Between each flight, dozens of inspections and actions are performed to ensure the safety of an aircraft and its passengers. Although most operations are standardized and accomplished on every plane, one of the most critical ones only occurs when below-freezing temperatures are expected. This operation is the deicing process, that of which helps protect aircraft from the damaging effects associated with ice buildup. In this blog, we will discuss the importance of a deicing protocol and how it is accomplished by most airlines.
When ice, snow, or slush builds up on an airplane during or before flight, there are several immediate threats to performance and safety. Chiefly, aerodynamic performance is compromised due to an uneven mass distribution on exposed surfaces, including the wings and fuselage. As a result, the plane may experience sluggish maneuverability and climb rates. If a buildup were to occur in close proximity to the engine, the system could experience a loss of thrust and structural damage. Another surface prone to icing is the windshield which is particularly dangerous as it decreases the pilot's visibility. Finally, the increased weight involved with ice deposition can lead to poor fuel efficiency. With flash freezing occurring rapidly and temperatures fluctuating with altitude, it is critical to have a protocol in place that accounts for and prevents these risks.
One of the most straightforward deicing methods involves the use of electrically heated surfaces. Targets for this mechanism include windshields, alpha vanes, and pitot tubes, as these areas are most sensitive to quick ice buildup. Since the heating components are controlled electrically, this system provides a reliable means of deicing independent of the engine status.
Another common deicing technique is the use of chemicals which may either act as a barrier or freezing-point depressor. Ethylene glycol has long been used as a deicing agent thanks to its low cost and ease of application. When applied, the freezing point of water drops to around -50 degrees C°, allowing the aircraft to operate in the coldest conditions. Unfortunately, ethylene glycol is particularly toxic to wildlife and humans, which is why many airlines have elected to use propylene glycol that has similar efficacy but is nontoxic. Another chemical strategy includes the application of a barrier chemical that does not allow water to readily bond to aircraft surfaces when coated.
Physical deterrents involve manually removing ice or slush through mechanical means. This is typically accomplished by paddles or brushes and requires time and specialized maintenance personnel. Also included in this category are high-pressure hoses, those of which typically contain heated water or glycol solutions that deice the aircraft by causing frozen moisture to fall or melt off. Before each flight, ground personnel make thorough inspections of all flight surfaces to check for any buildup. Most modern aircraft are also equipped with sensors that detect ice and snow on critical regions such as the wing and tail. These various protocols help maintain flexibility for both civil and military aviators to operate in a wide variety of environmental conditions.
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