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Icelandic Volcano Eruption Strands Air Passengers Across Europe

April 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A giant cloud of ash from a glacial volcano in Iceland grounded hundreds of flights across northern Europe. Kylie Morris of Independent Television News provides an update on when air traffic might resume.

JIM LEHRER: Air travel across parts of Europe was virtually halted today by an erupting volcano in Iceland. The sweeping shutdown was the worst since 9/11. Its ripple effects stranded travelers on six continents.

We have a report from Kylie Morris of Independent Television News.

KYLIE MORRIS: Directly under the route of transatlantic flights, the otherworldly Eyjafjallajokull is driving a column of volcanic ash 36,000 feet into the sky.

Since the new year, there had been seismic stirrings under the volcano, with a powerful eruption last month. But, yesterday, it turned to this. The eruption had found a new pathway to the surface, driven by expanding steam, scattering a plume of ash directly into the airy path of high-altitude winds.

PETER SAMMONDS, professor, University College London: What’s different about is that it’s erupting through an icecap. You know, this is generating lots of meltwater, which is causing all this glassy material which is being ejected high up into the atmosphere and causing all the problems for the airlines. I mean, this is what makes it different, I think.

KYLIE MORRIS: From 5:00 in the morning, hour by hour, the black shape representing the ash cloud edged across the meteorological maps from Iceland to Britain. Clear skies here, and, at first, the planes kept flying. But, by lunchtime, the departure boards told another story, as delays and cancellations spread faster than the ash itself — civil aviation authorities taking the unprecedented step of closing the entire U.K. airspace to commercial flights, in Manchester.

WOMAN: It’s really a bit strange to think that a volcano would affect the flights for — yes, so, it’s not something you would expect to happen in Great Britain.

KYLIE MORRIS: In Edinburgh.

WOMAN: Edinburgh to Paris, and then Paris back to Canada, so I’m not sure how that’s going to play out.

KYLIE MORRIS: And at London’s Heathrow Airport, same story.

WOMAN: It’s really, really, really bewildering. And then you’re standing around. I have been told I can’t get a flight to Belfast until Saturday. And I need to be home tomorrow. So, they said, well, there’s nothing we can do.

KYLIE MORRIS: So, why the extraordinary decision to ground planes in the U.K., France, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Holland because of a volcano in Iceland?

For planes, pilots and their passengers, volcanic ash is an extreme hazard. It’s effectively tiny, sharp, abrasive particles of rock that can sandblast plastic windshields and make it impossible for pilots to see. But if it gets sucked into these giant turbines and compressed, it can effectively shut everything down midair.

When the plane files into a cloud a volcanic ash, the tiny particles gets sucked into engine. And that can cause damage to compressor blades and reduce performance, block the fuel nozzles, and cause flameouts, leading the engine to stall.

That’s what happened to the engines of KLM Flight 867 in 1989, when it flew through cloud of volcanic ash above Alaska. All engines were restarted for an emergency landing. In 1982, a B.A. flight flew through volcanic ash above Indonesia.

The captain of that flight today recalled how they were saved.

ERIC MOODY, former British Airways pilot: We glided the airplane down to 12,000 feet. And we got — the first one started up at 13,000 feet. We got all four going again. And, eventually, we had to shut one more down, so I had five engine failures in 20 minutes.

KYLIE MORRIS: Captain Moody says authorities have taken the right decision today to shut the airspace. But when can it be reopened? Even the country’s leading meteorologists admit what happens next is difficult to divine.

DERRICK RYALL, MET office, United Kingdom: Looking ahead, if that eruption continues — and we understand what is happening to winds. We use our weather forecast models to predict where that plume will go using some quite sophisticated models. And if that volcano continues, then it’s fairly likely that it will be towards the U.K. on and off over the next few days, because the wind is staying in broadly the same direction.

KYLIE MORRIS: So, for now, Britain’s air authorities can only consider the wind, and watch the volcano, before deciding when the planes and their passengers return to the skies.