The license plates of Canada’s most southwesterly province proclaim “Beautiful British Columbia.” And how. A verdant land of lush forests, tall mountains, and water, still and moving. And a country of solicitous and friendly people, all of it beckoning in the time of Covid.
We sidestepped the summer airline travel laments by saddling up our Cirrus—N711QT—for the 1017 nautical mile flight each way between our home ‘drome of McClellan Palomar-Carlsbad (KCRQ) and Victoria International Airport (CYYJ) on a peninsula at the SE corner of Vancouver Island. There’s lots to see during the six hours and change to fly this route, including a nice shoulder glance at severed-top Mt. St Helens and Mt. Adams. Calmer now than when I flew United 443, a B727 into Portland, Oregon, on May 18, 1980, arriving just as St. Helens blew her top. It literally looked like a nuclear mushroom cloud, billowing up into the highest reaches of the atmosphere. I’ve just reviewed my contemporaneous logbook entry remark—”Mt. St. Helens Erupts—WHAT A SIGHT!” But a more tranquil sight on July 21, 2022, when this image was taken.
We mostly plan our own getaways, with an eye to fresh air and restrained adventure. Sometimes the planning fails to cover all the details and unexpected adventures arise. I had sweated over online filling out the user-unfriendly governmental e-APIS (electronic-Advance Passenger Information System) documents a lot more than the actual flight plans covering the navigational courses, the time en route, the fuel requirements, weather and such. e-APIS, a byproduct of Nine Eleven, is the way that countries know the names and passport information of whoever is traveling by air across international boundaries. They want to know where you are going to cross the ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone, the actual in-flight cross-border boundary) and when—for us, DISCO, a waypoint over the Straight of Juan de Fuca, 18 nm SE of CYYJ, eleven minutes before touchdown. There’s no line in the sky or on the sea below to mark it, and the actual ADIZ there makes a dog’s hind leg look straight. Aviation authorities are picky about this stuff, and garfing it up could actually result in a fighter jet pulling up alongside to usher you to an official comeuppance. As an aside, our chums to the north also have an online ArriveCAN document that no one told me about, but which I discovered on my own before departure, and which calls for conveying passport information and scans of traveler immunization documents with attestations of no Covid symptoms. Coming up on DISCO almost to the minute, could have had me wallowing in self satisfaction over my flight planning and aviating prowess, but just about then, while in descent, an ALT 1 warning light came up on the Primary Flight Display, and a glance at the engine page of the MultiFunction Display confirmed that our #1 Alternator (there are two) had failed, a fairly important irregularity in an all-electric airplane. I dug out the checklist to assure not missing any important steps in the procedure, and at first got ALT back on line…until it failed again. Still barely in U.S. airspace, I requested a diversion to Paine Field, Washington, off to our right, and enquired of ATC the straight line distances to both KPAE and CYYJ. Victoria was barely a few miles farther on, and that is where our vacation lay—hotels, rental cars, ferry reservations and such. Damn. I reset the ALT one more time, and it came back, so I talked ATC into a clearance Direct To CYYJ without the normal circuitous Standard Terminal Arrival. And naturally, the alternator then chose to fail again, permanently so. Pilot mea culpa, here—electrical abnormalities generally call for one chance to correct it, not multiple tries, and a diversion begun is probably better continued, and what your plans are upon landing should be the bottom priority for diversion considerations in the first place. I’m human, and weighing the variables, chose to continue to Victoria. So shoot me. Victoria Control, obliging as they were, enquired if I had the aerodrome in sight. Never having been there before, not at first glance. But then it appeared, and below is the Canon R5 view as we entered the traffic pattern on a bearing that was part downwind and part base leg to runway 09, the runway somewhat parallel to our current track as we descended toward the boats in the water at 9 o’clock in the frame. Per the checklist, I had shut down the alternator, and deactivated all the unnecessary electrical draws normally powered by that alternator, but still the #1 battery which powered things without the alternator function began a slow bleed down of voltage. News clue, this is the battery used to turn the propeller for engine start. Hmm.
We touched down, and per the tower’s request exited at taxiway W, which led directly to the Shell ramp, the official Canadian Customs and Immigration location for arriving private aircraft. And this is where the second unexpected adventure began. I had missed an important substep in the official arrival documentation. It turns out that neither e-APIS or ArriveCAN tell their Customs and Immigration that you are coming. e-APIS apparently tells their Air Traffic Control, but not Customs and Immigration. Before departure I had looked for a Victoria C & I phone number to enquire if I had accomplished all they desired? I could find no such number. So then I called the Viking Air Fixed Base Operator on the field where our airplane would be parked during our vacation, and asked them if there was any special procedure at this particular international airport? “Nope, you just use the CanPASS phone at the Shell location after you land.” Such phone is located next to where they have you shut down the engine, and another, just inside at the flight planning cubicle (and near the all important restrooms). I used this latter phone to call 1-888-CANPASS denoted on the adjacent wall, and after being on hold for nearly a half hour got a real human, who proceeded to edify me that I should have told them we were coming by calling their toll-free CANPASS number from the U.S. within 24 hours of our estimated time of arrival. So now we had to wait on the plane for two customs ladies to come and check us out. They were very official and very armed, but also very Canadian, which is to say they were quite pleasant and polite while giving me a warning not to arrive unexpectedly again, or I’d be cited or whatever. But there were more unexpected twists. Deb, the lady in the Shell FBO, who had told me that she could tell me where the CANPASS phone was at the flight planning station, if she could tell me anything, but which she couldn’t because until the armed customs agents arrived we weren’t officially in the country yet, but then after the customs agents did arrive and admonish me, arranged to have her (Deb’s) assistant drive us to the airline terminal to get our rental car which couldn’t be delivered to the Viking Air FBO where our plane was to stay, and she (Deb) would waive the $60 per night Shell aircraft ramp fee because we were both birds of a feather airline types (she an ex-flight attendant whose husband is a retired Canadian airline pilot, and whose son is now) this in deference to the fact that the modestly depleted battery possibly hadn’t enough juice to start the engine so we could taxi to Viking Air, and besides it would require waiting until the next morning because the folks at Victoria Air Maintenance, Ltd. who would actually work on the alternator and who had the tug needed to tow the plane had just gone home for the day at their 5 PM closing. You following? Well, that’s about how convoluted it played out in real time with a mechanical problem, a Customs problem, a car delivery problem and such. You can’t make this stuff up. Once we got the car, we were happy to find that our map navigation applications in our mobile devices would work in spite of Verizon’s goofy Canadian usability, and we repaired to our Brentwood Bay Resort lodging and its lifesaving pub, where a BC micro-brewed pilsner put things in a better light.
Above is the source of our lament, as found by Vic Air Maintenance mechanic Patrick Lee, and shown to me the next morning before heading to Butchart Gardens for the first day’s planned tourism. Patrick, having gotten my voice message from the afternoon before now knew of our predicament, and had proactively gone to Shell and tugged the plane to Vic Air. A portent of amiable pro-active engagement things to come. Just below the center of the frame, pointing toward you is the cooling baffle “through-bolt” from the gear-driven #1 alternator, to which is normally attached the hefty wire that carries the current to the airplane’s motherboard known as the Main Control Unit. The wire is the black line you see running up and to the right, and feeding into the white rubber insulating sleeve, out of which at the bottom is a blackened and deformed (melted) cable terminal that is supposed to be screwed down tightly to the bolt. But the bolt-securing nut had worked its way loose, and then exited the airplane. leaving the cable end to alternately connect and disconnect from the through-bolt, arcing and searing itself and failing to provide usable current to the MCU. The bolt isn’t so much out of focus, as melted and deformed. Fortunately, the shutdown step in the irregular procedure precluded this devolving into a genuine electrical fire emergency. But the fix has required a new alternator, a new through-bolt, a new cable end, and a new Field Control Module in the Main Control Unit. You don’t want to know the cost of all this unless you are sitting down and on to at least your second pilsner. The Big Guy upstairs apparently likes us, besides avoiding a fire, nudging us on to CYYJ vs. KPAE and delivering us to both our vacation and to superb maintenance. Patrick and the folks at Vic Air Maintenance are first-rate aviation repair types, and they coordinated with Jared and Reuben at San Diego’s Coast Air, the local Cirrus service facility that normally takes care of the plane, to get the right repair procedure guidance and parts delivered from Cirrus and Boeing in the U.S. to effect the repairs. We didn’t have parts availability supply chain issues of the sort reported these days, but both Boeing and FedEx dropped the ball on keeping the parts coming. It took a week of daily phone calls and text messages by Jared and me, to get the parts to the Victoria FedEx delivery center, and then Patrick showing Canadian can-do moxie, to personally go and hand retrieve them. I frankly do not know what sort of maintenance options would have been available at Paine Field in Washington, but they could not have been better than Vic Air, and the two-week vacation would have been as toasted as that cable end in the picture. So, some anxious unexpected adventure that turned out to the good.
I know you are true cognoscenti, and therefore have heard of, if not in fact visited Butchart Gardens. You don’t have to be a garden or flower aficionado to appreciate this magnificent floral site, but if you weren’t before visiting, you’d leave with your jaw-dropping muscles grown tired. Once a mining and quarry location, it was turned into this world class floral venue 118 years ago.
Busy bumblebee pollinator.
“That which we call a rose…by any other name would smell as sweet.” William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet.
I’ve mentioned water in British Columbia? Here’s the view outside our room at the Brentwood Bay Resort, where, on day three, we took the ferry to Mill Bay, and thence began our 3+ hour drive to Tofino, on the west (Pacific) coast of Vancouver Island.
Cathy is an inestimable lodging discoverer. Brentwood Bay is one example of her search prowess. Another is the Middle Beach Lodge on a rugged headland awash by the Pacific near Tofino, BC. She called weeks before our planned getaway and they allowed as how it was very unlikely that a room would be available at this high season time of our wandering, but they would look. “Wait, we have a waterfront room that has just become available.” Naturally, this sort of happenstance was not very far in the back of my mind when weighing diversion options with that ALT 1 warning displayed. The Middle Beach Lodge room came with both breakfast and dinner, along with the incessant metronome of the waves washing the shore right below our room.
The beach was frequently softened by early morning low clouds and drifting fog.
And then clearing for blue skies during the day, and orange sherbet at sundown.
During the day we explored Tofino proper on foot, in this region of First Nation dwellers.
One day we rented e-bikes (a head nod to advancing age) and rode 70 km down the island toward Ucluelet, on a magnificently laid out and maintained bike path. The battery power helped, but not with the derriere.
At the end of that day (and the others) we settled into our favorite table in the Lodge great room to have an adult libation, to read, and to take sustenance. As I’ve none too subtly implied, Cathy knows how to pick lodgings, and at this stage of our lives we have no qualms about relishing modest indulgence.
The unexpected came visiting again, literally. After savoring sunsets like this from our second floor balcony (9:15 PM, by the way)…
…we naturally left open the door to enjoy the sea breeze and the somniferous affect of the waves’ advance and retreat. On the second night I was awakened by the sounds of an intruder in the room—a raccoon that had climbed up that tree trunk, jumped to the balcony, and proceeded to rifle through my open suitcase, finding the plastic bag containing all of our electronics charging devices to its liking. I hollered in half-asleep alarm, and chased it whence it came, a trail of electrical cords and plugs prima facie evidence tracing its burglar intent. Thereafter, the door stayed closed, and we contented ourselves with screened windows flung wide.
After four nights we carefully timed a drive across Vancouver Island to catch our reserved ferry from Comox, across the Strait of Georgia (named by Captain George Vancouver, originally as the Gulf of Georgia in 1792 to honor King George III) to the BC “Sunshine Coast” at Powell River. Life along the coast of Washington state, and British Columbia, is life frequently timed to the ferry schedule. There’s a particular rhythm to it, and some rather first-rate people watching in the bargain. I was seven years old when this 1950 Buick came off the assembly line. Boys of that age, and this, appreciate the flames and channeled lowrider bodywork. Nice way to wait in the queue for ferry boarding?
The Sunshine Coast is aptly named, at least in July and August. There were several clear-skied days when we were there with temperatures in the Fahrenheit mid nineties. We were making our way to yet another Cathy primo destination, a stay at the West Coast Wilderness Lodge at Egmont, BC. Backstory—Egmont was a Dutch nobleman who led the Flemish resistance to Spanish rule of the Netherlands in the 16th century, and is the nominal source of Goethe’s play, and Beethoven’s overture of the same name. I haven’t a clue why the Canadians chose to reference all that in the name of this tiny spot on the Jervis Inlet, the longest fjord in British Columbia, but if you love Ludwig, as I do, it’s icing on the traveler cake.
If one consults a map to get the lay of the land and the water, you can see that this inlet is very convoluted and, at over 50 miles South to North, contains a great deal of water fed by and drained to the oceanic Strait of Georgia with its four tides daily. There’s a particularly tight narrows at Skoocumchuck reached from a quirky trailhead with associated cafe.
Not to mention the Canadian maple leaf national symbol.
We were near a new moon, which you other water types will understand means a time of large tidal swings, translating to a current of over 16 knots through the Skookumchuck narrows. There’s a website which can be accessed via mobile device that pinpoints the optimal time to see the raging current form as the high tide reverses and the entire Jervis Inlet begins rapidly draining, and that corresponded almost exactly with when we could get there after driving off the ferry from Saltery Bay to Earl’s Cove. In comedy, as in tidal swings, timing is everything.
While the West Coast Wilderness Lodge is off the main roadways it definitely isn’t roughing it. Breakfast and dinner were included, and they were sumptuous affairs. One tiny downside—during the heatwave, with daytime temperatures in the mid nineties, the lodge had no AC. But they had fans which were quietly up to the task, as were the chilled evening adult beverages. Daytimes found us on the water.
There’s a spot within the Jervis Inlet, maybe 40 miles up the fjord, between what is charted as the Princes Royal Reach and the Queen’s Reach where the sightseeing boat skipper shut down the motor and we drifted in the deafening silence to take in this view, with peaks around us over 8,000′ in elevation and the depth of the water over 2,000′. Serene, and still snow-capped in the last days of July. We were told that this was the home of the indigenous Sechelt people who lived here numbering in the tens of thousands, the land and the water providing ideal providence to support them in harmony with nature…before the arrival of Europeans and cholera.
Resuming our sojourn up the fjord, having borne left from the above vantage point, we came to the narrows that leads to the Princess Louisa Inlet, an emotional highlight for me, as it was a sweet memory lane time for my main squeeze, who had twice spent time at the Young Life “Malibu” camp that she now gazed upon as a mature woman vs. her young girl past. A time of unbridled fun with other kids and young adults while discovering the trailhead of her particular faith journey.
At the end of the inlet, now 50 miles from our starting point, we came to Chatterbox Falls, apparently named for the continuous roar of the water racing to the inlet. This is the terminus of about five other falls on the surrounding peaks above coming together in answering the call of gravity.
Ours was an aluminum-skinned, canvas-pontooned vessel appropriate for the wilderness. One of the pontoons had experienced a partial deflation at the starboard bow, and the skipper’s seat matched that with its own boondocks bubblegum and bailing wire gestalt. OSHA and NTSB be damned.
Meanwhile, returning back at the ranch, life went on as it should, De Havilland DHC-2 Beavers on floats a regular means of transport.
Speaking of transport—at the end of the day, savoring the last light and the glow of wind-whipped cheeks abetted by a local brew and vino over a multi-course dinner, one can marvel on how the rich are different than the rest of us. Both islands either side of the above Beaver belong to a Vancouver developer who comes up by helicopter on weekends to get away from, well, whatever. Greta Garbo’s “want[ing] to be alone” taken to new heights. Yes, after the helicopter drop off, he can rest on his laurels, or putter about in the yacht in the near shadows.
Eventually calendar and wallet whispered their reality check, and it was time to begin the journey driving and ferrying back to Victoria, where Patrick had succeeded in putting the new electrical parts where they were called for. We made it a leisurely meander, getting in a hike to an overlook of Ruby Lake, the trailhead for which was reached in a one-car-wide dirt track climbing steeply up a mountain shoulder.
We had a lodging at Sidney, a mere :05 drive from Victoria Air Maintenance at CYYJ, and an early the next morning load and launch. Bags boarded, bottle of single malt handed to Patrick as thanks for his above and beyond maintenance care and shepherding, and we fired up the time machine to make good on our ATC Instrument Flight Rules clearance, e-APIS documented ADIZ-crossing, and heads-up phone call to U.S. Customs and Immigration. First, across the upper reaches of Puget Sound.
Yes, an instrument flight plan was called for, the sunny hot weather finally giving way to the marine influence.
Below, short final approach on the Bellingham, Washington (KBLI) RNAV (GPS) Runway 16 approach. We had the fuel tanks topped, took care of the official paperwork, made a last tap of the kidneys and were on our way in fifteen minutes. I emphasize this as contrast to the customs and immigration experience we’re used to as arriving airline passengers. No removal of belts, shoes, or the keys in your pocket. Nor did anyone hassle me over my mustache scissors. Flashback. No kidding. On September 14, 2001, the first day of resumed flight after 9-11, I was captain on United 897, a B747-400 flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo, and was stopped at security leading to our departure gate to have confiscated the mustache scissors in the shave kit in my suitcase. I politely pointed out the absurdity of this by holding up my cockpit key (also made of metal) which I was about to use to access my office and saddle up with some 400 passengers and crew members, but that trust did not extend to my personal grooming device? Those were crazy times, were they not?
And so it was that on Tuesday, August 2, Cathy and I spent the morning and early afternoon comfortably ensconced in N711QT, navigating the entire length of the U.S. west coast back to hangar 36 at McClellan Palomar-Carlsbad airport. Some clouds, lots of blue sky, avoiding wildfires including the McKinney fire near Siskiyou. One thousand and seventeen nautical miles after clearing customs.
I choose to end this missive sharing an unexpected dark irony. Arriving safely home at the Del Mar digs from a safely accomplished longish airborne cross-country, I stopped in front to collect that day’s mail. In it was a letter, two months coming, from the FAA’s aeromedical branch, having completed their exhaustive review of my exhaustive annual medical tests, labs and cardiological evaluations. It’s that having had a stent placed in 2020 thing. They concluded that my completing a treadmill stress test with concomitant ECG and echocardiogram to the maximum heart rate without hiccups, that and the MRI of my chest showing normal cardiovascular output and such convinced them that I’m no more liable to croak than anyone else who’s never had these sorts of treatments, tests, and evaluations. The letter authorized my Senior Airman Medical Examiner to conduct his physical exam of me to renew my Airman Medical Certificate. That was accomplished two days ago, and I now posses a new unrestricted Class II Medical (Private Pilots only need a Class III Medical. A Class II enables me to be a paid Pilot in Command on Bizjets and such.) Anyway that very evening, digging through the mounds of communications at my desk and computer awaiting our return, I opened an e-mail from my aircraft co-owner, who had shouldered dealing with the insurance agent marshaling the annual insurance renewal of N711QT with the universe of aviation insurance underwriters, which renewal would recycle five days later. The insurance agent appears to have gotten lost in the annual Air Venture aviation extravaganza at Oshkosh, and failed to keep us apprised until this last moment. Embedded in the proposal was a requirement that pilot Thomas Close could be insured to fly his own airplane only if all future flights were conducted as “dual,” i.e., with a Certified Flight Instructor along to keep me out of trouble, or at least keep the insurance underwriters out of trouble. The reason? I seem to have begun my eighth decade. In short, blatant arbitrary age discrimination promulgated by a bunch of pencil pushers, with very little data to confirm their sagacious conclusion, and no data whatsoever about this specific pilot. It’s not possible to convey the degree of umbrage I take in this. Not only “no,” but “HELL NO!” I do not know how this will sort out, but a life without loving the atmosphere as I dance through it, embracing the elements in their most elemental form, is akin to taking in a deep breath with no oxygen inspired. Imagine the sun not guaranteed to rise in the east tomorrow morning? I do not exaggerate. We’ve been given a 60-day extension of our current policy while the agent tries to engender a more realistic proposal. This has nothing to do with flying per se, but means that one could not insure a rather robustly valued asset. The fact that I’ve been doing this for nearly six decades without accident, incident, violation, or claim seems not to matter.
Truly yours, Tom