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No clear rules about flying through ash

The threat of volcanic ash to airplane engines has been known and monitored for several decades, but no clear standards have been set for when aircraft are allowed to fly through the ash and when they must stay put.

world Updated: Apr 21, 2010 00:39 IST

The threat of volcanic ash to airplane engines has been known and monitored for several decades, but no clear standards have been set for when aircraft are allowed to fly through the ash and when they must stay put.

According to Richard Wunderman of the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Network, who is also part of a national working group that studies the issue, scientists and engineers simulated the effects of ash on grounded airplane engines in the early 1990s and found that it was significant.

A 1994 report by the US Geological Survey (USGS) described the problems but progress has been limited in terms of providing instruments that would tell pilots that they’ve entered an ash cloud, filters that could protect the engines, or firm guidelines on how much ash is too much.

“Unfortunately, the rate of progress has been slow,” Wunderman said. He said though ash-monitoring has improved significantly, it remains impossible to tell where an ash cloud begins or ends. Several near-catastrophic incidents involving volcanic ash alerted the world to the problem and a worldwide monitoring system was created. The International Civil Aviation Organisation, a UN agency, coordinates monitoring and preparedness training.

Wunderman said as part of the USGS ash study, the KLM plane that almost crashed in Alaska in 1989 was taken apart and examined.

Wunderman said planes have continued to enter ash clouds — with more than 100 incidents since 1970, according to the USGS — but that ramping up funding to defend against the hazards “has not been a high priority.”

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