Last month, I made my first general aviation trip to Canada, as copilot of a Pilatus PC-12. Our mission: to deliver six hunters, equipped with rifles (and in one case, a hunting bow) and ammunition, to Lloydminster (CYLL), in the Canadian province of Alberta, for two and a half days of hunting, and bring them—and a couple of coolers full of meat—home on a return flight a couple of days later.
I was along for two reasons. While the PC-12 is certificated for single-pilot operation, the pilot, Larry Askew (a good friend who has been my preferred flight instructor for many years), prefers to have help on really long flights—and while he has well over 10 times the hours in my logbook, until this trip, he had never flown outside the United States. I've done quite a few international flights, though until this trip, all were volunteer medical missions to Mexico.
Crossing The Border
Preparation for the flight began several months ago. The main preflight issues for international operations are documentation, insurance, Customs notification, filing the required international border-crossing flight plan and charts. Documentation includes a current U.S. pilot license and medical, passports (for the pilot and all passengers), airworthiness certificate and permanent aircraft registration (don't even think of trying this with a temporary "pink slip"!). Technically, you're also supposed to have an FCC aircraft radio station license and radiotelephone operator's permit, though I've never been asked for those. If the airplane isn't in your name, you also need a letter (preferably notarized) from the owner authorizing you to pilot the airplane internationally. Insurance requirements vary depending on what country you're flying into. Depending on whether you're making a one-shot trip or flying regularly, it may make sense to have international coverage included in your policy or buy temporary additional coverage. Call whomever you get your U.S. coverage from, and they can probably arrange it for you.
Customs notification has gotten more complicated over the past few years—it used to be enough to put "ADCUS" for "advise Customs" in the remarks section of your flight plan, but those days are gone. All international flights departing from (or arriving to) the U.S. are now required to use the U.S. Customs Electronic Advance Passenger Information System (eAPIS), which you can access directly or through a third-party provider. For my flights to Mexico, I've had the benefit of a web-based interface put together by some bright volunteers at Liga International ("The Flying Doctors of Mercy"). For our flight to Canada, Larry spent the time to come up to speed on e-APIS itself. Once you get through the registration process (during which you'll enter identifying information for yourself and your aircraft), you'll need to create a passenger manifest—the full name, birth date and passport number of each person on your flight. Once all the data is entered, you can save a manifest so you don't have to re-enter all the details for multiple flights carrying the same people. One warning: eAPIS is complex, and it's important to make sure that the data you enter is complete and correct. While Customs usually won't impose a penalty in case of an honest mistake, carelessness can cause delays, and deliberately entering false information is punishable by a substantial fine.
You might think that after jumping through all the eAPIS hoops, you can assume that Customs is notified for your port of entry on your return to the U.S. Not so! It's your responsibility to contact Customs—usually by phone—and assure they'll be available to meet your flight. While Customs service is generally available during normal business hours at most ports of entry, it's not safe to assume that, so call ahead. Larry did on our trip, and it paid off in a big way, as I'll explain later on.
A long day's flying brings several hundred pounds of Canadian game to Modesto, Calif.
It's also necessary to notify Customs for the country you're flying to. That's something I've never had to worry about when arriving in Mexico, where (at least for medical mission flights) it's handled on arrival, but for Canada, we were required to contact Customs by telephone before departure. On this trip, we had an additional complication, since the passengers were taking firearms over the border. Fortunately, they already had the required documentation.
An international flight plan must be filed, which can be IFR or Defense VFR (DVFR). Either way, it's now required to use the complicated International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) flight plan form. While it's possible to do this electronically using DUATS, in my personal opinion, this is one time that you're better off using the phone—call flight service, and have them prompt you for an international flight plan. Some elements of the ICAO form are more than a little confusing (the section on survival equipment, for example, expects you to check off all equipment that you don't have). A flight service specialist can handle this for you and minimize the risk of making a mistake.
In flight planning, you must make your first landing at a designated port of entry in the country you're planning to visit—and on your return, your first landing must be at a U.S. port of entry. For our outbound flight, we planned to land at Saskatoon (CYXE). Our inbound port of entry was originally supposed to be Boise (KBOI).
Finally, you need charts for the country where you'll be operating, and Larry and I took two different approaches to that. As a longtime IFR pilot, he bought a "trip kit" from Jeppesen, which included en route and approach charts, instrument approach plates—and several hundred pages of text that cover ICAO flight rules and any national variation from those rules. These can have significant impact—in Mexico, for example, all night flying must be done IFR. In Canada, all IFR flights require a declared alternate (the U.S. "1-2-3" rule doesn't apply), and VFR cross-country flights of more than 25 nm require a filed flight plan.
I chose a different option—a subscription to Canadian charts for the ForeFlight Mobile iPad app. That included visual navigation charts (VNCs), which are similar to U.S. sectionals, high- and low-altitude en route IFR charts, approach plates and Canadian Flight Supplement (CFS) data for airports—similar to the U.S. Airport / Facilities Directory (AF/S). The CFS data turned out to be especially helpful as it included Customs phone numbers for airports of entry.
Returning from Canada involved diverting around a large area of thunderstorms.
On flights home to the U.S. from Mexico, I had gotten used to calling a U.S. flight service station to update our time of arrival at our port of entry. When we tried to do the same thing for our arrival in Canada, we got a rather grumpy reaction and were told that while they'd do it, time permitting, instrument pilots are expected to calculate their arrival time and call Customs before departure. They also asked us for the Customs phone number at Saskatoon, which I was able to look up in ForeFlight.
While you can file an international flight plan using DUATS from the U.S. to Canada, don't try to use DUATS for a domestic flight within Canada. Larry did that for our leg from Saskatoon to Lloydminster and saw no errors, but when I called for a weather briefing and attempted to update our departure time, Canadian flight service had no record of the flight. Nav Canada has a computer-based system equivalent to DUATS, which may be worth registering for if you plan an extended stay in the country, but for a brief excursion, I recommend getting telephone brief-ings (the number inside Canada is 1 (866) WX-BRIEF, from the U.S. you'll have to call one of the Flight Information Centers directly—see the Nav Canada link at the end of this article) and filing by phone.
The airplane we were flying is equipped with XM satellite weather but didn't display any XM products north of the border—evidently, we had a U.S.-only subscription, which neither of us thought would be an issue. We did get Canadian databases for our two Garmin GPS navigators. Also, while my AT&T cell phone worked fine in Canada (I had called to enable international service) my iPad's AT&T cellular service didn't. A DeLorme inReach satellite messaging device I was testing did work, which turned out to be invaluable on our way home (see the article next month).
While English is the universal language for air traffic control, we did notice some interesting differences between Canada and the U.S.:
—Instead of "descend pilot's discretion to" an altitude, a Canadian controller said: "When ready, descend to..."
—Instead of "Radar contact," they said "Radar identified."
—Instead of "Radar service terminated," they said "Radar service will now terminate."
Lloydminster turned out to be a special case—it has a flight service station on the field, and while the specialist stationed there isn't an air traffic controller, he answers as "Lloyd radio" when you call in, and can offer clearances of the form "ATC clears…" He also must be one of the most bored people employed by Nav Canada. While CYLL advertises itself as "Canada's Border City," it was dead as a doornail both times we were there.
While your first landing in Canada must be at an airport of entry and Canadian Customs must be notified by phone—separately from eAPIS or a U.S. flight plan—it turned out not to be necessary to depart from a Customs airport. That's different from Mexico, where you must clear Customs before departing for the U.S. And our experience with Canadian Customs was entirely positive—they were polite, helpful and actually came to the FBO where we parked at Saskatoon.
It really is important to call and talk to the Customs people at the U.S. airport of entry you plan to use for your return. We originally planned to use Boise, where we had a fuel stop on our Northbound flight. This trip occurred over the Labor Day weekend. Our original plan was to return the following Tuesday—which would have been fine. However, the hunting party shot their limit early, and we changed plans to return on Monday. Boise's Customs office was closed. Instead, we returned by way of Portland, Ore. (KPDX), which required a big deviation West of a direct course and added over an hour to our flight time. As it happened, that route also avoided a large area of active weather, which was just as well.
Unlike in the U.S., where the air traffic control system and FAA are funded through fuel and passenger taxes, Nav Canada operates on a user-fee basis. Larry's employer (the owners of the airplane we flew) will eventually receive a bill covering the charges for operating in Canadian airspace. Based on Nav Canada's fee calculator (see the link at the end of this article), I estimate that will amount to around $400 for our flights. Fees would have been lower in a smaller airplane.
While a little extra work (and expense) is involved, flying to Canada from the U.S. isn't particularly difficult—and can be a rewarding experience.
For More Information
|AOPA's Canada Page
FAA International Flying Overview
EAPIS (U.S. Customs)
FAA ICAO Flight Plan Guidance
What's It Like To Fly A Pilatus?
|When I was first introduced to the PC-12, I was more than a little intimidated—especially by the huge POH! But after flying it (mainly from the right seat) a dozen or so times in the past year, I've gotten pretty comfortable. As my flight instructor and PC-12 mentor, Larry Askew, told me early on: "It's just an airplane."
It's a big step up from the piston singles I usually fly, with a maximum gross weight just over 10,000 pounds, a turboprop engine and cabin pressurization. But the truth is that in many ways, it's easier to fly the PC-12 than most high-performance singles, and it's much easier than any twin! Examples: There's no risk of shock cooling, which makes descents easy, and with a pressurized cabin, you don't have to mess with oxygen bottles and cannulas or masks. Cruising above 20,000 MSL on most flights avoids a lot of weather, and windshield/prop heat and de-ice boots, onboard weather radar, stormscope and XM weather displays make it easier to deal with the weather you can't avoid.
Cruising at around 250 knots does mean that you have to think ahead—as with any high-performance airplanes, you can get in trouble quickly if you don't—but the PC-12 has a sophisticated autopilot that does most of the stick-and-rudder work so that you have more time to think. That's a good thing because all flights at and above FL 180 (18,000 MSL) are IFR, so you spend a lot of time copying clearances and dealing with ATC instructions. It can get pretty busy, which is part of the reason Larry prefers a copilot on long trips.
Despite its size, weight and complexity, when the PC-12 is slowed to pattern speed (around 100 knots) it flies very much like a big piston single—heavy on the controls, but very stable and well-coordinated. And, the trailing link landing gear makes cross-wind landings easy.
I've enjoyed every flight I've made in the PC-12. The only problem with the airplane is the fuel burn: We flight-plan 450 pounds (about 67 gallons) per hour. I'm delighted to fly it—as long as someone else buys the Jet A!