How Do Pilots See Through Clouds?

When it comes to aviation safety, weather conditions are an extremely important factor that need to be taken seriously. Many flight school programs even create entire modules dedicated to teaching budding pilots about the potential dangers that can come along with flying in certain weather situations, and clouds are usually on the top of the list.

This is because when a pilot chooses to fly through a cloud, their visibility is reduced significantly, just like the way it feels to walk or drive through fog. Due to this, when an aircraft travels through a cloud, the pilot switches to flying under instrument rules, which means that regardless of how thick the cloud is, the crew has no external reference, meaning that they fly through it solely based on indications that are given from the on-board instruments. 

These instruments are essentially what helps pilots ‘see’ through clouds, as well as the additional help of air traffic controllers, which can assist pilots during this time and alert them if there are any nearby aircraft that they need to steer clear of. The air traffic controllers are able to do this by determining the aircraft’s location and altitude by relying on the onboard transponder.

Can you fly through clouds?

Yes, it is possible for pilots to fly an aircraft through clouds. Despite the fluffy appearance of a cloud (that almost resembles delicious cotton candy), clouds are simply masses of water drops that are formed when water on the Earth’s surface evaporates, and are pretty much the exact same thing as fog. The only difference is that fog is formed close to the ground, while clouds are formed high up in the sky.

This means that, just like the way you can walk or drive through fog, an aircraft is able to fly directly through a cloud in the same way. However, this does come with potential risks, with the main one being a drop in visibility, especially if the aircraft is flying in low light conditions already, or stuck in a storm.

Therefore, when a pilot steers their aircraft through a cloud, they will make sure to communicate with ATC (air traffic control) on the ground, who will be able to help assist the pilot as they make their way through the cloud, alerting them if there are any hazards they cannot see, such as a nearby aircraft.

Do airplanes fly above rain clouds?

Most often, if it begins to rain during flight then a pilot will choose to either fly through a rain cloud, above or under a rain cloud, or simply around it - it all greatly depends on the individual circumstances of the situation.

Generally speaking, if the weather forecast is particularly bad (such as a thunderstorm) where there may be more clouds than usual that may impede the pilot’s visibility for large portions of the journey, then the flight will often be canceled and rescheduled.

However, for the vast majority of the time, rain is often not dangerous to an aircraft, and many pilots find that they are able to fly through both rain and rain clouds with no trouble at all (except, perhaps, a little in-flight turbulence!).

Thanks to onboard instruments and the help of air traffic controllers, pilots are able to safely fly through rain clouds without any problems, especially as rain clouds are often condensed to one area, so the issue is often only temporary.

Is it dangerous to fly through clouds?

Usually, a pilot will be able to fly their aircraft through a cloud with no issues, however, in some cases, clouds can be dangerous to fly through, which is why pilots usually try to avoid having to pass through them where possible.

Other than in-flight turbulence which may be distressing to some passengers, the main danger of flying through a cloud is the chance of mid-air collision, due to the fact that while flying through a cloud, a pilot’s visibility is lowered significantly.

Like we mentioned above, pilots try their best to avoid clouds, for this reason, however, for larger aircraft (such as commercial planes) it is often practically impossible for a pilot to avoid clouds for the entirety of the journey, so what do they do to ensure optimum safety?

The first step a pilot will take to lower the danger that a cloud poses is by switching to flying solely under instrument rules while their visibility is temporarily restricted.

This means that while the crew is unable to see their surroundings, the onboard instruments will be able to help them navigate safely. In addition to that, the next step that a pilot will take to ensure safety is communicating with air traffic controllers, which will be able to help the pilot be aware of all aircraft in the area, to reduce the chances of any collisions.