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Where there's smoke

Adapting to the growing threat of wildfires in flight training

As wildfires intensify across the United States, today’s student pilots face the increasing probability of inadvertently encountering smoke.
Photography by Cheng Feng Chiang.
Dead tree forest after wildfire, foggy snow covered mountain peaks in the background.

A stark uptick in wildfire frequency and force, confirmed by a 2021 NOAA study, requires a revised flight training approach. Effective planning for smoky conditions involves understanding changing weather patterns that can cause a wildfire, upping flight hours dedicated to navigation in reduced visibility, and adapting flight paths in real time. This evolution in pilot training isn’t just about skill enhancement; it’s about ensuring safety in an increasingly unpredictable sky.

Navigating fire-affected regions presents a multifaceted challenge. Smoke can drastically reduce visibility and ceiling, hindering VFR navigation and making IFR necessary even for short trips. The thermal updrafts and turbulence generated by these fires can disrupt an aircraft’s stability. Additionally, widespread, intense fires can create their own weather systems, known as pyrocumulonimbus. To address these challenges, we should incorporate smoke preparedness and adaptability into our flight training programs.

Flight planning in smoky skies

The first step in adapting to this new landscape is thorough preflight readiness. When flying in areas of known wildfires, we must be proactive, consulting the latest U.S. Forest Service reports and aviation resources like temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) for updates on active fires and smoke-laden areas. A weather briefing can inform pilots of fire-related notices to air missions (notams), which is key for avoiding unforeseen route deviations and offers the ancillary benefit of formally documenting your query with the FAA.

Digital tools and satellite imagery can also aid in visualizing smoke and fire locations concerning the planned route. Plotting alternative paths in advance is advisable, anticipating rapid changes in fire activity. These alternative routes should compare safe altitudes above the smoke, mind airspace limitations, and choose areas with less air traffic congestion and suitable airports for unplanned landings if conditions deteriorate.

In-flight vigilance

Once airborne, vigilance becomes the pilot’s watchword. Continuous communication with air traffic control is vital (for example, flight following when VFR), as is the readiness to deviate from the planned route. The in-flight environment is dynamic, and we must be prepared to make decisions based on real-time information. Cockpit resource management skills become paramount, focusing on navigating by instruments if visibility is compromised.

Safety and training implications

Flight schools should incorporate these scenarios into their courses, ensuring that learners are equipped with the technical skills to navigate through smoke and over fires and developing the decision-making prowess to handle these situations. Simulators can replicate reduced visibility and the erratic flight conditions that pilots may encounter in smoky skies, offering a safe environment to hone these crucial skills.

The path forward

As the intensity and frequency of wildfires grow across the United States, navigating smoky skies is becoming an essential skill, involving a deeper understanding of weather patterns, increased practice in low-visibility navigation, and the ability to swiftly alter flight routes. This shift in training transcends mere skill development; it’s a critical step toward maintaining safety in skies that are becoming more unpredictable.

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Terrie Mead

Terrie Mead

Aviation Technical Writer
Terrie Mead is an aviation technical writer for the Air Safety Institute. She currently holds a commercial pilot certificate, a CFI with a sport pilot endorsement, a CFII, and she is multiengine rated.

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