I ask this question from the context of formation-flying, such as during WW2. What is the visibility in a typical cloud during daytime? Can you lose your wingman right away? Were you at serious risk of mid-air collision when this happened?

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think you can really specify a "typical" cloud, but you could easily compare it to the visibility in various degrees of fog. Or if you've flown on a commercial airliner, you may have noticed that the wingtips are usually easily visible when flying in clouds. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jan 18, 2021 at 2:31

1 Answer 1


The answer is that visibility varies depending on the density of the cloud. And it can vary significantly.

Flying in formation in IMC is very common in the military. Sometimes it will be dense enough that all you will have is a wingtip or light. In those cases it can be very disorienting and difficult to maintain position because you need more than a single point to discern relative motion. The stress level can go up too since the denser the cloud the closer want you fly to keep sight. But generally those sort of conditions are relatively brief, and within 10-15 seconds you will likely have the wing and fuselage back in sight.

For reference, in close formation the wing tip might be 10-20 feet from your canopy, with the lead's fuselage another 20 feet beyond that. So, the worst visibility I have seen (when I lost sight) could have been anywhere from 0-20 feet. If you see the lead clearly the visibility could be anywhere 50 feet to a mile or more. You just don't know, all you see is another airplane and gray... There is certainly no absolute or standard number.

Every formation flight brief should cover lost sight procedures in case it becomes dense enough to require a break away. I have only ever lost sight and had to break away once.

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    $\begingroup$ ditto to your comments Michael. Only thing I might add is that night-time makes it 10x worse. One of worst memories I have is on the boom of KC-135 at 1 or 2 am in the morning, at 20k MSL or so, in and out of very dense thunderstorm clouds over northern Thailand. After a few minutes I suddenly noticed my upper thighs were really aching, and realized I was pushing on the rudder pedals so hard I had lifted my ass off the seat by a half inch or so.... Intermittent lightning didn't help either... $\endgroup$ Jan 18, 2021 at 14:48
  • $\begingroup$ I read an article a while back about how P-51s did arrivals back to base in IMC (after finding the base by ADF) after a mission, and it was pretty hair raising. They would open the formation for the letdown, although the leaders and wingmen would stay tight to each other to keep visual contact, and depended on very precise heading and speed control to keep separation until they broke out at the bottom. Midairs were pretty common. Even more hair raising is the British night bomber streams, which on a moonless night depended totally on a relatively wide distribution, and chance, for separation. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Jan 18, 2021 at 17:47

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