A VFR Flight can quickly change to IFR

Every year we encounter fires and this year they have increased dramatically and started earlier. Along with the damage on the ground, the production of large amounts of smoke and heat is significant. Some of the fires are generating their own weather which can produce visibility concerns plus lightning and significant turbulence.

The smoke is an irritant to our lungs, so if you have Oxygen, use it. Smoke also contains ash and even live embers, which are additional hazards to aviation engines.

While a thorough weather briefing will indicate current and forecast smoke potential, shifting winds could quickly change the impact on even a well-planned flight. As many pilots have found out with smoke and haze the inflight visibility can deteriorate quickly.

Smoke and Haze… Technically VFR, But…

Recently, on a flight from Utah to Paine Field, as we crossed the Cascades and started heading to Paine Field in late afternoon, all airport METARs were reporting VFR, some with light smoke and haze. However, the smoke and haze made it impossible to see other aircraft or anything other than straight down. This would have been a very hazardous situation for anyone flying VFR, and even those flying IFR had risk if they encountered a VFR airplane that was not equipped with ADS-B. ATC advised us of VFR traffic, but we were in effect in IMC, and asked for vectors to avoid all VFR traffic they could see.


Screenshot from fireweatheravalanche.org

Normally there are see and be seen benefits to flying with the landing light and strobes on during the daytime. However, they don’t do much good in smoke and haze. Think about it.

If you are flying VFR plan on how you can safely alter your flight if encountering these conditions. Getting Flight Following from ATC is your safest option, but in smoky conditions ATC may be at max workload and unable to provide service. When on an IFR approach, be prepared to execute a missed approach if you do not have good visual contact at minimums.

One flight I had from Boise to KPAE, I was in the smoke in IMC conditions all the way until at minimums (500 ft AGL, 1 mi visibility) on approach to 34L. At that time (with KPAE reporting 1 mile visibility, indefinite ceiling) I heard a pilot asking tower for Special VFR departure! How wise or safe was that?

You can start a descent and have visual contact with the airport and meet VFR minimums, then lose sight of your destination quickly. This is another good reason to maintain situational awareness (SA) and plan ahead. If you are VFR always plan on how you can safely abort an approach if this happens. On an IFR approach, be prepared to execute a missed approach if you lose visual contact at minimums.

To help with your flight planning during the fire season, there are some good resources in addition to our aviation weather briefings. I review fire.airnow.gov which provides an excellent visual tool for evaluating fire and smoke situations. Also remember to check TFR’s, not only before departure but also during your flight as conditions could change quickly due to smoke and fire conditions. You don’t want to be in the same airspace as our firefighting colleagues, for obvious reasons.

Screenshot from ForeFlight Web
Screenshot from fire.airnow.gov

If you do see a fire, reporting it to ATC can save expanding damage. If you use the ForeFlight app and can triangulate the fire, or measure the distance on a nearby VOR radial, provide that information to ATC for more precise location. Also note the color of the smoke (grey, black, etc.). If it has already been reported, great, if not your call is even more beneficial.