Volcanic Ash and Planes Don’t Mix

This morning, dozens of flights departing from and arriving at Bali were cancelled as Mount Agung spit out smoke and ash as high as 4 kil...


This morning, dozens of flights departing from and arriving at Bali were cancelled as Mount Agung spit out smoke and ash as high as 4 kilometres above its summit. According to a news report by AFP, at least 2,000 passengers, mostly Australians, were affected.

Of course, you would be peeved when your flight is cancelled or delayed. After all, if a plane can survive a lightning storm and a flock of geese (aka a bird strike), what’s a bit of dust? Right? Turns out, plenty.

1) Flying blind

Ash can cover the plane’s flight deck window, obstructing the pilot's view.

2) Mid-air Sandblasting

The ash content is incredibly abrasive and could even weaken the integrity of the windows and external structures.

3) Polluted cabin air

The air inside the plane is a mix of air circulating in the plane and fresh air from the outside. Minute particles from the ash cloud could end up inside the cabin and then your respiratory system. How about an asthma attack to mark the start/end of your trip?

4) Erroneous readings

Particles could accumulate at the plane’s leading edge, which affects the air speed indicator readings and well as air flow.

And most scary of them all...

5) Engine Malfunction (GULP!)

Ash clouds contain small silicate particles, which melt in the inside of a hot jet engine, becoming a molten-glass-like substance. This then solidifies at the cooler parts of the engine, and ends up fusing with the turbine blades, blocking air flow and causing the engine to stall (OH NO!).


Touch wood, no plane has crashed from flying through a volcanic ash cloud before, but a few have come close. In 1982, a British Airways Boeing 747 flew through an ash cloud produced by the eruption of Mount Galanggung (Indonesia) and in 1989, KLM Flight 867 encountered an ash cloud spewed forth by Mount Redoubt (Alaska). Both planes experienced failure of ALL four engines, but both pilots managed to restart the engines and land the planes safely.

So...could we not just avoid the clouds? Sure, pilots have access to info on active volcanoes and ash clouds can be monitored. But flying around ash clouds could mean deviating greatly from normal routes and altitudes, which would require more fuel and getting different flight permits (it’s all about the money).

Some flights in Bali have resumed, but the situation is unpredictable at the moment because Mount Agung is still rumbling. If you have to be stuck somewhere, it cannot get much better than Bali. Nature has decreed that you take another day or two for your holiday, get another massage, and eat some more babi guling, and the clouds will clear in almost no time.

Image credit—pixabay


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