The world's first man-made ash cloud has been created by a team led by airline easyJet and plane-maker Airbus, to test a device for planes to detect volcanic blasts, and fly around them.
Flying through ash can be hazardous. In 1982 British Airways Flight 9, from London to Auckland, flew into a cloud of ash thrown up by the eruption of the Indonesian volcano Mount Galunggung. The pilots did not see the cloud but the engines did – and flamed out. The pilots managed to glide the powerless jet to safety.
Since the danger of airborne ash – essentially fine rock particles – to planes was now clear, the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano in 2010 shut down much of Europe's airspace for six days, affecting more than 10 million people.
An Airbus A400M test plane on Wednesday dispersed one ton of ash over the Bay of Biscay, off western France, creating conditions similar to that of the 2010 eruption, said the team, which also included Norwegian sensor maker Nicarnica Aviation.
The ash used in the test was from the Eyjafjallajokull eruption, collected and stored by scientists in Reykjavik.
The cloud produced was 600-800 feet high and 1.75 miles wide. Initially visible to the naked eye, it dissipated quickly, becoming difficult to identify, said easyJet.
A second Airbus plane, an A340-300, was fitted with Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector (AVOID) technology, invented by Dr. Fred Prata from NILU, the Norwegian Institute for Air Research. It attempted to identify and measure the cloud from around 40 miles away.
A smaller aircraft, a Diamond DA42, then flew into the cloud to take measurements to corroborate the AVOID system's findings.
The sensor finds the cloud
It found the sensor had successfully detected the cloud and accurately measured its density, which was within the range of concentrations measured during the ash crisis in April and May 2010.
EasyJet, Europe's second biggest budget airline behind Ryanair by market value, now plans to fit the volcanic ash detection equipment on some of its planes by the end of 2014.
"The threat from Icelandic volcanoes continues and so we are delighted with the outcome of this (test) ... finding a solution is as crucial now as ever to ensure we never again see the scenes of spring 2010 when all flying ceased across Europe for several days," said Ian Davies, easyJet's engineering director.
The video below shows a real ash cloud of the type pilots need to avoid, being emitted by Indonesia's Mount Sinabung, on November 12.