Tuesday, May 20, 2008

On the Button

Next morning the weather in the Toronto area and across the lakes is already fine. No fog. I call Canadian customs with my arrival report. It always irritates me that it's called an arrival "report" when it's really a forecast. I can't report my arrival until I've actually arrived. But they call it a report, so I have to. You have to call everything by exactly the right words with customs people, or you get into trouble. I also file an ICAO flight plan for the border crossing, another legal requirement. The briefer asks me if I want customs advisory service, which is odd, because it doesn't exist anymore. But as you can see from that document, the procedures between the two countries are complex enough and disparate enough that I won't hold it against this Wisconsin briefer.

The airplane is fuelled and in proper shape. I make sure I have my passport and airplane documents easily accessible from my seat in the cockpit, advise my flight follower (unlike South Dakota, Wisconsin has text messaging), and depart.

Wisconsin ends at the shore of Lake Michigan, but my journey continues. I fly across Green Bay. The bay alone is as big as many respectable lakes, but it's just a sliver on the chart. Michigan is a gigantic north-south lake, wide enough east-west that I can't see the other side. I just see lake. It's very cool. Flying over Wyoming is boring, but this seemingly endless expanse of water is hypnotically fascinating. The mist over the lake becomes a mirage of shore and eventually resolves into actual land.

On the other side of Lake Michigan is the state of Michigan. It looks cold. I'm starting to hear other Canadian aircraft idents on frequency, and the air traffic controller handles the alphabet soup of our call signs as fluently as the alphanumeric of the American planes. I'm almost home. One more lake to cross, and that's Lake Huron. It is even bigger than Lake Michigan, and I'm cutting right across it, too. I know you're wondering why I am posting these pictures of nothing but blue, but I love them. Someday perhaps I'll get to fly across an ocean and I'll be tired of this, maybe I'll long for Wyoming, but right now I'm loving it. The international border runs down the middle of the lake, but air traffic control boundaries are not exactly on the border. I'm handed off to a Canadian controller and have to consciously suppress saying "Charlie" at the beginning of the call sign. It's comforting to hear the controller's accent. It sounds like Canada.

I reach shore just north of Goderich, which reminds me of Sulako. It's where he met the love of his life, according to the story he is telling. (And I've met her, so he can't be making it all up). The land beneath me is flat and rural, but I know I am approaching a major metropolitan area and a lot of busy airspace. I tidy up the cockpit a little and switch from the 1:1,000,000 scale WAC chart I've been using to the 1:500,000 scale VNC, and fold the 1:250,000 scale terminal area chart so I can see it clearly. I have to get the American expectations out of my head and fly like I'm in Canada. Canadian flight following isn't as seamless as the US style, and I may need to get my own clearance, and make more decisions on my way in here than I've grown accustomed to. I make sure I have enough paper to write down any long clearances and keep a sharp eye out for other traffic. I do approach math in my head and decide where to start my descent. I'm landing at Buttonville, a crazy little GA airport, not Pearson International. The client's supplier happens to be near Buttonville, and they've arranged parking for me here. I know most of the traffic will be little singles, so I plan to enter the circuit--I've been the States so long that I almost typed "pattern" there--at my approach speed of 120 knots, still above the cruise speed of training aircraft, but easier for me to manoeuvre, easier ATC to fit me in, and safer because it gives me more opportunity to see and avoid any errant students.

I tell ATC I'm beginning my descent and they assign me a heading, "not below 3000', and pass me off to Buttonville tower. They ask me to report three miles back, at the greenhouses. The ATIS says they're using runway 15 and 21, and I'm pretty well set up for right base for 15, but when I call, a little late because I had to wait for another exchange to finish, they clear me to a right downwind on 21. As I manoeuvre for that, the controller calls back and asks uncertainly if I need "a lot of room" to land? He says runway 15 is available. He is probably realizing that it would have made sense to put me there to begin with, but I'd have to circle around to land on it now. I'm light and have lots of flaps so I tell him 21 is fine, I'll just need to teardrop out to align with it. I touchdown on 21 and get taxi clearance to customs. The taxiways are narrower than at the US airports I've been working at. I hold short of 15 for someone else who did get to use it, then follow instructions to customs parking. It's a busy apron. There's a restaurant patio on part of it and lots of people and airplanes. Someone marshalls me to park and after I shut down I tell him I need customs. He hands me a cellphone, predialled and ringing with the CANPASS number. When they answer, I give my name and aircraft ident and they ask if there is an officer there. "I don't know."

"Do you see them?"

"I see a lot of people in uniform. No one has approached the aircraft." I'm sorry, dude, I don't recognize the customs officer uniform twenty metres away through a double door.

There is no customs officer here, which is normal for crossing into Canada. You can clear customs over the phone with no physical inspection. In this case they aren't happy with my customs paperwork, for some reason. I give the ramp guy back his phone and switch over to my own, which has all the numbers I need programmed into it. I have to call the custom broker's office, convince their answering service to make an emergency call-out, convince the guy who takes that call to call the guy who is actually responsible, and then go through several iterations of being referred to customs officers' supervisors. I end up inside the terminal, sitting next to an electrical outlet to charge my cellphone. It's controlled chaos in there.

A child is having a tantrum in the gift shop. Your traditional incoherent screaming while clutching the toy he wants in one hand and hitting out with the other hand. One parent favours the tactic of abandoning everything, including the original mission, and leaving the building. The other parent is trying to negotiate with the child.

On the other side of me, know-it-all flight instructors are telling their students lies in the tones of superiority that can only be gained by having logged four hundred hours in the same airplanes in the same airspace and never having been far enough away to encounter any challenge to their worldviews.

I bite my tongue and refrain from offering my opinions to the parents, students or flight instructors. It's challenging, but I add it to the game of seek-the-weekend-customs-authorization and make it all an exercise in accepting the world.

Ramp workers want to tow my airplane. I have to keep telling them that I am still waiting for a customs clearance, so my airplane may not be towed. One of the officers says I have to go to Pearson to clear a commercial airplane on a weekend. I specifically asked a professional customs broker if there were any hours restrictions for my arrival here, and he said no. More back and forth with my getting people in Calgary to call these guys, and them calling each other. After an hour or so I get bumped to a customs employee with enough authority to make a decision, and his decision is that everything is in order, I'm free to go. I ask him what I should do or say next time to make this easier. Did I use the wrong words? Was the paperwork not clear? He says no, it's just that some people didn't understand the nature of my operation. He reads me my customs authorization number and I copy it into the journey logbook as proof of this conversation.

I restart and call for taxi. Buttonville is a typical training airport. There are Cessna and Piper singles lined up, maybe seven or eight in a row to take off. The runway starts right near the customs area. I have to wait for a lull in this flow of trainers before I can taxi across to my parking.

Chocked and secure at the prearranged parking, I finish all my paperwork, unload my bags, lock up, and call my boss. He tells me to go home. So I do.


Blake said...

Ahh... my home airport.

You pretty much described it to a tee on the weekend of nice flying weather.

If you have the time, you most likely can catch your ATC conversation on the liveatc.net archives. Just dial in the date and time of your arrival and you should be in their archives.

Buttonville is an extremely busy airport during the weekends and I commend the controllers to be able to slot in IFR traffic (of various weights and speeds) in amongst the flurry of helicopters (they have at least two pads there), cessnas, and pipers. Toss in a medevac for fun and you have a typical saturday afternoon at YKZ.

I wouldn't be surprised if the airport did 40-50 movements an hour on those days.

Useless fact: That airport is the only airport in Canada in which the flight school also owns the airport it operates from.

(I've yet to confirm/backup this claim however)

Aviatrix said...

I thought Harvair owned the airport in Manitoba. Or do they just monopolize it?

Paul Tomblin said...

I cross the border all the time on an FAA flight plan. Why do you need an ICAO one?

Blake said...

Hmm.. you're right.

According to wikipedia Steinbach South Airport is owned by Harv's Air.

However, it is listed as a private airport.

Perhaps my statement should include the words the only "public" airport.

car01 said...

Awwww, I was so sure you'd land at Toronto City Airport (YTZ); I have some really cool photos of propeller planes landing there the other week - our hotel room had a marvellous view of Lake Ontario and the islands as well as the City Airport.

Lord Hutton said...

Al that love of flying and then the bureaucracy. I am guessing you are learning to love that too;-)

Tina Marie said...

On the other side of me, know-it-all flight instructors are telling their students lies in the tones of superiority that can only be gained by having logged four hundred hours in the same airplanes in the same airspace and never having been far enough away to encounter any challenge to their worldviews.

That is the best description of Saturday at the flight school that I've ever heard.

I like jabbing at them every once in a while. Particularly the ones teaching instruments, because the differences between the way IFR is taught and flown for real are vast, so the guys who have never flown much actual stick out like sore thumbs.

I've taken two instructors into IMC for their first times - once when I had 30 hours TT, and it involved a failed transponder, panicked instructor, pissed-off ATC who didn't have primary radar and had no clue where we were and when we were finally going to land, and a descent below mins, over a mile from the airport, with the localizer pegged to one side. I learned my lesson, and the next time I did it was after I had 25-30 hours of actual, and this time I treated the instructor flying just like I would have a non-pilot passenger (translation: watched him like a hawk, ready to bail him out when it all went wrong), and it went much better.

The thing I miss most about having access to a twin is the steady supply of flight instructors who want to trade their valuable knowledge for free flight time. :)

dpierce said...

Screwed up government "services" are universal, I suppose.

majroj said...

...and then the drunk staggered out and offered to clean your windscreens for a fiver?
(What a terible/terrific stunt to pull on someone!)