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Deicing Operations in Alaska? BRRRR!

By MR. MONTE NACE, Staff Writer

Aviation is the branch of engineering that is least forgiving of mistakes.

~ Freeman Dyson, American Physicist

Airplanes have changed a great deal since Wilbur and Orville Wright constructed theirs out of wood and fabric more than 100 years ago. We now fly around the world, day and night, in all kinds of weather—thanks in part to the advancement of deicing materials and procedures.

Today, deicing operations are extremely effective but require a great deal of precision, as we learned from MSgt Jeremy Paxton, Lead Production Superintendent of the 732d Air Mobility Squadron (AMS) at Joint Base Elmendorf–Richardson (JBER) in Alaska.

“Once winter comes in Alaska, we’re usually deicing aircraft through April. The process is conducted by a team of basket operators, deice vehicle operators, and chock walkers,” he said. “A supervisor leads the team and is responsible for the overall operation and ensures precautions are followed.”

Deice vehicle operators maneuver around the aircraft. Typical deice vehicles at Elmendorf are the Global 1800 and Global ER-2875. The 1800 is for smaller aircraft and the wings and/or fuselage of C-5M and C-17A; the ER-2875 is primarily for the T-tail section of the C-5M and C-17A but can also deice wings and fuselage sections.

“Basket operators probably have the best position,” Paxton continued. “They are in an enclosed, heated compartment. Their safety gear is a lap belt that buckles them into the seat and a radio for communicating with the deice supervisor. Depending on the aircraft size and available personnel, each deicing operation can have more than one basket operator spraying deicing fluid onto the aircraft.”

Paxton described chock walkers as safety observers who ensure a safe distance between the aircraft and the deice vehicle. They marshal the vehicle around the planned route while carrying vehicle chocks, and they deice the underside of the wings where basket operators cannot reach. Highly reflective, oversized deicing suits protect them from possible overspray and help make them visible during the operation.

“Ideally, we deice just before engine start to maximize the effectiveness of the deicing fluid in Alaska’s harsh winter conditions,” Paxton added. “When it is complete, the aircraft commander performs a walk-around check to ensure a satisfactory operation.” To meet Air Force and Federal Aviation Administration policy, aircraft must be deiced to a “clean” condition—meaning no frost, ice, or snow on it.

Paxton said the determination to deice is usually an obvious call. When the decision isn’t as clear-cut, the aircraft commander and production superintendent usually make a joint decision. The ultimate responsibility, however, is on the aircraft commander.

Deicing the aircraft is vital to the safety of the aircrews and passengers. Paxton explained that ice formation could reduce wing lift by as much as 30 percent and increase drag by 40 percent. According to the FAA’s Advisory Circular 20-117, these changes in lift and drag will significantly increase stall speed, reduce controllability, and alter aircraft flight characteristics. Historically, aviation investigations indicate that not deicing an aircraft before takeoff can have catastrophic results.

Many people can’t imagine a colder job than deicing aircraft in Alaska, but Paxton said you get used to it.

“Most of our folks wear thick insulated bibs for their pants with a fleece jacket under another thick insulated jacket, but that depends on how cold it is and how long an Airman has been in Alaska. After a couple of winters, they’re usually acclimated and the need for additional layers goes down.”

Originally from California, Paxton is understandably proud of the role Alaska Airmen play in Air Mobility Command’s Rapid Global Mobility mission in extreme conditions.

“Personnel of the 732 AMS ‘Huskies’ work to recover, repair, load, and launch AMC aircraft transiting Alaska—with support from Team JBER,” he said. “As the only AMC squadron in Alaska, they provide support for all strategic airlift aircraft and support both commercial and Department of Defense cargo aircraft that supply remote stations throughout Alaska.”