Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Airline Companies Versus Volcanic Ash

The recent Icelandic volcanic eruption might had revealed airline companies’ supposed pathological fear of volcanic ash, but are their supposed fears justified?


By: Ringo Bones


When Iceland’s Eyjafjallaj√∂kull Volcano’s eruption went full-force around April 21, 2010, it resulted in the widespread cancellation of commercial air travel over much of the northern European airspace. While reiterating that they are just erring on the side of caution, airline companies and their related European governing bodies gave the impression to the public that they really have a pathological fear of volcanic ash. While costing billions during the few weeks of suspending some flights over much of Europe’s most lucrative airline routes, did the transport authorities acted logically when they declared to suspend flights due to the presence of volcanic ash?

Believe it or not, scientific and procedural precedence already exists that volcanic ash in enough concentrations in a typical passenger airline’s flight path can wreak havoc to a typical modern jumbo jet’s systems. Back in June24, 1982, the eruption of Mt. Galunggung on the island of Java threw enough volcanic ash into the atmosphere, which was unfortunately blown into the flight path of a British Airways Flight 009 – one of their Boeing 747-236B jumbos named City of Edinburgh – en route from Indonesia to Australia. Trouble started when the ash and volcanic gases was accidentally sucked by the plane’s air pressurization system into the plane’s cabin that resulted in the passenger and crew to assume that there is a fire inside the plane's cabin.

Enough ash was blown into the flight path of BA Flight 009 that at one point all of the plane’s four engines flame out or stalled then restarted erratically at random. The volcanic ash concentration was enough to create a triboelectric charge that caused BA Flight 009 to manifest the phenomena called St. Elmo’s Fire which often manifest itself as a bluish glow around the structures of the plane that tapers to a point. The flight almost ended in tragedy when the remaining functional jet engines could not generate enough power to clear the plane from the mountain ranges of the island of Java. Fortunately, the engines went back on line on the crucial moment they were needed to clear the mountain range allowing the plane to perform an emergency landing. After BA Flight 009 landed, the external damage caused by volcanic ash had sandblasted the British Airways owned plane’s external paint work and eroded the turbine blades of its jet engines. Primarily it was the volcanic ash turning into molten glass inside the jet engine that caused the flame-out and compressor stall that almost made that flight end in tragedy.

The dramatic ordeal of British Airways Flight 009 has set the existing precedents over airline companies’ policies around the world when it comes to flying in airspace that’s affected by volcanic activity. The rerouting of passenger flights over northern Europe during the end of April 2010 might have cost airline companies millions. But erring on the side of caution had allowed them to avert the tragedy of a plane crash that resulted in the deaths of hundreds. I just hope they have the same cautious policy when flying over clandestine nuclear weapons testing zones like Lop Nur in China or the mountainous regions of India and Pakistan where they tested their nukes back in 1998 when a detonated nuclear weapon’s electromagnetic pulse or EMP can fry a civilian airliner’s avionics – especially when it is not “hardened” against an EMP pulse.