High above the Earth’s surface, pilots often become the sole witnesses to breathtaking phenomena that most of us can only dream of seeing. The vast skies offer an array of marvels that are both fascinating and mysterious. Here are some of the incredible sights that pilots have reported during their flights.
St. Elmo’s Fire
This is a blue or green glow that pilots often see during thunderstorms. It’s an electrical phenomenon where ionized air becomes luminous, creating an ethereal fire-like appearance.
An optical illusion, a Fata Morgana can make islands, coastlines, or ships appear distorted and elevated, almost like floating mirages above the horizon.
These are bright spots that appear on either side of the sun, primarily due to the refraction of sunlight by ice crystals in the atmosphere.
The Northern and Southern Lights
Auroras, as they are scientifically known, are natural light displays in the Earth’s sky, predominantly seen in high-latitude regions around the Arctic and Antarctic.
These are tenuous cloud-like phenomena that are the “highest clouds in the Earth’s atmosphere.” They glow a brilliant blue or white and are usually seen in deep twilight.
A rare optical phenomenon where pilots see a halo or glory around their plane’s shadow on the clouds, often accompanied by a rainbow.
Similar to a rainbow, but it’s caused by moonlight. These are rare and typically faint, often appearing white to the naked eye.
A rare and still not entirely understood phenomenon, ball lightning is a luminous sphere that appears during thunderstorms.
Sprites and Jets
These are large-scale electrical discharges occurring high above thunderstorm clouds. They can appear as red or blue streaks shooting up from the cloud tops.
The Green Flash
Just after sunset or right before sunrise, a green spot is sometimes visible above the sun, lasting only a few seconds.
These are bright patches, arcs, or even halos that appear opposite the sun and are caused by the reflection, refraction, and dispersion of sunlight by ice crystals in the atmosphere.
This is a magnified shadow of an observer, cast upon the upper surfaces of clouds opposite the sun. It often appears enormous and encircled by a halo.
A rare phenomenon where “spikes” or “crown-like” structures appear above a thunderstorm cloud, often changing shape rapidly.
While controversial, some pilots have reported unidentified flying objects that neither they nor ground control could identify.
Waterfalls of Clouds
Sometimes, pilots witness clouds pouring over mountains much like a waterfall, a spectacular sight from above.
Bulging, pouch-like clouds that dangle beneath a larger parent cloud, often signaling severe weather.
These saucer-shaped clouds often get mistaken for UFOs due to their disk-like appearance.
Contrails and Vapor Cones
When planes move through moist air at certain conditions, they leave behind streaks of condensed water or even form vapor cones around them.
Disk of Venus
Just like a “moonrise”, pilots can witness the planet Venus rising or setting, appearing as a bright disk.
Shadows on the Horizon
Sometimes, distant mountains or even flying airplanes can cast long shadows on the horizon, creating a mesmerizing sight.
During certain times of the year, migrating starlings move in coordinated masses so large they can block out the sun, creating a “black sun” effect.
Rows of cumulus or cumulonimbus clouds aligned with the wind direction, resembling streets in the sky.
Vertical shafts of light that appear during sunrise or sunset, caused by the reflection of sunlight from flat ice crystals in the atmosphere.
A cloud composed of tiny ice crystals that can create halos, sun pillars, or even coronas.
Hole Punch Clouds
Also known as “fallstreak holes”, they appear as large circular gaps in cirrocumulus or altocumulus clouds.
Rare, large cloud formations that somewhat resemble the shape of a whale, seen at high altitudes.
Resembling the ripple effect, these are created when buoyant air gets pushed up and then gravity pulls it back down, creating a wave-like pattern in clouds.
Under specific conditions, pilots can see two sunsets – one on the horizon and another above it, created due to atmospheric refraction.
A rare type of sprite, it looks like a jellyfish with long tendrils, occurring high above thunderstorm clouds.
Flying near volcanic regions, pilots can witness ash and smoke plumes shooting up into the sky.
When the sky below is entirely covered with clouds, making it look like a snowy expanse.
While we spot them from the ground, they appear more vivid and complete from the sky.
Resembling ocean waves, these clouds indicate turbulence in the atmosphere.
The Earth’s Curvature
At high altitudes, pilots sometimes get a glimpse of the Earth’s curvature on the horizon.
Ring of Fire
During an annular solar eclipse, when the moon covers the sun’s center, leaving its outer edges visible, forming a “ring of fire”.
High clouds can cast shadows on lower cloud layers, creating a spectacular layered effect.