Hell in the Skies of Europe

April 15, 2010 § Leave a comment

A cloud of ash from a volcano in Iceland swept toward mainland Europe on Thursday, forcing up to 6,000 flight cancellations across the continent.  Thousands of flights were affected as some of Europe’s busiest airports closed, including London’s Heathrow; Amsterdam, Netherlands’ Schiphol; and Paris, France’s Charles de Gaulle.  As volcanic ash can cause jet engines to shut down.

The prime minister of Norway was among those stranded by the closure of European air space.

Jens Stoltenberg, who was in the U.S. for President Obama’s nuclear summit, is running the Norwegian government from the U.S. via his new iPad, press secretary Sindre Fossum Beyer said.

Airspace over the U.K. was closed to all flights except emergencies at least until 1 p.m. local time (8 a.m. ET) Friday. 

France, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, Norway, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands also announced the complete or partial closure of their airspace.

Norway also closed its ocean territory and canceled helicopter flights to offshore oil installations, according to Avinor.

Germany closed the Berlin airport as well as airspace over the city.

Delta Airlines canceled 65 international flights from its U.S. hubs scheduled over Thursday night and Friday morning. The decision affects flights to Amsterdam; London; Dublin, Ireland; Brussels and Mumbai, India.

Matthew Watson, a geophysicist, at England’s Bristol University said, “You really need two things to happen: You need the volcano to stop emplacing ash to the altitude that commercial aircraft fly at, 30,000 to 35,000 feet, and you then need the upper-level winds to blow the ash and disperse it out of the air space.”

How long that will take “depends very much on the volcano. If this is it and it’s stopped right now and it doesn’t do anything else … I imagine you are looking at 24 to 48 hours to clear UK air space,” he said.

But the volcano was continuing to erupt and spew ash as of 5:30 p.m. local time (1:30 p.m. ET) Thursday, reported Icelandic Foreign Ministry representative Urdur Gunnarsdottir.

France closed eight airports in the north of the country as of 5 p.m. local time (11 a.m. ET) and is set to close another 16, including Charles de Gaulle, at 11 p.m. local time (5 p.m. ET).

Many airports were already shut and flights were grounded across the United Kingdom on Thursday because of the ash, which came after an eruption under an Icelandic glacier early Wednesday.

The eruption — the latest in a series that began March 20 — blew a hole in the mass of ice and created a cloud of smoke and ash that went high into the air.

The volcano was creating floods in the area and producing a lot of volcanic ash.

An emergency evacuation affecting 800 people was conducted near the volcano because of flash flooding from glacier waters, according to Rognvaldur Olafsson of Iceland’s civil protection agency. The same people had fled the area the night before and allowed to return to the area early Thursday.

Flights to the United Kingdom from Japan, Hong Kong, India and Australia were affected, and Etihad Airways announced that five flights between Abu Dhabi and England were canceled Thursday.

The U.S. Air Force said two of its bases in England, RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath, would be shut down for at least two days. That meant dozens of U.S. Air Force F-15s and other fighter jets and tankers were not flying, and flights to Iraq and Afghanistan that would have flown through that air space were being diverted to other routes.

The ash wasn’t necessarily visible in the air, but Manchester Airport spokesman Russell Craig said it can still pose a threat to aircraft.

“If you think about the way an aircraft engine works, it sucks in air; it compresses it; forces it out on the other side. That creates thrust,” Craig said. “If that air were mixed with ash, it can cause engine failure and electrical difficulties with an aircraft. It’s happened before, and the aircraft didn’t come out the other end in one piece.”

Eric Moody was the pilot aboard a British Airways flight in 1982 that managed, barely, to fly through volcanic ash thrown up by Mount Galunggung in Indonesia. All four of the engines stopped because of the ash, and the plane glided through the air for about 15 minutes, he said Thursday.  “The engines just ran down,” Moody said. “We couldn’t see out the windscreen, and half the electronic aids to landing weren’t working, either.”

Passengers were told to prepare for an emergency crash landing, with Moody making this now-famous announcement to passengers: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, it’s Capt. Eric Moody here. We’ve got a small problem in that all four engines have failed. We’re doing our utmost to get them going, and I trust you’re not in too much distress.”

Eventually, at 13,000 feet, the engines started working again, and the plane was able to land. That, said Moody, is why this Icelandic ash could be so dangerous.

“I don’t know how thick this ash is, but I wouldn’t go anywhere near it,” Moody said.

Nick Grahame, a chief forecaster at Britain’s weather service, the Met Office, said it is hard to predict where the ash cloud will go next.

“The Met Office forecast at the present time, based on the emissions at the moment, suggests that the plume will come across the UK, and also Scandinavian countries in particular, over the next 24 to 36 hours,” Grahame said. “If the volcano continues to erupt through Friday into the weekend, then obviously the ash will spread further, but that’s something we are not clear about at the moment.”

Capt. Bob Jones of the Civil Aviation Authority said Britain will not reopen its airspace until the threat is over.

“It very much depends on the location of the ash, but needless to say, we’re taking extreme caution,” Jones said.

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