Forest Fires, Airspace and Rescue Operations

By Nick Jones, President, HPAC/ACVL

With apologies to the majority of pilots who do not need this message, I find I must once again review the few legally binding regulations that apply to free flight.

In the past year there has been an incident where a pilot inadvertently disrupted a search-and-rescue operation by launching without being 100% certain the operation had completed. This pilot has faced legal sanctions that might seem extreme until you consider the outcome could have had life-and-death consequences.

HPAC is also aware that Transport Canada is taking notice of pilots flying in controlled airspace; conducting interviews and investigating possible violations. We are not sure why, but this increased scrutiny is likely to continue and even increase. Personally, I suspect the move towards airspace changes to accommodate RPAS (drones) is increasing sensitivity to this issue.

With another active forest-fire season expected again this year we all need to be mindful of the legal (and safety!) risks and avoid flying within 5nm (9.3km) of the closest edge (not center) of the designated fire area lower than 3000′ (914m) AGL.

Airspace violations, flying in fire zones and interfering with rescue operations can all result in Transport Canada fines of up to $5,000, and can also lead to other civil and even criminal charges not to mention civil lawsuits if these actions interfere with operations.

What you can do:

  1. Be vigilant and remind your fellow pilots of the risks they take when they fly near forest fires.
  2. If you see a SAR aircraft or air ambulance – leave the area or land ASAP. If you are aware of an ongoing rescue operation and a fellow pilot chooses to fly – do your best to talk them out of it. Reporting a pilot to the authorities should be considered if their actions are risking lives or putting flying sites at risk.
  3. Please help educate your fellow pilots, especially visiting pilots, about controlled airspace near your flying sites and their legal obligation to comply with the regulations. Encourage your fellow pilots to write the HAGAR exam so they can fly in class E airspace without risk of fines or further elevating Transport Canada’s scrutiny of our activities.

Here’s a summary of the Canadian Aviation Regulations that apply to these situations:

Forest Fires

601.15 No person shall operate an aircraft

     (a) over a forest fire area, or over any area that is located within five nautical miles of a forest fire area,
          at an altitude of less than 3,000 feet AGL; or

     (b) in any airspace that is described in a NOTAM issued pursuant to section 601.16.

601.16 The Minister may issue a NOTAM that relates to restrictions on the operation of aircraft in the case of a forest fire and that describes
    (a) the location and dimensions of the forest fire area; and
    (b) the airspace in which forest fire control operations are being conducted.

SAR Operations


    (1) Despite any other provision of this section,


        (b) where the pilot-in-command of an aircraft is aware that another aircraft is in an emergency situation, the pilot-in-command shall

        give way to that other aircraft.

Controlled Airspace


    (1) No person shall operate a hang glider or an ultra-light aeroplane


        (c) subject to subsections (2) and (3), in controlled airspace;


    (2) A person may operate a hang glider or an ultra-light aeroplane in controlled airspace

        (a) within five nautical miles from the centre of an airport or heliport or within a control zone of an uncontrolled airport where the personh as obtained permission from the airport or heliport operator;

        (b) within a control zone of a controlled airport where the person has obtained an air traffic control clearance by two-way radio voice communication from the air traffic control unit of the airport;


    (3) A person may operate a hang glider in Class E airspace where

        (a) the pilot

            (i) is at least 16 years of age,

            (ii) is in possession of a Category 1, 3 or 4 medical certificate, and

            (iii) has obtained a grade of not less than 60 per cent on a Department of Transport written examination pertaining to the Canadia Aviation Regulations, air traffic procedures, flight instruments, navigation, flight operations and human factors respecting hang glider operations in Class E airspace;