In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Volcanic ash, computer simulations And air panic

Posted by seumasach on April 23, 2010

F.William Engdahl

19th April, 2010

Since the eruption of the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano in Iceland on April 14 air traffic across Europe had been grounded causing staggering losses to businesses and airlines as well as incalculable personal hardships. There are some very serious reasons to question whether the total flight ban was necessary.

The danger, we are told, is real. Volcanic particles harder than steel but not visible to weather radar could damage the engines of aircraft and cause crashes. Yet serious questions are beginning to be raised as to whether the first ever continental flight ban in the history of world aviation was necessary.
First, as Joachim Hunold, CEO of Germany’s second largest carrier, Air Berlin, stated in Bild am Sonntag, “not one single weather ballon has been put up in Germany to measure if and how much volcanic ash there is in the air. The closing of the airspace is entirely based on the results of a computer simulation at the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC) in England.”

One veteran Air France pilot, Steven Savignol, told me,”I can tell you from my own experience that with blue skies, aircrafts can fly perfectly and very safely. They made test flights with Air France, KLM, Lufthansa and of course, all is ok!”

Met Office Computer simulations

It turns out that the VAAC in England is working from a “computer simulation,” and has not even conducted an actual sky ash measurement. The agency responsible for Volcanic Ash measurement for the region, including Iceland, is Britain’s “Met Office,” the UK’s National Weather Service, which in turn is a Trading Fund within the Ministry of Defence, operating on a commercial basis under set targets according to their website.

German Transportation Minister Peter Ramsauer (CSU) told Germany’s Der Spiegel, “… Berlin as other European governments are bound to the international regulations regarding volcano eruptions and the estimates of the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre in London.” The citation of ‘London’ by a responsible EU transportation minister is itself a bit puzzling as VAAC is in Exeter, not in London.

What we are witnessing here is not a law or a regulation that has been tested in experience with previous volcanoes and air flights. This is a policy drawn up by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which created the worldwide VAAC stations in 1993 to monitor volcanic eruptions and their effects. The ICAO Exeter office data is then interpreted and enforced by the UK’s National Air Traffic Service (NATS). That interpretation needs a closer look.

In September 2009 the ICAO published a ‘Contingency plan for handling traffic in the event of volcanic ash penetrating the airspace of North Atlantic Region’. The guidelines make no distinction at all between major or minor eruptions. Nor do they take into account the dilution effect as the cloud spreads from the original point. The only reference is to generic “dust clouds,” without any attempt to carry out a risk assessment.

Using as its model the largest and most dangerous of Icelandic volcanoes, the Katla volcano, ICAO offered a series of procedures for monitoring and tracking volcano ash clouds and for ‘advice’ to be given to airlines in the event of a volcano eruption.

The current eruption is a relatively minor one  certainly not in the league of Katla. Yet it is worth noting that for even the most serious of possible eruptions, the plan issued by the IOCA involved re-routing aircraft around, or under dust plumes, not banning all air flights as has occurred with this recent eruption.

Most of Europe and large parts of the rest of the world flying European airspace has been scared into believing that to fly would be madness. To fly beneath the cloud until clear of it would mean burning more fuel. Low-flying to simply avoid the danger of ash being sucked into the jet engines is a temporary solution. Steve Wood, Chief Pilot at Sussex and Surrey Air Ambulance, describes the measures being taken as ‘a complete overreaction.’ Modern jet aircraft engines are robust, they must be, says Air France’s Savignol. They have to face not only the hazards of bird strikes, but rain, hail and even salt spray on take-off from coastal airports. Furthermore, sand is a common hazard from dust storms and from desert airfields.

Some aircraft are better equipped than others to deal with high-dust conditions, and consultation with aircraft and engine manufacturers might have enabled more precise restrictions to be imposed, rather than a blanket ban. But a spokesman for England’s NATS admitted: ‘We don’t really deal with particular manufacturers.’ They were more concerned with ‘applying the international regulations.’

The blanket ban under clear blue skies and glorious sunshine across Europe is making some wonder whether there is something else going on under the cover of earthquake eruptions, such as a test run to shut down air travel internationally. Since no one has ever been injured from an aircraft disabled by a volcanic eruption, it is a question that lingers. The absolute ban is an over-reaction, at a minimum, and shows poor judgment. One can only speculate if other agendas are involved.

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