The problem with clouds is that they are amorphous by nature and so defy easy quantification, and regulations, by their nature, depend on being able to define and pigeonhole the variables. So the FAA regulations regarding clouds — the regs were written many decades ago — are an attempt by the agency to somehow define what clouds are (the easy part: visible moisture) and how we as aviators have to coexist with them (the hard part).
The FAA lays out in laughable detail the distances to keep from clouds to stay legal. In many ways, it’s an academic exercise. For instance, you need to stay 500 feet below clouds in Class E airspace, a requirement that is both useless and impossible to determine and regulate. The controllers, who I assume would bust you for flying 499 feet or closer to a cloud bottom, have no idea where the clouds are, let alone where they are in relationship to you.
From my first days as a pilot, this made me wonder what the purpose was of such regulations. Did they exist, like speed limits for cars, to warn pilots away from operational danger zones? If so, they couldn’t be very effective. Everyone knows speed limits are most effective when drivers believe they stand a high chance of getting a ticket. Cloud limits, however, seem to lack enforceability. Fly too close to clouds — or even right through them — and what is almost certain to happen, legally speaking, is exactly nothing. Where’s the deterrence?
Not only that, but the limits are inadequate. The 500-foot restriction below clouds in controlled airspace is clearly inadequate to protect a jet, for instance, that just descended on an IFR clearance outside of radar coverage. The time it takes to descend 500 feet in a turbojet might be just 15 seconds (30 seconds is my typical descent rate in the Cirrus), and the notion that this is enough time to acquire traffic in a cloudy environment and then take evasive action if necessary is absurd.
Once you start discussing lateral clearance requirements, clearances above the clouds, relative speeds and the infinite number of possible scenarios, the argument will soon descend into Babel-like nonsense.
The sum total, as best I can figure, to the cloud distance requirements is a profoundly complicated way of saying, “stay out of the clouds, especially in controlled airspace, as other airplanes might be in there.”
Even if regulators were able to come up with a sensible matrix of regulations intended to keep airplanes not in the clouds from running into airplanes just coming out of them, there’s another issue: It’s literally impossible to tell how far you are away from clouds. You can mostly tell when you’re in a cloud and when you’re not in one, but figuring out how far you are from one, well, that is a mystical calling. You can sometimes get a rough idea of how big a cloud is, but as you near a cloud formation, that gets increasingly difficult — I’d say impossible. Trying to gauge your distance from a uniquely and infinitely complex, ever-changing object that’s moving too is a fool’s errand. My point, of course, is that this calls further into question the FAA’s regulations about cloud clearances; if you can’t tell how far away the clouds are, and you can’t, how can you obey a complex set of regulations on cloud clearance defined by your distance from the clouds?
One of the reasons often cited by VFR pilots for why they don’t get an instrument rating is they are worried about the increased risk of flying IFR. (Cost, time and commitment are other big factors.) Is IFR riskier than VFR?
Richard Collins did a study of the subject years ago — one of the few we could find — and discovered that the statistics were clear on the matter: IFR is far safer than VFR when there are clouds around, and VFR with clouds is staggeringly more risky than VFR in the clear.
Like it or not, the takeaway is simply that IFR pilots have a big built-in advantage over VFR pilots when there are clouds around, and VFR pilots greatly minimize their risk by giving clouds a wide margin. Sounds easy, right?