Sweet Taste of Winter

Ruminations from the Ramp 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 April 2002 It's already March in the Carolinas and...

Reliability of equipment has greatly improved. The garden and tree sprayers I first used up into the 1960s mostly had one-lung engines with mechanical ignition points. Left outside, they're hard to start. Lots of ether helped and so did strong arms and backs as you pulled at the starter rope. The really good ones had self-rewind — the older ones you had to wrap the rope around the capstan for each pull. Often, you had the feeling the rope was a little too short, and if it was only a bit longer, you could spin that monster up enough to get it going. Solid-state ignition is a true blessing and even my lawn mower starts on the first pull most every time and it's 13 years old.

The first deicing trucks I used were lash-ups based on run-down fuel tenders. They were a great improvement and much more reliable than a cart with a tank and a putt-putt engine. Still, they introduced the problem of aircraft damage. Visibility in snow conditions is poor. These trucks had no booms and you worked off of an aero-stand cabled to the top. You had to get in close and there was no communication between the shooter on top to driver in the cab — other than bellowing, or maybe screaming in fear.

The first generation of true deicing trucks were far better. Those with built-in heaters for the fluid were great. Communication also had improved and you could talk directly to the driver through an intercom.

Hot water deicing was often used followed by a coat of the Type I to give it a little staying power. It was common to use a weak mix to deice with in very cold conditions. I did my last tours in the bucket using that equipment. It was still cold, wet, and fatiguing work at its best and downright dangerous at its worst.

These models and their successors are still in use, and last winter I watched a big B777 being deiced by a team of them. I was sitting inside the passenger cabin in my nice, warm seat. I felt for the shooters out there. Chicago in the winter can be a hard place to work. It was there I saw the later viscous anti-icing fluids in use. I can attest that it does last a lot longer than the old "run-off-the wing" Type I. Of course, that has had its effect on the equipment manufacturers who have to produce pumps that don't degrade the viscous quality of these advanced juices.

Permanent fixed deicing stations with booms are fun to watch. I first saw them in the 1980s at the old Stapleton Field in Denver. The shooter no longer rode in the boom, but sat in a closed, heated cockpit of his own — raised up so he could get a good view. The arm with its nozzle did the reaching out to the airplane parked between two of these units. The operator, having finished spraying our DC-9 freighter, which was only a moment's work with that equipment, reached down and poured himself a coffee from his Thermos® jug. Nice touch, I thought. No snow in his face either. I wondered if the seniority system had reversed itself. In the old days, the senior types drove the truck with its heater while the juniors sprayed in the open air. I imagine the operator here had seniority as he looked warm and a little smug. His only exposure to the weather came at break and lunch times when he had to emerge into the vast, wintry desert of an aircraft tarmac.

I have no experience with the big gantry affairs or the infrared deicing barns. These all look great and I have heard good reports. Anything that produces the main aim, an airplane free of any frozen contamination, is fine with me — as long as I don't have to go up in the bucket and taste the sweet taste of winter.

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