Nervously, I watched him stride with grim intent towards me; a huge holstered firearm fastened to his right hip and a look of pure disgust and indignation written on his face. As he came up to me, any preconceived notions of me owning personal space was totally obliterated!
24 hours earlier….
Excitement started to build once I found out I would be introduced to cross-border flight procedures. My flight instructor at the university I attended at the time, was going to take a couple of his students from Langley, British Columbia into Washington State, in order to teach not only advanced flight navigation, but the differences between U.S. & Canadian flight and ground operations. The main intent was to acquire the skills and knowledge required to safely traverse from Canadian to U.S. Airspace and land there; ostensibly without initiating a cross-border war.
We had flown many times into U.S. Airspace, but had never before landed an aircraft on U.S. soil, since we always returned to a Canadian airport. So we began to prepare for the upcoming flight. This was back in the days when passports were optional, so a federally issued commercial pilots licence sufficed.
Preparing for any flight requires a significant level of commitment and attention to detail. Planning a flight into what was effectively a foreign country, even more so. You had to let them know you were coming at a minimum 24-48 hours in advance; in what type of aircraft; along with a complete passenger manifest. All aircraft airworthiness logs and of course your pilot’s licence had to be up to date. On top of that, you had to compile a flight plan detailing your proposed route, and that was dictated by a thorough review and dissemination of meteorological data along your intended route of flight.
After all that, you had to file your flight plan in advance in order to get it into the Air Traffic Control system. Then on the actual day of the flight, you are required to complete a full pre-flight inspection of your aircraft, checking for leaks, anomalies, or other things that could physically impede or affect your aircraft, on the ground or in flight.
So on that day when all pre-flight forms, transmissions, checks and the weather cooperated to actually allow me to fling myself skyward, we ventured south into the U.S. and hopped throughout the San Juan islands into airports with exotic names such as Anacortes, Samish, Guemes, Sandovi and Fidalgo. Names that sounded more at home in Puerto Rico than the State of Washington. We then looped back into Canada via Victoria to clear Canadian customs before heading back to home base in Langley in the Lower Mainland.
24 hours later….
With the previous day’s flight still fresh in my mind, as part of my training, I was required to complete the same flight solo. I was permitted one passenger who was not a pilot. So I asked one of my friends and she agreed to go along for the day’s adventure. With flight prep out of the way and round trip flight plan already filed I once again headed south.
Things started to get interesting after being handed off to Washington’s Air Traffic Control. My initial visual flight planned altitude was for 5500ft, but given the penchant for inclement weather to rapidly form on the west coast, while enroute I was forced to request a lower altitude below the 3000 foot cloud deck that I swear was not there a minute before. Our first destination was Bellingham International to clear customs. We were vectored toward the airport and once given clearance we landed and taxied to the area where itinerant pilots clear customs.
Because of the requirement to file a flight plan and set up customs notification ahead of time, a U.S Customs Agent will normally be aware of any foreign private aircraft arriving at a U.S. airport. So when I parked in the designated spot, I did not expect a long wait. After 15 minutes we started to get antsy. 35 minutes after putting the parking brakes on, worry began to set in. When 50 minutes ticked over, I decided to venture forth from the aircraft to the Customs building approximately 100 metres from the plane.
I had not taken two steps toward the Customs building when an agent emerged and started towards my plane. Nervously, I watched him stride with grim intent towards me; a huge holstered firearm fastened to his right hip and a look of pure disgust and indignation written on his face. As he came up to me, any preconceived notions of me owning personal space was totally obliterated!
To say this guy was angry would be the ultimate understatement; and initially somewhat puzzling. He wasted no time in getting all up in my face; then proceeded to climb up one side of me and then down the other; excavating and then demolishing any sense of well-being that I may have had. After he shouted at me for what seemed like 10 minutes, he asked to see my flight documents as well as my passenger’s. Unfortunately, I also made the mistake of forgetting to ensure that my passenger’s birthdate was filled in the proper place on the form. This then provided another opportunity for the agent to initiate a rain dance; possibly in the hopes that it hid his power-tripping insecurities.
Here is the deal. Back then, pilots of arriving private aircraft were required to remain in the aircraft. The Customs Agent comes out to meet them. Given that I had landed an hour earlier and had not been met by anyone, I assumed that Customs had not received notification of my arrival for whatever reason. Yes, I knew the rules stated I should not have left the aircraft, but hey, what happened, happened.
Now for the real kicker. This was the same Customs Agent that had cleared my aircraft not less than 24 hours earlier, along with my flight instructor, myself and two other students. He most certainly knew who I was. He was well aware of the fact that I was a student in training. He most certainly know the aircraft registration. Needless to say, his demeanour was polar opposite from the previous day
I was 24 years old at the time, and I was no fool. It did not take much to ascertain that he had an issue with anyone with a naturally deep tan being allowed to operate an aircraft, much less having the audacity of landing it in his back yard. It would not be the last time that I encountered such a scenario.
Well after being thoroughly put through an emotional wringer, I still had several stops to make throughout the State, before safely returning my passenger to Canadian airspace. When we finally landed in Victoria to clear Canadian customs, having been sufficiently chastened, I was determined to stay put; no matter how long the agent took. But as I taxied up to my designated parking spot, I noticed someone leaning out of the terminal building’s doorway leading to the Customs area. He was waving me to come inside.
I am now thinking, fool me once….but he persisted and after shutting down the aircraft, both my friend and I stepped out of the plane fully expecting to be shot on sight. When we did get inside and produced our documents, we got this:
A Customs Agent in a T-shirt and not so much as a pea shooter in sight!
Customs Agent: "Howzit goin’ eh?”
Me: “Fine.” I lied
Customs Agent: "Been hoppin’ the islands again?"
Me: Yes sir.
Customs Agent: "Anything to declare?"
Me: (Thinking: Yes…there be whack jobs south of the border) "Ah..no sir."
Customs Agent: "Alrighty then…have yer’selves a safe flight back to the mainland!"
Oh how I love Canada!