UK, April 16, 2010 (Pal Telegraph, by Peter Eyre) - It certainly is extremely dangerous and can be catastrophic to say the least. Some time ago whilst working in aviation in Australia I remember a major incident that occurred overhead Indonesia. The date was 24th June 1982. It was regarding Flight 9, a British Airways Boeing 747 en route from Heathrow – Bombay – Madras – Kuala Lumpur – Perth – Melbourne – Auckland.
The Captain of the aircraft was Captain Eric Moody (who happened to be in the toilet at the initial encounter!). The aircraft was passing overhead Java on its way down to Perth, Western Australia. The remainder of the front end crew noticed something extraordinary, a strange effects on the windscreen of the aircraft that was similar to what they call St Elmo’s Fire (what you get in a thunderstorm from static electricity).
The problem did not go away by the time Captain Moody had returned to the flight deck (when you’ve gotta go you’ve gotta go!). Unknown to the crew the aircraft had just passed through a volcanic ash cloud from an eruption of Mount Galunggung. Smoke started to accumulate in the cabin and became thicker with a strong smell of sulphur.
This was in total darkness which made it even more difficulty to see exactly what was happening outside the aircraft. Suddenly the aircraft started to loose power in one engine which was then shut down followed by the remaining three engines.
By this time the aircraft was in a very critical situation. Captain Moody was now faced with some pretty quick thinking as the Flight Engineer called out "I don't believe it – all four engines have failed!”
The Image on the left is a current satellite shot of the Sulphur Plume that is seen heading towards Scandanavia.
The crew calculated that from their existing cruise level they could glide down to around 169 km over a time of around 23 minutes, Captain Moody declared a full emergency with the local Air Traffic Control (ATC). It was very difficult for the ATC to find the aircraft on radar because of the high mountains and presumably the weather and the ash etc.
The Captain attempted to re start the engines which sometimes is possible when the aircraft is descending, but that first attempt failed. They had two options, one was to land at an airport in Indonesia and the other was to head out to sea and land in the Indian Ocean. Captain Moody made what is described as a classic announcement to his passengers….
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them under control. I trust you are not in too much distress.”
Because of the situation the oxygen masked popped out in the main cabin whilst at the same time another problem on the flight deck occurred when the Co Pilot’s oxygen mask had broken and become detached. Captain Moody decided to increase the descent rate to get down to a lower altitude in order to get oxygen.
It was as a direct result of this action that gave the Captain another idea.
With this increased rate of descent/speed and the fact that the aircraft was now entering an oxygen rich flight level he decided to once again try for the re ignition of the engines. It was the number 4 engine that restarted first which gave the Captain a certain amount of control in reducing the rate of descent in order to clear the high mountains in the area.
It became obvious that the engines had suffered some damage from the ingestion of volcanic dust and this resulted in power surge in one of the engines, which again he had to shut down. The other problem was that of the windscreen which by this time was almost impossible to see out of (due to the abrasive effect of the volcanic dust). This meant that Captain Moody would have to do a blind landing using instruments only…..obviously such a senior Captain would have much experience in flying on instruments, otherwise known as and ILS Approach.
The final part of his heroic efforts was about to finish as he made an attempt to land at Jakarta airport. Unfortunately for him yet again things were not right……the Instrument Landing System at Jakarta was not working correctly, resulting in a much higher stress load for the crew, who then had to calculate each segment of the approach based and distance to run etc.
The Captain again made a classic statement when he said the approach was “a bit like negotiating one's way up a badgers arse.” It was truly a remarkable landing with little use made of any visual reference. The final obstacle was that when taxiing in the glare from the apron lights on the windscreen made it impossible to see anything.
So the answer to the question “Is Volcanic Ash a Danger to Aircraft”? it most certainly is.
This article is dedicated to Captain Moody and his crew for this outstanding story of airmanship at the highest level. The crew now have regular reunions with their precious passenger to celebrate their remarkable survival and as a thank you for the crew’s remarkable skills in saving their lives. As a matter of interest the aircraft eventually returned to flying and became known as “The Flying Ashtray.”
This is not the only such case in aviation. A similar incident occurred with a KLM flight (flying through volcanic ash) which lost all engine power but was able to do an in flight re start and landed safely.
The British Airways aircraft has since been broken up….so next time when you use an aluminum frying pan just thing that could be part of the original “Flying Ashtray…..happy flying!.
Peter Eyre – Middle East Consultant – 16/4/2010