The De-Iceman Cometh

What once could have been characterized as a "laissez-faire" system of plane de-icing has morphed into a strictly regimented program with new regulations that have eliminated any room for doubt.


At 4:01 p.m. on January 13, 1982, Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into the ice-filled Potomac River just 30 seconds after takeoff from National Airport in Arlington, Virginia. Seventy-eight individuals diedin the crash, including four people who were in cars on the 14th Street Bridge spanning the Potomac. Five passengers from the plane survived the crash, due largely to the efforts of passersby and emergency personnel who plucked people from the frigid waters. The story of what happened on that January day is one of tragic human error in the face of extreme weather conditions; following the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board determined that the cause of the accident was icing on the aircraft and the failure of the pilots to abort the takeoff or use all of their anti-icing equipment.

In the years since the crash of Air Florida Flight 90, the industry's approach to de-icing aircraft has changed considerably. What once could have been characterized as a "laissez-faire" system of plane de-icing has morphed into a strictly regimented program with new regulations that have eliminated any room for doubt. No place better illustrates the new era of plane de-icing than the Central De-icing Facility (CDF) at Toronto's Lester B. Pearson International Airport. As oneof the most northerly countries in the world, Canada must take its plane de-icing seriously, and the CDF's massive complex illustrates just how committed the country's airline industry is to safety.

Tragedies Prompt a Change in Regulations

Unfortunately, the first history of commercial air travel is dotted with tragedies much like that of Air Florida Flight 90. On Dec. 12,1985, a large DC-8 aircraft loaded with American soldiers rolled offthe end of the airport runway in Gander, Newfoundland, in freezing drizzle, killing 248 U.S. soldiers and 8 crewmembers. For years the telltale scar it gouged in the terrain acted as a vivid reminder of theproblems that ice on wings can cause. Meanwhile, the crash of a commuter jet in Dryden, Ontario, Canada, in 1989 further brought to lightthe perils of airframe icing. The Fokker 28 aircraft crashed 15 seconds after takeoff, unable to achieve enough altitude to clear the trees beyond the end of the runway due to ice and snow on the wings. Thecrash resulted in the deaths of 21 of the 65 passengers and 3 of the4 crew members.

In the early years of commercial air travel, the decision to de-ice a plane was made by the captain or the airline. Throughout the industry, there was a tendency to resist de-icing as much as possible because of time constraints, low operating budgets, and a general lack of knowledge about the perils of ice on an aircraft. Use of technologywas limited, particularly for smaller cargo or charter companies whose airplanes sometimes did not have amenities such as heated windshields. In one case, a pilot was equipped with a car windshield scraper to scrape the ice off the plane's windscreen from a side window whileon approach.

Meanwhile, although it was technically illegal for an airplane to take off with ice-contaminated wings, a gray area existed because thedecision was generally left to the captain's discretion. For example, if a light snow was falling, some pilots would elect not to de-ice,thinking that the snow would blow off. In most cases, it probably would, but as the history books can attest, there are always exceptions. In the case of the Air Florida flight that crashed into the Potomac, the aircraft's crew attempted to de-ice the aircraft by intentionally positioning it near the exhaust of the aircraft ahead in line, against the regulations in their flight manual. This may have contributed to the adherence of ice on the wing leading edges and to the blocking of the engine's probes.

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