Volcanic ash: the day we learned what it can do

It was on 24 June 1982 that the world learned, in dramatic fashion for the first time, precisely what kind of damage tropopausal volcanic ash can do to an aircraft. Since then a network of volcanic ash advisory centres – nine of them worldwide – have been set up to monitor occurrences and track their progress until the clouds dissipate.

A British Airways Boeing 747-200 out of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia bound for Perth, Australia was flying over Indonesia at night with 262 people on board. Suddenly the slipstream noise was magnified and St Elmo’s Fire surrounded the aeroplane with a ghostly glow. Then one by one the engines began to fail, until all four had stopped.

The crew decided to head for Jakarta, the nearest international airport, and declared an emergency. During the glide descent they continually went through the engine relight procedure until, when they had cleared the lower limit of the ash cloud, they had success. All four engines relit, but the crew closed down No 2 because it continually surged. The other engines’ performance had been seriously impaired, and the ash had sandblasted the front windscreens so badly the crew could not see through them sufficiently to land the aircraft. The pilots had to cock their heads to the side to look out of the direct vision windows which had been less badly affected.

The aircraft landed safely at Jakarta, but the engines were unrepairable. Capt Eric Moody’s crew had earned their money that day.

8 Responses to Volcanic ash: the day we learned what it can do

  1. David Nicholas 16 April, 2010 at 11:40 am #

    Interesting to hear Eric moody being interviewed at various times yesterday (Capt of BAW9 in 1982). The Book “All 4 engines have failed” ISBN: 0233977589 is quite a good read. The 747 involved (G-BDXH) was at Hurn for quite a while operated by Euopean Airways and finally scrapped there. He was a speaker at the Christchurch branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society a while back. He said the windscreens were “sandblasted” almost opaque except for a narrow strip next to the centre frame. He’s not very tall, so had to prop himself on the right hand edge of the seat, get the tower at Jakarta to put the lights on 100% and land the aircraft by peering through the tiny opening (not the D/V window) – amazing stuff!

  2. Mark Piney 18 April, 2010 at 6:30 pm #

    Dear David,

    I heard you on Radio 4′s Broadcasting House programme this morning talking a great deal of sense about volcanic ash and its potential impact on aircraft, especially the jet engines. There seems to have been a lot of confusion and inadequate thinking by UK government and EU agencies. I am particularly unimpressed by the routine trotting out of either or both ‘safety is our top priority’ or, even more vacuous, we’ve taken decisions on the basis of the ‘precautionary principle’. Safety decisions are never black-and-white and never cost-free. There are enormous costs, human and financial, to shutting down air travel in Europe.

    The knock-on effects may well, for some in countries utterly dependent on EU trade, shorten their lives and will cause many others real anguish. For instance my sister is friend is dying with a few days to live. Her sister lives in Australia and cannot get back to see her before she dies. It’s not fatal but it’s heart wrenching and, I am sure such stories will be repeating themselves many hundred-fold. Back to your comments on Radio 4.

    Volcanic ash in the stratosphere must be very fine to remain there. Not sure what size but I’d guesstimate <10um. There will always be some particles this size in the stratosphere from other volcanic eruptions and other sources. So the question of whether to fly an aircraft in the stratosphere isn't 'Is there any dust?' it's 'How much dust is too much dust?' A point you made. What amazes me is that no one, with any practical sense, seems to know including the UK government. Much is made of the 'knowledge society' and the UK's prowess in science and technology but how hard would it have been for the UK, and other governments, to have done some basic practical research? Apart from not doing the basic risk research no one seems to have considered the likelihood of fine volcanic particles entering the stratosphere over the UK.

    Iceland is relatively close-by, it's known to be highly volcanic, and it's also known to have had serious effects on the UK in the not to distant past (Laki erupted in 1783 and caused immense crop damage and famine). It was completely predictable that one day a volcano in Iceland would emit large amounts of ash into the stratosphere, and weather conditions would conspire to transport it and keep it over the UK and mainland Europe. You mentioned that you'd emailed all the main jet engine manufacturers asking them what level of volcanic dust they could tolerate, and none had replied. And that no-one seemed to know what level of fine volcanic dust was tolerable. If no-one knows how are the Met Office, NATs and the UK government making decisions? I suspect their in risk-averse, precautionary mode whereby any volcanic dust is treated as 'dangerous'. This cannot be the case.

    My big question to the UK government is why the Icelandic volcano scenario wasn't on their predictable big risks radar (as it were). Lot's of other 'worst case' scenarios seem to haunt the UK government's 'mind' and lots of taxpayers money is spent taking precautions. Bird/swine flu and the so-called computer millennium-bug come to mind. The latter was an expensive damp-squib and the former haven't bitten us in a big way yet. It appears the government, and august scientific bodies like the Royal Society are too busy targeting 'sexy' risks and have done little or no practical research on what was a completely predictable risk.

    I the guess the potentially catastrophic impact of a prolonged shutdown of EU airspace will force the UK, and other governments, to make pragmatic decisions and accept 'some risk'. It's a great pity, and a real indictment, that the governmental 'machine' has not seen fit to do the practical research, together with the manufacturers, into the impact of volcanic ash on aircraft. Simple empirical work would allow risk-based decisions to be made. As it is they, and we, are flying blind. I'd like to see an independent high-powered enquiry into the government's handling of 'big risks' and a far more grounded, practical approach to mitigation and management. Our government, and others, always seem to be caught out. The sign of a competent, clear thinking government is that it's anticipated real risks and has plans. The response so far is based on fear and worst-case scenarios. No one runs their life on worst case scenarios, and I don't see why my government should try and run my life, and that of all other UK citizens that way.

    Good luck with trying get some sense out of the 'powers that be'.

  3. David Nicholas 19 April, 2010 at 10:49 am #

    Mark’s comments are very pertinent. It occurred to me that (apart from the almost paranoid risk-aversion present in the EU govenment’s mindset) the insurance companies are highly likely to be having an influence here. I understand that the current situation satisfies their Act of God or Force Majeur “get-outs” and if that is the case with individual traveller’s cover, then what about aircraft hull insurance? I don’t know but I very much doubt that such cover would be valid if an operator decided to fly in current circumstances (and this would mean that they might be flying without the 3rd Party cover that they legally require. Can anyone find out more about this?). No airline is likely to risk flying without insurance (I hope) and just imagine the corporate manslaughter charge that would follow if an accident, however tenuously related to the ash) were to occur before flight restrictions are lifted.
    This has the potential to bankrupt airlines, airports, import/exporters and travel agencies, and throw us back fifty years in terms of international travel….and nobody saw it coming.

  4. roger aves 19 April, 2010 at 1:04 pm #

    re jim french on bbc breakfast tv

    Subject: re Jim French flybe interview on BBC breakfast.

    i think he is wrong about saying aircraft radar can see the ash clouds…the radar usually cannot.
    normal clouds are made up of moisture which can be seen on weather radar.
    that’s the reason why NATS have stopped all flights.

    the ash cannot be seen by a/c radar. and this ash is so difficult to see and is at different flight levels.
    for he and other airlines, whilst i can sympathize with the financial losses incurred to all by the ‘no-fly’ i am amazed that he made these
    comments to the general public. it’s rather misleading and i think dubious and maybe careless.

    BA009 20 years ago with their weather radar were unable to see any ash clouds over Java and lost all 4 engines.
    Capt. Eric Moody said this only the other day and stated how dangerous the unseen threat can be,
    Jim French maybe panicking about his cash flow but he is rather silly to tell the public this ban should
    be relooked at too hastily and decisions to lift the travel ban made by bodies who bow to commercial pressure.

    roger aves

  5. Stace 19 April, 2010 at 2:41 pm #

    Can anyone tell me how close the 1982 747 flew in respect of the actual volcano – did it go directly through the main ‘plume’ or distant cloud?

  6. roger aves 19 April, 2010 at 5:26 pm #

    re ba009 routing etc.
    this may help you
    seems ba9 left KL at 1815L and at 2040L started to experience problems. this was some 90 minutes flying time to the south of Java so i guess a long way from the volcano.

  7. other roads 21 April, 2010 at 12:24 am #

    i agree with what roger aves had commented. on speedbird 9 way back in 1982, the flight path was almost 500 miles south westerly away from mount galunggung eruptions and it was at 37,000 feet above the open sea.

  8. PDXMickyB 22 April, 2010 at 5:28 am #

    I well remember Capt. Eric Moody’s wonderful airmanship. However today I think lawyers are driving decisions. I think Europe over-reacted, but without the potential of lawsuits, would the reaction have been different? I think so.

    My international travel goes back to 1968 on a BOAC VC-10 from LHR to HKG. Those were the simpler days – in coach I used to think a LF more than 33% was full!

    OK, I’ll go back into my cave!