Demystifying Deicing: How It Makes Winter Flying Safer

By Jeremy Del Nero on 1 December 2019
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Today, December 1, is the busiest travel day of the year and a coast-to-coast winter storm has already delayed over 2,500 flights and resulted in the cancellation of almost 500 as of 1 p.m. EST.

For those lucky enough to depart, whether on time or delayed, there will likely be one additional step after the door is closed and the aircraft pushes back. Indeed, just as a collective sigh of relief can be heard throughout the cabin, the captain makes an announcement: “We’re just making a quick stop for deicing and then we’ll be on our way.”

My colleague Jesse Sokolow likened the deicing process to the drive-through car wash, which he took as a form of entertainment as a child. 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.

Indeed, 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, the process does in fact look like washing a car, albeit on a far greater 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 commonplace, 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: Accura Media Group)

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