Ruminations from the Ramp

The Other Cost of Deicing Cost

Those of us who have worked where snow and, heaven forbid, freezing rain come down are familiar with the struggle to move aircraft safely. This means removal of all frozen contamination on the aircraft and, if precipitation is continuing, the application of a coating of product that will prevent any accumulation before the aircraft gets safely airborne. This is so easy to state, but so hard to accomplish. And then there is the cost of accomplishing this. Dollars to buy equipment, facilities, for training, and of course thousands of gallons of deicing and anti-icing fluids.

A look back to the 1950s

As I look back now, in the mid-1950s, deicing was at a primitive level. I am using deicing here as the generic for the whole process we now use. Any talk of “holdover times” or of more than one kind of glycol would have been thought to be talking in tongues. Deicing rigs that heated the water or where you could vary the mix ratio were unknown. Deicing on the loading ramp was the norm for many years.

With snow there is often wind and the fog of glycol products carried downwind would hamper loading at adjacent gates. Passengers in those days too slogged their way out across the ramp and did not seem to appreciate getting a protective coat of anti-icing product.

Until the EPA became interested in stormwater runoff from ramps and what was in it, the combined melted snow and deicing product went down the storm drains and disappeared from the concerns of those who ran airports. I squirm now when I think of the thousands of gallons of glycol I have personally sprayed or seen sprayed in my career. If Jamaica Bay on JFK airport’s perimeter never freezes, I can suggest a reason why. Of course, we used a lot of product then because we didn’t even have hot water in the trucks and the snow had to come off. As an aside, I use the term glycol as the term for all the different types of product we use. Remember that back then there were no type codes as there are now, no holdover times, nothing except get it clean and get it out.

It was also a more dangerous time for the people working there who sometimes paid a cost. I paid mine in the form of a gimpy walk due to a right knee injured during an early bout of deicing. It was my second winter working at Idlewild, and we had a snow in the evening. The Avianca Super Constellation was parked outside on the hangar ramp and had a couple of inches of snow on it. Nothing fresh was coming down, so it was just simply a case of our graveyard shift crew cleaning it off. Equipment consisted of a tow-around cart with a hundred gallons or so tank, a put-put engine driving a small pump and a long length of hose terminating in a spray nozzle probably intended for garden use. ln fact many of the airlines at that time would rent insecticide sprayer trucks from some of the big tree companies. These trucks had built an elevated stand and were considered top-of-the-line equipment, sufficient at least for the prop airliners at the time.

Our deicing cart had no such stand. Its paltry spray would never have cleaned snow off anyway. So the first order of the day was to broom the snow off. So up a ladder we went onto the wing with our trusty push brooms. Snow falling onto a very cold wing generally does not adhere much so it can be easily cleaned off, easily when you consider you are on a sometimes oil-coated metal wing standing on snow wearing winter parka, heavy boots, gloves and the wind is whipping. Not to mention pushing a broom, always cognizant that you are 15 or more feet up off a very hard ramp and the wing is curved and has dihedral. Inboard of the engines it was not so bad; the wing was broad but outboard it tapered to a narrow tip and you had to remember you can only tread on those designated walkway areas. Prudent people ended working on their knees out there as you had to reach out to push the snow over the edge of the ailerons.

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