Flying to the USA, how to do it right

By Michael Shaw, Captain


On January 24, at the Ottawa Flying Club, local pilot John Quarterman updated Flight 8 on flying to the USA

His message is simple; flying in the USA is easier done than said! Of course that is not the impression you get from listening to the media or to some hangar talk. The fact is the vast majority of trips over the border are rewarding trouble-free experiences.

In a nutshell Quarterman’s message is to play by the rules and don’t forget North Americans are at war, then you will likely have no problems heading to the USA.

Quarterman says there is a lot to see in the USA, lots of good airports and particularly good service at most fixed base operations (FBOs). It is a great place to fly and Oshkosh or Sun n’ Fun are great reasons to make the trip.

Quarterman has been tracking the requirements for crossing the Canada-U.S. border, and the differences between Canadian and U.S. flying rules for several years. He simplifies the differences by putting them side by side. His presentation started with a 25-question written test.

This was the first written test in years for many Flight 8 members, but all passed with flying colours after Quarterman’s presentation.

Aside from the latest requirement that the USA will only accept a current passport as your personal identification if you arrive there in an airplane, here are a few more suggestions and cautions:

  • Know where your passengers were born! Even if they are Canadian citizens traveling with their Canadian passport, make sure they don’t need finger printing, etc. under the U.S.’s National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS) which applies to people born in much of the Middle East and elsewhere. Have this information at hand before calling the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office serving your chosen Airport-of-Entry to the U.S. Be specific about your passengers’ identity, and clarify if they will face any special requirements on arrival. Get the badge number of the border protection officer to whom you are speaking.
  • You must follow U.S. flying regulations when in the U.S., but you also have to follow the Canadian regulations, at least those that are more stringent than the U.S. counterparts.
  • You must file a Flight Plan to fly across the border, even if you don’t plan on landing in the USA, e.g., a flight across Maine en route from Quebec to New Brunswick requires an international flight plan.
  • Do not rely on either Canada’s or the USA’s Flight Service Stations (FSS) to know about the other country's NOTAMS and Temporary Flight Restrictions (TRFs)/(CFRs). Call both to ensure you will not violate any popup airspace restrictions.
  • When at the border, you must have established contact with, and have a discrete transponder code issued by the air traffic control agency controlling the airspace at the border.
  • U.S. Customs wants you to arrive at your chosen Airport-of-Entry in the USA within plus or minus fifteen minutes of the arrival time you told them on the phone. If you will be early, throttle back, orbit anything but a nuclear power station, just delay your arrival so that you get there less than fifteen minutes early. If you will be more than 15 minutes late you are best to land in Canada and call the U.S. border protection folks on the phone to revise you estimate. It is best to choose an airport of entry close to the border rather than a couple of hours in land.
  • After arriving, stay in your aircraft until the border protection officer arrives. If the officer does not appear, the pilot, and only the pilot, may exit the aircraft at his declared arrival time and call the border protection office serving the airport to get instructions. Get the badge number.
  • Call the U.S. FSS and close your flight plan by making an arrival report. It is also wise to call a Canadian Flight Service Information Centre (FIC) to make an arrival report, too. These agencies don’t always talk to each other on a timely basis. Also, in the USA control towers will not file an arrival report for you. You have to call the FSS yourself.
  • Remember that U.S. pilots most frequently join the circuit (in U.S. talk it is the “pattern”) on a 45 degree entry to the downwind leg. They seldom use the overhead arrival that we do in Canada.

These are just some highlights from Quarterman’s presentation. You can get all the details at his website If you are not far from Ottawa you can probably coax him into telling your COPA Flight about flying in the USA. His presentation is well done and complete. Flight 8 thanks Quarterman for an interesting and informative evening.