EasyJet in fake ash cloud test
A first-ever artificial ash cloud has been created and a plane flown through it to see how passenger aircraft can cope with volcanic eruptions.
The experiment is part of easyJet's plan to have volcanic sensor detection equipment fitted on its planes.
In the test, an A400M Airbus test plane dispersed one tonne of Icelandic ash into the atmosphere at between 9,000ft and 11,000ft.
This created conditions consistent with the 2010 eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull - an event that caused severe disruption to UK and European passenger flights.
A second Airbus test aircraft, an A340-300, with the AVOID (Airborne Volcanic Object Identifier and Detector) technology fitted, flew towards the ash cloud identifying and measuring it from around 40 miles away.
The experiment also used a small aircraft, a Diamond DA42 from Dusseldorf University of Applied Sciences in Germany, to fly into the ash cloud to take measurements which help to corroborate the measurements made by the AVOID system.
The ash cloud produced during the test was between 600ft and 800ft deep measuring about 1.75 miles in diameter. To begin with the ash cloud was visible to the naked eye but dissipated quickly, becoming difficult to identify.
The AVOID volcanic sensor detected the ash cloud and measured its density which showed that it was within the range of concentrations measured during the ash crisis in April and May 2010.
EasyJet's engineering director Ian Davies said: "The threat from Icelandic volcanoes continues and so we are delighted with the outcome of this unique and innovative experiment.
"Finding a solution is as crucial now as ever to ensure we never again see the scenes of spring 2010 when all flying ceased across Europe for several days."
He went on: "This is a key step in the final journey of testing the technology and moving towards commercial certification. EasyJet will now work towards a non-integrated stand-alone system which we aim to fit on to a number of our current fleet of aircraft by the end of 2014."
Dr Fred Prata, inventor of the AVOID technology, said: "The team has just executed a unique scientific and engineering experiment conclusively demonstrating that low concentrations of ash can be identified by the AVOID sensor. "
Airbus engineering head Charles Champion said: "We are at the beginning of an invention which could become a useful solution for commercial aviation to prevent large-scale disruption from volcanic ash."
Magnus Tumi Gudmundsson, from the Institute of Earth Sciences in Iceland, said: "Explosive volcanic eruptions in Iceland happen on average once every five years. When winds blow from the north west, the ash is transported towards Europe as it did during the Eyjafjallajokull eruption in 2010.
"It was a coincidence that this did not happen in the seven explosive eruptions that took place between 1970 and 2010. Instead the ash was mostly carried away from Europe by southerly winds."
He went on: "Considering the relatively long time since the last eruptions in two of Iceland's most active volcanoes, Hekla and Katla, both should be regarded as ready to erupt.
"It is not possible to predict when or where the next eruption will take place. What is certain is that it will happen."