Impact On Aircraft: Volcanic Ash Versus Forest Fires

forest fire
Credit: Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo

Two volcanic eruptions that disrupted flights directly affected me. The first was on April 14, 2010, a few days before the start of the MRO Americas Conference & Exhibition, when the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland went off. Huge volcanic plumes rose into the upper atmosphere, and abrasive particles filled the air, disrupting European flights and halting transatlantic travel for several days.

More than 30 countries imposed flight restrictions, which affected about 10 million airline passengers.

The second happened when I was flying from Singapore to one of my favorite surfing spots and an Indonesian volcano erupted. The volcano had shown seismic unrest for days before, but my flight was on time when I left for the airport. Upon checking in, I saw “cancelled” next to my flight and several other departures. I cried.

But the truth is, we have to respect Mother Nature. When I started surfing I was taught to “always respect the wave because it will always win.” The same holds true for volcanoes and aircraft.

Why? “Ash particles are predominantly composed of silicates with a melting point of 1,100C [2,012F]. This melting point is much lower than the temperatures within the cores of high-bypass engines, which typically reach 1,400C, and as a result the ingested particles become molten glass that can coat fuel nozzles, the combustor and turbine blades. This reduces the efficiency of fuel mixing and restricts air from passing through the engine,” wrote Patrick Veillette in a 2018 issue of Inside MRO sister publication Business & Commercial Aviation. Ash also can erode engine components, clog air filtration systems and damage windscreens, among other things.

While volcanic ash in engines is nothing to mess with, the good news is that the recent forest fires raging in Canada and cascading smoke across parts of the northern U.S. aren’t as damaging to aircraft.

Pratt & Whitney says: “The wood ash or smoke caused by a wildfire is not as harsh to an aircraft engine, since it is a relatively mild contaminant compared to volcanic ash or [any] other type of particulate matter. Engine ingestion of wood ash or smoke will not produce any safety-of-flight concerns.”

However, you still don’t want to fly too close to it. Canadian Aviation Regulations (Section 601.15) prohibit aircraft operations over forest fires at altitudes under 3,000 ft., but airliners usually fly higher than that.

Low visibility due to smoke did cause flight delays, but WestJet on June 9 said it has “experienced very minimal operational impacts as a result of the recent wildfires across Canada, with one cancellation occurring mid-May.” 

Unhealthy air quality did affect employees working outside at affected airports, with most encouraged to don masks. American Airlines also provided shelter in vehicles and encouraged workers to go inside when possible.

As climate change continues to affect Mother Nature adversely, threats to the airborne environment will increase.

Lee Ann Shay

As executive editor of MRO and business aviation, Lee Ann Shay directs Aviation Week's coverage of maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO), including Inside MRO, and business aviation, including BCA.