The Eyjafjallajökull Eruption: How It Impacted Aviation In 2010

Yesterday we published an article about how Iceland’s Fagradalsfjall volcano disrupted air traffic for a brief period on the Nordic island. Today we thought it would be interesting to look back to 2010 and the Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption and how it impacted Europe’s aviation.

During the Eyjafjallajökul eruption, airlines lost millions of dollars. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Firstly, before we get into the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, it is important to explain the difference between the Fagradalsfjall eruption this weekend and what happened in 2010. Volcanologists will tell you that there are two types of eruptions, explosive eruptions, and effusive eruptions.

Fagradalsfjall is an effusive eruption where a fissure is created in the earth to allow molten lava to flow out and later cool. These types of eruptions, which are also called Hawaiian eruptions, are typically not very dangerous and have no impact on air traffic.

Eyjafjallajökull was an explosive gas-driven eruption that propelled magma and tephra (fragmental material) into the sky. These types of eruptions tend to be large, violent, and highly dangerous.

The Eyjafjallajökul eruption

Eleven years ago, the Icelandic Meteorological Office (IMO) started noticing an increase in seismic activity in the far south of the island. The first eruptions were minor but became more problematic when the ice caps surrounding the volcano started to melt, creating a three-kilometer-wide crater. As the melting ice came into contact with the magma, its rapid cooling shot large plumes of ash particles into the sky.

Eyjafjallajökull glacier and the ongoing volcano eruption from Hvolsvöllur on April 17th, 2010. Photo: Boaworm via Wikipedia

Reaching heights of up to nine kilometers, the volcanic ash met up with the jet stream carrying the ash towards the Faroe Islands, Norway, and Scotland. Iceland responded by declaring a state of emergency, while Europe responded by closing its air space to all traffic. Consequently, flights to and from Europe and flights within the continent we canceled, causing the largest disruption of air travel since World War Two. Millions of passengers were caught out, and the sudden closure of airspace stranded some. Simultaneously, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimated that the airline industry would lose $200 million for every day European air space was closed.

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Why is volcanic ash dangerous to aircraft?

Volcanic ash contains tiny glass particles and pulverized rock that abrasive enough to erode engine compressor blades. It can also enter the combustion chamber where it melts, forming something similar to molten glass that solidifies, blocking airflow subsequently causing the engine to fail.

As the ash makes contact with the aircraft, it can wear away the plane’s skin and block the pilot’s view out of the windshield. More importantly, it can mess with the aircraft’s airspeed sensors making the plane difficult to fly.

British Airways Flight 9

While there have been dozens of encounters between aircraft and volcanic ash over the years, the most famous and probably why agencies rush to shut down air space occurred in June 1982.

G-BDXH, the aircraft involved in the Jakarta engine failure. Photo: Richard Silagi via Wikipedia

A British Airways Boeing 747-200 flying between London Heathrow to Auckland, New Zealand with stops in Bombay, Kuala Lumpur, Perth, and Melbourne encountered volcanic ash while flying southeast of Jakarta, Indonesia. Volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Galunggung got in the 747 engines causing all four to stall. While the reason for the failure was not apparent, the crew immediately decided to divert to Jakarta, hoping that it could get some of the engines to restart.

Once out of the ash cloud, they restarted all the engines, although one later again stalled. Fortunately, the aircraft managed to land safely at Halim Perdanakusuma Airport (HLP) in Jakarta.

Were you impacted by Eyjafjallajökul’s eruption? If so, we would love to read about what happened in the comments.