Icelandic Eruption: Why There Was An Explosion Of Aircraft Activity At The Eruption Site

The volcanic eruption at Geldingadalur, close to Fagradalsfjall on the Reykjanes Peninsula in Iceland last week was concerning for aviation. A previous eruption a decade ago had brought air traffic in northern Europe to an almost complete standstill. But for some aviators, the lure of a birds-eye view of the activity was too much to resist.

Aircraft activity over volcano
You’d think aircraft would avoid an eruption… Photo: Getty Images

Worrying activity

Last week’s eruption of a volcano in Iceland gave cause for concern across the aviation world. Many were reminded of the chaos that followed the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, which halted approximately 100,000 flights and caused disruption across much of northern Europe. It was, at the time, the largest air traffic shut down since the second World War.

Thankfully, the recent eruption, which began on the 19th March, was nothing like as intense. Although the lava flow, which was said to cover a landmass the size of 200 football fields, was certainly dramatic, hardly any ash or smoke was ejected into the atmosphere. That came as a relief to airlines flying to and around Keflavik, particularly given the volcano’s close proximity to the airport.

By the following day, the eruption was easing and hadn’t caused any interference with air travel. Keflavik Airport said that flights had remained on schedule since the eruption began. However, our friends at Spire Aviation noticed something interesting happening in the airspace near the volcano.

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An uptick in low flying around the eruption

Spire Aviation, which provides global flight tracking data powered by satellites, has monitored the flight activity around the volcano, both before and after the eruption. Specifically, it noticed a change in the number of low-flying aircraft as the eruption progressed.

Icelandic Eruption: Why There Was An Explosion Of Aircraft Activity At The Eruption Site

As you can see from the image before the eruption started, the concentration of low flying aircraft was at Keflavik International Airport, to the west of the eruption site, and around Reykyavik Airport, a domestic and general aviation hub near to the city and north. This is typical activity, as aircraft land and takeoff from the two facilities.

Icelandic Eruption: Why There Was An Explosion Of Aircraft Activity At The Eruption Site

However, after the eruption began, there was a rapid uptick in low flying air traffic in the vicinity of the volcano. Some of the flight paths went right over the eruption, indicating small planes were keen to get very close in to the action.

What were they doing?

The sheer volume of flights taking off and heading for the eruption was incredible to see. Their purposes were likely very varied, and would have included official surveys of the eruption to assess the risk, as well as journalists, photographers and sightseers.

Some of the images being shared from the sight were absolutely breathtaking.

Many of the visitors were also rotary aircraft, with photographers keen to get the money shot of the firey drama.

One skilled drone operator even managed to capture this glorious footage following the lava flow right up to the top of the volcano.

While the photographs and footage are stunning, the Icelandic Transport Authority quickly published a warning about the dangers of getting too close. It said,

The Icelandic Transport Authority stresses the importance of pilots showing extra care when flying around the volcanic eruption in the Reykjanes peninsula. The minimum height for VFR flights in rural areas is 500 feet.

Helicopter pilots shall choose a landing site in accordance with the aircraft’s capabilities and ground conditions. Particular regard shall be taken to people on the ground as well as other aircraft, especially drones as these are flying below 120 m. 

Would you fly over an eruption to get a great photo? Let us know what you think in the comments!