Elephant de-icing rigs arrive in North America

 - October 30, 2006, 8:27 AM

Business aircraft pilots taxiing into Toronto Pearson’s de-icing area this winter will see–since they’re hard to miss–two large truck-mounted de-icing units cleaning down 747s, A340s and other big iron. They’re Danish built Elephant Beta-15 rigs, with telescopic booms that can reach 75 feet, high enough to spray the top of the fin of an A380. These $1 million units are the first of their kind in North America and have joined the airport’s Central De-icing Facility fleet of 27 heavy-duty (but smaller) de-icing boom trucks and 11 underwing and undercarriage de-icing vehicles.

Located east of the Great Lakes, Pearson Airport experiences every type of snow and icing condition, from morning hoar frost to Arctic level blizzards, during the eight-month period from October to May. While facility general manager Kelvin Williamson demurs from claiming that his is the biggest de-icing operation in North America, he does note that over the past five years, his facility has treated more than 71,000 aircraft of all types, including about 80 to 100 corporate jets per year.

Williamson’s experience as a former airline jet captain and chief pilot, plus a 10-year spell with Transport Canada as a check pilot and de-icing inspector, puts him in good stead to run the Pearson activity, and to manage eight other airport de-icing facilities across Canada for Servisair/Globe Ground, which also runs the de-icing operation at Philadelphia and several other U.S. airports.

The Pearson setup is impressive, with five 100- by 250-meter de-icing pads and a sixth smaller pad, located in the center of the airport. Each of the five main pads can accommodate two side-by-side A320/737 size aircraft simultaneously or a single A340 or 747 and, in the future, an A380.

Access to the de-icing area is through six separate entry/exit points off the airport’s taxiways, and aircraft are fed through these, in first-come, first-served order, to initial staging points on each pad and then directed on to the actual de-icing points as soon as the aircraft ahead departs.

Actual time on the de-icing pad varies with aircraft size and the amount of snow and ice to be removed, ranging from around two minutes for a hoar-frost-coated Gulfstream IV or Challenger to as many as 30 minutes for a 747 laden with ice and extremely heavy snow. Transport Canada rigidly enforces its rule that no aircraft can depart with any contamination on its critical surfaces.

The whole operation is run from an ultra-modern control center overlooking the de-icing pads where, in close coordination with the airport’s tower controllers, an eight-person team directs the movement of aircraft entering and leaving the area.

The center has direct communications with incoming and departing aircraft, de-icing spray operators, air traffic controllers and weather forecasters. It also has its own high-definition radar displays to continuously present local weather conditions and to scan for approaching systems. In addition, video screens fed by cameras around each bay allow monitoring of each de-icing operation. All communications, radar and video data are recorded for quality control, legal and training purposes.

The Cost of De-icing

So how much does all this cost a corporate operator? A private Challenger will pay no more than an Air Canada CRJ. In other words, whether you own one or 500 airplanes or whether you make one or 100 visits per season, the rates are the same.

There are three components to a Toronto de-icing bill. First is a flat fee of $275 for each visit. The second component is a facility overhead charge of $1.90 per liter, regardless of type. The third charge is for the actual price of the fluid, which currently runs at around $0.62 and $0.79 per liter, respectively, for 38 percent and 48 percent Type 1 fluid, and $1.79 per liter for Type 4, all of which are billed at cost.

In the case of corporate aircraft, the de-icing facility bills the operator’s selected FBO, which bills the aircraft owner. In a typical season, the Toronto facility uses close to six million liters of Type 1 and one million liters of Type 4. It’s not practical to come up with a ballpark price for an average de-icing operation, since this varies tremendously with aircraft size and severity of contamination.

When the Pearson facility took delivery of its two super-sized de-icing trucks, it also took delivery of a de-icing cab training simulator–a world first–from the same manufacturer. Similar to a flight simulator, this device replicates the full cab controls, along with a projection screen display that can be programmed to show various aircraft types, along with the image of the boom moving under the operator’s command and the spray coverage being achieved.

All 72 of Pearson’s spray cab operators have undergone initial and recurrent training in the simulator, which reduces training costs and time. It also reduces insurance costs, since Pearson’s single truck operators also maneuver their vehicles around the aircraft by remote control, and striking a wingtip or tail could be expensive.