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International Business Aviation Operations (Part 1)

There's no place like US airspace

Dave Higdon   |   11th May 2016
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Dave Higdon Dave Higdon

Dave Higdon writes about aviation from his base in Wichita Kansas. During three decades in...
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Flying in the United States stands alone in the world for its ease, flexibility and accessibility compared to other regions, notes Dave Higdon.

Part of the impression of the ease of operations within US airspace stems from the sheer size of the continent and the vast distances one can cover in even the smallest aerial conveyance. A visiting pilot, here to earn his Air Transport Pilot certificate, noted similar distances in other parts of the world can involve crossing multiple national boundaries – and in the process interaction with multiple national bureaucracies.

Another part of it comes from the ability to fly from and over states with (under the right circumstances) little to no interaction with a governmental entity.

One German national visited the Wichita area some years back. After checking out in his flight school's Cessna 172 he decided to follow his new instructor’s advice and spend a few hours flying the Skyhawk to become familiar with the Wichita area and its many airports – small, medium, large and military in variety. The instructor counseled him to range around, to visit some airports where they would be flying once the student started his formal instruction.

“Have a little fun and fly to Ponca City (Oklahoma) on Saturday for the monthly fly-in pancake breakfast,” the instructor suggested. The student liked the idea and asked, “Who do I check in with to fly to Oklahoma?”

When the instructor heard the question he decided to hold an early impromptu lesson on flying in America.

“You need no one's permission,” he explained. “No need for radio calls beyond airport UNICOM calls, unless you want to file a flight plan...which we'll be doing a lot of starting next week.”

Wide-eyed with surprise, “Nobody?” echoed the student. “Welcome to flying in the United States of America, home of the freedom to fly almost anywhere, almost anytime.” It's that wide-open sky that visiting international pilots first find amazing – soon offset by the exceptions that sometimes complicate the vision of free flight in the US…

Here versus There...

America consists of about 3.8 million square miles in the Lower 48 states alone. That doesn't count the 663,300 square miles of Alaska, and 4,000 square miles in Hawaii. By comparison, Europe collectively covers about 3.9 million square miles.

But the land masses of the Middle East, China and Russia dwarf the US, and flying across those nations' borders and through their airspace requires significant amounts of government contact while exacting a variety of bureaucracies.

As one businessman – NBAA Chairman Ron Duncan – noted recently, he could decide in the morning to fly his Challenger from his base in Anchorage, Alaska, to Washington, D.C., file a small amount of paperwork (an instrument flight plan and notice of transiting Canadian airspace) be airborne promptly, and on the ground in the Nation's Capitol a few hours later. No customs officials, no immigration stops, no passport, no problems – and no special fees.

Within the US, put two pins on an IFR flight planning chart, check the airspace along the way (there are some tricky areas) file an instrument flight plan, and go.

The IFR flight plan requirement exists regardless of weather for aircraft flying above FL180. The airspace between FL180 and FL600 is designated Class A airspace, and FAA regulations require every aircraft in Class A to fly on an IFR flight plan.

In fact, in the US it's airspace designations, not political boundaries or bureaucracies, that are responsible for most of the need to interact with FAA controllers. After Class A, these are identified as follows:


  • Class B, surrounding the major hub airports;


  • Class C, surrounding scores of secondary airports with radar services;


  • Class D, surrounding many smaller airports with ILS or other instrument approaches and an operating control tower;


  • Class E, airspace that is not one of the above classes--basically airways;


  • Class F and G, uncontrolled airspace;


  • Others, Military Operations Areas (MOAs), and a relatively few restricted-airspace zones and even fewer prohibited airspace zones.


The businessman or businesswoman flying a turbocharged piston single or twin can pick two points, possibly file a VFR flight plan – strictly at their discretion, you understand – load up, fire up, and fly.  Radio contact with relevant controllers is required to fly through Class B, C and D airspace, but no advanced permission is needed before becoming airborne.

While not required, a VFR flight plan is a smart option (especially at night) – but an option nonetheless. Nobody at the FAA, in D.C., or any of the state or territorial capitals can deny you access. You need no permission from the US government or the 50 states to fly – only the right to do so by being appropriately licensed.

In fact, you can traverse the nation from the farthest corner to its opposite corner at will if you navigate to avoid any of those restricted airspace zones. You need only to make radio calls on the airports' UNICOM frequencies for the safety and courtesy of fellow aviators. But even then, aircraft lacking radios – usually also absent an electrical system to power them – do this regularly without violating any regulations.

On the Border

Thanks to the continued state of “heightened security” we perpetually live under, however, transiting the US border became a little more involved in the past 15 years. One of the bigger changes came via the US Customs & Border Protection agency (CBP) and the form, content and timing of notifying the government of your plans to transit the US border, outbound or inbound.

The electronic Advance Passenger Information System (eAPIS) is the successor to an earlier system that could be handled by phone or with an International Flight Plan. Since implementation in May 2009, CBP – an agency of the Department of Homeland Security – has required these filings come by Internet.

Pilots must notify CBP – via the internet only – at least 60 minutes before your departure from any US airport or foreign airport. It applies to any flight that departs a US airport outbound, or departs a foreign airport inbound to a US airport.

The eAPIS system provides the conduit for that notification, which is unrelated to any notification possibly required by the foreign airport – either leaving or returning.

While the requirement for filing is an hour before planned departure, you can't simply log into the eAPIS site without first registering with CBP (via https://eapis.cbp.dhs.gov/). Plan a cushion for this task, because you must wait for CBP's reply message – and the agency notes that response may take a few days. Once registered and equipped with your unique Sender ID and initial password, you're ready to go – for 90 days.

Before you can file a departure, you will have to log in to the same CBP site, with the ID and password sent to you, and reset your password. CBP requires password resets every 90 days – something you do not have to worry about if you use eAPISfile.com. Once logged in, establish the required ‘Crew & Pilot Information’ – and be sure you have on hand the current information on your pilot certificate and passport.

A change in a mailing address not matched with an updated pilot certificate could create problems. And for anyone who hasn't updated their pilot certificate since the last decade, well, you must possess an FAA certificate that states, “English Proficient”. These requirements apply whether you're just hopping the border to Cancun, Mexico; Georgetown, Grand Cayman; or Toronto, Canada.

For the record, flying within Canada and Mexico is about as easy and free as within the US – except for fees for air-traffic services (we'll address these in a later installment of this series). And flying to Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac or Little Cayman, was already allowed with an overflight of Cuba. Again, fees to the Cuban government were involved – as well as fees to the Jamaican government for merely transiting its airspace.

Once in those nations, filing requirements plus notifications and such are all by their rules; those three nations mentioned above, as well as the Bahamas and other islands in the Caribbean, are fairly easy to deal with and lack the complexities of some of the regions and nations we'll discuss in upcoming articles.

For those areas a wealth of varying bureaucracies, paperwork, permits, fees and inspections may apply, and no two countries seem to work things exactly the same way as neighboring countries. Learning of and preparing for operating into the international environment takes American aviators outside the familiarity and ease with which we fly here.

And we'll start examining some of those areas and issues in subsequent stories on international access for Business Aviation.

Read more about: Flight Planning | International Flight Planning

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