Aeronautical Randomness
Why pilots hate to de-ice
February 11, 2013

As the winter storm I refuse to call “Nemo” was pounding New England and New York, I was walking to our gate in Philadelphia.  As the white and and red aircraft came into view at E3, I saw snow adhered to the wings and fuselage.  It had only snowed a couple of inches overnight, but any amount of frozen liquid mandates a de-ice.  Philly… de-icing… ugh.

When we arrived at the podium, the agent handed us the paperwork.  “Come with me guys.” he said.  “You’re going out of E5 this morning.  The de-icing instructions are included with your paperwork.”

Walking further down the terminal past the cheesesteak restaurant,  I silently cursed that we needed to de-ice AND it was too early to order the meal I really wanted.  Oh, the problems we face as airline pilots.

Boarding the plane at E5, I immediately noticed all the avionics and EFB were powered-up.  The EGT gauges were reading about 40 degrees Celsius.

“Did this one just come in from a red-eye?” I asked the captain.

“Looks like it.” he replied.  “I’m going out to check the wings.  I’ll be right back.”  He was having the same thought as me.  It had stopped snowing a few hours earlier.  Perhaps, if the airplane arrived after the snow…

He returned a few minutes later.  “Yeah, it’s clean.  Let me know what you think after you do your walk-around.”

The ramp was like a skating rink.  At the bottom of the jet-bridge steps, I slipped and almost fell.  I spent the entire walk-around shuffling and taking baby steps.   It was not an ideal time to be working at half speed… it was 27 degrees and the winds were gusting to 25kts.

I concurred.  There wasn’t a piece of snow or ice on the aircraft.  What a blessing.

I started thinking: why do pilots hate de-icing?  We’re the ones sitting in the nice warm cockpit while everyone freezing on the outside does all the work. (Although, even that has improved dramatically.  When I first started flying, the de-ice crew sat in elevated buckets like those used for utility repairs.  Many airports now have Star Wars looking equipment with enclosed cabs.)

My disdain for the process in no way influences my decision whether or not to de-ice.  It is illegal and unsafe to takeoff with frozen precipitation on the aircraft.

14 CFR 121.629: No person may take off an aircraft when frost, ice, or snow is adhering to the wings, control surfaces, propellers, engine inlets, or other critical surfaces of the aircraft…

Let me just sum it up for you: “Deicing is a pain in the ass.”  Now, I could just end the blog post here and go grab some lunch.  But, you read this far… so, here are the reasons I could come up with for why most pilots hate de-icing:

It’s a race against time…

If it’s stopped snowing, there’s no “race.” So, in Philly, we would have only endured a de-ice process.  But, things change a bit when the precipitation is still falling.

Operating in snow requires a two step process: de-ice and anti-ice.  A heated “Type I” fluid is applied to the aircraft to remove the snow and ice.  A cold “Type IV” fluid is then applied to anti-ice the plane.  (Yes, there are other types… but, let’s keep this simple.)

All fluids have a “holdover time.”  Type I’s are low since they are used for removing ice.  Type IV’s are much higher and are referenced by consulting a convoluted chart.  The concept is simple: look at the chart and compare air temperature, type of fluid, concentration of fluid, type of precipitation, intensity, moon phase and the third letter of your first-born child’s name to calculate how long the fluid should protect.  Oh, wait… don’t forget to check all the tiny asterisked notes below the chart.  If the precipitation is ice pellets, there’s a whole other set of rules.

The holdover time starts at the beginning of the final application.  If we taxi out to a long line, we may exceed the time. (When it’s snowing, everything at the airport moves half speed.) If at any time the protection is lost and ice re-accumulates on the aircraft, we must return and restart the process.

So, that’s the dilemma.  We need to hurry… but, we can’t.

The procedures are different at every airport…

Remember I mentioned the agent gave us de-icing instructions?  Every airport has their own little way of doing things:

  • Many airports allow de-icing at the gate.  The jet-bridge pulls back and the de-icing coordinator communicates with us through the same intercom used by the push crew.  At other places, the lead uses a dedicated radio frequency to pass along information.
  • Other airport authorities allow a plane to be de-iced on the ramp or taxiway with the crew communicating over the radio.
  • Then, there are the airports with the dedicated de-icing pads with often long lines to use them.  Approaching, we call on one frequency to obtain pad assignment and permission to enter.  Once in, we call another frequency to speak with the de-icer.  Sometimes, they even have cool names like “Iceman” and “Snowman.”  Formalities dictate we address them as such.
  • Some de-icing crews allow the engines to remain running.  Others require shutdown.  Airport procedures requiring a shutdown steal precious minutes from our holdover time.

There are additional procedures for us to follow…

Most aircraft cannot be de-iced without configuring them for the bath.  It is not difficult to configure, but it is one more thing that adds to the process.  I mention it mostly to include the procedure for those of you really curious about the A320. (For reference only… do not use this or any other information in this post on the actual airplane.)

To configure:

  • External Air (if connected)……..OFF
  • ENG BLEED 1 + 2……………..OFF
  • APU BLEED…………………….OFF
  • APU (if not required)……………SHUTDOWN
  • DITCHING pb……………………ON
  • Thrust Levers……………………CHECK IDLE
  • If Engine shut down or shutdown required
  •    ANTI-ICE………………………OFF
  •   ENG MASTERS………………..OFF

After completion and all pertinent information is recorded:

  • DITCHING pb…………………OFF
  • ENGINE BLEED 1 + 2……….ON

It’s expensive…

The fluids used to de-ice and anti-ice are very expensive and billed by the gallon.  While they are not deducting the money out of our paychecks, I am still cost conscious.  Especially during a sloppy de-icing job, I cringe as I mentally calculate the gallons being squirted out of the hose.

It takes forever…

In addition to often being a race against time, the process sometimes takes way too long.  A few weeks ago, I was in Chicago after a few inches of snow fell on the overnight aircraft.

Fortunately, Chicago allows de-icing at the gate and it had stopped snowing.  But, after we pushed, we didn’t taxi for 40 minutes.  It took that long for the aircraft to be “free and clear” of all frozen precipitation. (But now, veteran pilots reading this are thinking “We make extra money!” Yeah, at some airlines that is true. But, not if all your times for the entire months are used to calculate pay.  One good tailwind on a transcon wipes that out for us.)

It stinks…

The fluids often find their way into the pneumatic system and emit a strange odor immediately after takeoff.  We brief passengers on the possibility of the harmless odor, but it still concerns a few on every flight.

Sometimes, it causes other problems…

Like everything else in aviation, sometimes de-icing causes other issues.  Here are two stories that come to mind:

When I flew Citations, we tried to de-ice as little as possible.  If there was snow on the aircraft, company policy dictated we remove as much as possible with brooms before applying fluid.  I never had a problem with that rule… the aircraft was small enough to reach all the surfaces and the fluid is expensive.

On a snowy day at a large airport, we cleaned off the jet and I arranged de-ice and anti-ice of the wings and tail with the FBO.  Then, we boarded and waited.  We sat for awhile… fortunately, it was an empty positioning leg.

After about thirty minutes, I radioed into the FBO to inquire about our de-icing.  The reply I received left me dumfounded. “He already did it… about twenty minutes ago.”  Huh?

I crawled (literally) out of the cockpit and went outside.  Sure enough… there was residual glycol under the wings and tail.  The de-icer had come up behind the aircraft, squirted it twice and never communicated with me.  It was still snowing so we had all but blown through our holdover time while we sat thinking it hadn’t been started.  Fortunately, I was able to negotiate a second procedure for free with the manager of the FBO.

The other de-icing incident happened at United.  Regardless of holdover time, if the precipitation was still falling, I was required to go back and check the wings before takeoff.

After the captain made an announcement, I would walk back to the designated spot, lean over and check the wings through the little oval window.  On the Airbus 319/320, our designated spot was the row with the little black triangle above the window.  (If you ever see a male pilot checking from the row in front or behind the black triangle window, check to see if there’s an attractive woman in that row.)

On that day in Chicago, the captain set the parking brake and instructed me to go back.

“Are you going to make an announcement?” I asked.


“I’d really feel more comfortable if you did… I don’t want to scare the passengers.”  I was trying to use my best CRM.

“I’m not making an announcement. Just go.” He said defiantly.

“Well, do you care if I make one?”

“Do whatever you want.”

So, I made a REALLY quick announcement warning everyone I was about to open the door for a wing inspection.  If I hadn’t, there would have been a lot of worried, confused people wondering why the pilot was taking a stroll to mid cabin just before takeoff.  I don’t think the captain spoke to me for the first forty five minutes of the flight.  Yet another situation that could have been avoided entirely if we didn’t have to de-ice.

I actually prefer flying in the winter.  Cruising along for six hours without having to deviate around thunderstorms makes for a much more enjoyable flight.  But,  occasionally we have to de-ice the plane.  That’s just a pain in the ass.

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About author

Renewed Pilot

I've endured a roller coaster career in the U.S. Aviation Industry. Currently flying the 737 on my third try with the same legacy carrier, I have also flown for a regional, fractional and start-up carrier. My piloting experience includes the 737, A320, 727, Citation Excel, Citation Bravo, Saab 340 and many light singles and twin engine aircraft. I reside in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee.

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There are 8 comments

  • CHRIS says:

    That Captain was a jerk.

  • I just surfed in and enjoyed very much the detail of this article. One question comes to mind. Do you ever deal with cold soaked wing ice?

  • Mike Shannon says:

    After 20 years flying in the AF and 15 years airlines (Midwest out of MKE) I like to call them “unique personalities” ……. I enjoy your writing. If you see any former YX types around please tell them “hello” for me …. [Edited out names for privacy.]

  • Grandpa1940 says:

    Off topic just a tad, but does anyone know why ‘Flight Level 390’ suddenly went off line? It was a regular favourite read for many, and the writing was particularly good.

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