April 15, 2010 -- The massive volcanic eruption in Iceland today created a thick cloud of dust thousands of feet high and wide, forcing European airlines to cancel hundreds of flights.
Airborn volcanic ash has always posed a serious danger for aircraft specifically for their engines. Just two months ago, passengers on a jet were treated to a window view of a huge ash plume as a flight from Canada to the Caribbean skirted by a massive volcanic eruption on the island of Montserrat.
Over the last few decades, there have been several incidents where pilots suddenly found themselves in emergency situations because of an encounter with volcanic ash. In 1980, the eruption of Mount St. Helen's damaged two commercial jets. They both landed safely. In 1989, ash from Alaska's Mount Redoubt crippled a 747 aircraft, but that plane also made it safely to the ground.
Perhaps the most frightening incident happened on a British Airways Flight 009 in 1982 from Indonesia to New Zealand.
"It was a black, cold night. No moon, nothing," Eric Moody, the pilot of that British Airways flight, told ABC News.
The plane was at 36,000 feet over the Indian Ocean. The crew had no idea they were flying through ash – until they saw lights flash and haze began to fill the plane. Suddenly, the jet lost power in all four engines.
"We had no idea why the engines had stopped," said Moody. "They had stopped fairly quickly, all four. And we had no idea."
Immediately, even as the cockpit crew read their instruments in disbelief, the captain tried to calm passengers. "We're doing our damnist to get it under control," he told the cabin.
Passenger Betty Tootell, who later married a fellow passenger on that fateful flight, remembered the flight so vividly she wrote a book about it. Surprisingly, she says that passengers remained relatively calm. "It was not a pleasant time. I don't pretend anything other than that. But there was no panic," she told the BBC.
Without engine power, the cabin lost pressure, so the crew made the decision to dive. They dropped the plane's altitude to 10,000 feet, where the air was breathable. That dive saved the plane. It blew the ash out of the engines. Once they were clear, the crew was able to restart the engines, saving the lives of the 263 souls on board.
Tootell says that, instead of instilling in her a fear of flying, she experienced just the opposite. " The incident [increased] my confidence in flying because we had a pretty good man at the helm and a pretty good crew there, the best I'd say because they saved our lives that night. And in those circumstances if you can get out of an incident like that we had the feeling, many of us that you could get out of anything."
"If we had given up we wouldn't be here today, so we had no choice but to keep trying," Moody said. He adds that, "anyone who goes into volcanic ash now, is a nutcase … it's very dangerous material."