Ruminations from the Ramp

June 28, 2010
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.

I was relatively prudent and thoroughly cleaned off my half of 123 feet of wingspan (no tip tanks on this aircraft). Others on the crew had tossed a clothesline rope over the fuselage and had moved it from nose to tail, sawing it back and forth to get the snow off the fuselage. I remember sober that a year or two later another crew had done that using a very dirty, oily rope and left some interesting patterns of lines on the immaculate white topped fuselage. The customer was not amused.

Back on the tail, they had run the big A-frame ladder up and cleaned the horizontal stabilizer. This could be done right off the stand, which was fortunate as the Connie tail was very high. One step remained and that was to coat the wings and tail with a coat of glycol to the airfoil surfaces. The cart was below me, put-put engine running due to the ministration of ether by Vinnie, our auto shop mechanic. Ralph, the lead mechanic came up the stand between No. 3 and 4 engines and reminded me that I was to pay attention to the aileron gaps and hinges and to evenly coat the whole top surface. He then passed me the spray nozzle and hose. Fortunately, too, he stayed on the stand to feed me hose as I walked and then crept on my knees outboard. The nozzle dispensed a mist of spray with a reach of about three feet so I started outboard and worked my way inboard. Reaching the No. 4 engine, I stood and continued spraying.

I was inboard, aft of No.3 engine when my boots, being on an oily patch, started sliding sideways due to the airfoil’s slope. Bad enough but then the right boot hit a dry spot and stopped sliding and, pop, the right knee came out of joint sideways to the outside. Down I went clinging to the hose as now all of me was heading for the trailing edge. Ralph, though, was quick and held on to the hose and snubbed me short of the big drop. The knee hurt like the dickens, but had straightened out as I went down. I massaged it through the layers of my raingear, overalls, pants and long johns and then gingerly, I stood up. The knee took my weight, and I tested it. Yep, only a bit sore and I went back to spraying the wing and finished my shift.

As it happened, we were scheduled for training after shift-end, and so I cleaned up and changed. The classroom was warm, the atmosphere soporific after working out in the cold all night and people were nodding off as the instructor droned on about the DC-6 cabin temp control system. I wasn’t thinking of sleep, though, as the knee was now aching considerably. I was massaging it some more when the instructor realized what he was fighting and suggested a coffee break. A chorus of “thank gods” arose. When I tried to stand, I found the knee had locked immovably at a near 90-degree angle. I could not straighten it and had to call for aid. I could only hop on the left foot and was assisted out to a carryall and went off to the eminent Dr. Starr’s Airport Medical Clinic, the company’s facility of choice at Idlewild Airport. There I was to be x-rayed, but they couldn’t get the right shot with my knee locked at a sharp angle. A kindly nurse straightened my leg out by applying her considerable weight to a hearty shove down. It was the closest I have ever come to slugging a woman.

Nothing was broken per the x-ray. I got the first of what proved to be an endless series of diathermy treatments, a staple source of income for the good doctor. After broiling for the prescribed time an Ace bandage was tightly wrapped around my now-cooked knee. With a cane, I was then delivered to the bus stop. After that I was on my own to tale the bus to the subway, change trains downtown finally to emerge in Manhattan. I can tell you it took almost an hour to walk the one city block from the subway to the apartment house. I returned to work a couple of days later and the knee finally stopped bothering me, although it was a good weather predictor. I skied on it with no problems, but in late years it has gotten a bit cranky and I do have my little gimp.

What do I feel about all this experience? When I see the latest deicer rigs with enclosed cabs for the operators, the tow-through facilities with computer programs to automatically spray deicer and then anti-icing product, the hangar-like buildings that enclose an aircraft while infra-red deicers clean it and the jet blast units that blast snow off the aircraft, none of them requiring some people to clamber on slippery surfaces with no fall protection, well then I feel pretty good that maybe a few knees will stay whole and some bones remain unbroken and some lungs not inhale some noxious fumes. And yes, when it snows, I still get a sweet taste in my mouth.