Another No Fly Decision

Smoke in the area forces me to cancel a scenic flight.

I’ll start this one with a story.

Flashback: Grand Canyon 2004

When I flew for Papillon at the Grand Canyon, Mother Nature threw all kinds of weather at us. In the spring, it was wind, sometimes blowing as hard as 50 miles per hour, causing all kinds of mechanical turbulence on our prescribed tour routes over the forest and Canyon. In the early summer, it was heat and high density altitude, which made the departure and arrival in our rather confined landing zone challenging. Then there were the fast-moving monsoon storms that sped across the terrain, sometimes blocking our path across the canyon and forcing us to shut down when lightning near the airport made it unsafe to refuel. (And yes, we did fly within 20 miles of thunderstorms.) That lightning would often start fires in the forest along the Grand Canyon’s rims, filling the air with thick smoke that made it nearly impossible to see.

Special VFR at GCN
Here’s an early morning view on one of those smokey days at the Canyon. The R22 on the left is mine, parked at transient helicopter parking at Grand Canyon Airport. I used to commute to work by helicopter once in a while; I needed a special VFR clearance to get into the Class D airspace that day. The tall building in the haze is Papillon’s base with its tower.

Honestly: flying at the Grand Canyon is the best experience a helicopter pilot can get. There isn’t much that you don’t experience as far as flying conditions go.

On one late afternoon in August, the area was full of storms and smoke from numerous wildfires. I took off in trail behind at least six other helicopters with another four behind me for one of the short tours. The passengers had come off a bus and their tour had likely been booked years in advance. All 11 helicopters were flying with the same group.

When we reached the Dragon Corridor, where we were supposed to cross the Canyon, we found our way blocked by a thunderstorm that made it impossible to see the other side of the canyon. So one by one we made our radio calls, turned around, went back past the airport, and crossed over the Canyon in the Zuni Corridor. There was a short tour on that side that we’d been taught but Papillon didn’t sell. I’d never flown it, so I basically followed the helicopter in front of me, making the same calls he did when I reached vaguely recalled reporting points.

The air was thick with smoke. The visibility was definitely less than five miles, although it had to be more than three miles for flight to be legal. But maybe that’s what it was at the airport. It wasn’t that over the canyon. At one point, I lost sight of the strobe light of the helicopter in front of me and had to find my way back without him. (We did not have GPSs on board.) I only got a little lost and was very glad to finally see Grand Canyon Airport’s tower. I adjusted my course to put me where I was supposed to be, made my radio call, and landed.

They shut down flights for the day after that.

Afterwards, I went up to the Chief Pilot’s office. His name was Chuck and he’d always struck me as someone who was very reasonable. I complained about the visibility and asked him why we were taking people on scenic flights when we could barely see. His response stuck with me: “If they’re willing to pay and it’s safe to fly, we’ll fly them.”

I swore I’d never take that attitude with passengers in my tour business. Indeed, years later I turned down a flight I could have done because I was certain that wind and turbulence would have made my passengers miserable.

And I’ve turned down flight since. Today is one of those days.

Today: Smoke in the Wenatchee Valley

The hour-long tour for one of my client’s vice presidents and his out-of-town guests has been on my calendar for about two months. I have the passengers names and weights and have done my weight and balance calculations. I know where they want to go and what they want to see.

The smoke started blowing in last week, which is kind of weird because (1) there aren’t any fires nearby and (2) there isn’t much wind. Apparently the fires are mostly in British Columbia (Canada), which isn’t very far from here, was well as in northwestern Washington State, on the other side of the Cascades. There was a rumor going around that there’s a fire in Blewett Pass, which is actually quite close, but I can’t find any information anywhere about that, and I have good sources to check.

Smoke from the Airliner
As this photo from my friend shows, the smoke was a thick blanket up to about 14,000-18,000 feet.

So the smoke is drifting down from Canada on a light breeze. It’s settling in the Columbia River Valley at Wenatchee. And elsewhere. A friend who who took a Horizon Airlines flight out on Thursday sent a picture from 20,000 feet and there was a blanket of smoke right beneath the plane. It was so bad I blogged about it.

For the first few days, it was a light haze. But yesterday it settled in so thick that not only could I smell the smoke, but I couldn’t see the river from my house, let alone the airport on the shelf right above it. Sure enough, the airport was reporting 1-1/4 mile visibility. Instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), meaning that it wasn’t legal for me to fly without getting a special VFR clearance from Seattle.

Bad View
I shot this photo from my deck yesterday when the visibility was at its worse.

Foreflight Weather
Turning on ForeFlight’s visibility layer displays visibility in miles at each airport that provides this data. Clicking the number displays details.

I emailed my client yesterday, asking him to check in with me an hour before the flight. But I wound up calling him this morning, two hours before the flight. I’d used ForeFlight, the basis of my electronic flight bag, to check conditions at Pangborn Memorial Airport, which I could barely see across the river. It was reporting visibility at 2-1/2 miles: IMC.

Could I fly in these conditions? Technically, yes. I could get a Special VFR clearance to leave my home (which is within Pangborn’s Class E airspace) and fly up to Baker Flats where my client would be waiting. That’s in Class G airspace where only 1/2 mile visibility is required for helicopters during the day. I could then do the whole tour, making sure I stayed out of class E airspace or get another clearance if I wanted to enter Class E. So yes, it’s legal.

But is it safe? Well, since I would always remain within sight of the ground and whatever’s at least a half mile in from of me and I can fly at virtually any speed to keep it safe, then yes, it’s safe.

So by Papillon’s standards — at least those back in 2004 when I flew there — I shouldn’t hesitate to do the flight. After all, it’s money in the bank, right?

I don’t think that way. It’s all about passenger experience. Other than me getting paid for a hour of flight time, what’s the benefit? The tour would be terrible — my passengers wouldn’t be able to see more than a mile or two during the entire flight. What’s “scenic” about that?

My client understood perfectly. He was happy to cancel. We agreed that we’d keep an eye on conditions and that if, by some miracle, a wind kicked up and blew some of the smoke out, we could try in the afternoon. Or maybe tomorrow. I’ve got nothing on my schedule. But it’s more likely that we won’t do it at all since his guests are leaving town on the 6 AM flight tomorrow morning. (Provided Horizon can get the last flight in tonight.)

In the meantime, I don’t mind staying home today. It’s better indoors with the windows shut than outside breathing that crap we’re importing from Canada.

9 thoughts on “Another No Fly Decision

  1. Good call. Your clients would have wasted their money.

    Forest fires are bad news but it can get worse. The Iceland volcano eruption of 2010 created an ash cloud that closed most IFR airspace in north and Western Europe for 6 days.
    When St. Helens blew in 1980 the ash reached Spokane. That’s going on 300 miles?

    • I hate when my passengers are disappointed.

      I’ve heard stories from local folks about St. Helens’ explosion. There was ash here, too. We’re 125 straight-line miles away; Spokane is 250 straight-line miles away. Ash is terrible to fly through, especially for turbine aircraft that can suck materials right into the engine. I’m sure it’s also corrosive on leading edge surfaces like wings and rotor blades. And, of course, the visibility would be horrible.

      The current weather forecast says we’ll have this smoke for at least the next 7 days. I am not happy about it. It’s keeping the temperature down a bit, but I was actually having trouble breathing outside yesterday and can’t imagine what it must be like for people with asthma.

      • Yes, pumice dust can reach well over 100,000′.
        In June 1983 a BA 747 flying near Jakarta lost all four engines at 36,000′ due to a nearby volcanic eruption. At 12,000′ the crew managed to restart enough to do a 7700 return to Jakarta.
        ATC mis-heard the call and thought that only engine No. 4 had failed.

        Hope the rain comes your way soon. Like Sean says, we are getting plenty more than we need.

  2. In flight visibility is a tricky thing, and the way that pilots and passengers think of it and react to it is highly subjective. I too have flown plenty of Grand Canyon flights (Chuck R. was the C.P. during part of my tenure there too) where the visibility was sketchy, due to haze in the summer and occasionally because of snow showers in the fall and winter. And yes, they DO fly helicopter tours in the winter, in my opinion it’s the most beautiful time of year to see the canyon. For a tourist who has never seen the “ditch” before the view on a miserably hot, bumpy, hazy day is still pretty spectacular; they just don’t know how much better it could be if it weren’t all of the above. Since a lot of those tourists come from urbanized coastal areas and foreign mega-cities, they EXPECT air visibility to be poor, it’s what they’re used to. Up here in S.E. Alaska the weather is cloudy and foggy so often that pilots and passengers both get pretty jaded and complacent about flying in what I consider to be terrible visibility. On the other side of the coin, when I was flying helicopter EMS flights out of New Mexico where the typical in-flight visibility was “clear, blue and 22” (or better) the medical crew would get anxious when the visibility dropped below “unlimited”. I’d have to reassure them that flying in light snow or haze with 5 miles visibility was actually quite normal and common in other parts of the world. A lot of how people react depends on what they’re familiar with and what they’re expecting, rather than just the objective numbers as seen on the AWOS.

  3. BTW, is that a Hawker Hunter on the ramp beyond your R-22 in the shot showing Grand Canyon Airport? The one with the four tanks under the wings? I remember seeing some pretty interesting aircraft at the Planes of Fame airpark down the road in Valle, but seldom at GCN.

    • It looks rather like a Hunter MK. 58, a variant of the F6.
      I believe the under-wing fixings could carry drop tanks, bombs, missiles or photo-reconnaissance pods.
      The Swiss bought lots of these.

What do you think?