British Airways Flight 9
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers report entitled “Volcanic Ash: To Fly or Not to Fly? reports that the prediction of “ash movement and dispersal has become more sophisticated over the years. In the UK, the Met Office uses Numerical Atmospheric-dispersion Modeling Environment (NAME), computer model, developed after the Chernobyl accident in 1986.” (2010, p.3) This model is reported to have tracked various atmospheric dispersion events and to have as its purpose the prediction of “how far and how concentrated, emitted particles will be dispersed, using a number of factors, such as wind, rainfall and particle sizeâ€¦” (Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2010, p.3) On June 24, 1982 British Airways 747-200, Flight 9 near Jakarta Indonesia ran into trouble when the crew accidentally flew into a volcanic ash cloud from Mount Galunggung in west Java, Indonesia. The ash caused severe damage to all four engines and the aircraft lost its flying power briefly. The crew was however able to restart the engines once the plane glided out of the dust cloud. The crew was able to make an uneventful landing in Jakarta with none of the 15-crew members or 247 passengers being injured.
I. Report of Eric Moody
Eric Moody writes that the airline pilot’s job in the earlier days of civil aviation was one “in which character, skills, and a dogged ability to stick to the task under extreme pressure, were tested on an almost daily basis. Weather forecasting was rudimentary; navigation was based on fleeting glimpses of railway lines thorough ragged cloud and accurate landings on an ability to discern a dim line of gooseneck flares. These aircraft were subject to frequent technical failure and the engines had to be nursed with the sensitivity of old stagecoach drivers used in handling an inexperienced team of four. Those who learned their trade during the war came through an even more deadly and unforgiving school.” (Moody, 1986, p.1)
However, Moody states that pilots in the modern generation “sit in air-conditioned comfort, with reliable engines, navigating errors measured in yards rather than miles on aircraft which can handle themselves, smoothly and accurately, in almost impenetrable fog.” (1986, p.1) Moody writes that his generation of pilots is the first “who may go through a whole career without having a genuine emergency; many pilots have completed fifteen years flying without having suffered an engine failure.” (1986, p.1)
II. BA Flight 009
British Airways Flight 009 was carrying 247 passengers along with 91,000 kg of fuel on the flight to Perth. The night was “moonless, but clear and the flying conditions were smooth.” (Moody, 1986, p.1) The weather forecast was good and the expectations of the crew was for an “uneventful flight lasting 5 hours.” (Moody, 1986, p.1) The flight had eaten their meal and settled into the cruise at 37,000 feet. Moody is reported to have taken “a quick look at the area ahead of the aircraft with the weather radar and picked up nothing more interesting than returns from the surface of the sea. He made his way aft and found that the crew toilet was occupied. He descended the stairs to the first class area and started a conversation with the forward purser Sarah Delane-Lea. Almost immediately he was called to the flight deck by Fiona Wright the Stewardess I.” (Moody, 1986, p.1)
As Moody climbed the stairs it is reported that ne noticed that “puffs of smoke [were] billowing out from the vents at floor level and a smell which he described as ‘acrid or ionized electrical’ such as one finds near sparks from electrical machinery.” (Moody, 1986, p.1) When Moody entered the flight deck, he found the windscreens on fire “with what appeared to e the most intense display of St. Elmo’s fire he had ever experienced.” (Moody, 1986, p.1) Moody is reported to have then strapped himself into his seat and to have looked at the weather radar again.” (1986, p.1)
In Moody’s absence in the flight cabin, it is reported that other two crew members “had put on the seat belt signs and the engine igniters.” (Moody, 1986, p.1) It is reported that a belief exists that the “slow build-up of danger ensured that they [the crew] were not plunged instantly into an extreme situation. They became more alert and concentrated as the incident became more complex and at no time lost control of their reasoning processes. They were soon forced to face the full consequences of their problem by the voice of the Flight Engineer.” (Moody, 1986, p.1) The Flight Engineer stated “Engine failure number 2â€¦.Three’s goneâ€¦.They’ve all gone!” (Moody, 1986, p.1) Moody is reported to have undergone training on a four engine failure detail on the simulator a few months earlier with the assumption that “all generators would fail, leaving the aircraft on standby electrical power, fed from the aircraft batteries. This would have caused a failure of the co-pilot’s instrumentation and much of the cockpit lighting. Yet the instrumentation all appeared to work and the auto-pilot remained in control.” (Moody, 1986, p.1) The engine displays are reported as a mix of Smiths and General Electric with some of the freezing when power was lost and some with needles dropping off the scale. In addition, amber lights indicated that the engines had exceeded their maximum turbine gas temperatures. The Flight Engineer suggested that they shut off the engines and Moody put the auto-pilot into a “gentle descent” and instructed the co-pilot to “put out a Mayday.” (Moody, 1986, p.1)
II. Processes, Intuition and Decisions of the Flight Crew
The crew attempt to relight the engines 1, 2 and 3 and attempt to relight number 4 engine once the fire handle had been pulled when the fire drill was carried out. It is reported that the cabin pressure warning horn sounded as the plane climbed through 10,000 feet. When the removed their oxygen masks one of the pilots masks fell apart when pulled form stowage. Moody had to decide at this point whether to continue the plane’s descent or to have the co-pilot “suffer the effects of anoxia and Moody went ahead with an emergency descent. (1986, p.2)
Moody did decide however, not to extend the landing gear although the manual instructed otherwise because this presented the possibility that he might have to “ditch the aircraft with gear extended should it prove impossible to retract them.” (1986, p.2) Hindsight shows that “it is now obvious that during a gear extension the hydraulic power from windmilling engines might not be powerful enough to move the gear and the fling controls at the same time.” (Moody, 1986, p.2) The aircraft had been turned back towards Jakarta and that with a safety height of 10,500 feet in that area that they would turn the plan out to sea when the aircraft reached 12,000 feet. When the aircraft reached 20,000 feet, it is reported that Moody “retracted the flight spoilers and reduced the rate of descent.” (Moody, 1986, p.2)
By that time, the co-pilot had managed to put his oxygen mask back together reported to be a “test of intelligence and manual dexterity while under extreme pressureâ€¦” (Moody, 1986, p.2) It was at the time that the captain announced to the passengers as follows:
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. This is your Captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are all doing our damndest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.” (Moody, 1986, p.2)
III. The Engines Restart
Just as Moody had began to consider “the awesome consequences of attempting a deadstick touchdown on the sea a night it is reported that his thought were interrupted “by sounds of jubilation from the other two crew members as number 4 engine started.” (1986, p.2) This is reported as the engine which had first run down and the successes amply repaid Eric’s gamble in trying to start it. The other three engines started an almost interminable 90 second later. They were at 12,000 feet.” (Moody, 1986, p.2) The flight crew is reported to have “immediately requested a climb to a height which gave them ore clearance over the high ground ahead of them and asked for a clearance to Jakarta. They climbed to 15,000 feet and at about this height there was a resumption of the St. Elmo’s Fire.” (Moody, 1986, p.2) Number 2 engine surged continually when the throttles were pulled back and the aircraft was shut down. Eric suspected that the St. Elmo’s Fire, above 15,000 feet was connected with the engine problems somehow and he decided to get away from “the strange atmospheric effects but resolved to leave the throttles in their present position and to control the aircraft speed and the descent by the use of speedbrakes, flaps and undercarriage. This required a leap of the imagination as up till then they had a strong suspicion that the engines had failed because of an oversight or an error, by the crew.” (Moody, 1986, p.3) The aircraft was cleared to Jakarta Airport where the weather was fine with calm wind and good visibility.” (Moody, 1986, p.3) The only reported complication was that the “glide path information was not available for Runway 24.” (Moody, Moody, 1986, p.3) It is reported that the crew had difficulty in picking up lights on the group on runway 24 and the runway was finally seen to the right of the aircraft out of the co-pilot’s side-window. When the aircraft was lined up with the runway lights they disappeared again and the realization of the drew was that the windows “were almost opaque.” (Moody, 1986, p.4)
The final descent to touchdown is reported as having been made “using the localizer, to stay on the centerline and by peering out the outer edge of the left hand front window, which was still clear.” (Moody, 1986, p.4) Moody is reported to have been able to make out the lights of the VASIs on the runway left side with the other two crew members calling out the radio altitude and EME distance which assisted in judging the descent. The front windows of the plane glared with light at they approached the runway, the landing the aircraft made was smooth, and it is reported, “cheers and clapping broke out from the passengers.” (Moody, 1986, p.4)
III. Accident Report
It took two days for the crew to receive the report on the aircraft’s problem and it is stated that the aircraft had “an encounter with volcanic ash” and that the aircraft had flown into a dust cloud from a volcanic eruption from Mount Gallunggung which is positioned about 110 miles south east of Jakarta.” (Moody, 1986, p.4) The plume of ash is reported to have become visible on satellite weather photographs following the event. The worst affected part of the aircraft was the engines as the turbine blades were highly damaged and the tips of the blades “were ground away where they were blasted by the ash at a high speed. The material of the ash was mostly silicate particles with a mean diameter of .075 mm.” (Moody, 1986, p.4) The high speed parts of the engine were worn away and the “silicacious refractory material singed in contact with the hot metal fusing itself to the blades.” (Moody, ) Moody reports that this is what happens inside steel furnaces. The changes in blade shape and size had serious effects on the efficiency of the engines with the number 5 engine which ran down first being the engine with the least damage. Additionally ash was reported to be found in the pilot tubes causing the differences in reading on airspeeds.
ICAO had issued a special report in October 1984 on the dangers of volcanic ash to aircraft and in this report; it noted the incident of June 24, 1982. The report stated, “prevention was better than cure” but made the suggestion that “any pilot who encountered such a problem should, altitude permitting, reduce thrust zero, descend and leave the area as soon as possible. Consideration should be given to turning off engines and restarting them when clear of the ash and insight the relight envelope of the aircraft.” (Moody, 1986, p.4)
IV. Lessons from the Crew
The crew on British Airways Flight 009 “exhibited a quality which is described, best, by a word that is much loved by football managers, and the word is ‘bottle’. This described a sort of courage which is not of the gung-hot variety, but the sort which causes someone to persist in an enthusiastic and inspiring manner when the odds for success look slim.” (Moody, 1986, p.4) The reasons stated for the success of the crew on British Airways flight 009 are stated as follows:
(1) One pilot ensure that while check-lists were being completed, the aircraft altitude and speed were monitored;
(2) the emergency was managed in a rational and safe manner;
(3) the emergency checklists were fully utilized;
(4) they continued to restart the engines even though for 13 minutes there was no visible reward for their efforts;
(4) they used to auto-pilot to reduce work load so that, at least, one member of the crew could detach myself from the check-list and try to reason his way to a solution;
(6) where necessary, they made bold decisions, trying to start No. 4 engine and refusing to climb back into the cloud of ash; and (7) they made full use of each crew member, aircraft system and landing aid, to insure a safe landing. (Moody, 1986, p.4)
Moody reports that this was “an exercise in crisis management, the sort of thing which NATO spends much time studying.” (1986, p.4)
V. Reflections of the Pilot Following the Incident
It is reported that any time a Captain of an aircraft finds himself in a situation that is so extreme that it is his responsibility to make sure that at any time the aspect of the problem is clearly identified that attempts are made to find a solution. The captain must be able to delegate responsibilities and to have a clear mind and be able to prioritize the problems at hand based on importance and immediacy of the problems presented. The priorities are such that will change as the time moves on requiring that the pilot be sure to guard against ‘tunnel vision’. Moody reports that this aspect of aviation is not widely studied although there were five occasions in that same time in which multi-engined aircraft lost all engine power.
VI. Analysis of the Incident
The flight crew remained calm and level-headed during the incident and prioritized tasks according to immediacy and importance. In addition, all checklists were followed and all personal protective equipment (PPE) were utilized properly. As noted the flight crew used all aircraft systems during the incident and the crew members were all utilized to the fullest allowing one crew member at all times to be free to problem-solve creatively towards a resolution of the incident. The incident has changed the aircraft industry in that it is better understood since British Airways flight 009 what can result from aircraft engines taking in volcanic ash. The difficulty for regulators and the aerospace industry however is reproved to be attempting to “predict what an exact safe level of ash concentration is” for aircraft to fly though. (Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2010, p.4) It is reported that for many, “including the Dutch Pilots Unionâ€¦100% safety in the air does not exist, and therefore past experience and the gathering of data are our only guides when trying to make informed decisions in the future.” (Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2010, p.4)
It is recommended by the Institution of Mechanic Engineers that “the regulatory authorities continue to collect field data by test flying airplanes through volcanic eruptions around the globe. The aim would be to measure as far as technology will allow, the density and particle size distribution and conjunction with any effect they may have had by inspecting the airplane and its engines afterwards.” (Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2010, p.4)
Summary and Conclusion
If not for the level-headed thinking and the proper procedural prescription to handling the situation that occurred on the 24th of June 1982 on British Airways Flight 009 by the captain and flight crew and engineers, there would have been 247 passengers and 15 crew member lives that were lost. The crew had no previous experience with handling this type situation arising from engine exposure to volcanic ash and dust however, the rational choices made by the captain in combination with running of checklists and risk mitigation and sheer persistence in attempting to start the planes’ engines resulted in a successful and safe landing of the aircraft. While the oxygen mask of the co-pilot fell to pieces in his hands, the co-pilot remained calm and pieced the oxygen mask back together. Decisions were made upon the basis of the checklists and upon the basis of intuition of the captain and flight engineer. Since that time the study of the effect of volcanic ash and dust to aircraft engines has become a priority and studies in this area are still ongoing in the attempt to understand the dangers so that the dangers can be mitigated against to ensure safe aircraft flight under these conditions.
Guidance for Flight Crews and Controllers (nd) Retrieved from: www.skybrary.aero/index.php/Volcanic_Ash
Marks, Paul (2010) Engine Stripdowns Establish Safe Volcanic Ash Levels. 10 Apr 2010. Retrieved from: www.newscientist.com/article/dn18802-enginestripdowns-establish-safe-volcanic-ash-levels.html
Moody, Eric (1986) Down to a Sunless Sea: Anatomy of An Incident. The Log, April 1986. Retrieved from: http://www.ericmoody.com/Page1.pdf
Volcanic Ash: To Fly or Not to Fly? Institution of Mechanical Engineers — The Background Science of Engineering. October 2010. Retrieved from: http://www.imeche.org/Libraries/IMechE_Report_Library/IMechE_Volcanic_Ash_Report.sflb.ashx
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