Flight takes virtual trip to Florida

By Adam Hunt



COPA Flight 8's March meeting was appropriate for this time of year, a trip to West Palm Beach, Florida or at least a virtual trip.

Our guide for the journey was Al Hepburn from Pembroke, Ontario. The meeting was well-advertised and had high attendance, buoyed by members of the Ottawa Flying Club.

Hepburn is an experienced pilot, having learned to fly in 1968, holding an ATPL-A and having flown his own Piper PA-30 Twin Comanche on many long flights. He is also a tour director with Air Journey.

Hepburn started his virtual trips when he noticed that most pilots based in the Pembroke area never ventured far from the circuit. He wanted to take some steps to encourage them to fly further afield and particularly into the USA to make better use of their aircraft and get more from flying.

Hepburn's virtual flight consisted of a rundown of the rules pilots need to know for a longer, cross-border flight and then a "walk-through" of what the pilot will see on an actual trip.

Even though Hepburn holds an instrument rating and flies his PA-30 most often IFR, the trip he covered was aimed at the average pilot and so assumed a VFR Cessna 172. This meant that the greatest factor in a trip from Pembroke to West Palm Beach and back in March would be the weather. As Hepburn explained, "It is cold in Ontario and warm in Florida, somewhere in between you will find a front to fly through."

The first part of his two-hour slide show consisted of a review of the rules, focusing on the differences between flying in Canada and the USA. Hepburn explained the new border-crossing rules and U.S. Customs notification requirements. He emphasized that while you are required to gain clearance for the trip through the U.S. eAPIS web-based system for you and your passengers, the old requirements to phone U.S. Customs and notify them as well, remain in place.

He covered several unexpected traps for the unwary pilot, such as the fact that the Nav Canada web-based e-filing system won't accept cross-border flight plans and that these have to be filed by phone instead with the FIC.

Hepburn also detailed the U.S. transponder and communication requirements for flying over the border southbound and northbound. Other pre-flight topics included the U.S. Customs decal, requirements for overflights between points in Canada that fly through U.S. airspace and having a U.S. Customs Form 178 already completed when you land.

In detailing the new eAPIS system he covered the fact that you have to report and be cleared in both directions, not just while flying into the USA, but also when leaving it, too.

Hepburn went on to cover Canadian Customs requirements, flight planning in the USA and traffic pattern differences, too, such as the fact that American circuits do not include joining crosswind overhead.

The extensive slides also included U.S. NOTAMs, MOAs, restricted areas, TFRs, DUATS and the free services that repackage DUATS, the uses of XM Weather and American communications procedures. Hepburn even mentioned dealing with American accents on the radio; even though he has been in Canada himself for 40 years, his Scottish origins are still evident in his speech. He went on to cover subjects as diverse as using the internet to shop for the best U.S. gas prices, as they currently vary greatly, and dealing with Canadian cell phone provider roaming charges.

To make the theoretical flight a realistic weather exercise and not just an academic lecture, Hepburn picked dates in January 2009 for his theoretical trip and tracked the actual and forecast weather in real time, making notes and saving screen shots of the weather maps, METARs and TAFs as they occurred.

He then showed the decision making process during the days leading up to the departure and on the morning of the flight. He continued with the decision-making in-flight, examining the snow showers coming off Lake Erie in the Buffalo area on the radar and the extensive quasi-stationary front sitting through southern Georgia and northern Florida.

Hepburn showed how in-flight weather information can make decision-making easier, but that it can still be a challenge to get to Florida VFR in the wintertime. Pilots need to be flexible in their routing, have the mapping information available in case they need to go much further west or east on their trips south and north and be prepared to stay for a while en route.

The virtual C-172 flight did end up with an unplanned night in Georgia waiting for acceptable weather to make the final leg into central Florida, the stationary front providing low ceilings and visibilities to negotiate.

Hepburn's presentation was thorough and left Flight 8 members with no illusions as to the details of conducting such a trip. For those pilots who have never done a long-distance cross-border flight, especially in the Canadian winter, they took home a good appreciation for the points to consider and most of all the process of weather decision-making.

COPA Flight 8 would like to thank Al Hepburn for coming down to Ottawa from Pembroke to speak to us and especially for the time it took to create the detailed slide show presentation he gave.

Phone numbers to remember:


U.S. FSS: 1-800-WXBRIEF in U.S.

U.S. FSS 1-877-484-2799 from Canada

Lockheed-Martin Clearance Delivery (for transponder code): 1-888-766-8267


U.S. Customs Decals: https://dtops.cbp.dhs.gov/

U.S. Customs Guide: http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel/pleasure_boats/private_flyers/

eAPIS Rule: http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2008/pdf/E8-26621.pdf

eAPIS website: https://eapis.cbp.dhs.gov/

FAA TFR list: http://tfr.faa.gov/tfr_map_ims/html/index.html

FAA Aviation WX: http://adds.aviationweather.noaa.gov/

DUATS Flight Planning: www.duats.com

Free Flight Planning: www.fltplan.com

Computer based flight planning: www.flightprep.com

Gas prices: http://www.airnav.com/fuel/local.html

NOAA 6-day WX prog: http://www.nws.noaa.gov/outlook_tab.php