Ice Man

De-icing planes during Maine winters is not a job for the faint of heart.

By Ralph Raffio
Illustration by Steven Meyers

It isn’t every day you’re asked to make a life-or-death decision. And yet, on a clear fall morning in 2010, while interviewing for a spot on the de-icing team at a Maine airport, there it was.

“Once you have determined that the aircraft is safe for takeoff, then we inform the pilot,” said one of the three men I was meeting with. “Are you comfortable with that?”

The room fell silent. I’d had no prior experience in the trade and everybody seated at the table knew it. This was to be a part-time gig, meant to help ride out the deepest recession many of us Mainers had known.

“I decide the plane is safe to fly,” I choked. “You’re kidding me, right?”

The men glanced at each other and then at me.

“You’re the guy who’s up there spraying the plane,” the team leader said. “Nobody else can see what you see, so it’s gotta be your call.”

He paused for a moment. “Is that okay with you?”

I imagined an airplane filled with innocent people — neighbors of mine, perhaps even loved ones — being cleared for takeoff in a Maine snowstorm. Because I said that they could.

“Sure thing,” I said, as confidently as I could manage while considering the bills piled high on the kitchen counter back home. “If it’s okay with you then it’s okay with me.”

Weeks later came my first shift, from 5 to 9 a.m. I had completed two days of classroom training, aced many written exams, cleared a slew of airport security hurdles, and spent an afternoon learning how to operate the equipment — a $350,000 behemoth, part monster truck, part Klingon warbird. It takes two people to operate the thing, one to gingerly move the vehicle around the aircraft, another to spray glycol, heated to as much as 180 degrees Fahrenheit, onto the planes. Spraying is done from inside a “bucket,” which is attached to a movable boom atop the truck. The bucket is where I spent my first shift.

The air temperature was around 30 degrees and no rain, snow, or ice could be found. All I could see when I arrived at the airport was the faintest hint of frost on two cars in the employee parking lot.

De-icing isn’t only about getting ice off a plane. Or snow. The rule is that you must not fly with “contaminants” of any kind on the plane’s surface, especially on the wings and the tail. Even a light frost is a contaminant and therefore, technically, should be removed.

But pilot discretion comes into play. Though the 6 a.m. flight taxied off with nary a thought of de-icing, the next flight did swing by the de-icing pad for a light spray. There was likely no difference between the two planes in terms of frost. One pilot played it ultra-safe, the other one didn’t. It is the pilot’s call because it is he or she who has supreme responsibility for the aircraft, its passengers, and crew.In theory, then, I wasn’t the only person at the airport with the power to clear a plane for takeoff. But I kept thinking about something we learned in class. From the cockpit, a pilot can only see a portion of the wing on his side of the aircraft. If it looks clean then he’s figuring the rest of the plane must be clean, too, and that the de-icer has done his job.

I’m just saying.

I won’t soon forget my first de-icing. Sure, the frost was so light that it took no time to service the big Airbus jet. But try moving around a giant mass of steel and jet fuel and screaming engines and glass and people while you’re strapped inside a mechanical robot three stories high and being driven by somebody you only met ten minutes ago. See how calm you’d be.

I did not turn out to be a very good de-icer. The bucket controls — two joysticks that produce dozens of variations in how and what types of fluids are sprayed onto the planes — were my undoing. After just forty-five hours and thirty minutes as an aerospace professional, I reluctantly resigned the position.

I had just come down from the bucket after spraying around twenty gallons of what they call Type I fluid onto a plane when barely five gallons were necessary. At about $13.50 a gallon, that means I had wasted — well, do the math. And it could have been a lot worse. In a real Maine snowstorm, it might have been hundreds of gallons of fluid. On a single plane.

My supervisor could not have been more swell. “Maybe we’ll put you in the truck,” he said, after we were alone in his office. “You’re a good driver. We could still use you.”

I thanked the man for his kindness, but reminded him that de-icing crew members must be proficient both in driving the truck and spraying from the bucket.

“You’re a good man,” I said, gathering my things. “Sorry I let you down.”

I got home around lunchtime. A light snow was falling. Standing in the kitchen, eating a sandwich, I heard a plane pass over and wondered if its captain had opted for a spray. Then I went back to the job listings and paid a couple of bills.

Ralph Raffio authors the award-winning food blog “Mister Meatball.” He is the former editor in chief of Restaurant Business magazine.