New airplane de-icing systems resembling huge car washes may be installed in airports throughout the country if a Harford County man succeeds in marketing the devices.
John R. Gaughan III, an environmental engineer who is president of Bel Air-based Catalyst and Chemical Services Inc., said the harrowing video of the 1982 Air Florida plane crash near Washington's National Airport prompted him to seek a safer method to get planes airborne in bad weather.
"I will never forget the scene as rescuers made attempt after attempt to pull survivors from the icy waters of the Potomac River," said the engineering graduate of Lehigh University.
"My heart went out to those poor people reaching for lifelines with hands numbed beyond feeling."
He remembered thinking, "How in the world could this have possibly happened?"
He had his answer the next time he saw his brother-in-law, a commercial pilot.
After de-icing, a pilot has about 15 minutes to get airborne or return for further de-icing. A plane may have to sit at the end of a runway for any number of reasons and, if the weather worsens, ice will re-form rapidly.
He told his brother-in-law, Ronald Krilla, there had to be a better way, because too many lives depended on safer conditions.
Eight years and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, their company, Krilla-Gaughan Birdwash (KGB), is offering what it bills as a solution: a patented product known as Whisper Wash.
Mr. Gaughan said USAir and United Airlines have expressed interest and will take a closer look at the patent for the device over the next several months.
Representatives of major airports also have told KGB they will consider the product.
"It is simply amazing when you consider that the airline industry has an outstanding safety record, but little has changed in the de-icing process over the past 30 years," Mr. Gaughan said.
He said Whisper Wash would provide rapid, efficient de-icing and anti-icing in one pass.
The unit could be mobile or stationary and could be used near the end of a runway, allowing aircraft to take off soon after de-icing.
Heated compressed air would de-ice the aircraft, before an application of anti-icing fluids.
The entire process would take six minutes for a 747-400, the largest commercial aircraft, compared with 25 minutes for the same aircraft using existing methods.
Stationary de-icers are used at the Louisville, Ky., airport and at several European airports, Mr. Gaughan acknowledges, but "they are not as sophisticated, efficient and cost-effective as Whisper Wash."
Most planes are still de-iced at the gate by trucks, which spray about 2,000 gallons of de-icing fluid, ethylene glycol, through high-pressure hoses.
"Then," he said, "pilots are fighting the clock to get airborne insidethe 15-minute envelope."
He said that while this procedure is functional, it's inefficient because it requires expensive equipment, personnel and time.
Also, he said, the de-icing fluid flows into storm drains at airports, so it can't be recycled.
The chemical endangers marine life by removing oxygen from ground water, Mr. Gaughan said, adding that tougher new Environmental Protection Agency standards will have to be met in 1993.
The new de-icers would cost about $4 million each.
"The cost sounds prohibitive until one studies today's operational expenditures," said Mr. Gaughan.
De-icing trucks cost $200,000 apiece, and larger airports usually have a fleet of 20 to 30, he said.
The de-icing fluid could cost about $2.5 million for each 10 hours of operation.
The de-icers would save money as well as time, Mr. Gaughan said.
Each time a plane rolls through, the unit would dispense 350 to 500 gallons of anti-icing fluid, and the excess would be collected by troughs on each side of the runway and sent to holding tanks.
Airport operators have shown interest but are waiting for a major carrier to request the device, he said. Grant money, through the Federal Aviation Administration, is available for construction.
Carol Riley, of the marketing and development department at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, said the new unit is being considered "along with proposals from several other companies."
She said BWI officials will discuss de-icing procedures over the next few months and decide on them by winter 1993 to comply with FAA and EPA regulations.
KGB would be a consultant to any firms that bought the right to produce and market the device.
Major subcontractors are available to develop the device.
"To me, it seems the safety-conscious airline industry should be ready to move forward to modernizing the de-icing operation," Mr. Gaughan said.
"The Band-Aid that has been holding the present system together should be changed."