CEO of the Cockpit #53: Snow Day

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A snow day may be a day off from work or school, but if you're an airline pilot it probably means delays and de-icing. AVweb's Kevin Garrison has had many snow days -- some of them even involved throwing snowballs in Florida.

Our 767 was number three in line at the de-icing pad and with the snow continuing to drop heavily, it looked like we had a little time to pass.

Keith, my copilot, was a little apprehensive and was making damn sure we were ready to follow the de-ice procedures. About 10 years back, he and his KC-135 crew almost lost the plane when they didn't de-ice properly before a very heavy takeoff.

Having grown up in aviation as a southern boy, snow really hasn't bothered me that much. Thunderstorms have bothered me plenty. I guess pilots' fears are a product of what scared them when they were young and starting out. I had a couple of prop-stopping storm encounters when I was a C172 driver, but never loaded up on snow and ice and gotten scared.

During the past 27 years or so, the airline world has learned that there is a lot to be scared about when it comes to ice and that fluffy white stuff. The first disaster that springs to mind is the Air Florida crash into the Potomac after they hit the Key Bridge on that cold, winter day. There were other wrecks, equally terrible, that finally led to a totally different way of looking at de-icing and anti-icing.

The Long Beach Death Tube and Icing

When I flew the MD-88 we had to be concerned with airframe ice even on warm days. With its wet-wing fuel tanks, the airplane's airfoils would ice up on descent into warm, humid air after a long leg cold-soaked the fuel left in the tanks. It wasn't unusual at all to have to de-ice in Florida.

They had all sorts of short-term fixes for the MD-88 ice problem. These included ladders with poles so the First Officers could check for ice on top of the wings. There was yarn taped at various places. If you could get the yarn to move with the pole there was no ice. If the yarn stayed put you probably had a load of clear ice on top of the wing.

The trouble with the clear ice on top of the wing wasn't that it would mess up the airflow; it was that it would come loose on takeoff and kill both engines right at the worst possible time.

Keith remembered the ladders well. "We couldn't dispatch without me checking the tops of the wings ... and at the warm stations that had never before heard of deicing, the ladders kept disappearing. Hardest thing in the world was to tell a ramp guy in Phoenix that we couldn't leave until he stopped painting the GSE shed with the ladder and let me use it."

The Old Way

As we sat there waiting our turn, I couldn't help but be proud of our de-icing crews. Imagine ... their time to shine is when the worst possible conditions exist on the ramp. It is cold, wet and windy. The people in the de-ice crews put up with that along with the fact that they spend their shift getting drenched in de-icing fluid and worse.

On top of all of that, they have to look up from their cold, wet positions on the ramp and in their de-ice buckets and see lard asses like me and Keith sitting in heated comfort, sipping on coffee.

The whole process worked quite differently years ago. We didn't have de-ice areas and pads. All the de-icing was done at the gate before pushback. There were no formal procedures. We made sure the air conditioning packs were turned off so we didn't stink up the cabin with fumes; but other than that, every station did de-icing their own way. There was no de-icing crew. Mechanics did the chore.

This was way back in pre-history when every flight had its own mechanic who looked out for the airplane, did a maintenance walk-around as an adjunct to the pilot's, and even operated the tug at push-back.

The hard part of getting de-iced when I was a flight engineer and later a co-pilot was convincing the mechanics that the airplane needed deicing in the first place.

My favorite excuse I heard from those guys was, "That foot of snow on the airplane? It is dry snow ... it'll fly right off when you go down the runway. If we de-ice you it'll make it into wet snow and then you'll have some problems!"

Another good one was one I heard a lot when I was a 727 engineer: "As long as there is no snow or ice on top of the fuselage that can get into the number-two engine and make it stall, you're good to go!"

Fun with Snow

It seemed like every winter I ended up laying over in Ann Arbor, Mich., (DTW) and every summer found me laying over somewhere in Florida.

The ramp guys in FLL and MIA always had some smart-ass comment about all the snow we left up north and how wonderful it was down there in Southern Florida ... yada-yada-yada.

More than once we had the guys in Detroit help us out. We'd load snow into the empty cargo containers we had to carry back to Florida, and when we got to Fort Lauderdale the ramp guys there loved to play in the huge pile of snow we brought them.

We don't do that anymore. I'm pretty sure in our bankruptcy-oriented state you'd get in trouble if you loaded a few thousand pounds of snow just for grins. Back in the day we used to load all sorts of things, including a pickup-truck camper my captain bought in Phoenix one layover. Personally, I have moved an entire apartment of furniture in the hold of an L-1011 when we moved from Tampa to Chicago back in the early '80s.

Hmm ... I wonder how we ever went bankrupt.

Heads-Up Josť'!

Another fun thing you could do if you landed at a warm station after flying out of a snowy station was run out of the airplane right after it blocked in. There was usually some dirty snow left up in the main gear well that had stuck there on takeoff and stayed frozen. You could grab it, make a snowball and whang the ramp guy nearest to you. Imagine the fun as you smack Josť upside the head with a hard, dirty snowball as he works the ramp in Fort Meyers!

Later, on days like that, Josť or somebody else might accidentally hit me with water from the potable water hose as he drug it out to the plane, or leave a dead fish somewhere hard to find in the cockpit.

Good times.

Somehow It All Worked Out

I think it is a miracle of sorts that airplanes weren't falling out of the sky every winter during those loosey-goosey days. The older I get, the more I appreciate the value of a good procedure or checklist. Coming from a youth where we made things up as we went along, I'm perfectly content to follow rules and lists -- especially when they tend to keep me alive.

"Plus, you look so cool reading those checklists in those granny reading glasses," added Keith.

In-Flight Icing? Not As Much Fun ...

If you see a knot of ice on the windshield-wiper nut outside your windshield, turn on the airframe anti-ice. If the EPRs (exhaust pressure ratio gauges) start to rise on their own, turn on the engine anti-ice.

Those were the old rules. Today, most airliners have ice sensors and some have automated anti-ice systems. Crashes, lost engines, and other disasters caused these rules to come into effect just like the rules for ground de-icing.

Blue Ice

Blue Ice isn't the name of a trendy, new beer in a Super Bowl ad. Leaky toilet-service doors are one of the leading causes of in-flight engine separations, and there is no sensor or de-ice system for blue ice.

It works like this: You have a leaky toilet service area. It leaks while you are flying -- slowly.

What leaks out forms a humongous blue ice ball on the side of the fuselage. When it gets heavy enough, it falls off into the slipstream and hits the N1 fan blades of your engine.

Bye-bye engine!

If the ice ball is big enough and heavy enough and you are lucky enough to not have it smack into your engine, it falls to the ground at a high rate of speed, usually taking out a mobile home in Mississippi. The people whose trailer you hit get on the six o'clock news grinning and showing off their treasure -- a semi-frozen, blue wad of poop, urine and chemicals.

Snow Day!

Keith had just gotten off of the radio with Ops. It seems the field is closed and they are expecting a butt-load of more snow in the next few hours. We are supposed to go back to the gate because we are now officially canceled.

This means a snow day for Keith and me. A short trip to a fairly nice hotel and, before we knew it, we were sipping on a cool one eating free happy-hour junk food and watching through the window as wet blobs of snow cover the closed Tiki bar near the also closed pool.

The passengers caught a break. We didn't scare the hell out of them by flying through a blizzard, and my crew caught a rare, early dinner and an enjoyable good night's sleep.

Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.