The Federal Aviation Administration wants to set stricter standards to prevent icing of aircraft and is turning to Iowa State University’s nationally recognized aerospace program for guidance. Iowa State is home to the only university-operated icing and wind tunnel laboratory in the United States. Iowa State University scientists are using the tunnel to determine conditions that lead to ice buildup on aircraft wings and the best methods for aircraft manufacturers, pilots, and air traffic controllers to prevent it.

Icing of aircraft wings is a leading cause of aviation accidents. It is believed to have led to the recent crash of an AirAsia passenger jet in the Java Sea during a monsoonal thunderstorm.

Iowa State’s unique icing wind tunnel allows researchers to simulate combinations of temperature, wind speed, and moisture, so they can determine what combinations put planes at risk of icing. “We can simulate the temperature up to minus 20 degrees and see, in those conditions, how moisture in the air can build up on the wing,” said Hui Hu, professor of aerospace engineering and the study’s lead investigator.

Digital images and lasers take advanced flow measurements throughout the experiments. They show everything from the thickness of ice as it flows over a wing, the heat transfer of individual water droplets as they freeze, the irregular speed of freezing droplets on a wing, and the finger-like patterns of ice formation.

As part of the NASA-funded research, Iowa State scientists will provide the FAA with a model for new deicing requirements.