It’s been a bad day for travel to, from, or across northern Europe, with flights canceled wholesale due to the eruption of a volcano in Iceland.
So, what would happen if a commercial airplane flew through a volcanic ash cloud? It’s happened before, to a British Airways 747 traveling over Indonesia in 1982:
Aircraft avoid any airspace that has volcanic ash in it for a simple reason: the ash can wreck the function of propeller or jet aircraft, because it is so fine that it will invade the spaces between rotating machinery and jam it – the silica melts at about 1,100C and fuses on to the turbine blades and nozzle guide vanes (another part of the turbine assembly), which in modern aircraft operate at 1,400C.
That, in turn, can be catastrophic – as the crew of two aircraft, including a British Airways Boeing 747, discovered in 1982 when they flew through an ash cloud from the Galunggung volcano in Indonesia. On both planes, all four engines stopped; they dived from 36,000ft (11km) to 12,000ft before they could restart them and make emergency landings.
Passengers on the BA flight that hit the cloud in 1982 said the engines looked unusually bright: soon after all four flamed out. “I don’t believe it – all four engines have failed!” said the flight engineer. The crew were prepared to ditch, and the captain told the passengers: “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 them under control. I trust you are not in too much distress.”
Good move canceling the flights.
And nice work, this line: “I trust you are not in too much distress.”