TODAY   |  April 18, 2010

The dangers of flying in ash

Rob Schapiro, a retired 747 pilot with 34 years of experience, says volcanic ash clouds are well-known to veteran pilots, who avoid them because they can choke a jetliner’s engines with potentially catastrophic consequences.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> granola --

>>> this is their report this morning that at least two commercial airlines have already begun test flights to see if the plane can make it around the ash. here to discuss the dangers of flying through volcanic ash is rob shapiro who spent 32 years flying commercial and military aircraft . good morning. good to see you.

>> good morning.

>> you flew 747s and flew overseas routes over volcanic areas.

>> absolutely. most of the flights in the northern pacific which is a ring of volcanoes. volcanos were a regular part of our flight planning .

>> there are 18 active volcanoes in the world right now, seven of them are listed as having new activity meaning anything from seismic activity to gas to even ash, even mt . etna in italy has given off ash. how much do pilots know when you take off? are you aware of where you can potentially run into ash clouds?

>> you are aware of the level of activity of the volcanoes along your route. the volcano observatories give each volcano a color coding from green to normal seismic activity up to red which is an erupting or about to erupt volcano . if that's on your route of flight , the next thing would be to check the prevailing winds from that volcano because the ash cloud follows the prevailing winds . if there was no wind the cloud would fall right back on the volcano .

>> that's the issue right now with this iceland volcano . it's where the winds are carrying it that make it such a hazard.

>> and the degree of the eruption . a large eruption which pushes the ash into the high altitudes , the upper levels and then gets into very strong winds and it tends to follow the upper winds.

>> we noted that there are some airlines that are ferrying emptier planes to various airports in europe today trying to find ways below or around these clouds. airplanes have weather radar that can look at thunderstorms and clouds. will they paint the area where these ash clouds are?

>> they tend not to. the ash clouds are not normally shown on the weather radar . this might be more of a confidence builder than anything else. if they believed there was any danger to the aircraft they would not be taking them up.

>> we're looking at some of the pictures of what can happen that the ash can actually melt inside the engine and is we know there's a famous case in the early '80s of a 747 losing all four engines .

>> there was a case in alaska with exactly the same thing that flew into volcanic ash and lost motors.

>> there are procedures, obviously, to get those engines started and back on the ground, aren't there?

>> there are, but pilots are very aware of the dangers of volcanic ash and the first thing is to recognize that you've entered a volcanic ash cloud. it's not that simple because at night you won't be seeing anything so there are signs in the aircraft that you're entering a volcanic ash cloud and there's a procedure to exit the volcanic ash now.

>> here's an interesting question. the aviation authorities may at some point lift this warning and open up the air place. will the airlines quickly follow suit or will they make a judgement as to whether to take the multimillionaire planes and making a judgement?

>> it will depend on where the cloud is. because it is so dependent on the winds they're not going rely on a small shift in the winds to keep themselves shape.