It was a bit strange at work, not seeing a plane go past every few minutes as UK air space was closed to all traffic for the first time since, well, ever I think.Â Nearly all traffic anyway, the Sussex air ambulance was still operational and I saw a single-engine light aircraft go over my place at about 8pm.Â There was a bit of discussion about all this in the office, mostly revolving around how to pronounce Eyjafjallajoekull.We resorted to Wikipedia which says it is pronounced ???ja?fjatla?jÅ“k?tl? – so now we know! Â There is also a chance to hear that said here but a colleague reckoned it just sounded like Rowley Birkin QC from the Fast Show and should be followed by “but I was extremely drunk at the time”.
Anyway, one thing led to another, as it always does on Wikipedia and we came across the story of British Airways Flight 9.Â I can thoroughly recommend reading it for many reasons.Â It shows why closing down all air traffic may not be as much of an over-reaction as it might appear to some as it explains not only the damage volcanic ash can do but why it is not detected by planes’ instruments.
What a story though!Â Just reading it gave me goosebumps. The plane had all four engines cut out and had to glide for miles and miles, with the real chance of not being able to clear a mountain range if it dropped too far, so the crew had the contingency plan to ditch in the ocean.
There are also some fine examples of British understatement and keeping calm in a crisis. Not sure how calm I would have been if I heard a pilot make an announcement like this:
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 them under control. I trust you are not in too much distress.
After managing to get some engine power back they went to make an emergency landing but even that had problems because the instrument landing system wouldn’t work properly and there was no visibility as the ash had scoured the window completely.Â The captain described the landing as being “a bit like negotiating one’s way up a badger’s arse”.Â I think there is a special module in British pilots’ school that teaches them phrases like that.
He has not lost his magic way with words though. BBC News interviewed him today and asked him about that terrifying flight and he said “It was, yeah, a little bit frightening“.Â A little bit?
I really can’t remember the incident, but at that time I was five months away from buying a television (I finally decided to get one when Channel 4 launched later that year) so wouldn’t have seen the TV news.Â Probably just as well because I am pretty sure that when I went to Australia six years later I flew out on BA flight 009.
But back to the 21st Century.Â Many people living under the flight paths of major airports are probably enjoying their first good night’s sleep at home for a long time.Â When the flights start again I do wonder whether this brief reminder of what it would be like without all the air traffic will have a stimulating effect on the campaigns against airports and runways.