View north west at Goodwood Aerodrome

Low cloud over the airfield – what should you do?

Our flying training is elementary. We learn the basics to ensure we are safe to navigate our fixed-wing microlights (or flying machine of your choice) through the skies. The real learning starts when we have got that coveted licence. If you are a practising pilot, I’m sure you’ll agree. I’ve certainly found that to be the case. One such scenario is this: you return to your home airfield from a local flight to find the airfield covered in an inconvenient layer of cloud.

Perhaps that cloud is hovering just at circuit height. Or, maybe it’s got its hood up and it’s hanging around just where you turn from base to final like some obnoxious teenager. In any case, what do you do? For someone who has been flying for some time, the answers could be obvious. However, for others, perhaps not so.

Low cloud seen from above in a Eurofox

Potential scenarios for cloud cover over the airfield

Scenario 1 – cloud in the overhead

You approach your home aerodrome, make your call and begin to position yourself at a height of 2,000 feet or 1,000 feet above the circuit height. However, there’s a layer of cloud covering the overhead at 2,000 feet or below. What should you do?

Our Chief Flying Instructor recommends:

Just as there is at Goodwood, most airfields have a flight information service or air/ground radio service during operational hours. So, declare your intentions to join lower than usual, for example, 1800 feet overhead and lookout for traffic especially at your level and below.

Scenario 2 – cloud at circuit height

You are beginning your descent deadside having joined via the overhead and notice some cloud has developed and moved across the circuit at or near circuit height, right on the downwind leg where you’ll shortly be flying. What should you do?

Our Chief Flying Instructor recommends:

It’s important to consider other traffic in the circuit including rotary traffic. For example, at Goodwood, the fixed wing circuit is at 1,200 feet AGL and the rotary circuit is at 800 feet AGL. Rather than descend, leave the circuit until other aircraft in the circuit have landed or gone around. Then  consider joining via crosswind or straight in traffic permitting and cloud position permitting. Remember, do not cut in front of other traffic – especially if weather conditions are making circuit operations challenging.

Scenario 3 – cloud in the circuit

In this scenario you are already in the circuit and are happily making your way around, performing your checks, maintaining situational awareness. However, you start thinking about turning base and you spot some awkward cloud hovering over exactly where you plan on making your turn to final and it’s also where everyone else in the circuit is expecting you to be. What should you do?

Our Chief Flying Instructor recommends:

Advise ATC of the situation and state your intentions. If the cloud is moving away, consider extending downwind or adjusting your base leg for a longer approach. In the case that it looks like the weather is further deteriorating, making a diversion to your nearest airfield is recommended. Observe for improvements in weather conditions and carry out low-level procedures to your chosen diversion airfield.

View above the clouds from a C52 fixed-wing microlight

General tips and recommended actions

  1. Ask ATC
  2. Use the overhead
  3. Leave the circuit and come back – watch the wind
  4. Wind – estimate how long it will take to clear
  5. Alternative airfield – go for a coffee and cake somewhere else

Ultimately, we must be safe. 

Disclaimer: This post was written for reader entertainment only and was up to date at the time of writing. Always seek a qualified flying instructor or qualified professional for more information regarding aircraft and airfield operations, equipment, regulations and aviation legislation.