Deicing the Plane… how it works.

We have had a mild winter up until last week when the temperatures plummeted to single digits. Even with this mild winter if you have been flying you will see those trucks out on the runway with the big arms spraying down the airplanes. It reminds me of a car wash but for airplanes. So, what is the purpose of spraying chemicals onto the planes before takeoff?

In the mid 1990’s there were several aircraft incidents where the cause of the crash was due to too much ice build up on the airplane. When this happens, it will disrupt the airflow over the airplane which prevents the airplane from “lifting” off the runway. Since pilots and the crew can’t know how much ice has accumulated on the airplane while standing by or taxing, it had caused major issues. As with everything over the years with the National Transportation Safety Board or NTSB, their investigations help increase the understanding and awareness of how to fix the problem. 

Something so simple as applying chemicals that not only help take off ice buildup on an airplane but will also help delay reformation of ice for a certain amount of time, was brilliant. The term “deicing the plane” was now something airports used every day during the winter seasons. Denver International airport was the first airport to have the “fixed pedestal mounted booms” where they could extend up to 90 feet into the air. However, being fixed they weren’t able to get all parts of the airplane allowing ice to build-up where the spray couldn’t reach. 

Many airports today use a better approach to making sure that all parts of the plane are being “deiced.” Truck-mounted booms allow crew members to get closer to the airplane. They now have figured out how to adjust the fluid mixtures based on the outside temperature to maximize the amount of fluid that the airplane receives. In one of my readings I found out that some airports, like the Pittsburgh International airport, are reclaiming spent deicing fluid. Since 1995 Pittsburgh International Airport has recycled more than 200 million gallons of spend fluid. That’s amazing!

So if you are flying this winter expect that you will wait in line for your plane to be deiced. I can’t say for sure how long you will wait in line, but the deicing process takes on average 12 minutes. It may seem like an inconvenience to sit there while the plane is getting sprayed down but remember, it helps the pilots get you off the ground safely.

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