Aircraft De-Icing Systems

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 23rd, 2013

Technology 101

A build-up of Ice on Airfoils causes a Reduction of Lift and a Loss of Stability

In the classic movie Airport (1970) after the guy pulled the trigger on his briefcase bomb the plane suffered a massive decompression.  When Dean Martin got back to the cockpit he told the flight engineer to give them all the heat they had.  Because it’s very cold flying above 10,000 feet without pressurization.  That’s why World War II flight crews wore a lot of heavy clothing and thick mittens in their bombers.  As well as oxygen masks as the air was too thin to breathe.  The B-17 even had open windows for the waste gunners.  Making it very cold inside the plane.  Because the air is very, very cold at altitude.

There is another problem at altitude.  Because of these very frigid temperatures.  Water droplets in the air will freeze to any surface they come into contact with.  They can reduce engine power for both propeller and jet engines.  They can freeze on ports used for instrumentation and give inaccurate readings of vital aircraft data (such as engine pressure ratio, aircraft speed, etc.).  And they can freeze on airfoils (wings, rudder, tail fin, etc.).  Disturbing the airflow on these surfaces.  Causing a reduction of lift and a loss of stability.

Ice and airplanes are two things that don’t go together.  As ice forms on a wing it disturbs the airflow over the surface of the wing.  Increasing drag.  And reducing lift.  Causing the plane to lose speed.  And altitude.  If the ice continues to form on the wing eventually it will stall the wing.  And if the wing stalls (i.e., produces no lift) the plane will simply fall out of the sky.  In the early days of aviation pilots were highly skilled in flying their planes where there were no icing conditions.  Flying over, under or around masses of air containing water droplets in subfreezing temperatures.  Today we have anti-icing systems.

The most common Anti-Icing System on Commercial Jets is a Bleed Air System

One of the most common anti-icing systems on turboprop aircraft is the use of inflatable boots over the leading edge of the wing.  Basically a rubber surface that they can pump air into.  When there is no ice on the wing the boot lies flat on the leading edge without interrupting the airflow.  When ice forms on the leading edge of the wing the boot inflates and expands.  Cracking the ice that formed over it.  Which falls away from the wing.

Commercial jets have larger airfoils.  And require a larger anti-icing system.  The most common being a pneumatic manifold system that ducts hot air to areas subject to icing.  Which works thanks to a property of gas.  If you compress a gas you increase its temperature.  That’s how a diesel engine can work without sparkplugs.  The compressed air-fuel mixture gets so hot it ignites.  This property comes in handy on a jet plane as there is a readily available source of compressed air.  The jet engines.

As the air enters the jet it goes through a series of fast-spinning rotors.  As the air moves through the engine these rotors push this air into smaller and smaller spaces.  Compressing it.  Through a low-pressure compressor.  And then through a high-pressure compressor.  At which time the air temperature can be in excess of 500 degrees Fahrenheit.  It is in the high-pressure compressor that we ‘bleed’ off some of this hot and pressurized air.  We call this a bleed air system.  The air then enters a manifold which ducts it to at-risk icing areas.  From the engine cowling to the wings to the instrumentation ports.  Using the hot air to raise temperatures in these areas above the freezing temperature of water.  Thus preventing the formation of ice.

The Drawback of a Bleed Air System is Reduced Engine Efficiency

The bleed air system does more than just anti-icing.  It also pressurizes the cabin.  As well as keeps it warm.  Which is why we don’t have to dress like a crewmember on a World War II bomber when we fly.  It also powers the air conditioning system.  And the hydraulic system.  It provides the pressure for the water system.  And it even starts the jet engines.  With the source of pressurized bleed air coming from the auxiliary power unit mounted in the tail.  Or from an external ground unit.  Once the jets are running they disconnect from the auxiliary source and run on the bleed air from the engines.

There is one drawback of a bleed air system.  It bleeds air from the jet engine.  Thus reducing the efficiency of the engine.  And a less efficient engine burns more fuel.  Raising the cost of flying.  With high fuel costs and low margins airlines do everything within their power to reduce the consumption of fuel.  Which is why pilots don’t top off their fuel tanks.  They’d like to.  But extra fuel is extra weight which increases fuel consumption.  So they only take on enough fuel to get to their destination with enough reserve to go to an alternate airport.  Even though it seems risky few planes run out of fuel in flight.  Allowing the airlines to stay in business without having to raise ticket prices beyond what most people can afford.

To help airlines squeeze out more costs Boeing designed their 787 Dreamliner to be as light as possible by using more composite material and less metal.  Making it lighter.  They are also using a more efficient engine.  Engines without a bleed air system.  In fact, they eliminated the pneumatic system on the 787.  Converting the pneumatic components to electric.  Such as using electric heating elements for anti-icing.  Thus eliminating the weight of the bleed air manifold and duct system.  As well as increasing engine efficiency.  Because all engine energy goes to making thrust.  Which reduces fuel consumption.  The key to profitability and survival in the airline industry.


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