From my Desk to the Sky: A Ferry Flight to Canada

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Cessna 172When you think about flying “internationally,” you usually think about getting on a wide-body jet and spending at least 8 hours flying to far-off locations where a different language is spoken and unusual currency is used. But I had the chance recently to take a Cessna 172 to Canada, and while the flight was only about 3.5 hours, it took me to another country, my first as a pilot. I don’t mind telling you that when I was told (thanks, Tom) that I had the good fortune to deliver an airplane to Canada, I was a bit nervous.

What caused the butterflies wasn’t the weather or the Canadian terrain or the length of flight; what made me apprehensive were all the legal hoops I foresaw myself having to jump through to make this trip a reality. But as usual in life, there are always those more experienced in what you’re setting out to do, and thankfully I work with one of those. Tom has made several of these flights to Canada, and he provided me with his Canadian travel folder filled with lots of good information. Also, the internet is very helpful.

First things first, I was required to go to the eAPIS website. It stands for “Electronic Advance Passenger Information System” and it is used by US Customs and Border Protection to streamline the customs process. You are required to use this system if you travel to Canada or a host of other countries. You have to set up an account then get a confirmation email saying whether or not you’re cleared to go based on the information you provided. Luckily, I was.

Another requirement for flying to Canada is letting the Canadians know that you’re coming. You can do this by calling CANPASS, part of the Canada Border Services Agency. You provide them with your name, tail number, and ETA, and you can do it in French if you speak it! This wasn’t difficult, but you have to remember that there is a window to work within here – at least 2 hours but not more than 48 hours in advance of your arrival. I called about 24 hours before, but when weather delayed my departure, I had to call not once, but twice more with my revised ETA. Again, not a big deal, but not something you want to overlook.

So with those two hurdles cleared, it was time to think about flight planning and the flight itself. As US pilots, we are so used to being able to pull up all our charts, approach plates, A/FD information, etc. online, at no charge. When one flies to Canada, however, these items we take for granted are not as easily accessible. I had to create an account at NavCanada and order the required charts and plates, and I had to pay for them. Moral of the story – don’t wait until the day of your flight to procure the necessary charts. Plan ahead.

When I was finally able to take off, it was a beautiful 3.4 hour flight. All morning long, LEX lay under ice-filled clouds that were low enough for me to reject the idea of staying below them, much less flying through them. PIREPS (pilot reports) from airliners reporting moderate ice at 4000 feet was all the convincing I needed to stay firmly on the ground to wait it out. Finally, once early afternoon rolled around (my original departure time was 7 AM), I could see the overcast was thinning and some blue sky peeking through (meaning if there was ice in the clouds, at least I could get through them to clear skies very quickly).

My route was chosen carefully because of the possibility of flying over Lake Erie for an extended period of time. This isn’t advisable in a single-engine aircraft. The other consideration to the west of my route was Detroit’s Class B airspace, which is the busiest class of airspace in the US.  Luckily, there are several islands with airports that lie southeast of Detroit and north of Sandusky, Ohio. So for my route I simply filed LEX – SSUNN (the intersection, or waypoint in the sky that would take me over these islands) – CYKF (my destination of Kitchener, Ontario). By the way, when flying to Canada, you must land at one of their Airports of Entry in order to clear customs.

Aside from some slight phraseology differences between Canadian and US controllers (“Descend to 5000” vs. “Descend and Maintain 5000”), the arrival into Kitchener was uneventful. What was slightly more eventful, however, was having to land, taxi to parking at the appropriate “apron” (not ramp), and call the same CANPASS number to clear customs. I became nervous when my cell phone was indicating that I had no service, and I wondered what I was supposed to do if I can’t leave the airplane, yet can’t communicate with the customs people either. Finally, my phone woke from its slumber and I was able to call. Tom had told me that I could expect them to just give me my clearance number over the phone, but there was a chance that someone would physically come to the airplane. That’s exactly what happened. It was relatively painless, thankfully, and I was free to go after I answered their questions.

Overall, it was a great experience as a pilot to get the chance to fly in a different country. I know flying to Canada is not as exotic as flying to maybe Mexico, or some of the Latin American or South American countries where language would surely be a barrier, and the paperwork and legal requirements must be different as well. But I’m sure that if I had the chance to fly to one of those countries, this Canadian trip has definitely built my confidence to do so.