Safety Publications/Articles

Border incident

International ignorance is no excuse

Airplanes fly the same, no matter whose airspace they're in. But each country has slightly--sometimes radically--different procedures to be followed, and pilots can get into considerable hot water if they don't become familiar with the appropriate information. Flight instructors who operate close to U.S. borders would serve their students well if they spend a little extra time discussing operational differences in Canada, Mexico, or the Bahamas.

New pilots invariably go exploring, and we should help them to do it without running afoul of bureaucracy. Case in point: A newly certificated 80-hour pilot decided that a trip to Canada would be a nice way to spend the day. He'd never been there before and took two friends along for the ride. A little planning and a call to AOPA's Aviation Services department for advice on international flights would have improved their experience significantly.

The pilot made it into Canada without problems, but upon his return to the United States, just about everything went wrong. He didn't follow controller instructions to contact Canadian air traffic control on a certain frequency. That sector's controller followed the flight on radar, and upon landing at a U.S. airport, the pilot was instructed by the tower to call Canadian ATC. In some Canadian airspace it's mandatory to maintain ATC contact, but our friend, not knowing the rules, flew through three different sectors and never talked to a single controller.

There are some universal requirements for international flying that your students or new pilots will benefit from knowing, including:

  • The rental aircraft in this example did not have an FCC Radio Station License, and the pilot did not have an FCC Restricted Radio Telephone Operators Permit. The RRTO is not required in the United States any more, but it is required when flying out of the country. The pilot claimed he was not aware of that requirement.
  • The pilot had a U.S. sectional chart that showed his Canadian destination airport--so why go to the expense of buying a Canadian chart? There are differences in charting convention, depiction of airspace, ATC frequencies--in short, a wealth of potentially critical information. The pilot didn't realize the importance of this "needless expense."
  • When leaving the United States in a borrowed or rented aircraft, a letter of authorization from the owner or FBO giving permission to operate in the appropriate country is required. The pilot was unaware of this as well.
  • The pilot apparently spoke to U.S. Customs about his flight back into the United States and assumed that this would be the only departure from the normal. FAR 91.103 spells out the rules for preflight action. The pilot claimed that his CFI had never discussed cross-border procedures or any Canadian flight rules. That may be true, but when you assume the PIC title, you are responsible. There is no special dispensation for international ignorance.

CFIs and FBOs close to the borders should be sure that students and new renters know where the boundaries are (pun intended), and educate appropriately. This knowledge will certainly cut down on international incidents and may even prevent a collision or other mishap.

Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.

By Bruce Landsberg

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