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.
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.
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
- My first flight to Canada – surprisingly easy and fun - August 28, 2017