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Judging Cloud Distance

Source:, Featuring Wally Moran

Subscriber Question:

"I'm a student pilot, and one of the things I find most difficult is judging my distance from clouds. Any tips on mastering this?" - Mark C.


"I recall Rod Machado answering this question one time by saying, if you are far enough away from the clouds to safely avoid a jet coming out of the clouds at 250 knots, that is the minimum distance. When you think about it that is the reason we have distance requirements isn't it. So we can all see and avoid. Even IFR traffic is required to see and avoid when in VFR conditions. So remember there can be airplanes coming out of those clouds and we need to be far enough away to see them and avoid them.

One way you can determine how high the clouds are is to listen to the AWOS or the ATIS along your route. Remember, the height given is in altitude above the ground, so if you add the airport elevation to that ceiling that should be the MSL altitude of the clouds. Now you can space yourself appropriately below that number and you will be legal.

If choose to climb to VFR on Top, in most airspace you must remain 2000 feet horizontally from clouds. That means you must have a distance of 4000 feet between clouds. If you do climb to VFR on Top, you should note the MSL altitude of the tops and then maintain the required distance above the tops.

But back to the original advice - if you are far enough away to safely maneuver away from a large airplane coming out of those clouds, you are safe and most likely legal as well."

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