Wildfire smoke
3 min read

Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: [email protected]

As a freshly minted instrument pilot back in 1983, I was keen to make the trip from Watsonville, California, up to Beaverton, Oregon, in my Piper Lance II. Portland was forecast to be IFR, with fairly high ceilings (1,200 ft.) for our arrival.

Wildfire smoke

We’ll be through it in no time… right?

I took my sales manager along for my company and soon we were motoring up the central valley of California, just north of Sacramento. The conditions were “severe clear” and with the autopilot engaged, there was little to do save try to stay busy. Then I noticed a narrow, dark column of black smoke rising from the valley floor, directly in our flight path a few miles ahead. Being both young and ignorant, I thought to myself, “I’m instrument rated; we’ll pop out of the back of that thing in an instant and it will be fun.” So I aimed for the smoke column.

We penetrated the dark mass and suddenly we were IFR and ascending at a sickening rate. My passenger’s soft drink hit the ceiling and then showered its sickly sweet contents over the entire cabin. The temperature in the cabin became intolerable… surprise… we couldn’t breathe. We started laughing, but couldn’t inhale. Just about the time that I was trying to decide between continuing ahead or doing a 180, we burst out of the back of the column and the cabin cleared immediately.

Our trip continued uneventfully until we reached the Portland area, where it was IFR and icing was not forecast. I remember being on the gauges at 10,000 ft. and watching the airspeed slowly start to decay. Call it fixation, but I hesitated to wander too far from the primary instruments for fear of losing control in IMC. As the airspeed decayed further, I lowered the nose, trying to keep the plane flying.

ATC suddenly became concerned and said, “Lance 2096G, I cleared you to 10,000 ft., say intentions.”

I said that I was in a downdraft and doing what I could to get back to the assigned altitude. But the indications on the instruments (and the increasing sound of air rushing by the fuselage) didn’t make sense.

Pitot heat

The switch is there for a reason. Use it.

Suddenly it dawned on me: turn on the pitot heat. Almost within seconds of flicking the switch, the airspeed flipped from an indicated 45 knots to redline. I was in a pronounced dive and my task was to level out without pulling the wings off. In time, I got the plane under control and was glad that my passenger was oblivious to the actual events.

So what did I learn? Regarding the smoke column: don’t. You don’t know how long you’ll be in there. It’s illegal and you can’t breathe. Need I say more?

And I learned from the icing experience that no matter what the forecast says, if you’re IFR and in the clouds, turn on your pitot heat. It’s good insurance.

The key to instrument flying is to live and learn. But the real key is to live long enough to do that.

Jeremy Lezin
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7 replies
  1. John Huyg
    John Huyg says:

    There is more than just smoke and heat in those columns – depending on fire size, terrain and fuel you can get significant potions of trees at 1000 AGL….

  2. John
    John says:

    “So what did I learn? Regarding the smoke column: don’t. You don’t know how long you’ll be in there. It’s illegal and you can’t breathe. Need I say more?”

    At least as important a consideration as legality and Smokey air is the high potential for a midair with fire fighting aircraft. Fire suppression aircraft are attracted to smoke columns like bees to honey. Smoke columns anywhere in the US or Canada may have multiple fixed wing aircraft operating near, in, over, or under the column. You were lucky you didn’t encounter more than an updraft, smoke, and a spilled soda. Fire fighting aircraft circle columns to the left between 5 and 7 NM out. They may or may not be talking with or monitoring ATC frequencies. It’s a very high workload environment, and visibility may be affected by haze or clouds.

    Our best strategy is to keep a good distance from any column. Even then we should be very alert for air tankers headed to or from the column.

  3. Doyle Frost
    Doyle Frost says:

    Just glad this didn’t turn out to be a “fatal mistake,” instead became a sound learning experience. We aren’t always that lucky. Good thing to share this with others, as it might actually have the desired affect of convincing some other neophyte of the error of their ways.

  4. Mike
    Mike says:

    The timing of this article could not have been better. Just yesterday while driving across Oklahoma, I observed a large smoke column and wondered that very thought, could I aviate through it. I know volcanic ash is deleterious to aircraft components, but this was a thinner column probably from a structure fire. The smoke source was distant and it was visible from quite a distance. Thanks for the article, now I don’t have to look it up!!!

  5. Steve Flanagan
    Steve Flanagan says:

    Is there any danger of getting CO poisoning from the smoke, and how about the engine. Can the smoke upset the air portion of the mixture?

    • Bob W.
      Bob W. says:

      Steve F. queried:

      Q: “Is there any danger of getting CO poisoning from the smoke…”
      A: (Arguably) No more than when on the ground! (Note: That’s written with dry humor…and it also ignores [makes things worse] altitude effects on your hypoxia-related symptoms. See checklist below.)

      Q: “…and how about the engine. Can the smoke upset the air portion of the mixture?”
      A: “Just like your lungs” the engine, too, breathes air, so the short-form answer to your question is, “Yes.” Whether or not it would be sufficient to kill the engine, “Not terribly likely,” based on combustion (chamber) physical chemistry (quite tolerant in fuel/air terms), and the absence of “smoke-killed-engine” war stories from ground-based folks with smoky-fire experiences (large, smoky fires being not uncommon in the intermountain west where I’ve lived since 1976). That said, and writing as a long-time glider pilot with “not inconsiderable” experience thermalling in section-sized wheat-stubble fires in the Texas panhandle, I very quickly decided my “pre-stubble-fire entry checklist” included: 1) straps really tight, 2) all vents closed, 3) O2 mask “on,” and 4) O2 regulator “on.” It probably goes without saying I never entered a wheat-stubble-fire thermal unless I knew I was its sole occupant; kids can you spell “I-F-R”? I also flew a glider with 90-degree flaps, meaning fear of exceeding Vne due to “continued VFR into IMC spiral diving” wasn’t an issue or concern. Other than curiosity and youthful exuberance, I rarely made a “needed to save/continue a flight” entry into a stubble fire column. Never experienced lift of more than 4,000fpm, which would surely have been “a heckuva jolt” to most light planes. If you “missed the bubble” they were usually mostly acrid smoke and light turbulence; even with the O2, eye-watering was the norm. Over the years, as farming practices changed, opportunities “stubble-fire soar” steeply declined in any event, so today it’s pretty much “marginally applicable experience,” even in the soaring world.

      Late to the conversation, I know, but maybe it’ll be useful…

      Bob W.

  6. Hugh Jackman
    Hugh Jackman says:

    When all of you fence post pilots quit acting and treating the aircraft you’re “licensed” to fly like your car…….we’ll see some professionalism and less augured in doctors – lawyers – and “Oh Gee, it’d be neat to learn to fly” troglodytes in the news……with the story of their life ended by the newspaper writer with the wife/friend/brother/mother/father/child stating: “He died doing what he loved to do”…….which, obviously, in his case, was to be an inept pilot up to and including his death.

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