On April 14th 2010 a small volcano erupted in Iceland. The volcanic ashes that burst out from the volcano called Eyjafjallajökull (yeah, we can’t pronounce it either) rose to about 10 km high. That is also the cruising height of most modern aircraft.
What happened next is probably known to everyone living in Europe. Heavy winds blowing from Iceland carried the volcanic ash to Europe. Great Britain and Northern European countries were the first to shut down their airspace. Suddenly without a warning all in-country and international flights were canceled. At first it was only thought to last for a few hours but as time went on, it was clear that the problem was only getting worse.
During the next day the giant cloud of volcanic ashes spread throughout Europe. All flights in Europe were canceled.
What happens when a plane flies into a cloud of volcanic ash?
The reason all flying was forbidden is that volcanic ash can be extremely dangerous for airplanes. History has experienced about 100 times when a plane has faced volcanic ashes. Luckily none have ended in catastrophe but some have been very close.
A KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Boeing 747 flew into a cloud of volcanic ash in 1989. The plane lost all power and dropped from 25 000 feet to 12 000 (from 7.5 km to 3.6 km) before power to the plane’s engines returned.
In the beginning of 1980s a British Airways Boeing 747 also came into contact with a volcanic cloud. The small but razor sharp particles sandblasted the plane’s windscreen and made it impossible for the pilots to see outside. Luckily the pilot was able to land the plane looking out of a side window.
In another incident in 1982 another British Airways Boeing 747 was on its way from London to New Zealand. After flying through a volcanic ash cloud over Indonesia all 4 of the planes engines stopped working. After cruising the plane as far away from the ash cloud as possible the pilot Eric Moody managed to restart 3 out of 4 plane engines and was able to land safely.
The pilot Eric Moody also went down in history saying these calming words to the passengers during the incident:
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get it under control. I trust you are not in too much distress.”
Of course no one freaked out. After all – the plane was gliding without engines for only 14 minutes.
Why Is Volcanic Ash Dangerous to Airplanes?
Before 1982 and the accident mentioned above with Eric Moody’s Boeing 747 no one knew that volcanic ash can be dangerous to a plane.
The volcanic ash is mainly made up of tiny glassy and sandy particles that are as hard as knife blades and as sharp as razors. Each ash particle can be anywhere from as small as 0.001 millimeters (1/25,000 inch) to 2 millimeters (1/12 inch) in size.
Ash can melt in the heat of an aircraft engine and then solidify again, disrupting the mechanics. Check out this illustration for an explanation:
Airlines lose billions of Euros daily
All airports in main European countries are closed for air travel.
According to the International Air Transport Association the European airliners are losing more than 200 million euros of profit per day. In addition to that they will need to take care of stranded passengers and still pay back the loans which are used to lease the aircraft.
Auditing company KPMG has calculated that only in Great Britain the airlines lose 300 million dollars daily.
According to airline companies the current volcano crisis has a larger impact on their business than 9/11 had. Some airlines have notified the European Commission that if the situation continues they are facing bankruptcy. Many airliners believe that the ban on air travel is too harsh and are urging authorities to lift it.
As hundreds of thousands of people are stranded and wait for their opportunity to get home the British and French governments are considering using navy ships to get their people back home.
Meanwhile there is a new joke about Iceland circling around social media:
“It was the last wish of the dying Icelandic economy that its ashes be scattered across Europe”
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