Forest fires vs. VFR flying

I read the story on Air Facts where the pilot described an early flight into clouds where he (and the airplane) did fine, but his passenger in the rear seat developed vertigo and was a major distraction, terrified that they were spiraling out of control. It was an interesting twist to the complex world of IFR in personal aircraft and it took me back to an experience I had in the early 80s.

Like many stories, this one is multi-part and to fully understand, I have to give you both parts so it makes sense. Overall, however, it is important for me to tell you that the whole event was a watershed to my flying, and everything about flying changed for me from then on.

Forest fire
Forest fires are very good at restricting visibility.

It was a weekend trip in late autumn from Northern Virginia (Leesburg Municipal; EYQ back then) to Connecticut to visit my parents; up on a Friday and back on Sunday. I was about a 300 hour VFR private pilot flying a rented 172.

The flight up was uneventful and the time with family was good. On Sunday I checked with FSS early in the morning and picked up a very favorable weather report; good VFR all the way down to Leesburg. Looking out the window, the local weather was fine with not a cloud in the sky and light surface winds. This lulled me into feeling very confident about the flight and I did not give the weather another thought.

We departed as planned and I reached a cruising altitude of 6,500 but I had already noticed that there was a lot of haze. The cloudless skies continued, but I realized that I could only see the ground looking straight down. It was disconcerting but the total lack of clouds seemed to contradict any worries that there was a problem with the flight.

I motored along and realized I had not opened my VFR flight plan, so I started the dialog with the local FSS. I was shocked when they responded that the weather in the area where I was reported to be IFR. I really did not know what to do. Looking out the window, it was a cloudless, but admittedly, extremely hazy day. I continued along while I pondered this new development.

I thought it might be a good idea to get above the haze so I set up a climb to 10,500 where I was above the layer. Now there was 4,000 more feet between us and the ground and it was no longer visible at all. This, of course, elevated the pucker factor dramatically.

After about twenty minutes of flying along trying to figure out what to do, I decided it was probably best to get out of the air. By now I was over Northern New Jersey and using the sectional I picked out an airport to head towards and started a descent back into the murk. I closed the VFR plan on the way down.

I did not have a clue about IFR approaches, but I improvised a plan to fly a VOR radial that pointed to the airport and monitor a second VOR to track my progress. It worked out just fine and, sure enough, the airport came into sight with pretty good visibility through the haze. There were actually quite good VFR conditions in the area I was in. I landed and shut down the airplane and explained to my wife that we would get an early start in the morning and be back at work in D.C. by noon, Monday.

The airport did not have any services, but a friendly soul drove us to the nearest hotel about five miles away and we settled in and tried to make the best of it for the afternoon and evening.

This trip was no longer routine at all, we were not quite halfway home and out in the middle of nowhere without ground transport and few options. I did discover later that evening the cause of all the haze. It was smoke from a very large forest fire in West Virginia. I also learned that my destination was great VFR and had I just continued on top” we would have made it home without difficulty.

Thus begins part 2.

I woke up early and opened the curtains and my heart sank. What I saw was as IFR as a day could be: low gray angry looking clouds with a persistent cold rain. I called FSS and got the confirming bad news from them as well. This was weather that was going to stay around a while. With the bad forecast, there was nothing to do but wait it out. It was pretty bleak. There was a single lousy restaurant walking distance and absolutely nothing to do except watch the TV and check the weather every couple of hours.

Tuesday morning was depressingly the same. FSS had no good news for me at all. I realized that I had to go to Plan B–that is, I had to create a Plan-B! I started to call around and try to find an IFR rated pilot who was willing to fly us home and we would reimburse his return airfare and transport back home. Naturally, this was a frightfully expensive proposition, and, of course, there was the daily minimum for holding the rental airplane plus the hotel and meals. My wife was busy tallying up the costs and fretting about this unplanned expenditure.

I succeeded in finding an instructor at a nearby airport, about 20 miles away who was willing to take this challenge on. We agreed to fly early Wednesday morning, but I had to prepare to scud run the 20 miles to get to him.

Early Wednesday morning, we checked out of the hotel and had a taxi take us to the airplane. There was a ceiling at about 1,400 or so with a solid gray overcast spitting very cold rain. The visibility under the clouds was great, and my new instructor assured me the run to pick him up was going to be no problem.

He was right. In short order, I was at his airport and we sat down in the pilots lounge to work out the plan. He checked out the airplane and it met his, and the legal requirements, for the IFR flight, so he called in an IFR plan. He told me that since I was paying for his time, we might as well make it an instructional flight and I would do the flying from the left seat. We loaded up the airplane; my wife now sitting in the back seat all bundled up with some bathrobes fished out of our luggage. The three days we had been there, the temperature had dropped consistently and it was now in the upper 30’s.

The Six Pack instruments
How did a simple VFR flight turn into actual IFR?

So we launched into the sky and I prepared to enter clouds for the first time. Almost immediately we started to pick up ice. The accretion rate was slow and another pilot in the sector told us that the air was warmer above 5,000 feet, so we climbed up to our assigned altitude (I think 6,000). Sure enough the little ice we had accumulated started to shed off and my new best friend in the right seat began to relax.

He was doing all the navigating and handling communications with ATC and I was busy with my first real IFR experience. In truth, I was having the time of my life.

We flew south in and out of layers of clouds, had a few more icing encounters, but nothing that caused any changes to plan. About 90 minutes later we set up for a VOR approach into Leesburg, all the time with me taking directions from the right seat. We descended and sure enough started to pick up some light ice, but my instructor was not too worried. At about 1,200 AGL, we dropped out of the bottom of the clouds and I’ll be dammed; there was my home field 4 miles ahead, on the nose with great surface visibility. We had made it home!

I made one of my best landings ever. My senses where on high alert! We taxied in and as quickly as we could we unloaded the airplane and got going towards National Airport so the instructor could fly home.

OK, so I opened this story with a comment about unintended effects on passengers. That evening, my wife told me that during the flight she had been afraid of us running into another airplane while in the clouds. She was cold with the limited heat that reached the back seat and decided all she could do was cover up, stay warm and wait for the crash to come. It had never occurred to me to explain to her that one of the many benefits of IFR was exactly to avoid just that!

So I said this flight was a watershed. Shortly afterwards, I found a partner in a Cherokee Archer and got my Instrument Rating. My wife realized the financial benefits of being able to plan trips with a much greater expectation of meeting a schedule. As I went through the training, I learned to explain to her that it was not 100%, but it was, indeed, a lot better than VFR.

I’ll never forget that weekend and especially the experience of flying for 90+ minutes in the clouds spinning dials and slavishly following squiggly needles and then breaking out with the destination airport right in front of the airplane.

My flying from then on was immeasurably better, more precise and predictable, and, along with the increased challenge and responsibility, heaps more fun.

7 Comments

  • Here’s a question. Beyond obvious effects on visibility, can smoke from forest fires cause engine damage? I ask because I remember when the Icelandic volcano was erupting, many flights were cancelled because of particulates in the air, not visibility. Does anyone know?

    • Well, I’m no expert, but there is a huge difference between volcanic ash and smoke from wood fires.

      Volcanic ash can contain a form of ground up pumice, a form of glass, which is extremely hard and acts like a gritty sandpaper to all engine components.

      Regular smoke may cause some issues to air filters, but is, I think, otherwise not harmful to engines.

      • One of the jobs I did as a boy-pilot was fly fire patrol and control. Smoke does no harm to the engine but after being in it all day the pilot got a little smoke saturated.

  • I was small-plane flying-averse, until my significant other got his license & I realized that since he is uber-competent in all other endeavors, he would naturally also be a good pilot. So I faced my fears, to share in his new obsession, & really enjoy flying with him every chance I get. One day after a lovely flight & lunch, we got the chance to go along with Mr. Rapp to fly his partner to visit family 150 +- miles away. That afternoon, the weather deteriorated greatly but my friend assured me Tim is a veteran IFR pilot so no worries. We sat in the backseat & I got some pretty white-out photos where the tail behind us was barely visible, it was raining, & once he took us through some thick grey clouds, under us were white-grey, rolling, puffy clouds, a blanket of nasty. On the way back, the weather seemed even worse. I sat alone in the back & took pictures & actually enjoyed the whole ride very much & was wishing other friends were there to enjoy the experience with me. Not for one minute did I feel panicked, & felt completely safe. As I recall, we had to be coached down to the runway since there was no break in the clouds at all. It all went very well & Tim got us down expertly. I told my boyfriend later that if we were being flown by someone whose skill & experience we weren’t so sure of, the flight may have felt much different for me. To have previously been such a chicken (due to a horror story I heard once about a small plane crash, the results of which I saw with my own eyes), I would trust Mr. Rapp to get me safely thru any condition.
    The first time I went up with BF, he was concerned I would panic & have the effects described in the referenced article, which I found funny because if I was going to react that way, it would have been in the half-hour preceding my getting in the plane. Never have had a scare yet. I believe the more strategic/technical info the pilot shares with the passenger(s), the more assured we can feel about what’s going on.

  • Excellent story, thanks for sharing.

    Well told… as you told about your wife sitting in the motel addling up the unforseen expenses I could picture my wife doing the same thing.

    Many pilots have found out the hard way just how bad haze can be. A couple years ago at our airport, nice sunny morning with no wind and no clouds, the AWOS was reporting 4 miles visibility, a new pilot took off to do some touch & go’s. At pattern altitude he all of a sudden couldn’t see much of anything… he did get down, but it scared the H out of him.

  • Thanks for sharing that story! I had my first experience with VFR in forest fire haze at the end of last summer in eastern Washington. It was the first time we took a trip as a family, also in a rented 172. The visibility qualified as VFR, but the horizon was far enough away that all I saw looking over the nose of the plane at cruise was “big white nothing”. Definitely a strange feeling. Looking straight down I could still make out features on the ground. I flew headings carefully, and I had planned my route with plenty of ground reference points to check and verify progress. I also used a non-aviation GPS (all I had at the time) to make sure my eyes or perception weren’t fooling me. I think the proper term for that is “enhancing situational awareness”.

    All went well, and that trip was the point where my wife warmed up to the idea of owning our own plane. We now have an older 182 and are loving it.

  • I do not recommend flying into forest fire smoke unless you have oxygen on board. The pilot and passengers rely on outside air to breathe and thick smoke can cause problems including carbon monoxide poisoning and early onset of hypoxia.

    Forest fires are a frequent occurance in Southern California and I’ve experienced the situation several times. IFR rated or not, fly around the smoke if at all possible.

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