North (sort-of) without radar

I flew back from Timmins yesterday after a Hope Air flight via Toronto (Timmins is the home of singer Shania Twain, as the signs there constantly remind you). The airspace around Timmins is controlled, but there is little or no radar coverage below 10,000 feet and just an FSS on the field — that means that Toronto Centre has to sequence IFR arrivals and departures based on position reports, the old-fashioned way, and both Wednesday and Thursday were IFR days. On the way in there were four of us with very different speeds (me, a piston twin, a helicopter, and a turboprop) scheduled to arrive at the airport within a few minutes of each other, so ATC had me giving position reports every 10 DME: clearing me for an approach too early would close off the airport to everyone else until the FSS reported me on the ground, since no radar means one in/one out.

On the way out, I took off just before a Dash-8 heading for Toronto. We were flying south on different airways (by 20 degrees), but the protected airspace initially overlapped. That meant that the Dash-8 had to stay 1,000 feet below me to maintain safe separation — when I reported 4,000 ft, the Dash-8 was cleared to 3,000; when I reported 6,000, the Dash-8 was cleared to 5,000; and so on. Fortunately, I was alone in the plane and climbing at 700-800 fpm; a fully-loaded Warrior is lucky to see 200-300 fpm above 5,000 feet, and often goes negative when it hits a downdraft. Finally, the airways diverged far enough that the protected areas no longer overlapped, and the Dash-8 was cleared to climb quickly into the oxygen altitudes and then fly GPS-direct towards Toronto. I applaud the crew for their patience climbing underneath me at Cherokee speed. ATC picked them up on radar climbing through 11,000 feet, and I levelled out at 9,000, still hand flying in IMC, and making position reports until I was half way to North Bay and finally showed up on Centre radar.

(Update: Michael Oxner, an air traffic controller in Moncton, has posted about exactly how this kind ofVOR/DME, non-radar separation works.)

Timmins is at 48° latitude — south of the 49th parallel that forms much of the Canada/US border, and only slightly north of Seattle — but in Ontario, that counts as pretty far north. Once you pass Sudbury, the population density drops so dramatically that every single building (such as a cabin) is depicted on the aviation charts, and there are surprisingly few of them. Not far beyond Timmins, the roads stop completely, and most communities are accessible only by plane. In the end, I think, the idea of north in Canada has more to do with population density and accessibility that it does with latitude, and while Timmins itself is a perfectly normal small city with a nice downtown, malls and fast food chains, you get the impression that you’re sitting right on the edge of something huge and completely different stretching thousands of kilometers beyond you.

In fact, one distinguishing feature of north in Canada is how important (and ordinary) general aviation is in day-to-day life. Along a river just outside of town, every third or fourth dock had a floatplane tied to it (they’re probably all on skis in the winter). One house had, not a rusty pickup truck, but a Piper Cub sitting in the yard (does he take off from the dirt lane out back?). Everyone who doesn’t fly has a boss or friend who does, and non-pilots seem quite comfortable talking about things like instrument ratings. Toronto is 13 hours away by train, probably 10 hours by car (I haven’t checked), but only 2:30-3:30 in my Warrior (depending on winds) and probably 2 hours or less in a high-performance single or twin. Many of the nearby communities have no roads or railroads at all, and a round-trip ticket for a very short scheduled flight to one of those communities is at least $900. As a result, even small business people like insurance brokers and real estate agents find that it makes enormous business sense to learn to fly and buy a small plane.

People who spend time in Edmonton, Yellowknife, or Iqaluit can laugh when I call Timmins “north”, but what it lacks in latitude it seems to make up in attitude.

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4 Responses to North (sort-of) without radar

  1. Aviatrix says:

    “It’s not the latitude, it’s the attitude.”

    That is the best explanation I’ve seen of what north means in Canada. Capital N-North is properly defined, like getting a northern living allowance on your income tax. But Sault Ste. Marie sits squarely ON the US border, yet is in ‘northern Ontario’, while no one would ever Calgary ‘northern Alberta.’

  2. Christine Johns says:

    To Noncommercial Pilots,
    I may well be out of line searching, but does anyone know of someone flying to Timmins Ontario Thursday evening or Friday morning? (August 4, 5th)
    Or returning Friday evening or Saturday morning. I have a funeral to go to but am unable to get rid of ER shifts Thurs 8am to 5pm and Saturday 4pm till midnight.
    Public flights are impossible.
    So far, I am taking the bus at midnight Thursday, will have 7 hours in Timmins, and take the bus back at 7:45pm Friday (to arrive in Ottawa Saturday morning). Therefore, 24 hours on the bus for 7.5 hours in Timmins to visit the family of the deceased.
    Deceased: Cyril James Hamerski, born 1954

    Does anyone need to log hours? How much $$$$ for me to pay for the flight in and out same day, and you log the hours?

    Christine Johns CCFP-EM (ER-MD The Ottawa Hospital: 613-761-4928)

  3. david says:

    I sent Christine a private message with information on small-aircraft charter services flying out of Ottawa.

  4. Jonathan says:

    I liked this story. Reminds me of when Toronto Center ATC reminds and informs pilots of non-radar procedures. Plus, a few pilots have wondered if the radar based in Hearst will ever upgrade or expand coverage, unfortunately it will not. As an aviation enthusiast myself, it’s interesting following aircraft by position reports vs the radar followed aircraft when I listened from North Bay. I’m glad you liked Timmins, come again!

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