Thursday, 22 April 2010

Who pays?

Now that the dust has settled (deliberate pun!) the fingers are being pointed, and many of them to the CAA and the British Government. In short the allegations are that it took 6 days for the CAA to turn round and say that in actual fact the aircraft manufacturers and engine manufactures have declared that aircraft can operate quite safely in far worse conditions than was the case with the skies over the UK.

What is becoming increasingly evident is that everyone was dragging their heels, no one would make a deciosn, for fear of recriminations if it were the wrong decision. It took British Airways to force their hand by electing to fly 24 long haul flights back to the UK so as to arrive Tuesday evening. Some of those aircraft were forced to divert to Shannon, but some held for 3 hours waiting for Heathrow to open up. Purely by chance as the aircraft were in the holding pattern the announcement came that UK airspace and airports would be opened in an hours time!

Only after the event has the amount of ash in the atmosphere actually been revealed....and we are now told the aircraft can operate perfectly safely in levels of ash 20 times more dense than that which occured over the UK. So have the manufacturers just come up with this figure...of course not...engines have to operate in all sorts of contaminated environments, including volcanic ash (take a flight into Catania which is next to Mount'll regularly fly through and physically see the ash), high level sand/dust from the Sahara and sand storms on the ground. The manufacturers know the precise tolerances that their engines can operate to. So it all goes back to the UK authorities over reacting.....think back to Bird Flu if you want another classic example!

Now the airlines are being asked to compensate all the passengers in accordance with EU regulations....which were put in place by the Governments who forced the grounding of the aircraft in the first place. If the airlines paid up what is being expected I would suspect many would just go out of business*. Someone has to pay, but it has to be the respective Governments, not the airlines.

* a quick airline with just one aircraft with 150 seats that should have operated say 10 flights over the 6 days....typical repatriation cost say £1,000 per passenger x 150 x 10 = £1,500,000. Thats more than they could possibly make in profit over a 12 month period. Factor this by 10 for a 10 aircraft operation, by 100 for a 100 aircraft get the picture!

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Normality Returns!

As of 2200 this evening all UK airports are permitted to open for traffic.

This sudden change around was announced by the BBC at 2100 this evening. The decision followed "consultation with the Civil Aviation Authority and a reassessment of the risk to aircraft".

This of course had nothing to do with the fact that most of Europe's airspace had opened up this morning, and obviously had nothing to do with Eurocontrol stating on national news earlier today that their estimates of the location and severity of the ash cloud differed drastically from the information provided by the UK Met Office!

The insanity continues

As I write this 5 British Airways aircraft are holding over various parts of the UK and Ireland, with the expectation of getting into Heathrow. Currently all UK airports are closed courtesy of the so called ash cloud. The only airports open appear to be Shannon in Ireland, and those on the continent.

Yet the skies of the UK have actually seen a number of aircraft. Here in South Wales alone we have seen around 20 aircraft overflying, mainly Lufthansa and KLM aircraft heading westbound towards the US and Canada. These flights have been allowed because we are told that the ash is at a lower level at present. German, Dutch and Belgian airspace has been open all day, as has much of France. It seems the UK is becoming increasingly isolated.

Despite all the various test flights (EasyJet, the low cost carrier are doing the latest), no one has found any visible ash clouds, and none of the post flight inspections have revealed any damage to the engines (or any other part of the aircraft). There is no doubt ash up there, but clearly it is widely dispersed, otherwise we would see it, and pilots would see it.

The prize for the most inventive flight must go to the owners of a private Boeing 737 business jet registered N721BA. Earlier today because of the closure of UK controlled airspace, the aircraft took off from Luton, flew all the way upto Scottish airspace at low level (below 5,000 ft) and then climbed to its cruising altitude of 34,000 ft once it was clear of the alledged "ash cloud"!

So the closure of much of the UK's airspace continues....despite no evidence that the ash could cause any damage to aircraft or their engines.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

BA9156 Heathrow to Cardiff

Here's a rare least it is in UK airspace in recent days. This is a British Airways Boeing 747 which flew a test flight from Heathrow out over Ireland to about 15 degrees west, then turned round and landed back in Cardiff...needless to say the reason for the flight was to see if there was any significant ash at different altitudes. We were fortunate enough to see it as it flew over both westbound (at 30,000 ft) and eastbound some 2 hours later at 15,000 ft. The flight did not encounter any problems although the results are still being evaluated.

Other such events took place in Holland (KLM performed 7 flights today) and in Germany, where Lufthansa performed a number of test flights. None of these flights encountered any ash.

The UK authorities continue to keep our airspace closed, until at least 7pm tomorrow. Yet after the successful Lufthansa flights today, there were several revenue services performed out of Germany this evening to the US and Caribbean, all of which flew across northern France..strangely these weren't reported on the national news here.

Enough is enough

Yesterday a KLM Boeing 737 took off from Amsterdam, climbed all the way to 41,000 ft and came back down again. Why? To observe and detect the ash cloud that is supposedly spread over much of northern Europe. What did they find? ash was detected. The aircraft was spotlessly clean when it returned to Amsterdam.

The satellite imagery that I have seen on the net is pretty inconclusive. Clearly the ash cannot be physically seen in the air so we are reliant on infra red imagery to detect it. Yet the imagery from the Met Office shows the "significant levels" way to the north of the UK

The case that the news items always relate back to is that of the British Airways 747 which suffered multiple engine failure over Indonesia....but in that instance the cloud was all too visible to the crew with visibility severely restricted. Clearly that is not the case now, or again the ash cloud would show up using standard optical imagery...besides which we would easily see it from the ground.

The met office sent an aircraft up....but only in to the lower levels that jets would climb through...not levels at which they actually operate. Yes, they said that they detected "significant" ash, but the aircraft was not exactly covered in the stuff when it returned. But, that aircraft only operated at levels that private flights are still being allowed to operate in otherwords they detected ash at low levels, but the CAA has not considered it sufficient to ban private flghts! How then, can they justify banning flights at higher fleght levels?

In truth of course there has been volcanic ash in the atmosphere since the planet formed; the question is "What density is significant?
" No-one so far has provided an answer to that question. Surely with all our technical abilities and resources that question can be answered or at least someone can say that the levels are currently in excess of that which aircraft engines can safely operate?

Every year we have several incidents where huge volumes of Saharan dust blow up into the stratosphere, clearly visible on all optical satellite images. On occassions this has found its way all the way north to the UK. When it has fallen to low level, it produces a very murky sky, and we see hard evidence by the dust covering our cars. Yet in these circumstances flights operate as normal, they fly through the dust, and so far without any damage being caused.

The VAAC (Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre) has said that the ash cloud is 60% Silica. Guess what the sand from the Sahara is made of? In reality I fear that it is simply a case of, yes there is some ash up there, the public know that an aircraft nearly crashed once because it flew through ash, so lets just ban all flights...that way no-one is responsible if there is an incident.

There are aircraft available with testing equipment that could be used to give accurate readings of the ash levels up there. The aircraft concerned are operated by NASA. Have we, or any affected country asked them for assistance?

In the meantime the public suffer, businesses suffer and whole aviation industry suffers.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Bank Vole

This is a Bank Vole, who we have christened Victor....seems an appropriate name. We've seen him (although in reality it could be a her) scurrying around underneath one of the bird feeders for the last couple of days, clearing up the seed that inevitably falls to the ground. Similar in size to a Wood Mouse but with a much blunter nose and shorter tail. You have to be very patient to photograph one, they move with amazing speed and the shutter and by the time the picture's taken the vole is about 3ft away and you've just photographed some soil!

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Volcanic Sunset

The sunset wasn't spectacular but there was a definite unusual shade of green, which we were warned might be the case. This picture was taken about 30 minutes after the sun went down.

UK and Northern Europe Airspace closed

This is a screen shot as of 1930 this evening. UK controlled airspace and most airports are closed (news reports suggest all our closed, but our local airfield has remained open all day with several light aircraft movements). The situation is similar in Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and northern France. Current expectations are that UK airspace will not reopen until 0700 tomorrow morning, at the earliest. There is no visual evidence of the ash cloud although it is noticeable that the sky (which has been clear all day) is definitely hazy around the edges. Expectations are for a colourful sunset....we will see.

Its not just Icelandic banks that cause grief!

This is a screen shot from an aircraft tracking programme called Plane Plotter. It shows aircraft positions in "real time". The lack of aircraft north of a line from Swansea to Ipswich is not due to a fault in the system, but is a result of a volcanic ash cloud (that resulted from an eruption in Iceland) drifting over much of the country. As a safety precaution all major airports north of this line were closed which has resulted in many cancellations and diversions. Aircraft normally overlfying the UK (between North America and mainland Europe) were rerouted much further south than usual so as to avoid this area and the possible risk of ingestion of the ash.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

RAF training flights

Captured by my better half, this is one of several RAF Dominie T1 training aircraft (military version of the HS125 executive jet) operated by 55(R) Squadron based at Cranwell. They are used for aircrew and navigator training. This particular example passed overhead us at about 1,000 ft probably on a practice approach to our local airport at Haverfordwest.

Friday, 2 April 2010

High level clouds....sort of!

These unusual formations occurred a few weeks back. They appear to have formed out of old aircraft contrails following the passage of several aircraft on a similar routing. However it was complicated by those trails passing through a number of existing cirrus clouds. The end result, if perhaps partly man made, is still quite spectacular.