Why Volcanic Ash Is So Bad For Planes

If you fly, you know that storms, tornadoes, and other bad weather condition can cause problems for air travel. However, many probably haven't known the disruption that volcanic ash can have on flight schedules.

Lots of people remember the great Volcanic eruption of 2010. The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 caused enormous disruption to air travel across western and northern Europe over an initial period of 6 days, but for travelers, those days felt like a lifetime. About 20 countries closed their airspace and it affected hundreds of thousands of travelers who were left stranded in the wake of the volcano's ash cloud.

Volcanic Ash

Active volcanoes can throw ash miles into the air. Even though, volcanic ash may seem relatively harmless from the ground, when aircraft collide with it at hundreds of miles per hour it's an entirely different story.

Ash is heavy enough to make it incredibly hard to see out of a cockpit window. This is an expected condition of flying near an active volcano, but pilots are trained to fly in situations with little to no visibility with help from radars. Even so, flying into a giant column of ash is not something pilots do on purpose.

When ash is introduced to extremely high temperatures – much like the environment of an airplane engine – it melts into glass. When this happens to an airplane engine, the inside of the pylon (the part that holds the engine on the wing) can become encased in glass. After this happens, the cabin can fill with a sulfuric-smelling smoke.

In 1982, a British Airways flight lost all of their engines when they flew into an ash cloud over Indonesia. At the last minute, one engine started. But, the forward windows had been too badly abraded by ash and the pilot had to land blind. A KLM flight had a similar experience in 1989 over Alaska.

If that's not enough to make you think twice before trying to force an airport employee into getting you onto a flight, don't know what is.