Fear of Flying

We chose to fly to Paris, knowing the volcanic cloud was approaching and suspecting the airport would be shuttered as soon as we landed. The diary of a grounded pilot.

When my copilots and I headed to Ben-Gurion International Airport on Thursday a week ago, in order to staff the Arkia flight to Paris, we already knew the Icelandic volcano was clouding Europe's skies. We knew that parts of the Continent were closed to aviation, and that the cloud of volcanic dust was heading southward and might reach Paris.

We spoke with the operations room and decided to fly to Paris in any case, knowing the airport would probably shut down right after we arrived. And indeed, when we landed at Charles de Gaulle, we were told the airport was closing within half an hour. We knew we could not clean the plane, fuel it and board the Israel-bound passengers in such a short time. To our question as to when the airport would reopen for takeoffs, the control tower replied: 11 A.M. tomorrow (Friday, a week ago), at the latest.

Of course, Charles de Gaulle Airport did not reopen the following morning, and we - three pilots, six cabin crew members and a Boeing 757 - found ourselves in the midst of an inconceivable paralysis of European civil aviation. This was the worst disruption of aviation since World War II. We ultimately returned to Israel six days later.

One not very large volcano hidden beneath the glaciers in Iceland caused a global crisis. It affected people from flower-growers in Kenya, who were unable to ship their goods to clients in Europe, to factories in China, whose products got stuck at airports because the Chinese aviation companies canceled all their flights to Europe.

Above all, millions of travelers got stuck at airports around the world. On this past Sunday, for example, there were only 4,000 flights in Europe, as compared to about 25,000 on an ordinary Sunday. It will be many days before schedules return to normal. As I write this, on Wednesday, more than 90,000 flights have already been canceled.

Since 1980, no fewer than 100 planes have flown inside volcanic clouds. The effects have ranged from temporary dysfunctions in flight instruments to full loss of engine power. In all the cases, the planes entered the cloud because it did not appear on the radar and because the pilots could not see it, generally because it was after dark.

On June 24, 1982, a British Airways Boeing 747 jumbo jet, carrying 248 passengers and 15 crew members, was flying near Indonesia on its way to Australia. It entered a cloud of volcanic dust from Mount Galunggung, about 180 kilometers southeast of Jakarta. The pilots, who had not realized they were flying in a volcanic cloud, noticed some odd phenomena. Strange flashing lights appeared on the windshield and the cockpit filled with sulfurous smoke.

The pilots asked the nearest flight control unit whether they knew of any unusual phenomena in the area. The controllers said they did not. Passengers who looked out the window related afterward that they had seen the engines engulfed in flames. Within a few minutes, all the engines on the giant plane turned off and it started to glide, losing altitude.

Despite the extreme emergency situation, the pilot, Captain Eric Moody broadcast the following message to the passengers: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them under control. I trust you are not in too much distress." In contrast to the calm announcement, there was tremendous tension in the cockpit. Captain Moody decided to turn toward Jakarta airport, making repeated efforts to get the engines going again.

Only after 13 nerve-wracking minutes, and after the plane had dropped more than 22,000 feet (more than seven kilometers), did they manage to restart one of the engines. A few minutes later, the other engines also started (one failed again later) and the pilots managed to land in Jakarta.

On December 15, 1989, a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines jumbo jet flying from Amsterdam to Tokyo was descending for a stop at Anchorage Airport in Alaska when it flew into a cloud of dust from the Redoubt Volcano, which had erupted the previous day. In this case, too, all four engines failed and this time, too, there were many minutes of anxiety before the pilots managed to start them again. Incidentally, $80 million worth of damage was caused to the plane, all four of whose engines had to be replaced.

Risk factors

European aviation authorities thought about these two incidents, and many less serious ones, when they learned of the eruption in Iceland.

To this day, no apparatus or means have been developed to follow the spread of volcanic clouds. All the decisions made this past week concerning the risk posed by the Icelandic cloud and its location were based on estimates and theories, not on concrete knowledge or data.

Apparently the desire to be "covered" and not take risks is what led to the decisions to close the skies in country after country. Austria, Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland and Britain immediately closed their air space. Afterward, parts of the air space of Germany, France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Holland, Norway, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Swede, Switzerland and Ukraine were also closed.

Contradictory announcements started to come from every one of those countries regarding when their skies would reopen. France said Friday morning. The British prime minister postponed reopening the skies repeatedly, in the name of passengers' safety. The European Union transportation ministers decided to meet and discuss the issue, but postponed their meeting repeatedly.

The International Air Transport Association, which represents more than 230 airlines from 120 countries, lambasted the EU's management of the crisis.

"We are far enough into this crisis," said Giovanni Bisignani, IATA's director general and CEO on Monday, "to express our dissatisfaction on how governments have managed it ... with no risk assessment, no consultation, no coordination, and no leadership. This crisis is costing airlines at least $200 million a day in lost revenues and the European economy is suffering billions of dollars in lost business. In the face of such dire economic consequences, it is incredible that Europe's transport ministers have taken five days to organize a video conference."

Europeans abroad were unable to return home, and visitors could not leave Europe. And inside Europe, many thousands of people tried to head south, to Spain and southern Italy, where airports remained open. The trains were bursting at the seams, and the lines at stations stretched for hours. The car rental companies exhausted their stocks within the first hours of the crisis. And anyone who managed to get his hands on a car and travel south was stuck in an eight-hour traffic jam at the entrance to Barcelona. The British topped everyone by sending warships to rescue their citizens from the shores of France, in a reprise of the heroic evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940.

And we basked in the caressing Parisian sun, gazing helplessly at the completely empty skies. It was clear the volcanic cloud would not reach Paris, but the French aviation authorities absolutely refused to allow planes to take off or land at the city's two main airports, Orly and Charles de Gaulle. And the Israelis at the hotel accosted us every time we entered the dining room, demanding information about when the flight to Israel would depart. We hadn't the faintest idea.

After four days, our representative in Paris convinced the airport authorities to allow us to fly to Barcelona, so long as we took no passengers. The plane could be damaged, and while the crew's lives could be endangered, passengers' lives could not, they said. Ultimately, there was no risk at all, and the skies stayed clear.

It was a very strange experience, to taxi down the runways at Charles de Gaulle, one of the busiest airports on the continent, all by ourselves. As we left for Barcelona, the control tower channels had never been so quiet. We were the first plane to take off on an international flight from Paris after the skies were closed four days earlier. On our way to Israel, after six days of forced idleness, we heard over the radio that planes were already making their way even to London. The siege on Europe began to break.

The Icelandic volcano once again reminded us how dependent the modern world is on aviation, and how vulnerable aviation is to force majeure phenomena over which mankind has no control. One volcanic eruption, which no one could have expected, disrupted the lives of millions of people around the world.