Plane & Pilot
Monday, March 1, 2004

The Miracle Of Clouds

Amazing reminders of all things beautiful and powerful

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.


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