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Why you should always park your Aircraft when Volcanic Ash is in your Path

On April 14th, 2010, both the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and its National Air Traffic Services (NATS) and Luftfartstilsynet (Norway’s CAA) made what appears to many as having been a brave but rash decision to close all of its nations airspace (initially Norway closed only its most northern airspace) to all traffic as a result of the eruption of the Icelandic volcano: Eyjafjallokul located in the South-western portion of this small Island Nation.

There appears to be a rising tide of disgruntlement forming amongst the European air-travelling public as well as the employees of the many companies that service this segment, against the sweeping decisions made by both of the CAAs, NATS, Eurocontrol and EASA that a “no-fly” ban to be placed over much of Europe. This ban lasted more than seven days, thus throwing the travel plans of millions into utter chaos, and according to Giovanni Bisignani, the director general and chief executive of IATA “For an industry (Airlines) that lost $9.4bn last year and was forecast to lose a further $2.8bn in 2010, this crisis (the ban) was devastating..."

 

I personally must contest this negative discourse that is gathering momentum over the decision that was made, because when the facts of the very real dangers that exist within the plume of a volcanic ash cloud are systematically reviewed, it becomes obvious that the right decision was made.

In appendix 2 of the FAAs Airmen Information Manual, you will find a specific form titled: Volcanic Activity Report (VAR) which must be completed and sent to the Global Volcanism Program headquarters at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. The AIM further states in section:

7-1-27. PIREPs Relating to Volcanic Ash Activity

a. Volcanic eruptions which send ash into the upper atmosphere occur somewhere around the world several times each year. Flying into a volcanic ash cloud can be extremely dangerous. At least two B747s have lost all power in all four engines after such an encounter. Regardless of the type aircraft, some damage is almost certain to ensue after an encounter with a volcanic ash cloud.

b. While some volcanoes in the U.S. are monitored, many in remote areas are not. These unmonitored volcanoes may erupt without prior warning to the aviation community. A pilot observing a volcanic eruption who has not had previous notification of it may be the only witness to the eruption. Pilots are strongly encouraged to transmit a PIREP regarding volcanic eruptions and any observed volcanic ash clouds.

c. Pilots should submit PIREPs regarding volcanic activity using the Volcanic Activity Reporting (VAR) form as illustrated in Appendix 2. If a VAR form is not immediately available, relay enough information to identify the position and type of volcanic activity.

d. Pilots should verbally transmit the data required in items 1 through 8 of the VAR as soon as possible. The data required in items 9 through 16 of the VAR should be relayed after landing if possible.

The two Boeing 747 incidents cited in the AIM are the four-engine flame-outs that occurred to, first on the night of June 24th, 1982 where British Airways flight number 9 dropped from FL370 down to about 10,000 feet M.S.L. after flying through the volcanic plume from Mount Galunggung in West Java, Indonesia; second on December 15th, 1989 where KLM flight number 867, on its way from FL250 to FL390 fell to an altitude below 11,000 feet after flying through the black plume that was being spewed from the erupting Mount Redoubt near Anchorage, Alaska, here in the U.S.A. Fortunately in both cases, some, if not all of the effected engines were restarted, and both aircraft were able to make emergency landings without injury, at a suitable diversionary airport.

Even though there was no loss of life involved in both of these incidents, considerable damage occurred to both aircraft as a result of their unfortunate forays into volcanic ash clouds. 

Most recently in Europe ash damage has been found in the engines of a World Airways MD-11, a Thomas Cook B757, several of the RAF Typhoon Euro-fighters and a Finnish F-18 Hornet. As engine inspections are stepped-up because normal air operations are returning to the skies of Europe, I would be very surprised if more reported examples of engine damage don’t become prominent in the aviation press.

How does volcanic ash cause damage to an aircraft and its engines? Allow me to explain...

The columns of ash that spew from a volcano, normally settle in the flight levels between FL320 and FL350. If seen in daylight, these extensive clouds of debris vary in colour from light brown to jet-black. The worst aspect of them is that they do not show up on Radar.  Every year there are normally 60 volcanic eruptions around the globe. Usually 10 of these are classified as being “major.” Every eruption poses many unknown ash hazards, and normally more than 100,000,000 tons of ash is thrown into the air from any major eruption. The properties of an ash plume are both abrasive and acidic and normally consist of hard, sharp fragments of glass and rock in varying sizes and having high concentrations of Sulphur Dioxide, which when mixed with water, becomes Sulphuric Acid.

All windows, light lenses and leading edges are severely damaged by the abrasive ash encounter. Pitot/static systems become clogged and when on the ground, braking action and traction is severely affected by the ash-bed that lays on a runway or taxi-way.

The lethal danger associated with volcanic ash is how quickly it will cause a flame-out and in-flight shutdown of a gas turbine engine. All of the compressor and turbine blades are severely eroded, causing immediate loss of power. Bleed and cooling airway holes quickly become blocked and immediately start affecting the normal airflow through the engine. The fuel-air mixture rapidly becomes too rich, and the engines flame-out. Before the engines do rich-cut, the chances are extremely high that enough igneous rock debris has made it through the hot section of the engine to start reforming as a glass coating or build up on many of the interior components. It goes without saying that if the engine does restart at a lower altitude; its serviceability is shot, whereby only an expensive teardown and overhaul will render it back to a serviceable state.

As I said earlier, volcanic ash plumes will not paint on Radar, therefore at night, when all visual cues have become shrouded by darkness, the only technology that will indicate its presence is either a laser or infra-red system. Usually however, it is the olfactory senses provided by the good old fashioned human nose, which will first sense the ash plumes proximity. In virtually all cases of aircraft that have flown through ash clouds, the crews have all reported that they smelled, or even saw smoke in their cockpits.

Now back to the AIM. As you have seen in this article, the existence and tracking of a volcanic plume is extremely difficult to be achieved by most aviation meteorological organizations. These groups rely heavily upon Pilot Reports (PIREPS) and therefore it is critical to air safety that if you encounter ash conditions in-flight, that you report them immediately. If operating in a known area of volcanic activity, make certain that you have read all NOTAMS and PIREPS that are available to you. Plan a reroute around all actual and forecasted ash clouds. Do not climb into ash. Instead reverse course and descend. Remember you are now in an emergency situation. If you encounter ash on the ground upon landing, do not use reverse thrust, and expect your traction and braking action to be minimal at best. If you are in the unusual position of being cleared to take-off on a runway contaminated by volcanic ash, it is imperative that you perform a long, slow and gentle running roll take-off, to not kick-up too much ash from your passage over it.

Do you still feel that it was a bad decision that was made recently over the volcanic ash contaminated skies of Europe? Hopefully your response is not just “no”, but “hell no” instead.

Morning Rundown

The big news of the day in the commercial aviation world, and the story most likely to be followed by national media, is the pending merger between United and Continental. Critics contend that an approved deal could launch passenger ticket prices skyward.

Tom Belden of the Philadelphia Inquirer says US Airways, which operates the bulk of flights into and out of the city, won't necessarily have to fret over such a merger. He says US Airways is running a far more reliable airline than it did in recent years. However, he concludes more work by the company is left to be done.

In other United news, the company issued a release over the weekend touting it has completed the first commercial flight in the United States using synthetic jet fuel.

The big news among business aviation, of course, is EBACE, which kicks off tomorrow in Geneva, Switzerland. Cessna will feature a CJ4 and Citation X with winglets at its booth. Aviation Week's Benet Wilson walks the convention floor and brings us a preview with photos. It appears the big story for those who walked in during construction over the weekend was a Liverpool-Chelsea soccer match on the HondaJet TV screens.  

On the heels of the volcanic ash shutdown in Europe, Robert Mark of Jetwhine.com looks at how much the airlines lost as flights were grounded and suggests now may be the time for comapnies to put money into researching the phenomenon.

And, finally, private aviation could take a hit in North Carolina, where cash-strapped lawmakers will consider slashing the state's fleet of aircraft by more than one-third.

Pilot flees after Bonanza hits Toyota Prius

Boulder County, Colo., was the site of a not-so-typical fender bender Wednesday as a plane got tangled up with a car.

A wind gust and hard landing sent a Beechcraft Bonanza careening.

It hit a Toyota Prius before the pilot fled, said local authorities there, who added that the scene could (rather obviously) result in federal charges. Read the full story from KUSA-TV in Denver.

4th Circuit Court Of Appeals Affirms NTSB's "Congested Area" Determination


In my article, Identification Of A "Congested Area" Under FAR § 91.119: Hindsight Is 20/20, I discussed an NTSB decision, Administrator v. Folk, in which the primary issue was whether the airmen's low-level flights occurred over a "congested area" as referenced in FAR § 91.119. In a recent unpublished decision, Folk v. Sturgell, the United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit has affirmed the NTSB's determination that the area in question was in fact a "congested area."

The Case

In the Folk case, the FAA alleged that the airmen had both engaged in agricultural aircraft operations in violation of 14 C.F.R. §§ 137.51(b)(1) through (3)2 ( agricultural operations over congested areas); 91.119 (minimum safe altitudes); and 91.13(a) (careless and reckless). One of the main disputes in the case was whether the area over which the airmen had flown was a "congested area." At the hearing, the FAA argued that its case-by-case analysis of the facts and circumstances supported the conclusion that the area was indeed a "congested area." One of the airmen's arguments in response to the FAA's position was that the logical extension of the FAA's position that congested area determinations are made on a case-by-case basis is that nobody can know whether or not an area is congested until after their case has been decided.

During the hearing, the FAA inspector who investigated the allegations regarding the airmen testified that "if an operator conducts an application in an area the FAA might later determine to be a congested area, the operator ignores that potentiality at his or her peril." The inspector went on to say that he had warned the airmen that the area around their farm could be considered a congested area. When the airmen requested a definition of "congested area," the inspector told them there was no definition, and referred the airmen to FAA guidance, including an inspectors’ handbook. After studying the regulations and, apparently, finding no examples in the handbook that applied to their operations, the airmen then decided the area around their farm was not congested.

Unfortunately for the airmen, the ALJ agreed with the FAA. He concluded that the area over which the airmen had flown contained upwards of 30 homes, buildings, and structures and, as a result, was a "congested area." The ALJ also rejected a number of other defenses raised by the airmen and held that the airmen violated the regulations as alleged.

On appeal, the airmen renewed their argument that the area over which they had flown was not a "congested area." Initially, the Board observed that the FAA "has not pronounced a precise definition that includes the factors of the density of the population in an area; whether there is surface traffic in the vicinity; or the numbers and proximity of residences, buildings, or structures." It went on to note that "it is clear that the intent of the regulations is to protect persons and property on the ground and to fairly apply the rules to operators of aircraft, and, in the case of Part 137, to operators of agricultural aircraft." The Board then affirmed the ALJ's determination that the area over which the airmen had operated was a "congested area."

The Fourth Circuit's Decision

In their appeal of the NTSB's decision to the Fourth Circuit, the airmen argued that "the term 'congested area' violates the vagueness doctrine under the Due Process Clause (an argument the airmen were not able to make to the NTSB because the Board lacks jurisdiction to consider constitutional challenges), and that substantial evidence does not support the determination that they flew over a congested area."

With respect to the due process argument, the Court initially noted that a "statute is impermissibly vague if it either (1) fails to provide people of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to understand what conduct it prohibits or (2) authorizes or even encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement." The Court then held that the airmen failed to show that they lacked a reasonable opportunity to understand what conduct FAR 137.51 prohibits. Rather, the Court found that the inspector's warnings put the airmen on notice that the area could be considered congested and the airmen could have resolved any doubt by filing a congested area plan and waited for the inspector's response.

Additionally, the Court determined that the airmen had not shown that FAR 137.51 "authorizes or even encourages arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement," or that the enforcement action against them was arbitrary. As a result, the Court concluded that FAR 137.51 was not unconstitutionally vague under the Due Process Clause.

Next, the Court reviewed the record to determine whether substantial evidence supported the NTSB's determination that the area was congested. The Court observed that approximately thirty houses are located in the general vicinity of the area and that the airmen's flights passed over corner sections of that area. Based upon that review, the Court concluded "that the area over which [the airmen] flew could reasonably be considered congested based on substantial evidence in the record."

Conclusion

Unfortunately, the Court's decision doesn't shed much light on the "congested area" issue nor does it provide any meaningful clarification. Because this type of case is decided on a "case by case" basis, I think the Court's decision relied heavily on the ALJ's and NTSB's factual findings. As a result, we still do not have a clear definition of what constitutes a "congested area."

The due process argument was an interesting defense. If the airmen hadn't been warned by the inspector or if the airmen had submitted a congested area plan but received not response from the FAA, perhaps then the Court may have been more sympathetic. On a positive note, it appears this argument could still be successful given the right set of facts.

In the meantime, make sure you are familiar with area over which you fly if you want to push the limits of 91.119 and remember that the FAA, NTSB and the Court will judge your flight using 20/20 hindsight.

The information contained in this article is intended for your education and benefit and should not be relied upon as advice to help you with your specific issue. Each case is unique and must be analyzed by an attorney licensed to practice in your area with respect to the particular facts and applicable current law before any advice can be given. Posting a comment to this article does not create an attorney-client relationship and advice will not be given until an attorney-client relationship has been established.

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