How volcanic ash could ground your next flight

British airspace has been shut down as a plume of volcanic ash is drifting from Iceland over Europe. Here's a look at the potential damage from volcanic ash.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

British airspace has been shut down as a plume of volcanic ash is drifting from Iceland over Europe. The ramifications on international air travel will be huge. How can volcanic ash be so disruptive?

As CBS News notes:

A cloud of ash belched at least five miles into the sky by an Icelandic volcano has drifted south, forcing British air traffic authorities to shut down all of the nation's airports Thursday over fears the ash could choke aircraft engines.

As a result airspace in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is off limits Thursday. Ireland and Denmark also have suspended air travel for a period. British Airways and other airlines have canceled flights. London's Heathrow airport is also shut down. Heathrow said in an in advisory:

All flights are suspended at Heathrow until further notice, with no further flights expected to depart or arrive today. This is due to the closing of British airspace by the UK air traffic control service (NATS), because of volcanic ash spreading across the UK from Iceland.

I've received a few IMs wondering how a volcano in Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland can cause so much disruption. It's just a big cloud right? Not quite. Fortunately, Boeing has a good overview of what can happen when planes run into volcanic ash.

Boeing writes:

In the past 30 years, more than 90 jet-powered commercial airplanes have encountered clouds of volcanic ash and suffered damage as a result. The increased availability of satellites and the technology to transform satellite data into useful information for operators have reduced the number of volcanic ash encounters. However, further coordination and cooperation, including linking operators and their dispatchers to the network of government volcano observers, is required throughout the industry.

Among the potential problems:

  • Volcanic ash results in a smoky or acrid odor on the plane;
  • Dust and haze settle in the plane;
  • Engines surge, torch and flameout. Temperatures change dramatically;
  • Airspeed fluctuates;
  • Cabin pressure changes;
  • And then there are static discharges similar to a St. Elmo's fire or glow.

Sounds like enough to put safety first. Simply put, volcanic ash can kill an airplane. If a flight crew encounters volcanic ash they have to reduce thrust, turn off auto throttles, exit the ash cloud pronto, turn on engine and wing anti-ice devices and start auxiliary power. In addition, flight crews may need to use oxygen and turn on continuous ignition on the plane.

Given the history of airplanes flying over volcanoes---engine damage and windshield damage---the prudent thing to do is to shut down air travel.

Here's the raw video of Iceland's volcano:

Watch CBS News Videos Online

More volcano resources worth checking out.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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