Ash Legacy

12-years have elapsed since an Icelandic volcano’s eruption led to the shutting down of airspace in Europe. Travel chaos resulted, large sums of money were lost, and confidence was shaken. Many, like me, in the aviation world, quickly learnt more about volcanic ash than we ever dreamed possible.

Strangely enough the question: can commercial airline travel disruption be fixed for the summer? Is now doing the rounds. Again, the reason for this question is the consequence of an event that goes way beyond the boundaries of any one country, namely the COVID-19 pandemic. After the troublesome events of early 2010 there was a lot of talk about increasing the resilience of aviation. Now, the subject has come around again. The hot topic is how do we bring people together in this interconnected globe after a major shock to the travel industry?

The UK’s TV Channel 5 has a strong track record of screening documentaries about volcanos. Its audience must really like the drama and scariness of these earthly monsters. Channel 5’s latest offering is the story of the volcanic ash cloud that dominated European skies in 2010[1].

Explosive volcanic eruptions eject pyroclastic fragmented materials, and this case was one of those cases. The lightest material, the volcanic ash, can be carried great distances as we all found out. Volcanic ash has the potential to impact just about every aspect of flying. Close in it’s the aerodromes that get hit. Up in the air there can be effects on aircraft structure, systems, and aircraft engines. Melting ash in the hot section of a jet engine is something to be avoided. It’s not just aircraft engines since ash can abrades and damages parts of aircraft structure, such as cockpit windows, leading edges, paint, antennas, probes and, angle of attack vanes.

Channel 5’s documentary assumed ash was bad. It didn’t explain. It focused more on the experience of travellers and those managing the airspace over the UK. However, it did go into the 1982 incident when a Boeing 747’s engines all stopped after it flew through a dense volcanic ash cloud.

The documentary was right in that Europe was unprepared for volcanic ash clouds of the scale generated by Iceland’s volcanos. One of the problems during the April/May 2010 eruption was that the London Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC)[2] computer model was a single source of flight planning data. There was found to be an urgent need for ground and airborne measurement of the actual densities of volcanic ash. Also, the greater use and interpretation of satellite images came into play.

Overall, the 85-minute documentary was enjoyable viewing showing some of what happened. It gave a snapshot from the point of views of both travellers and a few of those trying to resolve the crisis.

I remember that this event was a genuinely high-pressure multidisciplinary problem to solve. It isn’t every day that volcanologists, meteorologists, regulators, researchers, pilots, controllers, and engineers all get around a table. Especially when politicians, industry leaders and the media are all vying for the public spotlight. The outcome, if heeded, should be a much better response to a future airspace crisis.


[1] https://www.channel5.com/show/ash-cloud-the-week-the-world-stopped

[2] https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/services/transport/aviation/regulated/vaac/index

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