The airplane windows faded to a hazy white as I climbed up into the cloud layer. It was my very first time in the clouds. I had just taken off from Peachtree City Falcon Field (KFFC) on a gray, rainy day. The kind of rainy day that just rains lightly. Constantly. No breaks in the clouds for any sun to poke through. Just gross, depressing and dreary. This was the stuff that training for an instrument rating is made of. Normally a special hood or glasses are worn to simulate not being able to see outside. Relying solely on my instruments for both aircraft control and navigation, I was getting to experience the real deal.
It wasn’t a very thick layer of clouds, though. I was in them for maybe a minute or two before getting a clear view of the sky as I broke out on top of the overcast layer. What I found above was dramatically different than the gray and gloom from below. Above me was a picture perfect sunset, and below a floor of pillowy cloud. It felt like being on the cloud level of Super Mario Bros. All I had to do was pick the right altitude to get the most coins.
The view from above the overcast layer
While there are different names for clouds that you might know like stratus, cumulus and cirrus, cloud layers in aviation are defined by how much they cover the sky, known as sky condition. A weather report will show one of four sky conditions (or simply “clear” if there are no clouds) along with the altitude that the layer starts. I think of the four different sky conditions like a golden hash brown on a big flat griddle:
- Overcast: An overcast layer is complete coverage of the sky – like when the hash brown is in one big, delicious piece.
- Broken: When you take a spatula to that hash brown and it begins to break apart, making holes in it, now it’s like a broken layer. There are breaks in the clouds, but it’s still a ceiling.
- Scattered: Keep breaking that hash brown apart and you get individual pieces that no longer look like one unified piece with holes, but lots of pieces starting to scatter apart. This is no longer a ceiling of clouds, but there is still a good amount of them.
- Few: Now if you eat some of those pieces, all you have left is a few. One here, one there. A little ketchup will get you to a clear sky.
It was only a short flight from Falcon Field to Athens. Like finishing up my cloud level and hopping into a warp tube, I descended down into that fluffy perfection. A few hazy white minutes later, I was back in the gray and gloom. But it made me realize that although I landed in depressing conditions, the day was still quite pleasant. I just wasn’t in the right place to see it. It was all in my perspective. So it really is always sunny out, even in the rain.