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Methods by Which Air Reaches the Saturation Point (Part Four) Ceiling, Visibility and Precipitation

by Flight Learnings

in Weather Theory


For aviation purposes, a ceiling is the lowest layer of clouds reported as being broken or overcast, or the vertical visibility into an obscuration like fog or haze. Clouds are reported as broken when five-eighths to seven-eighths of the sky is covered with clouds. Overcast means the entire sky is covered with clouds. Current ceiling information is reported by the aviation routine weather report (METAR) and automated weather stations of various types.


Closely related to cloud cover and reported ceilings is visibility information. Visibility refers to the greatest horizontal distance at which prominent objects can be viewed with the naked eye. Current visibility is also reported in METAR and other aviation weather reports, as well as by automated weather systems. Visibility information, as predicted by meteorologists, is available for a pilot during a preflight weather briefing.


Precipitation refers to any type of water particles that form in the atmosphere and fall to the ground. It has a profound impact on flight safety. Depending on the form of precipitation, it can reduce visibility, create icing situations, and affect landing and takeoff performance of an aircraft.

Precipitation occurs because water or ice particles in clouds grow in size until the atmosphere can no longer support them. It can occur in several forms as it falls toward the Earth, including drizzle, rain, ice pellets, hail, snow, and ice.

Drizzle is classified as very small water droplets, smaller than 0.02 inches in diameter. Drizzle usually accompanies fog or low stratus clouds. Water droplets of larger size are referred to as rain. Rain that falls through the atmosphere but evaporates prior to striking the ground is known as virga. Freezing rain and freezing drizzle occur when the temperature of the surface is below freezing; the rain freezes on contact with the cooler surface.

If rain falls through a temperature inversion, it may freeze as it passes through the underlying cold air and fall to the ground in the form of ice pellets. Ice pellets are an indication of a temperature inversion and that freezing rain exists at a higher altitude. In the case of hail, freezing water droplets are carried up and down by drafts inside clouds, growing larger in size as they come in contact with more moisture. Once the updrafts can no longer hold the freezing water, it falls to the Earth in the form of hail. Hail can be pea sized, or it can grow as large as five inches in diameter, larger than a softball.

Snow is precipitation in the form of ice crystals that falls at a steady rate or in snow showers that begin, change in intensity, and end rapidly. Falling snow also varies in size, being very small grains or large flakes. Snow grains are the equivalent of drizzle in size.

Precipitation in any form poses a threat to safety of flight. Often, precipitation is accompanied by low ceilings and reduced visibility. Aircraft that have ice, snow, or frost on their surfaces must be carefully cleaned prior to beginning a flight because of the possible airflow disruption and loss of lift. Rain can contribute to water in the fuel tanks. Precipitation can create hazards on the runway surface itself, making takeoffs and landings difficult, if not impossible, due to snow, ice, or pooling water and very slick surfaces.

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