Plane & Pilot
Monday, December 5, 2011

The Nature Of Clouds


They can be challenging, fun, entertaining and, occasionally, deadly


In my part of the sky—at least, the part I watch most often—we don't see many clouds. In late spring through early fall, fog creeps slowly in from the ocean, covering Southern California with a 1,000-foot blanket of soft-white, semi-diaphanous fluff. For most of the rest of the year, the Los Angeles Basin manifests more clement atmospherics, the dry, desert climate of Palm Springs rather than the wet, cold rain of San Francisco.

You must travel to feel one with clouds. Through the miracle of several thousand cooperative turbine and piston engines (and a few dozen cranky ones) over 40-something years, I've witnessed clouds in most of their forms. I've watched thunderstorms in Kansas, Australia and South Africa, monsters of rage and madness campaigning across Wichita, the Outback or the Serengeti, leaving mayhem in their wake. I've been terrified by typhoons in Guam and the Philippines, insane, swirling masses of black on white, churning the ocean into monster waves.

I've endured blizzards in Canada and Greenland, whiteouts that relegated instrument approaches to near impossibilities. I've caromed through marshmallow cumulus in the South Pacific, swam in monsoonal rain clouds over Indonesia and climbed through orange sandstorms above the arid Sahara and the waterless Kalahari.

None of that makes me an expert on clouds, but it has certainly introduced me to my fair share of sky, from angry to insidiously calm. I've become something of a student of clouds, if a relatively uninformed one, always curious as to the how and why of the sky.

I can't help but envy the astronauts their high station, looking down on the Earth from an elliptical orbit 200 miles up. They have a totally unobstructed view of clouds over much of the globe, and with the advantage of 16 orbits a day, they gain a new perspective of weather systems every 90 minutes.

High cirrus clouds must have special meaning for me, as I have a white German Shepherd named after them. Flying to Chile or Argentina, most pilots aviate down the west coast of South America, keeping the ocean on the right, and I've watched silky filaments of mare's-tail cirrus lingering above the spine of the Andes along much of that route.

Navigating through the Pan American pass east of Santiago en route to Buenos Aires, I've witnessed giant, lens-shaped lenticulars, motionless at 35,000 feet, hovering above Cerro Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in South America. Lennies, as hardly anyone calls them, are congenial companions, stationary symbols of the collective power of mountains and sky.

Unfortunately, all clouds aren't so benign. Some are filled with ice, others can house monstrous electrical storms, and a few can be home to whirling death.

A dozen years ago, on a trip from Los Angeles to Singapore in an A36TC Bonanza, I was flying the last leg from Darwin across Bali and up the Indonesian chain. Sporadic thunderstorms are practically an everyday occurrence in that part of the world, and they were waiting for me with muscular bodies and cauliflower tops as I tracked northwest, starting at 12,000 feet and gradually being forced lower, trying to stay beneath the worst of them. The CBs wrapped around me all the way to the MEA, and I could see occasional flashes of gold inside the clouds, lighting the cockpit with a strange, iridescent, yellow glow.



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