Plane & Pilot
Monday, December 5, 2011

The Nature Of Clouds

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

The Stormscope pointed out the concentrations of static discharge, and with nothing better to do than continue, I dodged around them as best I could. I flew on toward Singapore and finally, 13 hours after leaving Darwin, landed at Seletar Airport in the same murky, semi-darkness, punctuated by now- remote lightning partially obscured by the mist. I cleaned up the seat and vowed never to do that again.

Once, a few years back, flying the first Extra 400 to be ferried across the Atlantic, I was out of Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, headed for Wabush, Labrador. It was midsummer on the Arctic Circle, so the sun had been up all night, and I was up early, too, hoping to clear customs in Bangor, Maine, and make it to Indianapolis for the overnight, then on to my destination of Phoenix the following day.

Just south of Ungava Bay, I spotted the first of what became dozens of the strangest clouds I had ever seen. They looked like a cross between the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Michelin Man. These were strange, plump, white doughnuts, well-defined and stacked five to six layers tall, fatter in the middle than on the top and bottom. They drifted aimlessly at 8,000 feet along the coast of the Labrador Sea.

Naturally, I'd left my camera at home, so the best I could do later when I talked to my favorite weather man in California, Jeff Kopps, was forward a sketch. No one had any idea what they were.

Most clouds aren't that complex. Meteorologists such as Kopps can explain exactly how they form, mature and die. Water becomes cloud becomes ice becomes water.

If the science is almost silly simple, the imagery is pure imagination. To those of us who study them and feel privileged to travel among them, clouds are more than simple meteorological phenomena. Look, there's one that looks like a three-masted schooner over there. That's the Empire State Building out front. And anyone can tell that's obviously a golden retriever off to the right.

Clouds often can be guideposts, especially when several airplanes are trying to join up over the ocean. Sure, we could use GPS, but it's often more fun to say, "Hey, Jon, let's meet at 10,000 by the big cumulus that looks like mouse ears."

If we occasionally treat clouds in jest, they can sometimes exact revenge. While ferrying a new 58 Baron from the West Coast to Clevelend recently, I was flying late in the afternoon through walls of cumulus over Indiana, punching through a cloud, emerging into the clear for a few seconds, then, repeating the process. Suddenly, I broke out of a CU and saw an airplane coming straight at me. There was hardly enough time to think, much less to avoid.

In an instant, the bogey passed right through me. It was, of course, my own shadow projected by the sun directly behind me onto the brilliant white cumulus ahead.

I could almost hear the clouds chuckling with me.

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