A Tale of Two Clouds

FAA Safety Briefing
Cleared for Takeoff
4 min readJul 6

By James Williams, FAA Safety Briefing Magazine

It was the best of weather, it was the worst of weather. Okay, maybe it wasn’t the worst weather ever, but it definitely wasn’t great either. And it definitely wasn’t the best, that’s for sure. As a non-aviator, do you ever feel like your friendly neighborhood pilot doesn’t define good weather in the same language as you? Well, that’s because pilots have a different view of all things weather, especially around what constitutes good flying weather.

Know Your Ocean

The best analogy I have to explain how a pilot looks at the weather is how a scuba diver looks at the ocean. If either aren’t treated with due respect, both diving and flying represent rather serious challenges to survival. When your life depends on it, and you are actively engaged in the process, you tend to focus on the subject much more than a casual observer would.

For example, a scuba diver will track how tidal and temperature changes impact diving conditions, much like a pilot gauges flying conditions by paying close attention to incoming fronts and shifting weather patterns. This would be much different than your average flier who might rely solely on the weather outside their window, or the average beachgoer who probably only checks for an acceptable water temperature. Since it isn’t likely to have a big effect on your day, it makes sense that you wouldn’t waste your mental bandwidth thinking about it. People use mental shortcuts like these to simplify decision-making — a concept that psychology calls heuristics.

So how does a pilot look at weather differently? The general answer is, it depends. Just like the ocean surrounding a scuba diver, the conditions of the sky surrounding the pilot have particular problem areas. To the average person, a breezy day might not even be worth noting, while a pilot could consider it cause to scrub a flight. On the other hand, a rainy day may be enough to cancel a person’s daily activities, but be of little concern to a pilot. A blazing hot summer day may be perfect for a trip to the beach, but it could also leave a pilot unable to fly.

Here’s a heuristic to help understand weather decisions by pilots: think about how the weather impacts the plane and the pilot in each of these ways: 1) wind/turbulence, 2) ceiling/visibility, and 3) performance.

Photo illustration of two clouds.

Practice Makes Perfect

Let’s put that heuristic into practice. On our breezy day example, the wind speed and direction could create a dangerous crosswind that exceeds our pilot’s or aircraft’s capabilities. That would mean a no-go from our aviator despite otherwise favorable conditions in the other heuristic metrics. A rainy day might cancel a ball game, but, assuming reasonable visibility and/or an instrument rating, your general aviation flight can go ahead with no problem (it might even be surprisingly smooth). That bright blazing summer day may present a performance obstacle for our flight thanks to density altitude that decreases performance below acceptable limits. In these examples, you can see the weather interpretation misalignment. Many times, good weather in your daily life will also be perfect flying weather. But there is a chance it might not be perfect. It’s even true that not all clouds are the same. Instrument-rated pilots learn what clouds you can smoothly sail through and what should be avoided. Ironically, those white puffy “happy” clouds are often more trouble than their long gray counterparts.

When looking at weather, consider these three areas and start building your shortcuts. Ask your pilot friends about weather, and see what they say. This may vary by the pilot’s ratings, skills, and preferred aircraft. By talking to them, you can see how they approach weather. You might also serve as an excellent sounding board for making a go/no-go decision. If you want to learn more, check out the free resources below.

Learn More

James Williams is FAA Safety Briefing’s associate editor and photo editor. He is also a pilot and ground instructor.

This article was originally published in the July/August 2023 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine. https://www.faa.gov/safety_briefing



FAA Safety Briefing
Cleared for Takeoff

Official FAA safety policy voice for general aviation. The magazine is part of the national FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam).