Friday, April 16, 2010

Hard Clouds

Iceland: where geology and aviation collide. Literally.

You heard about it today. Go here. Thousands of flights were canceled in western Europe and more trans-Atlantic crossings scrubbed. I saw it coming.

Last week my dispatcher routed our Moscow flight north of Iceland. He said the winds up there were better, but he cautioned us to be careful about selecting Keflavik as an alternate. A volcano was stirring. We would be descending through its ash cloud to get there. I decided there would be no divert to Kef unless we were burning.

It was my rest period when we sailed over the northern tip of Iceland and the lads up front had orders to wake me up if they saw the volcano, but alas the island was embedded with the soft cloud variety. Nice trip, though.

Then yesterday all hell broke loose. The big huffer-puffer spewed a zillion tons of what geologists call pyroclastic ejecta into the upper flight levels. Not good. Planes can fly through ash clouds but not their engines. Here's what happens:

St. Elmo's fire attacks your windows, portending bad things coming. Then your airspeed indications become entirely unreliable. You had better hope you'll make  a daylight landing because your landing light covers will erode to a milky hunk of gunk. But even if it's daytime you'll probably not expect to see out front. The windshields will turn into 1000-grit sandpaper. You'd better hope your auto-land system is up to speed. But all this may be the least of your problems, as a British Airways crew found out in 1982.

The 747 heading to Jakarta entered a clod from an Indonesian volcano. (You thought I misspelled “cloud”, and I did, but decided “clod” is actually accurate.) All four engines punched their time cards and knocked-off early. Flying through rock was not in their union contract.

Ash then entered the cockpit forcing the crew to get their oxygen masks on. I can tell you from experience, that any emergency you encounter doubles your adrenalin pressure when you hang that hose on your face. Reality slaps you and your survival instinct starts whispering urgent appeals to your brain.

The crew decided they had 23 minutes of gliding time—about 100 miles of distance. Huge island mountains loomed ahead. The captain turned toward the sea to give him more time. As they descended toward thicker, clearer air the captain, in typical British coolness, made one of the most famous passenger announcements in aviation history: “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.”

As passengers scribbled goodbye notes to relatives, the crew tried to get the engines re-started. Number 4 started first. They used its thrust to reduce their descent rate and gain some time. Then 3 spooled up. Then numbers 1 and 2 must have said, “Aw hell, the fun's over, let's go back to work.” They landed safely and the passengers used their goodbye letters to wipe tears and noses.

So, you want to complain—do you—about getting stuck at the airport or having your flight canceled just because a little old ash clod got loose? Don't just sit there and suffer this outrage. Protest. Get one of these bumper stickers:

Oops. I saw this ugly machine sitting on its nose at San Juan.
What is it, and what is the standing joke about it?


Bob said...

Interesting that you guys saw the volcano coming, although I guess that's one of the things geologists and such can help us with. I LOVE the bumper sticker!

Although I don't know any standing joke, I believe that's a Short 330 in the picture. Makes a Beech 1900 look positively sleek by comparison, and that's an accomplishment.

Another great blog.

Thanks Captain!

airphoria said...

Looks to me like a Shorts will gear-up-land quite nicely. In fact, if the runway was snowbound, he might have just flown it away.

The bumper sticker is priceless. I gotta spread that one around...

- steve c.

Anonymous said...

Great story on the volcano and the ash. One of these days I have got to get another ride with you in the Yak.

Chris said...

One of the only aircraft where the tail is vulnerable to bird strikes?

5400AirportRdSouth said...

I'm thinking its a Shorts 330, and the joke we use around here, is that it's the box a twin otter is shipped in.

Thanks for the entertainment and info with your blog, very well written and I always look forward to your posts!


Giulia said...

New here.

Just wanted to say hello and thank you for such interesting stories and information. I enjoyed catching up on the previous entries.

Looking forward to the next entry. :)

tagskie said...

Nice blog you got here... Just droppin' by to say hi!

00 said...


Anonymous said...

Yo Dude check out this website that tracks flights over Europe. Its actally quite natty. Unusual to see big spaces when the ash cloud hits.



Anonymous said...

Back in the 80's some airline (I forgot which one) used to fly the Shorts from BUR to Laughlin, Nevada. One day I heard BUR tower chide the Shorts pilot: "Hey! It looks like you forgot to take your plane out of the box."