PARIS (Reuters) - “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped.”
The words of British Airways pilot Eric Moody 28 years ago in the darkness above the Indian Ocean graphically illustrate the dangers posed to aircraft by volcanic ash.
Flights across much of northern Europe were cancelled on Thursday as a cloud of ash from a volcano in Iceland moved south across Britain, and this swift reaction has its genesis in the ordeal of BA flight 009 on June 24, 1982.
Moody was the captain of a jumbo jet en route from Kuala Lumpur to Perth, Australia, and minutes before his announcement at 37,000 feet the crew had noticed the aircraft nose and wings were aglow with a white light.
One by one his engines appeared to catch fire, and then failed, and the cabin was filled with a sulphurous smoke. “What do we do now, Dad?” one young boy asked his father as they felt the plane inexorably gliding towards the ground.
The plane had flown into an ash cloud from Galunggung volcano in western Java which had not shown up on the radar because it was made up of dry particles rather than water.
A Mayday signal was sent to Jakarta ground control and the crew realised they had less than 30 minutes to regain power before they smashed into the ground.
A more immediate problem was a lack of oxygen and to prevent his passengers dying from asphyxiation, Moody put the plane into a steep dive to an altitude where there was more oxygen.
This dive cleared the engines of the clogged ash and allowed three engines to be restarted.
Relief among the passengers was not mirrored in the cockpit, however, when Moody and his crew realised the windscreen had been sandblasted so badly they would not be able to see the runway at Jakarta airport.
Landing equipment on the ground was not working but the pilots still managed to bring the plane down safely. The relieved passengers still have regular reunions of what they call the Galunggung Gliding Club.
The incident prompted the aviation industry to reconsider the way it prepares for the abrasive ash which can strip away metal parts.
Thursday’s events came just six weeks after European aviation authorities carried out the first of two exercises due in 2010 for dealing with ash under the auspices of the International Civil Aviation Organisation.
The U.N. body holds regular meetings and exercises to prevent an aviation disaster due to volcano eruptions.
A temporary 120-nautical mile danger zone is declared around the source of an eruption and flights are banned through contaminated areas as winds move the ash across flight paths.