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Press Releases :: May 5, 2010

Research Needed to Better Predict, Understand Impact of Volcanic Ash on Aircraft, Subcommittee Hears

(Washington, DC) –The House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics held a hearing to examine the role that federal research can play in understanding the impact that volcanic ash clouds have on aircraft operations. Most recently, the eruption of an Icelandic volcano paralyzed air travel in Europe for six days, inconvenienced countless passengers around the world, and is projected to have caused airline revenue losses of at least $1.7 billion. This is the first hearing convened by the House of Representatives to address this issue.

“I strongly believe that this Subcommittee should, as one of its primary responsibilities, identify space and aeronautics issues of concern to the nation and encourage the development of practical solutions if possible. While we have been fortunate not to have experienced the type of widespread volcano-induced airspace closure Europe just experienced, we should view this as a wake-up call and try to close any knowledge gaps we have,” said Subcommittee Chairwoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ).
Volcanic ash is extremely dangerous to an aircraft’s operation. If an aircraft encounters volcanic ash during flight, it could lead to a variety of impairments including engine failure. The aftermath of the recent eruption in Iceland demonstrated the need for a better understanding of the effects of volcanic ash on aircraft and how particulates spread in the atmosphere. Of particular concern is the limited amount of research thus far on the cumulative impact of flying through even low levels of volcanic ash. Members and witnesses discussed what knowledge is still lacking and how to go about gaining a better understanding through additional research, data collection and computer modeling.
“Aviation regulators have insufficient scientific data to establish at what level of volcanic ash contamination air travel is safe; where ash clouds are and how concentrated they are on a real-time basis; and the extent of damage that volcanic ash inflicts on aircraft,” stated Giffords.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) witnesses testified on the agency’s past and current research that may be applicable to addressing this issue and illustrated the effects of flying through volcanic ash clouds with its own experience. In February 2000, a NASA DC-8 airplane used for research inadvertently flew through a volcanic ash cloud en route to Sweden. From this encounter, NASA learned that volcanic ash can inflict damage to an aircraft engine despite the absence of any degradation in engine performance. Another difficulty is that conventional radar cannot detect the ash particulates. A second NASA witness described the agency’s response to the recent European situation and how NASA satellites were used to provide near-real-time information to help track the volcanic ash plume. 
The witness from the Federal Aviation Administration described her agency’s role in assisting European aviation regulators in their efforts to resume air travel and testified that the new NextGen air traffic control system should enable an improved information sharing process.
Witnesses representing the Air Line Pilots Association, International and GE Aircraft both highlighted the need for credible scientific data and analysis to better understand and mitigate the threat from flying through volcanic ash clouds.
For more information on the Committee’s work on NASA, visit the Committee’s website.

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