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Feature Story

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Careful inspection of engines and other airplane systems is an important part of flight operations when volcanic ash is a factor. Boeing is compiling data from operators on the possible effects of ash.

When the volcano blows

By Chuck Taylor

Mother Earth brought air transportation to a screeching halt for five days in April, costing billions in economic activity and stranding millions of people. Suddenly, an industry already struggling with economic headwinds was vexed by an upwind volcano.

Volcano chart

This volcanic ash forecast map, issued by the national weather service of the United Kingdom, is based on mathematical models. Click on the map to go see the latest graphical advisories.

As governments in Europe cautiously grounded up to 80 percent of flights in the region, calls went to airplane makers such as Boeing and their partner engine manufacturers for answers.

"We put together a team in the Boeing Operations Center," said aviation-safety Engineering Manager Thomas Dodt in Seattle. "All the different engineering and customer-service functions were represented. It was an enterprisewide activity -- we were serving some military customers, as well."

For Dodt and dozens of others at Boeing, the ash spewing from Iceland's fitful volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, at once presented immediate and long-term challenges:

From previous experience with volcanoes, the assembled team had plenty of answers to the immediate questions, Dodt said.

"Engine and airframe manufacturers are all completely consistent on this," he said. "First, avoid ash. Second, if you encounter ash, turn around and get out. Then there are maintenance procedures to ensure there's no economic damage to the airplane."

Those procedures include post-flight inspections of the engines, of the leading edges of aerodynamic surfaces such as wings, of cockpit windows and air intakes. Boeing has been compiling data from the airlines since the Icelandic volcano eruptions began.

"So far, we've had more than 1,000 airplanes inspected and no findings," Dodt said. "However, we need to be careful about drawing too many conclusions from these findings until we know what the actual ash concentration was for these flights."

The volcano continues to spew ash periodically, disrupting air travel to and within Europe -- one of the busiest airspaces in the world. It is on geologic time and is likely to be a factor for the foreseeable future.

Authorities in Europe have been closing airspace based on mathematical predictions of where the ash might go. But that can lead to unnecessary stoppages.

How can aviation live with a volcano?

It's actually a situation quite familiar to Boeing, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and some of Boeing's U.S. airline customers. Volcanic activity in the state of Alaska, for example, has been a reality for many years. The solution: Find out as much as possible about the ash cloud and reroute or cancel accordingly.

"The FAA's primary method of dealing with volcanic ash events is operator avoidance," said Victoria Cox, an agency official, in testimony before Congress in April. "Since the geographical location of areas that may be affected by volcanic ash is weather-dependent, our model of managing air traffic when confronted with volcanic ash is to treat it much like a major weather event."

The U.S. government gathers information from various agencies and disseminates it to aviators. "The operator makes the decision to fly or not," Cox said. "If the operator chooses to fly, then our air traffic controllers will direct the operator around the volcanic ash to the best of our abilities."

U.S. airlines supplement government volcano alerts with visual confirmation by pilots, who fly without passengers solely to determine the extent of the ash, said Dodt. That exploration of the actual extent of the cloud is key. "Then you put a safety margin around that, depending on weather conditions, and then fly around it if you can. If you can't, then you cancel the flight."

Boeing's recommendation has been and continues to be to avoid flying in visible ash. Meanwhile, the company is working with governments and other authorities, as well as airlines, to agree on definitions of ash clouds, standard ways to predict their paths and procedures to avoid them. The ultimate goal: Close airspace only where ash is actually present.