Sweet Taste of Winter
Tony Vasko reminisces about the variety of aircraft deicing techniques and notes how methods have improved over the years
By Tony Vasko
It's already March in the Carolinas and I only had the sweet taste of winter once this year. The sweet taste, of course, is the taste of deicing fluid and Type I at that. Being something of a dinosaur, I have never had to actually apply any of the newer types of deicing/anti-icing juices. When I was last in a bucket, I was spraying what is now dismissed as Type I - only fit for washing off the snow and ice. We didn't call it Type I because back then, there was no Type II or anything other than plain old ethylene glycol. You could use it straight or you could mix it with water. Period.
LIVING THE HIGH LIFE
Working the nozzle in a cloud of steam, I thought I was at the cutting edge and that it couldn't get any better. The nozzle dispensed my choice of water, or straight or mixed fluid that was actually hot. I could carve off great sheets of clear ice that coated the wings, undermine them and then watch them slide off the wing to crash on to the ground. The flow rate from the nozzle was great and there were thousands of gallons of the stuff in the tanks. Best of all, I did not have to mount a ladder, but rode in a bucket at the end of an articulated arm that I could control.
There were a few downers, of course. The steam from the hot water meeting the frigid air billowed around me. I wear eyeglasses and my view of the world was not the clearest what with water, mist, and glycol settling on them. The howling wind blew the spray and freezing rain back in my face and therein became the "Taste of Winter." Still, in contrast with times before, life on the ramp in a howling, freezing rain storm in the 1980s was good. Relatively. Yet, even with that equipment, we could make little headway on the B747. It was not until the wind shifted, heralding the passage of the front that brought this condition that we finally got ahead of the icing.
BROOMS, BRUSHES, AND ROPES
It was only a few years ago, 1957 or so, that we used brooms, brushes, and ropes, and even wing covers to fight the elements. I must be one of the few people who ever had to fit custom-fitted wing covers to an L-1049 Super Constellation. The difficulty of trying to stretch a 50-foot long balloon cloth cover over the wingtip and then down the top of a wing up to the fuselage in snow and high winds has to be experienced to be believed. So does fighting the lashing ropes under the wing. The designers of the covers also never realized that the fuel tanks were serviced from on top of the wing so they left no holes. And, balloon cloth? Do they still make it?
The brooms and brushes were used to reduce the amount of snow on the wings. The piddly little streams of deicing fluid that came out of a garden sprayer were not going to remove much snow. Granted, airplanes were smaller then, but a Bristol Britania and Lockheed L-1649 each had a 150-feet of wing span to deice. You did it while walking on the wing too, not spraying from the safety of a bucket. Buffeted by the wind and looking down at a very hard ramp from high up, your toes would curl inside your work boots and galoshes as if they could dig into the slippery, aluminum surface.
With the slow rate of deicing/anti-icing we had, the idea of "Holdover Times" was laughable. It depended on judgement that the wings were clear enough to allow a takeoff to be made. We were aided by the fact that we had props to blow and keep at least the inboard sections of the wing clean. Truthfully, I feel a lot better with the systems we have now. Holdover times are semi-scientific at least, and based on some good data; however, they still depend on the training, experience, and judgement of ground and flight crew personnel. I prefer they err on the side of caution.
The Other Cost of Deicing Cost
As the needs of the industry have changed, suppliers have responded with more environmentally friendly fluid.
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.