Inside the Aircraft Deicing Process: How It Makes Winter Flying Safer

By Jesse Sokolow on 20 January 2019
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As I’m writing this, I’m sitting on an aircraft in New York, watching the thermometer precipitously drop from merely below freezing to Arctic in the wake of a major winter storm.  Admittedly, I’m lucky to be on a plane that will depart, given that 1,500 flights in the United States have already been cancelled, many in the Northeast.

After a 30-minute delay in boarding due to the late arrival of the aircraft, we were all settled in.  The door was closed, we pushed back, and a collective sigh of relief was heard throughout the cabin.  Just now, the captain welcomed us, providing the flight time, and adding that “we’re just making a quick stop for deicing and then we’ll be on our way.”

As a child, I liked the drive-through car washes as a form of entertainment and the deicing process makes you feel as if you are in a car wash for an airplane, albeit one that uses a mysterious orange or green fluid.  The deicing process may delay departure somewhat, but it is an essential, safe, and ultimately necessary component of cold-weather flying.

Deicing is essential for a safe takeoff by preventing a build-up of snow and ice on the plane’s wings and tail. Because the aircraft’s wings and tail are designed to provide proper lift and flight control, any snow or ice in these areas changes their shape and disrupts airflow, thereby compromising the aircraft’s performance during the crucial takeoff run.

Deicing is an essential safety procedure that allows planes to fly in cold weather. When witnessed from afar, it looks like washing a car on a much larger scale. High-pressure hoses apply aircraft deicing fluid, or ADF, to most flight surfaces, with a focus on the plane’s wings, engines, and tail.

Sometimes, however, deicing isn’t enough if precipitation is continuing so the application of an anti-icing agent follows the deicing process. Anti-icing fluid prevents additional buildup of snow and ice.

Aircraft deicing has been taking place since the advent of flying, first in a purely mechanical manner by scraping and brushing the control surfaces while on the ground as well as covering leading edges of wings with inflatable rubber boots that, by inflating them, would crack and shed any ice accumulation while aloft.  In the 1950s, the use of deicing solutions became common place, and in the 1960s, the first vehicular aircraft deicers to spray the aircraft with a heated fluid came into use.

In addition to the pre-departure deicing process, many modern aircraft have anti-ice systems on the leading edge of wings and engine inlets using warm air bled from the engines.

While deicing may delay departure, just sit back, relax, and enjoy the spectacle as it’s truly a necessary part of safe winter flying.

(Photo and Video: Accura Media Group)

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