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WEATHER UNIVERSITY: Pilot’s Glory

Susie Rhyno-Nickerson took this photo on a flight to British Columbia. Some would say she had a guardian angel with her.
Susie Rhyno-Nickerson took this photo on a flight to British Columbia. Some would say she had a guardian angel with her. - Contributed

By now you know how much I love clouds. They are beautiful and can teach us a lot about what’s happening overhead. The same applies if you’re above the cloud, looking down! Have you ever been flying over a cloud deck and noticed what looked like a ring around the shadow of your airplane? It can be grey or, if you’re lucky, it can glow with the colours of the rainbow. 

This ring is called a “Pilot’s Glory” or “Glory of the Pilot” because most times, pilots are the only ones who get to see it! 

We more frequently see halos around the sun or moon. These are created when light passes through droplets. We now know that most of the light that forms a glory doesn't pass through the droplets. The main cause of a “glory” is a process called tunneling where sunlight passes close enough to a droplet to create electromagnetic waves within it. Those waves bounce around inside the droplet and eventually get out, sending out light rays that make up most of the glory that we see.

Besides being pretty to look at, Pilot’s Glory is a science lesson. The ring is telling you that the cloud is not only made up of ice crystals, but liquid moisture too! Why is this important? Well, if the temperature in the cloud is around the freezing mark and the plane descends through the cloud, icing is likely to occur. Pilots do their best to avoid these conditions.

Many years ago, when I briefed pilots at the MacDonald Cartier Airport in Ottawa, a pilot told me that if you see a Pilot’s Glory it means you have a guardian angel flying with you.

Cindy Day is the chief meteorologist for SaltWire Network.

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