Last updated: 09:00 AM ET, Tue March 03 2015

So, How Do They De-Ice A Plane, Anyway?

Airlines & Airports | Rich Thomaselli | March 03, 2015

So, How Do They De-Ice A Plane, Anyway?

You’ve seen those guys in the cherry-picker buckets, braving the elements at great heights off the ground just to spray some weird-smelling chemicals outside your airplane window just prior to takeoff.

Surely, at some point, you’ve wondered about the process known as de-icing.

Well, wonder no more.

Here are the answers to commonly asked questions about de-icing a plane.

Why Do They Need to De-Ice?

Well, it’s the old adage – hot air rises, cold air falls. Ever wonder why your upstairs is warm and basement is cool? That’s the reason, and that’s part of the logic here. Ice and snow get heavy, and if it isn’t bad enough that it’s already 12 degrees on the ground, think about those temperatures that fall to 30, 40 and 50 degrees below zero at 30,000 feet. Not only is the de-icing process to clear existing snow and ice from the plane, but to also help prevent it. When ice builds up on an aircraft’s wings or tails, it can freeze to the point of making takeoff impossible.

What Is That Stuff They’re Spraying?

It’s a chemical called glycol. What happens is, glycol is mixed with water to create something that is akin to car antifreeze. The mixture is heated to 140 degrees, and it lowers the freezing point of the water from its normal 32 degrees Fahrenheit to as low as 50 degrees below zero. The mix is then delivered by high-powered hoses. A second layer of de-icing agent is sometimes added with a higher concentration of glycol than water.

Why Don’t They Do It At The Gate?

The process is done away from the gate area for several reasons, the two most important of which are timing and environmental. Whether it’s 12 degrees and snowing or 75 degrees and sunny, airlines want the turnaround time at the gate to be as quick as possible. Any delay results in lost money. So the aircraft taxis to what is known as the de-icing pad. It is there that the process takes place as the pad is built over a special reservoir, or tank, that collects the chemical mixture so that it doesn’t contaminate regular ground water.

Can’t They Just Run The Plane Through A Hangar, Like A Car Wash?

Well, that’s an interesting theory, but also easily explained away. When was the last time you opened your hood and washed your engine at the car wash? Same principle here. The de-icing process is done manually by those guys in the buckets to get a high concentration of the glycol mix to specific areas of the aircraft, but certainly not in the engines. In fact, at the de-icing pad, the pilots switch over to a dedicated frequency to talk directly to the de-icing crew if the need arises to ask for more de-icing in certain spots.

How About That Smell?

Don’t worry, it’s not toxic and many people find it has the odor of maple syrup.

Here’s a cool video from Southwest Airlines that takes you through the process.


You may use your Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook information, including your name, photo & any other personal data you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on Click here to learn more.

Discover Club Med All-Inclusive Vacations

Hotels & Resorts