Mission Aviation Fellowship

De-icing the RAF way, Tad Higher

Ice. Our normal routine is to forget about ice until we see a weather forecast for the next day that causes us concern. If frost is forecast and we have a lesson at 0900, we wait until everyone else has packed up for the night and then stick a Tomahawk just inside the hangar door, hoping Randolph doesn’t notice when he locks up. If he doesn’t spot our aircraft we can get away without paying a hangar fee for the night. We help the subterfuge by uncharacteristically shutting up the doors ourselves and telling Randolph there is nothing to see so he can go back to his hut. This always works.

If our first flight is any later than 0900 we get Mother Nature to deal with the ice. We just untie the aircraft, turn it towards the southeast and let the sun melt the ice away. Usually the consumption of one mug of tea is the required de-icing time. We might send the student to carry out the external checks if a little more melting time is needed.

On the occasions when we get caught out and have to do the de-icing ourselves, it’s all hands to the deck. Car windscreen scrapers are our normal weapons of choice. Though credit cards are pretty good too. Snow is brushed away using a soft broom.

Of course, none of these have any effect if nature is against us. You can scrape and spray to your heart’s content, if you want to. Nature, temperature, dew point and humidity will always have their way. De-ice as much as you like, it will re-ice quicker unless those conditions are on your side.

We have fallen in to a comfortable acceptance of what we can achieve and don’t wish to show our foolishness by pushing against the inevitable. Our peace of mind in this has been temporarily disturbed by Doug, who is our newest member of the instructing ‘team’. As a new member of the educational staff, Doug is undergoing the official induction program that all staff of Sinking-in-the-Marsh undertake as part of their induction process. We are fully conversant with modern HR processes and have embraced them fully.

Each new member of the ‘team’ quickly appreciates the obvious weaknesses of our setup and wishing to satisfy their own professional instincts to improve and develop, they set about making things better. This is not an example of making their mark, it is the healthy channelling of a positive attitude. We have all suffered from this condition. It is the same the world over. As many of us appreciate, people don’t change, but times do. So occasionally people try to change matters for the better just as the times are changing themselves and mistakenly they think they are geniuses, going on to make successful careers based on a coincidence.

At Sinking-in-the-Marsh times have not yet changed. Doug could see our approach to icing conditions was a little lame so he committed himself to change us. I was just the same once. Doubly naive, when I saw how impossible it was to change everything I tried to stop the new members of the team from exhausting themselves. A wasted effort. Now we put them through the induction process, officially known as ‘Letting them get on with it’.

Doug had been struggling with our human resources training program. This is because he was, in fact still is, ex-RAF. There is no cure for this condition, we all just have to live with it. The RAF is a glorious and honourable organisation. If only they had lowered their standards I would be ex-RAF myself by now. They didn’t. They stick to the highest standards, which is why organisations that take them on in a fight end up on the losing side.

Being ex-RAF doesn’t include lowering your standards, hence Doug’s difficulty in adopting ours.

Unable to lower standards, the ex-RAF can still adapt, so we were confident Doug would cope. It just meant that there would be a little suffering along the way, probably for everyone. The onset of suffering announced itself through a notice. It was only an A4 sheet, pinned beneath the Weather Board. This is normally an indication that no one needs to read it. With many using on-line weather sources, others relying too much on instructors, the Weather Board is an oft-neglected resource. So, none of us were too concerned at the presence of the notice.

Doug was unhindered by our apathy. He spoke loudly and with authority about its contents and expected us to read it. He was aided by his loyal lieutenant Harvey, a small dog of well-recorded pedigree. When Doug speaks, Harvey stands to attention beside him. Harvey gives the distinct impression that he is checking all are paying full attention to his commanding officer. Harvey’s basket is located directly beneath the Weather Board and he eyes all who pass by.

I swear, that dog barked at me when I walked past without reading the notice.” complained Tarquin. We all fell into line and read the notice, as did our customers. Doug Walker had organised a training session and we were all invited. We felt it was an invitation we couldn’t ignore. The session was about Icing and De-icing, and was an opportunity for us all to become familiar with Doug’s ocean of knowledge on the subject. Whilst in the RAF, Warrant Office Walker was trained to train others in the science and practice of aircraft de-icing and he couldn’t envisage any difficulty in raising our standards. Understanding the residents of Sinking-in-the-Marsh as we do, we suggested tea and cake were essential ingredients to a successful evening. Doug thought they might distract us from his lecture, but we said they would be necessary as we would require the energy to absorb all that knowledge.

An evening of free tea and cake was sufficient to draw a crowd, or mob, depending on how generous you are feeling. We sat in a wide semi-circle. Harvey sat to attention beside his basket. Doug Walker RAF (retired(ish)) began to expound. To our surprise it started quite well, though this may have been the soporific effect of the tea and cake. Ice pellets, hail, super-cooled rain. Those of us with a frozen ATPL tried to de-frost it, but failed miserably to guess the diameter of ice-pellets and hail. Nor could we remember the difference between snow and snow grains. I began to relax a bit at the mention of hoar frost and freezing rain. Teaching ground-school so often, this was something I knew about.

Doug then moved onto airfield contamination, asking us where this could occur. Walter jumped straight in- “The kitchen. It’s unnatural in there. I’ve never seen anything like it”. This was confirmed by the whole group nodding or shaking their heads in a display of untypical unity. Darth ignored them. “No one’s ever caught anything in it.” he remarked. “Except that rat.” someone else retorted. “You didn’t catch it. It had already died”. “Probably food poisoning.” muttered another helpful member of our group.

Doug rallied our attention back to the main event.

Ice, snow, slush and frost shall be removed from aeroplane surfaces by heated fluid, mechanical means, alternative technology or combination thereof.”

Quentin, who was practically inhaling a rather large slice of home baked Battenberg, raised a hand “Alternative technology?” he enquired.

The Weeping Wing technique.” This silenced us. “De-ice fluid is pumped through small holes in the wing leading edge to prevent the ice from building up.”

Well, we can supply the holes in the wings, for a start.” Walter attempted to take the stage, but Doug spoke over him.

Electro-Mechanical Expulsion. A microsecond duration high current electrical pulse delivered to the actuators in timed sequences generates opposing electro-magnetic fields that cause…….” And so, he continued without recourse to notes for way beyond our average attention span. But we were impressed. One onlooker, awed enough to put down his half-eaten slice of vanilla sponge, asked how they de-iced it in the RAF.

Often they fly faster. Military jets use the stagnation heat generated by a higher flight Mach number.” Doug continued- “Generally, flying Mach 0.9 or above is enough to avoid trouble in light icing conditions.”

And so, the evening wore on. Evidently, we were much impressed by Doug’s eloquence and depth of knowledge. Doug, aware of this, felt he had moved us to an inflection point. He thought he had led us to water and now we would drink. We would change, rise up and become more, well, more like the RAF. There was to be change, but not for us.

Within a week we were hit by snow. It was forecast so we sneaked one Tomahawk into the hangar, Randolph pretended not to notice. We regarded this as covering Doug’s ‘Alternative methods’ section of his presentation. For heated fluids Walter and Quentin were pouring their tea onto various wing surfaces. To Doug’s admonishments they replied that they were using heated fluids. Looking down at the now brown stained snow, that was rapidly re-freezing on the wing, they concluded more tea was the answer. Tarquin, veteran of many winters was quietly brushing the snow off the leading edge of his aircraft with a soft dust pan brush. Doug nodded approvingly. “Mechanical method.” He murmured quietly. He murmured something else when he saw Tarquin using the dustpan itself to remove a particularly stubborn piece of ice.

Turning to Darth, he exclaimed “Darth, he shouldn’t use that – it isn’t designed to remove ice from aerodynamic surfaces.” Darth didn’t look up from his own de-icing task, but continued to scrape the hoar frost from a leading edge using his credit card. Lars, having fully digested the part of the lecture on chemical de-icing methods had brought out a bottle containing the remnants of what had been generously described as ‘Cider’. In truth its origins lay more in the imagination of Clive ‘The Garage’ than any recipe. Lars poured the tiniest drop onto the snow-covered wing of our beige coloured Tomahawk. The snow on half the wing seemed to evaporate, disappearing in less than half a second. The wing itself was no longer beige. Rather than panic, Lars looked impressed. On seeing this, Doug panicked for him. It was all too much.

Burying his head in his hands Doug, shoulders slumped, returned to our contaminated kitchen. Darth found him later. Cake in one hand, tea in other, he was rocking gently backwards and forwards, eyes closed.

Darth nodded to himself; Doug’s de-icing training was now complete.

Author: Adrian Mahovics

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