What an exciting weekend!
Friday night, Husband and I loaded up the plane to head down to Suffolk for the VA Regional Festival of Flight. The start of the flight was fine, though a little hazy. We kept checking and double checking landmarks on the chart to make sure we had reasonable visibility. Husband was flying (I've been hogging the flight hours for way too long!), and the weather was looking good. As is our custom, we picked up flight following for our route which would take us from JYO (Leesburg), out of the ADIZ, over CJR (Culpepper), past RIC (Richmond), to SFQ (Suffolk). We settled on a cruise altitude of 5,500-- nice and smooth (and cool!). The cool air was nice given that it had been around 90 on the ground. Ugh!
As we neared RIC, we began to hear the controllers working frantically give IFR clearances, and the haze seemed to get much more intense. About the same time, during my usual checks of the weather and METARs along our route, I saw that RIC was now listed as IFR. Uh oh. We weren't going to directly overfly RIC, and we could tell that airports north and west of RIC were all still VFR-- which meant that we would likely not have a problem staying legal. But we were concerned about the decreasing visibility- we are VFR only pilots, so we definitely wanted to know what we were flying into. It looked like things were thinner up higher, so we notified Center that we were climbing to 7,500.
Around this same time, we first saw the big cloud of smoke on the horizon. Once we were up above most of the haze, we could see the cloud clearly. We couldn't see the ground very clearly (there was a lot of haze), but the smoke cloud stood out on the horizon- stretching straight up into the sky, seemingly endless on the blue horizon above the brownish gray band of haze.
In our weather briefing before leaving JYO, we had noticed a warning for smoke around the southern parts of Virginia. We learned that there were two huge wildfires (well, huge for us in the East!) right on the North Carolina border- just south of where we were headed. There were also two TFRs for the fires-- one just a few miles south of the airport for a controlled burn related to the wildfire. We evaluated our options-- but thought that we wouldn't have any problems. So we knew there was a big fire-- but we were definitely surprised by the far-reaching impact of the fire! The smoke cloud that we saw in Richmond was the cloud of smoke from the wildfire burning around 100 miles away!
Thankfully, things cleared up as we edged west of RIC, and continued on down to the south. As we neared SFQ, the controller told us a jump plane was just heading up to release (parachute) jumpers over the airport. We realized that the jumpers would be released right about the time we would be arriving over the field. After talking more with the controller, we decided to circle west of the field until we knew we wouldn't hit any jumper as we turned final to land! The other thing we saw, though, was that a huge cloud of smoke stretched right over the airport. In fact, though we knew where the airport should be, we couldn't actually see it. So, while we circled, we also talked to the pilot of the jump plane to learn what the conditions were. He said the smoke was well above traffic pattern, and that we should have no problem landing.
(Side note: the visibility on the AWOS for SFQ still reported visibility greater than 10 miles, even though there was a huge cloud of smoke hovering over the field and impacting visibility. Does anyone know the impact of smoke on automated weather services?)
Building on some recent online safety courses, we set up the autopilot just in case we entered cloud, started our descent to pattern altitude, and took the plunge. As we flew toward the field, we could see the thick smoke looming. I thought it might be like the haze earlier-- look solid, but then just be hazy once you're in it. I found out I was wrong, though, as we did pass through it momentarily on our descent to the field. Before we could even think about telling the autopilot to turn us around, we were through it (just barely!). We finally caught sight of the field (man was I glad!), and lined up for a downwind entry. The delay and circling we did to avoid the jumpers gave us some confidence that there weren't other planes about to pop out from the cloud of smoke, and we made our way to the ground, literally overshadowed by a cloud of smoke.
Once on the ground, we immediately recognized the smell of burning wood. In fact, neither of us opened our windows, even though it was boiling in the cockpit. The smell of the fire hit us even harder once we opened the doors and disembarked. It was like being at a campfire, in the path of the smoke-- only you couldn't escape this. It burned our throats and stung our eyes. I certainly wondered what we were doing flying into this place! How on earth could they hold a festival here the next day?
We had to stick around the field another 45 minutes or so, trying to get our rental car. The FBO closed much earlier than their website indicated, and our car keys were locked up tight inside. We finally convinced the manager to come out and let us in. He wasn't too happy given the long day he had put in getting ready for the show-- and the fact that he had to be in at 5am the next day. We tried to pay him for his troubles-- at least enough to replace the steak dinner he was cooking when we called... but given his status as a government employee, he wouldn't take it. Our wait paid off, though, when the hotel manager took pity on our long day and upgraded us to the presidential suite! Be sure to stop in at the Hilton Garden Inn if you're ever in Suffolk...
The smoke followed us (or maybe we followed it?) to the hotel and to dinner that night. Strangely, we didn't notice the smell after dinner, though we did still feel the thick, dense air. After a good night sleep, we had breakfast and headed back out to the airport. Stepping out of the car, we noticed something. One- the winds had shifted and the smoke was gone. Two- the smoke had been replaced by the intensely sweet smell of fresh cut sweet grass. What a difference... from smoke to sweet grass.