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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.