When I was a boy and living in the country, my father, who was a farmer and a lover of nature, taught us children about wild birds, their eggs, their song, animals, growing things, keeping a grass tennis court absolutely free of weeds and much more. It was nature for us children to live with and appreciate. But I can not recall him telling us about clouds.
Clouds came into my life when I was accepted into the RAF in 1942 for flying training. But as facilities were full, I was told to return to civvy street and wait to be recalled.
I first took a job as a farm labourer, aware that food for our severely rationed population was of paramount importance. Then, hearing of a job as a prop swinger at an airfield (Theale) some five miles away, bicycled over and got it. (The job was swinging the propellers of Tiger Moth biplanes to start their engines.)
There was no meteorology for us then. So an instructor flew a Tiger Moth upwind for a distance to see what weather was in store for the novice pilots who were learning to fly until reaching their first solo.
Having already been accepted for flying training in the RAF I was sometimes given the dual control trainee’s cockpit behind the pilot, where I learned to fly the aeroplane well enough, with the instructor almost as my passenger.
Clouds were important. For a learner they could be a deadly hazard. So clear skies were essential for all concerned.
We would come back, fly low over the grass airfield, and stick our thumbs up if the oncoming weather was fair. Then flying could begin.
My next meeting with clouds was when flying in America, where the meteorologist said that cumulonimbus clouds (those huge anvil-shaped ones) were very interesting clouds. “Pilots have found them so fascinating that they have flown into them and never come out again”. They are the clouds that form hailstones.
When piloting a Cornell trainer aircraft in Oklahoma, I flew into a cloud to see what it was like and in no time could have sworn that I was climbing dangerously and might spin. Then I popped out of the cloud heading vertically downward. Fortunately I was high enough to recover from the dive. This taught me, very forcefully, that when in clouds your instincts were useless and that relying on the aeroplane’s instruments was essential. - vital.
Now, when I rise each morning early, I scan the sky for some time to ascertain wind direction, birds landing (into wind), blackbirds patrolling their territorial boundaries, and swifts returning in springtime. Are the gulls coming inland from rough waves, or are they making off in a southerly direction toward calm seas? Aircraft condensation trails at altitude tell me wind direction high up and rough destinations of the aircraft creating them.
Then I watch for cloud types, and their formation in broken or stratified form, and how they change shape and volume as they pass over. I can then have a shot at predicting the possible weather systems to come (stand with your back to the wind and the lower pressure area is always on the left).
I look at the trees, the way they are bending, the early development of catkins and the size and colour of the ensuing leaves.
As much as anything I watch airliners come in to land at Heathrow airport. I try to identify the type (difficult now that so many look rather alike). If they are in cloud and invisible when passing by on their way to runways 27 left or right, the cloud level is below 1800 feet. If still invisible on their final approach and leaving my usual field of vision, the clouds are 800 foot high or lower.
We seldom take time to look at the clouds, the sky, and the objects and creatures that inhabit the vast space above us. It is a vibrant and fascinating part of our world.