I have had only a few experiences of flying through stormy weather. Yesterday’s day-trip to/from Boston was one.

For the early morning outbound trip, the situation was relatively calm. Air-mass type towering cumulus was starting to form, but it was isolated and easily avoided visually. The weather radar indicated the few hotspots of moisture in my way, and the controllers were responsive to a desire to deviate a few times. My biggest concern on this leg was that, since the major temperature drop from last week, the freezing level was just around my flight altitude (7000 ft). Any higher, or any sudden airborne temperature change, and all the drizzle I was flying through would have become sticky nasty ice.

I dislike ice mainly because it requires me to use the “alternate induction air” doors in the engines. This directs air to visit the exhaust manifold for heating, and to bypass the main air filter. This also causes an unfortunate drop in power output, which in turn slows the airplane down, and reduces climb capability. In moderate icing, this effect, plus the extra drag from the imperfect deicing by inflatable wing boots, limits our Aztec to below 10000 ft on a real good bad day.

Anyway, this part of the trip gave some more familiarization with the operation of the weather radar in mild conditions. I applied several tips from web sites, bu t I’m still just starting to grok it. It was interesting comparing the minutes-old Avidyne downlinked weather data to the live on-board radar images. In some cases, they disagreed with each other, due to the former’s time delay, or due to the latter’s misinterpretation.

For the late afternoon return trip, a low-pressure system located over Maine / Quebec tossed two long NE-SW lines of thunderstorms toward Massachusets and a large mass of moderate precipitation toward Ontario and New York state. I wanted to go home, and the lines were not thick and continuous like a squall, so I decided to launch. I tightly tied down most loose things in the cockpit, especially myself, expecting the occasional roller-coaster ride.

Within five minutes, my cleared route took me straight toward what ATC called a “level 3 and level 4 echo”: a major thunderstorm cell. It showed up as big blotch both on the weather radar (at a parked tilt angle), and on the datalink display, with many friend blotches in a diagonal. Luckily, a gap in the line was sitting right around the GDM VOR. I flew over it on the way in, and is sort of a concentration point for Boston-bound aircraft. I received permission to deviate, then an outright clearance to reroute via that VOR. While this added perhaps fifteen minutes to the trip, it let me pass through the first gauntlet.

The second gauntlet of storms came about twenty minutes later, just entering New York state. (Boy, Massachusetts is a teeny little state. Mother Ontario could fit probably thirty Massachusettses in its land area.) This one too had a conveniently located gap, just slightly south of my path. A deviation was quickly approved. (Perhaps controllers give more such leeway to GPS-equipped aircraft, knowing that they will not get lost even if they get far from the original route.)

The atmospheric conditions during this first hour of the trip are worth trying to describe. Being the single human on board, having decided to hand-fly instead of using the autopilot, I did not have spare time to take pictures. They likely would not have done justice to the view anyhow. It was like this: imagine being in the middle of a giant arena. You can sometimes see walls ahead, a floor below, a roof above, and some gates to pass through. The arena is filled with mist so you can’t see very far. There are wispy structures in horizontal and vertical orientations, extended in one, two, or three dimensions. It all formed a maze sort of like the inside of swiss cheese from the point of view of an ant.

The goal was to fly through as many holes as possible, so that visual contact was possible with the tallest, darkest clouds. If only the airspace was all mine, and I were allowed to swoop down and around and up, it would have been like an amazing real-life version of a video game. In this case, I had to more or less maintain altitude and track, and couldn’t just play. My imagination did what the airplane wasn’t allowed to.

After the two lines of thunderstorms, a single huge mass of moist but tame clouds covered New York state. The Avidyne datalink showed only greens and yellows; the onboard radar showed only a few small red splotches. The afternoon was turning to evening, and these clouds were weakening, so I decided that I would just ride straight through to see just how bad it is. OK, I did swerve here and there, for fun, as practice to stay away from yellow areas, but the deviations were only a mile or two north or south of the course. Even in areas identified by yellow, the turbulence was quite manageable, and the heavier rain simply washed off the dried bug splats from the windshield. (Dirt on the wings remained there after hours of airborne rain wash, probably thanks to a sturdy boundary layer.)

Eventually, I gently descended out of this mass into visual conditions, seeing a wonderful, dusk-sunshine-lit Buffalo / Niagara Falls / St. Catherines area. I even saw Toronto across the lake. The brush of yellow sunshine overpowered the gray clouds overhead and made the ground structures look sumptuous, and not just because the conclusion of the trip was only minutes away. After clearing customs at CYSN, I buzzed visually, barely above Lake Ontario, for the final leg home to the Island. It was an unreasonably short and peaceful cruise. I arrived at home just minutes before official night, which would have required use of a crosswind runway, landing on which would have ended the trip with too much stress. As it was, the final landing was only a mild challenge.

A year after becoming licensed for instrument flight, I’m still new at flying in unpleasantly bad weather. While the airplane is disproportionately well equipped for it, my experience and knowledge could use much more of the sorts of development that this trip produced.