This past Friday, I flew N53045 to Niagara Falls. It was a fun and easy trip, and the views were amazing (more photos on my Flickr page). I know that many EHFC members have already made that trip, but I thought I would post a detailed description of my experience for the benefit of those who haven’t and are thinking about going there sometime. So, what follows is the “For Dummies” description of how to do the trip, or at least of how I did it.
When I was planning the trip, I was a little concerned that it might involve complications due to the unique procedure for flying the Falls and the proximity of the Canadian border. However, as I said, it turned out to be very easy.
Basically, there is a special procedure in place for touring Niagara Falls from the air. You can find the details in the Airport/Facility Directory, currently pages 370/371. Reading these pages reveals that you are allowed to overfly the falls at or above 3500ft, in a clockwise pattern that technically takes you into Canada for a little while. There is a CTAF for the pattern so you can announce your position. The other important thing to note on the diagram is the restricted area on the US side where you may not descend below 3500 ft; more on that later.
I read the A/FD instructions in depth and I also looked at a satellite view of the area on Google Maps. This was very helpful in giving me an idea of the landmarks to watch for; in fact, the pattern drawn in the A/FD is not quite proportioned right. What you fly is much closer to a circle than the elongated racetrack shape they give. There is also a river/canal on the Canadian side to the south and west of the pattern, providing a natural boundary. Yes, all of this turned out to be overplanning as the pattern is very easy to fly, but I still wanted to highlight Google Maps as a valuable resource for planning VFR trips with unique navigational procedures.
Otherwise, I planned the flight as I would any other cross-country, with IAG as the destination. I decided to go on a weekday figuring there would be less traffic over the falls. On the day of the flight itself, I got a weather briefing and everything looked good. So, we got in the plane and off we went. In Ithaca, I requested flight following “to Niagara Falls”, figuring I would save the description of my full intentions for Buffalo Approach.
The flight was fun and uneventful. We climbed to 6500 feet, for a better view and to stay out of the way of any local traffic. The views were pretty; we saw a good number of the Finger Lakes, Geneseo and their grass runway, and eventually (despite our 20+ knot headwind!) arrived in the vicinity of Buffalo. On the radio, I was first talking to Elmira, then Rochester, and finally Buffalo Approach.
When I got handed off to Buffalo Approach, I descended to 4500 feet and described my intentions (tour the falls, then land at IAG). The controller was helpful; also, there was hardly anyone else on the frequency so he had lots of time to talk with me. He double-checked that I was familiar with the procedure for touring the “Scenic Falls” – that seems to be the term the locals use, which makes sense since too many things are called “Niagara Falls” in the area. I got vectored around a little bit to keep me out of the way of BUF arrivals, but soon I was allowed to descend to 3500ft and proceed direct to the Scenic Falls.
I flew west along the river at that point; the falls were soon in sight – there is a very obvious point on the horizon where the river “ends” and there is a white plume rising into the air :). The Buffalo Approach controller instructed me to switch to the CTAF (122.05) but keep my squawk code, and to contact Niagara Tower when done with the falls tour. (More radio terminology: IAG is referred to as just “Niagara”, as in “Niagara Tower”, “Niagara Ground”, etc.).
And then we were over the falls! On the CTAF, I announced my position and altitude before entering the pattern. I heard two other voices on the frequency, these were the pilots of helicopters doing the “official” tours below 3500ft. I saw one of these helicopters, well below me and “hanging out” near the Horseshoe Falls. I wasn’t too sure what CTAF calls to make so I just called twice per “orbit” – once at the railroad yard turning north, and once at the Rainbow Bridge turning south. There was no-one else in the pattern at my altitude.
I flew the pattern three times, once to get oriented and twice more to admire the falls. What can I say; as you see from the photos, the sights are incredible. Walker got a much better view than I did, of course, sitting on the right side. It was amazing to be able to fly almost directly over the falls and see the rainbow effects from the sunlight on the mist.
When we had had enough, I switched to the Niagara Tower frequency and called inbound. They advised me to enter a right downwind for 24, but reminded me to remain above 3500 ft until clear of the restricted area. This was the part which I had not properly anticipated; basically, to land at IAG coming from the falls, you need to lose 3000 feet of altitude very quickly — and in my case, even quicker due to a strong west wind. I realized it would be tricky and requested “a left 360 or similar maneuver to lose altitude”. Niagara Tower advised me to extend my downwind as necessary instead. I did that and landed successfully on 24.
At IAG, I was a bit concerned about the taxiing; if you look at the diagram, they have multiple taxiways permanently closed, as well as some additional runway and taxiway closures and name changes announced by NOTAM. Fortunately it wasn’t hard, since landing on 24 I was able to turn off directly to the FBO on taxiway H.
At that point, it was just about noon so we went for lunch at a diner in the vicinity — Salisa’s All American Diner, maybe 10 minutes’ walking distance. The food was good, and I would definitely eat there again. We came back to the FBO, where they had fueled our plane in the meantime at my request, and we were ready to go back to Ithaca. Niagara Ground assigned me a somewhat unexpected runway for departure given the wind conditions (possibly to save taxi-related time and confusion?) but it wasn’t unsafe and I had no trouble dealing with the takeoff. The trip back was also simple; this time, we had to do it at 3500 feet due to increasing cumulus clouds with bases somewhere in the 4000’s. We had a tailwind now, so before we knew it we were back in Ithaca.
On the trip, I logged 2.1 hours going there (headwind + falls tour) and 1.2 hours coming back. Again, it was easy, completely trouble-free and a very worthwhile experience. It made me realize how lucky we are to have such a scenic attraction within easy day-trip distance from Ithaca. I would recommend this to anyone looking for a fun cross-country trip, whether with family/friends or even alone.