VANCOUVER – The world is a very large place with many different climates. Up here in Canada, we are known for our winter weather and in particular snow. Snowfall can halt airport operations and turn runways into slippery and dangerous hazards. So, how do airports and aircraft deal with snow? Let’s explore that, with an Aviation Deep Dive. 

Snow and Ice are extremely dangerous to aircraft. In December 1985, an Arrow Air McDonnell Douglas DC-8 was flying from Gander, Newfoundland to Fort Campbell in Kentucky. Shortly after taking off, the aircraft stalled, crashing in a fireball just half a mile from the runway, killing all 256 people onboard.

The investigation cited the accident as being caused by Ice contamination on the wings. This ice formation caused the aircraft to experience high amounts of drag and loss of lift. Then in 1989, Air Ontario Flight 1363 crashed after takeoff killing  24 of the 69 people on board. The cause? Snow and Ice on the wings. 

Iberia EC-JDL Airbus A319-111 (De-Icing). Photo: Lorenzo Giacobbo/Airways

Deicing vs Anti-icing Fluids

If you’ve ever flown in winter conditions, you’ve probably had your aircraft sprayed with deicing fluid. Usually deicing fluids are ethylene glycol, diethylene glycol or propylene glycol based fluids containing water, corrosion inhibitors, wetting agents and dye.

Anti-icing fluids, on the other hand, are very similar, but more focused on ice buildups, and they last longer. Using large trucks with an extendable basket, aircraft are coated in de-icing or anti-icing fluids, significantly increasing the safety of winter operations.

These fluids are integral to the safety of aircraft operations in cold climates. The anti-ice and de-ice fluids help remove and protect the surfaces of aircraft from ice. Lastly, the solutions come in different colors. If you’ve ever seen a plane with a slimy green substance on it, it was deicing fluid. 

One of the most obvious parts of snow operations is clearing the snow. Airports throughout the world use large fleets of vehicles to clear snow, slush and other hazardous weather from the runways, taxiways and aprons.

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How Airports Clear Snow

If you’ve never been to an airport in the snow, you probably would assume that they just use snowplows. In fact, airports use many different types of vehicles and attachments to clear snow. These range from regular snowplows, to out-of-this-world-looking snowblowers.  

Before the storm even hits the airport, the aprons and runways are covered with brine. Brine is a liquid with a high concentration of salt, which deters snow and ice from sticking to the ground.

Then there are snow plows. Generally, there are two main types of snowplows, runway and ramp snowplows. Runway snow plows usually have a slanted plow attached to the front of the truck which pushes snow left or right of the vehicle. This is because runway snowplows travel in convoys spread across the runway with other vehicles, clearing the runway in the quickest time possible.

Then you have ramp snowplows. Ramp snow plows are very similar as they are usually the same truck with a different plow. Seeing as they are on the ramp and working alone or in smaller teams, ramp snowplows use larger and more square plows to push and move snow off of the aprons. 

Next you have snowblowers. The purpose of snowblowers is to remove larger buildups of frozen snow and ice, while removing it with ease. These can commonly be seen removing piles of snow that were made from snow plows.  Snowblowers have sharp rotating teeth that mince the snow, before being shot out in a finer state. 

Then you have brooms. Brooms are large rotating brushes that clear taxiways of sleet and snow, while providing a clean and dry surface.  These are usually the main three vehicles used by airports. However, as with everything, vehicles and procedures differ throughout the world.

In this video, we went off Canadian procedures. Check with your local airport or regulator to see those of airports around you.