How Do Airplanes Manage To Fly In Such Cold Temperatures?


The ability of airplanes to fly under cold temperatures is generally a baffling idea. While a chunk of explanation may be derived from hardware technology concepts, a new study also found some valuable explanations through a Namib desert beetle.

Researchers from Virginia Tech discovered that the shell of the beetle contains ridges that collect moisture that turn into water droplets. Naturally, when these droplets freeze and connect, frost forms.

When water turns to ice, its vapor pressure shifts from one that is higher to lower. The difference in this vapor pressure dictates the growth of ice. Now, if this pattern is subjected to varying degrees of pressures, then it would form a dry zone rather than frost.

The water-absorbing pattern of the beetle may explain how airplanes continue to be functional amid such cold temperatures.

Avid traveller and engineer Saran Udayakumar says that during winter seasons when the weather is cold, especially up in the atmosphere, the air is denser. Denser air triggers the engine to utilize more air/fuel mixture.

"That translates into more power," he writes in Quora.

Pilot Bruno Gilissen explains that cold air also means lesser humidity. Such dry environment also means that there is a significant lack of water or moisture. The absence of water in colder temperatures means there is nothing to form ice from. After all, ice is formed from water.

Student commercial pilot Ana Maaz also explains supercooled water droplets exist up in the atmosphere. These droplets do not have a freezing nuclei and thus will stay liquid even at temperatures below zero. However, when an airplane comes in contact with it, the airplane acts as the freezing nuclei, freezing the droplets immediately.

At an altitude of 35,000 feet, however, the clouds are made of ice crystals so no supercooled droplets exist thus, airplanes do not face icing issues.

The concept of humidity/moisture/water presence seems to have played a huge role in the experiment of the Virginia Tech experiment. The researchers were able to find dry zones around icy areas. They found that dew drops tend to form more in certain water-loving areas. Thus, providing significant space between the drops disabled it from connecting with one another. The resulting effect is evaporation.

New advanced technologies have been developed to prevent ice buildup in airplanes. The new research may add up to what is known so that icy airplanes, accidents and high-priced defrosting services may be prevented.

Photo: Chad Kainz | Flickr

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