Get extra lift from AOPA. Start your free membership trial today! Click here

Where there's smoke

Adapting to the growing threat of wildfires in flight planning and training

With global temperatures rising, pilots in the western United States are witnessing an uptick in the frequency and intensity of wildfires. 
Dead tree forest after wildfire, foggy snow covered mountain peaks in the background.
Dead tree forest after wildfire, foggy snow covered mountain peaks in the background.

A 2021 study funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirms the shift. This new reality necessitates a fresh approach to flight planning, where smoke and fire become as critical to consider as weather fronts and turbulence.

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 (see “VFR Is Not Always VFR,” November 2023 AOPA Pilot). 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 and fire preparedness and adaptability into our primary and recurrent training programs. The first step in adapting to this new landscape is thorough preflight readiness. When flying in areas of known wildfires, be proactive, consulting the latest U.S. Forest Service reports and aviation resources such as temporary flight restrictions for updates on active fires and smoke-laden areas. Getting a weather briefing can also brief pilots on fire-related notices to air missions, which is key for avoiding unforeseen route deviations and offering 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. 

Once airborne, vigilance becomes the pilot’s watchword. Continuous communication with air traffic control is vital, as is the readiness to deviate from the planned route. The in-flight environment is dynamic; 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.

Flight schools must integrate these scenarios into their curriculum, ensuring that learners are equipped not just with the technical skills to navigate through smoke and over fires but also with 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.

As climate change reshapes safe flight operations, we would do well to integrate greater environmental awareness into our flight planning routine. Staying informed, meticulous planning, and adaptable in-flight decision-making are now paramount.

[email protected]

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.

Related Articles