Although I’ve made some slight progress in learning to fly during the last 38 years, I’ve never even come close to understanding weather. Naturally, I’ve read Bill Kerschner, Guy Murchie, Bob Buck and a number of other authors on the subject, and I appreciate some of the principles involved, but dealing with weather in a real sky is a very different animal from reading about it in books.
Delivering airplanes all over the world has given me a chance to see a variety of atmospheric phenomenon, from standing lenticulars above Cerro Aconcagua near Santiago, Chile, to flat, ocean stratus stretching 2,000 miles across the Pacific. I’ve dodged huge dust devils in the desert Southwest, disembodied trunks without an elephant. I once side-stepped a full-blown typhoon on the sky route from Sendai, Japan, to Guam, and I even watched a small tornado touch down near Hot Springs, Ark.
Clouds in all their variety have been a source of endless fascination for me. Whether offering cumulus, stratus, nimbus, cirrus or some combination of the four, the sky presents an amazing panorama of shapes, ever-changing, drifting above the landscape, offering their own spectacular nature show for those with the ability to see.
By far the strangest clouds I’ve witnessed were on an early morning departure out of Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada on Baffin Island for Wabush, Labrador. Conditions were typical for the Far North in summer, 100-mile visibility, but with a thin overcast high above. As I leveled at 16,000 feet in a new Extra 400 destined for Phoenix, I spotted a group of small clouds slightly to my left out over Ungava Bay, apparently hovering in place 12,000 feet above the frigid ocean. They had a modified Coke-bottle shape, like white inner tubes stacked atop one another, smaller at the top and bottom, meteorological versions of the Michelin man.
Naturally, that was the first trip in years when I neglected to bring along my camera. I described the clouds to a military weather expert at Goose Bay, and he speculated they might have been an unusual type of rotor alto-cumulus curling up off the high terrain northwest of Kuujuaq.
Flying into Darwin, Australia, once in a Bonanza, I got my first and only look at a textbook display of mammatus clouds, globular pouches hanging out the bottom of a solid layer. The development looked for all the world like huge tennis balls decorating the bottom of the cloud shelf.
Pilots enjoy an unusual perspective in that we sometimes are privileged to view the inside of a cloud, something the groundbound can only do by climbing a mountain. That may sound like a mixed blessing, but before you laugh and say, “That’s great, if you enjoy flying inside a milk bottle,” there may be as many perspectives from the inside looking out as there are from outside looking in. In theory, we’re all supposed to be concentrating on the instruments when we’re hard IFR in cloud, but most pilots with a few thousand hours of actual tiime can attest that the core of a cumulus or the center of a stratus can make for interesting reading.
In 1996, I was ferrying a freshly double-overhauled 58 Baron from Palo Alto, Calif., to Columbus, Ohio, and was in and out of towering clag throughout my final leg across the Midwest. As the sun was setting behind me, I emerged in a small cloud canyon and saw another airplane coming out of the opposite cloud on a collision course. I survived because the other airplane was my own shadow, briefly silhouetted on the cumulus ahead of me.
Many years before that, while returning a new Commander 114 from the Reading Air Show to Oklahoma City, I was immersed in gentle stratus at 10,000 feet and began to notice the horizontal shape of the cloud leaning more and more toward the vertical. As the autopilot drove the airplane toward the next VOR, the white shapes became progressively more muscular. I pushed on toward the southwest, scudding through the tops of the overcast, occasionally glimpsing blue sky above. At the same time, the soft ride became progressively rougher.
Finally, after asking Kansas City Center what they were painting ahead and being told their secondary radar was out, I popped out into the clear long enough to spot a huge thunderstorm straight ahead threatening to eat St. Louis. Had I not emerged from the clouds long enough to see it, the storm probably would have eaten me, as well. As the largest and most spectacular manifestation of normal weather phenomena, thunderstorms are impressive in any context, but especially from the air. I was once grounded in a Beech Duke at Colorado Springs with a mechanical problem and watched the birth, maturation and death of a CB over Pike’s Peak from my hotel room. As thunderstorms go, it wasn’t exactly a monster, but the development was almost textbook, growing from muscular early afternoon Cu to the classic anvil shape, then softening and weakening in the late afternoon sun.
Some of the largest of the meteorological Godzillas stalk the land portions of the equatorial Inter Tropical Convergence Zone, inevitably slenderized by pilots as the ITCH. The most gigantic monster storm I’ve seen was out of Libreville, Gabon, 20 years ago when I was flying a new Caravan from Wichita to Johannesburg, South Africa. The Gulf of Guinea region is infamous for its year-round plague of thunderstorms, and this was a truly gargantuan wooleybugger reaching from the interior of the Congo to far out over the South Atlantic. It was apparent the little Caravan had no chance of topping the CB (it’s unlikely a U2 could have outclimbed the storm), and the only choice was to circumnavigate it.
Yet, clouds can be subtle reminders of beauty as well as violent manifestations of power and devastation. Flying west in a Cheyenne II across Northern Texas once, I watched the sun gradually roll down beneath the Earth in one of those prolonged sunsets that seems to take an hour. The cirrus clouds above milked the dying sun of all the color it had, from yellow to orange to red and finally to a deep purple.
I’m constantly amazed at all there is to learn about clouds and weather in general, and at how little I know about them. John Day’s excellent photo collection, The Book of Clouds, offers beautiful examples of virtually every type.
Author Guy Murchie, airline pilot and poet, wrote about clouds in his now classic but still outstanding book, The World Aloft: “The clouds of the world are (ever changing), dramatizing before our innocence all the arts of the millenniums, bestowing upon us the shape of the divine manifestation that we may have material for our learning... They are not to be appreciated except from the remotest perspective in space and thought.”
Bill Cox is entering his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot® and provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.