Top 5: Boeing's Past Experiences With Volcanic Ash

A look back at aircraft manufacturer's past encounters with ash.


Top 5: Boeing's Past Experiences With Volcanic Ash

In the past 30 years, more than 90 jet-powered commercial airplanes have encountered clouds of volcanic ash and suffered damage as a result, according to Boeing. The increased availability of satellites and the technology to transform satellite data into useful information for operators have reduced the number of volcanic ash encounters. However, further coordination and cooperation, including linking operators and their dispatchers to the network of government volcano observers, is required throughout the aviation industry.

Significant ash encounters from the past include those involving such well-known volcanoes as Mt. Pinatubo, Mt. Redoubt, and Mt. St. Helens. The airplanes that encountered volcanic ash during these events and in the other events listed chronologically experienced varying degrees of damage.

5. Mt. St. Helens, United States, 1980

The first incident in our series is from 1980 in the United States, when A 727 and a DC-8 encountered separate ash clouds during this major eruption. Both airplanes experienced damage to their windshields and to several systems, but both landed safely despite the windshield damage.

4. Galunggung volcano, Indonesia, 1982
Several 747s encountered ash from this eruption. One airplane lost thrust from all four engines and descended from 36,000 ft to 12,500 ft before all four engines were restarted. The airplane, on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Perth, Australia, diverted to Jakarta and landed safely despite major engine damage. This airplane subsequently had all four engines replaced before returning to service. A few days after the initial encounters, another 747 flew into the ash cloud and suffered significant engine damage. This airplane also diverted to Jakarta and subsequently performed a successful two-engine landing.

3. Mt. Redoubt, United States, 1989

On a flight from Amsterdam to Anchorage, Alaska, a new 747-400 (only three months old with approximately 900 hr total flying time) encountered an ash cloud from the erupting Mt. Redoubt near Anchorage. All four engines ingested ash and flamed out. The crew successfully restarted the engines and landed safely at Anchorage.

All four engines were replaced and many airplane systems also had to be repaired or replaced. For example, the airplane environmental control system was replaced, the fuel tanks were cleaned, and the hydraulic systems were repaired. Several other airplanes encountered ash from this eruption, but most damage was minor because operators had been notified of the eruption. Some operators, such as Alaska Airlines, continued scheduled flights once they developed processes to safely identify where ash might be encountered. Although information was available about the Mt. Redoubt eruption, the channels for sharing this information were not well developed at the time.

2. Mt. Pinatubo, Philippines, 1991
More than 20 volcanic ash encounters occurred after the Mt. Pinatubo eruption, which was the largest volcanic eruption of the past 50 years. The ability to predict where ash was to be found was challenging because of the enormous extent of the ash cloud. Commercial flights and various military operations were affected; one U.S. operator grounded its airplanes in Manila for several days.

1. Mt. Popocatepetl, Mexico, 1997

This volcano affected several flights in 1997 and 1998. Although damage was minor in most cases, one flight crew experienced significantly reduced visibility for landing and had to look through the flight deck side windows to taxi after landing. In addition, the airport in Mexico City was closed for up to 24 hr on several occasions during subsequent intermittent eruptions.

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