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What is all the fuss about ash?

Everyone by now is aware that the volcanic eruption has grounded all flights out of the UK, but what is all the fuss about, what can a little ash do?

Some airlines are putting pressure on NATS to allow flights into the UK and who can blame them when they are losing millions per day. However NATS are not taking the risk and this whole situation boils down to the epic British Airways Flight 9 in 1982.

Unbeknown to the pilots and ground control, BA Flight 9 flew through the ash cloud of an erupting volcano, South West of Jakarta in Indonesia. Subsequently, sulphurous smoke filled the cabin and all four engines failed.

So here’s a little geology lesson for you… volcanic rock melts at approximately 1300oC, the temperature in a jet engine exceeds 2000oC. You can probably guess the rest, but a jet engine filled with molten lava definitely spells trouble.

Though they wouldn’t have thought it at the time, Flight 9 had a lucky break when their engines failed. Molten rock deposits had stopped the intake of air and the engines flamed out, however as the engines cooled slightly the deposits clinging to the inside broke off, re-enabling full airflow. Despite never having been tried before on a Boeing 747, the pilot chanced a full engine restart – with success.

Landing was the next issue. If you have ever seen anything sand blasted you will understand that flying at nearly 1000km/h through tiny rock particles is going to do some damage, in this case the cockpit window was scratched to a whiteout. Pilots had to land using a 2” strip of clear glass, which somehow had avoided destruction. The ground crew in Jakarta saw on touch down a Boeing 747 stripped to its bare metal by volcanic ash.

It was a lucky escape for Flight 9 and the crew were justly awarded the Queens Commendation for Valuable Service in the Air. Despite the heroics, it was an event that was vowed never to be repeated. So despite the frustration, cost and inconvenience of the current volcanic eruption in Iceland, it is certainly worth considering the consequences if a wrong decision was made.