Why Some Pilots Can’t Enter a Cloud

If you want a quick answer, keep scrolling down untill you reach the final 2 paragraphs. But if you want to learn about the types of clouds as well, take it step by step.

There are 4 cloud categories, low clouds, middle clouds, high clouds, and clouds with vertical development. Did you know that? Because I didn’t until recently, but once you’ve learned about the different variations of clouds, cloud watching was never the same. Clouds give us important information about the current and future condition of our weather. After reading this article, this will be the closest you’ll ever get to predicting the future.

Low Clouds

Low clouds extend from near the surface to about 6,500 feet AGL. Low clouds usually consist of only water but sometimes they may contain supercooled water which can be incredibly dangerous to an aircraft due to icing. Here are the 3 types of low clouds.

  • Stratus clouds are layered clouds that form in stable air near the surface due to cooling from below. These clouds have a gray, uniform appearance and cover a wide area. Though the turbulence is low, they do restrict visual flying due to low ceiling and visibility.
  • Nimbostratus clouds are most commonly gray or black. They can be several thousands of feet thick and they can produce widespread areas of rain and snow.
photo from metoffice. gov. uk
  • Stratocumulus clouds are my favorite, they are white and puffy. this variation of cloud forms as stable air is lifted.

Middle Clouds

Their bases range from about 6,500 to 20,000 feet AGL. They’re composed of water, ice crystals, or supercooled water. The 2 types of middle clouds are called altostratus clouds and altocumulus.

  • Altostratus clouds are flat and dense. They produce minimal turbulence. If you see one, a storm with continuous rain or snow might be on its way.
altostratus undulatus from wiki
  • Altocumulus clouds are gray or white, patchy clouds of uniform appearance that often form when altostratus clouds start to break.
Mackerel sky altocumulus clouds

High Clouds

High clouds have bases beginning above 20,000 feet AGL. They are white to light gray in color and form in stable air. They rarely pose a serious turbulence or icing hazard. There are 3 types of high clouds.

  • Cirrus clouds are sometimes blown from the tops of thunderstorms, so they can be a warning of the approaching bad weather.
whatsthiscloud. come
  • Cirrostratus clouds are thin and white clouds. They’re several thousands of feet thick and pose no icing hazard.
  • Cirrocumulus clouds are white patchy clouds that look like cotton and might produce some very light turbulence.

Clouds with Vertical Development

Cumulus clouds are puffy white clouds with flat bases that can start off as harmless but can gradually develop into towering cumulus or even into cumulonimbus clouds.

  • Cumulus clouds form in fairly clear skies and are usually called fair weather cumulus. You can expect turbulence, little icing and precipitation.
  • Towering clouds look like large mounds of cotton, they indicate a fairly deep area of unstable air.
photo by Charles Pfeil
  • Cumulonimbus clouds, more commonly known as thunderstorms. Many flying disasters are because of cumulonimbus clouds.
photo by pilot and photographer Santiago Borja

Today when I look at clouds, I don’t say ‘that cloud looks like a face!’ or ‘that one looks like a dragon!’, but now it’s more like ‘it looks like we’re going to have bad weather today due to the thin, white clouds but maybe if they start breaking up, the weather will start getting better, but check it out, that one looks like a face!’

Back to our title, some pilots can’t enter a cloud because they didn’t receive the necessary training for that. They may have only received VFR training which means that they fly according to the visual flight rules. The minimum visibility is 3 statute miles, and like I said they should be clear of clouds, 500 feet below them, 1,000 feet above or, 2,000 feet horizontal.

If a VFR pilot was flying and there were clouds ahead, they’d have to ask to descend or change heading, because once a pilot enters a cloud, he or she will be flying under instrument flight rules (IFR), depending fully on their instruments. VFR pilots are trained to fly relying on outside reference, if they enter a cloud, that means zero visibility and if they didn’t receive the training to fully rely on their instruments, this could lead to a catastrophe. So even though VFR pilots may have some limitations, they still get one hell of a view.

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