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 www.cloudappreciationsociety.org.
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.
When asked about the dangers of air show flying, the common performer response is that the trickiest challenge of the job is getting to and from the air show. Safely flying under low ceilings requires analyzing a combination of visibility, terrain and weather systems. What time of day is it? Is the weather improving or deteriorating? What’s the temperature/dew point spread? Can you still turn around? What’s the closest airport? Where are the towers? What’s your experience and comfort level? When flying in marginal conditions or scud running, the two most important things to remember are where the closest place to land is and to always leave yourself an out!
Flying on top has its own challenges. If the ceiling becomes more broken than scattered and I have to get down through a hole, I throttle back and reduce speed, get close to the top of the cloud deck, and then push over through the hole to clear air underneath. Sometimes, if the hole isn’t very big, I have to circle it to make sure I’m set up for it. This is actually very fun.
If flying VFR on top of a scattered or broken layer and the ceiling becomes overcast, a whole new process of calculation comes into play. How far does the overcast extend? What are weather reports ahead? How much fuel do I have, and how far can I go before I run out of options and have to turn around?
It’s easy to get stuck on top when your airplane fuel supply is limited. I’m so paranoid about it that I tend to err on the conservative side. A few years ago, a good friend of mine had a scary occurrence. Dr. D., as I’ll call him, was cruising home to an airport outside of St. Louis from a competition in his aerobatic monoplane. He was at 10,000 feet MSL on top of a broken layer knowing he could get down through a hole at anytime, until it became overcast. The radio reported better weather ahead, so he felt pretty confident he could get down closer to home and he kept flying north. Much to his dismay, he reached his destination and the weather didn’t improve—he was stuck on top of an overcast with no way to get down and not enough fuel to turn around. Dr. D., who’s braver than I think I would be, had only two options—to bail out and parachute to the ground or to spin down through the overcast. Recalling maneuvers used by old Air Mail pilots, he stalled the airplane and started spinning through the clouds. He told me later he was sure he would break out fairly quickly, but the altimeter kept unwinding as he got lower and lower. After what seemed like the most unsettling eternity, he finally broke through the overcast at 1,500 feet above the ground. Quickly recovering from the spin, he found his airport, landed, then headed home for a stiff drink. I don’t want to have to do that, but at least I know it’s possible.
Maybe the ultimate ride in the clouds was had by William Rankin. The Man Who Rode The Thunder is Rankin’s book and an amazing story about his famous incident of flying his F-8 jet fighter over the top of a thunderstorm when his engine failed. His ejection seat worked perfectly, but he had to ride the storm up and down before it spit him out 40 minutes later.
Pilots deal with clouds in many different ways. Air show pilots fly under pretty gnarly conditions, but ultimately, cloud ceilings of 1,000 feet or less and FAA regulations dictate we have to stay on the ground. The FAA will waiver cloud clearances at air shows so we can fly closer than 500 feet above, 1,000 feet horizontal and 2,000 feet horizontal required by the FARs but, in the U.S. at least, we aren’t allowed to actually penetrate the clouds. Sometimes it happens unintentionally, and we have to ask for forgiveness.
Maybe it’s the yin-yang aspect to clouds that makes them so fascinating. Clouds are soft, puffy, elusive and ethereal. They fire our imagination and give us a sense of wonder and sunsets that calm a restless mind. At an air show, clouds give the sky texture and the airplanes relative motion. But the playground can be dangerous, too—for all of their astonishing beauty, clouds can be hard with ice and boiling with thunder, inhospitable to airplanes. How close to the edge do we dare fly before our wings will melt? We can play in the sky with the clouds, but sometimes, it’s best to sit on the ground and appreciate them, in awe, like we did as kids.