Flying in a Thermal
Field Trip in the Sky
(See Transcript)

By Elizabeth Howard
I've read a lot about thermals, but now I understand them. Thanks to Dr. Ian Worley, pilot and professor at the University of Vermont, I went up in the sky and found out what it feels like to fly in a thermal.

"I take my students on aerial field trips because we can see things from the sky that we can't see so well from the ground," said Dr. Worley. "But more excitingly, we can have a feel of the sky and learn its shape —what’s going on in the air—because though the air is sometimes invisible we can feel it with the airplane.

Looking for Thermals
We hopped aboard his plane and headed for the sky.

"Today, we’re off looking for thermals, those rising columns of air that take gliders, hawks and butterflies to higher heights so they can glide to the next thermal and find their way south during migration."

But where would we find a thermal? And, I wondered nervously, what would it feel like to fly a small plane through one?

A Tell-tale Sign
Dr. Worley spotted a fluffy cumulous cloud and banked the plane to the left. A cumulous cloud is the tell-tale sign of a thermal. The cloud forms when a column of air rises and cools at higher altitudes. The moisture in the air condenses and forms the cloud.

"We're going to fly to it and see if we can get an upward rise of air, which we'll feel as a bump. And if it's a REALLY good bump we'll feel it in the seat of our pants," he said.

So off we flew toward the cloud. Watch the video clip and ready the transcript to find out what happened.

Special thanks to Dr. Ian Worley for the invitation to fly, for his colorful commentary, skillful flying, and especially for "watching for a safe place to land" throughout the flight — but never needing it.


National Science Education Standards

Physical Science
Materials can exist in different states?solid, liquid, and gas. Some common materials, such as water, can be changed from one state to another by heating or cooling. (K-4)

Clouds, formed by the condensation of water vapor, affect weather and climate. (5-8)

Unbalanced forces will cause changes in the speed or direction of an object's motion. (5-8)

National Math Standards

Numbers and Operations
Compute fluently and make reasonable estimates.

Problem Solving Solve problems that arise in mathematics and in other contexts.

Video Clip
Video Clip


Dr. Ian Worley
Professor and Pilot


Heading for the Cumulous Cloud