Thursday, February 05, 2009

Elbows and Fists

The first part of the forecast was right. It snowed most of the night. Then it snowed some more in the morning. And some more in the afternoon. It snowed so much that Montréal automobile traffic came almost to a standstill. It took us half an hour to drive the few blocks from the airport to the main street, because the main street was moving so slowly and so solidly, that it was gridlocked and cars from sidestreets couldn't turn on even when the lights were green.

Montréal does know how to deal with snow, however, and the world continued to turn. The police were out cracking down on drivers of what they termed "moving igloos" -- vehicles that had only had the windshields cleared, and were driving around encased in snow and ice. The snowploughs got the roads clear. And the sidewalks. Right after the big dump of snow, I had to walk about twelve blocks from the hotel to another business and back, including crossing a highway, and wondered what a mess that was going to be. It wasn't a mess at all. The sidewalk and all pedestrian crossings were passable and the sidewalks leading to the highway underpass were properly signed and accessible. I have had considerably more trouble making a twelve block journey on foot in Florida. The bike paths were cleared, too, and being used the day after the storm. The city apparently had committed to keeping certain arterial bike routes clear all winter and was keeping their promise. The only points I dock Montreal for car-free accessibility is that you have to pay a new fare to transfer between suburban buses and city transit, because they are separate companies.

It finally did turn to rain early the next morning. Freezing rain. Everything was now not only covered in snow but topped with a shiny layer of clear ice. The promised real rain never came. The temperature dropped and it finished off by snowing another ten or 20 centimetres on top of the ice.

Yeah, snow over ice over snow. A delightful combination. Everyone had had enough snow, so the word came out to proceed to our next job, in the southern US, when able. Our brokers did all the paperwork for us and made an appointment with US Customs across the river in Vermont. Our plan was to check out of the hotel, arriving at the airport just before noon, to get the airplane ready for a three p.m. departure. Weather, time and pilot status permitting we could do a second leg from Vermont to Indiana after clearing customs. I even had a friend in Indiana lined up to visit, and a pocketful of reasons ready to justify why his local airport was a good place to overnight.

Our cab driver was a Haïtian immigrant, very friendly but unfamiliar with the location of our FBO. The province of Québec manages its own immigration, so there's a different mix of immigrants here, more Haïtians, Senegalese, Rwandans and others from French-speaking nations than in English-Canada. It's kind of fun to see how the history of who invaded or colonized whom has repercussions hundreds of years later on who drives your cab and makes your restaurant meals. The cabbie doesn't speak English as well as your average Montréaler, but "left here ... right here ... stop by the Esso" are not difficult feats of communication so we did just fine.

Despite us giving the FBO half a day's head start, the ramp and all the airplanes were still completely covered in snow and ice. They'd run into a bit of a "who deices the deicers?" problem. They had a deicing truck, and a large heated hangar and a front end loader, but everything was covered in thick ice, blanketed in snow, and the temperature was still well below freezing. The standard plan was to tow the deicing truck into the heated hangar to defrost it, then to use it in turn to defrost the airplanes. But the problem was twofold.

Firstly, the loader, i.e. the tow vehicle wouldn't start. Staff weren't certain whether it was the cold or the final step in its decline, but it wasn't going anywhere. The loader was also the snowplough, so that explained the condition of their ramp. The other problem was that even if they had had a functional deicing truck it wouldn't have made much headway against the ice accumulation on the airplanes. Deicing fluid is excellent for melting and removing snow, because snow is very porous. Pour any fluid on top and that fluid seeps right though the snow, saturating it. Even my tropical readers are going to be familiar with this phenomenon, as I understand that the Sno-Cone, under different names, is a worldwide commodity. The deicing fluid is like the flavoured syrup, sinking into the snow, but instead of flavouring it, it lowers the freezing point of the mixture. The deicing fluid is usually applied heated, so really it's triple action: mechanical force of the spray, plus freezing point depression, plus heat to melt it.

When the substance to be removed is actual ice, deicing fluid doesn't live up to its name. Ice is too hard to be removed by a spray, and ice is not porous so the fluid can't saturate it. You have to rely on the transfer of heat from the fluid to the ice. And as the fluid runs right off the ice, that can take a long time and a lot of expensive deicing fluid.

We were on our own, so grabbed brooms and went out to see how bad this was going to be. My coworker had already run down her camera battery taking pictures of our ice-encased airplane. While the bottom layer on most of the wings was snow, the wind had been blowing, so the leading edges and most vertical surfaces were free of snow, directly coated with ice. Ice everywhere. Icicles hung down all along the wingspan. The windows were now double-glazed, along with the entire fuselage. The propeller blades were like popsicle sticks inside huge blobs of ice. Icicles hung everywhere, under the nose like a beard, from the horizontal stabilizer, and under the engines. Imagine if all the rain that fell on and dripped off an airplane in a long rainstorm stuck there instead of completing its fall to the ground and running away.

We started by sweeping off the top layer of snow, down to the ice. The ice layer was about two centimetres thick on the wings. We pounded on it with our fists and elbows to break it up, then peeled off the slices of ice, the size of sofa cushions, and threw them on the ground. Where the ice lay over snow, this worked pretty well. I took a broom and ran it along the lines of icicles, enjoying the musical plinka-plinka-plinka sound of all the icicles breaking off. It's a sound that you either know or you don't. The rhythm is like running the hammer across an endless xylophone, but I don't think there's a musical instrument that can replicate that pitch without being tinny. Perhaps the cold, dense, dry air is part of the required conditions to hear the sound. I had to remind myself that the icicles were formed from water that had fallen on and flowed over my filthy airplane, and as I wouldn't lick the airplane it was not okay to pretend the icicles were popsicles. There are disadvantages to having a neverending childlike outlook on the world.

I banged on the fuselage above and below the windows, as hard as I dared without risking damage to my airplane, and cracked the ice enough that it could be peeled off. It worked. It was just slow and tedious. And cold. We took some warming up hands breaks. The FBO had a tow vehicle going and said that we could get our airplane into the hangar around 3 p.m. The customs facility in Vermont was open until six, so we held onto that hope and continued scraping ice off the machine, so as to shorten the amount of time it would take for the heat in the hangar to produce a bare, dry airplane. Then the hangar availability estimate was revised to 5 p.m. and almost immediately after that to 6 p.m., so we surrendered, cancelled our customs reservation, asking the FBO only that our airplane be ready for the morning, and went back to the hotel.

I felt hokey and small-time that we hadn't been able to do a simple thing like get an airplane ready to fly on a clear bright day. But then I discovered that very few airframes in the city that were on a ramp overnight left Montréal today. My customers had an eight a.m. departure out of Dorval that day, and were wheels up at four p.m. They said they spent an hour and a half in the deicing bay. That's not an hour and a half waiting in line for deicing. That's an hour and a half of having hot deicing fluid pumped onto the airplane. The icicles hanging off the wings of the B757 were proportional to the ones on my airplane, making them as thick as an arm at the root. No way those were going to be knocked off with a broomstick. Any attempt to do so might have damaged the skin of the airplane. I know of an Air Canada executive who checked in for a 7:20 am flight that was cancelled because of the ice. He boarded another flight at 11:05, pushed back at 12:15, finished deicing at 15:15, returned to the ramp for more fuel, and then the flight was cancelled at 16:15.

So our surrender to the elements was simply one of many. Every once in a while mother nature flexes her muscles and reminds us that we aviate at her pleasure.


david said...

When you're running late, book US customs in Massena instead -- I think they're open 24 hours because of the nearby international bridge, and require only 2 hours notice.

Anonymous said...

Know it.
Love it!

I used to be in the international air cargo business and found it amusing how you could get a good idea which European powers used to control which countries in Africa according to which European city had the best airline connections to that African country.

I don't know, but wouldn't be surprised if this has changed in recent years with the increasing globalization of the carriers and the attendant rise of mega-hubs in AMS/LON/FRA, etc. (My day was when HRE was SAY, and OUA was still in Upper Volta.)

Bob in Minnesota

Unknown said...

Sounds delightful. For some reason I really enjoy the days like this, when the weather really throws it all at you. We don't get that much in the bay area, it's really too bad.

Anonymous said...

Lovely post, slice of deep winter experience. Yes, I know that plinka-plinka-plinka. There is still no audio/video capture that gets nature's "full resolution".

Jack Frost pareidolia

I hope you enjoyed your trip to the deep south, and a warmup. It was 46 F last week here in Minnesota! This time of year there are pretty extreme temperature swings.

Rhonda said...

Love the planesicle pictures!

I think you have just the right combination of childlike ideas and adult sense. Icicle popsicles! made on something dirty. Better to find a clean one to enjoy.

Anonymous said...

I'll probably never hear the word popsicle again without imagining an ice covered prop.

Anonymous said...

Glazed airplane - sounds like a culinary treat. Or not.

Discovered your blog a few weeks ago, and I've been enjoying it a lot. This post especially - winter ops like this aren't exactly common here in south coastal BC!