Can I Fly VFR in Smoke?

In times of wildfires, note where the fires are and which way the winds are blowing.

Question: Are student pilots allowed to fly solo in smoke? Although the wildfires are more than 50 miles away, the smoke has been drifting over my airport. Is it legal for me to fly in smoke?

Answer: The real question here is: Are conditions VFR, MVFR, or IFR because of the smoke? If the conditions are IFR, and you do not have an instrument rating and are not flying on an IFR flight plan, what the heck would you be doing up there? I say this in jest, but that’s the first metric to assess.

Smoke falls under the category of “Adverse Conditions.” Per Chapter 7 of the Aeronautical Information Manual, “pilots should be especially alert for current or forecast weather that could reduce flight minimums below VFR or IFR conditions,” meaning reduced visibility. Smoke will definitely do that.

Chapter 7 gives the metrics for Low IFR, IFR, Marginal VFR, and VFR with reference to ceilings and visibility, and notes in the example that ceiling and visibility can be restricted by haze and smoke. If the ceiling and visibility are below VFR, MVFR, or below the limitations your CFI has put in your logbook for solo flight, you’d best stay on the ground.

Smoke from fires can take you by surprise. When you get your weather briefing, note where the fires are and which way the winds are blowing. And always be prepared to divert to an alternate airport.

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