The Volcano vs the Airplane

Technology has not always been as advanced as we know it today; in terms of volcanic hazard monitoring, we haven't always had the ability to detect volcanic eruptions or even be able to track volcanic plumes until recently. And the reason we have such advancements is because there are unfortunate accidents that force these advancements. Once such accident occurred as a result of the volcanic eruption at Mt Galunggung.

Mt Galunggung is a volcano located on the island of Java, in Indonesia. Historically, it erupted in October 1882 in a devastating explosion, killing over 4000 people and destroying the villages surrounding it. This eruption was classified as a VEI 5 eruption, and has been ranked as one of the top 10 deadliest eruptions in history.


Picture: Galunggung Crater from Wikimedia


Fast forward 100 years.

It was June 24, 1982, and a British Airways Boeing 747 flight was flying through the night from Malaysia to Australia. Their path required them to fly over the Indonesian islands and it had been an uneventful flight thus far.

Suddenly, the pilot was alerted to a great display outside the windows; electrical discharge in the clouds outside were creating lights and crackling noises in the sky, like lightning, known as St. Elmo's fire. According to the reports, the display was so spectacular and intense it looked like the plane was on fire. 

st elmo's fire

Picture: Example of St Elmo's Fire on the windows from the front of the plane.

This wasn't the only thing that occurred that was intense. It was during this display when several almost impossible things happened.

The first of the four engines failed. And then the second. And then the third. And finally the last of the four engines failed. This was practically impossible. The engines on a modern jet plane just don't fail. The crew sent a mayday distress call out. The controllers in Jakarta, the closest airport to the plane, thought they heard wrong. It was impossible that four engines could fail at the same time. As the crew was forced to restart the engines over and over, the plane fell almost 900 m in elevation. Eventually, the first, and then the rest of the three engines finally restarted, at an elevation of around 4000 m.

It was only after an emergency landing at Jakarta airport did they find out they had driven straight into the ash cloud from Mt Galunggung's ongoing eruption. On the ground, thousands of people around the volcano had been evacuated, but it had not occurred to anyone that the ash plume that was thousands of meters in the air and spreading east and south would pose a threat to flights overhead. 

In 1982, there was no warning system in place for hazards posed by volcanic eruptions in the sky. There was also not yet an awareness that such a monitoring system was required. 

Since this incident, there have been other occurrences of airplane vs volcano, such as in 1989 at Redoubt Volcano, in Alaska, US. There has also been an increased awareness of the effects of volcanic ash on jet engines, and improved technology both in dealing with volcano hazard monitoring and jet engines surviving volcanic ash ingestion. Pilots have also been trained to observe and recognize volcanic eruptions and knowing how to deal with flying around it. 


For more information on volcanic monitoring, check here.

For more information on volcanoes vs airplanes, check here.