Flying over the pristine San Juan Islands reveals one of the most beautiful and serene expanses a pilot could ever wish for. A weekend pilot might be lulled into forgetting there’s a hotbed of heavy duty commercial aviation swarming overhead. To put it another way, you might see an Air Canada 777 eye to eye when you’re flying in US airspace over The San Juan Islands. Vancouver International and Victoria International airports are closer than you think.
I am an SJPA board member. At our last board meeting the topic of Canadian traffic came up. To get a better understanding, I fired up my airplane that I keep at the Friday Harbor Airport, and took the fifteen minute hop over to Victoria. After clearing the active runway, tower turned me over to ground. While taxing, I asked the ground control guy if I could come up to the tower for a tour. No problem. I cleared customs and scrambled up the stairs in the tower and met the Canadian ATC guys who were welcoming and informative.
I spent forty-five minutes up in the dimly lit tower looking over the controllers’ shoulders at an endless procession of computer screens. In between their conversations with pilots, I asked them about traffic around Victoria and Vancouver — particularly what I should know as a VFR pilot flying around the San Juan Islands. I came away with a simple upshot: Stay under 2,000’ MSL in the area of Stuart Island, Henry Island, and Roche Harbor. Canadian commercial traffic in these areas will stay above 2,000 feet.
The closer you are to Vancouver and Victoria, the more you might consider talking to Canadian ATC. Interestingly ATC personnel in Victoria’s tower refer to the airspace above the San Juan Islands as, “uncontrolled airspace.” However, they are happy to talk to you even if your flight is confined to US airspace. Canadian ATC can see you on their radar if your transponder is on. So be sure you have your Mode C transponder on and your altimeter set accurately.
Watch for commercial seaplane traffic (Otters) between Victoria and Vancouver harbors. They typically fly between 1,000 feet and 1,500 feet or lower. They stay west of San Juan Island, and they make their turn at the Stuart Island lighthouse.
There have been on-and-off efforts by Nav Canada to claim airspace over the San Juan Islands. There is a precedent — Abbotsford Airport’s airspace in BC extends into Washington State. There seems to be no talk of that now, but we should be aware of the possibility. If this comes up again, your SJPA board stands ready to respond.