Aircraft Ice Control Systems and Ice Detector System

Ice Control Systems

Rain, snow, and ice are transportation’s longtime enemies. Flying has added a new dimension, particularly with respect to ice. Under certain atmospheric conditions, ice can build rapidly on airfoils and air inlets. On days when there is visible moisture in the air, ice can form on aircraft leadingedge surfaces at altitudes where freezing temperatures start. Water droplets in the air can be supercooled to below freezing without actually turning into ice unless they are disturbed in some manner. This unusual occurrence is partly due to the surface tension of the water droplet not allowing the droplet to expand and freeze. However, when aircraft surfaces disturb these droplets, they immediately turn to ice on the aircraft surfaces.

The two types of ice encountered during flight are clear and rime. Clear ice forms when the remaining liquid portion of the water drop flows out over the aircraft surface, gradually freezing as a smooth sheet of solid ice. Formation occurs when droplets are large, such as in rain or in cumuliform clouds. Clear ice is hard, heavy, and tenacious. Its removal by deicing equipment is especially difficult.

Rime ice forms when water drops are small, such as those in stratified clouds or light drizzle. The liquid portion remaining after initial impact freezes rapidly before the drop has time to spread over the aircraft surface. The small frozen droplets trap air giving the ice a white appearance. Rime ice is lighter in weight than clear ice and its weight is of little significance. However, its irregular shape and rough surface decrease the effectiveness of the aerodynamic efficiency of airfoils, reducing lift and increasing drag. Rime ice is brittle and more easily removed than clear ice.

Mixed clear and rime icing can form rapidly when water drops vary in size or when liquid drops intermingle with snow or ice particles. Ice particles become imbedded in clear ice, building a very rough accumulation sometimes in a mushroom shape on leading edges. Ice may be expected to form whenever there is visible moisture in the air and temperature is near or below freezing. An exception is carburetor icing, which can occur during warm weather with no visible moisture present.

Ice or frost forming on aircraft creates two basic hazards:
  1. The resulting malformation of the airfoil that could decrease the amount of lift. 
  2. The additional weight and unequal formation of the ice that could cause unbalancing of the aircraft, making it hard to control. 

Enough ice to cause an unsafe flight condition can form in a very short period of time, thus some method of ice prevention or removal is necessary. Figure 1 shows the effects of ice on a leading edge.

Aircraft Ice Control Systems
Figure 1. Formation of ice on aircraft leading edge

Icing Effects

Ice buildup increases drag and reduces lift. It causes destructive vibration and hampers true instrument readings. Control surfaces become unbalanced or frozen. Fixed slots are filled and movable slots jammed. Radio reception is hampered and engine performance is affected. Ice, snow, and slush have a direct impact on the safety of flight. Not only because of degraded lift, reduced takeoff performance, and/or maneuverability of the aircraft, but when chunks break off, they can also cause engine failures and structural damage. Fuselage aft-mounted engines are particularly susceptible to this foreign object damage (FOD) phenomenon. Wingmounted engines are not excluded however. Ice can be present on any part of the aircraft and, when it breaks off, there is some probability that it could go into an engine. The worst case is that ice on the wing breaks off during takeoff due to the flexing of the wing and goes directly into the engine, leading to surge, vibration, and complete thrust loss. Light snow that is loose on the wing surfaces and the fuselage can also cause engine damage leading to surge, vibration, and thrust loss.

Whenever icing conditions are encountered, the performance characteristics of the airplane deteriorate. [Figure 2] Increased aerodynamic drag increases fuel consumption, reducing the airplane’s range and making it more difficult to maintain speed. Decreased rate of climb must be anticipated, not only because of the decrease in wing and empennage efficiency but also because of the possible reduced efficiency of the propellers and increase in gross weight. Abrupt maneuvering and steep turns at low speeds must be avoided because the airplane stalls at higher-than-published speeds with ice accumulation. On final approach for landing, increased airspeed must be maintained to compensate for this increased stall speed. After touchdown with heavy ice accumulation, landing distances may be as much as twice the normal distance due to the increased landing speeds.

Aircraft Ice Control Systems
Figure 2. Effects of structural icing

The ice and rain protection systems used on aircraft keep ice from forming on the following airplane components:
  • Wing leading edges 
  • Horizontal and vertical stabilizer leading edges 
  • Engine cowl leading edges 
  • Propellers 
  • Propeller spinner 
  • Air data probes 
  • Flight deck windows 
  • Water and waste system lines and drains 
  • Antenna 

Figure 3 gives an overview of ice and rain protection systems installed in a large transport category aircraft. In modern aircraft, many of these systems are automatically controlled by the ice detection system and onboard computers.

Aircraft Ice and rain Control Systems
Figure 3. Ice and rain protection systems


Ice Detector System

Ice can be detected visually, but most modern aircraft have one or more ice detector sensors that warn the flight crew of icing conditions. An annuciator light comes on to alert the flight crew. In some aircraft models, multiple ice detectors are used, and the ice detection system automatically turns on the WAI systems when icing is detected. [Figure 4]

Aircraft Ice Control Systems and Ice Detector System
Figure 4. 
An ice detector alerts the flight crew of icing conditions and, on some aircraft, automatically activates ice protection systems. One or more detectors are located on the forward fuselage

Ice Prevention

Several means to prevent or control ice formation are used in aircraft today:
  • Heating surfaces with hot air 
  • Heating by electrical elements 
  • Breaking up ice formations, usually by inflatable boots 
  • Chemical application 

Equipment is designed for anti-icing or for deicing. Anti-icing equipment is turned on before entering icing conditions and is designed to prevent ice from forming. A surface may be anti-iced by keeping it dry, by heating to a temperature that evaporates water upon impingement, or by heating the surface just enough to prevent freezing, maintaining it running wet. Deicing equipment is designed to remove ice after it begins to accumulate typically on the wings and stabilizer leading edges. Ice may be controlled on aircraft structure by the methods described in Figure 5.

Location of ice
Method of control
Leading edge of the wing
Thermal pneumatic, thermal electric, chemical, and pneumatic (deice)
Leading edges of vertical and horizontal stabilizers
Thermal pneumatic, thermal electric, and pneumatic (deice)
Windshield, windows
Thermal pneumatic, thermal electric, and chemical
Heater and engine air inlets
Thermal pneumatic and thermal electric
Pitot and static air data sensors
Thermal electric
Propeller blade leading edge and spinner
Thermal electric and chemical
Carburetor(s)
Thermal pneumatic and chemical
Lavatory drains and portable water lines
Thermal electric
Figure 5. Typical ice control method