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Overview of Aircraft Icing

Overview of Aircraft Icing, December 2012With the temperature dropping, it’s time once again to review one of the most potentially dangerous problems pilots face in the winter months: aircraft icing. Even if you don’t fly in cold weather often, it is essential for pilots and FBOs to know how to prevent and reduce the risk of ground and airborne icing. Here are some things to know and do.

Keep in mind this is a general overview on aircraft icing. Be sure to refer to the Original Equipment Manufacturer Aircraft (OEM) de-icing recommendations and your FBO/aircraft mechanic for the necessary pre-flight preparation for your particular aircraft.

Understanding the Effects of Icing

Airborne icing is dangerous for multiple reasons: It distorts the smooth flow of air over the wings, reducing the wing’s maximum lift, adversely affecting the plane’s handling qualities, and significantly increasing drag.

When icing occurs, it can build up on every exposed frontal surface of the plane, including the wings, propeller, windshield, antennas, vents, intakes, and cowlings. But the weight of ice on the airplane is actually a secondary problem to the airflow disruption the ice buildup causes. As a pilot adds power to make up for increased drag, the nose lifts to maintain altitude, allowing the underside of the wings and fuselage to accumulate even more ice, causing yet more lift, handling, and drag problems.

In moderate to severe conditions, an aircraft can become so iced up that continued flight is impossible. The plane may stall at higher speeds and lower angles of attack than normal, or roll or pitch uncontrollably. Ice can also cause engine stoppage by icing up the carburetor or blocking the engine's air source.

Major Culprits of Airborne Icing

Although it is fairly easy to predict general areas where icing can take place, locating specific icing areas and altitudes is more difficult because of the variable of weather and nature. Mountains, water, wind, temperature, moisture, and atmospheric pressure all play roles in creating icing conditions.

Ice can form on aircraft surfaces at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, 0 degrees Celsius. Cold fronts and low-pressure areas are two of the biggest causes of aircraft icing, but air mass instability and moisture can also generate ice in clouds.

Freezing rain and drizzle are also huge culprits which can surface icing, distort airfoil shapes and make flight extremely dangerous or impossible in a matter of minutes.

If you fly in cold weather, do your due diligence to plan ahead, check weather, and avoid locations where icing is likely.

Pre-Flight Preparation

The key to minimizing icing risks before or during flight is proper planning and preparation. If possible, hangar your aircraft indoors during the winter to protect it from frost and frozen precipitation. Before flying, know the weather at your FBO, en-route and destination airports. If airborne icing is likely, postpone the trip if possible, or make alternate route and airport plans to work around weather.

If you have to fly, contact the FBO about their de-icing and anti-icing capabilities, as well as your aircraft’s requirements. Review your aircraft’s Original Equipment Manufacturer Aircraft (OEM) deicing recommendations.

In addition to normal preflight checks, check aircraft for ice or snow, including propeller blade, flight controls and engine inlets. Even though cold weather does not particularly affect the engine itself, it may cause ice in the fuel lines, control valves, and fuel sumps, and certain parts may need preheating. If ice or snow is found, remove as much as possible by hand and thaw it with heated air or de-icing fluid before attempting start. Never scrape or chip ice off the aircraft.

Don’t underestimate the damage frost can cause, particularly at low airspeeds, takeoffs and landings. Frost can increase drag, prevent windshield visibility and even cause engine failure. Make sure frost is thawed from the body, engine and controls, and windshield anti-ice is used to avoid loss of windshield visibility.

Taxi in Normal Range

An aircraft should not be taxied until all engine temperatures and systems pressures are within normal range. Taxi at a low speed with wide-radius turns. If the tires are frozen to the runway surface, a slight motion should break them free. If taxiing in soft snow, engage higher than normal power.

When Airborne Icing Happens

If airborne icing does take place, don’t panic, but take immediate steps to get out of it, especially if the condition is freezing rain or freezing drizzle. Engage the aircraft’s anti-icing equipment, but do not depend on it for prolonged periods, particularly in moderate or heavier ice.

In most cases, an aircraft is flyable in icing conditions, but in a reduced speed range. As icing can increase drag and reduce lift, you may need to increase thrust in order to maintain airspeed.

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