Ice on the wings – would you tell the pilot?

My wife and I have been to Hong Kong several times, because our son and his family live and work there. From Indianapolis, we usually fly to Newark, then direct Hong Kong over the Pole. The trip from Newark is usually about 18 hours aloft, at least that’s how it feels. The return trip is a bit easier as the flight takes a more southern route, and I gather prevailing westerlies shorten that leg to around 15 hours.

Canceled flight board
Not a good sign – and the fun was just beginning.

Our worst return trip from Hong Kong was 41 hours, door-to-door. The trip began with a mad, two-taxi dash to the airport, delayed departure, a bumpy ride, and late-day arrival at Newark in an ice storm. We had a long layover there, and wandered the airport for some time, window-shopping and getting a meal. When I finally decided to check the departure board, I was stunned to see that our flight back to Indy, and most others, were cancelled: icing had shut down the field shortly after we had landed.

In a panic, we hurried to the airline’s service counter, finding very long lines of unhappy-looking people, which we joined. As people were served and walked away from the counter, they mostly looked even unhappier. Finally, our turn came, and I must admit my jetlag, fatigue, and intense get-home-itis had given me a bad attitude. I was ready to be a hostile customer. But, hallelujah, when I handed our papers to the airline rep, he said, “Oh my, you’re in from Hong Kong! Don’t worry, we’re going to take care of you.” Jeez, I almost cried.

But taking care of us wasn’t easy. We got meal chits and a room at a motel… but we couldn’t get our bags, had to walk a long distance to a train stop, ride the train to a bus stop where a mob of tired people waited in freezing rain, then make the third bus trip to the hotel. Dinner was a burger at 0130, sleep in our clothes was three hours, then at 0400, we reversed the drill back to the terminal.

At dawn, we saw a beautiful sunny day with ice decorating everything. Fatigue gave way to the pleasure of being on the last leg home. Our ride was a regional jet, and my wife yielded the window seat for my viewing pleasure. The plane was chilly inside, having sat out all night. Looking out the window, I saw water on the wing. Water, okay. I guess the sun has already melted the ice. But unease crept in. As we began the pushback, I saw that the “water” didn’t move. It didn’t move during a fast taxi, either. Just as I reached to push the call button and alert the crew that the wings were iced, the First Officer announced, “We’re number one for takeoff,” turned immediately onto the runway, and away we went. The clear, ripply ice on the wings was the only thing I could see; I vividly remember thinking, “Well, it’s a good day to die, sun shining, storm passed.” Fortunately, I only thought that, and didn’t say it to my wife.

Freezing rain on wing
How bad does it have to get before you speak up?

To my relief, at about 2000 feet AGL, all the ice suddenly shucked off, and I could relax my death-grip on the armrests. I told my wife then what had happened. After stewing for a while, I decided that the crew needed to know what I saw. I called the flight attendant, and told her that after the landing in Indy, I would like to speak with the captain about a flight safety issue. Shortly, the attendant returned to say that if we would stay seated until everyone else had left the plane in Indy, she would escort me to the cockpit. And so it happened.

My first look into the cockpit gave me a start. The captain was a lovely young— very young— Chinese-American lady, and the male First Officer looked to be about 16. I introduced myself as an instrument-rated private pilot and over-experienced airline traveler. I said, “You need to know that we took off with iced wings.” The copilot turned snow-white, and I thought he might faint. “No, no, no!” he said. “I checked the wings during preflight, and I found no ice.” I asked, “How did you check the wings?” He responded that he’d run his hands along the entire leading edges of both wings. I said, “But the ice was all over the top of the wings; there is no way you could have felt it from the ground.”

I was then almost certain he was going to faint. The pilots were both stuttering with obvious concern, so I said, “Don’t worry. I’m not going to write you up. I thought you needed to know what happened so it won’t happen again.” I suggested that perhaps inspection of the wings from inside the cabin might have alerted them of the issue. They thanked me profusely, and my wife and I headed for home and desperately-needed sleep.

I think of those two handsome young pilots now and then, and wonder if they remember that day as vividly as I do. I wonder what lesson or lessons they took from the experience. Certainly, I hope that when taking charge of an airplane that sat out overnight in an ice storm, they understand the need for extra-thorough inspections. I also wonder if I did anyone a disservice by keeping that icy event just with the pilot, copilot, and me. Had I been in the cockpit, at the receiving end of the news, I would have been very grateful for how it was handled.

What do you think? Did I do the right thing?

74 Comments

  • You got lucky and survived. The outcome should not be considered in deciding if you did the right thing. They did the wrong thing. I would have run down the aisle if necessary to prevent the aircraft from departing with such an obvious safety issue present. I would have absolutely written them and the airline up. Zero tolerance for this type of lack of situational awarness.

        • what a reply….
          a bad precheck has nothing to do with situational awareness… There’s nothing dynamic, space or time related…
          “Situation awareness is the perception of environmental elements with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status after some variable has changed, such as time, or some other variable, such as a predetermined event. It is also a field of study concerned with perception of the environment critical to decision-makers in complex, dynamic areas from aviation[…]”

          • Wow…I cannot believe the concept of situational awareness is in dispute!

            Let me attempt to explain what I mean by the term situational awareness in this context. As a pilot it is my obligation to beware of my aircraft and the environment it is subjected to over time. I need to be aware when a weather situation existed or may exist that is conducive to ice formation on the lifting surfaces of said aircraft. Being situationaly aware I will make damn sure that I have the tools (step stool, ladder etc) to verify my supposition and I will use those tools to thoroughly inspect my aircraft and take the proper steps to ensure that if ice is present that it will be deiced per my companies SOP.

            Specific to my OP…the crew of this aircraft seemed to lack situational awareness of the environment to which their aircraft was subject to over time. Or if they were aware of the situation, they were either ignorant to the implications and potential consequences or they were negligent in not performing the steps necessary to remedy the situation.

            So you chose 1) situationally unaware, 2) ignorant, 3) negligent. I just cannot fathom how anyone could make the case this has nothing to do with situational awareness.

          • Mssr. Pierre: This following appeared as a remark to Mark’s comment. It was meant to appear as a reply to yours.

            “You are confusing “spatial orientation” with “situational awareness”.

    • Agreed, EXCEPT …. I would not have written them up.

      IMHO, the lesson was learned through acute embarressment. You can bet from hereon in they’ll be checking the top of their airfoils under certain weather conditions for sure. 🙂

    • I agree with Mark Hangen completely.

      I would have screamed like hell AND reported the pilots appropriately.

      The young kids who call themselves pilots these days have no stick and rudder skills and are just computer programmers. If they can’t push a button they just don’t know what to do except trying to figure out why the button didn’t work. God forbid they should remember to use the throttles, stick and rudder pedals which are strategically located right in front of their faces. (Shades of the Asian airliner that hit the seawall in San Francisco).

      They have and will continue to cause accidents because of their dependence on automation coupled with physically flying the aircraft as an afterthought.

      Maybe we need to take a second look at the so called professional flight academies that train these people to begin with. Obviously they may not be emphasizing the importance of physically flying the airplane above and beyond anything else.

      PS–the concept of turning this discussion into a debate as to the definition of situational awareness simply reinforces an example of classroom nonsense superseding simple common sense.

      So how about spending less time in rhetoric to prove how smart we are and spend more time on discussing basic safety procedures—like performing a THOROGH and PHYSICAL preflight to make sure there is no ice on the freakin’ wings?

      • No. No write up.
        It was a mistake, that resulted in no damage, but they will never forget how close it could have been… nor will they ever again fail to check the wings for ice, even in Arizonal, CAVU, July.

        However, I would immediatley have called the flight attendant prior to take off and demanded that the flight not take off.

        If necessary I would create a fuss requiring them to remove me from the flight if push came to shove.

    • These two pilots have more experience than they had before the incident. Go ahead, be a hard-ass and get them fired, and they’ll be replaced with pilots with less experience.
      The best option was to do what was done. Talk to them. If they are receptive to the learning experience, they won’t make the same mistake again. You could also write the airline and ask for more training, but describe the incident in an anonymous way that won’t get these two pilots fired. By the way, the definition of situational awareness is not even the issue here.

  • I think you handled it well. A learning opportunity that gratefully didn’t have to come from an NTSB report –

    Given the duty hour stresses regional carrier pilots live with, I am not surprised that they are tempted to short necessary procedures. Especially with a post-storm mess of misplaced people and equipment, I am sure they were feeling the dispatchers breathing down their necks.

    It also makes me wonder in the post-9/11 world, what to do as a pilot who sees things like this, without getting an AR-15 pointed at your head. A few years ago, on a ridiculosly cold morning, I watched a local ground crew yank the pitot cover roughly off a CRJ. Surprise, surprise – we aborted takeoff because the airspeed indication was off. I thought to mention something to the gate agent, but her demeanor really put me off.

  • Interesting situation, Hunter. The overriding principle with ice and snow is to never attempt to fly with any contamination visible anywhere on the wings. That aircraft can still fly OK with some contamination on the wings is obviously true too, else the first supercooled ice droplet formed on a wing would cause the aircraft to instantly stall and plummet to the earth. So how much contamination will cause a sufficient reduction in wing lift to prevent a safe takeoff? Apparently somewhat more than the amount that you witnessed that morning on the RJ.

    It seems rather unlikely that even if you had attempted to alert the flight deck crew during the taxi and subsequent takeoff roll (the point at which you witnessed the water drops not moving across the wing) via your call button, airline security rules and the dictates of a sterile cockpit would have prevented your warning from getting to the flight crew in time to make a difference.

    While it is great that you talked to the flight deck crew about what happened, I think you should also write the airline and describe what you saw. I don’t know if there are any official FAA reporting mechanisms available or not – perhaps you could contact the FAA and ask.

    The effect of your letter may be to “bust” the two young pilots, and that would be unfortunate (assuming the RA believes your story), but that is much less important than correcting an obvious safety of flight issue for the airline. The more important thing here is to communicate the need for all of the airline’s flight crews to properly examine the upper surface of the wings and horizontal tail, every time, as part of the normal walk-around pre-flight inspection. That these two young pilots didn’t do that is indication enough that the airline’s inspection checklist is either insufficient or it not being adhered to by all their crews.

  • Heck yeah you did the right thing.

    Years ago, I was scheduled for an early morning flight with one of
    my professors (a pilot and PIC for the flight), his daughter and an exchange student living with them. When we started the pre-flight, the first thing I noticed was frost on the wings. I don’t know if I was even a PPL yet, but I said to him, “Hey, this plane isn’t legal!” He did a double-take and said, “Gosh, you’re right!”

    Since it was now above freezing, we spotted a soda can, filled it with tap water, and poured water over the wings to melt the frost. We had a temperature inversion, so we weren’t worried about it re-freezing.

  • no, you did the wrong thing by not saying something before takeoff! What regional jet were you in that didn’t allow the FO to see the upper surface of the wing on preflight?

  • Well I’d have pinged the call button as soon as I noticed the problem but then I’ve done a lot of work on roll overs at rotation on hard wing CL65 (CRJ1/200s) due to ice contamination. Not to be over critical ( you clearly were not at your best fatigue wise!) but it is your duty as a pilot to share something you’ve spotted with your colleagues (though sometimes that can hard to get through to the FA) on balance I d say this was one of those times when the reserves in the glass of luck added a little more to the cup of experience.

  • I seriously doubt that the clear ice on the wings would have affected the aerodynamics of the wings. Clearly there would be extra weight, but, since the take-off and climb was normal this would not have been too great an issue. The biggest problem with large airliners is when icing interferes with the aerodynamics of the wing or control surfaces. In the future, try to react immediately, and positively, without attracting too much attention from non-pilot passengers. In this situation, I agree that your comments after the flight may well have been a huge wake – up call to the crew involved. Me, I would always speak up!

    • I’m not sure about that. Not knowing exactly what the ice looked like but if it’s as bad as the picture, I would have been crapping kittens to know I was about to take off with ice like that on a wing.

  • I think you absolutely did everyone a disservice except the 2 pilots. A safety error, no matter how inconsequential the final outcome was, should have been reviewed. Why was the error made? What were the potential consequences? How can this error be prevented in the future? This was a learning opportunity for everyone (NOT just the 2 pilots involved) that was circumvented by your decision not to alert the proper authorities.

    It’s not about blowing the whistle. It is ONLY when errors are examined properly, and reflected upon, they are prevented in the future. We are all human.

    Even now… you do not state what airline did this mistake, in this blog. Why not?

    At this point, the question you shouldn’t be asking is “did I do the right thing?” (the answer is no you did not). The question at this point is… “AM I doing the right thing?”
    That depends what you do with this information, no matter how late in the juncture it is. Think about it.

    • Regarding why I didn’t name the airline– it doesn’t exist any more, and it would contribute nothing to the story.

      • Dear Hunter,
        On 12/15/2016, after 5 flight delays out of MSP on Delta flight # 4459, I noticed we still had significant ice on the flaps of our CRJ after de-icing on the departure pad. I was hesitant to say anything since we were already 5 hours late. But I notified the flight attendant and she agreed with me and immediately informed the captain. He contacted the de-ice team and they re-did the entire plane. We had a full load and plenty of cargo due to holidays. At the end of the flight he thanked me and said that due to the extreme weather conditions the de-icing team probably missed the flaps. I would now always visually check this from my seat.

  • Since the crew obviously didn’t know they had ice on the wing at takeoff, I guess I would ask why. We get all these constant safety warnings about how any trace of ice or frost will cause instant death and destruction and yet here is a case where they couldn’t even detect a handling difference. What gives, does any amount of ice cause instant death and destruction or not? If not, what are the limits?

    I think you did the right thing by pointing out the oversight and it might have been better if you could have pointed it out in advance. But if everyone had free range to ping the pilot about their personal concern before takeoff, I think it would be a mess. Somebody has to be in charge of the ship without a lot of distractions.

  • Thanks for the several– and widely different– points of view. We thought this story might elicit a vigorous response. Here are some thoughts about the comments:
    –The reasons I did not push the call button before takeoff were given in the story, but I’ll add that it was a brilliant sunshiny morning, and I recall thinking that the “water” would flow off, thus delaying a response. Extreme sleep deprivation certainly fogged my thoughts.
    –The time available was short. The pushback was very quick, the taxi remarkably short, and once the aircraft was headed for the runway, there was no way to do anything except make a risky dash for the cabin attendant, who I am sure would not have burst into the cockpit to share my news. And had there been an Air Marshall aboard… well, I leave that to your imagination. I hate being the subject of the first story on the evening news.
    –As to what I should have done upon landing, what I actually did was affected by the response I got in the cockpit. I am a pilot, and I have great empathy for young people working for peanuts to make a career in the business. Any report I made would have hurt, maybe ended, their prospects. These young pilots were so sincerely shocked by learning what had happened that I believed they would do better next time, and the time after that.
    –It’s easy in retrospect to quarterback the actions I took, but I am comfortable with them.

    • Even if there was not an Air Marshall aboard the flight, any passenger that jumps up from his seat, gesticulates at the seat-belted flight attendants that “the pilot must stop this aircraft, NOW!” and maybe even goes so far as to pound on the cockpit door will almost certainly cause the flight to be stopped, and the passenger arrested and convicted of something like attempted air piracy.

      All for some frozen rain drops on the wing? That would be hard to explain. Obviously the actual result of the flight was a normal takeoff and climb.

      I would be a little bothered seeing the frozen rain on the wing, but I have to admit I have seen such before on big jet airliners and it didn’t affect the outcome of the flights I was on either.

      Now, if you saw that a piece of the engine nacelle fell off the aircraft during the taxi, or saw a fire spouting inside or outside the aircraft, where it is absolutely clear that what you saw represented a highly dangerous situation and immediate threat to the safe conduct of the flight, then sure, you ring the call button, and go up to the FA and tell her/him what you see and hope that she/he has the presence of mind to alert the captain.

      But a couple of the folks here seem to have unrealistic expectations for what a passenger can do to communicate with the flight deck crew during a time when a sterile cockpit is the rule.

      • You did the right thing. from their reaction, those two will remember that for the rest of their lives. You don’t get that in a class room.

    • I think the common refrain of “I didn’t want an Air Marshall ventilating me if I spoke up” should be shared with AOPA, to figure out how to communicate this to TSA and the FAA. If we are to be “extra eyes and ears” as licensed pilots, what and how are we to communicate to flight crew safely and responsibly? This is one of the “holes in the Swiss Cheese” as I see it. Any thoughts?

      • Peter, that is a very thoughtful suggestion. I’ll speak with Tom Haines or someone else at AOPA to see what they think.

  • Everyone appears to overlooking something incredibly obvious – the plane flew! The FO checked the leading edges – no ice. I don’t have all the aerodynamic physics at my command, but as I recall, much of a wing’s lift is generated on the leading edge up to the “fat” part of the wing. Even an RJ has a LOT of excess thrust and even if the stall speed increased several knots, there obviously was enough.

    Yep, they should have deiced the plane. Yep, the walk around wasn’t adequate. Could it have gone bad — absolutely, but apparently a lot more would have had to go wrong to make that happen.

    But, in the final analysis, the designers of that RJ apparently had enough of a safety factor built into their wing so that it would fly with some ice on the top it. It’s probably not in the flight manual anywhere, but it’s in the design. If that designer had been aboard, he or she would have likely known it would go. So would the ghost of Mr. Bernoulli and a some others. For the passengers and crew aboard that plane on that flight — it was a good day.

    With apologies to Hunter Heath — “Fate is the hunter!”

    • A tenable argument can be made that frozen water beads that are aft of the position at which upper-surface airflow no longer is laminar need not cause much concern. But similar ice deposits on the upper surface of the ailerons almost always are ample cause for alarm, because the added weight – although seemingly evenly-distributed – easily can affect the balance of those control surfaces. Anyone who has survived an encounter with aileron flutter or aileron snatch knows the dangers those phenomena present.

      Perhaps counter-intuitively, a decrease in angle-of-attack can cause the separation point to move rearward along the wing surface, causing the ice accumulations to become even more problematic at higher airspeeds. Retraction of takeoff flaps can present similar challenges.

      Frost sublimates easily in flight, but frozen water beads can be remarkably enduring. For me, anything but a scattered few cause a no-takeoff constraint.

      I would have advised the crew to fill out a pair of NASA safety reports, and told them that – in the interests of safety – I was going to have to inform the airline about the incident. I know that that could put the pilots’ careers at risk, but I’m uncomfortable with alternatives. For me, this situation simply is different from one in which I’m giving flight instruction to amateurs.

      • I have a friend who wishes he had stopped a flight he was a passenger on in Dryden Ontario that had snow covered wings. He didn’t … the plane crashed … he lived … his wife and children were injured … others including the front end crew were killed. Yes this story has everything to do with situational awareness … the author realized the situation was dangerous … was aware of it … but chose not to act … he was lucky … but in the end did the right thing … talk to the crew … not the … I’m from the government and I’m here to help you crowd.

        • To Jim G, I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: because of events moving quickly, by the time I was sure there was ice on the wings, the situation was out of my control. Short of a mad dash to break into the cockpit, a quick trip to the hoosegow, and being featured on the evening news, we were going flying. So to say that the author (me) “was aware of it…but chose not to act” is really not true. Where I had a choice– and providing the very purpose of the essay– was whether or not to file a formal report to the airline and the FAA. I chose mercy on two young pilots I thought ready to learn a lesson. My bet is they did.

          • To Hunter and the others. I think its more important to comment on the dilemma Hunter faced rather than the definition of situational awareness. If I’ve offended Hunter or anyone else please accept my sincere apology. My response was probably due to my passion over the results or lack thereof of the ensuing Public Enquiry into the Dryden crash. The Dryden accident shed light on exactly Hunter’s dilemma … how does he or anyone else … in todays supersensitive security atmosphere try to interfere with the lawful last minute critical operation of a flight without facing possible unfortunate consequences? In the aftermath of Dryden, Canadian regulations were changed to … and here since I’ve been too long out of the game I have to paraphrase … allow a passenger to call a flight attendant and have her/him report immediately to the flight deck and report any perceived he/she/they, (the passengers), see something out the window that may reflect on an unsafe condition. I suspect those regulations are still in effect. Some pilots didn’t like the change suggesting that the decision as to whether to take off or not was handed to the flight attendants and or the passengers. I’m not sure if it is appropriate or even allowed but here is a url for a flight safety bulletin issued as a result of the Dryden accident which describes the situation much better than I can. There is also an excellent MAYDAY episode which should be available on line … it describes the real reason for the accident which the public enquiry left hanging … the captain may have been coerced into continuing the flight.
            https://www.tc.gc.ca/eng/civilaviation/publications/tp185-1-04-538-3050.htm

    • Pierre, someone needs to tell you exactly what is really considered to be a pilot’s “environment”. Certainly the condition of the airplane’s wings are a part of it !!!

      Freezing rain may be the very worst icing condition. The resulting ice is both smooth and very heavy. No wonder that the pilot and first officer were both scared spitless at the report. I would have dashed up the isle and banged on the front cockpit’s door and yelled my little heart out. Thirty five years. and now 21,000 hours of safe Alaska PIC operation. have taught me that safety isn’t an accident. Safety is done on purpose. Failing that, the passenger did the right thing. None of the flight crew will ever forget it!

      To Larry Baum: No, lift is generated well aft of the leading edge of the airfoils, where the air’s speed is increased and its pressure on the wing’s upper surface is less.

  • I find it offensive that they take more time and effort in inspecting my carry-on bag than they do the wings of the aircraft. I think you should have said something before takeoff. The worst that would have happened is someone telling you it was no big deal.

    • One small problem: no time. As I wrote, what I saw was WATER. It was only after I saw no movement of the water that it dawned on me, this was ICE. By then, we were only moments from taking the runway. It’s easy now to say I should have said something before takeoff, but it really wasn’t possible.

  • You should submit a report to the airline. A professional, responsible airline would have a non-punitive safety culture from the top down, so “not reporting in fear of the pilots’ jobs” should not be a justification. Further, your goal should be to alert ALL pilots of that airline, or potentially even a greater number of airmen out there through your report – not just those two pilots you witnessed.

    For the two reasons above, you should have or should still file a report with the airline, my friend. Cheers.

  • ABSOLUTELY! Well handled. I’m suprised they didn’t have a visual inspection from the cabin requirement. Most airlines do.

    Next time. Speak right up! And to all reading this, do the same! Even if you’re wrong, better safe then dead!

    Thanks for writing this.

    Capt Chet

  • To Jim G, thanks for the thoughtful response and the Transport Canada report, a sobering “other side” to the experience I had. The article is worth reading, folks. There are many negative ramifications of the hyper-security environment, and I don’t see easy solutions.

  • I was flying from Cincinnati to Greer SC in a Saab 300 in a window seat behind the starboard wing. Shortly after reaching cruise altitude oil started coming out of an access door on the engine, and spraying on to the window. I got a flight attendant attention directing her to the event. She went up to speak with the FO and came back reporting that the engine was over filled with oil. It continued to spray for the duration of the fight. The entire time I could not stop thinking about certain “uncontained” fan blade incidents I had seen as an intern at the FAA in the early 1990s. It was unnerving.

  • (Ironically, I posted this to my Facebook 5 days before the above article was published)
    John Brent McLaughlin
    March 4 at 6:57am ·
    Would you take off like this with ice still covering the aircraft windows during freezing rain? We had been deiced and anti-iced and we’re preparing to taxi so I hit the call button and requested a flight crew member come look. A captain doing crew observation from the jumpseat came back and turned the plane back to the gate. We were already late one hour, and this would add another hour and now everyone would miss connections in Detroit. Delta offered anyone who wanted to get off in Harrisburg PA and stay overnight a chance to do so. The captain then chatted with me about the failed deice procedure and the weather situation. During the second deice the first officer came back to my seat and discussed the type 1/type 4 glycol procedure. Thanks to the crew for listening to a pilot-rated passenger and being super professional throughout. Flight attendant passed out free drinks and lots of snacks. I might not have seen how much ice was left if Mindy Class and I hadn’t moved from row four back to an exit row above the wing. It was a God wink. A passenger commented he didn’t believe it was an accident that I moved seats. A friendly gate agent rebooking us in Detroit said it was the Holy Spirit. Better safe and late than hoping it would have been fine. There is no room for hope in aviation.

  • You bet I would have made sure they didn’t take off. That is MY LIFE they are messing with. I guess I would have hit the isles much before they got to the point of being ready for take off and would have raised so much stink that they had no choice but to pay attention to me even if it meant getting arrested for disrupting a flight. Too many lives in the balance!

  • This exact situation happened to me on a flight from DC National to Augusta Georgia. It was the first winter mix of the season, with many cancellations and delays. Ours was one of the few flights still on the schedule, albeit a few hours delayed. Finally, we taxied to the deiceing station and got sprayed. Being probably the first aircraft to get the treatment for the season, I don’t think they had the mixture set properly because we wound up with ripple ice across the wings just like in the picture. It was very obvious from my window seat with the reflection off the top of the wing from lights in the distance, and the icy ripples could be clearly seen. At about that time, the captain announced that due to the excessive taxi and ground time, they were going to have to return to the gate to take on more fuel. This was fortuitous, and I promptly pushed the call button. The flight attendant came by and I told her I was a pilot (I might have added the prefix “airline” to get her attention, as I hold an ATP) and that I need to talk to the Captain. The crew had shut down the engines for the refueling, so she escorted me to the cockpit door where I explained to the young captain that I was an ATP and he had a good layer of ice on his wings. The wings of this regional jet could be reached from the ground and I watched him out of my window after returning to my seat, running his hand along the upper wings surfaces within reach and obviously finding ice. Much to my relief, after starting back up, we headed back to the deiceing station for another go. This time they got it right and all of the ice was removed.

  • Same quandary – different problem. On a major carrier 737 flight from SFO I watched from my window seat while mechanics had the right nacelle open doing maintenance at the gate. I went back to reading my paper, and next time I looked out, the Captain announced we were “Number One”…and that’s when I noticed the cowl was not fully closed. It was standing up about 8 inches above the closed position! Naturally I jammed the call button, but there was nothing stopping this Boeing from its departure. Finally the fight attendant arrives (by now the airflow has lowered the cowl to about one inch out of position) and I tell her what happened and that she needs to advise the crew NOW. She does, but nobody comes back to look. When we arrive at LAX I stick my head in the cockpit where a grizzled old Boeing driver tells me “Thanks…it happens some times..but once we’re aloft we trust the airflow to keep it down.” Some days I wonder why the Cartier safety record isn’t worse….

  • You bet, you did the right thing…to alert the pilots that you saw ice on the wings; and recommended that, in the future, the pilots check the wings for ice from inside the airplane. As a pilot, with a Commercial rating, flown PiperCub, T-28, T-bird, and B-47’s in the Air Force; and F-86’s in the Mass ANG…with 57 plus years of flying experience….any time someone can provide some HELPFUL ‘tips’…be THANKFUL, and use it in the future!!

  • Consider, perhaps, submitting a report to ASRS? Though the time has passed to charge the flight deck pre-takeoff, there is still time to get this out to a wider safety community at large.

  • Thanks for your article and the question posed. I lean to contacting the crew based on a flight experience of mine. I had a rear-area window seat on a major carrier leaving DCA for IAH, watching planes the had been cleared to land from the south. It took about a minute for a plane to land after crossing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge on I-495 south of National Airport. A plane crossed the bridge and approximately 20 seconds later we pulled onto the runway, pausing for another 10 seconds or so. As the engines reved up twice, with no movement towards takeoff, I was concerned we had a plane about to land on top of us, and considered whether I should pull the call button or run up the aisle when we pulled off the runway. I mentioned the situation and my quandary to the pilots when we landed in Houston and they replied the that tower had instructed them to clear the runway and instructed the landing plane to go around. I never got a good feeling whether I should have taken some action but think that is the better decision; you should be able to work out ny issues that may arise with the airline or authorities — and likely catch the next flight to your destination!

  • I agree with Nate D’Anna I don’t believe new pilots are trained as pilots but as computer operators when you have computers starting engines, take off instructions, turn and climb attitudes, in control makes me look out and feel like I was taught.
    Is the pressure on both cheeks of your bum the same if then you can rest assured the aircraft is in balance and you can double check by the sliding ball
    Report all bad flying and incidents because otherwise you may never get another opportunity from 6 feet under

  • Obviously, I am not a pilot. But, I think you did the right thing. It was too late to stop the airplane from taking off. And, the way you handled it very obviously sunk in with the pilots. I think they will never forget to check the tops of the wings from inside the aircraft. And, they will tell others what they “learned.” Probably, “all on their own” and taking credit for all of it. But, that’s okay if others learn from the experience.

  • As to ice/frost/snow, it is probably a good thing to tell the pilot world not to take off with any, since many pilots can not make a proper judgment. And many private pilots are flying relatively low horsepower/thrust aircraft. But, in reality, a plane with a lot of thrust will do very well, as did this particular RJ–no problem at all–that is simply the reality of the situation. From a practical standpoint, it probably would have been impossible for this RJ to push back and get to #1 for takeoff with enough ice that would have caused a problem in flight (because some crewmember in the plane, in another plane, on the ground would have noticed the need for de-icing by then). That is just how the real world works. If some private pilot passenger wants to stand up and run screaming toward the cockpit just before or during the takeoff roll, well, just see how that plays out, especially in this day and age. Also, good job here just quietly sharing thoughts with the flight crew and not taking it any further. If there was a lesson for them to learn that day, this approach was an effective way to do it. Nothing good to be gained with bringing the airline or FAA into the matter.

  • You should have everything possible to stop the takeoff .ive seen crew go through the cabin and look out the windows at the wings .
    You should have brought to the attention of the airline and the FAA.
    You are very luck to be writing this article.

  • So you are a pilot, you are aware of an unsafe situation with your family onboard, you don’t say anything but anyways after landing go and lecture the pilots?

    If the airplane was overnight under freezing conditions and this was an early flight the airplane must be de iced no other option.

    I am an A320 Captain with 11.000 hours last 7 years flying with a Chinese carrier and I spend most of the winter flying North of China with minus 20/30 degrees Celsius and everybody de ice in the morning (Chinese and Foreign pilots), your comment about the Asian look of the Captain is racist, what will be your comment if the Captain looks Latin? or if it’s blonde with blue eyes? did you request her passport or question about her roots?

    Also I started to fly a 737-200 with 250 hours total time at 21 years old looking more like 17…got excellent training and I was a good FO in the old classic 73, 20 years later, 6 countries, 7 airlines and being TRI/TRE I still didn’t screw up!, man I must be lucky! I am Latin look by the way…

    Next time call the flight attendant show her the photo on your phone send it to the cockpit and then you have my respect…which a passenger did in China, flight was stopped Chinese CAAC cancelled the pilots license for life…

    • Hi Leonardo,
      I want to remind you of the snippet that comes with the airfacts email every week:

      “At Air Facts, there is no bullying, no name-calling, no drama — just thoughtful, insightful, sane and civilized discussions.”

      While I think that your thoughts re: procedures around deicing and how to communicate the situation to the flight deck (iPhone picture) are insightful and obviously borne from experience, I must say that the rest of your comment does not seem to comport with the intent of the comment policy, regardless of the validity or invalidity of its content.

      Perhaps a private letter to the editor addressing those concerns would have been more appropriate than the forum?

      Best,
      Chris

  • Hi Chris

    I don’t see any bullying or disrespectful words on my comments is just straight and honest.

    I do see disrespectful comments on the article, as I pointed the writer is aware of an unsafe situation but obviously wanted to go home so that is why he doesn’t says anything (Go-homitis), probably the pilot had the same, is quite common and also a common element in many accidents, it’s ok can happen we are humans but don’t go after to lecture the pilots and then write an article about, also including comments that in my opinion are tendentious and racist (why if not mention the physical looks of the pilots?).

    No, I don’t see why I should keep my comments just to the editor when this is a public article.

    Have a good day.

    • Leonardo, your perspective as an airline captain is welcome, and we appreciate your honest disagreement with the author. But let’s keep the tone cordial and respectful. No digital lynch mobs at Air Facts.

  • One of the pleasures of reading— and writing for— Air Facts is the comments that follow most articles. Unlike the comments on most websites, those for this journal are usually warm, empathetic, helpful, kind, nostalgic, or humorous, and often come straight from the heart. It is a rare comment that comes across as unkind, thoughtless, or inappropriate. I have been surprised to find among the numerous great comments on the icing story a few that come across— unintentionally, one hopes— as harsh, judgmental, or accusatory, and in one case, being a sharp ad hominem attack. In some cases, it seems that the commenters didn’t read the original article or my responses fully. A careful reading should convince the unbiased reader of the following:
    1. Those armchair quarterbacks who insist that I should have dashed headlong for the cockpit to warn the pilots, even as the we took the runway, seem not to have noticed that IT WAS NOT POSSIBLE. There was no time. Moreover, these events took place after 9/11/01, and a screaming dash to the cockpit of a moving airliner could have led to a brutal beating and maybe my death at the hands of other passengers, not to mention jail time! Imagine that, once the plane was stopped on the runway and surrounded by cops, no one could find ice on the wings— of course it would have melted by then.
    2. Most importantly, the last paragraph makes clear the sole purpose of bringing the story to readers’ attention. The crux was what “should” I have done once the possible emergency was over? Clearly, there is wide difference of respectable opinion on that point, ranging from “nail those incompetent jerks” to “have mercy and help them grow.” I chose the latter course, and still believe it was the right thing to do under these specific circumstances.
    There is little to gain from extending this discussion; the full variety of opinions is clear. Surely, we should also resolve to adhere to the laudable goals of the journal, and treat each other with respect in the Comment section.

  • I find no fault with what you did. In the years since the flight you describe, rules on how to inspect for ice have been spelled out by the FAA & maximum holdover times after deicing with various deicing fluids in various icing conditions have been established.

    Shortly after the 9-11 attacks I was on a Saab 340 flight departing from Detroit that was about to taxi on to the runway for takeoff with the flaps up. I got out of my seat & walked toward the flight attendant who looked terrified & had tears in her eyes, & told her that the flaps were up. It turned out that Saab 340s are certified for making zero flap takeoffs. I contacted the FAA principal operations inspector for the airline & told him that since very few transport category aircraft are certified for zero flap takeoffs, the passenger briefing card for the aircraft should include a statement that the Saab 340 was certified for zero flap takeoffs & require a PA announcement that a zero flap takeoff would be made. Otherwise a passenger getting out of his seat just before takeoff to notify the flight attendant that the flaps are up could result in a serious incident with the passenger being attacked by other passengers or a Federal Air Marshal. I never flew on a Saab 340 again & don’t know if the FAA took any action on this.

    One of my coworkers, who was with me on that flight, had been on a 727 that taxied on to the runway for takeoff with the flaps up. He jumped out of his seat & ran toward the flight attendant yelling that the flaps were up. The airplane stopped & the crew extended the flaps to the takeoff position. Detroit was the site of the Northwest MD-82 accident which occurred due to taking off with the flaps up. 154 of the 155 of the people on board that flight were killed.

    Others have commented here about the potential of serious consequences for getting out of one’s seat just before takeoff to warn about a problem. We are told that our security procedures are required because of the 9/11 attacks. However, 9/11 Commission Chairman Kean, Vice Chairman Hamilton, Senior Counsel Farmer, Counsel Rundlet, & Member Roemer have stated variously that government witnesses lied to them, withheld evidence, & obstructed their investigation. Commission member Cleland resigned from the Commission stating that the investigation had been compromised.

    Dr. Robert Bowman, PhD, former fighter pilot, former Head of the Department of Aeronautical Engineering and Assistant Dean at the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology, & former Director of Advanced Space Programs Development under Presidents Ford and Carter has stated that the official 9/11 story is, “hogwash.”

    Military intelligence officers from the Able Danger unit testified to Congress that they identified Mohammed Atta & 3 other of the 19 9/11 hijackers as terrorists ONE YEAR PRIOR TO 9/11/01. They were not allowed to pass the information on to the FBI, were told to stop their investigation, & to destroy all of their data. Upon hearing this testimony, 10-term Republican Congressman Curt Weldon made the following statement in a speech on the floor of Congress 10/19/05:
    “I am not a conspiracy theorist, but there is something desperately wrong, Mr. Speaker. There is something outrageous at work here. This is not a third-rate burglary of a political campaign headquarters. This involved what is right now the covering up of information that led to the deaths of 3,000 people, changed the course of history, led to the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and has disrupted our country, our economy and people’s lives.”

    After hearing the intelligence officers’ testimony, Louis Freeh, Director of the FBI, 1993 – 2001, wrote the following: “Essay An Incomplete Investigation – Why did the 9/11 Commission ignore ‘Able Danger’?”, “Wall Street Journal” 11/17/05: “Even the most junior investigator would immediately know that the name and photo ID of Atta in 2000 is precisely the kind of tactical intelligence the FBI has many times employed to prevent attacks & arrest terrorists. Yet the 9/11 Commission inexplicably concluded that it ‘was not historically significant.’ This astounding conclusion–in combination with the failure to investigate Able Danger and incorporate it into its findings–raises serious challenges to the commission’s credibility and, if the facts prove out, might just render the commission historically insignificant itself. … No wonder the 9/11 families were outraged by these revelations and called for a ‘new’ commission to investigate.”

    In other words the US Government had all the funding, knowledge, & authority required to stop the 9/11 attacks 1yr. prior to 9/11. This is not a conspiracy theory; it’s a fact. We don’t need the Patriot Act, all of the spying on American Citizens, illegal searches of private aircraft, or a huge block of restricted airspace around DC. If we cannot come to terms with facts known about 9/11 & demand a new independent 9/11 investigation with full subpoena power, we can expect airline passengers to remain fearful about getting out their seat to warn of a serious problem.

  • I should have included in my comment above that on the Saab 340 flight, I had more time to think about getting out of my seat to warn the flight attendant than you did, & my decision to get out of my seat was delayed by thnking about what might happen because of security being of great concern to flght crews, passengers, & air marshals at that time. The coworker I mentioned, who ran down the aisle of a 727 yelling that the flaps were up, did that before 9/11.

  • John
    Let me tell you how I first read the article, in the airline I fly in China we are 120 pilots from like 30 countries including the U.S., flying in China is evolving and not everyday is smooth, many times there are differences in how to fly or what is safe or not between locals and foreigners, we can say that many times the differences are strong…

    A few days ago in a private group chat of the foreign pilots a Captain from the US posted the link to this article and adding comments like you see the pilot is Chinese….I consider him a friend and I told him sorry the pilot is American not Chinese….well this proves my point that the description of the pilots is racist there is no need to tell their race or age, no point at all on that.

    I will always defend airline pilots specially a pilot in the US flying for a regional for less money than a bus driver and commuting every week, doing simulators twice a year plus Medicals plus many other negative things of an airline pilot life, so yes I will be hard on the author defending my colleagues.

    They didn’t de ice that is wrong of course, they should, why they didn’t? I can’t tell, maybe they did check and decided was good enough…

    The only thing needed to do by the author was press the flight attendant call button above the seat and show the wing…no need for drama, run to the cockpit, etc..just press the button call the FA and show her the wing, they know what is ice and the possible consequences and they will tell the pilot.

    About tell the pilots after the flight I see nothing wrong but I do about then right this article there is enough bad media exposure on the airline pilots already with some recent accidents to add more, no need for that.

    I am a harsh yes, disrespectful no.

  • I had a change of planes in Ottawa. Boarding the plane I saw condensation on the wings and asked a cabin crew member if it was dew or frost. I was invited to speak with the pilot and told him that if it was my aircraft I’d be running my finger on the wing to make sure. He replied that at 3C it had to be liquid, but I didn’t want to get into a discussion of the physics of cold soaked surfaces.

    He sent a ramp crew to do the check.

    Having once diligently scraped frost between the rivet lines of a 172 to discover I needed another 15 kt to climb, I’m chicken sh!t about ice and frost.

  • Situation Awareness – theres fn ice on the wings – whatever the objector want to say if it doesn’t include ice on wings on a stationary aircraft peparing for departure remind me not to fly with any of you objectors.

  • Is the picture in the article the actual picture from the plane or just a stock photo? Was the actual ice more or less? A tiny bit of ice does very little but moderate ice can as many have noted suddenly and dramatically affect the lift of the wing. Obviously this was pretty light as the pilots were not even aware of the changes in handling of the craft.

    I think Mr. Hunter Heath did the right thing in just informing crew after and not being overly dramatic for some light ice.

  • Well, I hadn’t looked at the comments on my article after my March, 2015 long response. Having seen the additional comments, I want only to emphasize what I thought I’d made clear in the original text: alerting the flight crew about the ice was simply not possible. We were on a fast turning taxi to the active as No. 1 for takeoff before I realized the “water” was really not moving. Had I jumped to my feet or screamed or whatever, we would still have been airborne before word could have gotten to the cockpit. To those of you who still think I should have done otherwise, all I can say is, I was there, and you weren’t. I stand by my decision to discuss the matter privately with the pilots; I assure you that they got the message.

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