bumpy ride? Here’s how clouds affect air travel

Cumulus cumulonimbus clouds drift under the wing of an airplane, while cumulus and jet clouds crisscross the sky, on March 5, 2020. Cumulus in particular can produce a bumpy flight. Image via Lucy Witt.

Bumpy Journey: Towing and Air Travel

Certainly, there is turbulence in the clear air. But when your flight falters, you’ll likely look out your window and see the clouds. They may range from cumulus, also known as fair-weather clouds, to monsoonal cumulonimbus with their distinctive anvil-shaped peaks, billowing sides and ominously dark bases. The truth is that clouds are cooler than the surrounding air. so it is variance In the density between the clouds and the surrounding air creating a kind of “crater” in the sky, making the flight less smooth.

Weather performance and aircraft

Mike Soflon has been a private and commercial pilot for over 23 years. As a pilot, he must participate in frequent training, where they discuss how weather relates to aircraft performance. Some of the issues they focus on are takeoff and landing and concerns like wind shear. Soflon said EarthSky:

Much of the weather, including turbulence, that we experience while flying is derived from the sun and the uneven heating of the Earth’s surface. As a result, you can get upset at any time. Usually, early in the morning and then in the evening and all night, you may find the best time for a smooth ride.

Most commercial airlines fly over a lot of clouds, although they still have to fly through them to get in and out of airports. A typical commercial airliner is about six to seven miles (nine to 11 km) above sea level. So on a long-distance flight, the aircraft will generally be above most clouds except for tall clouds and cumulus.

Diagram: different types of clouds with height and measurements on their sides.
Most commercial airliners fly high in thin clouds. Image via Encyclopedia Britannica.

Cumulus: The normal roll mark of aircraft can cause a bumpy flight

As you might imagine, storm clouds – specifically cumulus clouds – are the types of clouds that pilots would like to avoid. Cumulus generally contain heavy rain, lightning, hail, strong winds, and occasional tornadoes. Pilots and air traffic control pay close attention to the weather and flights around these types of storms. As Soflon said:

We respect and care about the frontier boundaries where there is potential for storm activity/energy. The clouds that are usually associated with this boundary that we are interested in are cumulus clouds. A good decision may be to consider alternative trip planning options where these conditions exist.

Mammatos pull

Another type of cloud associated with cumulus is the mammatus. Mammatus are bubble air sacs that hang down at the base of a cloud. TheAirlinePilots said:

Airlines pilots usually take measures to avoid any cumulus clouds, but especially those with mammatus formations, as these indicate a particularly severe turbulence within cumulus. Mammatus can be observed wherever cumulus clouds occur, but is especially common in areas where thunderstorms are severe, such as the tropics and subtropics. Because the formation is associated with clouds of mature cumulus, it is most likely to be seen from mid-afternoon to early evening, when land heating and accompanying convective activity reach their maximum.

Learn more about why pilots avoid cumulonimbus in the video below.

Other types of clouds

All clouds are made of water droplets or ice crystals. Clouds come in a variety of types, from thin to thick and puffy and range from low to the ground to the top of the troposphere (and sometimes in the stratosphere. One type of cloud, called night clouds, is in the mesosphere). Jeffrey Horman, an air traffic control specialist, said: EarthSky How some different types of clouds can affect aircraft:

Cumulonimbus presents the most risks due to disturbance along with all standard thunderstorm fare. The cumulus itself represents the possibility of a disturbance in the updraft below it, but the smooth air above it. Stratos often have creamy ice, especially on their tops, during cooler seasons. Fog and low visibility restrict aircraft from approaching flying devices at airports, which are below minimum conditions (1/2 mile visibility and 200-foot cloud bases are common) the aircraft cannot continue to land.

A bright white cloud with a large flat bubble above it.
View in EarthSky Community Photos. | Adelina Bathurga in Tiran, Albania, captured this photo of an anvil piling up on June 21, 2019. Thank you, Adelina! See Adelina’s photos for a great look at the mammatus clouds.

Read more about some unusual cloud types:

Punched clouds are made by planes

Undulatus clouds look like undulating rows

Kelvin Helmholtz clouds look like ocean waves

Aircraft clouds gallery

The wing of the plane in the upper corner and the snow-covered mountain with some puffy clouds and dark fog.
This view from a plane taking off from Portland, Oregon, shows some cumulus clouds around Mount Hood as well as a gray haze of bushfire smoke on July 21, 2021. Photo by Kelly Kaiser Wait.
Airplane wing over a layer of small visible clouds and blue sky above the distant horizon.
Altocumulus clouds in a broken blanket under a passenger plane flying at cruising altitude somewhere over Georgia on February 27, 2022. Photo by Kelly Kaiser Witt.
White paper above the level and white paper below with a thin blue line on the horizon.
A passenger plane flies between two layers of stratus clouds on September 24, 2018. Photo by Kelly Keizer Wait.

Bottom line: Many types of clouds and even clear skies can make for a bumpy flight on an airplane. But cumulus clouds are the most important clouds that aircraft should avoid.

Leave a Comment