As a vicious evening thunderstorm roils across Lac Taureau, a large Canadian lake northeast of Montreal, lightning plunges the crowded banquet hall into darkness. My instant reaction, and probably that of many others from "south of the border," is to groan. But the people in the room are overwhelmingly French Canadian and their reaction is to cheer and lift their glasses of wine. To our French Canadian hosts, the darkness is just one more cause for celebration in an evening that has no shortage of fine food, wine, and a camaraderie that knows no borders. For the organizers of the inaugural Can-Am Fly-In, a family-oriented event meant to promote safety and cross-border flying among Canadian and U.S. pilots, the darkness only adds to the enjoyment.
The Can-Am Fly-In was organized by Aviateurs et pilotes de brousse du Québec (APBQ), an organization that traces its roots to the early bush pilots flying in the Quebec wilderness. Today, the group has expanded to embrace any pilot interested in flying in the huge province. While the vast majority of APBQ members consider French to be their mother tongue, most speak English to some degree and many seem equally at home in either language. As for those of us who speak little or no French, we referred to the group with the easier-to-pronounce, although somewhat incorrect, Quebec Bush Pilots Association.
Registration for the June 2005 fly-in was in the lobby of the Auberge du Lac Taureau, a resort hotel near the town of St.-Michel-des-Saints on the shore of Lac Taureau. The resort is about 30 to 45 minutes' flying time and 90 miles northeast of Montreal. Upon registering, I was given a nametag with a large peel-off yellow dot to indicate that no one should waste his or her time speaking to me in French. As for those who wore only blue dots (the French-only speakers in the crowd), I quickly realized that the least embarrassing thing for me was to nod and smile in their direction. And then there were the folks who wore both dots, and they were ones who came to my rescue whenever they spotted my deer-in-the-headlights, lost-tourist expression.
Besides being close to a good 3,500-foot-long airstrip, and having lots of space to beach seaplanes, Auberge du Lac Taureau was chosen for the fly-in in the hopes that pilots would bring their families. After all, confided one French Canadian pilot with a rueful smile, it's a lot easier to convince the wife to let you spend the weekend at a safety seminar if the rest of the family comes too.
The resort provided beautiful views of the lake, a sandy beach, kayaks, paddleboats, a swimming pool, a hot tub, hiking, tennis, and a whole range of activities to keep nonflying folks occupied. Even massages complete with New Age music were available. With the lake surrounded by forests stretching to the horizon, a hike on the trails near the hotel presented a good chance to spot anything from chipmunks and moose to bears and cougars. For the pilots, after a tough day of seminars, just down the hall from the meeting rooms was a bar serving fabulous local Canadian beers.
Although the bar could be elbow to elbow, safety was a main theme of the event. Seminar topics reflected the APBQ's emphasis on bush-flying and its roots in floatplanes. In one seminar, conducted first in French and then again in English, the topic was survival kits and what a pilot flying into the bush should have on board at all times. One of the most talked about items was a satellite telephone. It can be used to get weather, call for help, or just reassure family that all is well. To many, it's more critical than an emergency locator transmitter because should an aircraft sink or capsize, an ELT won't work. In a related seminar taught in the swimming pool, seaplane pilots learned how to escape a flooded, inverted aircraft.
It came as a surprise to me to learn that many pilots drown in what should be survivable seaplane accidents. Finding oneself suddenly and unexpectedly upside down in a flooded cockpit, with little or no visibility, can cause even experienced pilots to panic. Pilots have been known to get the aircraft door open but drown because they didn't release the seat belt. Others release their seat belt before opening the door and drown because they sink to the cockpit ceiling and become disoriented (see " Improving Your Chances," December 2001 Pilot).
To help pilots survive being capsized, sitting beside the indoor swimming pool was a bright-yellow simulated cockpit complete with a four-point harness. One by one, and with eyes closed, pilots practiced finding and opening the cockpit door before releasing the seat belt and exiting the cockpit. Despite the poolside practice, when the cockpit tumbled into the water with me inside, my adrenaline was pumping. Upon hitting the water, the cockpit filled in a torrent and, as I hung upside down underwater, I realized just how starkly different reality felt from practice. I came to understand why more than one pilot needed the help of a safety diver to get back to the surface. For float pilots, it was one of the most popular seminars.
The other major theme of the event related to cross-border flight. In an unprecedented appearance, the FAA and its counterparts at Transport Canada were on hand to teach the legal ins and outs of flying in each country. Canadian customs officers were on hand so arriving U.S. pilots could fly direct to the fly-in without having to stop first at a port of entry to clear customs.
When it comes to cross-border flying, Canadians are far more comfortable with the process than the typical American pilot. In an admission made with some dismay, Canadian aviation officials said they have a booth at Oshkosh because more Canadian pilots show up there than at any event held in Canada. But when the wine glasses were raised during the thunder, the room held only a few dozen U.S. pilots. The members of APBQ hope you'll come and even join their group. The APBQ wants the annual event, to be held in both countries in alternate years, to lead to a steady increase in the number of U.S. pilots visiting Canada in general, and their much-beloved Quebec in particular.
Quebec is "the largest and possibly the most beautiful flying country" in Canada, says Michel Laporte, an APBQ vice president and a lead organizer of the event. "If you fly in Quebec, you should be a member of the association for all the support and information we can bring you." With a land area greater than Alaska, and with an extremely low population north of Montreal, the APBQ in Quebec can be a valuable source of information and a big help for pilots unfamiliar with the area. U.S. pilots are encouraged to hook up with APBQ members for flights to remote areas. "We're flying buddies," says Laporte as his arms open wide to match the smile on his face. "We'll do it together!"
Make no mistake: Quebec is absolutely, passionately, and defiantly a French-based culture and very different from the United States in many ways. The most notable immediate difference between the United States and Quebec is obviously the language. And language may be a reason U.S. pilots are timid to cross the border. U.S. pilots, says Laporte, "panic when they hear French on the radio." It's an irrational fear, he says, because all air traffic controllers are required to be bilingual. Also, virtually every French-speaking pilot speaks some English and is often quite fluent. If you need help, any help at all, don't be afraid to speak English, and you're virtually guaranteed to get more help than you expected. It's not uncommon to make a radio request for help in English and hear it relayed in French. And when you need help in the backcountry, the helpfulness can help restore your faith in mankind.
"The Canadian people are great," says Beth Schiller, a U.S. pilot. She and her copilot husband made a flight across Canada from Vermont to Alaska as part of their honeymoon. Somewhere in the great "out there" the starter failed on their aircraft. Luckily, they found someone who loaned them one so they could finish their journey. Their benefactor merely told them, "When you get home, just send it back."
To Kevin Psutka, president of the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA), there is no excuse for not coming to Canada. "Just follow the checklist" at the end of The AOPA/COPA Guide to Cross-Border Operations (United States/Canada). It's a joint publication put together by the two associations, and it's available on the COPA Web site. At 150 pages it's lengthy, but Psutka urges pilots not to be intimidated by its voluminous information. The body of the document merely expands in depth on each point in the one-page checklist listed in the back. According to Psutka, anything and everything you need to know to fly in Canada is in the document. Because there are differences in terminology and operating procedures, the AOPA/COPA guide should be considered a mission-critical document, so plan on taking it with you.
Canadian air traffic control is privatized and run by the nonprofit company Nav Canada. Besides ATC, Nav Canada provides charts, weather, and navigation services, and all for a price. When U.S. pilots get home, they should expect a bill from Nav Canada for at least $18 Canadian. Fees are based on aircraft weight and numerous other factors, so be sure to visit the Web site prior to departure. If you don't find the information you need, regardless of what it is, don't hesitate to contact the folks at APBQ or COPA for help. According to Psutka, Canadian airports are being threatened with closure just as they are down here, and increased use of Canadian airports by U.S. pilots may help keep them open.
Every U.S. pilot familiar with crossing into Canada says it's easy and that Canadian officials are wonderfully helpful. Ironically, these same pilots will tell you it's harder for U.S. pilots to get back into the United States than it is to get into Canada. Because of the terrorism paranoia resulting from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, U.S. pilots must carry their passports not only to get into Canada, but to get back home.
Plans are being laid for this year's Can-Am Fly-In to be held in Lake George, New York, the last week of June. Once again, it will be a bilingual event with the FAA and Transport Canada slated to be on hand. "They say the noblest conquest is of the horse," says Gilles Lapierre with a passion that is palpable. "But the best conquest is of the sky! I think that's why we have that shared culture. We know we share something special. When you share a passion, it's easy to communicate."
Tim Wright is a freelance writer, photographer, and pilot living in Richmond, Virginia.
BY ALYSSA J. MILLER
The allure of the bush pilot: bravely navigating through treacherous terrain and battling the elements in a time-tested, trusted airplane. Many pilots have fantasized about being the heroic, rugged bush pilot, but what is bush-flying really like?
AOPA members and members of IAOPA affiliate countries will get a taste at the twenty-third IAOPA World Assembly in Toronto, from June 18 through 24. During the Bush Pilot For A Day event on Thursday, June 22, pilots can trade in the city life for a day at Orillia Lake St. John Seaplane Base nestled on the edge of Canada's wilderness.
Enjoy a scenic flight over remote lakes and rivers in a fully restored classic de Havilland Beaver, or take some training in a Piper Super Cub, Cessna 172, or Cessna 180 on straight floats.
Experienced bush pilots will provide initial to advanced training. Pilots can learn how to take off from and land on water, understand mechanical turbulence, identify hidden obstacles under the water, dock along rugged shorelines, and even earn a seaplane rating.
Live seminars will cover topics including emergency provisions for wilderness survival, and a traditional Canadian shore lunch of fish, chips, and baked beans will be served.
During the 2006 World Assembly, hosted by the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association, delegates from around the world will discuss general aviation and aerial work activities. The event is open to all AOPA and IAOPA affiliate members and guests. Attendees can sightsee in Toronto, tour Niagara Falls, fly a Cirrus, and more.
Sign up or learn more about the IAOPA World Assembly and Bush Pilot For A Day program online.