Now comes the leap across Canada. I've probably flown point to point in the US before while passing through Canadian airspace but not landing, but this is the first time I will have done it between points that I couldn't drive between without clearing customs.
The airplane is ready to go, as we fuelled last night. I'm on the radio and she's flying today. I call for our clearance and they ask us how soon we will be ready. The engines are almost warm enough for takeoff, just a few checks to do. She holds up three fingers. "Three minutes." There's inbound IFR traffic but apparently that's the right number for them. We're give a clearance that expires three minutes hence, and told to taxi and call when ready. I don't know how long the delay would be if we don't make this time, probably not more than ten minutes. Run up complete, taxiing for the hold short line I call ready. Tower has VFR traffic inbound and tells them they have an IFR waiting to go with a tight departure slot. The pilot understands and agrees without being explicitly asked to slow it up--maybe literally reducing speed, extending a downwind or flying a wider base, I'm not sure where the he was--for us. We're cleared for takeoff before his arrival, to roll with seconds to spare in our clearance valid time. I irritate her by specifying the required heading twice, when she already knows where she's turning to. She points out that we're not under two-crew procedures, so she's not obligated to read back or crosscheck the bearing. I apologize, "It was just that you didn't have the heading bug set." We're not using the autopilot for the departure, so it's not essential, but using a heading bug has long been a habit of mine, across many non-autopilot- equipped aircraft. Two crew SOP approval is on our list of things to do, along with certification of our training program on the GNS 430.
We climb to enroute altitude and join the appropriate airway and in a couple of handoffs we're talking to Canadian ATC It's such a welcoming thing, even though I'm not headed home I can now leave the C out of our callsign and they will say "decimal" and other subtle things that I don't so much notice the absence of, as welcome the return to.
Canadian ATC has a reroute for us, if we're willing to accept transit through uncontrolled airspace. I'm ready to copy. It's pretty simple compared to what it could be, just direct a particular waypoint after passing another one, and they spell each five letter combo slowly so I can copy them down and then find them on the chart.
We amuse ourselves for a while with the GPS, finding the worldwide locations of the five letter identifiers corresponding to parts of our names, friends names, etcetera. I think one of mine was in Hawaii.
As we get further south the weather is improving and we get glimpses of the land and water below. We're over the water between Vancouver Island and mainland BC, so seeing ocean, and shoreline and bits of mountains below. Another frequency change and then they have another reroute for us. We filed via the YVR VOR, but we want to be in descent by then for Bellingham and might be in conflict with Vancouver International traffic, so the reroute takes us out to the west over Nanaimo and Victoria. The weather below continues to improve. We could almost cancel IFR and descend VFR to complete the trip more efficiently, except you never know what the weather will be like the rest of the way. I'm about to ask for a more direct routing so we don't have to go all the way to YYJ, when they give us vectors almost direct. ATC does a fantastic job of keeping traffic separated without impairing efficiency. It would be a much more complex process with a much lower capacity for throughput of traffic without them.
The final VOR in our routing is HUH. Huh? It's close to Bellingham airport, but not actually on the field, so it used to be called BLI. But some years ago, I think it may have been partly triggered by the American Airlines flight that flew direct the wrong NDB in South America, they started renamng all the nav aids that shared names with airports but were not physically at the fields. So the one by Bellingham is now called the Whatcom VOR. I think it's on Whatcom Road or in Whatcom county. We wondered at the rename whether the identifier HUH is a joke, because in Canada "What?" and "Comme?" each mean the same thing as "Huh?"
It may be coincidence, but there are definitely jokes in naming nav aids. The Reno VOR was renamed "Mustang" and now there's a "Ranch departure" out of Reno. (The Mustang Ranch is an infamous brothel there).
Our vector has us approaching the mainland USA, the Whatcom VOR and the Bellingham airport on vectors, above a cloud deck that started just before the shore. Approach is trying to pass us onto tower, who are reporting clear skies and have a visual approach posted on the ATIS. I can sense some frustration on the controller's part that I am insisting I am still above cloud. Sometimes I just want to take pity on the controllers and admit that I know where the airport is, but we're above a solid layer, and if I'm not visual I won't say I am. We come over the edge of the cloud deck just in time to spot the airport and descend to land. As the NOTAM's told us, there are lots of taxiway closures here with construction, but it's well in hand. We taxi in and are marshalled to a stop right away. We get directions to the washroom and quick fuelling. There's no pilot's lounge, but they let me use an office computer and phone. If we can get out of here VFR we can get across the country to our next destination. It has to be VFR because the sum of the flights will exceed her eight hour limit for single pilot IFR, and I neither count as a second pilot nor am allowed to log any IFR until I renew my rating. So now we'll be VFR and flying on my licence, but she will still do the flying. This is fine and legal. I can let my cat fly, or the autopilot, as long as I take responsibility for the flight. I go with company flight following rather than a flight plan.
Weather looks good from here, so we depart VFR to the south and turn west when we have the clearance to and the altitude to go over the mountains. A controller calls us "November Charlie blah blah blah blah" for a while and I accept that because although there's no "N" at the beginning of or callsign it's obviously us, and that's just the way some controllers talk. Eventually she asks us, "Are you November Charlie or just Charlie." I tell her there's no November, without pointing out that it's the designation for American aircraft and Charlie is for Canadian, so it would be hard to be both. Possibly the first controller that checked us in for flight following explicitly entered an N on our electronic flight strip. As soon as we cross the first range of rocks eastbound, the ground gets drier, then it continues to get drier and higher as we go east.
Tailwinds are awesome, better than forecast. I never put too much hope in tailwinds and count headwinds as worse than forecast. But we're smoking. A bit of math reveals that we don't need our planned fuel stop after all. I turn on my phone and enter a text message with our new ETA, then wait until we are going over a town and hit send. It finds a cellphone tower and sends it before we pass it by. We squeeze over some higher terrain, doing a few zigzags here and there to avoid having to climb into oxygen territory. We'll need oxygen tomorrow morning and don't want to use it up now.
I call flight services to update the weather and they tell us sternly that VFR is not recommended in Wyoming or Colorado due to an aggressive line of thunderstorms. We listen to the SIGMET and thank the briefer, then look at each other and smile. We respect thunderstorms, but we're not avoiding two entire states for the presence of one line, even widespread air mass thunderstorms. They are a highly visible weather phenomenon. We discuss it and determine that if we have any doubts about the proximity of a thunderhead, or we encounter an area where storms pose an impassable barrier, we'll just land at one of the hundreds of conveniently located airports. There are so many here. It's not like we're in Northern Ontario and will be SOL if we can't make it from Thunder Bay to either Dryden or Kenora. There's an airport behind every bush out here. People have airports just for fun.
As an example, I notice that we will be passing not far from the Greater Green River Intergalactic Spaceport. That's a real airport, not in the greatest condition, but we could land there safely. I bring it up on the GPS, plus find the official description of the little airport, to amuse my fellow pilot. Shortly afterwards I realize that she has altered our course to fly direct the spaceport, "We can't be this close and not fly by!"
We see some distant and retreating CBs but nothing interferes with our flight, which passes through airspace of both Wyoming and Colorado. We reach our destination without incidents and descend to land, rolling out at a long, high altitude strip across from a golf course, and somewhere that we suspect we can buy excellent Mexican food.
We check into the hotel and then I make a couple of phone calls to find out where oxygen service is available. There's nothing at the airport where we are parked, but one airport down the highway I find an FBO that says "yes" to providing oxygen and "six am to seven pm" for their hours. Fantastic. We'll probably be in tomorrow. I get driving directions.
And I'm off to bed, because there's more work to do in the morning.