OBSCURATION: WHAT’S IN IT FOR YOU?

Visibility on a typical hazy day in New England is, well, some fraction of twenty miles. When it’s really muggy, at 2500 AGL you might see clouds or sun but no horizon, and little else except a few square miles below. If that’s all you got, you learn to like it.

Haze tends to be most dense high up in the convective layer where, combined with the glare of full sun, it’s possible to get fair weather whiteout. I’ve actually flown straight into clouds I didn’t see coming… Or did they form around me? Makes ya think!

On one such a day I was gliding home with little more than altitude to reach the pattern when sensory deprivation rocked me half to sleep. We’d seen nothing but featureless forest and shapeless pastures for several miles and began to wonder if we were still pointed the right direction. I’d carelessly neglected to note a sun angle or compass heading early in the glide, and now it was too late for that. The altimeter said we’d be on the ground in less than ten minutes. Then I saw a familiar roof that wasn’t supposed to be there and realized we we’d wandered perilously off course. If I happened to look the other way as we passed that house, a snoozy glide home might have become an embarrassingly short retrieve.

The only forest fire in all my years there was burning right below us and we never knew it! No, I didn’t believe it either when they told us later, but turned out it was so. The convective potential that day was even flatter than usual, unmarked half-knot thermals lined along the local ridge. We smelled smoke in one area but thought little of it, then found a spot with nearly double the lift, and loitered. The smoke was obscured in haze and held down by the flat temperature gradient. There wasn’t even any turbulence. In dense foliage fed by almost daily rains, the fire smoldered and went out before a fire crew (on foot) arrived.

That kind of schmutz doesn’t occur much here in the desert, but seasonal smoke or blowing dust can make up for it. When visibility gradually deteriorates as the day progresses it’s good to have a strategy… or really more of an escape plan.

Landing is an obvious first choice, but that simple objective can be complicated (postponed) by an uncertain array of variables we needn’t go into. The question here is, how to conduct those last elastic minutes between being forced down by obscuration and actually getting on the ground?

You got me. For the heck of it though, here’s… not expert advice, just a few suggestions.

Fly down-sun if you can, for triple the visibility, and to shield your eyes from direct sunlight. And whichever way you’re looking, you’ll see better from under shade than in direct sunlight.

Fly upwind if you can, for more time to study whatever’s ahead. Like driving in fog, the slower your ground speed the safer. (It also prolongs the anxiety, but that’s a separate issue.)

Avoid unnecessary turns to limit confusion about direction over the ground — and avoid rapid turning of the head to keep your inner ears quiet. Take an occasional deep breath too, if you think about it, but be careful not to hyperventilate.

We’re talking here about flying when you shouldn’t be, even if only to reach a safe landing, and though such tactics cannot guarantee any kind of success, they might improve your chances…

Surely there are more and better ideas, but luckily I’m out of time.