'We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped'
Published 16/04/2010 | 05:00
"If you find yourself flying into a cloud of ash, turn away and get out of there as soon as you can."
The advice came yesterday from the British airline captain whose epic brush with disaster in 1982 taught the aviation world the peril of volcanoes.
Eric Moody was in command of British Airways Flight 9, a Boeing 747 that turned into a jumbo glider over Indonesia when volcanic ash put all four engines out of action.
After 14 minutes of silent flight and aiming to ditch in the ocean, Mr Moody and his two fellow officers managed to relight the engines in clear air and land their 260 passengers and cabin crew in Jakarta.
Surprisingly, the landmark incident of June 1982 was the first potentially catastrophic encounter between an airliner and high-altitude ash. "They copied what we did and published it in every pilot's manual in the world," Mr Moody said.
Mr Moody's announcement to the passengers after losing power has gone down in airline lore. "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 it under control. I trust you are not in too much distress."
The problems of Flight 9 and a few other incidents led to a global tracking system for volcano cloud. Pilots are now trained to look for signs, including the odour of sulphur in the cabin and electrification on the leading edges of the wings from sandblasting by dust particles.
The big difference now is that crew have warning. When Flight 9 ran into trouble on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Perth the pilots had no idea why their engines had stopped. "Before us, I don't think they even saw ash as a danger," Mr Moody said.
Ash clouds can be seen in daylight but they do not show on weather radar. Flight 9 was flying in the dark and the crew saw only a bizarre, bright light on the windshield as the glass was being sandblasted.
There were fumes and a smell of sulphur in the cabin and the passengers had a fine view of fire as unburnt fuel ignited behind the stopped engines.
Only when they were back on the ground did the crew hear that the nearby Mount Galunggung had erupted several days earlier and that its ash had choked their engines at 11,280m.
"I was talking to the first-class passengers after landing and noticed that I had black hands," Mr Moody said. "The flight engineer said it looked like ash and I said don't be so bloody stupid."
Until they heard the explanation, the crew believed that the engines had failed because they had made some error and they would get the blame whether or not they survived the unprecedented feat of putting an airliner down on the sea at night.
Even with three of their four engines running again, Flight 9 had difficulty landing because the pilots could see almost nothing through the windshield. It was, in the words of Captain Moody, "a bit like negotiating one's way up a badger's arse".
The captain and his two fellow officers were decorated and the passengers acclaimed them as heroes.