March 16, 2006
Pilots: Urgent Need for Volcanic Ash Monitoring, Training
ALPA Executive Air Safety Chairman Capt. Terry McVenes issued the following statement after testifying before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Disaster Prevention and Prediction. [Read the testimony]
WASHINGTON, D.C.--- “Major volcanic eruptions may make headlines, but ash clouds loom as a hazard during dozens of airline flights each year. Each of these encounters could damage an aircraft and even threaten lives. We need better monitoring and tracking of volcanic activity as well as improved communication and training for pilots to reduce the hazard posed by volcanic ash.
“In the past 25 years, more than 100 jet aircraft have sustained damage after flying through volcanic ash clouds, generating repair costs of more than $250 million. At least seven of the encounters resulted in temporary engine failure, with three aircraft losing power from all engines. Fortunately, pilots were able to restart enough engines to land safely. The engine failures occurred at distances ranging from 150 to 600 miles from the erupting volcanoes, and aircraft damage from volcanic ash encounters has been reported from as far as 1,800 miles from the volcano.
“The threat from volcanic ash comes from the fact that the melting temperature of the glassy rock material is lower than the operating temperatures of jet engines. Ash particles melt in hot sections of the engine and then fuse onto critical components in cooler parts of the engine. Ash can also damage or coat aircraft windshields to the point that pilots can no longer see through them. Volcanic ash has also caused loss of airspeed indication and prevented radio communications.
“Eleven percent of the world’s active volcanoes lie within U.S. borders. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) indicates that about half of these volcanoes represent a significant threat to aviation. Nine volcanoes in the Cascade Range of California, Oregon and Washington are considered a very high threat. These volcanoes are seriously under-monitored, especially given the danger they pose to both aviation and ground communities.
“Active volcanoes in the Marianas Islands, a U.S. territory in the North Pacific Ocean, also pose a serious risk. A flight traveling to or from Hong Kong, Manila or points west crosses over the Marianas Islands about every 22 minutes. Only two of the volcanoes there have some ground-based, real-time monitoring, and six have no ground-based monitoring at all.
“The good news is that we know how to reduce the threat from volcanic ash. We must improve the way we forecast, monitor, and track ash from volcanoes, and get pilots the information they need about ash hazards more quickly. We also need to fully train pilots about how to deal with volcanic ash threat.
“ALPA specifically calls for a five-minute volcanic ash warning for pilots in the cockpit. Better forecasting, monitoring and tracking of ash clouds can make the five-minute warning a reality. We know that it works. The five-minute warning that pilots received during the Mount St. Helens eruption in 2004 proved that the USGS system works, and that’s the kind of warning system pilots need for every volcano. It can only happen through a fully-funded USGS monitoring program.”
ALPA represents 62,000 airline pilots at 39 carriers in the U.S. and Canada. Its website is www.alpa.org.
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ALPA CONTACTS: John Mazor, Linda Shotwell, (703) 481-4440, firstname.lastname@example.org