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?