It isn't every day you are asked to make a life-and-death decision. And yet, on a clear October day a few years back, there it was. I had answered an ad seeking part-time crew members on the deicing team at my local airport, a profession I had zero experience and not very much interest in. (An out-of-work man in his mid-50s does what he must do stay afloat.) Days later, I was seated at a drab brown folding table, being interviewed by three members of the deicing team. All of the men were younger than I; two of them around half my age.
Things could not have been more hospitable. Nobody had the slightest expectation that I would arrive bearing knowledge of the deicing trade, which meant that I was principally being scrutinized for my character. The conversation's defining moment came after the senior member of the trio, the man who had contacted me about the job in the first place, finished describing how a crew member (m,e in the example put forth) sprays the hot deicing fluids onto the airplanes.
"After you've determined that the aircraft is clean and safe for takeoff, we inform the pilot that the plane is good to go," he said matter-of-factly. "Are you comfortable with that?"
This is the moment when I began to laugh. And ponder whether I was the only person in the room who had caught the extraordinary irony in these ominous words.
"I decide the plane is safe to fly," I said as incredulously as I could manage without appearing unconfident. "You're kidding, right?"
The three young men glanced at each other and then at me. "I'm not kidding," the crew leader responded — a bit tenuously, I thought. "You're the guy who's up there spraying. Nobody else can see what you do, so it's gotta be your call."
He paused for a moment before adding, "Is that OK with you?"
None of the man’s words could be characterized as OK with me in the slightest possible way. An airplane filled with perfectly innocent people might be cleared for takeoff — in a snowstorm perhaps — because I say it is safe to do so? Please.
Still, I answered the way any unemployed man my age would: "It's OK with me."
Weeks later, I was working my first scheduled deicing shift, on a Monday from 5–9 a.m. I had completed two full days of classroom training by then, aced many written exams, cleared a slew of security hurdles required in order to work at a United States airport facility, and spent an entire afternoon with three career aviation pros whose job it is to familiarize newbies with the company's equipment and procedures.
This outfit's principal piece of deicing apparatus was a $350,000 behemoth. It is part monster truck, part Klingon warbird. It takes two people to run the big yellow monster, one to move the truck around the aircraft, another to spray glycol, heated to as much as 180 degrees F, onto the planes. I had not yet been cleared to operate the truck at that point, and so it was not a shock to learn that my initial four-hour shift would be spent "in the bucket" spraying the planes.
The morning of my first shift was not what you would call a weather-event kind of day. The temperature was around 30 degrees. There was no rain or snow or ice on the ground, nor was any in the forecast. All I could see when I arrived at the airport, at around 4:45 a.m., was the faintest hint of frost on one or two cars in the employee parking lot. No matter. As soon as the 5-member deicing team had gathered (two crew members for each of the two trucks on duty, plus a supervisor) it was off to the "deicing pad," where we waited for the first scheduled departure, at 6 a.m., should the plane require our services.
Deicing, it turns out, is not necessarily what you might imagine. For instance, it isn't always about getting ice off of a plane — or snow, or hail, or even freezing rain. The general rule is that you don't fly with "contaminants" of any kind on the plane's surface, especially on the wings and the tail. Frost is considered a contaminant, and therefore, technically, should be removed before takeoff, just as the far more dangerous ice must be.
But pilot discretion comes into play. Though the 6 a.m. flight taxied off with nary a thought of deicing, the next flight, from the same carrier, did in fact come over to the pad for a spray. There was likely no difference whatsoever between the two planes, not where the amount of evident frost is concerned. One pilot just played it ultra safe and had his plane deiced, the other one didn't. Simple as that. It is the pilot's call, and no one else's.
Which brings us back to the original life-and-death decision I was so all hopped up about in the first place. Turns out that it's the pilot who decides that his plane is ready for takeoff, not the deicer, as it is the captain who has supreme responsibility for the safety of his aircraft, its passengers and crew. That ought make you feel better. Except that I keep thinking about what we learned in our training classes: The pilot can only actually see a portion of the wing on his side of the aircraft, and so if that portion of the wing looks clean, then he's figuring the rest of the plane must be clean too, and that the deicer has done his job.
I won't soon forget my first deicing. It scared the bejeezus out of me. Sure, the frost was so slight that it took no time at all to spray the big Airbus jet. But you try moving around a giant mass of steel and jet fuel and screaming engines and glass and people while you're strapped inside a mechanical robot (the bucket) that's three stories high and looks like it was designed by Gene Roddenberry on a night when he was very, very high! Let's see how calm you'd be.
I did not turn out to be a very good deicer, for reasons I suspect had much to do with my advancing age — and complete lack of video game experience. The bucket controls, it turns out, are two giant joysticks. These joysticks were my undoing, because I had never before used one in my entire life. Thing is, they are all that matters in the bucket. The joysticks control every up, down and sideways motion the bucket makes, and dozens of variations in how fluids are sprayed — all of which changes constantly (and maddeningly) while you're moving about the aircraft trying to do your job (oh, and not crash into anything). Master the joysticks and you are golden. Don't master them and you are screwed.
After just 45 hours and 30 minutes on the job, it was clear to me and everybody else on the crew that the video game-like controls had got the better of “the old guy.” That is when I reluctantly decided to resign my position in the aviation field and do my small part in making the skies safe once again.
I had just come down from the bucket after spraying around 20 gallons of what they call Type I fluid onto a plane that needed only 5. At about $13.50 a gallon, that means, well, do the math. And it could have been a lot worse. A couple days earlier, when there was real ice on the planes, the sprayer in the truck I was driving went through 130 gallons of glycol — just on one side of the plane!
My supervisor, the fellow who had hired me, could not have been more supportive. "Maybe we'll put you in the truck the next couple days," he said once we were alone in his office. "You're a good driver, we could still use you."
"You're a good man to put yourself out," I said, gathering my things. "But we both know that's not how it works."
I thanked the man for giving me a shot at the job and apologized for letting him down. I went home feeling awfully puny and decided that an hour on the treadmill might help blow away the morning’s frustrations. Then I went upstairs to the kitchen and made myself some lunch. A plane passed over. I was happy to be inside the house. Where I belonged.