Northern Hospitality

The beer is stronger, the people are friendly to the point of being solicitous, they speak with a funny accent and the flying experiences are as varied as they are spectacular. AVweb's Russ Niles takes us through pre-flight planning for a flight into Canada.


Flying in Canada is just different enough from flying in the U.S. to make it a learning experience, and similar enough to make it comfortable. Canada’s aviation heritage is like a vein whose branches nourish virtually every facet of the diverse country’s social, business and even political life. To a large degree, aviation built Canada, untapping its vast resource wealth and often providing the only communications link between far-flung communities whose lifeline was a strip of gravel carved out of the forest and the hardy breed of part pilot, part mechanic and part entrepreneur who flew into them. Over the years, railways and roads have pushed into many areas that once depended solely on bush pilots, but the legacy of those early days serves a different purpose, now. A vast network of airports, from single-direction grass strips to some of the busiest hubs in North America, link a land that has 10 percent more land mass than the U.S. but less than a tenth of the population. And it’s all there for the enjoyment of pilots who take a little time to prepare for what might be their trip of a lifetime.

Comprehensive Guide Available

First of all, a note from us. What follows isn’t intended to be a definitive and exhaustive guide to flying into and around Canada. Fortunately, AOPA and its Canadian counterpart, the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA), have saved us that trouble with an excellent 141-page manual called The AOPA/COPA Guide to Cross Border Operations. AOPA Members can find it in the “Guides” section of the “Members-Only” part of the website (or use this direct link), and non-members can order the hard copy by calling or writing either of the groups. It’s about $15 and well worth the investment. What we’ll try to do with this article is highlight the things you should make yourself familiar with, and point you in the right direction for obtaining the references and materials you’ll need. It’ll make some great fireside reading.

Go In Summer

In a world where few things live up to their hype, Canadian winters are everything everyone says they are. From mid-November (up to a month earlier in the Far North) to early April, the combination of snow, wind, frightful cold and diminished sunlight make Canada a place best suited to earthly pursuits like skiing, snowmobiling and watching hockey on television. It’s certainly possible to fly in Canada year-round and, indeed, activity picks up in some areas, such as the oil fields of northern B.C. and Alberta, because the swampy land has to be frozen to support equipment. In general, though, unless you’ve got a specific winter destination in mind, such as a ski resort, late spring to early fall is the best time of year to take a flying holiday. Now’s a good time to start gathering the materials you’ll need and get used to the idea. A little advance preparation will make things smoother and more enjoyable when the time comes.

Opportunities — and Challenges — Abound

First, you need to make up your mind what you want to see and do during your vacation. In summer, the recreational opportunities in Canada are virtually endless and the tourism departments of each province are a good place to get started. You should also give some thought to your flying experience and the type of flying you want to do. The terrain in Canada varies from table-flat prairie, to rugged (and spectacularly beautiful) coastline, to some of the highest mountains on the continent. Each of these environments has its challenges and if your intended route includes something you’re not familiar or comfortable with, some training might be in order. The best place to get that training might be in the very place you’ll be flying. Canada has hundreds of accredited flight schools and the training materials and methods are essentially the same as they are in the U.S. An added bonus to taking a few hours of dual at your destination is that you’ll get to know some of the local pilots (like anywhere else, they’ll be snooping around when they see a strange plane on the field). Next thing you know, you’ll be in someone’s hangar with a coffee in your hand being told about all the locals’ favorite places to fly, wonderful places that are easy to gloss over in reading the guides and manuals. Of course, you won’t be able to log the dual for any U.S. recurrency or ratings but the information you’ll get will almost certainly save you some trouble and may turn into the highlight of your trip.

Airport & Regulation Information

Once you know where you’re going, learning how to get there isn’t much different than taking a cross-country flight in the Lower 48. In Canada, virtually all public-use airports are listed in the Canadian Flight Supplement. The book includes all the pertinent information on each facility, the services available, frequencies, special flight rules and potential conflicts, like parachute activity. Don’t leave home without it. It’s revised every 56 days so order yours within a couple of months before departure. You can order one online or by phone at 1-800-305-2059. You also might consider ordering a copy of the Aeronautical Information Publication (AIP) which is the official source for rules and regulations. It’s also available online or by calling 819-956-4800. If you’re flying a floatplane (and there’s no better place on earth to take one) get a copy of the Water Aerodrome Supplement, also available online. You’re also going to need charts. VFR, IFR, high- and low-level charts, as well as approach plates, can be ordered directly from the Canada Map Office at 819-956-4800. There are also dealers throughout the country.

Differences In Rules

As the books, charts and other information arrives over the next few weeks, it’s a good time to acquaint yourself with the relatively few differences between Canadian and U.S. rules and procedures. There are different names for a few things and some procedures are a little different but, in general, flying in Canada is much the same as flying in the U.S. If you’re flying to the far north, it’s also important to note that in the Northern Domestic Airspace, which takes in much of Nunavut, the Northwest and Yukon Territories, compass readings can be erratic, because of the proximity of the North Pole. Therefore, true track is used to determine the appropriate altitude for the direction of flight. The Southern Domestic Airspace, which includes almost all of the provinces, uses magnetic track for altitude determination. The vast majority of Canadian low-level airspace is uncontrolled but controlled areas do go by different designations than their U.S. counterparts:

Class A Airspace

  • Controlled high-level airspace from FL180 in the Southern Control Area, FL230 in the Northern Control Area, and FL 280 in the Arctic Control Area up to and including FL600.
  • IFR only.

Class B Airspace

  • Controlled low-level airspace above 12,500 feet ASL (above sea level) up to but not including 18,000 feet ASL. Control zones and associated Terminal Control Areas may also be classified as Class B airspace.
  • Only IFR and controlled VFR (CVFR) flight are permitted.
  • ATC separation provided to all aircraft.

Class C Airspace

  • Controlled airspace.
  • IFR and VFR flights are permitted.
  • VFR flights require a clearance from ATC to enter.
  • ATC separation is provided between all IFR aircraft and between VFR and IFR aircraft.
  • All aircraft will be provided traffic information. VFR aircraft will be provided conflict resolution upon request.
  • Class C airspace becomes Class E when the appropriate ATC unit is not in operation.

Class D Airspace

  • Controlled airspace within which both VFR and IFR flights are permitted.
  • VFR flights must establish radio contact prior to entry.
  • ATC separation is provided to IFR aircraft only.
  • All aircraft will be provided traffic information, ATC equipment and workload permitting.
  • Class D airspace becomes Class E when the appropriate ATC unit is not in operation.

Class E Airspace

  • Controlled airspace within which both IFR and VFR flight are permitted.
  • ATC separation is provided to IFR aircraft only.
  • No special requirements for VFR.

Class F Airspace

  • May be controlled or uncontrolled airspace.
  • Special use airspace that can be, among others, an advisory or restricted area.
  • Generally, nonparticipating aircraft should remain clear of advisory airspace and MUST remain clear of restricted airspace. In general these are locations where bombing, gunnery, or artillery are in use; prisons; or blasting areas. Most restricted areas are monitored for trespassing aircraft and violators will have action taken against them in many cases.

Class G Airspace

  • Uncontrolled airspace.

Note: The base of controlled airspace is 2,200 feet AGL; however, the base of transition areas is 700 feet AGL.

Transponder Requirements

Canadian Aviation Regulations require aircraft to be equipped with a functioning transponder, incorporating an automatic pressure altitude reporting device (Mode C) when operating in the following airspace:

  1. All Class A airspace;
  2. All Class B airspace;
  3. All Class C airspace; and
  4. All Class D and E airspace that is specified as “Transponder Airspace” in the Designated Airspace Handbook (DAH) (TP 1820E). This includes all Class E airspace extending upward from 10,000 feet ASL up to and including 12,500 feet ASL within radar coverage.

If you don’t have a transponder, you might still be able to go into Class C and D control zones and Class B airspace by phoning the ATC unit ahead of time. Permission is often granted if they aren’t too busy.NOTE: A list of the main differences in Canadian and U.S. procedures and rules is available here on AVweb. You can easily print a copy to take with you!

Uncontrolled Airspace

For most of us, the majority of flying in Canada will be done in Class G, or uncontrolled, airspace. In general, the farther north you go, the sparser the population and the less chance of running into someone. But the skies over Canada can be quite busy and, even if you haven’t seen or heard another aircraft all day, regular position reports are highly recommended. The standard en route frequency in Canada is 126.7. Pilots are urged to make a call on that frequency whenever they pass a navaid or when changing altitude or heading. A airports with a mandatory frequency (MF), intentions should be broadcast first on 126.7 before switching to the MF. If there’s any suspicion that there’s a potential conflict with IFR traffic in the area, make the call.

The “Circuit”

The traffic pattern at uncontrolled Canadian airports is called the circuit. Left-hand circuits are standard but there are airports, particularly in mountainous regions, where the local topography demands a right-hand circuit. The Canada Flight Supplement notes right-hand circuits in its airport descriptions. Just to make things even more interesting, some airports, such as Vernon, B.C. (YVK) have standard left-hand circuits during the day but a right-hand circuit at night. Read the airport descriptors carefully and if you have any questions call the airport manager ahead of time. In general, at an uncontrolled airport, enter the circuit by joining the downwind or crosswind leg at 1,000 feet AGL, unless otherwise specified in the CFS (Vernon is 1,300 ft.). Where there is a mandatory frequency with airport and traffic advisories, aircraft may join the circuit pattern straight on or at 45 degrees to the base or final approach legs. Unless you’re going to land, you must be at least 2,000 feet AGL over any uncontrolled airport and if you’re just passing through its best to avoid the immediate area of the airport.

Flight Plans

Unlike in the U.S., a flight plan is required for any flight that will take you more than 25 nm from the airport of origin. But this has nothing to do with keeping track of traffic. Because it has so much untracked territory, flight plans are mandatory in Canada so that search and rescue crews have some idea of where to start looking if you don’t arrive. Although ELTs are standard equipment on most aircraft and satellite receivers can pinpoint an activated beacon, if something goes wrong with it, the chances of being found without a flight plan are virtually nil. There’s a standard form available at FBOs, flight services and ATC facilities for filing a flight plan and it requires similar information to a U.S. flight plan. You can close your flight plan by radio with ATC, a flight service station or community aerodrome radio station prior to arrival or you can do it by phone to ATC or a flight service station after landing. The flight plan must be closed within an hour of landing or a search could be initiated. If you’re headed to a remote area without phones and out of radio contact, leave a flight itinerary with a responsible person who knows to notify authorities if you don’t make it.

Other Things To Consider

We’ve mentioned it a few times but it bears repeating. Almost all of Canada’s population lives within 200 miles of the U.S. border. In summer, especially, many of the most beautiful parts of the country, with their legendary fishing, hunting and other outdoor activities, are in the higher wilderness latitudes and in the mountains. Getting there, under most circumstances, is truly half the fun. But the weather can be unpredictable and the wilderness unforgiving if problems occur. Although it’s not a requirement in most cases, you are well-advised to pack a comprehensive survival kit. The kit should have the primary objective of keeping you dry, out of the wind and rain and enable you to light a fire. Mosquito netting is a must in many areas in the summer. Depending on the route and destinations planned, the contents of the kit may need adapting so a little research might be in order.We should take a moment to mention the subject of guns. It has been recommended, when flying into the Alaskan wilderness, to carry a rifle for protection against predators, especially grizzly bears. This does NOT apply in Canada: Packing heat (of any kind) into Canada without a license will, at best, be a big hassle, and at worst result in confiscation of the weapon and maybe legal prosecution.

Crossing The Border

Few countries make it as easy to pass back and forth as Canada and the U.S. but things have changed somewhat since 9/11. Although the basic procedures and requirements remain the same, border security has been tightened. Patience, politeness and cooperation will go a long way to ensuring your trip to Canada starts out on the right foot. The fundamental requirement is filing a flight plan. No cross-border traffic is permitted without one, even if you aren’t going to land in Canada. If it’s been a while since you flew into Canada, the procedure has changed significantly. You can no longer add the AD(vise) CUS(toms) notation to your flight plan and expect to be met at the airport. Under the CANPASS system, it’s up to the pilot to get clearance for entry into Canada by calling 888/226-7277. You must make the call no less than an hour before entering and no more than 72 hours before. You must fly to an approved Airport of Entry and call the same number to report your arrival. You will either be told to carry on with your trip or to return to the plane and wait for a Customs officer. One such Airport of Entry is Kelowna International in southern B.C. Big enough to have 24-hour service (staffed 16 hours a day) but small enough to be relatively uncongested, Kelowna is a favorite stop for B.C. and Alaska-bound pilots. Doug Clower is in charge of the Customs office there and he says the most important thing for pilots to remember is to make that CANPASS call. He explained that after the call has been made, Customs is able to make the inquiries it deems necessary and in most cases the paperwork is done before the plane lands in Canada. Pilots landing unannounced can expect a long wait. “It takes much longer,” said Clower. Other than that, Clower says ensuring documents for people and plane are in order, following directions and staying with the plane until cleared will make the process smooth for the vast majority of arrivals in Canada. Veteran business jet pilot Bill Houghton has another word of advice. Let the Customs people ask the questions and then answer them as directly as possible. Don’t get off on tangents or clutter the conversation with information they don’t need. “Just tell them what they want to know,” he said.

Going Back

In most cases, Customs must receive at least an hour of advance notice of your arrival. Some airports are designated Landing Rights Airports and can only be used for clearing customs with permission from a Customs office. A list of the various types of customs services available can be found in the members-only section of AOPA’s Web site. There’s a $25 yearly fee for aircraft entering the U.S. You can pay it in advance (download an application from the AOPA members section, available in Adobe’s Portable Document Format) or pay it when you land. Make sure you have the right change, in U.S. funds. Make sure you are on time. Do not be early, and no more than 15 minutes late. The same documentation that got you into Canada will get you back into the U.S. It’s best if purchases made in Canada are kept separate from your other luggage to make the inspection process faster. Again, patience, cooperation and a good attitude will go a long way to making it a smooth process.

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