Winter service duet

For safety reasons, snow and ice must be removed from the wings, the fuselage, the engines and the tail before take-off.

It is as steamy as an old-fashioned wash-house. For a few seconds, half the plane disappears in the plumes of vapours from heated water and glycol. "We ordered the full package," says Lufthansa Cargo pilot Andreas Birck. The full package means de-icing and snow removal on the wings, the fuselage, the engines and the tail. This is followed by an anti-ice shower to make sure that the machine does not freeze over again before it takes off.

It is not comfortable on the tarmac at Frankfurt Airport. Although the thermometer is reading a bearable zero, the wind this morning is driving the wet snowflakes across the runway and making enemies of people and machinery alike. LH 8398 to Krasnoyarsk should have taken off at 7:05, but has been delayed by an hour. Winter is taking its toll. Nearly all the pilots ordered the de-icing package today. This takes time and messes up the flight schedule.

When Captain Andreas Birck and First Officer Matthias Winkemann climbed the gangway to the cockpit just before 6 am, one thing was clear: "We won't be going anywhere today without de-icing." An initial inspection of the plane confirmed the crew's suspicions: "Snow on the surface." "If the snow and ice are not removed," explains the captain, "the aerodynamics of the aeroplane change." This would mean the crew's calculations on starting speed, weight and power would be wrong. The control systems can also freeze solid.

N*Ice is responsible for ice removal in Frankfurt. It is a subsidiary of the airport operator and has stocked up on more equipment for this season following the chaos of the 2010/2011 winter. There are now 58 de-icing vehicles – specially produced by Danish manufacturer Vestergaard for a price of around EUR 900,000. But the employee operating the spray nozzles with the help of a joystick does get to sit in a heated cab.

This morning, Patrick Philipp has the job. If he wants, he can raise his cab to a height of up to twelve metres, extend the telescopic arm with the spray nozzle by up to a further eight metres and thus even reach the tail fin on an A380. He can move the pulpit up and down and adjust the mixture of water, glycol and additives at the touch of a button. Two red sensors at the ends of the spray nozzle look like the feelers on a snail – and serve the same purpose. If there is danger, they withdraw: If the arm of the de-icer comes too close to the expensive aircraft, the spray process is automatically switched off.

The spraying system is a duet. Sometimes, when there is a real rush, even a quartet. "We have agreed with N*Ice that our freight planes will be de-iced by at least two vehicles," reports Aircraft Handling Manager Czejka. Then two of the Danish "elephants" spray off the MD-11. It has to be quick. There can be no more than three minutes between the removal of the snow and ice and the application of the green anti-ice paste. Otherwise, new snow or sleet could negate the effect of the shower.

55-year-old Czejka is the coordinator of the de-icing activities and responsible for 20 airports all over the world to which the Lufthansa subsidiary also flies and which require anti-snow and ice measures in winter. Contracts have been concluded with local companies, station managers trained, quality audited and, as at the Krasnoyarsk hub, a de-icing station set up. Every year, Dieter Czejka keeps all his fingers crossed that the winter is a mild one.