Need a T-33 to De-Ice a Runway? No Problem

My first crack at “piloting” a real jet didn’t turn out the way I’d hoped

Using jet blast to melt ice backfired in 1958 but works for a Tu-134 in 2006. (Sergei Tsvetkov )
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In February 1958, the T-33 training at Royal Canadian Air Force station Gimli, already far behind schedule, was thrown into chaos. Southern Manitoba, where Gimli was located, was hit by an extended shot of freezing rain followed by a flash freeze; as far as the weather forecasters could see, there was no relief. Like the rest of Course 5701, I’d just finished ground school and perfected my drills in the static trainer, and this latest slap in the face from Mother Nature was keeping me from fulfilling my hopes and dreams of finally flying a jet. 

Clearing the ice from taxiways and runways weighed heavily on the minds of the few officers who had remained reasonably sober during the extended station stand-down. 

One early afternoon when we were skulking around in the smoky Flight Cadets’ mess where, unlike the officers, we were denied alcohol until after supper, an officer bounded in and bellowed: “Right—I need three volunteers!” 

We three crowded onto the ladder of a T-33 while the instructor who plucked us from the Flight Cadet’s mess sat in the cockpit, describing and miming what we were going to do. I couldn’t believe it. Ahead of my classmates, I was actually going to start up and run the engine of a jet. The idea was to have a tractor tow a T-33 out onto the icy paved surfaces of the airport, followed by a bulldozer. Coordinating with only hand signals, I would hold the T-Bird’s brakes full on, and the bulldozer would position itself strategically behind the jet’s tailpipe. At the arranged signal, I would advance power to 50 percent, and the boiling-hot jet blast would deflect down off the bulldozer blade toward the pavement and voilà—melt the ice. If more heat was needed, the tractor driver would wave his hand over his head for either more or less power. 

I was the guinea pig to test the procedure. If it worked, my two classmates would join me in an echelon left formation made up of three tractors towing three T-33s, trailed by three bulldozers, to creep slowly down one of the runways, clearing it of ice. 

It worked well for the first few tries. Coordinating all the hand signals was a bit confusing but they worked, and we de-iced a taxiway without incident. Now for the main event: the runway. 

The tractor driver in front gave the signal that he’d set the tractor brake. I replied by giving the signal that the T-Bird’s brakes were set, and since I couldn’t see behind, I guessed the bulldozer guy was doing what he was supposed to be doing. I advanced the power slowly, and everything was going well. 

But the laws of physics would not be denied: The roaring Rolls-Royce Nene engine was more than enough to overcome the locked brakes and the combined weight of the tractor, aircraft, and tow bar, and the ice, unsurprisingly, was slippery. There may have been a possible dithering of hand signals between the tug driver and me. Suddenly I could see the tractor sliding sideways from dead ahead to the left. What the heck was the driver doing? The tractor seemed to move faster and faster. Then the driver seemed to be violently trying to slash his own throat. Finally it dawned on me. Oh I see, I thought, he wants me to shut down. I sheepishly did. 

The only injuries were a slightly damaged nose gear, a bent tow bar, and my badly bruised ego. It could have been worse. Both the tractor and the bulldozer driver were spared the haranguing I got from the station commanding officer, but even up to my last flight, when years later I parked a 747-400 at Gate 104 at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, I always had a twinge of anxiety at the start of every push-back. 

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