Canadians Flying Colorado

View from Aequarius Open SpaceBoulder County, USA, is situated in the transition zone between two great geographic regions: the front range of the southern Rocky Mountains, and the vast sprawl of the Great Plains. There’s a plethora of GA airports peppered throughout the area, offering pilots a fantastic opportunity to fly over spectacular open country bordered by the stunning Flatirons Mountains.

Aerial of Red Rock Amphitheater, along the Flatirons Mountains

To fly an American registered airplane, Canadians first need to obtain an American license issued by the Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration. This is a surprisingly straight-forward process that takes place while you’re in Canada.  img_4765The first step is to fill out a Verification of Authenticity of Foreign License and Medical Certification form and send it to the address provided, along with a copy of your pilot license and medical certificate. You need to specify the location of the FAA Flight Standards District Office closest to you, which is the one you’ll be working with to complete the application process.

The form provides a link with a full list of FSDO offices.  After a bureaucratic wait of anywhere between 45 to 90 days, the FAA will send you a verification letter, asking you to schedule an appointment to sign the necessary papers at your chosen FSDO office. Typically, there’s a two-week wait for the appointment. After signing, it’s simply a matter of waiting to receive your credit-card style US license in the mail.

Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (KBJC)

We became members of a flight school at the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (KBJC), with the aim of renting a 172 Skyhawk. Before we could jump in our rented Cessna and take to the skies, the Rocky Mountain Flight School naturally wanted us to do a proficiency check and flight review with one of their instructors. This (humbling) process proved necessary to familiarize ourselves with some of the more unusual standards at KBJC.

Overflying one of the more memorable lakes in the Boulder environs

Prior to take-off, we learned that the prevailing practice is to lean for max RPM during the run-up at 1700 RPM, and use that setting for the duration of the flight. VFR read-backs of all clearances and instructions are imperative at KBJC, and once in the circuit, tower will, all in one go, provide clearances to multiple aircraft to land or touch and go in sequence, so that everyone in the pattern is cleared at once. We also learned that although ADSB isn’t mandatory until 2020, everyone seems to have it.

Inside Greeley-Weld County Airport (KGXY)

Despite the brisk, dry temperature of -4°C, the take-off roll felt alarmingly sluggish, due to the 5673′ elevation. We used much of the 9000 foot runway to get off the ground, and climb-out was shallow and tortoise-slow. Traffic entering the zone was heavy, in part due to the clear, calm weather, and also because Pilatus has one of their headquarters at KBJC and their jets make frequent use of the runways. We could certainly understand why so many pilots were itching to get into the air; days of snow, poor visibility, and gusty winds aloft had forced us to reschedule our flight review many times. The third cancellation took place on a sunny, blue-sky day replete with choruses of spring birds greeting the dawn. However, a Pirep from a Lear Jet at 8000′ reported severe turbulence, regardless of the tranquil conditions on the ground.

Snow dusted mesas around Boulder, Colorado

Because of the sweeping prairies and towering Rockies, it’s not uncommon for the high winds across the foothills and plains to range from 70 to 90 mph, with gusts exceeding 100 mph. On the free aeronautical chart we were provided with, there’s a notation that during the summer, pilots inexperienced with mountain flying are encouraged to terminate all flying activities no later than 1:00pm MDT to avoid increased turbulent conditions.

Boyd Lake frozen in February, adjacent to Northern Colorado Regional Airport (KFNL)

(This is a modified version of my article that appeared in COPA Magazine)

GA Airplane rental in Iceland

Aerial of Sydri-Raudamelskulur
Aerial of Sydri-Raudamelskulur, en-route to the Snæfellsnes peninsula.

In 1783, a series of massive volcanic eruptions spewed 120 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the sky, blanketing Europe in a poisonous fog that lasted 8 devastating months.  Crops failed across the continent and Egypt suffered a famine that reduced its population by one-sixth. Thousands died from sulfurous acid poisoning. Across the Atlantic, even Benjamin Franklin wrote of the “constant fog over all Europe and a great part of North America.” The source of this catastrophic event? A small, sea-locked Nordic country: Iceland.

Aerial of Reykjavik
Aerial of Reykjavik, capital city of Iceland

Today, evidence of such violent eruptions exist everywhere in Iceland: moonscapes of mossy lava fields, beaches of volcanic black sand, massive pseudo-craters, strange ochre earth bubbling with heat and escaping sulfuric acids, and basalt columns rising like dwarfish fortresses from tortured ground. Half a year before our visit to this land of fire and ice, we contacted Flugskola Islands at Reykjavik airport. Booking an airplane rental came with the caveat that it could be cancelled at the last minute because training schedules for local students take precedence. Despite a miserably rainy summer, the god Freyr granted us sunshine and a 6000 foot ceiling the day we were scheduled to fly, and regardless of their caveat, the friendly folks at Flugskola procured an aero club 172 Cessna for us.

Performing a walk-around on our Icelandic rental plane

They have a wonderfully sensible attitude about flying, Icelanders. There were no “prove-that-you-know-how-to-recover-from-a-stall” check-rides required.  We were pilots; therefore, we must know how to fly. An instructor did (thankfully) accompany us on a short flight to familiarize us with the procedures around Reykjavik airport (BIRK), but even then, Arnar shrugged at our incapacity to pronounce the mind-boggling names of the call-up points. “The controller will know you’re foreigners. He’ll work it out with you.”

Route of our flight from Reykjavik to Stykkishólmur, a town situated in the western part of Iceland, in the northern part of the Snæfellsnes peninsula.

This pragmatism was evident everywhere.  We filed our outgoing and incoming flight plans with ground control in Reykjavik by simply telling the controller where we were going, when we expected to arrive at our destination, and how many passengers accompanied the pilot. Even in commercial aviation, this pragmatism is the norm.  Days earlier, for a flight with Air Iceland on a Bombardier Q400, “going through security” simply meant walking into a cafe-serviced waiting area adjacent to the check-in counter.  No special doors to go through, no “shoes off, belts off, all-liquids-in-plastic-bags” line-ups, no conveyor-belts of x-ray machines for our hand-luggage, no pat-downs or testing of our hands for explosives residue.  We utterly stymied the check-in clerk by asking if we might bring a couple of our own soda bottles “through security”.

Alas, this wee airport terminal was locked up and,upon peering through the windows, looked utterly abandoned

The whole country of Iceland is detailed on one aeronautical chart with a standard 1:500000 VNC scale, so it’s impossible to unfold the map to full size in the cockpit. Armed with said map, we started the engine and off we went to the run-up area, where the controller had a long line-up of GA planes waiting while he meticulously handled one transmission at a time, at a pace reminiscent of the sloth in Disney’s Zootopia movie. Our destination was Stykkisholmur, a picturesque harbor town on the Snaefellsnes peninsula that had been cloaked in drizzle when we’d driven by it four days earlier.

aerial of snorrastadir
Aerial of Snorrastadir, sheep farm and tourist destination for horse-riding, situated alongside the river  Kaldá

Each airplane in Iceland has its own permanent transponder code (there isn’t enough air traffic to warrant otherwise), and other than while in the airspace of certain airports and a handful of locales, the whole country shares one frequency (118.10).  Our route took us northwest across Kallafjordur, Hvalfjordur, and Borgarfjordur, (try to understand those words through your headset), then over the pastoral fields of the Myrar region.  We stayed within gliding distance of road 54 while over Eldborgarhraun, the lunar-like lava fields we’d driven through days before. 

Aerial of Eldborg
Aerial of Eldborg, a volcano that is 100m above sea level and 60m deep from top to bottom.

There’s no surviving a forced landing on such terrain, save to put down on the road. Off to our left, at the far tip of the Snaefellsnes peninsula, the massive glacier on which Jules Vern based his novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth coyly hid under a mantle of cloud, revealing just a glimpse of brilliant white skirt. The colors of moss, lichens, and dramatically red craters passing beneath our plane, combined with stunning gorges and waterfalls, made for a memorable flight. The cost for 2.9 on the Hobbs in Iceland?  A cool $1,060 Canadian! This was the regular aviation price, we learned. How on earth do those Icelandic student pilots afford it?

View of Reykjavik airport, with cranes at the end of a runway recently (and permanently) closed to accommodate the construction of a hotel.










Alert Bay, Cormorant Island, BC

We flew into Alert Bay airport (CYAL) on Cormorant Island, British Columbia, in early September, experiencing low stratus fractus and bouts of heavy rain along the way–quintessential coastal BC flying. Aerial of red fishing boat, Alert BayWith mist-shrouded barges torpidly plowing the Johnstone Strait below us, and the pines and cedars of the channel’s dozens of sparsely inhabited islands cloaked in cloud, we eventually reached the little island that possesses the world’s largest totem pole, which tops out at 173 feet.

Trail sign
Trail sign, Alert Bay

Situated between Broughton Strait and Pearse Passage off the north-eastern coast of Vancouver Island, Cormorant Island has a 2900 foot airstrip, as well as a water aerodrome in the village of Alert Bay.  Non-pilots can travel here by ferry  from Port McNeill, on the north-east end of Vancouver Island. Stop sign unique to Comorant Island A large flock of stubborn Canada Geese temporarily vacated the runway after our low-and-over pass and returned immediately after we landed. We taxied our plane to the Alert Bay Cabins, situated right on the north side of the airport, at the threshold of runway 27. If you’ve rented a cabin, the only thing that prevents you from taxiing right up to your doorstep is a short but steep descent!Alert Bay cabins Despite the drizzly weather, after unloading the plane and whipping up a yummy lunch in our cabin, we rambled beneath the hemlocks and cedars along East trail. East trail starts just across from the Alert Bay Cabins’ reception building and wends through the forest to the island’s Ecological Park (once called Gator Gardens, though there are no gators, which probably was the reason for the name change). Ecological Park boardwalk The park originated when, in 1881, a fish saltery converted to a canning factory and built a dam to serve the factory’s needs, flooding the top of the island’s hill. Although the plant closed in 1941, the dam remains, with the freshwater spring continuing to bubble up at the top of the hill faster than the water flows down.

Witches' hair moss
Witches hair moss, draped over the trees & underbrush

The East trail is part of a 16km network of trails throughout the island, and it’s very easy to get turned around in here because of the many forks and unmarked “unofficial” trails linked to them. But as the island is only 4.9km long and 0.8 wide at its narrowest part, we were confident we’d find our way by nightfall. (I’d recommend obtaining a map from the reception at the cabins, or in town at the tourist info centre.  Do not rely on the Google map of the trails! It will lead you astray.)

Aerial of marsh boardwalk
Aerial of the boardwalk at the Ecological Park

 As well as being a haven for kayaking, fishing, whale watching, and hiking, Alert Bay is traditional Kwakwaka’wakw territory. More than half of the village’s 1,200 or so residents are First Nations people.Totem Over 23 totems can be found on the island, many of them in the original ‘Namgis Burial grounds, which is about a 20 minute walk away from the threshold of runway 09.   The tallest totem pole is located on the northwest end of the island; we took the local taxi (phone: 250 947 5525) to see the world-record holder, as well as the ‘Namgis Traditional Big House and the nearby U’mista Cultural Centre. Tallest totem in the worldThe taxi ride in a hard-loved family van turned into an impromptu tour from our driver, who was born and raised on the island. Her stories of island life and lore were absolutely unforgettable. I’d take the taxi ride again for more stories, even if I had nowhere to go.U'mista Cultural Centre The U’mista Cultural Centre houses a collection of elaborately carved masks depicting the Potlatch Ceremony of the Kwakwaka’wakw , as well as several historical artifacts that have been painstakingly repatriated from museums in both Victoria and Ontario.Tourist information centreThere are a number of small restaurants and cafes in town, among the heritage buildings and old village houses, all easily reached on foot from the airport.  The menus offer everything from fries and burgers to fresh-caught halibut.

Historic court & jailhouse
Alert Bay’s old court, jailhouse, & living quarters for the local police officers

Back in our cozy and immaculate cabin with our happily exhausted canine co-pilot, we self-catered with a veggie stew and homemade biscuits, before settling down beside the fire (electrical) to listen to geese honking as the night settled over us. cabin

Note for pilots: there is no Av-gas at Alert Bay.

Right downwind 27
Right downwind, runway 27

Six day July road trip in Iceland

Rain, fog, high winds, and teeth-clattering temperatures that required toques & down jackets beneath our rain gear: this wasn’t the Iceland I remembered from previous trips.  This was my third summer-time visit, and my hubby’s first, and we both had a challenging time reconciling the weather with photos of pristine glaciers under a blue sky.  The cloud ceiling was so low and the gusting drizzle so fierce, the country could have been flat as a pancake, for all we could see of it. Regardless of the weather, there were a myriad of spectacular sights: impressive craters, stunning waterfalls, lunar lava fields, weird rock formations, and multi-hued earth that bubbled with volcanic heat. On the fifth day of our trip, the weather did clear, gracing us with wonderful sunshine. Our itinerary for the 6 sight-packed days (and blog posts for each activity):

Day One: Kleifarvatn and Graenavatn lakes, Seltun (geothermal field), Eldborg volcanic caldera, and the Gerðuberg Basalt Columns.

Day Two: the Snaefellsnes peninsula–Bjarnarfoss waterfall, Djúpalónssandur Black Sand Beach, Vatnshellir Cave Tour, Saxholar Crater, Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss, and Erpsstadir dairy farm.

Day Three: the Vatnsnes peninsula– Ánastaðarstapi & Hvitserkur rock formations, Illugstadir, Borgarvirki Viking fortress, Kolugljufur waterfall, Glaumbaer Turf house & historic farm, and Akureyri.

Day Four: Godafoss waterfall, Skutustadagigar craters, Dimmuborgir lava field, Grjótagjá cave, Myvatn Nature Baths, Detifoss waterfall, and flight from Akureyri to Reykjavik.

Day Five: Reykjavik airport, airplane rental, & self-guided flight to Stykkishólmur and back; Tjornin Lake in Reykjavik.

Day Six: Geysir, Gullfoss, Kerið (lake in a crater), and then Keflavik airport to return home.

There are about 335,000 people in Iceland, though that swells to an astonishing million or more each summer due to visiting tourists. And there’s a good reason why so many visit: the country is truly spectacular. There’s a plethora of information available on the Internet about where to go and what to see, but I’ve provided precise driving times in my blog to help when you’re planning what to see, but are wondering how long it will take at each stop and how long that gravel road really does take to drive.  Plus, of course, Day Five has the unique details about renting a plane and flying yourself in Iceland (pilot license required, of course!)Tjorn Lake with Hallgrimskirkja