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How Deicing Boots Work

Alidalbatros

How do small and medium sized planes fly through icing conditions? With the help of those black rubberized things on their leading edges. They're called deicing boots, and here's how they work.

Deicing Airplanes Since 1923

Deicing boots were invented in 1923 by B.F. Goodrich. They built the world's first icing tunnel in Akron, OH, to study how ice forms on an airplane - and how to remove it.

So how did they do it? With a simple technique that's still used today, over 91 years later.

How Boots Work

Deicing boots are a thick piece of inflatable rubber attached to the leading edges of an airplane. Typically, they're found on the wings, horizontal stabilizer and vertical stabilizer.

As ice builds up on the leading edges of a plane, a pneumatic system pumps air into the boots and inflates them. As they inflate, the ice cracks and flies off.

Alidalbatros

If you check out the diagram below, you can see there are several small air bladders that inflate under the rubber boot. By having several inflatable bladders, it helps ensure that more (or all) of the ice is removed from the leading edges.

How They're Used

How deicing boots should be used is a hotly contested matter. For decades, pilots were taught to allow ice to build up on boots before they activated them, allowing the boots to more effectively break the ice off the leading edges. However, in 2008, the NTSB released a safety alert saying otherwise.

In it, they recommend that pilots start using deicing boots as soon as they encounter icing conditions. But since the safety alert came out, there's been a quite a bit of resistance from boot operators, because of a phenomenon called ice bridging.

Ultimately, even though the NTSB recommends that boots are used right away, they say that you should always follow the Pilot's Operating Handbook if it says otherwise.

Disadvantages

Deicing boots have been around for a long time, but they're not as popular as they once were. They typically need to be replaced every few years, and if they have leaks, they're effectiveness is significantly reduced. They can also have a hard time removing ice in severe icing conditions. And, with TKS systems and thermal ice protection becoming more mainstream, they're slowly starting to be replaced.

But even with that being the case, deicing boots are still used on thousands of airplanes across the world. And after 91 years of proven reliability, that's something that isn't likely to change for a very long time.

Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at colin@boldmethod.com.

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