Why it's possible to fly near Iceland's volcano

In this picture taken through a window, planes are seen parked on the tarmac at Malpensa airport, on the outskirts of Milan, Italy, Sunday, April 18, 2010. Flights remained grounded in large parts of the European continent as aviation authorities report that there is no end in sight to the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud which has paralyzed air travel. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
April 21, 2010 6:02:50 PM PDT
It seems like a disconnect: Most of the media stories about flights grounded because of Iceland's volcanic eruption were accompanied by spectacular aerial photographs of the volcano.

That flashed through the mind of ABC News' Neal Karlinsky when he flew over Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano twice during the past week and even briefly landed on the crater.

"The irony was not lost on us that we were flying within feet or yards of an erupting volcano when the volcano was basically grounding every flight in Europe," he said.

Photographers caught spectacular scenes of spewing ash, roiling rocks and lightning bolts above the crater, even as flights were grounded in London, more than 1,000 miles away.

The flight restrictions were due to a plume of ash carried by the wind toward Europe. The ash can be lethal to the engines of jet airplanes, where it can melt to form a glassy coating that clogs airways and lead to catastrophic damage.

The wind that carries the ash in a southeast direction means aircraft - mostly helicopters - can approach the volcano from the northwest. If those winds are accompanied by clear weather, the Helicopter Service of Iceland feels comfortable taking passengers to get a view, said Sindri Steingrimsson, the company's director of flight operations.

The ash poses less of a danger for helicopters and propellor airplanes than it does for modern jet engines. Iceland's Coast Guard sent propellor airplanes far above the volcano and brought photographers along for some of the missions. The Coast Guard aircraft is equipped with heat sensors and radar to detect trouble, said Gudruw Nina Petersen, a meteorologist at the Icelandic Met Office.

"They're not doing anything that is not 100 percent safe," Petersen said.

Wind direction was crucial, allowing planes with photographers to approach from the northwest. The international airport that serves Reykjavik, about two hours west of the volcano, has seen no service disruptions for any flights not in the affected European regions.

Karlinsky said the wind was so deafening that he couldn't hear the volcano erupting even during his 5-minute landing.

During his flyover, the pilot explained how he would quickly make a sharp turn for his escape if it seemed like the wind direction was changing.

"I wouldn't say that I was scared," he said. "But I definitely had a heightened sensitivity, if you will."

CNN's Gary Tuchman took a helicopter flight within a few hundred feet of the eruption, and he said its force seemed "other worldly.

"Boulders were catapulted out of it," Tuchman wrote on a CNN blog. "Lightning bolts could be seen every few seconds from the black and white smoke coming out of the crater. We were transfixed by what we were seeing so close."

The Associated Press has worked mainly with a freelance photographer who has gone up in helicopters to capture images, said Odd Anderson, the AP's regional photo editor for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Reinforcements are due to arrive soon from the United States, he said.

Steingrimsson said the volcano's first action was "a tourist eruption" that was very good for her business. A 10-mile "no fly zone" accompanied the most recent eruption. Her company lately has been transporting mostly photographers, police officials and scientists, but she's hopeful that restrictions will soon be lifted, opening up more space for tourists.

In a sense, travelers in Europe have been cursed by modern science.

"If this volcano eruption happened 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago, no one outside of Iceland would have noticed it," Petersen said.


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