Un-heavenly: Blue ice smashes windshield
"Blue ice" sounds like the stuff of urban legend– or maybe a domestic vodka. The unsavory truth is that falling chunks of frozen airplane waste dubbed "blue ice" do exist, and one came crashing into Kevin Campbell's windshield July 16.
Campbell was cruising home on a Saturday night, headed north on 29 just past Flaming Wok when he glimpsed a shiny white object. In the next instant, it crashed into his windshield with so much force the trunk to his Audi A6 popped open.
"It was quite a shock," says Campbell. "And it was quite a hit."
He pulled into the Food Lion parking lot. Water covered his windshield and ice crystals speckled the car. His windshield bulged like it had been hit with a lead volleyball, and shards of glass covered the interior of his car.
Campbell called the police. "He thought I was crazy," recounts Campbell. "He thought someone had vandalized the car."
How does he know it wasn't a gigantic piece of hail? "Just from the size of it," says Campbell. "There was no bad weather that night."
"It's not supposed to happen, but it does," says FAA spokesman Arlene Murray.
If there's a leak in a plane's lavatory, the blue-colored water drips down and freezes on the bottom of aircraft traveling at high altitudes, particularly on overseas flights, she explains. As the plane descends, the ice melts and streaks to earth, usually causing no harm– but "One or two have gone through garage roofs," Murray says.
The FAA sends an inspector out to determine if the projectile from the sky is indeed blue ice. "We don't want people to handle it," says Murray, suggesting that those who are iced put the object in a bag.
The deposited mass is not always blue ice, she says. One investigation identified a train as the culprit.
"We do investigate," says Murray. "We get the time and the area, and contact the carriers. Planes are not supposed to leak."
That probably won't help Campbell, who did not report the incident immediately. The FAA keeps radar records for only 15 days, says Murray.
"It was probably an arrival coming into Charlottesville," she says. Although this is a high air-traffic area, planes heading for Dulles or BWI would still be at around 20,000 feet and less likely to lose their blue-ice loads, notes Murray.
Bill Pahuta, general operations manager at the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport, has worked in airports for 29 years, and he's never heard of blue ice. "I've heard of black ice," he says. "It must be a tremendous leak to freeze like that."
Air traffic at 9:45pm on a Saturday night is pretty light, says Pahuta. "We get a lot of corporate jets. You never know when they're coming in."
The incident cost Campbell nearly $400– his $250 comprehensive deductible and $140 for a rental car. If he could figure out which aircraft was responsible, he could go after the carrier for reimbursement.
The FAA keeps no statistics on the amount of property damage caused by blue ice, and, in fact, reimbursement is rare.
In 2003, Santa Cruz, California, boat owner Ray Erickson successfully sued American Airlines, which was ordered to pay $3,236 after two chunks smashed through the skylight on his boat. He could have been hit on the head, he told the Santa Cruz Sentinel, had he not stepped away to answer the phone.
Murray is unaware of any fatalities from blue ice.
And she debunks another popular notion: that pilots dump the toilet tanks before landing. "That's against regulations," she says– and unsanitary. "They're not supposed to dump anything except fuel in an emergency."
She also points out that if pilots dumped the lavatory before landing, the contents would be liquid and would dissipate.
Kevin Campbell is all too aware that had the windshield-shattering chunk hit on the driver's side, he could have suffered more than a nicked finger from the glass.
Now, like Chicken Little, he actually has to consider what could come falling out of the sky. "It makes me more conscious of looking up," he says. "I pay more attention."
It came from above– and left an inch-deep dent the size of a volleyball in Kevin Campbell's windshield.
PHOTO BY HENRI BOWMAN-ADAMS