the wire. We'll just have to wait and see if the FAA can pull a rabbit out of their hat or if the Cowan Parkway will continue to be the gift that keeps giving.

Friday, October 08, 2010

AvCharts for iPad



It was only a matter of time before a variety of EFB apps for the iPad became available, and that time is upon us! With different apps offering a variety features and performance, there are a lot of options out there. At $2.99US, AvCharts is nicely-designed and remarkably inexpensive app for displaying terminal procedures on the iPad. You read that correctly, that's a one-time expense of $2.99US. That is a less than the price of a single Aeronav terminal procedures booklet. While AvCharts does not display VFR or IFR en route charts, it has a clean, intuitive interface. And it does do something that other chart apps don't. Let's take a look at the features.

Terminal Procedures

To access charts for an airport, ensure you have a network connection and then tap on Airports/Charts. Enter an airport ID or any portion of the airport's name  in the search field and you'll see a list of matching airports.



Tap on the desired airport and you get a list of available procedures. Note that the list is divided into two categories: Saved Charts and Online Charts.  You can display a single chart by tapping on the title of the procedure or you can download all the procedures. If you previously downloaded one or more charts, you can delete them if you so desire.



Once you select a procedure to view, you can scroll and zoom using the usual gestures. The charts are crisp and clear, even when zoomed in.



Drawing on Charts

A feature unique to AvCharts is the ability to draw and take notes on any chart. Simply tap on the pen button in the upper right edge of the screen and you can draw or write with your finger tip. This feature has some limitations, the first being that there is no erase or undo-last function. The only way to undo what you've written or drawn is to tap the pen icon a second time, which erases everything you drew or wrote.

Nevertheless, this feature is great for highlighting important or peculiar portions of an instrument approach procedure, such as a NOTAMed change in minima. Here I've noted a change in the missed approach procedure due to the Oakland VORTAC being out of service. Unfortunately, there currently isn't a way to save notations on a chart: The next time you display a chart, any previously added notes will be gone.



Limitations and Enhancements


The obvious limitation with AvCharts is that accessing and downloading (caching) charts currently has to be done airport by airport. The developer recognizes that this is a serious limitation and is working on a download-by-state feature which should make this app much more user-friendly. The ability to save notations is also in the works. The drawing feature needs some enhancements like undo, erase, and highlight. Still, at $2.99US AvCharts is a good value. As the developer continues to enhance and upgrade this app, it should become even more useful. Check it out!

Saturday, October 02, 2010

A Perfectly Imperfect Flight

After a cold and gray summer in the San Francisco Bay Area, the weather for tonight's flight is hot, so hot that record high temperatures were set today for several California cities. The goal is to complete back-to-back cross-country flights to meet commercial pilot requirements: One flight during the day, one at night, both a minimum of 2 hours with a straight-line distance of at least 100 nautical miles between departure and destination. Along the way I'll test the commercial candidate's ability to navigate with VORs, GPS, dead reckoning, and pilotage. The unstated goal, as is the case anytime pilots decide to go flying, will be to savor the joy of flight, even if the air is hot and dry.

These back-to-back cross-country flights are not new to me and I have a few possible destinations up my sleeve that will meet the distance and time requirements. For tonight, we'll fly to Harris Ranch, near Coalinga, California, at the Southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. Harris Ranch is more than 100 miles from Oakland. We can easily get there in less than 2 hours, so the solution is to give the pilot a diversion and there are many airports from which to choose. After diverting, we'll land at Harris Ranch, buy some fuel, sit in the air conditioned restaurant, have a bite to eat, if necessary we'll wait for official night to begin, and hope for a cooler two-hour return flight.

A luxury on long flights is the ample opportunity for a pilot to demonstrate their skills in a relaxed, slower paced setting. And since we'll be doing two cross-country flights with a break in between, the candidate gets a chance to integrate what he learns on the trip down and apply it on the trip back. Learning is a change in behavior ... A flight instructor candidate will be riding along in the back seat, observing, taking some photos and videos, and sharing the fun. The surface temperature at Oakland is a sizzling 34˚C, the air is still and bone dry, and it will be a thousand years until the winter rains come.

The aircraft for tonight's flight is a well-equipped, late-model G1000 Cessna 172 with a nice, accurate autopilot. That should help relieve the tedium of the long flight. We depart Oakland, turn to the East and begin a slow climb. Norcal Approach eventually clears us up to 5,500 feet and the outside air temperature gradually drops to 28˚C. That's over twenty degrees warmer than the standard temperature for this altitude, but the air flowing out the tiny cabin air vents feels surprisingly cool.

The initial route takes us over Tracy, California and then we begin some IFR flying (I Follow Roads) along Victor I-5, a major commercial freeway that runs the length of the state. It's hard to get lost following a big swath of pavement and there are several small airports along the route, just in case we unexpectedly need one.

Dead ahead is the Lemoore Military Operations Area, which brings up the first topic of discussion: Is the Lemoore MOA active? The pilot had planned a different route than what I've asked him to fly. He planned the trip primarily using IFR charts and confesses a dislike for VFR charts, but now he consults his sectional and finds the Lemoore MOA is listed as active. Just to be sure, he asks the approach controller who tells us the MOA is cold. Good to know that in the entire state of California, something is cold.

As we near Los Banos, it's time to divert and the fun begins. I take away the GPS navigational information and after drawing a course line, measuring the magnetic course and distance, estimating the time en route and fuel required, another lesson is learned: On long trips it sure helps to have a big plotter instead of one of those small, compact rulers. Flying along the new course using dead reckoning and pilotage distracts us from the heat. The winds aloft are negligible, the ride is smooth, and as the sun sinks to the horizon the Sierra Madre are bathed in a golden light.

The pilot locates and identifies various airports along the way, Madera, Fresno, Reedly. During the descent to Woodlake, California, the new destination, the temperature climbs. The Sierra foothills shimmer in the twilight and seem to be glowing from within. Peaceful orchards and farmland are slipping by underneath us, lush and green in spite of the heat. The life of a professional flight instructor is fraught with difficulties, but this view makes the trials and imperfections melt away. A little voice in my head says, "Fix these sights in your memory and they will give you solace in the future."

Gliding closer to the runway, we can see that the pavement appears freshly resurfaced. I recall landing here in a Caravan during 135 indoc training, doing a 180 and back-taxiing on the poorly surfaced runway because the parallel taxiway was even worse: A trail of broken asphalt and potholes. Back to the present, the Skyhawk seemingly hovering in the landing flare, I glance to the left and see a familiar wooden building. This unassuming structure houses something out of a time warp, the archetypal $100 hamburger restaurant straight out of a pilot's dream. I had a grilled cheese sandwich here years ago and the check airman had a cheeseburger. Alas, the restaurant is not open at this hour and after a touch and go, we depart straight-out for Harris Ranch.

My half-liter stainless steel water bottle that was filled with ice cubes and cold water is now empty. My stomach is growling and I didn't pack any snacks. The pilot neglected to bring any water at all, which spawns a quick discussion of aeromedical factors. In hot weather the body loses water fast and with low relative humidity perspiration dries so quickly you may not realize you're dehydrated until the symptoms start: Headache, dizziness, dry mouth, difficulty concentrating. Not to worry, we'll soon be ensconced in cool, air-conditioned comfort at the Harris Ranch restaurant.

On the way we briefly receive flight following from Lemoore Approach and the controller is busy talking to what I assume is a squadron of F-18 Hornets. Nothing appears on my traffic detector and I can only conclude their transponders are not turned on. Told to squawk VFR, the descent to Harris Ranch commences and the narrow, brightly lit runway comes into view next to I-5 and its endless stream of truck and automobile traffic. Turning final, something unexpected happens: The runway lights begin to flash on and off at regular intervals. We attempt to click the mic (the aviation equivalent of The Clapper), but the lights go off and stay off. We live in an imperfect world and it's time for a real-life diversion.

In the go-around there's a low-fuel annunciation, most likely due to the climb attitude combined with a somewhat low fuel quantity. We have at least an hour's worth of fuel, but a flashing yellow annunciator isn't soothing. The pilot chooses to divert to nearby New Coalinga where self-service fuel should be available. Then the sinking realization: No cold drinks, no snacks, no air-conditioned restaurant. The pilot needs water and I'm hungry. Another lesson relearned - something about Plan B ...

New Coalinga is deserted and save a few hangars, the only signs of any aviation activity whatsoever is a single Cessna, tied down on the ramp. The air is still and warm, but surprisingly, not that hot. And there's a smell in the air you'd instantly recognize if you've ever driven past Coalinga: We're downwind from a huge cattle stockyard. No matter, the fuel pump is functioning and there is a pilot's lounge/briefing room in a mobile-home style building just beyond the fence. A dog is barking somewhere in the darkness that has settled on the airport and then a light comes on.

The airport manager lives in the other half of the mobile home. He appears, dressed for the weather, barefoot, wearing jeans and sans t-shirt. I apologize if we've disturbed his evening. He says it's fine, turns on the lights for us and shows us what's available. There's no food to be had, but there is a vending machine with cold soft drinks. The CFI candidate riding along takes some pictures and the sounds his digital camera makes are all we hear.

I bring up FltPlan on my iPhone, locate Harris Ranch and give them a call. I get the hotel receptionist and describe the problem with the runway lights. I'm not sure the receptionist understands the nuances of runway lighting, but she assures me they'll look into it.

After departing, I ask the pilot to head toward Madera, he programs the GPS and contacts Lemoore Approach. We get flight following through the MOA, which seems to be active and the runway lights at Harris Ranch are working again. The controller is still talking to a bunch of Hornets, but we can only hear one side of the conversation since we're using a VHF transceiver and the F-18s are using high frequency transceivers. We see some flashing red beacons, but my traffic detector insists we're all alone.

When I was a kid and we were reaching the end of a road trip, I recall how a peculiar silence would engulf the car and make every small rattle, click, or bump in the road seem significant. That same feeling overtakes me as we cross over Tracy and turn toward San Francisco Bay. The pilot elects to fly a practice ILS approach and while Oakland's North Field is quiet, the South Field is humming with activity. A single tower controller is working all the frequencies for the entire airport: Tower, Ground, and Clearance Delivery. Whatever gets you through the night ...

The North Field is eerily quiet and the temperature is actually warmer here than it was at New Coalinga. With the plane back in the hangar, we're back to business cleaning all the leading edges and the windshield. A cynical Larry Summers famously claimed "In the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rental car." The same cannot be said of rental aircraft and Mr. Summers would get some serious remedial training if he were ever to fly with me. After a quick debrief and signing of the logbook, this evening's two cross-country flights are in the books.

Flying focuses our minds, offer tangible goals, tests physical and intellectual skills. Yet while we're focused on our flying performance, we're also taking in sights and sensations that only a flying animal can know and appreciate. The next time you go flying, bring a friend or a loved one, and drink in the world from above. May the joys you experience stay fixed in your mind and provide comfort as you make your way through this perfectly imperfect world.