Friday, July 14, 2017

Le Vol Vers le Québec: Language Barrier

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
14 Jul 2017 N21481 SDC (Sodus, NY) - CZBM (Bromont, Quebec, Canada) 2.8 1665.8


Riding periodic updrafts, we climbed skyward, ascending within a gauzy canyon. Morning sunlight slanted through the gorge, illuminating the walls with dramatic effect as rays of light assumed a solid aspect in the morning mist. Then, with an anticipatory cringe from my wife, we bored into the ephemeral ravine wall.

"Syracuse Approach, Warrior Four Eight One requesting a deviation to the right for a build-up." I saw it just before we penetrated the cloud. It towered over the other cumulus surrounding us and it looked big, ugly and turbulent. Syracuse granted the deviation with a request to rejoin Victor 2 when able.

As I acknowledged, we were rapidly transitioning in and out of IMC (instrument meteorological conditions) and I lost sight of the towering cumulus that I sought to avoid. I held the 20° heading deviation until we emerged from the clouds, saw that we had passed the build-up of concern, and was simultaneously offered "direct Utica" by Approach.

Aside from rare peeks of the ground through holes in the layers below, Kristy and I remained IMC for the remainder of our journey, eventually breaking out over the dichotomous terrain of southern Quebec more than two hours later.

Parlez-Vous "Canadien"?

Kristy and I were en route to the Bromont - Roland Desourdy Airport (CZBM) in Quebec for our annual vacation with Kristy's family, an event dubbed "SurnameFest" (suitably altered in keeping with the "no last name except for public figures" rule of this blog). The Bear crossed into Canada with her grandparents a few days prior and had already christened the indoor pool of our Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired rental home.

Because it was our second trip to a Canadian airport, most of the procedural international ice had been broken. However, the flight to Quebec included some new twists compared to our excursion to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport in Ontario. First, Bromont is a non-towered field and operations at uncontrolled airports are different in Canada than in the US. Second, we would hear a lot of French on the radio, though air traffic control and most pilots in Quebec are bilingual.

Recognized pattern entries at uncontrolled airports in Canada do not include the 45° downwind entry commonplace in the US. Instead, typical entries are the midfield crosswind entry from the dead side of the traffic pattern (preferred) and entering straight-in to the downwind leg (less preferred). Bromont is a unique facility because of an active military cadet glider program operated from a parallel grass runway during the summer. Thus, all powered aircraft fly northwest of runway 5-23 (left pattern 5, right pattern 23) and glider traffic operates southeast of 5-23 (right pattern 5, left pattern 23). Because of this, the pattern at Bromont effectively has no dead side and the Canada Flight Supplement specifically prohibits overflying the airport during glider operations. Thus, the usual Canadian midfield crosswind maneuver cannot be used to join the pattern (or "circuit", in Canadian parlance) when the gliders are flying.

Additionally, Canada sorts its uncontrolled fields, known as aerodromes, into those that use an Aerodrome Traffic Frequency (ATF) and those that use a Mandatory Frequency (MF). Both operate similarly to uncontrolled airports in the US, except that, as the name implies, MF airports require use of the designated Mandatory Frequency within a cylinder of airspace centered on the field. Typical dimensions are a five nautical mile radius with a 3,000 foot AGL cap, but there are exceptions and specifics are given in the Canada Flight Supplement for each airport. MF airports have a Flight Service Station or a UNICOM operator providing airport advisories (not clearances) on initial contact. Bromont is an MF airport with a UNICOM, which I found to be quaint. I have not talked to a UNICOM operator since I left South Haven in 2005; they seem to have gone largely extinct in the US over the past decade. There are additional stipulations outlined in the Canadian Aeronautical Information Manual for initial calls that include distance, ETA, and detailed intentions. Reading these requirements certainly helped me understand why the Canadian broadcasts we hear from across Lake Ontario sound so verbose to American pilots.

After doing the research, I still had questions about what to expect on arrival at Bromont. I sent a blind email to the airport via their website and received a prompt and detailed response from Robert, the general manager. His response not only thoroughly answered the questions I asked, but provided a lot of useful answers to questions that I did not ask. Yes, simultaneous operations on the parallel grass and paved runways are allowed (some places, like Lock Haven [KLHV], prohibit them). Yes, most of the UNICOM operators are bilingual and many of the pilots are as well. Glider pilots are active on the radio and, though most of the cadets are bilingual, a flight leader is always monitoring the frequency to intervene in the event of any misunderstandings. Winds usually favor runway 23 and a direct entry to the right downwind from the south is the best way to enter the pattern for an aircraft approaching from the US. Finally, the airport is referred to as "Bromont" on the radio (rather than Desourdy). Thanks to Robert, I was well-briefed on local procedures before we arrived.

Waiter, There's Unfamiliar Jargon in My Soup

Ground track courtesy of FlightAware, with the deviations near Syracuse and Burlington evident.

With exception of two small deviations around weather (one near Syracuse, the other over Burlington, VT), we flew our filed route of WIFFY-Victor 2-UCA-Victor 496-GFL-Victor 91-BTV-JUTEK without changes. We remained in IMC the whole way, either completely engulfed in clouds or surrounded by them to the extent that there was no reliable horizon. Hand flying in the soup was great IMC practice for me. I think Kristy would have been happier with a blue sky to look at.

The world outside our windows looked like this from Utica until the descent over Quebec

After deviating around a small thunderstorm cell near Burlington, vaguely visible as a patch of darkness off the port wing, we were passed to Montreal Center while still south of the international border. This is where things went askew.

Portion of Candian VNC showing Bromont Airport in Class Echo airspace to 700', "E700", near vertical gray line.

Bromont sits under Class E airspace extending down to 700 feet above the ground, just like the Williamson-Sodus Airport. Thus, I expected that Center would step us down, ask us what approach we wanted (Bromont does not have an AWOS, but I planned to call UNICOM for an advisory), clear us direct to one of the initial approach fixes on the chosen procedure with an admonition to maintain a certain altitude until established, then clear us for the approach and approve a frequency change when the time was right. In other words, prior experience from the US led to the expectation that air traffic control would manage our transition from the en route structure to the approach procedure.

That is not what happened. Instead, Montreal Center directed us in accented English to descend (no altitude provided) and advise passing through 5,000 feet. On descent, while still monitoring Center, I called Bromont UNICOM and learned that glider operations were on-going and that runway 5 was in use.

When I informed Montreal Center that we were passing through 5,000 feet, Center responded with "November Four Eight One, cleared out of controlled airspace for approach."

Uh...what??? This was entirely new jargon to me.

Uncertainty is never desirable when flying, but it is particularly undesirable in solid IMC while descending toward unfamiliar terrain. Though the controller's English was accented, the unfamiliar phraseology created the true language barrier.

"Cherokee Four Eight One is planning an RNAV approach to runway 5. Are we approved for that?" Proper radio phraseology sometimes goes right out the window when there is a confused pilot involved.

The controller affirmed that we were, then reiterated, "cleared out of controlled airspace for approach." It was the out of controlled airspace piece that threw me because we were in Class E airspace down to 700 feet and thus still in what should have been controlled airspace. As I stewed over this, still descending and still IMC, we were approved to change frequencies and contact Bromont. Center provided a phone number for cancelling our IFR clearance from the ground that I dutifully wrote on my kneeboard.

I turned to the nearest of two initial approach fixes for the RNAV-5 approach (ENEBO), broadcasting my intentions to Bromont Traffic on the MF. With the exception of transmissions directed at us, all other radio chatter was in French. I took five years of foreign language between high school and college, but five years spent studying Spanish were not particularly helpful here. Even if I had made a different language choice in ninth grade, it probably would not have mattered; Kristy took French and nonetheless struggled to understand the aeronautical French we heard through our radio.

Shortly after breaking out over Quebec. Photo by Kristy.

As we sank earthward, the ambient light intensity became progressively darker. Then, I saw some contrast and movement in my peripheral vision and we dropped out of the cloud base at 2,500 feet, just 300 feet above the minimum crossing altitude for ENEBO. After so much time in a realm of white and gray, the lush green of the landscape below was breathtaking. We were over farm country, strikingly flat, but with a series of individual mountains arranged incongruously across the landscape. These were the Monteregian Hills, created by magma plumes that penetrated the North American Plate over the New England Hotspot in the distant geological past.

Photo by Kristy.

With runway 5 in use, we announced inbound from the instrument approach and reached consensus with airport traffic that a straight-in approach to the runway would fit into the current flow. A tow plane entered on a right base for the pavement ahead of us, landed, and pulled off onto a taxiway with a warning that his tow cable was still across the runway. We landed long to accommodate the tow cable from the yellow "Super Dog", a souped-up Cessna Bird Dog (per Robert, calling it a Bird Dog would have been offensive to the pilot). Our second landing on Canadian soil was a pretty good one (airport #179). We touched down exactly at 12:30, the estimated time of arrival submitted to both the US and Canadian governments.

Super Dog at Bromont. Photo by Kristy.

We parked on the ramp and contacted Canadian customs for entry into Canada. As in Toronto, we were cleared for entry by phone; no one approached the airplane. Next, I called the telephone number provided by Montreal Center (also available in the Canada Flight Supplement entry for Bromont) to cancel IFR.

No, not tempting fate. We were cleared onto Canadian soil by customs before disembarking!

With that, we were officially cleared into Quebec. It was only my second visit to Quebec. The first was in 2003 when I spent a week in Montreal at a scientific conference. It was very satisfying to have flown myself to this bustling rural airport in Quebec (the phrase "bustling rural" this may sound contradictory, but it's not - Bromont is quite active).

$126 Hamburger*
*Per current exchange rate

Outside the airport fence, The Bear waited with Kristy's parents, bouncing up and down like a self-aware pogo stick in her excitement to see us. Inside, Robert helped me to decipher a required pilot information form that was written entirely in French. He directed us to a parking spot, assisted with the airplane cover and tie downs, and helped us carry our baggage across the ramp. From the on-frequency conversations with the military tow pilots to our interactions with Robert, there is little doubt that the community at the Bromont Airport was exceptionally welcoming.

Kristy, her parents, The Bear, and I ate lunch at the airport restaurant, Le Bistro M. The cafe featured a modern decor with an aeronautical theme. Large glass picture windows gave an excellent view of the ramp. I now count the Bistro among the top airport restaurants I have visited. Naturally there was poutine to be had, but there were also a surprising number of Mexican-themed options on the French-only menu. Fortunately for us, between the fact that Kristy knows French and that "taco" in French is still "taco", everyone found a suitable meal. As we dined, a rainstorm passed through the area, drenching the airport sufficiently to end glider training for the day.

Post deluge.


Despite the successful outcome, I was troubled by the unexpected "clearance to depart controlled airspace" directive from Montreal Center. How is it that descending below 5,000 feet put us outside controlled airspace when we were in Class Echo down to 700 feet above the ground?

Even more worrisome to me was the apparent gap in positive control between the en route structure and our establishment on the approach procedure. That evening, I studied the charts and the Canadian AIM without finding a satisfactory answer. Stumped, I consulted with some Canadian pilots on Piper Forum. I learned that "departing controlled airspace" is a common occurrence when on approach to uncontrolled Canadian aerodromes and that standard procedures required me to indicate the desired approach procedure before leaving the Center frequency. I did this, even though it came less from a place of willful conformance to procedure and more from dumb luck. No one offered a definitive reason why Montreal cleared me out of controlled airspace at 5,000 feet when the Class E controlled airspace extended down to 700 feet AGL, however. One respondent speculated that this may have been a limitation of radar coverage regardless of airspace designation, which seems like the most plausible explanation so far (except that, on departure, we were "radar identified" at 3,000 feet).

My biggest takeaway from the experience is that, once cleared out of controlled airspace, I was on my own and needed to manage my own navigation, including terrain avoidance. Operationally, this is very different from what I have experienced flying into uncontrolled airports in the northeastern US.

And so the bucket of experience continues to grow, thanks in part to a bucket of luck that is somehow not empty yet.


  1. Great pictures and write up. A bit unnerving, to say the least, to be cut loose while still in IMC. I'm happy to learn from your experiences, so thanks for sharing. The Beech Aero Club is talking about next years get together in Niagara Falls which will be a Canadian airport as base of operations. I have many questions when it comes to foreflight and charts.

    Can you pick up the weather on your 430? I use the WPT selection and toggle through the pages. I'll look for the screen on the sim and post it to you. I use this page on my 530 when inbound for OC. The awos at OXB is weak so I like to get a heads up as far out as possible. The 496 helps too.

    1. Thanks, Gary. Unnerving is the word for it. If you ever want to pick my brain, you know how to get in touch!

      No, I don't have anything that feeds weather to the 430, just Stratus/ForeFlight. Bromont does not report weather to any outlet I've seen (that last bit is a caveat - if it's out there, I don't know how to get it). Checking with UNICOM seems to be the local procedure, both on arrival and prior to departure. Certainly, ADS-B has been quite helpful in getting weather info when out of radio range of ATIS/AWOS.