By Joe Shelton
Thick” isn’t the issue.
But there are five things about clouds that are inissues and affect the aircraft in different ways.
- Convective activity — Convection is simply air that is rising because it is warmer than the surrounding air. Sounds benign, but Convection is Nature’s “engine” that creates THUNDERSTORMS and no pilot in his right mind ventures into or even too close to thunderstorms. But it doesn’t have to be a thunderstorm to offer a challenging ride to any size aircraft. Cumulus clouds are potential thunderstorms and the reason they are so tall is because of the convective activity within. But there’s even another side to this that adds to the picture. Everything that goes up must come down and as such for every rising parcel of air there is a counterpoint descending parcel of air very close to it. It’s kind of like being whipsawed… Not fun to fly in (or even too near).
- Hail — Nature’s capable of many jokes and one of them is that cumulus clouds/thunderstorms are capable of creating hail that can seriously damage most aircraft. The “ride” might not be too bad when all of a sudden the aircraft is pelted by hail.
- Icing — This is kind of the questions’ “thick” equivalent. Given cold enough temperatures, almost any cloud is capable of dusting an airplane with ice. Some clouds are even capable of covering an aircraft with so much ice that it essentially either sinks toward the ground or stops flying entirely. That doesn’t happen often because most pilot are aware of the dangers and avoid or exit icing conditions.
- Ceiling — If we take the concept of a thick cloud all the way to the ground, we have fog. Even though airliners often have “autoland” capabilities, airports don’t all have the ground electronics to support autoland, so thick fog on the ground can prevent aircraft from landing.
- Finally, there’s a concept that fits the question almost to a “T,” and that is that mountains are often concealed within clouds. Pilots flying in IMC conditions (in clouds) must be careful that they are either on safe airways and/or at altitudes above nearby “Cumulo-Granite” — aviation speak for mountains hidden within clouds.
But the good news is that clouds on their own not only typically aren’t dangerous, but are fun to fly through…
As an aside, I’ve done skydiving freefalls at about 120 mph through clouds and the only thing different than a normal freefall was not being able to see very far and getting a little damp from the clouds’ moisture. If I’d have my eyes closed I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference between a normal clear air freefall and falling through a cloud.