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28 FEBRUARY 2011


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Article from BTNews 28 FEBRUARY 2011

ON TOUR: Ash in Europe

This fascinating report is by Ian Sheppard, MRAeS, aerospace journalist and Managing Editor of Regional International, the journal of the European Regions Airline Association (also Flight International technical reporter, 1997-8)

On 2 February David Learmount, Flight International’s long-time Operations and Safety Editor, gave a lecture exploring the aftermath of the volcanic ash crisis of April/May 2010, when Iceland’s Mt Eyjafjallajökull spewed ash over much of Europe.  The talk took place at Brooklands Museum, under the auspices of the Weybridge Branch of the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS).

Learmount is somewhat of an expert on this subject having followed it closely both during and afterwards, including at a conference in Iceland and a CANSO (Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation) conference in Oslo.  “It’s a very complex subject,” warned Learmount, while showing a stunning image on the projector of an aircraft flying right next to the plume of a volcano.  “No wonder airlines got upset when they were grounded when they thought they could do that!”

Overall he noted that estimates put the overall cost of the crisis at anything up to US$1.1tri (OECD estimate), while the EC’s Daniel Calleja Crespo put the direct cost at some €4.7bn.  Worryingly, at one of those Icelandic conferences it was announced that it was a “pinhead” compared to some volcanoes in history, even as recently as the last couple of centuries.

He then showed images of the engines of Finnish F-18s which had strayed into the ash cloud, with severe damage to the engine turbine blades, while also pointing out the damage discovered after the BA 747-200 (BA Flight 009) flew into the plume of Mt Galunggung, Jakarta, at night on 24 June 1982.  “The ash melts and turns to glass,” said Learmount, stressing that there is, potentially, a serious threat to aircraft safety – but at what concentration levels?

There are lots of different types of volcanic ash.  It is very fine and even gets into the cooling channels in blades – not a good situation given that the blades in modern gas turbines operate at above the melting point of the metal used in the blades (without cooling they would break down and fail).  “It is analogous to sand in the desert, where higher wind blows up heavy sand not dust, and this sand is abrasive like ash.  This can change the aerodynamic shapes of blades and stators.”

So why didn’t the Europeans handle the situation very well?

Historically, before BA 009 there was “no plan” for such an event.  From 1982 however ICAO started to set up Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres (VAACs) – of which there are now nine.  VAACs report four times a day on any volcanoes which pose a risk, with intensity contour charts.  However the Icelandic plume was a good way away from the busiest European airspace.  “The airlines were very hacked off,” reflected Learmount, “and they said they knew that they could operate, and even sent aircraft up, and said that there was zero problem.  But Airbus sent up an Airbus A340 and said that the airlines didn’t have sampling equipment on their aircraft.”

The upshot of the confusion was that regulators took the view that “guesswork was not good enough – you’ve got to do the science.”  The problem was, nobody had done the science.”

“So did Europe have to shut down?” asked Learmount.  “NO! At least not to the extent it did... and YES too – as Europe had no contingency plan, not at EC or EASA or national level.  [Yet] the knowledge of how to deal with ash events intelligently exists – e.g. the US FAA – but there was not knowledge in Europe.” 

Yet he came back to the airline position, little publicised at the time perhaps because they didn’t want to risk being seen as gung-ho: “Airlines said we’re fine because we fly through this stuff quite often.”

One of the main issues was that “every nation took this [problem] as its own and they didn’t talk to each other” – so there was “no contingency plan, no experience and no verifiable technical or operational knowledge [in Europe].  So there was no choice but to default to the safest option.”

Learmount voiced the opinion that “Without the [UK] CAA’s leadership it would have been far worse – without them we wouldn’t have had what we had in one week.  The CAA realised that the politicians had to be brought into it.  And the politicians realised that they couldn’t meet – so they had to do a teleconference!  Then, just as Europe agreed an interim plan, the wind changed and they didn’t need it anyway [yet].”

So what didn’t we know in April?  “We know that we still know very little.”  Although there was ICAO guidance at the time the thing that stood out and reverberated was ‘AVOID, AVOID, AVOID’.  It also said that it would always be possible to fly around the ash cloud – which the Icelandic event showed was not always the case.  “It was unique as it was the first time Europe had ash since the [dawn of powered aviation, and the] Wright Brothers.”  And this in Europe, “by far the densest area of aviation activity in the world.”

British Airways’ Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) required pilots to fly at least 100 nautical miles from the visible plume, yet “BA’s experience was not logged – it was just anecdotal... you couldn’t expect the CAA to formulate policy on the basis of that!”  Furthermore, said Learmount, “BA and Rolls-Royce wouldn’t talk during the event”.  In fact, he added, “All the engine manufacturers were very nervous – they were scared that if they [stated a safe] level (g/m3) the lawyers would get them.” (He noted too that manufacturers and airlines are also “to a certain extent scared to death by the lawyers”).

Then, Rolls-Royce came out after the event and stated that a ‘safe level’ would be “some ten times the level assumed by the European agencies,” said Learmount in an exasperated manner, repeating that “Rolls-Royce wouldn’t even talk to the CAA at the time!”

So what’s been done?  Learmount expressed his view: “The lack of NAA [National Aviation Authority of which the CAA is the UK’s] coordination is slightly less likely to happen next time.  We now have the Aviation Crisis Coordination Cell (ACCC) – but I’ll believe it when it works.”

He noted that the International Volcanic Ash Task Force (IVTF) had started to make progress and that Europe now has a volcanic ash contingency plan covering Europe and the North Atlantic – this is the three-zone system set up after the initial six-day shutdown last April, with a No-Fly Zone (NFZ) at the core, Time-Limited Zone (TLZ) around that, and a Enhanced Procedures Zone (EPZ) around that.  “But to go into the TLZ you need to know engine characteristics for your particular aircraft.  Also you need an inspection after.”  The end result, he noted, was what the operators wanted – for risk management to be transferred from regulators to aircraft operators.

Learmount noted how incredibly “clued up” Alaska Airlines was on the risk of volcanic ash plumes, with pilots doing drills in simulators to prepare for possible ash encounters.  “No pilots from Britain, France etc are drilled in this!”  The Alaskan guidance is primarily designed for night and low visibility conditions where the ‘plume’ cannot be seen by pilots – with flight plans requiring a route at least 35nm clear of the plume or forecast position of the plume.  In addition, “they have radar and video cameras watching the volcanoes.  Alaskan takes it very seriously, not a John Wayne attitude [that some think, wrongly, US operators have] at all,” stressed Learmount.

With the Iceland volcano he noted, as has been widely publicised, that “usually when Eyjafjallajökull goes off, Katla [its big sister] goes off a little while later – but it hasn’t done so yet.”

A short discussion followed the lecture which centred primarily on BA Flight 009, which lost all four engines after flying through an ash plume at night.  Members of the audience variously noted that the aircraft had been in a terrible state when it returned, having re-lighted the engines once well away from the plume (for example it had been effectively ‘sand-blasted’, and Captain Eric Moody could hardly see out of the cockpit to land).

It was also noted that the scratches often observed in sunlight on aircraft windows are from ash and sand in the atmosphere.  Stewart John, former Cathay Pacific Chief Engineer, noted that he had been present when the engines of BA009 (Rolls-Royce RB211 D4 turbofans) were inspected, and they were in a very bad way – although much of the ‘caked’ ash had cleared out of the engines once they flew out of the plume and they could be restarted.  He noted the economic impact on the aircraft itself was severe, an engine overhaul costing over US$6m not to mention the impact on its usable life.

Finally, a lady in the audience said that she knew one of the passengers from BA009, who said that the 17 minutes when the aircraft was a ‘glider’ was the longest of their lives!

For a report on the most recent conference on this topic, which was hosted by EASA last month, please see: http://cot.ag/hne1jw

Note – link to CANSO conference report is on David Learmount’s blog at: http://www.flightglobal.com/blogs/learmount/2010/06/can-europe-beat-the-ash-next-t.html

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