Posts Tagged ‘ air travel ’

A Dark Cloud

Virtually of of northern Europe is landbound – with almost all commercial air traffic grounded – due to the eruption of a volcano in Iceland.

The name of this volcano: Eyjafjallajokull is but one of the problems. Its virtually unpronounceable by anybody not fluent in Icelandic. (ay-yah-FYAH’-plah-yer-kuh-duhl) is how it is listed on most news web sites. On the other hand the wikipedia page  for the wretched thing provides a sound file that ends with a sort of hissing click that really doesn’t sound anything like you’d expect. I pity the poor news readers who have to deal with it. It makes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seem as simple as Tom Jones.

President Obama has just had to cancel his trip to Poland to attend the funeral of late Polish President Lech Kaczyński. All airfields in poland are closed because of the cloud of glass-filled ash. It would, theoretically, have been possible for the President to fly to some point outside the affected area, and then travel overland to Poland. Not the sort of thing the Secret Service would agree to. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was reported returning to Germany via an armored convoy from Italy. (The last time I recall that term being used to refer to Germans for a very long time indeed.)

The risks posed to aircraft flying through volcanic plumes is not new. A British Airways 747 flying near Mount Galunggung in Indonesia in 1982 suddenly suffered complete engine failure of all four powerplants. The aircraft was able to glide to a lower altitude and restart the engines – although one later failed again. The plane managed to make a controlled emergency landing in Jakarta.

The problems encountered by the British Airways flight (Flight 9) in 1982 ought to give anybody pause before suggesting that the closure of European airspace is in any way an over reaction. Because the plane was flying at night, and the volcanic ash did not show up on airborne radar, the crew literally had no idea there was any problem until the engines stopped working, literally with two or three minutes of each other.

Under examination it was found that the glass particles in the volcanic ash cloud entered the engine combustion chambers, where the high heat caused it melt, adhering to the sides. It was only as the plane descended, with the engines not running, that the molten glass solidified and enough broke off the it was possible to restart the engines. Engine damage wasn’t the only problem: The aircraft windshield was essentially sandblasted, as were the aircraft landing lights – making landing difficult and taxing impossible. Furthermore it was found that the fuel onboard had been contaminated by ash drawn into the fuel tanks via the pressurization ports.

This weekend Europeans are doing their best to deal with the situation: taking taxi rides, train trips, and ferry journeys to get home. For a few days it will be an inconvenience – but manageable.

The concern is what happens if the volcano continues to erupt for weeks or months? This is far from a remote possibility.

Air travel between North America and Europe will, on some level, still be possible. But it may involve flying to Spain or North Africa – and then relying on ground transportation to take you north to London or Berlin.