I have to fly to Jakarta via Singapore next week. I just heard news that 3000 people have been evacuated from villages in Sumatra because of increased activity in a nearby volcano.
I'm a really nervous flyer and this is playing on my mind.
Is it easy for aircraft to avoid volcanic ash?
Perhaps my article written for Travel 3Sixty in-flight magazine below might help you to understand more about volcanic ash..
Dealing with Volcanic Ash
Mother Nature’s increasingly erratic behaviour means that pilots may have to deal with volcanic ash that spews from eruptions now and then.
To begin with, the economic impact of Iceland's volcanic eruptions in 2010 actually cost the travel industry around US$5-10 billion a week! Air Asia X operations into London Stansted was badly affected. Similarly, the ash plumes from the volcanic eruptions in Chile, South America was blown as far west as New Zealand and Australia. Both these recent events grounded many International flights.
Why were such costly precautions taken by the airline industry? Well, safety is paramount in view of what volcanic ash can do to planes as it did to a British Airways Boeing 747 on June 24, 1982. The plane was flying from Kuala Lumpur to Perth but unwittingly went into a cloud of volcanic ash caused by an eruption south-east of Jakarta, Indonesia. It caused the 4 engines of the jumbo jet to fail.
The plane was cruising at 37,000 feet and as in my previous article on Dead-Stick Glide Landing - the plane did not drop like a stone after the 4 engines had failed but was able to glide and exited the ash cloud as the captain tried to restart the engines. In fact, the crew calculated that without engines they could glide for about 23 minutes or about 91 nautical miles (169 km) from 37.000 feet.
Fortunately, they were able to restart all the four engines at lower altitude although one failed again soon after. They successfully landed at Jakarta with only three engines. They had only limited visibility as their windscreens were badly sandblasted by the volcanic ash.
Seven years later on December 15, 1989, a KLM Boeing 747 en route to Narita, Tokyo from Amsterdam also suffered the same fate. All the four engines of the 6-months old plane failed but were restarted at 14,000 feet. It landed safely at Anchorage International Airport in Alaska. They had encountered the so-called “The Jakarta Effect”.
It was from past lessons that the airline industry took such drastic steps to prevent their re-occurrence by shutting down a massive part of the European airspace in 2010. It was then that the public felt how a loss of air transportation for a week could do to disrupt the lives and businesses of many.
How do pilots deal with such issues?
Part of a pilot’s pre-flight preparation is to be notified by flight dispatch centre whether his route for the day would be affected by any volcanic activity. If so, then the flight would be rerouted to avoid the danger area.
Nevertheless, there are drills to be followed by pilots in the unlikely event that they inadvertently come into contact with volcanic plumes that linger high in the sky. Unfortunately, attempting to detect these plumes visually can be quite difficult as some are not easy to see and the only way to identify their presence is the existence of an acrid odour that can smell like electrical smoke, burned dust, or sulphur.
However, if this situation is detected, the first action when confronted by such an encounter is to do a 180 degrees turn and avoid the possibility of engine failures - yes, be a chicken, turn around and run for your life!
If you like what you read, more stories are found in my book LIFE IN THE SKIES (Preview here) and you can purchase a copy here. To check for any latest updates or postings, you can follow my Twitter at @CaptKHLim or Facebook here