Formaldehyde (HCHO) columns measured from space provide constraints on emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Quantitative interpretation requires characterization of errors in HCHO column retrievals and relating these columns to VOC emissions. Retrieval error is mainly in the air mass factor (AMF) which relates fitted backscattered radiances to vertical columns and requires external information on HCHO, aerosols, and clouds. Here we use aircraft data collected over North America and the Atlantic to determine the local relationships between HCHO columns and VOC emissions, calculate AMFs for HCHO retrievals, assess the errors in deriving AMFs with a chemical transport model (GEOS-Chem), and draw conclusions regarding space-based mapping of VOC emissions. We show that isoprene drives observed HCHO column variability over North America; HCHO column data from space can thus be used effectively as a proxy for isoprene emission. From observed HCHO and isoprene profiles we find an HCHO molar yield from isoprene oxidation of 1.6 ± 0.5, consistent with current chemical mechanisms. Clouds are the primary error source in the AMF calculation; errors in the HCHO vertical profile and aerosols have comparatively little effect. The mean bias and 1σ uncertainty in the GEOS-Chem AMF calculation increase from <1% and 15% for clear skies to 17% and 24% for half-cloudy scenes. With fitting errors, this gives an overall 1σ error in HCHO satellite measurements of 25–31%. Retrieval errors, combined with uncertainties in the HCHO yield from isoprene oxidation, result in a 40% (1σ) error in inferring isoprene emissions from HCHO satellite measurements.