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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 02/13/2009

Ice: An Insidious Threat to Aircraft

By Steve Tracton

Conditions were conducive to icing at time of plane crash

* Winds Start to Wind Down: Full Forecast | Darwin and the Weather *

Aircraft icing is one of the most serious weather conditions pilots confront. While it's much too early to attribute last evening's deadly commuter plane crash to ice, the weather will more than likely be considered a significant suspect, or at least a "factor of interest."

Conditions were indeed conducive to icing in the layer of atmosphere the plane was flying through when it went down near Buffalo, and other pilots in the area reported icing shortly after the crash.

Unlike thunderstorms, which are readily detectable (and therefore generally avoidable) by radar or direct observation, icing is more insidious.

Keep reading for more on how a plane can suddenly find itself coated in ice...

Ingredients that lead to aircraft icing. Courtesy National Weather Service.

For example, ice build-up on an aircraft's wings can go unnoticed until it's too late -- one minute you're flying along with no apparent problems, and the next minute the plane is falling uncontrollably toward the ground.

Between 1993 and 2005, a reported 135 planes crashed due to ice. Most of these crashes, however, involve small, non-commercial planes that are less equipped to deal with ice than commercial jets, and are flown by less experienced pilots.

Water vapor, snow and other forms of light precipitation are generally not a hazard for planes. The trouble comes from tiny supercooled droplets -- liquid water at temperatures below freezing -- that freeze immediately on contact with the aircraft. The resulting consequences can range from instrument failures to engine power problems and, finally, total loss of lift.

The range of weather conditions at which icing is a threat is fairly narrow, however. According to the National Weather Service, temperatures must be in the range of 14-32 degrees Fahrenheit. Any warmer and the supercooled droplets won't freeze, while air that is too cold tends not to contain enough moisture to form supercooled droplets.

The National Weather Service's Aviation Weather Center as well as commercial weather services routinely provide current and predicted icing conditions for aviation interests, commercial and otherwise. These data and forecasts are usually reliable as a "heads up" on icing hazards, but there remains considerable room for improvement, especially with regard to timing and location details.

By Steve Tracton  | February 13, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  U.S. Weather  | Tags:  aircraft icing, buffalo, plane crash, weather  
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Is there some way we can blame this catastrophe on global warming too?

Posted by: shoveit | February 13, 2009 12:46 PM | Report abuse

@shoveit -- That's rather insensitive.

Posted by: natsncats | February 13, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

@natsncats -- it does seem insensitive, but @shoveit has a point. A great many of the articles by the "Gang" have a decided bias, and tend to blame nearly every weather phenomenon they can on AGW.

Posted by: RMVA | February 13, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

This crash bought back painful memories of air florida

Posted by: pvogel88 | February 13, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

Rather, a great many of the articles by the "Gang" are written from an educated perspective that partisans often lack, and tend to demonstrate how widespread the effects of global warming might be.

Posted by: jen-s | February 13, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Folks -- Let's reserve the climate change talk for posts that are related to climate change. Thx.

Posted by: Dan-CapitalWeatherGang | February 13, 2009 3:36 PM | Report abuse

jen-s wrote, "Rather, a great many of the articles by the "Gang" are written from an educated perspective that partisans often lack, and tend to demonstrate how widespread the effects of global warming might be."

I am sure I will get criticized for pointing out the obvious, but you either -
a. don't know the definition of partisan
b. are brand new here
c. all of the above

A partisan is -
# S: (n) partisan, zealot, drumbeater (a fervent and even militant proponent of something)
# S: (n) enthusiast, partisan, partizan (an ardent and enthusiastic supporter of some person or activity)
# S: (n) partisan, partizan (a pike with a long tapering double-edged blade with lateral projections; 16th and 17th centuries)

Clearly, and there can be no argument on this point, it is the CWG that are -
1. a fervent and even militant proponent of the catastrophic man made global warming theory
2. ardent and enthusiastic supporter of the catastrophic man made global warming theory

If one is to be precise, it is the CWG that are the partisans, and it is we skeptics who are the ANTI-partisans.

And I find your assertion that "the articles by the "Gang" are written from an educated perspective that partisans often lack" to be a snide insult. At least this anti-partisan is well educated enough to know the definition of partisan.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | February 13, 2009 5:23 PM | Report abuse

The last time we had a commuter air crash like this during the winter, the cause was icing. TV commentary on the current disaster is of the opinion that de-icing measures have been installed to lower the risk of such crashes. Apparently the crew of this flight thought their de-icing equipment was turned on. The NTSB will now check to see if this equipment was working.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | February 13, 2009 7:28 PM | Report abuse

As a native Buffalonian who grew up just miles from the crash site, the tragedy especially hit close. It's surprising that ice was the cause since those conditions must happen quite frequently, including in the Washington area where freezing rain and mixed precipitation are the winter norm. Some news reports I've seen have said that a more effective de-icing system has been in development and testing for quite a while by the the F.A.A. I hope this tragedy brings more urgency to that effort.

Posted by: Stephen1617 | February 13, 2009 9:12 PM | Report abuse

Anyone who works, or has ever worked, in the airline industry is devastated by this crash, as we are by every other. Our hearts go out to the victims and their families, and also to our colleagues who dedicate themselves every day to ensuring that the flights they send up are safe.

Posted by: --sg | February 13, 2009 10:35 PM | Report abuse

There is irony in the tragic accident if it is indeed rime ice related. There was a atmospheric science study conducted at SUNY Brockport in the early 1990s about icing and de-icing agents. The plane struck the home of a current SUNY Brockport student and her parents.

One of the possible scenarios for icing as a cause would have been the airflow being disrupted in combination with the flaps being extended to build further drag on the plane, slowing it down for final approach. Airspeed was likely being reduced in combination with airflow being disrupted. Once it began, it would have likely been very quick for the plane to pitch and roll, becoming completely uncontrollable since the altitude may have been less than 2000 feet, possibly as low as 1500. Since a given object falls at the force of gravity of 9.8 meters per second or close to 30 feet per second, this would equal 900 feet in approximately 30 seconds. Add in the speed of the aircraft from a horizontal plane to a vertical, and again, it would have been rather quick.

In correlation to what happened in Manhattan a few weeks ago, the US Airways pilot lost thrust in both engines but was able to glide. Gravity helped to bring the plane down as the pilot glided, and since he kept it level, it stated horizontal. He had to keep the wings level as close to the water as possible in order to avoid having one wing cause the plane to pinwheel.

Posted by: upstateweather | February 13, 2009 11:54 PM | Report abuse

This crash illustrates how flying turboprop (non-jet) aircraft in winter weather is a little risky. Jet aircraft can use heat (bleed air) from the engines to melt ice, while turboprops rely on "deicing boots", rubber bladders that inflate and deflate to break chunks of ice off the wing. Needless to say, the jets are much better at melting any ice that forms.

I avoid turboprop flights during the winter when possible. Most travel booking websites clearly denote flights served by non-jet aircraft, so this is not difficult.

Posted by: stuckman | February 14, 2009 1:30 AM | Report abuse

My heart also goes out to the family and friends of the victims. That was a tragic accident.

There is one thing I truly do not understand. Why was there no similar public expressions of sympathy on this web site for the 200+ victims of the tragic wild fires in Australia? As far as horrors go, I think I would prefer the near instantaneous death of an almost vertical, max velocity impact with the ground than being burned alive in a wild fire. That fire brought four times the loss of human life (50 vs 200+). Why no comments on their tragic deaths?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | February 14, 2009 10:54 AM | Report abuse

On the icing subject, the crash in Buffalo reminds me of an American Eagle flight that went down in Illinois in 1994. That crash involved another high-wing turboprop aircraft, an ATR-72, and as part of the response American Eagle took that aircraft type out of service in colder climates. They fly it now between islands in the Caribbean, and to other warmer destinations.

Does anyone know if high-wing aircraft might be more susceptible to disturbances in airflow over their wings, or is that not a valid line of inquiry here? Just curious.

Mr. Q: I think one factor regarding the Australian wild fires was the geographical distance between that disaster and the U.S., and the fact that the media was overwhelmed with congressional coverage during the week of the fires.

Steve: Nice, timely post. I think this post beat out the WashPo and NYT paper editions. Was this ever linked from the front page of the web site?

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | February 14, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

Andrew, thanks. If this post was linked, I didn't see it. If it was not, I must scratch my head as to why not.

Of course we all feel sympathy for the family and friends of the Buffalo crash victims. And naturally we are sorry for the loss of life in the Australian fires. We may never know whether either of these disasters was a consequence of nature, machines, or people. I'll bet it is some combination of all three. What one can probably be sure about is that lawyers will be the only winners in sorting thinks out.

What really bothers me about all this is that, sure the loss of life and property is tragic, but consider that approximately 800 people on average die each and every week on U. S. roads and highways. The difference, of course, is that only a few at most die in any given crash. These deaths are so common most are either never reported in newspapers (unless a high profile individual, or movie star) or there are a few lines buried deep inside them (forget about hearing about these on the likes of CNN). Where's the outrage?? Each one of these highway victims likely has a story no less worthy than the extensive media background on lives of passengers killed in the Buffalo airline crash.

Yes, by definition news is considered something out of the ordinary, and fatal auto crashes are so "ordinary". But does that mean the thousands of deaths in auto crashes is acceptable??? Where's the outrage?? Where's the collective sympathy for these accident victims??

Sorry for these off topic remarks. Mr Q just inadvertently hit a continual sore spot of mine

BTW; a large percentage of all auto crashes are directly or indirectly related to weather. There are increasing efforts to observe and forecast specific weather hazards impacting road and highway conditions. I'll report on these in a future post.

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | February 14, 2009 5:33 PM | Report abuse

CBS News just stated that the plane was flying on autopilot, as were the 2 or 3 other icing-related crashes in recent years. I believe this includes the 1994 American Eagle crash in Illinois that Andrew mentioned. Apparently the FAA has been warned by the NTSB to warn pilots flying when icing was prevalent not to fly on autopilot but has been reluctant to issue this warning.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | February 14, 2009 6:45 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Freedman wrote, "Mr. Q: I think one factor regarding the Australian wild fires was the geographical distance between that disaster and the U.S., and the fact that the media was overwhelmed with congressional coverage during the week of the fires."

I could see the distance playing a factor, albeit a small factor. As far "the media was overwhelmed with congressional coverage", I don't see how that could apply. You wrote a column on it. In the column you mentioned the number of deaths (181 at the time, I think). My question was directed at the comments made to that column. I am assuming that those who commented read your column.

Could it be that some people were so consumed with exploiting the tragedy for their own reasons/agenda, that they forgot to think about the poor people who died, and the family and friends that survived?

You may think I am your enemy, but I am not. If a man is walking around with his fly down and his so called friends never say anything, but a total stranger says, "Pssst. Dude, your fly is down.", who is behaving like a real friend?

I have more I should say, but it would probably be best to not say it here. The email address in my profile is correct. If you wish to hear more, please feel free to write. If you don't have access to my email address, post yours and I will write you there.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | February 14, 2009 10:15 PM | Report abuse

Hey, Mr. Q.

Contributors to CWG do not have access to user profiles. But this my personal email address:

I'll be glad to hear whatever you have to say offline, and I'll reply as appropriate with what I probably can not say here. You know my background from "Meet the Gang", what's yours? I'll repeat nothing online without your approval.Perhaps we do have somethings in common. A deal??

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | February 15, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

Please don't take this personally Dr. Tracton, but I knew when I read your comment that it would be a net wash (i.e. neutral), with respect to CO2 output, for people to burn wood in their stove/fireplace vs using electric heat, that you and I were too far apart to attempt communication. I had this picture in my mind of the low lying smoke cloud hanging over D.C. from millions of fireplaces being used to heat their homes. But if the eco activists and the global warming activists get their way, we may very well end up doing just that. So you may end up being a bit of a prophet.

But anyway, I think you and I are too far apart and I suspect that we each have more productive uses of our time. But thank you for the kind offer.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | February 15, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

I'm sorry you turned down my invitation, Mr. Q;

What on earth are you talking about - wood, fireplaces .... ????????????????? -- must be just a blatantly feeble attempt to change the subject - really, now, you can do better than this!

It's you who seems to have nothing better to do with your time than butt into CWG with overly verbose off subject, anger tinged, commentary. It's not just I to whom you are "too far apart". Your attempts to dominate the comments, effectively hijacking this site for your personal, one sided agenda, only demonstrates you are far apart - an extreme outlier - from the vast majority of open mined, objective thinking people. To disagree, to be skeptical, is one thing; to be cynical and closed minded to any views other than your self righteousness mindset is quite something else. There are several other commenters, such as RM (RMVA) - who you know - question aspects of global warming in a reasoned, non obsessive manner - an approach you might learn from if you want to be taken seriously.

This ends my responding to you in any way ever again unless it's clear you've agonizingly reappraised your approach and willing to accept that your absolutist views might be wanting. Your current tactics, I'm sure, are a fruitless exercise if, in fact, you really do want to be taken seriously.

Finally, it's not difficult to infer the likely rationale for your irrational attacks on Andrew Freedman. More than once you've mentioned his attending the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts as part of a dual master's degree program in climate change policy with Columbia University. I'd guess the reason is your concern, perhaps fear that, as Andrew's career advances, his credentials and journalistic skills will pose an increasing threat to those who blindly refuse to open their minds to objective reality.

The above probably violates CWG posting standards about personal attacks. That's life - this one time I've reverted to that

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | February 15, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse

quoting John-Burke -


I read an article in the NY Times about a month ago on the increased use of wood burning stoves for heating when fuel prices rise. Do you know any sources that compare the overall impact of wood burning vs. other fuels (oil or natural gas)? Thanks.

Posted by: John - Burke | October 21, 2008 12:31 PM

quoting Dr. Tracton's response -


All else being equal, burning wood is a net zero contributor to CO-2 emissions.The carbon released from burning wood is same carbon that was removed from the atmosphere when the tree was growing.

The same is true with fossil fuels (coal oil, natural gas), except the carbon absorbed from the atmosphere by living matter occurred millions of years ago - not exactly relevant to changes occurring now in atmospheric levels of CO-2.

Posted by: Steve Tracton | October 22, 2008 10:52 AM

source of the above quote

look in the comments, near the bottom

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | February 15, 2009 3:50 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

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