My first flight to Canada – surprisingly easy and fun

It all started when I saw an advertisement for tickets to a rugby game between Ireland and Canada that would be played at BMO field in Toronto, Canada, on June 16, 2013. I bought two tickets to the game and began thinking about the possibility of flying my 1974 Cessna 172M from its base just outside Chicago to Toronto for the game. I had done a few longer cross country flights in the past, but nothing that required being in a specific place at a specific time for a specific event. This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it does mean that any mishaps along the way must be dealt with on the move and a solution found immediately so that the trip can still be completed.

I began my research by going to the AOPA website, where I found an excellent section devoted to international trip planning. I learned that I would need to obtain a Radio Station License for my airplane. This license is no longer required for flights wholly within the United States, but must still be purchased for all flights to destinations outside the country. In addition, I would need a Restricted Radio permit for myself. I would also have to buy a decal from Customs and Border Patrol which must be placed on the outside of the airplane within 18 inches of the door, while still being visible with the door open.

Toronto island airport
A flight to Toronto’s island airport is a memorable way to arrive.

Next, I went to the DUAT website, where I usually do my flight planning. To my surprise, there was no information available for Canadian airports. I don’t know why this should have been a surprise since Canada is a separate country, but for some reason, I expected the information to be provided and it wasn’t. I decided to buy the appropriate VFR charts from Sporty’s Pilot Shop and do this thing the old-fashioned way by drawing lines on a map. The charts arrived a few days later and I sat down with a cup of coffee to consider the possibilities. As the departure date drew closer, I became more confident and I began to think more about the rugby than the flight itself.

The departure date arrived and the weather was picture perfect. Clear blue skies with northerly winds at about 10kts. We departed at about 09:00 heading south to navigate around the ORD Class B airspace. I contacted Kankakee Flight Service and activated our VFR flight plan to Toledo, Ohio.

Then I called Chicago Approach to get VFR flight following for the rest of our flight to Toledo. Even though we didn’t have to speak to anybody during this flight, I decided that we should use all the ATC facilities available to us because we would be required to do so for the flight across the border and it wouldn’t do any harm to get used to the idea from the beginning.

The flight to Toledo was pretty much uneventful and we arrived a little after noon. We taxied over to the Grand Aire FBO, where we were given the use of a crew car to go get lunch at a nearby restaurant. On the way to the restaurant, I tried to call Flight Service to cancel my flight plan. I couldn’t get through on the phone. At the restaurant, I tried several more times to no avail. I had no phone service. Upon returning to the airport, I was told, “somebody had called looking for me.” The nice folks at the Grand Aire FBO took care of letting the caller know we were OK and the flight plan was canceled on my behalf.

Note to self: Cancel future flight plans using the landline at the airport, prior to leaving in the crew car. We filed our flight plan to Canada and obtained an online clearance to depart the USA from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. This is a simple procedure, but it does require the pilot to register online and obtain a user name and password for the website. This can and should be done ahead of time. We called up Canadian Customs and obtained permission to enter Canada, which involves giving an arrival time. This was a bit tricky because we still hadn’t received our online clearance to depart the US. We guesstimated an arrival time of 18:00 local and the Canadians seemed to be satisfied with that. A short time later, we received our clearance e-mail from U.S. Customs and we were on our way.

The flight to Toronto involved a scenic crossing of Lake Erie, while maintaining gliding distance from land. This part of the journey was interesting as it brought us fairly close to the Detroit Class B airspace and a nice view of the waterways below. We climbed on up to 5,500 feet and crossed into Canada without any fanfare. Air Traffic Control is handled by Cleveland Center, just as if the flight had been within U.S. airspace and the Canadians don’t take over until you are well inside Canadian airspace.

As we approached the Toronto area, we flew over the Skyway Bridge somewhat northbound and descended along the lakefront with the busy Pearson International (YYZ) airport off to our left at about 8 o’clock from the city center. We continued our descent and were perfectly set up for a left downwind approach to runway 26. This was the runway being used by everybody else landing at the Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport and I had it perfectly in my sights. We were now down to about 1,000 feet and the tower told us to make a left base to runway 33. This last minute adjustment caught me by surprise, but I managed to find the approach end of runway 33, which isn’t very easy to see from this low, and I completed the landing safely.

We taxied in to the ramp area and parked next to the tower at the Porter FBO. When I called Canadian customs to notify them of our arrival, I was surprised that they were quite upset over our late arrival. Apparently, they expected me to call my “dispatcher” and have him/her update our arrival time. When I tried to explain that our arrival time was only a guesstimate because we hadn’t received our clearance to depart from the American side at the time I originally called, they didn’t want to hear it. I took another mental note for myself… when I win the lotto, I will hire a dispatcher.

BMO Field is a beautiful little stadium and can be found just a short distance from the City Center Airport. It could be said that it is located pretty close to where Chicago’s Northerly Island Arena should have been built and by that I mean… a short distance away from the airport. There was a record attendance for the game and Ireland won with a comfortable 40-14 margin.

CYTZ ramp
CYTZ is perfectly located for downtown visits to Toronto.

Two days later, we were ready for the return trip. The Toronto City Airport is built on an island right next to the downtown area of Toronto. With the city skyline in the background, we couldn’t leave without taking a few photos on the ramp before departure.

We departed runway 26 and followed the coastline in a circle remaining low, so as to avoid the traffic coming and going from the much busier Pearson International. As we cruised along at 6,500 on the flight back to Toledo, I figured it would be a good idea to call Flight Service and advise them of our updated ETA of 12:30 hrs. We didn’t want U.S. Customs to yell at us upon our arrival back in Toledo.

As it happened, we arrived at precisely 12:30 and taxied over to the customs building. I had read a few horror stories during my preparation for this flight about U.S. Customs. Apparently, they had a red box painted on the ramp inside which arriving aircraft must park and the occupants must not leave the red box until cleared by customs to do so. When we arrived, there was all kinds of airport equipment parked outside the customs building so I just parked where I could and shut down the engine.

A Customs officer came out to us almost immediately, carrying a radiation detector. He was very pleasant and helpful, while still getting his job done. When the formalities were completed, he allowed us to use the washroom facilities inside the Customs building. I asked him about the mysterious “red box” but he had never heard of it. As we both looked around on the ramp, we saw the faint outline of a red painted box, inside which all the airport equipment had been parked. This gave me the idea that maybe it was time somebody wrote an updated trip report about flying to Canada from the United States in a small single-engine airplane.

Expenses for this trip broke down as follows:

  • Fuel – $547.04
  • Oil (2 qts) – $ 12.70
  • Ramp Services (parking at YTZ for 3 nights) – $105.00
  • USCBP Decal – $27.50
  • Radio Station License – $160.00
  • Restricted Radio Operator’s Permit – $ 60.00

 

Tags from the story

7 Comments

  • Glad you enjoyed your flight to CYTZ, and sorry to hear you had a bad experience with Canadian border services. Most of their staff is nice, but every once in a while one is having a bad day, and maybe not familiar with the difference between private and corporate operations.

    Now days, all of the Canadian publications are available for free on the FltPlan Go app (and their web site), so planning will be a bit easier if you decide to come back.

  • Nice write-up! We just made our first flight to Canada this year as well, in May, and also to Billy Bishop. Our only variant was that we went IFR rather than VFR, which meant that there were more charts to get and procedures to study.

    Perhaps I missed it, but how far off from your ETA were you in Canada? When I called Canadian customs before the flight, I asked how accurate they expected our ETA to be and the officer I spoke with said, “ah…about 15 minutes.” He seemed rather casual about it.

    As for the red box at US customs, it might be airport specific (I’m drawing on my “vast” experience of n=2, here). Returning from Toronto, we cleared customs in Buffalo and there was no red box. We were instructed to park at the FBO and they just put us at one of their tie-downs. Mid-summer, we flew to Montreal and cleared customs in Burlington on the way home. Burlington did have a red box and we were directed to park there. In both cases, the US customs officers were friendly and efficient.

  • I am a newly licensed PPL looking at traveling from Canada to the US. I am interested to hear from any Canadians making the flight the other Direction.

    • I have been flying from Canada to the US for 14 years. At first I was nervous about making the 30-minute window, and always stopped to clear Customs right across the US border.

      After a while, I became more confident about my flight planning and would fly all the way down to Boston, New York, or even Dulles non-stop. Over dozens and dozens of trips, the only time I had trouble was returning from TEB to YOW in March, when ATC gave me a shorter route than I planned, flying IFR above a lake-effect cloud layer in Upstate New York.

      While my destination was CAVU, there was no way I could land before crossing the Canadian border because of the icing layer underneath me, so I had to proceed to Ottawa and land 30 minutes early. I considered flying in circles for 30 minutes, but I had an airsick daughter in the back, and I figured that since I was landing at a busy airport with customs already onsite, it would be no big deal. I was wrong, and got a tongue lashing from the Canadian customs person on the phone, who mistakenly said that I was an hour early (I knew enough not to argue on the phone).

      Nothing else happened, except that every time I returned to Canada over the next 3–4years, customs would drive out to wherever I landed, meet me in person, and claim it was a random inspection (normally we just clear over the phone). I got COPA to intervene on my behalf, and Border Services claimed they couldn’t talk about individual cases, but then the random personal meetings suddenly stopped. I’ve had no problems since.

      Basically, if you allow an extra 15 minutes, you will have room if you’re running behind, but can slow down if you’re running ahead. Added to the 30-minute window, that makes it pretty easy to hit your meeting time.

  • David.

    Thanks. Do you have canpass? And the eapis? I am vfr only but very interested in the process. And the perspective of a Canadian plane returning to canada.

    Probably would cross into Maine and do some local north east us flying to start. And on a side note i was in CYRO just a few days ago. Great group of people. I missed the fun on Sat. I took a flight to the townships that day.

    • Yes, I have CANPASS Air (which lets me clear at Rockcliffe instead of Gatineau or Macdonald-Cartier) and an eAPIS account for the US side. The worst part of eAPIS is the ridiculous password rules; otherwise, it’s straight-forward, and my clearance always arrives by email within a few minutes of submission.

      Just remember that in the US, you need permission to leave the country as well as permission to enter it (!!!!!), so you’ll need a second eAPIS clearance for your return to Canada. They don’t care if your time or route changes, as long as the departure, destination, and day are the same.

    • Also, the most-important thing is that you always be squawking a discrete code assigned by ATC when crossing the border in either direction, even if you’re not landing (e.g. just overflying Maine going from New Brunswick to Ontario). When you’re VFR, ATC isn’t always paying a lot of attention to you even if you have flight following, so it’s good to be polite but insistent about having them assign you that code *before* you’re so close that you have to start circling.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *