Why Do We Fly In High Clouds? (Ask Cranky)

This is a bit of a strange Ask Cranky in that it’s actually a question I’m asking myself. To pilots, this is an elementary question, but I’ve had this conversation with other window-seat lovers and they Ask Crankywant to know the answer as well.

I’m wondering why it is that when there’s a high cloud layer, it seems like we often sit in it instead of above or below.

My guess was that it’s likely to be less bouncy within the cloud layer itself, but I really don’t know.
Brett S

Seems slightly insane to ask myself that question, so instead I asked a commercial pilot friend of mine to give me an answer fit for publication. Here’s what we had to say:

Altitude selection is generally based on the winds and the weight of the aircraft, and is independent of where the cloud layers are. Higher altitudes allow more efficient operation, but they may not have the best winds, and may also not be within the performance capabilities of the aircraft at a given weight. For long international flights, the aircraft normally climbs every hour or two as weight is reduced. Sometimes, a particular altitude may be chosen for a certain period of time to avoid forecast turbulence, but that too is normally independent of cloud layers. During the actual flight, if it is turbulent within a cloud layer, the crew may request a higher altitude to get on top, or perhaps a lower altitude to avoid being in the tops of a cloud layer (which can be more turbulent than within the cloud itself). I don’t know of any other scenario where it’s smoother within a cloud layer than outside of it.

All of that is assuming that the clouds are not associated with thunderstorms. Thunderstorms are always avoided, generally by flying around them visually or using radar.

In other words, it’s just bad luck. I love looking out the window when I fly and it seems like we’ve parked ourselves in a high cloud layer a lot on recent trips so I can’t see anything. Like this on the way home from DFW:

Sitting in a Cloud Layer

On that flight home, the captain said winds were very stiff at lower altitudes so we were going to climb above them. But we were cruising in the tops at 32,000 ft. Why not go to 34,000 ft so we could have a nice view?

My friend said there could have been a few reasons on this particular flight.

  1. We could have been too heavy to climb higher (and though he doesn’t fly the 737s, he said he’s heard they can’t always get as high as you might like).
  2. It could have been that the winds higher were, in fact, stronger on the nose so we wouldn’t want to slow ourselves down by moving.
  3. There could have been traffic that prevented us from climbing higher.
  4. The pilots could have just not cared to climb since it wasn’t all that bumpy.

Apparently, my view out the window is not the primary concern. Who knew?

Kind of a silly post, I know, but it’s something I’ve pondered many a time since my favorite thing to do on an airplane is look out the window. When you’re in the clouds, that’s just not fun.

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