I have just returned from the Canadian Paragliding Nationals of 2017, held this past week in Pemberton, B.C. Organised by Guy Herrington of Sea to Sky Paragliding, the event went very well. My role was to organise VHF radio communications for the event. Some other time I want to tell the backstory of how we chose commercial VHF frequencies over amateur radio frequencies for the comp. But here, I wish to lay out the range of communications tools we used. This forms a record, and may be a useful reference for others planning free flight competitions.


The competition took place over a roughly 50km length of the Pemberton valley, from roughly Hurley Pass Road in the northwest to Duffey Lake Road and the head of Lillooet Lake in the southeast, and from one side of the valley to the other. Cellular phone service, with internet data, was available in about half of this valley length on the southeast end. Our race HQ, several of our landing zones, and our launch zone on Mt Mackenzie had cell phone service. Many of our turnpoints and some of our landing zones up-valley did not.

Canadian Paragliding Nationals setting map, Pemberton

Our race headquarters was generously hosted by the Black Squirrel restaurant, of the Meadows at Pemberton golf course. The Pemberton airport (CYPS) was adjacent to our HQ, and its 2NM-radius zone fell entirely within our competition boundaries.

There were approximately 100 pilots participating in the competition. There were also about 100 volunteers helping with various aspects of the competition. A substantial fraction of the volunteers were also paraglider pilots, and snuck in flights when the competitors didn’t need the launch or landing zones. Generally, volunteers who flew had to have the same communication equipment of competitors.  A fraction of our pilots were from Canada, a fraction were from the USA, and a fraction were from some 18 other countries from Taiwan to Russia.


What we wanted from our communications was safe and efficient operation of the competition. This included:

  • knowing where pilots were as they flew the task
  • finding out if pilots had difficulty during the race: throwing a reserve, landing in the bush, being injured
  • responding to pilots who landed in the bush, and providing medical help, extraction from trees or steep terrain, etc. as necessary
  • for pilots who landed out from the designated landing zone (a lot of them; a task which only 40% of pilots could complete was considered a good level of difficulty, meaning 6% of pilots would land out).
  • dispatching our “retrieve” fleet, trucks and vans which met pilots where they landed, and brought them and their gear back to HQ
  • delivering pilots and volunteers to the launch site, a 40-minute drive up very bumpy forestry roads, using several trucks and vans
  • sending announcements and coordination messages to pilots and volunteers

The event ran from 22.–29. July, 2017.

Satellite-based communications

We required each pilot to carry a GPS-based real-time tracking beacon, such as a SPOT personal messager or DeLorme InReach. These devices use a GPS receiver to determine their latitude, longitude, and altitude fairly precisely. Every 10 minutes or so, they send a message with this location to a network of satellites. The satellites relayed the message to the beacon’s provider. The provider made those positions available over the internet. Every part of our competition area was served by these beacon’s satellites.

Additionally, each device had a way for the pilot to send a few preset messages, such as “landed OK”, “landed, need help”, or “SOS, need emergency assistance”. Pilots sent one of these messages when they landed. That let our retrieve team know both where they were, and whether they needed any urgent assistance.

These devices served us very well. We found that pilots were quite willing to buy and use them. They have become a rite of passage for free flight pilots advanced enough to be doing cross-country flights and this sort of world-level competitions.

The DeLorme InReach, when set up with the right service plan, provided a way to send and receive free-form text messages. One of our retrieve drivers used this effectively to get dispatches from HQ, even when out of mobile phone service.

Mobile telephone service, including WhatsApp on mobile internet

We expected every pilot to carry a smartphone mobile phone, mostly iPhone or Android phone, which worked on Canadian carriers. A few people used these for text messages or mobile phone calls. Mostly, we relied on these phones providing mobile internet connectivity, using cellular data service or Wi-Fi as the environment permitted.

We asked every competitor and volunteer to set up the WhatsApp messager app on their phone.  This app provides text messaging, and if required voice or video calls, over the device’s mobile internet connection. It is very popular among paragliding pilots in South America, and it worked well for us here.  We made several WhatsApp groups, one for competition announcements to pilots, one for announcements to volunteers, and one for coordinating each day’s retrieve.

VHF mobile radio

Getting a VHF mobile transceiver, and the licence to go with it, has been a rite of passage for free flight pilots starting to do cross-country flights. For ordinary flying, this is typically an amateur band radio, available from many makers for economical prices. Industry Canada requires amateur band radios used in Canada to meet their standards, and to be certified by Industry Canada for that use. They do not charge a licence fee. However, operators must have an amateur radio licence from Canada or a reciprocating country, and operators must use proper radio procedure and phraseology. My belief is that, like amateur radio operators in general, paraglider pilots often buy cost-effective radio equipment even if it has no Industry Canada certification. I also believe that paraglider pilots in remote areas (such as Pemberton) often use amateur frequencies without proper radio procedure, and sometimes even without a licence.

We did not use amateur radio for any of our competition communications. Instead, we licensed commercial-band VHF frequencies from Industry Canada. We set up four channels:

  1. Task, 173.64000 MHz, for air-air and air-ground use for matters affecting pilots while flying during tasks.
  2. Secondary, 173.32500 MHz, as an alternate if there were problems with any other channel. We did not use it, in the event.
  3. Retrieve, 172.33500 MHz, for pilots to call if they landed out and retrieve didn’t find them quickly.
  4. Emergency, 171 .13500 MHz, as an alternate to work a long-duration rescue, keeping the Task channel clear. We did not use it, in the event.

Industry Canada tells me that they have designated 173.64000 MHz as the preferred channel for pilots and groups or clubs to licence for air-air and air-ground free flight use. They discourage the use of amateur channels from aircraft, because of the risk of surprisingly long propagation from an airborne station, and thus interference with other users. Industry Canada could not point me to one of their own documents identifying 173.64000 MHz for competition use, but they did point me to an HPAC Radio Information webpage describing 173.64’s special purpose.

The competition director made a decision that only a few pilots were to transmit on the task frequency during normal operations. Pilots who knew the local terrain and conditions were designated to give condition reports. Comp directors would transmit instructions. Most pilots would listen only. This lowered our licensing requirements: instead of 100-200 possible handsets to licence, we estimated a total of 20, across pilots, comp directors, and ground-based volunteers. Of course, in an emergency situation, those limits were raised, and we expected that a wider range of pilots would transmit regarding the emergency.

Industry Canada requires that radio sets used on commercial VHF frequencies be certified by Industry Canada for that use. One of the certification requirements is that the radio not be able to be programmed in the field, only by technicians using special equipment. I believe that some radio users, including some paraglider pilots, modify amateur-band radios to extend to the 173.xx MHz channels, for instance by cutting a jumper or reprogramming a frequency limit setting. I believe that such radios cannot not meet Industry Canada’s certification requirements.

As part of licensing our use of these four frequencies, Industry Canada required us to give the specific make and model of the handsets we would use. We explained that we were encouraging participants to bring their own radios, and we couldn’t tell in advance which makes and models they would be. Industry Canada then asked us to specify one example make and model. We decided to rent six IC-certified commercial handsets from a local vendor, Canada Wide Communications. This gave us a foundation of reliable VHF radio equipment, and also a specific make and model to report to Industry Canada. The total cost to rent these six handsets for a week was under C$200.

Industry Canada charges a licence fee for mobile handheld transceivers using commercial VHF frequencies.  This fee is per transceiver, and covers all frequencies that unit might use. (Stationery transmitters are different, they pay a fee for each  frequency on which they transmit.) The fee is $3.40 per month, or $41 per year, so the total cost for our 20 handsets was under C$70.

Having received the make and model of our IC-certified foundational handsets, IC tactfully refrained from asking any further about other makes and models that would comprise our 20 licensed units.

A further advantage of using commercial VHF frequencies is that we had no particular requirement that our radio operators have a particular radio license, or that we use a particular phraseology or radio procedure or call sign on the air. This is in contrast to the amateur radio frequencies, which require all of those.

VHF air band radios

The Pemberton airport was right in the midst of our operating area. Most days, weather conditions dictated that we fly from our launch site up the valley to the northwest, so away from the airport.  We had arranged for the village of Pemberton to allow us to land at the airport for one 3-hour window, 15-18h on Saturday 29. July. However, winds were too rowdy that day, and competition flying was scrubbed. There was a proposal to have a task where we would fly southeast, past the airport, to the Lillooet Lake Rodeo grounds. That too was made infeasible by winds. So, we didn’t have critical interaction with the airport’s control zone.

Nevertheless, while tasks were running, I maintained a listening watch on the Pemberton Airport’s aerodrome traffic frequency (ATF), 123.2 MHz. I have an air band VHF handheld transceiver, and the requisite aviation radio licence to use it. When I heard aircraft approaching or departing the airport from the south or east, I made calls announcing “extensive paraglider activity from 5nm-20nm northwest of the airport, surface to 12,500 MSL”. I used the call sign “Paragliding Ground”, and addressed my calls either to “Pemberton Traffic” or to a specific aircraft.

There was a NOTAM for the duration of our event, describing the boundaries of our airspace and designating it a CYA(H) hang-glider advisory airspace.  This was in the Flight Information Radio (FIR) file, instead of the Pemberton Airport file, so it was a bit tricky to locate.  But from comments on air by transient fixed-wing pilots, it is clear that at least some of them found that NOTAM.

There was also a NOTAM announcing the runway closure, and paragliding activity, for 15-18h Saturday. That NOTAM was in the Pemberton Aiport file (actually, “CYVR Pemberton”). It appeared 48 hours in advance, and was closed early Saturday once we cancelled the day’s comp flying.

We did not require or expect competition participants to bring aviation band radios. Most people would not have them: in other countries, paragliding activity happens on amateur bands or land mobile commercial bands, not on aviation bands. Aviation-band radios are more expensive and heavier than the transceivers paraglider pilots normally buy. Since aviation VHF bands use AM signals, and amateur and commercial VHF bands use FM signal, it’s very unusual for one unit to be able to serve two purposes.