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Volcanic ash can 'sandblast' airplanes

April 18, 2010 — Many people are wondering how ash from an erupting volcano in Iceland could be dangerous enough to ground flights all over Europe. Click on the video to the left for an explanation.

Volcanic ash from Iceland has snarled air traffic across Europe since Thursday, causing the cancellation of flights and affecting travellers around the world.

Now half of Europe's scheduled flights might take off on Monday, but only if the weather cooperates and air travel is deemed safe. What has made it so dangerous over the past several days?

There is a lot of ash and soot in the upper atmosphere and that could greatly affect how an aircraft operates. According to commercial pilot Trevor Gilmore, it's like the plane getting sandblasted.

'The fine particles will enter the engine can be heated, melted and can stop the engine functioning.'

And this is something that has occurred in the past.

'People will probably remember the British Airways 747 that entered volcanic ash and all four engines quit. Fortunately, we were able to re-light these engines and safely proceed to their destination,' notes Gilmore.

This incident prompted the aviation industry to rethink the way it prepared for ash clouds, resulting in the international contingency plans that were activated last Thursday.

The weather is also playing a role in when the aircrafts can resume flight.

'The winds will carry volcanic ashes aloft and it can be deposited clearly around the world, which can affect weather systems and aircrafts operating in the vicinity,' explains Gilmore.

He also says it has been difficult to predict how long planes would stay grounded. 'The actual volcanic ash cloud can remain stationary or it can travel great distances depending on environmental circumstances.'

For the latest updates on this story, make sure you tune into The Weather Network on TV. Our newscast comes up at :12 and :42 minutes past each hour.

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