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“This is your Captain speaking...
all four engines have stopped.”

By MS. RITA HESS, Staff Writer

Those words can be frightening, regardless of whether you are a newbie or a seasoned flier. Captain Eric Moody put a unique twist on that message when he delivered it to passengers headed from London Heathrow to Auckland, New Zealand, aboard British Airways 747 Flight 9 in June 1982.

Moody said, “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 going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.”

WHAT HAPPENED

Flying above the Indian Ocean, the crew noticed an effect on the windscreen much like St. Elmo’s fire. This natural phenomenon can occur if planes fly through highly charged electric fields sometimes found in thunderclouds. Oddly, though, skies were clear that night. Within minutes, passengers reportedly saw brilliant lights outside the aircraft as it begin to shudder, followed by flames coming from the engines.

SURVIVING THE UNTHINKABLEOther aircraft have lost all engines in the decades since the British Airways Flight 9 event. Total engine failure can also happen if, for example, a plane runs out of fuel or collides with birds. However, even those incidents can be survived.In 2001, an Air Transat flight carrying 293 passengers and 13 crew members lost power in both engines over the Atlantic Ocean after leaking fuel for six hours. Pilots glided the powerless Airbus A330 for 19 minutes (about 75 miles) to a hard landing at Portugal’s Lajes Air Base. No lives were lost.And who could forget the Miracle on the Hudson, when Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed an Airbus A320 after a flock of Canada geese took out its engines? Again, no lives were lost.All four engines failed, one by one, and did not respond to efforts to restart them. The crew knew they needed a plan—and a backup plan. They quickly pinned down their options: (1) they could try gliding 23 minutes (~91 miles) to Jakarta, Indonesia, for an emergency landing, or (2) try ditching in the Indian Ocean. Even as they proceeded to their first choice, Jakarta, they tried restarting engines. All efforts failed.

Thick smoke that reeked of sulfur accumulated in the passenger section. At one point, oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling. Passengers were justifiably scared; some wrote notes to loved ones while others comforted fellow travelers around them.

Moody descended quickly to an altitude that allowed people to breathe. As the crew reached the point where they had to turn to attempt the ocean ditch, they again tried the engine restart procedure. Miraculously, the number four engine started and the pilot slowed descent. Soon, engine three successfully restarted. Shortly thereafter, the crew restarted engines one and two, and the pilot increased altitude to get above the mountains and head to Jakarta. Even as the windscreen issue returned and engine two shut down again, they managed to land the 747 heroically at Jakarta.

WHAT CAUSED THE INCIDENT?

Mount Galunggung, located southeast of Jakarta, had released a cloud of volcanic ash and smoke that did not show up on weather radar because the ash was dry. It entered the engines, clogging them, and then subsequently melted. Later, as each engine cooled and the airliner descended, the ash solidified and broke off, allowing air to again flow through the engine and start.

As a result, airspace around Mount Galunggung was closed. It reopened days later, only to be shut down again within weeks when a Singapore Airlines 747 descended more than 7,000 feet due to engine malfunction before power could be restored. Flight 9 was not the first plane to encounter ash from the eruption. A Garuda DC-9 experienced it two months earlier.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW

Plumes of ash near active volcanoes are a flight safety hazard, especially at night when pilots can’t see them. Like with Flight 9, the ash may not appear on weather radar. Even during daylight hours, pilots risk mistaking an ash cloud for a cloud of water vapor, especially if the ash travels far away from the eruption site.

Volcanic ash is abrasive and can scratch and “pit” windscreens, impairing visibility. It can damage and erode material, literally changing the shape of blades and affecting operability. Melted particles can stick to turbine blades, fuel nozzles, and combustors—which can stop cooling airflow and heat surrounding metal. Fine ash that enters electronic components can cause electrical failure—and on and on. Such issues are hard on aircraft and dangerous for personnel!

In 1991, the aviation industry established regional Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers (VAACs) to keep aviators informed of volcanic hazards. If a center detects ash clouds, it advises aviation and meteorological offices as needed. To learn about VAAC offices and coverage areas, go to www.ssd.noaa.gov/VAAC/vaac.html.

EPILOGUE

Captain Moody and the other crew on Flight 9 received a bounty of awards, and the incidents of that day are much easier to write about knowing that everyone survived.

AMC crews do not fly for recognition, of course. You proudly serve your nation by deploying to all kinds of environments when needed. Ironically, that sometimes means responding to those in need after volcanoes erupt!

Regardless of where future missions take you, try to avoid volcanic ash and any other situations that—in Moody’s words—cause you “too much distress.”