Jan. 8--De-icing planes used to be a cold and dirty job that few airline workers wanted to do. But today, there seems to be no shortage of volunteers, thanks to high-tech equipment that makes the task almost enjoyable.
Amid a major snowstorm on Thursday that forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights, United Airlines ramp service worker Joe Lullo stayed warm and dry hosing down planes from inside a new aircraft de-icing truck at O'Hare International Airport. Outside, as the temperature barely rose above 20 degrees, other ramp workers shivered while loading baggage and refueling planes.
The enclosed and heated hoist compartment of Lullo's Danish-made Vestergaard Elephant Beta truck, named for its telescopic spray boom resembling an elephant trunk, represents a big improvement over the open-air baskets that United Airlines and many other carriers still use to de-ice planes before takeoff.
"It's so comfortable I could sit up here wearing a pair of shorts," said Lullo, of Crown Point, Ind., "except that it would aggravate everyone outside."
United granted a Tribune request to observe its de-icing operations at O'Hare -- and ride the Elephant -- on a snow day in which all 31 pieces of the airline's de-icing equipment and all 70 de-icing crew members were put to work. Virtually every plane got de-iced before leaving O'Hare and Midway airports.
Although procedures are modified depending on conditions, including the use of forced-air to blow off light, dry snow, de-icing is essential when there is precipitation in below-freezing temperatures. The bottom line is to avoid adding extra weight to planes and distorting their ability to maintain lift, which could lead to a disaster. Even a thin layer of ice around a wing's leading edge can disrupt smooth airflow and cause a stall.
All planes leaving Chicago required a two-step process before takeoff: De-icing with a mixture of about 50 gallons of propylene glycol and water heated to 180 degrees to remove snow, ice and other contaminants; followed by about 25 gallons of anti-icing fluid to prevent ice build-ups while planes are on the ground, said Jack Lampe, director of ramp services for United.
From Lullo's indoor perch on the Elephant, he de-iced the fuselage and wings of a plane by using toggles to raise and lower the basket, extend the spray arm and dispense chemicals in a tight stream or a fanning motion.
It's fun, like playing a video game, he said.
Craig Palmer, manager of United's airport operations and cargo at O'Hare, said it takes a unique personality to volunteer for winter work, but plenty of people step forward because they are passionate about safety.
"The teamwork is unbelievable. They name their kids after each other," Palmer said about some of the veterans.
The de-icing process is an expensive exercise in safety. The Elephant machines cost about $1.2 million each, Palmer said. The de-icer fluid costs about $6 a gallon, he said.
Vehicles vacuum up some of the fluid residue for reuse, while the remainder is captured by an airport recovery system to prevent runoff into forest preserves, officials said.
Research that advanced de-icing methods was stepped up after an Air Florida plane crashed into the 14th Street Bridge across the Potomac River less than a minute after taking off from Washington National Airport on Jan. 13, 1982.
Seventy-four people on the Boeing 737 and four others in cars on the bridge were killed in the crash, which was caused by pilot errors that included failing to abort the takeoff after detecting ice and snow buildup on the wings, and failing to activate ice-protection systems on the engines.
Today at O'Hare and other major airports, application of the de-icing and anti-icing chemicals is highly choreographed. Two trucks typically service one plane. Three trucks are used on wide-body aircraft such as Boeing 777s and 747s.
The green anti-icing fluid must be applied within three minutes of the de-icing fluid, Lampe said. Then the clock starts ticking -- a maximum of one hour, under weather conditions in effect Thursday -- for the plane to taxi out to the runway and take off.
Otherwise, aircraft might be required to return the terminal for a second round of chemicals.
The anti-icing fluid cascades off the wings and other surfaces as the plane barrels down the runway at takeoff speed.
Lullo's partner, United ramp service worker Darren Keating, got a full taste of the non-toxic de-icer while standing on the tarmac near Gate B9 spraying propylene glycol on the right engine and underbelly of an Airbus A320 about to depart for Cancun, Mexico.
A thick cloud of de-icing fluid enveloped Keating.
"It tastes sweet, like pancake syrup," Keating, from Tinley Park, said later of the propylene glycol, which has low toxicity, is biodegradable and a form of it even is used in some soft drinks.
A few de-icing crew members said the chemical tastes more like Dr Pepper or Mountain Dew than syrup.