An Adventure Above The Clouds

Michael W. Gilbert UFI

Sunday was overcast, and the gloominess almost kept me from flying, but it had been so long since I had flown, that I decided I really needed to go. Flying, for me, is therapy. It helps me, if only for a while, to escape the daily stresses of life. I’m so glad I ultimately decided to go, for as is often the case, the most memorable and beautiful experiences in life occur when you aren’t expecting them…

I took off in my powered parachute from a deserted Smithville Tennessee airport at about 2 PM. It seemed I was the only one who wanted to fly. Our small town airport is usually quite active, especially on the weekends, but the cloud cover must have dampened the flying spirits of most other local pilots. After leaving the ground, I climbed to about 1000’ AGL, and ran into a thin haze, but not enough to impair my view of the ground, so I kept climbing, thinking I might get above the clouds. A few hundred more feet up, and I suddenly realized that there were clouds around and below me! It was an incredible sight. There were two layers of clouds, and I was between them!

I could see the ground in most places, but in others, the clouds appeared as huge, white cotton balls hanging in the air. Clouds look two dimensional and indistinct from the ground, but from above, they are indescribably beautiful. I was in awe of the view, and stayed at 3000 to 4000 feet just looking around for quite some time, flying over first one cloud, then another.

There was still that near solid, thin layer of clouds above, and I began to wonder if I could get above it. I feared that I could not, because there appeared to be few places to safely get through. I decided to try, so I started climbing, and at 7000 feet MSL, I began to run into the bottom of the layer. I climbed into the mist just below the layer, thinking I might see a clear opening to get through, but when I could find none, I eased back down. I stayed at this altitude for some time, waiting for a break in the clouds.

Finally, I spotted an opening, and flew toward it. As I climbed up through the open area, I began to see the sun “rising” over the clouds around me. After only a few seconds, I suddenly broke out on top! Above me was clear blue sky, the bright sun, jet contrails – and below me, a layer of absolutely beautiful, white, brightly sunlit clouds. The scene was the most spectacular, awe inspiring, and beautiful one I’ve ever witnessed in nature. I was whooping and hollering despite myself! I could see the ground in places, so I was easily able to keep my orientation, but there was enough cloud cover to make the scene truly magical. It seemed as if I had entered another world altogether.

I was at 8500 feet MSL, and it was bitterly cold, but I was dressed for it. I started back down after a few minutes, but just could not tear myself away from the incredible beauty. I regained altitude for one more look. There were hills and valleys that looked like giant snow drifts, hundreds of feet in size, all around and below me.

After a while, I finally gave up, and started looking for an opening through which I could safely go back down. I saw one close by, and started descending toward it. As I approached it, I found myself down in a valley of clouds. A beautiful white, sunlit wall of clouds, hundreds of feet tall was to my left and right, and then in front of me! It was breathtaking. I flew around in this valley for a while, just enjoying this first in my lifetime view.

I could see the ground a mile and a half below me through the opening in the clouds at the bottom of the valley created by the clouds, so I started flying down through it in a tight circle. It only took a few seconds to get back down below the layer, and back to a more normal scene – still beautiful, but nothing like what I had just witnessed. I look forward to flying on the next mostly cloudy day we have. Never again will I shy away from flying, just because it is gloomy! Life is like that – you just never know when something magical is going to happen…

Anyone who wishes to repeat my adventure should keep several safety issues in mind. First, make sure the opening you choose to go through is big enough to allow you to see, and then to maneuver away from, any general aviation aircraft that might pop out of the clouds. Any opening you choose to proceed through should be at least a couple of miles across. Never, ever try this on any day when there is even the most remote possibility of a thunderstorm. Any cloud that can produce a thunderstorm will be the harbinger of winds that can destroy your aircraft – and you.

Choose a day that is partly or mostly cloudy, and preferably when the cloud cover is thin and spread out. Thin clouds can’t hide general aviation aircraft as easily. Minimize your time beside the clouds, and inside any opening you choose to go through. Get above the clouds quickly, stay there as long as is safe, and then get back down below quickly. Try this adventure only in a remote area away from busy air traffic. Airplanes ascending or descending through the clouds are a real danger.

Use a GPS to monitor your ground speed as upper level winds can be surprisingly strong. I found myself actually drifting backwards a time or two. Also, a GPS can help you in case the clouds surprise you and block your view of the ground for a moment. Stay close to your takeoff point, in case you do drift or get disoriented.

Note also, that the air temperature drops an average of about four degrees per thousand feet as you climb. Regardless of the ground temperature, it’s cold up there! And stay below 10,000 feet MSL – above 10,000 feet MSL is controlled airspace and you cannot enter without permission.

Review FAR103 as it pertains to flying near clouds, and with respect to the requirement that you navigate only with respect to the ground. These rules are for our safety, and for the safety of other pilots we share airspace with. Our flying adventures are a privilege – not a right.

I look forward to repeating this adventure whenever the possibility presents itself, and never again will I insist on only beautiful, cloudless days for my flights. I currently have 77 hours in my powered parachute, and had never really thought about flying on a mostly cloudy day.

I now understand John Gillespie Magee’s poem “High Flight” better than ever. “Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds”…