Plane & Pilot
Monday, March 1, 2004

The Miracle Of Clouds

Amazing reminders of all things beautiful and powerful

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 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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