Volcanic Ash Can Damage Airplanes

May 24, 2011; 3:07 AM ET
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Volcano eruption image courtesy of Photos.com

"When ash plumes are able to make it into the jet while in flight, there is a danger..."


The recent eruption of Iceland's Grimsvotn volcano caused the Iceland's main international airport to close and a 120-nautical-mile, no-fly zone to be established around the region.

When ash plumes are able to make it into the jet while in flight, there is a danger that planes can be damaged by the ash.

Many jets have been damaged by ash in the past 30 years, according to Boeing.com. During that time, more than 90 jet-powered commercial airplanes have been damaged when they encountered clouds of volcanic ash.

In 1980, a volcano at Mount St. Helens erupted. A Boeing 727 and a Douglas DC-8 both encountered ash plumes released by this eruption. The planes experienced damage to their windshields and to several systems. Both planes were able to land safely.

An eruption of the Galunggung volcano in Indonesia in 1982 sent an ash plume into the sky that damaged several Boeing 747's. One of the planes lost thrust from all four of its engines and had to descend from 36,000 feet to 12,500 feet before the engines could be restarted. The plane had to divert and land in Jakarta. All four of the engines had to be replaced.

Boeing has provided the following advice to flight crews to prevent damage by ash to airplanes. Plan flight paths that avoid ash plumes when possible. Be aware of alternate routes that can be taken if ash is detected. The flight crews should remain upwind of volcanic ash and dust.

Crews should be able to recognize the signs that indicate volcanic ash is present. Flight crews can usually smell a smoky or acrid odor when they encounter ash. A haze can also be seen inside the airplane by the crew and/or passengers. Dust from the ash can settle on surfaces. The crew can also notice changes to the engine, airspeed and pressurization.

The procedure that needs to be followed by the crew should ash be encountered is to reduce engine thrust and idle immediately. This can help prevent buildup of debris in the engines. The crew should then exit the ash cloud as quickly as possible.

With some evasive action and preventative measures, flight crews can help prevent damage to planes when they encounter volcanic ash clouds.

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