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Cloud Rules
Posted 11/5/2014, last update 11/5/2014

We all know that flying in the clouds is prohibited by several FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) rules and regulations, so as a law abiding tax paying citizen in good standing, I never fly my paraglider in the clouds.  Having stated the obvious, the subject is worth of some discussion and comment.

The specific rule we are talking about is FAR Part 103.23 Flight visibility and cloud clearance requirements.
which states / quote from:
http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?SID=f70db467e8d1b626637b8781d5a97b42&node=pt14.2.103&rgn=div5
current as of November 4, 2014

103.23 Flight visibility and cloud clearance requirements.

No person may operate an ultralight vehicle when the flight visibility or distance from clouds is less than that in the table found below.  All operations in Class A, Class B, Class C, and Class D airspace or Class E airspace designated for an airport must receive prior ATC authorization as required in 103.17 of this part.

Airspace Flight visibility     Distance from clouds    
Class A Not applicable Not Applicable.
Class B 3 statute miles Clear of Clouds.
Class C 3 statute miles 500 feet below.
1,000 feet above.
2,000 feet horizontal.
Class D 3 statute miles 500 feet below.
1,000 feet above.
2,000 feet horizontal.
Class E:    
Less than 10,000 feet MSL 3 statute miles 500 feet below.
1,000 feet above.
2,000 feet horizontal.
At or above 10,000 feet MSL 5 statute miles 1,000 feet below.
1,000 feet above.
1 statute mile horizontal.
Class G:    
1,200 feet or less above the surface (regardless of MSL altitude) 1 statute mile Clear of clouds.
More than 1,200 feet above the surface but less than 10,000 feet MSL 1 statute mile 500 feet below.
1,000 feet above.
2,000 feet horizontal.
More than 1,200 feet above the surface and at or above 10,000 feet MSL     5 statute miles 1,000 feet below.
1,000 feet above.
1 statute mile horizontal.

End Quote

We are mostly confined to operating in Class E and Class G airspace, although we do sometimes operate in the Class C Airspace associated the the Santa Barbara Airport, but we only do so after the airport  has "opened a window" for a specific place and time.   A simplified definition summary is that Class E airspace is "controlled" such that there can be controlled activity within the airspace, and Class G Airspace which is uncontrolled such that there is no controlled activity within the airspace.  An official description of the airspace is explained in [Chapter 14 of the FAA Pilot Handbook].

Our local flying sites encompass several types of Airspace including Class C, D, E, and G.  Chapter 14 listed above has a description of how to determine the airspace designation for a particular location and altitude based on the "Sectional Charts".  You can download a current LA sectional chart from:
https://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/flight_info/aeronav/digital_products/vfr/
link valid as of 11/2014.  Sectional Charts are updated every 6 months.
To fully evaluate the consequencs of flying near clouds, you might also consider reviewing the IFR Low Altitude Enroute Charts at:
https://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/flight_info/aeronav/digital_products/ifr/
The VFR Sectional Charts have a legend, but to interpret the IFR chards you need to consult the The FAA Published [Aeronautical Chart User's Guide]

Generally speaking, if we are within 1200 feet of the surface, we are usually operating within Class G (Uncontrolled) airspace, and greater than 1200 feet above ground level we are usually operating in Class E (Controlled) Airspace, so close to the ground we need  to be "Clear of clouds" and higher up we need to maintain the cloud clearance requirements in the table above.

There is a step in cloud clearance requirements at 10,000 feet due to a speed limit below 10K.  Above 18K, cloud clearance requirements are not applicability to VFR traffic because above 18K everything is operating under "positive control" and VFR traffic is not allowed.  Pilots are not required to look out the window above 18K.  Below 18K, the airspace is a mix of IFR (instrument flight rules) and VFR (visual flight rules) traffic.  The IFR system guarantees separation from all other IFR traffic, but not VFR traffic.  If you are flying your hang glider over Pine Mountain at 15 thousand feet close to a cloud, and a 737 airliner operating under the IFR system is passing through that cloud, when the 737 pilots break out of the cloud at 500 MPH they need time "see and avoid".  Below 10K the aircraft are flying slower so the horizontal clearance requirements are less.  Despite all the sophistication and technology of the day, pilots of 200 million dollar aircraft are still required to look out the window to "see and avoid" VFR traffic when operating below 18K.  At 500 miles per hour they can cover the 1 mile horizontal cloud clearance requirement in about 7 seconds.

Additionally, there is something called the MEA,  Minimum En Route Altitude for IFR traffic, sometimes referred to as MIA, Minimum IFR Altitudes.  The MEA guarantees at least 2000 feet of terrain clearance within 4 miles of the nearest obstacle.  The highest terrain or MEF (Maximum Elevation Figures) are listed for various quadrangles on a sectional chart.  The actual MEA altitudes are listed on the various IFR charts (links listed above).  This is of concern to us because there generally isn't En Route IFR traffic below the MEA, so we shouldn't get run over by an IFR aircraft if we are below the MEA (or MIA).  It should be noted that "En Route" does not apply to airport departures and approaches, but those activities tend to be along designated routes near an airport.  The MEA altitudes for our flying sites vary, but as noted above, it is at least 2000 feet higher than the the highest terrain within 4 miles of the route.  Generally speaking, the MEA is 8K along the Santa Barbara Range, 6K along the coast, and higher over the taller back country mountains.

Besides the legal requirements, we have a moral obligation not to put the life of others at risk.  If you are flying at Pine mountain be aware that pilots have reported airliners flying "under" them on approach to the LA area.  Sylmar has an even higher density of airline traffic at much lower altitudes.  Fortunately, in Santa Barbara it is rare to see aircraft along the front range below big altitude east of La Cumbre Peak.  Ojai has even less lower altitude aircraft traffic.  There may not be any 737s down low, but there can be a lot of HG and PG pilots flying close to the clouds, especially around the Holly Hills and the Round House.  It is arguably irresponsible to go into the clouds when there are other pilots in the vicinity.  It might also be argued that at the lower altitudes in uncontrolled airspace, it is less risky to enter the clouds when you are certain there are no other aircraft in the vicinity.

We are not encouraging or condoning any illegal activity.  This discussion is meant to evaluate the risk and social responsibility of flying near clouds.

Before we cast stones it might be worth while to pause and contemplate who is calling the kettle black.  Consider a comparable example where pilots routinely stretch FAR Part 103.15 which states / Quote:

103.15 Operations over congested areas.
No person may operate an ultralight vehicle over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons.

End Quote

Although it may be technically possible to avoid flying over a "congested area" of the city en route to the designated East Beach LZ, it is common for pilots to fly directly over town.  This issue was discussed with the city attorney when approval to land at the beach was granted.

Rules have their purpose, but the purpose is sometimes broad and not able to address all the unintended variances to the rule's objective, so sometimes everyone agrees to look the other way to enable society to function.  Having said that, flying in the clouds can be dangerous from a number of perspectives.  We do not condone the action, nor are we encouraging anyone to stretch the spirit of FAR 103.23, however, if you do find yourself in a predicament that might require you to enter a cloud for various reasons, you should consider the degree of hazard not only to yourself, but your responsibility to the safety of others also.