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Up in Smoke: A Look at the Dangers of Airborne Smoke & Ash

News > Up in Smoke: A Look at the Dangers of Airborne Smoke & Ash

Mother nature reminds us again that we are not in control. Even with our modern aircraft—marvels of engineering and human ingenuity—there are times we cannot fly. On Wednesday and continuing into Thursday of this week, many airports in the Northeast were closed due to smoke from Canadian forest fires in Northern Quebec being swept south by a persistent low pressure system parked over Halifax. The heavy smoke is forecast to remain a significant issue through at least Friday, with conditions gradually improving over the weekend as the low pressure system moves off the coast, drawing much of the smoke out with it.

The smoke brought more risks and hazards than we could carefully manage and mitigate. As aviators, it’s crucial that we stay aware of the risks associated with flying in areas affected by smoke and take proactive steps to mitigate them.

In this blog, we’ll explore some of the flight hazards of smoke besides low visibility and discuss the safety measures and technologies that are being developed to help detect and avoid these hazards. Whether you’re a seasoned pilot or simply a curious aviation enthusiast, we hope this blog will offer valuable insights and practical advice on how to stay safe when flying in smoke.
It’s worth noting that the Federal Aviation Administration’s Aeronautical Information Manual (AIM) already addresses some of the dangers of smoke for aviation. While smoke can certainly reduce visibility, it can also present other hazards that pilots and flight crews need to be aware of.

One of the biggest risks associated with flying in heavy smoke is the potential damage it can cause to aircraft engines. Smoke particles can clog air filters, coat engine components, and reduce engine performance, which can lead to engine failure if not addressed promptly. In addition, flying through thick smoke can also affect air quality inside the cabin, posing health risks to passengers and crew.

Another hazard is the congested airspace that often accompanies wildfires and other emergency scenes. Flights can be in close proximity to aircraft carrying out first responder duties, making it challenging to maintain safe distances and avoid mid-air collisions. Pilots and flight crews need to stay vigilant, monitor temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) supporting wildfire response operations, and communicate effectively with air traffic control to avoid these risks.

Moreover, weather conditions associated with fires such as updrafts, downdrafts, and wind shears can also pose serious challenges to pilots when in close proximity to the fires themselves. These conditions can affect flight stability and control, making it more challenging to maintain safe flight patterns and avoid hazards such as power lines, towers, and drones.

Understandably, pilots in Western states are more accustomed to the challenges of wildfire smoke. Western U.S. pilots have learned over the years to treat wildfire smoke with respect, particularly in mountain valleys where it likes to accumulate, similar to fog. Keep in mind, however, that smoke concentrations can be difficult for weather forecasters to pinpoint, smoke doesn’t “burn off” as fog does, and when operating in mountainous areas the visibility can vary significantly from one valley to the next. At night, smoke concentrations, like clouds, can be difficult to detect, and flying into them unexpectedly may result in unintentionally going IMC, or worse, spacial disorientation due to complete obscuration of the horizon.

When flying in areas impacted by smoke, pilots and flight crews need to be especially vigilant and proactive to avoid or mitigate the risks associated with this hazard. Here are some key safety measures to keep in mind:

  1. Monitor weather reports and news updates.
  • Stay informed about the location, size, and intensity of wildfires or other sources of smoke in the area.
  • Check and remain alert for TFRs. TFRs can be activated with little to no notice when airborne firefighting operations are deemed necessary.
  • Check air quality reports and visibility guides to get a sense of the risks associated with a particular location.
  • Follow public health messages and any warnings or guidelines issued by local authorities.
  1. Communicate with air traffic control.
  • Stay in close communication with air traffic control to ensure that you are aware of any potential hazards or traffic congestion in the airspace.
  • Follow instructions and guidance provided by air traffic control, including any changes to your flight plan or routing.
  1. Stay vigilant for signs of smoke.
  • Keep a lookout for signs of smoke, such as changes in visibility or color of the sky, as well as any visual or olfactory clues.
  • Use onboard sensors or other technologies to detect the presence of smoke or other hazards.
  • The source of smoke should never be assumed – if the crew smells smoke, don’t just assume it’s from outside the airplane; it could be from an electrical fire.
  1. Avoid or mitigate risks associated with smoke.
  • If possible, avoid flying through areas with high smoke levels or poor air quality.
  • If necessary, stay at a safe altitude and speed to minimize the risks of engine damage or other hazards.
  • Use personal protective equipment as needed, such as filtration masks or other respiratory protection devices.
  • Plan for delays and carry extra fuel when possible.
  • Follow standard safety protocols and procedures for emergency situations, including evacuations or diversions if necessary.

By following these safety measures and remaining vigilant, pilots and flight crews can help ensure the safe operation of flights near smoke hazards. As always, prioritizing safety and following best practices is essential to the aviation profession.

What Should You Have Learned

To summarize the key takeaways from this article, pilots and flight crews need to be aware of the ongoing risks associated with flying near smoke hazards. This is an enduring challenge and it needs to be understood by all aircrew. Beyond reduced visibility, smoke can reduce the performance of or damage engines, affect air quality, and interfere with navigation systems.

We cannot overemphasize the importance of prioritizing safety and being mindful of the potential impact that our actions as aviation professionals or enthusiasts can have on the ability of first responders to carry out their critical missions. With that in mind, we encourage all drone users, aviation professionals, and enthusiasts to prioritize safety, stay informed about TFRs and emerging trends and technologies in aviation, and always be vigilant and proactive in mitigating risks when flying near smoke or other hazards.

Be sure to review your METARs, TAFs, and AIRMETs over the next few days, keeping an eye out for any FU’s  (abbreviation for smoke) in the report body.


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