Passenger recalls terror of flight that entered thick wildfire smoke

Michelle Gregoire saw it begin from her window seat behind the plane’s right wing.

She was nearing the end of her flight to Kelowna, B.C., on her way home from Vancouver on Sunday when she noticed the clear mid-afternoon sky had darkened into a burnt yellow. As the sky grew darker and darker, the cabin filled with the bitter smell of smoke.

“All of a sudden, it just starts to go from red to black and the turbulence started,” Gregoire recalled in an interview. “People were starting to scream. There was a lady in front of me that just reached her hand out across the aisle to a young girl that was travelling by herself.”

Gregoire’s flight jolted into the Okanagan around 4:30 p.m. PT on what would become one of the more intense nights of this year’s wildfire season, with wind sending wildfires stampeding through the region and forcing hundreds of evacuations on the ground in a matter of hours.

In the sky, towering clouds of black smoke reached airliner altitude and blotted out the sun.

Former pilots and aviation safety experts agree an experience like Gregoire’s would be harrowing but said commercial pilots who find themselves caught over wildfires are trained to handle extreme turbulence and low visibility.

Gregoire estimated the pilots fought for five agonizing minutes before abandoning the landing attempt and returning to Vancouver. She posted a brief video from the flight on Facebook.

“I actually had a woman reach out to me that saw the video … she said, ‘You know, we thought, in our row, that this is it. We thought we were going down,'” Gregoire said.

“It was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, absolutely.”

Airborne hazards

Under general Transport Canada restrictions, pilots cannot fly within roughly nine kilometres of a forest fire unless they are 3,000 feet above ground level. Airlines are known to delay or cancel flights during fire season if weather and visibility are poor.

Still, pilots can get caught mid-air if fires suddenly shift. They’ll face two immediate hazards: turbulence and reduced visibility. 

Fires can generate enough extreme heat to create their own weather, which can lead to violently bumpy flights like Gregoire’s. While that kind of turbulence is scary and unpleasant, aviation experts agree large commercial jetliners and their pilots are equipped to handle it. 

“It can handle, if necessary, the turbulence inside a thunderstorm,” said Edward McKeogh, who flew military jets and commercial aircraft for more than 40 years before joining Canadian Aviation Safety Consultants. 

The greater hazard, experts said, would be poor visibility when it comes time to land the plane.

“As in the video that you saw, visibility can rapidly change from six miles plus, down to almost zero visibility in smoke,” said Barry Wiszniowski, a career pilot and president of Aviation Safety Management Experts.

It is possible for pilots to land with next to zero visibility if the plane is equipped with advanced instruments and the arrival airport has state-of-the-art navigational systems designed to communicate with the inbound flight.

Major airports like Vancouver International Airport have the systems in place to guide those arrivals, but that’s not always possible at smaller B.C. airports.

If pilots can’t land due to smoke, they follow the same protocols as they would in the fog: they would execute what’s called a “missed approach” for landing and head for their alternative airport.

“[It’s] the right decision and the most conservative decision and the safest decision,” Wiszniowski said.

“The crew, they know what they’re doing and if they take care of themselves, they’re taking care of their passengers.”

Rules in place for pilots

Most pilots would try to stay clear of smoke and fires as a general rule.

“The wise choice would be to avoid areas where the smoke is most dense,” said McKeogh, the veteran former pilot. 

As an aside, Wiszniowski said he believes the most dangerous threat during fire season doesn’t have anything to do with the weather. 

“[It’s] drone pilots that are getting in the way,” he said.

Drones have been known to slow down helicopters and water bombers trying to fight fires in B.C. Flying a drone anywhere near a fire can lead to a fine of up to $25,000 or up to 18 months in jail.

After spending an extra night in Vancouver, Gregoire flew back to Kelowna on Monday. She made it home safely to Vernon, a city just to the north and hugged her two teenaged children.

“It was very nerve-wracking,” she said, referring to her second flight. “There were some eyes closed and armrest clenching, for sure.”

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