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January 12, 2017

The Day I Learned How to De-Ice an Airliner with a Broom

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By: Phil Derner Jr.
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The 25 tear old me, on that day in 2006. You can even see the belt loader in the background.
The 25 tear old me, on that day in 2006. You can even see the belt loader in the background.
He was one of my favorite pilots to have worked with. Small in physical stature and friendly, yet confident without arrogance. His skills as an airman were solid, a man totally in control of every thing his aircraft did, and what wasn’t powered with fuel or controlled by cables and hydraulics was done so with his care and passion. I remember him yelling at newer First Officers sitting next to him “Stop flaring at 30ft, you’re gonna float the damn thing!” I’d swear he could have flown those planes with his eyes closed.

It was 2006, and I was working one of my first flights as a signed-off loadmaster for a military charter airline. I prepped a pair of 757-200s at our home airport one afternoon before ferrying them both (me riding one) to Biggs Army Airfield, the airstrip on Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. We landed both jets, parked and sealed them up (literally, security tape over every cabin or cargo door to identify any unauthorized entry), and headed to a hotel. It would be my last night in a bed for at least a few days, as I would be checking-in to “Hotel Boeing” the next morning; a small economy seat in the back of one of the 757s, making our way to deliver almost 400 soldiers to Kuwait among the two narrowbody planes.

We woke up the next morning and it was much colder than I expected, but I had packed the right clothing for it. Our two crews assembled in the hotel lobby, boarded a van and headed toward the base. It was my first time using my DoD card for base entry, and I was worried the poor laminate job would get me extra scrutiny, but I’d be fortunate both that time and for the rest of the time at this job as it never led to any further questions at the entry gate.

Pulling up to the side-by-side 757s in the dark was a nice sight. I got to work, coordinating with assigned military reps to make sure that they were already counting and weighing bags and passengers, ensuring that our catering trucks would be allowed on the base, to have an officer “volunteer” a dozen soldiers to load the aircraft, and “Where in the hell is my fuel truck!?” I kept looking back at my aircraft, though. The big U.S. flag on the tail under those yellow lights was a pretty sight, especially with that sheen on the wing.

The sheen is why I’m writing this. Frost had developed on the wings of both aircraft, a relatively thick layer of it, too, for being in Texas no less. This wasn’t a huge deal, but made a little bit more challenging considering that Biggs nor the nearby El Paso Airport had any de-icing equipment. So, what do we do?

My Captain immediately told me to get him a belt loader and a broom. He didn’t suggest the idea or try to delegate it to someone else. He wanted this for himself. I had someone drive over a belt loader, raise it to the wing, and the Captain grabbed the broom and climbed up that conveyor belt and onto the wing. He then started sweeping away at the ice. And he whistled while he worked.

I laughed at the sight, and he wanted no help.I needed to get these birds off the ground on time, so I jogged to the next aircraft to see if that Captain wanted to do the same, but before I could open my mouth, he was already yapping to his First Offier how stupid the other Captain was. He complained that he was going to slip and fall, and how he didn’t want anyone else to risk injury by doing it on his aircraft either. Instead, he wanted to move the aircraft; to point the plane toward the rising sun, waiting for it to melt. Fine, I said, but it’d have to wait until we were all done preparing and loading the flight.

Fast forward a half hour, my Captain was climbing down the belt loader and we were about to begin boarding on both flights. I completed my weight and balance paperwork, handing it to the Captain for signature. We boarded, I nestled into my cramped seat, and the doors were closed, with the sounds of 4 Rolls Royce RB-211 engines being fired up just after 7am on both 757s. The only difference being that the one I was on had no ice on the wings. The other one was turning into the sun. While my flight was ready to depart, the other one would sit on the ground for another 90 minutes as that ice finally melted off.

It was a long trip ahead, getting fuel in JFK, Ireland and Germany before dropping these brave heroes off in the Middle East, but my flight had a 2 hour head start. All because of that amazing sight: a pilot poster boy using a broom to get rid of ice on the wing himself so that 200 soldiers could get moving promptly and safely.

Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has airline experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. He currently runs NYCAviation and performs duties as an aviation insider for the news media. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.