- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2004

British Airways pilot Eric Moody was on a routine flight when smoke and the smell of burning electronics poured into the cabin of his 747 — then all four of the plane’s engines failed.

“So there we have three flight crew, 13 cabin crew, 247 passengers at 37,000 feet, and we’ve got the world’s heaviest and largest glider,” he said. “We realized then that we really had a problem.”

The radio was broadcasting static, the instruments were not working, the cabin had depressurized, and the flight crew had no idea why.

“All the electronic things we had were talking gibberish to us,” Mr. Moody said. “I couldn’t see through the front of the airplane at all.”

The plane dropped more than 25,000 feet before the crew was able to restart the engines, and it was not until the next day that Mr. Moody learned that the Galunggung volcano on Java, an Indonesian island, had erupted near his flight path.

“As dramatic as this event is, it’s not just a freak case,” said Marianne Guffanti, a volcanologist from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program. “There aren’t really many things that will shut down a jet engine in flight … when it does happen, ash has been the main culprit.”

Of the 50 to 60 volcanic eruptions that occur each year, she said, 15 to 20 are explosive enough to send ash to flight altitudes, interfering with engine function and aircraft systems.

“This is not the kind of ash you get in your fireplace,” she said. “It’s like pieces of abrasive glass and hard, little mineral fragments.”

The high operating temperature of a jet engine, she said, causes the glass to melt. It then cools and solidifies in other parts of the engine.

Mr. Moody’s incident in June 1982 was the first time an airliner lost all four engines to volcanic ash. About 100 serious encounters have occurred since then, but fewer in recent years, largely because of coordinated efforts to warn pilots about active or erupting volcanoes.

Mr. Moody told his story last week in Alexandria at the Second International Conference on Volcanic Ash and Aviation Safety, which brought people from a variety of agencies and organizations to improve the global-warning system for volcanic eruptions.

“The basic application to detection and advisory development is conceptually simple,” said James R. Mahoney, assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, “but the devil is in the details.”

Those details, Mr. Mahoney said, include detecting when there is eruption, knowing whether it has produced a cloud of ash and, if it has, how far the cloud will disperse and in which direction at what altitude, and then communicating that information to pilots.

Detecting a cloud of volcanic ash isn’t always as easy as it sounds, said Charles Groat, director of the U.S. Geological Survey. “Beyond the [visible] plume, there are wide areas of dispersion of the cloud that gets mixed in with moisture and can cause problems,” he said.

Although the United States has the technology to warn pilots of volcanic dangers, not all nations have the instruments, technical know-how, or communication ability to do so, said Steven Albersheim, a meteorologist at the Federal Aviation Administration.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide