Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 11, 2012


Pilots have a special relationship with the weather

In the movie The Truman Show, Jim Carrey's life wasn't what it appeared to be. His character discovers his life is simply a television reality show and he has been living in a pre-fab bubble. A defining feature of his weird existence is the absence of weather. No clouds and blue sky every day. Nothing ever changes. How lifeless, flat and boring the world would be without clouds and changing weather?

Remember cloud watching as a kid? I have vivid memories of lying on our lawn daydreaming and watching cumulus clouds shape-shifting into old men with pipes, jumping horses or rabbits. Every kid dreams of escaping the surly bonds, and some of us eventually do. Clouds are beautiful. They give us a feeling of relative motion in the air and add a third dimension to our senses.

Recently, I came across The Cloud Appreciation Society. Their manifesto states: "We believe that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them." What a great message. As one of their 40,000 members, I suggest you check them out at

Everyone loves clouds and their beauty, but pilots have a special relationship with them. We spend a lot of time under their spell as we fly around them, under and above them. Some of us love the challenge of filing an IFR flight plan and going "actual," while others don't take off unless the skies are severe clear. In a way, clouds make decisions for us and define our very existence.

As a student pilot in Alaska, one of the first things I was taught is that a good pilot should know the direction of the wind and the type of clouds every day, especially in the North Country where weather changes fast. Seasoned pilots know how to read and listen to what cloud formations tell them. High cirrus clouds in a blue sky signal change and belie an approaching weather system, even when the sky is clear and blue.

Before 1800, people thought of clouds as "essences" floating around the sky. Thanks to Luke Howard, a British amateur meteorologist, we know the difference between a towering "cu" (cumulus) and a cirrus. Howard, who died in 1864, noted that there are three basic cloud shapes: cumulus (Latin for "heap")—puffy with flat bottoms, clouds that extend upward from a horizontal base; stratus (Latin for "layer, or something spread")—wide, flat, like a blanket; and cirrus (Latin for "a curl of hair") wispy, curly. Rain clouds he named nimbus (Latin for "rain").

Just a few years later, in 1929, Jimmy Doolittle flew in the clouds, taking off, flying and landing an airplane using instruments alone, and now, a mere 80 years after that, more than 325,000 pilots are instrument rated and can explore the mysteries of the clouds they dreamed about as kids An instrument rating gives us freedom, but I've always preferred the idea of playing around the clouds, dancing with them, if you will—flying through tunnels in towering cu, scooting along the top of a stratus layer, diving through a hole in an overcast. For air show pilots with VFR-only airplanes, reading clouds is a way of life. We have to learn to read weather to get to our next air show. There are far better meteorologists than I am, but by traveling the world flying VFR, I've learned a few tricks about flying around clouds.

It's no secret that the air is smoother on top of rising cumulus clouds. Rising, hot air makes afternoon build-ups choppy and bumpy, but if you climb on top, sometimes between tunnels of puffy cumulus, you'll find cool, smooth air. Sometimes, I find myself climbing higher and higher to stay on top, and when I finally run out of air in my normally aspirated Lycoming-powered Extra, I finally have to give in to nature and get back underneath where I bump along to my next destination.


Add Comment