It’s been a record breaking year for wildfires. They still rage in California and other locations. This seldom taught topic in aviation almost caught me in a trap this Summer as I was flying in the smoke. Others weren’t so lucky, and there were some accidents.
In this podcast we will discuss:
- My encounter with smoke on a trip from Anchorage to Homer
- Illusions, physical issues and observations on flying in smoke
- Why we need to avoid the smoke
- The added layer of TFRs that pop up for firefighting efforts
This may seem like an odd topic, but I’m hoping it reaches the ears and eyes of those that could benefit from the knowledge of the future. I learned that smoke is no joke and is very dangerous.
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On this episode of AviatorCast, the dangers and tips of flying airplanes in smoke.
Welcome, aviators, to another episode of AviatorCast. Load up your flight bag with useful flight training topics, interviews in aviation passion. Let’s kick the tires and light the fires. Coming to you from Angle of Attack headquarters in Homer, Alaska, here’s your host and flight instructor, Chris Palmer.
All right. Welcome, everyone, to another episode of AviatorCast. This is a novelty subject that we are going to discuss today. It may not take up the entire half hour, but it’s actually come to the forefront again because of the recent wildfires in California. I felt like this was a good podcast to do as a safety warning, because I noticed that there was a major gap in flight training on this particular subject.
We are going to talk about flying airplanes in smoke, the dangers around it, and the things that you’ll want to think about. I have a couple examples myself, some stories from this summer. Then, of course, this has become relevant again because there are lots of wildfires in California right now. I feel like this episode is going to help someone at some point, and I just felt like I needed to talk about it.
Have you ever flown in smoke yourself? Have you flown around it? You’ll probably know where I’m going with this if you have. Are you in an area where wildfires can happen? If you are, which is most places, this is definitely something that you’re going to want to pay attention to.
Let’s talk about those wildfires, okay? This summer we had one of the largest wildfires on record in Alaska. It’s actually right here near my hometown. It’s on what’s called the Kenai Peninsula, just 70 miles north is where the fire was from where I live, which is actually very close in terms of how pervasive that smoke can be.
Burned a gigantic area, huge, huge area, and it burned for a very long time. The fire started in the beginning of June and it didn’t go out until August. It just burned, and burned, and burned. Smoldered at one point, they thought it was out, but then it bolstered back up and just caused a lot of issues.
As many of you know, I did a project this summer with my friend Josh Flowers from Aviation101. He and I were flying around Alaska quite a bit and dealing with this smoke here and there. At one time we flew past that fire that I’m referring to, and it looked like a thunderstorm. They call it a pyrocumulus cloud. It was such a huge cloud. It looked like a volcanic eruption or a thunderstorm. It was massive. There’s just so much smoke coming off of that fire. But, it was just staying in a normal looking cloud with good visibility around it.
We battled with visibility here and there as the smoke is moving here and there throughout, but we only had two situations. Actually, he and I only had one situation where it actually became really bad. Then I had a situation by myself.
The first situation was when we were coming back from Bettles. Bettles is above the Arctic Circle. It’s in a very remote area. We were flying from there, and I was trying to get Josh back to Anchorage for his flight out after the few weeks that he spent here.
There were a lot of fires in Fairbanks, which is a different fire, but they were blowing the smoke toward the mountains and things that we were going through. The visibility is already reduced a little bit, but then, to make matters worse, the weather was also marginal, so we ended up getting smoke that was mixing with rainy weather. You would think that the rain would knock down the smoke, but it doesn’t do it that well, at least if it’s really pervasive.
We’d get reduced visibility plus reduces ability of the smoke, and it made for a pretty precarious situation in terms of being able to see the terrain, which is going to come up in my next story. We ended up having to take a completely different route. We literally took a 90-degree turn and just went towards lower terrain, took a longer path to get out of where we were, because it wasn’t working. The visibility got too low, and we didn’t want to get to the point where we are risking a CFIT accident, which is controlled flight into terrain. Basically, flying into a mountain. The visibility was just getting too low. That smoke mixing with weather wasn’t working well.
We got Josh down to Anchorage, and ended our few weeks of very busy flying, flying all over the state. He and I, or rather I, flew the airplane alone back home. While Josh was here, it rained a little bit and knocked down the fire that was on the Kenai Peninsula, and the visibility was fairly good. However, overnight and that morning, the fire had started back up in full force. There was a lot of wind, and so it was spreading out all of that smoke into the entire Anchorage/Kenai Peninsula/Homer area. The entire area was full of smoke.
It was basically a normal day. Everything looked fine, normal weather. There wasn’t any marginal weather or anything, but the wind just started to blow this smoke all around. The weather reports were fine. There wasn’t a reduction in visibility on the METAR, or anything. There wasn’t cloud ceilings, there wasn’t fog reported. Nothing. The weather systems don’t report smoke that well. They’re not designed to report smoke that well.
Anyway, I departed VFR. I was VFR, and I was legal VFR, but I can tell you right now that the smoke was like flying on instruments. It was crazy. I ended up taking off out of Anchorage. I had visual reference enough to to follow the land, and I heard some pilot reports that said that it cleared up at about 6,000 feet. I wanted to get higher anyway to climb for gliding distance over water. I climbed up to 6,000 feet. I avoided terrain, flew away from the fire to go down along the coastline.
As I did so, I lost visual reference with the shorelines and with any object on the ground. It’s basically just smoke. White smoke. You couldn’t really tell which way was which. However, there still was a bit of a horizon because of the way the smoke spreads out. There’s a bit of a horizon. I anticipated that it was a false horizon. I leveled off, and I was flying toward Kenai and flying away from the fire to follow the coastline down to Homer. This is where things got really spooky and interesting.
I was flying straight and level. I was flying toward Kenai. There’s this visual illusion. I don’t know if it was light refraction or something off the smoke particles, but I was sitting in the plane and looking ahead, and it felt like I was rotating like a spindle. I wasn’t turning. I wasn’t banking. It felt like I was just spinning in a circle. Staying at altitude, not banking at all, but just spinning, almost like a merry-go-round. Not a … Is it a merry-go-round? Carousel. Like a carousel ride, going around like that, or like spinning a plate. It was like spinning a plate with an airplane on top of it.
Anyway, it was this visual illusion I’d never seen before. It wasn’t really disorientation, it was all visual. It just felt so weird. I kept looking at my instruments like, “Okay, what’s going on here? It looks like I’m spinning at a pretty rapid rate,” maybe like one revolution every 10 seconds. That’s pretty fast, to go 360 degrees in 10 seconds. It looked pretty fast. It was just spinning around.
I was looking at my instruments. Nothing was happening. Nothing had failed on the instruments. Everything cross-checked fine. It didn’t pan out very well for what it should have been. A lot of things started to happen that just were alarming to me because they’ve never been talked about before. Never heard them come up before.
I saw those visual illusions. I didn’t have reference with the ground. I ended up deciding to descend down, which is fine. It wasn’t like I was descending in the weather, I was descending through smoke. I’m descended down. Ended up getting visual reference with the ground to where … Actually the closer I was to the ground the better, because I could get better visual reference with the coastline, which I followed down to Homer. Did so in good visual conditions. Everything was a little bit better.
Just felt like I did not have the tools to tell me that it was going to be that bad, or that there was the knowledge out there, the training out there, to tell me, “Hey, this is a pretty serious matter. You’re not going to have the tools, you’re not going to have these things to help you, and it’s going to be very confusing and feel like instrument flying,” while still being legal VFR technically. It was just a strange situation.
I got home. Then when I got home, I got on Facebook and saw that there was a prominent accident. By prominent, I mean there was an accident just 20 miles into the mountains, actually, from where I was flying. I flew over what’s called the Turnagain Arm, before it really gets to the mountains. I flew over the Turnagain Arm just south of Anchorage, and avoided the mountains and flew west.
There was another accident of someone that had flown into the mountains. They’re flying in some pretty serious mountainous terrain, even in VFR conditions. They ended up crashing, having a CFIT into the mountain, straight into the mountain, and killed three people. One person survived, very luckily, but they basically went straight into a mountain and pancaked. He might’ve seen the mountain last second and tried to pull up, and that’s why maybe there was enough dissipated energy to save that one passenger.
This is a very experienced, well-renowned pilot. I felt like this was a danger for the area, because no one had talked to me about this before. No one had talked about flying in smoke. Smoke, actually, for Alaska, is a bit of a rarity because we do get so much rain, we just happened to have the driest summer ever and it never rained enough to put out that fire. No one was used to it. I just felt like I had to take a step back and really evaluate what was going on and say, “Hey, this is serious.”
I got on Facebook, I wrote this big, long warning, public service announcement, to some of the Alaska groups. Just said, “Hey, you guys need to avoid this smoke at all costs, and here’s why.” Went through and did that. Pretty long post. That is actually when I saw that there was that accident in the mountains just near where I was.
It really made me question, even though it was VFR going flying in that, because it was different. It wasn’t even like rain. It wasn’t even like clouds, because suddenly you can get into a thicker part of the smoke without even knowing it, and then you really can’t see much. Then you get different false horizons.
I think that’s what ended up happening in this accident, is they had pretty okay visibility, probably, and they were flying through a valley. But the way the smoke particles suspend in the air is probably blowing around a corner. The smoke particles, they stay in the air. They’re not like rain that can fall, or mist that is falling slowly. They’re actually staying in the air. I think what happened is the smoke went around a valley corner and, as he came around a corner, he just went into nothing. Just all of a sudden went into nothing. It’s just a different situation this very experienced Alaskan pilot wasn’t used to, and that caused the accident.
That’s my stories of the smoke. It was a big wake up call for me. Ended up not flying for a while, not because I was scared, but because the smoke stayed so pervasive that I wasn’t going to sign anyone off to go on their solo cross countries. I wasn’t going to have students fly in that stuff. Everything just stopped for a little bit while the smoke cleared over the next several weeks, really month, really six weeks. It was still very pervasive.
Why is flying in fires so dangerous? The, maybe, lessons learned that I pulled out from this almost right away, it can’t be reported by weather stations well. They’re made to detect the weather in different ways, and it’s not smoke. They’re detecting temperatures and dew points, and I don’t know if they have lasers involved or something, but they’re detecting the ceilings in different ways. Anyway, it’s made to detect weather, not smoke. Then you end up getting VFR-reported weather. You think everything’s fine and you can easily get into it.
Smoke moves different than wind. I talked about that with that example. Those particulates just stay in the air differently, and they do not go away. It’s very hard for smoke to blow away. Really the only way for it to go away is for rain to come in and wash it out, which is a lot of rain and be able to do that, a lot of rain over several days. Or it takes just that fire being out for a while and for the natural flow of the air just to spread it where it needs to go.
The wind, as you know, can shift at any moment. with the wind are those very … This is very unscientific. I don’t even know, but this is just a guess, the wind can easily move those very light particulates of what is creating the smoke. I’m not sure what it is. I’m not sure what those particulates are. Little pieces of ash, I’m sure. If you’ve ever seen, like from a campfire, a piece of ash just catch thermals and it just stays in the air forever, imagine what something microscopic that size would do that really doesn’t have a lot of weight to it to have the gravity bring it down. I can see why all that stuff would just stay in the air. Those aren’t really falling, they’re just staying in the air.
Here’s another one. I forgot about this. The air quality was really bad during that flight. I landed and I had a huge headache. It was noticeable how bad of a headache I had, how much of an effect that low air quality had on my respiratory system. Then, of course, on giving me a headache. That couldn’t have been good.
The visual illusions, that was crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m a fairly experienced instrument pilot. I’ve never seen anything like that before. It’s not like any of the visual illusions that are in the books. I was verifying with my instruments and everything during the process, and more curious about what was happening than anything, but it’s just really amazing. Anyway, it’s not reported as IMC, and there isn’t really any training out there out there on flying in smoke.
One other thing, or several other things with smoke, but when we’re dealing with fires as well … I’ve talked about a lot of the dangers, and I think by now you can see that flying in smoke just isn’t a good idea. You got to be super careful, especially around mountainous terrain. Just be very, very, very careful. There’s not a lot of knowledge out here on this, and you really don’t believe it until you see it. It’s so different, especially when you’re in the air. It’s just so, so different.
Another thing we have to deal with is TFRs, one of the common uses of TFRs, or temporary flight restrictions, which is a restricted airspace for a short amount of time. Of course, we have the POTUS ones where the president’s in town, and they got to shut down the airspace for safety reasons, but one of the most common reasons is fires.
We as pilots need to be very, very diligent to make sure we aren’t flying in the TFRs that are around fires. People fly drones in TFRs, just being idiots. It became such a problem this summer for Alaska that they actually had an ad on the radio that was talking to pilots. Just on the public radio, talking to pilots about avoiding TFRs because so many pilots were flying through them. They basically didn’t know about them or that it existed.
Anyway, I just thought that was really interesting. TFRs, they are there for the fires to protect the firefighting crews from the air to just do what they want in the airspace. They’re often flying very erratic. They don’t want to be looking for other aircraft to avoid collisions. They just want to do their job, which is a very dangerous job, close to the ground in that smoke. They’re actively in the smoke. We need to avoid that as pilots of general aviation, civil aviation. They’re going to keep everyone away from that.
Basically the air bosses that are in charge of that area, they’ll actually have a temporary airspace there. They’ll have someone on frequency that’s guiding the tankers, or the boss of the air. It’s almost like an air show as well in that sense, where they’re controlling that area for a short amount of time.
Anyway, you got to be really careful with that. Give them space. Don’t fly through those TFRs. I just saw another tip from Cal Fire, I guess they are, in California, because California is on fire right now. There’s a lot going on. You guys have mountains too. Be very careful. They were saying that even if you see a fire and avoiding it, even if there isn’t a TFR, you need to stay away because it’s very likely that the aircraft will already be in there. He said, “Stay 10 miles away from the fires if you see one.”
A good thing to do is also to report fires if you see them, especially en route. I know I used to do this all the time. I’d be flying over the Grand Canyon, and of course they’re very sensitive about having big fires there. I’d report fires if I saw them. Sometimes they’re already reported, sometimes they weren’t, but that’s something that you can tell the controllers on flight following, and that’s usually pretty helpful for them and for everybody. Okay, that’s the official component to it, the airspace component to it, is the TFRs.
My closing thoughts on this is, just be safe. I’ve talked to you about the fact that it was basically instrument conditions even though it was technically VFR. It looks very different. It feels very different. It gives you a headache. It’s not worth messing with.
I don’t think I would be any better, I know I wouldn’t be any better, than that man that crashed in the mountain if I was in that same situation, because it just is what it is. It’s frustrating that he was there but it’s also understandable, because he’s probably very experienced flying in low weather conditions like that. But this isn’t weather, this is smoke. It acts very differently.
Pay attention to the TFRs. Avoid terrain altogether. Don’t even get close. Really just think twice about flying in smoke. I know this is an outlier, weird subject to talk about, but it’s just different. It was just so different, and I felt like I needed to, from a safety standpoint, reach out and share with you, the community, that you need to watch out for this because it’s very different.
This is a tool for you to use to know about it. There you go. Do with it what you want, but I think that it’s a pretty serious situation, and I wish all of you in those areas the best of luck. Hopefully avoid any loss of property, and hopefully get back to some clear blue skies soon. It’s a tough situation. We’re lucky enough where it was just burning the wilderness, but it was very close to turning wind directions and taking out an entire town. It can do that very quickly.
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