I recognise the Daily Mail's propensity to adulterate and colour news, but are these user comments about the UAL951 flight on 29 Dec 2014 correct?

The Daily Mail claims:

A United Airlines plane aborted its transatlantic journey and diverted to London today because the flight crew apparently wasn’t satisfied with the de-icing effort it received in Brussels.

But some commenters under the article regard this official reason as concealment or falsehood:

If the de-icing job wasn't good the plane would have crashed on take off. There must be more to this story.

Correct. If the de-icing was not done correctly, the aircraft would have crashed on take-off. Since it was able to fly, climb to cruise altitude and travel several hundred miles, no further de-icing would be required. There was some other unreported reason for the diversion.

Is there any truth in these claims? Will an aircraft crash on take-off if the de-icing is not done correctly?

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    $\begingroup$ I'd trust the Daily Mail's reader comments less than the article, not more... $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Dec 31 '14 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ You ask if there is truth in the Daily Mail? Wow. $\endgroup$ – Simon Dec 31 '14 at 15:02
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    $\begingroup$ I suspect that (as a commenter on AVHerald said) someone involved in reporting the story confused de-icing and anti-icing. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Dec 31 '14 at 15:16
  • $\begingroup$ @Simon I didn't, but my OP was edited. $\endgroup$ – NNOX Apps Dec 31 '14 at 17:48
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby I contend with distinguishing the quality between the two! $\endgroup$ – NNOX Apps Dec 31 '14 at 17:48

The claim that de-icing must have been done perfectly in Brussels or the plane would have crashed on take-off is patent nonsense. Ice on the aircraft degrades performance. A little bit of ice degrades performance a little bit; a lot of ice degrades performance a lot. It's perfectly possible that they took off from Brussels with slightly degraded performance, realised that there was still some ice on the plane and decided they needed to get rid of it.

There's no reason to suspect a cover-up. If there was even a hint of terrorism, the plane would have diverted to Stansted, not Heathrow. If the plane had some mechanical problem, they'd have made a vague statement about the plane having mechanical problems, landed, fixed the problem (which requires maintenance technicians, not a de-icing crew), and then said something much less vague to reassure the 227 passengers that the plane was safe. If there was a problem with the passengers, luggage or cargo, the plane would have gone to a terminal. If a vice-president of the company had been served macadamia nuts in the wrong way, they'd have dealt with that in Brussels.

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    $\begingroup$ You mean comments on the internet can be patent nonsense? Interesting. On an unrelated note, please don't look though my comments. $\endgroup$ – corsiKa Dec 31 '14 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ Flight crew are not always forthcoming about the cause for a delay or incident -- I once had a flight delayed for over 2 hours with the captain announcing "computer problems", while I could hear him on the flight deck on a cell phone arguing with someone about some paperwork for the plane not having been completed for several days and he's not taking off until he completes the paperwork (some kind of maintenance tickets, I think). At one point he told them to send another crew if they wanted the plane to depart without the paperwork. $\endgroup$ – Johnny Dec 31 '14 at 19:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Johnny Maybe the maintenance tickets had to do with some of the computer systems on board. :) $\endgroup$ – reirab Dec 31 '14 at 19:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Johnny Like I said, some vague statement about the plane having X problems. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Dec 31 '14 at 21:13
  • $\begingroup$ @Johnny Or a computer on the ground spat out a set of bad papers because some doofus at a desk punched in the wrong numbers? (Don't laugh too hard, it's happened before!) $\endgroup$ – UnrecognizedFallingObject Jan 3 '15 at 23:47

As David Richerby correctly said, ice degrades performance. The more ice, the more the performance is degraded until the point where the aircraft is not able to climb out. So if there was just some ice, they could have taken off and then noticed degraded performance and returned. In this respect the comments are wrong.

However the comments are somewhat right in that the degraded performance would manifest from take-off, so it would likely be detected much sooner.

However, the AvHerald article says:

…the crew stopped the climb due to an anti-ice problem and initiated a descent…

which points to failure of (some of the) anti-ice systems that prevent accretion of ice on critical parts of the aircraft (pitot tubes, engine inlets, wing and elevator leading edges) during flight.

The DailyMail reporter clearly didn't know much about the issue (which can be forgiven; the reporter can't understand all the things in detail) and didn't bother to check (which they should have, but most news reporters won't let facts stand in a way of good story and Daily Mail ones even less so).


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