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EU Conducts Test Flights To Assess Impact of Volcanic Ash On Aircraft 410

Posted by Soulskill
from the did-we-forget-to-sacrifice-somebody dept.
chrb writes "As we discussed on Friday, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland has led to flights being canceled across the EU. With travel chaos ensuing and the airlines losing an estimated $200 million per day, EU authorities are coming under increasing pressure to re-open the airways. Test flights conducted on Saturday were apparently successful, with no problems encountered during flight. Following the test flights, Peter Hartman, CEO of KLM, said, 'We hope to receive permission as soon as possible after that to start up our operation and to transport our passengers to their destinations.' Evidence possibly opposing this move comes from the Finnish Defense Forces, which released photos and a statement after F-18 Hornets flew through the ash cloud, saying, 'Based on the pictures, it was discovered that even short flights in ash dust may cause significant damage to an airplane's engine.' Is it safe to resume flights so soon, or should planes remain grounded until the ash cloud has dissipated?"
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EU Conducts Test Flights To Assess Impact of Volcanic Ash On Aircraft

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  • by Knutsi (959723) on Sunday April 18, 2010 @11:30AM (#31887238)

    This links leads to a page with a video of an ambulance helicopter that was coated in a fine layer of ash in Norway today. It flew during a small windows of opportunity where the air cleared to pick up a patient in Sweden. The link is in Norwegian, but the video is, obviously, visual.

    The interesting part is at ~00:30 where he shows of the ash (requires Flash): []

    Makes me think that a large passenger jet flying long routes and sucking in a whole load of air on the trip might be at risk of engine failure as they say.

  • by A beautiful mind (821714) on Sunday April 18, 2010 @11:41AM (#31887304)
    There is satellite imagery however. Both NASA [] and ESA traces the ash cloud based on satellite data, ESA even compiled an informative animation [].
  • Ash is non-uniform (Score:5, Informative)

    by drinkypoo (153816) <> on Sunday April 18, 2010 @11:41AM (#31887306) Homepage Journal

    The ash allegedly contains shards of glass, and I can see how this would cause serious problems for turbines... but I think it's obvious that just like any other phenomena of weather, the ash will be non-uniform. It makes perfect sense that one test would have completely different results from another. Thus, broadly-based testing would be necessary to derive any useful result...

  • by flyneye (84093) on Sunday April 18, 2010 @11:43AM (#31887318) Homepage

    Ash is abrasive. Any idiot who has washed their hands with LAVA soap can attest to that.
    Q:So then, what happens when you put abrasives into parts manufactured to close tolerances?
    A: Tolerances are widened.
    Q: What happens when tolerances are widened on machinery that spins at high RPM?
    A: Centers are lost and jitter occurs speeding disappearing tolerances and adding heavy vibration.
    Q: What will that heavy vibration do Cap'n fly?
    A: Titaniums can shatter, Waspalloy and Hastalloy parts will tear away from Titaniums and Aluminums, H60 coated bearings will fly as though fired from a gun.
    Q: What are you really saying, fly?
    A: Assume the crash position, put your chin on your taint and kiss your @ss goodbye!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 18, 2010 @11:46AM (#31887328)

    Four engines vs. two engines doesn't really matter. Some of the most dramatic incidents of airplanes ingesting volcanic ash are 747s. Invariably, every single engine shuts down after several minutes of sucking up ash and melting it into glass. All four engines have to be restarted to recover, once the airplane descends out of the cloud and the glass has time to cool off.

  • by russotto (537200) on Sunday April 18, 2010 @11:49AM (#31887352) Journal

    I wonder if something that makes this volcano different than all other volcanoes is that it's erupting at a time when almost all translatlantic flying is done on two-engine planes.

    Probably not. Ash has caused all engines to go out on a 747. As you say, the threat is common to all engines, whether 2,3, or 4.

    The airlines have it right. All the talk has been about flights being canceled for a few days or weeks, but as far as I can tell there's no real reason the eruption couldn't continue for months, and plenty of precedent for eruptions which have. And talk about the wind shifting seems pretty much wishful thinking as well; the upper air westerlies aren't going to stop blowing eastward, nor are they likely to lose all their southward components. So a very conservative approach (no flying until the ash has dissipated) could result in most of northern Europe being a no-fly zone for months. It's probably worth the risk to find out more precisely where the conditions really are too dangerous.

  • by DarkOx (621550) on Sunday April 18, 2010 @11:51AM (#31887366) Journal

    Yes and those were at least back then mostly powered by ICE, which would have had air filters (even if just a bit of cloth) and don't depend on fragile, fine turbine blades cranking at 10K rpm; but instead had relatively robust pistons of steel and iron. Dust will harm and ICE but it causes premature ware one pistons, rings, liners, values, guides, and any thing else being lubes from a common oil sump where dust might get into the oil (also filtered during operation). A Jet is a little or turbo prop is a little different beast then the that old barn storming Jenny.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 18, 2010 @11:53AM (#31887386)

    Note about the above: I didn't mean to write all four engines have to be restarted to recover (just two is fine for the 747, I think), but normally all four engines do restart in these incidents. I probably meant to say something like, "The crew will attempt to restart all four engines during recovery."

  • by oji-sama (1151023) on Sunday April 18, 2010 @12:11PM (#31887528)

    And here's the gotcha, they never disclosed how close to the volcano the finn planes were.

    Umm. They disclosed that they were doing training missions in northern parts of Finland while the airspace was still open to all. I'm not sure what makes this a gotcha.

  • by Vellmont (569020) on Sunday April 18, 2010 @12:12PM (#31887530) Homepage

    Indeed. In fact the height the ash plume reached has changed from Wednesday to Saturday from 8 miles down to 3:

    In Iceland, the volcano continued to erupt, but volcanologists said was it less explosive than at the beginning of the eruption on Wednesday, which blasted glassy abrasive ash, destructive to jet engines, eight miles into the sky. The plume was now rising to a height of just three miles, and the volcanologists said this would deposit ash only in Iceland and in the surrounding waters. It was not high enough to travel thousands of miles across Britain and the rest of Europe. []

  • by ari_j (90255) on Sunday April 18, 2010 @12:23PM (#31887608)
    The helplessness of the average human is a global phenomenon. Of course, airlines don't help much. I once had the first flight in my itinerary canceled, and while I was waiting in line with the other 100 passengers from that flight to take care of it, I also called the airline's customer service line. I offered to rent a car at my own expense and drive it to the hub airport, but they wouldn't accept that since it was more than 300 miles away. And, of the 3 airports they served within 300 miles, there were no open seats in the next few days. So even if you are willing to help yourself, the airlines won't accept it.

    The possibility that transatlantic flights between the USA and Europe will be grounded for months leads to the possible reinstatement of making the trip by luxury steamer. Are any of the Titanic's sister ships still afloat?
  • by Bigjeff5 (1143585) on Sunday April 18, 2010 @12:28PM (#31887646)

    I don't know if you know this, but prop planes are still powered by IC engines, that's why they have a giant prop instead of turbine blades. As such, they still take off from dusty areas just fine. The trouble is the quantity of fine ash - there is a shitload of it during an eruption, and this is a very long eruption.

    The problem with ash is that it is extremely fine yet very hard. Air filters good enough to block it clog very quickly, after which point your IC engine seizes up. Also, those "relatively robust pistons of steal and iron" aren't nearly as robust as you seem to think they are. Have you ever heard of sabotaging an engine by pouring a little sand or iron filings in the oil? Just a few grains in the combustion chamber can grab the sides of the pistons and seize them in a heartbeat. Volcanic ash acts exactly the same way, it's fine grains of rock - it's very bad news for an IC engine if it gets inside. We get volcanic eruptions near where I live, and for this very reason you can't go driving around once the ash starts falling to the ground. You won't get more than a few miles at best before your engine stalls from lack of air - or if you had a really crappy filter, you may have hosed all your pistons (very not cool).

    Jet engines should actually fair a lot better than an ICE, because the air is flowing through continuously. The ash isn't going to be pounding hard on the turbine blades, it's very fine and will move with the air, but it is extremely abrasive. The wear you'll see is in pitting of the turbine blades and exposed metal of areas like the burn chamber. There isn't anything that ash will cause to stop instantly like in an ICE, though you will see a hell of a lot more wear on metal parts (an ICE will seize long before there is significant wear on the system).

  • by Ma8thew (861741) on Sunday April 18, 2010 @12:30PM (#31887660)

    ferries, channel tunnel, trains, automobiles, nope, just won't do... I have driven from London to Athens in less time than many of these people have been sat in airports wringing their hands... I also suspect that it may be CHEAPER to hire a car and drive back home, than to attempt to live in an airport for a week.

    I guess you haven't been reading the stores about the Eurostar and the ferry companies having their busiest days ever. Or the thousand euro taxi rides many are resorting through. Have you considered that people would like to get a train or ferry but they're all booked up?

  • by theshowmecanuck (703852) on Sunday April 18, 2010 @12:31PM (#31887668) Journal

    And here's the gotcha, they never disclosed how close to the volcano the finn planes were.

    Do you think it is safe to say that they were about as far away as Finland is to the volcano? Say 2500km. Or do you think they said, "hey there's a volcano erupting 2500km away that we'd have to cross three sovereign nations airspace's with in our military jets (Finland doesn't belong to NATO or any common EU defense alliance), let's go fly our planes over there." Personally I would tend to believe that they flew over their own country and decided to do a 'post-mortem' on the engines when they found out how bad the ash cloud was.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 18, 2010 @12:33PM (#31887686)

    how useless people have become, they just sit in the airports expecting some one else to get them to their destination... ferries, channel tunnel, trains, automobiles, nope, just won't do... I have driven from London to Athens in less time than many of these people have been sat in airports wringing their hands... I also suspect that it may be CHEAPER to hire a car and drive back home, than to attempt to live in an airport for a week.

    Like they aren't trying other modes of transportation. There's just not enough capacity to replace 20000 flights per day. Rail is overbooked, car rentals are out of cars, the trains through the channel tunnel are sold out, the ferries are cramped.

    Concorde's ceiling of 60,000 feet meant that it could have flown OVER these dust clouds...

    Unfortunately it doesn't teleport from 0 to 60000 feet. With the ash cloud covering almost all of Europe, the Concorde would be grounded too.

  • by theshowmecanuck (703852) on Sunday April 18, 2010 @12:34PM (#31887692) Journal
    Iceland is west of Finland.
  • by Bigjeff5 (1143585) on Sunday April 18, 2010 @12:42PM (#31887740)

    Ash is abrasive. Any idiot who has washed their hands with LAVA soap can attest to that.

    LAVA soap isn't made of ash, dumbass, it's made of pumice. Pumice is a product of volcanoes, but not one that goes floating in the air (it does go hurtling through the air, but that's different). It is also thousands of times more coarse than ash - ash is finer than the finest sands you can find. The individual grains are extremely hard and jagged, and thus very abrasive, but they will also move largely with the air - i.e. as the jet engine creates a flow through it, most of the ash is going to pass right on by and only a very small amount will actually be abrading the engine parts.

    That said, I'm no aeronautical engineer, so I wouldn't have a clue about how much these engines can handle. I'd be inclined to think they'll just have to replace various engine parts a lot sooner than they ordinarily would need to though, given that several flights have already been safely made. The commercial flights are also going to be flying through as little ash as possible, unlike the Finnish pilots who flew right through the heart of it. That most certainly will make a big difference in the amount of wear caused by the ash cloud.

  • by Splab (574204) on Sunday April 18, 2010 @12:45PM (#31887780)

    Write and complain to your local consumer watchdog - here in the EU, even under force majure, the aviation companies are required to compensate travellers.

    On top of that, here in Denmark, insurance companies have told customers who are currently stuck abroad that their insurance will be extended for the duration of their plight at no extra charge.

    For those who haven't left yet, travel agencies have told their customers that they can have a full refund or bumped a few days untill this blows over.

  • by j_sp_r (656354) on Sunday April 18, 2010 @12:55PM (#31887856) Homepage

    The president-director of the KLM was on-board of one of the first test flights. So he put his money where his mouth is.


  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 18, 2010 @12:56PM (#31887866)

    I read that one too but then later on on Saturday apparently it was pushing ashes in the air higher then ever...

    I don't know where to track these data online...

  • by Animats (122034) on Sunday April 18, 2010 @01:55PM (#31888414) Homepage

    Some Spanish airports are now open again. Madrid is open The ash cloud has moved north. But the volcano is still erupting, ejecting ash to a height of 4Km. The northwestern part of Europe is going to be grounded for a while.

  • by fm6 (162816) on Sunday April 18, 2010 @03:01PM (#31888998) Homepage Journal

    Actually, the trend's the other way. Trains in Europe used to be much slower, so long trips were faster by plane. As the trains gotfaster, air travel on competing routes declined drastically.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 18, 2010 @04:06PM (#31889518)

    There's a Finnish article saying that old Douglas DC-3 planes with desert filters (aavikkosuodatin) could fly in the ash cloud. There are two of them still operational in Finland and they could be used for emergency flights.

    Here's the Finnish article: []
    Here's a Google translation [], which translates badly, title should be "DC-3 does ignore the ashes" instead of "DC-3 does not ignore the ashes" :)

    Douglas DC-3: []

  • by kno3 (1327725) on Sunday April 18, 2010 @04:36PM (#31889762)

    Actually the problem, as I understand it, is that the silica particles in the ash cloud (similar to very fine grains of sand, or glass) are melted by the heat of the engine, then then collide with the leading edge of the turbine blades and condense. This is bad for a number of reasons, firstly it expands that surface and significantly reduces the efficiency of the engine. More importantly however, it has a different coefficient of thermal expansion to the titanium blade, and very quickly it will start to crack and break away. In this process it takes small chunks of the blade with it. The process causes a lot of pitting in the leading edge of the blade.

    The thermal spraying department at my work do a lot of research into repairing blades that have suffered from this problem. Most often it has been caused by planes flying through sand storms in a desert, but the effect is just the same. One of the methods of repairing the blade is to remove enough of the titanium so that you can plasma spray a ceramic in its place to make the blade the right size again.

  • by init100 (915886) on Sunday April 18, 2010 @04:48PM (#31889854)

    The question is what's the history of this particular volcano

    This volcano hasn't erupted in 200 years, but the last eruption lasted from December 1821 to January 1823.

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