De-icing aircraft: Skilling breaks down how it works

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Our ability to travel safely by air in winter is heavily dependent on de-icing.

What is the de-icing process? How does it work? And who makes the call?  WGN Chief Meteorologist Tom Skilling wondered those things, too. The folks at Chicago-based United Airlines helped to answer his questions.

“Last year we de-iced 12,000 airplanes.  This year we’re on pace for about 14,000,” said Craig Palmer, winter operations coordinator at United Airlines. “Our record was 17,000 airplanes, just United,  just at O’Hare.”

All of Canada didn’t de-ice as many planes, Palmer said. He says de-icing has been around since the 1920s.

“Airplanes used to be de-iced with a rope, tied knots in it, dragged it over the wing and considered the aircraft flight worthy,” he said.

The deadly crash of Air Florida Flight 90 in Washington D.C. in January of 1982 was a harsh reminder of the importance of proper de-icing. Seventy-eight people died when the Boeing 737 lost altitude, struck a crowded bridge, and plunged into the icy Potomac River. The plane had been de-iced, but with the wrong chemical mix. And delays brought on by heavy snow allowed new ice to coat the wings.

The shape of an aircraft’s wing is critical in the way the plane produces lift. You change the shape, it doesn’t fly the same way.  That’s the primary reason planes are de-iced.

“Ultimately it’s the pilot’s call.  Captain’s call is the final decision. But we will give them our expert opinion as to whether the aircraft needs de-icing or not,” said Chris Pearson, who has worked for united 20 years as a de-icer and dispatcher.

Today, he’s managing  22 United Express gates. Another dispatcher in Terminal 1 is juggling 32 gates, stressful work to say the least. We wondered what kinds of weather make their jobs the hardest?

“Those are the days where it’s snowing an inch an hour, and it’s taking 2-3-400 gallons of de-icing fluid to get an airplane clean.”

But the blizzard of 2011 was the granddaddy of all de-icing days.tom-skilling

“I got here at 5 o’clock in the morning, and I did not leave until 10 o’clock the following morning.  I tried to leave at 11 o’clock that night, and I got stuck 5 times just trying to get off the airfield,” Pearson said.

“I like that every plane that we pull up to there’s a different scene that’s going on and something new.  And it’s always active,” said ramp service worker Liane Schullo.

Schullo operates million dollar machines that use a combination of forced air blowers and a chemical mixture to remove ice and snow and prevent new precipitation from adhering to the aircraft.

The spray itself is a syrup-like liquid of propylene glycol — basically anti-freeze.  It’s that hot mixture, up to 180 degrees hitting the plane’s cold surfaces, that creates all that steam.

As if Schullo didn’t already have her hands full, she was brave enough to show Mr. Skilling the ropes!

We asked each of the de-icing experts what’s the one thing they’d like the public to know about winter air travel through chicago.

“We save lives every day,” Schullo said.

“If you’re flying on United out of O’Hare you’re flying on one of the best carriers that has one of the best operations in the world,” Pearson said.

“This is an all volunteer army.  Somehow, someway these guys or ladies sign up to do this every winter, every year, risk life and limb to do this job,” Palmer said.

Ice can add an additional 2,000 pounds to a large plane.  So getting it off and keeping it off is a critical part of safe winter air travel.

Interestingly,  a United employee, Jack Lampe Chicago, started the airline’s de-icing program more than 50 years ago. He recently retired, but his work is legendary. And he’s still known in the industry as the “godfather of de-icing” worldwide.

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  • Todd

    It would have been more appropriate to refer to propylene glycol as non-toxic antifreeze. Ethylene glycol is what people commonly refer to as antifreeze. Propylene glycol is used as a food additive and commonly used in fog machines (usually mixed with water).

  • Todd Pardee

    “Volunteer army”?? I bet these guys get union wages and benefits. Volunteer is doing it for free and I will bet you that’s not happening!

    • Lloyd Christmas

      No they don't get paid unions wages. None of the United ramp or jetbridge employees do. But you are right, they are still far from volunteers.

      • Al Davidson

        Dear Lloyd, All ramp service personnel and customer service personnel are members of the IAM union; therefore, they do receive union wages depending upon seniority. The ramp service personnel do volunteer for the deicing team, they are rigidly trained and examined on deicing procedures, and it is hard work. Just for your info. Former United Ramp Service Supervisor and United Station Manager

      • greg62702

        Been there done that Al. SPI GSC & Trainer, when I worked for Air Wis. Remember many a shifts starting them at 3:30 in the morning during Winter, not leaving until 1:30 the next morning, due to being understaffed at our station.

        Best time I ever had, was de-icing a C-5 for the Air Guard, due to the Air Guard station at SPI ran out of deicing fluid in their truck.

    • greg62702

      Todd, lets see you do the job. You just like Lloyd could not last five minutes, one hour tops, doing what these guys and gals do during a day.

      I have done it, and it is not only hard work, but when you have a thousand things coming at you in the way of stuff that not only needs to get done at any given time, your head is on a swivel when you are on the ramp.

      I myself have some battle scars to show from close calls with static probes, and blown bursa sac on my right elbow, from loading cargo holds.

  • Al Davidson

    All the deicing crews are United ramp servicemen (and women) who are union personnel and are paid union wages. Yes, the do volunteer for the deicing teams.

  • Ray

    Nice segment! Glad we got some POSITIVE airtime! The entire United Ground Service team is #1 and are highly trained in all the jobs they do. Thank you.

  • John D

    Great segment…..thanks Tom Skilling and WGN!
    I am a United pilot and can honestly say that we have the best employees in the world right here in Chicago….keep up the good work!

  • mike

    Small clarification…All of Canada deices approximately 110,000 planes annually. The largest centralized deicing facility in the world is in Toronto, and they spray 13-15,000 aircraft annually.

  • Richard

    Great first story – So now you know how it is done, check into the science behind it. Go to the big wind tunnel in Ottawa where they test deicing fluids and methods. Go to the SAE G-12 meeting. See how the FAA conducts oversight and how airlies have to prepare a deice program every year. Check out the the audit process the airline has so it can ensure it procedures and process are followed and to ensure they are effective.

  • Jeff Mills

    I remember those cold,snowy winter days in Lincoln,NE de-iceing planes! Sometimes you would get a facefull of that de-iceing fluid on a windy day and I can still taste that sweet mixture! .I'm a 75 yr old now, but still miss those days in the buckett! Frontier Airlines 1959-1986

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